cA diverse group of 18 Berrie Fellows from Bergen County packed their personal perspectives with them on a 10-day mission to Israel, July 25 to August 4.
Before the trip was over, much of that baggage was jettisoned as they gained new perspectives on peace, pluralism, and coexistence in the Jewish state.
The Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, an 18-month learning and training program for 20 32- to 52-year-old Jewish lay leaders from northern New Jersey, is funded by philanthropist Angelica Berrie of Englewood and administered by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“We used Israel and its challenges as a lab for exploring how significant Israeli thought leaders are navigating, handling, and addressing the complex issues they face,” Laura Freeman, the Berrie Fellows program director, said.
The trip also was intended to present the Jewish homeland as an inspiration for leadership, and expose contrasts between the Israeli and American ethos of leadership.
“As somebody who grew up in Teaneck and went through the Jewish day school system, I have strong feelings toward Israel and spent summers here with my family,” said Yehuda Kohn of Teaneck, 43, executive director of Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison and a member of the executive committee of the Torah Academy of Bergen County.
“I thought I had a really good handle on what goes on here and felt pretty confident in my viewpoints,” he continued. “Subconsciously, I thought this trip would back up my viewpoints.
“What I learned instead is that nothing is as it appears initially. Everything is far more complicated. I thought ultimately you could have concrete negotiations that could in theory accomplish a solution like in the business or nonprofit world, but I see there is a lot more that needs to be done — more understandings and conversations before getting to the negotiation table — and there are amazing volunteers, professionals, and politicians working on these issues. Seeing all the moving parts has given me a much deeper understanding of what’s going on here.”
Donna Weintraub of Haworth, 51, said she noted throughout her encounters in Israel that “things are way more complicated than I thought, but everyone seemed optimistic. It’s about the people-to-people connection, the relationships and the groundswell from the deep thinkers to the school principals. That message resonated with me.”
Ms. Weintraub, a summer camp referral agent who sits on the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and on the executive board of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, cited the group’s conversation with peace negotiator Tal Becker, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic center of research and education in Jerusalem. “Tal said that he’s not optimistic because the story ends well, but because it hasn’t ended. He doesn’t worry about outcome but about process and who he is in the process.”
Ms. Weintraub said she gained new respect for the power of listening to different perspectives on the same event and realizing that everyone has his or her own truth. “Even in our Jewish community at home, we are not within our own little cocoon at JFNNJ but we are an umbrella, and I believe it’s important to embrace and understand everyone and bring them under that umbrella.”
The visitors started their trip in Zichron Yaakov in the Haifa region, visiting members of the Maoz Leadership Network, a voluntary group of Israeli business, academic, and political leaders who are addressing seemingly intractable socioeconomic challenges by advancing social initiatives and reforms.
“By weaving leadership learning from individuals in the Maoz network into all the issues we explored, many of the lessons the fellows took home were about leadership and understanding that no one owns the truth,” Ms. Freeman said.
In the north, the group toured Yemin Orde Youth Village to learn about its educational and leadership programs for at-risk young people; met with participants and graduates from the Hashomer Hachadash (New Guard), a voluntary organization helping farmers and ranchers protect their land in the Negev and the Galilee; spoke with Israeli philanthropist Amir Elstein and with an official from the strategic planning board of Safed, and met with Arab educational leaders.
Moving on to Jerusalem, the group had several study sessions at the Hartman Institute, learning about the complexities of life and politics in Israel. Shabbat dinner was hosted by Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the institute and author of “Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself.”
Continuing in Jerusalem, the Berrie Fellows spoke with the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat; Maoz Network member Elisheva Mazya, the CEO of Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit), an organization working to strengthen Jerusalem as a social and cultural center, and other dignitaries including former senior Foreign Affairs Ministry adviser Ashley Perry.
Marcy Cohen of Englewood, 44, came away with a feeling of hopefulness after a dinner at the Jerusalem home of Wendy Singer, executive director of Start-Up Nation Central, which connects companies and countries to people and technologies in Israel that can solve their most pressing challenges. (Ms. Singer’s husband, Saul Singer, co-wrote “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” with Dan Senor.)
Ms. Singer “was full of optimism about the innovation taking place all over Israel and especially in Jerusalem,” said Ms. Cohen, a member of the executive committee of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah.
