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  • What Not To Say About Israel This Year

    Posted on September 6th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments



    There is a great deal in the news this season about Israel. Most of the alumni of HUC-JIR feel close to Israel but live at a physical remove.  Spanning two continents, the College-Institute is aware of how that divide can feel.  And so they are reaching out from our Jerusalem campus to help us think about what we hear and choose to say about current events. This guest post features reflections by Dr. Michael Marmur, Vice President for Academic Affairs.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Dr. Michael Marmur

    It happens every year about this time. Colleagues gearing up for their High Holyday sermons turn to me and other Israeli colleagues in the hope that we might give them some ideas. After all, a number of our Rabbinical colleagues still leave one slot open for the stirring Israel sermon, and it seems that in recent years congregants emerge from an encounter with the Israel shaken, not stirred.

    The month of Elul and the High Holydays to follow are a time of honesty, so let’s face up to the facts: many Jews on the liberal end of the spectrum feel increasingly distanced from Israel. I would hazard the guess that most HUC-JIR alumni in North America will not be teaching and preaching about Israel this year. There are a variety of reasons for this palpable distancing, ranging from ideological disapproval to despair, passing every station from disinterest to confusion to the rise of new interests and issues: spirituality, the tea party, Irene, you name it.

    I have lots of advice to give you, but I urge you to ignore it. There is a wide range of topics to fill an Israel agenda – unprecedented social protest and the struggle for greater social equality, the forthcoming declaration of a Palestinian state, the changing face of the Middle East, the rise of chauvinism and racism in Israel, the standoff with Turkey, the face and soul of contemporary Israel, and more.

    You should ignore my advice, because the only way you will stir the people you serve is to be stirred yourself. If Israel is an “ought”, brought in to the discussion like an aging relative who has to be mentioned to avoid a tantrum, nothing good can come of the encounter. So I want to encourage each of you to find the intersection between your own passions and the debates which rage here in Israel every day.

    Take my advice and don’t take my advice. Instead, find friends and partners here in Israel and tell them what is on your mind, what matters to you. Then, take a deep breath and listen to their response. If you come away from that encounter unsettled, dismayed, challenged, energized, even occasionally inspired, that is what you may bring to those who look to you for guidance.

    There are over 60 alumni of HUC-JIR’s Israel program, and now some 25 graduates of our specialization in pluralistic Jewish education. There are graduates of a program on pastoral care and spiritual guidance. In our congregations, there are professors and proctologists and plumbers, members of many professional cohorts. Outside our movement there are seven million people to speak to. If you are engaged in community dialogue across ethnic divides, find people doing similar work here. If you are an economic conservative, seek out your kindred spirits. If you own a Che Guevara beret, look for the other one in the matching set. If you are a surfer, come to the beach, and if you surf the web, find a blog buddy.

    I am not telling you to agree with everything your Israeli counterpart says – that’s not the way we do it around here. I am suggesting that guilt-tripping is the worst form of tourism, and that an ounce of real engagement is better than a ton of platitudes.

    I believe that what is playing out in this little country matters a great deal to just about anyone with a sense of Jewish identity and historical perspective. The fact that more and more are tuning out is not because Israel stopped being a crazy and extraordinary place. It may have something to do with the fact that wagging our fingers and telling our Jews what they ought to care about doesn’t work. If it matters to you, jump in and show it. If it doesn’t – you probably didn’t get this far in my article.

    If you want the College-Institute to help you find a shidduch here in Israel to share your angst with, we’re keen to be involved. To face up to the folks you serve this year and talk about Israel, the prerequisite is not that you can drop names of generals and government ministers. That can be quite boring. The prerequisite is that you find a way in to deep engagement with Israel, and that you model it to those around you.

    But that’s just my view, and I already told you how you should relate to my advice!

    Shanah Tovah



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