Diaspora dialogues

Three original thinkers seek to bridge the Israel-Diaspora divide

Grappling with the ideological disconnect between the Holy Land and the US

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Jews from all over the world, including Israel, at a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)
Jews from all over the world, including Israel, at a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

It’s a well-kept secret, but Ed Rettig has a slight case of split personality. Not to the point of medication, God forbid. It’s more that he has two sides to his brain: the American side and the Israeli side. And while both seem logical unto themselves, there tends to be a disconnect when it comes to dialogue between them — the Israel-Diaspora divide.

Increasingly this issue of a Diaspora disconnect has garnered headlines from, for example, controversial writers such as Peter Beinart and youth on campuses protesting for and against Israel. However, like Rettig, there are a few other machers — Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation and Taglit-Birthright Israel’s Gidi Mark, to name two — trying to transform the dynamic of one-sided monologuing into a more productive conversation. All three are spearheading efforts, in very different spheres, that are beginning to bear fruit.

But to get an understanding of the essential disconnect, let’s return to Rettig.

Ed Rettig in the AJC's Jerusalem offices. (Photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan)
Ed Rettig in the AJC's Jerusalem offices. (Photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan)

Currently serving as the director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee, Rettig previously worked out of the AJC’s headquarters in New York. He’s also an ordained rabbi from the Hebrew Union College, where he received his doctorate in Modern Jewish History and wrote on discord between American Jewry and Israel. This is the background for the brain of Rettig, the American Jewish professional.

The US-born Rettig made aliya in 1972 at age 18, when he integrated into Israeli society. He is a veteran of the Yom Kippur and First Lebanon Wars, earned a law degree from the Hebrew University and served as a prosecutor for the Israel Police before going back to the US as a Wexner Fellow to study for ordination. This is Rettig the Israeli, who has since seen his three sons serve in the IDF.

Sitting in his architecturally astounding downtown Jerusalem office, Rettig is a man completely and separately comfortable both as an Israeli and as an American.

“Unfortunately the Jewish world is potentially very screwed,” he jokes as we begin our interview. It’s more of a fascinating lecture with an audience of one, an adaptation of a lecture he delivers all over the world in an effort to raise awareness of the issue. In his talk, he highlights different reasons for the current and growing communication block between the Diaspora, the US specifically, and Israel.

According to Rettig, the discord was exacerbated by the Holocaust but is rooted in the foundations of the United States and its basis in Protestant Reformation culture. “America is the only country in the world whose founders are dissenting Protestants,” he says. This is significant because these very religious thinkers were deeply involved with personal processes: “The individual is the legitimator of religious practice” in the US. He chooses to be “saved”; he chooses when and how to pray.

Conversely, the foundations of Israel are about the collective, the Jewish People, versus the individual. There is a state religion, not a separation of church and state. In Israel there is “an identity by fate. Much like a relationship with a parent. ‘I am the child of my parents. I would die for my parents, go to war, etc.’ The relationship is lifelong. With American Jewry, it is more like a relationship with a spouse: a choice, like marriage.

“The assumptions of Jewish identity are so different.”

Getting to know you

This basic disconnect in how one views Jewish identity is very significant for the question of how Israelis see Jews living in the Diaspora. Jay Ruderman, also an immigrant from the US, who heads the Ruderman Family Foundation, has started a project in which he exposes new and rising MKs to Jewish communities in Boston and New York.

The program began last year and is a partnership with Brandeis University, Ruderman’s alma mater.

Jay Ruderman in his Rehovot home. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Jay Ruderman in his Rehovot home. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Like Rettig, Ruderman has served as a “professional Jew,” both at AIPAC in Israel and in the US, and as the liason between the IDF and the Diaspora. In both capacities he was introduced and exposed to a variety of MKs and “began to realize that elected officials in this country didn’t know that much about Jewish communities in the States.”

Sitting in the Jerusalem offices of the Joint Distribution Committee, where he serves on the board, Ruderman describes how after he took over the family foundation (which is for the most part committed to aiding those with disabilities, both in Israel and the US), he saw an opportunity as a philanthropist to make a genuine impact on Israeli lawmakers’ attitudes.

The idea is to send a broad delegation of relatively young MKs of varied backgrounds and political affiliations to the US where, instead of speaking about Israel as they would normally do, they will be listening to a widespread representation of the Jewish community.

The initiative was launched last year with three of the major Zionist parties. This year’s group also includes member of Shas (religious Sephardi), Yisrael Beitenu (right-wing), and Meretz (left-wing). Diversity is the key for both the Israelis and the US communities receiving them, and the Labor representative is an Israeli Arab.

