World Chairman of Keren Hayesod visits Cape Town

Sam Grundwerg, World Chairman of Keren Hayesod with Philip Krawitz

In August, Sam Grundwerg, World Chairman of Keren Hayesod made his first-ever, and much-delayed, visit to South Africa Covid having put on hold his original plan to visit in March 2020.

The trip, organised by Philip Krawitz, finally took place, and afforded Sam a brief and intensive introduction to the Johannesburg and Cape Town Jewish communities.

Originally hailing from Miami Beach, Sam left the USA in 1990 aged 17, and relocated to Israel, where he studied and served in the IDF. 

Before taking his current position as World Chairman of Keren Hayesod, he held positions in the fields of law and finance in the US and Israel, served as Director General in Israel for the World Jewish Congress (WJC), and as Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, where he was the senior representative of the State of Israel to the Southwestern States.

For the past three and a half years he has held the position of World Chairman of Keren Hayesod – UIA (United Israel Appeal). 

Keren Hayesod was established in 1920, thus predating the State of Israel. It is one of Israel’s four national institutions to enjoy special official status enshrined in the law. The first of these is the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) established by Theodore Herzl in 1897 at the first Zionist congress in Basel, Switzerland. Keren Kayemet Leisrael/JNF (KKL) was established in 1901, and Keren Hayesod (KH) in 1920. The Jewish Agency (JA) — currently the largest of the four — in 1929.

Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency work closely, KH in the role of fundraising and JA in an operational capacity. Their three main areas of focus are:

Aliyah: To date, Israel has absorbed over three-and-a-half million olim (this includes before ‘48).

Strengthening Israeli society by supporting those on the periphery eg. socio-economically disadvantaged, youth at risk, elderly,  Holocaust survivors (and more…). Together with the Jewish Agency, KH support subsidised housing.

Connecting. communities around the world with Israel and with each other. Sam notes a paradigm shift in this arena. While in the early decades Israel was usually on the receiving end of this work, the country is stronger now and in a position to send help to communities around the world when needed. We in South Africa have benefitted from this when they recently sent funds to help South African Jewish institutions meet the demands created by Covid.

Most recently, they have been able to to rescue thousands of people from war-ravaged Ukraine and Russia. Before the war, Ukraine had an active Jewish community numbering over 50 000, and a much larger concentration of 200 000 eligible for aliyah. The Jewish Agency already had a strong infrastructure in place with about 40 shlichim, 80 local employees, and an Israeli Foreign ministry and Embassy in Kyiv. When the war started, Keren Hayesod was able to work with partners around the world (including South Africa) to run a successful emergency campaign, raising over US$22m. The Jewish Agency ran rescue operations, and those qualifying for aliyah under law of return (minimum one Jewish grandparent) were able to make aliyah. Since the the war started in late February, 32 000 Russians and Ukrainians have made aliyah. The huge scope of this mission is made clear when compared to a similar figure of 35 000 — the average number of new olim world-wide in a (non-Covid) year! 

Sam describes scenes of human tragedy along the border with Eastern Poland — the looks of relief but profound sadness and uncertainty on the faces of mostly women and children who have had to leave their male relatives behind, because of the ruling that prevents men aged 19 to 60 from leaving the country.

However, unlike 80 years ago, Israel and communities around the world have rallied to raise funds, and this time there is a country and communities ready to receive them. 

Because of their special status, Keren Hayesod are uniquely positioned, with direct access to the Prime Minister and heads of various institutions setting national priorities, to work independently and also with government to provide the support needed to effect this rescue, and the integration process that must follow. 

• Published in the September 2022 Rosh Hashanah Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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