Hilli Wurtman Moyal’s Reflections on the Etz Chaim Community
18 Cheshvan 5769, Motzei Shabbat Parshat Vayera, the story of the the binding of Isaac, we were the children and I was with my mother when we discovered the terrible massacre that took place in the community of Etz Chaim. The next morning Pittsburgh was still in the headlines, but my Facebook was mostly about the municipal elections, and very few of them related to what happened in the United States.
I asked several friends if they also felt there was a certain indifference for the event, and one after the other, they confessed that they also felt nothing about what had happened. This has prompted me to think that as Israelis who have experienced wars and terrorist attacks, we have developed an armor of some indifference, or perhaps what is far from the eye is far from the heart, and the Jews of the Diaspora are moving away from us? Or is it a cultural disconnection and perceptions that dwindles over the years?
I have already told you that in the early 2000s, shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada, I flew to the various Jewish communities around the world in order to strengthen ties to Israel and to conduct information workshops on campuses. A few years have passed since then and reality has changed drastically. In the United States, where about six million Jews live, there is about 60 percent assimilation. Every one out of three children has a non-Jewish parent. If in the past, the establishment and building of a Jewish state, especially after the Holocaust, was a common goal, today the Zionist dream is dissolving. Even the greatest Jewish donors and philanthropists such as Ron Lauder and Bronfman (who founded Birthright) speak of a deepening rift between Diaspora Jews and Israel. A crack that turns into a pit. The conference of the Heads of the Jewish Federations in North America that was recently held in Israel (the GA conference) dealt quite a bit with this rift and its title – “We must talk about it!” – attests to the magnitude of the crisis. It’s not pleasant to admit (and this we whisper softly so “Uncle Sam” doesn’t hear) but it’s not really all that disturbing.
A year ago I flew again to London, together with a group from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Gesher. We travelled as a group representing different and populations of Israeli society to get to know the Jewish community outside of Israel. After the delegation, I met with a friend who was an active instructor at Hanoar Hatzioni and had spent a lot of time in Israel. It pains me to discover that today he feels that the State of Israel has become the state of Israel and not the state of the Jewish people, and that the youth movement in which he was active hardly exists anymore. “The feeling is that Israel has given us a cold shoulder,” he said sadly, adding that among the younger generation, Zionism is almost never spoken about.
This situation is disturbing, not only because these are our brothers in the Diaspora, not only because we are a small people and not only because Diaspora Jewry have always been significant and influential factors in the State of Israel. There is another reason that is not usually taken into account: On the trip to which I left last summer, I arrived not as an emissary, but as a “listener” and on the way I discovered that we had a lot to learn from the Jews of England. For example, about the ability to build an open society that does not categorize people according to their way of life, as the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Efraim Mirviz, said, “The struggle between the Orthodox and Reform is yesterday’s news. And this is just one example. Beyond that, I truly believe that when our people are united we have the ability to influence not only the Jewish people but the entire world.
One of my favorite commentaries by Rashi is, “And Israel stood there against the mountain” (Exodus 19), which describes the preparations for the revelation at Mount Sinai: Why is it written in the singular, “Vayachen”? Rashi explains “as one man with one heart”. If we stand as one without fear in the face of conflict, if we meet one another, we will talk to one another and ask the difficult questions. If we find the common mission – then maybe we can escape the slippery slope we are currently sliding on. Perhaps it is time for us too to launch a program such as Taglit-Birthright in which young people will visit the Diaspora communities in order to build connections, to approach, to rediscover mutual responsibility. Perhaps it is time for a new conception of Israel-Diaspora relations.
Contrary to popular belief, the early decades of the state believed Diaspora Jewry was a temporary phenomenon that would soon disappear, we now understand that the existence of various Jewish communities around the world, alongside the largest community in the State of Israel, is a fact. Even if there are many gaps in the worldview of the various streams of Judaism and in the various communities, I hope that at least we can agree on our obligation to connect and care together for the common future of the Jewish people in all its diversity.
After all, from the distorted point of view of the Pittsburgh murderer, there was no significance to the political or ideological affiliation of those worshipers, for him it only mattered that they were Jews. The Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once said that what is is more terrible than anger and hatred is indifference, and whatever the reason for this indifference, it is frightening and I would like to take advantage of this tragic event as a wake-up call for us as Jews to strengthen our bond and sense of unity with the Jewish communities around the world.