I had one of those experiences last night. I was standing with parents and Federation staff awaiting the arrival of our Journey for Identity (JFI) delegation from Modi’in, Israel.
Journey for Identity is a program of Partnership2gether, our ongoing connection and link between Rochester and Modi’in. JFI matches teens from both communities and takes them on a Jewish journey to Rochester, Poland, and Israel. The teens are joined by a Rochester Holocaust survivor. Together they develop a deeper understanding of who they are as Americans, Israelis and Jews. This understanding fosters lifelong relationships that build enduring bridges in the Jewish world.
The moment caught me by surprise. I expected nervousness and trepidation among the group. I expected tentative hellos and nice to meet yous. I did not expect an immediate sense of lifelong friendship. I was proud and a little teary.
Why was I so surprised and moved? For the last few weeks, and really since I began working in the Federation system, I have kept a keen focus on the relationships between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. As I have written before, I believe we are living in unprecedented times: the relationship between the two largest Jewish populations in the world, Americans and Israelis, has been deeply challenged, both politically and socially.
Of particular concern to me today are issues of religious pluralism. Many have been following the reversal of an Israeli government decision regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, or Kotel. This decision is a symptom of other issues of concern in Israel including marriage, divorce and conversion.
I am incredibly proud of how the Federation system has taken the lead on addressing these issues on behalf of American Jewry. There are several national initiatives impacting Israeli pluralism in very significant ways. With staff on the ground in Israel, the Federation system has a direct line to Israel’s government. Our leadership advocates on our behalf to help ensure that all Jews are able to live a full Jewish life there. In particular, the Jewish Agency for Israel, a Federation partner, under the leadership of Natan Sharansky, has taken on religious expression as one of its most important platforms. It was Natan Sharansky’s active advocacy that led to the initial agreement concerning egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. And, it was our collective action in Israel that took the most recent conversion bill off the table for the next six months so that we can work on eliminating it permanently.
In addition, we have staff in Israel working on the Israel Religious Expression Platform, or iRep. Through iRep we are funding a number of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) dedicated to ensuring freedom of all forms of religious expression in Israel. iRep funds both the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as organizations that promote women’s rights, like Women of the Wall and others.
It is imperative that our Federation system takes the lead on issues of grave importance to the American Jewish community, particularly this issue of pluralism. While some in the press have said that Israelis do not care about this as much as we do, my personal experience - with friends, family, colleagues and even the random cab driver - tells me that Israelis care as much as we do about being a country where all people can practice their religion as they please. And that all expressions of Judaism are welcomed and celebrated, including the recognition of all marriages, divorces and conversions, civil or religious. Israelis know that they need the support of the American Jewish community in order to effect change in this arena and for this we need strong relationships with Israel.
As I saw our teens embrace last night, these thoughts were running through my head. I saw our future. The relationships that we create through our community’s partnership with Modi’in not only nourish us now, but they guide and sustain us as we move forward. Even though we do not always agree, the trust and understanding we create helps us tackle the most pressing issues of our Jewish world.
In the words of founding father David Ben Gurion, “Ours (Israel) is a country built more on people than on territory. The Jews will come from everywhere: from France, from Russia, from America, from Yemen...Their faith is their passport.” Despite our many differences, our faith in our people, each other and our collective efforts will continue to steer us through ever changing times, if we are able to stand firmly together.