For Israelis, the sight of busloads of group-t-shirt wearing, water-bottle toting American Jews crisscrossing the country has for decades been part of the landscape. And for good reason: With studies showing that a trip to Israel leads to a stronger commitment both to Jewish continuity and the Jewish state, it is hardly surprising that there are numerous programs competing to provide young American Jews the opportunity to experience Israel from every possible angle.
Less common, however, is the sight of a group of Israelis on a mission to understand the American Jewish experience, and to appreciate both the richness of and challenges facing their counterparts on the other side of the ocean. Yet as the students who participated in Shalem’s past three annual delegations to the Bay Area can attest, the results of a trip in the other direction are no less impressive or less meaningful. Consistently calling the Shalem delegation’s intense, eight-day-long exploration of Jewish life in America’s most progressive community “transformative,” the almost fifty students who have taken part thus far have returned to Israel with a renewed dedication to Jewish peoplehood. So, too, have they expressed a desire to use their new perspective on Jewish life and practice for the betterment of Israeli society.
This is precisely what the Koret Foundation was hoping for when, together with Shalem College, it piloted a variety of initiatives that would, when taken together, help bridge the divide between the world’s two largest Jewish communities. Now, inspired by the success of these programs, Koret has announced a $5 million gift to expand the Koret Jewish Peoplehood Project, an ambitious, multi-faceted effort to cultivate a generation of leaders for Israel devoted to the preservation of a single Jewish people.
“At a time of an increasingly widening rift between Israel and American Jews, and with so much attention focused on the ways in which the latter need to rethink their attitudes toward the Jewish state, we’re thrilled to be joining with our long-time partners at the Koret Foundation to address the ways in which Israel’s future leaders, too, need to rethink the nature and significance of the relationship between the two sides,” explained Dr. Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College. He continued, “With this remarkable gift, we aim to place the issue of Jewish peoplehood at the core of our students’ understanding of themselves and of the purpose of their country.”
Dr. Anita Friedman, President of the Koret Foundation, agrees: “We at the Koret Foundation initiated this partnership with Shalem College because, at this juncture in Jewish history, there is widespread agreement that we face a parting of the ways between American and Israeli Jews—a loss of the feeling that our individual fates are somehow tied to our collective fate. Put another way, we as a people may have had a compelling shared past, but do we have a shared future?
“The conversations between our two communities are strained— assuming there is any conversation at all. Each side often experiences a lack of interest or lack of support from the other. We need a very new understanding. Building bridges across this great divide is one of the most pressing 21st-century imperatives facing the leadership of the Jewish people. But,” she concludes, “a strong bridge needs strong footings on both sides. Until now, the focus has been on the American side, but attention must also be paid to the Israeli side. This is the bridge-building work that the Koret Foundation seeks to support.”
Along with the Bay Area Mission, the Project includes a student delegation to Washington, D.C. and support for Gordis’s many activities in the area of bridging the American-Israeli divide, in particular his forthcoming book We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel. In addition, the Peoplehood Project supports a robust program in Western political thought and English-studies aimed at producing graduates who can engage their American counterparts on issues of shared concern, in a shared language.
The Bay Area Mission, organized and led by Shalem’s Director of Service and Citizenship Gila Rockman, brings students to the San Francisco area to encounter the key institutions and ideas that undergird the American Jewish community. Preceded by a semester-long course taught by Gordis on American Jewish life, the mission provides a firsthand glimpse of how Judaism competes in the marketplace of identities. By witnessing efforts to integrate Judaism into everything from farming to community activism to start-ups and entrepreneurship, Shalem students “began to ask themselves what, other than their ‘Israeliness,’ makes them Jewish,” says Rockman. “They come to realize that just about everything they take for granted in Israel has to be built and nurtured in America. And they leave with a deep respect for the struggles and the immense creativity of American Jews, and at the same time a profound appreciation for the privilege of living in a Jewish state.”
If the Bay Area Mission is about forging a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the North American Jewish landscape, so too is the mission to Washington D.C.—albeit an understanding of a very different sort. The culmination of a specially designed semester-long course on the American political system and the history of the U.S.-Israel alliance, the mission is timed to coincide with the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. There, students participate in both general and breakout sessions, hold private discussions with influential members of the American political and Jewish communities, and meet with leading rabbis, laypeople, and AIPAC board members.
“Through their classroom discussions and extensive reading, students gained familiarity with the tremendous breath and value of American support for the Jewish state. But nothing could prepare them for the experience of joining 18,000 Americans who had come together to advocate on behalf of their country,” explains Gordis, describing the pilot trip this past March. “Students were overwhelmed by the Jewish community’s strength and influence, and their willingness to use that influence to advance the Jewish state. As a result of the mission they feel a sense of obligation to further strengthen the bonds between the two communities and countries.”
“Strengthening that bond” could in many ways describe the thrust of Gordis’ prolific writing and public speaking, as well—and certainly it describes the goal of his forthcoming book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel, set to be released this month. Following on the heels of his highly acclaimed work Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (2016), which was awarded the Jewish Book of the Year, We Stand Divided will describe the root causes behind the American Jewish-Israeli divide, argue that each community needs the other, and, most importantly, propose a foundation for a new relationship, based on a deep understanding of the two, very different models of Jewish life that emerged in both communities in the 20th century. “It is my hope,” explains Gordis, “that this new book will amplify the conversation taking place at Shalem College to include many thousands more in a much-needed engagement that is critical to the future of the Jewish people.”
Finally, the Jewish Peoplehood Project will support those courses in Shalem’s unique Core Curriculum that introduce students to the fundamental ideas of both Western political history and philosophy and Jewish tradition and thought. As a result, Shalem graduates will have a more sophisticated view on issues and ideas that are central to America’s self-understanding and the values that both America and Israel share.
Jeffrey Farber, CEO of the Koret Foundation, expressed the hope that the project would inspire other institutions in the Jewish world to prioritize initiatives that focus on bringing the Jewish communities on both sides of the ocean into conversation. “There is no more pressing issue in the Jewish world today than combatting the growing rift between American Jews and Israel, and preventing a separation that will radically diminish the richness, strength, diversity and identity of both sides. We at Koret see The Jewish Peoplehood Project, and our partnership with Shalem College in general, as doing critical groundwork for the challenging future that lies ahead of the Jewish people everywhere.”
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