From Family to Fellow Believers: A Message from Gil Preuss

From Family to Fellow Believers: A Message from Gil Preuss

Two weeks ago, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Congregational Shlichim Program was honored by The Jewish Agency for Israel. The program, which places Israeli young adults in schools, synagogues, and summer camps, was recognized as one of the most effective efforts of its kind in helping local community members learn from and connect with Israelis.

Indeed, Jewish communities across the country are placing greater emphasis on building personal connections between community members, Israel, and, more importantly, Israelis. This type of programming stems in part from the growing sense that historical bonds defined by a sense of family between Israel and American Jews are fading. By strengthening individual connections, we can bolster collective ties.

For Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, relationship building is merely the first step in a longer process of renewing our connection with Israel.

Dr. Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, spent time in Greater Washington last month as part of Federation’s ongoing partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. The partnership is designed to foster community-wide discussions about some of the most pressing challenges of our time—understanding our relationship with Israel and shaping its future has to be one of the trickiest and most important.

In a public lecture, as well as in meetings with local community leaders, Dr. Hartman outlined the ways in which the relationship between American Jews and Israel is changing. It used to be that heritage and circumstance ensured that American Jews and Israelis thought of each other as family, complete with a sense of loyalty, belonging, and mutual obligation.

Today, however, as American Jews and Israel evolve independently from one another, Dr. Hartman finds that more and more people are openly questioning the value of the relationship.

In the United States, this type of questioning reflects a “consumer mindset” that is driving change in Jewish life more broadly. Rather than act out of loyalty or obligation, more American Jews are taking a hard look at Jewish life and asking what is in it for them. What do they want to pick from the range of options for how to spend their time and invest their energy? In contrast, Israelis continue to feel a sense of family connection, but it is increasingly only with Israelis and not global Jewry, according to Dr. Hartman.

This gap is creating new challenges. While the consumer approach, he argues, may create pressure to improve what we do, a long-term relationship cannot be sustained if anytime a better product comes along, people leave.

Instead, Dr. Hartman believes that to strengthen the relationship between Israeli and world Jewry we must identify and become dual ambassadors for common principals. We must build a platform of shared ideals and work alongside each other for the benefit of the Jewish people and the broader world. This must be a joint effort—neither party can build the platform without the input and involvement of the other.

At Federation, we are committed to this work. We are committed to continuing to help people form personal, meaningful connections with Israel. We are committed to providing ongoing forums for discussion, investing in leaders poised to guide our community forward, and supporting opportunities that will bring us closer to our Israeli counterparts and each other. We are committed to addressing topics that may not always be easy but must be discussed as we build common principals for the future.

Moving forward, we also want to help give voice to the questions on the tips of our tongues. In what ways can we begin the conversation about our shared beliefs? What are our obligations to one another? How do we identify those areas where we agree and talk about those where we disagree?

Both Israel and the American Jewish community are known for striving towards aspirational ideals. We may or may not achieve every goal we set, but we can make progress by working together with humility and mutual respect.

Our relationship with Israel continues to evolve. Together, let’s set our sights on a shared path forward and begin walking towards a new horizon.

Shabbat Shalom,