Like many Jewish leaders, I have devoted the majority of my professional life to advocating on behalf of my denomination. Sometimes the need is concrete, other times ideological. From supporting the worldwide network of the 600-plus Conservative kehillot to agitating on behalf of a Judaism that is pluralistic, intellectually compelling and rooted in tradition, my religious identity is often inextricable from my personal Jewish “brand.”
Much of this is unavoidable. Not a month goes by without an invitation to speak about a topic of endless fascination to the Jewish public: the current state of Conservative Judaism. Whether joining together with the heads of my sister organizations to construct a wide lens view or honing on a particular geography — I will be moderating a panel discussion on the renaissance of Conservative Judaism on Manhattan’s East Side in December — I declare myself, time and again, a spokesperson for Conservative Judaism.
But I was reminded of the limits of denominationalism this past week in the course of my hastily arranged Solidarity Tour to Israel on Day 7 of Operation Pillar of Defense. Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, I joined with a group of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.
Together, we visited the mayors of the cities most affected by Hamas missiles, the injured civilians and soldiers, the damaged property, the brave Israeli citizens under threat of extinction every single day. Together we met with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Together we boarded buses from Ashkelon to Beer Sheva to Jerusalem, united as Jews, representatives of our denominations, yes, but stripped of the agendas that occupy us back in our offices in North America.
We were a fellowship without boundaries because when missiles and rockets fly towards Israeli towns, they do not have addresses based on denominational affiliation. As Jews have learned from the persecutions of the past, the ideologies and practices that divide us are invisible to those who seek to erase us from the map.
Even if I can submerge my membership in a particular Jewish faction, it is impossible to silence my rabbinic instinct to turn to Torah for guidance. In Beresheet (Genesis) 1:27, humanity is created from a single being, named Adam. God creates Adam in God’s image, “male and female He created it (meaning humanity)”
A wonderful Midrash on this verse asks rhetorically – why does God create humanity from a single being? The answer rendered is – so that no one could legitimately say “my father is better than your father since we all originate from the same father.”
Though simple, this is text contains a profound lesson about unity, solidarity and the value, divinity of each and every life. As I joined together with my counterparts in North American Jewish life during our Tour of Solidarity to Israel last week, I found that this midrash came to life in a multitude of ways every day.
The most obvious manifestation was in the cross-denominational composition of our group. In a crisis, we all are Jews without divisions, united in protection of Israel. It was profound and beautiful to experience this eternal truth in the course of our trip.
We were further buoyed to note that throughout the ordeal it was enduring, Israel demonstrated how strong a society she is. People did not give up in despair. They supported their government. One clear indication of this was the better than 100% response by the reservists who were called. In Operation Pillar of Defense, the country rallied. The fight was for survival, no matter where one lived. Even during the typically divisive election time, there was unity.
It was clear that Israel applied the lessons it learned in 2006, namely, the importance of collaboration, training and readiness in various realms – civil society, political and military. When the missiles rained down on Israel, the country was ready; better yet, every segment of society worked together. The Home Front Command was so effective because people helped one another other.
That care was also manifest in the manner in which civilians were protected on both sides of the conflict, from the surgical strikes of the Israeli counteroffensive to the care on the home front. By lobbing rockets towards Gaza, the IDF adhered to the highest ethical standards, targeting terrorist sites, not people.
As we approach the joyous festival of Hanukkah, Jews of all denominations can bond in recognition of the ultimate strength of Jewish unity, at the miracles that happened in those days and in our time when we unite to fight a common enemy. In the spirit of Hanukkah, let us rededicate ourselves to this old lesson that we need to relearn in every generation: We are one people. The Jewish future depends on it.