Why start with less seasoned MKs? “One day this more junior MK could be a minister, or even the prime minister,” says Ruderman. The plan is to expose them to different worldviews before they begin voting on bills of vast importance for the Diaspora, such as conversion and Jewish identity.

The MKs receive an intensive crash course in US Jewish life, hearing from the major Jewish organizations such as the Federations, AIPAC, ADL, and the dominant Jewish religious streams. There are interactive public events and private meetings with officials and businessmen. This year there will also be a session on activism, which will include talks from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activists.

“It is important to me that this trip is not beholden to any viewpoint or organization,” says Ruderman. “I want the members of Knesset to see the complex relationships the US Jewish community has developed [with Washington] and how that affects Israel.”

To Ruderman, one of the issues of dissent between Israel and the Diaspora is aliya and automatic Zionist support. Whereas US Jewry views itself as Americans who are Jewish, says Ruderman, “Israelis have traditionally seen them as Jews who happen to live in the States, who have an obligation to make aliya, and if not, then support Israel financially.”

Ruderman focuses on the MKs “for the simple reason that if you’re looking for impact, you go to for those who are in the system. It makes more sense.”

The impact is already being felt: In late January, Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh, an alumna from the first cohort of Ruderman Fellows, established the new Israel-American Jewish Knesset Caucus, which she chairs. The idea, says Ruderman, is that when American Jewish officials visit Israel they will address this forum and expose MKs, regardless of their participation as a Ruderman Fellow, to the perspectives of “Israel’s greatest strategic ally,” the American Jewish community.

‘It is important that the members of Knesset see that this is not our grandparents’ Jewish community anymore’

“It is important that the members of Knesset see that this is not our grandparents’ Jewish community anymore, where people gave automatically and the leadership decided what to do with the money. The majority of Jews today are not engaged Jewishly. They don’t belong to the JCC; they’re not involved,” says Ruderman.

It is a Jewish community that should not be taken for granted.

Finding a common language

Last week, some 80 Jewish groups gathered in New York to discuss the future of Israel education for North American pre-college students. The meeting, trendily called iThink, came to the conclusion that there should be more opportunities for encounters between Israelis and North Americans.

This line of thinking is well integrated into the hugely successful Birthright/Taglit visit-to-Israel program for young adults, now in its 13th year of operation.

However, unlike a growing number of Diaspora youth, who, through youth movements and, of course Birthright, have been sent on an organized trip, most Israeli youth have not gone en masse to get to know their brethren abroad. What has happened, however, is some 50,000 Israelis have been integrated into the Birthright trips in Israel over the past twelve-plus years.

Gidi Mark, Israeli-born and a former Israeli diplomat abroad, has been with Birthright since the beginning. Speaking in his office in a Jerusalem hi-tech hub, he says, “You build the legs of the [Israel-Diaspora] bridge not only from the overseas side. People tend to overlook the importance of the Israeli leg.” He added that Birthright has made it obligatory for all tour buses to include Israeli youths, who will be completely equal participants. In practice, 95% of the 50,000 who have participated were soldiers, the rest students or hi-tech workers.

‘The goal is to build the bridge. To introduce Diaspora youth to Israel through Israeli youth’

“The goal is to build the bridge. To introduce Diaspora youth to Israel through Israeli youth,” he said. Originally, the Israelis joined the bus for 1 or 2 days. Now they are there for at least five.

This is a potentially life-changing moment for many young Israelis, as the vast majority has never seen a Jew outside of Israel, says Mark. “Here, they see the different types of Judaism, that everything is legitimate. It gives them a fuller Jewish identity.”

Additionally, it makes them stronger Israelis. According to research out of Brandeis University in which over 400 Israeli soldiers who had participated in Birthright were interviewed after the trips, the majority “agreed strongly that the program made them feel proud to be Israeli, proud of their military service, and proud of the State of Israel.”

Says Mark, “They meet people from the outside who appreciate their sacrifice in serving in the army and through that, young Israelis learn the meaning of the privilege to serve.”

Today, with the widespread use of social media, it is easier than ever to continue the conversation started on the buses in Israel. “This is a new way of forming kinship,” says Mark. “Participants can speak with their new ‘cousins’ on both sides of the ocean several times a day.”

With a proselytizer’s zeal, Mark continues, “Facebook is the new beit knesset, the new house of gathering. It is the modern synagogue.” In the social media cyberspace, “the two legs of the bridge are being built, and continue to grow. And through this, Israelis start to perceive themselves as Jews, and not just Israelis. As part of the broader Jewish people.”

As for Americans, “After the trip, the number one experience the participants say they take back with them is the interaction with the Israeli peers. And,” he smiles, “they see that a Jewish community, in this case the community of the bus, can be fun.”

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