G.A. Helps Bridge the Division Between Israelis and Diaspora Jews

Thousands of Diaspora Jews witnessed with their own eyes the gulf that divides them from their Israeli counterparts, but they also caught a glimpse of a bridging solution.

North American Jews participating in the 67th General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America found that meaningful discussion between Israeli and Diaspora Jews may be the key to buttressing the relationship.

The theme of this year’s G.A., as the event is known, is, “Many People, Many Roads, One Heart.” But another multiple — many voices — more aptly describes the activity going on at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, where 5,000 participants from North America and Israel gathered this week for the largest annual meeting of Jewish communal leaders.

The event’s setting — this is the first G.A. to be held outside of North America — has also renewed many participants’ conviction that federations in North America must make cultural exchange with Israelis a higher priority.

Through two-person panel discussions and face-to-face meetings, the American and Canadian Jews overflowing the conference rooms in the sprawling white stone complex here had the chance to hear Israeli points of view and present their own conceptions of Israel.

They have also had to confront Israelis’ perception of American Jews — and sometimes their disinterest in American Jews altogether.

The “major gap” between the Israel and the Diaspora, said one panelist, Rabbi David Saperstein, exists because many Israelis — and many North American Jews as well — don’t care about the disconnection.

“The ability to engage in dialogue, the sense of common interest is key to American Jewish identity,” said Saperstein, who is director and counsel of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “As American Jews, we are defined by the nature of this dialogue,” he said.

But as North American participants discovered, Israelis have a completely different idiom for discussions of identity.

Haim Arzan, a youth programmer from the northern Israeli town of Afula, told his North American discussion-mates, “We are the same people. I recognize that you care. I respect your opinion.”

But, he said, living in Israel is difficult and tense. “There you see it on TV. Here, you feel it.”

Many G.A. participants were surprised to learn, for example, that many Israelis “feel more Israeli than Jewish,” as Shiva Ben-Yemini put it.

The question of nationality over religion was an unfamiliar one for Marilyn Forman-Chandler of Greensboro, N.C., who said she feels Jewish first and was shocked by the notion that in Israel “being Israeli is enough.”

But engaging in conversation with Israelis during one morning session devoted to “Two Cultures, One People,” Forman-Chandler also discovered some important similarities.

“I’ve had many dialogues with Israelis in a number of different settings,” she said. “But this is the first time that I’ve walked away with the sense that Jewish continuity is just as important in Israel as it is in the Diaspora.”

Robert Soloway of New York’s UJA-Federation said that while Israelis “sense life is easier” for North American Jews, “there are struggles on both sides to be a Jew and to decide what that means.”

At a time when many American federations are turning inward to attend to the exigencies of maintaining interest in Jewish life and Jewish philanthropy, the G.A.’s sessions seemed to suggest that the issues might best be addressed cross-culturally, through such programs as organized trips to Israel, professional exchanges and social justice and philanthropic partnerships.

Representatives from local federations that have linked up with Israeli cities through programs such as Partnership 2000 reported tremendous success in developing personal and professional connections between the communities.

Dr. Sidney Miller of Dayton, Ohio, cited Partnership 2000 as having transformed his federation’s involvement with Israel into a person-to-person exchange, rather than what his wife, Barbara, called “a money-to-money” relationship. They have friends in their sister city of Nahariya, and Dr. Miller has helped arrange for medical training of a Nahariya doctor at a hospital in Dallas, one of nine other partnership cities.

Steven Schanes and Michael Kleinman of Detroit praised their federation’s teen exchange program, which includes five weeks in Israel for American teens and one week in Detroit for Israelis. Schanes said this year’s participants had already established “permanent relationships” fostered by E-mail exchanges and long-distance phone calls.

To make that kind of experience more universal, a group of Jewish philanthropists, led by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, have announced the creation of Birthright Israel, a $300 million fund that will support first- time travel to Israel by Jews aged 15 to 26 on existing accredited programs. The plan’s organizers hope to enlist local federations and communities worldwide in joining the coalition of philanthropists — there are four additional partners committed to the project to date — and the government of Israel in providing $1 million for each of five years beginning in January 1999.

Bronfman, who was also the international chair of the G.A., said at a news conference here Tuesday that he hopes local communities will provide follow-up programming for the travelers when they return to build on the Israel experience in the hope of forging a strong and vibrant Jewish identity.

Bronfman said local communities would also be responsible for deciding who would be eligible for the program, but that he expects very few problems in this regard. Many other programmatic details about what Bronfman called “an audacious initiative” remain to be resolved over the next year prior to the program’s inauguration.

Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of industry and trade and the chairman of the ministerial committee on Israel-Diaspora relations, who spoke at the news conference, said the Birthright program is essential for forging bonds and creating a “common educational background” among world Jewry.

G.A. participants got a taste of what that education would be like this week by being in Israel, and that experience, in turn, could have widespread effects on North American Jewish philanthropy concerning Israel.

Barbara Infeld of Sacramento, Calif., cited distorted news reports of bombings and religious conflicts as one reason why some North Americans have decreased their giving to Israel.

“We hear that we’re supporting the ultra-Orthodox” by giving money to the UJA, she said, “but the only way to know that that’s not who we’re funding is by being on the land, in the land.”

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