Israelis detail goals for next 50 years with JCF group

JERUSALEM — Israel's first 50 years were spent building the structure of the Jewish state and fighting for its survival.

The next 50 must be focused on its relationships both internally and externally, according to educators and political leaders who spoke to a group of Jewish Community Federation donors last week in Jerusalem.

One hundred strong, the S.F.-based group is in the Jewish state on a 10-day "Israel at 50" mission. Some of the travelers are seeing the country for the first time, others have lost count of their previous visits and still others are returning after a 25-year absence. They traveled to northern Israel, the JCF partner-area, to learn about the work being done in Israel. The trip coincides with the national celebration of Israel's 50th birthday, celebrated yesterday on the Hebrew calendar.

Avram Infeld, director of the Melitz Institute, termed Israel-diaspora relations one of the major challenges in the next 50 years.

Calling the women's movement "one of the greatest contributions to Israeli life," he described a feminist seder he attended in New York this year at which he was the only man among 1,400 women.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "We spent five and a half hours dealing with spirituality and Jewish identity, and still I walked away sad."

There were two reasons for the sadness. First, he said he could not think of 10 Israeli men he could tell about the seder who would appreciate its significance. And second, Israel was never mentioned.

"I felt rejected. Do you know what it's like to be rejected by 1,400 people?" he said, couching his concerns in humor.

For Avraham Burg, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, surviving without an external enemy will be the main challenge for the future.

Recalling his first visit to San Francisco years ago when he was "a boychick from Jerusalem who didn't even have a silk tie — only polyester," he stressed the need for interaction among Israeli and American communities.

"If we aren't connected to each other, we'll re-shetlize ourselves. Our agenda must include community," he said.

Knesset member Yael Dayan called for American Jews to expand their activism beyond issues such as pluralism and conversion.

Encouraging the group to pressure the U.S. government to push for peace, she said, "When Israel comes between you and your better judgment and your sense of morality, let your voice be heard."

Haggai Meron, a Knesset member who visited San Francisco earlier this year, stressed the need for a constitution. "A state without a constitution doesn't have civil rights," he said, adding, "Human rights, a constitution, peace — this dream can be achieved."

Rabbi Donniele Hartman, director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, suggested that Israel must find its soul. He prescribed a covenant of meaning in which individuals create their own "oughts" — guidelines and obligations for a personal practice of Judaism.

"Then realize that we also have a covenant of the people," he said, in which individuals "make room for others' beliefs within their own beliefs.

"The vast majority of Israelis have opted out of the covenant of meaning," he added.

For Tal Silberstein, the 28-year-old president of a grassroots group founded after the death of Yitzhak Rabin, the goal for the next 50 years is to create a new face of Zionism based on the values of democracy, tolerance and pluralism.

"We have to convince Israelis to find a better way to live," he said.