In­clu­sion through com­pro­mise

Yeshiva Univer­sity’s pres­i­dent ex­plains how the Is­rael-Di­as­pora gap can be bridged

Jerusalem Post - - FRONTLINES - • By MAAYAN HOFF­MAN

For decades, it has been stud­ied and doc­u­mented that the Is­rael ex­pe­ri­ence – vis­it­ing Is­rael – helps el­e­vate Jews re­li­giously and for­ti­fies their ties with the Jewish peo­ple. It’s the elec­tric­ity one feels when he or she touches the Western Wall for the first time or ex­pe­ri­ences Shab­bat in a world whose watch ticks to the beat of the Jewish clock.

How­ever, as more re­cent stud­ies in­di­cate a widen­ing gap be­tween Jews in Is­rael and Amer­ica, one won­ders if, when it comes to the wan­ing Jewish iden­tity of Mil­len­nial Jews, is Is­rael a part of the prob­lem or the so­lu­tion?

The an­swer, ac­cord­ing to Rabbi Ari Ber­man, pres­i­dent of Yeshiva Univer­sity, is that there is an in­her­ent ten­sion be­tween what draws young Amer­i­can Jews to Is­rael and what turns them away that stems far beyond pol­i­tics or issues of kashrut, con­ver­sion or Shab­bat.

Ber­man was raised in the New York City bor­ough of Queens and served in top rab­bini­cal and ed­u­ca­tional roles in Amer­ica be­fore mak­ing aliya in 2008 to the West Bank com­mu­nity of Neve Daniel. In Is­rael, he com­pleted his doc­tor­ate at the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem and later served as head of the He­ichal Shlomo Jewish Her­itage Cen­ter in the city, and as an in­struc­tor at Her­zog Col­lege in Alon Shvut. He re­turned to Amer­ica in 2017 to be­gin his ten­ure as YU pres­i­dent, suc­ceed­ing Richard Joel.

He told The Jerusalem Post this week that the rea­son young Amer­i­can Jews view Is­rael as some­thing foreign is be­cause they are raised to have a dif­fer­ent con­cept of what mod­ern democ­racy is about.

“There is a fun­da­men­tal difference be­tween how Amer­i­cans and Is­raelis un­der­stand the pur­pose of democ­racy,” Ber­man said. “The difference cuts along the lines of our un­der­stand­ing of two words: lib­erty and free­dom.”

Ber­man bases his ar­gu­ment on the book Lib­erty and Free­dom by David Hack­ett Fis­cher, in which the au­thor ex­am­ines the con­cepts of lib­erty and free­dom and ar­gues that since the ear­li­est colonies, Amer­i­cans have shared ideals of lib­erty and free­dom, but with very dif­fer­ent mean­ings. Like DNA, these ideas have trans­formed and re­com­bined in each gen­er­a­tion.

Fis­cher writes that the words them­selves have dif­fer­ing ori­gins. The Lati­nate “lib­erty” im­plies sep­a­ra­tion and in­de­pen­dence. The root-mean­ing of “free­dom” (akin to “friend”) con­notes at­tach­ment: the rights of be­long­ing in a com­mu­nity of free peo­ple. The ten­sion be­tween the two val­ues has been a source of con­flict and cre­ativ­ity through­out Amer­i­can his­tory.

Ac­cord­ing to Ber­man, this ten­sion is also a root cause of the dis­con­nect be­tween the new gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael. He said lib­erty should be un­der­stood as the abil­ity to live one’s life un­en­cum­bered by other peo­ple, whereas free­dom is the abil­ity of a peo­ple to come to­gether and be free to build a so­ci­ety based on shared val­ues and kin­ship.

“Lib­erty means sep­a­ra­tion, but free­dom means con­nec­tion. Amer­ica is built on lib­erty, which is why a het­eronomous pop­u­la­tion is at­tracted to it. Peo­ple come to Amer­ica to live lives free from in­tru­sion,” he said.

