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Encountering Israel at the GA

by Seth Cohen
Published on November 17, 2009 in eJewishPhilanthropy

Partialness gath­ered all its parts and the whole wasn’t formed
How was the whole not gath­ered from all the parts, though
All their recesses fit and their crevices, how was
the whole not formed though all the compo­nents were set one by one…
excerpt from “Partialness Gathered” by Rivka Miriam (Israeli poet)

At its most basic, the GA is a gath­ering of Jewish people and ideas, mixed together among and around shared passions and diverse inter­ests. A modern-day Council of Four Lands, it brings together Jews from across North America and around the world collec­tively discuss to chal­lenges, seek oppor­tu­ni­ties and create bonds of fellow­ship around the common cause of commu­nity. And while the confer­ence is convened by the (newly renamed) Jewish Federations of North America, one never loses sight of the fact that the atten­dees are not only North American, but repre­sen­ta­tives of the larger collec­tive of the people of Israel – a people rooted in (and in some cases from) the land of Israel.

To that point, during my time at the GA I was struck by the fact that even though we were in the heart of Washington D.C., at the heart of my expe­ri­ence was the number of conver­sa­tions and encoun­ters I had that related to Israel. Of course there were polit­ical discus­sions – with Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing the atten­dees it was hard not to be cognizant of the chal­lenging polit­ical winds that constantly blow around (and in) Israel. But there were also conver­sa­tions that touched upon the collec­tive desire of the Zionest dream, a strong and enduring Jewish state with a compas­sionate and cognizant Jewish society living in peace with and among its neigh­bors. Danny Gordis writes in his recent book Saving Israel that the purpose of Israel is to trans­form the Jewish people, and while I believe that is correct, I also believe that the purpose of the Jewish people is to trans­form Israel – to make the partial whole. With that in mind, perhaps the most impactful conver­sa­tions I had were those that reminded me the Israel is still not yet complete – that it is a work in progress that requires the count­less efforts of passionate advo­cates and construc­tive critics in order to become more perfect.

Those trans­for­ma­tive efforts are not always easy though, and often chal­lenge our very under­standing of our own personal encoun­ters with Israel. One example of these efforts and chal­lenges is Encounter, an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion that provides Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the reli­gious and polit­ical spec­trum with expo­sure to Palestinian life. Co-founded by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub and Rabbi Miriam Margles (and a product of Bikkurim), Encounter takes Jewish groups on one and two day encoun­ters with Palestinian coun­ter­parts in Bethlehem, Hebron and East Jerusalem. During my discus­sions with Rabbi Weintraub at the GA, I was struck not only by the passion of her commit­ment to Encounter, but the power and the oppor­tu­nity of the type of trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence she and her orga­ni­za­tion offers. If our percep­tion of Israel is always partially constructed by our personal histo­ries, expe­ri­ences such as Encounter help build stronger under­stand­ings of Israel even if they disas­semble some percep­tions once thought to be unshakable.

Like my meeting with Rabbi Weintraub, at the GA there were oppor­tu­ni­ties to meet indi­vid­uals passionate about creating a more complex and complete under­standing of Israel were every­where you looked. Whether it was the profes­sionals of the Makom, a program of JAFI with a mission is to empower Jewish commu­ni­ties to develop deep, sophis­ti­cated and honest Jewish engage­ment with Israel through imag­i­na­tive content and dialogue, or with the founders of AlmaLinks, a start-up program that connects young Jewish profes­sionals around common inter­ests, there were creative leaders and promising endeavors discussing the future of Israel. But as we know from our local commu­ni­ties, passions about Israel are common, but are not always congruous and often require effort to connect diverse in our collec­tive Jewish puzzle. As my friend Eryn Kallish at Project Reconnections (a program that helps facil­i­tate such dialogue and delib­er­a­tion) recently impressed upon me, only when we encounter other percep­tions and passions in a respectful way do we truly under­stand how we can play a part in creating greater respect for Israel and its people.

So, in the spirit of my encoun­ters of Israel at the GA, let us all continue to gather the partial pieces of our common love of Israel, and let us remember that while the ingath­ering of our people is powerful, it is the ingath­ering of our ideas and efforts that can truly trans­form Israel’s encounter with the world – an encounter where the whole is certainly more than the sum of its parts.

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and inno­va­tion. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regu­larly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish commu­nity on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contrib­utor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.​cohen@​agg.​com.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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