22 Dec An Evening with Natan Sharansky: Building Bridges Between Israeli and American Jews
“Jews for 3,500 years, we have mutual history. And we want to find ways to continue our mutual history, even when we live in Israel and they in America.”
These words were among the many inspiring thoughts I heard Natan Sharansky share at a talk he gave at the JCC Manhattan a few weeks ago. Mr. Sharansky is currently the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency For Israel, a former Jewish activist and political prisoner in the Soviet Union, and a former member of Knesset. Mr. Sharansky’s remarks touched on a variety of issues- access to the Kotel for all Jews, conflict with the Palestinians, Russia’s role in the Middle East, and Israeli politics. But the central theme that came through was Mr. Sharansky’s unwavering belief in the unity of the Jewish people. I left the talk both troubled by the challenges we Jews face and inspired to rededicate myself to the work we do at Schechter Manhattan to nurture in our students the value of klal yisrael, their connection to all Jews.
About 43% of world Jewry live in Israel, 41% in the United States, and the remaining 16% in communities around the world. As such, the Israeli and American Jewish communities are by far the largest Jewish communities, and while Mr. Sharansky clearly has a commitment to Jews around the world, much of his talk in NYC was about the strained relationship between the two largest centers of Jewish population. He said that the problems liberal streams of American Judaism have faced in Israel (which impacted Schechter Manhattan directly on our 8th grade Israel trip last spring) is symptomatic of a gap between the communities. He said, “There is a bigger crisis. To what extent Israeli society understands American Jewry, and to what extent American Jewry understands what is really Israeli society.”
Mr. Sharansky further asserted that part of why we don’t understand each other is a function of the real differences in our experiences and circumstances. He said, “The project of Israel is really building one Jewish community from these tribes that came from all over the world. It’s very different from the project of keeping American Jewry. If pluralism here [in the United States] is the key for survival, pluralism there [in Israel] was absolutely against the very idea, of Ben-Gurion, how to build [a Jewish state]. So, from the beginning, we have very different strategies for the same aim, for our mutual survival.”
I think Mr. Sharansky is describing Israeli society through the lens and influence of Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, who sought to bring diverse “tribes” from around the Jewish world together in one place and to forge one national identity. For example, Ben-Gurion changed his last name from Grun, to the Hebraicized Ben-Gurion, and encouraged many of the founding leaders of Israel to change their names as well. (In recently reading an excellent biography of Golda Meir, written by Schechter Manhattan grandparent Francine Klagsbrun, I learned that it was Ben-Gurion who urged Golda Meyerson to change her name to Meir.) The Hebrew language serves as a central unifier of Israeli society, and by extension, Israeli identity. It is worth noting that Mr. Sharansky changed his first name from Anatoly to the Hebrew, Natan, when he made aliya. This is an example of what Mr. Sharansky points to as the Israeli effort to achieve the goal of Jewish survival through building a singular national identity.
In contrast, he suggests that in America it is the pluralistic character of the Jewish community that assures Jewish survival. In America, in the face of assimilation, a variety of avenues for expressing Judaism and making Jewish commitments is healthy and affords Jews more opportunities to nurture their Jewish identities. For Mr. Sharansky, Israeli and American Jews share the goal of survival, but the ways the communities go about it are fundamentally different and that leaves us having a lot of trouble relating to each each other. He said, “So our problem is that our lives are so different that we don’t think that for our life we need also to know others. That’s what we have to break.”
How can we do that? Can we overcome the challenges that create distance between Israeli and American Jews? Mr. Sharansky believes we can. He thinks it starts with dialogue. “What is really important is all the time to talk about it. To talk, not to agree but to understand one another, and we don’t have it enough… That is something that can be overcome. We can continue living in different realities but understand one another much more.” And he offered ways to try and encourage the dialogue between Israeli and American Jews through the work of the Jewish Agency. I was especially intrigued by his description of the impact of shlichut, sending Israeli emissaries to diaspora communities.
“We have tools, shlichim, those who go abroad. After two or three years working in the communities, they come with an absolutely different understanding. There is one 18 year old girl, a Shinshinit- she said in all her long life in Tel Aviv, she didn’t have as much Jewishness as two weeks working in a Jewish community in Toronto. And suddenly they understand what it is to be a Jew by choice, meaning that you decide that you belong to the Jewish community, where one has a responsibility one for the other, where there is pluralism. We have 7,000 former shlichim and we are having different projects how to use them for hasbara (explanation)… They are shlichim here [in America] of Israel and that is very important, very good for the communities. When they are coming back they have to be shlichim of American Jewry in Israel… The idea is to use these 7,000 young people, who in the last years were serving in America in Jewish communities abroad, to use them for education.”
