I count myself lucky that I get to hear our Minister of Education, Rav Shay Piron, each week at our synagogue in Oranit. Long before his rapid rise to being one of the highest profile Ministers in the government, he was our Rabbi. Around this time last year, he published a book on Parashat Hashavua, the weekly Torah portion, called “Hearot Shulaim”. If one wants to get a good idea of the Minister’s views on many issues, they should read this book. I read the weekly commentary in his book in between the actual weekly Torah reading. This past Shabbat, his article for Nitzavim discussed the concept of national unity. Was the atmosphere in Israeli society, he asks, one that allows for recognition and understanding of the other? Were all members of society able to feel they belonged? Many, Piron writes, speak about the importance of national unity, but few are willing to pay the price to achieve it.
The concept of national unity is one that I am very passionate about. While Jewish unity throughout the generations, expressed through “Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze bazeh” – all of Israeli is responsible for one another – is one of the main reasons for our survival and indeed the thriving of our people over the years, we are not as united as we would like to think we are.
During my tenure on shlichut in North America, I worked very closely with the American and Canadian Jewish communities. The vast majority of the Jewish community in North America is not Orthodox. Many Reform and Conservative Jews have felt uncomfortable with their relationship with the Jewish State due to the religious positioning in the country on a variety of issues. This is not a healthy state of affairs. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear the Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett, in a recent letter to Reform and Conservative Rabbis, pledge to improve ties between Israel and the Diaspora.
The lack of acceptance of the other came through in all the worst ways during the recent campaign for the Chief Rabbi. National religious Jews were not considered Jewish by some ultra-orthodox Rabbis (at least in their campaign rhetoric). And there are many other examples of intolerance, whether they relate to the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide or as relates to veteran Israeli attitudes towards new immigrants.
What I’ve also learned over the years that I find very troublesome is that Israeli society really doesn’t understand (or appreciate) the Jewish communities around the world and in fairness, most Jews around the world don’t really understand what it is to live life in Israel. This needs to change.
There are fantastic programs at work that connect young Jews to their heritage and to the chain that has bound Jews, wherever they may be, throughout the generations. Taglit-Birthright, for example, is doing that for Diaspora Jews. When these young people come to Israel (many times because it is a free trip) for the first time they realize that they are part of something bigger. It leaves a major impression which in many cases changes their lives. Many return for longer periods of time. Some make Aliyah. Others become more involved in their Jewish communities. Most have a new respect and feeling of attachment to their brethren in Israel.
Similarly in Israel, many young Israelis have no real concept of why they are in this country and what they sometimes have to fight for. They are first Israelis, then Jews and for many, their Jewish identification comes down to being in the army. Many have no real feeling of attachment to Jews outside of Israel.
During the last six years, some 80,000 high school students and 20,000 soldiers and commanders in the IDF, have participated in an Israeli program called Masa Yisraeli, a non-profit organization I recently joined. Strongly supported for many years by the Ministry of Education which wants to expand the program well beyond the 11th graders who have thus far been the ones to participate, this six day experiential, educational journey connects students, first and foremost to their own personal identities, and explores their relationships with their classmates, the community, the State, their Judaism and Jewish people. They realize, as do the Birthright participants, that they are part of a larger story, a story of thousands of years. They realize they are part of a larger people, not just inside the State of Israel, but around the world.
This is powerful stuff and is the essence of Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze Laze. As we get ready for Rosh Hashana, we need to redouble our efforts to make our society a more accepting one and one that better understands the importance of the bond both with our history and our brethren, wherever they may be.
The writer is the VP for Development and External Affairs at Masa-Yisraeli-Mibereshit. If you would like more information about the program, feel free to contact me at: email@example.com