TEL AVIV (JTA) — Stacy Kagan, the vice mayor of Parkland, Florida, thanked American Jews meeting in Israel for their support after the February school shooting that devastated her community.
The emotional presentation took place Tuesday at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which is convening this week in Tel Aviv. Jewish federations act as central fundraising bodies for Jewish causes and institutions in metropolitan areas throughout the United States and Canada.
Kagan presented the key to the city of Parkland to Gail Norry, chair of JFNA’s Emergency Response Committee.
In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which killed 17 students and faculty, experts from the Israeli Trauma Coalition, which aids trauma victims in Israel, came to Parkland to provide support and counseling to victims and their families. Jewish federations have provided funding to the coalition.
“I stand before you not only as an elected official but as a Jewish woman who has always wanted to visit Israel. I dreamed of this but never made it until now,” Kagan said. “I never could have imagined I would be here under these circumstances. … This was our time of need. You showed up. You gave us strength and you taught us how to be resilient. As a wife, a mother and a consoler to those families and children that were taken from this horrible tragedy, I am here to say toda, toda, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.”
Following her speech, Isaac Herzog, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, called on the Israeli government to fund Hebrew classes for Jews around the world.
Herzog’s predecessor as Jewish Agency chairman, Natan Sharansky, was the architect of a deal to expand a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall, which Israel’s government froze last year to his chagrin. Sharansky, in many ways, acted as an advocate for world Jewry in Israel.
But Herzog did not mention the Western Wall or disputes over Jewish conversion — two issues that occupied Sharansky’s term — during his speech. He said the distancing of Israel from Diaspora Jewry was an “existential threat,” and called on Israel more broadly not to denigrate non-Orthodox Jews, but also criticized anti-Israel currents among North American Jews.
Herzog’s call for a worldwide Hebrew education initiative followed a call at the conference by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday for a “reverse Birthright” that would bring Israelis to see American Jewry firsthand. Healing a widening divide among Israeli and Diaspora Jews is a central theme of this year’s conference.
“I hereby call upon the State of Israel to honor its historic pledge to take care of the Jewish people in the Diaspora by allocating a substantial share of its annual budget to a national enterprise of spreading and teaching Hebrew all over the Jewish world,” Herzog said. “From here on, it will be every young Jew’s birthright, where ever he or she may live, not only to visit this historic homeland but to learn the language of the Jewish people. Hebrew can be a common denominator of all Jews, from all streams of Judaism and of affiliated or non-affiliated Jews.”