Sharansky unplugged: Jewish Agency chairman sits down with The Fundermentalist

While the system as a whole may be looking to Jerry Silverman for answers, some folks at the Jewish Agency for Israel have been treating their new chairman, Natan Sharansky, as something closer to a messiah than a CEO.

I caught up with Sharansky for a sit down in his suite about an hour after the GA officially ended — in something of a down moment as he continues on his multi-city tour of North America trying to drum up support for the Jewish Agency.

I admit. It was easy to be cynical this past summer when Prime Minister Netanyahu basically pushed through Sharansky’s nomination — at the exact moment the agency was trying to assure donors in the United States that it would no longer be subject to the Israeli political spoils system. And it was even easier to be skeptical as Jewish Agency insiders played up the idea that Sharansky could almost single-handedly improve the organization’s image with funders.

It can be a powerful experience sitting face to face with Sharansky, however, as it sinks in that this is a man who helped free a people, and for whatever reason he has decided to stake his name and reputation to the Jewish Agency.

Talking to federation folks at the GA, there seemed to be a general sentiment going around that Sharansky is the right person for the job. "Only 10 years too late," one person told me.

He certainly is familiar with the Jewish Agency’s historical bureaucratic baggage.

"When I came to Israel, I became the first chairman of the Soviet Jewry Zionist forum to mobilize forces for bringing and integrating Soviet Jews. And it was antiestablishment at the time. The chairman of Jewish Agency, Simcha Dinitz, told me, ‘You don’t know how to work in a free society. If you want to criticize us, you will not go to jail but you will not get a dollar for absorption. If you want to help immigrants, cooperate with us, work through us and we will give you a budget,’" Sharansky told me. "We went our own way."

Sharansky is also a guy who as a Cabinet minister 12 years ago was sent to Moscow to make peace between the Jewish Agency and its sibling rival, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Sharansky says he wanted to run the Jewish Agency now because it is the one organization he believes has the potential to bring Israel and the Diaspora together.

"Here is the one organization in the world, where every day there is dialogue between the Jewish communities and the State of Israel, and not only dialogue but projects and finances and so on. For strategic thinking, planning, promoting, cooperation between the Jewish communities and the state of Israel, it is ‘the’ organization," he said. "That is why I wanted it."

Was it really Sharansky’s idealism that led him to this job? It’s possible. After all, as a Friend of Bibi, he certainly could have landed plenty of other jobs.

In his interview with JTA, Sharansky talked candidly about the agency’s problems and his willingness to use his own name and reputation to help turn things around.

Already he seems to be making some headway.

Perhaps no two American philanthropists have fought harder against the Jewish Agency in recent years than Charles Bronfman and Bobby Goldberg. Publicly and privately, they have waged a mini war trying to get the organization to reform and become more transparent.

Yet here’s what Sharansky had to say: "If there is some personal distrust, it has to be overcome," Sharansky told me. "The first day I am the Jewish Agency chair, I started talking with all of these people. These people also started coming to the Jewish Agency. A few days after I was elected, Charles Bronfman came to the Jewish Agency to congratulate me. Many people came over to see because they couldn’t believe their eyes that Charles Bronfman was in the building of the Jewish Agency," he said. "Bobby Goldberg also came."

Here is the whole interview, in which we talk about why he wanted this job, the new priorities of the Jewish Agency, how he feels about capitalizing on the Sharansky name brand to fund raise for the Agency, and whether or not he can tap Sergey Brin for funding:

[[READMORE]]Fundermentalist: Now that you are inside the Jewish Agency, what are the major challenges that you see facing the organization?

Natan Sharansky: All my life I was working for the Diaspora. And with the Jewish Agency, I was either an opponent or supporter or coordinating with them since 1998.

Now that I am inside, I see that the level of idealism with the people I am working with is higher than [the people working in the Israeli government] ministries.

People live with the feeling they are doing something very important for the Jewish people, and I wouldn’t undermine this factor. It means people, when they are motivated, they are willing to work more for less.

There was such an image abut he image for the Jewish Agency that the shlichim [the Agency’s emissaries positioned in Jewish communities around the world] were people who had had other positions in Israel, and now they were made shlichim kind of as a tip at the end of their career. But now I see it is overwhelmingly it is young people young couples or singles with a very high level of motivation.

On the negative side, the Jewish Agency was created before the state of Israel, and it was the government of Israel.

In the government, ministers have a lot of independence. You have departments that have a lot of independence, so it’s not working like you have a straight simple hierarchy. It’s working like the government, where you have different departments and you have to negotiate between them. It creates a management problem.

