Jewish Agency exec sees resources but no ‘silver bullet’ for Jewish continuity

Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Board Chair Kathryn L. Unger and Jewish Agency for Israel President and CEO for International Development Misha Galperin at a JFSA council meeting April 22 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center

For the last five years, Misha Galperin, Ph.D., has traveled the world on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Israel, where he has been president and CEO for international development.

Even before that, while pursuing a career as a psychologist in New York City, he volunteered with the New York Association for New Americans, helping resettle immigrants from all over — just as he’d been helped when he first arrived in the United States from Odessa, Ukraine, as a teenager.

He became COO of the UJA-Jewish Federation of New York and then CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington before being recruited by the head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky. Galperin was chosen as one of the “Top Five” in the 2010 Forward List of the 50 most influential Jewish leaders in North America.

His life, for many years, has been focused on the global Jewish family.

But sometimes, that is more than a metaphor, Galperin told more than 50 people gathered at the Tucson Jewish Community Center April 22 for a meeting of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s council, a community forum created when the Federation reduced the size of its board last spring.

Four years ago, Galperin said, on a Jewish Agency trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, he met a young Jewish professional woman, Natasha, from the Vinnytsia region of Ukraine. Where exactly, he asked? “You wouldn’t have heard of it — a place called Tomashpol.”

But he had. His father’s family had come from that village, that shtetl.

Galperin had already recounted his family’s tragic history, of how his father, at age 6, had hidden in the branches of a mulberry tree when the Nazis came to Tomashpol in 1941 and had seen his father, an Orthodox rabbi, and the rest of his family, along with 400 other Jews, mown down with machine guns. His father was eventually taken in by distant relatives in Odessa, where he later met Galperin’s mother, who came from a German Reform Jewish family. Galperin himself, raised in the post-war Soviet Union, knew little of Jewish traditions until he came to America.

As he continued his story of meeting Natasha, of figuring out that they were, in fact, related — she is the granddaughter of his grandmother’s sister — the tale elicited gasps and tears from several council members.

Detailing some of Natasha’s own journey, from attending a camp run by the Jewish Agency to going on a Birthright Israel trip (funded in part by the Jewish Agency) to plans to participate in a Masa Israel Journey, which brings young people to Israel for five months to a year (also partially funded by the Jewish Agency), Galperin reinforced his message that the Jewish Agency, which is supported by federations across North America, is a vital part of efforts to strengthen the global Jewish community. Although he’ll be stepping down from his position in June to spend more time with his immediate family, it’s a cause close to his heart.

Pointing out that even in Israel, the notion of being an Israeli and being Jewish are not one and the same, Galperin said there is no “silver bullet” to, as one council member’s query put it, “keep Jewish people Jewish.” But he cited Jewish summer camps, Israel travel programs like Birthright and Masa, and Jewish literacy programs such as the Wexner Heritage Program, of which he’s a graduate, as ways of giving young people positive experiences, engaging them with “how wonderful it is to be Jewish.”

Other successful programs can be created, he noted. “We have the resources.” Quoting the adage that Jews are “an ever-dying people,” he said that “in every generation, we shrie gevalt [cry, how horrible]. But we find a way to come back.”

The meeting concluded with a report from Helaine Levy, who chairs the Federation’s planning and allocations committee. The PAC, she said, a group of about 20 volunteers working with the Federation’s first planning and allocations director, Barry Weisband, president and CEO Stuart Mellan, and outgoing board chair Kathryn Unger, has been charged with “redesigning the Federation’s allocation of resources, both in terms of financial and human capital, to best meet the needs of the current and future local, national and international Jewish communities.”

Alluding to several Federation beneficiary agencies that found themselves in financial crisis in the past, forcing them to seek help from the Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and community members, she said that the planning aspect of the PAC seeks to partner with the agencies to avoid such crises and keep the agencies, along with the Federation, “on sound footing.”

The PAC, she says, has spent months learning in depth about the beneficiary agencies, creating an inventory of services and programs, and seeking out any service gaps. The committee is moving forward, slowly and in concert with the agencies, on transitioning from general overhead-based allocations to support based on essential services. The PAC also envisions providing some funding to the synagogues, she said, which may already have successful programs that “align with the Federation’s mission and priorities.”

“The stakeholders want to know what’s happening, especially the younger generation,” Levy said. “They don’t take things for granted, and they’re much more demanding of following their money and seeing the impact.”