5,000 meet in Jerusalem to bridge Israel-diaspora gap

JERUSALEM — Thousands of diaspora Jews are witnessing with their own eyes the chasm that divides them from their Israeli counterparts.

At the same time, however, they are catching a glimpse of possible solutions.

The 5,000 participants at this week's 67th General Assembly of UJA Federations of North America found that face-to-face discussion between Israeli and diaspora Jews may be the key to buttressing the relationship.

The event's Jerusalem setting — this is the first General Assembly to be held outside of North America — renewed some participants' conviction that federations must make cultural exchange with Israelis a higher priority.

They also had to confront Israelis' perception of American Jews — and sometimes their disinterest in American Jews altogether.

The "major gap" between Israel and the diaspora exists because many Israelis — and many North American Jews as well — don't care about the disconnection, Rabbi David Saperstein asserted during a panel discussion,

"The ability to engage in dialogue — the sense of common interest — is key to American Jewish identity," said Saperstein, director and counsel of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

But as American and Canadian participants discovered, Israelis have a completely different take on identity.

"We are the same people. I recognize that you care. I respect your opinion," said Haim Arzan, a youth programmer from the northern Israeli town of Afula. But living in Israel is difficult and tense, he said.

"There you see it on TV. Here, you feel it."

Many G.A. participants were surprised to learn, for example, that many Israelis "feel more Israeli than Jewish," as Shiva Ben-Yemini put it.

The question of nationality vs. religion was an unfamiliar one for Marilyn Forman-Chandler of Greensboro, N.C., who said she feels Jewish first and was shocked by the notion that in Israel "being Israeli is enough."

But engaging in conversation with Israelis during one morning session devoted to "Two Cultures, One People," Forman-Chandler also discovered some important similarities.

"I've had many dialogues with Israelis in a number of different settings," she said. "But this is the first time that I've walked away with the sense that Jewish continuity is just as important in Israel as it is in the diaspora."

Robert Soloway of New York's UJA-Federation said that while Israelis "sense life is easier" for North American Jews, "there are struggles on both sides to be a Jew and to decide what that means."

At a time when many American federations are turning inward to attend to maintaining local interest in Jewish life and Jewish philanthropy, the G.A.'s sessions suggested the issues might best be addressed through youth trips to Israel, professional exchanges, and social justice and philanthropic partnerships.

Representatives from local federations that have linked up with Israeli cities through programs such as Partnership 2000 reported success in developing personal and professional connections.

Dr. Sidney Miller of Dayton, Ohio, said Partnership 2000 transformed his federation's involvement with Israel into a person-to-person exchange, rather than what his wife labeled "a money-to-money" relationship. The Millers have friends in their sister city of Nahariya and Miller has helped arrange for medical training of a Nahariya doctor at a Dallas hospital.

The current lack of person-to-person contact can cause problems.

Barbara Infeld of Sacramento cited what she considered distorted news reports of bombings and religious conflicts as one reason why some North Americans have decreased their giving to Israel.

"We hear that we're supporting the ultra-Orthodox" by giving money to the UJA, she said, "but the only way to know that that's not who we're funding is by being on the land, in the land."