Former minister Natan Sharansky was sworn in as the new chairman of the Jewish Agency Thursday afternoon in Jerusalem.
During a 15-minute acceptance speech delivered in English, Sharansky recounted his personal travails as a prisoner of Zion and the Jewish community's efforts to free Soviet Jewry.
"We live in a world of post-identity, as they used to call it, where for many people in the free world any connection to their religion, to their people, to their roots, their history seem is like something that goes against the principles of freedom," Sharansky said.
In such a climate, he continued, Jews are especially threatened because of high assimilation rates in the Diaspora and a weakening connection to Jews in Israel.
"Because of that one of the great principles and aims of this organization was and will be aliyah to Israel. But how do we bring immigrants from the United States, France or from England, if you are not strengthening their identity with their own people? And so this becomes our biggest challenge."
"One of the biggest challenges is the weakening of [Jewish] identify and assimilation all over the world," Sharansky told Haaretz following his election. "In Israel we are lucky that we don?t have assimilation, but we have a weakening of the connection of the Jewish people with their roots, with their history, with being part of the Jewish community."
Sharansky's appointment was confirmed following a compromise between American donors and the Israeli government.
Over the government's objections, the Americans pushed a reform through the agency's Board of Governors on Tuesday that separates the agency from the World Zionist Organization.
Sharansky will not serve as WZO chairman, as his predecessors have always done, following a demand by American donors that the two posts be separated. Former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior and businesswoman Galia Albin have been mentioned as possible candidates for the post.
After immigrating to Israel in 1986 following nine years in Soviet prisons, the 61-year-old Sharansky founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party and served as trade and industry minister during Netanyahu's first stint as prime minister.
Sharansky was also interior minister in Ehud Barak's government and deputy prime minister and housing minister under Ariel Sharon.
"One of our main aims of course is [promoting] aliyah, but today when more than 90 percent of the world's Jews live either in Israel, America, France or [other safe] countries like this, you cannot encourage people to make aliyah if they don't have a strong [Jewish] identity," Sharansky said.
"When I hear that the reason why only 15 percent of American Jewish kids receive a Jewish education is because it's too expensive, that's only a very small part of the truth. It's expensive but many also believe it's against American ideals to give children a Jewish education. That's a big problem."
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