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(photo credit: Rabbis for Human Rights)
A group of American Jewish college students and Israeli soldiers participated in a weekend on a birthright Israel program. After the Friday evening meal the Americans sang a shortened version of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). The Israelis remained silent.
Afterwards, one of the Americans turned to the Israeli sitting next to her and asked: "How is it possible that you do not know the 'Birkat'? It took a few seconds for the Israeli to recognize the word birkat, as it cannot stand on its own in Hebrew.
This bastardization of the Hebrew language provided an excellent segue for the Israeli to ask: "Can you translate into English what you just sang?" The American had no idea.
At the recent Herzliya Conference, one of the discussions centered on the Jewishness of the State of Israel, with the clear implication by speakers representing Diaspora Jewry that Israel has become so secularized that its citizens have become Jewishly ignorant. Given the rather sorry educational state of the American Jewish reality, such an accusation seems rather disingenuous.
Let us examine this reality on the American Jewish scene. For those Jewish youngsters affiliated with synagogue life, what are the educational possibilities of Jewish intellectual growth? In most synagogue frameworks a student receives two hours of Jewish learning a week. In that period of time, the youngster is expected to learn about Jewish holidays, liturgy, Bible, history and Hebrew.
Cognitively, one cannot absorb very much in such a limited amount of time. Psychologically, as well, a child understands that Jewish learning - and Jewish life - basically sits on a shelf, to be dusted off for two hours a week and then placed back on the shelf.
In most Diaspora Jewish households, bar and bat mitzva signals the end of Hebrew studies and confirmation signals the end of Jewish studies.
THE SPEAKERS at the Herzliya Conference who mourned the secularization of Israeli society seem to live in a contradictory world; for they readily admit that a trip to Israel is the best intellectual and emotional way to help young Jews reconnect with their Jewish self-awareness.
Indeed, such programs as birthright are built on the realization that even a 10-day visit to the country can do wonders, impacting positively upon one's Jewish identity in ways that years of Diaspora Jewish existence rarely approximate.
So what are these Diaspora Jews so exercised about? Are they doing some simple transference, shifting blame for their own failures by attacking Israel? Is a secularized Judaism in Israel such a terrible phenomenon, particularly if those same Jewish educators count on Israelis' secularism to inject a rush of Jewish adrenalin into Diaspora Jews' weakened Jewish identity?
Can these Diaspora Jewish experts, who live abroad, fairly comment on life in Israel? What is their definition of secularism? Would they say that speaking the Hebrew language, living by a Jewish calendar, studying Jewish history, Bible and literature, all constitute negative elements of our secular society? Were such a secularism to exist among the Diaspora Jewish community, these same Jewish "professionals" would brag effusively about the Jewishness of their constituency.
Further, given the religious chauvinism that is so dominant in Israeli society, a secular brand of Judaism may best protect the democratic nature of a Jewish state. Indeed, it is the secular Jewish courts that have been slowly limiting religious (Orthodox) coercion in the country. What would one prefer - a country that adheres to the religious Judaism of the National Religious Party or the secular Judaism of Meretz?
Those who launch a broadside against Judaism as practiced in Israel had better be well prepared to defend their own brand of Diaspora Judaism. Given the increase in assimilation and intermarriage of the Jewish community in the Diaspora, these Herzliya participants should be wary of their bragging rights.
WHAT DEFINES secularism - that so many Israelis do not observe Shabbat or keep kashrut? Actually, many Israelis, even among those who consider themselves to be secular, are in fact more ritually observant than the vast majority of Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora.
The bottom line is that the Herzliya experts are comparing apples to oranges. They have deluded themselves into thinking that one can talk about Jewish practices in Israel, the only self-contained and self-defined Jewish community in the world, in the same breath that one talks about a disparate and shrinking minority that defines the Diaspora Jewish existence.
And yet these Diaspora leaders do have something to say to us, but missed the opportunity to do so. They should have asked: How is it that a uniquely Jewish state is seemingly losing its Jewish way?
Wherever one turns there is embarrassment at what has become of the modern Jewish experiment in nation-building. There is corruption, a widening of the socioeconomic gap, a brutal occupation that is undermining our moral integrity, trafficking in women, exploitation of foreign workers, discrimination against non-Jews and a neglect of medical and educational needs.
It is the above concerns that should have been addressed at the Herzliya Conference. The debate is not between the pros and cons of secular Judaism versus religious Judaism, but rather about how those who represent these two expressions of Jewish life influence the nature of a Jewish state so that Israel will reflect the affirmative moral lessons and ethical guidelines of the Jewish historical experience as played out in our ancestral homeland.