Searching for American Denominational Life — in Israel

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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 Rockville, Md. We were quickly embraced by the congregation’s dynamic and progressive community.

Shortly after returning to Israel 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.

How can the Jews of Israel, many of whom are struggling to find their religious niches, have access to the same smorgasbord of Jewish options that I had in America?

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.

It is time for every Jew to have a community to call home.

Pnina Agenyahu was the senior shlicha of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

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