Progress in Israel, Even at a Time of Violence

It feels at once moving and unnerving to bid safe travels to your Senior Rabbi before he departs for Jerusalem during a month that has already been filled with violence. Though geographically distant, the Jewish diaspora and Israel tend to feel emotionally close, especially at times of suffering. Yet his trip also bears a symbolic and material significance for Israel and the Jewish world as a whole.

Approximately every four years, the World Zionist Congress convenes to direct policy and leadership within key Israeli institutions, as well as the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars within Israeli civil society. Beforehand, Jews around the world cast their vote for the movements or organizations that represent their sentiments in Israel. These organizations are then allotted a number of delegates proportional to the votes that they receive (with some complexities, relating to the size of the delegation from each country).

This year, Progressive Jews won big in the elections.

According to the Association of Reform Zionists of America,

We, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, received almost 40% of the votes [for the American delegation] which means that liberal Judaism will hold a solid majority in the World Zionist Congress this October.


At the Congress, American Jews will have the opportunity to express their strong feelings about the issues close to our hearts, and then work to affect change in those areas. We will be one step closer to making Israel the Jewish state that we know it can and should be.

In practical terms, this means opening conversations about gender equality and the Two-State Solution, the rights of religious minorities, and myriad other topics that make us squeamish but are essential parts of our work to better the state that in so many ways represents our people. It means questions about the separation of synagogue and state and how we can preserve our religious and cultural heritage while deepening Israel’s growing position as a leader in high-tech and globalization. It means pushing for policies within the Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund, and World Zionist Organization that take these considerations and concerns into account.

In some ways the terrifying, the terrible, and the terror of the past weeks has narrowed our focus to security and support for those who are healing and those who are grieving. This is appropriate in the near-term. But our enduring hope for Israel should be derived from the longer arc of our people’s history.

The World Zionist Congress taking place later this week could prove pivotal because of all that it seeds for the years and decades ahead. Insofar as policy and funding choices can be seen as statements of values, the choices made by delegates and voting blocs might create enduring outcomes for Israel. I certainly hope so.

The pride that I feel in knowing some of the delegates to the World Zionist Congress, including Matthew Gewirtz, my Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, is met with the hope that the choices they make will help Israel grow and thrive. Though this month’s violence is a testament to the challenges facing Israel, the leadership of our people should not shy away from the bigger questions of meaning, purpose, and potential by which Israel should define itself.

Safe travels, Rabbi Gewirtz. Lead on.

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.