With a Terrible Towel in hand, five Knesset members visited Pittsburgh in order to better grasp diaspora Jewish life. The group, which included Merav Ben Ari and Yifat Shasha-Biton of the Kulanu party, Mickey Levy of Yesh Atid, Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beitenu and Dr. Nachman Shai of Zionist Union, the chamber’s deputy speaker, has been touring four other North American cities as part of a program hosted by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America.
“We wanted to show them how we are doing Israel engagement in our community,” said Debbie Swartz, the overseas planning associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
To demonstrate Pittsburgh’s efforts, Swartz designed an itinerary featuring a “cross section” of the community, she explained.
Accordingly, the MKs, who spent roughly 24 hours in the Steel City last Thursday and Friday, met with senior representatives from the Federation, attended a kick-off event for the Federation’s annual campaign, visited Rodef Shalom Congregation to learn about the history of American Reform Judaism and participate in a discussion with communal rabbis, conversed about the challenges of engaging millennials and younger generations with community members and student representatives from Hillel JUC and finally toured the Early Childhood Program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. While there, the legislators observed a pre-Shabbat program with early childhood students.
“This is a great Federation,” said Shai, when asked about his impressions of Pittsburgh. “As long as we know there is someone in the back or front supporting us, we will win.”
Shasha-Biton said she gained a deeper appreciation for Jewish communities outside of Israel.
“I realize the Jewish feeling of America,” she said. “They want to save their young.”
“You lost 50 percent in the diaspora,” added Levy.
Other stops on the North American tour included Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland and New York City. At each stop, the Israelis met with communal leaders, government representatives, educators and students.
Shasha-Biton said that the conversations throughout the trip fostered better relationships between the two sides of the Jewish world.
“In America and the diaspora, Jews as a whole need to be familiar with Knesset members, and we need to be familiar with what concerns you,” echoed Shai.
In Pittsburgh, MKs were apprised of locals’ foreign concerns, such as equal access to religious baths in Israel and the Kotel in Jerusalem.
Levy said that he would share those concerns with officials back home.
“The importance of being an MK is that you can influence the rabbinate, the Orthodox,” added Shasha-Biton, “but as an MK, if we want to do change we need the support of the community.”
Pittsburghers’ concerns counter other daily issues faced by MKs, said Ben Ari.
“In Israel, we have economic issues,” she said. “Young people can’t buy a house. … Iran, the border and settlements are [issues], but my friends worry how to finish the month.
“In every normal state people are dealing with problems,” she added. “Economic and social [concerns] are the main issues in Israel.”
Swartz characterized the time shared as rewarding.
“We each learned that we need to communicate more,” said Swartz.
“The objective for us is to keep the connections we built here,” said Ben Ari.
Added Shai, “Each time we go home we carry home more education as Knesset members.”
As the visit preceded the Steelers’ home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 18 by several days — the team opened the NFL season with victory in an away game hosted by the Washington Redskins on Monday night — Shai, waving a Terrible Towel, expressed dismay that the delegation would not be experiencing that side of Pittsburgh.
Before leaving the city, he said, “Next time, we will see the Steelers.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.