The Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) decision to outsource the entire aliyah operation in North America to Nefesh B’Nefesh, a 6-year-old American group promoting aliyah, is indicative of both the need for change in the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel and in JAFI’s relationship to the organized Jewish community. The “hallmark” of JAFI’s uniqueness in connecting Jews around the world to Israel was its role in promoting the idea of people moving to Israel and in providing the basic services to facilitate the move from the immigrants’ country of origin to the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.

Over the last two decades JAFI has striven to develop and implement strategic plans to respond to the changing needs of those who fund the organization and of those who are recipients of its programs and services.

The budget for the organization is provided by local Jewish Federations and transferred to Israel via the United Jewish Communities in the United States and by Jewish communities around the globe through the Keren Hayesod as well as a myriad of other sources of income. In spite of numerous efforts to reframe its programs and to develop new services in responding to perceived emerging needs, questions continue to be raised about the relevance of its core services.

JAFI was founded in 1929 and was the primary instrument that established the foundation for the Jewish state. Following the creation of Israel, it worked side-by-side with the government in creating and strengthening Jewish communities throughout the fledgling state. During the 60 years of Israel’s existence it has worked tirelessly in bringing millions of immigrants to Israel from both countries of distress (the FSU, Ethiopia, Romania, etc.) and from the free countries of the Western world. During these years the government did not have the financial resources to provide many services and JAFI assumed the financial responsibility for much of its work.

Times have changed, though, for Israel and diaspora Jewish communities. Israel’s strong economy has enabled wealthy people who are successful in the business world to become social entrepreneurs. They have created and supported innovative ventures to strengthen Israeli society. Changes in the patterns of providing funds by local Jewish communities and by the growing number of Jewish foundations point to interests that are far beyond the scope of JAFI’s purposes and functions.

The decision to relinquish direct responsibility for implementing services for immigrants (before and after their move to Israel) and to purchase the services from an American-based non-profit organization is a “wake up call” for the Federation system. Most of the funds raised in annual campaigns market the JAFI brand, and the question now is whether this is way the communities should be connecting to Israel in the 21st century? It is important to separate the question into two parts. First, how should the Federation system be connecting to Israel if JAFI is no longer a critical partner? And second, what is the purpose of JAFI today?

Given the development of groups like the Israel Venture Network, and other Israeli philanthropic initiatives, it is time for the Federation system to work directly with these groups, as well as individual philanthropists, in establishing a new agenda where the priorities are created together. Israel has reached the stage where non-governmental local leaders are making contributions to the society and they should be joined directly with American Jewish philanthropists and local community leaders committed to Israel.

JAFI plays a unique role in the Jewish world as the only organization that brings together Jewish leadership from Israel and around the globe to discuss challenges facing the Jewish people and allocate resources to deal with these specific issues in Jewish life. JAFI should be reengineered to be a “Foundation for the Jewish People” rather than a functional agency.

The emphasis would be on raising funds for the purpose of planning and providing the funding for programs to assist the Jewish people around the world. It would no longer be a provider of services.

The time has come to institutionalize the direct relationships among federation leadership and Israeli philanthropists. It is not only a way to work together to meet the human service, social, health, educational needs, among others, in Israel, but it is also an approach that will lead to closer ties between Israelis and American Jews. One of the by-products of such an approach would be to enable the growing voluntary sector in Israel, including donors and agencies, to learn from the richness of the North American experience.

Utilizing the decision to outsource aliyah service to Nefesh B’Nefesh should be taken as heralding the beginning of new ways of working together with non-profits in Israel. It should be replicated in other service areas and the connections should be made directly, thus strengthening the ties between Israel and the North American Jewish community. n Stephen Donshik, formerly director of the Israel Office of UJA-Federation of New York, has worked in Israel for 25 years in the area of Israel-diaspora relations and international philanthropy. He now teaches and has a private consultation firm.

This article ran in the Jewish Week in New York on September 14, 2008