Educate Israeli leaders on the nuances of diaspora life

Educate Israeli leaders on the nuances of diaspora life

JERUSALEM – 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.

In 1973, when I made aliyah from the former Soviet Union, I was of the firm opinion that Jews everywhere should come to 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 after I spent a week visiting 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 Jews around the world can continue to influence the governments of the countries they live in and to influence United Nations decisions as well. I recently came back from a visit to Ukraine, where I saw the important role a Jewish mayor there played in developing the relationship 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; their ability to maintain the Jewish identity of the next generation. Perhaps the strict legal standards that we apply in Israel governing 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 that 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 representatives of many different streams – Reform, Conservative and others – and learned about the growing phenomenon of nontraditional 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 go only 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 of them 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 the opinions and activity that characterize 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.