A Changing Relationship? [part 5] Grass-roots Israel Advocates Inject New Life into the Struggle

CHICAGO, Aug. 26 — Three years ago, Shoshana Cardin made a presentation at her synagogue about the situation in Israel. A former chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations , Cardin has made hundreds of similar presentations over the years. But that day, at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore, the people who had gathered demanded that they organize and do something to help Israel in its hour of need.

That led the synagogue to set up an Israel Information Committee, which has become active in disseminating information, providing a way for members to educate the community about the situation in Israel and help the Jewish state.

Similar grass-roots efforts have developed across the country, and many of them have attracted the participation of people previously uninvolved in pro-Israel activity.

Cardin, a past president of the JTA board of directors, said national organizations were slow to recognize the threat! posed to Israel by events since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

“There was not an appearance of a lot going on,” she said. “There was not a national voice.”

This isn’t the first time grass-roots activists have pushed important issues onto center stage in the Jewish community: The Soviet Jewry movement, which recently marked its 40th anniversary, got started largely due to the efforts of individual Jews who were far from the center of communal power.

Since the intifada began, the phenomenon has repeated itself.

Richard Wexler, vice chairman of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations, called the efforts of the past several years a refreshing development.

“This was a grass-roots embrace of Israel,” he said. “The organized Jewish community’s activities were a response to the demand by local communities around the country to do something.”

Wexler was referring to UJC’s Israel Emergenc! y Campaign, which raised $360 million above and beyond regular federat ion fund-raising campaigns.

Some critics say much more could have been raised, but Wexler termed the emergency campaign a “remarkable” success — especially since it came during an economic downturn in the United States.

In early August, UJC and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs announced that $1.7 million of the emergency campaign’s funds would be used to fund two years of the groups’ joint Israel advocacy efforts.

One community leader, who asked not to be identified, said the allocation was a response to the success of grass-roots efforts.

As important as funds are, getting people involved and making Israel part of American Jews’ lives may be even more important.

When Rebecca Simon enrolled three years ago as a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, she expected to be surrounded by bright young people who were intent on open debate and inquiry.

In her first week on campus, Simon saw a poster of a Jewish star superimposed on a swasti! ka and naively assumed there must be an interesting story behind the mixed symbols.

She approached the man who was promoting it and asked him to explain it. She was shocked when he refused to shake her hand because he assumed she was a Zionist.

That was Simon’s first introduction to hatred of Israel.

Determined to get involved, the Orange County, Calif. native gravitated to Hillel and pro-Israel groups on campus. Since then, she has gone from knowing nothing about Israel to being a sharp, inquisitive advocate who lobbies elected officials and spreads pro-Israel messages on campus.

Simon is typical of the new activists: Until something clicked, she had had no interest in Israel and never expected to become involved. Her chance encounter with anti-Israel propaganda ignited a desire to make a difference, and she found support and guidance from a variety of established organizations, including Hillel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as well as a! core of like-minded activists.

Across the country, many American J ews have felt compelled to get involved on Israel’s behalf. Some have found their place in large, established organizations, while others have started or joined new pro-Israel efforts.

Hebrew University professor Steven M. Cohen conducted a survey of American Jews in late 2002 that found no significant change in the number of people active on behalf of Israel.

While that survey may reflect broad trends, activists across the United States tell of individuals being moved to “do something” in ways similar to Simon: Some write a check, others talk about the situation with friends, still others join ongoing advocacy efforts or start new ones.

Some of the startups, born in a burst of passion and concern, have grown, matured and begun to develop into high-profile undertakings, while others remain small or fade away altogether.

Wexler acknowledged that many individuals have exhibited passion and new fervor in the past four years, but questioned how many will remain ac! tive in the long term.

“Many of us who are engaged in fund raising believe there is the potential for this to be a lost opportunity,” he said. “Without appropriate advocacy, we American Jews are going to lapse back into our previous habits.”

What’s needed, he said, is leadership from the large organizations, and an effort to reach out to newcomers.

Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the JCPA, pointed to cooperation between startups and established Jewish organizations as an ideal way to take advantage of pro-Israel sentiment.

“It’s a mistake to squelch entrepreneurship in Israel advocacy,” Raffel said.

