(JNS) Members of an Israel Defense Forces officers’ delegation who recently visited American Jewish communities in New York and Boston said they were deeply moved by the appreciation they received, while also gaining insight into the complexities of Diaspora Jewish identities.
Lt. Col. Dana Mishali Benishou, who is the head of the Officers Staff Department and organizes all military staff officer delegations abroad, took part in the September visit to the United States, which was organized together with Taglit-Birthright Israel.
“We came back a little prouder of what we do. It sharpened something in our sense of mission,” Benishou told JNS. “I really hope that these delegations become routine.”
The encounter, dubbed Mifgash (“meeting” in Hebrew), saw officers who met with Birthright North American delegates in Israel over the past two years travel to U.S. cities. Eight IDF officers took part in the recent September delegation.
Initial feedback indicated that they had a powerful experience, according to Benishou.
“One of the things less examined is the influence these meetings have on the Israelis in the group,” she said. “It’s clear to us that the effects of meetings soldiers and officers were significant for those from U.S. Jewish communities. But we also saw that IDF personnel taking part in these meetings came away with feelings of self-realization and strengthened identity because for first time, they encountered new aspects of Jewish identity.”
So far this year, 167 IDF officers have taken part in delegations to the United States. They were selected based on criteria that sought out high-quality officers serving in core military roles, who are set to remain in the IDF for a lengthy period, enabling them to pass on their experiences from the visit to others serving with them.
The delegation spent eight intensive days in Boston and New York, meeting with young people and community leaders, as well as academics and researchers, to discuss the bond between Israel and world Jewry, as well as ways to strengthen it.
One of the key takeaways on the part of the officers was internalizing the fundamental differences between the Israeli-Jewish and Diaspora-Jewish identities.
“Israeli Jews do not have to really confront their identity; all of it is pretty self-evident,” stated Benishou. “You get up in the morning, you’re Jewish, you’re Israeli. You don’t really have to prove it to anyone. This is certainly the case for those serving in uniform.”
So for the first time, she continued, “we saw a different identity perception. We gained a new understanding of what it means to be Jewish abroad. For the first time in my life, I saw the major influence of people who do so much on behalf of Israel from abroad—not only financial contributions, although philanthropy is significant, but also the understanding that to be Jewish in the United States, you have to get up in the morning and declare it. You have to make an effort. That’s something that wasn’t clear to us before our visit.”
In addition, the appreciation that the officers received from audiences enabled the Israeli delegation to recognize “that for us, what we do is, is the most self-evident thing in the world, yet seeing it through their eyes, it is far from self-evident. That was very moving,” said Benishou. “We could see it in the eyes of the people we met with—how much they appreciate what we do.”
For the IDF, such visits also serve internal interests by helping to retain officers.
“I believe this program will one day be considered to be highly prestigious for quality officers,” said Benishou. “Assuming this develops, it will be another tool to keep officers in the military system. I can say as a group representative that we completed this with a sense that this is something that strengthened us.”