On a brisk night in early January, hundreds of American Jews from throughout the United States, still jet-lagged from their arrival in Israel that morning, are filing into a large airplane hangar at Hatzor, an isolated air force base near Ashkelon.
After a few moments of announcements and greetings, Shlomi Shabbat, a top Israeli pop singer, takes the stage, to the excited applause of the young Israeli soldiers present, and launches into a long, loud and enthusiastic number, combining rock and Sephardi beats.
As the music begins to blare, I look around the room and wonder who planned this extravaganza. What was he or she thinking? All around me are more than 900 exhausted Americans in the middle of nowhere, no doubt wondering what they are doing here and when they can get some sleep. This is going to be a disaster, I think.
But, almost instantly, the soldiers, singing along to the Hebrew song, are out of their seats, clapping their hands, and dancing to the beat, some pressing toward the stage to dance. To my astonishment, they soon are joined by the Americans, rocking and shimmying along with their newfound dance partners, not a yawn to be found in the vast crowd.
So much for my assessment of what makes a United Jewish Communities (UJC) Solidarity Mission a success -- or at least what was considered a success until this week.
The central figure behind this and about 150 other UJC missions a year has been Nechemia Dagan, a retired Israeli general with more than 30 years of service in the air force, who watched the proceedings from the back of the hangar with a smile.
Why a rock performance at Hatzor to kick off a five-day visit for the Americans? "It was a salute to the [Israel Defense Forces]," Dagan explained several weeks later at his office in New York. "I knew the soldiers would enjoy it," he said, and he figured correctly that the visitors would be caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment.
Dagan, 60, speaks with emotion about his sense of personal mission: to bridge the widening gap between American and Israeli Jews. "My two goals are to bring Americans to Israel and to expose them to real Israelis," he says.
Today, with tourism down 90 percent due to sometimes misplaced fears about the renewed intifada, solidarity missions -- whirlwind briefings with Israeli leaders for American donors -- account for the great majority of American visitors to Israel and are seen as critical to maintaining support in a time of crisis. Since October, some 3,000 people have participated, 900 of them on the early January visit.
But the new leadership at UJC is reviewing and re-evaluating the missions program, trying to break the mold of what some see as a tired formula of "canned speeches from political leaders and tours of Jerusalem," according to one official, who said that current missions "are an experience, not an outcome."
Enter Arthur Naparstek, a former academic in social work who in January was named senior vice president of UJC and director of its Israel and Overseas Pillar. He hopes to convince the majority of American Jews to visit Israel and plans to appeal to the "20 percent who sort of identify" Jewishly, through affinity groups (trips based on professions or special interests) or other programs that will be part of an overall goal of "strengthening community, here and in Israel," exploring religious, cultural and social similarities and differences.
More power to him. Surely more can and should be done, particularly to instill a sense of urgency among American Jewry about the undeclared war going on in Israel, which may get worse before it gets better. Only now, after almost six months of bloodshed, are American Jewish leaders worrying about the overall silence of the community and discussing a major rally in Washington to express solidarity with Israel.
Maybe it's time for new faces, and for missions to be more than fleeting opportunities for the elite to hobnob with Israel's prime minister. What is certain is that the disconnect between American Jews and Israel and between communal leaders and the majority of American Jews is growing wider. Bridging those divides should be the primary mission.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week. His e-mail address is Gary@jewishweek.org
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