The Frustration of Loving Israel

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: This German-Swedish couple has a complicated relationship with Israel ■ An American travels to Israel to help Jewish individuals and groups donate money

Rafael Heimanmand and Linda Sjöhagen.
Tomer Appelbaum

Rafael Heimann, 24, from Berlin; and Linda Sjöhagen, 24, from Stockholm; flying to Berlin

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

Linda: We met a year ago on a student exchange program at Tel Aviv University. We’re back because we missed Israel and we wanted to visit friends and family. Besides that, the weather was around minus 13 degrees [Celsius] when I left Stockholm.

Brrrr.

Rafael: We both just finished our exam period, and also got here for Purim.

What are you studying?

Rafael: We’re both law students. That’s where we met in Israel, at the law faculty.

You came to study law specially in Israel?

Linda: My mother is originally Israeli and my father is Swedish. My whole family on my mother’s side lives in Israel. Mom is envious of me for being here.

Rafael: I also have a family background here. My father was born in Israel, but my grandparents went back to Germany when he was still a little boy.

Do you know why?

Rafael: I don’t know exactly why, but one reason is that they were real Yekkes [a nickname for Jews from German-speaking countries] and their behavior was so German that they had a hard time acclimatizing here.

And what were you looking for here?

Rafael: I have a connection to this place and I wanted to check out what’s happening here. The first time I visited Israel was in 2012. I was in a kind of preparatory program for the army.

Was it fun?

Rafael: It was very nice. We were 40 Israelis and another nine foreigners, and I saw the country from a great many perspectives. I worked with refugees, and we also learned Hebrew texts through BINA [Jewish Movement for Social Change. Almost everyone who was with me enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces.

An effective program; some would call it brainwashing.

Rafael: It was a very intense year. I fell in love with this place, and since then I’ve been coming and going all the time. It’s very enjoyable being here, but frustrating.

In what way?

Rafael: I have an inner struggle, political and moral, about what’s happening here. I love to be here, I love the mentality and the way people are open with one another – but I’m frustrated because the reality here is harsh and because my values contradict the positions of Israeli politics.

Would you want to live here?

Rafael: That’s an open question. It’s a struggle for me: the joy of being here in the face of political attitudes.

What bothers you?

Rafael: For example, the way Israel is behaving toward the refugees.

You could be here and do something.

Rafael: You can see that there is a motivation for action, but it’s not always easy.

Linda: He has to stay in Berlin for another two years at least, to complete his degree. After that we want to live in Israel, at least for a time, even though I also have an inner struggle, though for other reasons.

What are your reasons?

Linda: Everything is easier in Sweden, there’s a social network laid out under you, and someone will always pull you to your feet if things don’t work out. Things are a lot harder in Israel economically. But in Israel I feel a lot more alive. There’s a different atmosphere. In Sweden it’s impossible to talk to someone you don’t know.

Rafael: They’ll look at you oddly in Berlin, too; it would be really unusual.

Linda: People can be very warm here. Even when I first got to the student exchange program and didn’t know anyone, I felt a lot less alone than in Sweden.

Israelis never shut their mouths. Did you at least learn a little Hebrew?

Linda: We speak English between us, but when we don’t want people to understand us, we speak Hebrew.

Rafael: It’s our secret language, certainly in Stockholm. In Berlin, sometimes, here and there someone might understand, but in Israel we couldn’t use our secret language at all. It was really strange.

Sarai Brachman Shoup.
Tomer Appelbaum

Sarai Brachman Shoup, 52, from Ann Arbor, Michigan; arriving from Toronto

Hello, can I ask you what you’ll be doing in Israel?

I’ve come to work. The reason for my trip to Israel is something called Jewish Funders Network, which is an international consultancy organization for people and organizations that want to make donations. Every year the group has a conference, usually in the United States, but once every four years it’s held in Israel. That’s what’s happening this year.

What does the “Jewish” part mean? Jewish donors? Jewish causes?

The donors are Jews – from small donors who give $50,000 a year, to organizations that give $5 million a year. JFN is not a political body in its essence, and the donors don’t necessarily fund things in the Jewish world or in Israel, though for the most part they take a great interest in what happens here.

What is your role in the conference?

I have a business that helps donors, creates strategy for them. I have three clients who are involved in this conference, and the project I’ve been working on for the past five years suddenly looks very hot. It’s wonderful. The project is called “City at the Center,” and the idea is to work at the level of the city and city hall to create opportunities for social mobility.

How do you do that?

It’s a long process. First of all, our assumption in the project is that it’s possible to try to solve a complex social problem only if all the interested parties who are connected with the problem are involved and meet together regularly over time. In other words, to set up a group with representatives from the municipal government, organizational donors, local businesses, the state government and residents. That group, the steering committee, meets once a month, hears results of studies that have been conducted and, based on the information, decides on the order of priorities in the city.

Isn’t that how things work anyway? Aren’t there already committees like that?

The truth is that there aren’t, it’s exceptional. The city is generally something that’s very isolated. We tried a project like that over the past two years on a practical basis in Kiryat Malakhi and Ashkelon. The results were extremely interesting. Now the project is about to be expanded to five more cities, one of which will be Arab Israeli.

What’s the order of priorities that was chosen for Kiryat Malakhi, say?

In Kiryat Malakhi, the committee set as its top priority ensuring that the poorest residents will in time gain access to another, better life.

What was your activity, on the practical level?

For example, studies were conducted that examined how many of the town’s young people belong to youth movements. It turned out to be a relatively small proportion, so ways were examined to increase the number. Many resources went into that effort.

Doesn’t sound very dramatic. Are youth movements all that important?

Our study showed that there’s a connection between youth movements and meaningful army service – which can later lead to a good career. But youth movements are only part of the story, and the municipality worked at all kinds of levels to advance youth.

Again, isn’t that something the local government should be doing anyway?

Political figures are skeptical about our project, but when they finally grasp that they are the ones who will get credit for the success, which will help them get reelected – they start to move on the budget, and that drives the project.

How did you get into this field?

I studied Russian literature and history in [the former] Czechoslovakia, and a year after I finished, the wall fell. I got a job at a Czech philanthropic organization. Twenty years ago, I decided to work in organizations in the Jewish world, and since then Jewish causes and philanthropic groups around the world have simply flourished.

Why do people donate money?

People have all kinds of motivations for donating, but most of them will tell you that they want to do something meaningful, which gives them satisfaction.

Do you like your work?

It’s a field that combines academic and strategic thought with people and human relations, so it’s nice.