By BERNIE BELLAN The Combined Jewish Appeal of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg launched its 2022-23 campaign before a small audience at the Berney Theatre on Tuesday evening, September 20. Welcoming remarks were given by Federation president Gustavo Zentner. Following his remarks, Zentner crossed the stage of the Berney Theatre where he introduced Ukrainian-born (and former resident of Israel) artist Eugene Kabrun. Together the two men unveiled a painting depicting the suffering ongoing in Ukraine and which will be on display at the campus.
Following the unveiling of the painting, Zentner introduced the special guest for the evening, Jewish Agency executive director for Canada Yaron Deckel.
Deckel was accompanied to the stage by Emily Kalo, a fourth-year science student at the University of Manitoba (also a Gray Academy grad). Emily co-founded Students Supporting Israel at the University of Manitoba and is the StandWithUs Israel Advocate of The Year, 2018. She is currently a member of the Public Affairs and Advocacy Committee at the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and serves as the Vice President of Advocacy at the University of Manitoba Students’ Union.
For the next hour Emily asked Yaron Deckel a series of relatively short scripted questions, ranging from what the Jewish Agency has done to help Ukrainian refugees, to asking about security provisions the Agency has helped Jewish organizations institute in response to heightened anti-Semitic attacks throughout the world. Emily also asked Deckel about how awareness of Israel can be increased among Jewish students on campuses.
Deckel gave lengthy answers to the questions posed to him, but what he didn’t do is explain to the audience just what the Jewish Agency is.
So, in an effort to better understand what the Jewish Agency is, here is a short primer, taken from Wikipedia. (Wikipedia admits on its website that much of its article on the Jewish Agency reads like an advertisement for the Jewish Agency.):
“The Jewish Agency for Israel (in Hebrew: HaSochnut HaYehudit L’Eretz Yisra’el) formerly known as The Jewish Agency for Palestine, is the largest Jewish non-profit organization in the world. It was established in 1929 as the operative branch of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). The stated mission of the Agency is to ‘ensure that every Jewish person feels an unbreakable bond to one another and to Israel no matter where they live in the world, so that they can continue to play their critical role in our ongoing Jewish story.’
“It is best-known as the primary organization fostering the immigration of Jews in diaspora to the Land of Israel (known as aliyah) and overseeing their integration with the State of Israel. Since 1948, the Jewish Agency has brought 3 million immigrants to Israel, and offers them transitional housing in ‘absorption centres’ throughout the country.
“By law, the Jewish Agency is a parastatal organization, but does not receive core funding from the Israeli government. The Jewish Agency is funded by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), Keren Hayesod, major Jewish communities and federations, and foundations and donors from Israel and around the world.
“In July 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Ministry of Justice took steps to stop the Jewish Agency For Israel from operating in Russia, claiming that the agency had broken Russian law regarding collecting, storing and transfering data. After the invasion started, there had been a sharp increase in emigration from Russia to Israel…
“Its operating budget for 2019 was US$379,807,000…
“As of 2019, the Jewish Agency sponsors dozens of programs that connect Jews to Israel and to each other. The Agency organizes the programs into four different categories: 1. Connecting young Jews to Israel and their Jewish identity (Jewish and Zionist education in the Jewish diaspora), 2. Connecting young Israelis to the Jewish people and their Jewish identity, 3. Aliyah and absorption, 4. Supporting vulnerable populations in Israel.”
While Deckel said all the right things about trying to engage young Jews in supporting Israel, as in “It’s time for us to invest in young people to try to make a difference, otherwise young people will be even less interested in Jewish identity,” that would hardly constitute startling news.
For anyone following world events these days though the Jewish Agency has been most prominently featured in the news of late as a result of Russia’s Ministry of Justice having filed a motion in court to liquidate operations of the Jewish Agency in Russia. While it is not clear what prompted that move, it did follow Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Deckel did not touch upon the purported attempt to force the Jewish Agency out of Russia.
Deckel did note in his remarks that 17,000 Russian Jews have emigrated to Israel since Putin’s baseless invasion began on February 24 (along with 40,000 Ukrainian Jews). Now that Putin has called for the mobilization of a further 300,000 reserve soldiers the number of Russian Jews attempting to leave that country can be expected to grow exponentially. The role of the Jewish Agency in helping Russian Jews to leave that country is bound to take on an even larger importance in the coming days.