President Reuven Rivlin addresses the JFNA General Assembly in Los Angeles, November 2017.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
It was several years ago when I tried to convince my editors at Maariv that there was justification for interviewing the then president of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). I informed my editor that the president of the JFNA is the most influential Jew in the United States, a kind of “American-Jewish prime minister,” and that this is an interview any newspaper in the country would want to publish.
Truth is that he was not exactly the “Jewish prime minister” as I claimed, and is not the most influential Jew in the US, but that’s what convinced my editor to authorize the interview. There were no pretentious headlines, and I can’t imagine there was much discussion regarding this interview, but my journalistic mission – connecting Israelis to the Jewish world – was complete.
A few days ago, the JFNA announced that they had chosen a new president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, who serves as the president and CEO of Hillel International, the umbrella organization for Jewish student life around the world. Fingerhut was considered a successful and charismatic executive and belongs to a Jewish Conservative community.
I decided to take advantage of Fingerhut’s new position and try to convey a message to this important and significant organization, which in my opinion is missing out on a historic opportunity that may not repeat itself. Here are five suggestions I have, regarding the relationship between Israel and American Jewry:
– Let’s start by saying that most Israelis, just like my former editor, do not know of the JFNA. They are certainly not aware of the great contribution of these federations to the establishment and prosperity of the State of Israel. I think it is time that you be recognized. Why? Because otherwise, you’re just not on the Israeli radar, and when the government cancels the Western Wall compromise – which you worked so hard to promote – there is no feeling that we hurt someone, simply because you are not part of any consideration.
You need to launch a campaign, as the JFNA has declared after the cancellation of the Western Wall compromise; to encourage Israeli internal activity regarding Diaspora Jewry. I don’t necessarily think that the campaign has to only be on behalf of the JFNA, but rather on behalf of the American-Jewish community as a whole. After all, people make special efforts to not upset family members or close friends, but at the moment, many Israelis portray you as a large group of naive and Zionist American Jews who like to sing “Hava Nagila” and donate a lot of money to Israel.
– You yourself, Eric, must be a familiar figure and face in every Israeli household. Why? Because if we are going to have a relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, and you are the head of the largest Jewish organization in North America, you must be portrayed as the “prime minister of American Jews.”
Additionally, you need to hire an Israeli public relations firm, perhaps even two or three. Make sure that not only does every senior government official know you, but also heads of the economy, as well as the average Israeli. Prove that you understand what is happening here – that you care, like many American Jews – but at the same time, try to make us Israelis understand what is happening with your community. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when Eretz Nehederet – the most popular satire program in Israel, comparable to Saturday Night Live – will have someone imitate you. Then you’ll really be part of Israeli society and will be able to influence it.
Most Israelis, certainly the Jews among them, are more conservative than your average American Jew. The next time you bring the GA annual conference to Israel, instead of publishing a special supplement with Haaretz in English, you should understand that you have not reached anyone you are trying to convince. Unfortunately, the special supplement didn’t expose any Israelis to who you are. You need to understand that the cooperation with Israeli research institutes or think tanks from the Left will not help you reach the Israeli public that has difficult and unresolved claims toward your community. You need to reach the ultra-Orthodox (haredim), the religious Zionists, the people of the periphery and the traditional Israelis. These Israelis may see your logo on some community center or another, but do not understand why they need to have a connection with you. They may not even recognize the synagogue to which you belong to as a real synagogue. You have to invest in Judea and Samaria, in religious and ultra-Orthodox communities, among traditionalists and especially among the political Right – who won the last elections. Many of them see the connection with you as something that is even problematic, without knowing you at all. It is now your job to change this narrative.
– Keep up to date with news in the Israel, and that means following Hebrew-speaking news outlets. If your Hebrew isn’t good enough, have someone translate it for you on a daily or weekly basis. Read the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox news outlets, they are the ones you need to target. The ultra-Orthodox media is the one that convinced haredi politicians to cancel the Western Wall compromise; therefore it’s worth getting to know them.
– Do not let the heads of the streams – the Reform and Conservative movements – be the spokespeople of North American Jewry in Israel. For a large percentage of Israelis, these streams are non-relevant and evoke a negative connotation. The Reform and Conservative movements invest a great deal of resources in Israel to make sure they are heard. We hear a lot less of the JFNA, and that is a shame.
This is it, Eric, make your voice be heard. Many Israelis, myself included, think that the time has come for a real American-Jewish presence here in Israel. Good luck.The writer is an award winning journalist for Makor Rishon. This op-ed was originally published in Hebrew.