Airports are usually places you move through quickly. But walking through Ben Gurion earlier this week on my way back from meetings of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors in Israel, I spent 45 minutes captivated by a photo exhibit displayed in the long passageway between immigration control and the gates.

Called One to Ninety, the exhibit celebrates the 90th anniversary and historic impact of the Jewish Agency, our largest grantee, with whom we’ve invested well in excess of $1 billion over the years.

The exhibit shows large, arresting photographs in pairs, each a personal before and after story.

For example, the photo on the left depicts Shlomo Bar, age 11, at the Be’er Ya’akov Immigrant Absorption Camp in 1954. With the support of the Jewish Agency, he emigrated with his three sisters from Rabat, Morocco, to Israel, via France. On the right is the same Shlomo Bar, in 2019, musician and composer, and a winner of the Israeli Theater Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

There’s a photo of a Russian immigrant who lived at a Jewish Agency Youth Village and became an Israeli decathlon champion. An Ethiopian immigrant brought over by Operation Moses, now the Jewish Agency’s delegation director in Ethiopia. An ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur who realized his dream of opening a brewery with a secular friend, thanks to the Jewish Agency and a UJA-Federation loan fund. There are photos of teachers, volunteers, “lone” soldiers, shlichim (emissaries from Israel to world Jewry), and many others. You can see the catalog of all the stories here and a video about the exhibit here.

These are but a tiny sample of the millions of lives transformed by the Jewish Agency, which — with our support — has changed the face of Israel.

The Current Chapter

For much of its history, the Jewish Agency’s focus has been on aliyah and klitah, the bringing and absorption of immigrants into Israel. And that remains an important dimension of the Jewish Agency’s work. Indeed, just this week, while I was there, the Jewish Agency helped bring 43 Ethiopians to Israel. In all, last year, 34,000 people, many from Russia, Ukraine, and France, made aliyah to Israel, supported by the Jewish Agency.

Over the last decade, the Jewish Agency has also been keenly focused on building Jewish identity and connecting global Jewry to each other and to Israel. This work took on new urgency after the Israeli government decided to suspend an expanded egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in 2017, to the great disappointment of many in global Jewry. With funding from UJA, the Jewish Agency began to pursue new efforts to bridge the growing divide between many segments of U.S. Jewry and Israel.

One of the new, major initiatives is groundbreaking. In conjunction with Israel’s ministry of education, we’re working on adding courses about the experience of world Jewry to the standard curriculum in Israeli schools. To help achieve this, UJA has been funding trips for leading Israeli educators and other influentials to New York to experience the wonderful diversity of our Jewish communities. We also sent American Jewish educators to Israel to meet with their counterparts and help inform the curriculum. In Israel, I met some of the Israeli participants who told us their lives have been forever changed by these experiences.

The chair of pedagogy in Israel’s Ministry of Education shared that her visit to New York completely reshaped her understanding of Jewish life outside of Israel. Another trip participant, a secular school principal from Be’er Sheva, told us she was deeply moved by the different expressions of Jewish practice she saw in New York — so much so that when her mother passed away, she incorporated new religious elements learned in New York into the memorial service. And because they’re educators, what they experienced will make its way into the classroom and beyond.

Ten years from now, when the Jewish Agency celebrates its centennial, I can imagine the photos of these educators and their students appearing in a new exhibit at Ben Gurion Airport — a historical record of how we’ve continued transforming lives while also bringing the Jewish people closer, ready to write the next chapter together.

Shabbat shalom