Encountering Israel at the GA
Partialness gathered all its parts and the whole wasn’t formed
How was the whole not gathered from all the parts, though
All their recesses fit and their crevices, how was
the whole not formed though all the components were set one by
excerpt from “Partialness Gathered” by Rivka Miriam (Israeli poet)
At its most basic, the GA is a gathering of Jewish people and ideas, mixed together among and around shared passions and diverse interests. A modern-day Council of Four Lands, it brings together Jews from across North America and around the world collectively discuss to challenges, seek opportunities and create bonds of fellowship around the common cause of community. And while the conference is convened by the (newly renamed) Jewish Federations of North America, one never loses sight of the fact that the attendees are not only North American, but representatives of the larger collective of the people of Israel – a people rooted in (and in some cases from) the land of Israel.
To that point, during my time at the GA I was struck by the fact that even though we were in the heart of Washington D.C., at the heart of my experience was the number of conversations and encounters I had that related to Israel. Of course there were political discussions – with Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing the attendees it was hard not to be cognizant of the challenging political winds that constantly blow around (and in) Israel. But there were also conversations that touched upon the collective desire of the Zionest dream, a strong and enduring Jewish state with a compassionate and cognizant Jewish society living in peace with and among its neighbors. Danny Gordis writes in his recent book Saving Israel that the purpose of Israel is to transform the Jewish people, and while I believe that is correct, I also believe that the purpose of the Jewish people is to transform Israel – to make the partial whole. With that in mind, perhaps the most impactful conversations I had were those that reminded me the Israel is still not yet complete – that it is a work in progress that requires the countless efforts of passionate advocates and constructive critics in order to become more perfect.
Those transformative efforts are not always easy though, and often challenge our very understanding of our own personal encounters with Israel. One example of these efforts and challenges is Encounter, an educational organization that provides Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the religious and political spectrum with exposure to Palestinian life. Co-founded by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub and Rabbi Miriam Margles (and a product of Bikkurim), Encounter takes Jewish groups on one and two day encounters with Palestinian counterparts in Bethlehem, Hebron and East Jerusalem. During my discussions with Rabbi Weintraub at the GA, I was struck not only by the passion of her commitment to Encounter, but the power and the opportunity of the type of transformative experience she and her organization offers. If our perception of Israel is always partially constructed by our personal histories, experiences such as Encounter help build stronger understandings of Israel even if they disassemble some perceptions once thought to be unshakable.
Like my meeting with Rabbi Weintraub, at the GA there were opportunities to meet individuals passionate about creating a more complex and complete understanding of Israel were everywhere you looked. Whether it was the professionals of the Makom, a program of JAFI with a mission is to empower Jewish communities to develop deep, sophisticated and honest Jewish engagement with Israel through imaginative content and dialogue, or with the founders of AlmaLinks, a start-up program that connects young Jewish professionals around common interests, there were creative leaders and promising endeavors discussing the future of Israel. But as we know from our local communities, passions about Israel are common, but are not always congruous and often require effort to connect diverse in our collective Jewish puzzle. As my friend Eryn Kallish at Project Reconnections (a program that helps facilitate such dialogue and deliberation) recently impressed upon me, only when we encounter other perceptions and passions in a respectful way do we truly understand how we can play a part in creating greater respect for Israel and its people.
So, in the spirit of my encounters of Israel at the GA, let us all continue to gather the partial pieces of our common love of Israel, and let us remember that while the ingathering of our people is powerful, it is the ingathering of our ideas and efforts that can truly transform Israel’s encounter with the world – an encounter where the whole is certainly more than the sum of its parts.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.