Avodah Shifts Focus of Israel Trip

Bending to Protests, Service Groups Include Occupation

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 23, 2012, issue of March 02, 2012.
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Bending to protests, two Jewish anti-poverty groups will include a visit to the West Bank and meetings with anti-occupation activists to an upcoming service trip to Israel.

Marilyn Sneiderman
courtesy of avodah
Marilyn Sneiderman

Avodah and American Jewish World Service reworked plans for the controversial trip after coming under fire from participants and from program alumni, all of whom vigorously opposed what they called a lack of engagement with the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“There was a lot of debate and discussion, and I think that’s healthy and good,” said Avodah’s executive director, Marilyn Sneiderman. “We’ve heard lots of different ideas, and I think we’ve come up with an absolutely wonderful itinerary that works for everybody.”

When a joint Avodah-AJWS alumni group first announced the trip last November, some Avodah participants and alumni circulated a petition criticizing the trip for not visiting the Occupied Territories and addressing the Israeli occupation. In protest, one Avodah staff member quit.

The trip’s critics mostly say that the new itinerary resolves their objections. Avodah, which has traditionally had a solely domestic focus, is seen by some as unique among mainstream American Jewish groups in creating space for young people whose views about Israel make it difficult for them to fit into the American Jewish community.

In Avodah’s change of course, some critics say they see a welcome confirmation of the organization’s openness to Jews who are sharply critical of Israel.

“I see it as some sort of affirmation of Avodah’s commitment to openness in Jewish identity and Israel,” said Liza Behrendt, a current participant in Avodah’s yearlong program and a member of the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports some aspects of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Avodah runs yearlong residential programs for young Jews, combining study and anti-poverty work in American cities, while AJWS focuses on poverty abroad. The two groups share an alumni program called Pursue, which is sponsoring the Israel trip.

Pursue’s trip is scheduled for March. The first half of the eight-day program will explore social justice issues inside Israel proper, including challenges faced by Ethiopians and Israeli Arabs. The latter half of the trip will include meetings with activist groups, including Ir Amin, a left-leaning Israeli advocacy group specializing in the impact of the Occupation on East Jerusalem. The trip will also tour the West Bank city of Hebron with Israeli civil rights group B’Tselem, and will visit Bethlehem with Holy Land Trust, a group promoting nonviolent resistance in Palestine. Participants will also meet with the Shalom Hartman Institute and with Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s civil society-building program in Israel.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had initially been hired to run the trip. Now, that organization will operate only the first half. A representative of the JDC told the Forward in November that the group, which often runs service trips to Israel for American Jewish organizations, has never included social service work on the West Bank on its itineraries.

Controversy over the trip became public within Avodah’s tight-knit community in late October and early November, when staff member Michael Deheeger announced he would resign over the trip, and a group of Avodah participants and alumni circulated a petition criticizing it.

“While Avodah was previously a space where all political viewpoints on Israel-Palestine were welcome, the organization may now alienate a growing generation of Jews who see Israeli policy as inconsistent with Jewish social justice values,” the petition read.

The petition attracted nearly 100 signatories out of 500 Avodah alumni and current participants.

Behrendt and Rabbi Alissa Wise, a JVP staff member and Avodah alum, met with Avodah leadership on November 8.

“We had a discussion in which we basically agreed that we all had Avodah’s best interest in mind, those of us who wrote the letter and those of us who work for Avodah, and it’s important we work together to do what is best for the community,” Behrendt remembered.

Behrendt and others heard about the revised itinerary in mid-January.

“I think it’s really exciting they were able to listen to us and realize how important it was to their community to have it change and have a more open trip,” said Elise Goldin, a current Avodah participant who had been among the original critics of the program.

Deheeger could not be reached for comment on the new plans.

The November petition was particularly critical of the role of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a major supporter of Pursue. The Schusterman Foundation had suggested the trip, and critics charged that Avodah had been forced into accepting the program.

The Schusterman Foundation’s national director, Lisa Eisen, said in February that the foundation had no problem with the new itinerary.

“We have every confidence that they have settled upon an agenda that will enable all participants to serve, to learn and to connect to Israel through firsthand experience,” Eisen wrote in an email.

Behrendt noted that she would have preferred Avodah to go farther.

“It’s not perfect; there are still problematic parts of the trip,” Behrendt said. “But the bottom line is, this is a really positive sign. It shows Avodah, AJWS and the JDC were willing to compromise and willing to respond to reactions from inside of a community of young Jews who care about social justice.”

Contact Josh-Nathan Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com


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