New center on Israeli and Diaspora Judaism aims to mind — and bridge — the gap

(from left to right) Prof. Adam Ferziger; Prof. Elie Assis, dean of Bar-Ilan’s Faculty of Jewish Studies; outgoing head of the Conference of Presidents Malcolm Hoenlein; Prof. Arie Zaban, Bar-Ilan University president. (Itai Schremer)

The Times of Israel – By Amanda Borschel-Dan – 8 May 2018

When it comes to infighting, Jews are repeat offenders. And as the gulf widens between today’s Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities, history seems poised to repeat itself.

So maybe the best person to stop the madness is indeed a historian.

On Monday, Bar-Ilan University inaugurated the new Impact Center for Research on Judaism in Israel and North America (RJIN), to be headed by Prof. Adam Ferziger.

Over the past 20 years in the field, the Jewish historian (also an Orthodox rabbi, ordained by Yeshiva University) has realized that most previous attempts at bridging the gap echo the popular definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

It is time to shift paradigms. The new multi-disciplinary center aims to analyze the widening fissure between the two largest Jewish communities of today — Israel and the United States — and to create new tools of negotiation that should, yes, eventually, yield different results.

Ahead of Monday’s event, Ferziger explained the concept of the newly launched center to The Times of Israel. “We’re bringing to the table what we know from the past to analyze the present, and look for ways to develop more effective models for the future,” said Ferziger.

Ferziger and his staff, using creative, yet methodological thinking in a solutions-based environment, will be a start-up think tank to puzzle through the growing rift.

In today’s hyper-speed social media world, “alienation between Judaism in Israel and in North America is becoming sharper and wider and more apparent to everybody,” said Ferziger.

Bar-Ilan University Prof. Adam Ferziger, the director-designate for the new Impact Center for Research on Judaism in Israel and North America. (Courtesy)

Bar-Ilan University Prof. Adam Ferziger, the director-designate for the new Impact Center for Research on Judaism in Israel and North America. (Courtesy)

At the same time, “there’s a flatness to the world that causes things to flare — or dissipate quickly,” said Ferziger. He gives the recent example of a speech delivered by businessman philanthropist Charles Bronfman, who called for the foundation of an advocacy group for US Jews to lobby Israel about Diaspora problems.

“For the man who is the founder of Birthright to say he’s feeling alienated like he’s never felt before — it shows it’s being felt on every side,” said Ferziger.

Part of the focus of the new center, he said, will be “about how different conceptions of religion, or evolutions of religion, can interface in a less-adversarial way.”

Ferziger said they will study a “lived Judaism,” enunciating each syllable of Judaism separately and clearly, whereas most Jewish studies scholars focus on culture or peoplehood.

“Judaism as it’s developing in the sovereign state of Israel is less and less like Judaism as it’s manifesting itself in the privatized, voluntaristic world of North America.” In part, he said, this is due to the strong distinction between religion and state found in the US, but not only.

“There are fundamental structural differences that are more and more pronounced” between the two major Jewish centers. “That’s at the foundation of the tensions and why they are becoming more apparent.”

Ferziger calls for a move away from today’s attempts at mediation, which often include mantras of Jews as one people, or, conversely, bemoan evidence of a fractured relationship.

At Israel-Diaspora conferences today, he said, too often there are “a bunch of well-meaning people who just complain about each other and don’t try to understand what’s at the root. We want to draft the most nimble and informed minds to think about this problem, acknowledge that there is an adversarial basis to it, then move forward from that perspective with novel ideas for cooperation.”

To reboot the relationship, the academic laboratory will be a so-called safe space to overcome the adversarial tensions, by creating “tools for more effective navigation.” One outcome is the center’s MA program, which is set to begin in the 2019-2020 academic calendar with 10 candidates from Israel and 10 from the Diaspora. Graduates will be “specialists” in minding — and bridging — the gap.

“It will be a spawning of a new intellectual leadership… with a much more realistic and deeper appreciation for the distinctions and commonalities between the two communities,” he said.

Aside from the think tank and MA program, Ferziger is punching high with his next goal: to become a non-publicized back channel for more productive negotiations between the entire spectrum of denominations and high-level decision-makers.

“We can facilitate real focused negotiation about serious topics of conflict — conversion, access to holy places, the relationship between ideological support and identification with Israel,” he said, quickly naming only a few of the troubled hotspots.

“We can create conversations and solution-focused discussions on these issues,” he said, due to Bar-Ilan’s reputation as an academic institution that studies — without any agenda — a broad spectrum of Jewish life. “Due to our unique ‘convening power,’ people are willing to engage with us,” he said.

The center was inaugurated at a festive Board of Trustees event called “Past, Present, Future: Judaism in Israel and North America” on Monday, with a discussion with outgoing executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein. On Tuesday, Hoenlein will receive an honorary doctorate from the university.

The center is still seeking final funding and is not yet ready to release the names of its staff, all present Bar-Ilan employees, with the hope to grow in the future. The launch, said Ferziger, is a first stage in a long-term plan.

There is strong historical precedent for two thriving centers of Judaism, said Ferziger, pointing to the era some 2,500 years ago when both Jerusalem and Babylon were epicenters of Jewish learning and culture.

Tradition has it that infighting eventually led to the fiery destruction of Jerusalem. Perhaps with an ounce of prevention, this new center won’t end up the Jewish people’s pound of cure.