Israeli delegation to DC seeks to understand American Jewish perspectives.
A week before Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely drew fire for comments about the “convenient lives” of American Jews, an Israeli delegation visited Washington, D.C., with the express purpose of building bridges between Israel and the American Jewish community. The delegation was part of Project Community, a joint initiative of Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israeli NGO Gesher, which promotes mutual understanding and cohesive living among secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The visit took place Nov. 13-19, with the delegates spending two busy days in the Greater Washington area before heading to meetings in New York.
“Gesher’s goal is to build a cohesive Israeli society that embraces the vibrancy, diversity, and shared heritage of the Jewish people,” said International Director JJ Sussman. “Over the last few years, we have recognized the need to educate and expose Israeli leaders to Jewish communities outside of Israel if we are to be the homeland for the entire Jewish people.”
Among 17 Israeli delegates were nine journalists (broadcast and print), two mayors (and one deputy mayor), and representatives from the education, business, and religious sectors. During their visit, they met with leaders of national and local institutions, learned how Jewish and Israel-focused organizations lobby on the Hill, took a tour of the Bender JCC in Rockville, Maryland, and explored the nation's capital.
“The Israelis who participate in Gesher’s delegations are influencers: Through their professional positions, they have the opportunity to significantly impact Israelis’ perceptions of Disapora Jewry and to be powerful agents of social change,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC). Franklin Siegel provided delegates with an overview of the area’s Jewish community, spoke about the JCRC’s government, Israel and community relations work, and spent time addressing core issues impacting the relationship between American Jews and Israelis.
Many participants commented that one of the most important meetings during their time in the capital was with the organization Gather DC.
“It’s vital to begin to understand what successful and innovative young adult Jewish life looks like today,” said Rachel Gildiner, executive director of Gather DC, a Jewish social networking organization. “It’s more networked and tribal than top-down; more personally curated, with content presented as immediately relevant to their own lives; and more decentralized in terms of locations and leaders.”
Gildiner and the rest of the Gather DC representatives shared that they stay away from promoting programs or conversations about Israel because it is too contentious a topic for the young professionals they seek to engage. For some, they said, Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity, but for others, Israel is not at all part of what it means for them to be Jewish.
"These conversations had a profound impact on the Israeli delegates," said Jennifer Raskas. Director of the JCRC’s Israel Action Center, Raskas helped organize and lead the DC portion of the trip. She pointed out that delegate Attila Somfalvi, an anchor and journalist for Ynet News, wrote two articles calling attention to “a devastating deterioration” of the relationship between many American Jews and Israel following his experience with the Gesher delegation and Hotovely’s Nov. 22 remarks.
“His articles addressed many reasons for this deterioration, including how many non-Orthodox Jews, particularly after this year’s decisions surrounding conversion and the government’s revoking of the Kotel (Western Wall) deal, increasingly feel that Israel does not accept their Judaism, or even accept them as Jews,” she said.
“Direct encounters and honest dialogue such as those facilitated by the Gesher program are essential to increasing understanding and respect between Israeli and American Jews,” said Franklin Siegel.
“I learned a lot of new things, but most of all I learned complexity, the need to simultaneously manage a number of identities: Jewish, religious, connected to Israel, American, etcetera,” said delegate Aliza Bloch, director of the Branco Weiss School Network. “Sometimes these identities coincide with one another, and sometimes there is a clash that needs to be reconciled.”
“I think that the statement made by Deputy Foreign Minister Hotovely is an unfortunate and unnecessary statement,” Bloch said. “Our job is to create cohesion and shared responsibility for the future of the Jewish people. The choice to increase hatred and alienation is an error. In any case, there are small groups within American Jewry that are moving further and further away from Israel, [and] our pushing them won’t advance our situation.”
“It is in our national interest to create a sense of connection and a unity of fate,” she said.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.