Tel Aviv — The theme of the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), meeting here for the first time, was a surprisingly blunt phrase: “We Need To Talk.”
It seemed to suggest a reckoning was at hand, a gloves-off dive into the hot-button issues that have led to a deepening rift between world Jewry’s two largest communities, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu as polarizing political figures; the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of liberal denominations; the controversial conversion and nation-state bills; the treatment of African asylum seekers in Israel; and the disaffection with Israel among a growing number of young progressives.
And what better forum than this year’s GA, the most significant conference on the Jewish calendar, which brought together 3,000 delegates, according to JFNA officials, about evenly split between North American and Israelis? (The GA is held every five years in Israel, until now in Jerusalem.)
But on Monday, the first day of the three-day program, at least, while there were many references — during the opening plenary and the sessions I attended — to the fact that North American and Israeli Jews are moving apart, and the program notes acknowledged “the challenges of divergent political viewpoints and cultural and religious expressions” within the two communities, I witnessed only one brief moment of sharp conflict from the podium.
That came about during the opening plenary at the convention center, when Sara Greenberg, the prime minister’s recently appointed adviser for world communities, was asked by the moderator, Ofer Bavly, an official of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, whether Jerusalem can afford to alienate diaspora Jews. (Presumably, he was referring to the government’s right-leaning policies and support for the fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate.) Greenberg responded that Netanyahu feels a sense of responsibility to all Jews, and she noted that while most Reform and Conservative Jews live outside of Israel, the prime minister is going forward with the plan to “build out a platform” for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.
At that point, panelist Gil Troy, a professor at McGill University and author who writes often on Zionism, interjected sharply: “But he rejected the compromise,” referring to the prime minister’s reneging on a pledge in June 2017 to provide for egalitarian prayer at the main site of the Kotel, an act that enraged a number of American Jewish leaders and continues to damage their sense of trust in the Jerusalem government.
But the clash on stage was over before it began as the moderator moved on with the program. It included a poignant segment on how federations are addressing the fact that one-third of Israel’s senior citizens live below the poverty line; an inspiring talk by Gal Lusky, founder of Israeli Flying Aid, who described how the non-profit’s volunteers risk their lives at times to bring aid to Syrian refugees suffering from the civil war in their country and others in need around the world; and a talk by Irina Nevzlin, president of the Nadav Foundation and chair of the board of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, who praised JFNA officials “for choosing the burning topic” of “the growing rift” between Israeli and the diaspora.
She said both sides have a “mutual fantasy” and that “we don’t know ourselves or each other,” and she encouraged the delegates to “talk about a unity vision.”
The premise of each of the sessions I attended was that we, the Jewish people in the diaspora and Israel, are on different wavelengths, living in different realities. Clearly, American Jews are liberal in their politics, with an emphasis on individual freedoms and values; Israeli Jews are conservative in their views, based on the need for security and a strong military.
In political terms, most American Jews, if living in Israel, would likely vote Meretz, a far-left small party, and most Israeli Jews, if living in America, would vote Republican (while about 75 percent of American Jews vote Democrat).
But the emphasis in the GA sessions was on the successes taking place in Israel — the high-tech companies that symbolize Israel as Start-Up Nation; educational efforts to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs; innovative programs bringing charedim into the work force, etc. All worthy of attention, and important to showcase at a conference highlighting the good works of Jewish federations in their support of Israeli society.
But where were the hard conversations that were promised, the discussions that would delve under the surface and tackle, rather than skim over, the “burning topics” of the day? Perhaps they were taking place in the halls, but not on stage. [In a speech to the GA on Tuesday, according to a report in the Times of Israel, Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog warned of the “existential threat” posed by the divide between Israel and diaspora Jews and called for a new dialogue between the two.]
In the opening plenary segment that included Greenberg and Troy, American lay leader Andrew Tisch noted that the debate over Israel-diaspora relations “has been more of a monologue” until now and that Israel and the diaspora need each other. His family has created the Tisch Center for Jewish Dialogue at the Museum of the Jewish People.
Anat Wilf, a former Knesset member, said she believes Israel is “a joint project of the Jewish people” and she would like to see diaspora Jews have “a greater role, especially” on issues of Jewish identity. She urged diaspora Jews to be more politically effective and “mobilize Israeli citizens.”
Greenberg, representing the government, said there are “misunderstandings about context and content” on issues like the nation-state bill, and called for “more understanding, more communication.” Troy warned the delegates to be “wary of flame-throwers” on both sides, including Knesset members and American rabbis who speak out against each other. “Don’t be fire fighters, be tree planters,” he said.
