News Analysis: Jewish Agency Struggles to Reprioritize Its Mission
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News Analysis: Jewish Agency Struggles to Reprioritize Its Mission

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Facing a future when its historic mission of rescue and resettlement may one day be completed, the Jewish Agency for Israel is struggling to reposition itself and reorder its priorities.

And it is doing so at a time when the landscape of American Jewish philanthropy is rapidly changing around it.

Delegates from around the world grappled with that reality this week as they convened here for the Jewish Agency’s annual assembly. After hours of debate that included a fair amount of vociferous criticism, they adopted a “Shared Vision and Mission Statement” that redefines both the agency’s work and the way it is supposed to accomplish it.

The adoption of the statement is the first major milestone in a strategic planning process that may determine whether the agency continues to enjoy the support of most Jewish community federations in the United States beyond Dec. 31, 1999, when its contract for funding by the United Jewish Appeal expires.

Many federations have been openly critical of the agency and have reduced their annual allocations to it over the years, in some cases funding their own programs in Israel separately.

If this trend leads to the abrogation of a binding arrangement between the federations and the Jewish Agency, it will change the way American Jews have been contributing money to Israel for the last half century.

But, in fact, that process is already changing, as the three central institutions of American Jewish philanthropy — the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal — put the finishing touches on a merger into a single, streamlined entity.

While many of the specifics of the merger are still being ironed out, one thing is clear, said Bennett Aaron, chairman of UIA. “The federation system in North America wants to have much more control” over the money its donors send to Israel and how that money is being spent.

The mission and vision statement, adopted Monday after three days of extensive debate, was crafted to respond not only to changing needs in Israel but to the changing priorities of the federation system and its donors in North America.

The statement identifies five major areas of activity for the agency:

aliyah and rescue, which it defines as its “primary priority at this time”;

strengthening the relationship between Israel and the rest of world Jewry;

enhancing Jewish unity;

enhancing Jewish identity; and

strengthening the State of Israel as a state for all Jews.

All but the “aliyah and rescue” functions are essentially new.

While the agency has always underwritten Jewish and Zionist education in the Diaspora, never before has it assumed responsibility for such things as “cultivating Jewish identity,” promoting the “enrichment of Jewish life” in Israel and striving to “create an appetite and an environment for developing Jewish values and Jewish cultural creativity.”

And while the Jewish Agency has always billed itself as the principal link between Israel and the Diaspora, never before has it assigned itself the task of securing the “future of the Jewish people” or creating a “global Jewish community.”

The move to broaden the agency’s mandate is “an attempt to grapple with a post- aliyah period,” said Shoshana Cardin, immediate past chairman of UIA, which distributes and monitors the use of funds raised by Jewish federations in the United States for the Jewish Agency.

With just 50,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union now coming to Israel each year and with all but a few thousand Jews rescued from Ethiopia, “we had to have a vision of what the agency would do in the 21st century,” Cardin said.

Beyond the expanded mandate, the mission statement calls for a new mode of operating, using many of the buzzwords of American corporate culture in an era of “downsizing” and “re-engineering.”

The agency plans to continue to “act collectively while also facilitating and coordinating individual community action and interaction,” according to the statement. It will strive to be a “flexible, responsive, dynamic learning organization” that will “encourage consultation, mutuality, accountability and controlled risk taking.”

What that means is that the Jewish Agency “should concentrate on only those issues where our added value is important,” said Salai Meridor, the agency’s treasurer and next chairman.

“We have to go through a serious process of cultural change in the agency,” he said last Friday in an address to assembly delegates.

Whether these changes will succeed in countering the agency’s image as a bloated Israeli bureaucracy that is unresponsive to the needs of its donors – – in the words of one federation executive — remains to be seen.

According to some delegates, that change has already happened.

“This is not the same animal that existed a few years ago,” Nicky Capelouto of South Africa, a member of the agency’s Board of Governors, said last Friday, during one of the assembly’s several breakout discussions.

Others warned that such changes could go too far.

“We have made a fetish out of efficiency and professionalism,” exclaimed Jacques Torczyner of New York, a Zionist delegate and member of the Board of Governors.

The heated debate sometimes degenerated into fierce battles over semantic minutiae. But in the end, the delegates adopted the two-page statement, agreeing that it was time to move forward.

Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency, put the assembly’s discussions in a broader context.

The Jewish world is “going through a very deep and difficult crisis about identity,” he said. The real question, he said, is, “Can the Jewish people survive without an external enemy?”

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