Converting Jacob to Israel

This week's Torah portion of Va-Yishlah tells about Jacob's struggle with his conscience. With his mother's complicity, he stole his brother Esau's birthright from his blind father. No one called our ancestors saints.

Jacob wrestling with the angel, by Gustave Dore
Jacob wrestling with the angel, by Gustave Dore

On the other hand, because of his innate goodness, he was chosen to be the patriarch of a people committed to follow G-d's will. Consumed by this inner turmoil, Jacob was confronted by a stranger who wrestled him, during which the former said that, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for ‘You have struggled with G-d.'"

This name Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. As such, it is site of our holiest and historical places and now has the largest numbers of Jews in the world.

Yet within the State of Israel, there are about 300,000 non-Jews, originally from the Former Soviet Union, who were brought in as relatives of Jews who were allowed to enter as nascent citizens because of the Law of Return. Their children live in a "Twilight Zone" of being Israelis, but not being the children of Jacob.

Yet, a higher percentage of this group volunteer for combat units in the Israel Defense Forces than Jews. If, G-d forbid, any of them were killed during war, they could not be buried in Jewish cemeteries because of their ambiguous status.

In recognition of this demographic time bomb, the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish Agency for Israel developed a program called Nativ, which allows six weeks of leave from service in the Israeli Defense Forces for this population, to learn about Judaism. After their first exposure, most opt for more study. As a result, many thousands have converted to Judaism.

I had the privilege of speaking to one of these groups at Kiryat Moriah, the educational campus of the Jewish Agency. Scanning the group, I noticed the Zahal, or the Israel Defense Force decals on their uniforms. I then thanked them for their commitment to the State of Israel and for participating in this program of Jewish education. I told them that they are soldiers for the Israel Defense Forces, but we also wanted them to learn about the "Jacob" side of Israel so that they can become full-fledged members of our Jewish people.

The tension between Jacob and Israel, between religion and state, religion and secularism, the West and Middle-East, these are the ingredients that make Israel one of the most complex, exciting, and argumentative societies on the planet. But just like our forefather Jacob, his descendants struggle with the meaning of life, as they take on the mundane responsibility of living day by day in a "dangerous neighborhood."

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