Habonim Dror North America

The Present Situation of B’Tnua

In Editorials/Opinions on March 9, 2010 at 9:11 pm

By: Michael Silbermann

For the past six months I have been the Editor of B’Tnua. I have facilitated many of the recent changes that it has taken in becoming an online blog, in addition to its to yearly issues. The blog has taken off with decent success. The articles on the blog are receiving a strong readership. Which leads me to believe, that when there is material to be read that the site is getting a good amount of traffic. Which has quelled my concerns that the blog would not be utilized. There are many concerns that I do have, and within the yearly issues is where they are hidden.

Where the blog was created to accept articles throughout the year, the B’Tnua issues need many articles at one time. Which in the life of a Habonim Dror North American, it is quite difficult to find the time to write for B’Tnua. This makes for the editors to organize 10 to 15 articles at one time nearly impossible. For this reason I have had to cancel the 2010 Winter Issue of B’Tnua. At this time I propose that we as a movement need to decide what kind of role B’Tnua is going to play into our lives.

Do we want to keep B’Tnua the way it is, having a continuous blog and one or two yearly issues, B’Tnua can just be limited to the blog and the yearly issues can be forgotten, or B’Tnua can be totally done away with all together. What I propose is that not only do we continue B’Tnua as the way it is, but that we reinforce and make B’Tnua stronger. That we write down the thoughts that we all have, but have not said. Because there once was a time that rather then throwing up our ideals on a list serve, that we would take the intellectual approach and write down those ideals in a well crafted article. I wonder, has the internet made us less articulate and incapable of writing grammatically correct sentences that could rock it’s reader to the core, I hope not. I am not saying that only those of us that can write as well as Thomas Friedman can write for B’Tnua. I am asking why we have given up upon writing in a scholarly manner.

This is my call to the movement. To look deep inside ourselves, and to decide what you want B’Tnua to become.  To keep it the way it is, or to have a movement news letter that truly shows the opinions and thoughts of its members.

Judaism: What Happened To The Cultural?

In Habonim Dror North America Today on March 8, 2010 at 11:36 pm

By: Itamar Landau

At this past Veida the movement made a decision that will impact the chinuch that goes on at every Machaneh this summer and into the future. After long and thoughtful discussion, the Veida voted overwhelmingly to change the name of the pillar back from Cultural Judaism to Judaism. So what’s the deal?

Some of you may not remember this but the pillar had been called Judaism until Veida XIV in 2005 when it was changed to Cultural Judaism. So does this year’s Veida decision mean that the previous one was a mistake? That we’ve wandered in error for the last four years?

I don’t think so. As I see it, both Veida resolutions are part of an ongoing push by movement members to educate more seriously about Judaism. For a long time Judaism was the forgotten pillar (just ask Sacha Baron-Cohen). Our education about Judaism only went so far as to say, “There are lots of different ways to be Jewish, and that’s great.” The standard peula at machaneh would ask chanichim what it means for them to be Jewish, maybe ask them what they do at home for Shabbat, and possibly introduce some information about the different denominations. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. It’s important to see and respect different approaches to Judaism, but what about our approach? Where and how do we find meaning in Judaism?

And out of these questions came Cultural Judaism as a pillar. We as a movement decided that while we value that there is difference within Judaism, we are not a pluralist movement. Rather we are a movement that understands Judaism in a specific way. We don’t believe the texts came from the mouth of God and we don’t believe that they have authority over our lives. Rather, we believe Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people and that we have the authority to shape and change Judaism and apply it to our current situation as a people.

So why did we get rid of the “Cultural”? Does this mean we’re going back to a vision of Judaism where everyone just does as they please? No, not at all. Instead, movement members felt that the term Cultural Judaism limited our feelings of ownership over Jewish life and limited our claim to take responsibility for shaping its future. It also gave us a simple cop-out to not engage with a lot of the content of our heritage. Now, there were plenty of people who thought that Cultural Judaism has been a very useful term in clarifying our particular approach and in fact this Veida resolution says specifically that the term should continue to be part of our lexicon. But at the end of the day, we seek to understand and create Judaism, not just as the Judaism that we happen to be comfortable with, but as the Judaism that we believe is right and true and good.

