The American co-chairs of GA 2013 are Susie Gelman, a past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, who has served for years on the JFNA Board of Directors, and Michael Gelman, immediate past chair of the Executive Committee of the Board of JFNA. Married for more than 30 years, the Gelmans met in Young Leadership and got engaged at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar during a Federation mission to Israel.
Both Susie and Michael Gelman are active, longtime members of the Washington, DC Jewish community. The Israeli co-chair of this years GA is Ronny Douek, founder and CEO of Zionism 2000 and co-founder of Sheatufim–The Israel Center for Civil Society. Ronny and Susie previously worked together as co-chairs of UJC (now JFNA) Israel and are delighted to join forces again as leaders of this years GA in Jerusalem.
Susie Gelman first visited Israel in 1970 with her Hebrew school confirmation class and remembers the trip as being the catalyst that started her on her own Jewish journey. She grew up in an assimilated environment, and until that first trip, her connection to Judaism was more cultural than religious. That first trip inspired her to explore her Jewish identity in all its facets, a quest that continues to this day.
Over the years, Susie has been very active in the Jewish community. Because of her own experience with the power of a first trip to Israel, she identified strongly with the mission of Taglit-Birthright Israel and served as the inaugural chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation, where she remains on the board of directors. She also believes strongly in the importance of Hebrew literacy and has devoted much effort to trying to perfect her own Hebrew, including spending three summers at the ulpan at Hebrew University, taking courses in Hebrew literature at George Washington University and participating in an intensive Hebrew summer immersion program at Middlebury College. Susie views Hebrew as the common language of the Jewish people worldwide and as an important vehicle to connect Jews to each other and to their heritage, religion and culture.
During the second intifada, Susie could not sit idly by while Israelis were experiencing such trauma. She began several years of volunteering at the shikum (rehabilitation ward) at Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, where she developed close relationships with the patients and hospital staff.
Susie Gelmans foray into the Federation world began when she joined the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which is also where she and her husband met. She served in many leadership positions at Federation, including campaign chair and president, and also serves on the United Jewish Endowment Fund.
Susie was raised in a family that believed strongly in the importance of philanthropy and communal involvement; her volunteer resum includes service as president of Georgetown Day School, where she was a board member for 12 years, the Board of Managers of Adas Israel Congregation, the Board of Governors of The Hebrew University and many other organizations.
The Gelmans have three adult children, including a son who made aliyah after graduating from college. It was very important for us to instill in our children a sense of Jewish pride and to provide them with an appreciation for the richness of Jewish life, something that I didnt have when I was growing up, Susie recalls. We feel so strongly about the survival, continuity and flourishing of the Jewish people, she adds.
The Gelmans have made many visits to Israel over the years, and Susie Gelman believes that the connection between Diaspora Jews and Israel is vital. We work hard as supporters and partners of a variety of Israeli non-profit organizations in order to help Israel achieve its potential, she says. Particular areas of interest are the Israeli environmental movement, Israeli civil society and encouraging Israeli philanthropy.
Gelman is very excited about the GA and is pleased to have this opportunity to bring North American and European Jews together with their Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem. The GA will help solidify Israel-Diaspora partnerships and help create new ones, as participants seek out commonalities across issues. We can learn a lot from the challenges that all of our communities face, she asserts.
Susie and Michael Gelman also co-chaired the GA that was held in Jerusalem in 2003. It was during the second Intifada, and many Jews were staying away from Israel, she remembers. But that GA produced a framework in which people felt safe to return to Israel during a challenging time. That sense of solidarity was highlighted in a nighttime march when thousands of Diaspora Jews walked from Jerusalems International Convention Center through the Machane Yehuda shuk to Kikar Zion. Hundreds of shopkeepers lined the route, handed out flowers and applauded; they were thrilled to have such an outpouring of support, and it was an unforgettable experience for all who participated.
Gelman notes that the current GA is being held under very different circumstances. This GA is not about a longing to return to Israel, she remarks. We are looking to advance and deepen the dialogue between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.
The Gelmans are thrilled to reprise their roles from ten years ago and have enjoyed working with their Israeli colleagues. The Israeli team is doing a terrific job, she says enthusiastically. Its a joy to work with them and its been a phenomenal experience. Theyve brought so many great ideas to the table, she adds. Ronny Douek is a fantastic co-chair. Hes contributed so much – his knowledge, his experience, his passion, his considerable involvement in promoting civil society and philanthropy; we couldnt have asked for a better partner.
