Heading Home From Israel

Three days ago, I shared reflections on what I was hoping to learn from the Jewish Federation of North American’s (JFNA’s) first mission to Israel since October 7. Upon returning, I realize that it will take time to distill -- as a community -- what we experienced over 36 hours into meaningful insight. Perhaps as a down payment toward that goal, and in anticipation of sharing in more detail some of the moving stories we heard, I have three initial takeaways:


The spirit of Israel is strongWe came to honor Israel’s heroes but they thanked us instead.  We came to console Israel’s mourners but they ended up comforting us.  We came to rally a nation that has suffered a devastating blow, but they demonstrated more resolve and optimism than we could muster on our best day. The young soldiers we met, all preparing for war, were particularly inspiring and resolute.


Your Federation dollars are both practically and symbolically meaningfulI have talked with many of you since the war began.  The concern in our community regarding how best to meet the vast Israeli needs is palpable, with both longtime and new donors searching their souls. This mission provided ample evidence that JFNA is a worthy steward of your generosity in these unprecedented times.  In that regard, Diane and I have many positive stories to tell:


- JFNA’s $500 million commitment — and over $100 million in cash distributions — within a few days of October 7 made an impact on the damaged Israeli psyche that cannot be overestimated. We stand with Israel.


- Our network of 140 Federations has the scale and experience to move nimbly amidst chaos.  It’s difficult to build the “fire house” while the fire is blazing, Federation has been here for 106 years and shines in times like these.


- For those who fear Federation is stodgy or bureaucratic, we are proud of funding, or partnering with, some of the most innovative charitable start-ups of the last 18 days, including the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio in Jerusalem, turned volunteer headquarters, Brothers and Sisters in Arms, and Operation Falcon.


The national allocation process, led by our neighbor Jeff Schoenfeld of NYC and Pound Ridge, is robust and accountable and we are proud to have followed their thoughtful lead in our own local allocations.


Finally, facing an uncertain road ahead, Israel needs our continued support and advocacy Our most emotional meeting was with two of the hostage families at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was heartbreaking to hear their hour-by-hour accounts of that awful day and the ensuing vigil.  Both families were on the Israeli left and had devoted much of their lives to seeking peace with the Palestinians. They told us that this war was not about occupation or settlements, but about fundamentalist jihad. We are haunted by their plea that we remember them, and that we make sure our community and political leaders do not forget them.


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As the mission drew to a close, we were visited at dinner by a group of rabbis, who moved from table-to-table ala speed dating. The conversation turned to the current Israeli unity and how we as American Jews can help to preserve it. Of course, our own unity is fragile as well. As we remain focused on the hostages, contemplate an IDF ground offensive in Gaza, and monitor new threats daily to the security of Jews in the diaspora and our backyard, nothing is more important than solidarity within our local community. Diane and I look forward to continuing the dialogue in the days ahead.


In humility and with gratitude for your generosity and goodwill,

Michael Schlessinger

President, United Jewish Federation