Two US Federations With a Long History in Support of Tolerance

In a beautifully written essay published in eJewishPhilanthropy, Steven A. Rattkin, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington (Washington DC) makes the case for Diaspora involvement in Israel’s recent social conflicts:

…As the whole world knows by now, the friction between certain extremist haredim and others in Beit Shemesh took a recent explosive turn. Add international media coverage of the separation of men and women on selected bus lines and the removal of images of women on certain billboards in Jerusalem, and we have a combustible mixture of concern by many Israelis and American Jews about the status of civil society, tolerance and women’s rights in Israel.

…But I do worry about the image of Israel. No, this is not another article about hasbara. Rather, it’s a call for the American Jewish community (though we come from different backgrounds and may not agree on multiple issues) to engage with like-minded Israelis to denounce acts of intimidation and violence, promote dialogue and create safe space for different communities in Israel to live beside each other in greater harmony.

….It’s a tale of two countries but also a tale of one people – our people. It’s a story that encompasses everything: the challenging and the beautiful, the reality and the promise, the present and the future, all built on a miraculous past. It’s a tale which must aspire to the happy end expressed by Isaiah: “And I shall submit you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations.”

Washington DC’s federation’s involvement is not new. The Washington DC federation is a Partnership 2Gether community for the past 15 years with the Mateh Yehuda / Beit Shemesh region. Involvement has taken many different forms: delegations, school twinning, and joint initiatives in women’s empowerment, ecological issues and coexistence.

Further up the East Coast, the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey also has a long held interest in helping to build a more inclusive Israel. In a recent blog post, they reviewed the history of their own 15 year involvement in religious pluralism in Israel:

We’re in this for the long haul.

For the last 15 years, UJC MetroWest has been a leader in national efforts to support and advocate for Religious Pluralism (RP) and strengthening Israelis’ Jewish identities. It began as a response to the provocative “who is a Jew” legislation that was threatening Diaspora Jewry cohesiveness and support for Israel. The community immediately established a committee to confront the situation, advocate for a change in the public arena, and allocate funds to support more diverse and accommodating programs. Soon enough, we understood that the “who is a Jew” and conversion crisis were only the “tips of the iceberg” and that we needed to work on a wider and deeper strategy, with Israeli partners, to foster change.

We decided early on in our work that our funding would be split between the various streams and movements, so that Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and unaffiliated secular institutions will be able to enjoy our support and cooperate among themselves.

We identified the need to support “Jewish renewal” among secular Israelis and connections between many of these groups, Batei Midrash (houses of study), schools, and study groups. We also developed exchange programs between our communities and theirs.

Each year our UJA Campaign allocated funds to the RP Committee, which would screen and distribute them to various organizations and programs. RP funding was not reduced even when campaigns declined and is around $350,000 a year. On top of this, MetroWest also supported the Nativ Conversion program and is one of the only federations to do so.

Both the Washington DC and MetroWest New Jersey federation are doing marvelous work, but more federations and private funders need to get involved. And those that are quietly involved at present need to seek publicity for their projects, so that new projects working towards pluralism can find American supporters.

Passion can almost always cause a burst of short-term progress, but money and organizational support are key to turning passion into sustained action. The problems that face Israel will not be changed by a single demonstration, law, or burst of media coverage. Sustained action is a must. We here in Israel are also in this for the long haul.

Israel has tremendous talent to effect change on the ground. Through dollars and spending priorities, federations can play a key role in leveraging that talent for lasting change.

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Diaspora and Israel | Tags: | Leave a comment

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