Jewish Life in America — Diaspora No More?
OpinionFrom Where I Sit

Jewish Life in America — Diaspora No More?

Questions are being asked about the vision of Israel as the home address of Judaism.

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Israel@70 celebration held by JNF at the Buckhead Theatre on April 19 focused on Israel as the Jewish homeland.
The Israel@70 celebration held by JNF at the Buckhead Theatre on April 19 focused on Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Do you consider Israel to be your Jewish “homeland”?

Does living in the American “diaspora” make you a less authentic Jew?

I suggested in my last column that a significant percentage of American Jews may regard Israel “as a primarily Jewish country, but not one they consider their own.”

Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward, recently opined that “there remains an expectation that Israel is the central address for real Jews, and the rest of us live in the outer exurbs.”

David Shneer, the director of Jewish studies at the University of Colorado, told Eisner, “Seeing the global Jewish community as multiple centers, with Israel as one center, better describes how Jews actually live.”

Not everyone agrees.

“No, we are not just a religion. We are a people, one nation scattered throughout the world. No, Washington is not our Jerusalem. Jerusalem is our Jerusalem. We only have one land that belongs to us and one ‘center’ of gravity — the Land of Israel. Everywhere else, we are guests,” reads an online retort to Eisner’s column.

Daniel J. Elazar, the founder of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote nearly 20 years ago that Jews active in communal life “like to proclaim ‘we are one’ and that ‘the mystic bonds of Jewish unity hold us all together.’”

Those bonds may be fraying.

“The ‘distancing’ discourse is gaining currency; today’s prevailing opinion, particularly in the Diaspora, is that Israel and Diaspora Jewry are growing farther apart. Surprisingly, this view is more common among older Jews than among younger Jews,” read a report issued in April by the Jewish People Policy Institute.

Daniel Gordis is an American-Israeli, a well-known author, and the Koret distinguished fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

A year ago he warned, “Increasingly, the orientation of many American Jews toward Israel is one neither of instinctive loyalty nor of pride but of indifference, embarrassment or hostility.”

Politically liberal American Jews may point a finger at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose perceived sins include (but are not limited to) cozying up to President Donald Trump, addressing Congress to oppose the Iran nuclear deal and backing away from his pledge to expand egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

That indictment does not take into account that a less Israel-centric, non-Orthodox Judaism began making inroads in the United States well before Netanyahu became prime minister.

The word “diaspora” — drawn from the Greek for “across” and “scatter” — is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries Online as “the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland.”

Over two millennia, the word primarily was used to describe the dispersion of Jews from the historic land of Israel.

Deuteronomy 28:25 carries this admonition of the penalty for defying the Almighty: “Adonai your G-d will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you will advance on them one way and flee before them seven. You will become an object of horror to every kingdom on Earth.”

“Object of horror” in this case means being made an example to others.

Eisner wrote that the “disequilibrium” over the authenticity of Jewish life inside and outside Israel poses “a challenge to those North American Jews who over the decades have substituted worship of a mythical Israel — what Donniel Hartman (president of the Shalom Hartman Institute) calls ‘the endangered fairy-tale land’ — for real engagement and commitment to our own Judaism at home.”

I asked, and my brother the rabbi offered three suggestions to increase that engagement and commitment: Expand scholarships to make Jewish summer camp more affordable; grow a generation of non-Israeli Hebrew teachers for congregational Sunday schools; and attract unaffiliated and unattached Jews by embracing the “seeker-sensitive” approach employed by some evangelical churches.

In the meantime, American Jews have every right to take offense at the notion that their home address makes them any less Jewish.

Jewish life in America is different from Jewish life in Israel — but is of no less value because it is in America.

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