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Israel on the Agenda

Israel's traumas have all but crowded out yesterday's tree-plantings and singing in hospitals.

by Julie G Fax

September 5, 2002 | 8:00 pm

When Jewish educators from around the country met for a five-day institute this summer at the University of Judaism, leaders at the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life did the only thing they could for their daylong slot of teaching. They scrapped their usual plenaries and workshops on topics such as the power of ritual in family or educating Jewish parents and spent the day talking about how educators could help families in America deal with the situation in Israel.

"It was very heavy and yet an uplifting, spiritual day -- spiritual and educational. It reverberated throughout the week," said Ron Wolfson, a vice president at the University of Judaism. "We knew as a staff that to ignore the situation would have been a terrible mistake."

Over the past two years, Israel has replaced nearly all other issues as the center of Jewish concern, whether at a family simcha, singles events or adult education classes. High Holiday worshippers can expect to hear at least one, if not more, sermons on Israel and for prayers to focus on healing and peace for the Jewish State.

It is a significant change for American Jewry, which over the past decade had trained its communal lens on domestic issues. At the same time, the decline in the numbers of people visiting Israel -- especially youth -- is sure to have long-lasting effects on this generation's commitment to Judaism and Israel.

Now, as the two-year anniversary of second intifada nears, what were once seen as emergency measures and temporary shifts are proving to be more permanent alterations of the American Jewish landscape.

In this High Holiday season of cheshbon hanefesh, accounting of the soul, professional and lay leaders are asking how the crisis has changed our communal personality, what the long-term effects will be on our programs and institutions, and what we can learn from our own reactions.

To some, it may seem frivolous to consider the effect the matzav, the situation, is having on the faraway cousins of the true victims -- the Israelis themselves, who have been battered physically and emotionally. But it is akin to the long-term illness of a family member, where the rest of the family's physical and spiritual health must be maintained, so that they in turn can provide the support their ailing loved one needs to survive.

"We can't really have a community that is going to be connected to Israel in times of need unless it is a community that identifies with its Jewishness and with Israel," said Beryl Geber, director of the UJ's graduate program in nonprofit management and national chair of the United Jewish Communities' (UJC) renaissance and renewal division.

Community leaders are working to find the right balance between doing everything possible to support Israel and not ignoring ongoing needs within American Jewry.

"I think the crisis in Israel has really catalyzed a lot of attention on Israel that was probably somewhat dissipated over a number of years," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He noted that throughout the '90s the continuity agenda focused community attention on local issues such as revitalizing synagogues and strengthening Jewish education for youth and adults. "The domestic agenda has been to some extent subordinated in terms of the urgency with which issues can be dealt with. It's a question of resources -- human and financial," he said. That is not to say that community development has halted, Fishel noted. He points to the New Community Jewish High School in the West Valley that opens this week with 37 students. The school started its development process two years ago, simultaneously with the second intifada.

But while some programs continue, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that community creativity has slowed.

"I do feel that a lot of very important issues are completely off our agenda -- which is right, since we do need to focus all of our energies on supporting Israel every way we can," said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B'nai David Judea. Kanefsky said that tikkun olam programs like bringing groups to sing at nursing homes and a tree-planting project on Pico Boulevard have been "squeezed out of people's attention." Board meetings are now dominated by talk of Israel action programs and shul security.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel and a lifelong Zionist, has seen the success of the continuity agenda on campus. He fears what will happen if the community reverts to focusing on victimhood and anti-Semitism, rather than promoting positive Judaism.

"People are going to start questioning if having innovative Jewish arts programs is important when the chief focus is survival. We cannot afford to lose programs intended to sustain a rich Jewish life," he said.

"The physical survival of the Jewish people has been assured," Seidler-Feller added. "The real question is, will the spirit of the Jewish people survive? Will the values of the Jewish people survive? Will a meaningful expression of Judaism that captures the imagination of the Jewish people survive?"

David Myers, professor of Jewish History at UCLA and an Israel activist, said there may be some benefits to the interruption of the continuity agenda, leaving time for reassessment and striking a balance.

"The crisis in Israel leads to a rechanneling of the stream of support back to Israel," he said, after the last decade, when it was funneled toward strengthening U.S. Jewry. "It may well be healthy to have constant movement back and forth between these two sources of support, rather than remaining static."

Myers sees an additional benefit in that the crisis has forced involved and committed Jews to reassess a relationship with Israel that he believes was one-sided and too often taken for granted.

A relationship where American Jews sent money to Israel and sometimes visited, and where Israelis had no real interest in American Jewry or their opinions proved to be weak and insufficient.

