Minding the Gap: A Primer for Jewish Professionals and Philanthropy

By Yehuda Kurtzer

The recent crises afflicting the already-teetering relationship between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry – including the Israeli government’s quashing of the compromise plan towards improving the conditions for egalitarian prayer services at the Kotel, and the publication of a so-called “black list” of Diaspora rabbis whose testimonials on identity have been invalidated by the chief rabbinate – are consequential for the individuals whose religious liberty and religious standing are now jeopardized, and forebode challenging times ahead for two communities that are evolving on diverging paths.

But these crises also could offer a moment for Jewish communal opportunism that would transcend statements, rallies, and protests and that would engage the larger underlying issues with a comprehensive strategy. The initial responses advocating selective boycott, given the prevailing Jewish communal attitudes that have forbade such strategies against Israel when it comes to political or security issues, have been awkward, signaling anxiety and confusion about how our community might best engage a relationship more deeply troubled than has been acknowledged.

The gap is real between American and Israeli Jews, with the exception of small pockets of like-minded communities, and it has been expanding even after decades of bar mitzvah tours, Birthright trips, intense investment in Israel education, and the growth of the pro-Israel advocacy agenda. I’ve spent intense time here in Israel over the past month with Israeli colleagues in the education system, the rabbinate, and the NGO sectors, and have discovered that the problem is not merely in “the street.’ Even those individuals positively disposed towards remedying the gap between Israeli and American Jews often see these communities operating by totally different rules, and fail to understand the logic animating the value-systems of the other.

I therefore want to propose a series of agenda items for Jewish professional and philanthropic leaders to consider in trying to address this chasm. We must start thinking systemically rather than purely programmatically about a challenge that overwhelms limited or episodic efforts.

1) It is time to start treating the gap between Israeli and American Jews as spectral in color rather than monochromatic. Activists who try to name the root causes of this problem often point to single-causes: the chief rabbinate, the occupation, intermarriage, the preoccupation of American Jews with idiosyncratically American Jewish ideas about Judaism, etc. Often, these single-cause arguments are thin veils atop implicit polemics about the problems of “the other side,” with equally implicit apologetics about the fundamental legitimacy of American Jews (against the misbehaving Israeli government) or of Israeli Jews (against the narcissistic vicissitudes of American Jews.)

These single-cause arguments are silly. Israeli Jews and American Jews are on diverging paths because of the following factors and more: the ethnic overhaul of American Jewry due to intermarriage, adoption, and conversion; the ethnic overhaul of Israeli Jewry thanks to immigration and the citizenship rules of the Law of Return which allow for partial Jewish ancestry; political, religious, spiritual, and ideological trends in both countries; the massive gap in cultural and linguistic vocabulary; the educational systems in both places that have yet to figure out how to authentically represent the other; imbalances between the two in philanthropy and perceived responsibility to “the Jewish people;” different social and political circumstances given the respective geographies of America and Israel, and so on.

When we pretend that our mythic construct of “Jewish Peoplehood” belies an essential shared identity that has been merely compromised by minor and recent changes, we do a disservice to the complicated changes these communities have been separately undergoing for generations, and we deceive ourselves into thinking that one or two strategic meetings with the Prime Minister, or a few more busloads of teen tours, will reverse the trends of divergence.

The same thing happens when we assume that everyone takes for granted, or can easily internalize, the rhetoric of the Jewish people as “family,” when most Jews increasingly do not feel that this metaphor effectively describes their relationship to one another. Privileging a failed narrative and assuming it will hold sway is not an effective long-term strategy.

Step one for the Jewish communal agenda is to take more seriously the independent evolutions of American and Israeli Jewry, and their corresponding divergence of paths, to reject single polemical theories of causality, and to recognize the need for systemic approaches toward rebuilding the relationship.

2) By extension, it is time to take each of these communities seriously on their own terms, and not allow the successes and failures of each to be measured against standards created by the other. American Jewry and Israeli Jewry can both be success stories, even as the standards for thickness, moral integrity, spiritual health, political vitality, and continuity must be measured by different gauges.

These Jewish communities, emerging simultaneously and in parallel laboratory conditions,represent perhaps the most extraordinary success stories in Jewish history: the American Jewish community in an unprecedentedly hospitable Diasporic environment, and Israeli Jewry in unprecedentedly successful sovereign conditions. These twin experiences of success are lessening the mid-20th century codependency between the communities, when Israeli Jewry relied heavily on Diaspora philanthropy and advocacy for its survival, and Diaspora Jewry relied heavily on the Israeli success story as fodder for vicarious pride in precarious times.

If the strict measure of American Jewry is in the standards of Hebrew cultural production as has exploded in Israel, or in the standards of Jewish continuity as they manifest in a cultural context when exogamy is taboo, American Jews will wither in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Israeli Jewry is to be measured by American Jewish standards of moral pristineness incubated in the privatized control of religious institutions which do not need to operate as instruments of statecraft, Israeli Jewry will collapse under the weight of an impossible proposition.

