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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Non-institutional ties

Non-institutional ties
By Haaretz Editorial
Outgoing Israeli ambassador to Washington Daniel Ayalon was appointed co-chair of Nefesh B'Nefesh, an American-Jewish organization involved in immigration to Israel. Unlike his predecessors in the esteemed office, who retired into private enterprise or academia, Ayalon opted to engage in encouraging aliyah in a private organization with an anti-establishment image.
Ayalon joining Nefesh B'Nefesh should strengthen the organization as an important rival to the cumbersome Jewish Agency in promoting and arranging immigration to Israel. In addition, his decision reflects the growing strength of non-institutional channels in nurturing Israel's relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
In recent years, national institutions have lost status amongst the Israeli public. The World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem last summer received marginal attention. The World Zionist Organization - downsized to a few million shekels a year - is fighting to remain a going concern. The leadership of the Jewish National Fund is immersed in internal power struggles. The Jewish Agency did extend assistance to residents of northern Israel during and after the recent war, but tension among the macher-donors boils just beneath the surface.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the drop in donors continues despite merging fund-raising campaigns and the 2000 establishment of the United Jewish Communities. The hope that the new entity would have political clout on matters common to Israel and the Diaspora proved false, too. This trend is likely only to worsen: Research indicates substantial erosion in the commitment and connection many young U.S. Jews feel toward the Jewish collective.
The success of private initiatives stands out against this bleak backdrop. About 120,000 Jewish youth, many children of mixed marriages, have visited Israel under the birthright program since its inception seven years ago. Donations to that program increase year after year and the waiting list is thousands of names long. Nefesh B'Nefesh has doubled immigration from North America in four years, from 1,600 arrivals to 3,200 in 2006. The organization has started U.K. operations with substantial success and has expansion plans in other countries. A similar organization, Ami, has been operating in France for two years, and is financed by a local Jewish donor.
The private groups' formula for success is rather simple. A handful of philanthropists seeking to realize a well-defined goal establish a small, efficient organization. They offer attractive perks for participants, like birthright's free visit to Israel or Nefesh B'Nefesh's financial aid, as well as professional guidance through the Israeli bureaucratic labyrinth.
The institutions in Israel and North America, who tried to crush birthright in its infancy, are now trying to ride the surge of its success. Nefesh B'Nefesh has already been recognized by the state, when the cabinet decided last year - in a realistic and wise move - to offer financial assistance to a private organization engaged in encouraging immigration.

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