Few Anglo-Jewish leaders have risen to the top as rapidly as Bill Benjamin, the Californian-born chairman-designate of the UJIA who will succeed Mick Davis next month. An executive in an international property investment company, he had been on a couple of UJIA missions but by his own admission “wasn’t heavily active” in it when he was approached to run it a year ago.
A former co-chair of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, who sat on the Jewish Leadership Council’s Jewish schools commission, he was nervous about the UJIA invitation. “ I took a few months to make the decision. I had conversations with the trustees and professional staff — and my wife.”
Mr Benjamin, 48, will now form a new double act with Michael Wegier, 47, who took over as chief executive from Doug Krikler in September. UJIA’s new leaders got to know each other seven years ago as members of the New North London Synagogue, when Mr Wegier was programmes director of UJIA before returning to Israel to head the educational agency Melitz.
They take the reins as the UJIA has shifted to concentrate more on Israel and reduce spending on home causes. It is 15 years since the organisation was refashioned from the historic merger between Jewish Continuity and the Joint Israel Appeal, with a mandate to raise millions for domestic education and culture in an effort to counteract assimilation. “I don’t think that Jewish continuity is at risk,” Mr Benjamin said. “One should never be complacent. But if you look at the take-up at Jewish primary and secondary schools, the strength of the youth movements and numbers going on camp or tour, Limmud, Jewish Book Week or the construction of the JCC, and the fact that there are many vibrant synagogues, cultural, welfare and political organisations, this is an extremely dynamic community.”
The impact of the recession has also sharpened focus. In the last year, UJIA suffered a 13 per cent drop in income from £12.2 million to £10.6 million.
I am confident that young people can have a fantastic Israel experience - Michael Wegier
“Our focus is very clear, on Israel and Israel engagement,” Mr Wegier said. “I believe a passionate commitment to the Jewish people, to Judaism, is linked with a passionate connection to Israel.”
Not that support for home causes has dried up altogether. But where it continues, there is an Israel connection: for example, for curriculum development in modern Hebrew, Jewish history and Israel studies in Jewish schools, youth tours to Israel or Israel speakers at the Limmud conference. Bursaries for youth Israel trips run at more than £200,00 a year.
““The relationship with Israel is something we have to concentrate on,” Mr Benjamin said. “Today’s kids live in a different time, they get different images from the media. They experience it on the beaches of Herzliya or Eilat. Our job is to be that living bridge, which is an old slogan but an apt one, between our Jewish youth and Israel.”
Such challenges mean constantly reviewing the content of Israel youth programmes. “We encourage young people to ask questions of everybody,” Mr Wegier said. “You can’t sell people a propaganda line, nor are we trying to. I am confident enough in Israel that young people can go through a fantastic experience there and come out asking pertinent questions.”
Whereas Mr Wegier himself spent 10 months on a gap year in Israel, he said there was a need now for a more “modular” model. “People on gap year want to do a number of things,” he said. “They want an Israel experience, but they might want a work experience or to travel to Asia, or Africa, or Latin America. Providing they include a significant period in Israel, say three to four months, then I think we have to offer that and that’s one of the things we are looking at already.”
But whereas some Israelis believe traditional diaspora philanthropy to Israel is passé and commercial investment is the way forward, the UJIA stands by its aid work in the Galilee. “The Galil is economically and socially a deprived area,” Mr Benjamin said. “Income levels are well below national averages. If it is a new primary school or a yeshivah for children who are borderline in their social behaviour, whether it is colleges, or medical centres, they are really touching people’s lives.”
The new campaign has already received a boost from one donor who pledged £500,000 if the sum could be matched in new donations or increased gifts. That offer has proved a great success and the UJIA is “well on the way” to meeting the target.