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Bridging the Gap Between Israel and Jewish Diaspora Communities

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“If I Forget Thee  Jerusalem……..” (Im Eshkachech YerushalayimPsalms 137:5

Over the past several decades there have been a growing volume of articles, books, op-eds, dissertations and essays describing the widening gap between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. This gap is attributed in large measure to an array of sharply diverse opinions and positions regarding religious, cultural, political and social disparities, norms, and differences between Israel and diaspora Jewry. Interestingly enough, these  differences and disparities also exist between and within each diaspora community – exemplifying  a variety of different Jewish demographic and ethnographic characteristics.

Following decades of heated debate and disagreements regarding the centrality of Israel in diaspora Jewish communities, we are now beginning to feel and experience the profoundly painful impact of these differences on the culture, infrastructure  and political/communal ecosystem of our Jewish communities.

A historical analysis of this growing phenomenon would be way too complex for a fair and balanced treatment of this topic in any single blog. Nevertheless, we are all witnessing and experiencing a growing schism and indifference between Israel and diaspora Jewry as well as a fragmented and complacent mindset regarding the centrality of Israel in our diaspora communities.

After decades of religious and halachic debate and acrimony, the divisiveness within the Israel narrative is spilling over into our communities and Jewish communal institutions as never before imaginable. Words such as complacency, apathy, lack of conscious and purposeful unity and achdut and sinat chinam are just a few of the descriptions which characterize the current matzav and relationship between Israel and diaspora communities. This erosion is exacerbated by diminished moral and financial support for Israel and is magnified by either the absence of conversation and/or negativity we now hear on college campuses, in schools, synagogues and shuls, in the halls of governmental agencies, in the parking lots of non-profit Jewish communal agencies and at public Jewish communal functions and gatherings

Unfortunately, we have reached a level of discourse where we are no longer embarrassed to publicly criticise Israel’s policies and/or positions. In fact, in certain Jewish communal circles it has unfortunately become somewhat fashionable and even forward-thinking to actually criticize Israel in public arenas. This public display of negativity is not only a Chillul HaShem but represents a level of acrimony and criticism which is unwarranted and harmful.

As we examine these communities in the diaspora more closely, we are beginning to also see many more members of the Jewish community, including an increasing number of well respected philanthropic, Rabbinic and communal leaders who are exhibiting increased apathy, indifference, public disappointment and upset towards Israel.  This feeling may be due in large measure to increased religious and ideological fragmentation, geo-political differences and a paralysis to create a communal environment of mutual respect.

Although many of these growing ideological and denominational differences have deeply divided our communities for generations, it is now becoming more public and acute. These debates which used to take place behind Jewish communal doors are now being played out in public which greatly hinders our ability, capacity and bandwidth to create  communal stability, support, achdut and  shalom bayit, in the spirit of Ben Adam Lechavero.

In light of these most difficult and complex realities, I will not attempt or suggest an approach, compromise or rationale for supporting one position over the other – especially given the extreme diversity and profound complexity of hallachic differences and their impact on religiosity or on religious practice in Israeli society and in diaspora Jewish communities. Nor will I attempt to delve into the complex, ever devolving political and cultural disparities that are now growing exponentially in Israel. Alternatively, I will suggest several modest paths forward which rely heavily upon our current understanding and sincere willingness to promote, support and celebrate achdut (unity) irrespective of our religious or political differences.

As one example, there is nothing wrong or for that matter anti-religious about going to battle (figuratively) with the BDS movement. It is a movement which is beyond biased, destructive, unfair and inflammatory….plain and simple. Yet, many members of our Jewish populace support and advocate the BDS ideology which is now becoming a cause celeb on college campuses throughout the world. This is but one of many negative trends and phenomena which now demand a more effective coordinated international Jewish communal response.

It is my hope that in our effort to seek solutions to these and other growing Jewish communal concerns, that we will strike a more meaningful chord of commonality and communality which will increase and enhance our sense of Jewish peoplehood, identity, pride and unity.

Is it too naive to think that the suggestions or initiatives which follow will transform or even begin to change our thinking, actions or status quo? Maybe. But let’s please keep in mind that one person’s naivety can become another person’s hope, dream, promise or eventual reality.

