Israel and Philanthropic Inspiration
July 8th, 2015
Say the word in a gathering of almost any diverse group of Jews, and the room divides.
Write the word for almost any Jewish audience of readers—as I have done here—and expect that each individual immediately conjures up a passel of highly personalized associations and passionate opinions about political matters. Proceed with caution and make no assumptions as an author that there is agreement on what Israel means to your readers.
That in mind, the Jim Joseph Foundation Board of Directors and professional staff recently returned from a week in Israel that included special immersion activities and our regular quarterly board meeting. Israel embraced us with her people and landscapes, language and culture. For whatever differences of opinions exist among the Directors and professionals, there was a palpable, compelling cohesiveness to our Israel experience. Each in his or her way affirmed how essential Israel education is to the Jewish education funding mandate the Foundation pursues. We repeatedly recognized and communicated with conviction to one another the unique place Israel holds within the Foundation’s mission.
The Israel to which I referred above—the one which divides rooms and evokes oppositional opinions—was superseded by a Jewish homeland and nation-state that exercised a profoundly unifying force on the Foundation family.
A new grant award to the iCenter reflected the Board and professional staff’s own “Israel education” during the trip. This three-year grant (the Foundation’s third) represents a substantive field building investment. The grant supports the iCenter’s operations and helps expand its capacity to provide an array of critically important Israel education curricular, instructional, and professional development initiatives.
Additionally, the Foundation continues to support the Birthright Israel Foundation by subsidizing Birthright experiences for thousands of young Jewish adults. It is a direct, effective way for the Foundation to help young adults develop personal connections to Israel and Israelis during formative years.
The grants by design are complementary, strategically enabling Jewish youth, teens, and young adults—and their educators—to explore Israel through different encounters that contribute to personally relevant meaning making.
Beyond the Board table, Directors and staff professionals saw first-hand what Israel education and engagement looks, feels, and sounds like on the ground, in Israel. This included a memorable Shabbat dinner at the Jerusalem Moishe House; meetings with participants from the innovative EXCEL, Onward Israel, and Tamid programs; and hearing the unique perspectives on the Taglit-Birthright Israel enterprise from Taglit CEO Gidi Mark, Senior Educator Zohar Raviv, American Birthright alumni, and IDF personnel who served as Birthright Israel madrichim. In fact, while in Jerusalem, we divided the Foundation Directors and professionals to ride buses and engage in site visits with three different Birthright groups.
Additional experiences further affirmed previous grant awards. Given the Foundation’s desire to learn about and support alumni networks, it was gratifying to hear from Pardes Institute graduates benefitting from its Foundation-funded educator alumni program. We all were excited when the chief engineer of the iCenter-supported Israel Space IL project, along with its primary Israeli investor, Morris Kahn, highlighted progress being made in this international moon landing competition.
Fortunately, we also had time for private conversations with leading Israeli thinkers and officials. We participated in separate meetings and conversations with the Hartman Institute’s astute Tal Becker and inspirational Donniel Hartman. Discussions with Itamar Rabinovich and Ari Shavit challenged us to think about Israel education in historically grounded, nuanced ways. United States Ambassador Daniel Shapiro briefed us for over an hour. Directors and professionals enjoyed an enlightening tour of the Israel museum with its inimitable Director, James Snyder.
In all instances, Israel’s shimmering immediacy suffused conversations with a powerful sense of her presence.
One of the Foundation’s greatest challenges is to continually seek out the most effective strategies for funding Israel education. The Foundation’s founder—whose gravesite in Israel we visited to honor Jim Joseph’s memory —possessed an exceptionally keen, almost prescient sense of the need for Jews in the United States to diligently weave teaching and learning about Israel inextricably into the fabric of Jewish education. Jim Joseph, z”l, believed the Jewish people could not flourish absent ongoing Jewish education—with the study and experiencing of Israel elemental to both vibrant Jewish community in the Diaspora and a safe, secure Jewish state in the volatile Middle East. Jim Joseph clearly saw that Jewish and Israel education animated each other, bound perpetually together.
Finally, then, as I ruminated how to capture for readers the magic that the Jim Joseph Foundation family experienced in Israel, I grasped for words that ultimately elude me. Others fortunate enough to experience a peer or family trip to Israel surely know the feeling of trying to “explain” the special feeling that an immersive Israel experience creates. In this instance, let me conclude by invoking the message Tal Becker persuasively conveyed to us, one which resonated powerfully with Directors and professionals alike: If we are intent on establishing a civil dialogue on Israel, we must become character witnesses to the reality that is contemporary Israel. For Jim Joseph Foundation leaders and professionals, intensive time together in Eretz Y’Israel enlightened us and will assist Foundation efforts to advance Israel education.