Nine Hebrew University students engaged a prominent MetroWest rabbi in a lively discussion of the similarities and differences between American and Israeli Jewish identities in a July 25 visit to Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
The students, who are preparing to become the next generation of Israel’s civil servants, are visiting the United States and Canada to take a close-up look at government operations away from their home country.
They are part of “Atidim” (the Hebrew word for “futures”) a program sponsored by the Israeli government and an NGO.
The eight Jewish and one Arab Israeli — who immigrated following the Israel Defense Forces’ withdrawal from southern Lebanon — divided their time among meetings with federal, state, and local government officials and leaders of the Jewish community. Over lunch at the Conservative synagogue in Caldwell their focus turned toward the contrasts and commonalities of the Jewish communities in Israel and the United States.
“One of our goals is to learn about the Jewish community here and there,” said Atidim’s program director, Sarit Milman. “We believe the future civil servants should understand this. It should be about Jewish identity in both places. Here in the States, you deal with Jewish identity, but in Israel it is taken for granted. It should not be. It is not only about the calendar and going into the army, especially for secular Israelis,” Milman said.
As she and the “cadets” she is supervising sat around tables in a conference room, they took part in a lively discussion of the many facets of Jewish identity with the congregation’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein and members of the Legow Family Israel Program Center of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
“I’m first an Israeli,” said one student. “It has to do with whether Judaism is a religion or a culture or more than that. The non-religious part can assimilate into the Israeli culture very well.”
“Here we ask the same question: Are you an American first or a Jew first?” said IPC chair Lisa Lisser of Short Hills. “You live in a Jewish state, so it is a little easier because you don’t have to practice your religion to be a Jew,” she said.
Silverstein pointed to the functional differences of synagogues in Israel and in the States. “In America the Jewish space is the synagogue…,” he said. “When you come into the synagogue it is not just a beit tefila [house of worship].”
Although at Agudath Israel there are “hundreds of people who come, and we have tefilot every morning and every evening,” he said, the congregation plays a host of other roles. “We have a talmud-Torah. We have a teen department. We have adults involved in Jewish learning on a regular basis. We have all kinds of social action projects. We have all kinds of opportunities to build relationships….
“And we have a lot of projects to connect people to Israel and we have projects to connect to Jewish communities all through the world.”
In fact, Silverstein said, “for people not connected to synagogues, the long-term prognosis for passing along Jewish identity — it can happen, but the percentage is very low.
“The synagogue is the anchor to Jewish identity. If you bypass the synagogue…you do it at your own risk. In Israel, you can be Jewish even if you don’t belong to a synagogue,” he added.
“Aren’t you giving up on quite a lot of secular Jews if the Jewish life would not be connected to synagogues?” asked one of the non-religious Israelis.
“The vast majority of our members don’t keep kosher,” said the rabbi. “They don’t go to our synagogue on Shabbat. But they are involved in some of the many things that are, in Israeli terms, secular. In America you can connect to a wide variety of things and pick and choose which touches you. That is what synagogue spaces are for.”
‘Easy to an American’
Maintaining a Jewish identity with challenges of a very different sort was the focus of another exchange. A student who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union said he was reminded of hearing from his grandmother “about how we did celebrate these Jewish holidays and how we did have a very rich Jewish life without it being legal.”
“It happened there and it did not happen here for a bad reason,” Silverstein said. “There you had an anti-Semitic government and were forced to pass on the identification of being Jewish through that discrimination. In America it is very easy to just be an American, and non-Jews today are perfectly willing to marry Jews, and you can disappear. It is a warm and welcoming country, not like the Soviet Union. So if we had anti-Semitism like that it would be different.”
The visitors were the sixth cohort of Israeli civil service cadets to visit the United States, the first to spend time in MetroWest.
Prior to coming to New Jersey on July 22 they spent a week in Washington, DC, meeting with representatives of the World Bank and the Department of Homeland Security as well as aides to senators, House members, and representatives of the Obama administration. They are scheduled to go to Toronto July 29.
The Israelis also visited city officials in Newark, met with American-Jewish young people, and received an overview of the organized American-Jewish community from Arthur Sandman, executive vice president of the Jewish Agency for Israel in New York, immediate past associate executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.