Shortly after Misha Galperin was hired in March of last year to handle global public affairs and financial resource development for the Jewish Agency for Israel, the organization’s board of governors announced a refocusing of the agency to concentrate on global Jewish identity building. The plan called for the agency to expand opportunities for young diaspora Jews to visit Israel and to increase the awareness of Israeli Jews about diaspora Jewry. Last month it assumed the added responsibility of determining which Orthodox conversions in the diaspora are valid for aliyah.
Galperin, who was born and raised in Ukraine and immigrated to the U.S. in 1976 at the age of 18, earned a doctorate in clinical psychology before landing senior positions at the Jewish federations in Washington and New York. He was interviewed at his office here.
Q: For 80 years, a prime mission of the Jewish Agency for Israel has been the rescue of Jews at risk and their resettlement in Israel. Is that mission changing?
A: We’re still doing it. There are places around the world where the Jewish community can quickly find itself in jeopardy. It is not because of actions that are necessarily against Jews but because of problems in the country. So the Jewish Agency still has to remain on the ground, vigilant and have the capacity in place to rescue Jews when the need arises.
But for the majority of Jews in the diaspora, aliyah is not a matter of rescue but of choice. It is much less dependent on push factors; pull factors — things that attract people to Israel — are what motivates the move. In order for there to continue to be aliyah of choice, there is a need for Jews for whom Israel is not an escape but a destination.
How is the Jewish Agency seeking to make that happen?
Our next task that we will be implementing in 2011 is to inspire Jews around the world to connect with their people, heritage and land, and empower them to build a strong Israel. To do that we are focused on a variety of experiences with Israel — from short-term experiences like [the 10-day] Birthright Israel trips, to the long-term like Masa, which has programs of from five to 12 months in Israel. There are over 200 different programs tailored to young Jews 18 to 30 that have common elements but are geared to particular tastes and interests. For instance, there is a semester abroad program at the Hebrew University or Bar-Ilan University, a culinary institute, an internship in the Knesset or a high-tech company, a variety of professional internships and volunteering for the Israel Defense Forces, gap-year programs and Young Judaea [a Zionist youth group that runs gap-year programs and Israel trips].
This year we will have 10,000 young men and women in these programs — 7,000 from North America alone. That’s a record. The Jewish Agency and the government of Israel jointly fund these programs. Participants pay part of the cost, depending on where they are from and the program. The average cost is $15,000 for each participant and the Jewish Agency and the government split an additional $5,000.
What is the impact of these programs?
They inject about $150 million into the Israeli economy, and a recent poll showed that the Masa program makes an enormous difference regarding one’s personal attitude towards Israel. After a short-term trip, 33 percent of participants said they were strongly attached to Israel. For those who also attended a Masa trip, that figure rose to 77 percent.
After a short-term trip, 27 percent said they had recently attended a program or lecture about Israel. For those who also attended a Masa trip, the figure went up to 72 percent. Some 28 percent of those who attended a short-term trip said they did volunteer work for a Jewish organization; the figure rose to 64 percent for those who attended a Masa trip. And 31 percent of those who took a short-term trip said marrying someone who is Jewish is important; 66 percent said that after a Masa trip.
What other new project will you be launching?
There is a big gap between going to Israel for 10 days and going for five months to a year, so we are now working on filling in the gap with medium-term programs like summer or one- or two-month programs. We believe Birthright Israel is a great door opener, but it needs follow-up. Coming to Israel for a second and third time for more in-depth experiences with Israeli society and people is the best follow-up. So this year we will pilot a variety of things to see what works best.
Right now only about 5 percent of Jewish college students are doing their year abroad in Israel. So students now going to Israel for their junior year or for six months would do so under the Masa program because they will get a scholarship and there would be shared content with students from other programs. … A recent study found that 90 percent of young men and women who consider themselves Jewish communal leaders have been to Israel for at least four months. So Masa not only connects them to the Jewish people but also makes them leaders.