You and Me and the Zionist Dream

Dear Amir,


With all of the brouhaha (or balagan?) last week regarding the Global Planning Table and Zionism I was reminded of our ongoing conversation about what it means to be a Zionist, especially for those of us who are Zionists but live outside the State of Israel. 


Leslie Dannin Rosenthal in Israel – 1971
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal in Israel – 1977
When you and I were growing up, in the relatively early years of the state, to be a Zionist meant believing in the right of the Jews to our own homeland and to live in that homeland. And, indeed, when I finally went to Israel in the summer of 1977, I called home and told my mother, “I think I’m going to stay.”


My mother suggested that it would be better to finish college and then go back. Well, I finished college, but I didn’t get back to Israel until 1996 on the Just Do It Young Women’s Mission to Israel — while you were here in MetroWest on shlichut (your service as an emissary).


I was overcome on that mission with how happy I was to be “home” in Israel, and overwhelmed by my regret at having somehow failed to make aliyah, to have done what I meant to do when I was 20. A very wise young man, our tour guide for the mission, saw my distress and gave me very good advice. He said, “Leslie, Israel doesn’t need any more lawyers. It’s much more important for Israel for you to go back to New Jersey and share your passion with everyone there.” And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.


I’ve resolved my personal issues about living as a Zionist in the Diaspora by going to Israel as often as I can, reading the English version of Israeli newspapers online, and doing the work I do as a volunteer. I don’t know if that would have worked for Ze’ev Jabotinsky, but it works for me. 


What I had to reconcile was my feeling of somehow not really having “paid my dues” — that there are experiences I have not had which you have. I never served in the IDF, nor have I had to contend with sending my children to the army.


But you know that I worry about your boys, about my friend Deborah’s kids. You know that when a kassam (rocket) lands in Ofakim, it may as well be landing in my backyard. And yet — we don’t actually hear the siren and I don’t have to call my mother in Massachusetts in the same way that you need to check on your parents in Ashkelon; I am simply on the other side of the ocean, worried.


We struggled with this issue when we entered into our Partnership Renewal process, where we re-imagined the relationship between American Jews in MetroWest and Israeli Jews in the Ofakim/Merchavim region. I don’t think I will ever forget how much we learned from each other, Americans and Israelis both, in the course of one very lively discussion about why we American Jews care so much about what happens to Israel and what happens in Israel. 


It’s that shared sense of commitment to a strong Jewish state that I call Zionism. Sometimes we call it “peoplehood,” although there is an implicit statement there that says that Israelis care about what is happening to Jews in the Diaspora, which is outside the traditional notions of Zionism (and a topic for another letter!)


Because I am a Zionist, I care about what happens in Beit Shemesh, and on public buses and at the Western Wall — because a strong Israel requires that all Jews feel recognized as such. Because I am a Zionist, I care about Israeli politics, because a strong Israel requires the best possible leadership. Because I am a Zionist, I stand against a nuclear Iran, against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and against all who would do harm to Israel.


I could go on and on — but at the bottom of all of this is also a selfish reason to be a Zionist and to want a strong Jewish state. Amir, you and I were born only a short time after the birth of Israel. We never knew a world without it. But somewhere in my soul, as the grandchild of immigrants who came to the Goldina Medina instead of the Promised Land, I fear that I am still at risk. 


I need a strong Israel in case I need a strong Israel as a personal place of refuge. I know this is old-fashioned thinking; I know intellectually that I am safe here in the United States. And then I think of all of the Austrian and German Jews who thought the same thing, and make sure I know where my passport is.


Here’s the  thing though — even if my fears are baseless, and the aliyah of rescue is, for the most part, completed, what then compels the next generation to be Zionists? What about the kids? Not only are you and I the same age (well, okay, you are a little bit younger) but our kids are the same age, albeit with very different experiences. Do your sons stop to think about whether they are Zionists? Do my kids even think about whether Zionism is a part of their identity? Another letter!


What I do know is that we are doing so many wonderful things in all parts of our community that make Israel a home in our hearts, if not in everyday life. We have already affirmed in our work on the merger that we are a Zionist federation. The Peoplehood Project, our robust program of shlichut, a vibrant staff in Israel, our amazing teen programs, and real friendships up and down the State of Israel are the living proof. 


