Archive for June, 2010

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The Great Reset: The Jewish Agency and the Pursuit of an ‘Exemplary Society’

June 30, 2010
    “We once were a people without a home; will we become a home without a people?”

This was the question I asked last week when addressing the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency as part of the presentation of the Agency’s new strategic plan. A simple question, but one that embodies the countless fears we all share regarding the future of the global Jewish family. In the face of existential challenges on all fronts relating to the physical security of the State of Israel, we must nonetheless face a question that we can ask only to ourselves – will our failure to remain connected to one another in the pursuit of our common ideals be the ultimate risk to the survival of the Jewish people?

In his recent book, The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes about the impact of highly stressed moments in economic cycles, and how they ‘reset’ fundamental aspects of society. Ranging from aspects of consumption, transportation, communication and personal geographic, Florida argues that Great Resets are fundamental transformations in the way we live in the present and set in motion the trends that will impact our lives for decades to come. Understood through a blend of Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’, Marxian philosophy and capitalist adaptability, Great Resets bring about the destruction and fundamental reconstitution of institutions and ideas, requiring us to change our perspectives in response to the change world around us.

Similar to our current economic circumstances, we are at a highly stressed moment in the history of the Jewish people. We face threats from outside, but equally, we are facing threats from within. As our history has changed, so have we changed the way we engage with one another as individualism has reshaped our sense of the collective and the realization of our dream of a home of our own has redefined what it means to be in the Diaspora. Just as significant, we have slowly begun to question whether our Jewish values are better contextualized in terms of universalism rather than expressions of Jewish idealism and Zionism. Now, at this time in our history, we are facing the a realization that our encounter with modernity, while leading to much success, has also lead us to great crisis – a crisis that calls for a Great Reset.

Last week, in response to many of the considerations described above, the Jewish Agency adopted a new strategic plan, a plan that is nothing short of a great reset of the role of the Jewish Agency in Israel and in the future of the Jewish People. As a member of the strategic planning committee of the Agency, I know firsthand how deliberate and thoughtful its leadership was in crafting this plan, and I also know how cautiously and emotionally elements of the plan were considered and approved. This is just a first step in what will be a complicated and, in many ways painful process of resetting the Agency. Although to many the plan seems to be to vague, and perhaps the redefined goals of the Agency seem too aspirational, make no mistake, this is the beginning of a process that will fundamentally and concretely change the way the Agency operates within Israel and the broader Jewish world. It is not a minor shift; it is a fundamental transformation of the Agency for a fundamentally different era of Jewish life.

However, even with high confidence that the plan is the right plan, I know and share many questions that people have asked regarding its implementation. Among those many questions are four that distinguish themselves as key to assessing the ability of the Agency to be successful in its Great Reset. These questions must be answered by not only the leadership of the Jewish Agency, but also by each of us as stakeholders in the broader Jewish enterprise.

1. Are the strategies to be pursued by the Agency, especially with respect to Jewish identity in the Diaspora, the proper strategies for what many people view as an organization that is a relic of political Zionism? The truth is, this is not the first time that a Zionist organization has shifted tactics to respond to the crisis of Jewish identity. In the 1906 the Third All-Russian Zionist Conference in Helsinki (Helsingfors), responding the Russian pogroms and the upheavals in the Zionist movement, also addressed the role of Zionism in addressing the needs of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. In their conference memorandum they wrote, “[t]o be sure, our goal remains the same, only our tactics have changed. We now understand that only an organized, unified Jewry is capable of mobilizing the vast material and spiritual resources needed to realize our objectives.” Further, they wrote,” Zionism must address all aspects of Jewish life and respond to all issues besetting Jewry.”

With this historical context in mind, the Jewish Agency’s new plan must also meet the shifting requirements of the Zionist endeavor. In 2010, we do not face physical pogroms, but the equally dangerous pogroms of propaganda that attempt to deligitimize the Jewish State and its people. In response to these attacks, we must recognize that proper effort must be made to inspire Jewish leadership and their followers, to connect those Jewish with one another and Israel, and to empower those in Israel to make Israeli society stronger. The ultimate goal, the strengthening of the state through Aliyah and the pursuit of the Zionist idea is reinforced by these strategies, not diminished. In the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency, strategies must change even as the goal of an exemplary society embodied by a Jewish State remains the same.

2. Is the Jewish Agency capable of changing its operations and functioning in a way that responds to its changing strategies? There is no question regarding one thing, the Jewish Agency has a reputation of being a bloated, overstaffed and dysfunctional organization, rife with redundancies and roadblocks. The perception, in as much as it reflects reality, must be changed if the Agency is to successfully navigate its Great Reset. This must be one of the central areas of focus of the Agency leadership, because even if its strategies are correct, if its leadership fails to redesign the Agency’s operations so that they are efficient, cost-effective and excellent, the Great Reset will fail. Budgets must be precise and grounded in realizable fundraising goals, and the Agency must adopt a system of ongoing change management within the Agency. To help build an exemplary society, we must demand of the Agency to be exemplary organization capable of achieving is goals in an excellent manner.

