(October 23, 2018 / JNS)
It seems pretty clear to me that I care about my Reform and Conservative brethren in the United States more than much of their own rabbinic and lay leadership. They could have asked people like me—someone who represents the majority of Israelis and who wants the State of Israel to have a strong Jewish identity—to attend and talk, but they didn’t.
I have many family and friends who are Reform and Conservative Jews in America, and they want to be proud Jews. They also want to feel connected to their homeland, Israel. Yet, their own rabbinic and lay leadership are leading many of their constituents to doubt their pride in their Jewish identity and feel ashamed in their connection to Israel.
Case in point is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. A vast majority of Reform and Conservative Jews who visit Israel visit the traditional area of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Yes, that is the area with the traditional separation between men and women. The main plaza section of the Western Wall plaza is always full of Jews, of all denominations. Very few actually visit the special egalitarian section that their leaders have made into such a big issue.
Some of those leaders have even threatened to withhold their support for Israel due to their anger over this issue. But the masses of Reform and Conservative Jews don’t care. They still prefer to visit the main Western Wall plaza. How do I know this? Because I visit the Western Wall of the Temple Mount a lot, and the egalitarian section is almost always empty, while the main plaza is almost always full.
It’s actually much of the Reform and Conservative rabbinic and lay leaders who have manufactured this into a contentious issue. Most Reform and Conservative Jews don’t care about it at all.
This is one symptom of the wider problem highlighting the actual cause of disconnect between U.S. Jewry and Israeli Jewry. It is not Israel distancing itself away from Reform and Conservative Jews, but much of the non-Orthodox U.S. rabbinic and lay leaders who are distancing their own congregations from Israel.
The bottom line is that the most important conversation the GA leadership should be having is not with Israelis, but with their own Reform and Conservative constituents back in the United States.
The catchword in U.S. Jewry today is “Jewish continuity.” One PEW report after another highlight the dropping rate of North American Jews connected to any Jewish community or semblance of Jewish life.
The main problem is not the people, the problem is much of the non-Orthodox Rabbinic and lay leadership. If they truly cared about Jewish continuity, these leaders would be telling their constituents in the Reform and Conservative communities that only one solution exists to ensure that their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have a chance at remaining part of the Jewish collective. That sole solution is to make aliyah and live in Israel.
Only in Israel can a Reform and Conservative Jew live comfortably knowing that they can live their Jewish lifestyle as they see fit, and not have to worry as much that their children will leave the Jewish people. Only in Israel will their children and grandchildren grow up during the year living according to a Jewish calendar of holidays, feeling their Jewish connection, regardless of how religiously observant they are.
That is how I know that I care more about my Reform and Conservative brethren more than their own rabbinic and lay leadership. Only I tell their constituents the truth about what they need to do to ensure the Jewish continuity of their descendants.
Not only do many Reform and Conservative rabbis not tell their constituents this truth, instead they rile up their constituents to dislike the State of Israel. In essence, they actively distance their constituents from wanting to feel connected to Israel, the sole life vest that can ensure that their descendants remain Jewish.
Yes, I’m 100 percent sure that most, if not all, non-Orthodox Jews that remain in the United States, will no longer have any connection to the Jewish people in a generation or two. It saddens me greatly to say it, but that is the trajectory of the PEW reports as well.
I’m not saying that the issues they rile up their constituents about are not important. I’m also not saying that Israel is perfect. However, I am saying that much of the rabbinic and lay leadership of Reform and Conservative Jewry, including the heads of the GA and the Federation world, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Israel is the solution to help their constituents remain Jewish. Not the “adolescent” problem pushing them away, as the head of GA alluded to in his speech today.
If American Jewry’s leadership truly loved their constituents and truly cared about the Jewish continuity of their congregations, they would be having a conversation with their constituents to make aliyah and move to Israel.
I have a hard time believing that they will listen to my advice to start plugging aliyah as the solution. In the meantime, here is my proposed stop-gap solution for the Reform and Conservative leaders to solve the problem of Jewish continuity. They should help their constituents develop a deep sense of true pride in their Jewish identity and heritage. Yes, the solution is that simple. And this should also be implemented for Orthodox youth as well.
