EXPLORATION OF JEWISH IDENTITY BRINGS BOSTON AND HAIFA TOGETHER
There are those who saw the very coming together of the two communities, the Jews of Boston and the Jews of Haifa, as a historic occasion. It was a sign, they said, of the maturation of the larger two communities that Boston and Haifa represent, that of the diaspora and that of Israel, that each was willing to sit down and to learn from the other. The enthusiasm was, however, tempered when participants looked to the future.
> The challenge was to move ahead from the small-group discussions that perhaps constituted the most salient feature of this coming together. Valuable as the dialog was in itself, David Gordis, president of the Hebrew College in Boston, said, "It would be a major disappointment if it all stopped there."
The "historic," yet challenging occasion was an unusual four-day "exploration" sponsored by the University and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston toward the end of June. It was the first time that a specific community in the diaspora had sat down with a specific community in Israel on an egalitarian basis for a purpose that was meant to be reciprocally beneficial. The object of their exploration was the continuation of Jewish identity, especially the commitment to that identity in future generations whether resident in Boston or in Haifa. The mutual fear of the loss of this commitment brought on by soaring intermarriage rates in the diaspora, ignorance of tradition on both shores, and a recent sense of growing estrangement between the two larger communities, even if for different reasons--and consequently the rupture of Jewish continuity--had provided the catalyst for this pioneering conclave.
The coming together took place for three days at a hotel in Zichron Yaacov overlooking the Mediterranean--technical reasons dictated this venue--followed by a summing-up, forth day at the University. The Boston delegation--with a nearly equal number of men and women and all denominational streams of Judaism represented-- numbered 40, and the Haifa contingent 60.
The "soul of the conference," as Prof. Emerita Miriam Ben-Peretz, co-chair of the Haifa planning committee for the event, put it, were the small discussion groups that intimately debated issues and attempted to come up with operative goals. Interspersed and providing some of the intellectual food for thought for these discussions were plenum sessions, each addressed by a speaker from Boston and a speaker from Haifa. Shabbat morning saw another kind of small-group activity--study groups revolving around specific topics and texts.
Each of the eight discussion groups stayed together for all these interactions, which often continued around the table at meal times. The result was a bonding and, if not exactly friendships, then "a potential for becoming friends," in the words of Eitan Adres, Haifa industrialist and Israeli chair of the Haifa-Boston Steering Committee. Adres thinks it important to find "the common denominator among differences to do things together." For him, people-to-people contacts and the resulting ties that they would find are essential "to help our people remain one people in generations to come."
The first of these interactions focused on Jewish autobiographies--or as the moderator of one discussion group defined the theme, "Getting to know what makes us tick as Jews." It was a means of introducing oneself to the group, but the session produced perhaps the emotional response as participants recalled past events and reflected on what they hoped for their children and grandchildren insofar as Jewish expression and identity. One American told of being deeply affected by her Holocaust-surviving parents. It produced in her a determination to take a positive attitude toward Judaism and, eventually, "I decided to devote my career to it, too."
"My year in Israel imparted Jewishness to me," said another. "I ask myself, 'What more can I be doing and sharing it as a Jew?'"
A professor at the University, a Holocaust survivor, remarked almost matter of factly, "Someone else decided my identity." He admitted that most of his extended family lived in America. Almost in contrast, a 6th-generation American, now an educator in Israel, said that he has been living in Haifa for 35 years. His problem was how to itensify a sense of Jewishness in his grandchildren. His view was echoed by a Bostonian who found it "a mixed blessing" to be involved in Jewish life because of what he sees as the growth of obscurantism among segments of the Jewish society and the loss of balance.
For another Boston participant, the matter was simple: "That's who I am--a Jew--so I don't question it....My big concern is the next generation in the family."
It was, as Devra Lasden, co-chair of the Boston planning committee, was to characterize it several days later, an "open and honest exchange." And it set the tone for frank discussions on substantive issues, some raised in this first session, that were too follow, especially--as she pointed out--since no goals had been set in advance. Participants of other discussion groups pointed to similar reactions in their interchanges.
The second session of discussion groups tried to grapple with the issue of "one people or many people?" Some of the participants, both Israeli and American, in one of the groups found objectional the fact that, they charged, certain Jewish segments assumed they possessed "absolute truth." Such a notion, by excluding other Jews, meant never having a common language. There was need, they continued, for working out "a formula for co-existence."
The Americans in the group felt that a sense of community was important. Israeli discussants, interpreting the term differently, could not convince them that Israel, too, had Jewish communities. In the end, it was clear that since the participants came from different points, both geographically and conceptually, "what is a question for some is not for others."
The same group debated the terms "identity" and "continuity." At least one participant thought the two did not necessarily go together; in fact, he saw a tension between them because, in his opinion, there was no vision to transfer. Indeed, American Israelis in the group were keenly aware that, as one person commented, "one could grow up here [in Israel] without having minimum exposure to things Jewish." Some of the Bostonians wanted to know whether Israeli secular society represented an "I don't care" attitude toward Jewish identity.
The content of this identity disturbed one member of the circle in another way. Referring to the attack by a band of ultra-Orthodox on a small congregation of Conservative Jewish men and women at the Kotel (Western Wall) plaza on Shavuot, she posited that something created a destructive strain in the Jewish culture. Therefore, in her opinion, it was no coincidence that volunteerism and caring were Jewish characteristics.
That incident, in fact, informed not a few of the discussions throughout the four-day conference. It had aroused the ire of perhaps all the Bostonian participants, no matter their denominational preference. In contrast, Israeli participants had for the most part either been unaware of the untoward event or had assigned it minimal importance in their thinking.
The third discussion-group theme was common goals. Yet with the Kotel incident clearly in mind, some participants in still another one of the groups wondered whether non-Orthodox Jews would have a place in Israel in the future. The fear of Jewish disunity was palpable. "How can we live here together?" it was asked. "Are we really going to connect? Are we really one?"
One discussant thought there was an obsession with the concern over continuity and survival. "What are we surviving for?" he asked somewhat plaintively. His question was in some respects a reply to the participant in another group in the previous session who did not really accept the theory of a crisis in Jewish continuity. There may be a crisis, he said, but it had to do with the rubric as an end in itself, not as a reflection of something.
The "something," though, disturbed certain members of this other group in the third round of interchange. "There is need for a positive message," one American discussant declared, "not a negative one such as the Holocaust or antisemitism." Then she asked a pointed question that may have reflected her own Jewish-identity crisis as well as that of others who were present: "What do we want to be?"
The fourth session attempted to produce operative plans and programs in the wake of the three days of exploration. A final plenum heard the several reports, which necessarily involved a certain degree of overlap. The reports demonstrated the dual nature of the conference, some of the proposed projects meant to advance Boston-Haifa relations, or relations between the Jewish communities of the two cities, and others concentrating on instilling and furthering Jewish identity. A third category sought to combine the two objectives. (See separate story on proposed projects.)
In summing up the conference, Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, spoke of hearing the ice cracking. "The notion that we would bridge ideological gaps so fast was stunning to both Bostonians and Israelis," he said. He detected a "new vision of Jewish life born of the spiritual search of American Jewry and the secularization of Israelis." The question was how to give birth to this new idea while losing as few Jews as possible to either assimilation or yerida.