NEW YORK — Last week I had the unique experience of spending an hour and a half with a leading Israeli politician who never made reference to the peace process, the threat from Iran or a pitch for support.
On a Sunday morning at a small meeting room at Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, Tzipi Livni, 52, the leader of the centrist Kadima party as well as leader of the opposition, was more interested in listening than talking. She had requested this meeting — I was told it was “semi-on the record,” whatever that means — and wanted to hear, particularly from leaders of the liberal denominations, about how, or whether, American Jews connect with Israel.
Her visit to the United States was centered on her latest cause — one that resonates with concerned Jews everywhere: namely, how to narrow the worrisome and growing gap between Israeli and diaspora Jewry.
In the conversation Sunday morning with four liberal rabbis, two journalists and the president of the North American division of the Shalom Hartman Institute, who convened the meeting, Livni stayed laser-focused on what she sees as one of the critical questions of our time.
“What are the Jewish values that unite all Jews as a society, as a people?” she asked at the outset, assuring us that she was interested in an authentic and open dialogue.
“I came here to understand the sensitivities” of American Jews, Livni said. “I didn’t come with an action plan.”
She pointedly stayed away from political discussion during our 90-minute session, though she had made clear back home that she hoped to engage diaspora Jewry in addressing an Israeli governmental system that many believe is held hostage by political minorities, particularly from the religious right.
The implicit critique here is that the current Likud-led coalition is beholden to haredi Orthodox parties, creating tensions over conversion legislation and other areas of personal status that could further alienate liberal Jews in America and throughout the diaspora.
In an op-ed Livni wrote in The Jerusalem Post last month, titled “Time For A New Jewish Conversation,” she asserted that the shallowness of the Israel-diaspora relationship “constitutes a failure of leadership and vision.”
Her visit to the United States was an effort to learn more about the problem, she said, and on her return, seek ways to address it, no doubt with the hope of widening support for her Kadima party.
It’s quite possible that this new priority is a political move to carve out a constituency of largely untapped diaspora Jewry. But the Livni we met with seemed to transcend politics in voicing her fears and frustrations about the Jewish future in an increasingly fragmented society.
“I don’t want to have to choose between Tel Aviv and B’nai Brak,” she said in referring to the deep secular-religious split in the Jewish state.
Throughout the meeting, she was more engaged and open than the no-nonsense leader I’d encountered on several earlier occasions.
At the helm of the party that gained the most votes in the 2009 national election (but could not form a ruling coalition), Livni is widely respected for integrity and honesty in a political environment that is all too often tainted by scandal. She has served in cabinet positions as minister of justice as well as minister of immigrant absorption, minister of agriculture and minister of housing. But she lacks the easy, glad-handed rapport and charisma that many politicians count on for popularity with the public.
I have been present at meetings where Livni, whether aloof or shy, hardly made eye contact with her audience.
But fresh off the plane from Israel Sunday morning, she shared personal observations and feelings with us, worrying that young people today, in Israel as well as the diaspora, seem less engaged in Judaism.
“For secular Israelis like me, most of us grew up in families where our grandfathers were more religious, and our parents had respect for Jewish traditions,” she said. “We fasted on Yom Kippur, but today I see kids riding their bicycles. … For young people today, it’s more about being in Israel” than about being Jewish.
She seemed intent on hearing our views, and the responses around the table were supportive of Livni’s ideas and agenda, acknowledging that democratic and Jewish ideals often can be at odds.
Underscoring the point that many young Jews today don’t see Israel as special in their lives, one rabbi offered an example of what he called “the incredible gap” in attitudes toward Jewish peoplehood between Jews in their 20s and those a generation older.
He told of a liberal yeshiva student in his 20s who expressed concern that a special prayer recited at the yeshiva on behalf of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit did not include similar sentiments for all political prisoners everywhere.
In the end, it was Livni who said that the Israeli electoral system needs to be changed, noting that the reason it hasn’t happened is because politicians lack the courage to do so. She called for Israeli and American philanthropists to work together on a common agenda and cited the need for a curriculum in all Israeli schools — secular, religious, Arab and haredi — that taught core Jewish values.
But defining those values is daunting, she acknowledged, because each group assigns them different meanings and standards.
Yehuda Kurtzer, the young scholar recently appointed president of the North American division of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, later told me that the institute engaged dozens of academics in Israel to address the Israel-diaspora divide this year in the hopes of translating their ideas into educational projects throughout the country.
Kurtzer, winner of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies’ “big idea” award several years ago, said his goal is to create a smaller version of that project here.
“We can’t take for granted” that the Israel-diaspora relationship will endure without analyzing and nourishing it, he said.
That’s what’s driving Livni’s effort, and she told me the next day that she will press on in exploring ways to define Jewish values that connect all Jews.
“We need the Jewish community” in Israel and the diaspora, she said, “to feel part of something greater.”
(Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. His column previously appeared in The Week.)