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Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver

January 6, 2017 | 8 Kislev 5777 | Shabbat Candlelighting at 4:12 p.m.

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Axis Shipwrecked HanukkahThis week’s message comes to you from Israel, where I am participating in Jewish Federation of North America’s (JFNA) annual LIFE Institute with some of my fellow Federation CEOs to better understand the growing and changing ties between Israel and the diaspora, and to see different aspects of pluralism playing out in real time.

Axis Shipwrecked HanukkahAs fate would have it, I’m not our only Federation staff member here now. Our receptionist, Kathryn Palmer, happens to be here at the same time having her very first Israel experience on Birthright. She is the first in her family to visit Israel, and her experience will stay with her for the rest of her life.

We know that Birthright changes a participant’s relationship with Israel on an individual level, but on a broader scale there is a relationship between Israel and the diaspora that is constantly evolving, too.

Much has been written lately about the extent to which issues of importance to diaspora communities should or should not be considered by the Jewish State. These are touchy subjects, whether you are in Israel or outside of it, and there are no quick and easy answers that satisfy everyone. But I am reminded that it was David Ben-Gurion who said that one of the three keys to Israel’s progress is “the feeling of diaspora Jewry that they are partners in the enterprise of Israel's resurgence….”

Axis Shipwrecked HanukkahThere are some big picture issues at play these days, and there’s no question that some of this has gotten heated lately. What we’re trying to explore is how we, as Jewish communal professionals, can help convene the appropriate conversations to strengthen the bonds between us. We are paying particular attention to the issues we have in common and can work on together, and those we need to have deeper and perhaps more difficult conversations about.

Doug Seserman, CEO of JEWISHcolorado, and JFNA LIFE chair and Institute co-chair, says the purpose of this year's LIFE Institute is to create an immersive experience that provides “a raw view of the challenges (and opportunities) facing Israel and its relationship with the diaspora Jewish community,” so CEOs are better equipped “to lead their local communities into the future.” It’s quite a thrill to be here with Doug, as he hired me for my first job at a Federation.

We started with a look at the diverse mosaic of Jerusalem’s population, from ultra-Orthodox and secular Jewish areas to Arab villages, followed by discussion of the ongoing struggles between the different communities. On Sunday, after meeting with Jewish settlers in Hebron, we will talk with the founders of the Roots coexistence program that works to build trust on a one-on-one basis between Israelis and Palestinians. Then it’s on to a panel discussion titled The Challenges of Pluralism in Israel with Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Centre; Orthodox community leader Rabbi Benny Lau; and Adv. Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Israeli Masorti Movement.

We will also meet with secular Jewish leaders; visit an Arab employment training centre; and delve into conversation with Alon Pinkas, foreign affairs analyst and former Israeli Consul General to the United States, about the relationship between Israel, the Arab world and the US. We will conclude with a seminar led by Naama Klaar of the Israeli government’s Taskforce on Israel & Diaspora Relations and Eran Shayshon, head of delegitimization projects at the Reut Group. And those are just a few of the highlights.

Although I’ve been to Israel many, many times and consider myself to be well aware of the complexities of life here, this institute offers a whole new set of experiences. There is a constant call to drop whatever lenses we subconsciously see through and keep a very open mind – not just here, but when we return home. As with any extended family, we won’t always see eye to eye, but respectful dialogue and acknowledgement of different views are keys to building a strong future together.

Shabbat shalom.

Ezra S. Shanken
CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver