The past 20 hours have been filled with passionate calls and emails on all sides of the issue on whether the two congresswomen should be able to enter Israel. This morning we learned that Israel’s interior minister approved a humanitarian request submitted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib to visit her aging grandmother in the West Bank. Tlaib has since declined the opportunity.
But today I want to share an incredible story about an organization in Israel that continues to make miracles happen.
On August 11, 1929, the 5th of Av 5689, the 16th Zionist Congress announced the establishment of a new organization, a “Jewish agency,” to represent the Jews of Palestine and the world vis-à-vis the administrators of the British Mandate. Thus the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) was founded 90 years ago this week. (This is different than the United Palestine Appeal – later renamed the United Jewish Appeal, which began in 1939.)
Many of you have heard of JAFI as I often write about our long-time funding and relationship. What you may not realize is the extent of the Agency’s incredible accomplishments over the past 90 years.
Since its inception in 1929, the Jewish Agency’s leaders served as representatives of Jews who resided in the region of what was then Palestine and as the de facto government of “the state to be.” They managed foreign relations, settlement, infrastructure development and agriculture for what became the State of Israel in 1948.
They built a wing of the quasi-government that would actualize the right of the Jews in the Land of Israel to defend themselves, and of course they helped to bring immigrants to the nascent country – both officially through the youth aliyah enterprise, and covertly through clandestine immigration efforts by the Haganah.
Actions taken by Jewish Agency leaders in Israel and around the world, including their ascertainment of the facts on the ground and their political achievements, led to the success of the November 29, 1947 United Nations vote for the “partition plan” and the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel by David Ben-Gurion – who was the Jewish Agency’s Chairman at the time – in May 1948.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency continued to develop the land and strengthen the country. Over the years, JAFI led Israel’s largest immigration operations, including Operation Magic Carpet for the Jews of Yemen, Operation Ezra and Nechemiah for Iraqi Jewry, Operation Yachin for Moroccan Jews, Operation Moses and Operation Solomon to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and, of course, Operation Exodus, the large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990's (one of our proudest achievements as a community was our “oversized” investment and involvement in Operation Exodus). Since the founding of the Jewish Agency, remarkably, more than 3.2 million immigrants have been brought home to Israel from more than 80 countries worldwide – with your generous support of our annual campaign.
Today, JAFI continues to assist some 30,000 immigrants to Israel annually, from over 40 countries. They help them in successfully integrating into Israeli society (housing in absorption centers, ulpan classes to teach new immigrants Hebrew, and job/education/financial assistance).
At the same time, JAFI responds immediately to crises and emergencies for any Jew, anywhere in the world. They do this through the broad deployment of representatives who monitor the needs of Jewish communities and quickly respond accordingly. This is especially crucial during this non-stop war against anti-Semitism as JAFI helps to provide security aid for hundreds of Jewish institutions in dozens of countries through the Jewish Agency’s Security Assistance Fund.
JAFI has helped establish 900 towns, youth villages, communities and neighborhoods throughout Israel. This included “partnership” opportunities between communities in Israel and the Diaspora, like we shared with Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon for many years. JAFI inaugurated the country’s main water artery, founded Israel's first national airline, El Al, and helped create many other well-known institutions. They have also strengthened vulnerable populations in the social and geographic periphery by creating community centers and public agencies all over the country.
Even today they lead large-scale platforms to strengthen Israel’s citizenry: Amigour public housing for the elderly and Holocaust survivors, “Youth Futures” programs serving tens of thousands of at-risk youth, Jewish Agency loan funds for small businesses, the Fund for Victims of Terror, and so much more.
To the organization’s credit, twenty years ago, when JAFI found itself at a crossroads in response to new challenges that were facing the Jewish people, the Jewish Agency updated its mission. The issues of Jewish continuity and weakening connections of young Jews to their Jewish identity and to Israel had become central concerns that worried the entire Jewish world. To counteract this, JAFI created Masa Israel Journey (long-term Israel experiences – to date over 165,000 young people have participated) to deepen the bonds between Diaspora Jews and Israel. They also expanded the Shlichut program, which today assigns nearly 2,000 Israeli emissaries each year to Jewish communities, campus groups (Greater Portland Hillel has a new wonderful Shlicha who is Ethiopian-Israeli), summer camps and youth movements overseas.
As we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Jewish Agency, it is important to express our deep gratitude to the many generations of Jews in Portland who have supported JAFI through our annual campaign. It is your support, and that of Jews around the world, that enables JAFI to accomplish so much.
We know that JAFI will continue its fruitful work, inspired by a deep commitment to our shared Jewish destiny, a future of successfully identifying needs in Israel and world Jewry that must be addressed, paving the way toward connections between the various populations among the Jewish people, and continued fulfillment of the mission they were assigned 90 years ago – to represent and act on behalf of the entire Jewish people, in Israel and around the world.
Our Jewish Federation and Jewish community should be proud to partner with the Jewish Agency for Israel. May we all continue to go from strength to strength.