Category Archives: Diplomatic Seminar

This Diplomatic Seminar for Young Jewish Leaders is conducted annually by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 36 people from around the globe, considered to have outstanding leadership potential, are selected to participate in order to learn new analytical tools for understanding the political and national security challenges facing Israel, and insight into the society, economy and culture of the Jewish-democratic state.


We woke up refreshed and ready to learn on Sunday morning…at least I was, I am proud to say that I was the second person to arrive in our morning meeting rooms at the hotel. This is a first for me to be early in the morning… and on a Sunday morning to be early is simply a shock to everyone who knows me. One of the things about Israel, in contrast to my weekends in the states, is that I really miss having two days of the North American weekend. Here in Israel you get about a day and a half off from work… So as you can see from the photos from Shabbat yesterday, I slept in, missed breakfast, went to the pool and had a nice conversation with my friends, Michael from Australia, Tiffany from New York and Eduardo from Torino, on our feelings about about the Mechitza scandal of the night before.

Edoardo Segre from Italy is a religious man who guards Shabbat each week. He even prepared for Tisha B’Av by not eating meat during the nine days before this holiday commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Before speaking with Edoardo I did not even knew that folks don’t eat meat before this holiday. He was able to explain this and many other traditions that he participates in with genuine mensch′en kindness.

Most hotels and public spaces in Israel have a small room where folks can go and pray. It is Israel so every factor, celebration and conflict of pluralistic identity and diversity come into context when religious folks that are interested in praying in their traditional Sefardi, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi ways are mixed in with a little Americana Trans-denominational led service by our brilliantly talented friend Bodi. So our group was first to arrive in the room and Bodi, Eduardo and a few of the other men from our group began to daven and the women in our group sat on the left side of the Mechitza.

I had no idea what to do in this scene. I did not know where to stand or sit… So in a rescue effort my friend, another incredible mensch, Jonas Herzberg Karpantschof of Copenhagen, waved his hand at me when he saw me looking puzzled. He asked me to sit in the back row of chairs with him. Our leader, Ami Mehl came in after we started to pray and sat next to me on my left.

Framing my experience outside of the gender binary and within the delicate balance of pluralism and tradition was helped by my reading Balancing on the Mechitza before I left for Israel. This book, a collection of deeply personal and theoretical contemplations by activists, theologians and scholars, edited by Noach Dzmura, explores experiences of Jewish worship through a Transgender lens.

Within moments a few men walked in and started arguing with Bodi and Ami that the Mechitza should be behind the men so they can join us in prayer. Behind the men means to me that they could not just have women separated to the left of the Mechitza they were telling us they needed the women physically behind them in order to pray.

The argument was dramatic and loud and before I could really pretend to translate the conversation it was over. I assume that Bodi and Ami won the argument, if that could be possible, because we stayed in the room with the Mechitza simply dividing the room in half. I sat in one of the four chairs in the back where I was too distracted by the scene to daven.

With my friends the next morning near the pool our Shabbat conversations revolved around the mechitza incident the night before and what it brought up for us within our personal constructs of feminism, gender identity, Judaism and Israeli pluralism. Each of my friends mentioned that they were raised within some level of the modern Orthodox movement.

We were four Jews from three different countries on Shabbat listening to each other, learning and validating each of our experiences on how we see balancing the traditions of mechitza within halacha. In the end of the conversation I remember thinking, thank g*d, I can have gender reconstructed dialog with this incredibly brilliant group of people that understand halacha without anyone using halacha to help cite judgement but instead build greater understanding for all of us.

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Posted by on July 21, 2010 in Diplomatic Seminar, Israel


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haifa pride

Mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav tells us that one of Haifa's more unique aspects is its mixed population of Arabs and Jews, living together with visible harmony and that Haifans pride themselves on the belief that they can be a model of tolerance in Israel.

Spending our last morning inHaifa we are fed a feast while Cobie Brosh, Executive Director of the Canadian Committee for the Haifa Foundationintroduced our morning panel by talking about Haifa and the work that he does in the community to advance educational, cultural, communal and environmental projects locally. Coby also happens to be the father of a lesbian daughter and has worked to build global support for the local LGBT Haifa Community Center known as the Haifa Forum. After Coby speaks our panel with local leaders begins with the Mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav.

The Haifa Forum hosts a variety of groups and activities for young people to bears in collaboration with the City of Haifa, AGUDAH and Israel Gay Youth Organization (IGY) and multiple other groups from around Israel and the world.

Four more speakers follow Coby and Yona including the Chief Rabbi of Haifa since 1975, Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen, the Secretary of the Bahá’í International Community, a leader from the Ahmadi Muslim community based in Haifa‘s Kababir neighborhood, a representative of the Christian community and a representative of the Muslim Community. The questions and conversations to follow the questions were a bit more on the intense side of diplomacy.

