I traveled to Israel with 16 Portland participants in the Wexner Heritage Leadership Program (plus several spouses). We were joined in Israel by cohorts from Seattle, Cincinnati, Rochester, and the New England area (Hartford, New Haven, and Springfield). The two-year program is the preeminent Jewish leadership initiative in the country and brings participants together throughout the year, including a trip to Israel.
Our program was not about sightseeing. It was focused on better understanding “Israel today” -- dynamics within the country, and, most importantly, ways as leaders we can effectuate change for the benefit of the global Jewish people.
Without sharing a “travelog,” I do want to share some key highlights:
- Nissim Black, originally from Seattle, has been a gangsta rapper, a gang member, and a faith seeker. Today, he is an African American Hasidic Jew living in Israel who put on an uplifting rap performance for our group.
- Eyal Hulta, Director of Israel’s National Security Council, shared “off the record” insights about Israel and potential initiatives to strengthen relations throughout the Arab world.
- Rabbi Seth Farber, Executive Director of Itim, discussed his organization’s efforts to make Israel’s religious establishment (Ultra-Orthodox control) more inclusive. His work is focused on celebrating religious pluralism in Israel and creating more equality in the system. This includes issues of marriage, divorce, conversions, etc.
- Rabbi Menachem Bombach is a champion of bringing secular education to the Ultra-Orthodox community. For most Ultra-Orthodox men in Israel, it is very possible they will spend their entire lives studying in a yeshiva. In 2017, Rabbi Bombach founded the Netzach Educational Network, which combines religious and secular studies, aiming to educate students to become observant, Torah-loving Jews who are also prepared for practical life. The education equips their graduates to compete for quality employment and to pursue higher education in Israel. In many ways, Netzach schools are modeled on Yeshiva high schools found in the United States.
- Alon Friedman, CEO of Enter – The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, shared the importance of deepening the concept of “global Jewish peoplehood.” This is the opportunity to enrich the relationship between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. He emphasized the need to create more “people to people” connections to better understand one another. As they used to say in Jewish Atlanta, we may not be related, but we are family.
- Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, President of The Wexner Foundation, shared that if you really want to understand the mood of the country, ask a taxi driver. She is 100% correct. They have many opinions, especially on politics in Israel and America (including President Biden's visit) – and never afraid to share. It is always helpful to hear another perspective -- especially from people 7000 miles away.
One speaker who fascinated me was Mohamed Darwouche, a leading expert on Jewish-Arab relations within Israel (not focused on Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza). He shared with us the challenges within Israel with “Jewish-Arab co-existence” (which he described as Jews and Arabs eating humus together and then going back to their own insular world) as compared to a “shared society” (not solely about relationships, but about equality and mutual interests that enrich both societies). Let’s remember, Arabs and Jews share the same roads, malls, economy, government, thus it is in everyone’s best interest to make it work. Studies show that 68% of Israelis want a shared and equal society and 88% of Israeli Arabs support the same. Darwouche emphasized the minority is always seeking better relations with the majority because they are more dependent on them.
Darwouche talked about Israel’s history and the establishment of the State in 1948. Israel’s Declaration of Independence formalizes “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel.” It also promised to "foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” Darwouche challenged us by asking -- Is Israel the State of the Jews? State of the Israelis (including the Israeli Arabs)? State of the Jews and Israelis?
Some things to consider:
- 92% of Israeli-Arabs live in separate towns and villages from Jews
- 99% of children attend non-Jewish/Arab integrated schools (we are blessed to have a strong relationship with the Hand in Hand school network where Jews and Arabs learn together)
- Israel is revising its 35+ year-old Civics curriculum to better educate children about what a "shared society" can look like.
- Polls indicate that 93% of Israeli-Arabs say they would not move to a Palestinian state if it came to be. Darwouche was not surprised asking why should they leave their home/village/homeland where multiple generations of their families have lived?
Much to think about!
I had such a positive experience with so many bright, forward-thinking leaders from Portland and elsewhere. I was truly learning with them and from them. Traveling together reinforced that our Jewish community's future is in very good hands. Moreover, our community is fortunate to partner with the Wexner Foundation in developing the next cadre of communal leaders.
One last thing – no matter how many times I visit, Israel is truly a wonderous country.
May we all have a restful and peaceful Shabbat.