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  • Don’t Let Israel Fail You

    29 November 2011

    AaronSimply put, there are only two distinct reactions to when a community disappointments you: do something about it or do nothing about it. Engage or disengage. Act or give up. Fight or flight.

    I understand the lure of the non-action. I know too well of its seductive power. It is easy to give up and pretend that others might do the fighting for you. From there, it is only a small leap to allow oneself to slip into apathy and not give a damn.

    I’m talking about Israel here. Specifically, I’m talking about how many American Jews of my generation have struggled with their relationship to the Jewish State.

    I remember growing up in a Jewish community. I remember being a synagogue brat being raised by an observant set of parents. I also remember the Jewish day schools and the “Hebrew High” night school that I attended when I switched over to the public school system. I remember not being able to watch Saturday morning cartoons and having to settle for catching the reruns during the weekdays.

    I remember Israel. I remember hearing about how it was the best and brightest place on earth. It was where our ancestors lived thousands of years ago, where her citizens talk in the same language that we prayed, where Jews actually could tan without turning red and maybe even compete athletically. We were told of her scientific achievements, her robust economy, her warmer climate and lower drinking age.

    This place sounded awesome.

    We visited the place when I was in third grade. I remember the wailing wall, the archaeological digs, the pizza and the beach. Then I saw a Jewish soldier carrying an M-16 in the Jewish Quarter on the Holy Sabbath. I asked my father for an explanation. He told me that there exists a whole bunch of people that want to destroy Israel and that we need to keep our guard up, even on Saturdays.

    I was flabbergasted; why would anyone want to do such a thing? The answers then came from classmates, teachers, community leaders, family and my own assumptions: anti-Semitism. The world wants us dead, simple as that.

    So I lived in a bubble of sorts; assuming that anyone who had anything bad at all to say about my ancestors’ homeland were either anti-Semitic, crazy or both. Media outlets and Jewish organizations were quick to agree with my conclusion. These people who protest the Jewish State want us dead. They are the enemy.

    For the most part, I was reasonably happy in my bubble. Israel was the land of the Jews, and I was going to defend her no matter what. Even if the detractors sounded reasonable, I just assumed that they could not possibly understand what it meant to be a Jew in this hostile world.

    Then came college, which happened around the same time as the 9/11 terror attacks. Although I was shell-shocked and filled with grief and anger, there was a part of me that felt vindicated; this is what we Jews have to deal with every day. It seemed like I was poised to push deeper into my bubble.

    But then something odd happened. I remember talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a fellow classmate. I don’t remember her name, but I remember feeling like we believed in a lot of the same things. Her politics and mine weren’t identical per say, just strikingly similar. In this conversation, she mentioned something she did not like about Israel. For the life of me, I can not remember exactly what, but I do remember the uncomfortable feeling in my gut. I also remember not arguing back about it, and feeling puzzled as to why a fair-minded person like her would say such a thing about my country. I resented her and never talked to her again.

    I did not realize it then, but this was a life-changing moment. I began to read up a bit on the conflict, not from pro-Zionist sources that I was accustomed to, but from news outlets that didn’t have a stake in the conflict one way or the other. My gut churned and churned as I read about some of the nasty, disgusting things that took place in the name of preserving Judaism.

    I then read history books, some of which were written by Israelis who love their country. These books did not paint the rosy picture that I grew up with. I learned of Deir Yassin, Revisionist Zionism, the Nakba and the Occupation.

    And the picture didn’t get any better after that either. While the main focus of my attention went towards Israeli and Palestinian issues, I learned of the massive problems within Israel as well. The number of reports of discrimination were too high to count; towards Arab Israelis, feminists, gay-rights activists, Bedouin, Russian immigrants, Ethiopian families and migrant workers. I learned of how the ultra right-wing branch of the Hasidic sect’s clout over public affairs have made a mockery of civic life. I learned how we, survivors of the Holocaust, denied entry to those seeking asylum from the genocide taking place in Darfur. Then came the proposed Rotem Bill, which personally insulted me by suggesting that I may not even be Jewish to begin with.

    All done in the name of preserving Judaism.

    So I picked flight. I checked out. I wanted nothing to do with this state. Nothing.

    One day, I found myself reading the New York Times online. You know, back when it was free. While reading the article, I somehow was drawn to a banner ad. (Whoever clicks those, right?) It was an advertisement for the NIForum, a symposium on social justice issues in Israel by the New Israel Fund. I don’t remember why I was drawn to it, but I decided to give these guys a shot and attended the forum.

    At the forum, I discovered a whole society of Jews who, like me, knew as much as I did about Israel. I began to talk with them and found that they also found a way to face these painful truths, while still holding a special place for Israel in their hearts. I learned of the amazing work NIF does by funding a whole assemblage of non-profit groups that strive to make Israel a better place. I learned of ACRI, who’s work as Israel’s premier civil rights group astounds me to this day. I learned of Shatil, which trains various grassroots-based organizations to effectively engage in civic society. I learned of NIF’s unshakable commitment to an Israel that espouses social and economic justice, religious pluralism and respect towards human rights.

