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Saturday, April 18, 2015

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A new give-and-take with Israel

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Daniel Held

Once upon a time, Jews gave money to a fledgling state to ensure its survival. Blue-and-white JNF pushkes represented the hope of a struggling nation held together by young kids walking up and down New York subway cars in June 1967 collecting nickels and dimes. I have planted trees on Tu b’Shvat to help the Negev bloom, walked to raise money for immigrants and donated to build the educational and social welfare infrastructure of a country that is still a relative infant among the family of nations. Having seen it first hand, there’s no question that our philanthropic dollars help build a country of which we should be proud.

But today is not 1948, 1967, 1973 or 1991. While we continue to support the growth of the periphery, the building of reservoirs and the security of cities under siege, we are also told the story of the start-up nation. Israel is a country that has played key roles in the development of the iPhone, laptops and SodaStream, a country that sells apps to Google and has discovered offshore gas that will fund a sovereign wealth fund worth billions.

Our relationship with Israel has changed, and Jewish education is the beneficiary.

I once watched a video of Golda Meir addressing an American audience asking for money. Today, I am participating in an online jam session in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is asking stakeholders around the world to deliberate on how the State of Israel should invest in global Jewish education.

Let me take a step back.

Birthright Israel has been a game-changer in Jewish education. It’s the first initiative that will reach 50 per cent market penetration – in the coming years, 50 per cent of Jews aged 18 to 26 will have visited Israel; it has changed the way we link Israel to Jewish identity; and, most strikingly, it marks the first time the State of Israel has invested strategically in Diaspora Jewish identity. Birthright remains a three-way partnership funded by local Jewish federations, a group of philanthropists, and the government of Israel.

Since its investment in Birthright, the State of Israel has taken other steps to support Jewish education. It supports long-term Israel programs through Masa, it has reformatted the types of educational emissaries it sends around the world – including shinshinim, who penetrate day schools, supplementary schools, Hillels, synagogues and summer camps in Toronto and elsewhere – and it has shifted the Jewish Agency’s agenda to focus not only on aliyah but on Jewish identity.

Last summer, the government took this relationship a step farther when it announced the Prime Minister’s Initiative, which will invest $300 million each year in Jewish education. This week, hundreds of educators and stakeholders are participating in an online jam session, discussing how these funds could be used to benefit both Israel and global Jewry.

The relationship between world Jewry and Israel used to be unidirectional. We offered money to support a fledgling state. At the time, that was needed. Today, by mutual necessity, it’s symbiotic. Just as we continue to value and invest in the growth and development of the state, the State of Israel values and invests in the growth and vitality of world Jewry.

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