Sometimes a little help is appreciated

Yesterday, I read a blog article by Yehuda Kurtzer on the TOI website (“Let Us Help You Help Us”, March 2) shortly after it was posted. As soon as I finished reading it, I felt compelled to write a response – and not simply because I disagreed with his core argument. Frankly, I have to admit, I felt that I had to reply to release some of my own ego-driven emotions – I just had to vent. For you, the reader, to make any sense out of what I mean by this, I need to provide some personal history.

Mr. Kurtzer and I have never met, and he almost certainly has no idea who I am, but indirectly our “paths have crossed” once or twice (at least) in the past several years. Back in the Fall of 2007, the Charles and Andrea Bronfman foundation sponsored a competition to identify, per a JTA article, “an idea that can transform how the Jewish community thinks about itself”. Dozens of applicants, including Mr. Kurtzer and myself (including a few well known personalities, including Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and writer Anita Diamant) submitted their proposals to a review committee at Brandeis University. Yehuda Kurtzer won this competition, and as a result became the first “Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation”, a two year academic position at Brandeis.

Kurtzer’s proposal centered around the dialectic between Jewish memory and Jewish history; his writing was fascinating, and after reading his proposal I posted that “Kurtzer is a very talented scholar, and I hope that we see more good things from him in the future”. My proposal centered around creating a set of institutions to serve a sub-group of American Jewry that I termed “Hebrew Americans” – a group which includes Israeli expatriates, returned olim, and others who view Hebrew language and culture as core to their Jewish identity. My proposal received little attention – although it was publicly posted on a blog (unaffiliated with the competition) along with several others, I really only received two form letters from the selection committee – one thanking me for my submission, and a second gracefully informing me that I had not been selected as a finalist in the competition.

Anyway, let’s fast forward to 2014. In advance of the release of their multi-million dollar initiative to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency sponsored a 96 hour web dialogue, known as “Securing the Jewish Future”. More than 2,200 individuals joined this web dialogue to share and critique ideas. I am proud to say that, by the end of this event, I was selected as one of fifty “featured members” of the dialogue, whose comments made an impact on other participants.

I don’t know whether or not Mr. Kurtzer participated in this dialogue, or has taken any time to review wide range of posts, from Jews living all around the world and coming from a vast array of backgrounds, who were motivated enough to participate in this very egalitarian forum. I have no idea whether anyone’s concepts or proposals, generated during the on-line discussion, will make their way into the proposals eventually submitted to the Knesset when funding for the new initiative is formally evaluated.

What I can say, however, is that the government and the Jewish Agency made an impressive effort to gather new ideas from within Israel and across the Diaspora. Furthermore, despite the great diversity among the posters, I felt that there was an emerging consensus around key themes — including the importance of promoting Hebrew language throughout the Jewish world.

This takes me back to Yehuda Kurtzer’s analysis of the upcoming initiative. He worries that Israeli intervention into the American Jewish educational scene will be based on an ideology of “negation of the Diaspora”; even worse, in his view, is that the American Jewish leadership may “capitulate” to this view by supporting the new initiative, which could conflict with existing organizational models in the Jewish community.

What Mr. Kurtzer doesn’t acknowledge, at least in this piece, is that there is a small (yet I believe, growning) segment of the Jewish community whose views on Jewish identity dovetail quite closely with those of the Israelis. We consider Hebrew language to be core to Jewish identity, and we want it used more frequently in Jewish life (or, at least, in the organizations we affiliate with). While we may not be making aliyah (or returning to Israel) any time soon, we agree with the Israelis that Israeli  culture is becoming the “gold standard” for Jewish identity throughout the world. Indeed, as Zionists, we believe that “Jewish” and “Israeli” cultural identities are gradually blurring together over time, towards  a point where they may become functionally synonymous.

Within the American Jewish establishment, views like these have historically been marginal at best, if not actually considered eccentric.

I don’t expect Mr. Kurtzer to agree with my ideas, and I am not trying to argue for them in this article. My point here is that ideas like these should be granted a valid place within the American Jewish experience. Just as we affirm pluralism for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish identities, so to can we affirm a place for those with a “Hebrew Orientation” in Jewish life. While the Israeli initiative may not strengthen the Jewish institutions that Mr. Kurtzer feels most connected to, I deeply feel that this initiative would greatly benefit me and my family, as I work to transmit a love of Hebrew language to my kids.

In other words, I want to say to Yehuda Kurtzer, in as polite a way as possible: speak for yourself. While some in the Jewish community may view any increased Israeli involvement in Diaspora life as a “hostile takeover attempt”, others of us may view it as a belated rescue. I was born and raised in the American Jewish community, and served as a Jewish professional for five years (three as a Hillel director, and two in the planning department of a community Federation). Nevertheless, I have always felt that my own, personal views of Jewish life (centered around the tenets of classical Zionism) were considered marginal (if I had the temerity to express them).

Indeed, I remember being interviewed for a Federation position directly out of grad school. The interview was going quite well, I think, until the interviewer asked my about my long term plans. I told her that I was a Zionist, and that I eventually hoped to make aliyah someday. The interview soured; I was basically told to my face that I was a “narcissist”, and was deluded to think that any Federation would hire somebody with my beliefs. (She would have been surprised to find out that I was indeed hired, by a different Jewish Federation, a few years later.)

The take away from this should be that any American Jewish leader, who wants to criticize Israelis for not trying hard enough to understand the complexities and intricacies of Jewish life here, should take a good look in the mirror. Pluralism begins at home, and the American Jewish community might want to demonstrate a sign of good will by working harder at reaching out to and including segments of their community – including Israeli Americans and fellow travelers – who now often seem to reside on the edges of organized American Jewish life.

About the Author
Gary Kulwin is a software engineer living in Florida with his wife and kids. He lived in Israel in 1985-1986, and worked in Jewish communal service in 1993-98.
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