Looking for a controversy, many in the press -- in Israel and here at home -- have joined the hand-wringing chorus suggesting that as a result of reduced allocations from, in the main, the federation system in North America, the Jewish Agency will now, as one headline screamed, "Promote Identity Over Aliyah." A careful examination of the challenge to JAFI and our system from Natan Sharansky, JAFI's new Chair of the Executive, suggests that we all just calm down.
First, in 2009 Aliyah sponsored by JAFI (or, in some instances, co-sponsored with Nefesh B' Nefesh) exceeded JAFI's own projections by 1000's and reflected a trend that will continue in 2010 and, hopefully, beyond. With growing anti-semitic and anti-Zionist activities across the globe, JAFI will not cede its role in directing and implementing the in-migration that now exceeds 3,000,000 since the birth of the State. Further, the substance of the Jewish Peoplehood concept has, as Misha Galperin, JAFI's brand new CEO of the Jewish Agency American Section and the Managing Director of Global External Affairs and FRD, put it "...has yet to be (fully) defined."
While some leaders of the Agency for whom I have the greatest respect see only the potential for disaster, New York's UJA-Federation Chief Executive Officer and President, John Ruskay, has stated the circumstances best. In responding to the Forward, Ruskay said: "I see this as a reframing to respond to a new context. Sharansky has said repeatedly, whenever there is a Jew that needs to be rescued, the Jewish Agency will be there. But he recognizes that identity is the critical driver. If you're not identified positively as a Jew, who is going to consider making aliyah? Who will be committed to helping hungry Jews whether in the former Soviet Union or New York? Who will be concerned with securing the Jewish state? In my view, the Jewish Agency, born in 1919, finds itself in a new context."
Responding to Berkman in The Fundermentalist, Ruskay continued: "Natan Sharansky fully recognizes the abiding responsibility of the Jewish Agency in terms of both promoting and encouraging and facilitating aliyah. However, his conceptual breakthrough is a recognition that identity is now the driving factor for everything we care about...Let me emphasize I have no doubt that the Jewish Agency will continue its commitment to promote and facilitate aliyah. Jewish education may be the most effective way to promote aliyah. Even so, we are in a time when pitting aliyah against identity against education against welfare may be anachronistic."
So, let's take a deep breath, recognize that the Jewish Agency is already deeply engaged in Jewish Peoplehood and "identity-building" projects that already, as Galperin put it so well, "...allow (the participants) to see their connection to other Jews and identify with the Jewish story." Going forward, Galperin said, "[T]here are certain successful programs that already exist. Others will have to be invented." But no lay leader from JFNA has been heard from.
To me, as a Federation member and donor, and as a JAFI Board member, this is not a time for hand-wringing. It is a chance for new generations of Jews worldwide to write new chapters of Jewish history as participants rather than as observers. We owe them that opportunity and we owe it to ourselves, as well.