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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Israeli and U.S. Jews do not understand one another

  • Published 22:18 08.12.11 Latest update 22:18 08.12.11
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s ad campaign to return expat Israelis is evidence.

By Rabbi Joel Seltzer

The video starts with gentle strokes of the piano. A boy is coloring on a page, trying to get the attention of his dozing father. After several failed attempts to gain his father’s attention, the boy ceases calling him “Daddy” and resorts instead to a secret name, “Abba”. The man’s eyes open immediately. “They will always be Israeli,” says the advertisement, “Their children will not be – help them to come home.”

You might not think that a thirty second video could start a firestorm in the Jewish world, but that is exactly what occurred this past week, with the result being the Immigrant Absorption Ministry deciding to pull the ad campaign (though the videos are still available online).

Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s ad campaign The Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s ad campaign, 2011.

Why did these ads, three of them in total, stir up such intense emotions among the Jews living in the Diaspora, particularly among Americans? And why did they encourage others to make equally offensive ‘spoof’ videos playing on the stereotype of the pushy Israeli living abroad? The answer is: for the large part, both Israeli and American Jews do not understand one another.

For our part, American Jews are apt to underestimate two key elements of Israeli identity: one external, and one internal.

Firstly, Americans in general - and American Jews among them - are simply not used to operating in terms of existentiality. That is, America has been good to the Jewish people. It has provided a life that offers financial security, freedom to practice our religion, a general (and even increasing) level of tolerance, and that great gift of emancipation: upward mobility. With things this good, it is hard for American Jews to spend serious time pondering questions of existential crisis. Sure the intermarriage rate is high, but people are still choosing to live their lives as Jews no matter who they are married to, right? Sure Jewish history has proven that a country’s attitude and acceptance of its Jewish residents can change suddenly, but that would never happen in America, right? The truth is, we here in America are simply not used to thinking in terms of the stark dichotomy between continued existence and utter oblivion.

But, unfortunately, Israel is accustomed to the reality of existential crises, and with that experience comes the understandable desire to welcome Jewish immigrants from all corners of the earth, to encourage those living in the Diaspora to consider “Aliyah”, and even to devise a campaign calling on those who have left Israel, to return home again.

Secondly, we Americans grossly underestimate the depth of meaning that comes from living as a Jew in the Jewish state. Many of us do not know the comfort that comes with living in a state where the majority culture is Jewish culture and it seeps through all the seams of life. We cannot understand what it would be like to live in a country where Hanukkah is a holiday, and December 25th is just another Sunday. We do not know the joy of the two-liter Coca-Cola bottle that wishes you a ‘Shanah Tovah’ - a Happy New Year - in September, and not in January. It’s no wonder that the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption would seek to remind Israelis (and American Jews for that matter!) of what they have to lose by choosing a life in the Diaspora.

But this partnership is a two-way street. And though Americans often do not understand Israeli mentality, Israelis, too, underestimate the depth of Jewish life that can be found in the Diaspora, both religiously and culturally.

When speaking about the Jewish religion, one needs not question why American Jews, particularly non-Orthodox Jews, enjoy their life in the Diaspora. Here we have a thriving religious environment; one that touts the values of inter-denominational partnership and community relations. How many Board of Rabbis meetings are there in Israel where Rabbis from four different denominations - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist - gather to respectfully discuss concerns of the greater Jewish community? How many women who have grown up in the vibrancy of Jewish America would feel uncomfortable praying at the Kotel, the holiest site in all of Jewish history, due to its unfamiliar Jewish aesthetic? And while we cannot whitewash the serious threats which the Jewish community in the Diaspora faces in the uncertain future – with intermarriage and assimilation just two of our concerns - we hope that Jews living in Israel recognize that serious, thoughtful, traditional, and yes, liberal Judaism, are being practiced here with great passion and enthusiasm.

This week, I attended a concert by the Jewish a cappella group from Yale University, Magevet. They sang for an hour and a half. Their wondrous voices soared together to bring the gift of Jewish music to a packed house here in Providence, Rhode Island. They sang in Hebrew, in Ladino, and in Luganda, the language of the Ugandan Abuyadaya Jews. They closed with a soul-stirring rendition of Naomi Shemer’s classic Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold). And then, they asked us to rise as they sang “Hatikvah”. As the tears gathered in my eyes, I thought to myself, that despite the struggles facing the Jewish people – both in Israel and the Diaspora - nevertheless, Am Yisrael Chai, The Jewish People are indeed alive and well. The only question is, can we work together to ensure that it stays that way?

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island.

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