It seemed to be a keyword on Friday night at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Shabbat dinner. Held at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel, the energy was infectious – encouraging and incredible.
Close to 300 people gathered in one room. They said the Kiddush together, recited Chamotzi together. Drank a shot of tequila together.
The dinner was a gathering that happened at the end of five days of touring, part of the “Israel Your Way,” mission (or missions, as there were three tracks), which the federation ran. The missions focused on the businesses, faces and the arts and cultures of Israel, and included a special track for people who had never visited the Jewish State.
Robert Zahler was on the mission for first timers. He sat next to me at dinner and told me how he became involved in the federation. Helicoptered in 10 years ago, he said that he became quickly involved with the planning and allocations department. In his role, he was helping make decisions about where overseas some 30 percent of the federation’s funds would go. But he had never traveled to Israel.
Zahler said he always wanted to go, but he was waiting for the right opportunity. And if all of the camaraderie and vivacity in the room Friday night were any indication, Zahler chose the right one.
He told me that one of the stops that really stands out in his mind is Umm el-Fahem. He said when he read about Arab villages he pictured tents and vast valleys of dirt. Umm el-Fahem is a city, he said, and he described a multi-million dollar mansion that was situated there atop one of the hills. It was encouraging, he said, to see this vibrant life in an Arab town.
I also met young adults who were in Israel on Washington’s Birthright Alumni mission. This is an innovative program started in – and only run by – the Washington Federation. These young adults are people who traveled on a Birthright trip (not necessarily through Washington) who are looking to return to Israel. They are leadership people who want also to be active in their Jewish communities.
In Washington, there are 250,000 Jews living in dozens of zip codes. Cohesiveness is not easy in a place like that, especially since much of the community is transient. But the folks who go on these Birthright Alumni trips are often in Washington to stay. And if they don’t, it is clear they will benefit Jewish community somewhere else.
One woman, a lawyer who sat at my table, talked about her desire to make a difference. She said she knew she could do it through the federation. And she is.
A co-chair of the Birthright Alumni mission, Bradley Buslik, told me his focus is creating community, too. And he talked about making meaningful moments, taking Birthright to the next level.
The message: If Birthright helps create Jewish identity, Birthright alumni trips help create Jewish community.
The people grappling with how to answer the striking statistics that came out of the Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews could take a lesson from the Birthright Alumni mission.
Oh, and a Washingtonian, Jeffrey Rum, is serving as National Young Leadership Cabinet chair at the GA. He used the word “disruption” to talk about the need for innovation. And he said he sees his role as helping young adults see the value of making a difference. While some young people spend their funds backpacking through Europe or smoking hashish in India, Buslik traveled to Ethiopia to accompany a plane of Jewish immigrants to Israel.
You know that Rum is someone to watch.
Only a first night in Israel with Washington for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly and already I can use the word inspired.
Tomorrow, we travel to Beit Shemesh, Washington’s sister city. And at night: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu!
Also read, “This Year In Jerusalem”>>