What does Israel have that is the best? Every country has the best something. Switzerland has the best watches. England has the best tea. Brazil has the best beaches. As a good friend told me in jest just after I made aliyah two decades ago, “Israel has the best “Chutz La’aretz” (out of town).
However, as they say, every joke has a kernel of truth. Perhaps no other country in the world can boast of such a strong relationship over such a long period with so many people who care about, visit and follow what is going on in our country. But, will the relationship last? Will it stay as strong? For the last 70 years, this relationship has been somewhat asymmetrical. While Israel could always count on its friends around the world in times of need, what do Israelis know about Jews and Jewish communities outside of Israel? It is time to create a little more balance in the equation.
For the last two years, we at Gesher have been running a program called Project Community in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. We are investing in Israeli leaders and influencers and exposing them to Jewish communities outside of Israel with a particular focus on North America. We have brought leading journalists, mayors, directors general of ministries from across the spectrum — religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox — to spend an intense week meeting with, learning from and getting to know leaders, organizations and just plain people in the Jewish communities that we visit.
The goal of this immersive experience is to develop an awareness and sense of responsibility on the part of these leaders to the other half of the Jewish nation not living in Israel. Many of them are just plain uninformed when it comes to world Jewry. They don’t know what Jewish students deal with on campus, how expensive it is to send a child to a Jewish school or summer camp or the high cost of belonging to a synagogue, JCC or Jewish club.
There are three keys to making this program a success and bringing about change. The first key is identifying a diverse group of leaders who have the ability to change the discourse and raise this issue to the top of a very busy agenda on the ground in Israel. Voices like Avi Mimran, the lead anchor and most-listened voice on the Radio Kol Hai, a station serving the Israeli ultra-Orthodox audience; or Efi Triger and Asaf Liberman, who anchor newscasts from 6 to 10 every morning on the IDF radio and Public Broadcasting stations; or the mayors of Petah Tikva and Yerucham; or the Israel Prize-winner Miriam Peretz, who lost two sons in combat and was honored for helping other bereaved families and injured IDF soldiers. If we can transform these people and make them care, perhaps they can influence those who follow and listen to them. They can act as our change agents.
The second key is the actual meeting and interaction with local communities. When an Israeli who grows up in a Jewish state where the entire national calendar revolves around the Jewish holidays meets with a Jewish student on the college campus of UCLA or NYU and learns first-hand the challenges he or she faces just for being Jewish, it hits home. Jewish life outside of Israel entails an entirely new and different set of challenges. To then dig into a deeper conversation with that student and find out that his father is Jewish and his mother is not, but he identifies as a Jew and that is what makes him the biggest Jewish activist on campus, makes the Israeli wonder, “Huh?”
Encountering these issues up close opens up their eyes and their minds. It leads to more nuance and complexity in the conversation. All of a sudden, things aren’t black and white, and it will dawn on them — usually quickly — that how Israel relates to the wide spectrum of North American Jews actually does have bearing.
Finally, the third key is the follow-through back in Israel. We need to engage our leaders and work with them to instill within their spheres of influence a focus on world Jewry that didn’t previously exist. We take pride in our alumni who have already made this issue prominent. Attila Shumfalvi of Yediot Achronot wrote a seminal piece on the subject that appeared on the front page of Ynet and reached hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Uri Cohen, who leads the popular Masa Israeli program for tens of thousands of Israel’s youth, has added a section in the curriculum that focuses on world Jewry. And Shmuel Abuhav, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Education, has established a position and hired someone to focus on teaching the next generation about Jews outside of Israel.
So, are we making progress? I firmly believe the answer is yes. Do we still have a long way to go to create the symmetry in Israel’s relationship with world Jewry? The answer to that question is also yes. Many people believe that the gap between the two biggest centers of world Jewry is widening. Let us not just sit on the side and let it happen. As Israel celebrates her 70th birthday and becomes septuagenarian, let us take upon ourselves to meet, engage with and challenge one another to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the Jews around the world. We both need each other.
J.J. Sussman is the international director at Gesher, a nonprofit that works to bring together the different sectors of the Jewish people. He has led over 100 Israeli leaders over the last two years on a program to better understand North American Jewry.