By Naama Klar and Tracy Frydberg
Pumpkin spice cookies are back in stock at Trader Joe’s and donuts are popping up in Mahane Yehuda. Us, “professional Jews,” know what that means; Jewish federations’ annual campaigns are back in season. It is now clear that the relationship between Israel and large segments of American Jewry is in crisis-mode, as many conferences, workshops and private meetings are dedicated to addressing this uneasy relationship. While the North American Jewish community invests tremendous effort to address this challenge within their own communities through Israel-focused engagement, the Israeli side is just now waking up to the need to implement parallel initiatives. Federations play a key role in ensuring that such an effort comes to light. As such, we suggest that each and every investment made by a federation towards Israel should include some component of Jewish peoplehood programming.
The North American Jewish Federation networks’ deep and ongoing investment in Israel, particularly in the nonprofit sector, is a testimony to the strength of our people and the importance of Israel as homeland. Federations’ support in Israel is diverse – from fighting poverty to promoting pluralism and building community partnerships. Some of these funds are allocated in favor of strengthening the relationship between Israel and the Jewish world. In fact, thanks to the Jewish Agency’s new strategic plan focused on Israel-World Jewry relations, a portion of federations’ funding will be further invested in this relationship, including on the Israeli side.
While a step in the right direction, in order for Israelis to feel connected to the Jewish people for generations to come, this measure would be even more valuable if accompanied by many other actions. There is no silver bullet – no single program or organization can alone create the desired shift in Israeli outlook. Many funders are finally waking up to the reality that amending relations between Israel and American Jewry requires not only smarter Israel engagement in North America but a parallel “Jewish engagement” in Israel in order to match and elevate such efforts.
In fact, federations already have many Israeli partners to engage in the challenge of giving Israelis a deeper sense of belonging to the greater Jewish people. As such, every federation’s investment in Israel ought to require a “peoplehood component,” asking in what creative outlet can said-beneficiary promote peoplehood in Israel.
A few examples of what this could look like: every supported organization that provides content, be it to a pre-military or women’s leadership seminar, should have an added curriculum on Jewish peoplehood for its participants. Framing any specific group – from new cadets to entrepreneurial women – as being a part of an ancient, content-rich people, can provide unique value and perspective. Additionally, every nonprofit space supported by a federation, such as a university or hospital, has the opportunity to host events, exhibits or speakers promoting the ideals of peoplehood for any Israeli walking down the halls. An investment from a federation can also offer its supported Israeli organizations to create partnerships with Jewish counterparts outside of Israel with similar professional interests. JOFA can (and does) naturally collaborate with its Israeli parallel organization, Kolech (a religious women’s forum), and so can other organizations as well. The “twinning” model between nonprofits offers professional value while strengthening peoplehood on both sides.
Finally, federations heavily invest in Israel’s non-Jewish minorities. Even in this arena, there is a place for peoplehood. While Jewish Israelis are a majority here – both in reality and mindset, Israelis should understand that in the context of Jewish peoplehood – both today in the Diaspora and historically – we are a small minority. This reality can help Israelis relate to and empathize with their own minority populations, transforming the way in which minorities are perceived in Israel for the better.
In short, we would like to invite federations to think about ‘spicing it up’ with peoplehood. With small additions to their already existing investments, federations can give Israelis the additional gift of connection within a global, rich, diverse family that is the Jewish People. This approach is a necessary first step towards mending the faltering yet resilient relationship between Israel and American Jewry.
Naama Klar is the deputy CEO of the Reut Group.
Tracy Frydberg is an analyst at the Reut Group.
The Reut Group leads the “Peoplehood Coalition” in Israel, a professional network of over 200 organizations and leaders, infusing Jewish peoplehood into every sector of society.