Israel and the Diaspora: Time for Understanding, Not Disparaging

Every time I visit Israel, I'm struck by how much Israelis misunderstand about Jewish life in North America - specifically, many Israelis seem to believe that Jewish life here is on its last leg. As Simon Rawidowicz famously wrote in his classic Israel: The Ever-Dying People, "The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: That of being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing."

The reality is quite different. North American Jews live in perhaps the most vibrant, diverse, and engaged Jewish community in our history. Still, it is understandably difficult for Israelis to fully understand North American Jewry, given that Israel's progressive Jewish movements make up nearly 90% of the country's Jewish population but play quite a much smaller (albeit growing) role.

A few weeks ago, for neither the first nor the last time, an Israeli official disparaged the largest movement in Jewish life. This time, it was Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who said, "The Reform Jews in the U.S. are a waning world. The assimilation there is of enormous extent."

It would be one thing if Mr. Levin had spent serious time learning about our community - but he hasn't. There are, of course, challenges to maintaining Jewish identity in today's society, but if Mr. Levin and others would stop accusing us of being the cause of assimilation and instead look more closely, they would see: Most often, we are the doorway leading people into Jewish life, not out of it.

Thankfully, more and more Israelis are learning that lesson. In recent years, for example, thousands of Israeli Shlichim have spent time in Reform overnight camps, crossing the ocean to share their incredible love of Israel with our young people. But a surprising thing happens during their time with us. As they experience Reform Judaism, they discover - many for the first time - prayer that is creative, egalitarian, and spiritually uplifting and a Shabbat that is both joyful and rejuvenating. They arrive thinking they will be givers, but they also receive much in return.

On the governmental level, I've had the privilege, during the past four years, of meeting with delegations of new members of Israel's Knesset when they visit North America via the Ruderman Family Foundation. From all but the ultra-Orthodox parties, these MKs hear presentations by leaders of our diverse Jewish community that are eye-opening to them. They see firsthand that in the U.S., Orthodox leaders and Reform leaders are not only respectful of one another but work in close partnership.

And then there are the journalists. The Ruderman Family Foundation has also brought to the U.S. three delegations of journalists and editors from various Israeli media outlets. Their questions are tough and insightful as they grill Jewish scholars and communal leaders who explain the many layers of our complex, vibrant Diaspora community.

Rather than belabor the worn trope that we are an ever-dying people, the plain truth is that, in the free marketplace of Diaspora Jewish life, Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism are both flourishing. Why be afraid of affirming the legitimacy of multiple authentic Jewish paths? Worldwide, young Jews are searching for answers. How they ultimately define their Jewish identities should be a choice of conscience of each Jew and a source of renewal for the Jewish state.

It's no surprise that when our young people spend time in Israel - whether on congregational trips, teen service learning trips, or Birthright trips - they fall in love with the complicated but inspiring Jewish State. Israel has a powerful experience to share with Diaspora Jews, and we've proven that we, too, have something extraordinary to share with Israelis.

This is a healthy dynamic - but a little humility goes a long way.

It would be presumptuous, for example, for most North American Jews to assume they know the details of how Israel should absorb Russian or Ethiopian Jews; so, too, is the idea that Israelis can show up on a North American college campus and know how to navigate the complex social/political/religious dynamics here.

The truth is that we need to know each other's communities much better.

The bonds that link Israel and the Diaspora are mutually strengthening but must grow even deeper. It's time for a new conversation between us based on mutual respect and real knowledge.

The Jewish State was created by extraordinary leaders: believers, atheists, mizrachim, Ashkenazim, rich, poor, socialists, capitalists, kibbutznikim, and urban-dwellers. They found strength in their diversity, and so must we. Today, thanks in large part to the Ruderman Family Foundation, a growing number of Israeli leaders and journalists are increasingly knowledgeable about the strength, vitality, and challenges of North American Jewish life - and now, we must go even further.

Our two communities have both strengths and challenges, but it's clear that we need each other - and that we can strengthen each other, if we only change the old, broken paradigm. With education, a shared vision, and a bit of humility, a new chapter in the Israel/Diaspora relationship can begin today.

What are we waiting for?