Love Me Tender, Love Me True

“We will only be able to bring Israelis home from wherever they may have wandered, we will only be able to entice Jews born abroad to join us in our common homeland if we are able to create within it a society that holds them and their Judaism in high regard. If instead we continue to be condescending, dismissive and patronizing they will not only stay away, but also drift away.”

by David Breakstone

Those Vegas weddings you’ve seen in the movies? Turns out they’re as outrageous in reality as they are on the silver screen. I know because one of our kids just had one.

Loyal readers may recall that when Yair proposed to Veronica some 18 months ago she divulged to him that she wasn’t 100 percent one of us. Born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, she instead was one of the more than 300,000 Israelis from the Former Soviet Union locked in limbo. Arriving here at the age of 12, she was educated in our public schools, served in our army, celebrates our holidays, is passionately patriotic and feels fully Jewish. Still, as she is unwilling to commit to an Orthodox lifestyle, our state-sanctioned rabbinate would have nothing to do with her.

Not prepared to forgo a Jewish wedding (as important to Yair as it was to her), Veronica ended up converting through the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a process that lasted a year and which included immersion in both Jewish texts and a mikve. Last July, the couple was married by a Masorti rabbi in accordance with Jewish law. But while that solved the problem for the two of them in regard to their Jewish state of mind, it left them in an indeterminate state of matrimony in the Jewish state that is their home. Their ketuba is not recognized here and thus neither is their union.

So, on their recent honeymoon in America, which included a quick visit to Las Vegas, they dropped by one of the legendary chapels there for a quickie ceremony that cost $49 and took less than 10 minutes.

They emerged from it with documentation that will require our Interior Ministry to register them as married. Last week, they regaled us with the details over Shabbat lunch.

Turns out there really are chapels complete with Elvis look-alikes singing “Love me tender, love me true.” There are also drive-through wedding windows where you can order up your marriage license as you would a hamburger and fries, without even getting out of your car. Yair and Veronica chose something in between, and ended up in the office of a justice of the peace who happened to be Jewish and even threw some Yiddish into the ceremony at no extra cost. The ludicrousness of the entire matter requires no elaboration.

What does, however, is what all this says about the Jewishness of the Jewish state, and the embarrassingly superficial understanding that far too many Israelis have of the richness of Jewish life in the Diaspora in comparison to its stultification here.

What prompts me to comment on the subject is a letter just received from a young man in the United States who is passionate about both his Judaism and Israel but who feels torn apart by an advertising campaign recently launched by our Absorption Ministry aimed at luring home Israelis living overseas. While PM Netanyahu commendably ordered the ads pulled while I was in the midst of writing this piece, I fear that the attitudes that informed them and the misperceptions they reflect require far more than a government directive to repair. Take a look.

The ads essentially advised Israelis living in America that spouses taken from among the local population would never really be able to understand them, that their children would inevitably come to celebrate Christmas rather than Hanukka, and – by implication – that it was impossible to live a meaningful Jewish life in the United States.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg, breaking the story in The Atlantic. And according to a JTA report, “the Jewish Federations of North America called the ads ‘insulting,’ and the head of the Anti-Defamation League said they were ‘demeaning.’”

But more important than the institutional condemnation of the campaign is the angst it has caused among the next generation of Jewish leadership.

“These commercials seem to diminish my Jewish identity and thus erode the most basic level of my support for Israel,” one wrote in the letter that was passed on to me. “I would rather continue to support Israel than stop, but Israel almost seems like that friend who wants to peer pressure you into being who they want you to be rather than acknowledging that you have multiple parts to your identity and those are all part of who you are. Why would I want that friend in my life? I have spoken to other people my age, and they feel similarly.”

I don’t wish to be misunderstood. I firmly believe that the potential for leading a full Jewish life is far greater in Israel than anywhere else, including the United States. Not to mention the dangers of assimilation, Jewish illiteracy and the demise of Hebrew language and culture throughout the Diaspora.

But I am confident that many who were offended by the arrogance of the campaign share my perspective. They are simply also aware, as Goldberg stated so bluntly, that “Israel has other problems… such as the fact that many of its rabbis act like Iranian mullahs.”

In other words, they know we haven’t fulfilled our potential and that in many respects they are far more advanced than we in making authentic Judaism attractive, accessible and compelling. What our relationship requires, then, is dialogue, mutual respect, and an openness to learn from one another. And for us Israelis the lessons need come not just from the Jews of North America.

A case in point. I just returned from a visit to the Jewish community of Lima, Peru. It numbers fewer than 3,000 members, but a full 90% of them belong to one of three major synagogues (two Orthodox – Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and one Masorti). The three congregations cooperate in running the community, rotating the leadership between them, and the children of all of them attend a single community-wide day school in which each of the three rabbis teaches Bible to all of the pupils, who also participate in a single Zionist youth movement, Hanoar Hatzioni.

The community also manages to support a country club, a kosher supermarket, two periodicals, several Jewish organizations and a variety of welfare services.

None of this, of course, says anything about the prognosis for the long-term survival of Lima’s Jews, nor of the many other communities their size. Nor does it undermine the notion held by some that Jewish life in parts of the Diaspora is only possible because Israel exists. Regardless, we in the Jewish state have a great deal to learn from the Jewish lives that our cousins scattered around the world have managed to create for themselves. Where in all of Israel can we find the sort of acceptance of one’s fellow Jews as I found in Peru?

We will only be able to bring Israelis home from wherever they may have wandered, we will only be able to entice Jews born abroad to join us in our common homeland if we are able to create within it a society that holds them and their Judaism in high regard. If instead we continue to be condescending, dismissive and patronizing they will not only stay away, but also drift away.

Our government ministers would be better off investing their efforts in changing things so that Yair and Veronica wouldn’t need to travel all the way to Vegas to get married or to Machu Picchu to feel at home. It might take some time, but I’m going to keep dreaming that the next set of state-sponsored commercials will feature Jews of Israel and the Diaspora singing rhapsodically to one another nothing other than “Love me tender, love me true.”

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. Published courtesy of the author.