A Strong Personal Connection

Michael Saxon and Kate Applefeld spearheaded a taskforce that led to the Israel Engagement Center. (Photo David Stuck)

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore recently announced the launch of an Israel
Engagement Center to develop and fund strategies and initiatives that help connect Jewish Baltimore to Israel. It is not a physical center, it is a concept — of making Israel more central in our community’s mind. Co-chairing the initiative are Michael Saxon and Kate Applefeld. The JT caught up with Saxon to better understand what this means for Jewish Baltimore.

JT: How did the Israel Engagement Center come to be? Who wanted it? Why do we know this is useful?
Saxon: We have long seen engagement with Israel and Israelis as a core facet of Jewish identity in Baltimore, and we support strong and successful programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel [and] the Shaliach program. Our commitment was strengthened by the findings of the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, which found that while attachment to Israel runs very high in Baltimore compared to other Jewish communities, there is plenty of room for improvement. We also learned that while travel to Israel is an important part of building attachment to Israel, cost prevents Israel travel for about three in 10 households.

How is this being funded?
We have long relied on our partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), to help us implement programs that bring Israel and Baltimore closer together. Much of the cost of these programs has been funded through our general [annual] allocation to JAFI. However, given the importance of these programs to fulfilling The Associated’s core value of promoting active participation in many facets of Jewish life, we wanted to play a more active role in setting expectations and evaluating results. Therefore, we pulled these programs out of our core allocation to JAFI and are funding them individually, providing for greater transparency and accountability.

Is it expensive? What will this cost the system?
In its first year, the Israel Engagement Center allocated about $750,000 to programs that that help connect individuals and families in Baltimore’s Jewish community more closely to Israel and its people. All of these funds were shifted from JAFI’s core allocation, so there was no additional cost to the system.

How will you know that it is working? Against what goal is there evaluation?
It’s our vision that all members of our community will feel a strong personal connection to Israel, and we believe that happens by advancing a deep understanding of, and a lasting commitment to, Israel and Israelis.

Does everyone need this? Is anyone engaged already and on whom will this have the most impact?
For those who identify strongly as Jews, we’re providing opportunities that will help them to broaden and strengthen their Jewish identity. For others, a connection to Israel can be their gateway — the first step on their road to building a personally meaningful Jewish identity. They may participate in programs out of curiosity or because a friend asked them to, or it may be for other reasons having nothing to do with being Jewish, such as to advance their career or to expand their education.

There was a recent survey done for Jerusalem U that showed Israel to play less of a role in the Jewish identities of young adults. Is it necessary that it does? Why is Israel so important?
For all of us, including those who see their Jewish identity in secular terms, perceptions of the State of Israel influences how we perceive ourselves as Jews and how others outside of the Jewish community perceive us. Therefore, we each have a vested interest in helping the Jewish state get it “right” in terms of the how Israelis of different backgrounds and beliefs live together, the role of Israel in the Jewish world and how Israel relates to the rest of the world.

Israel is constantly changing and evolving, and there are a wide range of passionate voices participating in these discussions. Our identities as Jews are strengthened when each of us gets close enough to the issues to get beyond the emotional peaks into a thoughtful, sustainable personal relationship with Israel and Israelis.

This is especially critical with older teens and young adults who are striving to understand their place in the world, many of whom feel conflicted about the State of Israel. A great way to deepen their understanding of the issues is to help them to visit Israel and to make Israeli friends. JAFI has proven to be an essential partner in developing programs that make these visits accessible, cost effective and meaningful for the participants.

What’s next? How do people get involved?
Whether you want to build your res-ume, advance your career, broaden your education, explore new Jewish horizons or deepen your personal understanding of what it means to be Jewish, Israel is a great place to do that. Especially for young adults, we have lots of great ways to help you achieve any or all of those goals, for any amount of time, from a summer to a year. If you’re interested in participating in a program or helping us to develop new programs, please contact Mary Haar at 410-369-9311.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

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