“They are all orphans. They have cut themselves off from their roots and have turned their backs on their parents… Godless, parentless and homeless… Having lost one civilization, they had to construct another… We have distanced ourselves from our previous identity. Overnight we were uprooted from the rich soil of our parents’ culture that was rich with thousands of years of history.”
As I read Ari Shavit’s new thought-provoking book, My Promised Land, and his vivid description of the settlers who came to Israel in the 1920s ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, I could not help drawing parallels between these settlers and us, secular Israelis who live abroad.
I do not suggest that the passion and sense of purpose that characterized the newcomers to Israel are equivalent to those of Israelis living outside Israel, but there are some analogies one can draw. The main difference is, however, that while the settlers to mid 20th-century Israel eagerly adopted a new, meaningful identity, many Israelis abroad have found themselves in a “no-man’s identity land.”
Secular Israelis generally feel little connection to God, religion, Jewish culture or heritage. We exhibit a lack of interest in anything that reminds us of the miserable Golah (Diaspora), and focus instead on our modern Israeli culture.
And now, in the Diaspora, somewhat like the settlers who came to Israel, we are orphans, godless, parentless and homeless. Like them, we are faced with the identity dilemma between the Israeli (secular) mentality – which has turned its back on thousands of years of rich Jewish heritage, culture, wisdom, spirituality and community life – and the opportunity to adopt a new Diaspora mentality and culture. But, unlike the new settlers to Israel who embraced their new Israeli identity enthusiastically, Israelis who wish to acquire a new Jewish identity in the Diaspora often face some challenges.
In many cases, secular Israelis have lost touch with the treasures of Judaism. We have forgotten where we came from and the reason why our ancestors took part in the 2,500-year journey in the Diaspora before our parents and grandparents arrived in Israel.
In Israel too, there is growing recognition of this ignorance and disconnect from Judaism. A new Be’eri Program, run by Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Education, is being introduced in 125 secular middle schools and high schools across Israel to teach teens Jewish values, social justice, identity, knowledge and tradition, demonstrating how all of this Jewishness fits naturally into modern daily life.
Israelis who have decided to relocate to the Diaspora are gradually coming to the realization that they may need to become part of the Jewish Diaspora – the one that their parents and grandparents had turned their back on, that many despised – so that they can regain a sense of identity.
Continued on page 20Continued from page 1
However, it is difficult for Israelis to know where to begin in establishing their new Jewish identity. There are few inner resources to help us reconnect with our Jewish culture, heritage and pride. We are the desert generation. Learning the Jewish way of life in the Diaspora is not a natural instinct for many of us, and it is something we need to learn, to make an effort, and to understand, in order to appreciate it and recognize the immense beauty and value in our heritage. But we have to do it, if not for ourselves, then for the future generations, our kids and grandkids. If we do not make this effort, our children will grow up with a lack of Jewish identity or with a new identity that will be a reflection of their non-Jewish secular surroundings.
As this realization sinks in, people will all choose their own way to connect: sending their children to Jewish and/or Israeli schools, sending them to Jewish camps, attending or enrolling the kids in Judaism-related classes, celebrating Jewish holidays, supporting the Jewish community, volunteering or making a donation to a Jewish cause/organization, attending synagogues. But most of all, we will have to thaw out the misconceptions, antagonisms and ignorance that many of us, secular Israelis, have about Judaism and about our fellow Jews in the Diaspora.
We have to make sure we pass on the torch, as it has been passed to us and to our ancestors for thousands of years. If we don’t show the way to our kids, if we don’t act as role models, get involved in the community and show we care and are proud of our Jewish heritage, as well as of our Israeli heritage, our kids will never learn or care, will have no Jewish identity, and are highly likely to grow up outside Judaism and dissipate into the open arms of Canadian multicultural society.
If we value the Jewish future of our children, and if we value carrying on the amazing story of the Jewish People, then we need to act now, because if we don’t, we will not be giving our children the best opportunity to retain that which we value – our Jewish identity. While this is perhaps easily kept in a Jewish society in Israel, it is not easily maintained in a secular Canada.
Are we, Israelis in the Diaspora, going to close the circle and re-learn how to become Jews, or are we going to gradually fade into Jewish non-existence? When we lived in Israel, we paid a high price for being Israelis through wars, military service, isolation and high taxes. Similarly, life as a Jew outside of Israel has its price – a price that I say is well worth paying for the sake of our kids, Israel and the Jewish People.
Sara Dobner is a member of the board of directors of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, a member of the advisory board of Kachol Lavan, and chair of Hamifgash, the Israeli identity program at the Schwartz/Reisman Jewish Community Centre in Vaughan, Ont.