Israel to Ratchet Up Spending on Outreach Programs to Jews Abroad

Jewish Agency hails 'historic moment' as 120 global Jewish leaders and Israeli officials brainstorm ideas to tighten ties.

Government spending on outreach programs to Jews abroad could increase by hundreds of millions of shekels over the next few years, a senior Jewish Agency official told Haaretz on Wednesday.

The programs that could benefit, which include bringing Jews from abroad to Israel and outreach efforts on college campuses across America, will be part of a new campaign to strengthen Jewish identity abroad and diaspora ties to the Jewish state, 

“The government is today spending NIS 450 million shekels a year on the Jewish future and on young Jews,” said the director general of the Jewish Agency, Alan Hoffmann. “It is conceivable that we could see the government of Israel doubling that within the next five to seven years. This is big news, especially since we will be doing it collaboratively with Jewish communities abroad.”

About 120 Jewish leaders and thinkers, including representatives from several Israeli ministries, convened in Jerusalem Wednesday morning to officially launch the project, which is being spearheaded by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency.

Over the past year, a joint task force made up of representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency has drafted proposals for engaging Diaspora Jews more aggressively and strengthening their connections to Israel. (Representatives of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs joined the task force some months ago.)

The participants in the two-day brainstorming summit have been asked to provide feedback on these proposals and suggest some of their own.

“In the last two years, Jewish identity in Jewish communities throughout the world has weakened,” the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office, Harel Locker, said in his opening remarks. “This shift has opened a gap between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel, especially among the young generation. This weakening of the bond with Israel is great source of concern for our government."

Locker said another factor pushing young Jews abroad away from Israel is growing anti-Israel rhetoric on college campuses. “The very legitimacy of the State of Israel is under attack, and we see our purpose here as fighting these two trends,” he said.

The notion behind the two-day summit, Locker added, “is not to do more of the same but to create a laboratory for new ideas.”

Hoffmann told Haaretz that among the proposals being considered is the creation of programs that target adults in their 30s and 40s, who have passed the age cutoff for Taglit-Birthright Israel's free trips to Israel and may not have any connection to Israel today. “These are people who need specially designed programs,” he said.

Hoffmann said he expected several pilot programs to be launched within the next year, based on the input from this week’s gathering.

The Director General of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Dvir Kahana, said in an address at the summit that the idea was to create a strategic plan for the next 25 years. “It is no longer just a question of what the Diaspora can do for Israel, but – just as important – what we in Israel can do for the Diaspora.”

Summit participants included Israeli officials, representatives from Jewish communities, organizations and foundations abroad and academics and entrepreneurs.

Most of the NIS 450 million the government spends annually on strengthening ties with Jewish communities abroad goes to Birthright, which brings Jewish young adults to Israel on free, 10-day trips, and Masa, which operates dozens of gap year, college and postgraduate programs in Israel. The government and the Jewish Agency share the costs of these programs with Jewish philanthropists and federations abroad. A similar cost-sharing model is expected to be applied to programs that come out of the new campaign.

Summit participants are scheduled to meet with Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky on Wednesday and Thursday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the final session of the summit.

Mark Israel
Jewish Agency director-general Alan Hoffman.
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