As I write this, I am preparing my thoughts, expectations, and goals for what promises to be a transformative 10-day trip to Israel with the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program.
The Berrie fellowship is an 18-month learning and training program for 20 Jewish men and women who hold lay leadership roles in the northern Jersey area — they’re presidents and board members of synagogues, JCCs, JFNNJ, day schools, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and similar groups. It is funded by the Russell Berrie Foundation, whose president, Angelica Berrie, is a leading philanthropist and visionary, and it is administered by federation.
Our Berrie cohort, the fourth of five, is working to expand on the Berrie Foundation’s twofold mission — to promote the continuity and enrichment of Jewish communal life and to foster the spirit of religious understanding and pluralism.
The 20 of us represent religious denominations ranging from Orthodox to Reconstructionist, as well as political philosophies from the most liberal to the most conservative. In other words, we are not going to agree about Donald Trump’s acceptance speech. But what we all share is a desire to improve the lives of the Jewish community, a commitment to the vibrancy of the Jewish people, and an understanding of the importance of the State of Israel.
The program consists of lectures, discussions, meetings, forums, and the study of both secular and religious texts. Berrie Fellows add to it their desire to make Jewish life more inclusive, open, and accepting. While we disagree, often vehemently, over such hot-button issues as intermarriage, Jewish practices, Israeli settlements, responses to terrorism, and Palestinian issues, we do so respectfully. We also do so without judgment and without questioning other people’s motives or vilifying their belief systems when they differ from our own.
Most importantly, we exemplify what is so sorely missing in the Democratic and Republican parties today. That is, we accept that the people whose views we disagree with are good people, people who are just as committed to the same goals as we are — that the Jewish people and Israel must be strong — but with differing ideas about the way to accomplish those goals.
The Fellows are open to learning about each other and our divergent experiences, so that we can bring the strength of our joint commitments, rather than the divisiveness or our differences, together, using it to advance the future of our community. The issues that divide us are far fewer than those that bind us. We are mindful of the fact that we are one people, bound by a common history and the teachings of the Torah.
In Israel, the Berrie Fellows will study at the Shalom Hartman Institute, meet with philanthropic and political leaders, visit diverse sites to see programs in action, and tour various settlements, Arab areas, ultra-Orthodox towns, and secular neighborhoods to better understand the fabric that makes up the modern State of Israel. We will explore the complexities of Israeli life and look at the burgeoning philanthropic environment that is growing as a result of expanding economic opportunities.
I am excited to travel with this group of extraordinary people, who are leaving their families and jobs for 10 days to devote themselves to the advancement of the Jewish people. We know that what we will see and do in Israel will be unique and extraordinary. When we return to northern New Jersey, our charge will be to take these experiences and use them to improve the availability and efficiency of Jewish religious institutions and social organizations. It also will be to continue to work to bring our people together — that is the only way we will survive.
As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” For too long, the Jewish people have built our institutions upon an unstable foundation of separatism and exclusion. To accept the formidable challenges that are before us, we must come together. The insidious BDS movement and its older cousin, anti-Semitism, are back in vogue. They are both rampant now, especially in our no longer intellectually open or honest institutions of higher learning. The world is a dangerous place, with ISIS, unrelenting terrorism and nonstop verbal attacks (of the “liar, liar pants on fire” kind) on the State of Israel.
We Berrie Fellows are being equipped with the tools necessary to fight the internal and external threats to the Jewish people. I anticipate that the experiences in Israel will supercharge the learning that we have already had in the first 12 months of the program. However, though we will have many of the tools to do the job, we will still need many others to assist us with the building, and in many cases, remodeling of the Jewish philanthropic and leadership models.
I know that when we work together, we can do great things. To thrive, we must focus on that which unites us and not that which divides us. We must also believe that Jewish continuity and a strong State of Israel is important to us, our children and the future of our people.