NIF honoree champions civil dialogue on tough issues

Unlike many of her Jewish friends, Naomi Orensten doesn’t hesitate to broach thorny topics about Israel.

As a member of New Generations — a New Israel Fund network of young professionals supporting social justice, civil rights and religious pluralism — Orensten has helped lead the local version of an event called “Love, Hate and the Jewish State: A Conversation on Israel and Social Justice.”

Started in 2012, it’s now an annual event at which Jewish community members come together for conversations about the country’s politics, culture and religion. It’s a difficult dialogue, but one that “breaks out of the echo chamber,” according to Orensten, an Oakland resident who works as a nonprofit consultant in Berkeley.

Naomi Orensten

“What we want to do is change the conversation North American Jews have when they talk about Israel-Palestine,” she said.

Orensten and organizing partners have worked hard to create a tolerant atmosphere. People who attend, she said, are “not made to feel outside the Jewish communal tent” and don’t have to be fearful “of being called either a self-hating Jew or an anti-Semite.”

For this and other projects related to improving the North American Jewish conversation about Israel, Orensten will receive the NIF New Generations Award on Sunday, Sept. 14 at the Guardian of Democracy Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. Presented since 2001, the award recognizes the leadership of New Generations members.

For the past three years, Orensten has served on New Generations’ leadership council, a steering committee for programming. In 2012, she was selected to be a part of the first cohort of NIF’s Facilitation Fellowship, which trains participants to skillfully manage dialogues about Israeli topics and provides resources for planning related community events.

Orlee Rabin, Bay Area director of New Generations, said that Orensten “consistently provides sage advice and has become one of my key partners when strategizing about almost anything.”

Orensten, 32, grew up in rural northern Wisconsin on Lake Superior, far away from any Jewish community, yet she said that her family “would regularly drive an hour and a half to go to a small synagogue, even in the snow.”

Orensten’s interest in Israeli issues blossomed when she spent a high school semester in Israel. After graduating from Brandeis University, she received a Dorot Fellowship, which funded a year of studying and volunteering in Jerusalem. That year turned into three after she met her husband, Hed Ehrlich, an Israeli lawyer and now a Ph.D. candidate at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law.

While in Jerusalem, Orensten spent her Fridays marching in East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhood with the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, a controversial NIF grantee that supports Arab families evicted from their homes by the Israeli government. She also participated in nonviolent demonstrations with Arab and Jewish groups opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Her criticism of the Israeli government became personal before her wedding, when she realized that women wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the ceremony. For that reason, and because Israel “doesn’t have a separation of church and state and doesn’t permit civil marriages,” she and her husband decided to get married outside of Israel.

“That’s the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life in Israel,” she said. “You have to have an Orthodox wedding.”

She and her husband did have a ceremony in Jerusalem, at which women gave blessings. “My husband’s grandmother [in Israel] was overjoyed because she had always wanted to give the Sheva Brachot [Seven Blessings], but never could,” Orensten said.

At the Sept. 14 event, NIF also will honor attorneys Michael Bien and Jane Kahn for decades of work on prison reform, and the keynote speaker will be Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a Bedouin activist working to advance her community’s status in Israel. Approximately 450 people are expected to attend.

New Israel Fund Guardian of Democracy Dinner, 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14 at the Four Seasons Hotel, 757 Market St., S.F. $36-$300.