First posted in ForeignDaze
The writer, Richard Miron, is a former journalist originally from London who spent over ten years in Israel, and now lives in the Washington DC area where he works as a communications consultant.
Recently a friend’s father died. ‘Suzanne’ as I will call her, decided that she would sit shiva for one night at her home. Many friends attended – not having been able to accompany Suzanne to the funeral which was held in her father’s hometown a few hours away. Nothing strange about that you might think – except that Suzanne is a Quaker, as was her father.
Suzanne’s husband ‘Jeff’ is Jewish, and as such they have, over the years, taken their kids to a local Reform synagogue. Their family life is a fusion of faiths with Christmas Tree and Chanuka lights at winter-time. But it was Suzanne – not her husband – who became involved in the synagogue through her children’s attendance at its Hebrew school, to the point where she was running the parent teacher association.
Coming to the States from Israel, and before that the UK, this kind of seamless religious integration between Judaism and other faiths, was completely foreign. But I am now coming to understand the peculiarities and positives about Jewish life in the US.
When Lysette and I first arrived in the Washington area from Tel Aviv, we felt nervous about re-entering life in the ‘Diaspora’. In Israel, we identified in our family life as hilonim (‘secularites’), meaning in practice, we kept Kosher at home, did Kiddush on Friday night, went on hikes or socialized on Shabbat, and virtually never ventured to our local orthodox synagogue (there was no other brand of Judaism around). But our kids spoke Hebrew fluently, learning about the meaning and traditions of Jewish life in their supposedly secular kindergarten and school. In our own way we also celebrated the festivals including, putting up our Sukkah in autumn (like most of our secular neighbours), lighting the Chanukah candles in winter, holding a seder night at Passover. The Holy Days were the national holidays, making synagogue feel unnecessary in this all pervasive (and positive) Jewish and Israeli atmosphere.
I recall one occasion when close family came to visit us from England.
‘Do you like going to shul’, my cousin’s husband asked my daughter, Livvy, then aged six.
Her face reflected back puzzlement by way of response.
‘Bet Knesset’ I said, using the Hebrew rather than Yiddish word for synagogue.
‘But we don’t believe in Elohim (God)’ Livvy retorted.
I don’t recall articulating my atheism, but it had obviously been picked up from the way we led our lives and the difference between us and the dati’im (religious), who Livvy observed attending synagogue.
When we got to the States, we realized that this situation wasn’t going to hold if we were to invest our children with a strong and positive Jewish identity.
On our first Yom Kippur in Washington, a short while after arriving, we drove to a local synagogue about which we had heard good things. In Israel, the Day of Atonement consisted of Livvy and Edie cycling around the streets, which were for this one day in the year, completely free of cars. Instead the roads were packed with the bikes, pedal scooters, and skateboards of those who weren’t in synagogue, but who wanted to take advantage of the lack of traffic and pollution. In Washington, en-route to the synagogue for our first family Diaspora Yom Kippur, Edie glanced at the car alongside ours which had bikes stacked on a rack in the rear and declared, “look, they must be Jewish too”. For her, and for all our family, being Jewish had come to mean doing the same as the people around us.
Thus began our journey in the US through the differing strands of Judaism in our vicinity; including Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and more. We ultimately settled on a relaxed Liberal Conservative synagogue, with the girls attending, in addition to regular school, an Israeli-style pluralistic Hebrew school.
Jewish life here on the East coast of the US is very different from how I remember it growing up in London. As a child you instinctively dropped your voice in public when uttering the word ‘Jewish’, and the general tenor was that this was something to keep low-profile and private; British on the outside, but Jewish within.
In the US, being Jewish is part of the vernacular, a variation upon a theme, like I imagine Catholicism to be in the UK. I feel constantly surprised by how much Jewish culture has become part of American life. Yiddish phrases effortlessly pop out of the mouths of non-Jewish celebrities on TV, the papers are filled with matza related recipes around Passover, while at the same time of year President Obama holds a Seder at the White House.
I was brought up to believe that being Jewish wasn’t easy and was meant to be far from effortless – a bit like digesting gefilte fish. The local synagogue I attended as a child was traditional and cold, both in temperature and practice, with the officials (all men) attired in suits and shiny top hats. In Israel, the Orthodox was the synagogue we didn’t go to. But America is a country built upon the notions of freedom, choice, and convenience. And that has come to mean endless selection in all aspects of life; from breakfast cereals to the kind of Judaism you feel like practicing. The end result is seductive and inviting.
This has meant – in the American context – taking Judaism out of its particularistic closet, and making it seemingly more universal and accessible within society as a whole. It has become (mostly) synonymous with liberal values, acceptance, and openness. The synagogues are warm, comfortable, places with welcoming people on hand to guide you through the range of services – religious and social – on offer. This is all very strange to me, schooled in the private nervousness of Anglo Jewry and the public assertiveness of Israel secularism. But then this is the New World, which while foreign, also offers something novel, curious and maybe ultimately – homely.
