By Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.
A few observations on Yehuda Kurtzer’s fresh rethinking of how to build a more mature 21st Century relationship between American and Israeli Jewry:
1. On the gap in understanding one another’s realities: ask Israelis living in Israel of a certain age (40-something’s and older) if they recognize their country today as the one in which they grew up or to which they emigrated, and ask American Jews in the same demographics if they recognize the America of today as the one in which they were raised. You’ll likely receive the same response: “No!” Internally, across our respective political spectra, we have experienced significant social, religious, economic, educational, racial and political upheavals that are difficult to absorb. If each of our respective communities are having difficulties in understanding shifts in our own primary environments, how can we possibly understand the other’s culture, even if we are frequent and fluent visitors in the other’s community?
This point can provide some restraint in immediate and deserved anger of American Jews toward the current and future Israeli governments, and help us think more strategically about how to advance remaining shared interests – of which there are still many. For example, I think that Israeli Knesset Members who support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s broken promises that affect American Jews should be invited to Jewish federations. Let them experience first-hand the anger and pain that they have caused, see the full diversity of the American Jewish community and understand that we are not stereotypes, to be used as pretty props when it’s convenient, and objects of ridicule when it’s not.
2. It’s useful to delineate distinct categories of “boundary-crossers” and “boundary-dwellers,” that is, individuals who spend most of their time in one location (America or Israel) but spend or have spent considerable time in the other. Some examples, and they are not intended as a comprehensive list, include:
- “Jewish professionals” and “professional Jewish volunteers;” that is, paid professionals and volunteers who work in Jewish institutions that are focused on Israel
- Israeli journalists who cover American Jewry and American journalists who cover Israeli Jewry both in the Jewish and secular press
- Individuals with close family and friendship ties in our respective communities, who visit one another frequently, and remain in touch digitally on a regular basis between visits
- Jewish think tanks (and there are very few)
- Alumni of grassroots communities, like ROI Community, an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation
The value in distinguishing categories of boundary-spanners is that if we want them to become more valuable assets in broadening our understanding of differing cultural realities and identifying shared work, we first must respect their diversity. Top-down, hierarchical meetings are appropriate in some cases, in many more, cultivating networks will be more successful, and sometimes, a hybrid model of hierarchy and network is needed.
3. While we don’t have to “privilege” a “failed” metaphor as American and Israeli Jews as “family,” we can explore other approaches in testing its value before completely discarding it. For example, “family” signified one tightly-defined, exclusive structure through the better part of the 20th Century, but today, “family” is a much more expansive and inclusive concept. Why hasn’t the concept of “family” vanished? Because many people still feel an emotional pull to be a part of a family, with all its complexities.
Families, in their varied, contemporary iterations, are still crucibles in which powerful bonds of love, empathy, embrace of difference and responsibility can sometimes be forged. Families have a cast of characters. Some generously take upon themselves the roles of “connectors,” and never forget a birthday, convene a family reunion and update “the family” with an annual newsletter; others move in and out of their roles as “family member” unpredictably; and still others never miss an occasion to snub “the family.” Some family members remain distant from one another for years but ultimately reconcile. Even if they have little time left to reset their relationships, they positively change the trajectory of the next generation of family relationships. But when family ties are permanently severed, and sometimes that is necessary, there can be deep wounds with unforeseen consequences that are transmitted across generations.
Kurtzer is correct – manufactured nostalgia for American and Israeli Jews as “family” won’t help strengthen the kinds of relationships that we need today and can even be alienating because people know a charade when they see it. But rethinking the metaphor of family more expansively and realistically on the collective level is a valuable endeavor worth the struggle. It’s another way of opening our eyes more widely to the massive transformations that we’re experiencing, identifying barriers that we might chose to live with for the time being for the sake of “family,” and distinguishing between the truly unbridgeable differences in our respective communities, and the ones that initially present themselves as unbridgeable divides but are only differing manifestations of shared essential changes on deeper reflection.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, consultant and nonprofit organizational futurist who holds a doctorate in Organization and Management. A “C-suite” leader, Hayim has worked with hundreds of congregations and nonprofits on issues including leadership, organizational foresight and entrepreneurship. His most recent publications are Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose, with Dr. Terri Elton (2016) and, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish (2012).