Seeing North America through the JFNA lens

Knesset members who traveled to North America with JFNA delegations reported that the experience greatly improved their understanding of American Jewry and its relationship with Israel.

(Clockwise from top left): Nachman Shai, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, Itzik Shmuli and Bezalel Smotrich  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(Clockwise from top left): Nachman Shai, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, Itzik Shmuli and Bezalel Smotrich
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For nearly a decade, The Jewish Federations of North America has been hosting trips for top Israeli leaders to visit Jewish communities throughout the United States and Canada. They have proven to be eye-opening.
Co-sponsored by The Jewish Agency for Israel, these annual trips bring members of Knesset, top journalists and thought leaders on weeklong journeys to meet with North American Jewish communal lay and professional leaders and the heads of religious streams. In addition to getting acquainted with the needs and interests of young people.
“Often these trips provide leading Israelis with their first real in-depth Jewish communal experiences,” says Rebecca Caspi, Director General of JFNA’s Israel Office. “They aren’t traveling to a community to deliver a speech. They are going to listen and learn; and when they return and express how eye-opening the trip was for them, we know it was a success.”
Knesset members who traveled to North America with JFNA delegations reported that the experience greatly improved their understanding of American Jewry and its relationship with Israel, and would undoubtedly impact their work as legislators. Here is a sample of their impressions:
Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai
I have lived in America for many years, for various [reasons] and have visited dozens of times, so I assumed I knew the country very well. However, over the last several years, as I have focused in-depth on the emotional story of the American Jewish community, through the Jewish Federations of North America, of which I was proud to serve as executive vice president. I have realized that the more I know, the more I still have to learn.
It is a relatively young Jewish community that succeeded in integrating in American life and becoming influential in crafting the world’s strongest country, while dealing with the hatred and antisemitism that came from the Old World.
The energies, the momentum and the survival instincts that millions of Jews brought from all over world, especially Europe, enabled them to become an inseparable part of the intricate fabric of American life. In Jewish history, Jews have never blossomed to the extent and depth that the American Jewish community has.
I try to ask, read and study to understand the secret of this success, not only as a Jew, but also as an Israeli who wants to grasp the deep friendship between the US and Israel, which is greatly affected by American Jewry, and of course, must be maintained.
It is difficult to ponder a State of Israel without the continued stable support of the US. That is why I follow with concern the processes happening in American Jewish life, marriages between Jews and non-Jews, the distancing of the young generation from Israel, and the gaps in worldviews and values between Israelis and American Jews.
I wonder how these processes will develop and whether the Jewish community will continue to grow, blossom and strengthen and continue to fill such an active and central role in US-Israel relations. I still don’t have answers to all these questions.
But this is an opportunity to thank our brothers and sisters in the US and to express appreciation for their great achievements and hope that they will continue supporting and encouraging our mutual values for many years to come.
Bayit Yehudi faction head Shuli Moalem-Refaeli
As a member of Knesset, I have participated in many delegations visiting a variety of Jewish communities in the US. The personal connections I made on these visits enable me to establish and maintain a real and honest dialogue over the similarities and differences among the different streams of Jewish communities in the US and Jewish communal life in Israel. What I learned from participating in these delegations is that we all value our belonging to the Jewish people, and are concerned for Jewish continuity in the State of Israel and the entire world. We have many differences, some of which are deep.
But what we have in common is much more than what divides us: Our shared values regarding the connection between Israel and the Jewish people, love for the State of Israel and Jewish identity and a shared responsibility for every Jew around the world.
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli
I’d like to thank everyone at the Jewish Federations for welcoming us into your communities and into your hearts. This was one of the most informative, impressive and meaningful visits to the US I’ve ever experienced. I saw wonderful Jewish communities that are strong, serious and committed to each other. I was also able to see how Israel serves as an ideal in the lives of American Jewry, and to appreciate the true meaning of the bond with Israel. It was also an opportunity to engage in direct, frank and open dialogue.
This is a time of challenge for us as a people and I hope that together we can assure the continuation of our unified Jewish family. I am committed with all my heart to promoting the notion of a more pluralistic and inclusive Judaism. With the Federations’ impressive, wonderful and dedicated people advancing this work, we will achieve it.
Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich
I usually make a point of never leaving Israel. Therefore, it was not easy to persuade me to join the delegation of the Federations and the Jewish Agency. But after I did, not only do I not regret it, I think it was one of my most important and educational weeks since I entered the Knesset.
Throughout my years of public service, I dealt a lot with internal Israeli issues and world Jewry was not “on my radar.” Because I was not aware of what they were going through, I did not take them into account in the work that I did.
This visit opened my eyes to the significant mutual challenges we face as Jews and the importance of the connection between us. It made me understand that the steps we take here have ramifications for my brothers and sisters overseas, and therefore, I must take them into account among my considerations.
That does not mean our disagreements have disappeared or that I will accept the views of every Jewish organization on every issue. But I have definitely tried since my visit to consider their opinions, and it has had an impact more than once on my final decisions. •