As the 2018 recipient of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s Freiman Family Young Leadership Award, Aaron Smith also received Lawrence Greenberg Young Leadership Development Award, which allowed him to attend the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly which was held this year in Tel Aviv from October 22 to 24. On his return from Israel, Aaron shared these thoughts and observations.
The theme of this year’s Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly (GA) was “we need to talk” with the tagline “We share a heritage. And a future. But that doesn’t mean we’re alike.”
The theme was chosen to spur dialogue between North American Jews and Israeli Jews on the issues the organizers, and many North American Jewish organizations, feel divide us as a people at a time when the North American-Israeli relationship is shifting. Israel at 70 is very different from the Israel that needed global support to establish itself 70 years ago. Israel at 70 is a technology powerhouse that is exporting digital solutions in security, health and other sectors as the ‘Start-up Nation’ to the world. This is a country with very different needs, and therefore the relationship that we have as Jews in the Diaspora with Israel needs to evolve as well.
All long-term lasting relationships take time, attention, and ongoing mutual respect to thrive, flourish and evolve. Our relationship with Israel is no different, we both must change and continue to strive to understand each other’s perspectives. Three different leaders presented this message in different ways, all with a focus on strengthening the ties that bind us, all with a call to action.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin opened the GA with a rousing call to action, not for the Diaspora but for Israelis. He underscored that Israelis do not appreciate the flourishing Jewish communities outside of Israel, and said young Israelis should have a “reverse Birthright.” If young Israelis can experience the richness of Jewish life in North America, surely they would grow up to appreciate the needs and desires of Diaspora Jews. “We must increase Israeli exposure to your schools, camps and communities,” Rivlin said, focusing on core places North American Jews experience being Jewish.
Jewish Agency for Israel Chair Isaac Herzog, the former opposition leader in the Knesset, spoke about a dangerous divide he sees growing between Israel and Diaspora Jewry at a time when both communities are thriving. He called for Jews around the world to ensure continuity through teaching our children to read, write and speak Hebrew, the language of the Bible and the language of modern Israel. Through a common language bond, he said, we can form a type of dialogue where we can converse on complex issues in a way that is mutually understandable.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his major concern about Diaspora Jewry is “loss of identity” and said we need to better leverage tools of the digital age to bring Diaspora and Israeli children together to learn from each other.
“Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state if we defend our state,” he said. “But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities around the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew, and by having young Jews come to Israel.”
The fundamentally divisive issues that we read about in these pages and in Jewish publications globally, such as a pluralistic section at the Kotel, the formal recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, the recently passed nation-state law, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were mentioned frequently, but no real serious debate occurred on these complex topics at the GA.
Sessions were designed to showcase the tremendous work that JFNA supports in Israel and around the world, and it is impressive. Programs like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (www.jdc.org), in which Jews help others in need around the world, and Neta@ (https://tinyurl.com/yd52zk4t) which brings together Jewish and Muslim children to learn about each other through the application and development of digital skills, are truly inspiring and are real examples of how JFNA has meaningful impact in Israel and around the world. But there was a clear and overarching imperative that we need to drive further action at home to re-energize the full cohort of Diaspora Jews to embrace their Jewish roots.
Maybe if our ‘collective Hebrew’ was better, we could engage in serious debate with our Israeli brothers and sisters. I have hope that if we act with conviction on the above items, we will get to a better place where Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel truly feel and act like one global Jewish nation. If, in our community, we continue to focus on ensuring all Jewish children access some form of Jewish education, learn Hebrew and learn to respect, challenge, and love Israel, we will be contributing to Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh ba-zeh (all of Israel are responsible for one another) and to a positive future for Jews around the world.