So Greater MetroWest — from West Orange to Westfield, Sussex County to Scotch Plains, Horfeish to Kibbutz Erez, Rishon LeZion on to Arad — can say with conviction, “We are one.” 


We are the lucky ones, the ones who know the deep feelings of pride and love for Israel and who have the ability and desire to help others see what we see. Whether that means religious pluralism efforts in Israel for Israelis looking for a deeper connection or a teen’s connection to a rishon or rishonah (counselor) that leads to a greater connection to Israel, we are building the Zionist dream.


I’ve written way more than I intended to write; clearly it is a subject dear to my heart. But I’m also more than a little bit Israeli, so enough with the words — kadima!


With love to you, Vered, and the boys,



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Shalom. I was very moved to receive your letter over the weekend. Indeed you and I have carried out these “Zionist conversations” for many years but we have never taken them to theoretical and academic spheres. They were always based on our personal experiences, family dilemmas, community involvement, and own individual identities.


However, through this dialogue we immediately came up with this discovery: you and I are the mirror image of the same exact concept. The stories of our lives and the way they are intertwined are the ultimate proof of the notion. There are many ways to be a Zionist and there are countless means to express it.


When we were both growing up in the ‘60s, (yes, I am three months younger than you but no one can tell) our parents did not bother themselves or us with the important but irrelevant question of “who is a Zionist?”


Whether it was in Middletown, R.I., or Kibbutz Shiller, they were too busy raising their families and building their lives. In school (Sunday for you and public for me) we learned that our shared Zionist dream was fulfilled and that we need to make every effort to make it viable and sustainable. It was good enough back then.


Amir Shacham – 1977
Amir Shacham – 1977
When we were 20 years old, it suddenly caught us. We both realized that the Jewish world and the Zionist endeavor are larger and more complex than what we thought and were taught. You look at the summer of 1977 and your first visit to Israel as a turning point. You fell in love, you wanted to make aliyah and felt strongly that you, I, and our people were one, although we had not yet met.

The summer of 1977 was an eye opener for me as well. I was a young commander in the IDF and I had to explain to my soldiers, the new recruits, why it is essential for them, their country, and for the Jewish people to serve a meaningful military service. They were a year or two younger than me but I felt the burden of Jewish history on my tiny shoulders.


It was few months after the heroic Operation Entebbe, the beginning of the historic peace talks with Egypt, and not less important, the first ever European championship for Maccabee Tel Aviv. Like you, Leslie, that summer I felt high in the sky and was in a very romantic mode. We were both living the Zionist dream in our own ways and in our own worlds.


I have to admit, though, that in retrospect I was much harder to get. I am not sure what exactly I was thinking or preaching but it is very likely that I assertively communicated to my soldiers something like: “in order to be a full Zionist one needs to live in Israel.” This is how most of us looked at it back then. You and I had to wait 20 more years in order to cross ways and minds.


In 1996 you returned to Israel on a UJA Mission, and I came to MetroWest as a community shaliach (emissary). Everything in our lives was then different. We were both personally and professionally mature. Gone were the romantic black-and-white attitudes and the assertive preaching. We already had kids who were the same age and we needed to develop a new perspective. The American Jewish community and the State of Israel were also very different in so many ways, compared to the ‘70s.


However, my goal as a shaliach and your goal as a mission participant were very similar. We wanted to make sure that our families and communities will continue to live the same dream. We aimed to connect Israel and Diaspora Jewry in ways that empower and protect each other. We realized that the best way to do it is by developing personal connections and emphasizing the mutual common ground. We understood that the Jewish and Zionist identities of our people could, and perhaps should, be diverse and pluralistic.


Sandy Hollander, Amir Shacham, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal
Sandy Hollander, Amir Shacham,
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal
The rest is history. Both of us, Leslie, are frequent passengers on the living bridge that connects our communities and makes us become one people. We don’t need to discuss or debate our mutual commitment to a strong Israel and a vibrant Greater MetroWest, nor to the concept of Zionism. It is proven in our daily lives on both sides of the ocean.


The real challenge, however, is the next generation — our young adult kids. How do we keep them living the dream that has already become a reality? I have few ideas. I am sure you do as well. Let’s continue the dialogue.


Drishat Shalom,




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