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InterviewWilf urges 'concrete' steps so all Jews feel at home at site

New Jewish Agency chair calls for free religious expression at the Western Wall

In first interview since being elected head of group’s board of governors, Vikings owner Mark Wilf stresses importance of Jews’ responsibility toward one another

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency board of governors, Mark Wilf, left, shakes hands with incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency's executive, Doron Almog, after they both were elected on July 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Jewish Agency)
Incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency board of governors, Mark Wilf, left, shakes hands with incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency's executive, Doron Almog, after they both were elected on July 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Jewish Agency)

The incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors says he believes his organization is best suited to facilitate talks around the Western Wall, amid renewed calls by non-Orthodox streams of Judaism for recognition of their rights at the holy site following recent violence and protests against their prayer services.

“I believe all Jews around the world should feel a connection to the State of Israel as our ancestral homeland, as a nation-state not just for Israelis, but for the Jewish people globally. And that includes the fact that Jews should feel comfortable to be able to express their religious identity at the Kotel as they see fit,” Mark Wilf told The Times of Israel on Sunday in his first interview following his election, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.

“The Jewish Agency can be a forum, can be a gathering where all streams, all elements of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) can have conversations about such topics,” he said.

Wilf, a real estate developer, philanthropist and co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team, was elected unanimously on Sunday by the 120-member board of governors, the parliamentary body that sets the quasi-governmental organization’s policies and budget and approves key appointments. The board met on Sunday and Monday in Jerusalem’s swanky Orient Hotel for the first time in two years, due to the coronavirus pandemic preventing such gatherings until now.

Alongside Wilf’s election, Doron Almog was voted in as the next chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, following a year of at-times contentious search efforts to find a replacement for Isaac Herzog, the previous head of the organization, who left the post in order to become president of Israel last summer.

As chairman of the board, Wilf will have significant influence over the group’s policies, budget and operations. As the former chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, he also brings significant ties to Jewish groups throughout the United States and Canada.

Wilf and Almog were elected in a tumultuous period in the Jewish Agency, which is tasked with facilitating and encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah. The organization is currently overseeing the largest wave of immigration to Israel in 30-odd years, spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing Ethiopian civil war. Recently, Russia has threatened to curtail the group’s operations in the country.

The Western Wall

The issue of the Western Wall and the at-times violent protest at the egalitarian section there were widely discussed at the board of governors meeting.

Last month, a group of mostly ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, youths disrupted several bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies being held by American families at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, calling those present “Nazis” and “animals” and tearing up prayer books. The event drew a muted response in Israel but prompted a flurry of denunciations from American and international Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Agency, which called for the government to take action.

Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

“Words of support are not enough, and concrete actions should be taken so that Jews of all streams feel at home, safe and welcome at the Kotel and in Israel,” wrote the heads of the Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization, Jewish Federations of North America, and Keren Hayesod, including Wilf.

Several years ago, the Jewish Agency and its then-head Natan Sharansky played a pivotal role in negotiating the so-called Western Wall compromise, a deal under which the main Western Wall plaza would retain its gender segregation in line with Orthodox practice, while non-Orthodox streams of Judaism would have an upgraded egalitarian section and would have official representation in a managing committee for the holy site.

The government approved the agreement in 2016 but then froze it indefinitely following public pushback from Haredi leaders, including some who had been part of the talks and signed off on the arrangement. The compromise has remained frozen under the current government as well, despite initial public statements in favor of its implementation, due to opposition within the narrow coalition from a handful of Orthodox lawmakers.

Wilf refused to discuss the specifics of how the Jewish Agency planned to address the matter with the Israeli government, referring to a letter sent to Prime Minister Yair Lapid last week.

“The details within that and the conversations around that are obviously delicate and have been going on for some time. But I would just stand by the statement that the agency made,” Wilf said.

“I take on this job with a great sense of privilege, honor and responsibility, with the understanding that only collectively can we work through things as a people,” he said.

Wilf, the child of Holocaust survivors, stressed the need for a better “literacy level” between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done, though, and I think a big priority for me is to really build up the literacy level on both sides of the Israel-Diaspora relationship. I think we need to understand each other better,” he said.

Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia

Wilf and Almog will be entering their positions as the Jewish Agency is in the throes of a major immigration effort, from both the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia.

Wilf said he believed that he and Almog would be able to hit the ground running when they take over their new positions due to their close relationships with the current leadership.

“The Jewish Agency is on a very solid footing now in all these areas. There’s zero impact in terms of the effectiveness of our work and ability to keep executing our mission. It’s a very seamless transition. We communicate constantly,” he said.

New immigrants from Ethiopia aboard a flight to Israel on June 1, 2022, speak with Avtamo Yosef (left), head of the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian immigration. (Maxim Dinshtein)

Wilf said that he and Almog had only met for the first time in person at the board of governors meeting, before then only speaking over Zoom as Almog was interviewing for the position. Now that they both have officially been elected, Wilf said they would begin meeting to discuss their common plans going forward.

“We just met through Zoom via the interview process, and now we’ve met in person here at the board of governors meetings, and we’re going to begin having those conversations as soon as today, and we’re going to have a regular dialogue myself with Doron and with [CEO Amira Ahronoviz] and [Secretary-General Josh Schwartz] and the senior management. And those conversations are beginning now,” he said.

Wilf also briefly addressed the current struggles that the organization is facing in Russia, after Russian authorities threatened to curtail the Jewish Agency’s operations in the country.

“The bottom line is all the Jewish Agency activities and programs in Russia are continuing as planned. Any issues raised by the Russian authorities, they’re addressed accordingly within the frameworks of ongoing contacts with the Russian authorities. That’s a normal course of our business. But the main point is that all the programs and activities are continuing,” he said.

To put out a fire, you need a firehouse

Recent years have seen a decline in the proportion of donations that American Jews have made to Israel and Israeli causes, including to groups like the Jewish Agency. Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, a researcher of Jewish philanthropy, found that the drop began around 2009 and traced it to “diminishing perception of Israel as being in need and concerns over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Wilf, whose family has long donated to Jewish causes, said he believed that the pandemic, the rise of antisemitism in the United States and the ongoing war in Ukraine have driven home the need for aid organizations.

“To put out fires, to put out crises, you need a firehouse,” he said.

“I think the past few years, between the pandemic, the defense of Israel, the antisemitism battles that are hitting close to many homes — all of those are best met with a collective response,” he said.

Wilf said the organization saw a spike in donations following the outbreak of the Russian invasion in February. “We saw tens of thousands of new donors, people that maybe had been disengaged or less engaged,” he said.

Wilf said the group planned to look beyond the types of people who typically donated to the Jewish Agency in the past.

“We should try to connect with groups that have not traditionally connected with us,” he said. “We will be reaching out to more [groups] than we have in the past. That’s certainly going to be a priority.”

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