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Celebrating Jewish Peoplehood on Israel-Diaspora Day

Celebrating Jewish Peoplehood on Israel-Diaspora Day

Israeli flag on flagpole in desert, populated by visitors

On the third of Mar-Cheshvan [the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, sometimes referred to as mar (bitter) for its lack of holidays or celebrations], prayers for the rain are to be said, but according to Rabban Gamliel – on the seventh of the same month, namely, 15 days after the feast of tabernacles, in order that the last Israelites might have reached the River Euphrates.

- Mishna, Ta’anit, 1:3

At the opening of the 37th World Zionist Congress in 2015, the panel on which I was participating was asked one final question: What do you think the greatest failure of the Zionist enterprise has been? In my response, I identified two failures.

The first is that the situation created after the 1967 Six Day War which was meant to be temporary, now appears to be anything but temporary. Much ink has been spilled on this matter and we can debate it elsewhere.

The second failure is that after seven decades, the world’s two largest Jewish communities – Israel and North America – do not understand each other. Although we now have a bustling Jewish State, which, in Diaspora communities, has become the focus of much love, continual programming, discussion, and even controversy, there remains a substantial disconnect between them and Israel.

In fact, the rise of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel brought back to center stage the ancient debate about the relationship between Jerusalem and Babylon and the challenging and fruitful gulf between Jews living around the world and those living in Israel. Most American Jews don’t understand the nationally, mostly secular, and cultural Jewishness of Israeli Jews, even as Israelis have difficulty internalizing the notion of Judaism as a religion in a country in which one’s American identity is one’s national identity.

Luckily for us, serious efforts are now being made to rectify and unify our Jewish world. Generously funded by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs of the Israeli Government, our Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) has created a department, Domim-aLike, which works to strengthen Israel’s status among Diaspora communities while developing and deepening Diaspora Jewry’s bonds with the State of Israel and the significance of Israeli leadership outside Israel.

In addition to offering an array of resources and materials, Domim-aLike has created a new holiday: Diaspora-Israel Day. Spearheaded by Domim-aLike’s interim director, Smadar Bilik, and Rabbi Nir Barkin, former director of the Diaspora department, who now serves Congregation YOZMA in Modi'in, a suburb of Jerusalem, the holiday is designed to highlight the 7th of Cheshvan, which, according to the Mishnah, is the day the seasonal rains are to begin. The Mishnah allowed exactly two weeks for pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for Sukkot to return home to the Diaspora and then to welcome the seasonal change and the coming of rain.

In fact, we now have two separate days for beginning to recite prayers for rain in the drought-prone Land of Israel: The “mentioning of rain” begins on Sh’mini Atzeret, while the “plea for rain” is recited beginning on the 7th of Cheshvan, after the Sukkot pilgrims had returned home to Babylon.

This ancient custom of postponing the prayer for rain is an early model demonstrating the strong spiritual and practical bond between Israel and Diaspora Jews. Accordingly, the 7th of Cheshvan – which falls on Friday, October 27 – has been chosen to mark Diaspora-Israel Day. This year, affording additional (and fitting) symbolism, the 7th of Cheshvan ushers in Shabbat Lech L’cha, the Torah portion in which God tells Avram to go forth to a new land.

Next Friday night, let’s sit down in our communities and around our Shabbat tables and use the wonderful sources collected in this tractate of texts to study, learn, and challenge one another around our relationship with Israel and other Diaspora communities.

In his book, State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity: Essays on the “Ever-Dying People”, the great 20th century philosopher, Simon Rawidowicz, captures this sentiment perfectly:

“Two that are One,” however, must not be understood as a one-sided obligation; each must mutually recognize the other. The Diaspora of Israel must build the State of Israel with all its strength, even more than it has in the past seventy years, and the State must recognize the Diaspora as of equal value, and an equally responsible co-builder and cocreator of all Jewish life.

May this year bring us the opportunity to focus our hearts and minds beyond our own four walls and offer us the chance to think about what it means to be connected to the entire Jewish world.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism and the executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
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