Hartman Institute Promotes New Take on the Israel Diaspora Relationship

by Abigail Pickus

After 2,000 years, it’s time for a change. “What we’re facing today is a tipping point – a new reality – in which the relationship between Israel and world Jewry is being redefined,” said Shalom Hartman Institute President Rabbi Donniel Hartman in a video lecture aimed at ushering Israel-Diaspora relationship into the 21st century.

The video is part of the wide-reaching Engaging Israel Project launched by the Hartman Institute, a research and leadership center, whose latest addition is the iEngage website that aims to be a web-based multimedia resource center for the distribution of the project’s growing corpus of materials, articles, adult education curricula, video lectures, and more.

Led by a team of international scholars in the fields of Jewish studies, Middle East politics and history, the Engaging Israel project’s goal is to encourage Jews to re-examine core questions connected to the Jewish State to re-define the relationship between the two communities.

The impetus behind the project is an unprecedented era in Jewish history in which a strong and powerful Israel and a secure Jewish minority in North America have replaced the longstanding “crisis narrative” grounded in existential threats that has sustained the Jewish people for centuries.

With the centrality of Israel no longer self-evident and the rise of a younger generation that does not necessarily feel an automatic allegiance to the Jewish State, what has emerged are “two equally vibrant Jewish communities living side by side: one in Israel and one outside of Israel.”

“The conversation about Israel has become very reactive, rooted in a post-Holocaust narrative of crisis and survival. The premise of the Engaging Israel Project is to move beyond that and to cultivate a healthy dialogue about Israel – both among Diaspora Jews and also between Israel and world Jewry – that includes a diverse range of opinions, giving a seat at the table to anyone who feels invested in Israel,” said Rabbi Julia Andelman, the project’s North American Director.

In 2010, Hartman, officially launched the project with a nine-part DVD series on the “critical questions facing world Jewry with regard to Israel” aimed at congregational rabbis, educators and community leaders.

Eric Gurvis, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts, was one of the first to subscribe.

“I felt like it was a really unique learning opportunity,” said Gurvis, who first encountered the ideas behind the Engaging Israel Project as a participant on the Hartman Rabbinic seminar in Jerusalem.

Last Spring, Gurvis incorporated the first lecture series into an adult education program that drew over 40 people to the nine-week course. The course will be offered again in the Fall.

“People are so polarized when it comes to Israel,” said Gurvis, whose Reform congregation is made up of 750 families representing the full range of political viewpoints. “Either they are talking past one another or delegitimizing one another so I saw Engaging Israel and the people involved with it as a healthy way to go beyond the political aspect and to study Jewish texts to see if we can have a relatively deep conversation without descending into name calling.”

Gurvis is in the process of working with other Boston-area congregations and organizations to bring some of the scholars on the project’s team to their community for a day-long lecture. “My dream is to have 20 congregations participate in Engaging Israel so that we have a larger community forum talking about what people have learned and how we can start talking about Israel.”

What appeals to Gurvis is not the final product but the process.

“Were minds changed? I don’t know,” he said. “I think what the [Engaging Israel] team has done is create a framework in which we might have a chance to change the dialogue. We cannot forget the Holocaust and Israel does have real enemies, but I do believe that the ‘crisis narrative’ no longer speaks for many Jews who are very conflicted in their feelings about Israel. While I believe we do have to support the government of Israel, we cannot only look at it through one lens. Engaging Israel is asking us to take a different perspective to see if there is another way and I think this is very valuable.”

“We are trying to craft a new language for people to connect to Israel and to make Israel part of their lives,” said Dr. Tal Becker, a member of the Engaging Israel Project team and a former senior policy advisor to Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. “By creating questions that reflect Jewish values and by building an interactive conversation, we will be able to build the Jewish society we want to survive and the sovereign Jewish state want to realize.”

The first phase of the project focuses on North American Jews while phase two will outreach to the Israeli community, according to Becker.