“After a few days of hearing about harsh realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict and security, Wendy’s talk was so uplifting,” Ms. Cohen continued. “I work for MasterCard as vice president of global digital communications, and Start-Up Nation Central has matched MasterCard with Israeli startups developing online payment technologies. She cited this as an example of the model working well, and it was gratifying and humbling for me.”
Ms. Singer told the Berrie Fellows about efforts to tap into and support the technological and entrepreneurial talents of the chronically underemployed Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations in Jerusalem, and eventually to bring their innovations to the attention of Fortune 1000 corporations and governments around the world.
Dan Shlufman of Tenafly, 52, observed that despite the vast diversity among Israelis culturally, religiously, and politically, in Israel he senses a strong feeling of cohesion he feels is lacking in the diaspora. In North Jersey, he said, “We don’t have the conflicts they have in Israel, but we also don’t have the sense of community that we really need to thrive. The Jewish community is one, and as Berrie Fellows that is a notion we can bring back with us.”
A lunch with three members of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, was an eye-opening experience for him. “Even though we have a picture of the Knesset being dysfunctional, it actually functions very well, and there is a high level of respect for one another which we didn’t expect to see,” Mr. Shlufman, who is a mortgage banker and real-estate attorney on the board of the JFNNJ and an officer of the men’s club at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, said.
“There are members from the far right who wouldn’t give up a single piece of dirt, members from the far left who would give back everything but Jerusalem, and also Arab members,” he said. “In general, the leaders we met all tied history to their leadership; they really believe that what went on here in the past has a lot of influence for the future. Jerusalem’s mayor talked about 3,000 years of the city’s history and how he feels responsible for all religions and people.”
The community in diversity that they witnessed paralleled what is occurring within their own cohort, he added. “Our group is very diverse, and on the trip we have gotten very close despite strong religious and political differences. Everyone’s been able to accept others and it’s been a wonderful bonding experience. We’re all committed to the cause of the Jewish people and Israel but come at it from different angles.”
Ms. Cohen said the fellows are eager to invite several of the people they met to speak in Bergen County. “We’ve heard such valuable insights that we will bring back, but how much more significant it would be if we could bring the people to our communities. When you hear it face to face, it’s more impactful.”
She noted that Canadian émigré Sharren Haskel, at 31 the youngest member of the Knesset, already has been in New Jersey and spoke to students at Solomon Schechter of Bergen County in New Milford about leadership opportunities for women in Israel.
Ms. Cohen would like to invite Oded Revivi, mayor of the municipality of Efrat in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, a region surrounded by Arab villages and often the target of terror attacks.
Mr. Revivi, who also heads the Foreign Desk of the YESHA Council — the umbrella governing organization of the Jewish communities in the West Bank — has worked simultaneously toward rapprochement with local Arabs and keeping Efrat citizens safe without fences.
“This is a leader who faces immense challenges, but has created a community, along with others, where there is a sense of security and calm,” Ms. Cohen said. “He has a specific process he teaches to mayors of other cities.”
In Gush Etzion, the Berrie Fellows had an open dialogue with the founders of Shorashim (Roots), an organization devoted to “understanding, non-violence, and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians,” and later were hosted at the home of an ultra-Orthodox woman.
“Another great day challenging our truths,” Ms. Weintraub posted on Facebook on August 2. “At Hartman we learned about the changing world of ultra-Orthodoxy with sociologist Neri Horowitz and liberal Judaism in Israel from Dr. Ruth Calderon … [and had a] conversation with Vardi Rosenblum, a modern Haredi woman [who] opened her home to us all and told how she is leading the way to find balance between her community and modern Israeli society.”
“We’ve had the opportunity to meet leaders from across the spectrum, and from each one I was able to take away specific skills — listening, asking questions — that I can use to handle situations at home,” said Mr. Kohn, who belongs to Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.
The Berrie Fellows headed back to the United States feeling that despite the many challenges to Judaism around the world, “this is one of the best times in the 3,500-year history of the Jewish people,” Mr. Shlufman said.
“We tend to forget that we have it pretty darn good,” he added. “We have a Jewish nation that is thriving, and we have a lot to be proud of. We should look at the glass as half full, and focus on the positive.”