Meanwhile, Ben-Ami was for the first time beginning to nurse “a nagging curiosity about what it would be like to live in Israel and a real fixation on learning Hebrew. I felt that if I didn’t try it when I was in my 30s and still single, I might not ever do it,” he says. So, he moved to Jerusalem in 1997, applying for “temporary resident” status as a possible stepping-stone to making aliyah and working in consulting and communications.
In Israel, Ben-Ami found far broader debate than he had heard around his father’s table. “You couldn’t have a taxi ride, you couldn’t have a meal, you couldn’t have a meeting, you couldn’t go anywhere without an argument about politics,” he enthuses, “without a discussion of what was best: Are we going in the right direction? The wrong direction? Should we give up more land? Give up less?”
Personally, though, Ben-Ami found Israeli society harder to penetrate. He pauses uncharacteristically to shape his phrasing before plunging into an explanation: “If you didn’t grow up in Israel, and you’re making aliyah, and you don’t speak Hebrew fluently, and you didn’t serve in the army, in terms of professional opportunities and full acceptance into the society, there were some barriers to coming in at 35.” Despite his sabra ties and professional success, he concluded, “I didn’t think I could ever be 100-percent fully accepted as an Israeli.”
So, on December 31, 1999, he moved back to New York and began as policy director for the city’s high-profile Democratic public advocate, Mark Green. Just three weeks after arriving, he found a missing piece of his social puzzle when he met his future wife Alisa Biran, who worked in fundraising for a music school. Biran happened to be the daughter of his childhood cantor at Rodeph Sholom, and Ben-Ami’s mother and the cantor had once tried to set them up. But they were paired in the end by a website—and not even a Jewish one. “We had both tried JDate and we were both disillusioned with it, so we met on Match.com,” he reveals with a slight smile.
When the couple married in February 2001, Ben-Ami was deputy campaign manager for Green in his close mayoral race against billionaire Michael Bloomberg, then a Republican. After Green lost, Ben-Ami took his first job in the Jewish organizational world as New York-based regional director of the New Israel Fund, a charity that champions social justice in Israel and has drawn fire from the right for advocating on behalf of Israel’s minorities. He left in 2003 to join Dean’s campaign, where he was exposed to the leading edge of “netroots” advocacy—using the Internet to attract tens of thousands of small donors and to mobilize a cadre of younger supporters not usually reached by traditional campaign tactics.
While observing close hand the organizing methods that would prove so successful at MoveOn.org, the progressive political website, Ben-Ami’s bailiwick remained domestic policy—and, unexpectedly, the Middle East—after Dean’s “evenhandedness” remark blew up. Away from the microphones, he heard grumbling by many who agreed with Dean on Israel but felt too cowed to say so.
“The thing that struck me was how many people quietly would say the same thing that I was saying, which is, ‘I can’t believe this is the way the Israel issue plays out,’” Ben-Ami recalls. “These were big donors in Democratic Party politics, Jewish donors. So I was convinced there was a large group of people who just didn’t have a vehicle for engagement in American politics to express their views.”