Op-Ed: Educate Israeli leaders on the nuances of Diaspora life


JERUSALEM (JTA) — As an immigrant to Israel, a woman and a member of the Knesset, I must juggle many sensitivities and responsibilities. I do this with great honor and try to be responsive to competing demands and ideals. Sometimes this means that I have to examine fundamental beliefs. 

When I made aliyah in 1973 from the former Soviet Union, I was of the firm opinion that Jews everywhere should come and live in Israel. But over the years, with my own personal and political development, I have come to see things differently. This was brought home to me in an even more persuasive way following a weeklong visit to the American Jewish community earlier this year as part of the Ruderman Fellows Program for members of the Knesset sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation. 

Together with five colleagues from across the Israeli political spectrum, we engaged with American Jewish leaders and activists who opened our eyes to American Jewish thinking and priorities. 

Israel needs a strong Diaspora so that Jews around the world can continue to influence the governments of the countries they live in and U.N. decisions. I recently came back from a visit to Ukraine and I saw the important role played a Jewish mayor there in relations between Ukraine and Israel. I appreciate the necessity of a strong Jewish life beyond the borders of the Jewish state, but I also recognize the great challenges that Diaspora existence brings with it. 

Among the most difficult questions is the very future of those Jewish communities — their ability to withstand assimilation and intermarriage; the strength to maintain the Jewish identity of the next generation. Perhaps the strict legal standards that we apply in Israel regarding who is a Jew are problematic and serve to create a wider gap between Israel and the Diaspora. Out of pain and concern, I believe we must strive not to become the enemy, not to alienate or reject the rainbow of Jews who today make up our multicultural Jewish world. 

In New York and Boston, Ruderman Fellows met many different streams — Reform, Conservative and so on, and learned about the growing phenomenon of non-traditional approaches to Judaism. This was not easy. For me and many others in Israel, it is not enough that the non-Jewish mother comes to synagogue on Saturday before taking her children to church on Sunday. It is clear to me that years down the line these same children will only go to church and not to synagogue, and they will not continue to be Jewish. 

I realize that this is a sensitive topic reflecting a reality of Diaspora Jewish life in the 21st century. But to my great dismay, I believe that sooner or later we will lose a large part of this community. Therefore it is of the greatest importance, before it is too late, that we in Israel, that Reform and Conservative rabbis and all other leaders of the Jewish world, work hard to embrace these families and help them sustain Jewish identification and affiliation to turn as many as possible into Jews. 

Along with the tremendous religious diversity, I also found many differences of opinion on Israel among American Jews. I was especially struck by a sense of hostility that we found in the Boston community. At some points I even thought, “What use is a Diaspora that thinks this way about Israel?” 

Of course, the very purpose of the Ruderman program was to introduce Israeli legislators to the variety of opinion and activity that characterizes the American Jewish community, to get us to understand what this community is thinking even if that thinking is anathema to our own. But I know that whatever their views, investing in dialogue with them is a critical Jewish mission. We must establish a shared platform for discourse and exchange because only in dialogue can the Jewish world find the commonality of spirit and commitment to ensure our joint future. 

(Faina Kirshenbaum is a Knesset member from the Yisrael Beitenu party.)

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