Jewish Agency Cedes Ground on Aliyah

By Anthony Weiss

Published September 04, 2008, issue of September 12, 2008.
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The Jewish Agency for Israel has agreed to cede its historic role as the face of aliyah in North America to a private organization.

According to an agreement signed August 22 and hammered out after months of touchy negotiations and mediation, the Jewish Agency, a massive, quasi-governmental organization, will give up much of its public role in aliyah activities in North America. Nefesh B’Nefesh, an upstart organization that recently has come to dominate aliyah from English-speaking countries, will take over most of the promotion and outreach connected with aliyah, while the Jewish Agency will handle the legal paperwork.

Representatives of both organizations expressed hope that the agreement would mark a new era in their often turbulent relationship.

“The good news is, we were able to reach a framework for a strategic partnership in North America where both organizations work together,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York and one of the main movers behind the agreement. “I think it’s a win-win for both.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh has won supporters in Israel and in the philanthropic world since its founding in 2002, for its success in boosting aliyah from North America at relatively little cost and in smoothing the immigration and resettlement process. It handled nearly 90% of the more than 2,200 immigrants who came to Israel from North America in 2007. Its relationship with the Jewish Agency, however, has been fraught with tensions. Officials from the Jewish Agency have alternately praised Nefesh B’Nefesh and tried to control or quash it, with little success.

Relations had deteriorated to the point where the Jewish Agency stopped reimbursing Nefesh B’Nefesh for airplane flights that new immigrants took to Israel — something for which the Jewish Agency has typically paid. Shortly after the recent agreement was signed, the Jewish Agency transferred to Nefesh B’Nefesh the nearly $5 million in reimbursement, according to sources close to the negotiations.

A little more than a year ago, the Israeli government granted permanent funding to Nefesh B’Nefesh and to AMI — a similar group in France — thus ending the Jewish Agency’s government monopoly on aliyah.

Orthodox rabbi Joshua Fass and Florida businessman Tony Gelbart co-founded Nefesh B’Nefesh to boost aliyah from North America. The organization’s combination of online sophistication and press savvy, along with its focus on easing the transition process for new immigrants, has won an ever-increasing share of the fairly steady flow of emigrants from North America.

Under the new agreement, most applicants will deal directly with Nefesh B’Nefesh while the Jewish Agency processes government forms. A Jewish Agency official said that the agency will turn over its promotional budget to Nefesh B’Nefesh, which will also continue to receive Israeli government funds.

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