Letter from Jerusalem

by John Ruskay

Dear Friends:

The last year has been challenging for all who are passionately committed to Israel. The toxic amalgam of intensifying criticism of Israeli government policies, and the increasing visibility of networks devoted to delegitimize the moral basis of Israel, when mixed with anti-Semitism, have created intense stress and uncertainty. In a conversation earlier this week with Gidi Grinstein of Israel’s Reut Institute about delegitimization, he said: “You, the communities in North America, are now on Israel’s front lines.”

If you’ve also been experiencing the heaviness of being “on the front lines,” I have a remedy: take a few days and travel to Israel, as I did this past week. My purpose was to attend the meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (more about this in a minute), but the highlight of my trip was simply being in Israel.

Immediately after stepping off the plane at Ben-Gurion, the heaviness was lifted and replaced with what we all love about Israel. The physical beauty. The intensity of every conversation. Shabbat in Jerusalem. Israeli politics – noisy and messy, to be sure, but a singular robust democracy. Creativity and energy on every front – in the economy, arts, film, technology, and theater.

But one example: a family visit to the beach north of Ashdod was cut short when my sister-in-law fell and needed medical attention. We headed to an emergency room when my niece said, “No, go to one of the urgent care clinics.” Within five minutes of arriving at the clinic in Rishon LeZion, my sister-in-law was seen by a nurse and a doctor. What I observed was extraordinary: a highly efficient, low-cost system of providing prompt care for large numbers who would ordinarily spend hours waiting in hospital emergency rooms. While I am no healthcare maven, it seemed to be yet another spectacular example of the brilliance of Israeli innovation.

At the JAFI meetings, wide-ranging presentations from President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni discussed the critical external challenges, but also had at the center of their addresses a shared priority – the critical importance of strengthening Jewish identity in North America, in Israel, and throughout the world. Each reinforced the theme JAFI Chair Natan Sharansky has heralded: that identity is the urgent strategy and critical driver to increasing the numbers engaged in Jewish life, make aliyah, care for the poor, and work to secure Israel. This new conceptual framework is at the center of JAFI’s new strategic plan adopted last week by the Board of Governors.

The challenges facing Israel are serious and will require the sustained focus of UJA-Federation and the entire North American Jewish community. But my primary takeaway from these past few days: for those who can, travel to Israel so you, too, can be renewed, inspired, and re-engaged. Israel at 62 is an amazing historic achievement that continues to provide an awesome model of what can be accomplished in the face of daunting challenges.

Shabbat shalom,


John Ruskay is executive vice president and chief executive officer of UJA-Federation of New York.