Just yesterday I was running along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, thinking about my time in Israel. It was an intense experience addressing the most critical issues concerning diaspora Jewry and the relationship between American Jews and Israel. This was a study mission of sorts with my colleagues that left few ancient and modern stones unturned. It was fascinating and I am still processing everything I encountered.
I consider myself rather well versed in Israeli politics, history, religion, science, innovation, society and culture, but this conference challenged that knowledge. My mind was racing as I was running and reviewing in my head all of the nuances we had been exploring. Nothing in Israel is black and white. And then, someone I knew ran right by me, not recognizing me out of context along the Tel Aviv boardwalk.
It struck me that often times the things that are right in front of us are the things that we don’t see. The challenge is that everything in Israel, in this beautiful, tiny, bustling, miraculous country of hope is right in front of us and taking a step back to look around can actually help sharpen our view. That is what we did.
On the first day of our trip, we spent our time exploring the intricacies of Jerusalem by the new light rail system. The day was framed around the variety of tribes living within the tiny city of modern and ancient Jerusalem. In many ways, this little sacred oasis is a microcosm of Israel and our world.
For some the word tribe has a negative connotation and we do not like thinking about the Jewish people in those terms as it makes us think of warlords and the antithesis of modernism. In Israel, and in our historical and biblical past, we as Jews were divided into twelve tribes. Even when we joke and say, “are you an MOT (member of the tribe)?” the tribe connotes a sense of being in and belonging to a group. In other words, tribes in Judaism were used for a particular and designated purpose of organizing types of people.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we find Jacob assigning each of his sons a particular purpose to their tribe. Whether warriors or scholars, or the many other duties assigned to a tribe, they reflect the many facets of who we are as a people. I highly recommend reading Tal Becker's piece, from the Shalom Hartmann Institute, on tribes.
Judaism may be a religion, but our religion is one that creates peoplehood. In the words of the scholar Avram Infeld, “Judaism is not a religion, it is a people!” When we can recognize this we begin to understand how different groups of Jews see the world differently. We may indeed be one people, but certainly we are not a monolith and there is plurality in our thoughts, ideas and understandings of the many facets of Jewish life, including and especially Israel.
As we traveled the light rail from the north of Jerusalem to the south, we were confronted with the issues challenging the city and our people, right in front of us. From the Arab/Israeli/Palestinian conflict, to civil society issues, economics and religious pluralism, Jerusalem provided a clear back drop for most of our greatest challenges as a Jewish people and our relationship with the modern day State of Israel. We asked the toughest and most complex questions and often ended up with more questions and fewer answers. Israel is blue and white, not black and white, and most often it is many shades of gray.
Our group of CEOs share a very deep love of the State of Israel. We also all shared a fear that people will give up on Israel or succumb to apathetic ambivilance. As I mentioned in my last message, I believe it is our responsibility to provide the opportunity for people to talk about those issues most critical to Israel and the Jewish people today and recognize that as tribes, there will be a multitude of opinions.
It is also our responsibility to embrace the diversity of thought, even when we do not agree, through civil discourse. This is really hard. Israel is our Jewish homeland and as a modern day nation state only 68 years old, she is barely an adolescent, but with very adult and mature problems, having grown up in the most difficult of circumstances. Being a Jewish state and a democratic one lends itself to complexity.
I come away from this experience even more committed to providing the opportunity for all of us to understand the nuances confronting a phenomenal modern State of Israel, founded in Jewish values and challenged with very serious political, religious and civil issues. Israel is our modern day miracle and for this we should remain proud and committed and open minded.
In the coming months I look forward to sharing specific stories of the people with whom we met who served to enlighten, inspire and confound us. From Sudanese living in Tel Aviv to Israelis living in Hebron, the stories and people create vibrant conversations and I look forward to exploring the joys and challenges with you.
For now though, I will wish you a Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.