Long before “diversity” became a buzzword, I was captivated by the fact that there are many different kinds of Jews. As the midrash says of humanity, so it can be said of Jews: though we were all stamped from the same mold, no two of us are alike—and that is a blessing!
My first exotic Jewish encounter was as a teenager when a group from my Reform congregation in Chappaqua, New York, spent a weekend with the Lubavitcher chasidim in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Though it was obvious from the outset that our hosts were hoping to recruit us to join their sect, my friends and I were neither disturbed nor moved by their efforts. We were there to enjoy an adventure in Jewish cultural anthropology, and it never dawned on us that we might leave our Jewish world to join theirs. We were perfectly happy being Reform Jewish teens—active in our synagogue, loving NFTY, and enjoying the pleasures of the secular world.
Nevertheless, I was profoundly moved by that visit to Crown Heights. I wanted to learn as much as I could about their customs and beliefs, from the way they dressed to their relationship with their Rebbe (who was still alive at that time). And my interest was not dispassionate. It was not like visiting a museum to learn about other civilizations. Despite our differences, I felt an immediate kinship with the people we met, a deep visceral feeling that these were my brothers and sisters, and I wanted to embrace them as my own, albeit on my own terms.
What I did not realize at the time was how that experience had opened a pathway in my Jewish consciousness. I had been infected with a bug called ahavat Yisrael, love for our fellow Jews. That value happens to be a core teaching of the Lubavitchers, but I don’t recall them making mention of it during our visit. What moved me was simply the encounter with another branch of my extended Jewish family.
A few years later, during college, I made my first aliyah to Israel. I spent a year studying at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and it was there that my Jewish horizons truly were expanded. Who knew there were so many different kinds of Jews! I met Jews from every part of the globe: dark-skinned Jews from Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco; Spanish-speaking Jews from South America; Jews with British, Australian, and Russian accents; Orthodox Jews, socialist Jews, Chasidic Jews of all kinds; Jews of every political persuasion, from Peace Now to Gush Emunim settlers, and everything in between. They differed in their appearance, language, culture, attitudes, and beliefs and practices. I had come from a world where Jews were united by religion. In Israel, it wasn’t clear that there was any unity at all. But there was!
We Jews, in all our glorious diversity, are a people, a nation, a family—and we share a home. I felt this immediately upon my arrival in Israel, and this feeling has never left me. Like the four children of the haggadah, no matter what questions we ask, we have a place at the table. Even those who reject our faith are welcome, alongside those who embrace our faith but reject our State.
This is the great gift that Zionism has given to Jews of every persuasion. It has brought us together as one colorful, contentious family—Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. By making it possible for Jews to return to our homeland, we have experienced a great family reunion at which we get to eat and drink, argue and love—together!
As we celebrate Israel’s 66th birthday this Yom Ha’atzma’ut, I pray that every Jew will embrace the spirit of Jewish pluralism that recognizes and celebrates the fact that we are one people united in all our resplendent diversity—a free people with a place we all can call home.
Chag Ha’atzma’ut sameach!
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, NJ.