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Winter 2003-2004

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Winter 2003-2004

MERCAZ Strengthens Israel Awareness

Despite Shlichut's Cancellation, Israel Agenda Proceeds

On June 8th, the Conservative Movement confronted the question "Ayin LeZion Zofiyah: Does Conservative Judaism Still Look Eastward to Zion" A strong affirmative response was heard at the MERCAZ-sponsored conference, which brought important speakers from the Masorti Movement in Israel to explore the current place of Zionism in the Conservative Movement.

Now, six months after the daylong conference, and despite the Jewish Agency's decision to cancel the position of the Conservative Movement's Aliyah Shaliach, MERCAZ has organized several educational programs to strengthen the connection between Conservative Jews and Israel.

First, MERCAZ and United Synagogue have put together a new "Team Israel" Study Mission. Once again co-led by Rabbi Robert Golub, MERCAZ Executive Director, and Rabbi Robert Abramson, the United Synagogue's National Director of Education, Team Israel Group II includes lay and professional synagogue leaders from Tucson to Boston, with a large group from the Midwest Region of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs. Between lectures at the Schechter Institute, meetings with Masorti Movement leaders, visits to the Fuchsberg Center and Shabbat home hospitality at Masorti congregations, the Team Israel participants will return to the United States with the inspiration and skills necessary to improve the level and quality of Israel awareness programs in congregational life.

At the very same time, MERCAZ, together with the Conservative Movement's Aliyah Committee, has sponsored a Masorti Aliyah Promotion Speaking Tour. With funding from the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Department and the North American Israel Aliyah Centers and with coordination from the United Synagogue's Midwest Region, MERCAZ has brought Neil Nahum Eisenstadt, a Conservative Jew formerly from Schenectady, NY, who made aliyah more than 20 years ago, to address a variety of Movement-affiliated audiences in New York and Chicago.

Neil, a licensed professional tour guide and active lay leader with the Masorti Movement's congregation Sukkat Shalom in Ramat Yishai, was selected by the United Synagogue's Project Reconnect-Israel and the Jewish Agency to launch this new short-term aliyah-promotion shlichut. With visits scheduled at Solomon Schechter high schools, USY chapters, adult education programs and Shabbat services, Neil has been addressing the positive aspects of Israel that have been overshadowed during the past three years of the Intifada, the social and economic challenges facing Israel, and the role of American Jews in helping Israel to create a more perfect society. Two similar speaking tours have been promised by the Israel Aliyah Center in 2004.

The irony with these new Zionist projects is that on the same day as the June Conference on the Place of Zionism, which reinvigorated the commitment to Israel, MERCAZ leadership heard for the first time about the Jewish Agency's decision to eliminate the full-time position of the Aliyah Shaliach to the North American Conservative Movement upon the completion of Karni Goldshmid-Lahav's term later in the summer.

The post of Shaliach to the Conservative Movement had been in existence since 1987 and was the product of the political alliance in the World Zionist Organization between MERCAZ and the Labor Zionist Party. For more than fifteen years, MERCAZ and the Conservative Movement had enjoyed the educational services of a shaliach who divided his/her time between counseling potential olim at the Israel Aliyah Center in Manhattan and creating Israel-awareness programs for Conservative Movement institutions from the MERCAZ office.

"We are terribly sorry to have lost our shaliach," said Elana Gershen Finkelstein, Chairperson for the Aliyah Committeee. "We understand the Jewish Agency's need to cut services to meet the fall-off of $20 million in expected revenues, but the decision to eliminate our Movement's shaliach at a time that we are interested in building aliyah from the West seems very shortsighted."

"Recent statistics show that 20% of all new immigrants to Israel from North America come from Conservative backgrounds. The number of participants in this past summer's USY Israel Pilgrimage and Ramah Israel Seminar climbed back nicely after the massive drop-off following the outbreak of the Intifada, and the enrollment in NATIV and the Conservative Yeshiva has increased greatly. Eliminating our Aliyah Shaliach at this time makes little sense."

While lobbying the Jewish Agency to restore the full-time aliyah shaliach, MERCAZ leaders have been exploring with the Jewish Agency and Israel Aliyah Center about accepting in the interim a "Shaliach Arev", a kind of Zionist "Peace Corps" worker, who would come to a community or institution, giving a year of community service in exchange for modest accommodations and reimbursement. Rabbi Paul Freedman, Coordinator of Project Reconnect-Israel, and Udi Givon, Head of Marom Olami, are screening candidates to fill this new kind of shlichut, which may provide a stopgap solution to the absence of a full-time shaliach.

 

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