Wow, what a day! So many ideas, so much engagement, so many people.
The conference The State of Israel and the Jews of North America: How Can We Bridge the Gaps? explored the relationship between the State of Israel and North American Jewry and dealt with hot-button, current issues: why are there gaps in the education of children in the two largest centers of the Jewish people today? What is the demographic difference between the two centers and how does this impact religious, civil, political, social perceptions? Do Diaspora Jews have the right to criticize Israel? If so, when? Does Israel need American Jews, or not? Most importantly, how can these gaps be bridged?
A joint initiative of The Schechter Institutes and The Jewish Theological Seminary, the program was spearheaded by the leaders of the two institutions. Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institutes, discussed the controversies surrounding the Western Wall in his address: “The Kotel is not a halachic issue, it is a political and technical one. We reached a fair agreement and the government canceled it. In his remarks Professor Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary said: “The Haredi rabbinate wants to steal from us any legitimacy that we are a true Judaism. Classical political Zionism continues this line and thinks that there is no room for Jews in the Diaspora and that everyone should immigrate to Israel. These thoughts do not bring American Jews closer to the Jews of Israel.” Nearly 200 people gathered at Schechter as these questions were discussed at length by top speakers: members of Schechter’s staff and faculty alongside leading lecturers who came to Israel from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, guest speakers such as MK Rachel Azaria, who had to leave briefly to the Knesset for a vote, and immediately returned to us to share her words; Dr. Beverly Gribetz, principal of Evelina de Rothschild High School and former principal of the Ramaz School, who offered a unique perspective on Israeli and American teens; Executive Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, Dr. Yizhar Hess, who emphasized how important it is to preserve the good relations with North American Jewry. The evening concluded with a rousing concert from Maureen Nehedar, a leading Persian-Israeli musician who has revived Persian liturgical tradition. Her amazing music that creates harmony between a liturgical poem and a Bob Dylan tune, between traditional prayers and Joni Mitchell tunes.
A particular highlight of the day was, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky’s talk about the importance of the Diaspora Israel relationship and Israel’s need to acknowledge and encourage and embrace liberal streams within Judaism. Following his talk Reb Dr. Mimi Feigelson, Mashpiah Ruchanit (spiritual mentor) of the Rabbinical School, gave a moving presentation. As a young girl Reb Mimi wrote letters to Natan
Sharansky who was under arrest in USSR for Zionist activity. She would go to the post office and send each letter by registered mail that required the signature of the recipient. Of course, she never received the return receipt and Sharansky never received the letters. She kept copies of all the letters and the receipts from the post office. At the conference she read from one of the letters where she expressed hope that Sharansky would soon be freed and living in the State of Israel. As a rapt audience looked on Feigelson asked Sharansky for his signature on the postal receipt. Sharansky signed the slip and received a standing ovation from the audience, many of whom remembered their own activism in the Free Soviet Jewry movement. Indeed, Sharansky had just shared his vision of the future of Jewish people should look like and with Feigelson’s
Thank you to all of you who came to listen, argue and participate. We’ll see you next time!