Needed: A new Jewish conversation


So many Jewish conversations recently have devolved into divisive rhetoric about Israel. Rather than being dialogues, these exchanges position one single-minded extreme against another. Missing are the age-old Jewish characteristics of civility and warmth.

For a moment, let’s shift the conversation from rights and wrongs to rights and responsibilities. Created in the image of God, we all have the right to be treated with dignity and have the responsibility to emulate Ben Zoma’s ethical charge in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from all humans.”

Hillel student centers across the country pioneered religious pluralism and can model it for the discourse on Israel as well. Instead of arguing about the dimensions of the Jewish homeland or which side of the political door one places oneself, perhaps we can emphasize Jewish values inside our homes and how they
define our Jewish lives and inspire our neighbors.

I firmly support a Jewish state of Israel that is central to my personal story as well as the identity of the Jewish people. But imagine taking a step back, retreating to a safe haven and leveraging Shabbat’s unifying beauty to unite our differences.

At Maryland Hillel, the unique Shabbat culture combines tradition, community, religion, culture and celebration, bringing more than 500 Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and unaffiliated Jews all under one roof — something unheard of in the Jewish community at large.

Hillel Shabbat serves as a great equalizer. A Birthright Israel alumnus who just celebrated Shabbat for the first time might find himself sitting next to a day school student who has always observed Shabbat. Students know that the broad spectrum of opinion brings out the best in them, forming a magnetic and welcoming Jewish community.

In November, 1,600 students celebrated the Gorlin Family Foundation Shabbat Across Maryland (SHABBAM) in more than 80 campus locations. The event broke down barriers and brought students together to eat and schmooze. The focus was on students enjoying each other’s company, celebrating Shabbat on their own terms and their commonality of being a Jew.

Can we try this in the larger Jewish community? Can we reach out to those beyond our own families and synagogue communities to invite others to our Shabbat table to explore together Judaism’s meaning and relevance? Let’s SHABBAD — “Shabbat Across D.C.” — together and open our homes and hearts to all: friends, co-workers and distant relatives who are anxiously awaiting our warm invitation.

This Shabbat, when our table conversations may focus on Israel and other topics that could sadly erect barriers between us, in the spirit of Shabbat menucha (rest), let’s call a Jewish truce and argue over whether one likes hard or soft matzah balls, brisket, gefilte fish or tofu, or talk about the relevance of the Torah portion or a good Jewish story. Soak up the moment simply spending precious time with friends, family and loved ones, and collectively recharging our spiritual batteries. Then, after Havdalah, let’s serenely discuss Israel with the noble Jewish value of mentchlichkeit.

Rabbi Ari Israel is executive director of University of Maryland Hillel-College Park.

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