NEW YORK — Much attention, here and elsewhere, is given to encouraging American Jews to have a deeper understanding of contemporary Israel, in all its complexity, as a country that is seen by much of the world as Goliath while it perceives itself as David.
But for all of our emphasis on the importance of the relationship between diaspora and Israeli Jews, our Middle East cousins get a pass; there is far too little focus on the responsibility of Israeli Jews to know us better.
In truth, most Israelis have little understanding or appreciation of the diversity and depth of our community. And when they are exposed to the layers of religious denominations and the number and range of social service, defense and startup organizations in the United States, they tend to come away pleasantly surprised.
Just back from a visit to the United States, Nadav Eyal, who heads the foreign news desk for Israel TV’s Channel 10, says he plans to share with his audience how the American Jewish community “manages to maintain differences within itself.” He told me he was impressed to see that Orthodox and Reform rabbis here can take part in communal programs together, all too rare in Israel, where “the divide is so wide, and the sentiments so strong.”
Eyal, who is also a commentator for Maariv, was one of six leading Israeli journalists visiting the United States last month as part of a seminar, sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, to deepen the Israeli media’s understanding of the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel. I had the opportunity, along with Ami Eden, editor in chief and CEO of JTA, to meet with the journalists, and we had a lively, off-the-record discussion that centered on our perceptions, and misperceptions, of each other’s culture. They seemed to agree with my observation that there is little serious coverage in the Israeli media of American Jewry beyond our political and financial support for Jerusalem. They blamed tight budgets, but also acknowledged that, for example, a visit to Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim, a nondenominational mikveh used for a variety of spiritual occasions, would make for an eye-opening story back home where mikveh use is associated only with Orthodoxy.
Yair Ettinger, who reports on religious issues for Haaretz and was a participant in the seminar, wrote an essay when he returned to Israel entitled “Our Uncle From America: A Family Divided.” He noted that “the distancing of American Jews from Israel is gaining momentum,” a development most Israelis are unaware of, he went on, “because Israel shows little interest in understanding American Jewry.” This distancing, according to Ettinger, is due in part to the feeling among many non-Orthodox American Jews that issues of importance to them, from lack of recognition of Conservative and Reform rabbis by the Israeli chief rabbinate to Women of the Wall’s struggle to pray equally at the Kotel, are of little interest or appreciation in the Jewish state.
Ettinger believes Israel’s “Jewish uncle from America” is “still willing to help, but today he has an agenda, conditions and his own spiritual world,” as well as a Jewish identity which may no longer be dependent on Israel.
The notion that American Jews may be actively engaged in Jewish life “far away from the Israel connection” probably was “the most important lesson I learned in New York,” he wrote.
Nadav Eyal, the Channel 10 editor, said too many Israelis see American Jewry as doomed, due to high rates of intermarriage and assimilation. He says they are missing the bigger story, that of “the enormous success of the American Jewish community” financially, culturally and socially, which he sees as second only to Zionism in terms of 20th-century Jewish achievements.
“I try to move the discussion away from statistics and numbers, like how many marry non-Jews, and more towards involvement in Jewish life,” Eyal says. He marvels at the many “pluralistic expressions of Jewish identity” in American Jewish life, and what it means to choose to live proud, active Jewish lives in a country where Jews are a small minority, and are involved voluntarily, not bound by a chief rabbinate. That’s something Israelis don’t experience, and therefore undervalue, he adds. He’d like to see Israelis emulate the American Jewish element of pluralism and tolerance in terms of religious expression.
Jay Ruderman, who made aliya from Massachusetts in 2005 and is president of the family foundation that sponsored the journalist seminar, has long felt that the Israeli-diaspora conversation is essentially one-sided, with only superficial attention to the diaspora. In a major effort to balance that equation, he announced last week the launching of the first Israeli university program of its kind on American Jewish life. (See “For Israeli Grad Students, American Jewry 101,” Aug. 16, The New York Jewish Week)
The Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa was made possible by a $1 million grant from the foundation, matched by the university, and will begin this fall with 21 graduate students on a one-year, seven-course master’s program. “Israeli universities have all sorts of programs studying Asia, Africa and the Arab world, but no one is studying the American Jewish community, which is probably the most important community affecting the future of Israel,” Ruderman told JNS.org, a Jewish news service.
He’s right, of course, and hopefully, other foundations and universities will follow Ruderman’s lead in recognizing the vital importance of American Jewry to Israel, beyond philanthropy and politics. As the visiting journalists noted, there is much for Israelis to learn about a community where inclusiveness is a value, not a sign of weakness.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)