A Year On, City Adjusts to Life Sans Consulate

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About a year since the Consulate General of Israel for the Mid-Atlantic Region closed its Center City doors, some people still feel betrayed.

They can’t understand why a city with such a vibrant Jewish community was deemed expendable.

Former Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region Yaron Sideman and Consulate General of Israel in New York Dani Dayan.

At the same time, they reluctantly concede the transition to using a New York City office hasn’t been that bad. While Consul General Dani Dayan and Deputy Consul General Amir Sagie aren’t able to attend nearly as many events as their Philadelphia predecessors, they’ve managed to do their part.

It hasn’t gone unappreciated.

“I have to say, we have been positively surprised and very grateful for the work of the economic mission and the leadership of Dani Dayan and Economic Minister to North America Inon Elroy,” Vered Nohi, executive director of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, said of the local efforts of the consulate and the Israel Trade and Economic Office, both in New York. “The priority they have given to our region and the fact they have participated frequently in our events is encouraging.

“But the closing of the consulate here definitely had an impact on us. We definitely miss them and, as a resident of the region, I feel a difference. If you have a child visiting home because they’re away at college, as much as they come to visit it’s not like they’re living in your home. … I’m just sorry we don’t have local representatives.”

She’s not alone.

“Having a member of the Israeli government here was a tremendous benefit to the community,” said Lee Bender, co-president of the Greater Philadelphia chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. “I don’t feel the same benefit now.

“Having a guy in New York is not fair and disrespectful to a community as large and as influential as Philadelphia’s Jewish community. With New York, they think of us now as an afterthought.

“They can’t be spread out that much.”

According to Sagie, nothing could be further from the truth.

“We won Philly,” said Sagie, who estimates he’s visited the city at least 10 times, while Dayan and Director of Regional Affairs Michael Alexander, who came to New York after being part of the Philadelphia team, have come on a regular basis.

“First and foremost, we really feel it’s a privilege to have an important metropolitan center that has a very dedicated and influential Jewish community.

“We’ve always cherished Philly and, looking back a year, we’ve done whatever we could. We’re trying as much as possible to be present on the ground. We’ve really enjoyed working together with everyone from the mayor’s office to local Jewish officials, and are looking forward in the new year to being able to enhance this.”

In conjunction with Israel’s upcoming 70th anniversary as a state, Alexander said several projects are in the works that will include Philadelphia. At the same time, the New York office has increased its manpower to handle passports and other issues that used to be done on-site here.

Yet the loss is felt in other ways.

“It was a mistake,” said E. Harris Baum, Philadelphia’s honorary consul of the Republic of Korea. “We have a lot of major gift-givers in the Philadelphia and tri-state area. They’re giving, but there’s no major cohesion for groups trying to step up to the plate in bringing the Jewish community together.

“It seems to me the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia was a lightning rod that attracted a lot of people. We lack that now.”

There’s also the logistical headache of New York.

“It’s far more complicated to go to New York,” Nohi said. “If someone wants to renew their passport … take care of documents for the military, change their status being married or single, it’s a schlep to go to New York. There’s certain things you can mail, but typically other things need to be taken care of in person. Even though they try to be as helpful as they can, they are spread super thin.”

Making the decision to leave Philadelphia, which had been rumored for years, was not easy, factoring in issues of diplomacy and finance.

“I know there are a lot of issues in Israel that people here wouldn’t understand or don’t want to — issues in the foreign ministry with the budget and how many consulates they had,” said Steve Friedman, an attorney who went to Cheltenham High School with the late Yoni Netanyahu and has kept in touch with his younger brother, Israel’s prime minister, over the years.

Some are convinced Israel will see the error of its ways and rectify the situation.

“You have to understand the Jewish State of Israel is made up of more than 50 percent Jewish mothers and future mothers, and the other half want to please their mothers,” said Lou Balcher, former director of academic affairs for nine years with the consulate. “You’re talking about a country that can decide what it deems most appropriate. At any point they can decide they need to have it back here. I don’t know when that will be, but it will happen, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Sagie doesn’t disagree.

“Hopefully one day somebody will wake up and say, ‘This is something we should do,’” Sagie said. “There’s a very good reason we had an office in Philadelphia for 50 years. Any time we have to close an embassy or a mission, there’s a lot of bad feelings. They get used to having an Israeli consulate and nobody wants to lose that.” 

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