New Jewish Agency Chief Bielski will Reach Out to Non-Orthodox in Diaspora

As newly appointed chairman of the Jewish Agency, Zeev Bielski says he will endeavour to bring the non-Orthodox majority of Jews in North America closer to Israel, where an Orthodox monopoly exists on marriage, conversion and other areas of personal life. “It is my duty to try and bridge the gap between the situation in Israel today and the desire of these people to be recognized and to be able to fulfil their Jewishness the way they want it,” he told Haaretz in an interview this week. “I’m going to be raising it. By talking, persuading and searching for a proper Jewish solution for the non-Orthodox communities, I will try to be involved and make an effort to find better solutions to the situation we have today.”

Bielski, who has been mayor of Ra’anana for close to 17 years, was ratified Tuesday as chairman at the Jewish Agency’s Assembly. He was unanimously elected to the post after former minister Natan Sharansky’s candidacy was vetoed in a controversial move by the agency’s most senior panel. One source in the World Zionist Organization said that the decision of the agency’s Advise and Consent committee not to allow Sharansky to run would “weaken Bielski” in his new post. Indeed, Bielski himself was disappointed not to have won in an election against the former Diaspora affairs minister. “I personally would have preferred to have the vote [with two candidates],” he told Haaretz. “I worked toward this, I was 100 percent ready for this and I had the support of most of the voters. I am sorry it happened like this.”

But Bielski insists the move would not weaken him: “I’ll just have to work hard to prove to everyone that the choice was correct.” Though aware that some Sharansky supporters have already vowed to remove him from office in a year when he will have to compete again for the chairmanship at the 35th Zionist Congress, Bielski says: “I don’t think people are waiting for me to fail. People who know me from Ra’anana know that I favor very wide coalitions and I’m going to call on all parties [in the WZO] to join my coalition. I hope they will respond to my outstretched hand.” Bielski, though “absolutely delighted” with his new appointment, admits he has been through “a long month of ups and downs.” Since being named as the prime minister’s choice for the Jewish Agency chairman and disregarded as the candidate of World Likud, Bielski was eventually nominated for the post by the Reform Movement and given a Herut seat on the WZO Executive – a necessary step before being elected chairman of the Agency.

The maneuvers to get him elected were said to be masterminded by the Prime Minister’s Office via MK Omri Sharon and Likud Deputy Director General Rafi Bar-Chen, a member of the Zionist General Council, in an effort to block the candidacy of Sharansky, who resigned from the government in protest against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. Bielski, who will not leave Ra’anana for Jerusalem, where his new job is based, says he thinks the Gaza withdrawal plan will not affect Diaspora Jewry. “I hope that within a few weeks, after the disengagement is complete, we will quickly reunite in Israel – and in the Diaspora. It is our responsibility. We must not forget that Am Yisrael [People of Israel] is one people. We have a very painful situation, with people being torn from the inside, but we have to look beyond our different movements and keep united. We’re too vulnerable. We have too many enemies on the outside. We can not allow ourselves to be ripped apart. It is our duty to try and reunite Am Yisrael as quickly as possible.”

Era of aliya is not over
Bielski says he will work to implement major reforms at the Agency, as outlined in the strategic plan devised under the leadership of his predecessor, Sallai Meridor. “The Agency will concentrate on aliya [immigration to Israel] by choice; we believe that the era of aliya is not over. Israel is the best place for Jews who would like to live Jewish lives – and ensure Jewish lives for their children – and I believe we will witness hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming to Israel in our lifetime, and the Agency will be here for them.” He says that the Agency would concentrate on the MASA program, which aims to bring tens of thousands of young Diaspora Jews to Israel for up to a year on volunteering and educational programs. “Some will become immigrants, but most will go back to their countries where they will become Jewish leaders in their communities.” Bielski adds that in line with its strategic plan, the Agency would also work to close the social and economic gaps between children in Israel.

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