Barak Sella

What can Israeli and American Jews build together?

Protests in Jerusalem against the Judicial Reform
Protests in Jerusalem against the Judicial Reform

As someone who works in the field of Israel-World Jewry relations, I frequently go back in forth from Israel to the US. After completing another tour of the United States, with stops in Texas and New York, I had numerous conversations with key members of the Jewish community, both young and old. They all posed the same question: how should we address the current situation in Israel, and what can we expect from American Jewry?

While I will delve into this topic further in the future, one image remains vivid in my mind. During my visit to New York, Community Leader Mijal Biton invited me to attend the Shabbat prayers of The Downtown Minyan on 16th Street. The service took place inside the Center for Jewish History, which featured an exhibition dedicated to the poet Emma Lazarus and Jewish workers from the beginning of the 20th century. About a hundred young men and women between 20-30 gathered for prayers in a modern-Orthodox style. They also shared lunch and some whiskey for Kiddush. Evidently, the prospect of finding friends or even Beshert (“the intended one”) motivated many of them.

Although I arrived late and was missing from the guest list, I passed through the security investigation quickly. They allowed me entry when I answered in Hebrew that I was from Haifa and everything was fine. The security had been increased due to alerts regarding a “day of hate” circulating on various social networks.

I am not religious, but I feel comfortable during prayer and am familiar with the ritual. However, the highlight of the service was the Dvar Torah from Biton. She spoke about the Truma (Donation) Parasha, in which God asked the Israelites to build a tabernacle in the desert. In return, the promise was given: “Then I will dwell in them.” The tabernacle was built by donations from the Israelites rather than taxes because it was meant to be built out of desire and free choice. Biton emphasized how this affair raises questions such as “What are we building together? What is the purpose of the project?”

The goal of the tabernacle was not just the physical structure but the community it created, a space for holiness. When Mijal spoke, I thought about the Shabbat as a Jewish space for community building. I pondered how Jewish communities in the United States carved out a community space for Shabbat on the “American Saturday”, and how communities in Israel carved out a protest and community space within a space of democracy that threatens to shrink.

This led me to think about the joint project of the Jewish people, which requires a constant contribution from all of us. The current situation in Israel has created significant tension between Diaspora Jewry, adding more doubts to today’s temple and the joint Zionist project. We cannot continue with inertia – we cannot ask for blind and pro-Israel support, nor can we prioritize the form of the state over its content. We are being tested on our common bond as the Jewish people, expressed in every generation, by building a temple voluntarily and freely. A temple aimed at creating a community and strengthening the common heartbeat.

As I stood in that space, listening to the worshippers and the words of the Torah, I thought about the cries of protest that could be heard at that exact time in Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv and many other city centers in Israel. Mijal’s question returned to me – what are we building together? Do we understand that it can only be built together?

About the Author
Barak Sella is the Director of the Reut Institute and leads the Jewish Peoplehood Coalition in Israel. Barak holds an MA in American Jewish Studies from the Haifa University and is an expert in Israel-US relations and World Jewry.
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