On the trip, Israeli public figures learned about American Jewish perspectives on Israel, Jewish identity, and other important issues.
Twenty Israeli leaders — including eight mayors, top Israeli TV and radio journalists, heads of nongovernmental organizations, and a former Olympic athlete — recently came to Greater Washington to familiarize themselves with American Jewry and learn how Israel can best relate to Jews abroad.
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 first of its kind, Project Community is in part an outcome of the Israeli government’s allocation of resources toward building bridges between Israel and the American Jewish community, as well as Gesher’s investment in connecting Israeli Jewish leaders across the religious and political spectrum.
Jennifer Raskas, director of the Israel Action Center of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, coordinated many of the delegation’s DC-area meetings and served as a resource on the Greater Washington Jewish community.
JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel was the opening speaker for the Israelis’ visit. She provided an overview of the Greater Washington Jewish community, and discussed anti-Semitism in America as well as pluralism in the Jewish community.
“It was important for me to share with these Israeli influence-makers how American Jews develop and live out their Jewish identities, finding meaning and fulfillment in so many different ways,” she said. Franklin Siegel spoke of the richness of American Jewish observance and spirituality across all denominations of American Judaism, and of the burgeoning trend of American Jews self-identifying as post-denominational.
The delegates heard from a cross-section of the community, including Brian Shankman, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) director of regional affairs and development; Adam Lehman, Hillel International’s chief operations officer; Amos Hochstein, former U.S. Department of State special envoy for international energy affairs; and former Congressman Howard Berman, now at Covington & Burling law firm.
Each meeting included a discussion of Jewish identity in America and the role Israel plays in forming that Jewish identity.
Following the trip, delegate Sigal Adar, the CEO of the Israeli Friends of Tel Aviv University, wrote, “Being Jewish in America isn’t obvious or a given, you need to be active and constantly working to maintain a Jewish identity… We have a lot to learn from diaspora Jewry: on tolerance, pluralism, accepting the ‘other,’ and freedom to decide for yourself what kind of Jew you want to be.”
Another delegate, Avraham Yustman, vice president of the Kemach Foundation, an organization that aims to increase the number of charedim in Israel’s workforce, said that the trip gave him a perspective on “how complicated Jewish life is in the U.S.”
JJ Sussman, Gesher’s director of resource and program development, believes that Project Community is crucial for the future of world Jewry. “Decisions that Israeli leaders today make on a daily basis affect Jews worldwide,” he said. “Delegations like these are crucial to build the awareness, the knowledge, and the bonds necessary to inform these leaders from ... different sectors of Israeli society of the importance of the worldwide Jewish community to our growth as a nation.”
Franklin Siegel agreed with Sussman. “As political and cultural gaps between American and Israeli Jews continue to widen, opportunities for frank, thoughtful exchanges like this are critical,” she said.“Whether we are discussing the Trump administration, anti-Semitism, the Iran deal, or how American Jews choose to live Jewishly, it is so important that American and Israeli Jews spend more time interacting with and listening to one another. I’m grateful to Gesher for bringing this group together and I hope we’ll have additional delegations visit our community.”