And in that spirit this year’s Veida resolution went beyond changing the name of the pillar, it also took a stab at clarifying how we as a movement understand Judaism:

Judaism is the entirety of the culture of the Jewish people. It includes traditions, rituals, history, food, values, spirituality, religion, etc. We believe that an evolving Judaism, rooted in shivyon erech ha’adam (the equality of human value), can and should be an inspiring and empowering force in our chaverim’s lives, our communities, and in Israel.

Habonim Dror’s understanding of Judaism includes all of the following:

· Claiming the Jewish historical heritage as our own, and aligning our future with the future of the Jewish people

· Striving to be a light unto the nations, based on the vision of social justice and human equality that comes to us from the Prophets and from the Chalutzim

· A commitment to the Hebrew language as a tie to our heritage and to Jews throughout the world

· A connection to the Jewish homeland, characterized by activism, cultural and political knowledge, and a feeling of ownership and responsibility over Israeli society and Zionism as a whole

· The creation and the practice of certain Jewish rituals and traditions that build community and strengthen values using food, song, dance, prayer, meditation, the observance of Shabbat, Chagim, etc.

· A commitment to the Jewish people worldwide

· An active engagement with the critical issues of our Jewish life today, including Israel, kashrut, how our communities are structured, etc.

· The knowledge and exploration of Jewish texts and stories, including the Tanakh, the Talmud, Jewish thought, Zionist texts, folktales, etc.

· A holistic way of life that guides us personally and collectively, and also evolves intentionally to both reflect and shape our values

Hopefully this definition will be a useful tool for us all personally and as educators. But this year’s Veida resolution was by no means the end of the process; it was only one more step. A step that should put out a challenge for every movement member to engage with Judaism, struggle with its traditions, pour over its texts, experience its rituals, contemplate its values, and on and on as you find what is right and true and good within it.


In Israel on December 6, 2009 at 3:14 pm

By: Lonny Moses

Reprinted with the permission from ISRJ

For the past several decades, United States political discourse on Israel has been stifled, with a hawkishly pro-Israel agenda being the only option for politicians. That, at least, is the argument of J-street, a new group that defines itself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace”. J-street sees itself as an organization that is freeing up space on Capitol Hill, by giving a voice to what Director Jeremy Ben-Ami has dubbed “the Silent Majority” of American Jews who, while Pro-Israel, recognize that Israel’s security depends on the creation of a neighboring Palestinian State and the dismantling of settlements. J-street is not attempting to be all things to all people, yet its message and policies are intentionally broad enough to encompass a large swath of left-wing Jews, as well as people of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds who support two states. At it’s first annual conference, J-street finally brought together its disparate elements from around the United States (and the world), and began to meet the challenge of bringing its members into line with its core policy principles. At the same time J-street struggled to define itself as a movement that was open to criticism, debate and complex discussion of the issues at hand.

Before the main conference even started J-streetU, the semi-autonomous daughter of the J-street organization, which operates on college campuses, had its inaugural meeting. Boasting representatives from more than seventy college campuses, J-streetU seeks to position itself as the student arm of the Pro-peace movement. Thus, the sessions offered to the conference attendees were focused on building and developing the voice of J-streetU and on learning strategies for organization. The college climate being much different from the mainstream political structures, J-streetU is exploring different ways to be inclusive of many voices and sides, while still maintaining a Pro-peace basis. In an early session, Lauren Barr (Secretary of National J-streetU and American University student) explained that this was the reason that J-streetU decided on the slogan of “Pro-Peace” rather than “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace”. Because J-streetU built its base from many existing campus organizations, some of which are now official J-streetU branches and others of which are only affiliates, its power came from building a broad platform. J-streetU includes groups from without the spectrum of Pro-peace groups, ranging from Pro-Israel groups, to Jewish and interfaith dialogue groups, to “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian” groups.

