In an era when a major shift in Jewish philanthropic engagement is needed and rapid-fire reactions to a kinetic news cycle are required, a person steering an organization founded in 1929 may be resigned to playing from an outdated playbook. But Amira Aharonovich, the Jewish Agency’s new CEO and director general, recognizes the challenges that lie ahead and sees before her only opportunity.
As the first woman to hold this position, Aharonovich has already made history. And while she says she appreciates the significance of that milestone, she believes that it was her 24-year history at the institution — and not her gender — that earned her the position. Some of her previous roles at the Jewish Agency included serving as the director of partnership regions, and as deputy director general and COO. As such, there is perhaps no one else who knows the benefits and flaws of the institution so intimately.
Below are snippets of a conversation with the agency’s new executive as she weighed on what challenges befall global Jewry and how she, along with new chairman Isaac Herzog, plans to shake things up.
What do you plan to bring to the table as the new CEO of the Jewish Agency, and how do you differ from your predecessor?
I want to bring my experience and talents, which I believe have helped me ascend to this position, along with the new spirit that the chairman [Isaac Herzog] has brought with him. I’ve had time to grow in each role that I’ve had, and what motivates me is the interest and excitement that flow from that.
With regard to my predecessor [Alan Hoffman], I may be new to the role, but I am not new to the organization. I have worked my way up from my first job after graduating college. I must admit that I learned so much from Alan and I need to thank him for giving me opportunities to grow.
However, we are at a point in time when we need change. It isn’t connected to one person, but is a reflection of the strategic shift that we are making. The world has changed dramatically in the last nine years and we have to change with it, including the Jewish world in general and the Jewish philanthropic sphere. In the next 10 years, as we approach our 100th anniversary, we have to ask ourselves what are the main issues the Jewish people face, and how do we prepare for them?
What is the Jewish Agency doing to reach young Jews, specifically millennials, and Generations Y and Z?
This is a big goal for us, and we have made great strides to reach the younger generation. They are highly influenced by what they see on social media and interested in exploring other non-traditional ways to be Jewish. I don’t subscribe to the notion that younger Jews are less engaged; they are very much willing to get their hands dirty, but they want to do so in ways that are different from their parents and grandparents.
We are doing this in two main ways. First, we are fostering face-to-face interactions, especially regarding social media. The potential for interaction in the digital world is infinite. We employ face-to-face interactions with our more than 2,000 Israeli emissaries dispatched worldwide. We encourage the exchange of ideas and opinions, and reject the idea that one person should talk and the other listen. As a result, both the emissary and community members are forever changed from these interpersonal interactions.
The second thing we do is create unique Israel experiences so that those around the world can work and study here. Studies indicate that this is a transformative experience for young adults. We understand that their time in Israel has to have added value and be a résumé-building experience, as well as being culturally and spiritually fulfilling. They need transferable skills if they end up [as Jewish Agency emissaries] in Milan, Paris or Rio de Janeiro.
We also have a new initiative called Crowd.IL. During my time at the Mendel Institute, I learned about the importance in revamping Jewish philanthropy. As such, Crowd.IL provides an interactive platform for individual donors to engage in impact investing. Specifically, we will roll out an innovative website that will allow the next generation of donors to select ways to give to Israel’s periphery with a peer-to-peer lending digital platform. Whether one is interested in helping senior citizens, besieged citizens of the Gaza envelope or influencing Jewish education, an individual donor can monitor his or her investment and move their money around as they see fit.
What about Israel programs such as MASA or the Israel Experience? How do they foster engagement?
We bring about 80,000 people per year who engage in the Israel Experience, including 12,000 MASA participants a year. I’ve been involved with this project since the beginning, and it really is fostering a generation of young adults who fall in love with Israel from a most impressionable age.
Since its inception 14 years ago, MASA initiatives have been constantly altered to meet the needs of the current generation, and we have seen the changes that have taken place.
It is a wonderful educational opportunity to start and to sow the seeds and to build on what we have done previously. The motto is to “Live like a local” — a chance to live like a sabra, to take part in face-to-face interactions because it really changes a person’s life and helps the community. And in this way, we can be increasingly confident that this person will have a connection to the Jewish community as they progress with their life and take on leadership roles.
The third way to foster engagement is working on the ground within communal life. For more than 25 years, we have run summer camps. We interact with more than 8,000 kids and teenagers every year, and for some of them, it’s their first interaction with someone from the Jewish world. It’s a gateway that opens their eyes and fills them with curiosity. They return home to their families and begin to peel the onion; having listened to the stories and begin to engage their parents in returning to a Jewish connection. They arrive at the camps year after year, and it builds their identity; they become youth counselors and take on leadership roles. Later, when they arrive at MASA or Birthright, we have been able to build engagement.
What was your initial reaction to the mass shootings in religious institutions, such as the October 2018 shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue and six months later, at Chabad of Poway?
We’re witnessing an increase in hate crimes and anti-Semitism. It’s true that we’re seeing more people come forward and report these crimes, and that these crimes are also being amplified. We’re in very close touch with Jewish communities worldwide, and they’re all reporting the same thing: that we’re seeing an escalation of anti-Semitism in places we’ve never seen before. We’re not just talking about college campuses; we’re also seeing this in France, where we have a very active Jewish community.
The first tactic when it comes to these situations is to address them head on. Chairman Herzog opened a new unit to monitor anti-Semitism and coordinate with the security establishments in each Jewish community.
Pittsburgh was a wake-up call for the Jewish community in America. American Jews understand that now, despite how tolerant and open it is, these kinds of unimaginable crimes can happen there, too. We need to make sure we establish a presence on the ground. We sent a Jewish Agency emissary to be on hand there less than 24 hours after the Pittsburgh attack. Chairman Herzog also arrived quickly and met with senior members of the community. We’re also involved in assessing post-trauma efforts. For us, this is an example of how the Jewish community can beautifully come together in times of crisis.
While these are tragedies we haven’t seen before, it’s also an opportunity for communities to come together, especially on an interfaith level. Look at Pittsburgh, where the Muslim community opened its doors for Jewish worshippers. Our message needs to always stand in support for tolerance and pluralism, while also focusing on protecting our Jewish brethren wherever they may be.
There seems to be increasing polarization between Israel and Israeli Jews, and the American Jewish Diaspora. What is your assessment of this relationship?
As an apolitical organization with a specific worldview, we are of the mind that there’s a place in the world for a Jewish state and Jewish homeland. We have a more than 3,000-year history that is so much bigger than the current political issue of the day. For the younger generation, the existence of Israel is all too obvious. They did not bear witness to the miracle that was the birth of this country and the struggle of establishing it. They are seeing a different kind of Israel — one that is usually filtered through the not always objective lens of the media and social media.
This provides a big window of opportunity for the Jewish Agency. It gives us the ability to educate the next generation about Israel, and have a conversation about Jewish identity and see how they can play a part in supporting the world’s only democratic Jewish state. I don’t want to surrender and dismiss Jews who have qualms about Israel. Let’s try to embrace them and figure out ways to communicate with them, rather than alienate them. pjc