JERUSALEM (Nov. 18)
Representatives of North American Jewry and Israel have concluded several days of dialogue aimed at improving Israel-Diaspora relations by signing a document proclaiming worldwide Jewish unity.
Knesset members joined thousands of American and Canadian Jewish leaders on Thursday in signing a covenant of rededication to “enduring ties that bind us together.”
The speaker of the Knesset, Dan Tichon, convened the “unofficial session” of the Israeli Parliament at the final plenary session of the 67th General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America — a mass annual gathering of American and Canadian Jewry that for the first time was held in Israel.
The brief covenant outlines a common vision for the Jewish people based on unity and building dynamic communities worldwide, and on shared values including “belief in God; respect for the infinite value of human life; the goal of peace;” and the concepts of Jewish peoplehood and tikkun olam, literally, “repairing the world.”
Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, one of a dozen Knesset members seated on the stage of the main auditorium in the International Convention Center, addressed the crowd before excusing himself to attend a Cabinet meeting to approve the Israeli redeployment called for in the Wye peace accord.
In his remarks, Sharansky summed up four days of round-table discussions, speakers panels and field trips examining the Israel-Diaspora relationship in one straightforward conclusion: The two communities exist in a symbiotic relationship.
“Today we can talk about equal partnership on both sides,” said Sharansky, explaining that Israel provides the Diaspora with a living link to Jewish history, while the Diaspora sustains Israel through its emotional engagement.
“Think about it,” he said. “If you stop being concerned about Israel, it becomes another little country in the Middle East.”
Maintaining and deepening the connections between the two Jewish entities formed the basis of formal and informal conversations throughout the General Assembly, as participants debated issues of mutual concern, such as Jewish education, continuity, pluralism and Middle East peace.
The need for increased Jewish unity emerged as a key theme during exchanges between North Americans and Israelis, including a morning session during which participants heard the views of — and questioned — Knesset members and Jewish communal leaders.
But no clear formula for a process of revitalization emerged.
Perhaps the closest and most direct attempt to issue a plan of action came from World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman, who advocated a renaissance of Jewish life, “changing what needs to be changed, keeping that which is useful.”
Speaking to the closing session of the assembly, Bronfman said the Jewish people “are the most over-organized people in the world, and we are still not focused on the principal issue of our times — the gradual and painless Holocaust which afflicts our people in the Diaspora.”
He stressed the need to appeal to Jewish youth and to correct ignorance of Jewish tradition through education, new media — such as interactive technologies and the Internet — and revised synagogue services, which he said are now “long, boring and repetitive to the young Jews of today.”
“Our synagogues and temples don’t belong to the rabbis,” he said. The Jewish people need “more of a Beit Midrash than a Beit Knesset,” using the Hebrew words for “house of study” and “house of prayer.”
He commended efforts toward making educational trips to Israel, day schools and summer camps a growing part of the Jewish renaissance and congratulated the creators of a renaissance department in the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations.
“I trust they mean the same thing as I do, that the major goal is to increase in quantum terms the number of young people who will self-identify as Jews,” Bronfman said.
Many in the audience were surprised by the abruptness of Bronfman’s speech, but endorsed his message.
“He’s repeating what we know and feel,” said Edward Young of Memphis. “He was right on target.”
“You’ve got to hit a lot of different buttons; we don’t yet know what’s going to work,” said Young, who is the chairmen of the Southeast region of UJA Federations of North America.
“We’re beyond the point of bossing people around. We’ve got to talk tachlis,” the Yiddish term for “getting down to business.”