By Jeff Rum
Change is never easy. It involves risk, new ideas and can often be fraught with emotion and challenged with resistance. But change can also be epic, full of opportunity and exceedingly exciting.
In 2014, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington made the decision to phase out of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether program, an impactful and meaningful 19-year relationship with the community of Beit Shemesh-Mateh Yehuda in Israel, rooted in partnership with the South African Jewish community. We had a great run and accomplished a lot, but our community felt it was time to move in a new direction.
As Co-Chair of The Jewish Federation’s Israel Engagement Committee, this became an opportunity and a defining moment to find a new way for residents in the Greater Washington, DC area to connect with the people of Israel and the country that we love so much. Our goal was to create a new initiative that would inspire, connect and educate people about Israel and Israelis in a meaningful way.
Two years later, I’m as proud of where we landed at the end of the process as I am with how we conducted the process itself. We convened leaders and members of the Jewish community who are passionate about Israel and care deeply about its future. The committee was comprised of a diverse segment of the local Jewish community, with individuals from across the geographic, political and religious spectrums, some who have been closely involved in Federation and others whom have not.
Additionally, we launched our own online crowdsourcing campaign using Betterific technology to come to understand how people wanted to create connections to Israel. Through this research, we heard loud and clear that there was a desire for community members to make a lasting impact in Israel and forge new connections with Israel’s civil society. “Israel is a complex place,” we heard, so let’s dig in and really understand the issues beyond the conflict.
The result? Imagine Israel. The goal of this initiative is to connect Washingtonians with Israel and Israelis through the lens of social change. With a focus on issues of social justice and civil society in Israel, we aim to deepen people-to-people connections and increase our community’s desire to strengthen Israel’s society from within.
We knew this was going to be bold and different. In fact, no Federation has built its Israel engagement platform around social justice issues. And what better community to lead the way than Washington, DC – with its political, civil and social impact warriors?
We identified four areas of focus for Imagine Israel: religious pluralism, Haredi employment, Arab-Jewish shared society and disability inclusion. However, the initiative is built to be flexible, so we can easily pivot and integrate new issues and areas of focus as interests arise.
What do I love about Imagine Israel? This initiative reflects our community and its desire to create a stronger connection with Israel in its own way. Federation is supporting this work wholeheartedly by making a serious investment not only financially, but holistically in its commitment to our education and understanding of social issues in Israel facing civil society.
The Imagine Israel initiative has launched with a number of exciting new programs and others on the way.
- AVAILABLE NOW: Imagine Israel Podcast hosted by Robbie Gringras, a British-born Oxford University graduate, writer, actor, singer and storyteller who now lives in Israel on Kibbutz Tuval. The podcast features thought-provoking dialogues with innovative Israelis; inviting listeners to hear their story and learn how their lives, work and passions intersect in a unique way to make a noticeable impact on Israeli society. The first podcast, available now on Federation’s website and on iTunes, features an interview with Kobi Paz, co-writer and director of the LGBTQ television drama “Ima v’ Abbas” (Mothers and Fathers) about two gay men who have a child with a straight single woman.
- LAUNCHED: Federation’s Congregational Shlichim Program, an expansion of the hugely successful Jewish Agency (JAFI) shlichim (emissaries) program already in our community, which has already transformed how many JCCs and other organizations present Israel to their constituents. Through a new JAFI initiative, nine new shlichim have joined our community this year as a part of Federation’s Congregational Shlichim Program. They are based in local congregations – some in partnership with schools – in an effort to strengthen how their members and students relate to and connect with Israel. The shlichim will work as a united team to weave together Israel engagement work across the community. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is investing $250,000 – a third of the cost for the full mishlachat (delegation) – to make this program achievable for our community’s congregations.
- LAUNCHED: Ravtech – A partnership with the Israel Venture Network to support and grow Ravtech, a social business that trains and employs Haredi men, preparing them for eventual integration as employees in the high tech sector.
- LAUNCHED: Inclusion Summer Camp Twinning – A partnership between two summer camps in our community with disability inclusion programs and an inclusion camp in Jerusalem, joining together the campers’ conversations about inclusion and their lives at camp. The project culminates in the making of an interwoven quilt weaving together panels from each of the children in order to share their stories through one unified storyline.
- LAUNCHED: Imagine Israel Innovation Grants empower agencies in our community to develop a social change-oriented Israel engagement project for their own constituencies. The first Innovation Grant supported an audio story exchange between Jewish, Muslim and Christian children at an overnight camp in our community and Jaffa Community Centers in Israel. Israel Story (the Israeli version of “This American Life”) will weave together the audio clips to create a podcast following the children’s conversations across the ocean.
- COMING SOON: Meet the Change Makers, a unique, dynamic Israel engagement program that will bring charismatic Israeli entrepreneurs, community organizers and journalists to our community throughout the year to discuss their expertise in a social impact field and engage in community dialogues.
Imagine Israel reflects our community’s desire to not only visit Israel and make meaningful connections to its people, but to become more literate about the issues facing Israel and Israeli society and how we can make real, sustained impact.
Imagine all the people creating new connections to Israel with deeper knowledge, personal connections, a true love for the Jewish state and a desire to make it an even stronger and more inclusive home? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Jeff Rum serves on the Executive Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and is the former Co-Chair of Federation’s Israel Engagement Committee. Jeff is also the 2016-2017 Co-Chair Designate for JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.