The packed hall of the AIPAC 2018 conference .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Attending the AIPAC Policy Conference is an incredible experience. Some 18,000 supporters of Israel come to Washington for three days of speeches from leading politicians, debates among experts on all things related to Israel, festive events celebrating Israel and its accomplishments, and a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby senators and congressman on behalf of Israel.
I’ve been to AIPAC before, but there was something about this year’s conference that stood out, reflecting an important recognition by the pro-Israel community: its religious component.
Veterans of AIPAC told me how a mere 15 years ago, people who observed the kosher dietary laws had to bring their own food to the policy conference since none was provided.
Knowing that, it was remarkable to see that all of the food served this week at the dozens of food stands, and the food provided at the many receptions throughout the conference – all of it – was kosher, with the highest levels of authorization. This reflects two realities: the number of religious delegates who now take an active part in supporting Israel, and the willingness of AIPAC leadership to accommodate their needs.
Before the conference, each delegate chooses the sessions they will attend. As I was building my agenda, I was stunned to see the many formal options offered for prayer services throughout the three days; and after choosing which minyanim I would attend, how they were automatically integrated into my personalized schedule.
Here again was AIPAC demonstrating a special sensitivity to the spiritual needs of a clearly growing observant delegate population.
On opening night, the new AIPAC president Dr. Mort Fridman was officially installed. It was simply stunning to see an Orthodox father of yeshiva- educated children begin his term at the helm of America’s top Israel lobbying organization, wearing a kippa.
What greater proof of the changing landscape can there be then seeing the Orthodox Jewish community taking a more active role in Jewish American organizational life – and the Jewish communal establishment being receptive to this change.
But of all the things I experienced this year showing me just how much the religious side of AIPAC is growing, nothing compared with the pre-conference Shabbaton the day before the conference started. A full Shabbat was planned that included traditional meals, numerous Torah-study sessions for participants to enjoy, abundant options for prayer services, and special booklets that AIPAC produced that included prayers and Torah reading as well as traditional Shabbat songs.
The Shabbaton concluded with all the participants gathered for a beautiful, musical Havdala service. It was magical.
This increase in the number of religious delegates, and AIPAC’s accommodations to meet their spiritual needs, is not a mere demographic adjustment, but a reflection of a transformation that has taken place in Israel, a transformation that will actually save the very existence and success of the pro-Israel lobby.
OUR TRADITION teaches that “the Land of Israel without Torah is like a body without a soul.” The Bible, which David Ben-Gurion referred to as “our deed to the Land of Israel,” makes it clear that our connection to the land, and our success in dwelling there, is based on a spiritual component.
That is why it was critical for the leaders of the Zionist movement to insist on establishing the Jewish state specifically in this land, and to reject any other possibility such as the Uganda proposal.
Broader Israeli society has come to accept that our connection to Israel must include a spiritual component.
While the secular founders of the state refused to allow the word “God” to appear in the Declaration of Independence, I have no doubt – as I argued in one of my presentations at AIPAC – that if that document was being written today, “God” would appear with the approval and embrace of Israel’s secular leadership, across the board.
A recent poll revealed that close to 80% of Israelis believe in God, and that Jewish tradition plays some role in their lives.
This is a reality not only for those living in the Land of Israel – there is no way the vibrant pro-Israel lobbying community in the Diaspora can remain strong in the years to come if Israel is simply a geographic location, with no spiritual component to it.
Once upon a time, when Israel was needed as a safe haven for persecuted Jews around the world, the physical space alone was enough to keep Jews fired up and passionate about its security and survival. But as Israel is no longer needed for that function, there has to be some deeper purpose to engage younger Jews around the world, to ensure that they take over the mantle of leadership of AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations. Enter religion. Enter faith. Enter spirituality.
AIPAC is to be congratulated, and thanked, for taking the responsibility to make this critical adjustment, enabling and inspiring Jews from all backgrounds to come together and work for the continued survival and success of Israel and the Jewish people.The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.