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From Frightening Pessimism to Cautious Optimism

From Frightening Pessimism to Cautious Optimism

Optimism/pessimism sign

How I am tested by the flow of time…
Every day it builds me up and tears me down…

Leah Goldberg in her poem, “Time”
Excerpt translated from Hebrew by Reuven Greenvald

More than at any other time, world events are making me both optimist and pessimist.  The values I hold dear, and the processes that have the best hope to actualize those values can, one moment, be lenses for seeing only potential before quickly shifting to become harsh judgments on a worrisome state of affairs.

Last summer, when Gold Star father Khizr Khan pulled a U.S. Constitution out of his coat pocket on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, he taught us a profound lesson about living in this glass half-full-half-empty tension. For Khan, the Muslim immigrant, love of his adopted country is simultaneously a celebration of America’s democratic progress (which brought him and his family here) and an expression of a persevering faith in what it stands for, impelling him to join fellow citizens in working toward this country’s unrealized potential to be a society based on justice for all.

This same thinking applies to my relationship with Israel. Although I don’t carry a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in my passport case, it accompanies me on every trip. As a committed Jew and Jewish leader living outside Israel, I frame my Israel engagement as a partnership with Israelis about acknowledging Israel’s progress and supporting its future regarding the Jewish State’s own self-definition and vision:

the State of Israel will… based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets, will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture…” (Declaration of Independence, 1948).  

Two weeks ago, I returned from an intense seven days there – each of which was an in-depth conversation around these foundational values. During the first half, I joined Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism (IMPJ) congregations in celebrating Shabbat and met more of the new generation of Israeli rabbis leading those communities. One visit was to Holon, the small city outside Tel Aviv, where it would have been unimaginable to envision a Reform congregation even 10 years ago. Today, Rabbi Galit Cohen Kedem leads a Reform kehillah (community) “without walls” (at least, for the time being) that is targeting young, seeking families – whose diversity is as diverse as any place in Israel – and providing them with educational and spiritual opportunities for incorporating Jewish meaning in their lives.  

The name of this congregation – Kodesh v’Hol – is so telling about the uniqueness of how progressive Judaism serves as a “counter-offer” to offerings of state-sanctioned Orthodox institutions. A word play on the city’s name, the congregation’s name comes from the liturgical phrase “holy and secular,” from Havdalah (blessings of separation) to mark the end of Shabbat.

Through Kodesh v’Hol, young families experience Judaism in inclusive and non-coercive ways. I saw this in action when I met young kids in the early childhood center (gan) that Kodesh v’Hol runs with the Holon municipality. On that sunny Sunday morning, a beautiful dialogue ensued between Rabbi Cohen Kedem, the gan teacher, and 25 four-year-olds about seeing their own families’ “secular” ideas regarding weekend rest as celebrations of Shabbat’s holiness. This was all ritualized with the Havdalah blessings over spices, a six-braided candle, and grape juice.  In this way, Reform Judaism in Israel is holding the Jewish State accountable for its declared commitment to freedom of worship while serving the Jewish State by expanding Jewish engagement to Jews who likely have been turned off by previous encounters with the Orthodox religious establishment.

During the second half of my trip, I traveled with 30 North American Jewish leaders to visit the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah under the auspices of Encounter, which bills itself as “an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion that culti­vates informed Jewish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” that doesn’t take specific posi­tions regarding the outcome of the conflict.  

Our delegation listened directly to the hopes and challenges of Palestinian peace- and social activists, political advisors, and concerned citizens. We saw overcrowded and under-resourced cities and neighborhoods amid some small signs of economic and commercial growth. In the backdrop, we became aware of the challenges facing “both sides” by the security arrangements Israel maintains over the territories, and, no matter how we participants differed politically, we left with strong visual images of the stark contrast between Palestinian towns and Jewish settlements. 

Though the copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence that I carry in my virtual coat pocket and the first three of Encounter’s seven core values – love of the Jewish people, dignity, and listening – make me “comfortably uncomfortable,” I participated in this delegation with purpose and grounding. 

Like my co-participants, I am neither Israeli nor a negotiator. What, then, was my purpose for being on the Encounter leadership intensive?

In the most politically neutral terms, in North American Jewish communities, we are seeing fierce arguments over the future of peace in the region. Whereas, the diversity of opinion in Israeli society is easily accessible to us, our understanding of Palestinian viewpoints, is clouded by well-worn mythologies and misrepresentations. 

If I am going to remain true to my support of Israel’s core values and to my leadership mission on Israel’s behalf, I must gather a fuller picture of where hope meets challenge, and find ways to share what I’ve learned among caring Jews across the political divide, encouraging them to dive deeper on their own.  In this way, frightening pessimism might be transformed into cautious optimism.  

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
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