For the second year, senior personnel studying at Israel’s National Security College — known as MABAL in Hebrew — have come to the United States as part of their learning experience.
On Monday, May 3, their “classroom” was the Jewish community of Central New Jersey.
The group of students, instructors, and facilitators spent the early part of the day at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, and then met with a trio of rabbis for a panel discussion, before going on to a campaign event for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.
Major General Gershon Hacohen, the head of the elite institution and commander of all the Israel Defense Forces colleges, told the audience at the federation event that exploring differences is an important way to learn about oneself, and thus an important part of the students’ experience.
He was the keynote speaker at the 2010 annual campaign event of the Builders and Allied Trades Division of the Central federation, held at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains.
Hacohen stressed the importance of the contributions made by Jews in all stations — by philanthropists in the Diaspora as well as by soldiers, “each according to what he can do according to his environmental possibilities.”
“We are brothers,” said Hacohen. “Our struggle is one of true partners.”
The NSC visit was organized, like last year’s, in coordination with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The group included senior personnel from Israel’s Foreign Service, Security and Secret Forces, the Police, and military industries, plus four students from other countries.
Their 10-day visit was part of their one-year master’s program in national security management. They were scheduled to have briefings at the Pentagon, Congress, and the United Nations, as well as with major national Jewish organizations.
They also wanted to get a close-up view of a local community. In 2009, they visited Baltimore, Md. This year, Dov Ben-Shimon, the JDC’s executive director for strategic partnerships whose office is on the Wilf campus, within the complex of the Central federation, suggested they visit his home base.
“I wanted them to visit with the Central federation because of the strong relationship between the Joint and Central, and this community is such a vital, strong, diverse example of American-Jewish life,” said Ben-Shimon.
At the JEC, the 41 men and four women, all spruce in the uniforms of their particular branches, many adorned with a splash of ribbons, toured the school and sat in on some classes. In the afternoon, they switched to sports gear and took on the basketball team of Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy, the JEC’s boys’ high school.
Ben-Shimon said he suggested they take it easy on the students; that proved unnecessary. The students claimed a 27-17 victory. The Israelis declared themselves impressed by the fitness of their young opponents. Their hosts, gracious in return, pointed out that basketball is, after all, an American game.
At Congregation Beth Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Scotch Plains, the visitors took their seats in a large circle facing Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Teitz, the dean of the JEC; Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield; and their host, Rabbi George Nudell of CBI.
The discussion was opened by Central federation executive vice president Stanley Stone, who talked about the close cooperation between different congregations and the federation, and their unity in support of Israel. He pointed out that this menschlichkeit is not found in all communities, and attributed it in Central to the tone set by leaders such as the rabbis present.
The college head fired a number of questions at the rabbis, who in turn discussed the differences among the denominations and their connections with their movements in Israel.
As harmonious and cooperative as their depiction of the community was, the rabbis did touch on some issues that divide them. Teitz said, for example, that the Reform movement’s 1983 decision to recognize patrilineal descent had caused major problems.
On the other hand, he shared his concern about the Israeli rabbinate’s recent strictures regarding conversions. Whereas in years past, conversions carried out in the United States under the aegis of all Orthodox rabbis were accepted in Israel, the rabbinate recently issued a list designating only some rabbis whose conversions would be accepted.
The exclusion of many of his colleagues is disturbing, he said. And although he himself does not do conversions, “for some reason I don’t understand at all, I am on their [approved] list.”