In U.S., Israelis Claim A Foothold
Can Adelson- and Saban-funded Israeli American Council stay neutral on politics, emphasizing culture?
05/27/15, Orli Santo, Staff Writer
For years, the great irony of the annual Celebrate Israel Parade up Fifth Avenue is that it attracted just about all of the city’s pro-Israel groups.
That’s changing in a big way this year thanks to a relatively new organization that’s little known, but a major force on the national Jewish scene: the Israeli American Council (IAC). Founded in Los Angeles eight years ago, it has become the largest Israeli-American organization in the U.S. with branches in Boston, Miami, Las Vegas, New Jersey and New York.
As a nonprofit, non-political group, IAC’s mission focuses on Israeli culture, seeking to strengthen the ties among Israeli-Americans and give them a greater voice in Jewish life here. But with most of its funds coming from big-personality philanthropists Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, skeptics are looking for signs of their right-of-center influence.
They won’t find it here, say Yehudit Feinstein-Mentesh, New York regional director of IAC, and Gil Galanos, a local co-chair. In an interview with The Jewish Week, they noted that the 14 members of its year-old local board have raised or contributed most of the group’s funds since its founding and are committed to specific educational and social goals, especially passing on the Hebrew language to the children of Israeli-Americans.
Lately, though, the primary focus has been on the Celebrate Israel Festival, which will offer music, food, art, sports and more, all with an Israeli flavor. (See The Buzz, Page 30, for details.)
“Politics are completely irrelevant to us … it’s not part of the conversation,” Galanos said. “Right-wing, left-wing, Orthodox, non-Orthodox … we work with everyone, as long as they align with our mission statement and our policies as a nonprofit.”
The fact that the annual Israel parade, a mainstay on the New York Jewish scene, has never been a big draw for local Israelis underscores how different the two communities are.
“Israelis, we don’t march in the parade, everybody knows this,” said Galanos. Recalling his own failed attempts to convince his friends to go, he added that to Israelis, the parade has always been “a Jewish-American thing.”
“In a way, the parade is a symbol of the relationship between the Jewish-American community and the Israeli-American one,” said Feinstein-Mentesh. “If you didn’t grow up in the Jewish-American establishment, if your kids don’t go to Hebrew [or day] school and you aren’t a synagogue member, you will feel like you don’t belong.”
This time around, though, the Israelis may be leading the parade from the rear, creating an elaborate event at Pier 94 on the far West Side for people — Israelis, American Jews and others — to attend after marching, or independently.
The parade up Fifth Avenue is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The festival is from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. (The annual Israel Day Concert in Central Park, with mostly Orthodox entertainers and a nationalist theme, is from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.)
“We are uniting people of all ages, backgrounds and interests, from artists to chefs to musicians to athletes, in celebrating the achievements of Israel,” said Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, whose remarks will kick off the festival.
Hindy Poupko, managing director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York, a key partner for the event, said the combination of the parade and festival will offer marchers and spectators “the ultimate double header.”
Looking to the future, the IAC hopes that the parade and the festival will merge into one single event in which both the Israeli and American Jewish communities unite in supporting Israel, and in which the local Israelis play a prominent role.
That may sound ambitious for a local group formed in 2014, but the IAC is already reshaping the Israeli-American community and its role within the larger Jewish one.
Originally named ILC, the Israeli Leadership Club, the IAC was an elite organization from its very start. As the story goes, during Israel’s 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles attempted to organize a demonstration supporting the state. Few people came, and of those, hardly any were Israelis. As a result, L.A.’s Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch met with a group of local Israeli power brokers, including Saban, and urged them to create an infrastructure that could rally the Israeli-American community in times of need.
They found it hard going. Far from home and ill at ease with the Jewish American establishment, Israelis in the U.S. were likely to stay away from synagogues and Jewish institutions.
Jacky Teplitzky, a prominent New York real estate broker and former sergeant in the IDF, recalls that when she came to New York from Israel in 1989, she was asked to joint the real estate division of UJA-Federation of New York and help recruit other Israelis. What she discovered was “a big disconnect” between the two groups, and lack of interest among the Israelis.
“I told the UJA people that their approach should not be to expect the Israelis to be donors but to ask them what were their needs. Ask ‘How can we bridge the gap?’” she said.
Teplitzky, a member of the boards of both UJA-Federation and IAC, said she remains passionate about working to narrow the divide, interpreting each community to the other. “We have to find a way to unite,” she said. “Unity brings power.”
IAC in Los Angeles carried out its mission through large-scale community events and a full complement of educational and social programs, implemented first in L.A. and then nationwide. Sifriyat Pijama, for example, a Hebrew and Jewish literacy program for families, is now the largest Hebrew outreach initiative in North America. There’s Mishelanu, a program bringing young Israeli- and Jewish-Americans together on American college campuses; an IAC Taglit Birthright program, formulated especially for second generation Israeli-Americans; Tzav 8, a platform for mobilizing Israeli-Americans to participate in pro-Israeli demonstrations and activities, and more.
Recognizing IAC as a powerful pro-Israel tool, Jewish-American donors began to champion the IAC as well. In 2013, after Sheldon Adelson threw his hefty support behind them, the organization went national.
Ever since, the IAC’s growth has been rapid. Starting with seven members, it now employs over 65. It went from raising less than $500,000 in 2010 to $23.5 million this year (of which Adelson reportedly pledged almost half). The IAC is planning to open a branch in Washington, D.C., dedicated to community building and pro-Israel advocacy on Capitol Hill. They are also looking into setting up shop in Chicago and Philadelphia.
“We understand that our kids, not to mention our grandkids, if they are not connected to the American-Jewish community — we are going to lose them,” said Feinstein-Mentesh of the New York council, whose Hebrew program, Keshet, teaches kids about Israeli culture and Jewish tradition. All of the afterschool programs take place in synagogues, to anchor them in the Jewish American establishment.
In partnering with the JCRC and the Jewish establishment, the IAC may be positioning itself to become a major influence on defining what support for Israel consists of.
Israeli-Americans hold a range of opinions about how to support their homeland, from those who believe in pushing for a two-state solution to those who push against it. While IAC’s New York branch is probably as politics-free as possible, the national organization does engage in political advocacy, particularly regarding Iran. Its 2014 inaugural Washington conference featured a largely right-leaning roster including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sen. Lindsey Graham and former independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who criticized President Obama for the pressure he put on Israel and for his policies on Iran. Several weeks ago, the IAC published an ad in the Washington Post calling for the Senate to strike down the president’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran, should it seem risky to them.
In terms of Israeli politics, the IAC held receptions during the annual conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. As for J Street, its dovish counterpart, “we’re not fully convinced they are pro-Israel,” said Balasha, the CEO of IAC nationally.
The national group also sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech in Congress, two weeks before the Israeli elections.
Such moves have some Israeli-Americans feeling a little uneasy. One Israeli-American performer told The Jewish Week, “I don’t know if I like their political direction. ... But they do so much for us, and they are so strong in the community, that in any case I won’t open my mouth about it.” He asked not to be named since he often works at IAC-sponsored events.
“We are all pro-Israel. But Israeli Americans do not all agree with the Israeli government’s current policy and actions,” said Gili Getz, co-chair of J Street’s Israeli network in New York. “There are many who oppose its policies and support President Obama’s efforts to reach a two-state solution. I am very concerned that as the IAC grows, for all the good it does for Israeli-Americans, it might misrepresent us, creating the impression that all of us support their views and distorting our voice.”
As for IAC’s Celebrate Israel Festival, he pointed to its headliner, the iconic pop star Rita.
“Rita, are you kidding me? Of course I’ll be there,” he said. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”