Last month, as I walked with my friends and colleagues through Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek and Neveh Shaanan neighbourhoods – magnets for migrant workers, transient populations, and some of the most challenging social conditions in Israel – I noticed a peculiar sight. On a wall, just ahead, was the most unusual piece of graffiti I had ever seen. Couched within a gritty streetscape was an image of that most holy of Jewish artifacts, the Ark of the Covenant.
On that street corner I saw articulated in spray paint what Israel is challenged by every day: The intersection of the sacred and the profane; the connection between the most high and the lowest depths; the call to the Jewish people’s great capacity for good, and the conflicts that can drain all aspiration in a struggle to simply survive.
In January, I discovered the Israel that rarely enters discussions around North American tables. Not the Israel of war and battle, nor the Israel of field and harvest. The Israel I encountered as part of Fundraising University, a project of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Mandel Centre for Leadership, was one grappling with practical and conceptual problems – but also one overcoming those problems with innovative 21st century thinking.
Israel hasn’t yet figured out exactly what to do with migrants and refugees. But it is making sure their children receive a good, even great, education such as we saw at Rogozin Bialik School in Florentin.
Arab and Jewish Israelis have chasms to span in understanding one another. In the meantime, though, they have figured out how to share a community centre in Lod.
Too many organizations bring out-of-date thinking to entirely new challenges, but a forward-looking think-tank in Tel Aviv has an innovative approach for planning.
I saw Israel’s challenge, and, indeed, in a small way, the challenge we face in our own communities, in that graffiti image: How can Israel maintain its purest values in a dark and dangerous environment? And how do we exemplify those values in our communities?
How can Israel preserve its Jewish identity and, at the same time, fulfil its commitment to tolerance and pluralism without stirring a reactionary beehive? Are we reaching out to all of the constituencies in our communities to learn what their Jewish identity means to them?
Can young women entering the first military prep academy for women, new immigrants just arrived from France, and haredim who want to break the cycle of poverty, get the support they need in Israel, and from communities, like ours, halfway around the world? Are our communities rising to the challenge of meeting critical needs at home and abroad?
Our Israel experience was central to our year-long course of inquiry, study and collaboration. I am grateful for the wisdom shared by my fellow senior development professionals from across the Federation world. We’ve cemented friendships we began last summer, and we’ve learned a great deal from one another. We’ve learned the most, though, from our incredible and talented mentors, Elissa Maier and Vicki Agron. Influenced by their passion and commitment, we’ve determined to look forward, every day, to make our communities better, every day, and make the philanthropic aspirations of our community members a reality today and for years to come.
Arieh Rosenblum is director of development for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation.