Searching for American Jewish denominational life — in Israel
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Guest columnistAmerican Jewish life can't be easily replicated in Israel

Searching for American Jewish denominational life — in Israel

Living in Modi'in, we find ourselves lacking diverse options for Jewish practice. We yearn for the environment of pluralism, diversity and acceptance that we enjoyed in Washington.

Pnina Agenyahu
(File photo)
(File photo)

The relationship between Israel and the United States, between both their governments and populations, is unbreakable and is cemented by shared values. But at the same time, the Israeli and American Jewish communities have key differences, particularly when it comes to denominational lines.

This reality hit home on a profound level for me upon my recent return to Israel following four years of service as the Jewish Agency for Israel’s senior shlichah (emissary) for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

In Israel, my husband Avi and I were viewed as essentially being in a “mixed marriage” because he is secular and I am considered Orthodox. This falls in line with the broader trend in the Jewish state of a clear, black-and-white divide between the religious and secular Jewish communities.

Yet in America, Avi and I for the first time witnessed the rich mosaic of the Jewish denominations — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. We became members at B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in the Washington area. We were quickly embraced by the congregation’s dynamic and progressive community, which is made up of Jews with various viewpoints on God, practice and culture. We could sit next to each other at services along with our son Eitan, who visibly began taking pride in being Jewish. I had my first opportunity to be called up for an aliyah to the Torah, which I could not do as a woman in my Orthodox synagogue in Israel.

Shortly after returning this past summer, I wrote for My Jewish Learning that I had hoped to “bring my family’s flourishing Jewish life and identity with us” from the United States to our renewed life in Israel. But we have discovered that American Jewish life truly is unique, and that it cannot seamlessly be replicated in Israel.

Now living in Modi’in, we find ourselves in the same situation that we experienced before our four years in America: lacking a plethora of diverse options in Jewish practice. We yearn for the environment of pluralism, diversity and acceptance that we enjoyed in Washington.

Make no mistake: My family is thrilled to be back in the Jewish homeland. There is no greater satisfaction than attaining the dream of aliyah — the Jewish people’s triumphant return to the land our ancestors lived in for thousands of years. I’ve had the privilege of not just a first aliyah, from Ethiopia in 1984, but a second aliyah this year following my time in the states.

But after getting a taste of American Judaism, I have a new dream: a State of Israel whose Jews can practice their faith in an egalitarian, open environment. For my husband and me, American Conservative Judaism was the perfect middle ground between secular and Orthodox — a strong connection to tradition, but a nonjudgmental community and mindset.

Before we lived in the United States, Avi had not attended synagogue services for 30 years, other than when his brother convinced him to go for the High Holidays. Something about Jewish ritual simply was not for him. In America, however, Avi saw that practicing Judaism could be more open and accepting. Congregants are not looked down upon for driving to synagogue. There is a comforting sense that you can practice Judaism however, whenever and wherever you’d like to do so.

The experience was transformative for us. We now pray in the melodies we learned in our Conservative synagogue and enthusiastically celebrate Chanukah, which isn’t as significant a holiday in Israel as it is for American Jews. Yet we feel relatively alone in our new practices and have struggled to find the Jewish community in Israel that meets our diverse needs and interests.

In Modi’in, the Conservative synagogue that we would like to be part of is not within walking distance of our home. Therefore, we attend a local egalitarian minyan that attracts diverse participants and allows women to lead prayers, though men and women sit separately. There is a sense that beyond prayer and ritual, the people are what matter; the community offers programming that we need and enjoy, such as a youth minyan and basketball games for children. It is not the Conservative community that we had in America, but it is our best option for now.

For us, returning to Israel has also accentuated the issues that divide Israeli and American Jews. Marriage, conversion and, most recently, prayer rights at the Western Wall have all been points of tension that disrupt the harmony of an otherwise stalwart Israel-Diaspora bond.

Moving forward, how can we bridge these differences and help Israelis experience the unique benefits of American Jewish denominational diversity? How can the Jews of Israel, many of whom are struggling to find their religious and communal niches, have access to the same smorgasbord of Jewish options that I had in America?

One key step is a willingness to put affiliations aside and understand what we all have in common: Judaism. Many Israelis might call me “Reform” — even though I attended a Conservative synagogue during my time abroad — or “secular.” I reject these labels. I am comfortable in my own skin and take pride in the various components that make up my Jewish identity.

Further, Jews of all streams must be willing to engage in dialogue that is honest, but free of judgment. This applies to Jews within Israel, but also between Israel and U.S. organizations like the Jewish Agency, which has a long track record of enhancing Israel-Diaspora solidarity and understanding, that are uniquely positioned to foster these conversations.

Specifically, the Jewish Agency’s new Ami-Unity Initiative — launched in response to the Western Wall crisis — strives to bring about a systematic and long-term shift in Israeli public opinion on issues of Jewish peoplehood and pluralism, a shift that will ultimately affect official Israeli policy. By launching partnerships with the Council of Israeli Youth Movements, the Council of Israeli Youth Organizations, the Council of Pre-Army Academics in Israel and the National Union of Israeli Students, Ami-Unity is reaching out to the silent majority of Israelis who have not yet formed strong opinions on pluralism and peoplehood.

In its first year, Ami-Unity is laying the groundwork for expanded efforts by reaching young Israelis at a stage in their lives when they are open to considering new perspectives on Jewish pluralism.

After spending four years as part of a Jewish community in the Diaspora, I am extremely proud and excited that the Jewish Agency has initiated this platform, which will give Israeli society a deeper awareness about Judaism’s different streams as well as the multitude of possibilities in the realm of Jewish identity. It is time for every Jew, no matter where he or she lives, to have a community to call home. PJC

Pnina Agenyahu was senior shlichah of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Each year, the Jewish Agency sends 1,700 such emissaries to Jewish communities around the world to bridge the gap between Jews of different backgrounds and Israel, increase Jewish awareness and pride and promote an understanding of Israel and its ideals.

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