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Updating the Israel/diaspora relationship

Federation and Hartman Institute join forces for area-wide educational initiative on Israel

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A DVD from the iEngage program

How do you feel about Hatikvah?

Do you feel more moved by the Israeli national anthem, or by Yehuda Halevy’s 12th century poem declaring his “heart is in the East,” or perhaps by a 1982 Hebrew pop song declaring “I have no other land”?

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky asked these questions of the 16 men and women sitting around a table in Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on Tuesday night to start a conversation about Israel and its meaning for American Jews.

The scene repeated itself with variations in two other synagogues and the Wayne Y that evening, with the launching in northern New Jersey of iEngage, a program designed by the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute to make Israel the topic of conversations about values rather than battles about politics.

By the end of the month, 11 iEngage programs will be taking place in the area, most meeting on a weekly basis, and several bringing together rabbis and congregants from many synagogues. A total of 24 local rabbis are taking part.

While the Hatikvah question was Pitkowsky’s own icebreaker, the notion of conversation is central to the program, which is being brought to northern New Jersey under a grant from the Adler Innovation Fund of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

The group in Teaneck looked at a mixture of Pitkowsky’s handouts and material in a sourcebook printed by Hartman. Over the course of an hour, the conversation touched on hot-button topics, including a child’s detachment from religion and engagement with Israel after undergoing a Birthright trip; the probity of criticizing Israel, both in public and among Jews; and the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and the idea’s resonance for the younger generation.

Left untouched in this first session was a core piece of the program — a DVD featuring Hartman Institute President Rabbi Donniel Hartman and the institute’s scholars. All told, the iEngage curriculum includes 9 topics.

Over the last year and a half, the Hartman Institute has brought its program to more than one hundred rabbis across North America, usually charging each synagogue $1200 for the set of DVDs. As part of the federation grant, synagogues receive the video materials at no cost.

“We knew when the Adler Family agreed to create their Innovation Fund through federation it was going to benefit northern New Jersey’s Jewish community, even in ways we couldn’t imagine today,” Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, said. “But in the case of one of the grantees, the Shalom Hartman Institute, I believe the Adler Family Fund will be changing the Jewish community into the next generation and beyond, in the context of Israel-diaspora relations. The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America Engaging Israel Project for rabbis and community leaders will change the discourse about Israel from crisis-based, which too much of the time it seems to be, to one about Jewish values and ideas, about Israel beyond bombs and bunkers.”

“It’s important to frame the discussion of Israel around values rather than only crises,” agreed Rabbi Benjamin Shull, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. He said the program offers a chance “to step back and not only look at the threat of the moment but to look at the largest purpose, what’s our relationship with Israel and what are those values.”

Different synagogues have crafted different formats for the classes. Some are offering eight sessions, each featuring the viewing of the video, and discussion, and lasting two and a half hours; others are offering more and shorter sessions.

As part of the project, staff from the Hartman Institute — including both its North American office in New York and its Jerusalem think tank — will meet with local rabbis who are presenting the program to their congregations.

In addition, a separate group of federation leaders is meeting monthly to discuss the curriculum in a program to be lead by Hartman staff.

And several community-wide public events are planned. The first is a talk by Hartman on “The ‘tribes’ of Israel,” scheduled for Nov. 1.

The program is a relatively new development for the Hartman Institute, which has operated as a think tank in Jerusalem for more than 35 years, but has established a strong American presence more recently.

But it reflects longstanding concerns of the institute’s founder, Rabbi David Hartman, who is Donniel’s father and a former student of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Studies at the institute are based on the idea that the Talmudic method of comparing and contrasting differing texts is central to Jewish culture and can provide a framework for moral discussions.

“Hartman sees the Torah as a common language, a lens you can use to refract the issues of the day,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Zierler, who soon will use the Hartman curriculum as the basis of his Monday night adult education class, studied at the institute and with David Hartman as part of a three-year program of summer and winter study for American rabbis. “There’s something from our sages that we can use to help us through the muddle and the mess,” he said. “Judaism is not silent. There are voices in the past that spoke” to present problems.

