1. It was an incredible sight. Dozens of children were sitting there – girls and boys, with different skin colors, all singing in Hebrew, enunciating every word correctly, in Hebrew class in a public school in Harlem, New York. Ilana Mor is the director of language studies at the school, and the walls are covered with colorful posters featuring Hebrew song lyrics. Each classroom is named after a city in Israel: Arad, Hatzerim, Rahat, Ashkelon and Eilat. Anyone can attend this school, and students don’t have to prove anything to get accepted. The acceptance committee isn’t allowed to ask about the background, ethnicity or religion of applicants. The school is supported by the Steinhardt Foundation, financed by the city, and the school’s board sets the curriculum.
It’s curious to see children in Harlem telling jokes, singing and speaking in Hebrew, and learning about Israel. There are 13 such schools in the US, and this is just one of the ways in which the American Jewish community is aspiring to support Israel and improve Jewish education.
2. Last week, I joined a delegation of Israeli civil servants, members of the media and economists organized by Gesher and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs in Washington, DC and New York investigating the changing relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. A number of central issues are tearing the two apart: Israel’s chief rabbinate; conversion; the Kotel Compromise; and a growing sense of alienation between Israel and world Jewry.
“It’s hard for us to love a country that does not love us,” a representative from the Washington, DC Jewish Federation told us.
It was in New York City that Eric Goldstein, head of the largest Jewish Federation in the world, expressed his frustration that members of the New York Jewish community who had expressed views contrary to the Israeli government had been questioned extensively by Israeli security personnel before being allowed to board their plane. Goldstein also claimed that the Israeli government was infusing politics into American Jewish communities. For years, about 70% of American Jews voted Democrat, and yet somehow Bibi Netanyahu succeeded in turning these people into illegitimate leftists. In Washington, DC, Israel ambassador to the US Ron Dermer refuses to meet with representatives of the Jewish lobby J Street. In the past, J Street was considered a left-wing lobby, but over the years other much more extremist lobbies have popped up making it seem almost centrist. Actions taken by the Israeli rabbinate, Netanyahu’s politics and Israel’s disdain for American Jewry are the main causes of the American Jewish community’s alienation from Israel.
3. We sat together at a table in New York with Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis. Such an event could never have taken place in Israel. The three of them were friends. They hugged one another and kibbutzed a little. All three of them were good Jews, well versed in Jewish liturgy, melodies, and that week’s Torah reading. Another thing they have in common is their disgust for petty Israeli politics. The Orthodox rabbi also happens to be a science professor at Columbia University who supports the Reform community (“better that they don’t leave Judaism completely”).
Speaking to the Israeli contingent, he said, “Whoever does not want or cannot participate in an Orthodox minyan should join the Reform community – that’s good enough for me.” We were not used to hearing a religious person express such pluralistic opinions.
4. Hundreds of people, including many prominent Jewish New Yorkers, come every Shabbat to pray at Manhattan’s beautiful modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue. A number of us arrived at the synagogue Shabbat morning, but were turned away by the guard at the entrance. Disappointed but determined, we found a Reform synagogue nearby with a female rabbi with a rainbow-colored head covering, and a female cantor named Ayelet who led the congregation in the delightful singing of Hebrew prayers. I’d never experienced anything like this in my life. We were warmly welcomed. We saw three-generation families and began to understand the story of Judaism: If you’re not welcomed in one place, move on to another where you will be welcomed with open arms and with love.
5. Nine-hundred boys and girls learn in a Jewish school in Maryland. It’s a very Zionist school, and all the students take great pride in Israel and the IDF. It’s very expensive to be Jewish in the US. Tuition at Jewish private schools can cost $35,000 a year. The school boasts a gym with a basketball court, state-of-the-art science labs, an auditorium where theater classes put on professional renditions of shows like Fiddler on the Roof, Mama Mia and Casablanca. Some of the students are planning to serve in the IDF after high-school as lone soldiers, who will then be considered as heroes. Tzuriel, the school’s Beit Midrash (Torah learning center) is located in the center of the school, where religious and secular Jews alike sit and learn Jewish texts. The community invests considerable resources in the school, whose function is to preserve young members’ Jewish essence and cultivate their love of Israel. For now, it seems to be working.
6. Our next stop was the offices of GatherDC located in Georgetown, one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Washington, DC. GatherDC is a Jewish organization that provides innovative opportunities for DC Jews in their 20s and 30s to connect to Jewish organizations and to each other. The seven staff members are always thinking outside the box in search of new ways to bring young Jews together. There are currently 700 members, and 6,000 former members. They organize parties where alcohol is served, Jewish study sessions, and business ventures. They also coordinate with OneTable, which organizes Shabbat dinners at hosts’ homes for young people in cities across the US.
7. At Yeshiva University, a prestigious institution of higher learning in Manhattan, its president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman is busy training the next generation of American Jewish leaders. Of the 7,000 students, 2,000 are non-Jews who chose YU because of its superb quality of education. Berman, who resided in Neve Daniel before accepting the presidency, is the first head of school who holds Israeli citizenship and many YU graduates serve in the IDF after graduation (with more than 20% making aliyah). The school offers a distinguished cyber program, which draws IDF Unit 8200 graduates. On top of their academic studies, every morning hundreds of YU students can be found in the Beit Midrash learning Torah before class. Rabbi Berman says that nowadays there’s no need to distinguish between Orthodox and Reform Jews. “For the younger generation, a Jew is a Jew.”
8. Jews in New York and Washington, DC point accusatory fingers at Netanyahu, claiming that his government “is patronizing and has alienated the American Jewish community. They only need us when they’re in search of funding.” They realize that Netanyahu believes that the non-Orthodox Jewish communities in the US are disappearing due to low birth and high intermarriage rates. But I think this strategy is a mistake. The American Jewish community is incredibly important to Israel’s security and status in the world.
9. At the end of our week-long trip, we all asked ourselves what we can do with the overwhelming amount of information we’d been exposed to. It’s clear that Israeli school children should be learning about world Jewry; that the American and other Jewish communities around the world are an important component in Israel’s security; and that Israel’s National Security Council, Foreign and Defense Ministries also need to be involved in policymaking, and not just the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. We need to be more sensitive when it comes to security checks at Ben-Gurion Airport, and we must carry out a complete overhaul of our relationship with the American Jewish community. It’s not acceptable to continually ask them for donations and to send their boys to serve in the IDF without expressing our love for and acceptance of them.
10. I was honored to participate in this incredible delegation of civil servants, including: Eyal Ram, Israeli Ministry of Education deputy director general; Yair Pines, the Israel Land Authority; Yanki Quint, Government Companies Authority director; Shay Rinsky, Ministry of Economy and Industry director general; Ofer Margalit, Ministry of Finance deputy director of budgets; and Harel Tobi, director general of the President’s Office. All of the above-mentioned could easily be earning much larger salaries in the private sector, but choose to use their talents for the benefit of the State of Israel. The public has reaped the fruits of their hard work and devotion.
Shabbat shalom.Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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