But if you look at what has happened in the last 10 years, it is going in the direction of a simple structure, and I think we are in the final stages of finishing this process.

The big problem is the money. By far the main source of money is contributions from Jewish communities around the world.

That is why I wanted to be the chairman. They were surprised because usually the chairman of the Jewish Agency goes onto Knesset.

I didn’t want that.

But I did want this, because I believe the relations between the Jewish communities and Israel is the most important challenge of our time.

Here is the one organization in the world, where every day there is dialogue between the Jewish communities and the state of Israel, and not only dialogue but projects and finances and so on. For strategic thinking, planning, promoting, cooperation between the Jewish communities and the state of Israel, it is the organization.

That is why I wanted it.

On the other hand it is an organization with a budget is created by the donations of the Jewish communities all over the world. The second source is the government of Israel.

But when the budget is global projects whether it is schools or teachers in Argentina or summer camps in Russia, it all depends on the level of donations of the Jews of the world and of course you are very vulnerable in case of crisis.

You can be more free without government money when you can raise money from people. But you are suffering when all of the Jewish foundations and organizations are shrinking.

I came at the highest moment of cuts, and some of these cuts that happened just months before I came were more than dramatic

When I came to Russia and the Ukraine [after taking over as the Jewish Agency Chairman], it was painful to see how the efforts of building the Jewish communities over the past 20 years, were, some of them were destroyed. I stopped the cuts. But it is one thing to stop the cuts and another to find the money.

Fundermentalist:
You have said that you want to appeal to the Russian speaking philanthropists. How do you do that?

Sharansky: We have some progress on this. I found some additional funds.

I don’t know much there is, but I believe it is clear that when you are in the process of rebuilding your new life, philanthropy is not the first place you go. You came to your new place and start from zero. And even if you succeed, you will not start giving immediately. You want to make sure you have enough to protect yourself from anything sudden.

I know this feeling very well.

These people, they don’t have any endowment, so to speak.

But I think there are enough success stories after 20 years of those who are rather successful. They are the target audience.

I do believe it is possible. I don’t want to say they can compensate for all of the losses but it can become a much more essential part of the Jewish Agency.

Fundermentalist:
There are three bases of Russian Jewry – Israel, the United States and those still in the FSU. What role can each play?

Sharansky:
The Russians who moved to Israel, they integrated well, and they have come to at least the level of the average Israeli. But you don’t have the people with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

But you do have such people in the FSU, Russia and Ukraine, and you start having such people in New York and other places and I believe.

I already signed an agreement with [The Genesis Philanthropy Group] for $6 million for three years. Some of that is for old projects and some for new projects. I hope it is the beginning. We are negotiating with other people as well.

Fundermentalist:
What are the priorities of the Jewish Agency?

Sharansky:
It used to be clear that the relationship between Israel and Jewish communities was how an the Jewish communities help Israel. Alliyah and rescue were priority. But they are behind us… now it is alliyah of choice.

Communities realized they need Israel to strengthen their identity.

Fundermentalist: So is it OK if Jewish people don’t make alliyah?

Sharansky:
It is in the highest interest of Israel to have strong Jewish communities. For the Jews of Diaspora, it is in best interest to have a strong Israel.

Now I believe it is not only about Birthright. There is a massive attempt to delegitemize Israel and to build a wall between Israel and the Disapora – the main guarantor of the continuity of the Jewish people.

I welcome every Jew who wants to make alliyah, but if the result of all of our efforts is that the communities will become stronger and there will be no alliyah, it will still be a very, very important achievement.

I know it is against the traditional view that Israel is only for alliyah.

I didn’t think like this 30 years ago when I very active in Moscow. I believed that alliyah and strengthening Jewish education in Moscow go together.

Definitely I don’t believe that today.

Israel belongs to the Jewish people. The Jewish people are not the property of Israel.
 
Each of them can decide form himself what they want to do. We can only create better conditions for them to decide. But it is our interest as a state and definitely my interest as chairman of the Jewish Agency that we will be strong by feeling of one common identity.
I came to this long ago. The Israel government is another story.

I think their decision to support Birthright was a turning moment.

That wasn’t done to increase alliyah. It was done to strengthen Jewish identity.

Fundermentalist: You have talked a lot publicly about merging Birthright and the Jewish Agency’s MASA program. And I am hearing that there is a lot of public talk, but no real private talks to make it actually happen. What is really happening?

Sharansky:
Merging I think is a strong word. They were differently built from the beginning.

But we must have much more cooperation, and not just cooperation of a strategic few. My aim – or the aim of the Jewish Agency — is to be how are we reaching every Jew in the world through the Israel experience.

