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Op-Ed: Use tikkun olam to bridge Diaspora-Israel gap

(JTA) — Everyone knows that an ocean separates Israel and the United States. Yet after three days in New York recently, I realized just how big that ocean really is.

Along with five Israeli journalists, I participated in a seminar organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation meant to help us understand the diverse U.S. Jewish community. But as we met with more and more Jewish leaders whose Judaism is their passion — and for some their profession — I realized just how wide and absurd the gap is between American Jewry and Israel.

We met two kinds of Jews. One group I would define as “classic Jews” — warmhearted Americans whose loyalty to Israel is unwavering, who believe the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, who consider Israel’s scenic desert South and northern parks to be more fascinating than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Park, and for whom the sight of Israeli soldiers in uniforms brings tears to their eyes. The classic Jews love Israel and Israelis, and if they have criticism of the Israeli government’s policies or are offended sometimes by the arrogance with which some Israelis treat them, they will not let anyone know. They are loyal Americans with an extra Israeli soul.

The other type are Jews whose Jewishness may be an important component of their identity and personality, but is not necessarily related to Israel. To some, Israel is more important, to some of them less and to others not at all. But the common thread is that Judaism is very significant to their way of life.

Although I knew that U.S. Jewry is no longer a homogenous community of donors, and that the consensus about the direction Israel is headed is coming undone even among its supporters in the United States, it was interesting and surprising to discover just how much people living in Israel do not understand what is going on with their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora.

For most Israelis, Jews in the U.S. are the same as those who were living in America after the victory in 1967 or the Yom Kippur war for survival in 1973. I must admit that even now, after the seminar, I personally feel that U.S. Jewry “has our back” when necessary, especially if Israel’s security is threatened. But I also understand that if, for example, the government of Israel decided to attack Iran in opposition to the U.S. administration, I’m not sure that U.S. Jewry would have Israel’s back in the same manner.

If during the recent American election we spoke of U.S. Jews tending to favor a specific party, while senior Israeli politicians took sides without shame or fear, I understood after a series of meetings in Manhattan just how wrong Israelis were. Community, peoplehood, even support for Israel is decided upon by the individual Jew. U.S. Jews are no longer the “long arm” of the government sitting in Israel. The State of Israel is an important reference point but not central to their daily lives. Judaism and its ties to Israel have undergone a significant change.

What impressed me most were the social activists we met, people who volunteer and stand at the head of large organizations, who attribute their humanitarian work to their Jewish upbringing and core Jewish values. Certainly in Israel this exists, especially in religious circles where gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness) and tzedakah (charity) are emphasized. But these Jews see their work in Africa or South America as a direct result of the words in the Torah that every person is created in the image of God. Their work is the clearest expression of their Judaism, but it does not manifest itself when Israel is discussed.

As the seminar progressed, it became apparent that Israel’s treatment of American Jewry remains stuck somewhere between 1967 and 1973, while American Jewry has spread its wings and evolved.

Diaspora Jewry is important to Israel and Israelis, and vice versa. The Ruderman Family Foundation seminar is a drop in the ocean in an attempt to connect the two worlds and understand each other; even Birthright Israel is insufficient in bridging this ocean.

I want to propose a model that can help bridge the gap.  If tikkun olam (repair of the world) is the way to the hearts of young Jews, Israel should generate opportunities for Diaspora Jews who are seeking self-realization via humanitarian activities. Israel could create a center that would send young Jews on social missions around the world. It should not be institutionalized nor a government program, but should be centered in Israel. This can attract young Jews who otherwise may have no interest in Israel to come to Israel and join programs that already exist around the world or in their country of origin.

If Diaspora Jews see tikkun olam as a first-rate Jewish value, why shouldn’t Israel contribute and invite Jews everywhere to visit there — not just for Birthright or Masa trips — and then join humanitarian missions around the globe?

Imagine what a wonderful contribution to the world it would be if Israel were to become a beacon of humanitarianism. More important, it could help bridge the gap with those who no longer view Israel as central to their Jewishness.

(Nurit Canetti is a publicist, columnist and editor of “Ma Boer,” a popular program on Army Radio. This Op-Ed was translated from Hebrew by Ephraim Gopin.)

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