This week, a couple who belong to my congregation returned from a trip to Israel.
In itself, this is not an extraordinary event, traveling to Israel in our day, but it always is an extraordinary experience. I find it exhilarating to hear from congregants and friends about their experiences in Israel, and this time was no different. The tales of this couple’s travels, what they saw, who they met, what they did, and what they learned, was so wonderful that I asked them to share some thoughts with the congregation.
Among all they told us, they pointed out that in Israel, the weekly Torah reading was different than ours in America. While they had heard the Torah portion Naso last week in Israel, we were reading it this week in our synagogue in Rockland County. In America, we were a week behind. They knew some things would be different for them in Israel, but what they expected to be uniform was not. Israel and America are out of sync.
With the weekly Torah reading, this dissonance is a temporary phenomenon, a result of the eighth day of Passover falling on Shabbat this year. That means that although it still was a holiday for us in America, it was a normal Shabbat in Israel. While we in America were reading the parashah for the eighth day of Passover, in Israel they were continuing with the yearly cycle. From then on, in Israel they were a week ahead of us. The divide continues until this summer, when we in America read the double portion of Matot and Massei, while in Israel they will read a single portion, Massei. The following week, the week before the fast of Tisha B’Av, we will be united, on the same page so to speak, as we both read Parashat D’varim.
This lack of uniformity between the Torah readings in Israel and America struck me as a metaphor for the larger relationship between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. We are not on the same page.
This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Cabinet formally approved the inauguration of a new community in the Golan named after President Donald Trump. This new community, Ramat Trump — Trump Heights in English — was established and named for the president as a gesture of gratitude for the United States’ recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan in the Six-Day War and annexed it. Since its capture, the Golan has been treated as occupied territory by the United States and the international community, even though Israel had formally annexed it. A few months ago, President Trump formally recognized Israeli claims to the Golan Heights, a move that was widely hailed throughout Israel. This policy shift, on top of the move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem, has given President Trump nearly unprecedented popularity in Israel. A Pew Poll taken in late 2018 showed that 69 percent of Israelis expressed confidence in him.
Meanwhile, among American Jews, President Trump has low approval ratings. Twenty-six percent of American Jews have a favorable opinion of the president, and 71 percent disapprove of his job as president. Though President Trump retains popularity in some Orthodox and charedi communities, he has highly negative polling numbers among the overall American Jewish community.
Whatever respondents think of the president, the most striking aspects of these polls is how out of sync the Israeli and American Jewish communities are. It underscores the different realities we live in, and the different concerns we have. Statistically, the majority of the American Jewish community is more likely to focus on domestic concerns and social issues than on the location of the American embassy and the status of the Golan Heights. For Israelis, these issues are existential, much in the same way most Israelis saw the nuclear deal with Iran that the Obama administration negotiated.
One issue that American and Israeli Jews may share is the role of religion in Israeli society. For example, while many American Jews focus on the exclusion of non-Orthodox prayer space at the Kotel and feel it is intolerable and unacceptable, Israelis are concerned about the role the charedi community plays in the government of Israel. They are likely more concerned about IDF exemption for charedi Jews and the government spending on yeshivot. Even when Israelis and Americans have similar concerns, they focus on different issues.
On so many issues, the American and Israeli Jewish communities seem to be out of sync. There is much cause for concern. A new generation is coming of age without the memory of Israel’s wars for survival, and see it not as a besieged country but as a start-up nation, a world power. It would seem that in some ways, Israel is a victim of its own success. But where once Israel was dependent on the American Jewish community for support, now the American Jewish community is shrinking, and the vitality of Jewish identity among its majority is waning. It seems likely that in the coming generation, Israel will continue to be increasingly more important for American Jewish identity.
Each year thousands of young people are sent to Israel on a free trip through Birthright. The efforts and expense are borne by the American Jewish community, because we know the impact a trip to Israel can have in strengthening Jewish identity in America. Over the past generation, the strong bond between the American and Israeli Jewish communities has allowed both communities to flourish. If Israel and America are out of sync, both Jewish communities will suffer.
Being out of sync on the weekly Torah cycle is something the calendar will correct. By August, we all will be on the same page for Torah reading. The larger issues that dominate the divide between our two Jewish communities will not fix themselves. We must do all we can to encourage discussion, dialogue, and debate, which can lead to harmony between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. We must focus on bridging the divide for all our sakes, for the love and support of Israel, and for the future of American Judaism.
Joshua S. Finkelstein is the rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Rockland County.