Helping Israelis realize we are one people

Pluralism is one of those concepts — like freedom and democracy — that we, as Americans, champion with pride. It wasn’t always that way. In the early 20th century, immigrants were expected to learn English, join a church and adapt to cultural norms. It wasn’t until the 1970s that black pride, women’s lib and other celebrations of tribal affiliation made it OK to be different.

Israel isn’t quite there yet. The early Zionist emphasis on new immigrants becoming sabras as quickly as possible has faded, but pluralism as an ideal has not taken its place. Israeli society boasts a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups, but they clash more often than coexist.

This is even true within Israel’s Jewish majority. Rifts between religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, right wing and left wing, Russian, Ethiopian and everyone else — polarization and extremism seem to be increasing, threatening the country’s social fabric.

That’s what Gvanim is trying to change. Funded largely by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Gvanim is a yearlong program of workshops and learning aimed at breaking down the emotional and psychological barriers that separate Israeli Jews. The program brings together mid-career leaders from a wide range of backgrounds.

Gvanim means “hues, all the colors of the rainbow,” Barak Loozon told me this week. Loozon heads the federation’s office in Israel, running Gvanim and working with other Israel-based grantees.

Gvanim was launched shortly after the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, a seminal tragedy that exposed deep rifts in Israel’s Jewish community.

“Before Rabin, we had a common Zionist narrative. We were occupied with building the country,” Loozon explained. “The assassination cracked that wide open. How can we bring Israelis back together?”

Loozon and this year’s Gvanim cohort were in town for two days this week to see how we do Jewish in the Bay Area. They visited a synagogue and a Jewish school, met with rabbis and federation lay leaders, engaged in a tikkun olam project and studied Torah.

I spent two hours with the group, seeing firsthand how Gvanim had broken down barriers.

One member of the cohort, Orthodox Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, chair of the religious council of Gush Etzion, was asked whether he supported state salaries for non-Orthodox rabbis. “That’s complicated,” he admitted. But, he added, he couldn’t even have such a conversation in his home community. “I have to be out of my community to express my thoughts,” he said. “They might be considered heretical.”

Another cohort member, Irit Brook, oversees youth programs at the Ministry of Education. Before she joined Gvanim last fall, she’d never met a female rabbi or encountered Reform Judaism, she said.

It’s hard for Jews in the Bay Area to conceive of such silos. We’re all about cross-cultural dialogue. Not so in Israel, where young secular Jews are leaving Jerusalem in droves to avoid living with the city’s growing haredi population.

Another Gvanim success story: Ex-moshavnik Elisheva Mazya, a self-proclaimed secular Jew who moved to Jerusalem “for its diversity,” now feels comfortable enough with Rabbi Menachem Bombach, director of the haredi campus at Hebrew University, to ask what he thought of the group’s walk through San Francisco’s Castro District.

“It was interesting,” Menachem responded, with a twinkle in his eye.

And it’s not just talk. Participants get money to co-create projects that promote pluralism in their towns and workplaces.

Lior Gross, head of the Paratroopers Brigade Reserves Headquarters in Haifa, is part of this year’s cohort, as is Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, a city in the West Bank. When the two met, Lior decided to bring a group of his young cadets to Efrat for Shabbat.

“They were scared,” Lior related. “Spend Shabbat with a religious family? But it was amazing. Every cadet had a story to tell. In one night, the walls between us just fell down. I think one of the main issues in Israel is for us to get to know each other a little better.”

Now Lior wants to organize Shabbat stays for his cadets with Jewish families in San Francisco. “We are one people, and we need to be together,” he said.


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at