Ruth Calderon suggested a new metaphor is needed for thinking about the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
Speaking in Whippany, the former member of Knesset rejected old models like “family” and “investors” and instead urged her audience of federation volunteers and professionals to think in terms of “partnership.”
“Our aims and what we want Israel and Judaism to be in the world are not talked about enough together,” said Calderon. “We are partners. We need to talk to each other and know we depend on each other with shared goals.”
Calderon, who served in the Knesset with the Yesh Atid party from 2013 to 2015, met with about 15 people at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus on Dec. 15.
An educator who has created opportunities for secular Jews to study classical Jewish text, she drew for her talk on her experience in New Jersey. She lived in the area from 2002 to 2005, when her then-husband, Guy Benshachar, served as shaliah, or Israel emissary, to what became the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Calderon gushed about being back on her old stomping grounds, calling the community “dear to me” and pointing out that her son, who was three when she arrived for their three-year stint, is now 16 and taller than his mother.
Between then and now, Calderon rose to fame in part based on her inaugural Knesset speech, in which she argued passionately for all Jews to study Torah, and implicitly promoted a more pluralistic civil and religious society.
She echoed those themes this week, saying she despaired of the dismissive attitude of Orthodox Israelis toward other Jewish denominations, and of Orthodox control of funding for religious life in Israel.
“The whole world of Jewish renewal is like an illegitimate child of the state,” she said, referring to the religious sector’s attitudes toward non-Orthodox streams. Pluralistic programs in Israel “are living only on money raised overseas…. This is something that cannot go on. My heart is very much with Jewish pluralism in Israel. But the question is, what is the identity of the state of the Jews?”
She called the current moment in Israel “dark times” not only because of terrorism, but also because of Israeli politics and culture. She described her opposition to Israel’s “nation-state” bill, which if passed would enshrine into law Israel’s status as a Jewish state. According to the law, said Calderon, “when democratic values clash with Jewish values, Jewish values will always be on the top.” She said the law contradicts Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel is the homeland of all Jews but ensures equality of social and political rights to “all its inhabitants.”
She also urged a Diaspora-Israel partnership based on a “mutual culture and a shared language,” not just money or political advocacy. “Not enough culture and content is passed between us,” said Calderon. “It’s usually practical things and fund-raising.”
As for the North American contributions to that project, she spoke of the Jewish network of diverse educational and religious institutions.
“American Jews can say, ‘You in Israel are so busy with economics and security that you forgot to do Judaism. But there’s a lively program of Jewish study — a lot of important work is happening in the Diaspora,’” she said.
“Your voice is necessary in Israeli culture. The project of Judaism is not only what we do in Israel. It’s important for me as an Israeli Jew to know it spreads beyond Israel.”