    More importantly, I found friends. I found a community. I found a home. I stopped flight and chose fight. I am now a regular attendee of NIF events and currently serve as a member of the New Generations Steering Committee. This summer, I marched in the Celebrate Israel Parade with fellow NIF members, along with some our friends from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Americans for Peace Now and Meretz USA. We walked under the banners of freedom, democracy, justice and peace.

    As a result of all this activity, I have found that living in the solution makes for a better outlook on life. I also have found a new way to articulate my relationship to Israel. I am no longer angry to the point of ambivalence. I now feel empowered to do something about it.

    And that, dear reader, is where you come in. I know you might feel that the Jewish organizations of old have failed you in trying to spare you of Israel’s gritty characteristics and thus feel a reluctance to become engaged with anything that has to do with that small country over yonder. I know you might feel slighted, possibly even betrayed. I know I did.

    But I guarantee you this: if you join us and fight the good fight, you will feel so much better about your relationship to Israel, and the Jewish community at large. You’ll begin to imagine a day where peace and justice will flow through the Holy Land like a mighty stream. You’ll be able to idealize Israel again, though not through the twisted gaze of denial, but by the limitless potential you’ll witness though the work done for a brighter tomorrow.

    That is your challenge. Don’t let Israel fail you. Join us.

    Aaron Werschulz is a member of the New Generations Steering Committee in New York.

  • Equality and Justice on International Women's Day

    07 March 2014

    March 8 is International Women's Day. As a feminist member of Knesset, who began my activist career 18 years ago working for the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, an NIF grantee, I want to celebrate this day with you, my friends and partners outside Israel.

    Read more...

  • Exceptions and Expectations

    24 October 2013

    By Ruth Wilson, October 2013

    I grew up knowing that my life was an exception to the rules.

    My friends prayed on Sunday, in churches that were landmarks in my small country town. My family prayed, on Saturday, at home. We had different rules for eating. In my friends’ homes, they shared ghost stories and English classics; in ours we entered the world of the shtetl and the ghetto, our stories about dreamers of the Jewish world.

    My early experience bred the expectation that the Jewish world was itself different, exceptional. It did not occur to me that it, just like any other of my time, would be beset by gender and power games. My personal experience of service to the community in the 80s and 90s was mixed. As a provider of educational services I was fulfilled and rewarded; but I found it hard to accept that the synagogue Board on which I served regarded the issue of whether women in the Gallery could hear the sermons as an irrelevance.

    I dream that the relevance of gender as an issue will evaporate in the next 25 years. When the nature of gender equality is transformed from struggle to expectation, and the gender of human beings becomes as unimportant as the colour of their eyes, my dream will be reality.

    Ruth Wilson (b.1932)

     

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  • Fault Lines

    29 May 2014

    The fault-line that is shaking Israel runs deep under the ocean, and it is contributing to the tectonic shifts that are now rattling the landscape of the American Jewish community.

    Read more...

  • Finally, My Bat Mitzvah

    23 October 2013

    By Janet L. Falk, October 2013

    I am 60 years old. No girls of my generation became Bat Mitzvahs. It wasn't done. We attended the Bar Mitzvah services and celebrations of our male siblings, cousins and classmates, and never asked "Why not me?" Our mothers did not question this inequality either.

    About 30 years later, my two daughters each celebrated their Bat Mitzvah. They never asked "Why do I have to?," a very different question than the one my peers and I did not ask.

    It was understood that my daughters would study, learn trope, chant the parsha and give a d'var torah.

    Years later, following in their steps, I studied and became a Bat Mitzvah at age 54. It was a memorable process, one that strengthened and deepened my connection to our family's Jewish heritage.

    Thanks to the shift in gender equity, we three became Bat Mitzvahs and proudly chanted from the Torah, as my mom/their bubbie, beamed with pride.

    Janet L. Falk is a former Sisterhood President and served as an Area Director for the Northeast District of Women of Reform Judaism. She also served on the Board of Trustees of The Village Temple, Congregation B'nai Israel of New York City, where she is Co-Editor of Kesher, the monthly newsletter.

     

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  • Fish and Bicycles

    17 October 2013

    October 17, 2013

    If you've started reading a NIF News column with that title, you might just be A Certain Age.

    The feminist slogan from the 1970s isn't too familiar these days, and that has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, we know that men are worth much more than a pedaling halibut. On the other, the loss of the vociferous feminism of the '70s makes it hard to convince people that the struggle for women's rights is still real, still ongoing, and particularly in Israel, very much opposed by powerful leaders.

    That's one of the reasons we ask you to tell us your stories for the Taking Our Place campaign. We want to honor our grantee Women of the Wall on their 25th anniversary, at a time when their struggle for freedom of religion and conscience in Israel remains complicated and difficult. But we also want you to think about the evolution of women in the American Jewish community, on the bimah and behind the podium and at the table – and not just the kitchen table. So many of you have become leaders in your communities and have given voice to the struggle for an equal place -- and in the past few days, many of you have already told us beautiful and intimate stories. Women and men of all ages are making the case that when women take our place as equals, it strengthens Israel, the Jewish tradition and our vibrancy and strength as a people.

