With change there is always opportunity, said Debs Weinberg of Baltimore at a morning session run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. And Weinberg’s message was one that will become increasingly more relevant as JAFI, working with the government of Israel and nonprofits from across the world, works to better engage young (between the ages of 13 and 35) Jews with Israel and to enhance their Jewish identities.
Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development, told a group of about 15 people in an exclusive briefing on Sunday morning that over the course of the JAFI conference, which is currently taking place in Israel, a group of more than 100 thought leaders met to more formalize plans for a collaborative initiative that will bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and invest in Israel education on campuses outside of the Jewish state.
Galperin explained that this program was nearly a decade in the making, as it was current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who signed the legislation in the ‘90s that launched invested by the government of Israel in Birthright.
“This was the first time in history that Israeli tax payers’ money was put into a pot that funded free trips for American kids, which many thought here [in Israel] was a criminal thing to do; it was supposed to the other way around,” said Galperin.
Since then, a number of other development occurred, like the formation of MASA Israel, which was co-founded and is jointly managed by the government and the Jewish Agency.
“At this point, about $120 million a year are allocated by the government of Israel for various prorams that have to with the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish communities [outside of Israel,” said Galperin.
When Natan Sharansky left his seat in the Knesset to become head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, he started exploring what might be next – after or in conjunction with Birthright and MASA.
About one year ago, the PM empowered a team to explore that question in conjunction with leaders in the Diaspora. A late April 2013 meeting help by the PM with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett solidified that there would need to be something done.
“The prime minister said this is important for the Jewish people – that it is in the strategic interest of the Jewish people,” noted Galperin.
Several meetings, focus groups and a white paper later, led to the Nov. 6 to 7 meetings of world thought leaders in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’Uma and the revelation that the government will invest likely double what it is investing now to ramp up programming for young Diaspora Jews. That money – though an exact amount could not be named – would be expected to be matched by overseas nonprofit organizations/philanthropists and by participants’ fees.
“I was personally very anxious about what would happen and how this would work,” said Galperin. “This is a very different planning model. For the government of Israel, it is revolutionary. The government has never done this before – engaged in a collaborative planning process with Diaspora and on-governmental organizations.”
What can Galperin say on the record now?
“This effort is moving ahead,” he said, noting that between now and April when the government would have to present a resolution and ensure funding for the initiative is allocated in the fiscal budget, “exactly what we are doing, in what sequence, how it is going to be evaluated and all that, has to be worked out.”
The outcome could have a fundamental impact on the destiny of the Jewish people – not so much in terms of the types of programming but in terms of how the programming is being worked out — this new method of Jewish collaboration.
Galperin said there will likely be a series of pilot projects in the first year, but details could not be available at this time. What he could say was that while initial talks were focused on growing Diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel, and while that is still a part of it, “now we are talking about Jewish identity.”
Read what’s happening with the group traveling from Baltimore>>