I am thrilled that Schechter Manhattan is partnering with Mr. Sharansky and the Jewish Agency in this effort, working with Hai, the shaliach to the Upper West Side, as well as Mai and Itamar, the shinshim who work at Schechter Manhattan two days each week. Mai and Itamar share their experiences and perspectives as young Israelis with our students and they have told me that they are also learning so much about American Jewry. I agree with Mr. Sharansky, this program helps Schechter Manhattan students better understand Israeli Jews, and I am hopeful that the shinshinim will bring their understanding of American Jewry back to Israeli society.
In addition to the efforts of the Jewish Agency, Mr. Sharansky charged his audience of American Jews with taking responsibility for bridging the gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities, through commitment to Jewish identity and Jewish education. He said, “No doubt, if American Jewry, that the level of assimilation would be lower and the percentage of children who are sent to Jewish schools would be higher… And if Israel would be, not the number five topic when American Jews are deciding for them what’s important for them in Jewish life, instead of, let’s say, the number two topic. It all could make our work much easier… You have to do what you can do to prove that you also, not only me, are interested in the future of the Jewish people together, Israel and American Jewry.”
At Schechter Manhattan we are very interested. We aspire for our students to find the Jewish commitments that will be meaningful for them within the rich diversity and pluralism of American Judaism. We also aspire for them to feel connected to the land, people, and State of Israel. I believe that nurturing Jewish identity through meaningful Jewish experiences, engagement with serious Jewish learning, and participation in loving Jewish communities can help us Jews stay connected to each other, in Israel, America, and around the world.
Near the end of the talk, Mr. Sharansky was asked about his plans after his tenure at the Jewish Agency ends a few months from now. He responded, “I am not going to change. I am in the same job for the last 45 years… wherever I was, whether I was Jewish activist, whether I was a prisoner of conscience, whether I was anti-establishment in Israel, whether I was a member of Knesset, whether I was the head of the Jewish Agency, I was dealing with one thing- building bridges between world Jewry and Israel. And I am going to continue doing this all my life- I am not going to change my profession.” I am so inspired by Natan Sharansky’s example and call to action, and glad he will keep at his life’s mission for years to come.
Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop back next week and see what they are writing and thinking about.
Students wrote short fiction stories, incorporating character, setting, problem and solution.
This week, while learning about the two miracles of Channukah (the oil lasting 8 days and the military success of the Maccabees against the Syrian-Greeks), students were asked to write what they thought were their own miracles.
The fifth graders are learning about Colonial America. They researched different colonies and wrote about their economy and daily life.
Economy in Georgia
The economy in Georgia was very interesting. In the beginning they experimented with growing olives, grapes and making silk but their climate was not right for these things. Eventually they found that they could grow corn, beans, squash and rice. This is what they had for most meals. They produced dried meat, lumber and tar. Sometimes they traded these products. In Georgia, trading was a very big part of their economy and life. They would usually trade with Britain and the West Indies. They would trade furs which at the time were very needed for clothes. In return they got guns, coffee, sugar and furniture. Their economy was shaped by their environment and it played a big part in their lives.
– Arielle and Nadav
Life in Massachusetts
Each colonist in Massachusetts had a different schedule. But some of them were very similar, for example the men often hunted for food. They hunted for tons of forest animals like turkeys, bears and deer, but a lot of them hunted fish. They hunted fish like whales and codfish. The women spent their time tending to the farms, sewing and they would turn animal hides from the animals that their husbands hunted into leather and fur clothing. They also took charge of cooking and made soap. Raising their children also kept them very busy; they had big families and it was often six or more children. The children helped with chores once they were old enough. That included fetching water, milking cows, herding sheep and baking bread. The boys often helped their fathers and the girls often helped their mothers.
– Hannah, 5th grade
South Carolina is a very interesting colony. South Carolina is in the most southern part of the southern region. The colony was founded in 1670. The colonists there grew so many different plants that they ate and traded. They grew a lot of wheat witch was mostly crushed into flour so the colonists could trade it. The colonists there grew many other things such as corn, melon, squash, beans, and indigo rice, this was a great supply of food for them.They produced many things some of which they traded. They produced yarn, medicine, tools, and flour.The colonists there traded lots of the item they produced. Such as rice, meat, and wood products like barrels. The South Carolinians have many other interesting things about them.
– Abby, 5th grade