Jay Ruderman has observed for years that when American Jewish leaders visit Israel or when Israeli leaders visit the United States, the conversation is “always about Israel” and how the Jewish state relates to Iran, Syria and the Palestinians, among others.
What’s happening in the American Jewish community and how those events impact future support for Israel never seem to enter the conversation, according to Ruderman, who worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in both New England and Jerusalem and is now president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
The Ruderman Foundation, which prioritizes Israel-diaspora relations, has already tackled this issue by sponsoring U.S. trips for two delegations of Israeli members of Knesset and by launching a caucus designed to improve Knes-set members’ understanding of the American Jewish community. Now, the foundation is further addressing knowledge gaps in the next generation of Israeli leaders through its funding of the new Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa. This will be the first of its kind program in Israel.
“Israeli universities have all sorts of programs studying Asia, Africa and the Arab world, but no one is studying the American Jewish community, which is probably the most important community affecting the future of Israel,” Ruderman said. “The idea is that over the course of time you have a cadre of Israelis who’ve gotten a master’s in the American Jewish community and that they will help Israel shape this relationship.”
Headquartered in Israel and Boston — which has a sister-city partnership with Haifa — the Ruderman Foundation made an initial $1 million contribution to the new program, an amount that was matched by the University of Haifa. Starting this fall, a class of 21 graduate students will embark on the one-year, seven-course program, which will survey Jewish American immigration history, modern foreign policy and governmental structures, as well as gender issues and the religious makeup of U.S. Jewish communities.
“The key to understanding American Jewry is first to understand American society,” Gur Alroey, chair of the School of History at the University of Haifa and director of the new program, said.
A highlight of the curriculum will be a 10-day trip to the United States. Students will attend lectures, tour Ellis Island and explore the Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan. The group also will visit Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, which houses a comprehensive exhibit detailing Jewish immigration to America from Colonial times through the present.
“The trip will be the equivalent of Birthright for Israelis, only the experience will be academic rather than primarily cultural,” Alroey said.
Ronit Tirosh, a former Knesset member for the Kadima party and the first chair of the Ruderman Foundation’s Knesset caucus on relations between Israel and the American Jewish community, introduced Alroey to Jay Ruderman, ultimately leading to the new program’s formation.
Alroey spent two years guest lecturing in the U.S. at both New York University and Rutgers University. Hasia Diner — a scholar in American Jewish history at NYU who next summer in New York will teach 10-day course on the American Jewish past and present for students of the new Ruderman program — said she has been “very impressed” with Alroey’s scholarship over the years.
“I consider his move to create this program a brilliant academic intervention and look forward to working with him,” Diner said.
During his stay in the U.S., Alroey became increasingly aware of the att-itudes commonly shown by Israelis toward their most important ally.
“The reality is that our treatment of the Jewish American community in Israel has been superficial at best,” Alroey said. “How can it be that numerous programs exist at Israeli universities for Asian, African and European studies, yet there is not a single program dedicated to the study of the American Jewish Community?”
Ruderman, who has lived in Israel since 2005, said that while American Jews “probably look at themselves as both American and Jewish,” Israelis may look at them and say, “Well, their real identity is Jewish, and they should be living in Israel, but because it’s more comfortable, or for whatever reason, they’re in America.” But that is “not a correct and honest way” to look at American Jews, Ruderman said.
From Alroey’s perspective, this problem stems from Israel’s founding as a Jewish state and as the declared gathering place for diaspora Jews.
“Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Israeli society was very nationalist and ideologically driven,” Alroey said. “Therefore, it was problematic to say that Jews had two good immigration options, the United States and Israel.”
Such ideological complexities prevented the development of academic programs and curricula in Israel that address the American Jewish experience. Beyond requiring Israeli students to learn English, there is no infrastructure in place to teach American studies and to encourage its presentation in grade school and study at the university level. There is also a lack of related source materials available in Hebrew.
Consequently, Israeli students and citizens are susceptible to adopting negative stereotypes about Americans. At the same time, some Israelis may take for granted the generous financial contributions American Jews make regularly to Israel, foreign aid that is crucial to ensure Israel’s security and survival in a hostile neighborhood.
“In general, Israelis and Israeli scholars know little about American Jewry,” Diner said. “Historically, they have expected the Jews of the United States to provide money and political support, particularly vis-a-vis the U.S. government, but they have no idea as to how Jews in the United States have gone about the process of both integrating into American life and building their own communities. They do not understand the ways in which living in this particular multireligious, multiethnic society [of America] has shaped Jewish options and expectations and how those have changed over time.”
Amos Shapira, president of the University of Haifa, said he sees the university “first and foremost as a center for research and advanced instruction in critical fields and also as a tool for strengthening the Jewish state.”
“One of the primary strategic iss-ues in Israel is the connection with the United States, and throughout the past three decades I believe this bond has weakened,” Shapira said. “The program initiated by professor Alroey will create a new generation of educated and engaged citizens who share a deeper understanding of the American relationship.”
There is high demand for the pioneering Ruderman program. When the university posted an advertisement soliciting applications for the inaugural class, the school was inundated with nearly 100 responses in less than three weeks. Interviews were soon held to select a diverse group of students consisting of high school teachers, businessmen and women and former emissaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Taglit-Birthright program.
“The program is ideal for students who have already had significant encounters with Americans but who now desire an academic perspective,” Alroey said. “Excellent English is a must.”
A cornerstone of the program will be the initiative to conduct new res-earch on Jewish-American topics. Each year students will assist in translating one important American text into Hebrew. Additionally, guest professors from the United States and officials involved with political, social and religious aspects of Israeli-American relations will be invited to share their perspectives.
Course offerings will include: American Jews and the American Pol-itical System; American Jews: From Melting Pot to Minority Group; The American Zionist Leadership: Jewish Culture in America; American Jewry and the Jewish World; Immigrants, Revolutionaries, Intellectuals; American Jewry Between Culture and Politics; and New York-Tel Aviv: A Comparative Study of East European Immigrant Societies.
The immediate goals of the program are exploratory, but long-term expectations of graduates are high.
“Today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers, activists and Knesset members,” Shapira said. “We hope students will use what they learn to prompt a larger dialogue among Israelis and to inspire improved U.S.-Israel relations.”
“The Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies will be one of a kind and an important development in Israeli academia,” said Alroey. “We expect other Israeli universities to dev-elop similar programs soon, helping to build the informed infrastructure we need and desire.”
Ruderman, meanwhile, looks forward to an improved discourse among Israelis regarding the American Jewish community.
Before, Ruderman was accustomed to hearing American Jewish leaders “whisper to me or to themselves on the side that ‘hey, I just talked to the [Israeli] foreign ministry, and they don’t understand what’s going on with us,’ or ‘I went to the Knesset and they didn’t know the difference between AIPAC and ADL (Anti-Defamation League).’”
As a result of the program, however, Ruderman hopes American Jewish leaders will witness a change in Israeli attitudes instead be able to say, “Hey, Israel has woken up, they get it. They’re people who really get this issue [of the American Jewish community].”
Ruderman said the initial $2 million combined investment from the foundation and the university is expected to sustain the program for five years.
“Scholarship is an investment in the future,” he said. “You never know, when you support scholarship, where someone is going to end up.”