I always start my judgement of a speaker that is not speaking in his native language with the benefit of the doubt that something is lost in translation… so, when one of the folks in our group asked the man representing the Ahmadi Muslim community if he considers himself a Zionist, I took a deep breath in so I could hear the details to follow. The details were simple. The person receiving the question replied by saying a simple no and the room erupted into conversation about what Zionism means and how we define Zionism. It was refreshing to hear that not one person in the room from what I heard and experienced have the same understanding of Zionism.

Yona later says, "If you like the Jews you have to help ensure peace and support of community with the Arabs. We have to be friendly. The Arabs are our brothers. We have settled here with them and we need to continue to make a mutual life with them."

We left our morning meetings and our experience of Haifa filled with the mass amounts of breakfast foods sitting in our stomachs. On the tables we left enough food for 50 more visitors to eat a feast as well. We drove to a Druze village nearby walking around in the heat and listening to the stories of the people who have lived there for centuries and spent the evening at an incredible fish farm, Dag al HalDan, for a yummy fish dinner and stayed at the beautiful Hagush Kibbutz up north near Kiryat ShmonaSee more of the photos of our the day here.

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Posted by on July 19, 2010 in Diplomatic Seminar, Israel


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Shabbat in Haifa

Shabbat Lunch with the Paz family was an amazing reunion of friends I have not seen since about 1996 when we went to high school together!

Dinner with friends in Haifa at the end of Shabbat


Posted by on July 19, 2010 in Diplomatic Seminar, Israel


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A Private Shabbat Performance

After our Community Kalabat Shabbat Gathering at the Campus HaNamal Haifa Port and Shabbat dinner at the hotel Adi Bielski graced us with a private solo performance in our hotels meeting room. She performed Ertz Yisrael Love Story written on the semi-autobiographical story of Pnina Gary, the play is dedicated to the memory of her fiancé Eli Ben-Zvi, who died in Israel’s 1947-49 War of Independence (against Lebanon and Syria in the north; Iraq and Transjordan – renamed Jordan during the war – in the east; Egypt, assisted by contingents from the Sudan – in the south; and Palestinians and volunteers from Arab countries in the interior of the country), defending his kibbutz, Beit Keshet.

The story begins in the summer 1942 through a chance meeting at a bus stop, between Margalit, played by Adi Bielski and Ami, an idealistic Kibbutz pioneer and Palmach Soldier. Their relationship develops into a love story interwoven with the issues of the era capturing the characters and atmosphere of pre-state Israel from the intimate experience of a young Jewish girl in Israel living there. Here is a clip from the show: 


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Haifa War Diary

Sure, we have spent considerable amount of time on a bus and two hours in the Dead Sea and travelling with all of our expenses paid for and beautiful meals included but seriously, this group is tired. I am tired. The intensity of being in the southern border town of Sderot where 3 out of the 4 children living there have diagnosable PTSD and where you realize that the reason the bus stops look so strange are because currently about twice a month a kassam rocket falls on the town of Sderot where not only can you see across the border but at all times you need to be within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter.

Tired, sure but we did have plenty of nap time on the bus...

I have heard the David Ben Gurion quote, “In order to be realistic you have to believe in miracles…” a few too many times and I am beginning to fear an onset of feeling potentially apathetic and jaded. Not that any of us are unhappy with the trip – I am just ready for Shabbat… but before we have Shabbat we leave Jerusalem for Haifa for another day of learning.

We arrive at the Haifa Radio station and I think to myself radio is so not relevant. Well, I am wrong. Of course, I am wrong, at home I listen to the radio daily switching between my local National Public Radio stations but because I do not rely on it for my safety and connection to my community I strangely think nothing of it today. In Israel the first non-national radio stations only opened a decade ago and 600,000 people listen to Radio Haifa daily. During the second war with Lebanon in 2006 when the community of Haifa was hit daily with Katyusha Rockets 80% of the community listened to Radio Haifa while they were stuck in a shelter.

We were able to see the following film in its full 35 minutes but it is worth it to take a few minutes to watch what this community went through and how Directors Gili Shapira and Avishai Kfir filmed Radio Haifa’s friends Eli Levy and Nasser Nasser in their work each day to keep the community up-to-date on the traumatic events of the war as it unfolded. Together this Jewish journalist and Palestinian photojournalist show how they truly seemed to unite this community.

Please take a look at the photographs of Danny Nishlis, Producer, Owner, and General Manager of Radio Haifa along with Radio Haifa’s News Manager who stayed at the news station 24-hours a day during the month long war as well as a few of our other photographs of the day here.

