Israelis, North American Jews sign covenant on unity

JERUSALEM — Representatives of North American Jewry and Israel have concluded several days of dialogue aimed at improving Israel-diaspora relations by signing a document proclaiming worldwide Jewish unity.

Knesset members joined thousands of American and Canadian Jewish leaders on Thursday of last week in signing a covenant of rededication to "enduring ties that bind us together."

The speaker of the Knesset, Dan Tichon, convened the "unofficial session" of the Israeli parliament at the final plenary session of the 67th General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America — a mass annual gathering of American and Canadian Jewry that for the first time was held in Israel.

The brief covenant outlines a common vision for the Jewish people based on unity and building dynamic communities worldwide, and on shared values including "belief in God, respect for the infinite value of human life, the goal of peace" and the concepts of Jewish peoplehood and tikkun olam, literally, "repairing the world."

Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, one of a dozen Knesset members seated on the stage of the main auditorium in the International Convention Center, addressed the crowd before excusing himself to attend a Cabinet meeting to approve the Israeli redeployment called for in the Wye peace accord.

In his remarks, Sharansky summed up four days of round-table discussions, speakers, panels and field trips examining the Israel-diaspora relationship in one straightforward conclusion: The two communities exist in a symbiotic relationship.

"Today we can talk about equal partnership on both sides," said Sharansky, explaining that Israel provides the diaspora with a living link to Jewish history, while the diaspora sustains Israel through its emotional engagement.

"Think about it," he said. "If you stop being concerned about Israel, it becomes another little country in the Middle East."

The need for increased Jewish unity emerged as a key theme during exchanges between North Americans and Israelis, including a morning session during which participants heard the views of — and questioned — Knesset members and Jewish communal leaders.

But no clear formula for a process of revitalization emerged.

Perhaps the closest and most direct attempt to issue a plan of action came from World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman, who advocated a renaissance of Jewish life, "changing what needs to be changed, keeping that which is useful."

Speaking to the closing session of the assembly, Bronfman said the Jewish people "are the most over-organized people in the world, and we are still not focused on the principal issue of our times — the gradual and painless Holocaust which afflicts our people in the diaspora."

He stressed the need to appeal to Jewish youth and to correct ignorance of Jewish tradition through education, new media — such as interactive technologies and the Internet — and revised synagogue services, which he said are now "long, boring and repetitive to the young Jews of today.

"Our synagogues and temples don't belong to the rabbis," he said. The Jewish people need "more of a Beit Midrash than a Beit Knesset," using the Hebrew words for "house of study" and "house of prayer."