Israel Trip Divides Jewish Service Group

Avodah Protest Launched Over Perceived Shift in Priorities

Stay to Serve: Avodah members visit downtown Chicago. The group is a domestic service group, and a new planned service trip to Israel has proven divisive.
courtesy of avodah
Stay to Serve: Avodah members visit downtown Chicago. The group is a domestic service group, and a new planned service trip to Israel has proven divisive.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 13, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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“I think people are upset that this decision was made without any community consultation,” said Lev Hirschhorn, a current participant in Avodah’s Chicago program and one of the drafters of the petition. “To me this is the equivalent of if Avodah was going to look at the issue of poverty in Chicago… and not go to the South Side.”

Avodah Executive Director Marilyn Sneiderman rejected the claim that the trip amounted to a challenge to the organization’s pluralism. “Everyone has a place within Avodah,” she said. Sneiderman added: “This is not an Avodah trip, and it’s not an Avodah grant. The bottom line is, this is a grant for Pursue.”

Additional controversy has focused on the nature of the grant subsidizing the trip. The money is coming from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Hirschhorn said that an Avodah official told members of the Chicago program that the trip was arranged under pressure from the Schusterman Foundation.

In an interview, Messinger said that the trip was the Schusterman Foundation’s idea. “They suggested it, and we agreed to do it,” Messinger said. The agreement came as part of the Schusterman Foundation’s larger general support for Pursue.

“Two of our most important values and priorities at the foundation are to give young people a deeper connection to the Jewish value of service and a deeper firsthand understanding of Israel,” said Lisa Eisen, the Schusterman Foundation’s national director. “Their boards signed off on the grant agreements, and from what we understand, there has been a lot of interest and enthusiasm about the trip.”

Asked whether the foundation would object if Pursue’s trip visited the West Bank or spent significant time talking about the Occupation, Eisen wrote in an email, “We have complete faith in our partners to design an engaging, enriching curriculum for the participants to explore Israel through the lens of service and social action.”

Deheeger said that he had been in discussions with Avodah leadership since August about his concerns over the trip. Deheeger, who joined Avodah’s staff in August 2010, has been the main point of contact for the 14 Avodah participants living together in a house in Chicago and working at local social service organizations. Avodah, whose name means “service” in Hebrew, organizes social service volunteers who live communally in houses in several cities across the country. It includes a traditional Jewish text study component along with its service projects. Deheeger was responsible for orchestrating the text study program for the Chicago participants.

Deheeger, who identified himself as a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, said that he became more involved in the debate over Israel and the Palestinians after November 2010, when activists with Jewish Voice for Peace disrupted a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at JFNA’s General Assembly, in New Orleans. “They made me realize that I believe this is the No. 1 social justice issue facing the American Jewish community,” Deheeger said of the JVP activists.

On October 26, Deheeger gave two months’ notice of his intention to leave Avodah.

Hirschhorn said that members of the Chicago group were generally understanding of Deheeger’s decision. “Even people who disagree with Michael politically see what he’s doing; he’s acting on his values, and they say that’s a really admirable thing,” Hirschhorn said.

But the backlash against the planned trip has sparked heated debate among Avodah participants and alumni. In an e-mail exchange on an Avodah listserv provided by Sneiderman to the Forward, an alumna named Leila Bilick leveled harsh criticism against the petition opposing the trip.

“I… feel that pluralism is being misunderstood,” Bilick wrote. “You do not need to feel comfortable at all times in order to feel you are part of a pluralistic community.”

Others cite guidelines around debate over Israel such as those recently adopted by the Jewish campus organization Hillel that they feel serve to exclude them from the Jewish community. “Avodah, AJWS, in the United States, are some of the last places in the mainstream Jewish community where Jews across the political spectrum can feel welcome and included,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, an Avodah alum and staff member at JVP.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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