How do we integrate [these two programs]? Not merging. But coordination and following up with every community and every Jew.

That is quite a challenge

There is a lot of conversation.

I was a big supporter of Birthright Israel before the first airplane came to Israel. I was big supporter of Nefesh b’Nefesh before the first airplane came. I believe in the battle for building a strong Israel and a strong Jewish community, there is no competition.

If there is some personal distrust, it has to be overcome.

The first day I am the Jewish Agency chair I started talking with all of these people. These people also started coming to the Jewish Agency. A few days after I was elected, Charles Bronfman came to the Jewish Agency to congratulate me.

Many people came over to see because they couldn’t believe their eyes that Charles Bronfman was in the building of the Jewish Agency.

Bobby Goldberg also came.

Practically everybody is interested in close cooperation because of good reasons and bad reasons. The good reason is that we all have the same idealistic dreams. The bad reason is that the Jewish world has much less money. And when you have much less money you have to find the way to cooperation.

If all the Jewish world will change the proportion of their philanthropy from 12 percent to 20 percent it would be much bigger than the economic crisis and it would solve all of our problems. I think now the desire to cooperate is bigger than before.

The need for cooperation is obvious, and whether you are talking about Birthright and MASA or the Jewish Agency leadership, our goals are huge.

How to reach 100 percent of kids through Birthright or 100 percent of kids through Jewish education? It is huge. It is all huge challenges. And everybody wants to be part of solving this challenges.

Fundermentalist:
Sergey Brin recently has shown interest in giving money to organizations that helped his family leave the FSU. Do you think you can reach out to him?

Sharansky: Have met with him since I was elected? No. I met with him before when he was in Jerusalem.

There is no doubt that with people like Sergey Brin, it is important to bring this generation of very, very successful, relatively young Jews to the world of Jewish philanthropy.

The fact is that this day, major Jewish philanthropy is built on people who are excited by the Six Day War or the Soviet Jewry movement. I think it is good, but it is not enough. We already have one and a half generations after that.

Fundermentalist: So you are Natan Sharansky. You have a huge name. This isn’t meant to sound cynical, but what is it like to try to capitalize on that name to help the Jewish Agency?

Sharansky: All my life I am trying to capitalize on whatever I have to be involved in those big challenges and changes in the life of Jewish people, which happen or have to happen.

When I was in the Soviet Union we were dreaming about bringing down the Iron Curtain to take Jews out and yes we were capitalizing then on our popularity as dissidents. Then when I was released, I was capitalizing on my popularity as the first Soviet Jew released by Gorbachev to mobilize more and more American Jews for the final battle like the famous demonstration in Washington. I had to move for three months to America and go from community to community to make sure that it will happen.

You can say you were exploiting your name and exploiting that capital which was invested in your release by world Jewry.

Of course I was exploiting it — for good aims.

And then I was exploiting it to create the first political movement to change the conditions of our social integration.

And now I am exploiting so that we will move to new challenges.

It all depends on your aims what you are doing it for. If your aims are noble, then there is nothing bad in it.

Fundermentalist:
Is this your biggest fund raising job yet?

Sharansky: When I came to Israel, I became the first chairman of the Soviet Jewry Zionist forum to mobilize forces for bringing and integrating Soviet Jews. And it was antiestablishment at the time. The chairman of Jewish Agency, Simcha Dinis told me, ‘You don’t know how to work in a free society. If you want to criticize us, you will not go to jail but you will not get a dollar for absorption. If you want to help immigrants, cooperate with us, work through us and we will give you a budget.

We went our own way.

We raised $20 million from Gruss to help immigrants buy apartments. We created the theater Gesher, which all of the establishment was against.

To raise the first $30,000 when you are a dissident organization, trying to raise $30,000 was by far much more difficult than when you are part of the organized system.

This is the biggest job in terms of the unique opportunity which Jewish Agency has to connect and unite Jews around the world. That is very noble aim, and I am very proud that I am at the top of this organization.

Fundermentalist:
You also have to make peace with the Joint. How do you do that?

Sharansky:
When I was coming to Moscow as a minister to make peace between the Sachnut and the Joint and to defend the Joint from accusations that it is an anti-Zionist organization, then it was 12 years ago.

We had to say that building strong Jewish communities was not anti-Zionist, but it is part of Zionism. If I believed in that then, I believe in it now. We should have very clear distribution of roles. The Joint is dealing with poverty and with social needs, and we are dealing with alliyah and Jewish identity. There are many things we can do together. There are things we can do separately. But all of them are going to the same aim.
 

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