MIDDLEBURY – Last June, the 80-year-old Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) rewrote its mission statement. After a year-long process led by JAFI chairman Natan Sharansky and board chairman Richard Pearlstone, the board of governors approved a new strategic plan that aims to realign the organization’s resources and mission to better serve the changing priorities and needs of the Jewish world.
The organizational restructuring includes a new international development arm, which brings on board the agency’s first-ever Connecticut-based staffer. Middlebury resident Linda D. Herrmann serves as director of community and donor relations for the Northern Region, one of four newly created throughout U.S.
The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) was originally established to help Jews under duress find safe haven in Israel. But as the need for aliyah has shifted for most diaspora Jews from a necessity to a choice, JAFI has expanded its work to remain relevant to the global Jewish community.
The new plan, “Securing the Future: Forging a Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish People,” places a renewed emphasis on Jewish identity-building, in Israel as well as the diaspora, as JAFI’s central mission. During the June 2010 debate and subsequent vote, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky emphasized the need to connect more Jews throughout the world to Israel and to one another. “The main danger facing the Jewish world today is a weakening of the connection of young Jews to their people and to the State of Israel,” he said.
The plan lays out programmatic areas of focus, while reaffirming the Jewish Agency’s vision of ensuring the future of a connected, committed, global Jewish people with a strong Israel at its center. The new mission statement, “Inspire, Connect, Empower,” is shorthand for “Inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with their people, heritage and homeland, and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel.” The new plan also calls for mobilizing social activism to address growing social needs in Israel, and encouraging young Israelis to live more consciously “Jewish” lives.
Dr. Misha Galperin is the new CEO and president of Jewish Agency International Development, which has created a network of representatives throughout the U.S. to inspire more funding for Israel.
“JAFI is trying to bring more public awareness to what their core priorities are,” says Linda Herrmann, who covers Connecticut, Western Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. “There was a need to have more people on the ground because that message was not getting across as they wanted it to.”
Herrmann works to strengthen relationships between JAFI and the Jewish federations throughout the region, which are members of the umbrella organization, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Each member federation allocates monies from its annual fundraising campaign for JFNA’s overseas allocations, split between JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“I am here in the region as a resource person for federation directors,” Herrmann says. “We discuss ideas of how to grow their donor bases. First and foremost, I feel that we are looking to work as partners.”
Herrmann, a Long Island native, took the position in February and traces her involvement in the Jewish community of greater Waterbury to 1985. For 15 years, she served in various roles on the board of the Jewish federation, then located in Waterbury (now The Federation: Jewish Communities of Western Connecticut, in Southbury). In 2001, she was hired as the federation’s financial resource development director, a job she left four years later when her husband moved to Israel to attend rabbinical school.
“There’s constantly an evaluation and assessment at the Jewish Agency as to how they should go about their work,” she says. “But it has always been about Israel engagement and Jewish Zionist education, about peoplehood and connecting Jews around the world.”
A recent example of JAFI’s direction is young-adult programming. The Jewish Agency is a funder of Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides young Jewish adults with complimentary, first-time peer-group educational trips to Israel. As a way to help extend the identity-strengthening benefits of the program, the Jewish Agency launched MASA Israel Journey, semester- and year-long work, volunteer, and study opportunities for young Jewish adults. In the 2010-11 academic year, some 10,500 Jews from throughout the world participated in MASA. “The idea is that Birthright gives young Jews a taste of Israel, and bringing them back again really has a more profound effect on how they participate in their home Jewish communities when they return,” Hermann says.
As a veteran of Jewish communal work, Herrmann says that she sees JAFI’s new regional network as a way to strengthen global Jewry. “I have long been a supporter of the Jewish federation system and in my mind, working for JAFI is an extension of that,” she says. “The continuity, existence, and strength of the Jewish community have always been important to me. Now I get to bring the work JAFI does closer to the people who support it and benefit from it.