Recent changes at the Jewish Agency have caused a stir in both Israel and in the Diaspora, but there's no need to fear, says Agency spokesperson Haviv Gur. “I wasn't aware of the press release sent out by the Council of Immigrant Associations last week. I understand their concerns, but they – and the rest of the Jewish world, both in Israel and the Diaspora – must understand that the world has changed, and we have changed with it.”
Last week, Arutz 7 featured a story in which the Council of Immigrant Associations (CIA) said that it was “very concerned and upset that the Agency's new strategic plan ignores the Jewish communities in Europe, South America, South Africa and France, which is the world’s second largest Jewish community.”
At issue is the recent closure of the three independent units that made up the Jewish Agency – the education, aliyah, and Israel departments – and the rolling of all their functions into a single unit. The Agency has been attacked by MKs and several Israeli newspapers, which accuse it of “giving up” on aliyah.
In its statement, the CIA said that closing down the Aliyah Department, which offered financial and other assistance to would-be immigrants to Israel, would be damaging to Aliyah, and discourage Jews from moving to Israel.
“Those comments are understandable, but I respectfully disagree with that point of view,” says Gur. “We have to face the facts – when it comes to western Jewry, the Aliyah Department just wasn't doing the job.”
The success of Nefesh B'Nefesh, a private organization to facilitate Western aliya, seems to indicate that he is correct.
It took the Jewish Agency years to understand the problem and come up with a plan to revitalize itself – and now, instead of concentrating on the few hundred or thousand people who would probably have made aliyah anyway, the Agency is planning to reach out to the “unchurched,” the millions of western Jews who knew nothing about Israel – but as a result of the boost in funding for programs like Birthright Israel (Taglit) and Masa, will now have the opportunity to visit Israel “and fall in love with it.
“When do you need an Aliyah Department?” asks Gur. “We know the answer from history. When Iraq throws 150,000 Jews out of the country, the Aliyah Department knows what to do. Ditto for Jews suffering in the Soviet Union, or Jews living in transit camps in Ethiopia.” But historically, official aliyah efforts from the west – especially the U.S., where the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry lives – have fizzled.
The Jewish Agency's new plan – barely a couple of years old - aims to change that. “Why do American Jews make aliyah? We've studied this, and I can tell that it's not for the benefits,” says Gur. “There's ideology, religious feeling, nationalistic feeling, Zionism, and many other factors, but a loan at low interest is only going to help those who are convinced already. What about everyone else?”
Those are the people the Jewish Agency sees as its mission to help – and Gur says the organization believes it has the answer to connecting them with Israel, encouraging activity in the Jewish community, and eventually making aliyah.
“We have been poring over reports and studies done by the top sociological researchers in the American Jewish community, and we've made some interesting observations,” said Gur. “The most successful aliyah program in history is Masa, which takes college kids and young adults and sends them to Israel for a semester of study, work and touring. Seventeen percent of Masa participants, who generally did not have a strong Jewish education, end up making aliyah.”
What's more, the source says, 92% of non-Orthodox Jewish communal leaders in the U.S. under 40 years of age have been on Masa or other fourth month-plus programs in Israel. Nefesh B'nefesh, he says, does a fine job of helping with the practical side of Aliyah - “we're their biggest funders,” says Gur – and there are programs of the Agency for people who make aliyah, once they arrive in Israel. But the Agency, he says, has its eyes on a bigger prize.
“We've seen studies that show a clear connection between participation in Birthright and increased participation in Jewish community activities,” Gur says. “It's clear that the first step to get them to make aliyah is to interface with Israel, and in order to get them to do that, you have to connect them to the Jewish community. Those who join Birthright enter a spiral that gets them into a relationship with Israel, one that will hopefully get them to make aliyah – or at least take the first step, by becoming more involved in their local Jewish communities.”
And that relationship is what western Jews are looking for. “If you fix the bureaucracy you get maybe a few hundred more olim, but if you help provide a vision – and a practical way to connect to that vision – you have a greater chance of succeeding with a far larger number of people.”
The studies don't lie, Gur believes– and hopefully, he says, the Agency's gamble will pay off.