“The State of Is­rael was born from a very dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive,” he con­tin­ued. “It was about the Jewish peo­ple com­ing to­gether in their an­ces­tral home­land to build the kind of just and Jewish so­ci­ety that they al­ways dreamed of build­ing.”

As such (and iron­i­cally), the Ko­tel and Shab­bat that turn Jews on – the “Jewish” that dif­fer­en­ti­ates Is­rael from Amer­ica or any other democ­racy and attracts Mil­len­ni­als to Birthright and studyabroad pro­grams – be­come what con­fuses and turns away many young lib­eral Jews.

In Ber­man’s perspective, Is­rael can and should work to be more in­clu­sive of all types of Amer­i­can Jews so they can feel more con­nected, whether it be through com­pro­mises around an egal­i­tar­ian sec­tion of the Ko­tel or con­ver­sion or other issues. How­ever, none of these com­pro­mises will in and of them­selves close the gap be­tween Di­as­pora Jews and Is­rael. There will al­ways be an­other prob­lem, be­cause Is­rael and Amer­ica are two fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent projects.

The so­lu­tion, he said, is ed­u­ca­tion. His ad­vice to his own reli­gious-Zion­ist com­mu­nity is to take a lead­er­ship role in in­form­ing Amer­i­can Jews and me­di­at­ing be­tween them and Is­rael. Amer­i­can reli­gious-Zion­ist Jews, who most of the time com­fort­ably strad­dle them­selves be­tween Amer­ica’s cap­i­tal­is­tic en­ter­prise and Zion­ism – a love of the land and peo­ple of Is­rael – are poised to help close the gap.

Ber­man said that Yeshiva Univer­sity flies the Is­raeli flag 365 days a year and cel­e­brates Is­raeli na­tional hol­i­days along­side Amer­i­can hol­i­days. Thou­sands of alumni, like Ber­man him­self, have made aliya.

These alumni, as well as YU stu­dents, tend to serve as coun­selors on the Birthright Is­rael pro­gram, where they have an in­flu­ence on less-re­li­giously ob­ser­vant stu­dents. Per­haps they are one of the rea­sons why stud­ies by the Cohen Cen­ter for Mod­ern Jewish Stud­ies at Bran­deis Univer­sity show that Birthright par­tic­i­pants are far more likely to marry within the faith than are non-par­tic­i­pants.

“YU is uniquely placed to be a bridge be­tween Is­rael and the Di­as­pora,” Ber­man said, as well as to strengthen this un­der­stand­ing of why Is­rael ex­ists and how it can be em­braced when viewed through a dif­fer­ent lens. Ad­di­tion­ally, he said that Is­rael has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to reach out to Amer­i­can Jews.

The Jewish world has for­ever felt a sense of obli­ga­tion to Is­rael, he went on. To­day, Is­rael is stronger and a leader in tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion that helps im­prove and ad­vance all spheres of so­ci­ety. As such, the Jewish state has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to Jews around the world to ex­press it­self as a pos­i­tive op­por­tu­nity to con­nect to their Jewish iden­tity.

Fi­nally, Amer­i­can Jewish lead­ers need to see that Is­rael is an im­por­tant source and re­source that they can tap into to help stop as­sim­i­la­tion.

Is­rael is not pur­pose­fully forc­ing young Jews to dis­so­ci­ate with her. How­ever, the pro-Is­rael com­mu­nity and Is­rael it­self must step up to fill the pow­er­ful role of help­ing Mil­len­nial Jews to be proud of their Ju­daism and pro­vid­ing mean­ing and con­nec­tion to the Jewish as­pect of their lives.

Ber­man said: “It is clear Is­rael is the so­lu­tion and not the prob­lem.”


RABBI ARI BER­MAN ad­dresses Is­rael-Di­as­pora re­la­tions at a Her­zliya Con­fer­ence panel ti­tled ‘Is­rael, United States Jewry and the Di­as­pora: On a Col­li­sion Course?’ ear­lier this month.

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