The following is excerpted from a speech delivered last month at the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), held in Los Angeles.
When I had the privilege of addressing the GA last year, I asked three questions: Why does Judaism matter? Why does Israel matter? And why does treating one another with civility matter?
I was sharing my perspective on what I considered the most important issues affecting our community and affecting the work of our Federations.
I still believe these questions about Judaism, Israel and civility are the right questions that we should all be asking ourselves each and every day. And I believe the answer to these questions is: Yes, it all matters, and it matters more than ever.
And at the heart of that answer — as at the heart of everything we do — are the values of our tradition, reflected in our Torah: what is hateful to you, do not do to another; and use your time and your talents to repair a broken world as we help to finish the work that HaShem began.
Each of our communities has its own characteristics — but our mission really is the same.
And no part of our work is more important than connecting with young people — helping them discover why their tradition should matter to them. We have all seen the statistics on assimilation. But statistics do not tell us what we have learned from Birthright, PJ Library, Moishe House, Masa, Entwine and programs developed by Federations that successfully connect young adults to their Judaism.
These programs prove that assimilation is not the result of young people not caring. It is the result of their not knowing what Judaism is and how it can make their lives more meaningful.
It is our responsibility to reach out to them. If we inform them about their tradition, we actually find that they do care. We first need to meet them where they are, listen to their concerns, understand their interests and embrace them as part of our community. And once they understand that Judaism matters, they will better appreciate why Israel matters.
I, like many of you, am a baby boomer. We grew up knowing that there were neighborhoods where Jews were not welcome, clubs that would not accept Jews as members.
That is rarely the case today. We are far more accepted in the United States than ever before, but we also can never forget that we are a very small and very vulnerable people.
My generation grew up with a very vulnerable Israel whose very existence was constantly threatened. We will never forget the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
And I will never forget my first trip to Israel, in 1964 with my parents. My father, an immigrant from Latvia, got off the plane, touched the ground and, with tears in his eyes, loudly, proudly recited the Shehecheyanu. You see, Israel was the eternal dream of my father and my ancestors. It was the eternal dream of your fathers and your ancestors for over 1,800 years. And now, that dream had come true.
Our children and grandchildren have experienced none of this. We need to teach them about the traditions that they come from.
The State of Israel is only 70 years old, but it is at the center of who we are. It is a remarkable country.
For its entire 70 years, it has been under siege. As strong as it is today, this tiny country has over 100,000 rockets aimed at its cities by Hamas and Hezbollah, courtesy of Iran, all of which have sworn to destroy Israel.
Notwithstanding all of this, Israel remains a vibrant democracy where women, members of the LGBTQ community and minorities have protected rights. Its technological and scientific advances are improving and saving lives throughout the world. And every day its young soldiers in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] are putting their lives on the line to protect you and me.
Because of Israel, the Jewish people, in so many ways, are stronger and more secure than ever before.
Recently, the American Jewish community has found itself in a disagreement with Israel with respect to the Kotel, the Western Wall. In January 2016, after years of negotiations with the government of Israel — led by our dear friend and hero, Natan Sharansky — the government of Israel passed a resolution to create an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel — to be constructed and governed with oversight by a committee that was to include representatives of the Reform and Conservative streams and the Women of the Wall.
Then, last June, as a result of pressure from the religious parties that form part of the government coalition, the government of Israel froze this resolution.
There will still be an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. But the resolution is not being implemented as agreed to.
Of course, we have different views. That has been a source of our strength.
This is an important issue to many in our community, and I commit to you that JFNA, as your representative, will continue to fight for the vision of an Israel where all Jews can feel at home, no matter what synagogue they choose to pray at.
At the same time, our support and love for the State of Israel requires us to never walk away or turn our back on her — or give up on our desire to see Israel truly become the country we want and need it to be. But that will only happen with understanding and respect for the miracle that Israel is.
Let’s not forget that we are all descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; Moses, Maimonides and Hillel; and Herzl, ben Gurion and Golda Meir.
Of course, we have different views. We always have. That has been a source of our strength. But we must respect that diversity and listen carefully to those different views as we unite around our values. Then we can continue to build the Jewish community our tradition demands, and stop delegitimizing and disrespecting those we disagree with, which only divides and destroys.
Kol yisrael arevim zeh-bazeh — all of Israel is responsible for one another.
Let each of us rethink why Judaism matters and why Israel matters as we together make today a new beginning and move our communities from where they are to where they ought to be.
Richard Sandler is chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America and past chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.