April 23, 2010
by HAVIV RETTIG GUR
Sharansky seeks greater focus on strengthening Jewish identity.
The Jewish Agency’s top leaders will meet in New York next week to consider new goals and priorities for the 87-year-old organization.
The meeting comes as agency chairman Natan Sharansky seeks a far greater focus on programming to strengthen Jewish identity, both in Israel and abroad.
“In the last six weeks, we have begun to talk about the ‘what,’” said a senior agency official who asked not to be named. “There is a new chairman who sees identity as the engine of the agency,” and the meeting is meant to examine the practical programs and policies that would advance that new agenda.
The meeting is the third gathering of the agency’s Strategic Planning Group, a 20-member committee established last year from all the different forces that make up the agency’s complex leadership structure – including representatives of the American Jewish federations, Keren Hayesod representing the Diaspora outside the US, and the religious movements and Israeli political parties through the World Zionist Organization.
The meetings will also examine Sharansky’s call for the agency to take an active role in injecting content on the Jewish world into the Israeli education system.
“One issue that is very much on the minds of our constituents [the federations, Keren Hayesod, etc.], is the question of the Jewish identity of Israelis and what role the Jewish people has in connecting young Israelis to a sense of themselves as Jews,” the official said.
He also suggested that discussions would focus on using social action as an impetus for programming on identity.
There is a “Jewish zeitgeist, both in Israel and the Diaspora, of service and action. [One question that will be asked in New York:] How can this be mobilized to bring Jews together to mutually reinforce their sense of being Jewish?” he said.
The process, which is expected to submit major reform – and possibly restructuring – proposals to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem in June, comes out of a decades-long concern that the organization has no clear policy focus or mission. It’s structure of disconnected departments, and scattered activities that range from identity education in North America to wartime rescue operations in Georgia to aliya certification in Moscow have left many wondering if the Jewish jack-of-all-trades is doing too much, and whether it can do them all effectively.
It has also drawn criticism for its leadership structure, which is composed of political agreements between representatives of Diaspora organizations and communities and Israeli political parties.
Officials at the agency insist emphatically that the organization will not abandon its historic roles. Its unique position as a non-governmental organization that is nevertheless integrated into the Israeli political system allows it to act in the state’s name without being an official organ of the state, and that’s a useful status when Jews need rescuing or are looking for someone in their own country to help them make aliya.