Roberta Catalinotto just spent six days with a living legend.
As the new vice president of the Western region for the Jewish Agency for International Development, she got to accompany Natan Sharansky on the West Coast swing of a national tour this month.
Famed as a former Soviet refusenik, and later a power player in Israeli politics, Sharansky is the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (the parent organization of JAID). Catalinotto is his new West Coast point person.
“It was an amazing experience to have the opportunity to learn from him,” she says, “and to get a sense of how his brain works, his perspective on all sorts of historic trends in the Jewish world.”
That opportunity can only help the former fundraising executive with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. In her new post, Catalinotto oversees Jewish Agency programs in the Western states, as well as fundraising for the 81-year-old organization.
For most of that 81 years, the Jewish Agency devoted its efforts to rescuing diaspora Jews from hostile lands — from Arab countries to the former Soviet Union — and bringing them to Israel.
Today, says Catalinotto, 94 percent of world Jewry lives in freedom, which means the agency’s mission is changing.
“The choice is no longer between living in Israel or the diaspora,” she says. “It’s whether to live as a Jew connected to the community, Jewish heritage and history, as well as being connected through Israel.”
That doesn’t mean the Jewish Agency neglects its longstanding role in promoting aliyah and absorption. Those remain agency cornerstones, as more than 20,000 diaspora Jews made aliyah last year. The agency stands poised to rescue Jews in need anywhere, at any time.
However, Catalinotto says, “on the ground, the emphasis is on programming that will connect young Jews up to age 35. There will be a lot of programming to connect Jews in the diaspora to one another and to Israel.”
Those programs include free or subsidized Israel trips for young people, such as those sponsored by Masa, which is in partnership with the Jewish Agency. One local program Catalinotto is especially excited about is the campus emissaries, which brings Israeli shlichim to colleges and universities like Stanford and U.C. Berkeley.
“They are there to help stand up and advocate being Jewish,” she says, “and they teach students more about Israel.”
Catalinotto considers her job at the Jewish Agency “a culmination of everything I’ve done. It’s a focus of where my passions lie, with Israel and connecting the global Jewish community.”
A native of New York, she grew up in a secular household with little Jewish education. A volunteer experience in Israel during her youth spurred a passion for the Jewish community, and she has devoted much of her professional energy to it ever since.
She has worked for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and after moving to the Bay Area four years ago, she served as chief philanthropic initiatives officer and chief development officer for the S.F.-based federation.
As a seasoned fundraiser, Catalinotto knows these are tough times when it comes to Jewish philanthropy. Annual campaigns are down at federations everywhere, so she knows she has her work cut out for her.
Still, she says she is more than up for the job.
“This is a historic crossroads we’re at,” she says. “We have an opportunity to work in partnership with Jewish communities to make some major historic changes. The Jewish Agency is the agency that connects the Jewish community to Israel, and is uniquely positioned to connect Jews globally during this critical time.”