Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Agency’

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The Jewish Agency’s Strategic Plan: Now For the Hard Part…

November 2, 2010

“At a time when the Jewish Agency should be looking ahead to improving its role at the nexus of the emerging world Jewish polity… the Agency must complete putting its own house in order in whatever way it chooses to do so before it can truly play the leading role that it must on the world Jewish scene.” Daniel J. Elazar  z”l The Jewish Agency: Historic Role and Current Crisis (1992)

Last week in Jerusalem the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency approved its new strategic plan, one that The Jerusalem Post called “the most significant redefinition of the Jewish Agency’s purpose since the declaration of the state.”  Without question, the Agency has set off on a path that, while uncharted, is also grounded in the belief that the fundamental challenges of the Jewish future require fundamental changes in the strategic direction of the Jewish Agency.  If the past 81 years of the Jewish Agency has been about helping the development of a state, the new direction of the Agency squarely focuses on helping the development of a people that, in turn, can continue to help build a nation. In sum, just as the history of Israel and the Jewish Agency are testaments to the power of nation-building by aliyah, the new strategic plan is an experiment of nation-building 2.0 by identity.

This experiment has a substantial amount of risk, especially since it proposes to not only transform the Agency, but also to transform the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations. By staking its future on the engines of Israel experience that impact Jewish identity and deepen the relationship between the Jewries of the Diaspora and Israel, the Jewish Agency has chosen not just to refocus its efforts, but to redesign its very purpose. It is a bold move by an organization with a history of bold moves.

But in truth, the Agency is also an entity that has struggled with organizational shortcomings, ranging from bureaucracy, inefficiency, misdirection and missed opportunities. Notwithstanding its historic success, it suffers from an organizational design that needs substantial reimagination and a governance structure that requires a significant updating. Equally, the Agency needs to quickly begin implementation while facing the challenges of managing internal politics, external relations and, of course, a need for increased resource development.  Alone each of those challenges requires outstanding execution, together they demand the highest level of administrative excellence. With that in mind, a few suggestions:

  1. Reorganization. Without question, the new strategic plan requires a redesign of the administrative and programmatic structure of the Agency. The reorganization is not just needed to align functional responsibilities, but also to create a structure that is adaptable to change. If the past of the Agency has been one of silos, the future must be one of transparency and integrated execution. The leadership must not only have core capabilities, but also must have clear confidence in the future of the plan; this is not a time for half-measures or half-heartedness.
  2. Governance. There is no question that the Agency’s leadership is deeply and passionately earnest about the present and the future of the agency. Equally, there is no question that the very same leadership is keenly aware of the need or substantial changes to its governance structure.  The Jewish Agency can and should maintain its unique forum for Jewish leadership to interact, but it must take substantial measures to redefine who that leadership is and how they interact. A board structure that is representative of the partnerships that comprise the historic relationships of the Jewish Agency can exist while also bringing new leadership that also reflects the future foci of the Agency; the key is to develop new pathways to leadership and reduce barriers to participation. There is room for WiseGen and NextGen at the future governance table of the Agency, but first that table needs to be set by existing leadership.
  3. Partnerships. The strategic plan calls for new tactics to achieve new goals, including deepening a sense of social activism by under-35 Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. But these goals cannot be achieved solely be looking inside the organization, they can only be realized by engaging new partners with relevant experience in new ways. There are far to many organizations that have either a skeptical or critical (or both) view of partnering with the Agency; one of the key tasks of the Agency is to create new confidence that partnering with the Jewish Agency will be an experience of excellence.
  4. Resource Development. Last, but by no means least, funding the new strategic plan will require a fundamental reorientation of the way the Jewish Agency partners with Keren Hayesod and the Federation system in North America. Equally, it will require a level of engagement with foundations and individual donors that has eluded the Agency in the past. This is a complicated strategy – the future of the Jewish Agency depends on energizing new resources to support new endeavors, while also realigning existing financial resources to meet changing goals. Redeploying existing funds will not be enough to achieve critical success, but waiting for new sources to fund new initiatives will be equally unsuccessful.

