For American and Israeli Jews, ‘wrestling and hugging’ must go both ways

For American and Israeli Jews, ‘wrestling and hugging’ must go both ways

Today, a change is needed. We can no longer expect that Israelis will unconditionally embrace every American Jew who comes to Israel.

This sentiment was strongly reinforced on my recent trip to New York City with about 30 principals of Israeli secular schools. The principals are from a variety of Jewish backgrounds and from all parts of the country. They came ready to learn about American Jewish life. Many of them came with preconceived notions about “American assimilation” and with a sense that Israeli Jews – even completely secular ones like many in this group – have the upper hand when it comes to Judaism.

But what they found was an American society that is not only accepting and tolerant of difference but is deeply committed to Jewish education and strengthening Jewish identity.

Many in this group of principals completed a week in New York feeling that they had discovered a newfound interest in their own Jewish lives, beyond being Israeli. What surprised me most wasn’t the group’s critique of American Jewish life, but the participants’ openness to personalize much of what they were seeing.

In other words, this group of principals was wrestling in the truest sense of the word. They were wrestling to understand how American Jewish society looks weak Jewishly – witnessed by Israelis in areas such as intermarriage and shrinking membership in many established organizations – and simultaneously incredibly strong and inspirational given American Jewry’s educational innovation, philanthropy and joy in almost all parts of Jewish life. As such, this group of Israeli Jewish leaders left the US beginning to take part in some of the same struggles that American Jewish leaders face every day, trying to understand how to create the perfect chemistry between continuity and change.

The Israeli principals were also inspired by the values-based education they witnessed in the US, equipping them with a new understanding that even in secular settings, it’s possible to teach universal values that have particular expressions in Jewish texts and traditions. Accordingly, the Israeli principals have started discussing how they can include more Jewish texts and traditions within the general values education imparted in their own secular schools, among other new practices they wish to implement back home.

Ultimately, bringing Americans and Israelis into at least some of the same struggles will help create a more joyful and thriving future for the Jewish people at-large.

The writer is director of Makom: The Israel Education Lab of The Jewish Agency for Israel.

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