Jewish Agency Set to Vote Next Week to Radically Restructure Organization

After months of debates and vague statements about the Jewish Agency's future, the 80-year-old organization's leaders will vote this Monday on implementing its new strategic plan, which many officials expect to constitute a wide-ranging overhaul, including the dismantling of its aliyah department.

"I would predict that a year from now the Jewish Agency as we know it today, with its three departments and its current organizational structure, will look very, very different," JA director-general Alan Hoffmann told Anglo File ahead of this week's board of governors meeting in Jerusalem. The agency consists of three departments; education, aliyah and Israel. Agency officials said the organization's restructuring, which they expect to pass unanimously, will make this arrangement anachronistic.

hoffman - Jewish Agency - October 22 2010
Jewish Agency

The 2010 aliyah budget is the highest at $100.6 million, followed by the education department's $94.3 million.

The much-discussed but as of yet unclearly defined new plan sees the agency focusing on fostering Jewish identity, education and "peoplehood." Hoffman said the JA would try to cut overhead to "divert resources into programming" and thus retain "as many as possible" of the agencies employees. Yona Bezaleli, the head of the JA's workers union, told Anglo File yesterday that there were rumors of imminent job cuts, but that JA chairman Natan Sharansky allayed his concerns on the matter during a recent lengthy conversation. The number of Agency employees has shrunk from some 2,600 tenured employees in 1991 to about 1,500 tenured and non-tenured workers in 2010.

People familiar with agency politics told Anglo File they expect it to further relinquish its role as the leading body dealing with immigration by extending partnerships like the one with independent Anglo immigration assistance group Nefesh B'Nefesh. In 2008, the JA and NBN signed a collaborative venture giving NBN primary operational responsibility for immigration from North America, while the agency retained its right to determine potential immigrants' eligibility.

A few months ago, NBN started setting its sights on taking over the agency's aliyah operations in Great Britain, where it now solely offers additional grants and assistance with bureaucratic hurdles to immigrants. Regarding the possibility of the Jewish Agency relinquishing its U.K. operations to NBN, Hoffmann told Anglo File: "This is something that will have to be discussed in the future, not least with the Jewish community in Britain. Clearly, I see us doing the work that's going to create the business for organizations like NBN."

In June, the JA's board of governors approved a basic outline of the new strategic plan, which puts Jewish identity at the organization's center while sidelining its traditional role as main promoter and facilitator of immigration to Israel. Immigration officials have in the past expressed dissatisfaction about what they said was the agency's abandonment of aliyah. But Sharansky and his staff repeatedly asserted that immigration to Israel remains crucial to the organization, but that the overhaul was necessary since immigration has become a matter of choice and will only increase if Jews around the world strongly identify with their Jewishness.

The revamped Jewish Agency "will be governed by two major thrusts": the creation of new programs and the strengthening of existing Israel programs for Diaspora Jews, and the promotion of programs connecting young Israelis with Jewish communities overseas, according to the South African-born Hoffmann.

"All of our work in Israel and around the world is ultimately going to feed into the spiral of constantly increasing the number of young people who come to Israel, first on short trips and then on longer trips," Hoffmann said. "And some of those people will decide to remain in Israel while others will go back to their communities, strengthened in their Zionism and their connection to Israel."

The agency will also start sending more young Israeli-born Jews to participate on social activism programs together with their peers from the Diaspora. "The Jewish Agency for the first time is going to take seriously the connection of young Israelis to the Jewish people," Hoffmann said, adding that his organization realized that "if they don't invest in connecting young Israelis to the Jewish people [in the Diaspora] we could end up with two nations growing side by side."

These initiatives integrate what today are separate departments in the JA, Hoffmann concluded, "and therefore it is absolutely crystal clear that the structure of the Jewish Agency going forward has to reflect this strategic direction."