Analysis: The Global Jewish Shuk

PM Netanyahu at the Opening Plenary greeting attendees (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

PM Netanyahu at the Opening Plenary greeting attendees (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

It was a shuk — a marketplace — of ideas. Attendees heard new and familiar voices. There was an abundance of give and take.

At the 2013 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which ran from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12 in Jerusalem, participants had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the most important issues facing the Jewish state and the Jewish people. They learned, they were challenged, and judging from the buzz in the hallways and the smiles on the shuttles, North America’s top Jewish communal leaders and professionals were refreshed and renewed.

The messages: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh , all Jews are responsible for one another. This is a challenging time, but a time of great global Jewish opportunity.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the challenges that face us,” said Jerry Silverman, JFNA president and chief executive officer. “But the biggest challenge is something that I believe we take for granted until it is too late, and that is the idea that we are best when we stand together – as a single community, as one nation.”
A clear call to action: Unite.

A difficult appeal, judging by the dialogue and debate at the GA, which was branded “The Global Jewish Shuk: A Marketplace of Dialogue and Debate.”

Unlike a traditional general assembly, with dozens of sessions focused on solicitation techniques, storytelling and community study data mining (although a handful of these sessions did exist), the 2013 GA on the one hand, focused on Diaspora-Israel relations, on the challenges of a maturing Jewish state and on the need to celebrate Israel’s successes . On the other, there was much talk about Iran, the peace process and Israeli security.

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says Israel’s security is his first priority. (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

Speakers ranged in stature from the prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, Knesset members with and without portfolios (Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, MK Nachman Shai, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, MK Aliza Lavie and others) to leading Israeli CEOs, journalists and activists. The more than 3,000 participants unpacked what it means to be a Jew living in Israel versus a Jew living in the Diaspora, and they deliberated about ways in which the two contingencies can live with – and learn and grow from — each other. Talks tackled issues such as civil marriage in the Jewish state, making a place for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and the need for increased Israeli philanthropy.

Some speakers urged Diaspora Jews to lobby and help move the Israeli agenda forward. Others called on American Jews to support the state but to leave the politics and the policies to those who live on the land.

“I am disturbed by Jews who live abroad and don’t have a connection to Israel,” said Ziv Shilon, a 25-year-old captain in the Israel Defense Forces. “Think right. Think left. But for Heaven’s sake, think! … Even if you don’t live here physically, live here in your mind and your soul.”

“With a 71 percent intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox, the Jewish community in North America has a lot of work to do, and they should do it before they decide what we should do here. There has always been a policy that Jews outside of Israel do not mix into Israeli politics—right or left, more or less religious,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, chief rabbi of Dimona.

All speakers called on Israeli and Diaspora Jews to talk more, and more often. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro spoke about his focus on people-to-people bonds as the “undergird for bilateral relations” and said he hopes to build new and better opportunities for exchanges.

“Our work here in Israel is not over, but it is changing,” said the JFNA’s chair of the board of trustees, Michael Siegal.

 

Defining Identity

The Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews was the elephant– or maybe the large, purple gorilla – in the room, in that North American Jewish leaders are focused today on the study’s indication that Jewish non-Orthodox young people are not affiliating, are intermarrying and think the Holocaust and Jewish humor better defines who they are than synagogue life or religious rituals.

But what was striking during the conference was how quickly it became apparent that the struggles for self-definition, the push for a more pluralistic and individualistic Jewish identity, even within the confines of the open U.S. society, were not that dissimilar from the struggles of many Jews in Israel. And that the Israeli way of relating to Judaism may be similar to the growing cultural (as opposed to religious) affiliation of many young secular North American Jews.

Calls by leaders such as MK Shelly Yacimovich, chairwoman of the Labor Party, for a civil agenda, for support for freedom of religion and worship for all sects of Judaism, for a government that supports civil marriage and gay rights (including gay marriage) were met with thunderous applause. (In 2012, the non-Orthodox Jewish community was among the most vocal contingencies in the State of Maryland lobbying for Question 6, which was also called the Maryland same-sex marriage referendum.)

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Participants enjoy Israeli food before the opening plenary (Photo by AG for JFNA)

Statements by top leaders such as Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush, that “the more committed halachic Jews need to understand that pushing religion down the throats of Israelis endears Judaism to no one” nearly echoed the sentiments of young American Jews who sat on a panel about engagement.

“Young adults want Judaism like their music. They want access to everyone, and they want to make their own playlist,” said Rachel Hodes, planning associate in the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York.

“The Pew study confirms there is not one Jewish identity, there are Jewish identities. Regardless of all these different names that I have for myself [Sephardi, white Jew, Israeli, American], one thing that unites all of them is the fact that I am Jewish. … You can define in different ways and still be Jewish,” said Oren Okhovat, an intern at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In a talk titled “It’s Different Here: Is Jewish Identity in Israel Distinct from Diaspora Jewish Identity?” secular Israeli Jews expressed that they see the Bible as their inspiration but create a Judaism for themselves that resonates with them in 2013.

“I take inspiration from these stories [in the Bible], said Bella Alexandrov, director of Tor Hamidbar. “I don’t ask myself if it happened or if it didn’t happen. I take it as it is, and when I want to do something with it, I create from it a ritual to which I have a connection. It is not a source of authority, but of inspiration.”

“Judaism means history and heritage and family and a Jewish calendar and school system,” said MK Nitzan Horowitz in a separate session. “I see myself not less Jewish [than the rabbis] … even though I am secular. I feel Jewish, and I am 100 percent Jewish.”

The story of Jewish life in Israel, as speakers stood up and expressed at the end of the identity session, is best grasped through its people. And in Israel, while the news reports show a society of black and white, as one participant indicated, “There isn’t one kind of Judaism, one option; everyone can find [his or her] own place.”

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