excerpted from The strength to face each other by Natan Sharansky:
There are two great Jewish communities on the face of this earth – Israeli Jewry and Diaspora Jewry. A bridge connects us – and however convenient it might seem to occasionally turn our back on this bridge, we must not do so. Each community must engage the other – and understand that our own, continued existence is bound up in the continued ability of the other community to flourish alongside us.
For Jews living in the Diaspora, this means recognizing that San Francisco, San Paulo and San Diego are not self-sufficient Jewish oases; they orbit around a center, and that center is Israel. The more they recognize this, the more they are themselves enriched. It is no accident that, according to a recent study, Birthright participants – youth who’ve spent ten days in Israel on an intensive trip with peers – are at least as likely to remain Jews as those who’ve had years and years of Hebrew school education, but no contact with Israel. To encounter our national homeland is to encounter the Jewish People, writ large. The land is a wellspring of Jewish identity; our shared history seeps from its every rock. It is a land that is truly “home” for all of us – not only for those living here, but for those living abroad as well.
For Israeli Jews, the existence of this bridge means living with a kind of humility, with an understanding that we can learn from Diaspora Jews. Israelis, who chatter in Hebrew without even thinking about it and soak up symbols of Jewish culture from sources as ubiquitous as billboards and television advertising, can learn from those who choose to remain Jewish when that is not the default choice, when that choice means swimming against the cultural tide.
For Israelis, living with the bridge also means understanding that, no matter how stupendously aliya might succeed in the future, Jews will inevitably live in the Diaspora. It means realizing that Jews who live abroad are not inherently less committed to Jewish life for doing so, and that the continued vibrancy of Diaspora Jewish life must be a priority for us all, Israeli and “hutznik” alike.
More than anything else, the two communities need to look with pride upon each other. They need to admire each other, even when they disagree; indeed, even when they consider the other to have done wrong. We need to be able to point to our brothers on the other side of the aisle, or on the other side of the ocean, and say: “Whatever their politics, whatever their beliefs, whatever their religiosity – they are a part of me, too, and I would be less without them.” When we can say that and really mean it, Israeli and Diaspora Jewry will have achieved something remarkable. For many Yom Kippurs to come, we will be able to stand before God and say, “This is who we are. We are one. We do not shirk from facing each other – and therefore, we have the strength, pride and self assurance to face You as well.”
Natan Sharansky is Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.