Liz Spikol
Jewish Exponent
Publication date: 

Philadelphia has always been a city of firsts, and when it comes to Israeli-American advocacy, it’s no exception.

Sharona Durry, an Israeli native who moved to the United States in 1987, founded the nonprofit PhillyIsrael in 2005. She wanted to build a community of Israeli-Americans, support Israel from a unique Israeli-American vantage point, and promote the State of Israel to Jews and non-Jews alike.

Though she was largely successful in building PhillyIsrael, the problem was funding.

Then came the formation of what’s now known as the Israeli-American Council (IAC) in Los Angeles in 2007.

Durry and her PhillyIsrael partner, Galit Iloni, connected with that group, which shared PhillyIsrael’s mission. PhillyIsrael got grants from the IAC as the IAC grew from a small group of influential Israeli-American leaders into the largest Israeli-American organization in the country. By 2014, the IAC had expanded beyond its L.A. headquarters to Boston, Las Vegas, Miami, New York and New Jersey.

Seeing the IAC’s success with regional expansion, Durry wondered, “Why not Philly?”

“There’s a national organization for Israeli-Americans,” she thought, “so why do we have to struggle so much?”

Given that the two organizations were, Durry said, running “in parallel,” and given that PhillyIsrael had significant community support, she couldn’t see any reason for the IAC not to open in Philly. The fast-growing IAC, meanwhile, had added other new regional offices in Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and were open to further expansion.

In July, it happened: Durry was hired as the program and communication manager for the new Philadelphia IAC, the organization’s 10th regional office. It was the fulfillment of a dream for her, and a saving grace for PhillyIsrael: Part of what she’ll do is shepherd PhillyIsrael’s programming beneath the IAC umbrella.

“It’s important that we have one strong, united organization,” Durry said. “We will work all together, and we can continue all the work that we do.”

Like other regional offices, Philly IAC will promote the national IAC’s formal mission: “building an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens our next generations, the American Jewish community and the state of Israel.”

That mission has certainly resonated: The organization now has an active membership of more than 250,000 people across the country.

“The IAC is thrilled to continue its expansion with the opening of a new council in Philadelphia,” IAC CEO Shoham Nicolet said. “Establishing our 10th location across the country in just three years is a testament to the overwhelming need and excitement for our programs and mission, and we look forward to partnering with Philadelphia to engage, organize and mobilize Israeli Americans as a strategic asset to strengthen the identity of the next generations, strengthen the American Jewish community, and strengthen the state of Israel.”

IAC Philly’s new regional director, Yoni Ari, who’s from Israel, starts this week. Both Durry and Ari will be overseen by the IAC Philadelphia Regional Council, which is chaired by Gil Travel’s Iris Hami.

“I got involved with the IAC two years ago when they had their conference in Washington, D.C.,” Hami said. “My husband and I both fell in love with the wonderful energy and speakers and mission of the IAC. Since I’m a classic Israeli- American who came here at the age of 12, I feel that I very much live in both worlds, physically and emotionally and mentally.”

Hami said part of what she admires about the IAC’s mission is the emphasis on transmitting Israeli culture to young people.

“Wonderful Israeli culture you get by osmosis in Israel, but outside of Israel, you have to maintain it. IAC programming allows Israeli-Americans to pass it on to the second generation.”

Additionally, she said, the Philly IAC team will serve as ambassadors for Israel, whether that means participating in anti-BDS activity — which IAC is at the forefront of — or working with local organizations like Jewish Federation “to mutually enhance Israel advocacy.”
Both Durry and Hami point out that the Philly IAC office opening comes at a propitious time: just after the closure of Philadelphia’s Israeli consulate.

“We are going to work very closely with the consulate in New York,” Durry said, noting that she recently met with some of that city’s consular officials. “We can’t do all the consular services, of course, but bringing speakers here, inviting VIPs to engage in the community; we’ll have direct contact, and an easier way to engage with Israel. It will be great for the Jewish community here.”

Hami agrees: “We would like to be the bridge between the consulate in New York and the community here — pick up the loose ends.”

In September, the members of Philly IAC will be involved in promoting and attending the IAC’s national conference in Washington, D.C. Speakers include a lineup of heavy hitters, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Israel’s Minister of Construction Yoav Galant, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, diplomat Dennis Ross, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Israel’s Minister of Science, Technology and Space Ofir Akunis, among others.

They, along with at least a couple thousand Jewish-American and Israeli-American activists, diplomats, public officials, journalists, business leaders and cultural icons, will gather to talk about the future of the U.S. and Israel. IAC national chair Adam Milstein said the conference will be “the largest gathering of Israeli- Americans in history.”

Durry has already started sending out emails about the conference and is positively giddy about the event — and about Philadelphia’s new status as official regional outpost. “I had a vision,” she said with a big smile, “and it’s working out.”

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