Federation board member Arlene D. Schiff had the opportunity to visit Israel on the 75th anniversary of its founding, representing our community at the JFNA General Assembly. In this In My View column, she shares her experiences.
Imagine sitting outside on a warm summer day with a cool breeze blowing, while overlooking groves of olive trees, fields in various shades of green, and a large “fishpond” with the city of Afula and several kibbutzim and moshavs in the distance. This is the space I find myself in as I attempt to put into words the incredible opportunity I was given to accompany Dara Kaufman, our Federation’s executive director, to Israel for Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA) and a two-day visit to our Partnership2Gether community, Afula/Gilboa.
This is my fifth trip to Israel in the past 22 years, and while all of them were memorable for varied reasons, this is the first time I had the privilege of experiencing Israel in ways where I was more of a member of the Israeli Jewish community than a tourist.
I had several opportunities to walk the streets of Tel Aviv alone and with friends, eat in local restaurants, sip coffee in cafes, salivate over the baklava, halvah, and fresh fruit in the Carmel Market, and take long walks along the beach. I observed people celebrating Shabbat by Israeli dancing, playing a loud paddle game and volleyball (using parts of their body other than their hands), working out in outdoor gyms in the sand, windsurfing, surfing, walking along the beachfront, or enjoying the sunshine while lounging in a beach chair.
On Yom Ha’Zikaron, everyone stopped when the sirens sounded – everyone! No matter what they were doing, they stopped to observe the 1 or 2 minutes of silence to honor fallen soldiers and victims of terror. On Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the Tel Aviv beachfront parks were filled with large extended families, both Israeli and Arab, having barbecues to celebrate Israel’s 75 birthday. And in Jaffa, dance parties were taking place on rooftop bars, people were eating at waterfront restaurants, and there was lots of ice cream being consumed.
In Afula, we visited four programs our Federation helps to make possible, interacting on a personal level with the staff and beneficiaries, places not on the typical tour guide’s itinerary, but critical to ensuring that new olim, youth, and victims of domestic violence receive the support they need to achieve goals and overcome trauma. And two of the four days of the GA were outside of the convention center, providing the opportunity for us to have important discussions in small groups with new olim, lone soldiers, and members of the army who participated in Birthright Israel.
I will never forget how it felt to participate in Masa’s memorial ceremony for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror, “Forever Connected,” at Latrun (a strategic hilltop in the Ayalon Valley which was the site of one of the worst battles in the War of Independence). Seven thousand Jews of all ages came together in a large outdoor amphitheater as the sun was setting to honor the 24,213 fallen soldiers who gave their lives for the Jewish homeland and the many, many victims of terror, some who lost their lives and others whose lives were totally transformed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seven thousand people in one space for an hour and a half and the silence was overwhelming. Words can’t express the experience sufficiently; I encourage you to experience this for yourself via YouTube (google The Masa Yom HaZikaron Ceremony 2023) and hear the intimate stories of six families who have lost loved ones, bringing the incomprehensible number of those lost down to the level of an individual family’s story.
The following day, Dara and I joined members of the Buffalo, Rochester, and Northeastern New York Jewish communities to experience Yom Ha’Zikaron as part of smaller commemorations taking place across the country. Our first stop was an absorption center (where new immigrants to Israel live and study Hebrew before venturing out on their own) in Ra’anana, about 30 minutes outside of Tel Aviv. Here we experienced new immigrants speaking and singing in Hebrew with such pride, for many their dream of living in Israel having recently come true. While I could not understand what they were saying, the solemnity of the day was felt, and you were swept up in the emotion being expressed through body language, voices, and tears.
Following the ceremony, our group gathered in a circle to speak with three lone soldiers from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the United States, who shared why they chose to enlist in the army (a strong connection to Israel as a result of having visited family members who live here), their parent’s reaction to their decision (supportive though nervous), their hopes for their lives five years from now (one unsure, two to be active members of Israeli society), and what they wished could be easier as they transition to living life as Israeli citizens (having someone to call to help them navigate the bureaucracy of all aspects of Israeli life). Two new olim, one from Russia and one from Canada, also shared why they chose to make aliya (for one it seemed the right place to start their professional life, and for the other, all in his family but his parents live in Israel and the Start-Up Nation is the right place to launch his biomedical career); the challenges they are experiencing (learning Hebrew is difficult and transitioning to Israeli life challenging); and where they hope to be in five years (working and making lives for themselves in Israel).
Later in the day, we met four current soldiers at the memorial for Sergeant Nachson Waxman – the 19-year-old Israel Defense Force solider who was abducted, held hostage for a period of six days, and killed by Hamas in 1994 – and the Israeli commando officer who was killed trying to rescue him. After they introduced themselves and shared what this day meant to them, we all took a short bus ride to the home of one of the soldier’s grandmothers, who graciously welcomed us into her shady backyard for a more intimate conversation.
The grandmother shared her journey to Israel as a Holocaust survivor and the multitude of ways in which she has done her part, including as a teacher, to positively impact Israeli society. Her personal resume was extensive and, at age 84, she does not appear to be slowing down! Then the soldiers shared their personal reasons for enlisting (more than a requirement, for most, it’s a responsibility based on events that happened earlier in their lives) and the impact interacting with Diaspora young adults through Birthright Israel has had on them (which has allowed them to gain a better understanding of Jewish life in the Diaspora and to see Israel through new eyes). One soldier showed us the home screen photo on his phone of Masada at sunrise. He noted that he had been to Masada many times, but hiking to the top of the mountain and experiencing the sunrise alongside his American peers allowed him to experience Masada in a different light. The conversation then transitioned to the soldiers asking us questions about life as members of the North American Jewish community. One of them asked us what we were doing to stop the decline of Jews participating in Jewish life, articulating very clearly that they are doing their part to protect the Jewish homeland, but that is not enough. North American Jews need to engage and feel a connection to Israel as, in his opinion, it is this partnership – the people of each country doing its part – that is going to ensure a strong and vibrant Jewish future.
