Is Israel a Negative to Jewish Communal Work?

fading-sunA recent article, Jewish Communal Work: A Profession, or Just a “Job”, produced a number of thoughtful responses. We felt the following was worth calling attention to:

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By Eric Heffler

On the subject of career inspiration, and the shortage of Jewish professionals steeped in the traditions, I was a little surprised that throughout this entire interesting article, there was only one very scant reference to Israel. I started out in this profession 42 years ago as a UJA Fieldman and without question, what motivated and inspired me was the survival and development of the State of Israel. That was my prime incentive to join this field and remain in it for now 42 years.

But times have changed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the differences vis-a-vis American Jewry’s relationship with Israel has impacted our field in the diminished way as described by the authors. I believe this is especially true with young members of our community.

Back then, National UJA really meant something, and our role as fieldmen was not simply as fundraisers, but as representatives of Israel and the Jewish people, especially to the “hinterlands.” And although there was a major crisis ongoing then in the former Soviet Union, what really fired people up the most was Israel. But there are no more fieldmen today, and that’s a big loss for our profession, because it served as a training ground and resource for the future. Many of us went on to head up important Jewish organizations, such as friends groups of Israeli institutions, or the Israel Cancer Research Fund, the organization I have the privilege of serving today as National Executive Director.

But Israel, herself, came through big time back then, too. Israeli leadership during those golden days included amazing orators whom we brought in as speakers, such as: Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, YItzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Abba Eban, Yigal Allon and others whose forceful eloquence inspired and mobilized both laymen and professionals. My exposure to this atmosphere provided me with the motivation to stay and grow in this field for my entire career. And, they were matched by stellar professional leaders, like Irving Bernstein, Martin Peppercorn and Mel Bloom, who were equal to the task and could operate in the same arena with those historic Israeli leaders.

But today is a different day, and Israel really doesn’t have leadership like that anymore. With all due respect to the Prime Minister, who is a great speaker and arrived on the scene during the end of that era, who else is there besides him who can charm a large audience and fill up the largest ballrooms in America like they did. Or, inspire young professionals to decide that yes, this is my soul, and I will be part of this forever.

And although I currently can’t see any secure way for Israel to exit the West Bank at the present, the occupation is a cancer on both the occupied and the occupier, and the fact that we still haven’t been able to extricate ourselves from that situation, and continued impediments in Israel for anything other than Jewish orthodoxy, has impacted the current younger generation in a way that has become a disincentive for some young people to be as supportive of Israel as my generation was. And I believe a partial consequence of that is the resultant decline in our profession.

Back then, Israel was like the Sun in our solar system, spinning off energy to all parts of the Jewish universe. By all means, it still is today, but not as brightly as then, despite its Start-Up Nation status.

Eric Heffler is National Executive Director of the Israel Cancer Research Fund.