3. Can the Jewish Agency establish and maintain the critical partnerships it needs to be successful in achieving its goals under the new plan? This is a question that cannot be answered only by the Agency, but also by all of us. There is no doubt that there are existing partnerships that are key to the funding of the Agency, the government of Israel, Keren Hayesod/UIA, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, but the success of the Agency’s Great Reset will depend on not just those relationships, but also the establishment of new partnerships with new service delivery partners, thought leaders and funders. The Agency must be open to establishing partnerships in ways that respond to needs of the partners not just needs of the Agency. Equally, however, those partners must be open to working with a new Jewish Agency, one that has reset both its function and its form. If potential partners refuse to engage in the future of the Agency because the past of the Agency, opportunities will be missed and outcomes will not be realized. If the Agency is resetting its approach, perhaps all of us can reset our own attitudes and optimism to the Agency’s future.

4. Will the Jewish Agency be able to energize and leverage existing volunteer leadership while also recruiting new generations of leaders and voluntary stakeholders? Having been involved in numerous Jewish organizations and understanding their somewhat unique organizational attributes, even I am confused by the complexity of Agency governance. The truth of the matter is that as part of the Great Reset, the governance of the Agency must be revisited on a substantial and dramatic scale. All of the constituencies must remain represented, but the size and substance of the governance bodies must be redesigned to match the new purpose and structure of the Agency. While the Agency must also remain a substantial nexus with Israel with respect to the conduct of its operations and governance, it must make better use of technology to convene its leaders, as well as provide opportunities for governance to meet, outside of Israel. But most of all, the Agency needs to continue to recruit and inspire new leadership (not just young new leadership) to bring new ideas and energy into the governance structure. Just as one of the key strategies of the Agency is to empower and energize social activism in Israel, it must empower Israelis (and Jews in the Diaspora) to make vital leadership investments in the Agency.

These four questions yield no easy answers, just as the challenges of our times require more than simple solutions. The Great Reset is a necessity, but it is also a gamble – a gamble that we can transform an organization that built a state into an one that can build a stronger nation; because while our land may anchor us to our past, it is our actions that propel us toward our collective aspirations of a Jewish state with an exemplary society. Accordingly, our ability to take those necessary actions give rise to one final concern that I did not voice last week, but have been thinking of since – we are a people with a long and storied past; will we remain a people with a future?

If the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency works, than the answer will be a resounding YES.

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Dispatches From Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Future Face of Olim

June 22, 2010

“After a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces.”  – Cynthia Ozick, American author

In the midst of running back and forth among business meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem earlier this week, I was happy to have the rare treat to spend time connecting with a young post-collegiate daughter of a friend from back home.  Mara, a recent olah from Atlanta, has decided to make her life in Israel, finding love with a new fiancée and satisfaction with a new job with an Israeli NGO. A daughter of Young Judean alumni and a product of Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Mara is deeply rooted in her family’s and people’s history and values, and their shared love of Israel. Stepping out of the heat of the day, we met for coffee in a small café within a used bookstore, a perfect setting for sharing a little bit of old biography, a some of discussion of the ongoing drama in the world and even a few words of childhood stories. We sat together, sharing the texts of our lives, each looking from our different vantage points, but nonetheless facing one another.

And that is when, looking at Mara, I realized something important, not only to me, but also to the way we all should look at Aliyah in 2010  – while the need to attract olim has remained the same, the face and biography of the typical olah has changed.

Yes, we still live in a world where aliyah of necessity remains a constant possibility (consider the newest olim from Kyrgyzstan that arrived this week), but the truth of the matter is that necessity is less of likelihood than it has been for generations. As Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky shared with the Agency Assembly earlier this week, 94% of Jews live in countries with relative freedom and prosperity, with little need to leave these countries under duress or for lack of tolerance. Instead, the majority of the new olim are making ‘aliyah of choice’ – a personal desire to be living in Israel and Israeli society at this unique and extraordinary time in Israel history. These olim come with a different face than the waves of recent olim, they are not fleeing a totalitarian state or an economically devastated area, they are coming because of a sense of pride, an aspiration of change and inspired sense of their Jewish selves. In short, they are coming to Israel because of who they are, not where they are.