In the first Plenary session of the first night of the J-street Conference itself, it was clear that J-street was going to be coming from a Pro-Israel perspective, that the organization was also committed to the same kind of dialogue and complexity as its daughter organization. The plenary started with some speeches by the various J-street machers, but lead into a discussion on the participants’ relationship with Israel, based on questions provided at the tables. Adding to the sense that J-street was trying to encourage a real and meaningful dialogue, they projected large screens at the front of the room, where tweets with the #jstconf09 tag could be seen, updating the room on the discussions that were taking place at the other tables and proposing new questions as the participants went along.

Further breakout sessions made it clear that while J-street was willing to make some clear policy statements, and that while on other issues it would be clear where the majority of J-street supporters stood, that conversation, dialogue and complexity were at the top of the agenda. In Examining the Jewish Social Justice/Israel Divide, speakers discussed the political leanings of the Jewish community as a whole, and the dichotomy between the relative ease in fundraising for organizations that promote Social Justice in America versus those who pursue such values in Israel. Strong arguments were made on the one hand, that Jewish organizations that are devoted to Social Justice must address Israel, and on the other hand that Jewish organizations are not usually all-encompassing, and that Jews can be expected to express their values through multiple communities. In the end, no agreement was reached, but the conversation was both realistic and civil. In a later session, Noa Baum presented A Land Twice Promised, in collaboration with Theater J. The program, a one woman show, was a riveting examination of similar narratives from the perspectives of an Israeli and a Palestinian woman living and conversing in California. Baum’s powerful presentation spoke to the ability of narrative to bring a dialogue past mere dispute of facts.

J-street’s willingness to embrace various sides and to engage in dialogue was also on display when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of The Union for Reform Judaism, a vocal critic of J-street, participated in a “Jewish Community Town Hall” alongside J-street director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. Yoffie was given an opportunity to speak about his positions and disagreements with J-street, and while he drew boos from a small minority during one especially vitriolic attack against the Goldstone Report, J-street’s leadership managed to maintain the crowds order. For many of his positions, in fact, Yoffie garnered applause. After he spoke,Jeremy Ben-Ami responded with a combination of conciliatory remarks, forthright challenges and a nuanced approach to the Goldstone report that came of as intelligent, understanding and dialogue-building, after which J-street again harnessed the power of social media to engage discussion throughout the room. Using a quote from Rabbi Yoffie’s remarks, the crowd was encouraged to debate the role of Israel’s military and the need for defense, again using twitter as a platform to apprise the room of the conversations going on at each table. Tweets ranged from the simple statement that “This is not a pacifist movement”, to the realization that dealing with military and physical power is something that the Jewish community as a whole had not had to deal with in nearly two millennia before the creation of Israel.

So what are we to make of all of this? J-street, an upstart organization not yet two years old, has splashed loudly onto the scene in Washington, claiming over 1500 delegates from various communities and college campuses around the U.S. In this, its first ever conference, J-street has taken a highly nuanced approach to the task of building a coalition. The political wisdom in this country is that a 5 second sound bite is about all that one can expect a crowd of people to listen to. Well – J-street can’t be said not to understand that. It’s name and its slogan (J-street, Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace) is designed for the media and the public. Yet, in this gathering of its committed supporters and activists, J-street has shown that it is not content with blanket statements, and hardline policies. Subtlety and dialogue is the name of the game. In bringing in the numbers that it did, in attracting Jewish leaders from across the country, in holding a civil dialogue with a vocal critic, and in spurring a crowd of people who have often been on the sidelines into action, J-street has shown that it stands ready to be a game-changer in how Israel advocacy in the United States works. While establishing the core of what it believes in, J-street has also created a new space for real, complex and thoughtful dialogue on issues surrounding the conflict in Israel and Palestine.