COMMENT: The ‘goldene medina’ and the Promised Land

The difference between living in a Jewish country, and being part of a
Jewish minority in another country is, in many ways, the root of the
difference between the two sides here.

By Lahav Harkov

The theme of this week’s Jewish Federations of North America General
Assembly is “we need to talk,” focusing on the divisions between Israeli
and US Jews. There has been a lot of talk about the growing divide
between the groups in recent years and this conference was meant to put
it in the spotlight.

The marketing materials released before the GA listed statistics on the
political differences between the two groups. At the GA, however, there
were signs about lifestyle differences: Israelis, for example, are far
more likely to keep kosher (63%) than American Jews (22%), and are far
less likely to intermarry (2%) when compared to Americans (44%).That
says a lot about where these two groups come from. The difference
between living in a Jewish country, and being part of a Jewish minority
in another country is, in many ways, the root of the difference between
the two sides here – even if US Jews may be the most successful and
best-integrated Diaspora community in history.

In Israel, you don’t have to be affiliated with any kind of
organization, synagogue or school to make Judaism part of your life.
It’s in the air. It’s on the calendar. It’s in the supermarkets: There’s
no bread on Passover, there are big sales on dairy products before
Shavuot, and funky fruits on which say sheheheyanu, the blessing on a
new experience, before Rosh Hashana. Nearly half of Israeli Jews
identify as secular, but almost nine out of ten secular Israelis (87%)
attended a seder and 30% fasted all day on Yom Kippur, according to the
2017 Pew Institute Poll from which the JFNA took these statistics.By
contrast, those active in federations tend to be concerned about keeping
American Jews, especially young ones, involved with their Judaism and
Jewish communities. One American JFNA executive said something in a
conversation on Tuesday along the lines of: “I don’t go to synagogue, so
my kids are like: We’re Jewish, but what does that even mean?” and then

In Israel, there’s less of a shrug, even though only 27% of Israelis (as
opposed to 11% of Americans) go to synagogue weekly. About a third of
self-identified secular Jews in Israel keep kosher, which is
significantly more than the percentage of all US Jews, including the
Orthodox (22%).

Interestingly, there were no statistics displayed at the GA on how much
each side values the relationship with the other, but they are not hard
to find: A 2017 Pew Institute poll comparing attitudes of Israeli and
American Jews – on which much of the statistics on display at the GA are
based – shows that 43% of US Jewry considers “caring about Israel” to
be an essential part of being Jewish. This year, an UJA-Federation
survey found that 75% of Israeli Jews feel they have a shared destiny
with US Jews.It seems that each side wants to increase those numbers and
has different ideas of how to do so. In the short term, this year was
the first time the GA hired a public relations firm to publish
information in Hebrew, so that Israelis would learn about the event.

Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog suggested that Israel put more of an
effort into Hebrew education so that US Jews will become connected to
Israeli culture and society. This was an especially salient point to be
made at a conference in which Americans said “we need to talk” to
Israelis, but essentially did not speak a word of Hebrew.

President Reuven Rivlin brought up an idea that seemed to miss the
point. He called for a “Reverse Birthright” in which young Israelis
would go to the US and other places to learn more about American Jewry.
Though Rivlin is likely well-intentioned, because learning more about
Diaspora Jews is a key way for Israelis to feel more connected to them,
he seems to have forgotten the reason Birthright takes place in Israel
and isn’t just a fun trip for young Jews anywhere in the world.

The US may be the goldene medina – “golden country” in Yiddish, a phrase
referring to the US as a land of opportunity – but it is not our
birthright. It is not the promised land. It is not what all Jews around
the world share. If the goal is to strengthen the Jewish future, then
Israel has already cracked the code. It’s not perfect, and it may not be
as accepting or as liberal as US Jewry would like it to be, but it’s
very, very Jewish.

Maybe we should talk more about that.

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