A Visit to America

I recently spent ten days in America as a shaliach (ambassador) for the Jewish Agency and Mercaz, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement. My official purpose was to encourage immigration to Israel; to promote the many programs available for those wanting to visit the Jewish State; and to inform my audiences about life in Israel and specifically about the Conservative Movement’s activities. I toured synagogues, Hebrew schools, day schools, college campuses and also advised people planning their aliyah.

Unofficially, this visit gave me a chance to check in with American Jewry and measure my own biculturalism as an American Israeli who having internalized many American values strives to promote pluralism, tolerance, minority rights, representative democracy and a competitive economy within Israeli society. All of these are foreign concepts in Israel, a county comprised mostly of people whose families emigrated from Arab countries or from behind the Iron Curtain.

In Israel where the Orthodox establishment does not recognize any other form of religious Judaism, I am constantly challenged by the lack of religious pluralism. My wedding, conducted by a Conservative rabbi was not recognized, despite that according to Orthodox law a rabbi is not required to officiate at a wedding. When I chose my son’s kindergarten and wanted to chose a non-religious public school for my first choice and a religious public school as a second choice, the automatic registration system did not even allow for such a possibility because standard  Israeli government institutions have segmented society into religious and non-religious spheres despite the fact that many Israelis fall somewhere in-between.

While a growing number of  Israelis seek out alternative frameworks, there is an overwhelming lack of understanding about non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. My next-door-neighbor, a twenty-something newlywed once met me on the street as we both walked home from synagogue after services. He asked me where I go to shul. I told him, I go to the Conservative synagogue.

With scorn he asked, “Men and women sit together?”

“Yes,” I answered.

His response: “It’s forbidden.”

I informed him that only since the Middle ages have synagogues separated men and women, that early synagogues had no division and it is evident from the Talmud that both men and women attended synagogue services.

“But the Temple had an ‘Ezrat Nashim’ [a women’s section],” he retorted.

I concurred, but told him that the Women’s Court of the Temple was a women’s court in name only. It was mixed and women were not restricted to stay there.

“Where are your sources?!” he demanded upon hearing such perceived heresy.

A few days later, I approached him with a publication by The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a leading academic institution affiliated with the Conservative Movement.The booklet, “The Mehitzah in the Synagogue,” part of a series entitled “To Learn and Teach: Study Booklets Regarding Women in Jewish Law,” summarizes the issues and history of the mehitzah quoting primary sources including the Bible, Talmud, Maimonides and a host of other authorities all accepted by Orthodox Jewry.

“I can’t look at it. It is forbidden,” he said.

“It’s the Talmud!” I exclaimed.

“Is there commentary?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

He told me that it is forbidden for him to read any commentary not written by Orthodox rabbis. I asked if he could study Bible in the university to which he responded, “The university is for law or medicine. If I want to study Bible, I go to a yeshiva.”

We parted agreeing to disagree without him even knowing the option he was rejecting.

American Jewry is much more tolerant of religious differences than its Israeli counterpart. However, during this trip I felt changes in the fabric of American Judaism which may create a permanent tear in the Jewish people. For the generation coming into adulthood in America, it is the norm that both genders fully participate in synagogue rituals. I was surprised at the amount of children in Hebrew high schools and day schools who either had one parent who was not Jewish or who was a Jew by choice. Beyond this, this trip gave me my first exposure to hearing a woman called up to the Torah as the daughter of two women.

America has always been at the vanguard of civil liberties and tolerance, and while America no longer requires one to be a male landowner in order to cast a ballot, American society is not yet fully egalitarian. Similarly, while more Israelis are drawn to such alternatives as TALI which provides enriched Jewish studies in a pluralistic secular school system, the educational process towards creating a tolerant and accepting society in Israel has yet to reach the success of American mainstream  consensus.

From what I have seen on college campuses during my trip, American Jewish youth have achieved a standard of egalitarianism beyond the previous generation. However, the consequences of the compromises that facilitate more inclusion and acceptance have come at a cost of knowing what it is to be a Jew. American Jewish youth are starving for Jewish knowledge, Jewish experiences and positive Jewish role models.

This is not to say that in Israel we have the solution. While every Israeli Jew may know the story of Hanukkah as part of their national history which celebrates a “Great Miracle Happened Here,” many feel that the Jewish religion is the dominion of an Orthodox population from which they feel alienated.

As part of my visit, I took time out to revisit the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I was reminded that upon accepting the South’s surrender, Abraham Lincoln ordered the band to play “Dixie”. As American and Israeli Jews develop in different ways, I hope that we can emulate President Lincoln’s example respecting and accepting each other as part of one people.