Letters from Israel

Reflections from Gvanim participants on their journey to the Bay Area

This May, 15 members of the 2016 Gvanim cohort visited the Bay Area for an exchange of ideas and tools for advancing pluralism. Gvanim is the Federation’s groundbreaking program, launched in 2000, designed to strengthen Israel’s democracy by spreading and deepening pluralism. Below are reflections from three Gvanim members following the trip.

Rabbi Refael Kroizer

Rabbi Refael Kroizer

From May 15 to May 19, I spent five spectacular days in San Francisco on a Gvanim mission for pluralism, a project of the Jewish Federation of San Francisco.

What an enriching experience! Beautiful, majestic San Francisco was revealed to us in all its glory, the weather mild and pleasant.   

I discovered a rich and diverse Jewish community. I saw innovative and thriving educational centers. I met Jews who proudly promote their unique approach to Judaism. But I want to tell you about the two most memorable and inspiring moments of my trip.

The first occurred on the second morning of our visit in the Bay. We rose early and went to pray at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. At the school, one can choose from five different prayer versions, five different ways to connect with himself and his Creator.  

As an Orthodox Jew, I chose the Orthodox prayer group. I entered the library and saw sweet looking boys and girls, all very different from me in their apparel, language and culture. I felt out of place.    

But then I heard the teenagers recite the Shema. And I burst into tears. How moving it was to hear the Jewish nation’s eternal proclamation in San Francisco! My precious Jewish brothers and sisters, so far away from my hometown of Jerusalem, were reciting those very same words that were so familiar to me. I felt at home.

Another memorable moment was the roundtable discussion that included leaders from three streams of Judaism: Orthodox Rabbi Landau, Conservative Rabbi Glazer, and Reform Rabbi Kushner. As a native of the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, I could hardly believe my eyes. 

Three forms of Judaism in one room? How is that possible? Surely an argument would erupt within a short time and voices will escalate. But, to my amazement, this did not happen. Three Jews – so different from each other in their views, so divided in their interpretation of Judaism and, yet, they were so connected! Connected by a common love – love for fellow Jews, love for Israel, love for humanity. Three Rabbis shouldering their congregations’ burdens, accomplishing so much on behalf of the Jewish nation, and thinking about the next generation.

I was overcome with emotion, overwhelmed at the deeper beauty San Francisco offered. “Yes, it’s possible,” I said to myself. It’s possible to think differently and still find the common unifying denominator between us. We can be divided in philosophy and, yet, united in soul, as we carry on our glorious legacy.  

These two moments – a moment of prayer and a moment of unity – will remain with me always and will give me strength to continue my challenging work in Israel.

In San Francisco, I learned powerful lessons about focusing on Judaism’s inner spark, about respecting and caring for others, about seeking to unite rather than divide – for we are one nation.

Thank you, San Francisco.

Yosefa Drescher

Yosefa Drescher

Before we arrived in San Francisco, we were informed that, for several reasons, Judaism in San Francisco is different from Judaism anywhere else in the US: there was never a "Jewish neighborhood," never any anti-Semitism to speak of, and Jews were always an integral part of the city. Nonetheless, we were told that what is happening in San Francisco will foretell what will happen in the rest of the US Jewish communities in the future. The community is not too big and assimilation is staggering.

But, the place we arrived at was full of Jewish activity, both very innovative and more classic. We met with many leaders that concern themselves with the best way "to do Jewish" from the minute they open their eyes in the morning until they fall asleep at night. A reoccurring phenomenon was of a successful lawyer or businessperson who decided that they could not be happy in life unless they drop out of their successful career and dive headlong into the Jewish world. 

Meeting so many devoted lay leaders, professional Jews, and so many innovative programs from Delancey Street to the Hausner School, from the board of governors of the Federation to Urban Adamah, I met people who deeply care about being Jewish and about Jewish continuity.

It blew new wind into my sails and made me more determined in my belief that for us in Israel there must be a way to include more sectors in Jewish life.

