Reconfiguring Jewish Identity in Israel

Last June, I had the privilege to participate in the international Nachum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF) in Israel, sponsored by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (MFJC). (You can read my posting about it here.) Following this conference, the MFJC in conjunction with a small group of Israelis, decided to plan a mini-Nachum Goldmann Fellowship for Israelis, so this past weekend 40 people gathered at the Ohalo Conference Center on the Kinneret to engage in a series of presentations and discussions on the theme of, “Reconfiguring Jewish Identity and Peoplehood in Israel.”

This very intense program began with a presentation by Professor Moshe Halbertal who posed a number of questions about the priorities in Israeli society. He questioned where we place our emphasis and whether we are striving to be the best and strongest Jewish nation we can be. He stressed the importance of excellence and providing the opportunity for all Israelis to excel and thereby strengthen society. In doing so, he questioned the present priorities expressed by the decision-makers, educators and leaders of Israel. The presentation was a fitting foundation for the workshops and discussions that served as a springboard for participants to examine our own identities within the social fabric of Israeli society. Simultaneously, participants examined the relationship between a person’s Jewish identity and its intersection with the concept of Jewish Peoplehood in a way that transcends religious and ideological beliefs.

There was a series of workshops that provided the opportunity for the participants to experience a process of moving from ideas and concepts to a plan of action in the form of activities and programs. Following a discussion of Halbertal’s presentation, the morning workshop focused on identity and Jewish Peoplehood in Israel and the extent to which it provides meaning and holds all Jews together as a people. Since the effort was made to invite people from a variety of backgrounds and ideological and religious perspectives, the responses were quite varied and were based on a common foundation of a commitment to maintain a strong sense of Jewishness.

What was unique about this conference was that the participants spanned the Jewish religious and ideological spectrum. There were people who thought our society was treating both Palestinians and foreign workers unfairly and others who believed we needed to strengthen the communities in Judea and Samaria and everything in between. Through the discussions and workshops that examined everything from delving deeper into one’s personal Jewish identity and how Jewish identity unifies or separates us as Jews to the differences between the way Israeli Jews and Jews in the Diaspora express their Jewish identity, some discoveries were unearthed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the weekend was the ability that the participants had to recognize what connected them to each other despite what separated them. For example, in a discussion on the meaning of pluralism for Israeli society a young woman posited that pluralism was not an idea she felt strongly about. She said that tolerance was more important than pluralism. She did not have to accept that what other people believed was acceptable, but she did feel it was her obligation to tolerate the differences and respect other people for their beliefs. Throughout a discussion she said that Israeli society would be strengthened by people tolerating differences and developing unity through diversity.

The participants raised questions about the need to develop a new paradigm for the way we as Israelis think of our numerous Jewish identities and the way we, as Israelis, relate to the concept of Jewish Peoplehood. The focus of the weekend also included a deeper examination of what it means to be Israeli now and in the future, including a fresh look at the reasons for founding the Jewish State and its implications for the 21st century.

While the interactions and discussions were intense and sparked self-awareness and heated discussions, there was often a gap between theory and actually moving forward towards a plan of action. With that in mind, the planning committee has taken it upon itself to take these 48 hours that we spent together and explore developing a project that demonstrates how a group of Israelis with multiple perspectives on what it means to create a Jewish democratic society can work together to build a sense of community, on one hand, and to relate in a constructive and positive way to the Jews living around the world.

This was truly unique experience in bringing together people who identify themselves as both Jewish and Israeli in a variety of ways and are able to accept each other and develop a common dialogue. Out of the experience there is a desire to continue the process and the relationship with the MFJC and an expanded planning committee will begin working together to determine next steps to make their dreams and desires for Jewish identity in Israel as part of the Jewish people a reality.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.