We are a fractured people.
In Israel, where a majority of Jews live, half our nation supports Netanyahu and the judicial reforms. Half are vehemently against Netanyahu and high numbers demonstrate against the judicial reforms weekly.
In the USA, the second largest Jewish population in the world, we are also split – those who support Trump and those who are strongly against him. There are Jews who are adamant that the Republicans are best for Israel and the Jews, and those who see the same in the Democratic party.
Among the rest of diaspora Jewry we find a similar split regarding what is happening in Israel and the USA, and I am sure there are local issues about which we are similarly divided.
These divides have led to major fissures in our nation to the point where neighbors and family members will no longer even associate with one another. Communities and relationships have been torn apart.
In the face of all this polarization, I just experienced a series of events which proved to me that unity is possible.
I was honored to be one of the international presenters for Limmud South Africa – a day of Jewish learning in Cape Town, an afternoon of study in Durban, and three days of lectures in Johannesburg. The presenters and attendees ranged from Orthodox to Reform to Secular and from right wing to left wing. There were source-based Torah classes, lectures about contemporary Jewish and social issues, panel discussions about politics and challenges facing the Jewish people, and interactive music sessions.
The random seating at meals, bringing together presenters and attendees who had never met before, led to lively and deep philosophical, ideological, and theological discussions.
The Shabbat retreat in Johannesburg, attended by 500 people, certainly created a challenge with a blend of people who observe Shabbat and those who don’t. But those in attendance found a happy median with Shabbat observance in the public areas, options for type of prayer services, and everyone coming together for the rituals of Kiddush and Havdallah to begin and end the Shabbat.
I participated in a late Friday night “Oneg Shabbat” in which Jews from all backgrounds joined together to sing and share meaningful stories into the early morning hours.
There were many debates and disagreements about all the topics – especially judicial reform. But for the most part they were respectful and intellectually honest discussions, devoid of the name calling and hyperbole which have marked this past year, and which only serve to increase the tensions and polarization.
Limmud South Africa demonstrated that unity does not mean that we agree with one another. It doesn’t mean that we are all on the exact same page and live similar lifestyles. Rather, it means that we accept and even embrace each other’s differences. Unity means approaching the opinions of our ideological, theological, political, and philosophical opposites with tolerance and respect. It means recognizing that when it’s all said and done we as a Jewish people only have each other, and we can only survive with an understanding and appreciation of the need for coexistence.
It is my hope and prayer that the example set by the organizers, presenters, and attendees at Limmud South Africa 2023 will be followed by Jews around the globe. May we be blessed to internalize the lesson that we don’t have to agree to be unified. That we can and even must debate all issues with passion. But we must also add respect for one another to the equation and not allow those disagreements to rip ourselves apart.
It’s all about choosing dialogue over distance, open mindedness over obstinance, humility over ego, and the confidence to allow space for vulnerability and discomfort in order to remain unified.
May the conversations begin…