Editor’s Note: As Roey’s term as NFTY Shaliach comes to a close, this will be his final edition of Israel Thing. Please join us in thanking him for his incredible contributions to NFTY during his time with us. As we approach the summer, Israel Thing will revisit some of our favorite editions over the last three years with commentary from members of NFTY. We look forward to bringing you an exciting array of editions in the fall.
It’s not going to be an extraordinary statement saying New York City is a fascinating place. Not for nothing is it sometimes called “the capital of the world.” It is exemplified in front of my eyes almost every day when I ride the subway together with a mass of people making their way to their destinations. In one car you may find Caucasians, Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Middle-Easterners, Indians and the amazing thing is they all (with the exception of the tourists) call this city their home. Businesspeople in suits beside construction workers in overalls, young and old, crowded together — and I find myself blending in. There is something in these moments that makes me feel like I’m in a Hollywood movie. And I know that like every movie, this one is bound to end. Because as much as much I love New York, my heart is still in the east, and so are my family, some of my close friends, my nurturing culture and my native language. After living abroad for a while it will surely feel good to come back to my most familiar surroundings, though I myself am not going to be the same person as I was when I left.
Before my Shlichut I didn’t give much thought or deliberate expression to my Jewishness. I did celebrate Jewish holidays (many of which are national holidays in Israel) and I am somewhat knowledgeable about their history and culture (which is taught in public school), but I took my Judaism for granted as it was part of my overall identity as an Israeli. Like most Israeli Jews I have never affiliated with a particular Jewish denomination, mainly because it seems redundant. Life in the reborn modern Jewish state provided all the spiritual and cultural aspects I needed (and sometimes even pushed too much by legislating religious principles I consider to be religious coercion). Nonetheless, living outside of Israel’s borders, among American Jewry, inspired my Jewish life in many ways and it’s not an exaggeration to say that my experience at the URJ made me rediscover my Jewish identity.
What struck me the most in working with NFTY and Reform congregations was witnessing how devoted people here are to preserving Jewish tradition while still maintaining a progressive liberal way of thinking. They aren’t afraid to raise tough questions and introduce innovation to their heritage while confronting its ideas with their own values. This experience greatly affected the way I perceive my own Judaism when I finally realized that it’s all about people finding their own spiritual path. For some, prayer is their observance, but for others it’s social action, cultural arts or the love of Israel. All these years I considered myself a secular Jew, but that might be true only according to some specific definitions. We can all find our observance if we wish to and therefore we are all observant in different ways.
In the same way, I believe that every Jew can find his or her own connection to the state of Israel as a fundamental element to our Jewish identities and to our connections to the Jewish people. Rather than just been seen as a national political expression, Israel can also serve as a vehicle for personal and social expression through cultural, spiritual and religious innovation. I hope that during my time here I have managed to convey this message to the people with whom I engaged. Sometimes it’s challenging, especially when there are many disconcerting issues within the Jewish state including the situation of Reform and Conservative Jews who are not granted the same rights to practice Judaism as their Orthodox brethren. Nevertheless, distancing ourselves from engagement with Israel just avoids the problem and even increases it. It is our common responsibility to continue the educational discourse about Israel in order to make it an object of interest, inspiration and identification among young Reform Jews. Because with combined effort, the liberal approach I discovered here could surely become a key element of mainstream Israeli Judaism that is still very much a work in progress.
Rega Shel Ivrit
Yalla bye! – (See you!)
This is a popular slang phrase in everyday Hebrew, a combination of the Arabic word Yalla, meaning “come on,” “let’s go” or “hurry up” and of the English word bye meaning “see you”. This combination is used as a farewell expression (usually when you are in a hurry). It might seem strange that I choose for the final section of Rega Shel Ivrit, a phrase with no Hebrew in it. However I think it well represents the Israeli society, which is influenced both by the world-dominant western culture and its close Middle-Eastern neighborhood. Israel is just one of these places, and I thank you for letting me tell you a little bit about it.
About the Author
Roey Schiff is the NFTY Shaliach. Roey grew up in Ein Vered, Israel and has experience working with teens and leadership development. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Business Management from Ben Gurion University. In September 2010, Roey moved to NYC to act as the NFTY and Israel Programs Shaliach as part of the URJ Youth Division.