By Yosef I. Abramowitz
There are times when the Jewish world came together to add yet another miracle to our collective story, and most of these examples revolve around Israel under attack and dramatic aliyah. “Given the fractiousness of the Jewish community, the relative unity achieved in the battle for the liberation of Soviet Jews – large swaths of the spectrum, from left to right, religiously and politically, in Israel and in the Diaspora – was a near miracle,” says Glenn Richter, the ultimate shaker-upper during the early quixotic years of the Soviet Jewry movement.
I had the honor to accompany Israel’s President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin to Ethiopia in May of this year, a reciprocal state visit after 3,000 years from when the Queen of Sheba stepped into Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Besides the historical pageantry, the trip was significant because it was the first time that an Israeli state visit was joined not only by the Israeli business community, but also by an NGO delegation, headed by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, of Jewish and Israeli development groups working in African countries. (Kudos to SID Israel and Olam for organizing the NGO participation!) The chief rabbi spoke about the creation of a “Jewish Foreign Policy,” meaning, how can the State of Israel and the Jewish world come together to advance human dignity in some of the poorest countries on the planet.
I’m in the solar and wind business in Africa as an impact investor, using business models developed in Israel, modest amounts of individual Jewish investor funds, Israeli diplomatic support, Foreign Ministry training programs and the best technology to help bring light and power to the people of Africa. When I am in the villages, I feel we are walking in the footsteps of Golda Meir’s Africa development program, with a business model to scale.
Maybe the Next Big Thing should be combining Israeli innovation, American Jewish financing and African development so that this collaboration would result in Israel becoming a superpower of goodness through its industries of goodness? (It will play well with the next generation). Or Jewish camping for every kid; that’s also good. Whatever the vision is going to be, it has to include also upping the influence of American Jewry in Israel. When Jerry Silverman was an executive at Levi Strauss, he was taught that you don’t go head on into the brick wall you are competing against. You win by creating leverage, slip into the crack of the competitors and move the wedge out.
“The financial support model is no longer meaningful as the centerpiece of the relationship,” says Shep Englander, CEO of the Cincinnati Federation. “We need to build a partnership with Israelis who are concerned about civil society and pluralism. It can’t be an American-led campaign but a partnership with Israelis” since they vote. Cincinnati is in its second year of pioneering the “reverse shaliach,” where they send a leading educator from their community to their sister city Netanyah for a year to teach in the schools and community about American Jewry and pluralism.
Cincinnati was also one of the first three Federations to pay into a new initiative on marriage freedom and pluralism in Israel; there are now 23 Federations backing iRep – the Israel Religious Expression Platform of JFNA, which aims to support grass-roots Israeli initiatives promoting alternatives to marriage under the Chief Rabbinate and pluralism. The initiative’s total budget, however, is only $450,000, which is no way to win an issue in the rough and tumble political world that Israel has become.
Recently a senior Israeli government representative addressed a group of top Federation donors, many of whom were complaining about the recent actions of the Israeli government. His response: “You created AIPAC, you understand how to make politics work for you. Why are you crying into your coffee cups? Instead get over there and create an advocacy group.” According to a Federation executive in the room, “My top donors stood there with their mouths wide open, astonished. They never heard that from a government representative before.”
Naomi Adler, the CEO of the Philadelphia Federation, says that when the fault lines from Israel spill over into her community, “I am able to convene people who would never dialogue with each other.” Her vision for the Federations is not just to convene but also to “engage every Jew in America with a vision to make the world a better place and uplift the values of inclusion and tradition. On Israel, there is no such thing as consensus anymore. We are there every day having tough conversations.”
OK, we need to talk. Then what?
Yosef I. Abramowitz, winner of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education and Israel’s Green Globe Award in the Knesset, was the first private-sector candidate for Israel’s Presidency and serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital. He can be followed @ KaptainSunshine
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report; reprinted with permission.