The Jewish Agency’s new plan is a reminder of an old fact: nothing worth achieving is easy. The coming weeks and months will be a clear reminder that making a shift of historic proportions requires an effort that is equally historic. During its great history, the Jewish Agency has helped bring more faces to Israel and now it is endeavoring to change the collective face of the nation and people of Israel. But first it must change itself –

and with that, the hard part begins.

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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.

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August (1929) and Everything After: The Jewish Agency at the Crossroads of History

March 1, 2010

The fruit of three thousand years of civilization and a hundred generations of suffering may not be sacrificed by us. It will be sacrificed if dissipated. Assimilation is national suicide. And assimilation can be prevented only by preserving national characteristics and life as other peoples, large and small, are preserving and developing their national life. –  excerpt from “A Call to the Educated Jew” by Louis Brandeis

 

History teaches everything, including the future.   – Alphonese de Lamartine

 

 

What was it like to be part of the leadership the Jewish Agency in August, 1929 in Zurich?  Less than a month earlier, the 16th Zionist Congress established an expanded Jewish Agency after a seven year long debate about how Zionist efforts would incorporate a wide array of Jewish groups in the Diaspora, and the meetings that August were the first gathering of the expanded organization. Around the table were giants of the Jewish people, including Chaim Weizmann, Louis Marshall, Joseph Sprinzak and others representing both the WZO and Diaspora Jewry and who were invested in the efforts to create a Jewish state. As they planned their joint endeavor toward the realization the “establishment of the Jewish National Home… in Palestine” (as called for by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922), this group had the daunting task of prioritizing the initial work of the Agency. Their deliberations resulted in the emphasis on immigration, settlement and land purchase as key endeavors, with efforts also to be undertaken regarding the greater establishment of language and culture of the new nation. Decisions were made and the rest, as they say, is history.

But again, I wonder, what was it like to sit at that table and make those decisions?

This question weighed on my mind as I attended the meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency last week in Jerusalem. Now, like then, the Jewish Agency is at a pivot moment in Jewish history – a moment where, at the end of many years of debate, priorities must be set and decisions must be made. What direction will this historic organization take at this crossroads in the history of the Jewish state and the Jewish people?  Yes, there certainly are differences between then and now – then the very existence of the State of Israel was an aspiration, now it is a reality. Then only a small fraction of world Jewry lived in the land that would become the modern state of Israel, now half the world’s Jewish population calls Israel home. But many of the challenges are the same – how can the Jewish Agency best help make sure that Israel is more than a state, but also a people? How can the organization best ensure that the future of the Jewish nation is secured and enriched by the reinforcement of the national characteristics of the Jewish people?

Those challenges and others face the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 and, like 1929, both the weight of history and the promise of the future cannot be ignored. Then, like now, the Zionist dream was the shared dream of many diverse stakeholders, often sharing common cause but possessing diverse perspectives about how to pursue that cause.  We know the history since 1929, but what we don’t know is this: Like those individuals around the table in 1929 that came together to prioritize approaches to ensuring the creation and sustainability of a Jewish nation, can today’s diverse leadership of the Jewish Agency define its priorities to properly ensure the strengthening and sustainability of the Jewish people?

The answer must be ‘yes’ – history, and the Jewish future, demand nothing less.

In his book Community and Polity, Professor Daniel Elazar postulated that in the postmodern Jewish world there needs to be reassertion of Jewish polity – a transition from fragmentation to reintegration. More than ever before, the Jewish Agency can and should play a substantial role in developing that greater sense of Klal Yisrael, integrating the fragments of Jewish life into a shared sense of identity. While its role since 1929 has been reconstituting a Jewish state, the Jewish Agency must now transition to a role of reconnecting a Jewish people. Yes, there can be no question that Israel is and must remain a center of the Jewish people, but a center unconnected from its broader sphere becomes the center of nothing.  And just like the efforts of the Jewish Agency have long been to weave the multicolored threads of olim into the fabric of the Jewish State, the Agency must continue to serve as a seamstress in the next phase of Jewish history. But rather than only help bring the threads together as the cloth of a nation, it must now serve a new role in stitching together the quilt of Jewish people, sewing together the unique squares of Jewish life and experience that occur in Israel, North America and throughout the Jewish world.  To do so, it must use the expression of individual Jewish identity as the thread that binds the quilt of the Jewish people together.

