People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, New York May 31, 2015..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘My heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost West.” It wasn’t Los Angeles that Yehuda Halevi had in mind when he penned this paean to Jerusalem in medieval Spain, but as I attended the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in LA this week, I had the sensation that it might have been.
There was no shortage of love expressed for Israel on the part of the nearly 3,000 participants attending this West Coast gathering of Jewish professionals and lay leaders, but also no shortage of pain. Throughout three days of plenaries, panels, and hallway conversations, the sensation of unrequited love was palpable.
“For decades – from even before the establishment of the state – we’ve rallied unconditionally to meet Israel’s needs, and we’ve given unstintingly of our time, money and energy. And now we’re being told we’re not welcome there, that our kind of Judaism isn’t good enough. Sure it hurts. It hurts bad,” said one veteran philanthropist during a round-table discussion.
“I don’t know what to say to my donors anymore,” complained another attendee, a seasoned fundraiser. “We’ve been patient for decades, but this time we had a deal,” he went on, referring to the cabinet decision regarding the Western Wall that would have granted official state recognition to the non-Orthodox streams. “Then they reneged. Tell me, how am I supposed to explain that?”
But the discontent was about something more profound than broken promises. It was about an imbalanced relationship. What I saw and heard during my time at the GA reminded me of what I felt when years ago I received a particular pair of coffee cups as an anniversary present.
They were designed as man-and-wife figurines with intertwined handles in the shape of arms. On one was inscribed “I need you.” On the other, “I love you.” I remember being struck at the time by the inequality of the relationship and wondering if any such liaison could last. I’m wondering the same thing today.
At present, it appears that North American Jewry and Israel are locked in an embrace woven of the love of the former and the need of the latter. For decades, I’ve been party to discussions among Jewish educators overseas as to how to instill within their students a love for Israel.
In Israel, it is a different discussion I have participated in, with ministers, prime ministers and members of Knesset dealing with the importance of ensuring the loyalty of world Jewry as “a strategic asset” of the Jewish state.
That loyalty is more tenuous now than ever. For several years already, we have been witness to surveys warning us that less than half the Jews under the age of 35 would consider the destruction of Israel to be a personal tragedy.
“What do you expect?” one of the most prominent rabbis in America asked me during the conference. “You’re going to have to earn the allegiance of the next generation. They don’t know from the Holocaust. They have no experience of antisemitism. They didn’t feel the elation of the Six Day War.
“And one day you’re going to wake up and ask how this happened, this estrangement. Where was the breaking point? I’m telling you now, it’s going to be less dramatic than that. It’s not going to be one day they’re with you and the next day they’re not. No, it’s a process. This is a gap that’s growing one inch at a time. One policy decision today, another tomorrow. Another inch, another inch.”
We in Israel tend to disbelieve in the eventuality of an unbridgeable chasm forming between us and our brethren overseas. This was reflected in the words of Ambassador Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul-general in New York. Fielding tough questions about the challenges facing our relationship, he insisted that “there is no final straw when it comes to the bond between us. There can be no divorce. We might all be Jews, but our marriage is Catholic.”
The loud applause greeting his remarks suggest his assessment is correct in regard to those already in the relationship. That shouldn’t lull us into assuming it will be so for the next generation.
“We’re their embodiment of what being Jewish means,” continued the rabbi I was speaking with. “We’re their exemplars of Jewish authenticity. What do you think it does to my congregants when Israel says to them I’m not really a rabbi? Who do you think they’re going to choose?”
In a sense, that is also the question that Richard Sandler, chairman of the JFNA Board of Trustees, put to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he addressed the GA at its final session via satellite. “Mr. Prime Minister,” he asked, “can you tell us what you are planning to do in regard to the government decision in the matter of the Kotel?”
After three days in the West, with some 3,000 dedicated souls whose hearts are in the East, I can only hope that his answer will be informed not only by weighing his need for North American Jewry against his need for coalition partners, but also by a love for Jews everywhere, which I believe he harbors. Our relationship requires some balancing, and it needs to begin here.The writer is deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the senior representative to Israel’s National Institutions on behalf of the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement. The views expressed herein are his own. breakstonedavid@ gmail.com