"There can't be a sustained and deep commitment to Israel unless it rests on the principle of partnership, in which there is reciprocity," Myers asserted. "American Jewry needs to be a proactive partner with its own ability to say what is best for Israel, as a close relative would do."

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills sees the crisis as "a moment of opportunity, because the American Jewish community suddenly realizes how important Israel is to it."

Geller just returned from a summer in Israel at the Hartman Institute, where she spent days in chevrutah, study partnerings -- a metaphor she would like to see extended to the Diaspora-Israel connection.

"We could imagine ourselves as a chevrutah, locked in this intimate relationship where each of us is different because of that relationship, and the tradition is different because of the relationship."

She sees The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership as a good example of that reciprocity, where students, professionals, leaders and artists from each city visit the other to build connection and learn from each other.

She also plans to shore up Israel education.

"This is a moment for people to really try to understand why Israel is important to them, to really take responsibility for educating themselves about Israel and really understanding its history, so that every American Jew has a sophisticated understanding of what is going on," she said.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City said that despite the growing interest in Israel and the successful fundraising, the crisis has exposed just how weak the connection to Israel is for many Jews.

"I believe that Israelis feel that American Jewry has abandoned Israel in its time of need," said Muskin, who this summer canceled a tour he was leading in Europe and instead led a mission to Israel. "It's not enough just to fundraise. They need to see us there and to feel that we are part of the experience."

While some youth programs continue with diminished numbers and several shuls, including Young Israel, Sinai Temple, Beth Am and B'nai David, are sending or have sent missions, many Americans have opted to stay out of the Jewish State.

But if Israel's economy and morale suffer now from that withdrawal, it is American Jewry -- specifically today's teenagers and college students -- that will suffer later.

"We have a number of cohorts of kids who are not going to be familiar with Israel and are not going to have the opportunity to experience it and enjoy it," said Beryl Geber of the UJC's renaissance and renewal commission. A part of this generation will miss out on "the idea of a worldwide Judaism, of historical context and continuity in time and space. I don't think it's shattered, but it's attenuated, and the more cohorts that we have that don't develop that connection, the more fragmented we become as a community."

John Fishel said Federation has been exploring what to substitute in place of the Israel trip to inspire and connect young people.

"We're committed to putting energy, as well as time and money, into things that will help solidify bridges in the long term," he said. "We're trying to look beyond the present situation, and saying we can't just assume that when this crisis is past we'll pick up and start to run with it where we left off."

Part of what Fishel hopes to capitalize on is the sense of unity the crisis has inspired. The Jews in Crisis Campaign -- among other campaigns to support terror victims in Israel -- has raised money from all segments of the community. He points to a meeting of a diverse group of leaders held with the Los Angeles Times editors as an example of an unusual willingness to work together. But others worry that the galvanizing force of crisis mode cannot be sustained indefinitely.

"This mentality of crisis that we've built up has to give way to a different mentality of a long process," said Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom. "The problem is that crisis is like a drug, and when the drug leaves, you have withdrawal, and you come crashing down just as quickly as you went soaring upward."

That leaves people with bitterness and despair -- a dangerous state of mind, Feinstein said.

"It leads you to say, 'Let's get rid of these Arabs' ... or it leads you to a utopian, messianic mentality of 'Let's give them everything they want and maybe they will stop hurting us.' One is immoral, and the other irresponsible," Feinstein said.

Feinstein, like many rabbis, will use these holidays to offer congregants messages of hope in a depressing moment of Jewish history.

"I feel that everybody is confused and heartbroken and distraught in some way, and as a rabbi I need to be able to both acknowledge their pain and fear and bring it into a spiritual context, even if the only answer I have is that it's really important never to give up hope and never to disconnect from the one web of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Judith HaLevy of the Malibu Jewish Center and Syangogue.

Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob said he has been encouraging his congregants to utilize a bad situation as an opportunity.

"Once the world defines us as Jews and as Zionists, lets take that brand of being a Jew and find the positive. What does a Jew stand for? What does a Jew represent, and how does a Jew think? How does a Jew relate to God? How does a Jew relate to humanity?" he said.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky said he encourages congregants to view the entire scope of Jewish history, which is filled with a cycle of despair and redemption.

"Jewish literature is filled with the call not to give up and not to despair. In the whole trajectory of Jewish history, we are promised ends with great glory and joy. We need to remind ourselves as often as possible that we are a big-picture people, and our hope and our faith in a brighter day is unshakable," Kanefsky said. "We have to be able to step out now and then, and hold on to his larger vision."

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