The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews on Monday announced that it will be establishing a new private immigration and absorption program. The new initiative is set to be headed by Eli Cohen, the former head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Aliyah department and the current Deputy CEO of Israeli national water carrier Mekorot.
IFCJ President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein has a history of clashing with the Jewish Agency over immigration, dating back to his time as the head of the agency’s aliyah committee. The IFCJ has donated millions to the agency budget but has scaled down its commitments over disagreements with the body’s 2009 strategic roadmap which emphasized a focus on Jewish identity building in the Diaspora. As part of that realignment, the aliyah department was shuttered and merged with other units, leading to Cohen’s resignation.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Eckstein said that he sees this shift as coming at the expense of aliyah and that the Jewish Agency is “going through a difficult period” due to shrinking contributions from the Jewish Federation system.
The focus of the new initiative, which will be fleshed out by Cohen over the coming weeks and months, will be on bringing Jews from the former Soviet Union, especially war-torn Ukraine, and other countries “in crisis” around the world, to Israel, according to the IFCJ.
The organization, which raises money from a largely North American Christian donor base for its projects, has spent 150 million dollars on immigration and absorption, largely in cooperation with the Jewish Agency and other players, according to Cohen.
Both Cohen and Eckstein stressed that there will still be cooperation with the agency but, as Eckstein put it, “we are no longer going to be dependent on their cooperation.”
“The whole intention is cooperation,” Cohen said. “We have not come to replace anyone.”
In August Eckstein announced that the IFCJ would sponsor several special flights of Ukrainian immigrants that would arrive in Israel within a period of weeks, but arrangements for the flights have apparently not yet been finalized. The difficulty in bringing off such a logistical challenge may be one of the reasons for hiring Cohen.
“The Jewish Agency for Israel is the body tasked with bringing new immigrants to Israel. As part of its activities, the Jewish Agency works with various government ministries and other organizations interested in aiding its efforts to bring immigrants to the Jewish state,” said spokesman Avi Mayer in a terse response to the IFCJ announcement.
“It’s exciting to see that the fellowship has identified the need for an additional player in the promotion of aliyah and as someone who aliyah has been important to all my adult life, my expectation is that everyone interested in this will welcome the decision,” said Daniel Goldman, a member of agency’s board of governors and a supporter of Cohen’s recent failed bid for mayor of Beit Shemesh.
“From my personal from working with Eli in the last two years I am sure that he will look for partnership and ways to leverage existing opportunities and introduce new initiatives where necessary, or look for new ways to promote and increase aliyah.”
In June, a draft plan for a new government aliyah initiative, widely thought to be the work of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, was leaked to the press. That plan sought to establish a new non-governmental corporation to oversee European, and especially Ukrainian, immigration.
The plan called for the new corporation to be owned jointly by the four “national institutions” of Keren Hayesod, JNF, the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.
The Jewish Agency is currently embroiled in tensions with the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs over its role in the Prime Minister’s World Jewry Joint Initiative, a program aimed at using taxpayer funds to promote Jewish identity abroad.