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No Religious Strings Attached

No Religious Strings Attached

On Purim eve, as Jews across the city attended megillah readings and costume parties, about 80 Jewish young professionals — dressed in business attire — gathered at the American Jewish Committee headquarters for PR Bootcamp for Israel, a teach-in sandwiched between a sushi dinner and a dance party. Michael Shannon, a conservative public relations guru and an Evangelical Christian, was the drill sergeant of sorts, instructing attendees about how to make a case for Israel to their non-Jewish friends. Fuel For Truth, an organization that trains young adults as foot soldiers for the Jewish state, sponsored the invitation-only event that brought together the organization’s most active members and benefactors.

According to FFT President Jonathan Loew, the gathering’s theme of Jewish self-defense tied in with the Purim festival, which commemorates a couple of gutsy Jews who spoke out in order to save their people from an almost certain death. “Our way of defending ourselves is to make sure people know the truth about Israel,” Loew said.When it comes to the Middle East, however, the truth depends very much on the teller. Shannon’s version of the Middle East story, as related to FFT leaders Thursday, was in line with his right-wing politics. During his hour-long speech, Shannon suggested, in his sharp Texas twang, that the mainstream media and the Democratic Party were too critical of the Jewish state.

He went on to present captive audience members with semantic guidelines for discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among them: Refer to West Bank settlements as “suburbs”; call Palestinian Arabs “Arabs” not “Palestinians” (“The word ‘Arab’ has a bad connotation for them, and the word ‘Palestinian’ has a bad connotation for us,” he said.); and use the expression, “Israel is searching for a partner in peace.” Shannon urged Jews to passionately promote the Jewish state for its democratic values and its willingness to make peace with its often-hostile neighbors. “You all don’t talk enough about Israel, and that’s why crackers like me have to step in,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd. Asked why Shannon was chosen to lead Thursday’s public relations exercise, Loew said, “Who better to explain to us how to talk to our non-Jewish friends and colleagues than a non-Jew?” Loew, 33, was among a small cadre of young urban professionals, both ardently secular and vigorously pro-Israel, who founded FFT three-and-a-half years ago. The group aims to impart the young and unaffiliated with an understanding of Israel and its place in the Middle East. FFT holds pro-Israel lectures and workshops three times a year in Manhattan, often capped on either end with a party at a swanky lounge or nightclub. In addition to these events, FFT board members host occasional seminars at colleges and universities in the region. According to FFT officials, these events attract secular students who might not step foot inside a campus Hillel.

The group’s motto, when it comes to college students or New York-based young professionals: “Lure ‘Em and Learn ‘Em.” The lure, in addition to word-of-mouth marketing, is apparently working. Recent FFT gatherings, like its “Are You All Talk or Action?” event last year at Manhattan’s Crobar club, have drawn as many as 1,000 people. As for the educational component, presented in the past by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz and Sgt. 1st Class Terry Schappert, who served in the Middle East, FFT “teaches the absolute basics,” Loew said. Our members “may be financially savvy future Wall Street gurus, but they don’t know when Israel was founded,” he said. “They don’t know how many Jews there are in the world. … We say, ‘Here are five or 10 important facts about [the Jewish state], and here are the three most effective things to stress when advocating for Israel.”Added Joe Richards, 32, FFT’s executive director and only full-time staff member, “Getting into the details of [the Oslo Accords] can really turn someone off. They’re going to fall asleep.

But if you take a step back and say, ‘In 2000, the Israelis offered 97 percent of what the Palestinians claim they’re fighting for, and the response has been terrorism.’ Now, that sums up the picture.” The synthesis of FFT’s straightforward teaching methods and its sexy social gatherings has succeeded in reaching a demographic group other Jewish organizations have been hard-pressed to attract. “They’ve pierced the bubble, bringing in that young Jewish person who is not affiliated or involved,” said Meredith Weiss, 31, an FFT member. “If we’re not reaching non-observant Jews, we’re not doing our job — we’re just duplicating efforts” of other Jewish communal organizations, which tend to attract a more affiliated bunch, Richards said.

The organization’s “Just the facts, ma’am” approach to Israel advocacy — presenters refrain from esoteric arguments and religious ideology — is precisely what brought Sara Cohen, 26, into the FFT fold. “Here no one’s preaching to me,” Cohen said, referring to the organization’s gatherings.The Middle East Conflict, as Cohen sees it, “isn’t about religion, but about [Jewish] people’s right to live in their homeland.”FFT’s success has been spurred on by an infusion of funds from the UJA-Federation of New York. During the past three years, FFT has brought in $100,000 for its programming and operating costs, about half of which came from federation grants. The remaining portion was donated by committed members, many of them young adults with only minimal disposable income.“Jewish organizations have trouble raising money from people under 40,” Richards said. “We’re getting them at a younger age, and we hope they’ll continue to give. It’s the foot-in-the-door theory. We’ve had college kids say, ‘Here’s $20. That’s all I have, man.’ … We want to make it cool to be a supporter of Israel.

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