Federation’s interfaith mission to Israel

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Charlotte Raynor, pictured here in the Galilee, recently participated in the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s Business Leaders Mission to Israel. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix

The Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix  hosted a business leaders mission to Israel  from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1. One of the participants, political activist Charlotte Raynor, shares her impressions from the trip:  

The last time I thought I understood what was going on with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was in fifth grade. I wrote a report for school entitled “How It All Began.” I don’t remember what my thesis was, but since I hadn’t revisited the topic as an adult, I jumped at the chance to participate in the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix Community and Business Leaders Mission to Israel.

It was an interfaith mission designed to give “an understanding of Israel both from an historical and modern-day perspective.”

We started in Tel Aviv with the insights of social historian Paul Liptz, who is on the faculty of Tel Aviv University:

  • 75 %of Israel’s population of 8.4 million (think the population of New York City) is Jewish, most having been born in Israel.
  • 21% of Israel’s population is Arab.
  • 4% are immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia, and other countries.

That mix, taken together with Israel’s unique isolation in the Middle East, has fostered a willingness to take risks, to innovate; and has led to a sense among Israelis that they can make a difference and have an impact on their small and striving society.

We met with innovators in business and technology, and visited so-called incubators or accelerators where Israelis who have an idea for a start-up for a business can find mentors, advisers, work space and encouragement.

The most interesting incubator to me was in Jerusalem at an organization called PresenTense (Presentense.org). It works with social entrepreneurs – those who have an idea for a business or project that will “enrich communal life, grow local economies and solve critical issues facing society.” This is essentially an incubator for tikkun olam, with an emphasis on inclusion and diversity as an added value.

Immigrants, Haredi women, Arab Israelis and others may apply to the program with a proposal for a project to meet a need in their communities. They complete a course curriculum, meet with mentors, and refine their proposals. Even if, at the end, their proposed project is amended or does not attract start-up funding, the participants have gained valuable skills in social entrepreneurship. They are empowered to try, try again.

The other mission highlight for me was visiting the (Shimon) Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. We met with Yarden Leal-Yablonka, who described efforts that I think of as “actionable peace.” Most of the Center’s staff of 33 are project managers who are out in the field helping Israelis and Palestinians to come together, and work together to accomplish something or to meet a need. Leal-Yablonka says these are always projects suggested by the people affected by them, not imposed by well-meaning outsiders. The shared experience of identifying a problem and working toward a solution could be considered “peace education” for Arabs and Jews.

With children, the Peres Center does its work through sports programs. At first, Israeli and Palestinian children are introduced to “the other” via Skype so they can get acquainted first without face-to-face confrontation.

When the kids get together for games, they use the fair play method, rather than using a referee. The learning experience is in teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play.

My thought is that whatever is happening at the political level, Arab and Israeli kids have concrete experiences with each other that could grow peace.

After learning about some of the projects of the Peace Center, we were able to view some of the letters, documents and photographs from the Shimon Peres archives. One was a quote from Peres which I think sums up the prospects for peace:

“I don’t know if it’s possible, but it is interesting.”

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