By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – It’s challenging enough to advocate for Israel in normal times. But when the Jewish state is engaged in a military conflict and portrayed in world media as the aggressor, making the case for Israel can seem impossible.
For the organized Jewish community of Greater Hartford, this task falls to Judy Singer, who chairs the Israel and International Affairs Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the public affairs arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
A West Hartford resident, Singer learned about the council’s work a decade ago while representing the National Council of Jewish Women on the board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the national umbrella organization of the organized American Jewish community. While involved with the JCPA, Singer was invited by JCRC Associate Vice President Laura Zimmerman to join the JCRC board. Singer began as a member of the Government Affairs Committee, which she then chaired for two years before taking over as chairperson of the board in 2010.
“I really wanted to see different conversations about Israel than the one in the forefront,” Singer says of her approach to the position. “There are people who only want to talk about Israel’s security and they are rightfully concerned, but they leave out all the other pieces. I wanted to make the conversation about what Israel is accomplishing technology-wise and bring that in front of the public’s eyes.”
Zimmerman agreed with the approach and organized a meeting between JCRC’s Israel/International Relations Task Force chair, and representatives of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the state Department of Economic and Community Development, and MetroHartford Alliance.
The following year, the JCRC and MetroHartford Alliance launched the first annual Connecticut-Israel Technology Summit, which drew 75 business leaders from Greater Hartford and Israel, and led directly and indirectly to several business and personal “shidduchim” (matches), Singer says, including a partnership between Hartford Hospital and Magen David Adom emergency services in Israel, and between the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford and Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel in Israel.
After the third annual conference, in 2013, the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) and the Israel Tech Transfer Organization entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the first step in laying the foundation for better and more productive economic and research collaborations between Connecticut and Israeli businesses, research institutions, and universities. The MoU was signed during a trade mission to Israel that year, led by DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith and comprised of businesses and area economic development officials. As a result of the trip, the DECD is hiring a representative in Israel to expand these partnerships.
With a strong foundation of business and academic relationships established, Singer and Zimmerman decided that it was time for the JCRC to focus on new avenues of activity. Singer became chair of the Israel and International Affairs Committee when she was succeeded by new board chair David Brandwein in June.
“JCRC is all about relationships and giving opportunities for people to make relationships, because that’s what we need, not only in the Jewish community but also with the other communities,” says Singer.
The JCRC co-sponsors “Brunch Bunch,” a group of Jewish and Muslim couples who meet monthly. In July, the JCRC cosponsored a communal interfaith iftar – the traditional evening break-fast meal during the Islamic month of Ramadan – at Beth Israel Synagogue in West Hartford. Dr. Saud Anwar, lay leader of the local Muslim community, frequently consults JCRC chair David Brandwein to clarify misinformation about Israel that his fellow Muslims see in the media. The JCRC has also strengthened its relationship with the Greater Hartford African-American community, focusing on the issue of violence reduction.
Over the coming year, in addition to the technology- and business-focused aspects of JCRC’s work, Singer hopes to bring programs to the community that highlight what Israel does for the world beyond its reputation as “start-up nation.”
For example, a program on the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) community in Israel would underscore its role as a tolerant oasis in the Middle Eastern sea of bigotry. “When a country finds itself under the gun constantly, like Israel does, it’s really hard for the tolerant or moderate voices to be heard,” she says. “We know that people get hung in Iran for less than that.”
Singer knows that she and the Israel and International Affairs Committee must vet its programs carefully. In 2011, JCRC co-sponsored a talk by Colette Avital, former deputy speaker of the Knesset and Israeli consul in New York. The event was co-sponsored by J Street, the controversial left-wing lobby organization that describes itself as pro-Israel. At the time, Avital served as the organization’s senior advisor. Several people criticized J Street’s involvement in the program, including then-Ledger publisher N. Richard Greenfield, who published an op-ed condemning the program.
Singer explains that leaders of JCRC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford had wanted the community to hear Avital speak about the Israeli peace process; J Street was engaged as the vehicle only, prohibited from promoting its agenda.
“JCRC doesn’t just make a shidduch with anyone, but we also know that not everybody in the community is very firmly in the camp that Israel needs to defend itself,” says Singer. “If a potential speaker takes a position in favor of BDS [boycott, divestment, and sanctions] or that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, they can’t present here. There are people in J Street who are pro-BDS and I see them as wacky.”
In a time of crisis, like the current Israel-Hamas conflict, JCRC takes immediate action, Singer says, organizing community advocacy events or discussing reportage concerns with the Hartford Courant editorial board. When times are calm, the focus can shift to non-security aspects of Israel.
“We want people to understand that Israel is multi-faceted, not just about security, and if we want to build relationships, we have to let people know about the amazing things that come out of a country the size of New Jersey,” she says – like the Arab-Israeli woman who was 2013 valedictorian at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and the Ethiopian-Israeli crowned Miss Israel last year.
There are incidents in Israel that Singer finds disturbing – restrictions on women’s Torah-reading services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for example. “I am very, very much a liberal in terms of social and religious tendencies. But when it comes to security, both for the U.S. and Israel, I believe that there has to be a strong military.”
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