From Paris To Jerusalem, And Back To NY

As I write this, I am somewhere over the Atlantic, on my way back to New York after two intense and remarkable weeks exploring the Jewish communities of France and Israel with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. I am a member of the Conference because I am the sitting President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis.

The Conference’s unparalleled access afforded us the opportunity to meet with both heads of state and cabinet ministers, along with leaders of the organized Jewish community in France (the CRIF), political leaders, military and security personnel in Israel, and prominent journalists and activists in both countries. To say that we were flooded with invaluable information and insights would be a dramatic understatement. It was more like a tsunami, overwhelming in both its scope and value.

It will take a very long time to process all that we heard and saw. Some images will undoubtedly stay with me for a lifetime. Seeing the Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Torah in Toulouse, who lost his daughter and other precious children and teachers in a terrorist attack last year, still so obviously struggling with his grief was a searing experience. Clearly, the lurking reality of anti-Semitism in France, whose Muslim community is Europe’s largest, (as is France’s Jewish community Europe’s largest), haunts France’s Jews, many of whom are leaving for Israel.

And yet, despite that painful reality, we visited the thriving synagogue in Sarcelles, and all the kosher restaurants that lined its streets. And there we were, our group of some fifty or so American Jewish leaders, in the Élysées Palace, being very warmly welcomed by Francois Hollande, France’s President, and later by France’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Interior Minister, Paris’ mayor… each of whom received us as graciously as one could imagine. Both the President and the Foreign Minister spoke passionately to their commitment to the security of France’s Jews, and I don’t doubt that they meant it. The CRIF, France’s national organization of Jewish leaders, and the Consistories, it’s defense organization, are well placed and integrated into all the right places in the government. But still… The danger is definitely there.

It all seemed so achingly familiar. Lovely, enchanting, European city with its arms wide open to Jews, and yet… We were reminded that, at the Drancy internment camp where the Vichy government herded more than seventy thousand Jews for eventual transport to Auschwitz during that awful time, there was not a single German guard. Not a one. Trust comes so very hard to Jews…

And then there was Israel, land of hopes and dreams and seemingly endless crises and complications that stand in the way of their ever being realized.

It was, as it invariably is, exhilarating to be in Israel. After three full days of listening to everyone from the Prime Minister and President to newly minted power brokers Yossi Bennett and Yair Lapid, to Tzipi Livni and Rabbi Meir Porush, and of course to the world-class journalists who are focused in on Israel’s situation 24/7, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lyric of Steven Stills’ classic song with the Buffalo Springfield band…

Somethings happening here, what it is aint exactly clear

No matter how cynical one might choose to be about Israel and its politics, it seems clear to me that the country is in the midst of some kind of tectonic change. The latest election results show it. Two of the largest blocs in the Knesset, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Yossi Bennett’s Yisrael Beiteinu, combined to bring forty-seven new members into that body. Many of them are young– as are Lapid and Bennett– and most definitely not career politicians.

Both Lapid and Bennett speak of bringing about serious and substantive change in the way Israel deals with religious pluralism, and the rights of Israeli citizens to practice their Judaism as they would see fit. Lapid has openly called for introducing civil marriages into Israel, and bringing equity into the way government monies are distributed to all of the major religious streams. Bennett, who himself is religious but was raised in a non-observant home, is also far more liberal on matters of religious policy that the Haredi parties, but quite inflexible on matters relating to the settlements. The Haredi parties, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, are, for the first time in a very long time, looking at the possibility of being on the outside looking in when this new government finally takes shape.

The truth is that no one really knows what the new government will look like, or if it will even be possible for Prime Minister Netanyahu to even form a government. But what is clear is that the Israeli political and religious landscape is undergoing a period of change. Whatever emerges from this crucible of social, religious and political forces will set the agenda for Israel’s body politic for many years to come. I think it safe to say that the recent elections in Israel made it quite clear that Israelis are as deeply worried about themselves and their lives as they are about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and what is going on in Syria and Egypt. They care about their economic wellbeing no less than their physical security, and they want the economic burden of Israel to be shared equally by all of its members.

I began this article in the air—literally– and I’m ending it in my office. Shabbat beckons, and there is much to be done. As I said, there was so much said and done over the past two weeks that it will take much time to process it all. But these are, at least, first impressions. My best wishes to you all for a Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.