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The chairman’s challenge
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The chairman’s challenge

The degree to which an American Jew is concerned about the future of the Jewish Agency for Israel is a reflection of his or her involvement in Israel and philanthropy.

Insiders know the Jewish Agency is the federation movement’s traditional partner in encouraging aliya and building infrastructure and people power in Israel. As much as 75 percent of the money raised by federations for overseas projects is channeled through JAFI.

For others, JAFI’s role, especially after the establishment of the State of Israel and the last of the great waves of Jewish immigration there, is fuzzy.

JAFI’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, hopes to change that. The famed refusenik understands the power of Jewish belonging and has announced plans to reshape the agency as a potent force in strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora. On paper, that means extending fewer resources for immigration and boosting the budget for education and identity-building activities. It also means appointing leaders who come from a Jewish education and federation philanthropy background.

The changes are driven in part by budget woes — JAFI receives less than half the Diaspora funding that it received 20 years ago. But they are also a reflection of a changing Jewish world, in which a secure Israel is less dependent on Diaspora support, and an insecure Diaspora is worried about its children’s commitment to Jewish “peoplehood.”

“If we have to think about the challenge we are facing, it’s how to keep us all as one family,” Sharansky recently told American-Jewish leaders. “We have to build a school of proud Jews, connected to Israel.” Sharansky’s challenge is just the opening of what should be a rigorous communal conversation, and a model for the kinds of conversations all Jewish organizations should be having in an era of enormous change.

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