Absorbing 30,000 new immigrants, addressing inequality of religious funding, providing pensions for Soviet olim from 35 years ago, negotiating egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and providing Israeli shlichim at college campuses around the world to combat the BDS [boycott, sanctions and divestment] movement describes a small part of the work the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) does. I was thrilled to attend my first Board of Governors meeting in Tel Aviv. Through it, I gained a deeper appreciation for a small part of what the Jewish Agency is tasked with doing.
The nearly $400 million budget for JAFI is supported by Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and similar federation organizations around the world. I was excited to have a seat at the table and impressed to see how we partner with the government of Israel. I can confidently say that worldwide Jewry has a voice at the table and the respect of the government. After two days of intensive meetings in Tel Aviv and one day spent in the south of Israel, I gained a much better understanding of the many services that our federation dollars allow JAFI to do. It was nice to see a well-balanced group of volunteers encompassing all religious streams worldwide and diversity from all walks of life.
Like any local organization, our discussions were similar when it came to passing a budget, being relevant to our donors and beneficiaries, and how do we message and carry on the brand and organization that was once led by David Ben-Gurion and now Natan Sharansky. I have to admit the history of the organization and mission it has accomplished from pre-statehood can be intimidating, while being very gratifying.
As a child, I remember visiting my cousins from Lithuania in Israel, who were just settled in 1974. Now, I am a part of the organization that helped them and 1 million olim from the former Soviet Union settle in Israel and that airlifted thousands from Ethiopia. It is gratifying and rewarding. Today, our aliyah activity is focused on France and Ukraine. Our budget only allows for 30,000 new olim although we are told 40,000 would welcome the chance to settle in Israel.
On the second day, we headed south and visited Tze’elim, one of the largest urban warfare military bases with a simulated Gazan town with minarets, homes, alleyways and tunnels. This state-of-the-art base allows the Israeli army to train for difficult conditions and gives valuable experience to young soldiers. It was very real, except one type of building was missing … schools. The Israel Defense Forces are instructed and trained to never enter a school, so they were not part of this training base.
We later visited Sderot, which borders Gaza. It felt good to see how her residents have bounced back from the senseless shelling and how the region is now growing. We enjoyed lunch at a restaurant that had received a JAFI microloan and, despite opening during the first days of the last war, is now a thriving business.
Later, I met the mayor of the Eshkol region. It was inspiring. Despite losing both of his legs during the war, he is not bitter and takes great pride in how his region is growing despite being on the Egyptian border with ISIS fighting in the background. It is a testament to the resilience of Israel and her peaceful intentions.
As I prepare for my next meeting in Paris in four months, it is reassuring to see how the collective gifts of our donors make such an impact for our Jewish community around the world. The federation dollars raised in Greater Phoenix allow immigrants to live a secure Jewish life in Israel, create a safety net for those at risk and provide the resources for a strong Jewish community worldwide.
W. David Weiner serves on the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix board of directors and chairs the federation’s 2016 annual campaign. He also is a committee member of the Jewish Agency for Israel board of governors and former board chair of the Jewish Community Foundation.