Step one, Jewish organizations should stop focusing on the wonders of Israel as the high-tech “Startup Nation” to drum up Jewish pride. Yes, that is definitely something wonderful to be proud of. However, high-tech hubs can also be found in silicon valley and other cities in the world. Israel as the hi-tech start-up nation is remarkable, and something to be proud of, but not something that allows one to develop a deep pride in their Jewish identity.
Instead, they should be focusing on Israel being the true “Startup Nation.” We are a start-up people, saved from slavery in Egypt and brought into the Land of Israel to start up a nation. That is an essential part of our heritage that is unique to being a Jew.
They should be taught to be inspired by Abraham, the father of our nation. Young Jews should be brought to visit Alon Moreh, Hebron, Beersheva, etc., the places where Abraham lived and traveled. They can literally walk the path of our nation’s founder. All they have to do is visit these places with an open Tanach in front of them to bring the biblical stories of Abraham and his descendants to life. This is a simple, and effective way, to help their constituents truly develop a connection with their ancestral roots.
Next, they should stop promoting Israel as the country of their shared liberal “values” that hosts a gay “pride” parade. They can get that in the United States. That is not unique to Israel, and it has nothing to with their unique Jewish identity.
Instead, they should teach them to be proud of their Jewish heritage. They should bring their constituents to the Mount of Olives, where Jews from hundreds and thousands of years ago are buried. When visiting the graves, they should learn about who these people were and how they contributed to the Jewish people.
Near the relatively recent graves of former Israeli Prime Minister and founding father Menachem Begin and fighters in Israel’s war of Independence; King David’s son Absalom is also buried there. On the upper slope of the Mount of Olives are the traditional burial places of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi from the Tanach. Visiting this one place, with an open Tanach in hand, young Jews can learn and connect with the people who make up 3,000 years of Jewish history.
The Mount of Olives is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world. It also just happens to be in the area mislabeled as “Arab East Jerusalem,” an area that much of the Reform and Conservative leaders support in removing from Jewish control and giving away to the Arabs.
And that is not all. These leaders who preach about “Jewish continuity” should start teaching their constituents that the true holy place to the Jewish people is the Temple Mount, not the Western Wall. The Western Wall is just a retaining wall of the Temple Mount. We pray three times a day for the Temple to be rebuilt, not for the Western Wall to be rebuilt.
In addition, they should bring them to Hebron. Hebron was the first capital city of King David’s Kingdom. That is where our matriarchs and patriarchs are buried.
They should focus on inspiring today’s youth with the rich heritage of our people and the places that make up our history. They can visit all these places today and bring their cultural heritage to life.
These are things that make our Jewish identity unique. It is the places and people from our history that come alive in Israel that have the best chance of awakening the Jewish pride in today’s younger generation of Jews.
Speaking to Israelis is nice, but that’s not what will help bridge the divide between U.S. and Israeli Jewry. Establishing strong Jewish pride in U.S. Jewry is a much more critical step to help bridge that divide.
The key ingredient, that non-Orthodox Rabbinic and lay leadership, is missing in leading their congregations, is instilling a true pride in the Jewish identity of their constituents. They err in focusing on the shared liberal values of our modern countries. Whether that is true or not, that does not help one internalize a pride in one’s ancient identity and culture. The true focus should be on helping them focus on their cultural history that comes to life in the land of Israel.
The bottom line is that American Jews have to internalize their connection and pride in historic Hebron more than their pride in high-tech Tel Aviv. Ultimately, if Jews have no connection and no understanding of their right to visit or live in Hebron, then the connection and right to live in Tel Aviv will disappear as well.
It’s time the leadership of U.S. Jewry starts talking about developing a true Jewish pride with U.S. Jewry. The conversation with Israel can wait.
Avi Abelow, CEO of 12Tribe Films, manages the Israel Video Network and IsraelUnwired.com.