On October 24, I got my seat at the table at the Jewish Agency for Israel alongside 130 fellow Jews from around the world. As a 5’1” youngish-looking 51-year-old American woman, I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Most of the folks around the table were over-65-year-old men, and many were Israeli. Almost all of us were white. I was told to do a lot of listening in my first meeting, so I could learn about the organization’s behemoth bureaucracy, which includes representatives from WZO (the World Zionist Organization), JFNA (the Jewish Federations of North America), Keren Hayesod (European federations through UJIA), and UIA (United Israel Appeal), the international funnel through which federation funds are sent to the Jewish Agency. There were also representatives from the various streams of Judaism, including Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.
There are approximately 150 local Jewish federations, which fall under the umbrella of the Jewish Federations of North America. The federations raise money for Jews (and others) in local communities, in Israel, and around the world. The money that goes to Israel is primarily funneled through the United Israel Appeal to the Jewish Agency, which is the quasi-governmental organization that existed before the birth of the State of Israel. Its primary purpose is to bring Jews to Israel and settle them.
I was invited to this table because of my extensive involvement with and support of the Jewish community over the last two decades. I’ve been active both locally through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, where I recently finished my term as Women’s Philanthropy co-president, and on a national level through the federation’s National Young Leadership Cabinet and National Women’s Philanthropy.
When I was nominated, I jumped at the chance to help ensure the strength of the future of the Jewish people. A few days before the JAFI meeting, at the JFNA General Assembly, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, the Chairman of the Executive for JAFI and former Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset outlined his concerns for the Jewish community, saying, “The central challenge facing North American Jewry is to find the proper balance between our singularity as a people and the universalism that binds us to humanity as whole.” He talked about the internal existential threat and the rift between North American and Israeli Jewry.
I too am concerned about this growing rift. Bougie said that Israel must recognize and respect the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and must not remain indifferent to the vibrancy, beauty, and success of North American Jewry. At the same time, he urged North American Jewry not to disavow or be indifferent to Israel, no matter how much it might disagree with its policies. We must create a new ethos of pluralistic union.
I am excited to have a seat at the table so that I can participate in its formation.
The first action at the board of governors meeting was passing a resolution reaffirming the Israeli Declaration of Independence, in defiance of the Nation State Law. A little background: Israel does not have a constitution and instead governs through a series of Basic Laws. In July of 2018, after years of debate, the Knesset passed the Nation State Law affirming that Israel is a state created and run by the Jewish people.
Jewish groups in the United States, including the federations, were outraged, fearing the law would serve to discriminate against minority groups in Israel. By passing the resolution we reaffirmed the preamble to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, assuring complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.
The passing of this resolution, along with the appointment of Bougie Herzog as chairman, sends a strong message to the Israeli government’s leadership that diaspora Jewry is angered and disappointed by the state of affairs in Israel in regard to its minorities.
We also heard an address by Sheik Mowafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community. He eloquently stated his support for the State of Israel but lamented the codified imbalance inherent in the Nation State Law. He asked that the government ministers repair the law to ensure everyone is treated equally. He also appealed for help to recover a Druze who was kidnapped in Syria.
Once the plenaries were over and the resolutions passed, I attended breakout sessions that highlighted various committees’ activities. Of the Jewish Agency’s $360 million budget, $120 million comes from the JFNA/UIA, $60 million from Keren Hayesod and other sources, and $180 million in activities funded by fees for service and the Israeli government.
At the Unity of the Jewish People committee meeting, I learned about several programs that will teach Israeli Jews about world Jewry. While addressing the GA, President Rivlin discussed the idea of a “reverse Birthright trip” for Israeli Jews, but I learned that there are already programs in place that allows several thousand young Israelis to visit or learn about diaspora Jewry through programs like Shlichim (Israeli Fellows), Mechinot or pre-army programs, and school curricula about world Jewry. The Partnership Together program, or P2G, has been around for 20 years. I am lucky to have become close with several of the women from our JFNNJ partnership city, Nahariya. The message it sends Israeli Jews is that you are not alone.
During this breakout a discussion ensued describing how the Orthodox rabbinate is attempting to pass a law in the Knesset codifying their power within Israel. The representatives of the Jewish Agency, particularly those representing the Reform and Conservative streams, adamantly repudiate this bill.
During my session at the Israel Campus Engagement committee, I learned about a group of young North American Jews called “If Not Now.” This is a group of young North American Jews who are products of the Jewish institutional system. Although indoctrinated in Israel and Zionism, this group feels betrayed by not being educated regarding Palestinian issues, particularly regarding the occupied territories. I found it confusing that though this group is described as “products of our system,” it is not given a seat at the table.
I believe that to put Bougie’s words into action, we must engage the progressive young American Jews who take issue with the political situation regarding the occupied territories and the disrespect Israeli Orthodox Jews show to non-Orthodox streams and women. I too have deep concerns about these issues, and I hope that moving forward, we as the Jewish Agency can engage with these younger people and make them part of our initiatives. I feel this is the only way that we will heal the rift between diaspora Jewry and Israel.
At the Masa breakout, I learned that $50 million, half of which is matched by the government of Israel, sends 11,000 young diaspora Jews to Israel for between four months and one year annually. This program has been ongoing for 14 years; research shows many of these young people become leaders in the Jewish community.
When I returned home, the tragic shootings in Pittsburgh occurred. Amid the rise of anti-Semitism on the right and anti-Zionism on the left, our community was brought together through vigils, rallies, and even gofundme campaigns. As an act of defiance against the shooter and white nationalism, donations spiked to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an American nonprofit that helps refugees of all nationalities.
Moderate voices must gain strength in order to reject the rhetoric on both the left and right. We must value the right of the Jewish people for self-determination in the State of Israel while at the same time ensuring its security and the equal rights of all its citizens and inhabitants. We must heal the rift between diaspora Jewry and Israel and celebrate who we are, whether by learning the Hebrew language or by observing traditions.
I’m hoping JAFI will consider putting funds towards its Project TEN program, which is a Jewish service program for college students. In order for our young North American Jews to connect to their Judaism, we must give them a seat at the table. We must also give more opportunities to women and minorities in order for this great Jewish experiment called Israel to retain both its Jewishness and its democratic ideals. I’m excited to have a seat at this daunting table.
Dana Post Adler of Tenafly has been a Jewish communal leader for the better part of the last two decades. She is a new member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel and recently has begun graduate work in human rights at Columbia University.