Special Interview Israeli ‘scholar-in-residence’ Describes Successful Program

“A great program….Low pressure, honest… not a hit-and-run exercise. You work like a dog….” These are some of the observations of one of the most successful and sought-after “scholars-in-residence,” Dr. Eliezer Jaffe, formerly of Cleveland, who is a lecturer in social work at the Hebrew University.

Jaffe has been a “scholar-in-residence” in Rochester, N.Y., in Milwaukee, and next spring will be going to Philadelphia. He is full of praise for the program. The obvious satisfaction which he derived from his experiences as a scholar–plus the demands from American-Jewish communities for his time as a “scholar” with them–attest to his own success in this novel form of Zionist “hasbara.”

The program was conceived in 1972 by Bill Levine, then head of the North America desk at the World Zionist Organization’s organization and information department and now deputy head of the department. It began modestly, with 12 “scholars” sent to the U.S. in 1972. Last year the number increased to 40, and now there are plans to introduce the program to Britain, Australia, South Africa, Scandinavia, Argentina and other countries.

The average “residence” period is two weeks. Scholars are picked from various walks of life–the arts, academia, journalism, the professions–with only one type of person rigorously excluded–the professional politician.

ROLE OF THE SCHOLAR

The role of the scholar is not to talk politics, not to analyze the latest diplomatic moves or military threats, not to assess the prospects of the coalition or the opposition, but rather to give of himself, of his life’s work and experience. Thus if he is a poet, he will hold seminars on his poetry and on that of other Israeli poets. If he is a writer, he will speak about books–his own and others. If he is a university philosopher, he will introduce his audiences to trends of thought current among Israeli savants.

If he is a social work expert like Jaffe, he will describe, with the aid perhaps, of his own slides, what life is like in Israel’s big town slums, and what the various governmental and voluntary agencies are doing to improve the lot of the underprivileged.

The program is run jointly from Israel by the WZO’s organization and information department and the youth and halutz department, and in the U.S. by the American Zionist Federation and the American Zionist Youth Federation. The latter concentrates especially on campus-oriented scholars and communities. These organizations cover the Transatlantic flight costs, while the host community pays for inland flights, hotel bills and other expenses, and the $500 honorarium.

“No one does it for the money, believe me,” says Jaffe. Regular fees on the lecture circuit are incomparably higher especially considering that the “scholar-in-residence” will usually deliver some half dozen Jectures a day for the duration of his residence. “A night off with an invitation to a quiet dinner at someone’s home will often involve 30 people waiting to hear you talk….” Jaffe explains. After a day’s rest in New York, he recounts, the scholar is “briefed” at WZO Park Avenue headquarters on the community he is about to visit. Then he emplanes and from the moment of touchdown until he leaves two weeks later he is “on the go,” meeting with groups, large and small, and with individuals, lecturing, talking, answering questions. If he is popular and successful, requests for him pour in during the course of his residence and his schedule grows even tighter. Local TV and radio stations ask for interviews too.

MEETS PROFESSIONALS

In his own case, Jaffe has been able to spend valuable time with local Jewish professionals engaged in social work, among them some who are considering aliya and are interested in prospects in the field in Israel. The secret of the program’s success, he believes, is its low pressure approach. “These audiences have never been able to sit down quietly with someone from Israel who’s not pushing something,” Jaffe says succinctly.

The visit ends with a “debriefing” in New York at which the scholar assesses with WZO professionals the achievements of his residence and what recommendations and observations he has regarding the community that could help another scholar in the future.

Levine explains that scholars are selected by the communities on a first come first served basis from a list carefully drawn up by an interdepartmental committee in Jerusalem. Obviously a community that had a poet last year will usually want a man of affairs this year and perhaps a painter or sculptor the year after. The organizers try to avoid the same scholar returning to the same community, no matter how successful he was.

Generally the various bodies within the community will set up an ad hoc committee to plan the scholar’s stay and “spread” him best among the different groups, synagogues and suburbs. Links forged on a one-to-one basis during a residence will be maintained when the scholar returns home. The scholar enters into what Levine terms “an ongoing relationship with us,” lecturing to visiting groups from the community he visited and also from other U.S. cities, and helping, too, to explain U.S. Jewry to Israelis through the light of his own experiences as a “scholar-in-residence.”

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