Hartman scholars come to north Jersey
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Hartman scholars come to north Jersey

Donniel Hartman returns to Bergen to re-educate it about Israel

When Rabbi Donniel Hartman speaks at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades next week, it will be his first time back at the institution where served as scholar-in-residence from 1984 through 1995.

Now Hartman heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Founded by his father, Rabbi David Hartman, and named for his grandfather, the Hartman Institute’s current focus is reflected in the iEngage program being offered at area synagogues and institutions with the support of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The program aims to reorient the conversation about Israel to one about Jewish values.

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Rabbi Donniel Hartman

The younger Hartman grew up in Montreal, where his father served as rabbi of large, modern Orthodox congregation. When he was 13 his family made aliyah, and he attended high school in Jerusalem. In Israel, he served in the army, studied in yeshivah, was ordained as a rabbi, and received his undergraduate degree.

But his time in New Jersey was part of his education, too.

“It was a life-changing experience,” he said. “It really shaped in a deep way all my career, and all my teachings.

“The most important thing I took away was the need to teach a Judaism which Jews of whatever denomination could feel comfortable with.

“One of the things I felt very strongly about was the idea of serving the totality of the Jewish people, where they were at; not necessarily standing on a mountain and waiting for them to come to you,” he said.

This JCC experience led to the institute’s present work on Israel-diaspora relations.

“I knew Judaism had to have multiple ways and access points for Jews of different ways and denominations,” he said. “We didn’t have that when it came to Israel. When we come to Israeli with only one access point, Israel and the Jewish people lose.”

Traditionally, that access point has been one of crisis: Israel is endangered and the diaspora has to support it to save it. Hartman believes that message does not work anymore: “In a world where Jews don’t have to be Jewish, you’re not going to sell Judaism through crisis and death, and you’re not going to sell Israel that way,” he said.

“Why would Jews want to choose to be involved with something that’s always dying? Unless Israel is meaningful, unless Israel is enriching, unless the partnership with Israel is challenging people to add dimensions to who they are, the significance wears off and it’s just a burden.”

A couple of years ago, Hartman, along with many other educators, began to recognize that a shift was occurring in American Jewry. Israel was not as central to Jewish identity as it had been.

“There was a group of the committed who was still there, but the committed group was becoming smaller and increasingly talking to themselves, and developing the notion that to be a lover of Israel you have to be like them,” he said.

Hartman distinguished between his approach – creating meaning-based conversations – with what he calls “the hasbara paradigm,” referring to the Hebrew word meaning explanation or propaganda, that assumes “if I can get you to know this fact, you’ll be just like me. If you just had this fact, you’ll change your opinion.

“So you love your spokespeople who say what you want to say, without even asking, ‘are you convincing anyone else?’

“One of the things that we all know is that people don’t shape their opinions on the basis of facts. They pick their facts on the basis of their opinions,” he said.

“Jewish education at its best crafts new ideas and new messages to make Judaism relevant in a changing world. When it comes to Israel, we’re rigid like the ultra-Orthodox world; there’s only one truth and anyone who disagrees with us is a traitor and a deviant. For someone who is a lover of Israel, that’s dangerous. What makes it even more complex is the people who are pushing for it are the greatest lovers of Israel. It’s not our enemies who are creating a mediocre message. It’s our friends.

“It’s not an either-or paradigm,” he continued. “There is a place for hasbarah, and Israel faces dangers we have to worry about. But it can’t be the only thing we have to worry about.”

The religious pluralism that Hartman attributes to his JCC experience is, he said, one of the ways in which he has diverged from the teachings of his father, who he said is the “teacher with the most significant impact on my life. Much of my work and where I’m taking the Institute are founded on many of the teachings my father brought me. Much of the iEngage project is a continuation of the ideas that led him to make aliyah: seeing Israel as a place where a renaissance came forth.”

Some of the differences between Hartman and his father have to do with age; “some have to do with the times we live in.”

Others have to do with their different upbringings. The elder Hartman, in his recent book, “The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition,” writes of leaving an ultra-Orthodox yeshivah for Yeshiva University, and then breaking with his teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik to take a more lenient approach to Jewish law.

For the younger Hartman, “I don’t have either ultra-Orthodoxy or Orthodoxy in my closet. I’m an Orthodox Jew, but that’s not the significant other I have to prove myself to. I’m not fighting that battle.”

One more major difference: “While I believe Israeli is essential to Jewish life, I don’t believe it is the only center of Jewish life. I think there will be a Torah coming out of Zion, but there will be a Torah coming out of North America too.”

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