No one expected 2020 to be the year it was. And without a doubt, we are still dealing with COVID’s catastrophic effects in 2021 and likely will be well into the future. While intensely challenging and full of too much loss and isolation, 2020 was also a year of impressive resilience and accomplishments.
At The Jewish Agency for Israel, we know how essential it is for Jews to be here for each other. All our achievements are made possible because of our dedicated partners — The Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod, the World Zionist Organization and the Government of Israel — as well as our cherished individual donors around the world. Some of our mission-critical work in the midst of unprecedented circumstances include:
We never stopped fulfilling the dream of Aliyah, with more than 21,000 olim (new immigrants) making Israel their home in the middle of a pandemic. Incredibly, in the short amount of time between December 2020 through the beginning of 2021, The Jewish Agency was able to complete Operation Zur Israel, an Ethiopian Aliyah mission that reunited 2,000 Ethiopian Jews with family members living in Israel, after being separated for decades in many cases.
Masa Israel Journey participants from around the world were also able to come to Israel even during lockdown, with government approval — the only program granted special access. Masa’s staff quickly adapted the experience to meet new realities, and from North America alone, Masa registrations increased by over 30%. The Wall Street Journal specifically cited Masa in reporting on Israel’s emergence as the top international destination for teens during COVID.
Hundreds of our Shlichim (Israeli emissaries) remained in their host communities, working with schools, JCCs, synagogues and college students. For our gap-year Shlichim, we made the hard decision to bring all of them home to Israel, which required careful coordination to do so safely. The overwhelming majority of our Shlichim shifted into virtual mode right from the start. Their creativity and enthusiasm made a difference even more broadly, with thousands of people tuning in online from near and far to learn Hebrew, cook Israeli food, hear how Israel was handling the pandemic and more.
In Israel, we acted fast and developed safe solutions to continue serving diverse populations, from youth at-risk to the virus-vulnerable elderly. For example, our Amigour housing complexes for seniors, many of them Holocaust survivors, put new procedures in place, from pausing visitors to increased sanitization. Amazingly, no residents contracted the coronavirus while at one of the facilities. And to mitigate loneliness, Amigour staff implemented daily check-in calls, outdoor activities and even arranged for a crane to lift loved ones to balcony levels for socially distanced visits.
Our presence on the ground in 65 countries meant The Jewish Agency was able to respond quickly to communities’ urgent needs when the coronavirus hit. We launched two essential global initiatives: the COVID-19 Loan Fund for Communities in Crisis that provided immediate financial resources to ensure vibrant Jewish life worldwide survives the pandemic, and JReady, a digital platform with tools developed in Israel and elsewhere that can assist communities in dealing with emergencies, as well as launching discussion forums and training courses that help boost their resilience.
In May 2021, when Israel was barraged by thousands of rockets from Hamas in Gaza until a ceasefire was reached to end Operation Guardian of the Walls, once again, world Jewry stood by Israelis with immediate support through our Fund for Victims of Terror. And in Israeli cities with diverse populations, including Bedouin, Druze and Arab, The Jewish Agency is very present, working toward creating a shared society during times of peace as well as unrest.
As always, we are grateful to our partners and donors, who during an especially difficult year, continued to support and champion our programs worldwide. We are also so proud of The Jewish Agency’s amazing staff and the work they accomplished during 2020, in Israel and across the globe. They are the backbone of The Jewish Agency and why our organization is able to make an impact on millions of people each year, no matter what obstacles arise.
I can’t let this opportunity pass without recognizing this is a very special time, as The Jewish Agency’s Chairman of the Executive is now the #1 citizen in Israel. All that this organization has achieved over the last three years under Chairman Herzog’s leadership is remarkable, and I am grateful to have worked alongside him and for his continued dedication to the Jewish People. I know he will do great things in his new role as Israel’s President and wish him and his wife, Michal, the best of luck in building bridges between the people of Israel and World Jewry.
I also want to thank Yaakov Hagoel, the Chairman of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization, for graciously stepping in to serve as Acting Chairman for The Jewish Agency in July 2021 as we select our next Chairperson.
I’m deeply honored to be elected as the 11th President of Israel, although it is bittersweet since my time at The Jewish Agency must therefore come to an end. It has been a privilege to lead this renowned organization and work with so many passionate and sharp people. I look forward to continuing to work together in Israeli society for all citizens and to following The Jewish Agency’s crucial work globally as the organization keeps progressing to ever-higher heights.