American Jewish Committee’s Edward Rettig to explore Israeli, American Jewry
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American Jewish Committee’s Edward Rettig to explore Israeli, American Jewry

“What we have in the second half of the 20th century is the most revolutionary and unprecedented development in Jewish history,” said Edward Rettig, acting director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee. “Until 1939,” Rettig continued, “80 percent of us were European; now it’s maybe 12 percent. We are the only ethnicity that has ever departed Europe to that degree – in the Holocaust and through emigration – going overwhelmingly to the U.S. and Israel.”

Rettig, who is writing a book about the history of cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews, will discuss “Israeli and American Jewry: Different people … different cultures … different threats?” Sunday, Oct. 17 at Temple Sinai of Bergen County on Engle Street in Tenafly. A bagel-and-lox breakfast at 9:30 will precede the 10 a.m. talk.

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The American Jewish Committee’s Edward Rettig will speak in Tenafly about cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews.

The United States and Israel, home to 85 percent of the world Jewish population, “are radically different from everything that came before,” said Rettig, a U.S. native who immigrated to Israel in 1972 and served in the Yom Kippur and first Lebanon war. He holds a law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a doctorate in modern Jewish history as well as rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College.

“Israel is a modern, Hebrew-speaking, independent state that represents national self-determination for the Jewish people, different than anything Jews had for 2,000 years,” he noted. “And America is radically different from any other country: It’s the only one in history whose culture is overwhelmingly a creation of radical Protestants.”

Whereas in the firmly individualistic American culture, Jewish identity is an identity of choice, “like the way you choose a spouse,” Israeli identity is more an identity of faith in the same way you don’t choose your parents, Rettig maintained.

“These are the two largest Jewish communities ever, and they constitute very different cultures that share common historical roots and a common future one way or another,” he said. “They can engage in dialogue to enhance both, or gradually drift apart – and that would be catastrophic because we need each other.”

Rettig sees American Jewry as a free marketplace of ideas encompassing a greater variety of Jewish ideas and practice across the denominations.

“Because American Jews are so creative and open to new ideas, they have to come up with answers to challenges they’re bombarded with in the realm of religion and values,” he continued. “It’s like a ship with a light anchor and large sail that can skip all over the bay, but how far will it go from shore? Israeli Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is like a ship with a heavy anchor and smaller sails that are not built to catch the wind.”

A meeting between the “boat designers,” Rettig said, “could be a fruitful thing.”

“You do have ‘pretend’ dialogues between groups of committed American and Israeli Jews who both want to promote Jewish identity, and then they have a group hug. But they haven’t actually agreed on anything because one is talking about something similar to choosing a spouse and the other is talking about something similar to how you honor and protect your parents. We’re not really having a dialogue. We need to talk for real, and promote programs that expose our problems.”

A good place to start would be in the educational system, he said. “On an intellectual level, there is not much relationship between contemporary Jewish thought coming out of America in Israeli culture, or the other way around. When we get these ideas floating around, the dialogue will be much more creative and important.”

Some of this already is happening in projects like Birthright, he acknowledged. Past participants “show significant differences in Jewish behaviors and affiliations after less than two weeks in Israel. Something grabs them and changes the wiring. They begin to appreciate some of the intense power of Israeli-style Jewish identity. And on the other hand, growing numbers of Israelis have gone to the States and have non-Orthodox Jewish experiences and come back with a sense that there’s another way to do this.”

Rettig explained that the AJC’s global Jewish advocacy covers four main components: interreligious dialogue; social justice in America; shaping contemporary Jewish life; and Jewish diplomacy aimed at protecting Jews and their interests worldwide. “In Jerusalem, what I do touches on all four of those goals,” he said.

He plans to encourage listeners to support programs such as the UJA’s Partnership 2000 as well as Birthright and adult education initiatives. “Go out and read,” he said. “Try to figure out how Israelis think differently. Look at the world from a very different but very Jewish standpoint and then you can have a true dialogue.”

Rettig’s talk is open to the public. For information or directions, call the AJC at (973) 379-7844 or Temple Sinai at (201) 568-3035.

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