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Promoting a positive image of Israel in Central Mass.

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER — In January, 20 members of the Central Massachusetts Jewish community embarked on the Community Impact Partnership (CIP), a program initiated in 2013 by the national federation’s Israel Action Network (IAN) “to counter the assault on Israel’s legitimacy and positively change the discourse on Israel,” according to the JFNA website.

The program, aimed at small and mid-sized Jewish communities, trains individuals to work within their communities with Jewish or non-Jewish groups “who may be vulnerable to messages and campaigns designed to undermine the democratic Jewish State of Israel.” Of particular concern is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Central Massachusetts was one of ten communities chosen to participate in 2016, and Rabbi Michael Swarttz of Congregation Beth Tikvah has headed the effort.

Last winter, representatives from the IAN ran two separate trainings in Central Mass.

In the first session, participants learned how to lead conversations about countering BDS as well as promoting a positive image of Israel.

In the second session, says Rabbi Swarttz, the original group divided in two and discussed ideas for specific sectors within Central Massachusetts where they could take their message.

Possible options included churches, labor unions, ethnicities, academics and “mainline Christians that have been anti-Israel,” he says. The group chose to approach two key demographics in the area, African Americans and Latinos.

Several years ago, the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts inaugurated a Latino-Jewish Roundtable, its steering committee comprised of Jewish and Latino members.  The group has engaged in continual conversation, seeking to bridge their differences, celebrate their similarities and learn from one another. In May, the group ran “A Taste of Two Worlds,” a highly successful wine tasting in Worcester.

“Several of us who are involved with CIP attended,” says Rabbi Swarttz.  “That was an important step for us because we didn’t really know them before. A lot of very positive networking happened at that event.”

CIP participants hope to attend a Latino-Jewish Roundtable meeting soon to “bring [Israel] up as part of the conversation.”

There was no relationship between the Jewish and the African American communities “on any kind of formal level,” and so CIP has been “starting from scratch.” Last spring, Rabbi Swarttz reached out to the Worcester chapter of the NAACP and “made a nice connection.”

Representatives from both groups had a “very positive” meeting in April.

“Both of us are interested in creating a black-Jewish dialogue group,” he says.

At that time, the chapter was involved in creating a Day of Prayer, which ultimately became a prayer vigil that took place in front of the Worcester City Hall in late September. Rabbi Swarttz and Rabbi Aviva Fellman of Congregation Beth Israel became involved in planning for the event and were the Jewish representatives that day.

“The good news is that we now have a relationship with them that didn’t exist previously and that’s a big step in the right direction,” he says.

At the moment, plans are under discussion for a meeting about what an African American-Jewish dialogue might look like in terms of both participants and agenda.

On Nov. 12, CIP participants attended Torathon, which among its many offerings included two sessions especially relevant to the program’s work.

Rabbi Swarttz himself presented a session on “Exploring the BDS Phenomenon.” His purpose, according to the Torathon brochure, was to encourage the group attending to “explore what it is, who’s behind it, and what is being done to counteract it locally and elsewhere.”

Dr. Mattie Castiel, Worcester Commissioner of Health and Human Services and a founding member of the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, led a panel of “new and established immigrants” who addressed “Immigration: Parallels to the Jewish and Latino Experiences.”

Of particular concern in the light of the presidential campaign, the focus here was to consider the questions, again from the brochure, “How does the Jewish experience with immigration compare with the issues faced by Latino immigrants today? Where is the Jewish voice in today’s debate?”

According to its original timetable, which Swarttz describes as “ambitious,” the CIP’s progress has been slow.

However, he notes, “it takes time to develop relationships, create a dialogue and devise an agenda.”

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