For Jewish News March 2 2019
Michael Wegier, the outgoing chief executive of UJIA, says he is proud and frustrated in almost equal measure.
His pride, he says, is for the tenacity with which young British Jews stayed on their Israel programmes in the tumultuous violent summer of the 2014 Gaza War. “Almost no-one came home, or didn’t go. It is one of the proudest things we have ever done”.
And the frustration? “That we couldn’t crack the gap-year problem”.
But Wegier, a 14-year veteran of UJIA roles culminating in his six-and-a-half-year stint as chief executive, even has plans to tackle that – the problem being a decline in numbers of those who spend a whole year in Israel between school and university.
Wegier is better placed than many to look at the complex relationship between Britain and the diaspora, not just because of his profession, but because he made aliyah in 1990 and has been back and forth between Britain and Israel since 1983.
Besides a huge sea-change in the number of Israel-related charities between now and 30 years ago, Wegier says there is a major change in the way money is raised – and used for.
“Then, the bulk of fund-raising was done as peer to peer, by volunteers. Now it is driven by professionals, and UJIA has the largest professional team in the community,” he says. “We are not raising less money. JIA probably raised as a percentage of all fundraising more than UJIA raises today but the overall sector has grown”.
Additionally, Wegier says, the messaging has shifted radically in the way people are asked to support Israel. “Israel is a first-world country, but you can go to the periphery and find people who are really struggling. So UJIA’s messaging there has shifted – it is about helping the most vulnerable. But we partner with Israeli philanthropists and we fund programmes together, in Israel and in the UK, projects where the Israeli taxpayer and Israeli philanthropists are partners.”
Among the programmes Israelis are helping to fund and about which Wegier is most enthused is Onward Israel, a two-month internship which people can attend after school or during or after university. Participants can work in hi-tech or social action or NGOs. Feedback for the programme is immensely positive, says Wegier.
Part of the change in the way UJIA works, he goes on, is an acknowledgement of the change in relationship between Israel and the diaspora.
He characterises it as “hugging and wrestling, and how to ensure that our children and grandchildren have the same deep and powerful relationship with Israel as we do today”.
Things have changed for Wegier himself, he admits. “I came back in 2002 to find that the community was far more exciting than the one I had left. It was more dynamic, there was much more going on, particularly if you lived in the big communities of London and Manchester.”
In response, UJIA stepped up its game. One of Wegier’s challenges has been to confront “those who might say UK Jewry are better off donating just to Jews”, and has urged the charity to help bridge the poverty gap between Jews and Arabs with better investment in Arab areas.
Task Force, an external grouping, has now been absorbed into UJIA, and has just appointed its first Arab Israeli, Sana Knaneh, from the Galilee, an educator doing her Master’s at LSE, who will work with youth movements “to teach British Jewry about the Arab citizens of Israel”.
Overall, Wegier is still frustrated about UJIA’s inability to improve the numbers of gap-year participants. His ambition, despite the fact UJIA currently operates on a £12million budget, is “to make gap year like Birthright” with every young Jew going on a gap-year programme but with costs kept down to £1,000 per participant.
This would mean UJIA would have to raise an additional £2.5million a year. “We could do it, once, but ideally we would need to do that every year.”
It’s a huge ask for an already overstretched community, but Wegier says all the surveys show a gap year in Israel has the greatest effect on future communal leaders and professionals alike.
Together with SI3, UJIA’s newest social-impact project, where “green philanthropy” loans are given to small businesses in Israel, Wegier’s mission of “how to connect” will, he hopes, be his legacy to the community.