Israel’s One Unifying Leader
A highlight of the first day was the appearance of the Israeli leader most admired by both diaspora and Israeli Jews, President Reuven Rivlin, who seems to have transformed himself in office from a lifelong political conservative to a fatherly peace maker. He, like other speakers, emphasized not only the need to talk but the need to listen, asserting that “we are one big family” that doesn’t have shared interests but does share “faith and future.”
Referring to the 1950 Israel-diaspora agreement between American Jewish leader Jacob Blaustein of Baltimore and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, which called for “deep mutual responsibility and non-interference,” Rivlin said it is time for “a new agreement that meets the current realities and challenges.”
He also called for “a reverse Birthright” that would bring Israeli young people to North America, where they would be exposed to synagogues, schools and camps and have the opportunity to see how Judaism is practiced in the U.S.
On Monday afternoon I attended a session facilitated by the Jewish Agency for Israel in The Dialogue Den called “Tackling The Toughest Issues,” the most provocative of the day’s programming titles.
Several hundred people, seated at round tables in groups of 10, were asked to respond to a series of questions that would spark dialogue. The first task was to give a one-word response to the word “Israel.” The handsome young Israeli to my right answered, “Tel Aviv, the beach,” while others at our table came up with “family,” “complicated” (from a young American who just made aliyah) and references to “home” and “homeland.” An instant word cloud appeared on the screen at the front of the room, giving greater prominence to the words cited most frequently in all the discussions. “Home” was by far the biggest word on the screen.
Then, we were asked to look at five photos and pick the ones we believe represent the most important issues on the Jewish agenda. The photos depicted the offices of the Chief Rabbinate; a young girl holding a sign that said Hebrew (in Hebrew); the Western Wall; a young woman wearing a Star of David; and a neo-Nazi march.
After some discussion, we chose the Chief Rabbinate and the Star of David (which we classified as Jewish Identity) as the most important. But we didn’t discuss the issues themselves. Instead, we were asked to consider three topics — Young North American Jews: Experiences in Israel; Young Israelis: Exposure To World Jewry; and Young Jews: Repair The World (Tikkun Olam) — and discuss which should be a priority for the Jewish Agency. According to our table and the rest of the room as well, the most vital issue was exposing young Israelis to world Jewry, suggesting that most of the participants in the exercise were young Israelis.
In all, the 90-minute session was an interesting ice breaker exercise, but we didn’t tackle any tough issues — didn’t even broach them.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who has made the case over the last several years that one can love Israel fully and still criticize its policies, told me that he commends the leaders of JFNA for their “positive messaging” and promoting “heroic stories that deserve to be told.” But he added that while he did not want to “pre-judge” the GA before its conclusion, he was concerned that “if we don’t move the needle” in “rolling up our sleeves and having some hard discussions over issues that deeply divide us,” there will be a sense of frustration and missed opportunities for many of the participants.
‘No Place I’d Rather Be’
Surely the most unifying event of Day One was a group-sing in Yarkon Park that began on Monday afternoon. It was led by Koolulam, an Israeli social-musical initiative to strengthen the fabric of society by having people from different elements learn a song and sing together. The group’s motto is “singing is believing.”
At the event, we were no longer several thousand diaspora or Israeli Jews, religious or secular, liberal or conservative, young Masa participants or seasoned lay leaders and professionals. Rather, we were baritones, altos and sopranos. And for two hours, under the energetic and patient instructions of musical director Ben Yefet, we learned to sing and harmonize together. (The song chosen for us was “Rather Be,” a pop song which won the 2015 Grammy for Best Dance Recording by the British electronic music band, Clean Bandit. The love song lyrics were minimal, with no obvious connection to the GA or its themes other than, perhaps, the refrain: “There’s no place I’d rather be.” But when it all came together, well into the evening, it sounded wonderful to us.
Just prior to the event, Or Taicher, founder of Koolulam, told me that the group, created two years ago, aims to “use musical harmony to inspire humanity” in people. He said that though he is not religious, he was very moved in watching a video of tens of thousands of Israelis singing a pre-Yom Kippur prayer at the Kotel, acknowledging that we are all sinners. “It inspired me to inspire others,” he said. Koolulam events have brought together Israeli Jews, Muslims and Christians to sing Matisyahu’s “One Day”; a video of an Israeli Independence Day event this year featuring Israeli President Rivlin, with 12,000 people singing Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh,” has been seen by millions.
Taicher said Koolulam has performed at more than 200 events involving a total of 100,000 participants and been viewed more than 100 million times.
He noted that when individuals sing together, the result far exceeds expectations — an apt metaphor for Jews in Israel and North America struggling to find harmony in their shared history and fate.
Note: JFNA provided a stipend to help fund Rosenblatt’s trip to Israel.