Detroiter-Israeli elected president of the worldwide ‘Jewish Parliament.’
Israel, like most other countries, has a parliament (the Knesset) and considers Jews worldwide to be part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish nation family.
How are Jews spread around approximately 80 countries thus represented?
“The WZO is the democratically elected parliament of the Jewish people,” says Tova Dorfman, new World Zionist Organization president and former Oak Park and Farmington Hills resident.
“Yet, few Jews around the world really are aware of the WZO or what it does, unless they’re involved. For example, the last WZO elections in 2020 brought out 132,000 voters in the U.S., more than ever and more than double the turnout for the 2015 elections,” she said, “but still a very small amount of the potential among the 5.5 million or so American Jews.”
Dorfman, 64, took her post Feb. 1. “The president is elected by the executive committee, which includes department heads and partners in the WZO. They met in January, electing me unanimously with no abstentions,” she said. This occurred following an agreement between the Likud faction and Yesh Atid, her political home.
“I am hopeful that together, all the factions and organizations that are members of the World Zionist Organization will continue to work in unity for the fulfillment of the Zionist vision in the 75th year of our independence,” said Yaakov Hagoel, WZO chairman.
Dorfman’s first formal introduction to world Jewry was at the 39th World Zionist Congress, April 19-21, often referred to as the “parliament of the Jewish people.” The Congress, which is the WZO’s supreme ideological and policy-making body, makes key decisions on how to allocate some
$1 billion annually to support Israel and world Jewry.
“One of my goals is awareness, including letting Jews know there are elections every five years,” Dorfman said.
Yet, while elections “do give people the opportunity to vote for something that actually can make the difference,” she hopes “more people become engaged through involvement with Zionism, organizations that can exercise a lot of influence, and the Zionist enterprise, all stronger in the ’70s and ’80s,” she said.
Twenty-nine percent of the World Zionist Congress’s 500 delegates are elected by U.S. Jews on behalf of their diaspora organizations. “There is a lot of potential to influence policy,” she said.
Issues include equality, access, social and economic justice, and pluralism, which are important to many American Jews.
“Ms. Dorfman is taking office in the midst of facing great and important challenges for the Jewish people and the Zionist world,” Hagoel said.
Dorfman is up to the task. Her professional career model is about innovative, creative programming and has been singularly successful in bringing around to the table key individuals and institutions to create an invaluable synergy.
She hopes more “get involved in policy making and distribution of funds that reflect the interests of American Jews, Detroit Jews,” she said.
Dorfman is the first woman to fill the position, some 36 years after Ruth Popkin was the first woman to chair the 1987 World Zionist Congress Presidium and become WZO president. Dorfman also is the first WZO president since 1972, when Ehud Avriel completed his four-year tenure.
“From then until now, the WZO chair has been the highest role,” she said, “but the post-2020 election negotiations with Yesh Atid, Likud and others returned the role, which exists per organizational bylaws.”
Prior to her election as president, Dorfman served as WZO vice-chairman, head of the Department for Israel and Holocaust Commemoration, and chaired the WZO Herzl Center/Museum. In her “day” job as executive director of the Steinhardt Foundation, she oversees partnerships with nonprofits in education and serving at-risk youth and young adult leadership.
Born in Jaffa, Israel, and raised in Oak Park, Dorfman finished high school in Israel and pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in international relations and education at UCLA in Los Angeles. Afterward, in 1984, she worked for Melitz, the Center for Zionist Education in Jerusalem, before returning to Detroit from 1993-1996 to manage the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Israel and Overseas Department while her husband, Raviv Schwartz, worked on his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.
Dorfman intends to use her presidential pulpit and the institution’s resources to engage more Jews in America and worldwide, even though “the WZO president is considered a ceremonial and voluntary job,” she said.
She already notes a greater diversity of olim and diversifying of reasons for coming to Israel in recent years.
“Now, there is a big influx for professional reasons, with many working at American companies,” that have opened offices in the greater Tel Aviv area, also an attraction to young professionals.
Dorfman, who lives with her family in Savyon, outside of Tel Aviv, invites Detroiters and all Americans to become more involved formally with Zionism. “The easiest ways are to reach out to local Zionist organizations in the community and go to the WZO website, www.wzo.org.il, and learn about the partners.”