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Israeli group explores diversity in the U.S. and among themselves

NEW YORK, Dec. 17 (JTA) — The plan: to bring a group of Israeli “influentials” in various fields and from a range of religious backgrounds to the United States to witness the diversity of the American Jewish community. The organizer’s goal: to bridge what many describe as a growing chasm between Israeli and American Jews, as well as to foster a positive attitude toward religious pluralism. The impact: not yet entirely clear. The American Jewish Committee brought 10 Israeli leaders from fields as diverse as education, the military, law enforcement and journalism to see for themselves the best that the American Jewish community has to offer in Atlanta, Washington and New York. The trip aimed to examine such questions as “What do we share as Jews? Do we have a common sense of peoplehood?” Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs for the AJCommittee, said in remarks to participants at the end of the trip. “We want to test Rav Kook’s dictum that ‘what unites us is greater than what divides us,’ ” Bayme said, referring to Avraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi. The answer to that question was not completely clear to participants as they concluded their tour, which took place Nov. 29 to Dec. 12, though they left the United States with some very strong impressions of the differences between American and Israeli Jewry. In Atlanta, seminar participants visited Jewish day schools oriented toward each of the main Jewish religious movements. In Washington, they met with a Jewish senator, a State Department official and with executives at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In both cities, they spent time at Jewish community centers. In New York, the focus was on religion: They met with rabbis from each of the main movements, visited the Orthodox and Reform rabbinical seminaries, heard from leaders of the Conservative movement and worshiped at a modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Ellis Island and Ratners, the famous Lower East Side kosher dairy restaurant, were also on the itinerary. Some Israelis said they were impressed by the intensity of commitment to Jewish education for both adults and children. “I was surprised to see Jews who choose to be Jews, and invest in it” by paying $8,000 a year in day school tuition, said Noga Rogel, who works as head of information for the education and training division of Israel’s national police force. “Their drive to study, and their knowledge, is really impressive,” she said. “As a secular Israeli, I find myself so ignorant that I feel ashamed.” Others said that they were wowed by the power they saw that Jews wield in Washington. Many said that while they were happy to see that American Jews believe that anti-Semitism in not currently a concern, they were mystified by the Americans’ confidence that it would not become one in the future. “I don’t buy American Jewish self-assurance, their feeling of security,” said Rabbi Eitan Chikli, who immigrated to Israel from Tunisia at the age of 19 and is now a Conservative rabbi and executive director of the Tali Education Fund. Moshe Elazar, head of the combat system integration branch of the Israeli navy, said he was surprised by American Jews’ lack of knowledge about how things are done in Israel. Participants complained about meeting only the elite of the American Jewish community — those most intensively engaged in Jewish study and living — and not having much chance to talk with more typical, unaffiliated Jews. The closest they came, some said, was a chance encounter with a student at Atlanta’s Emory University, where they had gone to meet with Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies. The student described herself as a Conservative Jew, said Elazar. But when asked in what way she was a Conservative Jew, if she kept kosher or went to synagogue, she impatiently said, “Of course not,” according to Elazar. “I got the impression that there is a thin layer of knowledgeable American Jews and a huge layer of ignorant people,” he said. Seminar participants differed strongly about whether American involvement in promoting religious pluralism in Israel is appropriate. “It is problematic and very dangerous to accept it,” said Aviv Lavie, a Tel Aviv- based journalist and committed secularist. “I prefer that we make our own pluralism by our own hands without Diaspora intervention.” Others agreed, like Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, head of the study center at the Beit Morasha Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies. “We can’t be so pluralistic like it is here. The pluralistic, free solution is not our solution.” Others, though, said that the American model made a strongly positive impression. Vered Noam, director of the program for Israelis at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an Orthodox yeshiva for women in Jerusalem that also has many students from the United States, said she plans to speak to her students about it. “I think I will try and promote a better understanding of Reform and Conservative in the battle for Jewish commitment,” she said. Participants had wondered how interdenominational tensions might play out in their own group — which included Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis along with a few committed secularists. “We expected big fights to take place within our group, because we represent very different segments in Israeli society,” said Noam. “But after two or three days, it became harmonic and lovely.” “Many of the problems in Israel don’t get solved because the people involved are politicians and not the simple people,” she observed. Noam concluded with a concept at the heart of what the AJCommittee tries to teach with these trips, bringing Israelis to America, which it has been doing for the past 15 years. “If secular and religious people could sit together and discuss the issues of the State of Israel, maybe we could solve some of them,” she said. “Once you come to know, to understand someone on the personal level, problems become much more solvable.”