Who will be the next president of the Jewish Agency? – opinion

Legend has it that when David Ben-Gurion was serving as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine (the predecessor of today’s Jewish Agency for Israel) during Israel’s pre-state era, an American Jewish philanthropist told the future prime minister that he loved Israel so much. so much that he called his vacation home outside of Chicago “Palestine.”

Ben-Gurion replied, “Why don’t you have a summer house in Tel Aviv and call it Chicago?”

Almost 75 years later, many things have changed, but two things have not.

First, the relationship between American Jews and Israelis continues to be a work in progress, with warm feelings of affection but different points of view, marked by frequent failures to understand each other’s perspective.

And second, the agency’s role in serving as a unifying force is of almost existential importance in maintaining that relationship.

Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that the agency’s search for our next president has received unprecedented media attention in both Israel and the Jewish media.

The headquarters of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL / FLASH90)

The selection committee is doing more than electing the next head of the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization. It is about selecting a person who will sit in the royal office of David Ben-Gurion at a time of great anxiety about the connections between the two largest Jewish populations in the world.

Most of us didn’t need to read The New York Times’ latest (almost monthly) account of the “breakdown” of American Zionism. The recent Pew Research Center findings on American Jews paint the picture in a much more nuanced but equally clear-cut way. While a clear majority (over 60%) of American Jews continue to feel close to Israel, those numbers are considerably lower among those under 30, with only 35% responding that caring for Israel is essential to them, and 27% say Israel is not an important part of being Jewish.

Those of us who care about this relationship have a lot of work to do both in the United States and in Israel.

Looking at the United States, while there are many complicated layers to this challenge, one fact remains incredibly simple, and is supported by every study ever conducted on the subject: The more contact American Jews have with Israel, the more likely they are to they do. feel a connection. This is intuitive: if you go to Israel for a week, you are likely to feel more connected than if you didn’t. If you go a few months, you will feel even more connected.

However, not all American Jews will come to Israel, and that is why the agency does everything it can to bring them to Israel.

This mission is accomplished through our shlihim (emissaries), who spread awareness and education about Israel in their service to thousands of institutions throughout the Jewish world; school twinning, which bridges students from different cultures and continents; and the city-to-city and region-to-region partnerships of the Partnership2Gether program between the Israeli and North American communities. We are honored to work with individual Jewish federations across the country, as well as the Jewish federations of North America in these efforts.

HOWEVER, ANY healthy relationship must be reciprocal. We must be honest with ourselves that very little time and resources have been invested in educating Israelis about American Jews.

In fact, it can be fairly said that the spirit of the Ben-Gurion joke has been the dominant thought in much of Israel’s society.

Too often, when Israeli children learn about Jews outside of Israel, they are learning about tragedies like the pogroms, the Holocaust, and the Farhud. Israelis must continue to learn the stories of these tragically murdered Jews, but they must also pay more attention to those of us who are alive and have consciously chosen to live as minorities.

The new head of the agency must dedicate himself to this effort. They will find ready allies. Over the past few weeks, I have had the genuine honor and pleasure of joining Israeli comedian Guri Alfi in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco to discuss his groundbreaking series, The New Jew.

It is a delightful and widely watched comedy miniseries on Israeli public television, exploring the diversity of American Jewish life – the first Israeli television show about American Jews in more than a quarter of a century.

Alfi shows our Jews of color, our female rabbis, and our somewhat incoherent but lovable Jewish fraternity members in a thoughtful and caring way. By taking us into Israeli living rooms, Alfi has done an immeasurable service in building greater bridges of understanding.

But it’s not enough. Our goal should be nothing less than ensuring that every Israeli student receives a higher level of knowledge about the world’s Jews. Only the new head of the agency is capable of leading an effort of this nature.

One thing is for sure: the agency’s next director will be leaning on giants. From Ben-Gurion to Natan Sharansky to Isaac Herzog, past leaders of the agency have grappled with the fundamental challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people.

While the stakes are high, the new director will find hundreds of committed colleagues, lay leaders and partners who cannot wait to face today’s challenges.

The writer is director for North America of the Jewish Agency and president and CEO of the Jewish Agency for International Development.


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