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Next Step : Jewish Agency on a Mission to Find a New Mission : Mideast peace and slowed immigration to Israel are undercutting the traditional rallying points for the group.


JERUSALEM — At a time of great uncertainty in the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish people, at least one man passionately believes that the beleaguered Jewish Agency can play a powerful role in reshaping the ties between the two communities.

The chief advocate for the bureaucracy that many Israelis have long viewed as little more than a dumping ground for fading politicians is Avraham Burg, the agency's newly elected chairman.

Burg, 40, a Labor Party Parliament member and rising Israeli political star, entered office with a mandate from the agency's board of governors--leaders of Jewish Zionist and fund-raising organizations abroad--to find new missions for the aging institution.

Founded in pre-state days as the governing body of the Jewish community in Palestine, the agency fulfilled its first mission when Israel was created in 1949. For decades after that, it continued to thrive as the lead institution dealing with aliyah --the immigration of Jews to Israel.

But that mission too is coming to an end as the last great pool of potential immigrants, those from the former Soviet Union, gradually relocate to Israel or the West.

Some Jewish leaders abroad and their Israeli counterparts believe that the time has come to simply do away with the agency. Burg argues, however, that it should survive and should mount a new type of "rescue" mission--that of saving Jewish identity in Jewish communities abroad and of preserving the links between Diaspora Jews and Israel.

The Israeli-born Burg comes from a religious family. His father, Josef Burg, served in Israeli governments as a member of the National Religious Party and is a respected biblical scholar. But the younger Burg's politics have always been to the left of his father's. In 1982, Burg--a reserve officer in the Israeli army--protested against Israel's war in Lebanon. He was wounded when a far-right militant threw a grenade into a group of Peace Now protesters.

Burg, who wears the skullcap of the religious Jew, says that he is determined to ensure that his own children do not become just "Hebrew-speaking Americans," and that they maintain a strong Jewish identity.

Less than three weeks into the job, he is still learning his way around the corridors of the agency, lined with photographs that boast of its proud past. The foyer to his office is adorned with massive portraits of the founding fathers of Zionism.

Talking about the agency's past sometimes appears as "a much more promising issue" than talking about its future, Burg joked.

But as he settles in, Burg is refining his vision of shaping the agency into a bridge that will educate Israelis about the Diaspora--Jewish communities outside Israel--and educate the Diaspora about Israel.

"We're an abnormal people (who have) a relatively normal Middle East state," Burg said. "The majority of the Jewish people live outside of their country. They need an arm extended to them, and there are limits to what the state can do."

With a budget of $400 million and a staff of 1,200, the agency is the richest and largest non-governmental institutional link between Israel and world Jewry.

For decades, Jewish communities around the world have funded the agency's immigration, education and other activities, spurred by a vision of building a Jewish state and helping Jews who felt threatened abroad find safety in the Jewish state.

But there are fewer and fewer Jews left to rescue.

"By the year 2010, the Jews who want to come here from the former Soviet Union will have come here," Burg said. "It means that the issue of Soviet Jewry will be over as a motivator for the Jewish people" and as the core of the agency's activities.

At the same time, the cause of an embattled Israel also is ending for world Jewry, Burg said. The powerful emotional attraction of contributing to a struggling Jewish state sharply diminished after Israel signed its peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization in September, 1993, and continues to erode as Israel moves toward making peace with all its neighbors.

"We Israelis are not as attractive as we used to be," Burg said. "War is concentrated excitement, something that people can unite around. Peace is a long-term process. There are Jews in the Diaspora who are saying to Israel now: We gave you the last 50 years, now it is our 50 years."

Burg worries that Jews in the Diaspora, no longer concerned about Israel's survival and no longer needed to help rescue threatened Jewish communities, will turn inward and lose their connection with world Jewry.

His chief task after ensuring that Jews of the former Soviet Union continue to immigrate, Burg said, is to "counter the atomization of the Jewish people and to provide a common ground for Jews all over the world to develop a Jewish polity."

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