This past week, we were invited as guests to Jerusalem for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (the Agency). The Jewish Agency is a unique organization that represents the interests of a wide variety of Jewish organizations across Israel, North America, and around the world. Its mission is to connect Jews around the world to their people, heritage, and homeland and inspire them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel. Key constituents include the World Zionist Organization (made up of a diverse group of Zionist organizations, including the major Jewish religious movements), Jewish Federations of North America, and Keren Hayesod.
The planned agenda for the three-day meeting was what one would typically expect for a large, non-profit organization, full of committee meetings and the like. Yet on Sunday, the first day, everything changed abruptly when word came that the Israeli cabinet, sitting only a few miles away from our meeting, decided to repeal a prior resolution to establish an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall and to approve a bill that would allow Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to control all state-recognized Jewish conversions in Israel. When the news broke, the Jewish Agency’s leadership sprang into action and canceled much of the formal proceedings on the board’s agenda to focus exclusively on these issues. Despite the diversity of viewpoints represented on the Jewish Agency Board, there was unanimous support that confronting these two issues was of paramount priority for the organization, as it is focused on building relationships between Jews of the Diaspora and Israel.
As background, the Jewish Agency and its chairman, Natan Sharansky, had led four years of negotiation with the Israeli government that ultimately resulted in a compromise to allocate a portion of the Wall for egalitarian prayer that would not be controlled by the Israeli Rabbinate. This compromise had gained wide consensus and was approved by the Israeli cabinet in January 2016 in order to create “ONE WALL FOR ONE PEOPLE.” However, the plan had yet to be implemented.
Upon the Cabinet’s announcement, the Jewish Agency acted quickly, canceling its planned meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and mobilized. In an emergency plenary session, the board adopted a resolution strongly condemning the government’s actions and vowing to fight to keep worldwide Jews united via a broad coalition that would halt “these dangerous and damaging steps.” Lay leaders and professionals called small group meetings with Israeli cabinet ministers, members of the Knesset, and Netanyahu himself to clearly voice world Jewry’s dissatisfaction with the actions of the Israeli government. These activities culminated in a last-minute standing-room-only meeting at the Knesset on Tuesday morning in which over 120 representatives of the Jewish Agency were joined by nearly one-quarter of the members of the Knesset, representing a diversity of political parties including Likud, Zionist Union, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, Israel Beitenu, and Meretz. Speakers on behalf of the Jewish Agency included leaders of the Agency itself and representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conservative movement, and the Reform movement, among others.
While at times the discussion was heated, all participants emphasized the importance of strong relations between world Jewry and the State of Israel in order to ensure a prosperous future for the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Representatives of Jews outside of Israel and Zionist organizations within Israel expressed very directly to Israeli officials that actions that ostracize significant portions of the world’s Jews are particularly harmful. Israeli officials emphasized their appreciation of world Jewry’s support for the State of Israel and the Israeli people and stressed the importance of a strong relationship between Israel and the diaspora.
The Jewish Agency adjourned its board meeting with enthusiasm that the monumental efforts of the preceding 48 hours will help defeat such problematic initiatives within the Israeli government. Moreover, the Jewish Agency was able to produce an overwhelming lobby in virtually a matter of minutes that demonstrated to the Israeli government that North American Jews care deeply about the State of Israel, but also care deeply about ensuring there is a place within the state for ALL Jews, regardless of their personal practices.
As non-board members attending the meetings, we were particularly inspired to see organizations we support advocating for our right to practice our Judaism at Judaism’s holiest site. We were impressed by the influence and access of the Jewish Agency that has been built based on its successful work beginning prior to the formation of the State of Israel and which still continues. We were proud to see how our gifts to both the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Federations have real and tangible impacts on our own freedoms, on the lives of Jews in Israel, and on the lives of Jews around the world.
We also gained further appreciation for the need to build deeper relationships between North American Jews and secular Israelis. Many of these issues are not on the forefront of the minds of the Israeli populace. While undoubtedly Israelis appreciate the support of North American Jews and the partnership between our governments, we need to do more to build personal ties.
The Jewish Agency is at the forefront of these efforts through its community programs such as Partnership2Gether (establishing sister cities
between Israeli and North American communities), bringing Israeli political officials to the United States to meet with local Jewish communities, and community shlichim (emissaries) both year-round in communities and at Jewish summer camps, where over 1,300 young shlichim a deployed. While the shlichim are bringing Israel to North America, they also return to Israel to share their newfound understanding of North American Jewry.
The Jewish Agency, with the support of the Jewish Federations of North America, will continue to advocate for religious pluralism in Israel. The efforts of the past few days will continue in earnest in order to implement the compromise at the Wall and defeat the proposed conversion monopoly by the Israeli Rabbinate. All the while, the Jewish Agency and our Federations will continue to support the people and the state of Israel and build further ties between Israel and our communities in North America.
Jacy Rubin Grais serves on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, is Chair of the Mount Sinai Community Foundation and is an incoming board member at the Jewish Federation of Minneapolis. Jason Grais serves on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Minneapolis and Adath Jeshurun Congregation. Both Jacy and Jason are members of the National Young Leadership Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America.