SHI Revisited: What We ALL Can Learn

Having recently attended the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) Community Leaders Program (CLP) for the seventh time, it seems to be time to draw some conclusions. Considering that the summer programs cater exclusively to a North-American population (mostly the U.S.), as a Uruguayan, South-American Jew I must ask myself what can I learn that is relevant and useful to me after seven seminars dealing with mostly issues that affect the lives of Jews in North America. After all, I did keep coming back and even recommended friends and acquaintances to attend the seminars; which they did.

When I came for the first time in the summer of 2009 I felt, and so I told everyone, that I had found the Jewish discourse I had been seeking for so many years. A conversation of a different type and topic than the one I heard around me at home or in our neighboring countries such as Argentina or Chile. While our issues dealt with denomination, politics, and Halakha, at SHI I found a discussion on issues and values. The subject that year, after the 2008 financial crisis, was how to deal with times of stress. It was not only insightful and a great learning experience of Jewish texts, it was also inspiring without slipping into the realm of self-help or motivational talk. After that, I came back a total of four consecutive times. Every year I got more out of it, as I started to understand the nuances and variations of discourse and approaches, listening and studying with different scholars.

So, what was in it for me at this ever-growing gathering of North-American Jewish community leaders? It was the transition from pure gut feeling into proper discourse. At last I could now claim that a Jewish conversation could be on other topics other than how to daven, what is forbidden and what is allowed, or whether our wedding ceremonies are valid in Israel. As I was helped with the depths and complexities of Jewish sources I could start understanding the huge puzzle that Judaism has always been. Any attempt at its simplification is a threat not only to its significance and relevance, but to its existence. Since then I have tried, slowly but tenaciously, to promote a different Jewish conversation in my community. We translate Donniel Hartman’s blog into Spanish at , while we try to promote different approaches to understanding, being, and living Jewish.

But as the years have passed (I came back to SHI in 2016-2017-2018) I have noticed a strong tendency to focus on the different subjects not mainly, but only, through a North-American lens. Whether it is “What is a Jew” in 2016, “The Challenges of Israel” in 2017, or “Derekh Eretz” in 2018; it seems all roads lead to NYC or The Bay area. In other words, whatever the issue, it all leads to BDS, Campuses, Assimilation, Occupation, and The Rabbinate in Israel. Even the tours deal more with political issues, minorities, and the Palestinians, than with Jewish history, archeology, and the Bible. After all, that is the reason we as Jews are in this part of the world and not anywhere else.

The fact that more than half of the Jews nowadays live in Israel while the other “half” lives in the United States and Canada cannot be argued: the numbers are undeniable. Therefore, that the SHI deals with the issues in those two areas is only logical and pragmatic. Scale is an issue in every project, as I very well know from the opposite point of view: when you lack scale everything becomes harder to finance and achieve. But still, there are around one to two million Jews, give or take, who live in other areas of the world: Europe and South-America, for instance. Jewish life in Argentina, with at least two-hundred thousand Jews all over the country, is not only very intense, it is also extremely demanding, controversial, politicized, and influential. Jewish life in France, I can imagine, probably has very definite characteristics and issues with which Jews are dealing. Not to mention huge Brazil, the striving and creative community in Santiago, Chile, or my tiny Uruguay.

My point is not that the SHI should start dealing with the issues in those other countries. It is such a huge enterprise, I’m not sure the resources for it could be found. Furthermore: the SHI was created by a North-American Jew and his family and followers, David Hartman Z’L. The Institute is embedded in the American spirit and its concerns are those of the North-American Jews. My point would be that, as we Jews from other parts of the world come to learn at SHI and try to transfer the lessons learned to our everyday reality and issues, so the Institute should look into other Jewish communities to learn about other options and ways of dealing with issues.

Mixed marriages and assimilation are issues as old as the Jewish people, while life in campus is an almost exclusive North-American Jewish issue; not that this stage of life isn’t challenging for Jewish youth everywhere. Zionism, on the other hand, as a builder of Jewish identity is not only different between Argentina and the U.S., but very different between Argentina and neighboring Uruguay. In Uruguay Jewish identity, at least until now, is based almost entirely upon Zionism. Aliyah seems to also be a solution to the situation of French Jews. But it is clearly not an option for the majority of North-American Jews. Their Jewish life is not only viable, it is also rich, part of the public sphere, and taken for granted in culture, politics, and whatever field you look into.

Still, the percentage of intermarriage in the U.S.A. is very high and the fear of a diminishing Jewish community due to assimilation and lack of relevance and significance are one of the reasons why community leaders and rabbis are attending the summer programs at SHI. The disengagement from Israel, which is unheard off in Uruguay or Chile or a good portion of Argentinian Jewry, is a menacing threat in America, as the I-Engage program points out.

So, while the object of concern and study is the North-American Jewish community on the one hand and Israel on the other, and the focus of the SHI should be on them, the options lie beyond North-American borders. Not that they are suitable, in general terms, for North-American Jewry, but still, those are options for other Jews. They are the way other Jewish communities are solving their issues. With all its liberality and openness, the Jewish community in the U.S. has been dealing with issues to which they seem to find no solution, yet. Other communities, which do not have the options that North-American Jews have, deal with the issues in a different way. They may pay a price, as we all do when making decisions, but Jewishness has been preserved.

That Israel is no longer a project to support because aspirations and imagination don’t match reality is an option only North-American Jews can consider. The concept of being a stranger in a strange land does not seem to apply to North-American Jewry today. But it is still very relevant in the rest of the world. At the same time, liberal denominations in North-America have flourished, but everyone seems to agree the path is somehow leading to the dilution of Jewishness into the public space.

So, what I would wish for in the future would be more awareness to the ways of others. As we, not North-American Jews, can learn and pick from all we hear and discuss at CLP at SHI, I am sure much can be learned, even if only as an insight or a glance, from the struggle, aspirations, and ways of other Jewish communities around the world. I’m not suggesting that North-American Jews come in masses to Israel and buy all of Ashdod as the French Jews have done; they have been blessed, they don’t need to escape from anything. What I suggest is that Israel be considered not only as the most interesting project happening to Judaism in our time, but as a true option for a good couple of million Jews all over the world. If we look at it that way, perhaps it is easier to understand the considerations that determine Israeli society and politics, to say the least. By understanding those, we can come closer, be more empathic: not only to the Palestinian people but to our own.

About the Author
1957, married, a son and a daughter. Very closely related to Israel, residing in Uruguay. Retired. Lay leader at NCI, the Masorti congregation in Montevideo. Served twice as President of the Board. Vice President of the Board of the Jewish school. Twenty years involvement in community affairs. Attended the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem several times over the years since 2009 for their CLP programs. Writer & lecturer.