The Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly that recently concluded in Tel Aviv had as its central theme: “We need to talk.” This call for dialogue reflects the indisputable fact that for the past several years, the rift between Israelis and Diaspora Jews has been widening. The multiple reasons for this have been analyzed extensively, and there continues to be much hand-wringing as to how to arrest the growing divide. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has called for more emphasis on Israelis familiarizing themselves with Jewish communities around the world.
We have developed a successful model in Boston that has been addressing this gap and is worthy of thoughtful examination as to how it might be replicated more broadly. It is a blend of “Reverse Birthright” and Israel engagement.
For the past several years, a dedicated group of volunteers have been bridging the gap through a people-to-people volunteer hosting program called “Bnai Bayit,” or “BetBet,” for short. Our mission is to connect visiting Israeli university students studying in the Boston area with members of the local Jewish community to forge lasting friendships, foster mutual understanding, strengthen bonds and create mutual learning opportunities. The types of activities involved in hosting include inviting students over for a Shabbat or holiday dinner, meeting for coffee or lunch, attending events together and many other opportunities that flow naturally from friendships. While our current students are from Harvard and MIT, we have plans to expand to other area schools. New York City has adopted our model as well, creating hosting opportunities for Israeli students primarily at NYU and Columbia. We are very pleased to have been the recipient of grant funding for the past two years from MIT Hillel to support our MIT-focused efforts.
There’s an important point that needs to be understood about the genesis of this project: It happened because Israeli students asked for it! Once they realized that some of us were informally hosting a couple of their classmates, they reached out to widen the scope.
Our relationship-building program is clearly working. In Boston over the past two years we have matched approximately 60 students with families. And the learning is mutual—host families from the Jewish community are exposed to the nuances and complexity of Israeli society while the visiting Israelis develop a much deeper understanding and appreciation of Jewish pluralism. Both secular and religious Israelis, and those in between, crave the opportunity to experience our communal institutions, and we do our best to enable this.
Often, we have found that Israelis fail to comprehend the deep connection many American Jews feel toward Israel. The personal ties that are being built allows for sharing these feelings, as well as for the expression of legitimate concerns about aspects of Israeli policies that are seen as problematic. One Bnai Bayit student described the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces dinner she attended last year with her host family as one of the most moving events of her academic year. She was extremely touched and moved to tears when she realized that when the American speakers used the word “we,” they were expressing their sense of a shared identity with Israelis.
In addition to matching families, Bnai Bayit has successfully created speaking opportunities for the talented Israelis who land in Boston’s institutions of higher learning. We have developed a “Fireside Chat” program in which Wexner Foundation Israel fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School address topics of interest to groups of about 50 community members in parlor meetings, which we host. The intimacy of this setting allows for meaningful dialogue and the flowering of relationships. We have also arranged for speaking opportunities in our synagogues and on the radio.
The ripple effects of this overall effort are huge. The hosting matches, alongside the Fireside Chats and community talks, have resulted in hundreds of community members encountering flesh-and-blood Israelis and vice versa. And when we visit Israel, we reconnect. Indeed, through the use of WhatsApp groups, we remain connected so Americans and Israeli alumni of the program can weigh in on matters of immediate relevance and concern in the Jewish world in general and in Israel in particular. We are building trust among Israelis and American Jews, without which we will never be able to acknowledge, address or resolve our differences.
Israelis and American Jews are not identical. We have significant cultural differences as a result of the totally different circumstances in which we live. But once you scratch the surface, and truly get to know and appreciate each other, the “family” ties flourish and overcome these differences. Indeed, Jewish peoplehood means caring about each other because we are bound together by history and shared destiny.
Ensuring our Jewish future cannot be accomplished abstractly—it requires an emotional and experiential component. When you have one Israeli who you call friend, Israel is no longer an abstraction and the news from Israel becomes personally relevant. Similarly, Israelis no longer see American Jews stereotypically, and appreciate both the challenges that an open society present for the survival of the Jewish people as well as the concerns American Jews share about Israel. The outpouring that we received from our Israeli students and alumni of the Bnai Bayit program in the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy in Pittsburgh demonstrates that love and connection. They now have an American address to call home, since they know us personally. The same, of course, applies whenever catastrophic events occur in Israel that impact actual individuals we worry about.
We need each other and Bnai Bayit is slowly but surely building mutual trust and understanding by strengthening our Israel-Diaspora ties, one friendship at a time! We know “we need to talk,” and we are indeed doing just that!
Along with Ruth Kaplan of Brookline, Bnai Bayit volunteer leaders in Boston are Elana Markovitz and Lorri Owades of Lexington. They all met working together on Israel-Diaspora projects related to CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection, which Ruth directed for six years. For more information or to apply to be hosted or to become a host, visit betbetprogram.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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