This is a moment to ramp up our efforts towards greater understanding between these communities, with educational approaches that originate with greater insight into the strengths of the two communities and their separate characteristics. This requires transcending the usual stuff of mapping the identity of one community onto the other and identifying difference as failure. Too much of American Jewish Israel education is oriented towards affirming American Jewish identity through an instrumentalized, proxy version of Israel. To understand Israel is to come to terms with that which is exotic and sometimes alienating. Meantime, there is little education in the Israeli system about American Jewry altogether, and often Israelis find they don’t like what little they learn about American Jewry, for failures of categories of meaning and background with which to internalize why it is so different. It takes time to cultivate mutual appreciation and through that process, mutual responsibility. That process can start now.

3) This may appear to be naked self-interest, but several institutions in the Jewish community – my own (The Shalom Hartman Institute), and now also Mechon Hadar, The Wexner Foundation, and others – have been building the infrastructure to become genuinely “bicontinental.” Our institutions seek to serve Israeli and American Jewish populations in their native environments while sharing a common institutional core. This is unbelievably difficult to do well.

Our institution has experienced growing pains as we reallocate responsibilities across a newly global organization, as we try to do seamless handoffs across an institution that is now spread across offices that span 10,000 miles, and which can be hobbled by problems of literal and cultural translation. Institutions such as ours are engaging the realities of both societies with neither office “serving” the other; we are moving beyond the American office functioning as a fundraising apparatus for an Israeli NGO, or the Israeli office as a regional offshoot of an American philanthropic entity.

While we did not start the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America as a social experiment, we sometimes experience its growth as a story of organizational behavior and pedagogic social experiment for the Jewish people. “Bicontinentality” envisions structural reorganization in Jewish institutional life with ramifications for seeing the Israeli and American Jewish projects as functionally autonomous in discrete ways, but operating with a shared core. It is a means of organizational operating that is also the manifestation of a metaphor.

We need increased philanthropic investment into such projects, and into the sustainability of models like this that reflect an orientation toward a new reality of what these two communities bring to the table, and toward a way of understanding how these different communities can play out their destinies in related ways, make use of the other’s strengths, and build new strategies towards shared relationship.

4) In the Talmudic period, a class of rabbis known as the nehutei traveled back and forth between the rabbinic centers in Babylonia and in the Land of Israel, and served as human conduits for the ideas emerging in both places. Then as now, boundary-crossers and boundary-dwellers are some of our most effective instruments for cultivating shared understanding between these two communities, especially in the elasticity inherent in a tradition that is ported imperfectly, and in translation, between two independent and vital centers.

This continues. One of my favorite examples is the Kabbalat Shabbat service on the Tel Aviv port, developed in part as an adaptation of the service at Bnei Jeshurun in New York City, but applied to a public venue. Travel to the diaspora by leaders looking for the best technologies of Jewish life bred a new creative possibility for Jewish life back home. It happens in reverse every summer, with rabbis and other Jewish leaders encamped in Jerusalem – scouting and scouring Israeli religious and cultural production for nuggets to take home.

This is not merely an argument for more travel. One of the fastest growing populations of American Jews are Israelis living in America; and some of the most valuable voices in helping American Jews understand Israel are former American Jews living in Israel. These are imperfect boundary-dwellers, as they sometimes comprise individuals who explicitly reject the legitimacy of the communities from which they came, or otherwise caricature their former homelands in counterproductive ways.

But they also are among our best chances to understand – culturally, linguistically, conceptually – what it means to port ideas from one community into constructing a new identity in another. They are an underappreciated asset. A key piece of the agenda for the future of bridge-building between these communities is engaging the lowest-hanging fruit – the individuals who have lived and therefore can authentically represent the realities of both places, and through whom a culture of more productive conversation can be routed.

5) Finally, let’s focus on sector-specific means of alliance-building and partnership. Mikhael Manekin’s manifesto on unifying progressives in both America and Israel is a useful first take on this kind of thinking: issue-specific organizing, whether in the realm of politics, religion, or culture, enables tight connections among stakeholders in both communities that advance the larger goal of connectivity without defaulting to untenable platitudes of “shared peoplehood” or “Jewish unity.”

This approach is visible in finance, tech sector, modern Orthodox rabbis in shared networks, and political organizing; the activity involved mirrors the intended outcome, while foregrounding the interests of the individuals and backgrounding the “spiritual” goals. There is no such thing as a single American Jewish or Israeli Jewish community; weaving of relationships requires understanding as many threads as possible, aligning them effectively, and creating a more complex tapestry than before. If the bonds are fraying, it may be that we took for granted that they were simply tied in one place (mostly elites and in philanthropy.) The opportunities for braiding present the possibility for something richer.

Crisis presents an opportunity. Not all stakeholders in American Jewish or Israeli life are animated by this problem; for some, the prospect of severing the relationship between American Jewish and Israeli Jewish life affirms their own agendas, which stand at odds with this alliance. I share with many Jews a fear of a deep sense of loss that will come if our communities treat our successes and challenges selfishly, without regard for the larger story in which we are all participating. The opportunity for Jewish life that is possible only today, with a thriving State of Israel and a thriving American Jewish community, must not be lost to infighting between the two or to the apathy of mutual irrelevance. I hope we can create a new set of pathways.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.