A Great Family Reunion Made Possible by Zionism

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.  

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Big Thoughts over Brunch in Baka

Pre-Shabbat in Jerusalem is digestion time. On Friday mornings in my neighborhood of Baka, the main avenue teems with voracious brunch-devourers eager to squish a weekend’s worth of consumption into one extended meal. As Shabbat preparations commence and stores rush to fulfill orders for 30 hours of commercial hiatus (shops close here!), unemployed students like me seize the moment to click out of Morfix1 and into Israel. Digestion for me is 25 percent brunch and 75 percent psychology. While I scoop labne (Israeli yogurt) onto scrambled eggs and conquer the ziggurat of cucumbers and tomatoes shoveled generously onto my plate, I try to make sense of the previous week’s Jewish, academic, and social intensity.

Having lived in New York City since the age of 17, with time spent in Berlin, Madrid, Paris and Washington, DC for academic and professional pursuits, I became convinced that Manhattan was the definition of urban vibrancy. But after 10 months in Jerusalem, I must admit that the Big Apple has a contender. The Jerusalem week is like a pitching machine that spits out obligations and opportunities at a fervent pace – and the unrelenting force of serious questions pushes this wired New Yorker into new realms of exhaustion.

In Manhattan, career and partnership are my major concerns. After I decided to pursue the rabbinate, and fell in love with my now-fiancé, I felt as if my scores were in – I had passed – and could move from being interrogated into the role of interrogator. I was comfortable, but somewhat despondent. Had I peaked by age 27? Was I to exchange my cloak of youthful mystery and dynamism for a pair of safe and static orthotics? Thankfully, in Israel, this option is off the table.

Even the minor moments in Jerusalem demand big thinking. My cab driver doesn’t care where I’m going – (we decide that before I open the door) – but he wants to know how it is possible to live as a “real Jew” outside of Israel. My lunch conversations at school revolve around questions of whether maintaining a Jewish demographic majority can harmonize with democratic values. And on my walks to school, I’m enmeshed in an internal debate over the values and drawbacks of secular vs. day school education for my fiancé’s and my future children. Cruise control is a luxury that Jerusalem cannot afford, and therefore one is accountable for every moment. My cab driver seems to have the same privileges as my grandmother, asking questions that that no one else would think of asking me.

I did not acclimate to this audacious atmosphere with ease. I was a case study in defensiveness. At first, I was a tourist in denial, then a frustrated resident, followed by a bruised family member, and now, after almost a year, I am an empowered-but-struggling advocate. To thrive in Israel, you have to read and ruminate, listen and linger. During my first few months here, I spent Fridays buried in The New York Times and catching up on missed seasons of Mad Men. I used my only time off to do a system update on my New York self, consistently avoiding the incipient Jewish-Jerusalem identity that was blooming despite me.

When winter break arrived and I finally made time for Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, an insatiable appetite for Israeli literature was born, and with it, a willingness to check my New York loyalties at the door in order to give this miracle of a Jewish State a chance. Oz’s autobiographical novel opened a window to the birth of the Jewish state through the eyes of a brilliant and sensitive young Jerusalemite whose life converged with many of Israel’s founding intellectual elites.

In David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, I met Ora, a woman with a desperate love and concern for her soldier son who attempts to evade wartime fate by hiking the National Israel Trail. The sensory discovery of her connection to Eretz Yisrael has guided my own trips to the Galilee where much of her journey takes place.

Noted historian Anita Shapira illuminates the multi-faceted constellation of modern Israeli identity, among which journalist Ari Shavit and fiction writer Etgar Keret shine brightly through their individual encounters with modern Israel, real and imagined. This outpouring of hearts in turmoil is complex and critical, daring and deep, and the more I read, the more I identify with these authors’ participation in the task of Am Yisrael – to build a Jewish and democratic state that reckons honestly with the promise and pitfalls of power.

