[by Jacob Efman]
Robin Levenston, the regional director for Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) in Washington D.C., spoke to members of the Jewish Community of Louisville’s Planning and Allocations Committee at their June 23 meeting. She is JAFI’s liaison with the Jewish communities in Louisville, Texas, Milwaukee, Baltimore and the D.C. area.
Levenston came to Louisville to thank the committee for their initiative and support and to help committee members understand how community dollars help JAFI do its vital work.
For 80 years, JAFI has been synonymous with efforts to rescue Jews at risk and the resettlement of the Jewish people in Israel. Prior to statehood, the agency was paramount in setting up an economic and cultural infrastructure for Israel. After independence, an Israeli government mandate charged JAFI with responsibility for the immigration and absorption (aliyah) of Jews.
Today JAFI continued to facilitate aliyah through absorption centers across Israel, as it has done for over 3 million immigrants since 1948. In the past couple of decades it has helped over a million new immigrants from all over the world, including olim from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Yemen. “Today close to 85 percent of new immigrants to Israel come from countries where living as a Jew is increasingly threatened,” said Levenston.
JAFI also strives to ensure a strong Israel by aiding vulnerable populations around the world and addressing major challenges in Israeli society, in part by helping people forge stronger Jewish identities, promoting Israel education and creating partnerships to bridge socio-economic gaps..
Currently, JAFI faces many obstacles and challenges. “Every year, 2 million people around the world depend on our services,” said Levenston, but with declining support from the world Jewish community, “25 percent are impacted by budget cuts.” In fact, JAFI’s core budget is no longer sufficient to meet all needs.
Anticipation of a shortfall this year has led to increased budget cuts. “We cannot afford the reduction in the core,” she said. “We must find a way to restore level of collective federation funding in North America which has drastically declined over the past decade.”
JAFI is also concerned about young people losing their connection to Judaism. “There are 4.5 million Jews world-wide under the age of 24,” said Levenston, “and 2.5 million are gradually distancing themselves from their communities. Without continued involvement the thread that ties Jews to each other and to Israel will weaken so much so that it will be broken forever.”
Today, JAFI’s role remains central to countless Jews around the world. The agency continues to provide vital services in Israel and to the global Jewish community.
For example, the emergence of a high tech industry and large amounts of immigration created a significant socio-economic disparity between Israel’s center and its outer regions. JAFI’s works to lessen that gap through programs like Youth Futures and Net@, which provide disadvantaged youth and adults with an opportunity to develop their unique academic and social skills, enabling them to break out of the cycle of poverty.
Overseas, JAFI has many services for young people living in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Every summer, JAFI organizes one- to two-week sessions that bring Jews from the FSU to Israeli camps, where they can experience their Jewish identity with other people their age.
In Israel, Levenston said, the Keshet Reunion program has tremendous impact on the lives of “lone soldiers” – people serving in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) who have immigrated to Israel without their families.
Keshet Reunion funds trips to Israel for relatives of the lone soldiers, and offer them seminars and bonding time in Jerusalem while they are together.
An another important program for immigrants serving in the army is Nativ. Israel has strict laws defining who is a Jew, and many immigrants do not meet governmental and rabbinic standards. While still in the army, these young individuals have the option to participate in Nativ, a course about Jewish identity, Israel and history that offers those whose status is in question the opportunity to participate in a conversion program to formalize their Jewish status.
In the United States, JAFI has two popular, widely known programs: birthright israel and the MASA Israel Journey. Birthright israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, ages 18 to 26. Trips are generally 10 days of touring and discovering Israel. Participants also get to know Israel through the eyes of Israelis, spending time with their peers, attend concerts and speeches by dignitaries and ambassadors.
MASA, the realization of one of former prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s dreams, enables young Jews from around the world to build lasting relationships and gain meaningful experiences by participating in a long-term program in Israel.
JAFI has also connections partnerships between Israel and countries around the world through its Partnership with Israel program. Today, approximately 550 global Jewish communities and 45 Israeli communities are building living bridges, sharing ideas, strengths, challenges and success; generating waves of change.
Louisville has been an active participant in Partnership’s Central Area Consortium since the program’s beginning.
JAFI’s work is made possible through the help of the government of Israel, Jewish Federations of North America, including the Jewish Community of Louisville, philanthropists, and other Jewish communities.
“Even though there are countless success stories, there has never been a more critical time to ensure that mechanisms are created to channel positive energy to help improve programs and make sure no one is left behind,” said Levenston.
To learn more about JAFI please visit jewishlouisville.org.