So this, in a nutshell, is the changing face of olim – where once it the face was of Jews uprooted from their homes, now it is the face of Jews deeply rooted in their identity. They can make it anywhere, but they want to make it here – here in the homeland of their people and an axis of their identity.  With this change comes an important question: will we meet these changing faces with a new face of the Jewish Agency grounded in helping reinforcing identity and inspire aliyah, or will we look for the faces no longer coming with a face of an Agency that is grounded by unchanging ways? The truth is, it would be responsible to do the former, and wasteful to do the latter.

With that in mind, it is time for the Jewish Agency, as part of its new strategic plan, to look closely at its aliyah operations and make not only strategic decisions regarding the operation of the department, but also the overall strategy of inspiring aliyah. There must always remain a basic ability to assist olim, especially for Jews in need, but the Agency must not only react to the needs of the current olim, it must inspire the future olim – by helping give root to individual identities and then strengthening those roots so they grow all the way back home to Israel.  This will not be easy, and it will take a reimagining of the very way the Agency operates, the way the government of Israel views the role of the Agency and the way the Diaspora Jewry embraces the strategies of the Agency.

Possible? Yes. Achievable? Hopefully. But it will take more than lip service to identity to change the face of aliyah, it will take political courage and new approaches to the Israeli-Diaspora partnerships; and it will take many more biographies and faces…

just like Mara’s.

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Dispatches from Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Myth of Collective Bargaining

June 21, 2010

In recent days, as I have shared with my communally-engaged friends that I would be in Jerusalem for this week’s Jewish Agency meetings, the response has been consistent and all too predictable. First the person expresses jealousy that I get to spend some time in Israel (even in the heat of the summer) and second, they express complete confusion and condolences regarding my involvement in, as they call it, the quicksand that is the modern Jewish Agency. Others also wonder why I (or they) should care about an organization that is purportedly a relic, an instrument of a Jewish time long past. They ask, tongue firmly planted in cheek – isn’t the Jewish Agency something that the leadership of big organizations like Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) should be addressing on behalf of all of us?

The truth of the matter is this: my friends are right to be jealous of my time in Jerusalem, underestimating the possibilities embodied by a reinvigorated Jewish Agency, and dangerously wrong regarding the abdication of their own personal involvement in the Agency’s future.  In fact, I firmly believe many of my friends and many others make two false assumptions: (1) that we, as communities, individuals, local organizations, donors and foundations, don’t have a stake in the future, and (2) that organizations such as  JFNA have the true ability to represent the overall Federation system (much less North American Jewry as a whole) in shaping the future of the Agency.

Having spent time in the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, including as chair of its Allocations Committee, I know this first hand. Several years ago Atlanta and St. Louis started engaging the Jewish Agency directly with respect to outcome based funding for respect to programs in Israel and Minsk, Belarus. In the intervening years, more and more communities like Atlanta are structuring independent relationships with the Jewish Agency, and based on the success of initiatives like Partnership 2000, local leaders have been able to interact with Jewish Agency professionals and programs on a more individualized basis. The more they disintermediate JFNA with respect to their overseas funding, the more these communities become direct (as opposed to indirect) funders, and accordingly their voices must be heard in direct, not just indirect, ways.  In this spirit, the Jewish Agency’s future is not some theoretical issue to be debated in the halls of Jerusalem hotels by JFNA leadership, but is an issue of vital interest to individual Federations and throughout North America.

And that leads us to the myth of collective bargaining vis a vis the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency.

One of the first lessons taught to attorneys in contract law is the limits of agency and due authorization – the rule that a person representing an interest must have actual, or at least implied, authority to represent the interests of others. Many years ago, JFNA (then known as UJC) had the apparent authority to represent the interests of the Federation movement in the Jewish Agency, and in most cases had actual authority. Now, the nature of local Federations funding strategies has diminished the ability of JFNA to collectively bargain with the Jewish Agency on behalf of those local Federations – becoming more of a myth than a matter of fact.  Make no mistake, JFNA is still a vital voice at the table, but the table isn’t the same shape it once was, and the guest list has changed.  Yes, JFNA expresses the voice of the Federation movement in North America, but only so much as that voice is in harmony, which it is increasingly is not. So we must recognize this diminished ability of JFNA has left us not only with significant issues (whose voice to listen to) but also an opportunity: inspiring increasing numbers and types of people to invest their time and efforts in the Agency. Of course this can’t be done unless the Agency develops new ways of engaging those individuals in the future work of the Jewish people – this is, and must be, its imperative.

As we will see and undoubtedly read this week, the Jewish Agency is on the cusp of its most significant and necessary redefinition in decades. But the future of the Agency will not be changed if we all rely on the myth of collective bargaining, it will only be truly reimagined if we increase and inspire a mix of people who feel they have a vital interest in its possibilities – a mix that can transform the quicksand of the present into the concrete of the future.