Voices from the field
An Interview with Amy Friedkin
For Women’s History Month we spoke with Amy Friedkin, who has dedicated her life to strengthening ties between Americans and Israelis. In 2002, Amy became the first woman to lead the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a post she held until 2004. She currently serves as president of Israel21c, an organization whose mission is to present “Israel beyond the headlines.” Amy and her husband Mort visit Israel frequently, have had homes there and cherish their relationships with many Israelis. In this interview, Amy reflects on her leadership roles in the Jewish community.
How did you begin your involvement in the Jewish community?
We moved to a part of the San Francisco Bay Area that didn’t have a lot of services for the Jewish community; no community center, no nursery schools, no day schools. We felt like pioneers out there.
I learned quickly that if you want things done, you have to take action. There was a small Jewish nursery school in the community that was thinking of closing down. My son was enrolled there, and I went to the Board of the Federation (which was 95% male at the time) with a group of Jewish parents and worked to keep the school open, and expand it. That was the beginning of my involvement in the Jewish community.
What or who first connected you to Israel?
My first trip to Israel was as a young adult when I was asked to lead a trip even though I had never been there before. Nothing like giving someone responsibility to bring them in! I remember the people we met and only vaguely the places we went. I think that being with Israelis and their families is much more meaningful than any one place that you go. Every trip I ever organized always had home hospitality and involvement with Israelis.
This first trip expanded my involvement to young leadership and visiting Israel often. Mort and I decided to get married in Israel to make a statement about how much it meant to us. When a mission was cancelled in the 1990s because of the pending Gulf War, we still went to Israel to be with our friends there. We ended up being there for 10 days of the Gulf War. We bought an apartment and built a home there, so the involvement has just grown.
What challenges have you encountered being a female in a senior leadership role?
I think the challenge is to engage more women in the higher echelon of leadership. I don’t see it as any resistance from men in professional leadership, but rather, getting women to agree to that level of commitment and leadership, because it’s a huge time commitment. It’s a challenge for women to balance their work at home and in the workplace.
What opportunities have you encountered?
In terms of Israel advocacy involvement and activity, women are uniquely qualified to do this work. It’s all about forming relationships, and women are great at that.
I remember when I first became AIPAC president, the women of the US Senate were kind enough to invite me and the other board members to a dinner honoring AIPAC’s work. I was so impressed with these women and their motivation towards political action. They are businesswomen, teachers, social workers, and mothers who have those other lives and have been motivated, like we are, towards political involvement.
What is your favorite thing about the work you do?
The relationships you build. I take elected officials, from a range of backgrounds, to Israel and I love seeing Israel through their eyes. I think these trips are some of the most important things that we can do.
In my work for Israel21c, it’s showing Americans the real Israel, real Israelis. Who they are and what they’ve managed to do with their creativity and innovation, and how they add value to the lives of Americans every day.
Your involvement in organizations has ranged from AIPAC to Israel21c. What’s the common thread throughout?
They all, in their core, have something to do with strengthening people’s commitment to Israel.
How has your involvement in the Jewish world impacted your children and grandchildren?
When I raised my children in the San Francisco Bay Area, we didn’t have the luxury of day schools, so I sent them to Jewish summer camps. Now, my grandchildren are lucky enough to be in a community with day schools, so all three of them go there. I think they are in that school because my children have seen my commitment to the Jewish community and the importance of making sure that our communities offer a wide range of Jewish educational services.
What do you think your children or grandchildren would say about the work you do?
The first time I took my oldest grandchild to Washington, we met with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and other elected officials. My granddaughter got a sense of the empowerment of women. We took her to the FDR Memorial and the first thing she said to Nancy Pelosi was, “Are you as powerful as Eleanor Roosevelt?” I think my grandchildren understand that women can wield power. Jewish women can wield power. And they can make a difference.
They also understand how important Israel is in the fabric of our lives. I have taken my children and grandchildren multiple times to Israel. I want my grandchildren to forge bonds with kids in Israel. To me, that’s the most important thing.
Amy Friedkin is the first woman to lead America’s pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 2002-2004. Still active in AIPAC, Friedkin meets regularly with our country’s leaders in Congress to ensure that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong and secure.
Friedkin is also President of Israel21c, an organization whose mission is to present the “Israel beyond the headlines.” ISRAEL21c is an educational, non-profit foundation that enlightens and inspires through its content about contemporary Israel, focusing on the creative energy of Israelis and their contributions to the world.
A native of San Francisco, Friedkin raised her two sons and became a leader in just about every aspect of Jewish life in the Bay Area, including President of her Federation.
She and her husband, Mort, have deep ties to the Jewish State. They were married in Jerusalem, built two homes there and visit often.