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Israel beyond camels

My take on 4 years in Cincinnati, representing the Jewish state: polite emails, advanced planning, and changing people's minds
Artistic rendering of downtown Cincinnati. (Courtesy, via The Times of Israel)
Artistic rendering of downtown Cincinnati. (Courtesy, via The Times of Israel)

I have been Cincinnati’s community emissary from Israel (shlicha) since August 2014. As I head home to Israel with my family (which has gained a member since we arrived four years ago), I answered some questions about my experience.

Q: Of all the cities in the world looking for an emissary, you and your family landed in Cincinnati. Is that what you envisioned when you applied?

A: I named the folder holding the endless application materials and screening documents for the shlichut, “Italy.” I thought that Europe was not so far from my family, and that I would drink coffee in the Piazza. I would learn Italian, I thought.

But I got Cincinnati.

Before I arrived, Cincinnati leaders told me, “Israel is the only thing the community agrees on.” It sounded odd to me. How can they agree on Israel? Because in Israel, we do not agree on anything.

But I was naive and believed it.

Being an emissary is to be in a fascinating position, one not many get to enjoy in their lifetimes. I was living in two worlds at the same time. I was asked to move here and be an Israeli, but I also had to integrate into the American culture. I was living on the border, only to find out that the border is not a fine line. There is space between worlds, where you can play and experiment — a place where there is no right or wrong, where there is no one way, and where there is an evolving set of tools.

Q: The United States, and the Midwest in particular, are quite different than Italy. How did you adjust once you arrived?

A: The first voicemail that awaited me when I got to the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati office was a message to coordinate a lecture in May. I thought surely it was the wrong date. May was 10 months away! I learned quickly that here there is much, much planning ahead.

I learned that, in the United States, Israelis are not considered serious or trustworthy and change everything at the last minute. I taught people, however, that it’s our reality that changes all the time. We don’t know what will happen in six months. Here in the United States, there is stability; the future looks quite similar and promising.

So while in the US, I started to plan. I did so much planning for Israel at 70, in fact, that I feel like Israel is already 90!

Q: What were your goals for the community when you moved to Cincinnati?

A: When I was interviewed in Israel, I was asked what I would do in Cincinnati as a shlicha. I was asked what I would bring to Cincinnati from Israel. I said I would bring Achinoam Nini and Mira Awad. I did not realize then that I was saying something radical.

My goal was to present a complex reality of Israel. However, I found within the community the desire to keep Israel uncomplicated, a bit mythical, and sublime — to support Israel without criticism. Criticism and exploring challenges were seen as a betrayal of this support.

It was clear things needed to change.

We have no choice but to look reality in the eyes. Loving Israel does not mean a lack of criticism. Recognition of Israel’s challenges leads to engagement, not indifference. Israel is not only complex, it is a real place. And reality is not one-dimensional.

Q: What did that look like, in terms of turning the concept into reality?

A: During my four years here, I adopted two slogans, “Israel beyond Camels” and “You Know it’s 2018 in Israel, Too!” We don’t ride camels. We are not always right. We do not agree on a lot of things. Our government is far from perfect. We have a deep and difficult conflict with the Palestinians that requires a solution. And we must talk about it.

Why? Because the younger generations are exposed to many sources of information, and they are no longer buying it. And they are right.

Shortly after I arrived, I noticed that, in the United States, we teach our children about a land flowing with milk and honey, because we believe it is too complicated to share the complexity with them. They leave elementary school with a picture of a perfect Israel that’s never wrong, but they go out into the real world and learn about BDS, and they hear that Israel is an apartheid state, and they do not have the tools to deal with these statements. We didn’t give them the tools because we said it was too complicated.

Life is complex. Children understand complexity. It is our responsibility to give them the tools to deal with it. We do not have to fear that because of the complexity, they will not love Israel or will not feel connected to Israel. Israel is part of our story.

Q: What were some specific programs you worked on to make Israel “real” for the Cincinnati community?

A: To turn Israel into a real and relevant reality, we need to create ties with Israel. We do that through the Parnership2Gether platform, which creates people-to-people connections between people living in Cincinnati and Netanya. Indeed, our partnership with Netanya and the many projects that we build in partnership every year are a role model throughout the continent.

I have learned so much about cultural relativism, about the difficulty in forming connections between different people and cultures, and about the infinite potential that is inherent in these connections — experiences that are truly life-changing.

Q: Do you see this being done on a national level?

A: Yes — increasingly. I see it in this year’s theme for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv, “We Need to Talk.” There’s the recognition that there are misunderstandings and complications in the relationship between the United States and Israel. And the first step to strengthening that relationship is to be honest and open about what the barriers are and then finding ways to overcome them.

Q: In addition to creating understanding about Israel among Americans, you are passionate about moving the needle on Jewish pluralism in Israel. How did that play a role in your work in Cincinnati?

Promoting Jewish pluralism in Israel is my field. It was my background before I came to Cincinnati. So it’s something I’m passionate about. I spoke about the importance of the subject on many occasions. I lectured in the various synagogues, and I brought lecturers to talk about the issue.

I advised the Israel & Overseas committee when it expanded its allocations process to include pluralism organizations in Israel.

I was privileged to be a member of the community supporting iRep, the Freedom of Marriage Choice initiative, led by Kim Heiman, which is bringing significant change in the perception and life of many Israelis and in their relationship to Judaism.

I wrote the letter from the emissaries living in the United States to the Israeli society, following frustration after the freezing of the Western Wall agreement.

The contribution of our community to promoting Jewish pluralism in Israel is important not only for relations between Israel and the Diaspora, but also for the lives of all Jews living in Israel, their connections to Judaism, and their future in the State of Israel.

Q: What did you learn over the course of four years in Cincinnati?

A: I learned how much I did not know — about America and American Jewry. (And therefore how much Israeli society does not know, and how much more work I have when I return to Israel.)

I learned that there are lots of “Americas.” America is not only New York and Los Angeles. I learned the best part of America is the Midwest.

I learned to plan in advance — way in advance.

I learned how to write archaic, polite emails — in English!

I learned how important it is to invest in creating relationships. The connections I had made with the rabbis in the city, the programing staff at the Mayerson JCC, the religious school, and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion all enabled the trust that enabled the action.

I realized that community work requires endless investment in relationships. And I have learned how well this is done in this community.

I learned how much collaboration is key to success and how much the Cincinnati community invests time and energy to ensure that this relationship takes place.

I learned how important it is to invest, strengthen, and build ties between Israel and the Diaspora — and how the future of the Jewish people depends on it.

Q: How did your family benefit from your experience as shlicha?

A: We have had the opportunity for our older kids, Rey and Gili, to receive a great Jewish and general education at Rockwern Academy and the Mayerson JCC. They speak fluent English — and American (as Gili says).

We got to bring into the world Ella, our American girl who whenever people ask her where she was born, she will say Cincinnati, Ohio.

We traveled a lot and saw breathtaking views, and we met many different “Americas.” We enjoyed the long weekends and the convenience of living in America. Cincinnati — where every place is a 15-minute drive away. It was quite a ride!

Q: Any parting wisdom?

A: As shlicha, I often brought Israeli poetry into my lessons. So I’ll include one last poem that was always a good reminder for me of my role, the challenges of the two halves of the Jewish people today, and the great possibilities that exist.

“Listening”

It’s hard for two seashells to share a real conversation.
Each inclines its ear to its own sea.
Only the pearl diver or the antique dealer
Can say for certain: the same sea

— T. Carmi, Attention, translated by David Ilan

About the Author
Maia Morag is The Jewish Agency for Israel’s community shlicha (emissary) in Cincinnati.
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