Diaspora: A window into US Jewry

An Israeli delegation of senior gov't advisers travels to the US to see firsthand the challenges faced by Jewish communities there.

Capitol Snow 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Capitol Snow 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is not an uncommon sight to see busloads of American Jews who have come here to better understand Jewish identity and the Holy Land, sampling our cuisine and soaking up our culture. And while Israelis certainly flock to tour America, be it Las Vegas, Disney World or the famed “coast-to-coast,” it is rarer to find busloads of them arriving in America to better understand the American Jewish community.
One of those rare groups, a delegation of senior advisers to government ministers and parliamentary correspondents who spent more than a week in America trying to understand how the world’s largest Jewish community works, thinks and, yes, even eats, recently returned.
Jewish Federations of North America – the group behind many of the busloads traveling around this country – was also the driving force, together with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, in turning the tables.
To dispense with the stereotypes early on, the delegation was impressed by Marshall’s and Target. Although the members tended to be young, the majority were also religious, and so as parents of anywhere from one to five children, the advisers scraped together scant hours from their busy schedules to buy prized Li’l Tykes and Fisher- Price items that cost less than half of their price here.
The Finance Ministry’s representative on the trip – not yet baptized into the bargain-seeking rituals of Israeli parenthood – took due note of the efforts that his companions made, lugging bulky Pack n’Play collapsible cribs through the snow at 10 p.m., a hot-ticket item with a local price tag almost four times its American cost.
And yes, there was also the snow.
Lots of it. Sabras tend to react to snow in a somewhat regressive manner, by reverting to the winter fantasies of their snow-deprived childhoods. Tensions within Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and between journalists and politicos were fought out during a latenight snowball fight in Washington’s Dupont Circle.
BUT BEYOND the clichés, even the members of the delegation who thought that they already had a decent understanding of America’s complex Jewish life quickly discovered they had barely scratched the tip of the iceberg.
The awakening, for many, came on their very first day in New York, sitting bleary-eyed through a battery of introductory lectures in the Joint Distribution Committee’s offices after an all-night flight. The day began – as every day of the trip would – with bagels and cream cheese, and then featured a long list of community lay leaders and organization heads, as well as a panel consisting of a Reform, a Conservative and an Orthodox rabbi. That panel, and especially the presence of a woman rabbi, caused some raised eyebrows among the haredi members of the delegation.
The real shock, however, was when the religious and lay leaders alike expressed their concern, anger and generally high emotions surrounding what the Americans termed the “Rotem law.” The Israelis initially had little idea what their hosts were talking about, until the speaker was asked to clarify – the uproar, he said, as if it was the only possible issue of tension between American Jews and their Israeli counterparts, was MK David Rotem’s conversion legislation.
Israel Beiteinu representatives were visibly uncomfortable as speaker after speaker complained that the legislation was destructive to Jewish unity and harmful to US-Israel relations. Other members of the delegation were simply confused as to why the bill – one of a number of controversial pieces of legislation that the coalition has attempted to side-step through advisory committees and cooling-off periods – was such a key issue. Even the Knesset correspondents who had covered the bill throughout its progress were taken aback by the ferocity of the criticism.
THERE WERE positive surprises as well. Shas-affiliated delegates were stunned into short exclamations of satisfaction during a visit to the tony Upper West Side Jewish Community Center, where they saw Judaism reaching out to Jews through meditation, toddler gymnastics and a gym worthy of any New Yorker’s membership.
“This is really kiruv [drawing Jews in toward religion]; this is amazing!” one said, as he walked down a flight of stairs and saw the text of a prayer dominating the stairwell en route to arts-and-crafts rooms and a full kosher kitchen-classroom, where dozens of toddlers gather for weekly halla-baking.
The biggest revelation of all, however, was the Baltimore Jewish community.
In Baltimore, the delegation saw a Jewish community confronting poverty and unemployment, which surprised Israelis accustomed to seeing American Jews as potential donors.
They were impressed – particularly those who deal with social welfare issues through their ministries – by the private efforts of the Jewish Social Services Agency, where the question-andanswer session became highly technical regarding immediate responses to community members so poor they required emergency food baskets.
At the same time, however, the delegation saw the community’s deep connection to Ashkelon, its sister city, where Baltimore had organized toy drives for children stuck in shelters during rocket barrages, and even sent its own teens to live under rocket fire. The tough, determined Zionism of Baltimore’s Jewish leadership was a surprise for many, a lesson hammered home when they toured one of the community’s Jewish day schools, where they saw that the connection to both Judaism and Israel starts early.
In retrospect, the delegation cited the Beth Tfiloh school as one of their favorite stops on the itinerary, beating out even Capitol Hill, Fox News studios and the White House.
THE DELEGATION was less impressed by what many members perceived in Washington as a lack of concern by many official representatives of American Jewry regarding Jonathan Pollard. Member after member pressed speakers on Pollard’s release, and on what the many American Jewish organizations – including AIPAC – were doing to try to advance it. As the visit in Washington continued, tensions regarding the answers – or lack thereof – grew higher, until some of the delegates voiced open frustration that they thought that American Jews were not doing enough.
Although it is an issue that garners a wide consensus within the coalition – and even among many members of the Knesset’s opposition parties – the advisers realized that if they had misgauged the importance of the “Rotem law,” they had also apparently overestimated the amount of support that Pollard could expect from his fellow Jewish Americans.
Seven days, organizers acknowledged, was far less than sufficient to understand the entire dynamics of the American Jewish community.
And 16 Israelis, no matter how senior, is still far from the number needed to overcome some of the cultural misunderstandings and misconceptions that only became evident during the visit.
Nevertheless, this small attempt to bridge what sometimes seems to be a growing gap opened the eyes of at least a few people in key positions.
They realized that American Jewry is more than a hand signing a check or busloads of tourists unloading in Rehov Ben-Yehuda, but is itself a community working hard to define its own survival into the next century.