As we were departing, we inquired how the soldiers dealt with, and what it felt like, for them to transition from such a solemn day in which they mourn the loss of family and friends to the celebratory nature of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. More than one remarked that they were going to several parties because that is what the fallen soldiers would want; for all of us to live our lives to the fullest, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Jewish homeland that they fought for. I have to say, it was an easier transition than I expected after having heard them express the sentiment that their comrades would want us to move on from the sadness and experience the joy of the existence of a democratic, Jewish homeland. So…that evening we enjoyed incredible Israeli food, danced, and celebrated to the fullest.
When the GA was originally scheduled to take place in Israel to celebrate the Yoms, no one anticipated that we would be doing so after 16 weeks of protests related to judicial and other reforms, and we were not sheltered from these current events. We could hear the protestors outside the gates of the convention center the first evening as we listened to President Herzog share his message that only through dialogue can we turn “moments of crisis into moments of growth.” He announced that his office has developed an initiative called ‘Kol Ha’am - Voice of the People: The President’s Initiative for Worldwide Jewish Dialogue’ – in his words, a Jewish Davos, a collaborative forum that will reflect the full diverse range of Jewish perspectives. Everyone is hopeful this will have an impact on the current political situation.
The following morning, the protesters’ point of view was exhibited inside the convention center, where GA participants made known their feelings directly to Simcha Rothman, a member of the Knesset who is pushing for the reforms, to the point where breakfast and a session seeking dialogue around “What is a Jew?” were disrupted. While feelings have consistently been strongly expressed by all segments of Israeli society, it was gratifying to know that everyone agreed to stop protesting to observe Yom Ha’Zikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut.
The first full day of the GA was designed to encourage learning and conversation in small groups. There were four sessions taking place at any given time where we tackled tough conversations and engaged in dialogue on how together, the North American Jewish community and Israelis can advance our shared future. My first session focused on celebrating the racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish People. It was noted that just like in the U.S., minority groups in Israel are still fighting to have the same rights and to be accepted in the highest levels of government. Several organizations shared the strides they are making, but it is clear there is more work to be done to get to a place of equal treatment and opportunity.
My second session was titled “Smart and Savvy: The Future of Investing in Israel,” which highlighted the fact that the vibrancy of Israel comes from its investment in the tech industry and how together we can ensure this investment continues despite the difficult environment the industry currently finds itself in. The Israeli military invests extensive training in its officers very quickly so they can immediately be effective in their positions, and this results in individuals with a high level of expertise in technology who have ideas for new products and services when their army service is complete, as well as a network of high-quality entrepreneurs. This is what led Israel to be known as the Start-Up Nation. Now, of the top 300 tech companies in the world, 200 have development centers in Israel, and these large companies have smaller companies around them that resulted in extensive hubs of expertise. However, currently, both seed funding and late-stage tech funding have diminished. The three panelists encouraged the audience to use their networks to support the Israeli tech economy and establish pathways to capital. Without North American investment, they stated, the tech ecosystem and innovation Israel is known for will decline.
My final session focused on the new age of Israeli philanthropy. Israel has 39,000 listed non-profits that are only partially funded by the government. Today 40 percent of the philanthropy supporting these organizations is coming from Israelis, whereas in the past almost all was coming from the Diaspora. Two models were discussed. One gets high-tech start-ups to donate stock options to a fund. When these companies are successful and sold, the fund cashes in the stock options and donates the money to non-profits working in the youth and education space. To date, 842 companies are participating and 30 million dollars have been distributed. The other is more grassroots, taking advantage of micro-donations using the concept of rounding up. Through Israel’s credit card companies’ individuals can designate a charity to which they want their round-up funds to go. So for example if a purchase is made for $25.50, the purchaser rounds that up to $26.00, and the 50 cents is donated to the selected organization. The average Israeli donates $1.20 per month. Today, 20 million shekels per year are distributed to 245 nongovernmental organizations. The process promotes the concept of every time an individual consumes, they also give something to society. The audience was encouraged to get Jewish-owned start-ups in the States to donate stock options to help fund local Jewish causes. Orni Petruschka, the hi-tech and social entrepreneur who founded Round Up, noted that initially, North American’s Israeli philanthropy was for nation-building; today it is and needs to be focused on addressing Israel’s current societal challenges.
The last day of the GA, coincided with Yom Ha’Atzmaut and was spent in nature exploring the different educational sites at Neot Kedumim, Israel’s Biblical Landscape Reserve. This was the perfect way to transition from thinking about the broad expanse of the work of the Federation system to experiencing the specific impact our community has on the lives of individual Israelis.
While I saw many people at the GA that I knew personally or who were members of communities I work with through my position at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and I was happy to make this connection, I was extremely proud to share that I was attending the GA as a lay leader of Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. Thank you to Dara and the Board of Directors for giving me the honor of representing our community in this way. This experience will be one I will never forget and has allowed me to feel an even deeper connection to the people of Israel.
In addition to her role at Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, Arlene D. Schiff is currently the Senior Advisor of the LIFE & LEGACY program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. She is that program's former National Director.