A view from the pew

A view from the pew

Ann and I have just returned from a six-week journey to Jerusalem that included a week side trip to Italy.

Among our many adventures and experiences, we had the unique opportunity to celebrate two days of Purim; one in the ancient synagogue in the ghetto in Venice and the second at Machon Pardes, an amazing pluralistic and open yeshiva in Jerusalem. As a walled city during the Persian Empire, Jerusalem celebrates the festival a day later than the majority of the Jewish world, on a day that is called Shushan Purim.

The differences between these celebrations were dramatic. While the synagogue structures in the Venice ghetto are awe-inspiring, the fact is that the ever-shrinking Jewish community, now numbering about 500 souls, is fighting a losing battle to assimilation. The service, attended by only 45 people, is best described as spirit-less and boring. Juxtaposed to Venice, Purim in Jerusalem is unbelievably lively, both in the synagogues and on the streets. The Megillah reading, conducted by the post-college students of Machon Pardes, was both halachically correct and hilarious. Moreover, the streets of Jerusalem, on Purim day, were filled, as commanded in the book of Esther, with joy and gladness. It was a day where bareheaded secular boys and their tzitzit-wearing Orthodox peers could be seen playing together in parks, and their parents interacted as well. Purim, as many Israeli friends told me, is the one day of the year when political, religious, and even socioeconomic differences seem to melt away in the warmth of the joy of celebrating life itself.

If Purim is a day that celebrates what unites people, for Israel, as in America and many other Western democracies, Election Day in the 21st century is more and more becoming a day that accentuates our differences. I am writing this column on the eve of the March 17th Knesset election, the lead up to which has included great controversy over the influence and/or interference of Americans and Israelis in each other’s internal political affairs. As I wrote in my January column, I believe firmly in the responsibility of non-citizens to refrain from interfering in their allies’ internal politics. This applies to us American Jews and the Israeli elections, as well as to Israelis and American elections.

I now want to use the rest of this column to invite all of you to participate in another election, this one for the 2015 World Zionist Congress, which is now underway and whose results will have a real and legitimate impact on the social and economic life of Israel. Unlike either Israeli or American elections, every Jew, no matter where we live, has a right to vote in WZC elections.

The World Zionist Congress was founded by Theodore Herzl in 1897, with the goal of creating a state for the Jewish people in the land of Israel. In the 66 years since the creation of Israel, the WZC has functioned as the parliament of the Jewish people, where Israeli and diaspora Jews debate critical issues facing Israel and decide how the charitable dollars we contribute through both our federation gifts and our contributions to the Jewish National Fund are allocated in helping to fulfill the dreams of the founders of the Zionist movement-a pluralistic and democratic Jewish State in eretz Yisrael, our people’s homeland.

While many people over the past 67 years have thought that the Zionist Congress is anachronistic after the creation of the State of Israel, it has continued to exist as an elected assembly that gives both Israeli and diaspora Jews a platform for constructive cooperation in providing both social services and economic development. The Israeli delegates to the WZC will be chosen based upon the results of this week’s Knesset election. The American delegation, which is the largest of the diaspora communities represented, is being chosen in an ongoing online election, conducted by the American Zionist movement, that will close April 30.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been honored to have my name listed on the ARZA slate of delegates for the October 2015 Zionist Congress. While I would love to have all of you vote ARZA and thereby increase my chances of becoming a voting delegate, the message I wish to convey today is that we American Jews have a right and responsibility to participate in the World Zionist Congress and through it in the activities of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund, which allocates the money that we diaspora Jews contribute.

American Jews have played a political role in the Zionist movement since its inception in 1897. Among these early American Zionists were Reform rabbis, such as Stephen S. Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, and Reform lay leaders, including Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, and her brother Robert. They, along with their peers, who included Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, passionately believed that the American Zionist movement offered them an opportunity as American Jews in the building of Jewish life in the Land of Israel while respecting the delineation between the rights of Jews living in the land of Israel to elect their own governing assembly and American Jews to participate in the American political process.

Purim in Jerusalem was unique in both the way it was celebrated and the day it was observed. But it was still Purim, and the same Megillat Esther was read there as in Venice and in a hundred different synagogues in northern New Jersey. It symbolizes for me that Israeli Jews and American Jews and Italian Jews all are part of the Jewish people and yet unique. This week Israel chose a new parliament, and it will now enter into difficult negotiations in order to create a new government coalition. This is Israelis’ right and responsibility alone. It is not ours. By choosing to cast a ballot in the World Zionist Congress elections, however, we can choose to have a voice in the ongoing work of creating a better life for the people of Israel.

For more information on how to cast your ballot azm@election-america.org is the link to the American Zionist movement. ARZA’s website is www.ReformJews4Israel.org.