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These Are the Main Challenges of Global Judaism Today

These Are the Main Challenges of Global Judaism Today

Isaac Herzog standing at a podium addressing the URJ Biennial

Editor's note: The text that follows was adapted from an address that was presented before a live audience at the 2019 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial on Thursday, Dec. 12. Read the full address here.

Many of my fellow Israelis respect the Reform Movement but simply don't know that there is much more ahavat Israel than people understand. Day in and day out, I tell them: It is our duty to uplift it.

I say to these Israelis: Every day I read books, literature, articles, theological discourse, and impressive programs coming out of Reform synagogues, congregations, theological seminaries, and institutions – and it is all incredibly impressive. Indeed, I think Reform Judaism is becoming a major pillar of world Jewry today.

As such, we should analyze the major challenges of the Jewish people – ones that I, along with my colleagues at the Jewish Agency, deal with every day.

In my work, I sit in the room where Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel and thereafter was commissioned to bring millions of olim (immigrants) into the country. We brought four million and this year 35,000 strong from 40 countries.

So what are the three main challenges, as I see them, in my own capacity of leading the biggest Jewish organization in the world – the organization that has established the state of Israel? What are the main challenges as we deal with them today, encompassing the entire picture of the global Jewish map?

First and foremost, in my mind, is this: How do we prevent an irreversible rift between the two major Jewish communities – between what I call Jerusalem and Babylon, 7 million Jews in Israel and 7 million Jews in North America?

This is a major challenge, and it's up to us to educate our kids and to teach each other to know each other better. We can have disputes. We can have arguments. We can have different perceptions of life.

But this must be done amidst one big family. This must be a dialogue amidst differences. This is essential to the core being of our people.

History will judge our generation. Did we learn the lessons of the past? Did we overcome our differences? It requires everybody to be in this dialogue, and it requires respecting everyone around the table equally.

And it requires that we again say that the love of Israel, ahavat Israel, goes way beyond this leader or that leader, this political system or that political decision.

The second challenge, one in which we're all engulfed, has to do with the facts of this very era, one in which where the democratic discourse is engulfed with hate and fear, where the post-WWII  world order is eroding and the lessons of the Holocaust are fading away in certain societies. In such an era, how do we combat hate and fear and antisemitism together?

This is a major challenge that our communities are all faced with – including North America, but elsewhere, as well.

And the third challenge is a positive one – but nonetheless a challenge for our people. There are millions of human beings out there who knock on our doors and say, “We want to be part and parcel of the Jewish nation.”

How can we open the doors, and open our hearts, and receive all of them with great love and affection all over the world? As Ruth said to her mother-in-law Naomi, Amech ami, ve’elohayich elohai, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

This is the pinnacle of how we at the Jewish Agency look at the entire global Jewish tent. And as the entire geo-global Jewish table of decision making, we're extremely proud to be partners with Reform Judaism in a variety of programs.

You see our shlichim, our emissaries, all over the place, and they then come back home and tell your story with great respect and affection and impact on Israeli society.

And that third pillar has to do, of course, with the fact that we are dealing with delivering the Jewish message from abroad into Israeli society proper. We are commissioned by law and covenant to represent the entire global Jewish picture in Israel. As such, we are voicing the voice of pluralism, the voice of world Jewry, the immense wealth of Jewish life and richness.

And, of course, we bring back to you – with 4,000 emissaries, with partnerships, with twinning schools, with missions, with immersive experiences, trying to encompass the intertwining amidst a challenging era of unaffiliated members of the community or alienated or those who are asking questions.

It's all legitimate, and it's all something that we are accustomed to as part of Jewish being, which is always challenging in asking questions.

But, of course, we must bring answers together – and that is why I'm extremely proud to be here with you today. I believe that your movement is one of the most important elements in Jewish life today, and you are partners of ours in so many missions and in so many challenges together.

I'm bringing this voice from Israel to you: For a moment, try to ignore some of what people say in eight-second soundbites and understand that there's enormous love of world Jewry in Israel. It requires a lot of education. It requires a social change. It requires opening the hearts. We can only do it together.

But most importantly, as there are also some politics involved, I challenge you and I call upon you, as a Movement, to flex your muscles and take part in the election process to the Zionist institutions.

You’re impacting this global Jewish table. You're bringing your message forward. There are so many things that are intertwined with this activity that impacts the dialogue between all segments of Jewish life abroad and in Israel – and definitely a common Jewish table with the government and the legislators of Israel.

I see a very impressive Movement in front of me. I encourage you go back to your communities, remember that the Jewish Agency is your partner, and try as much as possible to deliver the message that, yes, you can have an impact.

Isaac Herzog is the chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel. Before this, he was a member of Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and had been the Chairman of Israel’s Labor Party and the Knesset Opposition Leader. In 2015, Mr. Herzog was a front-runner to win the election for Israel’s Prime Minister. He led the alliance between the Labor Party and the Hatnua Party to create Israel’s largest center-left political party, and was the leading candidate to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the national elections.

Isaac Herzog
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