Growing up, I considered Sephardic rituals and customs to be exotic, maybe even odd, if I thought about them at all. I knew, for example, that eating rice on Passover was allowed in Sephardic homes, a strict prohibition in mine and everyone else’s I knew, as Ashkenazim. And I considered their prayerbook nusach, or style, annoying since it was different from what I knew, and therefore hard for me to follow.
Before there was Birthright Israel, the most successful Jewish communal effort to increase Jewish identity among young people, there was The Israel Experience, a like-minded effort — and acknowledged failure.
Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Family Philanthropies, recalls that Charles Bronfman announced the launch of The Israel Experience in 1992, amid great fanfare, at the major annual convention of North American Jewish federations.
If you’re an optimist and were asked to name three of the most significant Jewish events of the past 12 months, you might cite the release and emotional homecoming of Gilad Shalit after more than five years in captivity; the protest movement that spread across the Arab world, signaling an end or challenge to autocratic rule and a push for democracy; and a Jerusalem-Washington relationship bolstered by new military and strategic advances, and politically by America’s decisive efforts to thwart Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood through the United Nations and to prevent a nu
Chanukah, among its many meanings, reminds us that assimilation is not a new problem. Throughout history small pockets of traditionalists have sought to maintain their faith while larger numbers have been lost to the dominant culture or, too often, to the forces of anti-Semitism, coercion and murder.
The news reports about Israel’s latest, ill-fated public relations campaign have come and gone. But the impact lingers, and it’s worth exploring how Israeli and American Jews, despite all their professed connections, still misunderstand each other in troubling ways.
The most recent example, in brief: A $300,000 ad campaign to encourage Israelis living in America to come home, sponsored by the government in Jerusalem, became known to and immediately was criticized by mainstream, fervently pro-Israel American Jewish groups, and others, as deeply offensive.