The Directors of Radio Haifa walk us through the horror of a month in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War under constant bomb attacks

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Posted by on July 18, 2010 in Diplomatic Seminar, Israel


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floating the afternoon away

The Arava area of Israel is a beautiful, sparsely populated desert region that runs from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, and is part of the 500km Great Rift Valley that is connected from Syria to central Mozambique. The Red Mountains of Jordan were seen throughout our Thursday, July 8th visit to a few of the really unique environmental projects we were able to experience on day 5 of our MFA journey.

Noam Ilan shows us AORA's solar tower, erected in the Arava desert in southern Israel based on technology developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Most of the innovation we saw today came out of Kibbutz Ketura which prides itself on its creative economic perspective focused on entrepreneurship, religious pluralismgender equality as well as its own solar power company, an algae farm, an experimental orchard and a co-existence based Environmental Studies program at the Arava Institute.

Unlike Palm Springs, California where the desert has been built up with such suburban zeal that when I visit my Gay retired Jewish family there during Passover I need to take mass amounts of Allergy medicine to survive the Pollen factors. The air in the Arava desert still feels clean of inhalant allergens.

This solar 30m high tower stands adjoining this field of mirrors on 2,000sq.m. of land at Kibbutz Samar, outside Eilat and a few miles from Kibbutz Yahel where we stayed the night. The tower forms a single power module, capable of generating 100kW electric power in addition to 170kW of thermal power.

Ezra Ravins is the Mayor of Central Arava Region. Here 3,000 people live (including 500 young students from multiple ethnic backgrounds all going to one school). This region covers 6% of Israel (70 km from the South to the North) and rely on export of their produce for a thriving economy. It has always been a priority to be innovative with water resources and it has taken many years to be environmentally smart about these resources. They have only 30mm of rain per year to help the area bloom for the 7 villages, 2 small cities and 5 Moshavim on the West side of the Jordan River.

Mayor Ravins said during our visit, “We share the nature with our neighbors across the border in Jordan so we work hard to share the message that we share not only a boundary but an environment. When the Mediterranean Sea fruit fly caused major problems for everyone in the region to we had to meet in Vienna to work together to eradicate the fruit fly. In 1997 we began releasing sterilized male fruit flies in the air to reduce the growth so we can all export our fruits to increase all of our commerce. Now once a week since 1997 we still release sterile male flies.”

After our site visits and a quick lunch we take a two hour break to dip into the incredibly healing and nurturing Dead Sea before returning again to Jerusalem.

These three photos taken by our friend Andrei from Romania shows not only a few random floaters but Jonathan Sacerdoti from London and me venturing out into the depths of the Dead Sea. We were so hot in the water so only lasted a few minutes inside but every once in awhile we would find a strange bubble of cold water coming up from the sea floor that would feel like a soft breeze.

Please take a look at more of our photos from day five of our journey here.

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Posted by on July 17, 2010 in Diplomatic Seminar, Israel


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a bus ride

We left Jerusalem down the road that according to our bus guide serves as part of a green line since 1967. Our entire journey down the country towards Sderot we pass beautiful fields of agriculture. A few fighter jets happen to fly back and forth over the fields. As I speak for hours off and on with my new friend Alana about her life in South Africa I realize that one of the most extraordinary gifts of this MFA program is a new global network of Jewish friends.

Born in Zimbabwe, Alana and her family moved to South Africa when she was younger but her Uncle, a civil rights attorney, remains as one of the 200 Jews remaining in Zimbabwe (since a peak of 7,500 Jewish residents in the 1970’s). Alana has grown up in mostly Post-Apartheid South Africa and now works with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

We had a lot to talk about while we passed by the infamous security fence as we share the experience of so many people in both of our communities using the rhetoric often associated with Apartheid to describe their experience of Israel. We were able to really talk about what this means to us personally and professionally.  As I have never been to South Africa this conversation with Alana, a self-described Religious woman that is so focused on Tikkun Olam within her everyday life, was incredibly rewarding to me. We spoke about how we see this tour, how we understand Zionism and how we feel about the security fence we were passing all from this complicated lens. I hope that this conversation between us will continue after the tour because I know at least for me that it will take a few lifetimes to try and reconcile my experiences and feelings on these subjects.

Take a look at the rest of the groups photos of Day Four on the Israel Foreign Ministry Diplomatic Seminar that includes updated photos of our visit with President Shimon Peres, our meeting and tour with the Mayor of Sderot, Mr. David Buskila, lunch with Bahatzer Shel Ora on the 50-year-old Moshav Kfar Maimon and our overnight stay at Kibbutz Yahel via Sde Boker.


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