The Washington Connection
It rarely happens that American Jews are more aware of developments in Israel than Israelis.
Yet when the projected ten thousand Israelis marched in Beit Shemesh on Tuesday night, opposing Haredi extremist actions, they were actually following in the footsteps of our own Federation. For the past 15 years, The Jewish Federation has partnered the Greater Washington community with that of Mateh Yehuda – Beit Shemesh in Israel.
This has taken the form of delegations, school twinning, and joint initiatives in women’s empowerment, ecological issues and coexistence. All this is implemented through the Partnership2Gether (P2G) platform of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Today, P2G partners hundreds of Diaspora communities with regions in Israel, and has proved to be one of the most dynamic projects for connecting the Jewish People. It has evolved from philanthropic investment in welfare to societal engineering, from a patriarchal model to one where the Israeli and American lay leaders have equal standing, and is moving from a “top-down” approach to collaborations to a more natural “bottom-up” model. And, the three way partnership between DC, Mateh Yehuda-Beit Shemesh and South Africa, is often held up as one of the most successful versions of this project.
It is through P2G that we have learned about and joined the Beit Shemesh community in her struggle for identity.
On Friday night, the influential news show Ulpan Shishi (Friday Studio), hosted by Yair Lapid, screened an expose of extremist Haredi behavior in Beit Shemesh, centered around a religious Zionist girls school which encroaches on their neighborhood.
While this item was vital to revealing this story to Israeli society, it was not news to our Federation. Two months ago I visited the Beit Orot girls school with the co-chairs of our P2G committee from Washington. We had been preceded by the President of the Federation, Stuart Kurlander, by about 2 weeks. We met with the principal, with the head of the PTA and with the chairman of Tov – the moderate Haredi political party on the city council. We engaged in serious dialogue about what can be done to reduce the power of the minority extremists, how to support groups holding democratic values, and how to move Beit Shemesh towards a positive trajectory of cultural, educational and economic growth.
In Israel we revel in washing our dirty laundry in public, as this is often the only real way to put issues on the national agenda and initiate real change. This, can however, cause discomfort in the US.
I have seen multiple Facebook posts and heard many voices questioning why the Federation should partner with this City. Why Beit Shemesh?
The irony is that the current “bad” publicity is the mark of a turning point in the City, and the importance it holds for the rest of Israel. If someone would suggest a demonstration in Bnei Brak (majority Haredi town near Tel Aviv) or Meah Shearim (Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem) it would be laughable, Israeli society doesn’t care about these places in the same way.
Beit Shemesh was founded by Sefardi immigrants in the 1950s, it has grown into a diverse and successful city, and Israeli society will not give it away to an anti-Zionist Haredi minority.
American Jewry knows that it is not, and has never been, easy to partner with Israel. The early economic challenges have taken a backseat to political controversy and societal fragmentation; and Israel can no longer be cured with dollars.
This is a new age of supporting Israel. It is about partnering with those (and we are still the majority, even in Beit Shemesh) who hold dearly to the original values, and together to make a stand on the future of the Jewish State.
It is going to be rocky, it will not always be easy or attractive to explain, and it might be more comfortable to look the other way. However, as the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington continues to inspire me, this is a critical moment in the narrative of the Jewish People, and it takes leaders from across the Jewish World to shape our future.