By Eileen Freed
The Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor hosted Israeli Consul General Aviv Ezra at three events Sunday, February 10. Mr. Ezra, based in Chicago, was in town for the University Musical Society performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) at Hill Auditorium.
A leadership brunch at the home of Federation president Stephen Aronson and his wife Levana was attended by approximately 25 major donors and community leaders as well as several IPO musicians. “The IPO and its musicians are much better ambassadors for the State of Israel than any diplomat,” said Mr. Ezra remarking on the magnificent performance the previous evening.
Mr. Ezra spoke about his role as Consul General of the Midwest responsible for representing Israel in midwestern nine states. “When people around the world, especially Israelis, think about the US, they usually focus on the coasts,” said Ezra. “I applied specially to serve in the Midwest because I believe that this is the heartland of America.”
Developing Business Opportunities
Mr. Ezra sees his role as enhancing the relationship between Israel and the Midwest for mutual benefit. One way in which he accomplishes this is by building relationships with state governors and legislators, identifying challenges they are trying to address in their states, and connecting them with people and organizations in Israel who have been working on solutions to similar challenges. Ezra learned from former Michigan governor Rick Snyder that an important concern in the development of self-driving cars is the danger of hacking. He arranged a high-level trip to Israel for the governor and his delegation and hosted him at a cyber-security technology conference where they met with Chief Innovation Officers from across the industry. Not only did this trip forge new relationships with innovators who could help the auto industry develop solutions safer self-driving cars, the governor was moved to earmark state funding for the Michigan Israel Business Bridge – now the Michigan Israel Business Accelerator - to expand and focus even more effectively on developing business opportunities between Michigan and Israel.
What about Religious Pluralism?
Attendees at the brunch raised questions surrounding religious pluralism and the lack of equality for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel. Mr. Ezra indicated that much of the problem related to Ultra-Orthodox hegemony over religious practice in Israel stems from Israel’s political system and the reliance on religious parties to make governing coalitions. Acknowledging that American Jews were not going to move in large numbers to Israel and begin voting, Mr. Ezra encouraged the group to get involved in other ways. Federation executive director, Eileen Freed, pointed out that through the Federation’s Annual Community Campaign, donors are doing just that. The Federation allocation to the Israel Religious Expression Platform (Irep), a working group of 25 Federations, has provided funding to non-profit organizations addressing this issue on the ground in Israel. These NGOs have run successful public relations campaigns around civil marriage that have already begun changing Israeli public opinion and have offered alternatives to weddings performed by the rabbinate.
Bringing Social Innovation to the Midwest
Mr. Ezra expanded on themes addressed at brunch during a Meet & Greet at the Jewish Community Center attended by about 40 community members. In addition to hi-tech expertise, Israel is a leader in social innovation, bringing creative thinking to addressing social challenges to make the world a better place. Mr. Ezra has been working with local and state leaders to bring some of these solutions to the Midwest.
For example, Israel’s unfortunate experience with trauma resulted in the development of expertise in post-traumatic stress. NATAL is one non-profit organization that developed a successful, professionally evaluated multi-faceted approach to dealing with post-trauma and fostering resilience. Working with church and community leaders in the Southside of Chicago, Mr. Ezra help connect them to NATAL, which has helped change and save lives in that traumatized community. There are now efforts to bring the NATAL model to Milwaukee.
Another social innovation Mr. Ezra brought to the Midwest is the inclusion and integration of soldiers with special needs into regular units – rather than serving separately – which has greatly benefited the soldiers who serve together. Mr. Ezra introduced the leadership of the National Guards of Indiana and Illinois to the organization “Special in Uniform” (Meuchadim b’Madim), and they are working toward incorporating this model in their Guard units.
Several questions raised at the Meet & Greet expressed concern about the conflation between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. “The Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement is not concerned with helping establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” he said. Rather, “their goal is the destruction of the Jewish state.” Mr. Ezra emphasized the importance of the work being done to develop relationships to address common needs and interests to combatting BDS and other anti-Israel activities. Dr. Laurence Baker, who attended both events with his wife, said that “meeting Mr. Ezra, was enlightening, provocative and predictive of the behavior in the twitterverse of the Congresswoman from Minnesota Ilhan Omar that same evening!”
Mr. Ezra was keen to meet with state legislators, the group he considers to be the future leaders of the country. Several representatives from the Washtenaw County Commission and the Michigan House and Senate participated in the discussion and identified issues and challenges for which Michigan is seeking creative solutions, particularly in the areas of alternative energy and water treatment. Mr. Ezra said that the best way to understand the political issues as well as the opportunities for business and social innovations is to visit Israel. He looks forward to hosting Michigan law-makers in a future delegation.
A Wonderful Weekend
Federation past-president and current president of Jewish Family Services Susan Fisher participated in many of the weekend’s offerings. “I found Aviv to be a most engaging, and informative spokesperson for Israel,” she said. “His clear presentation of his role provided significant detail about Israeli “outreach” in the Midwest. He answered all questions in a forthright and comprehensive manner - he did not make excuses or try to change the topic if a difficult or controversial subject was broached. In particular, I was impressed with the information he provided relative to the “social services innovations”, developed by Israel, that are being adopted in our country. It was a morning well spent. Between his talk and the amazing performance of the Israeli Philharmonic it was a special weekend.”