We The People of Israel

by Yonatan Ariel

Recent contributors have raised the nature of the challenge for Israel education at this time. For the last several years Makom, among others, has been raising the call for this kind of conversation.

Sometimes it has felt as though we were blowing a shepherd’s flute in the midst of a rock concert. Yet slowly, slowly there are the outlines of an academic field (kudos to the Schusterman Foundation), and various kinds of educational inquiry and practice (with Makom, Center for Israel Education, the iCenter, the Melton Centre for Jewish Education and the Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project).

James Hyman argues that as American Jewish identity is largely constructed as a religious identity, then to become attached to Israel requires the broadening of our conception to include notions of Jewish Peoplehood.

Hyman’s significant observation may well have an important caveat. Like so much else, there is a fluid and dynamic sense of what religion means in America. For example we no longer necessarily agree on the vocabulary of mitzvah and obligation, even as new commitments to green sustainability in many places are deemed religious.

I suspect therefore, borne out by some Makom pilot projects, that we must both help those charged with religious programming to broaden their conception to include Peoplehood ties, and also that Israel programming should strive to be more meaningful in religious terms.

There is a wealth of untapped potential that we have been exploring in bringing Israel into prayer, the lifecycle and the calendar, including a significant attempt to generate a new paradigm for celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

There is a tectonic shift underway in the Jewish world. It is the result of a coming to terms with modernity, the successful amassing of power and influence both in Israel and in America, and the blessed freedoms that have been internalized. Its effects are cultural, religious, political, economic and institutional.

American Judaisms are the product of a remarkable experiment with liberalism and pluralism. Israeli Judaisms are the product of a remarkable experiment with sovereignty rooted in a Jewish vision of an old-new land.

Each of these experiments has yielded many profound ideas, beliefs, stories, customs, rituals, behaviors and successful institutions. And yet fault lines, weaknesses and lack of balance and some measure of limited horizons have also been revealed in both.

Both American and Israeli Judaisms can learn from each other.

The late Brandeis University historian Simon Rawidowicz was a prominent believer in the value of a transatlantic dialogue. He commented about the desirable relationship between a flourishing Israel and a flourishing Jewish community around the world.

“Jerusalem is the point of destination, the end of the journey; Babylon is transition, the journey itself. Babylon is the agent of fomentation, the gadfly that ferrets out the permanent that lies concealed within destruction. Babylon represents not complacency and satisfaction with the status quo but an inner struggle against the status quo.”

One does not have to buy Rawidowicz’s conclusion to recognize that a conversation about inspiring journeys and destinations is invaluable at this time. What can Jerusalem contribute to the flourishing of Babylon? And what can Babylon contribute to the flourishing of Jerusalem? I would advocate for a three-part process to stimulate a healthy relationship for all going forward:

a) Who are you? Who am I? Let’s really get to know each other – not in the superficial sense alone, but in the deep sense of helping each of us draw out the profound cultural assumptions that have guided us – both those that are readily apparent and those that are hidden. (Do you really believe that religion can have no place in the public space? Do you really assume that the context of your birth is more important than your beliefs?) Only when there is an honest accounting of whom we are can the relationship take root.

b) What do I care about? What do you care about? What really moves you? What keeps you awake at night … either from fear and worry, anger and trepidation? Or from desire, hope and the breathless expectation as to what can yet be?

c) What can we do together about that which we both care about? What kinds of activity around the Jewish world, Israel and beyond will beckon us due to the impulses of our values, our learning and our experiences?

By following this route, Israelis – drawn out by some grand questions from Americans – would be more ready to get excited by pondering on the significance of liberalism and pluralism for their lives. And American Jews – challenged by some audacious inquiries from Israelis – would be enchanted wondering about the nature of Jewish collective identity and the significance of a special or holy place on the face of the globe. We can conjure that each would emerge energized, emboldened and empowered.

To make the most of the possibilities I have laid out here, we need to offer our educators, our rabbis, our cultural arts programmers and our activists more opportunities to be excited and perplexed.

Their honest personal growth will be fueled through transformational learning experiences. We strive to design these in such a way so as to enable them also to figure out what kind of programming they want to craft for their participants, congregants and students.

Such endeavors are in the spirit of Rawidowicz: “The infinite of Jewish existence requires from the people of Israel everywhere very great creative patience, a profound maturity, much deep wisdom, and a deep-rootedness in Jewish life, unfrightened by the fierce winds and storms outside …”

Yonatan Ariel is the Executive Director of Makom, a partnership of Jewish communities around the world and the Jewish Agency.