New Israel Center director seeks higher level of engagement with Jewish state

Lital Carmel has no problem with plain vanilla pro-Israel advocacy, complete with slogans like “Unite with Israel” and “We are one with Israel.”

Lital Carmel

But as the new executive director of the S.F.-based Israel Center, she wants to go deeper than slogans.

“The Israel Center is trying to do a different kind of engagement,” Carmel says. “Engagement with the real Israel, the one happening right now on the other side of the world. So when people go to Israel they will feel at home.”

Carmel came to the Bay Area four years ago, initially as an emissary for MASA (a program that brings young Jews to Israel for a semester abroad). She became involved with the Israel Center soon after, and is now its executive director.

Celebrating its 13th anniversary this year, the Israel Center was founded to strengthen ties between Bay Area Jews and Israel. Over the years, the center has run all kinds of educational, cultural and travel programs to accomplish the goal.

Carmel, 33, wants to improve on the model.

“We’re constantly thinking of ways to reach higher levels of Jewish engagement with Israel for young adults, college students, teens and the community,” Carmel says. “We sit around the table thinking about how to excite people about Israel and the Israel Center, and bring them in closer.”

Programs she plans to expand on in the months ahead include leadership training for young adults, among them the Diller Foundation program, Tzavta; an initiative to build young leaders within the Russian-speaking community; and collaborations with Birthright Israel alumni.

She is also excited about Gvanim by the Bay, a program targeting local Israeli expatriates that will teach them more about Judaism and activism within the Jewish community.

“Growing up in Israel, you don’t need to make a special effort to affiliate with the Jewish community,” she says. “Here it’s a new situation. [Israelis] don’t often have the tools to do it. This program gives them the tools.”

A self-described “farm girl,” Carmel grew up in a small village outside of Jerusalem, surrounded by chickens and peach orchards. She went on to attend Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she earned degrees in Jewish history and medieval art. Her master’s thesis examined contemporary Jewry in the United States.

So it’s no surprise she would end up in America examining contemporary Jewry. And what she found here fascinated her.

“I never understood when I was in Israel how much it takes to identify yourself as a Jew outside of the state of Israel,” she says. “I was amazed at the amount of energy, passion, education and money that goes into it. I’m still shocked, and I applaud all the people doing it. We take those things for granted so often in Israel.”

Like virtually every nonprofit agency out there, the Israel Center has been affected by the poor economy. The budget has been cut, and some staff reluctantly laid off. Still, Carmel believes the mission of the Israel Center and her ability to carry it out remain intact.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” she says. “We got to reprioritize and refocus. We had our first staff meeting after summer vacation, and at the end we had this sense it’s going to be a really exciting year.”

To start the new year off, the Israel Center will sponsor a local appearance by filmmaker Ari Folman, who wrote and directed the acclaimed Israeli animated film “Waltz with Bashir.” He will screen his film and speak at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Oct. 27.

His film deals with a dark period in Israel’s recent past, the first Lebanon War. That fits with Carmel’s goal of having Jews engage with the real Israel, warts and all, and not just the “nice poster of the girl with sunglasses,” as she puts it.

“We need both,” Carmel adds. “We need to constantly remind the Bay Area Jewish community that Israel is truly a multifaceted place. We’ll always have difficult issues — we are in the Middle East. But we’ve done this amazing thing there with the State of Israel.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.