sharansky - Hagai Offen - June 17 2011
Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky at a conference last year. He says the Agency’s new focus will bring in more immigrants. Photo by Hagai Offen
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Despite charges to the contrary, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky says reforms to the body are designed to bring "hundreds of thousands" of new immigrants from Western countries to Israel, mainly by supporting programs bringing young Jews to the country on short- and long-term programs.

"We want not a few thousand, we want tens and hundreds of thousands of people who will start thinking of aliyah as a real serious alternative," Sharansky told Anglo File last week in his Jerusalem office. "The right way to do this is to strengthen people's [Israel] experiences, to give them more opportunities [to visit the country], more information to deepen their feeling of belonging."

Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik who immigrated to Israel in 1986, took over the Agency in 2009 and began instituting a comprehensive restructuring process, including dismantling its immigration department and eliminating key positions.

Agency officials say the overhaul will focus the institution on projects to foster Jewish identity and strengthen educational programs. However, many immigration professionals worry the agency abandoned its traditional goal of promoting and facilitating immigration to Israel. Several other Zionist groups have therefore recently announced projects to "pick up the slack" and engage in immigration promotion themselves.

But Sharansky maintains the reforms will substantially increase the number of people interested in moving to Israel - in the long run. The new Agency, he said, will focus on building what he calls a "spiral" - strengthening programs that connect Diaspora Jews with Israel and Jewish topics and making sure the various programs, which aim at different age and interest groups, work hand in hand, funneling "alumni" into follow-up programs.

The Agency is specifically focusing on expanding its coordination with Taglit-Birthright Israel, which offers Jewish students a free 10-day educational trip to Israel, and Masa, an umbrella organization for long-term Israel programs for young Diaspora Jews.

"One of our departments [concentrates on] building this spiral," Sharansky said. "We're using it for those coming [to Israel] for a few months as interns, and then coming for up to one year of studies. In the meantime, there will be different types of seminars and activities and we will connect even our summer camp programs with all of this. As a result some of the [participants] will make aliyah and some will be become stronger members of their communities, and so on. That is a way to bring not another few thousand people, but hundreds of thousands of people, to serious consideration about making aliyah."

Sharansky said he welcomed any initiative by private organizations to step up their efforts to promote immigration in a conventional way, such as by organizing aliyah fairs or sending emissaries to Jewish communities around the world, though he doesn't believe their methods will attract significant numbers of immigrants.

"If you really want this process to involve not just a few thousand people but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, we'll have to work very hard to strengthen the connections of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people with the Land of Israel," he said. "And there is no other way to do it but to use tools like Birthright and Masa and those which we will add to this."

Several groups recently reported they were planning their own projects to boost immigration. The Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland announced last month the launch of its first campaign to actively encourage British Jews to immigrate to Israel, together with the World Zionist Organization. The WZO plans similar such projects in various other countries as well.

Nefesh B'Nefesh, a nonprofit assisting newcomers from North America and the U.K., is currently preparing to expand and start working in other English-speaking countries.

Sharansky praised NBN but expressed skepticism whether the group would be able to dramatically increase the number of immigrants with its current strategy.

NBN's pitch sounds more "authentic" to Diaspora Jews, Sharansky said, referring to the fact that the group is staffed almost exclusively by Anglo immigrants to Israel. "When they are speaking to Jewish communities about the importance of aliyah, that's much more difficult to reject or dismiss than when people from Israel are coming and saying you have to make aliyah."

Sharansky said that while he support's NBN's activities, he does not see them spurring a spike in immigration from North America.

"We're speaking about another 200 or 300 people [more every year], so hopefully there will be finally 4,000 Jews [arriving here per year]. It's good, a few years ago it was 3,000 and now it's 4,000. But when we have tens of thousands of Jews disappearing every year [because of assimilation] - and that's the most modest estimation, the other estimation is almost 500 disappearing every day - we ask ourselves how to reach hundreds of thousands with the idea of aliyah. There is no way that NBN by themselves, even with our help and the government's help ... will increase the pool of people who are thinking seriously about aliyah, from few thousand to a few hundred thousand."

NBN officials declined to comment.