Monday, July 31, 2017

The Holy Fire - confronting evil and finding faith during the Holocaust

Interesting reading for Tisha B'Av, the most sombre day of the Jewish year, returning to read Nehemia Polen's intense and moving work The Holy Fire, about the teachings of the Esh Kodesh, R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, author of what was to be the last Hassidic work written in Poland, a text he buried under the ghetto before his murder at the hands of the Nazis when the ghetto was liquidated in 1943.

Miraculously R' Shapira's work survived and was found during the post-war rebuilding of Warsaw and published as Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire).

He does not write a war memoir, but a deeply thoughtful book on understanding evil, of faith at a time of tragedy, of the destiny of the Jewish people and finding good during such a horrific time.

Written during the Holocaust, rather than afterwards, R' Shapira's work is a real time response to this calamity rather than an attempt to come to terms with it in hindsight.

If historian Emmanuel Ringlebaum's Warsaw Ghetto diary and archive devoted themselves to recording the physical and emotional events, R' Shapira's book is a spiritual journal of his Holocaust experience, a Hassidic master's Eikhah for his time. I wonder how Jeremiah would relate to Esh Kodesh.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Some thoughts on US and Israel

Between the controversy surrounding egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and ensuing threats and prophecies of doom from various US Jewish leaders and writers if Israel doesn't change its position it's been an all together too interesting time to be an Israeli Jew.

Reading US Jewish reactions to Israel's decision not to enlarge the egalitarian prayer space at Robinson's Arch one would assume that US Jewry is the world's most important Jewish community and that therefore what US Jewish leaders want and think should be the guiding light for Israeli policy, rather than the Israeli electorate who democratically selected Israel's government and must actually live with that government's actions on a daily basis.

In these pieces and in conversation with American Jews, I am struck by the disconnect between our two communities. Not in the way that US Jews think, that Israel is ignoring them and being insensitive to their needs (well, to some extent yes, but I'll get to that in a minute), but in the way that most US Jews, especially the vast majority who have never visited, don't realise that Israel is no longer the hugely underdeveloped deeply impoverished basket case of a country it was in the 1950s, home to a rag tag assortment of Jewish refugees from around the world, many still living in tents and shanty towns as the nascent Jewish state struggled to find shelter for them all.

Yes, Israel is still a country facing huge challenges which could use all the help it can get, but it's hard to call modern Israel a charity case which will collapse without US Jewry's support.

In terms of demographics there is today almost parity between the world's two largest communities, the US and Israel, with roughly similar numbers of Jews in each. A key difference is that in Israel that population is growing by leaps and bounds, not due to immigration, which has declined to a trickle, but due to high birth rates and a family oriented culture. The same cannot be said for US Jewry, which between high levels of assimilation and intermarriage, and aside from the Orthodox minority, birth rates below the US average, is in the midst of a silent Holocaust that has been ongoing for decades, with millions of people lost to the Jewish nation.

There needs to be a very fundamental rethinking of the model. If there was a perception that Israel is a poor sparsley populated country which can be controlled by US purse strings (and to this day I meet many US Jews who seem to think this way) there needs to be recognition that Israel is relatively wealthy by global standards, has a healthy and growing economy, lower maternal and infant mortality rates than the US and is home to over 6 millions Jews, the majority of whom, even if secular in their lifestyle, have a more traditional orientation when it comes to Jewish practice and theology.

American Jewish leadership needs to rethink their attitude to Israel accordingly. It's all very well being offended by the attitude of the Israeli rabbinic leadership, but the fact is that Reform and Conservative Judaism are tiny fringe movements in Israel is a large part of the reason why there is relatively little local concern for them, they simply are not a fact of life for most Israelis, many of whom have never had any contact with someone from either community.

Bullying Israel with boycotts and cutting off funding for hospitals (as Daniel Gordis proposed) is not going to change that. Increased US funding of Israel's Reform and Conservative movements might have an impact, but even more so would be drastically increased aliya rates from those US communities, and that just isn't happening because most US Jews simply are not interested.

To cry that Israel isn't doing what you want while not actively participating in Israeli life does not seem to be a very effective tactic. Education, outreach and increased aliya would be far more likely to have some effect.

Most of all though there needs to be some reflection and introspection on the part of the leaders of US Jewry from all parts of the spectrum. How can it be that such a wealthy, well established Jewish community as the US is hemorhaging Jews? In 1948 there were about 5 million Jews in the United States. At the same time in the nascent State of Israel there were less than a million.

In the intervening decades both countries saw Jewish immigration from a variety of sources and yet by the early 21st century US Jewry had barely increased its numbers, hovering at around 5.5 million or so, depending on how you count, while in Israel that tiny population of the state's early years had grown to 6 million and increasing? If US Reform and Conservative are having such a hard time holding on to their own people do they really presume to lecture Israel and blame it for their "alienation"?

Then there is the strategic angle. Enraged US Conservative and Reform Jews threaten that they will stop supporting Israel and as a result end the US military alliance with Israel, thus leading to the end of the Jewish state, or, they hope, forcing Israel to come begging to the US community, willing to do whatever it is they wish Israel will do.

The fact is though that the US isn't giving Israel military aid because of US Jewry. US military aid is a roundabout way of providing huge subsidies from the US government to the US defence industry and calling it "aid", when it comes with strings that Israel has to use the funds to buy American, so locking in Israel as customer for the US defence industry and sidelining competitors in both Israel and Europe. The US military in particular is also aware (I hope also the State Dept) that in an increasingly unstable and volatile Mid East, Israel is an increasingly important ally and regional anchor, whether it's because of Israel's stable democracy and Western orientation, or because Israeli gas finds have the potential to help wean parts of Europe away from dependency on Russian gas, provide support to other US regional allies (openly or behind the scenes) and share key intelligence.

Israel is emerging as a strong and stable regional power, a world leader in technological innovation and has the fastest growing population in the developed world. Meanwhile the US Jewish community with all its wealth and sophistication is shrinking. 
It's time more US Jews, especially US Jewish leaders, realised this and rethought their game plan accordingly.