By Rachel Marder/JNS.org
Israeli Member of Knesset Nachman Shai (Labor), who
studied and worked in the U.S. for years, says he had no idea how much the 25-year-old prayer rights group Women of the Wall mattered to North American Jews—until he went there on a recent outreach trip.
Caption: Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman (left) and Member of Knesset Nachman Shai, a member of the Labor party, are pictured on June 18, the day a new Israeli Knesset caucus was launched with the goal of enhancing U.S.-Israel relations. Shai chairs the caucus and partners with the Ruderman foundation on the initiative. Credit: Yissachar Ruas.
“We were shocked to see how important women praying at the Kotel was,” Shai says in an interview with JNS.org.
“For average Israelis it’s not such a big issue.”
“Wherever we went [in North America] we heard about the Kotel as if it was the center of the world,” he adds.
The Labor lawmaker is now chairing a caucus in the Knesset to strengthen ties between U.S. and Israeli Jews, and between American and Israeli lawmakers. He says he now realizes the misconceptions Israelis have about
American Jews, the changing perceptions Americans have of Israel, and the harm that both factors can have on the countries’ relationship.
The caucus, launched in June, is working to recruit a cohort of Members of Knesset (MKs) to participate in its third delegation to the U.S., a five-day trip to Boston and New York City in March sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Brandeis University. The trips, which previously took place in 2011 and 2012, are designed to give MKs a crash course in American Jews and their relationship to Israel, and to strengthen Congress’s ties to the Jewish state.
Previous visits have included meetings with politicians like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, members of Congress, Brandeis academics, rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street leaders. In previous trips, MKs have discussed such thorny subjects with American lawmakers as whether the $3 billion in aid Israel receives from the U.S. each year is always guaranteed.
The idea behind the initiative, Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman says, is to show Israelis the diversity that exists in American Jewry and that community’s unique challenges when it comes to issues like intermarriage, conversion, and creating space for both criticizing and supporting Israel.
In particular, Israelis, Ruderman says, should learn how to connect with this conflicted generation of American Jews, which is different from previous ones.
“If Israel turns off that community, strategically they’re going to be in real tough shape,” says Ruderman, a former deputy director of AIPAC who made aliyah in 2005.