It is strongly suspected that this was a racist arson attack, in “revenge” for the horrific murder of Drummer Lee Rigby by Jihadists.
Key members of the Jewish community in Britain have pointed out that the center is in an area of London that is heavily populated by Jews. They have begun mobilizing to raise money for the rebuilding of the center. As one UK Jewish leader pointed out: “There are 60,000 Jews in the borough of Barnet. If every one of us were to donate the equivalent of $25, we would have a million pounds to give towards the rebuilding of the center.”
Responses have been overwhelmingly positive, and a search is on for a charity that would be able to receive the funds.
At the same time, some fundamental questions about the philanthropy of the Jewish People have been raised:
One person responded to the call by saying that this should not be the Jewish community’s responsibility or priority, when funding is short, Jewish educational programs are closing down all the time, and when the Muslim community has not tended to endear itself to the Jewish community.
Another responded by pointing out that one million pounds would have saved Jerusalem’s Bikur Holim from closure. There is also no doubt that a million pounds would also save a significant number of welfare programs within the Jewish community of Britain.
Where should our charity be directed?
What principles should govern our choices?
What would you do, and why?
On the 29th November observer status was granted to the Palestinian Authority by the United Nations.
Israel’s government has strongly condemned this move, that unilaterally bypasses the already-battered Oslo Accords.
In turn, Israel’s responses to the move of the Palestinians and the United Nations have drawn unprecedented criticism, even from those who did not support the UN’s decision.
Israel now stands more isolated than ever – a phrase repeated so often in the past few years that it deserves further consideration.
What does it mean for our nation to be isolated among the other – seemingly united – nations?
Jewish tradition points us in at least two different directions.
The prophecy of Bilaam (Numbers 23:9), that presents the Hebrews as:
הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב
It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.
And on the other hand the adjuration from Talmud Bavli (Ketubot 111a):
שהשביע הקדוש ברוך הוא את ישראל שלא ימרדו באומות העולם
The Holy One adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world.
Which approach would seem to be more relevant and applicable today?
Is isolation our fate, or the result of our actions?
What are the existential costs or the benefits of such isolation?
David Bryfman is the Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the Jewish Education Project
If you’re in a position of Jewish educational leadership, and it really doesn’t matter which one, invariably in the last week you have been asked by some of your educators about how they should be teaching about the current situation in Israel.
Unfortunately many of us have been in this situation before, and regretfully many of us will be there again. As in the past many organizations will create resource guides, curriculum and send out talking points.
Since Israel’s last “war” social media has taken off and so people’s Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds will also be filled with many links, downloads and sound bites. With all due respect to these organizations (some of which I acknowledge and link to below) I want to humbly suggest that all of these resources are actually of secondary importance and perhaps even irrelevant.
There is however one conversation that must be have and from experience we all know is in most cases completely neglected.
This essential conversation doesn’t take place in a classroom, and nor does it involve any students/campers/youth movement participants.
It is the conversation that you, the principal, education director, rabbi, executive director, camp director, president, chairperson, can and should be convening. It is the conversation that we most commonly avoid because we are sometimes under the misguided opinion that when it comes to education people’s personal opinions don’t actually matter.
The essential conversation only has 1-2 trigger questions.
What is your personal relationship to Israel?
How are you feeling about the current situation in Israel?
This conversation must be had (ideally in person, but also possible on the phone or on a webinar) because without it, anecdotal evidence has shown us time and time again, that nothing else matters.
Put a resource guide in the hands of an educator who has not had a chance to process and reflect about their own relationship with Israel is asking someone to distance themselves and to “read the script” at a time when learners most need authenticity and humanity.
Maybe after the personal processing is complete (or at least started) educators will feel more empowered to go and research about the current situation so that they don’t walk into a room full of learners ill-prepared.
But again, even in a moment of reacting to these current events, think carefully about what it is that you want your students to walk away with. Believe me, those that are so inclined to become political, be advocates, attend rallies, will undoubtedly find a way to do so. If you’re a Jewish educator all of these tactics should be secondary. Your primary responsibility is to allow your learners to navigate their own personal journeys through their individuals challenges and struggles.
These two questions might be ones that your educators want to ask their learners, but only after the educators themselves have had their own chance to dialogue and share.
No one is saying that this is simple. Yes, you might uncover some latent radical in your midst. You might discover tensions in your team that you never knew existed. You might have people raise their voices or shed a tear. And you might even need to give someone a hug, or ask to continue the conversation with them after this structured conversation.
If you’ve had an educator ask you for resources about how to handle the current situation in Israel, then this is the conversation that you need to convene. If none of your educators have asked you for these resources, then you have an even bigger problem, but luckily one that doesn’t need to be addressed immediately, in how to make Israel central to every Jewish educational process that you are engaged in.
