The day before Natan Sharansky was appointed to a second term as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel in 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the former Soviet political prisoner and Likud party government minister a “symbol of Jewish unity and a symbol of the triumph of the Jewish people over adversity.”
You can’t do better as a politician than to be considered a symbol. To Diaspora Jews who remember him as a Soviet prisoner after being denied a visa to Israel, Sharansky the refusenik is still a celebrity. Having a politician-symbol-celebrity as the head of a multimillion-dollar, quasi-governmental organization that connects Israel to Diaspora donors is quite an accomplishment. And Sharansky brought his star power and prestige to the Jewish Agency, a body with whom most Jews in years past dealt directly only in the realm of making aliyah.
With Sharansky’s recent announcement that he plans to step down when his term ends next June, it is important to begin discussing what the Jewish Agency will be in the post-Sharansky era. Since Sharansky took the job in 2009, Diaspora fundraising for Israel — one of the Jewish Agency’s primary goals — has declined. So has the agency’s traditional role of encouraging and processing aliyah, despite the rise in aliyah in recent years. In North America, it has largely deferred to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the nonprofit whose chartered flights of olim earn headlines every summer.
As these aspects of the agency’s work have declined, Sharansky has raised Jewish identity and education in the Diaspora as a primary responsibility. The Israeli government has also decided that identity of Diaspora Jews is a priority. The result of such focus is the regular arrival of shlichim, those young, enthusiastic Israelis who come to be the face of Israel in our community for a year or two — through a program operated by the Jewish Agency. What makes that program so valuable is that it makes strengthening Diaspora identity a grassroots partnership between the agency and local communities instead of a centrally directed initiative from the corridors of power in Jerusalem. But not all of the Israeli government’s outreach and engagement activities in the Diaspora are being coordinated through the Jewish Agency. And that is the focus of much discussion and deliberation.
With so much in flux, this is a chance for the Jewish Agency to continue to redefine itself in the post-aliyah era. In so doing, the agency must find relevance both in Israel and with its Diaspora partners. Should Netanyahu propose another high-profile candidate? Or will a solid, hard-working professional do the job best? Does the job need a well-connected international personality? Or is it a teacher, leader and steady-handed visionary who should lead the effort? These are questions that the Jewish Agency and its supporters — and the prime minister himself — will be considering as they select Sharansky’s successor.