The Nazis were headed for their small town in Poland. It was 1939. They crossed the border into Russia and boarded a train bound for a work camp in Siberia; specifically the Nizhny Tagil labor camp. There, in 1940, my mother was born. Somehow, despite the hard work, the cold, and rampant illnesses, the family survived.
With no home to go to after World War II, a variety of Jewish organizations helped settle the band of refugees in a displaced persons (DPs) camp in Ulm, Germany, which was under the Allies’ control. Survivors of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s families – siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins – all reunited. And there, they tried to resume a normal life; attending religious and job-training schools, shopping in the black market, working, and celebrating holidays.
Finally, by 1949, it was time to leave. With hugs, kisses, and tearful goodbyes, my grandfather’s family joined the 100,000+ Jewish DPs who were admitted to the United States. (This was the straw I came from.) My grandmother’s side, however, flooded with 170,000 others into the newly established State of Israel.
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In the “old country” the entire family was Orthodox in its practices: keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and adhering to Jewish laws and values. Sixty-four years later, however, things have changed. Two new generations have been born; both in America and in Israel. And, while we still are all family and we all may be Jews, the ways in which we live our Jewish lives are very different today.
In America, the family members’ identifications and affiliations now reflect assimilated and diverse labels: Reform, Conservative, Sabbath observant, secular, intermarried, practicing, non-practicing, atheist, and even agnostic. The choice to be Jewish requires time, attention, commitment, and money. Some have opted in while others choose to sit it out.
The situation in Israel is vastly different. The family is chiloni – secular – but in a different way than the Americans are. You see, Israel operates according to a Jewish calendar so its residents are programmed differently. Everyone says “Shabbat Shalom” on Friday; Purim is a nationally celebrated holiday; kosher meat is readily available; restaurants serve kosher-for-Passover foods; and everyone speaks Hebrew. They know they are Jewish. They connect Jewishly without EVER having to step into a synagogue or pay a JCC membership or pay a Jewish day school tuition. They don’t have to work at being Jewish…or do they?
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Last week I was in Israel for business reasons. Through the course of the week I was asked about my job. I explained that, in my role as the Israel & Overseas Manager of the Jewish Federation, I work with volunteers to fund programs and projects that help vulnerable populations (i.e. the Ethiopians) in our partnership community of Yokneam-Megiddo (a region up north near Haifa). I also talked about our community’s new focus on helping promote religious diversity in Israel and help younger Israelis find new ways to express their Jewish selves. But then I was stopped by the blank stares and the penetrating question “Why?” “What do you mean, why?” I asked. “Why do American Jews care about the ways in which Israelis live their lives?”
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Jews are called the Children of Israel – B’nai Israel. This means that we, the Children, need Israel to be complete. We have a responsibility to each other (to all thirteen million of us!) and we are inextricably linked to the Land. It is a partnership. Pure and simple.
But living in Israel isn’t enough. It doesn’t mean that the majority of its Jewish inhabitants is off the hook; that it doesn’t have to actively practice Judaism in any way, shape, or form. I mean, come on! How is it that my kids can recite the entire Shema by heart, but my Israeli nephews can’t?
Being Jewish comes with conditions and obligations. If we are to be a “light unto the nations” and are commanded to live according to a list of values (tzedakah, gemilut chassadim, tikun olam, etc.), then these imperatives must be embraced and actively pursued. And, if most Israelis don’t understand or know how to do this, we American Jews can show them the way.