Reading the headline of the Times of Israel report on the recent Schechter Institutes/JTS conference “Israel and North American Jewry, How Can we Bridge the Gap?”, one might think that the conference was a failure. The Conference hardly “went up in flames” as suggested by the headline, nor did the content of the article on the Conference really reflect its title. Schechter and JTS planned the conference together, cognizant of the growing gap, and committed to speaking openly about it together. The dialogue was honest and little was held back. Some 200 students, faculty and members of the general public were present in the overflow crowd, while hundreds more clicked in and watched from all over the world. While indeed many sparks flew, there was no ensuing fire, rather, they lit passionate and enlightening discussions that will radiate from our campus to the world!
Rabbi Benny Lau is an inclusive and creative spiritual leader – a former Liebhaber Prize winner, awarded by Schechter for promoting religious tolerance. He is one of the few prominent Orthodox rabbis who would speak publicly at an event like this. Nonetheless, in the heat of discussion he called American Jews “guests”, and urged them “to be” rather than engage politically, since the approach would just cause a negative Orthodox backlash.
Perhaps the challenge to Rabbi Benny Lau and to many other thoughtful Israelis committed to dialogue, is to be aware that American Jews are not just guests – they are family, and at the same time as they are expected to support Israel unconditionally, they need to feel that their voices are valued. Partnerships are a two-way street. The partnership of 70 years between the State of Israel and Liberal Jews, who are still the large majority in the American Jewish Community, needs redefining and updating. That is why we held the conference!
The third panel in the conference attempted to address some issues in the search for solutions. Prof. Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of JTS, spoke to the situation of American Jewry, stressing that as much it makes many Israelis uncomfortable, Jews are at home in America, they are politically engaged, and the identification of Israelis with Trump and Conservative American politics is pushing the majority of Jews away from Israel. Prof. Yossi Turner from Schechter spoke about the futility of the current political dialogue, and about the need to work on a cultural and educational level to recreate a common language for conducting dialogue.
Israelis and North American Jews in general, and Schechter and JTS in specific will hold more conferences and dialogues. We must continue this process of redefining our relationship, and of seeking common ground for the future benefit of the Jewish people.
Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Schechter Institutes.