Am Yisrael - Can We Call Ourselves One?
By Izzy Sakhaie
Unity. It’s a topic we often bring up but rarely choose to dive past the sentiment that yes, unity is in fact important. Rarely do we delve into the topic of why. Or what. Or how. We simply glaze over this idea like it’s obvious; like we have all the answers.
However, if we’re being honest with ourselves, I’d have to begrudgingly point out that we rarely take initiative to have the uncomfortable conversations, knowing that while we agree on the end-goal, we may not agree on the process.
When it comes to the idea of Jewish unity, I also have to point out that our greatest fault is our inability to hear each other’s perspectives. We’re moving so passionately in one direction that we don’t even pause to entertain another perspective.
As I heard it eloquently put by Rabbi Grossman, Chief Rabbi of Migdal HaEmek, “Our forefathers allude to the idea that as there are different faces in the world, there are different opinions. Our sages ask: “Would we go to one another and point out our physical differences? No; we accept. Why should opinions be any different?”
The important question to be asking now is how do we open up the space for these types of conversations? And more importantly, how do we do so in a way where everyone feels heard?
In my own personal endeavor to explore such questions, I was determined to create such a forum. I wanted to cultivate a space where people can have the platform to freely share their ideals regarding the issue of Jewish unity, in hopes that it would be a starting ground for a larger conversation.
After developing the Limits of Labels activities for The Israel Forever Foundation, that focus on the challenges to achieving unity as a people, I had the honor of spearheading a conversation entitled “Am Yisrael: Can We Call Ourselves One?” with a group of about 20 young women at the local seminary in Jerusalem, Israel that I attended for several months.
I began by opening the floor to them with an ice breaker, asking them to complete several phrases beginning with the words “Being part of the Jewish People...” followed by the words “makes me feel like...” or “connects me to…” or “gives me the opportunity to...” The goal was to uncover common threads between the various elements of how we feel we are able to express our Judaism. At the end, not to much surprise, the most quotes phrases and themes were “community, meaning, purpose, and being a better person.”
After, I went on to set the stage a bit more, providing various quotes such as the following:
“The bonds of Jewish peoplehood are not unbreakable. If we keep dividing ourselves, pushing away that which we don’t like and clinging only to what’s comfortable, we’ll wake up one day without a Jewish people. We’ll have small circles of like-minded people, but no eternal bond, linking us through time and space.” - Samantha Vinokor
I also shared a video titled Why I am a Jew? by the renowned Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This material was meant to spearhead additional thoughts about the idea of the importance of unity. We dove into a discussion session answering questions such as “How would you describe the concept of “Jewish Peoplehood” in your own words? Why do you feel non-Jews see us as one Jewish nation (i.e. anti-semitism is directed at all of us - not one group versus another) but we ourselves don’t feel this unity? If we take away the ability to label, would you still be able to describe your Jewish identity?”
The thoughts shared were truly incredible. The participants, many of whom have chosen a more observant path, exclaimed that they too feel this is such an important conversations - one that needs to be had because individuals from all perspectives are feeling the struggle to connect. There was a all-around appreciation for being a Jew (there were even a few emotional tears shed), but an expressed concern for the continued divide.
As one individual put it, “I think this activity created an awesome space for an important conversation. I think everyone has comments and questions about the Jewish people and how we are related despite our differences. Especially after being in Jerusalem for a while, where we are constantly exposed to the diversity amongst Jews and Israelis in general. It was great to be reminded of the power of being a Jew despite differences in observance.”
At the end of the discussion, a majority of the participants shared that this is the type of conversation that needs to be had in all settings - religious (of all denominations) and secular alike, in order to open the space for a greater understanding and unity between our people. And it is my hope that “AM YISRAEL: Can we call ourselves one?” may act as such a platform for you.