                              Creating a Vision for Israel/Diaspora Unity and Achdut:

One of our community’s most powerful and valued mechanisms for creating and maintaining cultural and societal change is through the power of chinuch – education. From time immemorial, the critical importance of our mesorah and Jewish education is our community’s most precious central and valued asset, and is indeed a sine qua non for our existential survival as a Jewish people. To be sure, chinuch (education) is and will continue to be the true lifeblood of our Jewish community. Without it, we are like a people without a moral compass, a people without a map or direction; and a people without a sense of purpose or common destiny. It is only through education will we as a people and as a nation be able to survive the turbulent storm of assimilation, alienation, antisemitism and the loss of identity. It is this reality which supports the contention that the future viability, viability and sustainability of a true bond between Israel/Disporatra communities must be firmly anchored in education. Finally, it is important to note that the future viability and strength of our Jewish community must be deeply rooted in our fundamental understanding and respect for our rich Jewish heritage, history, precepts and values. They are all anchored in our rich Jewish birthright, legacy and mesorah. There are no compromises. There are no shortcuts.

So, where do we go from here?

First and foremost, it is imperative that our communities be challenged to do a far better job in teaching, communicating, transmitting, inspiring and engaging our youth and young adults (including college-age students) in their understanding, support and appreciation of the centrality of Israel and its relationship and relevance to their lives as a Jewish people. Unfortunately, many of our youth are preoccupied with a variety of mundane distractions through the lack of inspiring engagement and increased reliance on sophisticated and alluring social media which significantly impact upon their time, interest, understanding  or willingness to explore any deep, let alone meaningful  relationship or connection  to Israel. It also erodes any interest regarding our Jewish identity or a Jewish raison d’etre. Support and advocacy for Israel is unfortunately no longer relevant to many of today’s youth and young adults. This fact is  supported by very credible research and recent demographic studies.

I can vividly recall how the centrality of Israel was once the very foundation and  cornerstone for virtually every “Jewish communal conversation”  – whether it be in our shuls, public gatherings, schools, camps  or at the Shabbat dinner table.  Or, when I was in my youth, while being taught TaNach, Bible, Talmud and  Jewish history…. how  there was always a very strong unbreakable bond, connection  and relationship in the actual text to corresponding commentaries about the relevance and importance of Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, today, these critically important relationships and conversations, although on paper and in the text, is eclipsed by a variety of other contemporary topics with zero relevance or relationship to the centrality or importance of Israel or Israel’s relationship to Jewish identity.

Yes, there have been a wide variety of serious attempts to position Israel education at the top of the diaspora Jewish educational agenda on the local, national and international levels. But unfortunately many of these attempts have fallen short of their objectives….especially in the absence clear measurable goals and objectives and comprehensive follow-up and analysis.

Irrespective of this reality, tremendous accolades and credit must be given to the herculean efforts of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israeli based seminaries, Yeshivot, Israeli-based  universities, colleges, and youth group organizations,  summer camps, Nefesh B’nefesh and many other organizations  that have  advanced the  teaching of Israel and have truly primed the pump in order to position, support and display a true love for Israel in very real and profound ways. Great energy as well as human and financial resources have been seriously invested in making Israel “speak” to every Jew – irrespective of hashkafa, religious philosophy or observance. But, the question still remains….to what end? and, what is the  impact and shelf-life of these seminal experiences on our individual and collective commitment to Israel’s centrality in our lives

When we do a deeper dive into this challenge, we  must ask ourselves ….how many of our youth and young adults today actually view the centrality and importance of Israel as a top priority in their personal lives?  How many view Israel and experience Israel through Jewish history, the talmud, TaNakh or through biblical lenses?  What are the memories or thoughts that we bring back to our respective homes and communities upon returning from a visit to Israel. And, how would we experience Israel in the absence of first visiting the concentration camps in Europe or an in depth tour of Yad VaShem – both very powerful and moving juxtapositions of real life experiences and heartfelt emotions.

