People participate in the "Celebrate Israel" parade along 5th Ave. in New York City, US, June 4, 2017. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/STEPHANIE KEITH)
The Knesset was an intense place this past week. On the heels of the government’s decision to freeze the compromise it had approved regarding a third Western Wall plaza, and its initial approval of legislation giving the Chief Rabbinate total control over conversions, the parliament halls were overflowing with activists from both sides of the issues. With leaders of world Jewry making their rounds in the building, numerous emergency meetings were being held to find a way to either reverse the damage that was done, or to make sure the government’s decisions were upheld.
Sadly, while ministers and Knesset members were shuttling through the halls and committee rooms, they missed an exhibition in the Chagall Hall called “Journey Through Their Eyes.” There on display in honor of Israel’s 69th birthday were photographs taken by participants of the Jewish Agency and Israeli government’s Masa program.
The photographers – mostly non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews – had chosen their own pictures that they felt best captured why they love Israel.
Picture after picture identified the Masa participant and why he or she chose that particular image, an exhibition nothing short of a celebration of the love which Diaspora Jews feel toward Israel.
Pia from Germany showed a picture of many different populations intermingling, describing how she loves Israel’s diversity. Jon from the United States chose a shot he took of a demonstration against the government, writing: “Israelis have mastered the art of taking what they do seriously without taking themselves too seriously. That outlook is something I think we can all learn from.”
Elana, also from the United States, asked to have her portrait of a tree in the desert displayed. “This photo is representative of Israel’s legacy,” she explained. “The pioneers of this country transformed the desert land into a lush and agriculturally successful country. Even in the Negev, life still grows.”
Standing in that historic hall and reading how these Diaspora Jews, each in his or her own way, connected to and came to understand Israel during their time here, I wondered how government ministers and MKs could be having debates in nearby rooms about the relevance of Diaspora Jewry. Israel means so much to them. How can we not do whatever possible to embrace them and strengthen that connection to Israel? A photograph of the Western Wall by Chaviva from the United States read: “Since childhood I’ve always dreamed of coming to Israel. As soon as I stepped off the plane I knew that I had come home. There is this mighty feeling that is hard for me to explain – my love for my land.”
A young woman named Polina from Russia chose a picture of a dramatic sunset which she titled “Déjà vu,” explaining: “Beautiful place which you see for the first time. You know almost nothing about it but start feeling that you want to stay here forever. Like you’ve been here long time before.”
The irony was self-evident. Reading the descriptions of the desire each one of them had to come to Israel, and the intense connection that they felt while here, I could not help but think: Are we crazy? Have we lost our minds? There are millions of Jews throughout the world who already feel or will at some point experience this connection to their homeland, and we are letting petty politics push them away from Israel, instead of doing everything possible to foster that connection and love for this special land? And then I noticed the most painful aspect of this exhibit: three photographs from Masa participants who live in the former Soviet Bloc.
Kamilla from Ukraine felt that her picture of two hassidim walking in Mea She’arim captured what she loved most about Israel, which she described as “faith and sincerity.”
Erna from the Czech Republic loved a picture she took on Purim showing children in costume and explained: “Happy that I can be in Israel, in Jerusalem, and live Jewish life with my friends.” And finally, Arteem chose a picture he took of a man talking to his grandson at Yad Vashem with the caption “Survival,” since he saw the passing of the torch from generation to generation as “one of the main motivation factors in the lives of those who came before us.”
What if those kids from the former Soviet Bloc were eligible for aliya, but not considered Jewish enough by the rabbinate? How much more dedication would they need to show to be converted Orthodox? Does your average Israeli show the kind of love for Israel and the Jewish faith that these kids do? Yet sitting a few hundred meters away were ultra-Orthodox politicians defending the new conversion bill, essentially closing the door on young adults like these ever joining the faith to which they so clearly feel a connection and attraction. Ironic indeed.
If only the prime minister and his coalition partners would have strolled through the Chagall Hall to remind themselves, or for the first time to educate themselves, about Diaspora Jewry.
These photographs and captions are a stirring testament to a group of people who deeply love Israel.
But does Israel love them? The writer served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.