The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which took place this week in Jerusalem, was a success.
It’s hard to measure such things, and the federations’ annual conference has often faced criticism for being, like all conferences everywhere, insufficiently exciting. This reporter has attended six of the last seven general assemblies and seen time and again how journalists struggled to forge a compelling headline out of complicated philanthropic discussions or panels that seemingly, and perhaps unavoidably, rehashed what everyone already knew.
But this year was palpably different. It wasn’t the charming Shimon Peres and his reliable cache of patriotic quips, or the effort at including women and young Jews on panels dealing with the challenges faced by, for example, women and young Jews. These were all admirable, but they were also true of past conferences.
The interest aroused this time concerned the fraught relationship between American Jewry and Israel. Perhaps it was the unique political moment in Israel, where both left and right are poised and ready for dramatic changes to the religious status quo, or perhaps it was the American Jewish leaders themselves, who drive the GA’s agenda and seemed more willing to take an aggressive tone with their Israeli brethren.
Even Israel’s Orthodox establishment, or at least its more accommodating fringe, was there, eager to engage and even willing to sit at a table with Reform rabbis.
At a panel dealing with the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive control over Israeli conversion, marriage and divorce, Dimona’s ultra-Orthodox chief rabbi, the English-speaking Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, an immigrant from the United States some 31 years ago, quipped that he should get more time to speak, because “I’m one against five.”
The other panelists included Reform rabbi and anti-rabbinate crusader Uri Regev and a young woman whose mother’s conversion, though halachic, was rejected as insufficiently stringent by the chief rabbinate.
Elefant’s message was blunt. Facing growing assimilation in North America, American Jewry should look to its own house before demanding changes to Israel’s ways of dealing with Jewish identity, he insisted. Israel’s chief rabbinate could be improved — “I’m one of those who want to see some changes,” he said — but the Orthodox legal control over questions of inclusion was necessary to maintain unity among Jews.
One American audience member complained after the session that the Israeli Orthodox religious establishment did not deserve credit for the low level of intermarriage in Israel. “It’s a country full of Jews. It’s not because of the rabbinate. [Young Israelis] leave Judaism because of the rabbinate and then marry Jews because that’s who they meet.”
The GA also served as an anchor event for a series of other gatherings, including a conference about the Israeli diaspora and others.
One of the most interesting of these events this week was the meeting of the Knesset Caucus for Israel-US Relations, a caucus headed by MK Nachman Shai, himself a former senior executive in the Jewish Federations of North America, and sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which seeks to build exactly the sort of contact between Israelis and American Jews that took place this week.
The meeting was a debate between Tzohar chairman and Israeli chief rabbi candidate Rabbi David Stav and American Reform movement leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
As with Elefant, Stav, while willing to engage, explained politely and “with respect” that the Orthodox monopoly was necessary for the future of the Jewish people.
The dialogue highlighted the challenges American Jewish leaders will face as they seek a more direct conversation with Israelis. In discussing the need for the rabbinate’s strict control over personal status law, Stav explained that he wanted to be sure his own army-age sons’ future wives would be Jewish, and that this concerned him “not just as a rabbi, but as a regulator.”
It was a strange word to throw into a discussion on Jewish identity, at least for Americans, and it pointed to the deep chasm that will become increasingly evident as the two communities engage each other. American Jews understand Judaism to be one choice among many, with the challenge of continuity being essentially one of marketing, of experience-building.
But citizenship, unlike the American Jewish term “affiliation,” is necessarily an exclusionist exercise. Even France and the United States, the two major non-ethnic democracies in a democratic world still composed almost entirely of ethnic nation-states, have limits and clear boundaries around citizenship. Not all those who wish to be American, who love America, who speak American English, or even who risked life and limb to flee to America, are allowed to become American, since the legal status conferred by citizenship is a legal, regulatory matter, not merely a question of fealty or feeling. Judaism may be a religious tradition accessible to any, but citizenship in a Jewish state, by definition, can’t be. Even the most inclusive liberals must draw a line somewhere. This is a challenge American Jewry has never seriously faced — to define hard boundaries, however broad, for Jewish identification.
And it raises a larger question: faced with two immense Jewish communities who possess such radically different notions of what it means to be a Jew, is it even possible to find a shared language and a shared understanding of Jewishness. Is dialogue, in the deepest sense, even possible?
The same Knesset debate also included a moment that highlighted the gap between American Jews and their ostensible Israeli secularist allies.
“I’m going to be honest here,” Stav said at one point, before launching into a fairly delicate, for an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, critique of American Jewish intermarriage. He used the word keneh for honest.
“Ken,” interjected MK Ruth Calderon, with the correct adjective form.
“Thank you, you’re right,” Stav replied to general bemusement.
Calderon, who holds a PhD in Talmud, would later speak “for us secular Jews, who also love the Torah,” and called on Jacobs, too, “to be open and pluralistic to us as well.”
As Daniel Gordis wrote in the upcoming winter edition of the Jewish Review of Books, the latest Pew Research Center study of American Jewish affiliation and demographics suggests that “we now have a generation of Jews secularly successful and well-educated, but so Jewishly illiterate that nothing remains to bind them to their community or even to a sense that they hail from something worth preserving.”
One of the differences between the religious debates in Israel and those in the United States concerns this question of education. In Israel, secular Jews correct the Hebrew of eminent rabbis. The Jewish bookshelf is largely accessible to Israelis. The Jewish calendar sets their daily routine, and so is familiar to them. In their dialogue with Israelis, American Jews will have to face head-on their own community’s Jewish illiteracy, and their failure to educate generations of Jews to the point where they are able to appreciate and engage seriously with their Israeli counterparts, not to mention their own Jewish identities.
At the GA, and at the Knesset gathering convened to coincide with it, a new conversation is underway, and it is less introverted, less hesitant than in the past.
As the head of the American Reform movement said bluntly to MKs on Tuesday, “Israel is the most important, consequential, dramatic project of the Jewish people in this era. We won’t be satisfied to be an audience.”