Reflections on the GA 2018 “Let’s Talk”: Can Israel and the Diaspora aspire to be not just two pillars, but an arch?

By Jackie Frankel Yaakov

The GA 2018 in Tel Aviv was a dialogue on Israel and the Diaspora and the future of Jewish peoplehood being in danger. What does it mean that we are ‘Am Yisrael’ if the two largest Jewish communities of today don’t understand one another – whether literally due to language barriers or due to cultural misunderstandings of one another’s intentions? There seemed to be a consensus among the self-selected participants of the conference that we need each other. That we are stronger “together,” as Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin kept emphasizing in his speech at the opening plenary to large-scale applause. The question is: how can we be stronger together, and what do we need to do to make that happen?

This GA’s theme was “Let’s Talk.” There was a very special room called the Dialogue Den for sessions of hundreds, seated at tables of 10 for more intimate discussions. The opening session there was titled, “Stronger Together: Renewing the Covenant of the Israel and North American Jewish Relationship” led by The Wexner Foundation. The first thing that struck me when I walked in was that we were asked to seat ourselves by identifying as “Israeli” or “North American” – I was already stuck. I am “both.” (As the session began, we were given the option to identify as ‘both’ as part of a survey exercise, but we already had to seat ourselves as “either or.”) What does it mean that I am ‘both’?

I am a young Jewish professional who made aliyah 9 years ago from an armchair American Zionist home, and married a native Israeli 5 years ago – with whom I speak Hebrew at home, and with whom I am proudly raising our two native Israeli children. Not to mention I am a citizen of both Israel and the USA with immediate family living in both countries.

And while identifying as ‘both’ may have been fairly common for the self-selected group of lay and professional Jewish leaders attending the GA in Tel Aviv last week, I recognize that it is a very special identity to have in the Jewish world today. Most young American Jews have not had the opportunity to have a deep personal connection to a native Israeli Jew, and the opposite is true as well. How are Jews living worlds apart meant to understand their counterparts? We are indeed one people with a shared past, but how often do we come together to speak like we did at the GA? I personally felt like it was a golden opportunity, and that I was sitting in a chair of privilege for the conversation as a ‘both’ – finding myself translating words or concepts for one group or the other.

At the second morning’s plenary session two of the speakers proposed two metaphors for Israel and the Diaspora. Isaac Herzog, Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, referred to the communities as two pillars, as the Jerusalem and Babylon of today. GA 2018 co-chair Danna Azrieli, Chair of Israel’s real estate company the Azrieli Group, suggested we start to adopt a new metaphor – an arch. That is, how can we bring the two pillars into one arch structure that solidifies itself with resistance while resolving forces to eliminate stresses?

The metaphor of the arch resonated greatly with me. Having thought so long of myself as perhaps a ‘bridge’ or liaison between two pillars, having evolved into a ‘both’ over the years I felt suddenly hopeful that there could still be one ‘Am Yisrael.’ One Am Yisrael if it used for its keystone its ‘boths’ to bear its weight and if it created more opportunities for the two communities to meet face to face, listen and learn from one another.

There was an afternoon session in the Dialogue Den run by The Jewish Agency. In this session tough issues were tackled regarding how The Jewish Agency should focus its future programming, as more young Jews distance themselves from Israel while young Israelis have little knowledge about the greater Jewish world. Should experiences in Israel for young Jews from around the world be the primary focus? Should The Jewish Agency create more opportunities for Israeli Jews to go to Diaspora communities and learn about Jews and how they connect to their Jewish identify and/or practice Judaism abroad? How do we assure that the two communities will continue to care about each other as deeply as the self-selected cross group sitting in that room?

Again, as a ‘both’ I felt tremendous excitement by the conversations and possibilities. I also felt a great weight of responsibility as a ‘both’ – a potential keystone of the arch of the Jewish People. I personally do my best everyday to be a part of getting Jews from around the world excited about Jewish education, and Israel education, through my work as a Jewish professional. Currently I work at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, an open, co-ed and non-denominational Jewish learning community, based in Jerusalem and with programs worldwide, of which I am a proud alumna of its Year Program. The Pardes Year Program combines classic Jewish text study with the exploration of the land of Israel and ethical, spiritual, philosophical, legal and societal issues facing the Jewish people today.

Coming from Pardes, I felt right at home in another session in the Dialogue Den run by The Shalom Hartman Institute, which used Jewish texts and havruta (study partner or small group) style learning to discuss the distinction between ‘home’ and ‘homeland.’ We were dissecting a mishna about Rabban Gamaliel’s declaration to delay the start of the prayer for rain following Sukkot because of his responsibility for the welfare of pilgrims from abroad [Babylon] to reach the Euphrates [their home] before the rainy season began. This led to a very interesting discussion at my table about what Israeli Jews are willing to give up for Diaspora Jews and vice versa.

The Diaspora Jews at the table discussed the sweat, tears, and dollars they give to Israeli Jews, and the disappointment they feel in return when they do not have a heard voice in the decisions of the Jewish homeland and are not always recognized as a Jew by some of their fellow Jews in Israel. The Israeli Jews at the table discussed the sweat, tears and blood they give to ensure the security of the Jewish homeland so that no Jew in 2018 ever has to be a refugee and can always come home to Israel safely. In many ways this stopped the conversation, as giving one’s child, husband, or self to the country is the ultimate sacrifice.

Time for the session ran out, but I wanted to propose that Israeli Jews have something else very important they can give to Diaspora Jews. And that is the strong culture of mahloket l’shem shamayim, or disagreement for the sake of heaven. In fact, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies is working on a new project for Jewish communities worldwide titled ‘Mahloket Matters: How to Disagree Constructively.’ This study and exercise of contradictory interpretations of textual stories can indeed empower us to engage more constructively in divisive ideological, political and narrative conflicts today.

In fact, there was a beautiful moment of mahloket l’shem shamayim at the opening plenary of the GA during a brief panel titled, “Bridging the Divide: A Cross-Cultural Conversation.” Among the panelists were Sara Greenberg, advisor for World Communities Israeli Prime Ministers Office, and Professor Gil Troy, author ‘The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland.’ Towards the very end of the panel Sara said something that led Gil to burst out, the two of them bantering back and forth and at times even talking over one another and the moderator in loud voices, but then walking off the stage together smiling and patting one another on the shoulder. They may not have agreed with one another on some very important issues surrounding Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but they agreed it was important to talk about them, try to listen to one another, and then be moved to action.

The GA 2018 reminded me that neither the terrifying rate of assimilation of the American Jewish community nor the security threats of the Israeli Jewish community are the most important issue facing the Jewish people today; but that our ability – despite tensions of the two ‘pillars’ – to deal with the greatest stresses of each as one ‘arch,’ so that we can stand solidly as Am Yisrael, is the most challenging issue facing the Jewish people today. It reminded me of my vital role and great responsibility as a ‘both.’ That we need to make more opportunities to get to know one another, care about one another, talk to one another, try to be present and listen – really listen – to one another, and eventually take meaningful action together to ensure a strong future for every Jew no matter where in the world – no matter where in the Jewish arch.

Jackie Frankel Yaakov is the Director of Development of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Israel.