Startups and established organizations don’t always attract the same following, so by working cooperatively they can have a stronger impact, he noted.

“Even if there’s no merger, we ought to strive for coordination wherever possible,” he said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of Presidents’ executive vice chairman, noted that grass-roots ! activists played a key role in the Soviet Jewry movement of the 1970s and 1980s. He tries to maintain contact with grass-roots pro-Israel groups today because, he said, “they energize us all.”

Raffel noted that Soviet Jewry activists were fueled by the human face of refuseniks. Following his own trip to the Soviet Union in 1985, he said, his activism was motivated by the individuals he had met and the people he wanted to help.

That personal touch should be employed today as well, he said.

“Israel has to be a place you care about, with people you care about,” he said.

If established organizations can tap grass-roots activists and bring them into the communal structure, the grass-roots efforts are more likely to be sustained, Hoenlein said.

Partnerships have been growing between established organizations and a variety of startups, including The Israel Project, Israel 21c, Israel at Heart and others.

The Israel Project was established in 2001 by political consultant Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi to help friends of Israel make the! Jewish state’s case in the media and other forums. She launched the effort because she became convinced that none of the established organizations — or Israeli spokesmen — was filling the role properly.

As The Israel Project gained prominence, it began to work closely with large organizations. In April, Cardin agreed to chair The Israel Project’s new Press Ambassadors program.

“The grass roots have been so concerned and anxious to participate in something that they have spurred the establishment to engage in very clear Israel advocacy efforts,” Cardin said, stressing that The Israel Project is only one such example.

UJC’s senior vice president of communications, Gail Hyman, said grass-roots startups often develop programs and approaches that the established organizations like and adopt. Indeed, some grass-roots efforts have been absorbed by established groups.

The downside of grass-roots efforts, however, is that some good ideas may not be able to sustain ! themselves without the support of larger groups, and may fade away.

Some observers say there’s a delicate balance between dependence and independence: If a large organization embraces a startup and lends support, it can flourish — but if it absorbs the startup altogether it can lose the passion and vision that made the idea successful.

Beyond the ideas that grass-roots groups develop, they also attract people who might not feel comfortable in more institutionalized efforts.

Stand With Us, a Los Angeles-based startup that teaches people how to advocate for Israel, has provided a framework for Allyson Rowan-Taylor to express her newfound passion for Israel.

The interior designer said she had been content to live on the fringes of Jewish life until a 1999 visit to Israel changed her life.

“Being involved with Stand With Us has put me in touch with how I feel as a Jewish woman,” she said, and she has become a frequent lecturer on Israel throughout Southern California.

Hoenlein said large organizations should be doing more t! o open themselves to community participation.

“We’re always looking for ways to reach people,” he said. “I do not think we should diminish local initiatives, because they give people satisfaction. There are incredible resources in our community. They have to be involved.”

Hoenlein, who was one of the prominent advocates on behalf of Soviet Jewry, sees a major difference between that struggle and the current activism on behalf of Israel.

“We did not have organizations then; we had a movement,” he said. “It touched people’s hearts and souls in a way I don’t think we are doing today. We should be equally proud to reach out and mobilize people today.”

People like Simon, the Berkeley student, don’t see a risk of losing interest: In June, she participated in a birthright israel trip, and returned home more motivated than ever.

Before her trip, Simon said, she had focused on Israel as an issue, rather than as a place filled with real people living their daily li! ves.

Returning to Berkeley, she immediately enrolled in Hebrew cla sses and began to look for a way to spend more time in Israel.

Cardin pointed to the campus model as one which worth emulating. Once students are empowered, she said, they can achieve a lot.

“The future of Israel will determine the future of the Jewish people, including American Jews,” she concluded. “If we do not act with that in mind, we will be performing a disservice to our children and our grandchildren.”

Simon, for her part, sees the new connection she has forged to Israel as a central — and lasting — part of her life.

“I don’t think I could ever be detached from this issue,” she said. “Everyone has to find their life’s purpose. I think I’ve found mine.”

Funding for the Changing Relationship series was provided by the American Jewish Committee’s Dorothy and Julius Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations and The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies Inc.

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