BOSTON – After several hours of travel delays between Tel Aviv, New York and Boston this week, MKs Nachman Shai (Labor), Shimon Ohayon (Likud Beytenu), Michal Rozin (Meretz), Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi), Itzik Shmuli (Labor) and Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid) were finally able to disembark and experience Boston’s version of spring: rainy, hailing and just above freezing.
Undaunted, this year’s crop of Ruderman fellows – the third group of MKs to make this US trip under the auspices of the Ruderman Family Foundation, with the aim of fostering greater understanding of the American Jewish community among Israeli politicians – sallied forth into the storm to be greeted by Brandeis University president Frederick M. Lawrence at a welcome dinner in his home Sunday night.
Over hot coffee and a kosher meal, the MKs got to confer with professors Theodore Sasson of Vermont’s Middlebury College, and Jonathan Sarna and Leonard Saxe of Brandeis, all experts in different facets of the American Jewish community.
As the MKs asked questions such as why more American Jews didn’t learn Hebrew, how many attended Jewish day schools, and how the various strata of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews interacted, the three experts imparted the differing views among Israelis and American Jews regarding intermarriage, patrilineal descent, what constituted secular Judaism in America, and how attached the millennial generation truly felt to Israel.
“There is a sense in Israel that once someone is intermarried, poof! – that’s it, they’re lost, it’s the end,” said Sarna, explaining that in the US, this wasn’t the case. In fact, he said, the oft-cited Pew study on American Jewish life revealed that even if a couple was intermarried, one couldn’t predict how the children would turn out.
“In America, intermarriage is a challenge, but it doesn’t mean all is lost,” in terms of keeping the children in the tribe, Sarna said.
In fact, said Sasson, intermarriage in the US is a surprising source of population growth, and young people today feel more connected than ever to Israel. According to Sasson, 59 percent of millennials who identify as Jewish have intermarried parents, overall a net gain in population, not a loss.
“Today, 65% of millennials with two Jewish parents, and half of those with one Jewish parent, say they feel highly connected to Israel,” he said.
“That’s compared to 20% of the entire population of American Jews in the 1990s. So we’re growing, not shrinking, but the character of the community is changing.”
“You have to help us, not hinder us,” Sarna added, pushing the idea that the Israeli rabbinate needed to recognize intermarried, patrilineal and secular Jews as Jewish.
All three professors made the case for Israel recognizing both civil marriages and Jews of patrilineal descent – a prospect at which half of the MKs present seemed to scoff, while the other half nodded vigorously in agreement.
Asked if there were a way for patrilineal Jews who attended Taglit-Birthright trips to extend their stays as long as matrilineal Jews could, Shai replied, “We’re now working on it.”
At the end of their first day in the US, all six MKs looked stimulated and engaged, despite, as Lawrence said, the promise of “absolutely no sleep.”
“By the end of this, we will all be much wiser,” Shai reflected.
Monday began bright and early with a conference and a meeting with six different Boston employers – including CVS drugstores and Brigham and Women’s Hospital – on how the Ruderman Foundation, Jewish Vocational Services, and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston worked to help integrate people with disabilities into the workforce. That effort has been a primary directive for foundation president Jay Ruderman, who said that Israel was sorely behind in this field.
“In Israel, the mind-set is that the government will step in and take care of these people and other issues,” Ruderman said. “There’s also a mentality of not wanting to show weakness. Even Golda Meir had a disabled grandchild who she refused to acknowledge. There’s an emphasis on segregation and separation. Israel needs to embrace a future of inclusionism.”
Rozin agreed, telling The Jerusalem Post that Israel was a diverse but segregated society.
“We have a lot of discrimination against Arabs, against the religious Jews, against disabled people,” she said. “The US is much more advanced with diversity and dealing with diversity. It’s starting to change in Israel, but we need more.”
Ohayon said he found it “amazing” to see the different attitudes toward people with disabilities in private business.
“For someone to say, ‘We don’t see this [hiring a disabled person] as a risk, we believe we will succeed and that our customers will trust us more – that’s amazing for me,” he said.
Solomon said he was going to try and implement some new programs when he was back in Israel.
Monday afternoon, the MKs lunched with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and several other Boston and Massachusetts state officials. Patrick, who visited Israel in 2011, touted Israel’s economic compatibility with his state.
“Israel is a center of innovation, some of it of necessity. The future had to be invented,” he said. “When we think of opportunities to build economic partnerships, it’s important for us to see that, and to build on that.”