JTS chancellor to open Jewish Learning Project
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JTS chancellor to open Jewish Learning Project

Without the vocal and visible presence of American Jewry mobilized behind it, our country’s historic support of the Jewish state could be in jeopardy, Dr. Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, told The Jewish Standard in a recent telephone interview.

Eisen fears that "if we don’t do something right now to strengthen the North American Jewish connection to Israel, in a few years, we will have a problem with American government support for Israel."

Hence, said Eisen, who will be the guest scholar at the Jan. ‘0 opening symposium of the Jewish Learning Project at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, strengthening that relationship "is most urgent item on the Jewish communal agenda."


Dr. Arnold Eisen

Asked the meaning of Zionism 60 years after Israel’s founding, Eisen said, "Zionism has to be more than the belief that there has to be a Jewish state. Jews understand that, because [in recent surveys] many more say they support Israel than the ‘5 percent [who identify themselves as] Zionists." In contemporary terms, Eisen continued, Zionism implies "active engagement with a Jewish state and working to strengthen the relationship between that state and diaspora Jewry."

But contrary to their stated support for Israel, Eisen noted that in the United States at least, Jews have become increasingly alienated from it. Citing data from "The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in the United States" (Indiana University Press, ‘000), the book he co-authored with sociologist Steven M. Cohen, Eisen said that in answer to a question about involvement with Israel, less than 30 percent of the survey participants expressed a deep attachment to it. While studies dating back ‘5 years document this trend, a report by Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, published in ‘007 by the Florence G. Heller-JCC Association Research Center, describes the alienation as particularly acute among today’s young adults, who have no memory of the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel, or the battles fought to secure its independence.

Decrying this, Eisen observed, "The existence and thriving of American Jewry are directly dependent on the existence and thriving of Israel as a Jewish state," and insisted, "If two-thirds of American Jews are not deeply attached, we have a problem."

Paradoxically, the "problem" may not be all one-sided, he implied, with Israeli attitudes towards the diaspora perhaps contributing to the growing gulf. "I take very seriously A.B. Yehoshua’s denunciation of diaspora Jewry," said Eisen, referring to the firestorm created by the Israeli author in May ‘006 when Yehoshua said, at the centennial celebration of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., "If … in 100 years, Israel will exist and I will come to the diaspora [and] there will not be … [any] Jews, I would say it’s normal. I will not cry for it….Why? Because it’s very natural that every one of you will be American and extend his identification with the country in which he is living…. I … will not have [and] cannot keep my identity outside of Israel.… [Being] Israeli is my skin and not my jacket…. You are changing jackets."

But, just as American Jewry undoubtedly has something to learn about Jewish identity from Israelis, so, too, can Israelis and the modern Jewish state benefit from exposure to the richness and variety of Jewish practice here today, Eisen believes. "[Israelis] used to think, ‘We have a Jewish state and we don’t need to worry about religious life, since the state will take care of that.’ For most Israelis today, that is not satisfactory. They want a relationship with Jewish history and tradition, and the Orthodox v. secular [divide] doesn’t cover it [for them].

"The evidence is that Israelis are increasingly searching for other kinds of religious and cultural expression," he continued, "and the Conservative and Reform movements are a natural address. We in the Conservative movement have a vital interest in having non-Orthodox forms of religious life available to Israelis, and not just in theory, but so that Israelis think of them as possible avenues for religious life. We have something distinctive to offer in Israel, as we do in the U.S. and Canada. We have an opportunity now because Israelis recognize that our task is two-fold: building Jewish communities and building living relationships with Jewish tradition."

Elaborating on an ongoing debate among Israelis about their nation’s future — will Israel be a state of Jews or a Jewish state? — Eisen observed that Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, envisioned an enlightened, pluralistic state populated by Jews and "working to promote Jewish culture in all its forms for the welfare of the Jewish people." As a democracy, however, "Israel must protect the rights of all its citizens, a principle not incompatible" with its nature as a Jewish state, Eisen maintained.

In his presentation at the YJCC, Eisen said he will draw from the canon of classical Zionist texts, including writings by Herzl and those of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in British-mandated Palestine and an early leading proponent of religious Zionism, and Ahad Ha’am, the voice of cultural/spiritual Zionism in the late 19th and early ‘0th centuries, as well as more recent Zionist literature and commentary.

The seventh chancellor of JTS, Eisen is a renowned scholar of American Jewish life and thought.

How to take part

The 14th annual Jewish Learning Project at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, "Israel at 60 and Us: The Meaning of Zionism for the Contemporary American Jew," will begin with a symposium on Sunday, Jan. ‘0, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Three weeks of study sessions with local rabbis will follow, exploring the theme through traditional and modern texts. The program is co-sponsored by the YJCC and ‘1 area congregations and communal agencies, including UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. The Jewish Theological Seminary is also a sponsor this year.

For information on registration, go to the YJCC Website, or call (’01) 666-6610, ext. ’66. Study sessions will be held at Temple Beth Or (Monday evenings, led by Rabbis Ben Shull and Debra Hachen) and at the YJCC (Wednesday mornings, led by Rabbis Joel Mosbacher and David Seth Kirshner) in Washington Township; at Temple Emeth in Teaneck (Tuesday evenings, led by Rabbis Steven Sirbu and Ronald Roth); and at Temple Israel in Ridgewood (Wednesday evenings, led by Rabbis Gil Steinlauf and Jonathan Woll). Registration fees include admission to the opening symposium and all study sessions.

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