A renewed Jewish identity experience in Israel

A renewed Jewish identity experience in Israel

The news from and about Israel for the last number of weeks has been troubling from many perspectives. I feel fortunate to offer at least some respite from the challenges and controversies we face.

Right before Pesach, I travelled to Israel to participate in the 25th annual International Conference of the Jewish Funders Network. Its largest to date, the JFN conference brings together funders from around the globe to learn, to discuss, and to engage with one another on issues of common interest. Past conferences have yielded new funding collaborations to support inclusion efforts for people with disabilities, Israel advocacy, and Jewish camping, to name a few.

I participate in the JFN gatherings wearing two hats. Of course, working as the lead professional for a granting foundation, I am seeking to advance collaborative relationships to further the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s mission of building a stronger Jewish identity among young people through Jewish camping. But as an individual philanthropist, I am keen to observe trends, learn from thought leaders, ask big questions, and seek new approaches.

In doing so at this year’s conference, I experienced a renewed, encouraging, positive view of Israel reflected neither in the headlines nor in our communal debates.

One important trend has been the growth in Israeli philanthropy and in the number of participating Israeli philanthropists. Over the years, I have observed this change in Israel’s philanthropic culture, especially in strategic, impactful grant making. The significant growth in Israelis attending this year’s conference bodes well for our global Jewish community.

I had the pleasure to visit with Saul Singer, a “Start Up Nation” co-author. (It turns out our kids attend Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire together!) I continue to marvel at the story of Israel’s economic miracle, created in many ways by the 21st century skills acquired by those serving in the Israel Defense Forces: leadership, self-reliance, collaboration and teamwork, and problem-solving. As Saul described, these skills have spawned successful industries that are respected around the world. I marvel, too, at the social entrepreneurial spirit in Israel, again, built in part by these skills, which are changing the social environment in Israel today. In the United States, many of these 21st century skills are developed in the summer camp environment, where campers and counselors create a magical environment that is refreshed and enhanced each year.

While I was in Israel, I was fortunate to be introduced to the Jordan River Village, which has been created by a number of committed Israeli and global philanthropists to provide a camp experience to kids suffering from disabilities and chronic illnesses. This camp provides such a powerful impact on its campers and such an appreciated experience for the families. Regardless of their background or condition, children come to the Village to experience a sense of normalcy and just plain fun. JRV is the only member of Paul Newman’s SeriousFun Children’s Network in the entire Middle East. This is yet another positive example where our Jewish community serves as a humanitarian beacon for the world.

On the final morning of the conference, I attended a fascinating session called “Renewing Jewish Identity in Israel.” Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon gave a stirring account of the renaissance of pluralistic Jewish activity in the context of contemporary Zionism and Jewish sovereignty. This young, diverse, and complex phenomenon seems to be blurring the boundaries between “religious” and “secular” that long have polarized Israeli society. The Avi Chai and Posen foundations, in particular, have been leading investors in this growing trend. It is clear from the large attendance at this session that many funders are evaluating this approach to uniting Israelis in a collective commitment to the Jewish state and to Jewish identity-building in Israel.

Rabbi Hartman challenged us to unite people across party lines, to transcend right-wing/left-wing distinctions, and to combine efforts in Israel and of world Jewry. In an effort to educate and inspire a new generation of Jews, I was reminded once again of my own interest as a philanthropist and as a communal leader in the power of our work, in particular here in North America, of bringing diverse perspectives together.

Throughout my week in Israel, many people who are greatly interested in bringing the summer camping experience to Israel approached me. While there have been a number of successful efforts over the years, there is now significant interest, by funders, by organizations, by the Jewish Agency, and by the government of Israel itself, in serving a larger swath of the Israeli population. A summer camp experience can provide the broad Israeli community with a positive, joy-filled Jewish experience, just as it has done for North American children and teenagers for decades. I know this is an area in which our foundation and our North American Jewish community can offer guidance and support as Israel embarks on its version of immersive summer experiences that can make a different in building a stronger, more joyous Jewish future, even in Israel.