Reverse Birthright

180 Israeli leaders journey to bridge gaps with Diaspora Jewry

TAL SCHNEIDER, part of the delegation to Los Angeles, snaps a selfie. (photo credit: GESHER)
TAL SCHNEIDER, part of the delegation to Los Angeles, snaps a selfie.
(photo credit: GESHER)
 Some 180 public figures from Israel so far have taken part in missions to become better acquainted with Jews living in the Diaspora, as part of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s’ Community program, coordinated in cooperation with the Gesher organization. NIS 6.4 million has been invested in the program, which includes journeys to Jewish communities in the United States, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
The program’s participants spoke of an increased level of commitment that they sensed from their Jewish brethren abroad.
Over the past half decade, 10 Israeli delegations have traveled to different communities abroad in order to get more acquainted with Diaspora Jewry, to better understand the importance of the connection between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora and to narrow gaps between the communities. The delegations included prominent individuals in the media, the education system and key decision-makers.
One of the reasons that relations between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are somewhat tense currently is due to a divergence of opinion on matters pertaining to the principle of separation between church and state. Most Jews in the Diaspora oppose the idea of an established state religion, while most Jews in Israel feel that Judaism should be part and parcel of the state. Consequently, Diaspora Jews have difficulty relating to the way the State of Israel approaches policies regarding religion.
Israel now finds itself in a position where it can change its relationship with the Diaspora for the better. Not too long ago, Israel was in a status of economic dependency on the Diaspora; the general perspective on Israel was one that the country was financially weak and needed all the help it could get.
Today, the situation is different. The image of Israel as a country facing economic problems is dissipating and Israel is now finding itself in a position to help Jews in the Diaspora financially. Over the past year, for example, American and Canadian Jewish leaders asked the Israeli government to contribute financially toward the tuition of Jewish children from poor families. This paradigm shift undoubtedly has the potential to categorically change Israel-Diaspora relations.
Shira Sherez Zik, director of the Gesher L’Manhigut (Bridge to Leadership) organization, believes that the perceived gaps between Jewish communities in Israel and abroad can be minimized by a few strategic actions.
“We need a new paradigm, one in which mutuality is the leading value, where the strong State of Israel can lend a hand and encourage ties with its brothers and sisters around the world. We can still create this renewed bridge through the values of Jewish peoplehood, that is, Judaism that is first and foremost, is a people – one family. This is certainly preferable to the alternative of dispersed communities fighting one another.
“The main question regarding the Israel-Diaspora relationship, which is discussed in every program of the institute, is whether the State of Israel is interested in being a center for the entire Jewish people and/or only for Jewish Israelis? If the answer is the former, then Israel must invest thought into such an approach and at least to some degree reach out to Jews in the Diaspora. In order to succeed in doing so, Israel must think less of how Diaspora Jews can help the Jewish state and instead, more of what it needs to do in order to reconnect with Jews in the Diaspora.”
After undergoing training and traveling to meet Jews living abroad, the program’s participants experienced a deep transformation in their perspective of Diaspora Jewry.
“It was a consciousness-transforming journey,” one of the participants reflected. “I never saw Jews from the Diaspora until now. I never viewed them as significant before we met up close in person.”
Another participant said, “My feeling toward Jews from the Diaspora changed significantly. I did not know anything beforehand, but today, when I think of the people of Israel, it is no longer just the state of Israel but the rest of world Jewry as well. I have been transformed from being aloof to being active and understanding that something must be done.”
The participants all hold key titles in Israeli society and can use their respective power to influence various sectors in Israel to create a similar change in perspective among the Israeli public at large. Many, including journalists and academics, have already taken action. Ultimately, the goal is for them to help mend and improve relations between Israel and the Diaspora. The Geshser L’Manhigut organization offers a range of tools that can be used by any person who wants to effect change from the inside out.