Bridge Over Troubled Water: A Reflection on Israel and Diaspora Jewry in a Changing World
The events of the last few months have altered global discourse. It is not clear what the long-term impact will be on issues of identity, nationalism, religion and borders. But humanity in a post-COVID-19 world will speak a new language.
As Jews, we are sensitive to changes in discourse, and there is certainly reason for reconsidering and redefining some basic concepts. Some of these include the mutuality of global Jewish communities, the relationship between Israeli and US Jewry, and the deep questions that recurrently arise about Jewish identity, affinity or conflict with the State of Israel.
There are similarities between progressive and liberal Jews in the US and the Israeli majority, which is Hiloni (secular/unaffiliated) and liberal. In the US, a large majority of the Jewish community identifies with the Democratic Party and is critical of the Trump regime, while in Israel, the majority of the Hiloni and liberal public identifies in opposition to the ultra-Orthodox right-wing government coalition.
Jewish heritage has a clear dimension of particularity, from the story of the formation of a people in the days of our ancestors to the establishment of the State of Israel. At the same time, the Torah has the ultimate story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. This universal story is the basis of many of our values of freedom and equality, from which the modern Western world draws inspiration.
The challenge of our time is to establish a Jewish identity that recognizes its deep historical roots and can incorporate modern values of freedom, liberty, and equality. To do this, we must understand what has prevented us in the past from achieving this goal.
In Israel, the past decade has been ruled by the right-wing national religious approach, which characterizes our government — and the relationship with world Jewry reflects this accordingly. The government responds to and supports a limited circle of religious and conservative Jews who unconditionally support Israeli government policy, while the more liberal communities and the vast majority of American Jews — the unaffiliated — are generally unacknowledged by Israel’s government; they simply do not “count.”
In the US, religious denominations and educational institutions work hard and invest in maintaining Jewish identity and Jewish education. Education in high school has proven to be effective, but during the years between starting college and establishing a family, young adults frequently become disconnected from Jewish religion and community.
Our biggest challenge, both in Israel and in the US, is to engage those who are not in the inner circle — the Hiloni population in Israel and the unaffiliated in the US.
Young people seek meaning, particularly in times of social turmoil and uncertainty. Judaism absolutely has something to offer them. We must create opportunities for connection and reciprocity between progressive organizations and young adult communities in Israel and the US. We must build bridges and networks of shared values, leadership, and goals with the potential to bring about real change in both the Israeli and American establishment.
A recent bridge-building initiative is Mosaic United’s work, which offers organizations in Israel and the US opportunities to cooperate on programs that reinforce the relationship between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. At BINA, we understand that the B’nai Mitzvah year is no longer the apex of the “Jewish journey.” Instead, a gap year experience for mixed groups of Israelis and Americans aged 18-19, could bridge the gaps between our communities at a critical moment in a Jewish person’s life. Our programs include deep encounters between American and Israeli Jews, serious and relevant Jewish text study, as well as meaningful and sustainable opportunities for social action. These initiatives have the potential to shape the future of Jewish life and build the foundation for a new Jewish communal and global perspective. Together, let’s all build bridges of Jewish peoplehood.
Eran Baruch is the executive director of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change. BINA designs and implements cultural, social, and educational programs for Israelis and Jews from around the world with the goal of enhancing Jewish and Israeli identity, particularly among non-Orthodox Israelis — and empowering individuals to make a difference in their own lives, in their community, throughout Israeli society, and beyond.