“A big theme in David Hartman’s thought is the distinction between the crisis moment of Egypt and the covenant of Sinai,” he said. “In his mind, Sinai is where we really were empowered. It was an opportunity moment. As opposed to when we left Egypt, where we were so passive.

“That tension between crisis and opportunity is something that undergirds a lot of this conversation,” he concluded.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said the introduction of the iEngage program is part of the institute’s “trying to become more relevant, more impactful.

“If the core issue of the institute is to focus on the core questions of the Jewish people, we have to do that not just on philosophical questions, but on the cutting-edge questions of the day. It is becoming clear that a lot of those questions have to do with Israel itself. What does sovereignty mean Jewishly? What does it mean to integrate Jewish and democratic values? How does Israel fit in to the commitments that are part of being a serious Jew? These are the big questions Jews are struggling with but don’t have the tools for an ethical conversation with each other,” he said.

Kurtzer said that conflicts and polarization within the Jewish community about Israel makes it convenient to avoid the issue — and that that is not a healthy response.

“If a rabbi or educator or day school is not sure how to teach and talk about Israel, over time Israel starts to feel like something very different than what it means to be Jewish. We’re trying to bridge that divide and talk about Israel as an essential feature of a very serious Judaism,” he said.

The program’s source book provides a mixture of Talmudic and contemporary texts, such as Israel’s Proclamation of Independence. “It’s not an attempt to say that the Talmud answers all of these questions, but it is a way of saying that on the big questions, our tradition has thought about these questions a great deal,” he said.

Kurtzer believes that study can sidestep the either-or dichotomy he often sees, and was exemplified in the responses to the 2010 incident when the Israeli navy attacked a flotilla carrying pro-Palestinian activists to Gaza.

“I’m 35. I watched the flotilla unfolding on Facebook. No one knew what happened for quite some time, but you already had people reacting.

“I saw my friends, Americans and Israelis, reacting either very defensively — how great the State of Israel is for protecting Israel from this terrorist group — or, on the other side, a kind of embarrassment about Israel exercising power in a way they didn’t need to.”

The real question that this program looks at is, he said, “Do either of these positions, the instinctive belief in Jewish power, or the instinctive recoiling from Jewish power, reflect what Judaism really has to say?”

Does this technique work? Can it really bridge political divides?

Kurtzer is adamant that the answer is yes.

He recalled a session he led in Los Angeles, involving a diverse group of Jewish leaders, “people who were with the protective and defensive organizations, and other Jewish leaders who are J Street people. The framing and use of classical texts enabled a three-hour conversation between Jewish leaders that was one of the most powerful teaching experiences I was ever a part of,” he said.

To learn more about iEngage, go to


More on: Updating the Israel/diaspora relationship


Central themes of the iEngage curriculum

1. From Crisis to Covenant explores the foundations of the current relationship between Israel and world Jewry and why the Jewish community is so committed to maintaining it. What directions should a new narrative about Israel take, given new realities that question Israel’s significance and even its legitimacy?

2. Religion and Peoplehood: Israel as the sovereign expression of Jewish peoplehood matters only to the extent that peoplehood is viewed as essential to Jewish identity. In a world of individualism, can Judaism be redefined as a primarily personal experience? How does a sense of belonging to a Jewish collective affect the meaning of contemporary Jewish life?


A taste of the iEngage unit on War:

For much of history, Jews were without power, and looked to those who had power over us to use it responsibly and morally. Now that Jews have power over others as a sovereign state, we, like all democratic countries, must struggle with the moral challenges of exercising that power in a complex world. Israel’s challenges are exceptionally difficult in the face of asymmetrical warfare, with an enemy that embeds itself within a civilian population and in fact glorifies civilian casualties as a perverse kind of victory. In light of these challenges, the iEngage unit on war examines two core questions: What constitutes a just war? And, how do we fight a just war justly? In other words, a Jewish army must have a morality of war, and it must also exercise morality in war.

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