Leading by Example


The recent unanimous election of former Soviet Jewish Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky to be the new Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) should be welcomed by world Jewry. His incredibly impressive life credentials suggest Sharansky can bring much-needed credibility to this nerve center of overseas philanthropic activities.

The first iteration of JAFI came into being in 1923 soon after the creation of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1921. Until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Agency not only provided quasi-governmental services for Jews in the region, but served as a connector of world Jewry and governments to Palestine. After the birth of the state, many of JAFI’s functions were taken over by the new government, but the agency continued to be responsible for immigration, land settlement, youth work and other activities financed by Jewish contributions from abroad.

JAFI today is an international, non-governmental body which functions as the coordinator of Jewish overseas efforts in Israel. The Jewish Agency also works, in concert with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to support Jewish communities all over the world, including those in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Nearly all of the funds raised in support of programs in Israel through the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and its sister federations throughout North America, and parallel organizations in other nations (principally the United Israel Appeal, or Keren Hayesod), are channeled through the JAFI’s Budget and Allocations Committee. JAFI is our local Federation’s largest beneficiary, receiving $3.9 million in 2009. JAFI has annual expenditures of about $650 million. Over the years, many notable St. Louis Jewish leaders have served on the JAFI Executive.

Natan Sharansky is well suited to serve as Chairman of this vitally important organization, particularly at this stage of its existence. Sharansky become the icon of the Soviet Jewish Refusenik Movement. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment and hard labor at the dank and horrific Lubyanka Prison in the Soviet Gulag in 1977 after he courageously applied for an exit visa to Israel. His speech at his sentencing at his rigged trial, which ended with a promise that he would join his beloved wife Avital in Israel, remains one of the most moving speeches in Jewish history. After years of international pressure, including the historic massive Rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington, Sharansky was released in 1986 and went directly to Israel.

If Sharansky’s exemplary bravery and fortitude were not sufficient to command respect, his subsequent appointments and conduct round his resume most forcefully. Sharansky founded the immigrant political party Yisrael B’Aliya in 1996 to accelerate the absorption of large numbers of Russian immigrants into Israeli society. From 1996 to 2005, he held several key ministry posts in various Israeli Cabinets. And most recently, Sharansky served as Chairman of the esteemed Adelstein Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

Sharansky was nominated to become JAFI Chairman by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid expressed concerns that the agency must reform itself to be free of entanglements of political influence. In recent years, JAFI has been criticized for financial mismanagement and a cumbersome structure. In these times of global financial crisis and with the Jewish philanthropic world still reeling from the losses brought about by the schemes of the convicted Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, it is absolutely essential that JAFI have leadership of impeccable integrity.

Sharansky, who showed historic courage as a Soviet Jewish Prisoner of Zion, and who has served with distinction in several key ministerial posts, always beyond ethical rapproach, has pledged to bring his reforming spirit to his new duties at the JAFI. We applaud his election and believe he will achieve great success as he takes on his newest challenge on behalf of the Jewish people.