NEWTON CENTRE – Yossi Landesman left Israel for the U.S. 23 years ago. Fellow Israeli Michal Kimeldorfer has lived in the Boston area for just over a decade.
Despite living here for many years, they were similar to an estimated 30,000 other Israelis living here: neither particularly knowledgeable about the local Jewish community, its history and organizations, nor involved in that community.
Nevertheless, that could change, thanks to the Gevanim program organized by Na’ama Ore, regional director of the Israeli American Council here. Started in 2014, Gevanim (Hebrew for ‘shades’) provides a six-month curriculum for Israeli American adults to engage in Jewish text study, meet Greater Boston Jewish community leaders and then give back through a project of their own choosing.
Ore said the program is called Gevanim because, “They learn about the different shades of being Jewish.”
“I understood that it’s an organization that will actually act in favor of Israelis that are living in the U.S. and that have certain needs,” said Landesman, a Brookline resident. “They want to express themselves. They have some cultural demands, educational. Also, the possibility here of personal development. It was clear to me that there will be processes to go through to become [community] leaders. Then to learn about the community and then contribute. We all like to contribute.”
“I’m quite familiar with leadership programs,” said Kimeldorfer, a hightech human resources senior official. “But this one had a really special curriculum and focus, because it focused on the Jewish [part], how the Jewish community developed in the U.S. It’s about the relationship between the Jewish community in U.S. and Israel. It offered values. It offered something quite honestly I couldn’t find in any other program.”
Ore developed the idea for the program after learning about something similar that started in Palo Alto, Calif. more than seven years ago. She cited the need to work with a triple identity community – Israeli, American and Jewish – along with a second-generation community of Israeli offspring.
Started in 2014 in Boston, Gevanim accepts 15 participants annually from about 65 applicants. The three-part program includes Jewish text study.
“For many of these people, it’s the first time they have studied Gemorrah or Mishnah,” Ore said. “The first part is identity, what it means to be Israeli, what is our role in the Jewish community, as a Jew in the world, now that we live outside of Israel.”
In the second part of learning about the community, Gevanim students meet Boston leaders, such as Jeremy Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and Ellen Smith, director of Brandeis University’s Hornstein program. Kimeldorfer said the speakers, “Really opened a window for us to understand better the American J community. I don’t think Israelis have a better way of learning (about it) than through this leadership program.”
The third part focuses on leadership and community building. Each person in the program is responsible for a community initiative upon graduation. Ore said participants need to “find a gap that they see as a challenge that they can bring together Israelis and Jewish Americans.”
“That is our mission,” Ore said. “Connect communities and see how they move forward.”
Kimeldorfer is helping organize BINA with four others to bring together American and Israeli young professionals between 22 and 40. “What we noticed was there was no group or organization bringing [them] together,” she said.
BINA launched about two weeks ago through social media efforts to attract people.
“It mostly appeals to people who have traveled to Israel,” Kimeldorfer said. “They don’t really have a place to network with Israelis. The Israelis that live here, are studying, or already working. They don’t really have a place to network with young Jewish Americans, young professionals that are passionate about Israel, that care about Israel.”
The concept of giving back is not new for Landesman. As a scientist, he has developed cancer drugs. He formed an organization to fund research for treating a particular type of cancer, alveolar soft part sarcoma.
“My activities were mainly this sarcoma activity and my work,” he said. “This also gives me an opportunity when it comes to our own community, when it comes to the Israeli community. I’m very Jewish. I’m very Israeli.”
His Gevanim project quickly evolved after going to Boston University last April during Israel Apartheid Week. Landesman said he “never faced that. This was shocking. I was sitting there for two hours and listening to lies,” including from the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
“This was so offending,” said Landesman, recalling the cheering and laughter of participants. “This was an eye opener for me. I thought there was something I could do for the Israeli community.”
The result is Kol Israel (Hebrew for both ‘voice of Israel’ and ‘all Israel’), which will engage in advocacy for Israel through both the Israeli and American Jewishcommunities. Landesman said the group has been meeting to determine what methods would work to talk about Israel with others. The idea is to have parlor meetings in private homes to talk in small groups of people in a nonpolitical way about Israel. Landesman talked about eventually working with synagogues to engage members more in Israel.
“I think Israelis that live in the U.S. are in this special unique situation where after living here for a while, you look for ways to find your unique voice,” she said. “We were not born here. When you live where you were born, it’s very trivial and very simple. When you move to another location, you basically need to redefine your level of involvement with the community, the group you want to be a part of, how involved you wish to be.”
Kimeldorfer said she was glad she participated in Gevanim. “The IAC offered a gate for us to connect,” she said.