Across the Jewish community in Philadelphia, events and programs this year are celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday.
This includes Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, where 2018 also coincides with the 35th anniversary of the school’s Israel study abroad program.
For these reasons, Barrack’s gala this year, held at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue on March 14, has a special emphasis on the school’s relationship with Israel. Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, will be the event’s keynote speaker. The recipients of the annual Legacy & Leadership Award, Michele and Robert Levin, have also supported the school’s Israel study abroad program.
“For half of Israel’s life as a state, of course as a modern state, we have been sending our students to study in their junior year,” Head of School Sharon Levin said. “As a parent of students who went, who had that experience, and as a teacher and now head of school here for the last 32 years, it is an extraordinary experience for our students.”
She said the goal of this particular gala is simply to celebrate Israel and not to make a political statement. That was part of the reason they chose Gold as speaker; he represents someone who can speak in a sophisticated way about Israel but who is not ideological.
Gold said he plans to talk about “the revolution in Israel’s foreign policy.”
This revolution, he said, is to combat the perception of Israel as an isolationist nation and increase its involvement with the rest of the world, in the Far East with Japan, China and India; in Latin America where political leaders have previously held anti-Israel sentiments; in the Middle East with some Sunni Arab countries; and especially in Africa through the promotion of Israel’s role as a start-up nation.
During his time as director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, he created diplomatic ties with countries across the Sahara Desert, where relations with Israel hadn’t progressed or had been cut.
“Nowadays, the first thing we’re really interested in is seeing how we can be of help to the African continent,” Gold said. “Israel is a leader, now a world leader, in water technology, in agricultural breakthroughs, and we’re not interested in leaving those capabilities just in Israel, but we’re going to have to share them with the world. We call that, in the Jewish religion, tikkun olam.”
Throughout his career, he has had an interest in explaining Israel’s historical rights to the international community, something that Israel has not always done. This has caused other countries to believe misconceptions about Israel, such as that the Jewish population of Israel came over with the British Empire. He combats this by explaining that Jews restored a majority in Jerusalem in 1863.
“Today, diplomacy is not just writing cables,” Gold said. “It’s about being able to articulate your country’s position in lectures, speeches and on television.”
In general, opinion polls continue to show that Americans have a positive view of Israel. But Gold said it is important to continue connecting to the American Jewish community, which has become divided over the issue of Israel in recent years.
“Israel must never become a partisan issue in U.S. politics,” Gold said. “We must have strong ties with both Republicans and Democrats, and that is something I sought to advance when I served in government, and it’s something I will continue to work on now that I head a research institute.”
Gold said getting information out, and making sure to do this through contemporary channels such as social media and in multiple languages, is essential.
This is true on the topic of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, Gold said.
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published studies showing the financial ties between BDS, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. On college campuses, Gold said, BDS has delegitimized Israel and painted Israel as an apartheid country.
This ties into Barrack’s Israel programming, Levin said, because at Barrack, juniors and seniors learn about the dialogue they will encounter on BDS when they go to college.
Barrack’s signature Israel program, though, occurs in the students’ junior year. Barrack sends its 11th-graders to Israel during the school year’s first trimester. For the past 20 years, the students have attended the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, located in Hod HaSharon just outside of Tel Aviv. There, students take most of their regular classes, live in a dorm and have the opportunity to explore the town independently.
Eighth-graders go on a 12-day trip to Israel as well, touring Masada, the Dead Sea and a kibbutz, among other places, and they have the opportunity to meet both Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs. Levin said that, for many of these eighth-graders, this is their first time in Israel.
“It’s kind of a taste for what they’ll get when they’re on Muss because, for our students, this is a sixth through 12th experience,” she said. “It’s not a graduation trip. It’s not an end. It’s a beginning of what comes in upper school, high school.”
Israel education permeates every year of the school. Barrack has a strong Israel club, through which students observe Israeli holidays like Yom HaZikaron and Yom Yerushalayim. Barrack also brings in speakers to talk about the Jewish state, including alumni who have served in the Israel Defense Forces and from across the spectrum of Jewish thought on Israel and Zionism.
Michele and Robert Levin have three children who have all gone to Israel through Barrack.
The two are major donors to the school and have specifically supported students attending the Muss program through scholarships.
“We are humbled by the opportunity to be recognized by our community and by our peers as leaders,” Robert Levin said.
Barrack chose to honor the Levins this year because of their support for the state of Israel, not only through the school, but also through their work in the community. The two, for example, chair the Philadelphia Chapter of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University.
Michele Levin said the Muss experience was life-changing for her children.
“We, as Diaspora Jews, need Israel, and Israel needs us,” Michele Levin said. “Introducing our kids to Israel in the way that we do through Barrack’s education, they come out with an understanding and appreciation of its importance.”