Yes, climbing the snake path up to the peak of Masada before sunrise is invigorating, cooling off in the  beautiful pristine waters of Ein Gedi or in the cool  blue waterfalls of the Banyas is refreshing, and praying with a minyan at the Kotel  or visiting the grave sites of our great ancestors and sages are all an integral part of the Israel experience and for many a deeply inspiring and meaningful experience and rite of passage. But, we must ask ourselves, are these profoundly deep experiences enough? Are they rooted or anchored in knowledge of Jewish  history or TaNakh or are they just exciting experiential visits on a tourist’s map…….like a stroll in the shuk, lunch on Ben Yehuda or a swim in the Dead Sea? Does the historical context of these experiences resonate with us? Do they create a true sense of increased Jewish identity, Jewish being and connection to Israel and spirituality?  Or, do these meaningful experiences quickly fade over time upon our return home?

These are just a few of the fundamental  educational challenges we face as a diaspora Jewish community.  As we search for a deeper sense of Jewish meaning and Jewish authenticity and identity, we should not be fooled into a feeling of complacency. We must explore a deeper and richer sense of purpose and a more profound sense of meaning as it relates to Israel. This can only be realized through the true power and impact of  Jewish education.

In order to respond effectively to many of these multidimensional  challenges, it is proposed that a global planning framework  (aka Global Think Tank) be established with international reach and stature. This entity would serve as an  International Commission on Israel/Diaspora Relations and would be comprised of lay and professional leadership from a variety of credible institutions including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Education,  Israel Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, The Jewish Federations of North America, Torah Umesorah,  select  American and Israeli Colleges, Universities, and Seminaries, PRIZMA, Rabbinic groups, Nefesh B’Nefesh ,the Jewish Funders Network, select Religious Zionist Groups, Hillel International and select media outlets….to name a few.

As envisioned, the Commission’s charge or mandate would be to convene and engage global Jewish thought-leaders  in order to document, validate and assess the current  Israel-Diaspora  matzav on a regional basis and then to commission a variety of  strategic initiatives designed to help move the Israel-Diaspora challenge forward. These conversations would spawn a variety of exciting workgroups, strategic think tanks and planning venues .

As we move forward, whether it be via a global commision, task forces or through other venues or frameworks, there are two significant opportunities which demand leadership attention and response.

The first is to continue to ensure Israel’s dynamic and living force in the personal lives of every Jew. Consequently, great energy as well as human and financial capital must be invested in order in order for this to be realized. This vision and commitment would hopefully create meaningful collaborative partnerships between  diaspora communities and between the educational establishment and the best thinkers, educators, philanthropists and “doers” in the Jewish world

The second challenge is to significantly incentivize the number of students and young adults who visit and study in israel…..whether it be in Yeshivot, Post High School Yeshivot, Batei Midrash, seminaries or colleges and universities.

Key to the success of these programs will be the creation of innovative, engaging and meaningful pre and post educational programming and activity. These programs, which include post high school seminaries, yeshivot and universities must provide participants with meaning and depth, anchored in Jewish experience and  literacy. They must be continuous and, they must be offered over an extended period of time. In addition, these programs and study opportunities must be directed and staffed by the most knowledgeable, engaging, dynamic and well trained Jewish educators and youth professionals. The current paucity of these professionals will require a major investment in educator recruitment and training as well as career ladders for full time Israel and diaspora  teachers.

Finally, effective and impactful Israel education will foster a new context for moral support for Israel. It will create an environment which promotes Judaism and love for Israel as a sustaining force in developing and maintaining deeply rooted Jewish identity.

At the end of the day, the more prepared, knowledgeable and informed our Jewish youth are regarding the centrality of Israel as well as its relevance to Judaism and Jewish identity, the greater the opportunity that we will be able to stem the tide of assimilation, apathy, alienation and Jewish illiteracy .

In conclusion, it is important to note that our Jewish community possess amazing resources and talent; and, we have the necessary  communal institutions and infrastructure that are ready for the task. Needed however is a leadership commitment to make Jewish Education a top Israel-diaspora priority and in doing so create a true sense of urgency for today and for generations into the future.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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