Amira Ahronoviz
Amira Ahronoviz
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Defying expectations in a pandemic

Operating in times of economic, diplomatic, and existential crises is what we at the Jewish Agency have always done. Then the coronavirus crisis combined all three
Masa Israel fellows deliver flowers to Holocaust survivors, (Courtesy via JTA)
Masa Israel fellows deliver flowers to Holocaust survivors, (Courtesy via JTA)

While COVID-19 has brought sweeping and often devastating changes to daily life, from the vantage point of a nonprofit leader, it is also a period which proves that the most gratifying accomplishments can stem from the toughest challenges.

Just take a look at aliyah. Despite global mobility reaching its nadir in 2020, more than 21,000 Jews decided to make Israel their home last year. They jumped through various hurdles and once here, many had to quarantine for at least 10 days and experience repeated lockdowns. These are hardly ideal circumstances for someone wishing to start building a life in a new country, but immigrants still came to Israel, and in record numbers. Not only did they arrive here enthusiastically, but many arrived with a clear purpose: to move their dynamic careers to Israel and, in the process, make indelible contributions in the country’s economy and society.

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Shlichut (Israeli emissary) program has also played a critical role during the pandemic. Despite the challenges inherent in global travel today, we still sent out hundreds of our shlichim to disparate corners of the world to help Jews maintain a connection to their heritage and to Israel. Traditionally, these emissaries relied only on dynamic face-to-face encounters, which became nearly impossible once the virus hit. However, our shlichim have excelled in leveraging online platforms to offer creative and innovative virtual programming that brings Israel into the living rooms of thousands of Jews worldwide. This is in addition to working with their communities in small, socially distanced group settings and capsules. These dedicated professionals have also hit the ground running and became an integral part of their community efforts running emergency response actions such as mobilizing volunteers, staffing emergency call centers and distributing food packages.

Further, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to focus on what people truly want from our organization, which spans the globe representing 66 countries. The pandemic taught us that the Jewish people need a global address to turn to in times of need. As the crisis unfolded, our phones began to ring with pleas for help. First, it was from Rome, then Cape Town, Paris, and Buenos Aires, and so on around the world. The Jewish people were in an unprecedented crisis, and while I’m so glad we were able to lend a critical hand, the lesson is that we truly are one people and responsible for one another. These are not just slogans, but words we have proudly lived by this past year.

We feared that our Masa Israel Journey program, too, would be left in shambles in the wake of COVID-19, only to see the opposite outcome materialize. Current demand for immersive experiences in Israel is higher than we ever expected. Once North American young adults learned that their college experience or job would be operating remotely for the foreseeable future, they considered spending time in Israel instead. Masa was the answer for many of these individuals, which allowed them to continue their studies or career while experiencing Israel like a local. Now, there are more than 7,500 young adults enrolled in Masa programs, with a waiting list for many more. And while Israel’s skies are currently closed, we are working hard to meet the high demand of participants interested in enrolling.

Once the first lockdown hit Israel, The Jewish Agency went into overdrive in the realm of helping the country’s most vulnerable populations whom we serve. We provided them with emotional and financial support, including getting tablets to children who suddenly had to learn online and assisting new immigrants in absorption centers with rent stipends and the search for suitable employment opportunities. We also provided the 7,500 senior citizens in our 57 Amigour senior homes, mostly Holocaust survivors, with personal protective equipment, conducted more than 60,000 Covid tests, and offered them food security assistance. Operating on the ground and working so closely with these individuals allowed us to quickly become a steadfast presence in the lives of families who have already counted on us for many years.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that even the most robust institutions are vulnerable. We have learned to never rest on the laurels of our organization’s 90-year history. In order to remain viable, we must navigate a shifting and unpredictable environment. COVID-19 tested our resilience, yes, but it also demonstrated why we are essential. Operating in times of economic, diplomatic and existential crises is what we do, and the pandemic combined all three. Compelled to fire on all cylinders, our staff rose to meet this myriad of challenges.

This difficult year also taught us that in order for the vulnerable to stay above water in these trying times, they must rely on large, connected and global organizations like The Jewish Agency to lead the way and provide hope, reassurance and resources.

I’m proud of our partners, donors, and dedicated employees who took this lesson to heart and proved that we’re strongest when we come together. At the same time, I’m truly in awe of the entire Jewish people — who’ve demonstrated that in the face of a deadly pandemic, widespread economic hardship, and vast uncertainty, their commitment to Israel never wavered.

About the Author
Amira Ahronoviz is the CEO and Director General of The Jewish Agency for Israel.
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