Opinions | Trip to Israel sheds light on community building in S.F.

As I left Ben Gurion Airport on my way back to the United States from Israel, I wasn’t sure what to tell my team at San Francisco Hillel.

I was one of the San Francisco Jewish leaders invited to participate in last month’s Irving Rabin Community Building Mission, created and inspired by Varda Rabin in memory of her husband.

So what is a community-building mission?

Superficially, it resembled a Birthright Israel tour. We got up early each day, hopped around the country on an air-conditioned bus with a tour guide — from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Netiv HaAsara in the south — and didn’t return to our rooms until late at night.

But the similarities ended there. Instead of camel riding and floating in the Dead Sea, we met a trove of leaders who are tackling complicated local issues in amazing ways. While this involved meeting room after meeting room, and a few near-death encounters with PowerPoint, I constantly was inspired by the perseverance, innovation and practicality of so many of these community leaders.

We went to Yerucham, a 10,000-person town in the Negev whose mayor is revitalizing Jewish-Bedouin relations by providing social services while respecting the Bedouins’ cultural identity. In Tel Aviv, we met the founders of Collective Impact, who are working to overcome barriers to equal Arab employment in Israel. And we visited Elisheva Mazya, whose organization, New Spirit, is attracting young Jewish adults to Jerusalem by creating a hub for culture, innovation, entrepreneurship and secular Judaism.

What did we learn to bring back to our own community-building work?

First, leaders must engage and empower all main community constituents. In the Bedouin village of Hura, we heard how early planned communities failed because they had no local buy-in. By contrast, the current Wadi Attir eco-farm project in Hura is thriving because it leverages Bedouin farming expertise and human capital.

Second, communities are living organisms and leaders constantly must adapt their approaches. We saw in Kiryat Shmona how the city is reinventing its downtown area and unifying government services for young adults, to retain and attract them. In doing so, they are reversing the pull that Tel Aviv and the other “hot” coastal cities exert on this vital demographic.

Third, community building requires investment in young adult engagement. While this sounds obvious, the amount of resources being devoted to post-army and post-college adults in all the towns and cities we visited in Israel was incredible. Bringing sustainable change to a community starts with a commitment to the young.

The parallels are clear. Even though the Bay Area has no problem attracting young adults to live here, we are constantly asked to rethink how we connect and empower them Jewishly. The success of newer organizations such as Urban Adamah, The Kitchen and Wilderness Torah is a testament to the need for constant adaptability and innovation.

One of the challenges emerging from the mission was determining how the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation can harness the energy and collaborative ideas the group generated. Some interesting frameworks for this were discussed at the end of the mission.

Some of the challenges in Israel are surprisingly similar to the challenges back home. I had the opportunity to meet the Hillel students of Tel-Hai College. When I asked why they feel the need to be part of Hillel when they live in the Jewish state of Israel, their answers could have come straight from our Hillel students in San Francisco. They’re trying to understand how pluralistic Judaism defines itself and remains relevant for the next generation. That less-than-profound discovery is what I’ll take back to my staff.

Ollie Benn is the executive director of San Francisco Hillel. He was one of 40 Bay Area Jewish professionals and lay leaders on a March community-building mission to Israel organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Federation.


Ollie Benn
Ollie Benn

Ollie Benn is executive director of San Francisco Hillel.