Counterpoint: US Jewry is not the center of the Jewish universe

Israel is the only self-contained and self-defined Jewish community.

david forman 88 (photo credit: )
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
It gets tiresome. The American Jewish community holds a major conference in Jerusalem and is upset that the Israeli Hebrew press does not sufficiently cover its deliberations. I am referring to public statements by some of the leaders who attended the recent General Assembly, which brought together major philanthropic Jewish organizations from the Diaspora. Let's put things in perspective. Israel is the only self-contained and self-defined Jewish community, responsible for its own decisions - economically, militarily, politically, diplomatically, educationally and religiously. Like it or not, Diaspora Jews cannot compete with this incontrovertible fact. While it is noteworthy that Jews from abroad hold an annual convention here, it does not mean that this should be the front-and-center story of what is happening in Israel on any given day. If the complaints were only confined to the lack of coverage by the Israeli press, that might be understandable. Alas, this was not the case. Instead, some leaders went on to attack what they perceived as inadequacies of Jewish life in the Jewish state, especially in the fields of education, volunteerism, pluralism and religion. What delusional world do these people live in? Do they honestly believe their own rhetoric? We are comparing apples to oranges. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, derisively stated: "Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Closing schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism." Judy Shereck, the national vice president of Hadassah, scornfully said: "American Jews don't understand why there are so many secular Israelis." Most surprising of all was Nachman Shai's obsequious statement (Shai is the senior vice president of the United Jewish Communities): "You have to appreciate their [American Jewry's] social involvement, their idea of community - something we [Israelis] don't possess." Building on this eminently errant statement, some participants claimed that Israelis can learn from American Jews about volunteerism because "Israelis are blase about philanthropy and charitable work." And finally, there were those who actually said that American Jews had a stronger sense of "peoplehood." WHERE TO start - perhaps with the self-serving hyperbole of Epstein, who presides over a diminishing Conservative community? What can he possibly mean by "living a life devoid of Judaism?" He is right, speaking Hebrew and closing schools on every Jewish holiday is not the totality of Judaism, but it reflects the totality of living a Jewish life as only experienced in a Jewish state - not as when you're living a compartmentalized Jewish life in the Diaspora, which might include attending synagogue for a Shabbat service or begrudgingly showing up at religious school a few hours a week. How many American Jews would Epstein estimate celebrate Shavuot? Is he unaware of the surveys that definitively demonstrate that self-defined secular Israeli Jews are far more observant and knowledgeable than self-defined non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews? EQUALLY IRRITATING is the attack on Israel's supposed lack of volunteerism. Let's leave aside the army, where young Israelis risk their lives defending the Jewish state, keeping it safe for the Epsteins and Sherecks to visit. There is National Service, half the university student population participating in a "big brother/sister program," dozens of organizations like To Give, Heart-to-Heart, Feed the Hungry, One Family Fund. I could go on and on. If one wants to see the full extent of Israeli volunteer organizations, go to During the Second Lebanon War, Israeli families, kibbutzim, youth villages, schools and hotels housed thousands of people fleeing the North. When there was an influx of Ethiopian Jews at the close of the Gulf War (which saw the abandonment of Israel by those Jews in North America who allegedly know so much more about "peoplehood" than do we), Israelis flocked to hotels where the Ethiopians were first placed to help them adjust. Thousands of Israelis "adopted" Russian Jews during the mass wave of immigration in the 1990s. At the height of the bombings on Sderot, Israelis streamed to the southern town to show their support - buying food, clothing, toys and then leaving them for the community's needy. Many young Israelis, after their army service, become emissaries to Africa, Australia, the former Soviet Union and, yes, North America. AND THEN there is the Four Mothers movement that prompted the withdrawal from Lebanon and Machsom Watch, in which Israeli mothers monitor the behavior of soldiers at checkpoints. Add to this dozens of human rights and civil liberties organizations which concern themselves with the moral character of a Jewish state. While Shereck bemoans the anecdotal perception that Israeli kids are secular, as if there is something inherently wrong with that, Israelis bemoan the indisputable reality that American Jews know so little of Jewish history, holidays, literature, Hebrew or the Bible. One has to make reservations months in advance to attend the weekly Torah portion program acted out at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem - attended by so-called secular Israeli Jews. Perhaps GA delegates might have joined the throngs of young people at the "secular" Kabbalat Shabbat at the port of North Tel Aviv. If not, they could have joined one of the myriad creative minyanim that dot the Jerusalem landscape, attracting many secular Jews. Every year, new mechinot spring up where teenagers - secular and religious - spend a year between high school and the army studying Jewish sources and doing charitable work. Every Israeli child who attends a secular grammar school knows that Hag Matan Torateinu is Shavuot, Hag He'aviv is Passover and Hag Ha'asif is Succot. How many typical Conservative kids or Young Judeans possess the basic Jewish knowledge of 10-year-old Israelis? AS FOR understanding a concept of peoplehood, with an intermarriage rate of more than 50 percent, what defines American Judaism is anything but peoplehood. American Jewish identity is chiefly based on a faith-based understanding of Judaism, whereby Jewish life is reduced to a religious expression only. Concepts of people, land, state, language and history are rarely part of the Diaspora Jewish lexicon. With all of Israel's many foibles - even failings - Jewish life here is vibrant, creative and pluralistic (consider the diverse political debates in the country). While there are indeed lessons that Israeli Jews can learn from American Jews, primarily regarding respect for different streams in Judaism, there are many more that American Jews can learn from Israeli Jews - specifically in the areas for which Epstein, Shereck, et al. are so critical. It would be far better for American Jews to herald their considerable strengths in their own right instead of by speciously attacking Israeli Jews. Prominent American Jewish leaders like Epstein and Shereck would do well to practice some humility. Let's set aside the rancor and learn from one another.