You Shall Pursue

March 16, 2014

Sermon: Jews, Crimea, and the Importance of Diaspora

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:22 am

A few years ago, when I was living in Israel, I had the privilege of visiting Cairo with a group of friends during the Passover break (and yes, the irony is not lost on me). As part of our vacation, we went to the Etz Hayim synagogue in Cairo. The synagogue is beautifully maintained by a Muslim historical preservation group.

And while it was a joy to see a piece of Jewish history, I couldn’t help but mourn that there were no Jews left to pray in this synagogue, no children left to celebrate becoming B’nei Mitzvah, no couples to celebrate weddings. Most Egyptian Jews have immigrated to Israel, and built a life for themselves there, but there is a real loss of a community that has existed continuously for thousands of years.

And speaking of loss, in recent weeks, Ukraine has been in turmoil, and Russia has sent troops into the Crimean peninsula. One of my professors just came from a mission in the area, and she spoke movingly about the fear and confusion in the Jewish community during this time. People are scared, and confused. And on Wednesday, an envoy from the Ukranian Jewish community was refused a meeting with the Israeli government. And I worry, yet again, about what this means for the Jews.

According to current population estimates, there are about 70,000 Jews living in Ukraine, and about 17,000 of them live in Crimea. Before World War II, the Crimea was an area of remarkable autonomy for the Jews. There was agriculture, and yiddishkeit, and a thriving community supported by American philanthropy and a nascent Zionist can-do attitude.

But the War and Stalinism decimated that vibrant Jewish community, and now the Jews living there are mostly old, and there is only one synagogue.

The strength of the Jewish people has long been its interconnectedness. From the time of the earliest Diasporas, in Alexandria and Babylonia, there has been a tremendous amount of communication and movement between Jewish communities all over the world.

In the time of the Gaonim, the great early Medieval Rabbinic decisors in the 5th to 11th centuries, Jewish communities from Spain and Europe and even the Land of Israel wrote to the great academies in Persia, and so developed prayer books and practical marriage laws and many aspects of Judaism that we take for granted today. And as Babylonia shrunk in importance, the community in Spain grew in scholarship to take its place. And so to Eastern Europe, and so to America.

At the height of the Soviet Union’s persecution of the Jews, the American and Israeli Jewish communities worked together to protest and provide safe-haven for their Soviet brothers and sisters. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel staged missions to bring the persecuted Jews of Ethiopia, Yemen, and Morocco to the land. We are unique among the nations in that our commitment to protecting our own is backed up by explicit national policy.

So then, why not just send planes into the Crimea, airlift out the 17,000 Jews living there, and bring them back to Israel? Besides the fact that Israeli governmental policy has moved away from such dramatic missions, I don’t think aliyah is always the answer.

In my opinion, we are a people that is strongest when we have a healthy relationship between diaspora, and Israel. We are a people that has grown into its own scattered among the nations, carving out a place of more or less autonomy, and more or less acceptance, always surviving, and sometimes thriving. We have always been, in the words of Mordecai Kaplan, a people of two civilizations, the Jewish civilization and the civilization in which we find ourselves, and in that hybrid comes our strength.

Author and co-developer of Birthright Israel Gidi Grinstein speaks of the Jews as a people of “flexigidity.” Our customs, our language, our Torah, has remained remarkably consistent over time, which contributes to our sense of continuity. But we are also a people remarkably good at drawing from the cultures around us, at creating fluid hybrid cultures that serve our contemporary moment. Without both of these aspects, without the ability to maintain our unique pocket cultures, we lose access to the brilliant variety of experience that makes our people so vibrant and so durable.

I think of American Jewish culture. Our opportunities to grow in creative writing, literature, theater, and music. Our brilliant thinkers and writers who are able to flourish and publish in a culture with separation of church and state. The way that klezmer and African and European music blended together to create the blues. The fact that someone like Michelle Bachman will use a word like “chutzpah,” even if she can’t pronounce it. America has been good to the Jews, and good for the Jews. And so was Egypt. And so was Spain. And so was Babylonia. And so was Prague.

And this is why it is our duty to use our voices and our influence to protect Jews in other lands of the Diaspora, and not just in Israel. This is why it is so important to keep writing, and speaking to Congress members, and sending money for rabbinic missions all over the Jewish world. Because our survival and existence depends on a multitude of experiences. It is how we have become who we are today.

Next year, I will be studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And along with me, there will be several students from the Abraham Geiger Kolleg Institute of Potsdam in Germany. Yes, I will get to study with German rabbinical students. If that is not an example of a Jewish community resurfacing from the ashes, I don’t know what is. And I am sure that our shared studies will leave us all the richer. We as a community can come out from the ashes, if we support each other and help each other to grow. And we, as a community, will all be the richer for it.

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