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'This is the first time I got to talk to a Reform rabbi'

Seeking to mend rifts, Israeli mayors go to NY to experience US Jewish diversity

On an October 11-18 trip to the Big Apple, 30 local leaders, including the mayor of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, engage in cultural exchange with Diaspora

The delegation of Israeli mayors and municipal CEOs that visited New York from October 11-18, 2021. (Ohad Kab)
The delegation of Israeli mayors and municipal CEOs that visited New York from October 11-18, 2021. (Ohad Kab)

NEW YORK — When he first arrived in New York on October 11, Har Hebron Regional Council head Yochai Damri didn’t fully understand concerns over the relationship between American Jews and Israel expressed by community leaders on both sides of the globe in recent years. But after meeting with local Jewish leadership, he said, “for the first time, I got it.”

For years, a rift between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry has appeared to be widening, with some pointing a finger at former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for alienating non-Orthodox streams of Judaism at home and abroad. Unlike in Israel, the vast majority of Jews in the United States do not identify as Orthodox.

At the center of much of the conflict was the Orthodox Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s grip on religious affairs in Israel, and Netanyahu’s controversial decision to freeze the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, along with the rabbinate’s continued refusal to recognize non-Orthodox conversions.

Adding fuel to the perceived fire was Netanyahu’s close relationship with the Trump administration, which irked the largely left-leaning US Jewish community, as well as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Damri was part of a group of 30 Israeli mayors and other local leaders who recently spent a week in New York as part of a program seeking to shrink those rifts by opening them up to the American Jewish community in all of its diversity. The trip was organized by the World Zionist Organization and Kolot, a group that aims to “strengthen the moral fabric of Israel as a Jewish state.”

Before the trip, Damri had never even spoken to a Reform rabbi, he told the Times of Israel at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.

“We didn’t always agree,” Damri said of the encounter, “but I was able to understand his position.”

As head of the Har Hebron Regional Council in the West Bank, Damri comes from what many would consider to be a particularly conservative milieu. While Jews of all denominations regularly visit Israel and progressive streams of Judaism exist there, these communities are small in comparison to their Orthodox counterparts and aren’t considered part of the religious mainstream. Though the Knesset has seen many rabbis serve among its numerous ultra-Orthodox parties, this past spring Labor MK Gilad Kariv became the first Reform rabbi to become a member of the Israeli parliament. In his short tenure, he has already faced numerous challenges from Orthodox politicians, including heckling and boycotts.

Widened horizons

Founded in 1997, Kolot initially offered Torah study sessions to key figures in Israeli society and was one of the first pluralistic Torah study groups in Israel. Today, its focus is on creating social change by familiarizing local leaders with Jewish texts and ethical principles which they can use in their everyday decision-making.

Kolot offers such programs not just for public servants but individuals in the business community, the field of education and others who seek to address diverse challenges through Jewish study. According to the group’s website, the joint learning process is not only “team building” but also “contributes to the personal growth of each participant.” Kolot is funded by private donors and participants also pay a fee.

Before their trip to New York, the mayors and municipal heads met regularly in Israel as part of their yearlong Kolot program. During their Torah study sessions, they raised challenges they face in their respective positions and looked for guidance on solving those problems in Jewish scripture. The program culminated with the delegation visiting New York from October 11 to 18.

Kolot CEO Nella Feldsher. (Danielle Ziri)

“We try to expose them to Judaism and to the Jewish world,” said Kolot CEO Nella Feldsher. “But the Jewish world is not just Israel, and that is what many Israelis don’t understand.”

“They are all mayors making major decisions, but when you make decisions you have to take into account more things than just what you are exposed to in Israel,” she said. “It will take them some time to process, but we know that we widened their horizons and now they will be thinking about a lot of stuff that they weren’t thinking about before.”

The Jewish world is not just Israel, and that is what many Israelis don’t understand

For Damri, it has been a “very intense” experience. Over the week, he and his counterparts from localities all over Israel had the chance to converse with rabbis of every denomination, Jewish groups from across the political spectrum and Jewish elected officials.

Or Yehuda Mayor Liat Shochat. (Photo by Ohad Kab)

“I understand that Reform rabbis are trying to preserve Judaism here and if people’s Jewish identity is not exactly according to halacha [Jewish law] but is more cultural, they feel it should still be preserved,” Damri said. “On the other hand, I very much understand the Orthodox side that says, ‘I have no problem accepting everyone because we are all brothers, but what bothers me is when going to synagogue by car on Shabbat, playing music and having men and women sitting together during services is considered halachic.’”

“That’s what the conflict boils down to, but at the end of the day we are all brothers,” he added. “Eighty years ago when we were persecuted, no one asked where or how we pray — we were persecuted for being Jewish.”

