Is Israel Engagement at a Crisis Point?

Inside Leadership

Is Israel Engagement at a Crisis Point?

Three smiling male teens holding an Israeli flags

Last I week, I had the great privilege of being on faculty at URJ Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS. One of the highlights of the week at this wonderful camp – and, there were so many – was the 90-minute engaging conversation with the Chalutzim unit about understanding Israel through today’s pop, hip-hop, and rap music. These teens were so thoughtful and insightful. I think the best compliment I got the next day from a camper: “Rabbi, you have good taste in music!” I do this session often with teens, and I am gearing up to repeat this dialogue next week at NFTY Mechina at URJ Kutz Camp.

Before watching the music videos I've selected, I frame the conversation with a quick look at an excerpt from Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations…

Using this excerpt, I suggest that Israel’s founding vision is way to appreciate Israel as a work-in-progress. That framing is then examined through how socially-minded contemporary Israeli artists see their role in advancing the work toward the founding vision. Because teens see the role American music plays in their social consciousness, it’s easy to get them into an appreciative conversation about what’s going on in Israel.

In light of the bills passed by the Knesset this week (including the new nation-state law and a surrogacy law that bans gay couples from working with surrogate mothers in Israel) I am thinking about how to change this framing, and I am asking myself: Is this a crisis point in Israel engagement?

I think the answer to that question is both “no” and “yes.” I say “no” because the Knesset bills are just confirmation of the worrisome trends we’ve been thinking about for awhile now. In response to those trends, the Israel engagement vision we’ve been working on centers on educating about being an active participant in the ongoing work of Israel through working hard to bring our Judaism fuller into that picture. It might be that the narrow majority, which passed the Nation-State Bill, is feeling more threatened by the growing strength of our progressive voice.

On the other hand, the answer to the crisis question is also a “yes.” By codifying trends through legislation, the government of Israel is broadcasting an official message which feels like an “unwelcome mat” to our constituents and the values we represent both here and in Israel.

The Shabbat before the ninth of Av fast day is called Shabbat Hazon – the Shabbat of vision – based on the opening of the Haftarah that recounts the prophet Isaiah’s first vision (Isaiah chapter 1). While it would be easy right now to emphasize the rebuke of the people Israel that forms most of the Haftarah, I see the last line of the Haftarah as the strongest reminder to get past the critique and not lose sight of our vision – to persevere on behalf of the Israel we want to see:

“Zion will be saved by permeating it with justice, turning our attention to making it a place of righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:27)

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald

Published: 7/20/2018

Categories: Youth, Camp, Israel Programs
What's New
Teen leaders at a Reform Jewish teen gathering
Nov 26, 2019|Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE
Rabbi Allan "Smitty" Smith on the bimah at Biennial
Nov 13, 2019|Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Find More in The Tent

Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.