December 12, 2018

Tel Aviv GA Sought to Bridge Israeli-Diaspora Gap

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, speaks at its General Assembly in Tel Aviv. Photo by Eyal Warshavsky/JFNA

Jay Sanderson has attended many a General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, but the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said this year’s gathering in Tel Aviv was different.  

“In previous GAs we talked about a lot of different issues,” Sanderson said during an interview with the Journal at the Oct. 22-24 conference, which attracted more than 2,000 North American and Israeli participants. 

“What was unprecedented about this GA was that we focused on one thing: How to build a new kind of bridge between Israel and the Diaspora that enables as many people as possible to cross from both sides.”

The theme for this year’s event, “Let’s Talk,” was a recognition that Israeli-Diaspora ties are strained, and that both communities need to come together and heal the rift before it becomes unbridgeable. 

Held in Tel Aviv for the first time, the annual conference acknowledged that Israelis and North American Jews have different priorities and agendas because they have fundamentally different life experiences.

“We’re like two ships passing in the night,” Sanderson said. “Israelis don’t have a full understanding of what’s important to North American Jewry,” including religious pluralism, assimilation, anti-Semitism and the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.  

In Israel, he continued, “Pluralism isn’t high on the list.” Security is, and the fact that most Jewish Israeli 18-year-olds are drafted when they’re 18.  

“A rocket fell on a house in Beersheva and a mother heroically saved her three children. We don’t have rockets on our borders,” Sanderson said. 

Richard Sandler, who is concluding his term as chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that despite these differing priorities, “we share common traditions and a common value system. We need to focus on the things we have in common, which far exceed the things that divide us.” 

“A rocket fell on a house in Beersheva and a mother heroically saved her three children. We don’t have rockets on our borders.” — Jay Sanderson 

During and between sessions, some of the North Americans expressed their concerns about Israel’s new Nation-State Law, which codifies Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people but does not mention the rights of the country’s minority groups. They also expressed hope that Israel will do much more to ensure the equal treatment of non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism. 

Sandler said the North American-Israel relationship has shifted over the years, to the point where Israel — which once struggled to feed and house its citizens — now offers educational and logistical assistance to Diaspora communities and is seeking to expand that role. 

During the GA, Israeli leaders floated the idea of creating a “Reverse Birthright” that would bring young Israelis to Diaspora Jewish communities, and setting up programs to teach Hebrew to North American Jews.    

“When I grew up you had two things you don’t have going on today,” Sandler said. “Back then, Israel needed a large infusion of philanthropic dollars from the U.S. Israel didn’t have the strong economy it has now. Today, Israel doesn’t need our dollars to the same extent, though of course there are people still in need.” 

At a time when Israel still relies heavily on the federations’ help to fund numerous programs for the most disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society, Israeli officials are concerned about Jewish identity among North American Jews and are seeking ways to strengthen it. 

Sandler said this change in the Israel-Diaspora power dynamic has taken many Diaspora Jews by surprise. 

Referring to a presentation by the organization Israel Flying Aid, which is providing vital assistance to people in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Sandler said, “I don’t think American Jews think of Israeli NGOs reaching out beyond their border and making a difference in the world, just as we try to make a difference in the world. It makes us proud.” 

Helene Siegel, a federation delegate from Orange County, said she was impressed by the strides Israeli nonprofits have been making in addressing coexistence. 

During a GA session, two organizations that bring Jewish- and Arab-Israeli children together presented their work. One of them, Kids 4 Peace, brings Arab and Jewish teens together to work on joint projects and celebrate each other’s holidays. Their parents also meet on an ongoing basis. The program is considered a major success. 

“For me, this was a highlight of the GA because I really believe that kids are our future,” Siegel said. “These kids make connections with one another and then bring those connections back to their parents and ultimately to their communities. Instead of seeing them as ‘the other,’ they learn that ultimately most people want peace.” 

Blossom Siegel, Helene’s mother and a former head of the Orange County federation, said the GA always provides something new and innovative. The Tel Aviv GA marked her 40th visit to Israel. 

“This year, it was all about bridging differences,” she said. “The Israelis are more openly protective of their children while we Americans take our safety, our standard of living, our ability to get jobs somewhat more for granted.” 

Blossom Siegel said she felt gratified that so many of the sessions focused on the integration of Israel’s Arab community and on programs “that help children from different backgrounds become more tolerant of one another.” 

“It won’t happen overnight,” she added, “but it will happen.”