JERUSALEM, June 28 (JTA) -- A beaming Zeev Bielski took the stage in front of the assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel, vowing to be their emissary to the Jewish people as they elected him in a unanimous show of hands.
The job to which he was elected Tuesday will bring the charismatic and popular Bielski, 58, mayor of Ra’anana for the past 16 years, full-circle professionally.
As a young man in 1977, Bielski was sent as a Jewish Agency emissary to South Africa, where he was in charge of aliyah efforts.
Later he helped found the Israel Forum, which builds ties between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.
As mayor of Ra’anana, an Israeli city with large immigrant populations from the former Soviet Union and Western countries, including the United States and South Africa, Bielski has had a hands-on role in aliyah.
“First of all, I see myself as a shaliach,” Bielski said in an interview with JTA, using the Hebrew word for emissary. “My door will always be open to every Jew, wherever he is.”
A former player in Israel’s national basketball league who is known to stop and shoot hoops with local Ra’anana youth, Bielski is something of a darling of the Jewish professional world. He is known as an energetic, disciplined administrator who gets things done, and with a smile.
Somewhat of an anomaly in Israeli political life, he seems to be universally liked.
“Everyone loves Zeevik,” said Dov Barel, director general of the finance department of the World Zionist Organization, who grew up with Bielski in Jerusalem.
As chairman of the Jewish Agency, Bielski plans to focus on three major goals: to bring the remainder of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia to Israel, to push “aliyah by choice” from Western countries and to help bridge the growing socioeconomic gap between rich and poor Israeli children.
Bielski said he is especially excited to begin work on the Jewish Agency’s new Masa program, an initiative to bring some 20,000 Diaspora youth on long-term programs to Israel over the next five years.
“This is a project with a vision, and there is no doubt that it will change the Jewish world,” he said.
Bielski’s election followed a tense showdown last week at the World Zionist Organization. The unusually heated election was between Bielski, the prime minister’s candidate, and former Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, the World Likud candidate.
The Jewish Agency and the government are supposed to work hand in hand, and the prime minister in past years has selected a candidate approved by his party. This year, however, World Likud accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of undermining the democratic process by choosing Bielski without the party’s consent.
Observers say the real issue was political: Bielski is a supporter of the government’s plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer, while Sharansky is a vocal opponent of it.
Last Friday, Sharansky bowed out of the race after the Jewish Agency’s Advise and Consent Committee said it would not change its decision to support Bielski.
Replacing Sallai Meridor as the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Bielski will oversee a budget of some $350 million and head an organization that is seen as key in unifying Jewish people worldwide by promoting and overseeing aliyah and Zionist education programs.
The Jewish Agency’s chairman also chairs the World Zionist Organization, which has a small budget but represents Diaspora and Israeli political parties and comprises half of the Jewish Agency’s board of trustees.
The Jewish Agency’s assembly was meeting in Jerusalem through Tuesday, to be followed by meetings of its board of governors through Thursday.
Carol Solomon, chairwoman of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors, said she thinks Bielski is particularly well suited to the job. She notes that he was a member of the board of governors and was involved in crafting its new strategic vision.
“We are ready for liftoff, and I think his energy and his track record will be play a major role in moving us forward,” she said.
Solomon said Bielski’s experience in Ra’anana, which is known as one of the most successful and best-run municipalities in Israel, will serve him well at the helm of the Jewish Agency.
“Ra’anana is a microcosm of how the Jewish community as a whole should be run -- with understanding between the various communities, both religious, secular and immigrant,” said David Kolitz, an Israeli businessman who helped establish the Israel Forum with Bielski and who has also played an active role in the Jewish Agency.
The Reform movement publically endorsed Bielski early in last week’s election wrangling. The endorsement came after a phone call from Sharon to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, asking for the movement’s help in pushing Bielski’s candidacy, Yoffie wrote to union board members.
Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said his faction of the Reform movement, together with the secular Shinui Party, endorsed Bielski because he understands their concerns about religious pluralism in Israel and is an excellent mediator between the Diaspora and Israel.
At a time when it’s difficult to raise funds for Israel, Bielski is someone who “can provide a compelling case why important resources still need to come to Israel,” Davids said.
A vote for Bielski is a vote for political moderation, he said.
“By supporting Bielski,” Davids said, “we are strengthening the center.”
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