Nothing is better than being in Israel

Rabbi Micah Hyman fell in love with Israel all over again. And the spiritual leader at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom vows to communicate his feelings with every fiber of his being.

Hyman and seven other members of the Bay Area Jewish community were part of a recent five-day seminar in Israel, along with 95 synagogue leaders from 10 North American cities who gathered to see how engaging with Israel might enrich their Jewish communities back home.

“There was a strong sense of urgency about the trip as far as connecting Israel to younger people and trying to understand the relationship between the Jewish Agency, the federation, and synagogue leadership in North America,” said Hyman, who was joined by local rabbis Marvin Goodman and Stephen Pearce, and lay leaders Bill Futornick, Andrew Colvin, Michael Goldstein, Rob Purnell and Deborah Mintz Gorman.

Israel, with its contrasting images of pastoral Jewish homeland and political quagmire, has become an increasingly tough sell with young American Jews. Studies show U.S. Jews feel less connected to Israel than in previous generations.

Hyman said synagogues must go beyond “saying prayers for Israel and having a falafel-eating day. We need to have a safe space for good dialogue about very heart-wrenching issues: what it means to be connected to Israel in a deeply meaningful way.”

Participants attended seminars sponsored by the Makom Institute, whose mission is to provide content and training to reimagine Israel’s place in Jewish life. Makom is co-sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and North American Jewish community federations.

Topics covered a wide range: from exploring ways to bring Israeli culture into synagogues, including music, film and literature, to how encounters between diaspora Jews and Israelis can shape Jewish identity for individuals in both groups.

“I came back animated by what we learned and determined to re-examine our programming, travel, engagement, advocacy and connections,” said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “Large parts of contemporary Israel education that was designed to connect American synagogues to Israel are insipid, outdated and all too often presented as a subject rather than as a central feature of Jewish consciousness.”

One of his inspirations, Pearce said, was Rani Jager, founder of Bet Knesset Yisraeli — The Israelite House of Gathering, “an indigenous Tel Aviv congregation that attracts hundreds of worshippers and participants.”

Pearce said Emanu-El may twin with Bet Knesset Yisraeli, which practices an egalitarian brand of Judaism that is commonplace in North American Conservative and Reform synagogues.

Just before the seminar began, the group met with members of Gvanim, an initiative of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Israel Center and the federation’s Israel-based volunteer board that brings Israelis together to deal with issues of diversity.

Matters of diversity resonated with the mission because, Hyman said, “Israelis share the same struggle to forge a unique Jewish identity outside this black and white, religious and secular view. There are so many different shades of Jewish identity” within and outside Israel.

The group’s goal is to connect Bay Area Jews, through their synagogues, with the forces of pluralism that represent a dynamic Jewish identity in Israel.

One suggestion from the mission is for the participating synagogues to rent apartments in Israel that would be available for congregants along with a home-exchange program between Israelis and North American Jews.

“Why not have Israelis who come here as tourists have the opportunity to connect with people in our communities?” said Goodman, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

He said the group identified several ways for Israel to become more relevant to Bay Area Jews. One is to make trips to Israel more affordable. Another is to better address issues related to Israel on college campuses, in order to prepare incoming Jewish freshmen for what are often heated debates and confrontations.

“What we really need to do,” Goodman said, “is to raise the level of understanding that Israel is not just about religious or secular Jews. One way might be to get 100 percent of our kids to Israel before they turn 25.

“And we need to explore how to train religious school teachers in the love of Israel, so they can transmit that love to their students,” he added.

Members of the mission envision a flow of ideas, information and people between Israelis and Jews in America and Canada. Five days in Israel gave them a bounty of concrete insights and optimism about the future relationship between diaspora Jews and Israel.

All agreed that the remaining challenge is to translate their ideas into reality.

For Hyman, who has begun writing Hebrew poetry since the mid-February outing, the answer is simple: “Nothing is better than being in the land of Israel.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.