On March 27th, 2019, The Second Annual Conference on the State of Israel and the Jews of North America was held at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. The conference was co-sponsored by Schechter and JTS.
The purpose of the trip was to learn about Jewish education in the Diaspora in order to broaden their perspectives on issues of Jewish identity in the State of Israel. I didn’t realize then that the choice to begin my visit specifically here would be a defining moment which would accompany me throughout the week.
One Saturday night in November, 1995, I was making havdala with JTS rabbinical students spending a year in Israel Matt Berkowitz, Matt Eisenfeld z”l and Shai Held in their apartment in Rehavia. The calmness of the evening broke down when an urgent announcement of the tragic and unexpected murder of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was made on the radio.
From an a capella concert of traditional Moroccan love songs to a Iranian jazz fusion evening, cutting-edge Israeli musicians have brought to the Neve Schechter’s stage a renewed take on their heritage.
In August 1949, Theodore Herzl’s remains were moved from Vienna to the newly established State of Israel. Professor Doron Bar, President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, tells the story of how Jerusalem was given the honor of reinterring Herzl and how all of Israel paid tribute to the founder of Zionism by sending small bags of dirt from their communities around the country to be included in the grave. How else was Herzl honored?
Sunday, the 28th of Iyyar, marks the 51st anniversary of Jerusalem’s unification. Professor Doron Bar, President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and a 7th generation Jerusalemite, tells the story of Jerusalem’s changing population through the lens of his family history. How has Israel’s largest city evolved from a a small group living within the Old City walls to an expansive metropolis?
The two great proponents of political Zionism – Herzl and Jabotinsky, were both classical liberals, who championed free markets and private property as critical to economic development of the future Jewish State, while underscoring the critical importance of social solidarity. Neither was religious, yet both of them in their Zionist visions called for the implementation of the Biblical Jubilee year as ethical and moral bulwarks in a Jewish State.
Neve Schechter’s Gallery in Tel Aviv is currently exhibiting “Sphere”. Several beautiful spherical paintings around the theme of the Omer Season (Leviticus Ch. 23) by two talented Israeli artists are on display, but what evokes a powerful response are four large screens on which women count to 49 in eerily male voices, each time turning around. Secular Israeli women, grappling with the tradition of counting the Omer, are providing a poignant commentary on the exclusion of women’s voices in Jewish tradition. What does this commentary reflect? Zionism was a revolutionary response to the crisis of Jewish identity in 19th century Europe. The framework of Jewish life that had assured survival for 1,800 years; a semi-autonomous faith community, regulated by Jewish Law and strong familial connections, could no longer swim against the powerful currents of liberal enlightenment, secular nationalism and socialism.
Are we aware of the miracles surrounding us? Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, shares excerpts of a letter written 70 years ago by the late Binyamin Brenzel. It describes the excitement in Israel following the UN partition vote. Brenzel, who later worked at Schechter until age 100, gives a window into the miraculous nature of the creation of the State of Israel.
We once again witnessed the ridiculousness of the separation between men and women at the Western Wall when female journalists were forced to stand on chairs to see US Vice-President Michael Pence pray at the Western Wall during his recent visit. No one, not even the rabbi of the Western Wall, can explain the benefit or importance of this separation of the sexes.