Four Top Leaders Of Jewish Agency Seeking To Depart

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
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Four of the top professionals at the Jewish Agency for Israel recently have announced their plans to leave the agency amid talk of growing tensions between the top professionals and the political leadership of the massive, quasi-governmental Israeli social-service agency.

Leading the list of departures is the agency’s top professional, Director General Giora Romm, who announced July 29 that he will be leaving in October. A few days later, one of Romm’s top lieutenants, Irit Keynan, director for strategic planning, said she would be taking a new job outside the agency.

Others who have announced their resignations in the past four months include the agency’s top American fund-raising official, David Sarnat, and another one of Romm’s lieutenants, Moshe Wolf, the chief information officer.

“It’s a terrible loss for the Jewish Agency to find [these] superb professionals leaving almost at the same time,” said Richard Wexler, who is chairman of the North American Council of the Jewish Agency. “The professionals in our business are not fungible.”

The Jewish Agency is designated in Israeli law as the main liaison between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state. With a $400 million annual budget, most of it provided by federated Jewish charities around the world, it oversees immigration to Israel and plays a major role in regional development and in worldwide Jewish education.

The departures come just as the agency prepares to embark on a new effort to assist Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. In June, the agency’s board of governors approved a request from Sharon to build a series of new settlements in the Negev and Galilee, to which Gaza settlers can be relocated.

Romm was expected to lead that project, and it is unclear how that work will be affected by his departure. The project is acutely timesensitive, given Sharon’s plan to evacuate Gaza by December 2005. Numerous insiders said the plan played no role in Romm’s decision to leave.

Observers offered conflicting explanations for the unusual string of resignations, but most agreed that the last year has seen growing discord between the agency’s professional leadership, headed by Romm, and its political leaders, who are drawn from the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency’s sister organization.

The Jewish Agency’s board is divided evenly between representatives of the WZO, which founded the agency in 1922 as its operating arm, and the Diaspora philanthropies that pay its bills. However, the WZO plays a decisive role in the agency’s day-to-day management, because its top officers double as the top officers of the agency, including chairman Sallai Meridor.

Several agency insiders said Romm, who took over the agency three years ago after a career in the air force had been struggling to adapt to the agency’s nonprofit bureaucratic culture after a lifetime of giving orders. But another group of insiders said the departure of Romm and his aides was due in large part to growing unhappiness with Meridor’s intrusive management style.

“Most of the important issues will never go through without the intervention of Sallai,” said Dudu Sommer, a member of the WZO executive committee who serves on the Jewish Agency board of governors. “He is a very centralized manager. He goes into very small details with every project, and that can make it difficult for employees.”

The Jewish Agency’s spokesman, Yarden Vatikay, strenuously denied that the resignations were connected to one another in any way. To explain the departures, Vatikay pointed to lucrative new jobs that Keynan and Wolf had landed, and the expiring contracts of Romm and Sarnat.

“The Jewish Agency is a dynamic organization,” Vatikay said. “There are a lot of people involved in the activities we do, and the nature of these organizations is that there are always people who come and go.”

Keynan and Wolf did not return calls seeking comment. Romm declined to discuss the reasons for his departure, but he said he was planning to take a year off to study Bible and history at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Sarnat said that after 35 years in Jewish communal organizations, he was looking forward to considering his career options anew.

The agency has been notoriously difficult to govern and has faced growing challenges to raising money from the North American Jewish federations, which will provide it with almost $200 million this year.

Sarnat was responsible for maintaining federation funding and developing new sources. Many sources close to the agency said he had had little success in this task, and was using up too many resources along the way. Sarnat decided four months ago that he would not renew his contract when it expires this coming January.

The agency is best known for facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel. As the number of Jewish migrants has declined in recent years, however, there has been a growing trend among federations to cut their allocations to the agency.

To counter this trend, the agency underwent a comprehensive restructuring process in 1998, just before Meridor became chairman. A major goal of the restructuring was to strengthen the office of the director general, in order to make the agency less subject to Israeli political moods. The desired stability has been slow in coming, however. Romm’s successor will be the fourth director general since Meridor came to the agency in 1999.

“For the director general, it’s a very challenging structure,” Romm said. “I gave my best over three years, and now I need a year or two to recharge my batteries.”

Among the leading candidates for Romm’s successor is Arieh Abir, who currently heads up Jewish Agency efforts in South America.

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