Seeing the bigger picture

Now in its 4th year, the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies offers Israeli students a unique opportunity to step into the shoes of their US counterparts and live the American (Jewish) Dream

2016 PROGRAM PARTICIPANTS board a boat to Ellis Island as part of their intensive 10-day trip to the US (photo credit: RUDERMAN PROGRAM FOR AMERICAN JEWISH STUDIES)
2016 PROGRAM PARTICIPANTS board a boat to Ellis Island as part of their intensive 10-day trip to the US
Growing up, Israelis are inundated with all things American. Take a casual stroll down Hillel Street in Jerusalem and you’re bound to see an Israeli chomping away at a McDonald’s hamburger, wearing Calvin Klein jeans and listening to Michael Jackson hits blasting in the background.
However, when it comes to knowing about their brothers and sisters across the ocean – the American Jew – most Israelis are a blank slate.
“What I noticed is the American Jew is much more familiar with Israeli reality and Israelis know nothing about American Jewry – really nothing,” said program head Prof. Gur Alroey of his previous twoyear stint at as a visiting professor at New York University.
For that reason, Alroey and the Ruderman Family Foundation decided to launch the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at University of Haifa.
The program is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on American Jewry’s past and present.
“The knowledge about American Jewry is so basic among Israelis that I wouldn’t even call them misconceptions,” Alroey told The Jerusalem Report when asked what misconceptions Israelis may hold about American Jewry.
“To have a misconception that assumes a baseline knowledge, which most Israelis don’t have,” he lamented.
Prof. Jonathan Sarna, a renowned expert in the field of American Jewry and a visiting lecturer for the Ruderman Program believes that this ignorance of their American counterparts could potentially stem from “a kind of competition between the two great centers of Jewish life. The fear is that if they know too much about the other place they might move there.”
However, it is time to “emancipate” ourselves form this “silliness,” he said.
He says he is struck by how few Israeli academics study American Jewry. If he brought them all together “I’m not sure I’d have a minyan,” referring to the 10 men necessary for a prayer service.
In conversations Alroey had with Jay Ruderman, president of the Foundation, the two agreed upon the need to educate Israelis about American Jewry, and devised a curriculum that would do just that.
Prof. Gil Troy, another Ruderman Program lecturer, explained that the program bridges a gap between the two communities.
“When it comes to American Jewry, Israelis may have a friend who is an American Jew and read about it online and they have some sense of what is going on. Ruderman is trying to go beyond those vague stereotypes, trying to get superstar Israelis to learn about the depth of the US Jewish community and the ups and downs with Israel,” he said.
Launched four years ago, the master’s program offers students an immersive experience where one day a week they learn about a variety of different subjects pertaining to American Jewry.
Nothing is off-limits in these seminars, where learning can span the work of seminal novelist Philip Roth to pioneering American Zionist women to Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement and beyond.
Most importantly, Alroey wants the program to convey one important fact: the American Jewish landscape is a complex one that goes well beyond the one-way relationship where they write a check for Israel.
“We’re trying to explain that it’s much more complicated,” he said.
The program accepts around 25 of the 100 applications it receives each year and targets the best and the brightest of Israelis who have an American connection.
“We’re trying to find the best Israeli students,” he said. “The profile of an ideal student is somebody who has worked or is still working with American Jewry.”
Student Adam Jenshil fits that bill. Originally from the United Kingdom, Jenshil made aliya in 1995 and is currently the Israel Programs director at Young Judaea.
“I’ve always been involved in this area, but I never had the academic background to back it up. I heard about this program from other alumni, so I decided it would balance with what I’m doing now,” Jenshil said of his decision to enroll. Every student is awarded a $5,000 scholarship and an all-expenses-paid 10-day trip to Washington DC and New York in June.
The trip is clearly a program highlight for students.
“I’m excited to be going to America in June to see these places that we’ve been learning about. It’ll be incredible,” Jenshil said.
In what Alroey jokingly referred to as a “Reverse Birthright,” students have a chance to see the American Jewish experience firsthand.
“The 10 days are very symbolic because of Birthright. Young adults from all over the world come to learn about Israel. Instead, we send Israelis to learn about America. It’s sort of a reverse Birthright,” Alroey explained.
Specifically, they meet with religious Jewish heads of various denominations, community lay leaders and even see a showing of Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof to ensure a complete American Jewish experience.
Being in the program has also enabled students to learn more about their own religious identity.
Meytal Ozeri, for example, grew up in a small community outside Jerusalem in a strictly Orthodox household.
After spending a few years as a camp counselor in New Jersey and then an emissary in Chicago, Ozeri learned that being a devout Jew can take on many different forms.
“It was the first time I saw what it meant to be a Zionist, be connected to Israel, but not be Orthodox. I saw what that meant to live in America and how it worked. That was fascinating,” she said. “It really helps you see the bigger picture.”
“I started to go back and forth and develop my own Jewish identity, which became influenced by the American Jewish identity,” she said, explaining that embracing pluralism allowed her to be much more open-minded.
For Jenshil, the program offers more concrete results in his professional life.
“Through this course, I’m able to gain a base knowledge about where the American Jewish community came from and where it’s going. The whole point of this course is to educate people over here and their interactions with Americans so they can better work together,” he said.
With tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and president Barack Obama dominating headlines for the past eight years and alarming antisemitism sweeping the country currently, it’s not always easy to strike a measured academic tone when discussing the Unbreakable Bond.
This, however, is what Alroey hopes every class aspires to – no matter how contentious the topic may be.
“We don’t take a position. We try to do it academically and give them an academic balance,” Alroey explained.
For example, if they were to learn about the history of antisemitism in America, they would begin by learning of Leo Frank (who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1913 and lynched in one of the most notorious cases of antisemitism in the country to date) to the current state of Jew hatred in the United States today.
In addition to educating its students, the program hopes to foster research on American Jewry to “create a knowledge base for decision makers, opinion leaders, policy makers, professionals and for all those who take part in public discourse in Israel,” Alroey wrote in a preface to a Ruderman Program position paper by Alon Pinkas, former consul general in New York.
Pinkas’s paper, titled “Israel – a Unifying or a Divisive Issue among American Jews?” is one of the three research papers the program puts out a year. The research aspect of the program is a robust one, which includes seminars, exhibitions and an annual conference.
“As a research university, we believe we should provide information to the public about American Jewry,” Alroey asserted.
In honor of American Jewish Heritage month, one of its exhibitions, which took place last May at the Knesset, showcased American Jewry’s contribution to establishing the State of Israel.
Once a year the program also translates a book on American Jewry from English to Hebrew, as the books available in Hebrew on that subject matter are slim.
Alroey admits, though, that the program is not without its shortcomings. Much to his chagrin, although the program spans virtually every demographic of Israeli society, there are two groups that are conspicuously absent – the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs.
For the ultra-Orthodox, he said, the reason behind their lack of participation is pretty obvious, since many don’t hold bachelor’s degrees, much less master’s degrees, but for the Israeli Arabs, Alroey speculates that most simply don’t have an interest in Jewish peoplehood.
On the whole, though, Alroey is pleased with what the program has been able to accomplish in its short history and works tirelessly to build “an optimal program for each year,” he said.