Now is the time for Israel and American Jewry to work together

What a bitter irony to live in a world in which Israel is the one country in which a Jew does not have the freedom to express his or her Judaism.

Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel – and the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry – is at the core of everything I do as a rabbi.
Last year, my community of 1,700 families, the largest Conservative/Masorti synagogue in New York, was honored to host MK Yair Lapid, and the summer before that – the final public address of president Shimon Peres z’l to Diaspora Jewry. Day and night, I labor to create a vibrant, passion-filled, committed Jewish community with Israel at its center. To learn about Israel, to support Israel, to travel to Israel, to make aliya to Israel, to advocate on behalf of Israel, and most importantly – to love Israel. This is not just at the heart of my synagogue, this is at the heart of who I am as a rabbi and as a Jew.
Our problem, however, is that far too often for far too many American Jews, we are left to wonder whether Israel loves us as much as we love Israel. We see an Israel that does not recognize the Judaism we practice.
An Israel that does not acknowledge the marriages or conversions of American rabbis. An Israel that has allowed the symbol of Jewish unity – the Kotel – to become ground zero for fanaticism and intolerance.
An Israel that provides hundreds of millions of dollars to Orthodox institutions and none to non-Orthodox expressions of Jewish life. An Israel in which Conservative and Reform synagogues have been subjected to vandalism. An Israel that is entertaining legislation that would criminalize a woman wearing a tallit.
What a bitter irony to live in a world in which Israel is the one country in which a Jew does not have the freedom to express his or her Judaism. With every piece of legislation in which Israel declares itself hostile to religious pluralism, hostile to the Judaism we practice in the States, is it at all surprising that American Jews should find themselves increasingly alienated from the Jewish state? As a Conservative rabbi and as an American Jew, I find the situation deeply distressing. But as I said, it is not just my problem, it is our problem – it is a crisis we share together.
The majority of American Jews are Conservative or Reform. 50% of Jews who attend the AIPAC policy conference are Conservative Jews. More than 60% of the leadership of Jewish Federations are Conservative Jews. In other words, those American Jews who are most engaged with Israel, Israel’s strongest advocates in the halls of Congress and on the world stage, are being told explicitly and implicitly that neither they, nor their children and grandchildren, are viewed as legitimate by the very country they so bravely support.
It would be a mistake to attribute the news of last week’s UN resolution solely to the behavior of an outgoing American President – to differences of policy or personality between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations.
When future historians look back on this moment, the gap they will discuss will not just be the one between America and Israel, but between American Jewry and Israel.
Somewhere in all the political calculations, the American administration understood that a gap exists between the vast majority of American Jewry and the actions of Israel. American Jews are not citizens of Israel; it is not our place to tell Israelis how to govern their own country. But there is a moment, a moment in which we are living right now, that American Jewry’s historic reflexive support of Israel will no longer be a given.
American Jewry isn’t able to reconcile the dream of Israel as a liberal democracy and the death of the two-state solution; it is unable or unwilling to defend Israeli actions in the court of world or campus opinion. God help the person who criticizes a member of my family whom I love and loves me unconditionally, but for someone whose love for me is in question – well, that person, or in this case, that country will have to learn to fend for itself.
Now is the time for Israel and American Jewry to work together – taking steps, both substantive and symbolic, towards healing our relationship. As we near the one-year mark since the Kotel agreement, now is the time to show leadership, courage and determination to make sure the decision of the Israeli government is brought to completion.
On the question of funding non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, on matters of marriage and personal status, on mikvaot and especially conversion – any and every step Israel can take towards cultivating a sense of arevut, of shared destiny – will send a powerful message.
It is a contradiction of Israel’s most basic premise and promise to allow Jewish identity to be defined by the most extreme segment of Israeli society. It is insulting to American Jewry when Mosaic, Israel’s bold initiative to bolster Jewish identity in the Diaspora, is overseen by an education ministry that opposes the recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Seeds must also be planted. If Israel is truly interested in the future of world Jewry, now is the time to include an understanding of all religious streams in Israeli curricula, to build bridges between Israeli and Diaspora Jews by way of mifgashim, mechina gap year programs, visits by Israeli MKs, mayors, and thought leaders to Conservative and Reform congregations and otherwise. The dialogue between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry must be inclusive, collaborative, transparent and done in a spirit of cooperation and pursuit of the collective welfare of the Jewish people.
As Jews, we are defined by our ability to see the world through the eyes of another and act accordingly. Ethically, in the words of Hillel, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” As a people, it is the ability to see a Jew elsewhere in the world, and say: “I could be you and you could be me.” The relationship between American Jewry and Israel will heal when and only when we begin to act upon the mutual obligations that come with ahavat Yisrael – a love of every Jew.
Like two strings on a violin, American Jewry and Israel, though separated by a distance, when touched by a bow, can make a beautiful sound together. Am echad im lev echad – one people with one heart; in dialogue and partnership, passionate stakeholders in a shared destiny.
Elliot Cosgrove is the Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan. The text is based on a speech given to the Knesset lobby for nation, religion and state alongside Knesset members Alisa Lavie, Elazar Stern and Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky.