Philadelphia’s connection to Israel reaches far beyond Benjamin Netanyahu’s short-lived stint as a member of Cheltenham High School’s soccer team or his family’s attendance of Temple Judea of Philadelphia.
Jewish and Israeli organizations alike in Philadelphia have built longstanding connections with Israel, and as Israel faces a change in government and its first new prime minister in 12 years, these organizations, some more than others, must reckon with the potential for change.
For the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Naftali Bennett’s term as prime minister presents an opportunity to affirm its mission of not only creating a vibrant Jewish community in the area, but connecting the community to Israel.
“We have extended our congratulations to Bennett and President [Isaac] Herzog,” said Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s CEO and President Michael Balaban. “And have made clear we will continue to do our part to garner support and build new relationships with Israel here in Greater Philadelphia.”
The Jewish Federation has long “maintained strong ties with Israel since its founding,” offering workshops on Israeli art and popular culture and grants to local organizations looking to build ties with Israel, as well as visits to Netivot and the Sdot Negev region of Israel, which have been in partnership with the Jewish Federation for more than 24 years.
In May, the Jewish Federation’s leadership team hosted Herzog, then Jewish Agency for Israel’s chairman of the executive, over Zoom. Herzog is now Israel’s president-elect, and Balaban is confident in his ability to “strengthen diasporic relations,” given the [Jewish] Federation’s strong relationship with
Because of the longevity of the Jewish Federation’s ties with these Israeli communities and leaders, a change in the prime minister’s incumbency, or any change in government office, is unlikely to make these relationships waver.
“Our communities’ deep love and support for Israel has never been dependent on which political leaders are in office, and we don’t expect that to change now or in the future,” Balaban said.
Though the Jewish Federation enjoys the benefits of its steadfast connection to Israel, for other Philadelphia organizations, the stakes are higher.
The Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, which serves as the liaison between Philadelphia and Israeli companies, innovators and organizations, is hoping that Bennett’s tech-savvy background will propel Israel’s tech sector forward, granting new opportunities for PICC to grow.
“This is fantastic to have a prime minister who understands the innovation sector in Israel, the competitiveness, the need to invest in education to sustain Israel’s leadership and innovation,” said Vered Nohi, executive director of PICC.
Bennett, who was inaugurated as Israel’s prime minister on June 13, was a software entrepreneur after serving in the Israel Defense Forces, becoming the CEO of anti-fraud software company Cyota in 1999 and the eventual CEO of tech company Soluto.
Running businesses in New York in the late-1990s and early 2000s, Bennett is adept in English, making him even friendlier to U.S.-based companies, according to Nohi.
Like Balaban, Nohi is not concerned that the government transition will negatively impact day-to-day activities
“The institutes are solid,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter that Israel went through so many elections in the past three years.”
However, Nohi is wondering if Bennett will prioritize the competitiveness of Israel’s tech sector through the increase of Israel’s education budget.
“Israel is in a position now where if it will not support the tech sector with a continued educated workforce, it will not be able to sustain its position as a leader in the world in tech,” Nohi said.
Large multinational companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, look to hire Israeli workers. If skilled workers are not available, Israel misses opportunities to expand its grasp in the world of innovation.
Nohi also hopes that Bennett’s allyship with U.S. organizations will mean a resuscitation of the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia, which closed five years ago. In addition to providing consular services to diplomatic agents and visitors in the Philadelphia area, the Israeli Consulate acted “to broaden [companies’] understanding of what Israel has to offer, in a personal manner, in an accessible manner, because still, there are many people who have really never seen Jews in their lives,” Nohi said.
With fewer consulates responsible for larger swaths of geography in the Mid-Atlantic, Northern and Midwestern regions of the U.S., they are spread too thin to really build meaningful relationships with those interested in Israeli business and diplomacy.
These changes are massive and require sustained effort, but Nohi is optimistic that Bennett’s background will mean good things for PICC.
“So far, so good,” Nohi said. “We’re getting a lot of collaborations, but there’s always an opportunity for more.”
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