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(South Ossetia) Georgia on My Mind – and the Jewish Agency Too

August 10, 2008

On Sunday morning I woke up with a few things on my mind. The heavy lamentations that come with the observance of Tisha B’Av, the anticipation for the U.S-China Olympic basketball match-up and…

The situation of the Jews in the former Soviet state of Georgia.

Now normally I am much more likely to be found on a Sunday morning playing with my children or talking about the Jews of a different Georgia, the one in which my city of Atlanta is located. But it is hard not to pay attention to the political tensions and armed conflict between Russia and Georgia, and it is equally hard to not think with concern about the fate of the Jews that live in that part of the world.

Fortunately, what has me thinking more appreciatively than worriedly is the report that, in reaction to the situation in Georgia, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) has been resolutely working to evacuate all of the Jews from the troubled region to the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi.  Yes, that Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency that so many of us have challenged and criticized (oftentimes rightfully so). The Jewish Agency that seems to have a bureaucracy as big as its mission, and budget problems that are as lamentable as a dirge chanted on… well… Tisha B’Av.

But at this time, and at that place, the Jewish Agency, despite all of its own financial challenges, is helping meet the existential challenges of Jews in a war-torn area. Helping them to safety.  Helping to see that even in this small comer of the world, Jews are looking after Jews. Facing the urgency of the moment, the Jewish Agency has set up situation rooms in Tbilisi and Jerusalem, is assisting impacted individuals in making Aliyah and is continuing to determine how it can, as an organization, do more.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.

Now I will be the first to admit that I too have expressed concern with aspects of the operations of the Jewish Agency. Not without knowing the value of its important work however.  After several trips to Minsk, Belarus over the course of the past two years, I have seen the important work of the Jewish Agency from a very close perspective. I have seen the efforts of determined professionals in both the education and Aliyah departments. I learned that names like Igor Gitelman, Elina Akselrod, Miriam Milstein and Nella Feldsher are more than just names on an gigantic organization chart, they are the names of individuals who work as part of the Jewish Agency to support, educate and empower Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. I have seen them do it in Minsk, Belarus and in Yokneam, Israel. In their work, they are vital to the Jewish Agency’s role in bringing Jews home to Israel and bringing Israel to Jews wherever they might call home.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.

I will also admit that one more than one occasion (and in more than one piece of writing) I have articulated a strong need for Jews in the United States to deploy engagement strategies at home that might, in the short term, require decreased funds to overseas partners like the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committees. And while those shifts in funding are painful, in areas where there is a lower level of Jewish engagement, in the  short and long run  funding engagement strategies they will help secure a legion of future supporter of overseas organizations that, in turn, support Jews worldwide. And as we utilize new and innovative tactics to engage Jews at home, we need to remind those newly engaged Jews that ‘engagement’ doesn’t just end at the local synagogue or JCC.  It doesn’t end at the post office after writing a check once a year to support the financial needs of local organizations that address local needs. Jewish engagement needs to mean more than that.  It needs to mean being engaged with the needs of Jews wherever they may be, in Israel, in South America, and even in South Ossetia. It means being engaged in the future of the Jewish Agency like the Jewish Agency is engaged in the future of the Jewish people.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.

Finally, last Spring I had the chance, along with a few others in the Atlanta community, to meet with Moshe Vigdor  – the Director General of the Jewish Agency. During the course of our group’s meeting we talked about the JAFI/Federation relationship in organizational terms. We talked about budgets and alliances, strategies and customers. And while it is important to not lose sight of the need to operate our community endeavors in an efficient and responsible way while also being sensitive to the needs of partners and benefactors, we also shouldn’t lose sight that we are more than Jewish organizations. We are part of a larger Jewish family, a larger Jewish people and a larger Jewish journey.  Together.  And while we may have expectations of one another as organizations, we also have responsibilities to one another as family members as well. Notwithstanding those challenges that vex us internally and externally, we need to stand together in times of trouble to confront those challenges that face us.  Where there are Jews in need, we need to be sure we are there searching for them and helping them. Just like the Jewish Agency is doing today in South Ossetia, Georgia.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.

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One comment

  1. Wouldn’t it be nice if all it took to resolve this crisis was setting up situation rooms? Scores of applications have been logged in the Tblisi office from Georgian Jews who want to immigrate to Israel. JAFI’s immigration and absorption department is working around the clock to accelerate the handling of those Georgian Jews who want to make aliyah to Israel. At the same time, the JAFI is preparing absorption plans in Israel that will prove conducive to immigrants from Georgia and the Caucasus countries.

    (By the way – This is not the first time that the JAFI is operating an emergency network to save Jews in Georgia. At the start of the 90s during the bloody civil war in the region of Abkhazia in the northern section of Georgia, it was Jewish Agency personnel who managed one of the most dramatic rescue operations of extricating Jews from the region and bringing most of them to Israel. Since the Iron Curtain opened the vast majority of the Jewish community immigrated to Israel and according to statistics about 9000 Jews have remained in Georgia, the majority in Tbilisi.)

    We feel proud when any of our Jewish organizations reaches out and saves lives. There is a greater sense of urgency to keep up with the news, and a sense of satisfaction in knowing that our people are “safe”. What we need to remember is that there is also a cost. If we believe the oft-repeated mantra that all Jews are responsible for one another, then we need to consider the depth and breadth of that responsibility, and be frank about the human, spiritual AND financial capital that is required to save lives.

    Saving lives requires action, people, funds, and desire. I urge all of us to consider that the 4 legs of that table need to be stable and strong. Let’s each do what we can, and all do what we must.



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