Two-term Or Yehuda Mayor Liat Shochat, another participant, told The Times of Israel that she “[hasn’t] stopped learning and absorbing information” since she landed in New York.

“I don’t judge, I just take what I’m given and try to understand what happens here,” she said.

Shochat joined Kolot’s learning program “to feed the soul.” Coming to New York, she said, was “fascinating” and allowed her to “ask the tough questions, even if they are uncomfortable and get the truth in our faces.”

“In Israel you often hear the voices that say, ‘Why are [American Jews] telling us what to do?’ but you get here and you understand that the issue of Israel’s security is important to American Jews, that Judaism is important to them,” she said.

Dr. Samir Sobhi Mahamid, Mayor of the Arab Israeli town Umm al-Fahm, in his office, February 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Samir Sobhi Mahamid, mayor of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm and a practicing Muslim, also took part in the delegation.

“I thought I had an understanding of Jewish society, but it turns out that things are very different here,” he said.

Mahamid joined Kolot at the suggestion of a fellow mayor. Although the organization focuses on Jewish texts, for Mahamid its appeal was in further developing leadership skills and creating “a leadership that listens, accepts the other and shows tolerance.”

“It helped me understand the conversations taking place in the Jewish community more as well,” he said.

You could feel the respect, and it wasn’t just on the surface

“I found a lot of tolerance and acceptance here. Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis can sit next to each other and listen,” he said. “Even if I don’t agree with everything that was said, you could feel the respect, and it wasn’t just on the surface.”

“This is something, unfortunately, we don’t have in Israel,” Mahamid added.

According to Feldsher, Kolot’s program can be very beneficial to non-Jewish leaders such as Mahamid.

“Apart from him getting to know people and building relationships — and the other way around — it helps him understand [Jewish principles] as well as expose him to the [textual] sources,” she said. “We also discuss Muslim sources.”

As for the delegation, Feldsher believes meeting with American Jews who constitute a minority in the United States — as opposed to a majority in Israel — can be an enriching experience for Israeli leaders.

Israel, out of sight, out of mind?

According to a survey of American Jewish voters put out by the Ruderman Foundation last year, only four percent of US Jews consider Israel to be their first or second most important issue when they vote. Domestic issues such health care, gun control and social security are much higher on their list of priorities.

Damri said he was sad to see that immigrating to Israel “is not of interest” to American Jews. “People have a good and comfortable life here,” he said.

Har Hebron Regional Council head Yochai Damri. (Photo by Ohad Kab)

“Even when we sat down with the Anti-Defamation League and learned about US antisemitism, I asked: Why isn’t the solution of the State of Israel, which was established to save Jews from antisemitism, good enough here? It worries me.”

For Shochat, participating in the delegation has made clear that the bond between American Jews and Israel is “the basis of the Jewish people’s strength.”

“We have to be creative in order to preserve Jewish culture, we have to adapt ourselves and create new options,” she said.

Shochat believes the two communities can “find their common ground” and that the perception that American Jews only “distribute money” to Israel needs to change.

“They need us too,” she added.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, whose governing coalition does not include ultra-Orthodox political parties, has signaled that he will make shrinking gaps between Israeli and Diaspora Jews a priority.  In a speech to American Jewish leaders after his UN address in September, Bennett spoke about the relationship’s importance and how much Israel could learn from American Jews.

“You have our back, and it just means a lot,” the prime minister said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything. We’re not. But we’re going to talk to each other and we’re going to listen to each other.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses leaders of the North American Jewish community, hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America, in New York on September 27, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

‘Totally different people’

Feldsher has led many Kolot delegations to the United State over the years. Each time, she said, participants come back to Israel as “totally different people” with a better understanding of American Jews. Her goal is now to make sure the knowledge they gained actually turns into action.

She told The Times of Israel that one of the delegation participants had asked a panel of US rabbis why they are “meddling” with Israel’s religious policies, “with the Kotel [Western Wall] and all that.”

“Today, he wouldn’t say that anymore,” she said. “He now understands that the Kotel belongs to everyone and is not just ours.”

“I still don’t know [what to do with this new understanding], I am still absorbing and processing,” Damri said. “It changes some of my perspectives and opinions.”

The big question is how do we bridge the gaps and remember we are brothers?

“The big question is how do we bridge the gaps and remember we are brothers? I hope to continue the discussions with some of the people I met,” he said.

During the trip, Mahamid said he was also impressed by the interfaith collaborations he heard of between Muslim and Jewish organizations in the city.

“If they can sit together and talk and still maintain their opinions, it means we can also do these things in our daily lives [in Israel],” Mahamid said.

“I leave here challenged,” he said. “I wish the same level of conversation that is taking place here will take place at home. I hope and want to believe that we will implement the good things happening here.”

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