JERUSALEM — Ze’ev Bielski, mayor of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, can be seen in the mornings opening car doors for school children, ushering them toward their classrooms with a smile.
Now Bielski, 58, may be heading to one of the most powerful offices in the Jewish world: chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. With an annual budget of $400 million, the agency facilitates immigration to Israel, sponsors numerous development and social service programs in the country and runs Zionist education programs worldwide.
Prime Minister Sharon announced Monday that Bielski was his choice to succeed Sallai Meridor, who announced last week that he would step down after six years at the helm of the agency. Sharon’s backing, and a subsequent affirmation the same day by the Jewish Agency’s Advice and Consent Committee, which represents Diaspora donors, virtually assures Bielski of the job.
The affable Bielski, who once played basketball in Israel’s national league, is known as a consummate politician and fundraiser. Residents of Ra’anana’s neat, flower-lined streets credit Bielski for the high quality of life in the city and for running one of the few municipalities in Israel with a balanced budget. Known for his accessibility, he has an e-mail address to take comments from the public, with responses promised within 24 hours.
Bielski also knows his way around the Diaspora: A pioneer of Jewish Agency-sponsored partnerships between Israeli and Diaspora communities, in recent years he teamed affluent Ra’anana with the Jewish Federation of MetroWest in the affluent suburbs of northern New Jersey. The relationship has proved to be hugely beneficial to his town, and is expected to pay dividends when he takes over the Jewish Agency.
“That nomination is about as good a thing that can happen to the Jewish people as anything in the last number of years,” said Stephen Greenberg, a former vice president of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest’s executive committee.
Greenberg met Bielski more than 20 years ago at a conference that brought Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leaders together to map a common agenda. Bielski has made a point of staying in touch with his Diaspora friends, Greenberg said. He cited Bielski’s “spectacular personality that endears him to people” and his understanding of the Diaspora Jewish mind-set. Greenberg also pointed to Bielski’s sense of innovation: A formula he helped create to involve Ra’anana residents in the integration of new Russian immigrants became a model program in Israel.
Diaspora backing will be critical for the Jewish Agency’s next chairman: The agency continues to struggle to secure funding from North America’s system of Jewish philanthropic federations, its primary financial backer. He must also put into effect a new strategic plan that emphasizes strengthening Diaspora Jews’ Zionist identity.
“This position has become more and more important as the Jewish Agency has become more and more challenged,” said Richard Wexler, head of the Jewish Agency’s North American Council. “Core parts of the Jewish Agency’s mission, such as rescue of Jews in endangered Diaspora communities, are being challenged in a post-rescue era.” Wexler added: “We need someone in this position who can inspire greater American Jewish support. That will be Ze’ev Bielski’s challenge.”
Bielski is expected to be approved by the Zionist General Council, which meets in Jerusalem June 21, and by the agency’s assembly, which meets June 26.