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JAFI brings ‘Jews to Israel and Israel to Jews,’ says official

By Leon Cohen

March 1st, 2012

         Since it was founded in 1929, the Jewish Agency for Israel has been instrumental in bringing Jews to Israel; and it still is. But today, it also “brings Israel to Jews.”

Arthur Sandman

Arthur Sandman

         So said Arthur Sandman, executive vice president of Jewish Agency International Development, during his visit to Milwaukee last month.

         JAFI’s initial task, he explained to a group of Milwaukee Jewish Federation staff members on Feb. 20, was to create the state of Israel. It fulfilled that task successfully in 1948, but its job didn’t end there.

         After that, it devoted itself largely to bringing Jews to Israel, some three million of them between 1948 and the late 1980s — Holocaust survivors from the displaced persons camps after World War II, expellees from the Arab countries at war with Israel, desperate immigrants from Ethiopia, discriminated against masses from the defunct Soviet Union.

         It still works to help encourage immigrants and to resettle them. Sandman, said that JAFI last year brought 20,000 Jews to Israel — “Some from countries of good fortune, some from countries of misfortune,” he said.

         But its work today throughout the Jewish world goes far beyond that, said Sandman.

         “What the Jewish Agency really expresses is that Israel is not just about Israel,” he said. “Israel is not just a place, it is a people and an idea that ties [all Jews] together.”

         “If the Jewish world beyond [Milwaukee] disappears, what is your purpose of continuing [Jewish life] here?” Sandman said. “The notion of the Jewish state and of the Jewish people cannot exist in security and assurance of a future if we don’t transmit to a critical mass of people today that set of values and love for Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish state.”

         JAFI receives support for this work from Jewish communities throughout the world — including Milwaukee’s.

         Sandman said that U.S. Jewish federations contributed a total of $102 million in unrestricted funds, plus another “$40 or so million” for restricted programs like Israel emissaries and partnerships between Israeli and Diaspora communities. In addition, the Keren Hayesod organization that raises funds in Diaspora communities outside North America adds another $43 million.

         In Milwaukee, about $1.24 million that was raised in the Milwaukee Jewish Federation annual campaign of 2011 goes to JAFI’s unrestricted funds; and about another $100,000 each goes to the Partnership2Gether program and the MJF’s Israel emissary program. (See July 2011 Chronicle.)

         JAFI spends this money on projects that include:

         • “Trying to reconnect the younger generation” of Jews throughout the world to Israel, through such means as Birthright Israel trips, educational programs in Israel lasting anywhere from a month to a year, for people from high school age to just-out-of-college.

         • Helping to rebuild Jewish life in the former Soviet Union through educational endeavors and creating summer camps. Sandman said JAFI’s work in the FSU differs from that of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in that the latter is “by and large and welfare and relief agency” that helps feed and bring medical care to impoverished Jews, while JAFI works on Jewish identity and Zionism.

         • Creating partnerships between Israeli and Diaspora communities through such endeavors and Partnership2Gether, which, for example, links Milwaukee’s Jewish community (and those of St. Paul, Minn., and Tulsa, Okla.) to the Sovev Kinneret (around Lake Kinneret) region of Israel.

         • Providing opportunities for young Jews around the world and in Israel itself to do Jewish social activism work. For example, Sandman spoke about a program in Israel called Youth Futures directed at youth at risk and involving young adult volunteers.

         “It does great things for the kids who need help,” he said, and it also “takes these young adults [who volunteer] and engages them in the work of creating a better Israel, creating a sense of activism.”

         Before beginning work for JAFI in 2010, Sandman was associate executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, N.J., for eight years; and before that was executive director of management and budget at UJA Federation of New York.

         Jewish Agency International Development is a relatively new sub-organization of JAFI, created to “become the agency’s main fundraising channel,” according to a Feb. 19 Ha’aretz article by Anshel Pfeffer.

         For more information about JAFI, see its website, www.jafi.org.