Jewish Agency’s new mission: building identity

JAFI’s new mission, August 2010 Jewish Observer

At JAFI Assembly, Sharansky lauds Partnership With Israel program

Photo: Marshall Weiss
JAFI Chairman Natan Sharansky (R) listens as Israeli President Shimon Peres opens the JAFI Assembly, June 20 in Jerusalem

Photos and Story By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Faced with the end of mass rescue- and-relief aliyah, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors voted at its assembly in Jerusalem to shift its mission to building Jewish identity among Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

According to JAFI spokesperson Jacob Dallal, the June 23 vote took place after a three-hour debate; only one of the 120 board members cast a dissenting vote. The board of governors comprises representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal), and the World Zionist Organization.

JAFI receives 75 percent of oversees funding channeled through Jewish Federations of North America. In 2009, this amounted to about $100 million, a figure sharply lower than previous years because of declines in Federation annual campaigns.

“In an era when aliyah is a matter of choice rather than duress, strengthening identity among young Jews will increase the number of those who choose to make Israel their home,” said JAFI Chairman Natan Sharansky at the opening session of the assembly, on June 20.

He added that JAFI will continue to provide aliyah and absorption for Jews in danger around the world.

“We are involved with every family from Yemen which comes,” Sharansky said. “We are involved with every family from Iran which does and which doesn’t come…And of course, we have to think about Turkey and Kyrgyzstan and some other places. And we do this every day. We have good people in the field. But 94 percent, the overwhelming majority of Jews, live in freedom. And they must make a free choice. And this free choice they will do if they feel they connect to their people, to their heritage and to their country.”

In 1929, the World Zionist Organization founded JAFI to “assist in the establishment of a Jewish national home.” Since 1948, JAFI has resettled more than 3 million Jews to Israel.
JAFI will now work out the specifics and budget for the new plan. In October, it will present its proposed programming and budget to its board of governors.

“We were once a people without a homeland,” said Misha Galperin, JAFI’s new head of global external affairs. “We can’t become a homeland without a people.”

Photo: Marshall Weiss
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers his support for JAFI’s new mission, June 22, Jerusalem

Addressing the assembly on June 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his support for JAFI’s new strategy with a charge: “Within five years, every young Jew who wants to visit Israel will be able to come to be here.”

Sharansky pointed to JAFI’s Partnership With Israel program as a model of success for building Jewish identity.

“(The Partnership) gives a lot of discovery, one-on-one to both sides, a discovery that we are part of a bigger story, part of one Jewish identity,” Sharansky said in his opening remarks to the assembly.

“In Modi’in, in the schools, now they are teaching the history of Jews in the Diaspora. It didn’t happen because the minister or the government decided it. It became as a result of the Partnerships.”

Sharansky also held up JAFI’s programs which bring young Israeli emissaries to the United States, including summer camps through Partnership’s Reverse Kefiada program.

“It is important for the kids in Baltimore, Toronto or New Jersey to feel the breath of Israeli lives,” he said. “But do you know how important it is for this young Israeli boy, who went to a normal successful Tel Aviv or Ra’anana school, to discover that there is a (Diaspora) Jewish community, to understand that day to day, living with Jew and non-Jew and to stay a Jew is a very important decision, which he doesn’t have to make? He has a lot to learn from this Jew from the Diaspora. And he becomes more deeply proud of the role of Israel — that he himself is part of a bigger story than all of his successes in Israel as a good pupil.”

Dayton’s Jewish Federation is one of 16 in the central United States connected to the Western Galilee region through Partnership and its people-to-people, cultural and medical exchanges.

At the National Partnership Conference prior to the JAFI assembly, Sharansky presented the Central Consortium with an award for its Tri-Teen Project.

Also during the week before the assembly, members of the Central Consortium Partnership — including Dayton Partnership Chair Irvin Moscowitz — met in the Western Galilee to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Partnership, look to the future, and allocate funds for next year.

“We toured a lot of the sites where our programs are occurring,” Moscowitz said, “including the four-story underground part of the Western Galilee Hospital, which will be state-of-the-art for hospital security in Israel.”

Photo: Marshall Weiss
Though JAFI will shift its focus to Jewish identity, it will continue to handle aliyah and absorption for Diaspora Jews, such as this group of almost 700 olim, shown during their arrival ceremony in Jerusalem on June 21. Among them were 12 Jews from Kyrgyzstan, which is stricken with ethnic violence.
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