Is Natan Sharansky Jewish Agency’s last, best hope?

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, right, watching a slide presentation and listening to University of Bar Ilan professor Gerald Steinberg speak on the Goldstone report during a board of governors committee meeting in Jerusalem on anti-Semitism, Oct 26, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, right, watching a slide presentation and listening to University of Bar Ilan professor Gerald Steinberg speak on the Goldstone report during a board of governors committee meeting in Jerusalem on anti-Semitism, Oct 26, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Fresh in his post as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky stood before the organization’s leaders in the same dimly lit Jerusalem hotel ballroom where they have been gathering for years and offered up the promise of his star power and vision to help save the day.

Eschewing the usual talk of the agency’s flailing budget, which is now in a deeper crisis than ever, the former Soviet dissident and Jewish world hero spoke instead of returning to the Jewish Agency’s ideological roots of aliyah and Jewish identity, and reinvigorating the Diaspora-Israel divide.

But in order to meet these lofty goals, Sharansky first must meet another challenge: the drastic downturn in funding from the Jewish Federations of North America (formerly the United Jewish Communities), which has had an especially crippling effect on the agency’s work in the former Soviet Union.

His main effort on that front, Sharansky told JTA, would be fund raising intensively among Russian-speaking Jews.

"The time has come for the Jewish community there to take responsibility for their own Jewish institutions," Sharansky said in a brief interview following his opening address to the agency’s board of governors meeting Sunday.

How Sharansky, who has promised no further cuts to the 2010 budget, will achieve this is not clear.

Jewish Agency board members are hopeful Sharansky will be able to deliver on promises to meet the cut in federation funding, which is expected to reach at least $15 million in 2010. In 2009, the federations gave the Jewish Agency $120 million, though the initial budget allocation was $138 million.

The situation is so dire that the Jewish Agency’s treasurer sent out an e-mail several months ago to the board of governors suggesting the agency was in danger of going bankrupt.

According to agency officials, core budget funding to the former Soviet Union has dropped from $17 million in 2002 to $3 million for 2010.

Sharansky’s plan is not only to turn to Russian-speaking community members in the hope that they will become the financial backbone of the agency’s endeavors in the former Soviet Union, but to intensively lobby North American Jewish communities on a fund-raising drive. His immediate plans are for a 12-city tour in North America to convince federations to restore their cuts to funding for the agency.

"The money is there and we can tap into it," said Carole Solomon, a former chair of the agency’s board.

Solomon suggested that Jewish philanthropy was being diluted as organizations and foundations give to individual, smaller projects instead of big organizations such as the Jewish Agency, known by the acronym JAFI.

"Sharansky is a unique emissary of the Jewish people and can help redirect those funds as more and more people come to understand the validity of the Jewish Agency,” she said.

Harvey Wolfe, a board member from Montreal, agreed.

"This is a man who was in prison for years whose freedom came in part from the battles waged by the Jewish world, including the Jewish Agency, and now he is the chairman of the Jewish Agency himself,” he said. “Who better than him to now represent JAFI to the Jewish world?"

When it comes to the former Soviet Union, Michael Chlenov, a veteran of the Jewish community in Moscow who happened to be Sharansky’s first Hebrew teacher back in 1973, voiced some skepticism.

"The fact that Sharansky is in this position is definitely positive,” he said. “But from the Russian point of view, JAFI was practically killed off in the last year because of the successive cuts. Jews in the FSU have begun to question JAFI’s role in the community as an important organization.

"The symbolism of Sharansky as chairman does give hope, but how he will pull off the challenge is not so simple. It’s not clear if people will put money into an organization some consider half-dead."

Chlenov, an anthropology professor and secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, advised the Jewish Agency to make sure to balance its focus on aliyah with Jewish community building if it wants to boost itself in the eyes of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

At a meeting of the Jewish Agency’s FSU Committee, the focus was on the prospect of saving programming there on a shoestring budget. Due to cuts, the number of emissaries working in the region has been slashed dramatically. During the 2008-09 budget year, there were 200 agency emissaries, or schlichim, in smaller communities. For 2009-10, the number has been reduced to 90. The idea of mobile emissaries has been instituted to help fill the void, officials said.

Agency-run ulpan Hebrew classes had their funding cut entirely. The ulpans that survived were kept afloat by students who could afford to pay tuition.

Alex Katz, who heads the agency’s FSU department, painted a dire picture.

"There is chaos when it comes to decision-making," he said.

Katz argued for more involvement by local Jewish community members and for not relying on direction from Israeli staff members. 

Michael Yedovitsky, who heads the agency’s education programs in the former Soviet Union, also argued for local Jewish leaders to be more involved in planning and running programs. He described the past year as a "struggle to minimize the damage of the cuts, a year of rescue, of preservation."

Later, in an interview with JTA, Yedovitsky said, "This past year was like the Battle for Moscow. But next year will be like the Battle for Stalingrad." The fighting in Moscow in World War II was about holding the line, but the battle in Stalingrad was a turning point in the war.

For his part, Sharansky himself stressed the importance he staked of maintaining high-quality programs, including those related to Jewish identity and Zionist education in the former Soviet Union.

"I have seen the results of the agency’s 20 years of work in the region," he said, "but also the tragic consequences of stopping them in the middle."

NEXT STORY