If in San Francisco – the capital of liberalism and of the American idea of pursuit of happiness – so many very different people can care so deeply about their Jewish community, there’s no reason that we cannot make it happen in Israel, too.

Tzipi Baider

Tzipi Baider

It's a quarter to nine in the morning at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. Students arrive at school and go to class, but they don’t go immediately to their classrooms. First they go to morning prayers.

Seven unique opportunities are available to them, and all they must do is choose how they wish to experience the morning prayer that morning – how they wish to begin their day. They may choose from prayer in the synagogue, prayer via yoga, prayer through Jewish songs, prayer through intimate conversation with classmates, prayer via music, or prayer through artistic creation. I walked from classroom to classroom and was very excited by what I saw, but mostly I was deeply moved. I thought about my four children back home in Israel and my heart ached, knowing my children do not have the privilege of experiencing the morning prayer. They attend a secular school that focuses on preparing them for standardized tests. Here I saw something different – how the school succeeds in connecting students to their Jewish identity using experiential learning. It was enlightening to witness how children and older youth are experiencing their Judaism, 18 hours away on the other side of the world. Fascinating.

After nine months of being on the complex, riveting, and intense journey that is the Gvanim program in Israel, after we had managed to familiarize ourselves with each other’s opinions (which span the skies from east to west, religious, secular, Eastern, traditional and religious Zionism – a refined rainbow of shades of Judaism), we embarked on an 8-day journey visiting Jewish communities in San Francisco and New York. We knew it would be interesting and interactive, but we didn’t understand to what extent this mission to the US would disrupt and shake, how many questions that we grappled with during the year would surface and challenge the group during the trip. No matter how close or far we were to each other ideologically, our mutual love and trust in one another were consistent. Each site visit raised issues which at times were difficult to process, both as a group and individually. There were many moments throughout the trip that highlighted the gaps and the fact that we still have a long way to go, but there are three particularly memorable moments that I wish to share.

One of the more emotional evenings we experienced was at a Kabbalat Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan. Hundreds of people gathered to welcome the Shabbat, and a female rabbi chanted the prayers and, with the congregation, sang and danced the hora in a single circle. Some of my fellow Gvanim participants were moved by such a welcoming of the Shabbat, while others simply moved to a different synagogue, feeling as if they were at a church rather than a Jewish house of prayer.

In another instance, we visited the Sha’ar Zahav gay congregation in San Francisco. Some in our group were thrilled at the opportunity for this community to get closer to G-d and, especially, to connect with their fellow Jews, while other group members were obviously restless and had difficulty accepting what we were seeing.

And the final moment that I will share was an evening that was supposed to put us most at ease and make us feel at home – a meeting with Israelis living in Palo Alto. We sat at roundtables and spoke with the Israelis and, yet, the disturbing things that they said still ring in our ears, words that we could not stay indifferent to. Of all the discussions that had transpired up until this point, it was this particular interaction spoken in our mother tongue that was most difficult of all to comprehend, as we listened to them speak of an Israel that is bankrupt. They claimed they have nothing to return to, and mostly that they do not want to raise their children in Israel.

As for me, I return home to Israel with an even greater love for the country that I had left eight days earlier, knowing that I have but one homeland. I am amazed by the strong desire of the Jewish American community to preserve and commemorate Judaism, to remember and live with their Jewish identity in a non-Jewish environment and not run from it, even if they decide to marry a non-Jew. The questions and issues they wrestle with – the fear that Judaism will disappear and that Jews will not be tolerated, the big financial investments they make to preserve their Judaism – these efforts are not to be taken for granted.

And here we are in the land of Israel, where so many Jewish issues are taken for granted. If only we could live here a bit more Jewishly, a bit more united, and in friendship as do our brethren in the Diaspora.

Learn more about the Gvanim program or the Federation’s other work in Israel.

Tags: Israel, gvanim


June 16, 2016