This post is dedicated to Rabbi Josh Cohen (z’l) who passed away this week at a very young age. Josh was a member of our first combined MetroWest-Central NJ Gush Etzion Educators Mission in January 2012, where he acted as a building block in the merger process and the relationship with our greater community in Israel. He is greatly missed.
I suggest that the most important word that came up during the long meeting was Zionism. A group of leaders from the Jewish Federation of Central NJ and United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ were sitting together for several hours to identify the commonalities and differences between these two respective communities, soon to become a united community: Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
At one point, our facilitator divided us into two subgroups. It turned out that when we reconvened, both groups shared this commonality: “we are both Zionists.”
Perhaps such a statement does not sound very dramatic to many but as an Israeli who lives on this “living bridge” between my homeland and my home Jewish community, I can testify that I was very moved by it. In Hebrew, the words Zionism (tzionut) and cynicism (tziniut) are very similar in spelling and pronunciation with only a minor change of one letter.
I often use this comparison when I talk about the way many, perhaps even most Israelis and Diaspora Jews, relate to the term Zionism. Unfortunately, they look at it in a cynical way. Sometimes as an archaic concept that is no longer relevant, sometimes put in brackets or with the word “post” added to it. Even worse, at times people use it as lip service to demonstrate that they are good Israelis or good Jews.
It is very common to hear statements like: “Sure I am a Zionist. I was born in Israel and served in the army,” or “Of course I am a Zionist. I give a lot of money to the Jewish State.” I would like to suggest that in both cases these self definitions are not sufficient. They are even more irrelevant when they come from a heterogeneous body like a Jewish community or a federation.
So why was I moved when our leadership instinctively emphasized their common identity as Zionists? Because I know for sure that in this case it came from a deep belief and solid record. That it was not lip service or a cynical statement.
These leaders are true practical Zionists, Pinsker like. Both communities have proved it by their actions over many decades. Their hearts and souls and long arms are in Israel. They concluded that they can’t build and serve the local Jewish community without building and serving the Israeli community.
These communities focus on connections, encounters, and mutual visits. They believe that the strength of Diaspora Jewry relies on the strength of Israel and vice versa. That together, we are a much stronger global force. With the merger, we can prove that one and one can become three.
When we merge these two Zionist communities into a greater one, the strength and influence that we gain, both in our Israel-based operations and our Israel programs in New Jersey, become a critical mass and a most powerful force. If we do it right we can present a national model that can lead the way for others and have strategic implications on Israel-Diaspora relationships. Here are some examples of joint ventures that are already underway:
1. Both communities play major roles in developing the Negev. When we join forces and place our different partnership communities in the Negev under one roof, we can become an even stronger force. The Negev communities of Erez, Merchavim, Ofakim, and Arad/Tamar will all be part and parcel of our merged community in New Jersey, creating a global Jewish partnership while keeping the intimate relationships.
In addition, Keren Ness, a most powerful philanthropic force that develops the Negev, will serve as our strategic vehicle. This summer, for the first time, a group of young adults from various New Jersey communities is spending time in the Negev as part of our vision. The “Onward Israel Negev Fellows,” a new initiative in conjunction with the Jewish Agency for Israel, are stationed in Arad/Tamar. Hopefully, this initiative will become part and parcel of our enhanced relationship with the Negev.
2. Central NJ and UJC MetroWest are both involved with Gush Etzion, a region south of Jerusalem. Here as well, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ will make a difference. As a start, a delegation of eight educators representing both communities spent a meaningful time in the Gush, developing more living bridges and people-to-people relationships with the local community. This is an example of one project that can help deepen and strengthen the partnership beyond security needs and financial assistance.
3. MWG4 (MetroWest Generation Four) is a new initiative to bring together young adults from our partnership communities around the world to a joint seminar in Israel. Delegates from Cherkassy, Sha’ar Hanegev, Ra’anana, Ofakim, Arad, Gush Etzion, Odessa, Rishon LeZion, and New Jersey are all partnered communities with the merged New Jersey community. These young people came together to discuss leadership and community building under our global partnerships umbrella — a microcosm of the Jewish world under our auspices.
4. The two federations have a tradition of using Israeli shlichim (emissaries) who bring Israel to their communities in a most authentic way. This summer, the shlichim of both communities become one powerful delegation (a mishlachat) of some nine Israelis of all ages, backgrounds, and skills, the largest shlichim delegation in the USA. They will work together to serve the needs of our merged community, making sure that it stays as Zionist as it is now.
So one and one can become even four, if we are smart, creative, innovative, cooperative, and yes…Zionistic. I believe we are.