Project Interchange came to fruition through the energy and leadership of Debra Berger. PI was launched in 1982, though Debra’s vision began to take shape many years earlier.
In 1973, during the war between Israel and Lebanon, Debra became increasingly concerned about what she felt was a lack of interest among Americans toward Israel and the Middle East.
This issue informed her graduate studies, during which she authored, “Who’s Doing What in Middle East Studies.”
A visit to Israel with her family in 1980 only increased Debra’s curiosity about the region. In a quest to further educate herself, she visited over twenty Middle Eastern study centers. Often, she discussed her findings and enthusiasm with a longtime friend, Hanan Baron, then Director-General of the Foreign Ministry. The two composed a plan for how Berger would channel her newfound knowledge upon returning to the United States.
Baron spoke of a small-scale delegation that had recently come to Israel under the auspices of the Van Leer Institute. Berger found this model of educational seminars in Israel for small groups tremendously compelling, and reasoned that the best way to reach the public was by first reaching its most influential figures. She formed Project Interchange with a deep commitment to presenting Israel in a fair and balanced light, designing programs that conveyed the complex and diverse nature of Israeli society.
Upon her return to the United States, Berger worked tirelessly to develop Project Interchange, operating first from her home, and then, through the generosity of friends, from an office in Washington, DC. Despite a largely negative public response to the program, Debra, with the aid of Judy Linowes, Mimi Charnoff, and a few more staunch supporters, forged ahead. They made contacts in Israel and worked with the Jerusalem Institute to develop and plan the seminars; and they did so without compensation. Their efforts were rewarded with unmistakable results, visible in the changing attitudes of seminar participants, and drawing increasing support for Project Interchange.
In 1992, Debra met with David Harris, then head of the Washington office of the American Jewish Committee. Recognizing the complementary missions of their organizations, Debra and David agreed in 1992 to integrate Project Interchange into the AJC family.