NEW YORK — The leaders of several of the largest North American Jewish federations are praising Natan Sharansky’s plans for shifting the focus of the Jewish Agency for Israel from immigration to education and identity building. But reversing the drop in Diaspora dollars will take more than words, some added.
Linda Kislowicz, CEO of UIA Canada, told The CJN that the Canadian federations have been discussing the Jewish Agency’s new orientation. The Jewish Agency is the main recipients of funds from Jewish federations channelled through UIA Canada.
“I think there’s a very positive response… Strong Jewish identity makes for strong Jewish communities and a strong Israel.
“As to whether it leads to some form of life in Israel, we believe they’re connected. It’s a shift of resources and focus, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a dilution of the aliyah message.”
As well, she added, the change “makes room for a new and interesting partnership with regard to Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, in which the common denominator is Jewish identity… Programs and resources can be devoted to strengthening Jewish identity among Jewish youth in the Diaspora and Jewish youth in Israel. We have work to do together.”
She said the change gives the Jewish Agency “a very current and contemporary platform in which to engage communities and in particular the next generation.”
Ted Sokolsky, president of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said that the change in focus has been in the works for many years, and that Birthright Israel is “probably the most visible program in this line.”
Sokolsky was involved in talks leading up to the recently announced changes, particularly as head of the organization of large city directors of Jewish federations in 2007-08.
“There’s an understanding that we have to invest more and more in people’s – young people’s in particular – sense of Jewish peoplehood and their Jewish identity,” Sokolsky said.
However, he noted, “it’s not a case of the Jewish Agency choosing Jewish identity over aliyah. Aliyah will definitely be enhanced down the road.”
Sokolsky said that the change “doesn’t seem like such a stretch” for the Jewish community in Canada. “We’re already investing significant dollars in Jewish education” – an amount he put at a combined total of almost $25 million between the Jewish communities in Toronto and Montreal.
As well, he added, “you’ll see a greater emphasis on what we used to call informal Jewish education,” referring to Jewish camping and programs such as March of the Living.
Some major American federations in recent years have complained increasingly about sending overseas large proportions of funds connected locally.
In a prepared statement, Jerry Silverman, the CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, which serves as the pass-through for federation money to the Jewish Agency, praised the Agency’s new direction.
John Ruskay, the CEO of the system’s largest federation, the UJA-Federation of New York also praised the shift, but said it was “overstated.”
“Let me emphasize I have no doubt the Jewish Agency will continue its commitment to promote and facilitate aliyah,” Ruskay said. “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.”
The Jewish Agency’s new direction also received endorsements from Barry Shrage, head of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, and Steve Hoffman, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Cleveland and the former CEO of the predecessor of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Both executives said the key would be the Jewish Agency’s ability to execute.
This article was adapted from JTA’s philanthropy blog, TheFundermentalist.com. With files from Frances Kraft