But the Ruderman Family Foundation is not just about benevolence for people with special needs (an area which it is associated with in Israel). Its other goal is strengthening the connection between Israel and the US Jewry. And so the foundation is now planning to inaugurate a first-of-its-kind academic program: US Jewry studies.
The initiative will be inaugurated in the next school year, in cooperation with the University of Haifa. As part of the program, Israeli students will study for a master's degree (and thesis) about their fellow Jews in the United States – with the hopes of improving the dialogue between the two largest Jewish groups on earth.
The program's founders stress its importance by mentioning the recent Pew Research Center survey, which suggested that young US Jews' affiliation with the State of Israel was weakening.
"I live here in Israel. I am living the Israeli society," Jay Ruderman tells Ynet, "and this is one of the greatest dangers the state is facing. It's the biggest threat to Israel's existence – more than Iran, more than anything. We can't imagine a world without AIPAC, without the Jewish lobby and the lobbies defending Israel's interests in the American administration – but this is all growing weaker and weaker. If we fail to nurture the mutual relationship, we could be left on our own against the world."
Losing world's biggest Jewish community
The Israeli press has often regarded Ruderman favorably when mentioning the philanthropic aid for people with special needs, but he is disappointed that the idea of strengthening the ties between the communities is falling on deaf ears.
"When I came to Israel I saw the lack of communication and tried to develop these issues for discussion through politics and the business world," he says. "In the current situation, it's no wonder that the Jewish communities in the US are starting to draw away from Israel."
According to Ruderman, many Israelis see don’t see the American communities as they see themselves. "As far as the Israeli is concerned, all Jews should live in the Land of Israel, and if they don’t – they should support it from there. But the situation is far from that. Jews in the United States feel like patriotic Americans and identify themselves that way just as much as they identify with Israel and Judaism."
Ruderman says that $3 billion are transferred from the US to Israel annually in the form of donations, support, "foreign aid," etc – and that is where one can find the biggest arsenal of support for the State of Israel. "If the Jews there are no longer interested in us, and in high numbers – we'll find ourselves in a difficult situation.
"The Israelis are busy with domestic problems and fail to see that they are losing the world's biggest Jewish community," Ruderman warns repeatedly, stressing that the meaning of this is not just economic. "Unlike other places in the world, here it's not just about money but about influence. The Jews of France or Australia cannot influence their government's policy. The US Jews definitely can."
Change begins with education
The Ruderman Foundation president admits that the Israelis are not the only ones to blame. "It's no secret that the communities in the US are facing difficulties too, that they are also fighting hard for their communities," he says. "Some of them are willing to discuss it publicly – and some not yet.
"In any event, it must be a two-way relationship, and Israel has something to give them too in this sense. Unfortunately, the current dialogue comes down to us bringing Americans here and explaining to them about the security threats Israel is facing and why we need their support."
Ruderman is not standing idly by, but is trying to advance programs and meetings in every way – and now through the academia as well. "I have an interest in the future politics between the groups, but I saw no one was addressing this. Our initiative with the University of Haifa is something which has never been done before.
"The program's goal is first of all to provide knowledge, education, educate Israelis to get to know the US Jewry, in order to build a backlog of people who will be able to serve as a bridge between the Israeli and American societies. Now we have Netanyahu who is very familiar with this society, but Bibi will not stay there forever. The students are a sort of elite unit we established to deal with these cultural gaps on the day after as well."
'An American student knows more about Israel'
The participants' scholarship is guaranteed – but what will attract an average Israeli student to explore this field of all fields? Prof. Gur Alroey, head of the Ruderman program for US Jewry studies, says that these initial concerns were quickly dissolved.
"Three weeks after we began marketing the program, we already received more than 100 applications. Thirty-five were invited for interviews and 15 were admitted. I went to the rector, told him I had to reject students, and he agreed to give us 10 more scholarships. Today the program has 25 students, so we have definitely catered to a need. There are Israelis who want to expand their knowledge in the academic aspect – and they are all students of the highest quality."
As a historian who specializes in the great immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States, Prof. Alroey's interest in such a program is obvious.
Nevertheless, where did the idea come from?
"I think that it all began with a student who complained that the syllabus for my course was entirely in English. And I actually realized that there is nothing academic in my field which is written in Hebrew, and that the Israeli academia has no coherent program about the US Jewry. There are Asia studies and Europe studies, but the American Jewry was taught only in the past, 15 years ago, and since then everyone has retired. There are individual courses – but not a full, constructed program."
On the other side of this "match," the situation is much better. "I was at New York University, and the field of Israel studies is really strong," Prof. Alroey says. "We have created an absurd situation in which an American student knows more about Israel than the other way around. And that's when the idea was born: Why not create a program in which Israelis will be able to learn about the Jewish world's most important and influential and big community?"
What does the program include and what does it offer participants?
"There are very diverse, multidisciplinary courses, a lot of history, Jewish pluralism, the connection to Israel and the differences in approaches between the groups, political science, regime comparisons and more. They also study about foreign policy, which is not related to the Jews, because without this part one cannot understand the Jewish American approach, and of course the double Jewish identity. There is also a thorough tour of the United States to get to know the communities up close.
"The classic Israeli stereotype of US Jews is a naïve group which admires Israel and can be exploited. But that’s really not the case," Prof. Alroey concludes. "Today the fourth and fifth generation is critical towards Israel at best, and in the worst-case scenario it's just not interested. These communities, Israel and the United States, are drawing apart. Our goal is to bring about a change."