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 Second Annual Conference on the State of Israel and the Jews of North America was held on the Schechter campus under the title “To Be a Jew in Israel and North America: Commonalities and Differences”.
Most Jews in the United States define themselves as “Jews by Religion”, and we see a strong correlation between participation in Jewish activity and people who define themselves as such,” Chancellor Prof. Arnold Eisen  from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, said yesterday.
Prof. Eisen was addressing the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and Jewish Theological Seminary’s Second Annual Conference on the State of Israel and the Jews of North America.
Prof. Eisen spoke about the Jewish identity of North American Jews, who live a life of comfort, but are well aware of being an ethnic minority and religious group contending with complex challenges. “Jews in the U.S. define themselves both as a religious group and an ethnic group. The American Constitution defends the rights of adherents to all religions, but ethnic groups have no legal status. The rise of multiculturalism actually created more space for the expression of Judaism as an ethnic identity and American Jews were freer to develop their culture in the understanding that they are a social minority, and they are doing this well,” he says.
Nonetheless, these definitions speak less and less to the younger generation, who do not identify with a particular branch of Judaism. “The definition of Judaism as a religion just like Christianity or Islam is causing the young generation of Jews in the U.S. to not define themselves as religious. They also do not see themselves as Jewish ethnically and I genuinely fear that we have lost many of them. Non-orthodox Jews in the U.S. do not see themselves as religious because they consider this to mean somebody dressed in black, and that is something they do not identify with, though it does not mean they don’t believe in God. At the same time they feel that the ethnic definition of Jews in our time is narrow and provincial.”
In conclusion, Prof. Eisen maintained that the role of Conservative Judaism at the center is to show them the unique value of Jewish religion and culture. In this North American Jews and Israelis should foster cooperation. “Israeli Judaism is also evolving vigorously, and it is critical that the two groups go beyond institutional connections, and talk with each other – our future depends on it”.
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin,  President of the Schechter Institutes, spoke of how Conservative Judaism remains the middle way that has had champions from the Bible and Talmud until modern times. “Where it can be ruled between the two extremes, we will find the way. True, it is difficult to be in the middle and it may also be unpopular, but that doesn’t mean it is not right. This is not a compromise but an issue of principle and a way of life.”
Prof. Tova Hartman , a founder of the Shira Hadasha congregation in Jerusalem and lecturer at the Ono Academic College, pointed out that the middle way is complex and difficult. “One of the challenges of the middle outlook is that you relate all the time to the extremes, and thus lose the spiritual center within you because you are constantly defining what you are not. In this discourse we lose something extremely creative and deep, and reach a place where we develop a negative identity – I know what I am by defining what I’m not. When we started the Shira Hadasha congregation it was very important for us to pray in all sorts of synagogues because we believe that there is sanctity in every place, and we are those who must find sanctity and create it in a place that is suitable for us. If this middle way will help religious creativity that’s wonderful, but there’s no need to say others don’t have a prayer. There are many ways to pray.”
The researcher and journalist Shmuel Rosner , who together with Prof. Camil Fuchs collaborated on the recently published book “Israeli Judaism: A Portrait of a Cultural Revolution,” explained that “Israeli Judaism is not a religion. It does not belong to synagogues and is not in the hands of the Rabbinate or the Shulchan Aruch [set of religious laws] and its commandments, rather the culture of a society of people who gathered here to live together. Most people in Israel do not see themselves as religious: only 30 percent of Israelis see themselves as religious, and the rest are secular or traditional.”
According to Rosner, Judaism in Israel does not have to contend with one of the central aspects that concern Diaspora Jewry – survival. “Jews in Israel are not at all bothered by the question of Jewish continuity. It’s a non-issue in Israel. There’s no worry about whether the next generation will be Jewish, there’s no assimilation in Israel, only fractions of percent at the margins. We checked these questions in several cycles and the trends repeated themselves, and this we can say with a great deal of self-confidence. When you don’t fear that your children will turn to another culture, your ability to maneuver within this culture, and even feel a measure of serenity and indolence towards it, is great. This is felt extremely strongly in Israel and creates a very natural situation, serene and present in the lives of all of us.”
Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said in conclusion that “the main component of Israelis’ Jewish identity is national, while in the U.S. it is religious. These two centers have something to learn from and inspire each other, and should not be separate from each other.”
Dr. Devorah Weissman, an educator attending the conference summed it up with a phrase she has sharing with students for over forty years: “Jews in the US are very conscious of being Jewish but lack Jewish content, while Israelis have plenty of Jewish content, without the consciousness of being Jewish.
Watch Proceedings Online
Defending and Strengthening the Vital Religious Center in United States and Israel panel;
Chair: Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, Dean, The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary
Participants: Prof. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, JTS; Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President, The Schechter Institutes, Inc.; Prof. Tova Hartman, Dean, Ono Academic College; Rabbi Prof. Dalia Marx, Hebrew Union College.
Evolving Jewish Identities in Israel and the United States panel;
Chair: Dr. David Breakstone, Vice Chair, The Jewish Agency
Participants: Prof. Adam Ferziger, Bar-Ilan University; Yair Sheleg, Israel Democracy Institute and Makor Rishon; Yafa Benaya, Ono Academic College and Shalom Hartman Institute; Shmuel Rosner, Jewish People Policy Institute and The Jewish Journal.
Being Jewish in Israel and the United States through the Lens of Literature panel;
Chair: Shiri Lev-Ari, “Kan” Radio – The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation
Participants: Prof. David Roskies, JTS and Hebrew University; Dr. Gitit Levy-Paz, Jewish People Policy Institute; Prof. Michael Kramer, Bar-Ilan University; Yochi Brandes, author.
Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes interviewed on i24 news with Professor Adam S. Ferziger  discussing the Schechter/JTS conference on Israel-US Jewry relations in detail.
We thank all conference presenters and participants for an evening that gave us plenty of food for thought. See you next year at the Third Annual Schechter/JTS Conference!