During our recent board of governors meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel, our new executive, Yitzhak Herzog, reminded us of our history that began in 1929 before pre-statehood Palestine. The original purpose of the Jewish Agency was to coordinate the activities of the various organizations in the region and to prepare a government for eventual statehood.
Over time, the Jewish Agency became involved with the development of the state of Israel, settlement and immigrant absorption and coordination of the institutions that addressed these issues. The Jewish Agency remains the only non-governmental organization that the official government is required to meet with at least three times a year. This past week, the prime minister met with the agency regarding BDS and efforts to fight anti-Semitism. Issues never thought of in the beginning have proven the Jewish Agency to be a nimble organization that has adapted to an ever-changing world.
The committee meetings are always informative. We heard from two Ethiopian olim who shared how families remain separated from those that participated in the first wave of immigration. Twenty years and three waves of new immigrants later, there are still parents and children who have not reunified. Pressure will be applied to the government to make this a priority and discussions will be held among the federations to see what other means can be deployed to reunite these families. We are now faced with a combination of a government that is not acting and religious bodies questioning who a Jew is. There wasn’t a dry eye in the committee after watching a video of these people in Gondar and Addis Abba worshipping much like we do in Phoenix. Our two guests showed no bitterness towards their new country and were thrilled to be calling Israel home while they still had loved ones that couldn’t join them.
I attended a committee meeting on the Unity of the Jewish people where the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs reported on hidden or emerging Jewish communities in rural parts of Africa and Central and South America. Many on the committee questioned how the government is going to deal with these non-Ashkenazic communities — how Right of Return and who is a Jew will be applied and may force an unprecedented wave of immigrants.
Looking beyond aliyah, the Jewish Agency is charged with building Jewish identity worldwide. I was pleased to learn that the Jewish Agency has 1,650 shlichim, Israeli emissaries, in the U.S. fighting anti-Semitism and BDS. In addition, there are 384 U.S. and Israeli communities that have a sister city-like relationship to develop a better understanding of and appreciation for each other. Some are outside the Jewish community. Similar efforts are underway in the FSU, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Israel.
The Jewish Agency has also launched new programs such as Onward Israel, which allows young adults from all over the world to experience a 2-month internship working in Israel’s most innovative companies. More than 12,000 youth have been transformed through this immersion into Israeli workplace and society. They return home with a greater knowledge, sense of connection and engagement in Jewish life and Israel.
The Jewish Agency receives one-third of their financial support from the Government of Israel, another third from worldwide Jewry and the remainder is fee-for-service income. None of this important work would be possible if not for the generosity of the collective federation movement in North America.
I am proud to serve on the boards of both these amazing organizations because I have the privilege of seeing firsthand the difference our gifts make, locally, in Israel and around the world.
If you care about BDS, anti-Semitism, aliyah and building Jewish identity, consider how you can support our federation and participate in our Israel-related programs. Volunteering is what makes this happen and your support is needed. If you have children or grandchildren interested in furthering their connection to Israel, please contact the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix to learn more about these special and unique programs: firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-634-4900. JN
David Weiner is the board co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and is on the board of governors for the Jewish Agency of Israel.