Finding Common Ground in Israel

Courtesy Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund

By Jon Moskin

Mishpacha – noun, Hebrew / Yiddish [meesh-paw-kha / mish-PEU-khuh]. Family; a network of friends and family.

It is a term that so many Israelis and American Jews of a certain age grew up with. Its spirit conveys warmth, togetherness, and a united people. And, in the era directly following the Holocaust, when our structures and lives needed to be rebuilt, the Jewish People sought as much mishpacha as we could find. Indeed, hard experience taught us that, without it, our chances for survival were not good, particularly in Israel, which faced both external and internal challenges.

But, as Israel grew out of its infancy and began to find its footing as a nation, gaining strength economically, technologically and militarily, something happened to the sense of mishpacha. Perhaps it was never fully a reality, but initial differences among Jews were once overlooked in a collective effort to survive. Without survival as the central imperative, that agreement has now fractured, and the fleeting unity has devolved into a collection of detached segments of Israeli society: religious, secular, Arab, Zionist, Mizrahi, Russian, Ethiopian, Druze, and so on. Not to mention 34 political parties at last count. Consequently, Israel’s social, economic, and political cohesion have frayed. And it is no exaggeration to state that its future is in jeopardy.

No one is more aware of this fact than Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who has made the argument repeatedly.

“Will this be a secular, liberal state, Jewish and democratic? Will it be a state based on Jewish religious law? Or a religious democratic state? Will it be a state of all its citizens, of all its national ethnic groups?” In other words, in recognition of economic and demographic reality, some soul-searching and change are necessary for the state to survive and thrive. Otherwise, the four principal “tribes” of Israel – Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), secular, religious Zionist, and Arab, each educated, housed, and acculturated separately – will continue to grow further apart.

Courtesy Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund

The current realities in Israel are stark: rates of poverty are stubbornly high (some 28% of Israelis, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel) and levels of economic and social inequality are among the highest in the Western world. By 2059, two groups for whom these challenges are greatest – Haredim and Arab-Israelis – will account for 50% of the population, per the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.

But there’s good news: Israeli changemakers and their allies are actively working to bridge these gaps and make real change. Their efforts in support of pluralism, community building, and the creation of a shared society abound – from grassroots movements to government-supported initiatives aimed at extensive systemic reform. And organizations like the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund are solidly behind them. Here are three recent examples (each supported by the Federation):

  • The Hinam Center promotes tolerance by convening members of Israel’s disparate groups for an immersive experience that brings them together over an extended period – like an intensive, traveling summer camp for those from every side of the tracks.
  • With less than 50% of Haredi men in the Israeli workforce, their increased employment is vital to the country’s economic sustainability and, in many cases, the dignity of the men. RavTech is providing a creative solution by teaching Haredi men the skills needed to be software engineers in an intensive one-year training program and subsequently hiring them at a competitive wage. Simultaneously, these trainees and new employees are provided the time and space to fulfill their religious observance obligations.
  • Similarly, Collective Impact is addressing the under-employment crisis among Arab-Israelis by partnering with Israeli companies to initiate Arab-Israeli hiring programs that have “created a win-win for these Israeli employers who are getting very well qualified people who heretofore would not have been in their labor pool. It’s an example of a rising tide lifting all ships,” according to Mark Abelson, the incoming chair of the Federation’s Israel Committee.

An innovative partner in the work to build a shared society in Israel, the Federation has had an on-the-ground office there since 1984 in order to better understand the daily realities and directly support and collaborate with the grassroots vanguard of social change.

“At the highest level, our work in Israel fits squarely into our vision of a thriving Jewish community locally, globally, and in Israel,” noted Danny Grossman, CEO of the Federation. “In a sense, what we are doing is taking a trip up Maslow’s hierarchy, where the collective American Jewish community’s initial engagement in Israel was to support basic needs: poverty alleviation, food, healthcare, and other necessities. And now, as Israel has evolved and its needs changed, so must our philanthropic response.”

Arthur Slepian, who serves on the Federation’s board of directors and is chair of its Israel and Global Committee, adds that supporting pluralism and shared society need not be only Israeli goals: “We can scale these programs and initiatives not only to reach more Israeli communities, but perhaps, to import those values and practices to another country that seems to be struggling with many of the same problems: the United States.”

“In America, we are starting to experience what intense polarization and fractiousness looks like,” Danny Grossman added. “We’re starting to experience the erosion of community and the sense of importance of building community, and especially of building across segments that are bitterly divided. And Israel has a lot to contribute there.”

Our own American motto, “Out of many, one,” often seems forgotten in a time when we choose to exclusively define ourselves as pro-Trump or anti-Trump, red state or blue state, J Street or AIPAC, pro this or anti that. This is not to argue that our differences are not substantive and worthy of debate, but they ought not cut us off from our mishpacha.

Perhaps nobody put it better than Abraham Twersky, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and widely regarded psychiatrist: “Unfortunately, it often happens that it is only when we are attacked by an outside enemy that we join ranks. And, as soon as we learn the outside threat is over, we each go our own individual ways again. It’s about time we learned the lesson that we don’t have to get unity from a Hitler, or a Haman or a Hamas. And that we can get unity because we really all belong together.”

Jon Moskin is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.