Of course any prioritization, any design of its future endeavors, must take into account that the Jewish Agency cannot in the abandon some of its key responsibilities in that it is uniquely able to address. But as time changes, and the needs of the Jewish people change, the Jewish Agency cannot remain static. It too must change, and change in the ways the future demands, not the past. Certainly the coming weeks and months will require hard questions to be asked and certain answers to be accepted. But we should not lose site of one question that will be asked, we hope will be asked, one day far in the future –

What was it like to be part of the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 in Jerusalem and what did they decide?

The history books of the Jewish people are waiting for the answer.

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Too Big to Fail: Large Jewish Organizations and the Imperative of Success

November 2, 2009

Unless you have been in a cave for the past year, you have no doubt heard the debate about how certain financial institutions are too big to be allowed to fail (therefore necessitating government intervention/support). And unless you are totally unengaged from the organized Jewish world, you have no doubt heard debate about whether certain Jewish organizations are too big to survive. Local Federations (and the national Federation system) as well large multi-national organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel are the subject of ample criticism (sometimes much deserved) for being too big, too slow to change, and possessing leadership that is too entrenched and myopic to successfully transition to a new era of Jewish communal life.  It is said these large organizations and others like them are at the doorsteps of obsolescence and they are outdated infrastructure for a time that has passed.

I believe, however, these organizations are too big to fail and that the support they need is not from the government, but from all of us.

Now to be clear, these organizations suffer from deficiencies that need prompt remediation. But like the financial systems that are essential to the endurance of an efficient economy, these Jewish organizations serve important roles in the maintenance and endurance of strong Jewish communities.  Their history alone does not require their continued existence, but the legacy of their successes should give us pause before we cast these organizations off to the bookshelves of Jewish history.  Billions of dollars raised by Federations and millions of olim assisted by the Jewish Agency have helped transform Jewish life in Israel and in communities around North America in a magnitude that cannot be quantified.  Also, we often say that if these organizations did not exist, we would need to recreate them, subtly recognizing that their shortcomings should not override the merit of their continued existence.

But just as status does not equal merit, existence does not equal success. While these organizations may be too big for us to allow them to fail, disputing and denying their shortcomings will not help in renewing them for the next Jewish century. The missions encompassed by their initial development may still be sound –  but the environments in which they pursue their vision have changed. With respect to Federations, while the amount of communal need has not diminished the impact of communal giving, the demand for philanthropic choice has increased the need for organizational flexibility. And with respect to the Jewish Agency, core aspects of the role it must fill have changed; Aliyah has become an evolutionary project not just an existential one and the need for the development the social capacity of the Jewish people should now be on par with its other historic roles.  Yes, they may be too big too fail, but they cannot be to small-minded in redefining what success looks like.

In their influential study on the lifecycle of organizations, Danny Miller and Peter Friesen categorized troubled organizations with similar characteristics. While our large Jewish organizations might have aspects of all of the archetypes, perhaps the most fitting  for some large Jewish organizations is the ‘Stagnant Bureaucracy’ category.  In that case, the organization has ossified to a point where it is neither receptive nor responsive to changing dynamics around it and where the weight of its own organizational infrastructure make it less likely to adequately adapt.  These characteristics do not mean the essential purpose of the organization is outdated, but they do make a clear case that the strategic and tactical approaches taken by the organization must be updated.  Organizations, however, cannot update themselves. The success of their ability to change requires committed and visionary leadership as well as the prodding and patient constituents; in other words, it requires all of us.

So as we embark on this next great chapter of Jewish organizational life, we should remember there are Jewish communal organizations that are too big to fail. It is not the size of their payrolls that make them so, but it is the size of the ideas they embody.  And in a world where the smallest and most instantaneous message can often be the most impactful, we should not underestimate the potential impact of the renewal of our largest and most enduring organizations on the success of our collective Jewish future; a future that is also too big to fail.

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History, Facts, Faces, and Faith: The Case for Maintaining Overseas Allocations

May 2, 2009

It is that time of year again, the time of counting. I don’t mean just the counting of the Omer, which we do, daily in our synagogues and temples; I mean the counting of dollars and cents raised by our communities as part of our various Jewish community fundraising campaigns. It is the time when we make our final estimates and declare our final projections; the time when we begin to make decisions about where the dollars we raise will go, and how they will be spent.

