PEOPLE WALK at Jerusalem’s City Hall as the American and Jerusalem flags hang on the municipality building in 2017..
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Recently, I found myself in front of a classroom full of bright, engaged students from Shalem College in Jerusalem, facing a tough question with big implications.
A student asked, “Why do you care that I, as an Israeli, know about the American Jewish experience?” At first, I was a bit shocked, but his question identified a deeper rift that has developed between Israeli Jews and the global Jewish Diaspora and widened in recent years. Far from discouraged by this, I was more committed than ever to help him see that he was part of the answer to his own question.
The question he should be asking is not why I care, but why he should care. The answer to this signals a better way forward for mutual cooperation and understanding between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Though I have traveled to Israel regularly ever since I was a young man, I have never felt as committed to strengthening the US-Israel relationship as I do today. For most of Israel’s history, its relationship with American Jews was largely a one-way street: American Jewish support for Israel, financially and politically, stemmed from both amazement at the Jews’ having achieved the Zionist dream and a commitment to protect and defend the new state as homeland for all Jews.
However, as Israel developed, Israeli Jews became focused on their own national advancement and developing Israel’s own social and Jewish character, where Jewishness was intimately interwoven with civic, Israeli life. For Israelis, Jewishness gradually become Israeliness. As a result, 70 years later, young secular Israelis who are today second- or third-generation tend to have very few personal connections with diaspora Jews, and almost no formal education about American Jewish life. Young Israelis often don’t understand why American Jews are so devoted to Israel, hold strong opinions about Israel’s politics, and care so much about how Israel defines itself religiously and politically. The student who asked me that question certainly didn’t understand why.
His question points to a new but critical challenge the Jewish people face: the looming danger of fractures in our shared Jewish story, fractures that could drive us apart. Fortunately, these challenges are not beyond addressing and overcoming.
TO HELP bridge this divide and foster stronger relationships between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, the Koret Foundation has partnered with Shalem College to educate their students, the future leaders of Israel, about American Jewish communities. Each year, the Koret-Shalem Peoplehood Project brings a group of 15 students to the Bay Area for a weeklong immersive experience. For most of the students, this is their first experience with American Jewish life. During the week, the students experience the diversity, richness, and challenges of the most progressive Jewish community in the United States. The group meets with a variety of Jewish institutional leaders to gain insights as to what it means – and feels like – to be an American Jew today. In a time of filter bubbles and political tribes, this experience breaks down walls and helps Israeli and Diaspora Jews get to know one another firsthand.
What started as a pilot project based around a hypothesis is now a program that has exceeded all expectations. Tal, a Shalem student who participated in the delegation in 2018, described her transformation this way: “Before the trip, I felt distant from Diaspora Judaism and much more connected to my ‘Israeliness.’ But over the course of the mission I came to understand that there is a very strong emotional connection, which I couldn’t explain, between Jews from around the world. Like a really big family. I now feel that we are part of the same story, that we have a mutual responsibility for one another.”
As is often the case, the student put it better than I could have. Within just a few short years of this partnership, there have been countless transformations like Tal’s, where young people’s eyes have been opened to the shared Jewish story and experience that bonds Israeli and Diaspora Jews. We are different, but we are still deeply linked; and we all share the same challenge: finding ways to make Judaism relevant and honor our collective history.
Sometimes it just takes a mifgash, an encounter, experience to drive that point home.
And so, at the end of the week, the same student who asked me, “Why do you care?” came up to me and said, “I get it.” His explanation was simple and sincere: because it’s easy to focus on and lament what divides us, but it’s much more important to do the necessary, hard work of developing relationships and creating community around the values that we all hold dear and that are key to Jewish people’s future.
In these students, I see hope for the future.
The writer is the chief executive officer of the Koret Foundation, a San Francisco-based philanthropy committed to fostering Jewish life and culture worldwide. In this capacity, he oversees all Foundation business, leading the staff and board in executing grantmaking strategies and managing the Foundation’s assets.
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