The former Soviet dissident -- whose 1986 triumphant stride to freedom across a Berlin bridge heralded the opening of the floodgates for hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews -- is now at the helm of the very agency that resettled many of his compatriots in Israel.
But he has taken over at a time when the agency known best for such rescue and resettlement has fewer Jews to save.
It is also a time when Jewish communities in North America --the Jewish Agency's largest source of funding -- are struggling with fewer dollars and growing needs.
Some of those communities, including Philadelphia, are asking tough questions about the agency's mandate, its efficacy and its way of doing business.
Sharansky came to town recently as part of a tour of several North American cities. His visits were aimed at spreading his vision of a new Jewish Agency, and convincing local leaders that the organization that for so long played a critical role in the development of the State of Israel still has an important part to play on the world's Jewish stage.
He said that he wanted to "turn the page" on what had become strained relations between the Jewish Agency and the Philadelphia community in recent years, after the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia moved to a new funding system and demanded greater accountability from beneficiaries.
Sharansky, who also spent years in Israeli politics, said he wanted to capitalize on his relationships within the Philadelphia community among people who once played a pivotal role in the Soviet Jewry movement.
The one-time refusenik sees a parallel in his awakening during the 1970s as a leader in both the Russian human-rights movement and Moscow's Zionist underground, and what he views as his top challenge: to instill Jewish pride and connections among Jews all over the world.
"I always felt that I didn't have to make a choice between the rights of my people and universal values," he said to a gathering of the Philadelphia Federation here on Nov. 18. "That's a false choice."
"We have to develop an identity as one people; it's about Israel, and it's about Jews all over the world," he said in an interview following his talk. The Jewish Agency is in a "unique position to face this challenge."
Pressure to Make Changes
Sharansky cited several ideas that he is pursuing to help build those bridges and, in the process, help enhance Jewish identity: placing Israeli emissaries on college campuses to combat anti-Israel sentiment; providing a summer camp in Israel for Russian-speaking youth from all over the world; and developing closer cooperation between short-term Birthright Israel trips for young adults and MASA, Jewish Agency-sponsored long-term programs in Israel geared to a similar age group.
But he also appears to understand the concern among some North American Jewish leaders about the need to further change how the agency works. In recent years, the agency -- once considered a bulging bureaucracy -- has, under pressure from Diaspora partners, slashed its budget and aimed to redefine its mission.
Today, the Jewish Agency operates with a $276 million basic budget, of which the largest chunk -- $120 million -- comes from the North American federation system. But the $120 million is less than the $138 million originally allocated, reflecting budgetary constraints among local federations.
The agency hopes to retain the $120 million figure from North America for 2010, but that, too, is uncertain at this point.
With Philadelphia, the relationship is more complex.
Most federations around the country contribute their overseas allocations to a central pot of funds at the Jewish Federations of North America -- formerly the United Jewish Communities -- which then divvies up most of the money between the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
In 2008, Philadelphia implemented a new system of distributing direct grants -- for both domestic and overseas needs -- to organizations primarily on a project-by-project basis.
Organizations must now submit proposals for particular projects, and must undergo a rigorous evaluation to determine if the program is successful and worthy of continued support.
In the current funding cycle, more than $6 million was distributed to some 14 projects in Israel and the former Soviet Union. Of that, close to $2 million went to projects run by the Jewish Agency for youths at risk or to support Philadelphia's partnership program in the Negev.
The rest went to the JDC or to other organizations focused on the Federation's priority areas of food insecurity, children at risk and enhancing Israel-Diaspora relations.
In adopting the new system, the Philadelphia Federation became one of the first to bypass the central system, and allocate directly to specific projects in Israel and the former Soviet Union.
The new method, say Federation officials, is designed to enable donors to feel a closer connection with a project and be better able to evaluate its impact.
But the new approach -- which has some local critics, but was approved by the Federation's boards of directors and trustees -- didn't go over so well with the Jewish Agency and the JDC, which now had to compete with other organizations and each other for the same dollars.
Tali Lidar, Philadelphia's representative in Israel, joked during a visit here that she was no longer so popular at the Jewish Agency, where she used to work.
She said that it has taken officials there awhile to understand the new system, particularly the part where they had to answer specific questions about how the money was being spent.
Meanwhile, the Federation's board of directors voted in September to make all of its future overseas allocation discretionary, meaning there will no longer be a specific amount or percentage set aside for what is known as "core" funding for the Jewish Agency and JDC.
The two entities can, however, continue to apply for core support, as well as project-focused grants, just as they did before.
Sharansky said that he understands and respects the community's desire to support certain ventures, but said that's not enough: "At a time of limited resources, it's even more tempting to say let's concentrate on a specific number of limited projects."
He also made the case for "collective responsibility," contributing to support the central agencies like his that must be there in times of need. He cited the recent relocation of Jews from Yemen to the United States as an example.
For their part, top Federation officials here say there's money in reserve for emergencies.
Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Federation, cited the Yemen situation as an example of how Philadelphia can contribute when a special request goes out. Philadelphia's federation contributed $20,000 out of $750,000 raised by the Jewish Federations of North America for that effort.
Schwartz said that he was encouraged by Sharansky's openness during his visit. Sharansky understood that the "questions we asked were not unreasonable," and he vowed to cooperate with Philadelphia's request for transparency and accountability for the projects it supports.
"He's interested in maintaining our longstanding relationship with JAFI, which was never really in jeopardy," Schwartz said, using the acronym for the agency.
The Right Balance
Looking ahead, Federation officials involved in overseas allocations said they will be watching to see how Sharansky implements the changes he envisions.
Joan Stern, a co-chair of the Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, said that her center's board has already begun to determine priorities.
As proposals come in for the next round of funding early next year, they will need to re-evaluate them.
"Are they too narrow, too broad; are they the right priorities given circumstances in the world?" she posed.
"There's probably a balance to strike" between direct giving to projects, and giving to an umbrella organization like the Jewish Agency or JDC," Stern said.
"How we do this is a work in progress; we'll keep working to strike the right balance."