|Natan Sharansky, right, new head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a former prisoner in the Soviet Union, chats with two active members of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Eva and Leo Gans. Josh Lipowsky|
Israel may need the diaspora just as much as the diaspora needs Israel, Natan Sharansky, the newly appointed head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told members of the GA delegation from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey during a private meeting on Tuesday.
Sharansky, a former minister of diaspora Affairs and a former prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, took over JAFI earlier this year.
“I am trying now to refocus the Jewish Agency, a huge organization with a lot of idealistic people,” Sharansky told the group. Echoing what he said at the plenary session on Monday, he said, “I believe that [Jewish] identity has to be put in the center.”
Responding to a question from UJA-NNJ executive vice president Howard Charish on the role of Israelis in diaspora communities and an unspoken directive not to engage them in local affairs, Sharansky said he was never one to follow instructions. The model where the diaspora looks to Israel for a Jewish connection but not vice versa, which he said was likely directed by Israel itself, is outdated.
“We are one people,” he said. “We’re a global world. I think you have to do your best [for] Russian speakers and Spanish speakers and Hebrew speakers.”
Many Israelis who leave Israel often leave behind their connections to the Jewish people – until they realize that their children are growing up without that connection, and then they begin to engage, Sharansky continued.
“Israelis are also discovering for their own interests they need the diaspora, to connect to Jewish history and tradition,” he said. “It’s less about how one helps the other but how you’re helping yourself.”
Turning toward JAFI’s role as a facilitator of aliyah, Sharansky said that though the decision today is mostly aliyah by choice, the Jewish world must be prepared in case aliyah becomes a rescue option.
Program such as MASA, which enables young Jews to study in Israel, provide professional development and connect Jews around the world to the Israel experience, he said.
North American aliyah, he added, has increased to some 4,000 a year and JAFI has dreams of it soon reaching 7,000.
“That will come only if we continue building strong Jewish communities,” he said. “It’s challenging times but I think we will succeed.”
Sharansky shared a story that when the Soviet Union prepared its case against him, prosecutors had amassed 15,000 pages of documents, listing every Jewish and anti-Soviet organization he was affiliated with. These organizations did not communicate well with each other, he said, but there they were, all listed together.
“For our enemies we are all on the same page,” he said.
UJA-NNJ makes it a point to schedule private meetings like these at the GA, Charish said afterward. Past meetings have included former UJC executive committee chairs Kathy Manning and Joe Tauber and former JAFI head Ze’ev Bielski. Some members of the local delegation told Charish that the Sharansky meeting was the best session they had attended that week.
“We felt privileged to be in his company given the fact that he’s a hero of our time and has a distinguished record of service since coming to Israel,” Charish said. “It’s good to have that small group discussion to get clarifications and understandings of positions.”