Exploring Israel’s 70 Faces

By Doron Krakow

This article details the Israel-based leg of JCC Association of North America’s recent 70 Faces Leadership Seminar in Israel and Greece. The first article of this two-part series covered the Lesvos, Greece visit of the seminar.

Dr. Mohammed Alnabari was describing Project Wadi Atir to a seasoned group of Israel visitors. He explained how the initiative develops sustainable agricultural practices in the Negev, while working with the Bedouin community in Hura to maintain the traditions and culture of the formerly nomadic tribes that make this region of Israel their home.

Dr. Alnabari, a former mayor of Hura, which is home to two of the 18 Bedouin tribes that dwell across the Negev, holds a doctorate in organic chemistry from Ben-Gurion University. He shared that the work he spearheaded as mayor will markedly improve the fortunes of his municipality through sustainable agriculture and is a model for economic empowerment in Bedouin communities for both men and women, while it concomitantly contributes to improving educational outcomes for children. Perhaps its most unique aspect is that it serves as a model that draws upon longstanding Bedouin traditions while creating a state-of-the-art infrastructure for sustainable, profitable and intersecting businesses.

It was an eye-opening initiative few of us ever encounter, brought to life for us by a remarkable citizen of the state. Another face of Israel, one rarely seen in the headlines, or even referenced in the conversations that we have in our communities about our Jewish homeland.

Israel is a complex, multi-faceted society that cannot possibly be understood by way of a single issue, challenge or perspective. In recent years, when we speak about Israel here in the diaspora, the overwhelming majority of the time we do so around only two issues: geo-politics (i.e., the conflict or the occupation) and religion (i.e., questions about pluralism, egalitarianism, and access to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount). As these issues arouse a good deal of emotion and discord, it can be challenging for community leaders to bring people together around Israel. One of the unfortunate byproducts of these challenges is that more and more leaders seem to prefer to avoid the subject altogether.

Which is exactly why this group of leaders, lay and professional, from across the JCC world were visiting a sustainability project in the Negev. During the course of our 10 days, members of our 70 Faces Leadership Seminar, all of whom had visited Israel multiple times, had a remarkable series of encounters with thoughtful Israelis of all walks of life offering their often-unique perspectives of what living in this complex region is really like. The idea for 70 Faces comes from Pirkei Avot and relates the rabbis’ determination that the Torah is so vast, so comprehensive and so expansive as to be too much for any single interpretation or understanding. They concluded that the Torah has 70 faces, each as worthy and meaningful as the next. And so, it is with the modern State of Israel. Politics and religion are just two of those faces. This seminar exposed our leaders to so many more.

Their insights and impact helped us understand the country and its people in increasingly nuanced ways. Israel’s elections took place on the penultimate day of our seminar so each conversation occurred against the backdrop of the hopes, fears and aspirations about what would happen beginning the day after. While the elections occupied a considerable amount of headspace, it was more than politics that was on the minds of the people we encountered.

These people were so varied and the scope of their projects so far-reaching and diverse, that even the most seasoned Israel travelers came away with fresh insights and a new perspective.

We learned that Israel’s legal system places judicial responsibility for select matters of family law in the hands of religious courts of all faiths. Quadi Iyad Zakhalk, a Muslim, is a judge in Israel’s Shariah high court. He gave us not only newfound understanding about the application of religious law within his community, he offered a glimpse into the religious freedoms that Israel alone among the countries across the Middle East, provides to all of its citizens.

We learned, too, from Rabbi Menachem Bombach, who has introduced secular studies to his Torah Academy for children from mainstream Hasidic homes, strengthening their abilities to provide for their families as adults. Lior Shabo and a dozen other members of the Jerusalem Parliament explained their work and why they, along with nearly a thousand others, are devoted to coming together from across nearly every social, religious and professional sector to make Israel’s capital a better place to live and work.

There were so many more. It was an exhilarating trip, sparking thoughtful, animated conversations about how we see Israel and Israelis and the ways we can make it possible for them to be seen and understood through our JCCs and across our communities. The modern miracle of the State of Israel is revealed through the combination of challenges and limitations together with achievements and aspirations. The more we see, the more we experience, the more we understand, the more we find ways to connect and the more Israel, the national homeland of the Jewish people, becomes and engine for strengthening Jewish communities everywhere.

For while 70 Faces certainly refers to elements of Israeli society, perhaps it has more to do with Israelis themselves. Israel is a complicated place, as I suppose all countries are. There is plenty of room for improvement, and after only 71 years, that is to be expected. We should be uncomfortable with the ongoing conflict, the absence of peaceful coexistence in the region and the legitimate grievances of those who are dispossessed, downtrodden, or denied opportunity. We can, and should, voice our hopes for something more and better. We should also acknowledge that from the safety of our lives in North America, we can’t adequately understand the challenges and realities faced by those who live there.

We’re the first generations in nearly 2,000 years to have been born into a world that includes a sovereign Jewish State as the safe haven for a beleaguered people who, for a hundred preceding generations, would have given anything just to taste of the Jewish world in which we now live. Perhaps we should resist the impulse to look for things about Israel to criticize, and instead start looking for something to love. That is what our 70 Faces Seminar strove to do for the participants, who must bring the Israel they experienced back to their communities. For with 70 faces to Israel, there surely will be many that will inspire, that we can’t wait to share with others, many through which we can see the hopes and dreams of our people. The 70 faces of Israel are 70 faces of the Jewish people. Seventy of ours. Seventy of us.

Doron Krakow is president and CEO of JCC Association of North America, which leads and connects the JCC Movement, advancing and enriching North American Jewish life.