A people person: Ex-Israel Center head searches for ways to unite Jews

Shlomi Ravid has a problem. It’s a “good problem,” but it’s also a big problem. And it’s not going away by itself.

Where to begin? How about with the bullet hole in Ravid’s leg that every day reminds him of his time in the Yom Kippur War? How about with Ravid’s father, who plucked Jewish orphans from German monasteries in the days following World War II and illegally funneled North African Jews to Israel?

They didn’t need a lesson on what Ravid, the founder and two-time director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, calls “Jewish peoplehood.” When invading armies or oppressive regimes are menacing Jewish communities, it’s easy to understand the idea of a collective Jewish identity. But when you’re living in peace in the Bay Area and the most outrageous assault to your Jewish identity is the price of brisket, well, that’s different.

“In the past, you knew you had to help because we were always all in trouble,” Ravid said. “But what meaning do you give to the existence of a Jewish collective in a quieter, more prosperous period of history? Nobody ever trained us for that.”

Ravid’s latest project is the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies in Tel Aviv, where he leads a staff of 10.

During his years at the top of the Israel Center, Ravid often noted that the three pillars of Judaism are “the Torah, the land and the people.” And, although Torah study is as old as Torah itself, study of Israel and the Jewish people is not nearly as prevalent. Indeed, many American Jews define their Judaism through spirituality alone. Conversely, their Israeli counterparts often define their Judaism by nationality alone.

“We have to be proactive about this,” said Ravid, an Israeli who spent seven of the last 10 years in the Bay Area. “Otherwise, I see Israel and U.S. Jewry growing apart.”

For years, Ravid and others worked to install curriculum in Bay Area Jewish schools that taught Israel’s history and fostered an emotional connection with the Jewish state. And while he’s loath to criticize young people’s trips to Israel, he believes organizers see such trips as a cure-all — a “silver bullet” in his words.

“You may be very moved in a two-week trip to Israel, but that should not be a culmination. It should be the start of a journey. But it’s not enough. You need to study it,” he said.

Jews need to “feel ownership, feel a connection” to Israel, which he calls “the central endeavor of Jewish people in the modern era.

“People need to realize this project is their responsibility,” he continued. “They don’t always need to be happy with it — Israelis are not always happy with it, either. But it’s theirs. [It’s] our joint enterprise, our joint work.”

In an attempt to redress this imbalance, educators from Brandeis Hillel Day School and Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar will be training with Ravid and his staff in the coming months.

But crash courses in Jewish peoplehood don’t necessarily mean more trips overseas. Ravid was in town this month to visit his pet project — Israel in the Gardens. He helped launch the yearly festival, and this was the first time in nearly a decade he could enjoy it without worrying about permits, acoustics, bookings or the weather. (Well, he worried about the weather anyway.)

“Community is an abstract term,” he acknowleged. “But this gives [people] a sense of what ‘community’ means. It comes together and they can actually see it.”

Midway through the festival, he walked to the top floor of the nearby Metreon and gazed down at the thousands of people below.

It was a meaningful moment for him. “But it was also fun,” he said. “You didn’t have to suffer to be Jewish. You danced and sang and listened to music and that was how you expressed your Judaism. It gave people a sense of pride and belonging and power. There was power in this community and there was no mistake about that.”

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.