MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Winter 2011
ALIYAH UP — BUT ALIYAH SHLICHUT OUT:
Usually, a successful formula is kept in place as long as it continues to produce positive results. And if better results are produced every year with the same formula, all the more so! But in the Jewish world, it seems, even success is no such guarantee of continuity, as the Conservative Movement sadly learned this past summer.
Despite an ongoing increase in aliyah from North America of 9% over the past twelve months, and within this group, a concomitant rise in the number of North American Conservative Jews making aliyah, the Jewish Agency decided not to renew the special half-time aliyah shlichut to the Conservative Movement which it had created in 1987 and had funded ever since.
This meant that at the completion in August of the 3-year term of the movement's last shlicha, Naomi Freedman, no successor was named nor was a process to select a successor even begun, despite valiant attempts by Conservative Movement leadership for the past year to convince the Jewish Agency to renew the shlichut.
For the past quarter-century, the half-time aliyah shlichut to the Conservative Movement dealt with three different agendas. First off, the shaliach created and developed educational materials and activities on Israel, with particular emphasis on the needs of college students involved with the United Synagogue's KOACH program. Secondly, the shlicha served as a spokesperson for and about Masorti Judaism in Israel when participating as a guest speaker at synagogue services and organizational meetings and conferences.
Finally, the aliyah shlichut helped individuals and families from all over the continent planning a move to Israel to make their way successfully through the aliyah process and to establish contact with Masorti communities and institutions in Israel prepared to welcome the newcomers and help with employment and housing. The information found on the special MERCAZ-affiliated website www.linktoisrael.org is a direct product of the aliyah shlichut.
Now, as a result of the Jewish Agency's decision, this special support for college students, synagogues, movement organizations and Conservative olim has come to an end – all at a time when the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is under greater threat and of greater need than in the past.
As official governmental statistics published on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2011 show, Israel's population hit 7.8 million people, a figure representing a consistent level of growth of 1.9% since 2003. Such a total population represents a nearly ten-fold increase from the number of residents in the Jewish state on the eve of independence in 1948, when there were only 800,000 people.
Part of the growth in Israel's population over the past twelve months is due to a continuing rise in aliyah and, particularly, to the ongoing growth in North American aliyah, which rose from 3,700 in 2010 to nearly 4,100 in 2011, up 9%. And of the more than 4,000 North American olim, based on questionnaires that the olim complete, about 20-25% affirm a Conservative Jewish identity or background.
One might think that getting upwards of 1,000 Conservative Jews per year to make aliyah would be a sure sign of the importance of maintaining the Conservative Movement's aliyah shlichut. After all, when the half-time position was created by the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Department back in 1987, the total number of North American Jews – Americans and Canadians - making aliyah was far fewer than 2,000 olim annually. More than doubling the total number and creating a strong core of Conservative Jews among the olim should be a guarantee of a winning recipe.
Yet, with the new strategic plan adopted by the Jewish Agency in 2010 and the revised organizational structure that has been adopted, aliyah is no longer the official motto and goal of the Jewish Agency but rather Jewish identity, of which aliyah is one component. In fact, the Aliyah Department, which in the past was the largest of the Agency's four key departments, has been disbanded, with its functions being merged into a number of Jewish education and identity-building programs such as Birthright and MASA.
Noting the change in the focus of the Jewish Agency's agenda, the leadership of the Conservative Movement addressed a letter in February, on the need to continue the aliyah shlichut to JAFI Chairman Natan Sharansky.
"We want to applaud you for your vision as important changes take place within the Jewish Agency... We appreciate that JAFI recognizes the all-important role that movement shlichim have in bringing about the success of JAFI's new strategic directions... We therefore wish to state in the strongest of terms, that we believe it is absolutely imperative that the the Jewish Agency continue and enhance the Masorti shlichut based in New York... This shlichut enables the Conservative/Masorti Movement in the USA to have an emissary with the specific knowledge and connections to our movement. This link is vital to the success of Zionist education and to the promotion of Aliyah within the movement. During Naomi's shlichut to date, there have been over 1,500 olim who have self-identified with the Conservative Movement. Thousands more – mostly young adults – have visited Israel, have been on Birthright and MASA programs, and have engaged in Israel related activities across the continent. This would simply not have been possible without a shaliach(a)."
As Janet Tobin, President of MERCAZ USA noted, following the return of Naomi Freedman and her family to Israel this fall, "We are saddened that the Jewish Agency has chosen to close down this important position. Conservative Judaism puts a prime importance on the place of Israel – the land, people and state – in Jewish life, and for the past twenty-five years, the aliyah shlichut has helped strengthen and solidify this connection. One would think that the number of Conservative Jews who have visited Israel, participated in short and long term programs there and made aliyah would be enough proof of the continued importance of the shlichut. We will carry on as best as we can, but clearly our efforts have been seriously weakened. We pray that those in leadership roles at the Jewish Agency will recognize the error of their decision and revisit the issue. We are prepared to work with the Agency in re-establishing a shlichut position that can serve all of our best interests."
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