Unfinished Business at the Jewish Agency

By Jerome Epstein

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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Sallai Meridor’s surprise announcement on May 10 that he would relinquish his chairmanship of the Jewish Agency for Israel and of the World Zionist Organization caught many, including me, off guard. I can only hope that whoever is chosen to replace him later this month is committed to seeing through to completion the important work that the Jewish Agency began under his leadership.

Being active in the Jewish Agency, I have sometimes been frustrated by the goals that we have not met. The transition to new leadership at the Jewish Agency, however, offers another opportunity to address many unfinished challenges that will directly impact the spiritual and physical health of Jews in Israel and around the world.

When Meridor came to office six years ago, more than 20,000 Falash Mura were stranded in the Ethiopian cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar. They wanted to make aliya, to emigrate as Jews to Israel. They wanted to be reunited with family already settled in Israel. Rabbis attested to their legitimacy as Jews. Their pain was palpable because the fulfillment of their dream was stymied. Meridor galvanized Jewish Agency leaders and others to accept responsibility for funding the migration and initial absorption of the remaining Ethiopians with legitimate claims.

But the task is unfinished, and it will remain so until the resources and mechanisms are developed to help Israel integrate this impoverished and undereducated population into full citizenship in a new homeland. The Jewish Agency and its new leadership must accept this critical challenge of completing the aliya and the full integration of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society. Simply put, there is no one else to do it.

Beyond the current plight of the Falash Mura, the Jewish Agency must deal with the still incomplete integration of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Among those who made aliya after the fall of communism are a substantial number of non-Jews. Many moved to Israel in order to build a new life with their Jewish families. Although not Jewish, most have not rejected Judaism — they simply never chose to convert.

For some, Judaism was irrelevant in the former Soviet Union. Others may have perceived Judaism as a potential source of danger in a hostile society. But now — living in a land of Jewish people, Jewish religion and Jewish culture — Judaism has become for them a viable choice. The Jewish Agency must spare no effort to help these immigrants become full Jewish citizens of Israel.

We in America know that there are many acceptable ways to convert to Judaism. We also recognize the importance of making the acts of learning about and choosing Judaism reasonably accessible. It was the commitment of the Jewish Agency under Meridor’s prodding that a small committee representing all three major streams of Judaism, among others, undertook responsibility for promoting and creating new and more effective vehicles to introduce non-Jewish Israelis to Jewish life and thereby remove the obstacles to appropriate conversions.

Today, there are more than 8,000 students studying Judaism in government-sponsored conversion institutes. Thankfully, the Jewish Agency, Israeli government and Education Ministry are cooperating to develop programs to encourage conversions, but the growing number of students is only one step in the process. New conversion courts have been established by the government in the hope that flexibility within the framework of rabbinic law will be utilized to welcome newly identified Jews into Israeli society. Their success is still not ensured.

In order to ensure a Jewish future for Israel, the Jewish Agency’s task must now be to create the vehicles to inspire greater numbers to enroll in the conversion institutes. Without active promotion, and without newly created programs that will make it appealing and inviting to enroll in conversion institutes, we never will meet our objective.

The Jewish Agency’s unfinished business is not only at home, though. During the last four years of Palestinian terrorism, the active engagement of Diaspora Jews with Israel has withered. New strategies are urgently required to reintroduce worldwide Jewry with the Jewish state.

To be fair, the Jewish Agency has proven itself up to the challenge. It has created new ventures, in particular MASA, a new program that eventually will generate $50 million per year to motivate, recruit and subsidize young adults so that they can spend a year studying in Israel. But here, too, the work is not done.

The Jewish Agency must inspire federations and donors to contribute to the MASA initiative in order to create a sustainable funding base. And then it must inspire the creation of opportunities that will attract the masses of Diaspora Jews who have not yet developed a relationship with Israel and for whom the existing programs offer no attraction.

The Jewish Agency is by no means a perfect organization. But if it did not exist, we would have to invent it. Under Meridor’s leadership, the Jewish Agency has become that representative arm of Israel and world Jewry that is best able to connect the broad spectrum of the world Jewry with Israel.

But to build on its successes, the Jewish Agency must, as it moves toward new leadership, continue to address its unfinished business. Ethiopian immigrants, those seeking non-Orthodox paths to conversion and the Diaspora itself deserve no less.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America.

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