When Michael Gelman was growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, his family was one of just 60 Jewish families in the area. There was only one shul, and it was Orthodox. He wasnt involved in Jewish life. As an adult, he settled in Washington, DC and joined the Federations Young Leadership Division, eventually working his way up to campaign chair and then president of the Federation.
Gelman believes that Federation serves as the wings over the community, as the only entity that can assess the needs of the entire community and allocate funds based on communal priorities. Gelman is immediate past chair of the Executive Committee of the Board of JFNA. He previously served as JFNAs treasurer and as chair of its Budget and Finance Committee and of its Domestic Affairs Pillar.
In addition to his Federation and JFNA positions, Gelman has served on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, having been appointed to that position by President Bill Clinton in 1995. He serves on the boards of a variety of philanthropic and educational organizations, including The Israel Project, where he was the inaugural chair, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Gelman is also on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel and previously served on the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland.
Israel plays a very prominent role in the Gelmans lives. In addition to their son and son-in-law, Susie and Michael have many close friends in the country. They also enjoy hiking and camping out in the Negev. We love the desert – it helps to clear your head, Michael claims with enthusiasm. Michael and Susie Gelman try to spend time in the desert during every visit and will be doing so again, as a way to wind down after a hectic GA.
Michael Gelman sees Israel as a mature democracy and believes that Israelis need to take increasing philanthropic responsibility. Israel needs to change its philanthropic culture. We try to encourage that through our giving, asking that our Israeli counterparts contribute financially to the organizations on whose boards they serve. As Israel continues to grow and prosper as a nation, Israelis increasingly need to invest philanthropically in their own country. The Gelmans interest in Israeli society extends itself to civil liberty issues such as freedom of marriage in Israel.
More and more Israelis are going overseas to get married in order to avoid being married under the auspices of the Israeli Rabbinate. This has serious implications for religious pluralism, for Israeli Jewish identity, for aliyah, and even for hasbara, Michael says. Nonetheless, he continues to have very strong feelings about Israel and believes that it should strive to be a light unto the nations.
Ronny Douek strongly believes that individual initiatives can bring about great change – that individuals can make a difference. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Douek was given the choice between entering politics or active social development. He chose the latter. I wanted as many citizens as possible to start taking responsibility. I wanted to try to help repair society, he confirms. He decided that the only way to do so was to come together; to get businesses of all sizes to work strategically, creating long-term goals and engaging in social projects and philanthropy.
To help execute his plans, Douek founded Zionism 2000, a grassroots movement that develops social responsibility among citizens and businesses in Israel. Zionism 2000 programs engage businesses in community action, promote youth leadership and assist economically distressed cities. In 2006, Zionism 2000, together with the then-UJC (now JFNA), the Rashi Foundation and the Gandyr Foundation, founded Sheatufim–The Israel Center for Civil Society. This organization promotes non-profit organizations in Israel, cultivates effective Israeli philanthropy and forges a culture of dialogue and cooperation between the three sectors in Israel - non-profits, businesses and the government. Douek has served as Sheatufims chairman since its inception.
Approximately seven years ago, I felt that I wasnt making enough of a difference – that non-profits were not organized enough and that the infrastructure was not strong enough, he explains. Sheatufim helps organizations to train their employees to become better social managers.
In 1998, Douek received the presidents citation for volunteerism for his contributions to the community, and in 2004 then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed him chairman of the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, a role he held for three years. He has also served as co-chair of UJC-Israels Advisory Committee and has been a board member of the Rashi Foundation for the past ten years. Even though he was supported by Prime Minister Sharon, Doueks role with the Anti-Drug Authority was frustrating because of the bureaucracy involved. There was a huge problem in bringing ideas to fruition, he laments. This experience made him understand just how much change was needed. In 2006, Douek was honored with an invitation to light a beacon at Israels official Independence Day celebrations in recognition of his work with Israeli youth.
Doueks keen interest in social action and philanthropy is what led him to connect with JFNA. He saw the work that Jewish communities from Cleveland and Detroit were doing in their partner cities in Israel, and meetings with Federation lay leadership provided incredible insight into American philanthropy. In 2001, he brought Israeli business people with him to the GA that was held in Washington, DC. He also participated in the GA that took place in Jerusalem five years ago.
Douek notes that working with Susie and Michael Gelman on the current, state-of-the-art GA has been a wonderful experience, and believes that its a great opportunity for Israelis and North Americans to discuss where things should be five years from now. One of the topics to be addressed is how Israelis can help with issues being faced by the North American Jewish community. As much as we want to learn from the North Americans, we also want to contribute. We want to reciprocate with regard to the amazing commitment and loyalty that we receive, declares Ronny Douek earnestly.