Do American Jews and Israelis Have Anything to Talk About?

Six million Jews in America, six million in Israel: We may be one people, but it’s far from clear we have a common language.

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Not too long ago I was standing in line in a holiday resort in the Dominican Republic when a man in front of me bellowed at his son: “Yuval, atah honek et ha-tor” (“Yuval, you’re holding up the line”). Most American Jews have been here before: We overhear Hebrew, we discover a surreptitious Israeli in our midst, the Diaspora Jew’s sense of kinship is triggered. My daughter looked up at me, smiling. She knew that we knew what he didn’t know – that we all belong to the same people. Why not strike up a conversation with my Israeli cousin?

But despite the incredibly low barrier of entry for sociability, the truth is I did and said absolutely nothing. We stood there next to each other in line, the moment passed. He never knew that I knew. As for me, I have thought often about the conversation that never occurred.

I am deeply worried that American Jews and secular Israelis have nothing to talk about. I can speak a fumbling Hebrew, I have visited Israel more times than I can count, even lived there for extended periods. I privately and publicly advocate on Israel’s behalf. But put me in a bathing suit and stand me next to a 40-something secular Israeli, and I am not exactly sure what we have in common beyond watching our receding hairlines.

What exactly is the Jewish conversation that I can engage him in? Are you interested in who will be the next head of the ADL? Do you even know what the ADL is? What about the future of Conservative Judaism? Have you read the Pew study, or even this week’s parashah?

Even were we to talk about Israel, I wonder if we would have anything to say. Do you follow what is happening on U.S. college campuses regarding Israeli-Palestinian dialogue? Are you concerned that U.S. academic associations are boycotting Israeli academics? Do you care that I care about religious pluralism and Women of the Wall? Are any of your concerns mine? Or mine yours?

Besides, had I “outed” myself as a Jew that day, would you have felt any kinship? How do you – if you do at all – connect to the global Jewish people? I get it. You speak fluent Hebrew, served in the Israeli army and fulfilled the mitzvah of living in the land of Israel – no small things. But you don’t go to synagogue, aren’t involved in Jewish communal life, and show no indication of being a stakeholder in Diaspora Jewry. And while I work hard to support you politically and economically, to the best that I can tell, were North American Jewry, God forbid, to melt away like the polar ice cap, you would continue to go about your business as if nothing had happened. My point is not to make judgments. God bless secular Israelis, especially the atheists. I am simply trying to paint the demographic situation as I see it. Six million Jews in America, six million in Israel; none of us with very much to say to each other as Jews.

To understand how we got to this point, we need the big picture. Precisely eighty years ago, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan contended (in the now-famous Judaism as a Civilization) that Jews and their Judaisms are necessarily products of the time and place in which they live. So the Judaism of Alexandrian Jewry was different from the Judaism of the Spanish Golden Age, eighteenth-century Ashkenaz, twentieth-century Iraq and so on. The soil in which Jews took root inevitably nurtured and determined the Jewish ritual, theology, group identity that blossomed.

The thesis may be straightforward but its applicability is important to understand the gap between me and my Israeli counterpart. We are both Jews, but I have grown up in this place called America and he in Israel and so naturally our “Judaisms” will be very different.

Ever since the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom (as Dr. Shlomo Fischer described recently) America’s (generally Protestant) DNA has encouraged freedom of expression and religious pluralism through the separation of church and state. While religious values may inform the public square (think Martin Luther King, Jr.), all of us - Catholic or Jew, majority or minority - can practice our faith in any way we choose and see fit - if we choose to do so at all. From this American soil, grew American Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal, Jubus, all sorts of Jews. In fact, as Americans we will fight to protect that very right.

The forces that shaped Jewish life in Israel could not have been more different. At its core, political Zionism was a secular answer to the problem of being a Jew in the modern world. Secular Zionism was a rupture with what had come before: Israel’s existence meant a national identity would replace a religious one, and the state’s ethos - despite the active participation of many religious Jews in the wider Zionism movement - largely rejected the culture of the Diaspora religious Jew.

So the Judaisms of American Jews and of secular Israelis drifted far away from each other generations ago. When secular Israelis leave Israel they don’t understand or associate with Diaspora Jewish life and are totally disconnected from American Judaism. Sometimes they walk into my office when they fall in love with a non-Jew, but for the most part, aside from bumping into them at a David Broza concert, odds are that secular Israelis in the Diaspora are totally disconnected from American Judaism.

My Jewish concerns are not their concerns, nor are theirs mine. There was a time that we shared the responsibility to memorialize the Shoah, but that memory has been internalized so differently by us, and with every passing year recedes as a common point of reference.

For American Jews, there is much soul-searching to do. Going to an AIPAC or J Street convention, important as it is – is for far too many a compensatory act to make up for not having an actual relationship with Israelis or a substantive Jewish identity. Start Up Nation may be a terrific book, but there is something terribly wrong if we think focusing on Israel’s hi-tech industry is an act of Jewish peoplehood. Downloading Waze onto your iPhone does not ensure Jewish continuity. Somewhere along the way, American Jews have come to believe that their important and often critical work on behalf of Israel is the same as having relationships with Israelis or even worse, with Judaism itself.

And so we are back to where we started: American Jews and secular Israelis with nothing to say to one another. But just because we are alert to the problems of the Jewish world as it is, doesn’t mean we may abdicate our commitment to the Jewish world as it ought to be. Any vision of a robust Jewish peoplehood must include a dialogue between the two major centers of the Jewish people. We can and should continue to send as many people to Israel as possible, young and old. Israelis can and should create similar opportunities to engage with and understand Diaspora Jewry. Bridges must be built, new Birthrights imagined, exchanges and cultural projects undertaken. In an internet/Skype era there is no excuse not to have dialogue. Locally, there is so much American Jews can do. Synagogues talk about outreach to the unaffiliated all the time. Maybe we can work to build an “intra-Jewish dialogue” with Israelis living in the Diaspora? After all, who better than Israelis in America to help American Jews better understand the drivers of Israeli identity? Who better than Israelis in America to help articulate what we do and don’t hold in common?

The midrash famously asks why God gave the Jewish people the Torah neither in the Egyptian Diaspora, nor in the Land of Israel. Why was it given at Mount Sinai in the desert? The answer is that the Torah – or, if you will, Judaism – is not contingent on geography. It belongs to all Jews no matter where they may be. We have all done different things with it since; no one expression better than the other. All along, we remember we are am ehad, one people, in dialogue and partnership, equal and passionate stakeholders in a shared destiny.

Elliot J. Cosgrove is Rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.

U.S. and Israeli flags. (illustrative). Credit: AP

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