Jewish Agency makes it official: New focus is on identity building

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, addresses a meeting in Jerusalem of the organization's board of governors, June 20, 2010. (Brian Hendler)

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, addresses a meeting in Jerusalem of the organization’s board of governors, June 20, 2010. (Brian Hendler)

NEW YORK (JTA) – As expected, the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel approved a plan to overhaul the agency’s focus.

The new strategic vision, which is outlined in an 11-page document, calls for turning the agency’s attention more squarely toward building global Jewish identity, and away from its traditional mission of bringing in and settling new immigrants to Israel.

The plan, according to a statement released by the agency last week, passed 119-1 in a June 25 vote at the board’s meetings in Jerusalem.

“The main danger facing the Jewish world today is a weakening of the connection of young Jews to their people and to the State of Israel,” said the agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, who led the new strategic planning process along with the organization’s top lay leader, Richard Pearlstone. “Our new plan deals directly with this issue.”

Sharansky has been pushing the plan since he was appointed chairman of the agency last year. He has reshaped the top professional staff and is moving the agency’s key operations — such as global fund raising and marketing — to New York from Jerusalem. Sharansky also has decided to essentially scrap much of the fund-raising strategy of the past.

It’s not a radical redoing of the agency but a shift that flip-flops its focus. The plan drastically de-emphasizes aliyah and some of the agency’s modalities of the past.

The agency seems to have concluded that to remain relevant, it must do away with old sensibilities – namely that for the better part of the 20th century, the world Jewish community was consumed with founding, establishing and settling the State of Israel.

“We were once a people without a homeland; we can’t become a homeland without a people,” said Misha Galperin, who on Thursday was to become the agency’s head of global external affairs — a position created with the overhaul.

In its bid to play matchmaker between Israel and the Diaspora in the name of pushing Jewish identity, the agency has four goals, according to the document (which is available on JTA’s philanthropy blog, Fundermentalist.com):

* Expand the multifaceted significance of Israel in the identity of young Jews around the world.

* Strengthen solidarity and the commitment among Jews to build up the Jewish collective (Klal Israel).

* Increase the number of Jews who make aliyah, with a particular focus on those who do so as the fulfillment of their Jewish identity.

* Increase the number and impact of young Israelis and Jews worldwide, motivated by Jewish values, who aid vulnerable populations and address the major challenges of Israeli civil society.

The Jewish Agency will focus on reinforcing its partnership with Birthright Israel and further developing its own MASA program, which provides significant scholarships to college graduates from the Diaspora to participate in Israel programs lasting three months or longer. The agency also is launching several new initiatives, including an effort to empower youth activists to perform Israel outreach.

The agency, which receives more than $100 million annually in unrestricted funds from the North American Jewish federation system, is expected to approve its budget at meetings in October. The budget will reflect the new strategy; a number of programs that are not within the new focus will be cut or drastically reduced.

“In coordination with the Government of Israel and other partners, we will phase out of those programs that do not align with the mission,” reads a passage in the newly approved strategic visioning document. “Programs that are aligned with the revised mission will be examined for their ability to make a difference to our strategic goals, their unique added value and the degree to which they are compelling to donors.”

The move did have one vocal detractor from within its lay leadership: The new chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a longtime Jewish Agency board member, Avraham Duvdevani, called the plan “unacceptable and very painful to me," according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

"Israel’s demographics mean we cannot afford to wait for Zionism to come about as a byproduct. Aliyah (immigration to Israel) is this country’s oxygen," Duvdevani told Haaretz, adding that the agency’s budget of approximately $300 million is too small to "carry out a real revolution in Jewish education, which would only come if Diaspora Jewry receives free Jewish education at a of cost several billions of dollars."

But in the end, according to agency officials, the only vote against the new plan came from a non-board member who was erroneously counted.

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