When the Israeli Leadership Council was founded in 2007, we focused on engaging mostly Israelis residing in the US. Our activity was conducted primarily in Hebrew. We developed programs to bring our community together, mainly around our shared culture, heritage, language and love for Israel.
Our key challenge was to unite isolated pockets of Israeli immigrants into one community, in the face history of rapid assimilation and disconnection.
Yet, the shared sense of culture created an immediate feeling of belonging and family, and we quickly turned what had been seen as an insurmountable challenge into a strategic opportunity. Soon we had created the fastest-growing Jewish community in the country – with Israel in its heart and Israeliness in its spirit.
By 2008, we had brought thousands of Jewish Americans into our advocacy work. We realized that we could build a pro-Israel community that was much wider than just Israeli-Americans.
Two pivotal events positioned us to build this broader community – both of which took place on the same day on March 2013. The first turning point was renaming our organization from the “Israeli Leadership Council” to the “Israeli American Council”. This was much more than a semantic change. It was a clear signal to our community and to the Jewish-American community that our future would be in the U.S., not Israel – tying us much more powerfully to the broader Jewish American community.
The second major turning point came when Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson were introduced to the IAC. They immediately recognized how Israeliness – the unique mentality and culture at the heart of the IAC – held vast potential to strengthen the broader Jewish American community. Their vision and support drove the growth of the IAC from a local organization, into a nationwide phenomenon, active in 27 states, with 15 regional offices.
During the process of that growth, we discovered that the hybrid identity of Israeli-Americans gave us the unique ability to speak three distinct languages: “Israeli”, “American” and “Jewish”. As we discovered this unique asset, Jewish America has become increasingly fragmented, struggled to maintain an engaged young generation, and faced a growing gap with the State of Israel. We saw unique opportunities to help address all three issues within the broader Jewish American community.
When asked how to close the growing gap between American Jews and Israel, Yehuda Kurzer from Hartman Institute recently singled out two communities as most equipped must lead a productive conversation: American Jews living in Israel, and Israeli-Americans. He calls them an “underappreciated asset” and “a key piece of the agenda for the future of bridge-building between these communities.”
But how exactly can these bridges be built? I believe that that there at least five ways that the “Israeliness” at the core of the IAC can be turned into an asset that strengthens the broader Jewish community and connects it Israel.
Connecting to Hebrew
Hebrew – the ancient language of the Jewish people – could become a key connector for our global family in the future. When it comes to fostering the love and practice for spoken Hebrew among American Jewry, Israeli Americans are the most obvious partners. We dream, think and feel in Hebrew and can easily share our passion for the language.
At the same time, Hebrew shouldn’t become a barrier to entry into the Israeli-American community for our own second generation, our spouses, and our Jewish-American brothers and sisters. The IAC has been able to square this circle, developing robust Hebrew-language programming while we welcome non-Hebrew speakers (or those that want to speak more fluently). For instance, Keshet, our Hebrew-learning community, is attracting an increasing number of Jewish Americans, who now make up approximately 20 percent of participants in cities like New York and Las Vegas.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Israeliness opens up a whole new world for young American Jews. The Startup Nation speaks the language of Generation Z, demonstrating vividly how to take an idea or hobby, and turn it into a thriving business. We have been able to build this language into programs like IAC Eitanim, which brings together Israeli and Jewish American teenagers in a project-based learning environment. Under the guidance of Israeli-American mentors – who have achieved success as entrepreneurs – the participants learn the concept of innovation while connecting to Israel and their Jewish heritage.
The best way to connect people to Israel is to send them to Israel. This is why “Israel Experience” programs – like Birthright – are so vital for connecting people to Israel. The IAC is uniquely positioned to provide an authentic and organic Israel experience for Jewish-American college students and young professionals in the wake of their transformative experience without having to get on a plane.
Israeli Culture Meets Jewish Traditions
At a time when many communities are struggling to reimagine and reinvigorate Jewish observance, the IAC has found a winning formula with our Shishi Israeli events. Our idea was to connect Israelis to Jewish tradition “Israeli” style. More and more of these events moved into Jewish schools and synagogues, and to our surprise they attract large numbers of Jewish Americans, approximately 30-50% of the participants in some cities. Shishi Israeli is the ultimate cultural Jewish experience, connecting our communities across dominations, while fostering a sense of peoplehood.
Barry Shrage, a legendary Jewish American leader and retired CJP president told me in our first meeting: “There is no one that can tell Israel’s story better than Israeli Americans.” I have found this to be true again and again. People connect to personal stories, and as Israeli Americans, we can talk about Israel from very personal point of view. We talk about our families. We talk about our memories. Our Israeli accent makes the story more authentic and relatable.
This narrative becomes very relevant when fighting BDS and modern antisemitism. For example, one of the greatest achievements of our sister organization, IAC for Action, was facilitating the passage of a landmark anti-BDS bill in California – in full collaboration with AJC – the oldest Jewish American organization.
Working from Within the Jewish Community
For a variety of reasons, our goal has always been to work from within the Jewish American community. We recognized that there is so much to learn from this extraordinarily successful Jewish diaspora. By working in synergy with it, we are much better positioned achieve our goals and build a sustainable organization. Most importantly, we aspired to make on impact not only in the Israeli-American community, but in the wider Jewish world. Today, there is almost no IAC activity in which we are not partnering with a Jewish American organization. Two years ago, we signed an agreement with the JCC In Tenafly, New Jersey, which located our offices and most of our activities within the community center. This year we opened a center in the JCC in Rockville. Most of our strategic efforts in Boston are done in full partnership with CJP. UJA Federation in New York has become one of our greatest partners. In Phoenix (AZ), our chapter was created in full partnership with the local Jewish Federation.
Moreover, today almost every major city in the US has at least one Israeli-American on the board of the local Federation. We hope that soon this will be the case with every significant Jewish American organization.
The New Leaders
We also want to foster the next generation of leaders, through programs like IAC Gvanim, which we adopted from a separate pilot program in Northern California and brought to 15 cities nationwide. Participants explore their hybrid Israeli-American identity, examining questions of belonging, community building and leadership. Graduates of IAC Gvanim become the leadership backbone of their communities, educated and aware of the history, complexities and politics of Jewish America. They are becoming the ultimate living bridge within their communities.
Let’s stop talking about “bridging,” let’s do it.
Open communication is very important, but over analysis of the issues facing the Jewish world too often leads to paralysis. Instead of talking about bridging, we believe in building the bridges through passion, intellect and shared goals. Instead of talking too much about the gaps, we believe in developing living bridges that organically connect people across cultures, denominations, countries, and backgrounds.
Together, over the next decade, I believe that we will be able to fulfill our vision of a coast-to-coast community open to anyone who has Israel in their heart, and Israeliness in their spirit.
Shoham Nicolet is the Founding Chief Executive Officer of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), the fastest-growing Jewish organization in the United States.