The state of Israel, now having marked its 71st year of statehood, is for many Jews not only a dream fulfilled but one that is still unfolding.
Israel remains a source of deep tension, alienation and even strife for others, particularly for young Jewish millennials. Organizations like If Not Now and Jewish Voices for Peace capture their frustration and outrage over what they see as unjust if not outright abuse of Israel’s power. Even J Street, the liberal Israel advocacy group, concedes too much for those young Jews who equate Zionism with racism, a notion even the United Nations overturned after initially adopting it as a resolution decades prior.
Since the establishment of the Jewish state, American Jews have poured endless resources into supporting “our” country, trying to pass along a love of Israel to their children and grandchildren. Still, the excitement Jews around the world felt after Israel recaptured Jerusalem from the Jordanian army and instituted religious freedom for all peoples in that ancient city is not felt as strongly today when those from the liberal streams feel they cannot worship freely at Judaism’s most sacred site, the Western Wall.
For many Israelis, American Jews live in a bubble of bliss, and their criticism is viewed as misplaced or miscalculated; running to bomb shelters is an activity American Jews do not know. American Jews’ existential being is not threatened in the same way, Israelis feel, no matter how many white-supremacist terrorist attacks occur in American synagogues. Their children are not drafted to serve in the military. They, we, do not pause for 120 seconds to remember our fallen soldiers or six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Like any other nation state, Israel has work to do in perfecting its society. Thankfully, there are countless organizations inside and outside of Israel, working tirelessly to rectify, educate and build their country into what they wish it to be. However, as this oceanic divide continues to pull apart our Jewish people, extremists on both ends of the political spectrum harp on the opportunity to demonize. The question then arises: is there enough interest and will across the waters to remain invested in our common fate? Do we even share a united destiny anymore? What is the future of the Jewish people?
These questions are part of what has led a new cadre of rabbinic entrepreneurs, of which I’m humbled to be part, to assess the landscape and try new models of engagement.
Shazur/Interwoven was founded by Rabbi Amitai Fraiman, a former tank commander in the Israeli Defense Forces. Fraiman calls Shazur “the reverse Birthright,” attempting to rebuild the relationship between Israeli and American Jewry. As its website connotes, Shazur introduces Israelis to the building blocks of American Jewry through a mixed educational approach, combining tours and onsite learning. Shazur offers its services to groups of all backgrounds and ages working with educational institutions, non-profits, federations and schools to lay the foundations for a healthier relationship between the epicenters of world Jewry.
Fraiman and I went to rabbinical school together and so, when his organization was seeking places to bring its cohorts of Israelis, they turned to Base, an organization I co-founded. Base empowers pluralistic rabbinic couples to open their homes to young Jews and their friends and have those spaces serve as convening points for Jewish life. Through hospitality, learning and service, Base meets Jews where they are and invites them into the wellsprings of Jewish tradition.
For our first collaboration, we hosted The Argov Fellows Program in Leadership and Diplomacy, a group of students from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university in Israel, committed to working in Israeli public life. After serving in the army, these young Israelis are studying law, medicine and science. They traveled to the United States for a week to meet with Jewish organizations and leaders. Some were native Israelis, others were European, South American or American immigrants. They broke bread with our Basers and shared a Shabbat evening of song, reflection and even fun.
For our second collaboration, we hosted a diverse group of leaders of the religious Zionist movement in Israel, including rabbis, educators and journalists. Most live in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, and they joined us in our home and listened to our basers, including one young woman who described how she had advocated for her high school not to hold a dance on Yom Kippur. She said she was devastated when an Orthodox rabbi denied her Jewishness on learning that her mother had converted to Judaism with a Conservative Beit Din.
One Israeli visitor explained to us that the synagogue service he attended earlier in the evening felt like he was witnessing the “Holocaust of American Jewry.” As the night went on, I talked about Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was earlier that week. I implored the group not to give up on us and in turn, I promised we would not give up on them.
For Shazur/Interwoven, there is no choice. As its name connotes, we, Jews, however fractured and tiny in number, are intertwined and forever bound. At the end of the evening, one fellow from the program asked how we might bring Base to places in Israel, like Tel Aviv, acknowledging plenty of secular Israelis who feel alienated from their heritage. Maybe there is some hope, after all, for us.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel in New York.