It feels at once moving and unnerving to bid safe travels to your Senior Rabbi before he departs for Jerusalem during a month that has already been filled with violence. Though geographically distant, the Jewish diaspora and Israel tend to feel emotionally close, especially at times of suffering. Yet his trip also bears a symbolic and material significance for Israel and the Jewish world as a whole.
Approximately every four years, the World Zionist Congress convenes to direct policy and leadership within key Israeli institutions, as well as the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars within Israeli civil society. Beforehand, Jews around the world cast their vote for the movements or organizations that represent their sentiments in Israel. These organizations are then allotted a number of delegates proportional to the votes that they receive (with some complexities, relating to the size of the delegation from each country).
This year, Progressive Jews won big in the elections.
According to the Association of Reform Zionists of America,
We, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, received almost 40% of the votes [for the American delegation] which means that liberal Judaism will hold a solid majority in the World Zionist Congress this October.
At the Congress, American Jews will have the opportunity to express their strong feelings about the issues close to our hearts, and then work to affect change in those areas. We will be one step closer to making Israel the Jewish state that we know it can and should be.
In practical terms, this means opening conversations about gender equality and the Two-State Solution, the rights of religious minorities, and myriad other topics that make us squeamish but are essential parts of our work to better the state that in so many ways represents our people. It means questions about the separation of synagogue and state and how we can preserve our religious and cultural heritage while deepening Israel’s growing position as a leader in high-tech and globalization. It means pushing for policies within the Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund, and World Zionist Organization that take these considerations and concerns into account.
In some ways the terrifying, the terrible, and the terror of the past weeks has narrowed our focus to security and support for those who are healing and those who are grieving. This is appropriate in the near-term. But our enduring hope for Israel should be derived from the longer arc of our people’s history.
The World Zionist Congress taking place later this week could prove pivotal because of all that it seeds for the years and decades ahead. Insofar as policy and funding choices can be seen as statements of values, the choices made by delegates and voting blocs might create enduring outcomes for Israel. I certainly hope so.
The pride that I feel in knowing some of the delegates to the World Zionist Congress, including Matthew Gewirtz, my Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, is met with the hope that the choices they make will help Israel grow and thrive. Though this month’s violence is a testament to the challenges facing Israel, the leadership of our people should not shy away from the bigger questions of meaning, purpose, and potential by which Israel should define itself.
Safe travels, Rabbi Gewirtz. Lead on.