Israel as a Unifier: How Hosting an Israel Summit Makes the Impossible, Possible

Professional and lay leaders from 40 organizations and ten Cincinnati congregations discuss how Cincinnati can better connect with Israel during Cincinnati’s Israel Summit
Professional and lay leaders from 40 organizations and ten Cincinnati congregations discuss how Cincinnati can better connect with Israel during Cincinnati’s Israel Summit

By Barbara Miller

In Cincinnati, Israel is bringing people together.

Yes, you read that right.

In today’s polarized geo-political world, it’s easy to see Israel as a chasm-causer in our Jewish communities. If two Jews have three opinions, as the saying goes, imagine the cacophony in a crowd of 150. But what we found in Cincinnati was that Israel can be a unifier. After all, it’s what brought hundreds together for a two-day Israel Summit in Cincinnati during January.

Board presidents, chief professionals, key volunteer leaders, rabbis, educators, and programmers representing 44 different Jewish agencies and organizations and ten local congregations came together not only because they care about enhancing Israel engagement and Israel connections in Cincinnati, but also because they were interested in learning how Israel education has evolved. The Summit did two things: it allowed participants’ voices to be heard and it enabled the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati to determine new ways to enhance our city’s connection to Israel.

This collaboration didn’t happen overnight. In Cincinnati, we have been hard at work earning our reputation as a precedent-setter in the areas of Israel education, connection, and programming. We are lucky to have as an ally The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, whose investment, vision and initiative created the most comprehensive non-need-based subsidies for teen travel to Israel available in any American city.

Also, 400 members of our community are preparing to travel to Israel together this summer on a congregation and community mission that will be game-changing for the community and will result in more long-term engagement with Israel. These travel experiences resonate, once participants get back home, through our comprehensive offering of innovative Israeli programming and our growing network of trade-based connections, partnerships, and exchanges with Israel.

When a recent community strategic planning process identified as a goal that 70% of community members report feeling connected to Israel, we decided the time was right to create Cincinnati’s first Israel Summit. The Cincinnati community and its support of Israel provided a rare opportunity for diverse populations, organizations, and congregations to come together to discuss Israel as a central focus for our community. The Summit allowed key stakeholders to begin the process of developing what may end up being a community-wide strategy to engage and educate all members of the community on Israel.

More than 150 participants attended a three-hour evening session featuring Dr. Barry Chazan, an internationally acclaimed Jewish educator and pioneer in the field of Israel education, who spoke about a paradigm shift in Israel education. Chazan set the tone for the discussion, explaining that a relationship with Israel is ultimately about identity and personal narrative. His premise that Israel education and Jewish education are intrinsically linked put everyone on the same page.

After a world-café-style mix of provocative topics and statements on day two of the Summit such as “only those over the age of sixty care about Israel,” and “Israel can do no wrong,” professionals participated in robust discussions that allowed them to reflect on their personal feelings about Israel. These exchanges gave participants the opportunity to discuss why Israel matters. Maia Morag, our community shlicha, noted that the conversations uncovered generational gaps, myths, and challenges. At the same time, the dialogue revealed that we are an exceptionally collaborative community, which deeply cares about our connection to Israel and strives to enhance what we are already doing. Educators from local congregations and day schools sat together to reflect on new ways to teach about Israel. Programmers from our Mayerson JCC discussed with Hillel professionals new ways to enhance our Israel connections.

A community of 27,000 Jewish members, Cincinnati is a temporary home to five Israeli shlichim including the community shlicha, plus two shinshinim (chaverim m’Israel), and two Israel fellows working for our two local Hillels. In addition, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center runs a research fellows program, which brings doctors from Israel to Cincinnati. During their three-year stay, these unofficial ambassadors bring a contemporary flavor of Israel to our community. The Summit allowed us to reflect on how best to amplify the impact of all of the Israelis living among us.

As I think about what’s next for American Jewish communities seeking to better ensure that Israel is in our physical, spiritual, and personal space, I am reminded of what Dr. Chazan meant when he told our standing-room-only Summit crowd that, “Israel has problems, but it doesn’t have to be a problem.” It can be a unifier of diverse opinions. And it can enrich and greatly enhance what we know to be Jewish community.

Barbara Miller is the Director of Community Building at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.