Sheldon Adelson, we have things to discuss

We may disagree on every political position, but we both want to connect young Jews to Israel and Jewish life
Casino magnate Sheldon G. Adelson in attendance at the 4th Annual Champions Of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at Marriott Marquis Times Square on May 5, 2016 in New York City. (Steve Mack/Getty Images via JTA)
Casino magnate Sheldon G. Adelson in attendance at the 4th Annual Champions Of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at Marriott Marquis Times Square on May 5, 2016 in New York City. (Steve Mack/Getty Images via JTA)

Mr. Sheldon Adelson, I’d like to invite you to join me for lunch.

Or coffee, or dinner. Breakfast is okay too. It can be in Vegas, at my house in San Francisco for Shabbat, anywhere you like, any time. Of course your family is invited, as are any of your friends among the major Jewish philanthropists who fund our American connection to Israel. I’m not the best cook, but I also have connections and can make a decent reservation. Martinis or matzah balls, it’s up to you.

Mr. Adelson, I fully realize that you’re not someone on the sidelines when it comes to American policy in Israel. You’re a leader, you play a central role. You are the first campaign donor in history to sit on the dais at a presidential inauguration. It’s been argued that it was your meeting with President Trump and Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, that pushed Trump to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem.

You might be asking why you should accept an invitation from me, a rabbi who represents some Generation Xers and millennials in ultra-progressive San Francisco. The president does not return my calls and my media holdings are limited to my intermittently active Twitter account.

Not to mention, our list of fundamental disagreements is long. You’ve said publicly that “the purpose of the Palestinians is to destroy Israel,” and I fight regularly for equal rights for both Palestinians and Israelis. And I expect there will be many on the left who, in reading this invitation, will lambaste me for reaching out to the very person they believe has put so many sharp nails in the coffin of the two-state solution.

But I can’t get past our shared love of Israel, and our shared commitment to connecting young Jews to Israel and Jewish life.

See, I have proven for the past seven years that I can do something you need: I regularly and successfully translate Jewish life and an unfathomably deep connection to Israel to the people whom you most want to reach. You want a vibrant Jewish future here and in Israel, and you want those two communities to be connected. I’ve spent my life working for the exact same things.

And your commitment to Jewish life is world famous. You alone have spent at least $250 million on Birthright.

By any measure, that’s an extraordinary personal investment. And when combined with your peers, by 2011 (already seven years ago), the combined Birthright budget was $660 million. I get it. This is not a hobby, you mean business.

However, as we’ve read recently, I am not sure it is paying off. Pew data shows that young Jews’ relationship to Israel is dwindling. Some argue that the attrition is generational, driven by assimilation or apathy, but I can’t get away from the idea that the occupation is at the heart of the problem. I have been a Hillel rabbi for years on multiple campuses, I have staffed many Birthright trips, and put in countless hours building Jewish life, often one person at a time. It is not that these generations are blind or don’t care; they’re uncomfortable with the direction Israel seems to be heading. The situation has an accumulative impact, not only on their relationships to Israel, but on how they see themselves as Jews. This means you and I stand quite close to losing the very people we have worked so hard to gain.

So when I read recently that at the Israeli American Council event in 2014, you said, “So Israel won’t be a Democratic state, so what?” I felt I had to write you and invite you to share a meal with me.

Because the “So what?” is that, if Israel is not a Democratic state, I’m afraid we will lose American Jewry altogether. The “So what?” is that because of your promoted policies in Israel, the people we hope to engage are instead running for the exits. The “So what?” is that there is simply no way to disentangle Israel’s 50-year occupation — and its impact on Palestinians as well as Israelis and American Jews — from the viability of our collective Jewish future.

You and I might disagree on every imaginable position, but this, the Jewish future, is something neither of us can afford to lose.

I know that insisting on reaching a long term, peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians is a seemingly impossible task. You will tell me there are no partners on the other side and we can argue about that in the months to come. Israel’s security is not a given, nor has it ever been. But our people have been through times more challenging than these, and it was not only our determination and intelligence, but our insistence on focusing on what matters in the long run that allowed us to see things through.

So, Mr. Adelson, you and I have a choice to make. This moment requires a significant, atypical response. I represent the many who would not only go to Israel for free, but would pay to enter the conversation for the long haul. I promise you there are thousands and thousands who will sacrifice and sweat as their grandparents once did, if only a path towards Israel as a full democracy is back on the table.

You and I both want an Israeli future where Jewish people of all ages and backgrounds show up in droves because they simply have to take part in one of the greatest stories in modern history, the one in their own name. And the idea of losing the Jewish future is unbearable for both of us.

So I hope you will forget the naysayers on all sides, because if there was ever a moment for an unusual alliance, this is it.

What do you say? Lunch or dinner? This one’s on me.

About the Author
Rabbi Noa Kushner founded The Kitchen in 2011, an independent religious community in San Francisco. After graduating from Brown University, Kushner was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1998. She served as a Hillel rabbi at both Sarah Lawrence College and Stanford University before launching The Kitchen. Noa is married to Michael Lezak, Rabbi for Social Justice at GLIDE. Together, they have three daughters.
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