Focus on Issues: Israel, Diaspora Attempt to Build a Bridge and a Common Language

If an Israeli rabbi dared to call a Jew a sinner for living outside of Israel, he would probably be accused of trying to stir up yet another round of conflict with the Diaspora.

But last week, a group of North American Jews and Israelis found that an ancient rabbi comparing Diaspora Jews to idol worshipers in a Talmudic text can actually help bridge the Israel-Diaspora divide.

In a two-day seminar in Jerusalem, 280 North Americans and nearly 100 mostly secular Israelis delved into ancient and modern Jewish texts in an attempt to discover if there is still something in common between the two communities.

On the Israeli side, the event was organized by Kolot, a nascent institute established two years ago to promote lay leadership in Israel modeled on the North American Jewish community. The North Americans were from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities in Los Angeles and Canada, who are completing a first or second year of study in Jewish leadership programs of the Wexner Heritage Foundation with a trip to Israel.

“Young North Americans are feeling that Israel is less and less important to their lives, and to their identity as Jews,” said Rabbi Nathan Laufer, president of the foundation, which educates Jewish leaders in Jewish thought, history and contemporary issues. “The concept here is to find some place, some way, to create a shared language or meeting ground, such as texts that both sides feel speaks to them.”

In more than a dozen classrooms at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, participants were handed a provocative talmudic text, written many centuries ago but still perfectly suited to spark a modern debate on Israel-Diaspora relations.

“Whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God,” read the text from Tractate Ketubot. “But whoever lives outside the land may be regarded as one who has no God.”

In one class, it only took a few seconds for Diaspora delegates to respond. “Is that how Israelis see us?” asked one American participant, only half joking. During the ensuing debate, the two sides grappled with the text and the questions it raised about Jewish life.

Some Americans tried to reinterpret the intentions of the text’s authors, others simply said it was wrong and contradicted the Jewish concept of an omnipresent God. Still others wondered whether like today, the Babylonian Jews perhaps were more prosperous than their counterparts who lived in ancient Israel and may have looked down on them.

Later, in smaller study groups, or havrutot, the discussions heated up. In one group, American participants pressed Michael Kovner, a 51-year-old secular Israeli artist, on whether he thought it was easier to be Jewish in Israel or abroad.

“It’s hard for me to understand the word Jew,” said Kovner. “Is it more Jewish to speak Hebrew and not believe in God or not to speak Hebrew and to believe in God? Jewishness is a very complicated thing.”

Then he offered an interpretation of the Diaspora-disparaging text, which was written by sages who lived in the Land of Israel. “Every place we live in, we build a story, and the Israeli [talmudic] story is an Israeli story. It’s different. We built our story to feel comfortable with our lifestyle.”

Andrew Cushnir, a 35-year-old attorney from Los Angeles, listened closely. After the study session, he explained why the dialogue was important.

“As someone finishing two years of the Wexner program, I have spent two years on a search for Jewish meaning,” he said. “I don’t think an American Jew can search for Jewish meaning without having Israelis as part of the search team.

“I think we can be truly Jewish outside of Israel,” he said, recalling the textual debate. “But reflecting on the Israeli experience changes the way you look at the process.”

Israeli participants agreed. “The dialogue really brought us together,” said Efrat Cohen, 33, who runs a religious-secular Judaic studies institute in the southern desert town of Yeroham. “It’s different, it’s not routine and it seems to be a very practical way of bridging the divide.”

Such programs, hopes Moti Bar-Or, 38, founder and director of Kolot, may serve not only as a bridge, but as a platform for Israel to learn something from the Diaspora. In 1997, Bar-Or, a veteran Jewish educator, won the prestigious Avichai prize for tolerance for his keynote project Elul, a religious-secular Beit Midrash he founded in 1986.

With Kolot — funded by a battery of foundations — he is trying to import some practices of American Jewish life into Israel.

“One of the things that Israel is missing is Jewish lay leadership,” he said. “In North America, the partnership between lay and professionals is on all levels. But in Israel, the concept of people being involved in the community, volunteering time and money, does not exist. I learned this concept from North American Jews.”

In several Kolot programs — some modeled after the Wexner programs — dozens of mostly secular professionals are studying Jewish texts.

“The idea is to get these people — businessmen and journalists — to be part of the changes going on in Israel, such as on the pluralism issue.”

Instead of studying basic Judaic concepts, they are studying texts relevant to their lives in modern Israel that ask questions such as: What does Judaism say about conversion? How is the Judaic notion of charity relevant to modern Israel? What is the Jewish concept of criticism — and how can a journalist criticize without destroying a person’s character?

Participants are already coming up with practical projects, including secular- run soup kitchens for the poor and pluralistic Judaic studies departments in secular schools.

Last week’s meeting with American Jews was not the first. In another Kolot project, groups in New York and Jerusalem are studying parallel texts, sharing their thoughts in virtual havrutot via the Internet and later meeting to study together in person.

“The idea is that the Torah is the only thing we share,” Bar-Or said. “Let’s open a new dimension in Israel-Diaspora relations that is not about giving money and the centrality of Israel, but is about saying that there is something important happening in the Diaspora that we can bring to Israel.”

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