The Jewish Conversation Isn’t Just About Israel

The Jewish Conversation Isn’t Just About Israel



Rabbi Steve Gutow




David Bernstein’s article, “How Israel Unites Us” (July 15) (, is an interesting piece, but, as much as I respect David, it just is off the mark in characterizing the American Jewish experience. It is true that even in disagreeing over Israel-related issues, we are unified in our love of and concern for the Jewish state.  But in my world, Israel certainly is not the exclusive unifying conversation of the Jewish people.  Maybe it is so for those who live within small echo chambers, but for the vast majority of Jews in America it is only one, however important, part of the mosaic. Surveys of American Jewish engagement consistently show a multi-dimensional community.


There is no single unifying conversation in Jewish life, but there are many serious, important ones. The differing centers of discussion are often intersecting circles, many of which touch on the other. The Torah writ large takes precedence as a “first among several” as it impels us to think about and talk about our history, our laws, and our heroes. Whether we agree with a specific take on Torah, many of us focus on what it means in our lives. Our culture, our ethics, our peoplehood, all play a large role in Jewish identity today. To suggest that conversations about Israel dominate the community misses the reality of the Jewish condition in America. Our people survived and prospered for over 1900 years when Israel lived only in our minds as a dream to be realized.


We worry about whether or not our synagogues offer rich teaching for our children and whether or not our rabbis can meet with those who are older or ailing and offer them the solace they need. We do not know if our shuls will make their budgets and, in some cases, if they will be around next year.  We revel in looking at Pesach and our Sedarim and making sure they tell the story of the Exodus in a way that has meaning for us. Our varied and expanding food choices, our art, our novels all describe and define the Jewish presence in America and the world.


Learning Hebrew, recollecting Yiddish, and focusing on Jewish spirituality is more and more part of the Jewish agenda as we realize that the Jewish people need so much more than just a dosage of conversations about the state of Israel and its role in the Jewish world. How do we treat interfaith couples and, for that matter, interfaith children is an essential element of the Jewish conversation today.


Being part of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs puts me in close engagement with thousands of Jews who feel that their Torah and their Jewish ethics teach them that poverty here and around the world must be ameliorated or eliminated, the environment maintained, Darfuris protected from rape and murder. It gives “welcoming the stranger” meaning here in America as a mainstay of what makes Jews –Jews. Many of these people never tire of the conversation about how to make sure that social justice issues remain part of the Jewish agenda. Some of them probably think, in contradistinction to David Bernstein, that this is the only unifying conversation for the Jewish people.


I just participated in a JCPA sponsored mission made up of African American and Jewish leaders from seven communities in America. I remember first thinking that both of the participants from one community were black and then realizing with excitement that the Jewish representative from that town was biracial and all Jewish. I was not thinking about Israel but rather I was thinking and discussing with others what a varied people we are.


The whole of who we are is a complicated and fascinating mosaic. It is important for all of us to keep our visions broad, to engage in the fullness of the conversations that punctuate Jewish life today, and to leave our small rooms and see the whole of the Jewish people. If we do not, if we limit ourselves to the assumption that Israel is our only or even main definition, we will limit our wholeness and lessen our potential. That will not keep us a strong and vibrant people.


Rabbi Steve Gutow is president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.



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