Ex-IDF leader helps Israeli firms enter American market

JERUSALEM — Amira Dotan was born in Tel Aviv nine months before the birth of the state of Israel.

As Israel developed and strengthened, Dotan grew into an intelligent, high-profile woman, serving as chief officer of the Israel Defense Force Women's Corps before moving to an active career outside the military.

"Our lives, mine and that of my country, have always mirrored one another," she said. "What was good for Israel was good for me."

More than half a century later, however, she feels a dissonance between herself and her country. "Israel has changed," she said. "It's a different country from that to which I and my generation dedicated our lives. Politically and religiously, the nation has polarized."

As a result, Dotan, too, has changed.

"Like so many women of my generation, I was raised to be a 'good girl' and not make waves," she said. "I was not allowed to wear pants or to swear, as a child, and after school I'd go to music and ballet lessons. On Friday nights we lit Shabbat candles, on Shabbat mornings we went to synagogue, and on Shabbat afternoons we got on the bus and went out to explore our country."

Dotan grew up during the 1950s and '60s, years of austerity in Israel. Dedicated to work for the future of the state, she stayed on in the IDF for 20 years after her mandatory service. The first woman in the IDF to make brigadier-general, she was appointed chief officer of the Women's Corps in 1986.

When she retired from the army in 1987, she sought out further public service. Since 1992, she has headed Operation Independence-Business Network Israel, a nonprofit that helps Israeli companies enter the North American market and North American companies find Israeli partners.

During this past decade, she said, too many Israelis have begun to put their own needs before those of the community. Dotan is convinced what's needed is a return to Jewish values.

"Here, of course, I hit a wall," she said. "In Israel of the 1990s, the ultra-Orthodox establishment claims God and Truth as its own. And if you're not mainline Orthodox in this country, you're branded secular."

"My own 'official' label, for example, is secular," she said. "But it's inaccurate. I live today the same way I grew up, in a warm Jewish home, with a kosher kitchen, where we celebrate Shabbat and the festivals with great joy. But we do it in our own way, which can include going off in the car."

It wasn't until a decade ago, when Dotan spent three years in the United States as chairwoman of the Zionist Delegation to North America that she discovered she was a Conservative Jew.

"It was a startling experience, a true eye-opener," she said. "For the first time in my life, I saw there are religious answers to Orthodoxy. I realized there's a way to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of non-Orthodox Israelis and allow them to actualize their Judaism."

Dotan has become involved with the Conservative, or Masorti, movement in Israel. She has recently been appointed chair of the board of the Schechter Institute, a graduate school of Jewish studies.

"I want to be a Jew in my own country," she said. . "I want to live a Jewish life according to Jewish values in the way I choose, and I want every Israeli to have both the freedom and the knowledge to make that same choice for themselves."