Despite the growing rift between Israel and North American Jewry, there are points of agreement, one of which is that new paradigms in the relationship are sorely needed.
This is what prompted the theme of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which is taking place in Tel Aviv this week.
As a curtain raiser for the event to be addressed on Monday by President Reuven Rivlin, leaders of the different Federations gathered at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem early on Sunday morning to listen to a panel discussion about the changes in the relationship.
Prior to the discussion, some of the people in the hall who are extremely involved with Israel commiserated with each other that between the GA, the Prime Minister’s Conference and the Jewish Agency, they had no time to catch up with relatives living in Israel.
Cindy Janower, Chair of the Board of Directors for Combined Jewish Philanthropies, lauded Rivlin in an introductory address for consistently speaking up on behalf of Israel’s minorities and for advocating pluralism in Israel.
She also said that there is a feeling that respect for American Jewry by Israeli leaders is diminishing.
Departing very slightly from his brief written welcome speech that began with the words “My dear friends,” Rivlin added the words “brothers and sisters,” which he uttered ahead of friends. Before taking on the role of president, Rivlin had difficulty in accepting Conservative and Reform Judaism, but his attitude has changed over the years.
He said that for him, the morning’s event was an important opportunity to have an open and honest conversation, and to learn of the North American perspective of Israel. He told his guests, “This house, as well as my heart, are always open to you. We have disputes, but disputes don’t necessarily lead to divide.”
Rivlin also employed the Hebrew word for healing, stressing the importance of becoming family again, and becoming sisters and brothers again.
“It is always possible to regain the deep feeling of family even if we feel distant from each other,” he said.
Zionist Union MK, Nachman Shai, who is very familiar with the American Jewish scene in its many components, was the moderator of the panel.
“Israelis lack a basic knowledge of American Jewry,” he said. “The issues are much more complex than we realize and we need to have a change in paradigm. We’re so much engaged with ourselves that we don’t pay attention to you.” He underscored that it was particularly essential to educate members of Knesset on what it means to be a Jew in America in these days.
Noting the importance of the day in Israel’s calendar, which marked yet another anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Shai wondered aloud if things might have been different had opposing factions talked to each other.
Panelists were Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA Federation of NYC, Erika Rudin-Luria, incoming president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and Shira Ruderman, executive director of the Boston-headquartered Ruderman Family Foundation.
Pointing to the difference between young American Jews today and the generations of their parents and grandparents, Goldstein said that they did not know the Holocaust, the Six Day War or the Yom Kippur War. Today, the focus of young American Jews is social justice. They are against settlement and the Nation-State Law, as well as other policies which they perceive to be unjust.
This applies not only to young American Jews he continued. “There is an increasingly growing disconnect between non-Orthodox American Jews and Israel,” he said.
The concept that Israelis have of North American Jews is “severely flawed,” he declared. Citing as an example the large attendances at Conservative and Reform Synagogues on New York’s East Side, he insisted that these are vibrant communities. Many people who have always loved and supported Israel have questions, said Rudin-Luria.
“When a politician says something that’s reported in the media, to the person reading it, that is Israel,” she said.
Ruderman was of the opinion that there is more awareness among Israelis today of the need to establish a stronger relationship with American Jewry. The initial relationship was based on investing in Israel and was not so much people to people she explained.
“We have to have a conversation that is not based on crises,” she said. But then she posed the question about where the conversation should take place and who should be part of it.
“We’ve forgotten that whether people are Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, they all think of themselves as Jews,” she said.
There was consensus that Israelis and American Jews need to find a common language. Goldstein was offended by references to Diaspora Jews which, in his view, is a negative connotation.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, thanked Rivlin for opening the residence to JFNA leaders and said, “We are convinced that by having the conversation, speaking out and listening carefully to each other, we can create a new connection between our communities – those of world Jewry and of the State of Israel – and prove again that we are one people and that the bonds between us are unbreakable.”