WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (JTA) — The Hebrew muttering, the accusations, the cell phone interruptions — all within shouting distance of the Washington monument. Last week, the Knesset came to K Street. U.S. Jewish groups brought seven Knesset members to Washington to enlighten them about international and domestic priorities for American Jews. Around a small conference table in a Washington office building, the members — all male and from different parties — gestured wildly and yelled accusingly at each other. Between cell phone calls, they switched between Hebrew and English, debating everything from major policy positions to the day’s schedule of events. Their hosts were at times baffled by the behavior — one compared it to babysitting, but with a language barrier — but the legislators said they appreciated the learning opportunity. “The idea of the tour was to have a better knowledge of what the Jewish federation is and the different sums of these organizations, which are very unique to American Jewry,” said Ze’ev Boim, a Likud member who is also deputy minister of defense. After their stints in New York and Washington, the legislators split up and traveled to different cities — including Chicago, Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., and Indianapolis — to learn about what is being done for Jews in large- and medium-sized communities. The Washington leg of the trip, sponsored by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, explained the American political system to the legislators. The Israelis were amazed by the high number of staffers assigned to members of Congress — around 10 each. They also asked whether Jewish groups feel more comfortable dealing with Jewish staffers and were told that some Jewish staffers were harder to deal with than their non-Jewish peers. They had plenty of questions about American campaign finance reform and compared it to recent attempts to tame the Israeli system. Many of the lawmakers were curious about how much of U.S. Jewish donor dollars go to Israel. Some expressed frustration that more does not get to the Jewish state, but they said they also appreciated why funds are spent in the United States. “I think it’s very important that American Jewry takes care of its domestic needs,” Boim said after the trip, which took him to Hartford and Baltimore. “It’s very important to put money into the education system, to hold Jewish existence here.” The members represented three political parties, Likud, Shinui and National Union. Labor Party members had been scheduled to attend, but former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ 80th birthday last Sunday kept them home. Just like at home, each party had its own agenda here. The Likud members were particularly concerned about U.S. efforts to free Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. navy intelligence officer imprisoned for 18 years for spying for Israel. “We have a feeling that Jews in the United States are not doing enough,” said Michael Eitan, who planned to visit Pollard in a North Carolina prison after the UJC trip. “We think it’s about time the Jewish community and the Jewish leadership will recheck their position on this issue.” Jewish leaders contend they are working on Pollard’s behalf, but say the likelihood of a pardon is slim at this time. Two legislators from Shinui want American Jews to speak out on behalf of secular Israelis, the party’s core constituency. “I’d like to learn whether American Jewry is willing to take a stand and what that stand will be,” said Reshef Chayne. “I’d like them to agree with me to have a pluralist society where all Jews can live together and accept each other.” The member of the ultranationalist National Union Party wanted greater numbers of young Jews to come study in Israel to stem the tide of intermarriage among American Jews. “Israel should be a center of learning for young Jewish students and a center for meeting other young Jews,” said Arieh Eldad. “If we enlarge the various types of Israel experiences, we can combat intermarriage by young Jews knowing each other.” The sponsors of the trip — the first of its kind — say they fear American and Israeli Jews no longer are headed down parallel paths, and it is important that each has a better understanding of the other. “We wanted them to see the fabric of the community at the local level,” said Robert Hyfler, UJC’s senior vice president for research and development. “They went away understanding this is a community of strength and endurance, with a glorious past and present, and a great future.”
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