As I write this I am studying Parashat M’tzorah, which presents a treatise on categories of purity and impurity. With elaborate and time-consuming instructions for cleansing the tainted, we learn that transition between these categories is not lurching, but laborious. So, too, has been my transition from inexperienced tourist to implicated ally. I did not slaughter any turtledoves (Lev 14:22), but the journey between these two identities has demanded the sacrifice of that tender naivety that allowed me to look away from Israel toward iTunes and other distractions. I’m hooked now. I fell in love.

Once again, I’ve conquered my vegetable ziggurat, my eggs have gotten cold and the labne has made its way from my plate to my sleeves. The café is closing for Shabbat and another 30 hours of urban rest is descending upon us. I thank God for the blessing of a city that demands so much and reciprocates by shutting down and backing off. I need Saturdays to snuggle up with my Israeli authors and continue this incredible journey. For the more I read, the better I love, and the deeper this imperfect Jewish miracle plants itself into the landscape of my soul.

  1. Online Hebrew-English Dictionary
  2. Amos Oz. In the Land of Israel, 33.

Juliana Schnur is a first-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. 

Re-printed from the UREJ Ten Minutes of Torah, April 16, 2014

Another Misrepresentation of Israel

That an Iranian scholar, Abbas Milani of Stanford University, should get it wrong about Israel in a piece in the New York Times of April 11 is understandable. But that his co-author, Israel Weismel-Manor of Haifa University and currently a visiting professor at Stanford should so misrepresent Israel suggests malice, not just ignorance.

Their article, entitled Are Iran and Israel Trading Places? asserts that as Iran is becoming more liberal, Israel is becoming more Orthodox. As “evidence” they cite a couple of stupid statements by Israel’s minister of defense, Moshe Yaalon, and the pro-settler hard line of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the modern Orthodox Zionist Habayit Hayehudi.

To choose to mistake the modern Orthodoxy of Bennett, who plays an important part in the current Israeli government, with the extremist Orthodoxy of the haredim that are currently in opposition, suggests that the intention of the article may have been to scare readers and perhaps encourage them to distance themselves from Israel, for example by engaging in various forms of anti-Israel boycott.

Such a view may be consistent with the politics of an Iranian, however great a scholar. Alas, it may also be possible for an Israeli “post-Zionist” who, like a number of his intellectual compatriots, may have a need to denigrate Israel.

Yair Rosenberg – in an article in the online Tablet dated the same day, called, No, Israel Isn’t About to Turn Into a Theocracy – describes the New York Times piece as misleading and its authors, somewhat benignly in my view, as ignorant.

Rosenberg makes the obvious point that Bennett’s modern Orthodox Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists are at loggerheads and that Bennett, more than previous politicians, has tried to put the haredim in their place. Thus he has authorized salaries for non-Orthodox rabbis; he has taken steps to curb the power of the rabbinate in matters of conversion and marriage; he’s even seeking to limit subsidies to ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and compelling its “students” to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.

Not only does Bennett have secular members in his own party, but his closest ally in the government coalition seems to be Yair Lapid, the very secular leader of the largely secular Yesh Atid party.

 The above shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of Bennett’s politics. They’re pro-settlement and often quite reactionary, especially in his determination to complicate, perhaps derail, the peace process under one or another nationalist slogan, e.g., concerning the release of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails.

Nor does this piece suggest that the ultra-Orthodox aren’t a terrible nuisance. They’re a heavy economic burden because of their lack of secular education and a demographic challenge because of their high birth rate. But they’re not hawks when it comes to foreign or social policy and can always be bought off to vote with the government. Their ayatollahs seek to impose Jewish law, not to dictate broad policies.

There’re many reasons to be worried about the future of Israel: not that it’ll turn ultra-Orthodox but ultra-nationalist. However, despite these and other fears, there’s so much in today’s Israel that’s positive, promising and exciting that even concerns for the almost-aborted peace process cannot and must not dampen our spirits

Jerusalem 12.4.14 (Motzae’i Shabbat Hagadol)                                        Dow Marmur