For Bar Gissin, being a member of the Reform Jewish community living in Rosh Ha’Ayin, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli town, means she prays in a community center that doubles as a synagogue and a gymnasium.
They don’t have their own location, she says, not because of a lack of space, but because no one in the national government is advocating for them.
“The only connection you have with an elected official is through their Facebook page or press releases or scandals they throw out in the middle of Knesset assembly,” Gissin, the national chairperson of Young Meretz, said. “It alienates you. You have no control of what’s going on there. The elected official is not obliged to you.”
This is where a progressive local government — and Gissin’s activism work with a new political movement called Mekomi, or My Place — comes in, she said.
Mekomi is working to “change the equation” and build political power from the bottom up.
The 6-month-old political movement wants to equip local leaders with the tools they need to win municipal elections, consequently putting the government’s focus on residents’ concerns at a local level — such as transportation, affordable housing and education — which Mekomi representatives say the major parties on the left have been ignoring.
“My personal experiences showed me our mother parties aren’t aiming to engage [the communities] initially,” Gissin said. “This is a loser’s approach. I’m not ready to lose. I’m fighting for my future.”
Gissin and Mekomi co-founder Ido Stossel came to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Squirrel Hill on Nov. 5 as part of a 10-day United States tour to represent the movement and talk about their mission.
The event was sponsored by J Street Pittsburgh, the local branch of the national pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, and Partners for Progressive Israel.
Maya Haber, director of programming and strategy for Partners for Progressive Israel, said the event was about bringing attention to the movement and also bringing the Israeli discussion in America out of the conceptual abstract and back to what’s happening on the ground.
“Often when we speak about Israel, it’s about values, which is great, it’s about love, it’s about feelings, but it’s not about how politics works,” she said. “If we actually want to have impact in Israel, we need to understand how power works and what we need to support, what will bring change.
“This is the kind of work on the ground in Israel today that gives me hope,” she continued, referring to members of Mekomi working to bring campaign techniques such as canvassing, call centers and door-to-door soliciting to elections in Israel.
As part of their tour, Gissin and Stossel traveled to Boston to observe and discuss campaign techniques and voting practices on Election Day, Nov. 7.
Using grassroots-type efforts to engage with and listen to voters, Stossel said they have already seen a positive reaction in Israel and expect these same techniques will help them to expand their influence.
“The potential voter is not a potential voter anymore,” Stossel said. “We can enlarge our base, enlarge the population we work with.”
Stossel, a political adviser and data analyst who has worked on several political campaigns for members of Knesset in the Labor Party, said he was inspired to create Mekomi after realizing a lack of interest in preparing for the municipal elections among his colleagues.
Last February, he and a colleague began analyzing past election data on their own to build a portfolio of cities where local officials could have an impact — and a chance to win a seat on city council.
For the upcoming municipal election, in October 2018, Mekomi will have 30 representatives in 15 municipalities competing for a position, according to Stossel.
There are more than 1,200 council members and 250 city councils in Israel.
For the next municipal election in 2023, they plan to “operate all around Israel,” Stossel said. “We do understand that we need to do it in a process, to gain back our support, to go back to the first steps that we lost — to the people.”
Although representatives will run under the Mekomi name, the organization is calling itself a political movement rather than a party. They were also careful to emphasize that they are not replacing the major political parties, but instead filling an area that has been underfunded and under-represented in past elections.
In addition to promoting the Mekomi movement, the program was also a way to illustrate the similarities between the political climates in Israel and the United States.
In both countries, Gissin said, progressives are being challenged by extreme right-wing governments.
In a plea for Americans and Israelis to join the fight together, Gissin quoted Isaiah: “Once you understand better the one who is far from you, you’re also able to understand and correct the one who is near.”
For Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of the J Street Pittsburgh Chapter, the event was a model for connections between Israeli and American Jews and connections between the two governments.
“For American Jews who hope for Israel to solve the conflict, sometimes we need to step back and look to the people working there to see what are their needs,” she said. “It’s a marathon, and they’re looking at trying to improve the health of their communities.”
“It’s like here in the U.S.,” she continued. “We need to understand what happened in the [last presidential] election. We can’t stay stuck in our ideology.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at