Reform Youth Leaders Debrief AIPAC Conference

By Debbie Rabinovich, Andrew Keene, and Jeremy Cronig

American Jews are extremely passionate about Israel. Regardless of sect, political affiliation, or region of the country, 16,000 people came to Washington, D.C., for the AIPAC Policy Conference for the sole purpose of advocating for Israel. The enormity of this event was a physical representation of the care that American Jews have for our homeland. This was remarkable, and it was also clear that Israel unites people outside the Jewish community as well. AIPAC draws on a diverse audience, from college students to retirees, people of the Jewish, Christian, and African American communities, as well as policymakers, law enforcement officials, and community leaders, all of whom gather to support Israel uniquely. This blend of voices elevates the fact that Israel means something different to every person: for some it is an ancestral homeland and for others it is a place of budding innovation and entrepreneurship.

Among this incredible amalgam of people were three people who have the great honor of representing the youth of our movement. The immediate past, current, and incoming NFTY Presidents all attended the Policy Conference. For two of us, it was the first time at a Policy Conference, and for all of us, it was the first time that there was a solid contingency of NFTY leadership. We were able to view everything at the conference―from workshops to speakers—through a Reform lens. We had the opportunity to debrief together and envision the future of Israel engagement in NFTY. Currently, NFTY has stellar Israel programming that takes teens to Israel to explore the Jewish homeland. As teens continue to look for more niche experiences, we will have to expand our understanding of Israel engagement. How can we meet teens where they are and help them build a deep understanding of Israel before they even get there? This question is far from answered, but we were able to begin thinking of possibilities at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

Andrew: I was sitting in the Israeli technology and innovation plenary session when I was introduced to a UCLA student who is originally from Panama. We started to talk about being college students at AIPAC and our mutual friends at each other’s schools. As a motorcycle-style ambulance pulled onto the stage, she said, “We have that in Panama!” I figured they had something similar. Absolutely captivated by the founder of “United Hatzala,” an Israeli company that trains laypeople to be first responders to triage emergency situations while waiting for an ambulance, I realized how critical this service could be in countries with rural populations and even in big cities with dense traffic. Near the end of the presentation, the founder said that the company is being scaled to countries, including Argentina, the United States, and Panama! My new friend was right, a revolutionary Israeli innovation had made its way 7,500 miles away to Latin America. That moment both clarified Israel’s importance in solving global challenges by fostering innovation, and demonstrating that Israel connects the Jewish people in more ways than one.

Debbie: I generally think that the government is pretty wishy-washy in their statements. While I understand why this is the case, political-correctness tends to trouble me. It makes politics opaque and difficult for the average person to navigate. At the Policy Conference, we heard UN Ambassador Samantha Power stand up for Israel, much the way she frequently does in the United Nations. Her speech―the opposite of wishy-washy—was crisp and meaningful. She clearly stated her view that the U.S.-Israel partnership “transcends politics and it always will.” From my seat, I imagined Ambassador Power speaking with that amount of directness and transparency in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi. What she said spoke to who we are, as supporters of ARZA, as Progressive Jews, and as Reform Zionists. Her words resonated with me and reminded me that those on every end of the political spectrum can unite over the importance of Israel. During her speech I was proud to be both a supporter of Israel, and an American supporter of Israel.

Jeremy: A moment that struck me was lobbying at the office of my congresswoman, Marcia Fudge. I expected our meeting to be tense, due to the fact that she had decided earlier that day to not attend Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Instead, our meeting was polite and lighthearted. As I watched the speech from Representative Fudge’s office, I realized that support for Israel is an issue that extends far beyond American party lines, regardless of how it can be portrayed in the media.

One of the most fascinating things about the AIPAC Policy Conference is that we all had the chance to hear opinions vastly different from our own. We were challenged to discuss our opinions with others and often heard remarks that were the complete opposite of our beliefs. It became clear that we often get entrenched in focusing our support of Israel on policy and laws, and while that is critically important, we must celebrate Israel’s rich culture, cutting-edge technology, and most simply, the vibrancy of the Jewish peoplehood. The AIPAC Policy Conference was a place where that was possible, and we look forward to continuing the conversation about how to deepen and widen Israel engagement across the Reform movement.

Want to see what we saw? Check out the AIPAC conference videos and more.

Debbie Rabinovich is the current NFTY president. Andrew Keene is the immediate past president of NFTY, and Jeremy Cronig is the current president of NFTY-NEL (Northeast Lakes) and is the incoming NFTY  President.

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