Eric M. Robbins
President & CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta

Tending the Garden: Turning a corner in the Israeli-Diaspora crisis

Relationships are a lot like gardening, they need constant tending. The Israel-Diaspora relationship, a unique alliance born of shared history and a common destiny, has lately resembled a forlorn flower bed.

Weeds galore. Pottery shards. Planters up-ended.

But for many who attended the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly (GA) in Tel Aviv, there’s a feeling that we might just be turning the corner. Suddenly, one can see efforts large and small, bottom-up and top-down, to tend the garden.

President Rivlin made an impassioned called for unity, and even chided Israelis for their lack of awareness of World Jewry, adding how important it is to take account of Diaspora views.

Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog similarly came to the conference with eyes wide open, acknowledging our differences, but also celebrating the pluralism and diversity that defines North American Jewry. Herzog also jump-started a long dormant conversation about Hebrew, a perennial Achilles Heel of American Jewish life that we must reckon with.

Side conversations and gatherings were everywhere, including a highly structured dialogue I participated in sponsored by the Wexner Heritage Foundation. New initiatives are everywhere.

Just over a year ago, together with my now 12-year-old daughter, I joined thousands of protesters in Jerusalem to express our collective shock and disappointment that the Israeli government had turned its back on the carefully negotiated Kotel arrangement.

That’s the moment when everyone retreated to their respective corners and our discourse grew sharp with righteous indignation. In Atlanta, when we hosted MKs last fall, they heard an earful from angry community members who felt like their very legitimacy as Jews was being questioned.

But a year later, it finally feels like we are turning a corner. And it was on full display all week at the GA.

Sometimes it takes being face-to-face, rather than sharing our disappointments across the oceans that separate us.

I told every Israeli I met how my community is striving to redefine our relationship to the Jewish world, with Israel at the center.

The disputes of the past year have all-too-often blurred some of the extraordinary features that define our time. For example, the vast majority of World Jewry lives in free and open societies, secure in their identity, and eager and able to engage Israel and Jews everywhere. It is a unique moment for the Jewish people, one we have not experienced before. And it is our good fortune.

None of this is to say there are not painful issues that continue to divide us, especially the glaring lack of religious equality in Israel, but the broader indicators of Jewish strength should never be forgotten.

As we turn the corner, we in the Diaspora need to be more confident about what we bring to the table.

I work in one of the most vibrant, diverse, and growing Jewish communities in North America — just ask any of the thousands of Israelis who have recently moved to Atlanta to study or work. My community in Atlanta, like so many other communities in North America, is stronger because of our commitment to diversity and pluralism. Israelis are just beginning to learn these lessons and we need to help accelerate that process.

In fact, our future as a people may depend on it.

We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform; we are gay and straight; we are liberals and conservatives; and we all find fellowship under one big tent. On an earlier trip to Israel this year, many Israelis were surprised to learn that, in our community, religious leaders belong to a single, unified rabbinical council.

At a recent event in Atlanta for our shinshinim—the young Israelis who come and contribute in a myriad of ways to our community during a year of service—they said the strongest lesson they will bring back to Israel is the notion that there are “so many ways to be Jewish!”

Let that sink in for a minute, and you will appreciate how far we’ve come. As we—Israelis and Diaspora communities—begin to tackle what divides us, we need to put everything on the table. For example, it is vital for many in my community that alongside our stalwart solidarity with Israel and our focus on the challenges of living under threat, we can also express our sense of urgency and our support for exploring all opportunities for peacemaking.

We are ready to marshal support to help Israel fulfill the ultimate Zionist aspirations of safety and security for a people that knew neither for two millennia. Last year, I joined the program Encounter, and continue to draw on these direct engagements with Palestinians—many of whom share the same aspirations for peace.

I returned to the U.S. and to my community with a renewed sense of optimism, and feel fortunate to have experienced first-hand that what binds us is bigger than what divides us.

About the Author
Eric M. Robbins joined the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta team as the President and CEO in August 2016, with a vision to increase Federation’s relevance in the community and to share its inspirational story with the wider world.
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