Sharansky speaks


New York Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt got the first lengthy interview with Natan Sharansky, since the ex-Soviet dissident was selected as the new chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Sharansky, who has turned down numerous interview requests from JTA over the past month, faces a daunting task in assuming the top spot at the agency. For starters, the organization is in a moment when it is trying desperately to rid itself of the appearance of being a highly politicized outfit where political influence and horse trading play a major role in top staff decisions.

Sharansky might end up being a great choice, but his appointment —  which was pushed through by Israel’s prime minister and his political allies, and then approved by a rushed nominating process that took just over 24 hours at last month’s Jewish Agency Board of Governors meetings — smacks of nothing but a political appointment.

Among the other issues he faces, according to Rosenblatt:

But in recent years, as the quasi-governmental agency of the State of Israel, the American Jewish federations and other international Jewish organizations, it has faced some withering criticism from inside and outside the establishment, charged with maintaining a bloated bureaucracy, harboring political infighting and having outlasted its mandate to serve as an authentic, global Jewish partnership.

Whether Sharansky can make believers out of skeptics is more than an academic question affecting one institution. The future viability of diaspora Jewry, and even much of Israeli life, may well depend on the direction the Jewish Agency takes in the near future in countering widespread assimilation and lack of interest in the Zionist enterprise — in Israel as well — in the 21st century.

Still, Sharansky said that he has just taken the job of his dreams:

But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped him last month to chair the Jewish Agency, “my reaction was very different,” he acknowledged, noting that he was eager to take the post. In a way, he said, “this is the job I’ve been preparing for all my life."

As for what Sharansky sees as his job:

In his new post, Sharansky recognizes that the key to the Jewish Agency’s primary objectives — aliyah, Jewish and Zionist education, and partnership with world Jewry — all hinge on strengthening Jewish identity.

“Our biggest challenge,” he said, “is that our connection with our identity and the land [of Israel] is weakening,” through assimilation and lack of education.

He pointed out that “95 percent of diaspora Jews live in free societies and there is no way they will come [on aliyah] without building their identity.”

This he proposes to do by expanding and coordinating a combination of existing Israel experience programs, like Birthright Israel, the 10-day free trips for 18- to 26-year-olds; Birthright Next, a follow-up program back home; and Masa, a Jewish Agency-sponsored effort to have young adults spend a semester or more studying or volunteering in the Jewish state.

Until now, although Birthright and Masa seem like natural allies, they have been at odds politically, with little cooperation. “The challenge for the Jewish Agency is to coordinate all of these projects instead of fighting and competing,” Sharansky said.

Easier said than done, though a joint agreement between the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization formed eight years ago that has been widely credited with streamlining the process of aliyah from the West, is seen as an example of a new and welcome form of cooperation.

“I would like to remove the word ‘competition’ from our vocabulary when it comes to bringing Jews to Israel,” said Sharansky, noting that he was a supporter of Nefesh B’Nefesh from the outset.

Both John Ruskay, the president and CEO of the UJA Federation of New York, and Barry Shrage, the head of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston – two of the country’s larges Jewish federations, which pump more than $140 million per year into the Jewish Agency — gave Sharansky their endorsements, according to Rosenblatt.

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