Over the past several months there has been an analysis of the Pew Research Center study in the United States which focused on the feelings, actions and considerations of American Jews. In many ways, there were no big surprises. As Andres Spokoiny, the CEO of the Jewish Funders Networks wrote, “No bombshells, no surprises, no Jewish leaders pulling their hair and crying ‘gevalt.’ The Jewish population is growing at the same pace as the general population, and levels of affiliation are fairly stable. Dull. But dull is good!”
Yet at the same time, the question of Jewish peoplehood seems to be back on the table. Not necessarily in the terms that it was used when the 1990 NJPS study was released with regard to “Jewish continuity” but rather, do Jews feel connected to one another across time and space? Is there an understanding of interconnectedness to one another if we don’t necessarily share the same language and experiences? We certainly saw this in May of 2021, as there wasn’t a uniform voice of support by the American Jewish community while Israel was engaged in a military conflict with Hamas. This indicated for some, a withering of the seams in the strong fabric between US Jewry and Israeli Jewry. And the notion that Jews of different streams don’t feel as connected to each other as they might have in the past was concerning as well.
As a congregational rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in the United States, I am certainly aware that my experience and upbringing and therefore my expression of Judaism might be varied from people who grew up elsewhere. And yet I believe there are ties that continue to bind us and what I have witnessed over the decades, even if in small ways, is that there can and should be attempts to strengthen those ties. In the past, it has been through shared moments of expression of a Jewish community striving for a shared goal. For me, the most profound moment was in December of 1987 when as a 10-year-old, I marched, with my family and many others to free Soviet Jews.
A further way of creating bonds of peoplehood was through the use of Israel trips. In many ways, American Jews went to Israel to yes, learn about Israel, but also, in order to strengthen their own Judaism. Synagogue trips, Federations missions, teen tours were all crafted as a way of creating a bond between participants while using Israel as a campus to learn more about this sacred and shared history. Eventually, American Jews went to Israel to meet with Israelis to learn about their experience. The explosion of Birthright over the past two decades has been an attempt to solidify a connection between young Jews and the land, state, and people of Israel. However, for many years, this was “one-directional.”
But what I am seeing now, on a small scale, is Israeli Jews coming to America to learn about our experiences and to be in dialogue. This is the most important step. The “shared responsibility” of crossing the Atlantic to engage in dialogue to truly learn and understand who one another is.
Just as I got on a plane in May of 2021 in the wee hours of the ceasefire with other NY area rabbis to head to Israel to learn about the struggles, sadness, and fears, of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, so too, there needs to be a conversation taking place in the US so that Israelis can understand what American Jews are talking about and what their experiences are. Yes, Israelis need to listen and learn about the increase of antisemitism but Israeli Jews also need to learn about the creativity, adaptation taking place in the United States that is causing more Jews to connect with their heritage.
IT WAS with these themes as a backdrop that I immediately said “yes” to welcome Dr. Yoaz Hendel, Israel’s communications minister to our synagogue community for this past Shabbat. If we as American Jews, especially those of us in the non-Orthodox world, want Israel to understand who we are, what we value, and how we practice, we need to ensure that our spaces are open for conversation. And so I appreciated that Dr. Hendel openly and honestly shared that the current unity government of Israel appreciates that in order to strengthen the relationship between the two communities, he, as a representative of it, needs to show up and learn who we are. And yes, there might be disagreements, not only in areas of religious life but in areas of policy, security and law. But as he said, everyone needs to have a seat at the table to be a part of the conversation. Some opinions might have more weight depending on the topic, but the Jewish community should be sitting together.
But I also know that while presentations from government officials are crucial, and much appreciated, dialogue with Israelis throughout the country is also important to forge ties beyond narratives from the past. Over the past few months, I have had the honor of welcoming two distinct groups of Israelis who, despite their full-time jobs, are engaged in studies to learn more about the American Jewish community.
One visit took place in August of this year when the participants in the University of Haifa Ruderman Program in American Jewish Studies came to NYC. The Ruderman Program is offered as a master’s program in the Department of Israel Studies. It covers a range of issues pertaining to American Jewish life, American society and the long-lasting and important bond between the Jews of America, the State of Israel and Israeli society. The program caters to outstanding students who seek to expand their grasp of American Jewish life and who want to take part in a unique academic and intellectual experience.
The second type was comprised of Orthodox rabbis in the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Beit Midrash for Rabbinic Leadership in Israel. One cohort actually already visited in February 2020 and a second contingent from this program came earlier this month.
These rabbis meet while continuing their full-time work, with the goal of enhancing their leadership with the best of the YCT curriculum: unique talmud Torah, professional rabbinics, pastoral counseling, a sense of mission to inspire and enhance the Jewish people, and an encounter with unique aspects of the American Jewish community. In these visits there was an opportunity for sharing what is currently taking place in a community, what is similar and different to what is being experienced in Israel, and how the visit itself challenged perceptions of the American Jewish community. There were discussions about affiliation patterns, behaviors, choices made regarding religious practice and more. There were open and honest moments about areas of disagreements.
But the desire to come together and learn with one another superseded any tension or concern about whether the “right or wrong” sentence was uttered. As one YCT rabbi shared, he “saw the anxiety of choices in my face behind the mask, an anxiety that he too has experienced.” The camaraderie created allowed for further conversations, scholarship, and friendship. Since greeting the first group of YCT Fellows in 2020, I had the chance to not only interact with them at the AIPAC policy conference but to have a “Zoom reunion” during the height of COVID to reflect on how our synagogue community was responding to the pandemic.
None of these encounters will necessarily change people’s individual behaviors, certainly not in the area of religious practice, but what it does is open the lines of communication, which strengthens the bonds between the two largest Jewish communities in the world.
At a time when many are speaking only to those with whom they already agree and quite often it is the most extreme voices, on both sides, that are heard, bringing people together to a central location with a goal of listening more than speaking, can have ripple effects for generations to come.
The writer is the rabbi at Sutton Place Synagogue, a Conservative (Masorti) synagogue in Midtown Manhattan.