If you were one of the 10,000 people who came to celebrate [email protected] at Union Market this year, you probably noticed that the event attracted multiple generations of Washingtonians, all looking for a hipper, more eclectic and personal way to connect to Israel. Offerings of music, food, beer and wine, arts and crafts, cooking demonstrations and more showcased an Israel that broke with traditional convention. This was no accident. For the last few years, The Federation’s Israel Engagement Committee has created programs and initiatives that keep Israel relevant to all in our community.
When I arrived in America from Israel three years ago, I had completed the expected readings, become acquainted with the most up-to-date studies, and crunched the numbers. I had read Steven Cohen’s 2007 study entitled Beyond Distancing, which sampled around 2,000 American Jews and found “a mounting body of evidence [pointing] to a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews, and the distancing seems to be most pronounced among younger Jews.” Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the complexity that I encountered.
In one of my first Israel Engagement Committee meetings, I presented some of Cohen’s findings to the diverse group of community leaders. The reaction was enlightening. Some of the younger members, in their twenties, spoke up. They were downright offended. They spoke of their Birthright experience, of the Israeli friends they made, of the Israeli music on their iPod and their desire to be engaged. This conversation has been echoed and reinforced throughout my time in Washington. Young leaders in Greater Washington are clearly committed to creating a connection with Israel and many are doing so through The Federation.
But, it is not just young people that are forging new connections with Israel. Baby boomers, empty nesters, singles, couples and families are all experiencing dynamic shifts in their relationship with Israel. This connection is often unlike anything we have seen before. Less connected to politics, advocacy or welfare and more connected to personal interests and social networks. It is a connection that shares the same premise that the American Jewish relationship with the State of Israel is based upon. Israel is an integral part of being Jewish, but is often approached differently because being Jewish has become a highly individualistic identity and one that can be celebrated in a multitude of ways.
As an Israeli in America, I have become envious of the legitimacy to “do Jewish” pretty much however you want, without negative judgment attached. Israel engagement needs to become as pluralistic and open as the other Jewish options in American society. This was the rationale behind bringing Israeli craft beer, and other culturally relevant experiences, to the [email protected] celebration. Those in attendance were excited to drink Israeli beer because it was a non-threatening public display of affection for Israel, without holding a placard or joining a rally. Due to this broad-based approach, we saw incredibly diverse participation. We saw sign language interpreters signing to the crowd and attendees signing with one another; men and women in Gay Pride t-shirts ([email protected] shared the day with the Capital Pride Festival), payes (sidecurls), sheitels (wigs) and tank tops and shorts. We saw older couples holding hands, enjoying a day together and others eating around a table with three generations of family. A wonderful display of our diverse Jewish community.
It is vital to create more opportunities, like [email protected], to unite the community around their passion for Israel, without dividing them around how they express that passion. A good example of this is The Federation’s upcoming mission to Israel, entitled Israel Your Way. This unique trip offers participants three customized excursions (Business, Culture and Faces of Israel) to choose from based on their personal interests and connection to Israel. Another example, is the Congregational Shlichut Initiative that embedded young Israelis as shlichim (emissaries) within local Congregations –delivering an Israel that is tailored to the Congregation’s needs.
During my time here, I have also witnessed inspirational moments in The Federation’s reactions to conflict in Israel. Two stand out in my mind. When faced with the challenge of Ultra-Orthodox extremism in our Partnership 2Gether city of Beit Shemesh, far from running away from the conflict, The Federation stepped up to the plate and helped initiate a series of tolerance-building projects in the city. And secondly, at a time of real conflict when rockets were falling on either side in the South of Israel, The Federation’s Chief Executive Officer, Steve Rakitt, put himself in harm’s way, literally, and visited the affected areas to see The Federation’s resources provide for the basic needs of those who had stood in harms way. This was the ultimate act of standing with Israel in time of conflict, and a moment that this community should share great pride in.
Greater Washington is an exceptionally Israel-centric Jewish community, and within that, an incredibly diverse community in its connections. Whether it is cooking from a book that is co-authored by Jewish and Arab Israeli chefs; taking part in the AIPAC conference; or dancing to a 90s cover band with a group of young Israelis from the Reverse Mifgash program of Birthright NEXT DC, our community wants to connect with Israel. [email protected] represented a model of Israel engagement that was relevant to our everyday lives, that was tailored to our personal passions, and that created a bigger and more welcoming tent by focusing on what unites us.
I return to Israel this summer uplifted by my experiences of Israel in DC, and secure in the knowledge that The Jewish Federation of this diverse, sophisticated and fun-loving community will continue to bring people together to celebrate a shared passion for our complex, inspirational, sometimes troubling, but never boring, Jewish State.
Anton Goodman is Community Schliach.