Founding director reflects on Israel Center’s first decade, looks to next

Ten years after its inception, the Israel Center can easily squeeze its entire staff into a 10-year-old Volvo station wagon (with room for a few dogs remaining).

But Shlomi Ravid is OK with that — and not just because, in this hypothetical situation, he’d be the one driving.

“In the long run, if the Israel Center is really successful, it doesn’t necessarily need to grow,” said its founding director. “I think it should be kept small and effective in terms of initiating things.”

The Israeli-born Ravid kicked off the Israel Center, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, a decade ago with the purchase of a set of shelves to install in a half-office.

And when it comes to Israel programs, Ravid is not unlike a man rolling snowballs. After the ball is rolling and has grown large, he’s happy to step aside, let others take possession and concentrate on his next snowball.

While the Israel Center is often low profile, the guests and events it brings to town are often quite the opposite. “Israel in the Gardens,” for example, which takes place Sunday, June 4 at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, is circled on Ravid’s calendar in much the same way St. Patrick’s Day would be highlighted on a datebook owned by the proprietor of an Irish pub.

But while the event celebrating Israel Independence Day is the center’s most visible day, Ravid feels his most important work is behind the scenes.

His vision for the future has roots in the organization’s infancy. When the initial mission statement claimed the center would strengthen and aid Israel, Ravid objected. Rather than use Judaism as a means to strengthen Israel, he was in favor of using Israel to strengthen Judaism.

“For me, having a relationship with Israel is the core component of modern Jewish identity,” he explained.

“I can live with critics of Israel. Actually the most vocal critics of Israeli politics are Israelis, in Israel. You don’t need to come here for that.

“But I have a real difficulty dealing with people who say ‘I am not happy about the Israeli political situation, so I will cut it off. It is not part of my identity.’ … Having a relationship with Israel, including a critical relationship with Israel, is much more than a political issue.”

Ravid feels Jews’ relationship to Israel should start in school — but usually doesn’t.

Since the word “controversy” seems to follow Israel as often as “U” follows “Q,” Ravid claims Jewish schools often decide to steer clear of the weighty issues.

“Part of the challenge is to make educators understand and have to grapple and deal with Israel. [In one school] people say, ‘This is political. Let’s not deal with it.’

“Rather than struggle with issues and have an opinion, including a critical one, we’ve raised a whole generation of kids who are ignorant, don’t understand where they come from and, to my understanding, are looking at a very limited, crippled concept of Judaism.”

Recent strife on college campuses, Ravid continues, is largely the result of “reaping the benefits of not doing anything for years and years.”

And for those who thought youth trips to Israel would be “the silver bullet,” he contends that it is not enough.

So, for the past three years, the Israel Center has helped to formulate new Israel-related curriculum for area day schools. For the first time, Ravid hopes to set up organized teaching goals — Israeli geography in second grade, say, or history in seventh. He hopes the long-term curriculum culminates with an eighth-grade trip to the Jewish state.

“We’re on the verge of some kind of tipping point on Israel,” he said.

For those who have graduated eighth grade, the Israel Center continues to bridge the cultural gap via visiting scholars, speakers and events like “Israel in the Gardens.” As for youth trips to Israel, Ravid’s ready to dust off the concept of promoting travel once again, after shelving it for years during the intifada.

Last year the Israel Center took the staffs of three Bay Area JCCs to Israel. As a result, combined JCC-Israel Center programs have taken on new relevance. It’s another snowball that Ravid is happy to bequeath.

In August, Ravid is going to a place with very few snowballs — home. Among other projects, he’s contemplating launching a “school for Jewish peoplehood” in Tel Aviv.

Ravid is finishing his second run as director of the Israel Center (after leaving for Israel in 2000, he returned in 2002). And, unlike the U.S. president, no law prevents him from serving a third — sometime.

“You never know,” he said with a laugh.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.