This Yom haAztmaut, I celebrate the path of self-sovereign Jewish life in our ancestral homeland. But I also recognize that Israel needs to change its story from being the ONLY tale of Jewish life, to being ONE OF a few powerful ways to live Jewishly in the modern world.
by Rabbi Mishael Zion
Suddenly, at 1:00 AM, a knock on our door “Americans – get up. We have a Jewish state!” Such excitement. The dining hall was cleared of tables. Barrels of wine in the center of a tremendous, wild Hora. Except for Victory Over Japan Day never have I known such thrill. My feet trembled as I stumbled in breath-taking dances. Such an Hatikvah! The members of Kfar Etziyon danced like never before…
So my grandfather, Moshe Sachs, wrote to his parents in Baltimore on November 30, 1947 – describing the excitement in the Kibbutz of Kfar Etziyon on the day the UN approved the creation of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.
Sixty six and a half years later, as Israel celebrates its Independence Day, I find myself as joyous as he was that we have a Jewish state. But something has changed for me. Having returned to Israel after five years of living in New York, I see the existence of the State of Israel in a new light. Israel is a miraculous promised land for the Jewish people – but it is not the only one. I’ve come to see that in America, Jews have also found a promised land as well. That alongside “Eretz Zion, Yerushalayim”, there is also “New Zion, America”.
The first Zion is unabashedly particularistic. It takes place in the ancestral land of Israel, with Jews as its main constituents, Hebrew as its main language. It feels organically Jewish, even as it is a total revolution in Jewish existence.
The second Zion is unabashedly universalistic. It is about a new land, America, which belongs to all its citizens. In America, Jews go beyond the us/them dichotomy which defined so much of Jewish experience, and their project takes place in English, the global language. Jewish creativity is played out at the center of the world stage.
Both of these Zions are needed for today’s world, and both of them represent authentic re-interpretations of Jewish life for the modern world.
This is a rare opinion in a Jewish community that takes Pew as a death sentence to American Jewish life, or for those wringing their hands about young Americans alienation from Israel. The dirty secret is that Israelis are totally alienated from American Jews – yet no one seems bothered by that…
I explored these questionsrecently in an ELI Talk entitled “A Tale of Two Zions”. In it I shared two stories of my grandfather – one from Jerusalem in 1947 and one from Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 – as two ways of living meaningful Jewish projects in modern times.
One of my most important take-aways from this process is that we need to continue to push these two communities to get to know each other. That the tension created between the project which is Israel and the project which is Jewish life in America – is good for both communities. That Americans must encounter Israeli life – not just the Israel as seen through the windows of a tour bus. In addition, and more urgently, Israelis must encounter and learn to appreciate American Jewish life. There are a few organizations that dedicate energies to this cause – but it is just a drop in the bucket. I hope my talk and the growing conversation on this topic catalyzes a change in the perspective of both Israeli and American Jews.
This Yom haAztmaut, I celebrate the path of self-sovereign Jewish life in our ancestral homeland. But I also recognize that Israel needs to change its story from being the ONLY tale of Jewish life, to being ONE OF a few powerful ways to live Jewishly in the modern world. Both Israel and American Jewish life will be stronger for it.
Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-director of the Bronfman Fellowships, and author of “HaLaila HaZeh: The Israeli Haggadah”.
You can watch his ELI Talk at http://youtu.be/Wsu3U8EVlbU.