And this year, more so than any in recent memory, there are fewer dollars and there are harder decisions.

Our communities at home in the United States are all suffering from the unprecedented economic hardships – the ledger of financial resources is short and the list of people in need is long. Our day schools are suffering attrition at rates that are alarming and emergency assistance requests are increasing at a pace that is dismaying.  With all this in mind, there is an increasing sense across American Jewish communities that we need to make sure that before we send too many Jewish dollars overseas to Israel, to the JDC, to the Jewish Agency for Israel, that we must take care of our needs here at home first, at the expense of our overseas allocations.  Not without hand wringing and hearts breaking, we argue and posture that ‘just this year’ we can reduce our overseas allocations to keep more money in our communities.

But after seven years of serving as a volunteer in local Federation planning and allocations decisions, and notwithstanding my involvement in many local Jewish organizations, I am convinced more than ever of the following:  in this time of economic crisis, we should not and cannot disproportionately sacrifice our overseas allocations for our local needs.

There are four reasons why we must honor our commitment to Jews across the world, most substantially in Israel and the Former Soviet Union: History, Facts, Faces, and Faith.

History is significant threefold  – the history of combined philanthropy, the recent history of our local communities, and the history our children and grandchildren will learn. As we sit around our board rooms in our Federations and Jewish Welfare Boards, we cannot and should not forget that much of the history of combined philanthropy was to efficiently and powerfully address the needs of Jews around the would.  That is our history, and that remains our mission. Certainly recent economic history challenges perception of our past, we more viscerally remember our much more recent local history of retraction and need.  In the midst of this recent history, we cannot help but momentarily forget how we got here when we are overwhelmed of the question of where to go in the future.

But we should not forget we are making history too – how we respond to this crisis will be recorded for our children and grandchildren to know. And they should know this – even when we suffered at home, we never forgot our obligations abroad.  Our history should show, it must show, that in time of our greatest need, we still honored our past – we remembered the places of our history and the needs of Jews that still remain in those places.

The facts and faces of overseas needs are critical factors to remember in our allocations decisions and oftentimes are the most easily forgotten. Our local needs confront us every day, we feel their impact, and we know the people who suffer the loss. We are also inundated with data and information that build the case for keeping dollars at home in our own communities.  We are overwhelmingly persuaded by the facts and faces that surround us when we are making our decisions – we know what we will feel when we walk out of our boardrooms, and even more so, we know what we will hear.

That is exactly why we must not sacrifice our commitment to helping Jews overseas. The facts are no less compelling – in these economic times the need is even greater in Israel and FSU.  The pain is even higher. The danger of losing Jews is even greater, and the other networks of support are even weaker. We know, factually, that the need exists. Butt we don’t see there faces everyday – we don’t know their names.  When we walk out of our boardrooms, we won’t hear from them; they won’t call to complain.

They will be the silent cuts – and the faces we do not see. And while our local community needs will be more apparent to us over the coming year, and motivate us to dig into our pockets even deep in the coming year, the needs of our brothers and sisters in Israel, FSU and elsewhere will still be far removed from us.  We can’t forget them now, because we may not remember them later.

Lastly, our overseas allocation is a matter of our faith. Not just our faith in one another, but our faith in G-d as well. As a Jewish people we are in a great partnership – not just in communities and not just with our “overseas partners,” but we are partners with G-d in acts of creation, of sustenance, and of compassion for G-d’s people.  That partnership not only includes those partners we see day-to-day and live in our towns and neighborhoods. We have partners all over the world that have joined with us in G-d’s acts of creation throughout history. We cannot choose to recognize that partnership in part; we must recognize it in whole. And this partnership, this holy partnership requires us to make holy decisions – decisions that require sacrifice of ourselves.

So there it  – history, facts, faces, and faith. The four legs of the table on which we must do our counting; the four factors we must consider when doing our deciding how we will protect and preserve our support of our fellow Jews overseas. It is my case for preserving our overseas allocations this year, and it is my plea.  But my questions remain:

In this time of counting – how will we count? And who?

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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.