To be a (Jewish) educator is to be human. It is to recognize that conflict is fundamentally not about facts or maps, or statuses or tweets. Conflict is raw and it is full of emotion.
Unless we provide opportunities for Jewish educators to ask these two questions right now, then I’m afraid nothing else matters.
First appeared at www.bryfy.net
This piece first appeared at State of Formation, and was written by a participant in Siach, an environmental and social justice gathering with whom Makom has partnered.
More than one of my politically and religiously liberal friends, when I told them I was converting to Judaism, gave as one of their first responses, “What about Israel?”
Good question. What about Israel?
I’ve understood all along that committing to the Jewish people and tradition also included coming into relationship with Israel—but the history and the issues seemed so complex that I have been reluctant to say much, to anyone, about anything related to the “Jewish State.”
Partly, this silence stemmed from a feeling that I didn’t know enough of the history, the politics, the people, and the issues to be able to speak with any authority. Partly, my place as a new Jew gave me pause. Partly, I saw how divisive the “Israel issue” is both within the American Jewish community and among people of other religious traditions, with whom I work. It is safer not to speak.
After spending two weeks in Israel, though, I’m looking at things a little differently. I traveled to Israel to participate in Siach, a program that brings Jewish social justice and environmental leaders from the U.S., Europe, and Israel together for learning, conversation, and collaboration.
If We Build It, They Will Come: A Case for Developing the Field of Jewish Service Learning in Israel
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Director of Jewish Service Learning at the Jewish Agency. Previously, Dyonna served as the Executive Director of Bema’aglei Tzedek, an Israeli social change organization, and was a founder of Siach: An Environment and Social Justice Conversation, an international network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals.
Currently, the field of Jewish service-learning in Israel is characterized by a handful of programs that target young North American Jews and that are officially recognized and funded by Repair the World, an organization founded in 2009 to “make service a defining part of American Jewish life.”1
Although these programs are known for their high educational standards, many have struggled to fill their ranks and reach financial sustainability. Alongside these accredited programs are others, often larger and better endowed programs that include some aspects of volunteerism, but have yet to adopt the more stringent Standards of Practice for Immersive Jewish Service-Learning Programs developed by Repair the World (Repair the World, 2011).
Many—myself included—believe that the time has come for a concerted effort to build the field of Jewish service-learning (JSL) in Israel—exploring ways of expanding the smaller, high-quality, service-learning programs; adding necessary depth and authenticity to the larger, volunteer-oriented ones; and identifying additional program areas that can appeal to core concerns of young Jews not addressed by existing program offerings. To Full Post
‘Jewish Peoplehood’ – the notion of collective Jewish belonging – has been criticized as an abstract term with little practical grounding. In order to overcome this challenge, various resources including curricula and seminars have been developed to teach students what Jewish Peoplehood means.
The problem with this approach lies in the assumption that students will simply get it if educators teach them the value of and the textual basis for the ties that bind the Jewish people. However, engendering an organic ‘group connection’ is not a didactic exercise but rather a highly internalized understanding built out of layered relationships and experiences. To Full Post
In the traditional Jewish community, long before there was a Zionist movement or a state of Israel, the “connection to Israel” was built in to everyday life. The entire calendar of holidays, the words of the daily prayers, the everyday detail of the stories of the Bible and the laws of the Mishnah – all were permeated with Israel: its landscape, its climate, its agriculture, its geography.
The success of Zionism has led to the crisis of Israel education. Now that Israel is a modern state, now that we have “returned to history” with all the unpleasantness and difficult dilemmas that that entails – and now that in our modernization we have lost much of the substrate of tradition in which our Israel connection was rooted – we are left trying to create a new connection to Israel, based on the assumption of the Zionist revolution: that Judaism is a nationality, not a religion.
The difficulty that the modern or post-modern North American Jew has in defining his/her Jewish identity (religious? ethnic? national? universalistic?) creates a parallel difficulty in defining his/her relationship to Israel – and this in turn leaves educators without clearly defined goals and outcomes. This whole course is designed to help teachers grapple with this situation and formulate their own responses. This first lesson is meant to articulate the problem, and start the deliberation process that will, hopefully, run throughout the course.
The beginning of Jewish peoplehood occurred in Egypt. This is striking in the first verses of Exodus where the text lists the sons of Jacob who came to Egyptas individual families and then just a few verses later Pharaoh designates them – for the first time ever- as the nation ofIsrael. The birthing process of our people included enslavement, redemption and revelation, all which occurred disconnected from a national homeland. This lesson will explore the historical, philosophical, social, theological and moral significance of that process. Through discussion and comparative sources we will attempt to understand the implications of those particular beginnings: how they imprinted the nation ofIsrael, their consequences, the effects they had on our character, self image and destiny. To Full Post