Massive numbers of Olim from the former Soviet Union were still arriving in Israel in the late 1990’s. The hoped for financial support from US Jewish federations and the Keren Hayesod country campaigns was diminishing. The meetings of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors had dealt in depth with these matters through interminable meetings of both program and budget committees. The plenary was it’s usual parliamentary style debate, punctuated by interruptions, ideological statements, and an invigorating resolutions session using words often as weapons and translations as tactics.
After the meeting adjourned a small group gathered for dinner. Included around the table was the acting chairman of the JAFI executive, the chair of the United Israel Appeal, the CEO of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) and me, the Executive vice Chairman of the United Israel Appeal. We were rehashing the meetings and discussing the future of JAFI when, not if, mass Aliyah came to an end and of course funding.
The acting chair of the Executive turned to us shortly before we ended the dinner with the following statement; “I love you all, you come here earnestly several times a year, you can quote the budget by line item better than me. However, you must know that when you leave this is our Agency- we work 8 days a week 26 hours a day (exaggerating for emphasis) often without regard for the work of the BOG.” It was an honest statement delivered with love, honor, admiration and honesty.
JAFI is now faced with the question of who should the board- most of whose members are Jews from outside Israel with a majority from the United States counting those from the UIA/JFNA Federations and Zionist organizations- hire for this most important position.
JAFI is now an enterprise with its historic roles diminished, its current foci no longer being exclusive to it and its budget under pressure as usual. What are our American Jewish priorities that should be reflected in the person selected as Chair of the Executive?
The first requirement is that he or she know, respect, and appreciate what the American Jewish community has to offer to JAFI and to Israel. The successful candidate should have direct experience working with our community. He or she should have the respect of the Israeli government on these matters regardless of party. In addition to energy, administrative skill, and a diplomatic demeanor, the next chair of the executive should be, if possible, admired and respected by the Israeli population.
To my mind, the only viable candidate is MK Nachman Shai. He was the voice of public calm when Israel was under attack. He understands and respects the needs and desires of American Jews to work through JAFI to improve life for Jews and for Israel. He is skilled at the intrigues of both Israeli politics and American Jewish organizational life. Although not from the Prime Ministers party I believe that he can have the PM’s trust as an honest interlocutor between the two major Jewish communities through the Jewish agency. And I believe that he can assemble a staff that will be responsive, respectful, and more engaging of the lay leadership of the Board of Governors on all levels. He will never dismiss the dedication and hard work of the lay leadership which will be an ever more important ingredient if the Jewish Agency is to continue its important service to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.