Are Israeli Human Services Agencies “Jewish” Communal Service Agencies?

Are Israeli Human Services Agencies “Jewish” Communal Service Agencies?
A Look at the Shared DNA of Israeli and Jewish Overseas Service Providers

by David Marcu

My collaborative and increasingly intensive work with overseas Jewish communal service agencies frequently punctuates the fact that we Israeli organizations may be quite different from our overseas Jewish counterparts. While often providing similar services, the identity of both types of agencies is often starkly different. In short, Jewish communal service agencies often see their Jewish identity as a primary or central feature of their mission and raison d’etre, while those of us providing similar services in Israel often see professional identity and purpose as primary, with Jewish identity essentially as an afterthought.

In Israel, Jewish identity, a critical feature of who we are, is almost like the air we breathe – we don’t spend much time thinking about it. Many Israelis with religious involvement and even their secular counterparts experience their Jewishness as a natural part of the environment, not one which must be proactively sought. Jews in the Diaspora are challenged to stake their claim to their Jewishness, framing a situation in which their Jewish identity is often a major part of self orientation. For leaders of Jewish communal service agencies, this is only more so.

Israeli service agencies tend to consider themselves to be professional agencies foremost, and thus may have a lot in common with overseas professional (and secular) agencies. I suspect that most staff and volunteers in Israeli agencies, if asked, would have to think hard as to whether theirs is a “Jewish” organization. Interestingly enough, non-Jewish staff members of overseas Jewish communal service agencies are keenly aware and often inspired by the value base connected to the Jewish identity of their agency.

So are Israeli human service agencies “Jewish”? The answer is undoubtedly yes. To assess this, one must look deeper, at the DNA of the identity of these organizations. Just as genetic research has shown that “cohanim” from varied ethnic backgrounds significantly share certain common Y-chromosomal markers, so too do Israeli and overseas Jewish organizations share common values and characteristics:

  1. Both types of agencies are Jewish in orientation and sponsorship. Many Israeli organizations provide services to the general community (Jews, Moslems and Christians, alike). This is often true with many Jewish communal service agencies.
  2. Both, knowingly or not, are (we hope and trust) guided by Jewish values as a major aspect of their professional code of behavior and ethics.
  3. Both types of agencies tend to be deeply committed to learning and sharing what is learned.
  4. Both are keenly aware of their particularistic status in the general non-Jewish professional community. Israelis attending international conferences, though often very active participants, are quite aware of the fact that Israel’s political isolation in many parts of the world is reflected through them. The same can often be said of their counterparts in Jewish communal service agencies.
  5. Perhaps most important, collaborative relationships among agencies and partnerships and connections among Israeli agencies and their overseas Jewish counterparts develop naturally. I recently wrote an article on this very fact in this forum, and about how Israeli organizations often have advanced more significantly and thus have a great deal, if not more, to offer in such professional relationships with their overseas Jewish communal service counterparts.

In short, Israeli organizations can and must be made to quickly feel a part of the “family” when encountering their colleagues in overseas Jewish communal service agencies. Professional cooperation can and must take place from a standpoint of equals, with common values and shared goals.

It behooves Federations and other individual and institutional funders to continue to foster and enable this people-to-people connection, and the accompanying professional and program development possibilities between Jewish communal service agencies and their Israeli professional counterparts. Such relationships effectively bridge the gap between the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish experience and can only lead to better understanding and – no less important – better services for all.

David B. Marcu is the CEO of Israel Elwyn, an organization that provides support services for children and adults with disabilities and their families. He is the immediate past president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, and is a member of the board of directors of the Israel Council for Social Welfare and the professional advisory committee for youth and disabilities of “Tevet”, the employment subsidiary of the JDC.