    As we told you, we will publish these stories as a supplement in Ha'aretz and the International New York Times in Israel next month. We will present some in a compilation to Women of the Wall Chair Anat Hoffman at their Rosh Hodesh celebration at the Kotel on November 4. Together, we will remind the religious authorities and the leaders of Israel that we in the American Jewish community have thrived through a growing ethos of partnership and equality, and that Israeli society stands to gain, not lose, by continuing on its own process of securing full participation by women in social, political, cultural and religious life.

    In the social change business, progress is hard and slow. NIF supporters understand that we have been working for women's rights in every sphere in Israel since our inception in 1979, and that in the face of growing religious extremism, we must continue. Please join with us in supporting our sisters in Israel, and click here to contribute to our campaign.

    Naomi Paiss

  • Free to Be

    10 October 2013

    By Dove Weissman, October 2013

    Born in the early 70s, I am a product of the women's liberation movement. I was dressed in baby bell-bottom blue jeans, if anything, and I was always told that I can be and do anything. The lyrics of Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas on "Free to be You and Me" informed my perspective of what it is to be a woman, (mother or not).

    "Some mommies are ranchers, or poetry makers
    Or doctors or teachers, or cleaners or bakers
    Some mommies drive taxis, or sing on TV
    Yeah, mommies can be almost anything they want to be."

    You get the point. As a 3rd generation American Jew, the commitment to Jewish values such as tzedakah and acts of kindness were strongly encouraged, but religious practice was more a byproduct of belonging to a Reform congregation where Jewish community was strengthened.

    I recently participated in a service at the Kotel with Women of the Wall. In addition to the WOW activists, religious women praying nearby, police, and onlookers, was my 13 year old daughter, my mother, her women's lib activist friends, and my soon to be in-laws, who are secular Israeli kibbutzniks. Standing there, I felt the complexity and immensity of the moment, all the struggles that made it possible for us to be there, together. Such places of power and spiritual significance usually help us transcend our human divisions. Yet in Israel, the transcendent and mundane are continually engaged in a magnetic dance of duality.

    There is still much work to be done to overcome the inequities of gender, class and race, yet I feel hopeful that my daughter's generation will evolve society to be even more just. After all, they are standing on the shoulders of some mighty strong giants.

    Dove is a citizen of the earth, mother, friend, sister, daughter, lover, artist, health and wellness enthusiast, and occasional writer.

     

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  • Freedom

    08 May 2013

    Wednesday, May 8, 2013


    Friends,


    Big news -- On Monday night 9 Eritrean female asylum seekers and their 10 children were released from a detention center in Israel. The asylum seekers had not committed any crime, but were facing indefinite detention for entering Israel without proper documentation.


    In recent years Israel has been struggling with how to manage an influx of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. There are no simple answers to the dilemmas posed by the needs of the refugees, but certainly locking up children is not the answer.


    The release of these families is a step towards a better Israel. And it’s a testament to the impact of NIF’s work to build a more just and equal society.


    Here is a photo of Solomon, two years old, reunited with his father. Solomon was released after being imprisoned for one year with his mother:



    This change did not happen all on its own. Israeli activists -- backed by the New Israel Fund -- kept this issue on the public agenda. And they pursued a legal strategy to press the Interior Ministry to release the children on humanitarian grounds.


    The breakthrough came last week. Raya Meiler, an Israeli attorney, argued in court that two Eritrean girls she represents should be released because that’s what’s best for the children. No child should be forced to grow up behind cement walls and steel bars.


    The court agreed. It ordered the girls and their mother set free. Yesterday's release of the remaining Eritrean children from detention -- including two-year old Solomon -- follows from this precedent. Our hope is that the remaining refugee children in detention, from Sudan and other countries, will also be released soon.


    You and I know that social change is never easy, but it’s what NIF does: We invest in Israelis committed to the principles of equality and democracy. We support organizations working for a better Israel. And we provide training and advice to these social change activists so that they can be as effective as possible.


    The impact of our strategy is clear when you look at the players behind this story:


    Raya Meiler -- the attorney who successfully argued that children should be released from detention -- is a recent graduate of NIF's Law Fellows program. This program is an investment in the next generation of Israeli civil rights lawyers.


    The Hotline for Migrant Workers -- the organization that Raya works for and which coordinates much of the work regarding the rights of asylum seekers in Israel -- got its first ever grant from NIF 13 years ago and continues to receive NIF support.


    And none of this would be possible without individuals like you. Individuals who care about equality and democracy in Israel, who know that we can accomplish more when we join together than we can apart, and who care enough to invest in Israelis working to help Israel to be a more free and open society.


    Make a donation to the New Israel Fund now. Support equality and democracy in Israel.


    Thank you for being a part of this community.



    Daniel Sokatch
    CEO, NIF


    P.S. -- Here's what Raya emailed us about the value of the Fellowship that NIF sponsored: "The broad legal knowledge I picked up during my year at the Washington College of Law was a huge help in my work on these cases. So NIF also has a place of honor in these victories."


    This is your victory too.