It was time to focus on the positive. Terrorists might be embarking on “a whole new ball game,” Robert Kuchner told his audience in Whippany on Nov. 5, acknowledging the news of recent attacks in Jerusalem, “but we’re going to have a fun evening.”
That’s what the crowd at the Aidekman campus did, with singing and dancing and a series of brief speeches that highlighted not tsuris — troubles — but rather challenges and achievements in the Israel-New Jersey connection in general and more specifically, the advancement of religious pluralism in Israel.
The event — “Israeli-Jewish Identity Post-Protective Edge: Implications for Diaspora-Israeli Relations” — was hosted by the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Kuchner is chair of the federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, and he was joined by the leaders of the center’s eight committees along with local religious and education leaders. Twenty Israeli guests participated, in addition to the center’s staff and emissaries spending the year in the community, including Beit T’fila Israeli, a Jewish renewal organization led by Rabbi Esteban Gottfried.
Earlier that afternoon, Gottfried and his group of three musicians held a “Workshop for Tefilah Leaders” — rabbis, cantors, and educators from synagogues and schools across the area. Using old and new texts, they explored creative ways to invigorate prayer and traditional liturgy.
Among the participants was Rabbi Amy Joy Small, the leader of Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning & Experience, based in Morris County, who offers rabbinic services to unaffiliated Jews, interfaith families, and — as she puts it — “fellow travelers.” The BTI approach was right up her alley. “It was just so energizing and inspiring,” she said.
In the evening, BTI performed some of the songs it has used in the hugely popular nondenominational kabalat Shabbat services it hosts overlooking the sea in Tel Aviv. They also sang some numbers they have incorporated in their American dates over the past few weeks that they do not use back home, for example, a song sung to the tune of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” That, Gottfried said, would be pushing the boundaries too far in Israel.
Gottfried told the crowd the “Jewish Renaissance movement” — of which BTI is a part — “is the most important social movement in Israeli” life in the last 15 years. For most Israelis, he said, “there is not enough framework for them to experience Jewish life, and they have been very, very friendly toward us because we bring together many layers of our identity — for example, combining Israeli pop music into Shabbat prayer.”
In Whippany, they found a warm welcome. While other communities might struggle to keep a connection with Israel, “here in Greater MetroWest, we live Israel. That’s who we are and what we care about,” declared federation president Leslie Dannin Rosenthal. Executive vice president/CEO Dov Ben-Shimon seconded that: “We are Israel and Israel is us,” he said.
Joe Perlov, president of Israel Experts, led a forum with a series of brief comments from American and Israeli speakers engaged in the “Living Bridge” at the heart of the partnership between GMW and Israel. Among them were Dana Talmi, founder and director of Yahel-Israel Service Learning, which enables visitors to engage in community service projects, and Dr. Yaakov Maoz, head of the Jewish renewal department at the Israel Association for Community Centers. Maoz is also the facilitator of Gvanim, a training program for Israeli community center directors and staff to advance pluralistic programming in Israel. A group of Gvanim participants who were visiting with the GMW community last week also took part in the event.