When most communities convene to reflect upon and re-imagine their future, at most they may travel to a conference center on the edge of town.
But not Atlanta.
We have traveled 10,000 kilometers to spend a week in Israel, because there is no better place to reflect upon 21st century Judaism and no better setting to examine cutting edge social innovations.
Seventy of us, representing virtually every Jewish organization in Atlanta, are here to be inspired by Israel as it approaches its 70th birthday.
We come from one of the most vibrant, diverse and growing Jewish communities in North America – just ask any of the 10,000 Israelis who have recently moved to Atlanta to study or work.
We are a community aware of our challenges. We know we are living through a time of change unrivaled in Jewish history.
The institutions we have built and cherish need to evolve. New ones need to be created to address the needs of an assimilating and geographically spread out community that is desperately seeking meaning and connection.
This trip is a learning journey that taps into the latest Israeli experiences in immigrant absorption, Judaic studies, urban renewal and elder care. We will travel to the south to express our solidarity with front-line communities, yet also to learn from their experiences of resilience and social solidarity.
We will meet with Israel’s LGBT community and learn about their struggles and successes on the road to equality.
And we will spend time in Jerusalem, an incomparable city, and affirm our communities’ deep attachment to Israel’s capital.
We come with a sense of urgency. We know we must innovate to grow and prosper in an American social marketplace that has seen increasing political fragmentation and declining rates of religiosity.
Yet we also come with messages and models which we believe can strengthen Israel.
Our Jewish community is diverse and our commitment to pluralism makes us stronger.
We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform, with the latter being the largest in terms of membership. And yet, our Atlanta rabbis belong to a single, unified rabbinical council.
They study together and meet regularly in fellowship, even if they remain divided on doctrinal questions about Halacha (Jewish law), or gender equality or same-sex marriage.
In Atlanta and across North America, the Jewish community has pioneered a robust nonprofit sector that is the envy of most other ethno-religious communities, and a philanthropic model that an increasingly wealthy Israel can emulate.
We have traveled to Israel at a time of increasingly fractious politics in the US, and we will remind everyone we meet – including Knesset members – of the vital importance of maintaining bipartisan support for Israel.
We want you to know that Atlanta is a community that understands challenges and has also experienced collective pain.
Over a century ago, Leo Frank, a 31-year-old Jewish business executive, and the president of his B’nai B’rith chapter – was falsely accused of a crime and brutally lynched. That act of terrorism and extreme antisemitism gave birth to the Anti-Defamation League, which continues to fight for Jewish rights and the rights of all peoples.
WE ARE the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In Atlanta, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” Jewish bonds with the African American community remain strong. Our own Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, whose synagogue was bombed in 1958 by the Ku Klux Klan, had a close personal friendship with Dr. King and organized Atlanta’s celebration when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.
We are a community that is sober about Israel’s strategic environment. We have watched with pride for generations as successive Israeli leaders took risks for peace. In that spirit, we are meeting with Palestinians to explore possibilities for a shared future, a future defined by two states for two peoples.
We take pride in Israel’s democratic institutions and the progressive society you have built and continue to develop – in fact, we view ourselves as partners in further perfecting and improving Israeli society. Atlanta has supported human and social infrastructure and the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Yokne’am and the Megiddo region. We will be visiting our partners there on this trip.
It is this sense of partnership and a shared fate that drives us to send our young people to Israel, to visit and to study, in increasing numbers. Atlanta even sends its young people to serve in the IDF, and we have parents of soldiers in this delegation.
We care so deeply about the course of events in Israel that we were stirred to action last summer when Jewish communities across North America asked the government to uphold its earlier decisions in support of freedom of worship at the Western Wall.
When we hosted several Knesset members in Atlanta a few months ago, we shared our views with them openly.
It is not a litmus test, but it is a fitness test.
Without a clear sense that all Jews are welcome in Israel, our shared sense of unity and a common fate will become besieged.
We believe our expressions of dissent mirror the passionate and animated discussions that happen in Israel every day. They are evidence that within klal yisroel, we have a deep and abiding commitment to Zionism that can withstand debate and discord.
On this trip, we have thrown out the strategic plans, the charts and the spreadsheets and have chosen to interact with the creativity and fearlessness that has built the Jewish state.
With eyes and hearts wide open, we have come here to be inspired and to inspire in Israelis a vision of even greater Jewish unity.The author is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.