Bridge Building Between Israeli and American Jews is Underway

There are no two people who have a greater right to analyze the challenges facing the relationship between Israeli and American Jews and recommend solutions than Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy. In a recent essay in Mosaic, Sharansky and Troy examine the changing relationships within the global Jewish community and propose the creation of a Jewish People’s Council to bring together Israeli and Diaspora Jews in addressing the major issues we face together.

The prime example of the complicated sibling-like Israeli-Diaspora relationship offered by Sharansky and Troy is the negotiation over the religious use of the Western Wall, or the Kotel. A four-year attempt to find common ground that would allow for mixed-gender and progressive Jewish prayer at the holy site while respecting the ideological needs of the Ultra-Orthodox community ultimately failed to produce a compromise. Sharansky and Troy suggest that had those involved in the talks, led by Sharansky, “spent four years building bridges publicly and not just privately, recruiting American Jews and Israelis across the board into the process, both the dynamic and result might have been different” [emphasis added]. To encourage that kind of constructive dialogue, the authors’ proposed Jewish People’s Council would include representation from the broad Jewish community.

From where I sit, the more public “bridge building” that Sharansky and Troy call for is already well underway, especially among young adults—including many initiatives with which the authors are personally involved. Indeed, Hillel and other groups have found that college offers one of the best moments for young American Jews and Israelis to learn from one another and better understand each other’s experiences. Our efforts today suggest that we are building the broad base of interested parties that the authors could seek to coalesce for effective dialogue. And these young American and Israeli Jews will very soon be the leaders of our political and organizational universe.

Sharansky and Troy point to one of the largest and most significant of these initiatives –Birthright Israel – as an important source of the affinity that many American Jews maintain for Israel. There can be no doubt that this is true.

But there is more to be said than just noting the huge numbers that Birthright has reached. Students on Birthright trips do not just discover Israel but also significantly develop their own connections to Jewish values and the Jewish community. They are led by teachers and rabbis from all denominations, and from multiple Jewish traditions and ways of thinking.  Students see both progressive and traditional Jewish leaders walking comfortably through the streets of Jerusalem. While a visit to the Kotel surely raises questions about Israel’s policies on religious pluralism, overall they see their leaders treated with respect and acceptance by the citizens and the leaders of the Jewish state. And they meet Israelis their age, get to know them, and understand the connections that bind them together even though there are many differences in their lives.

There are many more bridges being built in addition to the ones created through Birthright. As the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky championed a significant expansion of the Israel Fellows program—young, college educated IDF veterans, who serve as shlichim (emissaries) on American college campuses. There are now nearly 80 of them serving over 100 campuses, living and working among American college students, and building bridges daily. Many American college students have never met an Israeli before they encounter an Israel Fellow at an event on their campus or just meet them over coffee. Through the programs shlichim create, hundreds of thousands of North American Jews learn about the history, culture and diversity of the Jewish state, to better connect them with their Israeli brethren.  And, perhaps of equal and lasting value, the shlichim return to Israel with American Jewish friends, as well as deep knowledge and respect for the American Jewish community.

And three years ago, in the face of much skepticism, a partnership was launched between Israel’s Diaspora Ministry, led by Naftali Bennett, and the Diaspora to strengthen Jewish identity, known as Mosaic United.  The first project of Mosaic United, an independent Israeli nonprofit, supports the three largest campus organizations – Hillel, Chabad on Campus and Olami – in developing common standards and goals for our Jewish engagement work, and helps fund the expansion and deepening of our programs. Imagine that! Three very different global Jewish organizations, working together with Israeli partners, on a project that focuses on outcomes, not ideology, theology or politics. More bridge building.

There’s much more. American Jewish students and campus professionals study in Israel year-round on programs of all kinds, supported by the Jewish Agency, the government, and the overwhelming generosity of the Jewish community. From liberal to traditional yeshivot and at prestigious academic institutions, on topics covering religion, geopolitics but also sciences and technology, thousands of young American Jews see that any subject can be studied and debated in Israel at the highest level of intellectual and spiritual pursuit.

In one of the newest and most exciting developments, the Maccabee Task Force is working with diverse campus organizations to enable American Jewish college students – who are, after all, a small minority even on the campuses with the largest Jewish populations – to invite students from all backgrounds on missions to Israel to learn the facts on the ground for themselves. This is bridge building of a special kind, recognizing that American Jews are deeply influenced by the attitudes of the broader communities in which we live, and trusting that introducing our friends to Israel in an open and honest way will help us feel more confident in our identity. TAMID similarly builds bridges among business oriented Jewish and non-Jewish students.  And initiatives like The David Project are extending this idea to build lasting partnerships between Jewish students and other student groups that provide mutual support on issues of concern to each, including opposition to the anti-Israel agenda on many campuses.

That is hardly all that exists to support connections between young American Jews and Israel, but the point is made. The work has already begun. The Jewish people are building from the bottom up the dialogues that can lead to broad-based, sustainable agreements on controversial issues like the Kotel and other matters challenging American and Israeli Jews today.

Even within our relatively small community, we too often speak to only those who agree with us. No one is better positioned to change this reality than Natan Sharansky, the universally beloved hero of the Jewish people, and Gil Troy, an academic respected equally in Israel and North America, and whose book “The Zionist Ideas” should be standard fare at every synagogue, JCC, and day school, and given as a gift to every b’nai mitzvah. Together, we can finish building that bridge and better connect our communities towards a stronger and more engaged future.

About the Author
Eric D. Fingerhut is the President and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Prior to his appointment at JFNA, Mr. Fingerhut served as the President and CEO of Hillel International from 2013-19. At Hillel, he led the organization’s Drive to Excellence, which resulted in doubling the number of students engaged by Hillel each year to over 130,000 and the total funds raised each year to nearly $200M. His emphasis on recruiting, training and retaining top talent for the system, and on building a data and performance driven organization, have become models for the non-profit sector. Mr. Fingerhut has also had a varied and distinguished career in public service and higher education. He served as Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents from early 2007 to 2011, leading Ohio’s system of public universities and colleges; as Ohio state senator from 1997 to 2006; and represented Ohio’s 19th congressional district in the U.S. Congress from 1993 to 1994. In 2004, he was the Democratic Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate. Mr. Fingerhut received a juris doctorate from Stanford University Law School and a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. He and his wife Amy have two sons, Sam and Charlie, and beagles Pedro and Lulu.
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