In face of growing rifts, experiencing Israel more important than ever

In face of growing rifts, experiencing Israel more important than ever

Israel at 70 celebrations in Tel Aviv. Getty Images
Israel at 70 celebrations in Tel Aviv. Getty Images

When I boarded a flight to Israel in the summer of 2006, the Second Lebanon War was still raging. By the time I landed, a cease-fire was in place. It was a clear message about the importance of experiencing Israel, even during the most tense and uncertain periods.

Now, in the midst of fears of the combustible situation at the Gazan border escalating into a full-fledged war, rising frustration in Reform and Conservative circles about Israeli government policy on religious pluralism, and the broader trend of a widening Israel-diaspora disconnect (a recent Jewish People Policy Institute survey found 57 percent of American and Israeli Jews feel there’s a “distancing” between their communities), many are predicting a downturn in Jewish visitation to

A little more than a year ago, Reform leaders were already reconsidering their donations to Israel. Is travel and study abroad to Israel the next domino to fall?

I think that this would be nothing short of a tragedy for the Jewish community in America. It’s why I feel a responsibility to speak out now about the immense value that my Israel experience has had on my career, and my life.

The end of the Second Lebanon War coincided with the start of my time in Otzma, a program of Masa Israel Journey to bring young adults to Israel. Although I went into the program already wanting to become a Jewish communal professional, experiencing Israel in an immersive way empowered me to dream bigger. I’d planned to pursue a master’s degree in the U.S., but instead attended graduate school at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lived in Israel for three years. I later came full circle by serving as the North American director for Otzma and its Israel experiences, a role that included running a Masa program. (In 2012 the Jewish Federations of North America cut the Otzma program, which had been in operation since 1986.)

My Masa experience was divided into three-month segments at three different locations: I taught English in a Bedouin school in Beersheva and lived in an immigrant absorption center while sharpening my Hebrew in an ulpan (intensive Hebrew language academy).

In Afula, I lived in a dormitory and volunteered in a school for children with cerebral palsy. It was a very different experience than I could have had in an American school. Israel’s uniquely close-knit and open culture — less fixated on the possibility of litigation — enabled me to engage with the students more deeply.

And in Jerusalem I interned with the Avi Chai Foundation, where I gained a unique view into the philanthropic relationship between Israel and the

That time in Israel transformed the way I view the country and continues to shape how I advocate for it. Jews from across the globe participated in my program. Despite our differences, we shared a commitment to supporting Israel — each of us in a way rooted in our backgrounds and experiences. This intimately influences my Jewish professional career, especially in my current role in Israel engagement for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. It’s my job to be open-minded and work with anyone who wishes to engage with Israel, and to interact with community members in an accepting manner regardless of their personal views and positions. This “big tent” philosophy enhances the quality, impact, and reach of my work.

At federation, my department oversees key aspects of the organization’s relationship to Israel, including the allocation of philanthropic dollars to address crucial needs for the Israeli people, my local community’s engagement with Israel, and our partnership with The Jewish Agency. This partnership enables the service of 10 shlichim (Israeli emissaries), who foster deep connections to Israel and develop Jewish identity throughout the community. Our shlichim work as educators at more than 30 community agencies, including day schools, JCCs, synagogues, and Israeli Scouts. Through this multifaceted community engagement work, I have the privilege of translating my attachment to Israel from a feeling into tangible results.

I visit Israel often — more than I travel to any other country — in both professional and personal capacities, and my son’s first trip abroad (when he was 12-months-old) was to Israel.

My advice to Jewish young adults: Don’t miss out on the opportunity I had to become more knowledgeable about Israel, to gain deep insight into its culture, government, and society, to form opinions about Israel that are nuanced and aren’t based on popular stereotypes, and to build lifelong, multifaceted relationships with Israel and Israelis. There’s no substitute for an immersive Israel experience.

So, the next time you find yourself reading about or participating in an impassioned debate on prayer rights at the Western Wall or Israeli policy toward conversion to Judaism, remember that although those issues certainly deserve our attention and energy, the only way for diaspora Jews to get a full picture of Israel is to go there.

Sandy Green is the director of global connections for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

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