Is There a 'Paradigm Shift' in Diaspora’s Relationship With Israel?

If relationship between U.S. and Israel Jews 'was once more like a big brother-little brother sort of thing,' Alisa Doctoroff says, 'today it's more like a conversation between two adults.'

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

One of the big themes at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America this week - popping up over and again on panels about Jewish identity and raising its head at round tables on Israel’s future - is, of course, the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel.

By bringing the GA to Jerusalem, as is done every five years, an opportunity is created, explains Alisa Doctoroff, the new president of UJA-Federation of New York, “…to get together and discuss what our roles are and how to understand each other better, and know each other’s concerns and needs. Being in the same room gets people thinking in different ways about the relationship."

What Doctoroff, in particular, thinks about the relationship is of great interest to many here .

For, from among the over 3000 participants from 93 different communities wandering the halls of Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, checking out the exhibitors and filing in and out of sessions, networking meals and plenaries - the red headed 55 year old mother of three, with a B.A. from Harvard, an M.A. from the Jewish Theological Seminary and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago is something of a leader of the pack.

Doctoroff, who started out as a volunteer with UJA-Federation N.Y. over 20 years ago, and rose up to become chair of the board, was appointed president of the body in July. She presides today over the largest, most significant and wealthiest Federation in the United States, which in recent years has been raising close to $200 million a year, and spending some 21 percent of their budget in Israel.

The largest local philanthropy in the world, UJA-Federation N.Y. pools resources from almost 60,000 donors and works with nearly 100 network beneficiary agencies, synagogues, and other Jewish organizations - touching the lives of an estimated 4.5 million people, in the United States, Israel and more than 60 other countries around the world, each year.

At their 2014 annual campaign kick-off event last month, held at the home of Merryl and James Tisch in Manhattan, and headlined by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the UJA-Federation N.Y. raised a record-breaking $46 million. Among the big donors to the campaign is Doctoroff herself, who is a major philanthropist, giving away millions of her own dollars, together with husband Daniel Doctoroff, chief executive of the financial data and media company Bloomberg L.P., to causes both Jewish and non-Jewish.

All together, the JFNA, which represents 153 Federations and over 300 smaller communities without Federations across the United States, has collectively raised and distributed more than $3 billion annually over the past 15 years, sending over $4.5 billion of that money to Israel.

The New York chapter and its sister Federations will always continue to support Israel, Doctoroff says - through political changes of helm in Israel, recessions in the United States and whatever else might come - but the question increasingly, is how to support the country best.

The bottom line, says Doctoroff, sitting down for a quick interview between sessions in Jerusalem, is that Israel has grown up, and with this, naturally, has come a maturing of the relationship - with all that entails. “If the relationship was once more like a big brother-little brother sort of thing,” she says, “…today it's more like a conversation between two adults.”

“We all care about this country. We are invested in this country, and Israel is important for us as Jews. Without Israel we don’t thrive,” says Doctoroff, who grew up closely connected to Israel, seeing it as an integral part of her Jewish identity. Her grandfather was born here in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Sheariim neighborhood, and she has cousins – a mix of secular and Orthodox, right-wing and left - spread out across Israel today. She grew up going to Jewish day school, attending Jewish summer camp, and coming to Israel often with her family. After graduating from college, Doctoroff came back for a whole year’s study program in Jerusalem.

But the Israel she knew growing up is not the Israel she finds today on her visits here today, "in a good way," she notes with a smile. “Israel today is a thriving democracy with resources, a strong government and its own philanthropic community. It’s wealthy and capable. And the question now for us, is, what next for North American Jewish involvement? There is a paradigm shift and we are all discussing it."

The days when David Ben Gurion could land at JFK airport and announce he needed money for airplanes to fight a war, are long over. So, too, for the most part, are the days of mass Aliya, in which Diaspora help was needed to transport Jews from across the globe to the Jewish homeland and help them settle in. Projects today, instead, are increasingly focused on civil society: Supporting the likes of religious pluralism, feminism, and the integration of weaker segments of society into the mainstream.

"In the earlier days, we were interested in strengthening the shell of Israel - now we are working on the inside,” says Doctoroff. “We want Israel to be the strongest it can be from the inside, both for its own citizens and for the Jewish people."

One thing Doctoroff noted, and liked, at this year’s GA, she says, is how, in the opening plenary, one of the co-chairs, Susie Gelman, got up to speak – and did so in Hebrew. “I don’t think such a thing has happened before. It was always Americans coming in and speaking in their language. Gelman speaking in Hebrew was symbolic,” says Doctoroff. “We are making the effort to understand and literally, speak, the same language, be on the same page,” says Doctoroff. “We are saying, let’s work together to see where this will go.”

From left to right, Alisa Doctoroff, Natan Sharansky, and John S. Ruskay at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz