Unlike most of my Israeli peers, I grew up surrounded by exemplary Diaspora Jews. Leaders and thinkers, educators and activists, old and new friends – all frequented our Shabbat table, where they reminisced about the struggle for Soviet Jewry or discussed new struggles, their eyes alight and their voices clear. These amazing men and women made me laugh and cry, ponder and grow. They inspired, enlightened, and shaped me in many, many ways.
And yet, despite all of this positive influence, when I was 18 years old and boarding a plane to Cleveland, I was THAT Israeli.
You know the type: Passionate, idealistic, uber-confident in her understanding of all things Jewish (well, that probably had more to do with my age at the time), ready to dazzle American Jewry with everything Israeli Judaism has to offer… And far, far less ready to ask what American Jewry has to offer in return.
(Other than money,that is.)
Here is what many Israeli Jews think of their brethren abroad: “Hey guys, you have nice lives. Really nice. You have lots of money and political influence that you can and should use on our behalf. But when it comes to the important stuff – spirituality and meaning and all that jazz – well, that’s where we shine. So if you want your lives to actually matter, come live here in Israel. See you then!”
A lifetime of exposure to outstanding Diaspora Jews may have protected me against the bluntest form of this prejudice, but it didn’t stop me from feeling mildly superior. Of course Diaspora Jews lead meaningful lives, I thought back then, feeling magnanimous. But these lives are simply a limited version of our own experience. While we in Israel expanded our Jewish experience to include statehood and the challenges of sovereignty, World Jewry chose to focus on individuals and communities alone. That’s a legitimate choice, I concluded in my own mind, but it certainly means that we have oh-so-much to offer to the people who made it.
And so I boarded that plane to Cleveland, ready to do just that.
To say that the vitality, originality, and wisdom of Cleveland’s Jewish communities humbled and impressed me is an understatement. In less than a week I encountered more forms of Judaism and more interesting takes on Jewish values than I can recount. I realized that World Jewry faced inherently different challenges than us, and therefore developed its own original ways of being Jewish. It didn’t pursue a limited version of my own experience; It represented, and created, a wealth of unique experiences I could only learn from.
Students who visit Israel through Birthright often speak of transformative experiences, and of seeing their own Jewish identity in a whole new way. Like these students, I went back home transformed. Cleveland taught me about more than World Jewry – it inspired me to reevaluate and expand my own Jewish experience. Before my Cleveland epiphany, I believed in a distorted image of World Jewry. Once this image was shattered, I could see them as they are, truly communicate with them, and learn from them about myself.
I realized, then, that instead of asking “How can we help World Jewry,” we should be asking “How can we and World Jewry enrich each other’s lives?”
Different Jewish groups pursue different paths, and each path runs its own set of risks. Orthodox Judaism can become too stringent and rigid and thus stagnate form within. Progressive Jewish communities can lose congregants to assimilation and waning interest. Israeli secular Jews don’t have to work hard to retain their Jewish identity, and thus can easily drift away. Diaspora Jews have to work hard to plug into their Jewish identity, and sometimes it’s hard enough to scare people away.
By listening and learning from each other, I believe we can refine our own paths, find the inspiration to fine-tune them, and avoid many of these risks. And so, beyond the value of our relationship in itself, it can help us to become wiser, better people – and lead better Jewish lives.
Since my Cleveland Epiphany, I heard similar stories from many Israeli Jews who visited communities abroad. Each of us had the privilege to encounter a”Cleveland” of his or her own, one that blasted away our preconceived notions and allowed us to truly connect with our Diaspora brethren in mutually beneficial ways. Similarly, I met many Diaspora Jews who made similar discoveries through the”Tel Aviv/Jerusalem/Haifa Moments” they experienced.
How can we make these “Cleveland/Jerusalem Moments” happen to more of us? How can create more opportunities to talk with each other, instead of about each other, or behind each other’s backs?
The organization DOMIM decided to celebrate the 7th of the Hebrew month Marcheshvan (which will take place tomorrow) as Diaspora Israel Day (see more here), and an opportunity to highlight Jewish Peoplehood. The organization created beautiful Festival Tractates for communities to read together.
I choose to celebrate my Diaspora Israel day slightly differently. Instead of of talking about our relationships, I invite you to meditate with me on particular things that you learned from Diaspora Jews (if you’re Israeli) or from Israel (if you are not). Maybe this way we will be able to convince more people of the importance of our relationship – not merely as a familial connection, but rather as a source of epiphanies and growth.