When Jewish federations want to connect their members to Israel, they usually take Israel and bring what they consider important to the community. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has decided to flip that on its head with its Imagine Israel project.
“We’re doing it differently. We’re starting with the interests of members of our community and matching those interests with what is happening in Israel,” said Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Federation, citing a growing disconnect between American Jews and Israel.
Imagine Israel, which the Federation has budgeted at $462,000, has been two years in the making. It aims to deepen the connection between the two communities in new ways, according to the agency. One way is with a podcast about Israeli changemakers which will debut this month.
Imagine Israel will focus on the topics of Jewish coexistence, religious pluralism, haredi Orthodox employment and disability inclusion in Israel. Organizers say the themes are subject to change based on the community’s reaction.
Jewish coexistence, and specifically LGBT rights, will be central to the first episode of the podcast, hosted by British-born Israeli Robbie Gringras, who is the creative director at Makom: the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“We’ll be interviewing people whose life stories have had unusual turnings and how these different turns have affected the way they’ve chosen to effect change in Israel,” said Gringras.
He begins the series interviewing Kobi Paz, the director of the Israeli television show “Ima v’Abbas” (“Mother and Fathers”), which features two gay men who have a child with a straight woman. The show largely reflects Paz’s own life as a gay man in Israel.
“In Israel, there are hundreds of children that were born in the last 10 years to gay people in many [different kinds of families] but it’s a huge phenomenon,” Paz tells Gringras, as the two sit in the director’s Tel Aviv backyard. “It’s a very Israeli and Jewish phenomenon.”
The main characters of the show are Sami, who comes from a religious home, and Erez, from a progressive home. One of the show’s first conflicts sees the couple planning a brit milah. While Sami wants to have the circumcision ceremony because it’s a part of tradition, Erez disagrees.
“It seems to be a conflict about Jewish ceremonies and traditions. But it’s not,” Paz says. “For Sami, the brit milah is a symbol for acceptance that he’s trying to get from his mother.”
With such interviews, the Federation hopes to build two audiences for its podcasts, one looking for stories from modern-day Israel and another drawn to stories of social change, according to a Federation spokesman.
The Federation said it will spread the word through email blasts, e-newsletters and social media.
In addition to the podcasts, Imagine Israel will also bring 16 shlichim, or Israeli emissaries, to Washington’s schools, synagogues and greater community. It is an approach similar to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s veteran shlichut program. But Jeffrey Rum, a former co-chair of the Israel Engagement Committee, said having a large number of shlichim in the community will increase their impact.
“Not only do [the shlichim] get to work with all these different congregations, schools and agencies, but they get to work together as a cohort and the impact is multiplied,” said Rum.
The Federation began to develop the idea for Imagine Israel after it ended its nearly two-decade Israeli sister-city relationship with Beit Shemesh in 2014.
Rum said Imagine Israel was designed by and for the community through the crowdsourcing website, Betterific, to find out which aspects of Israel the Greater Washington Jewish community was interested in.
“The Imagine Israel program is a platform to bring Israel to our community so we can hear about it, learn about it, touch it, feel it, and [create] a community connection between Israel and Washington, and the Israelis and Washingtonians,” said Kay Klass, co-chairman of the Israel Engagement Committee.
Rum sees Imagine Israel as a way to ensure the next generation will have the opportunity to form the same bond with the Jewish state that he has. n