A group of Israeli journalists and public opinion makers have had their eyes opened to a part of the Jewish nation they barely considered before by a new project – titled “Community” – that seeks to put the subject of Diaspora Jewry on the Israeli agenda.
“Israeli public discourse has virtually no interest in Diaspora Jewry,” explained a statement by Community’s co-creators, the Gesher Leadership Institution and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. “The predominant view in Israel is that Diaspora Jewry is obligated to support and invest in the State of Israel, and while we take note of our Diaspora brethren in times of tragedy, familiarity with the world of values and challenges that face Diaspora communities is virtually nonexistent.”
The project sets out to change this.
Its third delegation returned last month from Los Angeles, where they visited Jewish schools and college campuses, and met with community members, leaders and rabbis. Each Community project is comprised of 10 meetings with approximately 20 participants each, and includes an in-depth visit to Jewish communities outside Israel. Thus far, two groups have visited the US and one visited South Africa.
“What happens in Israel very much impacts Jews in the Diaspora, and we need to be aware of that – and most Israelis aren’t,” said executive director of Gesher Ilan Geal-Dor.
Gesher, together with the Diaspora Ministry, set out to provide encounters with world Jewry to Israelis and expose them to the challenges they face. “It’s not us and them,” he emphasized, explaining that by introducing these ideas to journalists and opinion makers, they hope it will, in turn, influence public discourse about issues such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, assimilation and Israel’s impact on the Diaspora.
“For most people it’s something very new on their radar,” the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s senior director of Diaspora affairs, Hagay Elitzur, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. “Most people say they weren’t aware of this topic at all, or didn’t think it was an important issue.”
Indeed, this was the case for Yisrael Hayom columnist Emily Amrousi, who is taking part in the current sessions. “I have no family in the Diaspora, and I didn’t have any knowledge about it,” she told the Post, confessing that she was guilty of “rejecting the Diaspora” and that the only thing that initially attracted her to the project was the offer of a free flight to Los Angeles.
“I thought that I have nothing to say to anyone who doesn’t make aliya,” Amrousi said candidly, explaining that she is very Zionist and it was “clear to her that there was only one center for Jews” – Israel.
Now, halfway through the program and following the visit to Los Angeles, Amrousi has expanded her horizons and opened her mind. Having met and conversed with a variety of US Jews and having had a glimpse into their lives, she has learned to accept the concept of a Diaspora Jewish life.
“Maybe it’s OK that there will be several centers for Jews,” she reflected.
Amrousi is a religious Jew and was impressed by the egalitarian approach of a synagogue she visited in Los Angeles.
“I saw a more equal approach to women there,” she said.
Amrousi is someone who has also been very clear in her mind that the only definition of a Jew that counts is the one according to Halacha, Jewish religious law. But her recent experiences and encounters have moved her to question that. Recounting her meeting with a pro-Israel student who has a Jewish father, she explained that her eyes were opened to a much wider pool of people who identify with Israel and the Jewish nation – beyond those who fit that halachic definition.
“Suddenly, there are more people who are part of the family,” she said, opining that it’s important to reopen the question of “Who is a Jew?” Amrousi also believes the subject should not be referred to as “Diaspora,” but rather as the “Jewish nation.” “The topic of diaspora doesn’t interest our readers, because we speak about someone else, that is not us,” she explained. “If I want to interest our readers, then we need to change the concept. We need to talk about the Jewish nation – that’s also us. “It’s not us and them – it’s one big story.”
The program – which included Jews across the entire spectrum of society – enabled participants to break down barriers, not just overseas, but also back at home. Tirza Zisman, editor-in-chief of Channel 2’s 6 with Oded Ben-Ami, overcame the stigmas she associated with haredim (ultra-Orthodox). She spent the last Shabbat being hosted at a haredi home, having become close friends with three ultra-Orthodox men who participated in the project.
“I didn’t know their way of life,” she told the Post, explaining that she had preconceptions about them, such as the exclusion of women in their culture.
While she had these opinions about other sectors of society in Israel, she simply did not think about Jews in the rest of the world before participating in the Community project.
“It made me see something I didn’t even look at before,” she said. After having been hosted at Jewish home in Los Angeles, Zisman has a newfound appreciation for Diaspora Jewry, admiring the way they hold tight to their identity despite the challenges of doing so in a non-Jewish country. “I saw how important it is to help them preserve their Judaism, because it’s not easy,” she said, pointing to the difficulty of observing the Jewish holidays abroad, or simply holding on to your identity, despite the fact that “it’s not so popular to be Jewish.”
Cinema and TV director Daniel Syrkin came to the program with a different perspective as a Russian immigrant. The program allowed him to further explore a subject in which he had always been interested. “Israel is very important to them [Diaspora Jews] and Israel cannot ignore the influence it has on Jews around the world.
“US Jews want an Israel they can love and can be proud of,” he said, having been struck by the passion for Israel he witnessed in the Jews he met in Los Angeles, whether from the Left or Right, religious or secular. Having grown up scanning the credits for Jewish names, an encounter with Hollywood Jews was of particular interest for Syrkin. He noted that even there, where people tend to be rather cynical, he witnessed this attachment to Israel. For instance, he met with Creative Artist Agency’s Adam Berkowitz and saw his eyes “light up” when the conversation turned to Israel. “Even among the most cynical people,” Syrkin said, he found this connection between Jews and Israel both moving surprising.
“It makes you understand that we have to be a light unto the nations,” he said, stating that Israel had not yet finished its task of building the ideal society. “They love us and because we are the state of all the Jews we also owe them something.”
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