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Reflections on the JRF 2002 Leadership Mission to Israel

While several weeks have passed since I returned from the JRF’s recent Mission to Israel, the impressions left by the land, its people, and the nation are still etched with feeling.

The single most important part of my visit was meeting with the thirteen rabbinical students from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who are currently studying there, one of the largest Israel Year groups we have ever had. I am glad to be able to report that despite the trauma of living in a country rocked by terrorist activity and the ongoing threat that it represents, RRC students are deeply engaged in their studies, building important personal relationships and sinking their roots deeply into the land of Israel. That our students undertake all this during such a difficult time suggests both their dedication to their studies and their determination to discover for themselves the role that Israel plays for world Jewry. The joy, hope and profound challenge associated with Jerusalem is something over which our Israel Year students are gaining painful mastery. We should all admire their courage and fortitude. It is that kind of commitment that has allowed us to again flourish in our land.

I first saw Israel with my own eyes in 1970 as a college student, and I’ve been returning regularly since then. Every visit evokes a range of emotions. Each trip to Jerusalem, for example, is a fresh encounter with both the city’s historic significance to the Jewish people, and my own lengthening store of memories — from walking Jerusalem’s streets, living in different neighborhoods, and engaging with its people. Even so, this trip with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation’s Mission to Israel was unlike any other.

For one thing, I have never seen Israel so bereft of visitors, its hotels, restaurants and Judaica shops so empty as now. Little wonder that everywhere we went, Israelis thanked us for being there. Gratitude for our presence there at a time they feel so embattled and alone was a sentiment expressed vigorously by peace activists and members of Likud alike. Clearly it is of critical importance that we encourage visits.

Yet another notable change is the rapid growth and continued development of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) there, which are the Israeli equivalent of not-for-profit agencies in North America. The NGOs are having a major impact on life in Israel partly because of their ability to mobilize populations and partly because of their skill in civil rights litigation.

Throughout Israel, NGOs are building up grassroots democratic commitment, fighting for civil rights of minorities (including those of Bedouins, women, and liberal Jewish religious movements) and working to integrate new immigrants into Israeli society. Their proliferation marks the impact of the shift in giving to Israel through such diaspora-based organizations as the New Israel Fund and to the NGOs directly. This bodes well for the increasing vigor of Israeli democracy.

On the political level, the news continues to be distressing. In one of our briefing sessions with Israeli leaders, Yossi Sarid of the Meretz party spoke forcefully about the current impasse, in which Sharon and Arafat are locked in a dance that strengthens each of them in their political ends. Of course continued conflict serves neither the average Palestinian nor the average Israeli, both of whom would be far better off with a peace agreement.

And no matter where they fell on the political continuum, none of the leaders we spoke with believe that a speedy cessation of hostilities or a peace agreement is possible. While the momentous decisions about how Israel is to proceed will not be made by the Jews of the Diaspora, it is clear that the parties in Israel are substantially affected by the concerns and engagement of Jews across North America — by whom we support and how we talk about the conflict. On virtually everyone’s lips, both Israelis and leading Palestinians, the two-state solution has become normative, something that simply was not the case ten years ago. So the direction in which the conflict is moving is now clear. Only the approach and timing are unknown.

Even this time of national crisis, with multiple terrorist attacks every week, cannot obscure the progress Israel has made socially, technologically and economically. That Israel has successfully absorbed the million refugees from the former Soviet Union is truly amazing. To be sure, Israel continues to be afflicted by troubling social inequities which need urgent remediation. But while we must not lose sight of those inequities, neither should we overlook the amazing progress there.

Meeting with political and organizational leaders from a variety of spectrums under the auspices of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Mission was possible in part because of the skillful leadership that came from Rabbi Amy Klein (RRC Class of 1996), who works for both the JRF and the RRC in Israel, and of Moti Rieber, the Delaware Valley Regional Director of the JRF as well as a student at RRC.

Efforts like the JRF Mission not only reinvigorate the dialogue between the Reconstructionist movement and Israel, and renew links between movement leaders there and in North America. They also provide invaluable opportunities to forge and strengthen connections with the growing number of Israeli citizens who seek expression for Reconstructionist values in the political and social arrangements of Israeli life.

As the Reconstructionist movement gains strength in North America, efforts to strengthen the relationship between Jews in the diaspora and Jews in Israel must keep pace. At this critical time in Israel’s history, support for our friends and allies there is most critical. The people of Israel look to us as a source of hope. May the bonds between us grow ever stronger.
Type: Essay

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