A marketplace of ideas

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 2013 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem.  Photo by Judy Lash Balint/JNS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 2013 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem.
Photo by Judy Lash Balint/JNS

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 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.

Speakers ranged in stature from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset members (MKs) 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 discussed 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, as making a place for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, as 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 that 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 JFNA chair of the board of trustees Michael Siegal.

Defining identity
The Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews was the elephant 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, also called the Maryland same-sex marriage referendum).

Statements by top leaders such as Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush, a group promoting religious freedom and diversity in Israel, that “the more and 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, speakers stressed 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 in Israel, one option; everyone can find [his or her] own place.”

Making the connection
That intrinsic Jewish spirit is something that thought leaders believe could be a secret sauce for reconnecting younger Jews with the Jewish people.

Statistically, Israel travel is one of the best modes for engaging young people and igniting their passion for Judaism and Jewish life — communal or otherwise. Studies of Birthright Israel have shown that Jews who travel to Israel are more likely to marry within the fold and better celebrate their Jewish identities.

Active dialogue surrounded a new initiative by the Jewish Agency for Israel, working with the government of Israel and nonprofits from across the world, to better engage 13 to 35-year-old Diaspora Jews with Israel and to enhance their Jewish identities. Plans are not formalized, but overall this collaborative initiative will bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and invest in Israel education on campuses outside of the Jewish state.

Misha Galperin, president of international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel, explained that this program was nearly a decade in the making, as it was Netanyahu who signed the legislation in the ‘90s that launched investment by the government of Israel in Birthright.

“This was the first time in history that Israeli taxpayers’ money was put into a pot that funded free trips for American kids, which many thought here [in Israel] was a criminal thing to do; it was supposed to the other way around,” said Galperin.
Since then, a number of other developments occurred, like the formation of MASA Israel, which was co-founded and is jointly managed by the government and the Jewish Agency.

“At this point, about $120 million a year are allocated by the government of Israel for various programs that have to with the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish communities [outside of Israel],” said Galperin.

When Natan Sharansky left his seat in the Knesset to become head of JAFI, he started exploring what might be next — after or in conjunction with Birthright and MASA.
About one year ago, the PM empowered a team to explore that question in conjunction with leaders in the Diaspora. A late April 2013 meeting held by the PM with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett solidified there would need to be something done.

“The prime minister said this is important for the Jewish people — that it is in the strategic interest of the Jewish people,” noted Galperin.

Several meetings, focus groups and a white paper, led to the Nov. 6 to 7 meetings of world thought leaders in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’Uma and the revelation that the government will likely double what it is investing now to ramp up programming for young Diaspora Jews. That money — though an exact amount was not revealed for the record — would be expected to be matched by overseas nonprofit organizations/philanthropists and by participants’ fees.

“This is a very different planning model. For the government of Israel, it is revolutionary. The government has never done this before — engaged in a collaborative planning process with Diaspora and on-governmental organizations,” said Galperin.

He continued: “This effort is moving ahead,” noting that between now and April when the government would have to present a resolution and ensure funding for the initiative is allocated in the fiscal budget, “exactly what we are doing, in what sequence, how it is going to be evaluated and all that, has to be worked out.”

The outcome could have a fundamental impact on the destiny of the Jewish people – not so much in terms of the types of programming but in terms of how the programming is being worked out — this new method of Jewish collaboration.

This is a first step in uniting and creating the sought-after one Jewish world.

Walls that separate
“Whether or not you choose to acknowledge it or not, the majority of the next generation of American Jews would not be eligible to legally marry in Israel. … They will be told, ‘Yes, you may come here under the Law of Return … but you won’t be able to marry. How will that bode for Israel’s relationship with world Jewry and America in particular?” said Regev.

The topic of civil marriage and recognition of other streams of Judaism in Israel was a recurring theme at the GA. In a panel discussion led by GA co-chair and Washington Federation leader Susie Gelman, speakers tackled the topic in an intense dialogue with no conclusion.

“This issue is a matter of growing concern because it involves issues of aliyah, hasbara and national security,” said Gelman.

And while the majority of the panel participants cited statistics of Israelis who want civil marriage (67 percent according to Regev) and showed maps of Israel lumped with the most heinous of countries like Saudi Arabia and Lebanon for its lack of freedom of marriage, the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Elefant accused the crowd — whose members’ political persuasions were apparent by the thunderous applause at the mention of civil marriage — of failing to “face the truth and the reality and the damage happening to the 71 percent of Jews who are intermarried [in the States].”

He said, “We try to fool ourselves by saying Judaism is culture, language, gefilte fish. Judaism has rules. We can either keep them or not keep them, but to make rules up and call them Judaism is not being intellectually honest.”

Rabbi Elefant said that while what one does in his private home is his business, the Jewish state should be governed by Jewish law.

“Our claim to this land is unique, it is biblical,” said Rabbi Elefant. “If we jettison Torah values, we forfeit our claim to life on this land.”

“Our quest for social justice comes from our Jewish heritage,” Yacimovich countered in a separate session.

A similar debate went on in another room where Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, dialogued with Ronit Peskin, co-founder and volunteer director of Women For the Wall (W4W).

Two Jews, three opinions. Can we come together?

Silverman said, “We must.”

“Coming together as a community is not just something that is nice to do. We have to do it,” said Silverman. “We must do more to shape our community as a collective effort.”

Now is the window of opportunity, said Horowitz.

“Think big. Dream big,” charged Siegal.

He continued: “Bring a big idea to the table, because one big idea, one spectacular idea, can completely reshape the world and change who we are as a people. … Together we can change the world.”

Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times, sister publication to Washington Jewish Week.

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