Thirty-two years ago I reached a conclusion. It was an idea that occurred to me while visiting Rosh Ha’ayin, a city in Israel that would become linked in a partnership with The Birmingham Jewish Federation and ultimately the City of Birmingham in general. The insight came as we were beginning our formal Federation linkage with Rosh Ha’ayin.
It was clear that Rosh Ha’ayin needed our help. It was a small community made up almost exclusively of Jews who came to Israel from Yemen. It had become one of Israel’s “forgotten cities” – a city removed from the progress, economic growth and success that had characterized Israel.
Our Federation involvement, which included raising money, partnering in the design and implementation of social programs, and creating a series of people to people exchanges between our two communities, helped put Rosh Ha’ayin on the road to progress.
Since then, the city has become one of Israel’s success stories. The population has tripled, Israelis now find Rosh Ha’ayin a desirable place to live, its cultural and musical achievements are widely respected throughout Israel, and it has become a center of economic development. Birmingham’s Kimerling family, through building and upgrading Rosh Ha’ayin’s Kimerling Center, has played an important role in Rosh Ha’ayin’s growth.
Yes, Birmingham helped Rosh Ha’ayin, but, as I felt would happen once our partnership got underway, Rosh Ha’ayin has helped Birmingham. It has been a two-way street. Our long partnership with Rosh Ha’ayin has given people in Birmingham their own “piece of Israel,” no small feat for a small, Southern Jewish community. In addition, the people who have come to Birmingham from Rosh Ha’ayin – musicians, entertainers, students, teachers, camp counselors, political leaders and community activists – have had a profound impact on our Jewish community.
They have instilled in us a deep personal connection to Israel, a strong sense of Zionism, a deeper knowledge of Jewish traditions and Israel, a tolerance and respect for Jews who might not look like us and think and worship as we do, a pride in what Israeli determination and ingenuity can accomplish, and, most of all, a connection that has tied us together for more than 30 years.
What prompts these reflections is a recent Associated Press story on the help Israel is now providing the American Jewish community on issues relating to Jewish identity. The thesis of the AP story – that Israel has emerged as an important connection and inspiration for American Jews – is on target. And it reflects an understanding that we have had at our Federation for decades.
“More than 100 Israeli leaders gathered with Jewish-American counterparts in Jerusalem last month with a daunting mission: to save Jewish life in North America,” the AP story reported in an opening sentence designed to get readers’ attention.
“Jewish American leaders have known for years that assimilation and intermarriage were slowly shrinking their communities, but the early November gathering took on an extra sense of urgency. Just weeks earlier, a landmark study had found that young American Jews are growing increasingly estranged from Judaism,” the story added.
Through our partnership with Rosh Ha’ayin, we at The BJF also concluded long ago that infusing Jewish children with an understanding and love for Israel, and exposing them to Israel and Israelis, further connects them to Jewish life, and enhances the chances of them staying connected to Judaism as they become adults and begin raising their own families.
We have now moved into an era where the relationship between American Jewry and Israel has become a two-way street, much like the one that blossomed 30 years ago between Israel and Rosh Ha’ayin. Gone thankfully are the days when Israel’s survival and viability were seen as being dependent on financial support from American Jews.
As Jews, we don’t say it often enough: “Thank You, Israel!” Israel is not perfect, as the AP story noted. Neither is America. Both of these spirited democracies are gripped by fractious social issues, growing economic disparity and other complex challenges. But Israel, like America, is a remarkable country, made up of resilient and giving people.
American Jews have benefited Israel and now Israel is benefiting us. Our Federation remains grateful and proud of our association with the Jewish state and will continue strengthening this connection however we can.