They were born in Morocco, Ethiopia, and all over Israel. They are of different ages, genders, economic strata, orientations, and political parties. And they all work together, serving in the Knesset-Israel's legislature-despite their many differences.
On April 10 and 11, seven of the 120 Members of the Knesset (MKs) visited Chicago. Their trip was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel, an overseas arm of JUF.
Of the MKs on the trip, four represent the Likud party: Nava Boker, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset; David Bitan, Co-Chair of the Knesset Lobby for the Jewish People; Avraham Neguise, Chair of the Knesset Aliyah, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee; and Amir Ohana, a member of the House and the Foreign Affairs & Defense committees.
The other three MKs each represent a different party: Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, Deputy Minister of Defense, represents Habayit HeYehudi; Meir Cohen, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, is in Yesh Atid; and Omer Barlev serves the HaMahane HaTzioni/Labor Party.
Over two days, they visited Chicago-area Jewish institutions: Ida Crown Jewish Academy, Northwestern Hillel, the JUF Uptown Café, the Chicago Jewish Day School, and Anshe Emet Synagogue. They also toured some Chicago landmarks, seeing Michigan Avenue, taking a Chicago River architectural tour, and listening to blues music at Buddy Guy's Legends.
The MKs met community leaders and rabbis, educators and students, volunteers and clients, and Israelis working in Chicago. From each group, they heard different sides of the same story-how Chicago Jews work together despite the different ways they approach Judaism.
Their tour kicked off at JUF headquarters: Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, JUF President, Aviv Ezra, Israel Consul General to the Midwest, and several past board chairs briefed their visitors on the century-plus history of JUF and Chicago's celebration of Israel's 70
Nasatir focused on Chicago's longstanding relationship with Israel, from Golda Meir's visit to today's successful and wide-ranging student trips to Israel. "We feel that education about Israel is of paramount importance," he said. Nasatir also explained that JUF reaches out to all branches of Judaism-"Pluralism is part of a well-functioning community," he said-and also forges connections to our non-Jewish friends in the Chicago community as well.
Ezra explained, in Hebrew, the challenges and rewards of his work, including educating Americans and Israelis about each other. A discussion followed, touching on services to Holocaust survivors, access to the Kotel, and the bonds between Israel and American Jewry.
Remarking on all the stories of inter-denominational success, MK Meir Cohen said, "I feel like I'm in heaven-what is the secret here?"
MK Avraham Neguise noted how grateful he is to JUF for its history of rescuing Ethiopian Jews-like him. "This Federation played a role of fulfilling the dreams of the Ethiopian community," he said.
"You can't imagine how it feels to have played a small part" in the rescue, responded Nasatir, adding that the "real heroes" were the Ethiopian Jews themselves.
But there's more work to be done, said MK Amir Ohana, the first openly gay Knesset member ever to be elected in open primary elections in Israel. Ohana stressed the need for greater acceptance between different types of Israeli Jews. "If we want to claim that Israel in the home for all Jews, we need to work on that," he said.
At Ida Crown, a Modern Orthodox high school, the MKs toured the building and heard from three rabbis, including the school's dean, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who explained the diversity of his students, even within Orthodoxy.
Next, the group learned about Northwestern Hillel from its students, executive director Michael Simon; and Northwestern University President Dr. Morton Schapiro, who is Jewish and took his senior staff to Israel after the student government voted for a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions measure in 2015.
The students discussed with the MKs the concerning trend of "intersectionality" and its negative impact on Israel's image.
The MKs also heard from the young Israeli
(emissaries) stationed at universities throughout Illinois by the Jewish Agency for Israel, who echoed the students' reports of the difficulties faced when discussing Israel on campus-from ignorance and apathy to rejection, even open hostility.
That evening, the MKs served dinner to the guests at the JUF Uptown Café, before being guests themselves at the Consul General's home.
The following day, the MKs ate breakfast at Anshe Emet Synagogue and heard from a panel of rabbis across the religious spectrum: Rabbi Michael Siegel, of Anshe Emet; Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, of Temple Sholom of Chicago; and JUF's Rabbinic Scholar Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko.
The final official stop was at Chicago Jewish Day School's new campus, a multi-denominational Jewish grade school, where they heard from school staff and students in grades 6-8, who had recently visited Israel. The tour culminated with MK Ben-Dahan, an Orthodox rabbi, affixing a mezuzah to a doorpost in the school's new building.
The Chicago visit "was very successful in exposing the MKs to the challenges facing Jewish life in the Diaspora," said Josh Schwarcz, Secretary General of the Jewish Agency, who accompanied the MKs. "They saw the love Chicago has for Israel-and that there are real issues that have to be resolved for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people."
One MK's insight came not from a presentation, but from looking out the window. As the tour bus wound through Skokie, MK Neguise noticed, "There are no walls between the houses here."