If you read From Leslie's Laptop with any regularity (thanks, Mom!), you know that I am a devoted subscriber to eJewishPhilanthropy.org and to jta.org. In the last week, two pieces from these digests have been on my mind. The first was a reprint of a blog post written by Dr. Mischa Galperin, titled Funding Peoplehood: Why the Jewish Community Should Care About an Unsexy Cause. I was struck by how much MetroWest is already practicing much of what Dr. Galperin is preaching. Then, just a few days ago, I saw a response to that post by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, Jewish Unity and the State of Israel. I mentioned both of the articles to Lisa Lisser, the new chair of our Legow Israel Program Center. Lisa has been deeply engaged in MetroWest's Peoplehood effort for several years, first as chair of the Partnership 2000 Renewal Process and then as chair of the Partnership 2000 Steering Committee. She recently oversaw MetroWest's Peoplehood Project, which was the result of our collaborative work with our Israeli partners to re-imagine our vision of Jewish Peoplehood.
Lisa is the best possible person to talk with about this topic and rather than keeping the conversation to myself, I thought I would share it with all of you — enjoy!
Q: Lisa, how do you think the Jewish Agency's new strategy aligns with what we here in MetroWest are doing?
A. The Jewish Agency's new strategy recognizes the "realities on the ground." That is, the strategy acknowledges the fact that there are about the same number of Jews living in Israel as there are living in the United States. Taking that into account, there had to be a change in focus from one that looked just at Diaspora Jews helping Jews in need in Israel, to one of mutual responsibility, where Jews living in Israel get a sense of the identity of their Diaspora Jewish brothers and sisters. Once that foundation is created we, as Am Yisrael (the Jewish people), can start developing paradigms on how the Israeli community can assist the American and broader Diaspora community. We need mutual support — it is no longer a one-way street. Our strategy here in MetroWest, as expressed in our groundbreaking Peoplehood Project, is premised on creating relationships between Jews in New Jersey and Jews in Israel. By building what we call "living bridges," we create relationships between real people that focus on those things that give us the essence of our Jewish identity and the multitude of ways we express that Jewish identity.
Q: I was struck by Rabbi Ehrenkrantz's view that "Peoplehood" means support of the State of Israel. Our experiences to date with our Peoplehood Project would indicate that he isn't capturing the whole range of what Peoplehood means. Do you agree?
A. I really don't agree with Rabbi Ehrenkrantz. He suggests that it is somehow wrong to balance support of the State of Israel with the definition of Jewish Peoplehood. With all due respect, I think he misses the point. Peoplehood is about connections — not about knee jerk support. Let's face it — we are Jews. We agree and disagree on many things. That doesn't mean we don't connect with each other. The fact that we are able to engage in this discussion at all is a result of the plain existence of the State of Israel and the fact that all Jews are somehow connected.
So I suggest that Jewish Peoplehood is defined by our connections with worldwide Jewry, especially our connections with Jews in Israel. Sure, Israel is a complicated place and there are policies with which we may strongly disagree. Mah Nishtana ha Laila hazeh? But the fact of the matter is that Israel is a Jewish democracy, and its existence has changed the reality on the ground for Jews in every other country in the world. I can't imagine Rabbi Ehrenkrantz would want to go back to the time when there was no sovereign Israel. History tells us that was no picnic for us Jews. So support for the existence Israel is essential to the definition of Jewish Peoplehood. It acknowledges that Jews all around the world are responsible for each other. However, that is not the same thing as suggesting that support for Israel is unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government. We are and have always been a people with questions. That doesn't stop now. But the continued existence of the State of Israel is really about the continued existence of the Jewish People.
Q: Where do we, MetroWest, go from here?
We continue to build programs that build relationships between Jews here and Jews in Israel. Our Peoplehood Project, which is kicking off its second recruiting season this summer, is one of our platforms that makes this happen. We are looking for 12 dedicated Jewish adults who want to explore what their Jewish identity means to them and where it fits in their lives. They need to have a love of Israel and a connection to what is happening on the ground over there or at least a curiosity about it. At the same time, we are recruiting 12 Israeli adults from our partner communities of Ofakim and Merchavim in the Negev. These communities have felt the effects of the Gaza disengagement, and they are now within reach of rockets from Gaza. This is a new fact of life for them as rockets have rained down on their communities over the past several years. These Israeli Jews are part of Israel's periphery and part of Israel's future. They will be exploring what Jewish life feels like outside of their homes.
Becoming less focused on our own daily lives and how Judaism fits into the lives of Jews who have a different reality is the essence of the project — Jewish Peoplehood at its core. This is a two-year program that includes monthly workshops that explore these questions of Jewish identity, how MetroWest provides services within our local community and abroad, as well as joint visits — one trip to Israel in January and one trip to New Jersey by the Israelis in April. The group will be tasked with creating a project together in the second year that impacts both of their communities. Ultimately, they will travel to a third Jewish community, Odessa, in the Ukraine — the place where modern Zionism has its roots and a place where Jews continue to live and have needs that can be addressed by the rest of the Jewish world. It's a full circle project empowering the participants to make a difference in the lives of Jews all over the world and sparking their own fire of Jewish identity.
We in MetroWest are very proud of this project and excited to enlist a new group of individuals in the experience.
Thanks to Lisa not only for helping me to write my blog this week, but also for all that she is doing to connect Jewish people to one another.
Have a wonderful summer week!