They say you can never know a person until you have walked in his or her shoes. And if that's true, I can tell you that I will never truly understand Einat Wilf: while I didn't physically try them on, the heels alone made them impossible for a balance-challenged person like me.
But moving beyond the literal shoe-walking or not-walking, the talk at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, sponsored by Jumpstart as part of their open-to-all Innovation Forum series, was enlightening on a personal and professional level to me. I had already heard MK Wilf speak at a previous ROI Summit, but the opportunity to learn more about her personal background and connections with both Israel and the Diaspora provided much food for thought.
She began by noting her connections to both Kol Dor and the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (yes, this organization has been brought to you by the letter 'P'). She spoke about her early roots speaking abroad on behalf of Israel, and, in response to the constant question as to what American Jews can do for Israel, spouted the party line - "make aliyah!" She soon realized that there was a contract operating between American and Israeli Jews - that you could live in Israel, which was a hard existence, or you could live in America, which was an easier existence, but would also leave you wracked with guilt. Something new was needed.
Kol Dor, a new organization, provided the structure for people to be part of several places at the same time. Technology made it cheap and easy to connect, and since Judaism doesn't have a pope, who is to say what is right for the Jewish people or for Israel. Wilf noted that this has become a global opportunity to innovate, just like Zionism, to decide what the "mitzvot of Zionism" were. She took this opportunity to introduce the concept of a document that might outline the "mitzvot of Peoplehood" - a list of things that you are supposed to fulfill, responsibilities to Jewish peoplehood. Later she brought up the concept of writing a manual or a social contract - naming things like carbon neutrality and Hebrew study as potential pillars.
I thought the concept of codifying responsibilities to Israel and Jewish peoplehood was really interesting - the conversation on peoplehood seems to sometimes lack a specificity of responsibilities and definite descriptors. Who are the insiders, the outsiders and those who are on the borders between the two? Who decides where the lines are drawn, and what makes people feel like they belong or are just outside belonging? Should some Hebrew fluency be mandatory?
My gut reaction to Hebrew fluency - perhaps the easiest of these questions - was a resounding "yes," but that's easy for me to say because I already speak it and know how immeasurably enriched my own understanding of Israeli life and culture is as a result. But to learn Hebrew from scratch, especially as an adult without the benefit of my decade+ of dayschool education, is more difficult - it starts with an entirely different alphabet and from an entirely different direction. Requiring Hebrew as part of Jewish peoplehood or as part of a citizens' oath to the State of Israel might be for the good of the country, the unity of the people. It would undoubtedly deepen the connection between ancient text and modern slang, between cities tread by biblical or contemporary sandals. But it undoubtedly creates an obstacle for others which may not be a fair cost to demand in exchange for belonging.
Wilf noted her conviction that every Jew should make Israel their first or second home, explaining that by this she meant not just donating money or making aliyah, but creating a lifelong meaningful engagement. "Make Israel one of the meaningful relationships in your life," she urged.
One of the questions in the room was about innovation - is there such a thing as too much? Wilf explained that there was a huge space between the old structures and the young people wanting to engage, and that maybe this meant that far from innovation being in a "too much" state, perhaps there's not enough innovation. "No one says 'go and innovate," Wilf said. "You need the confidence to move forward - they need that message, the license to create Jewish life that fits your needs."