It took a flight around the world for Israeli filmmaker Daniel Syrkin to hear about the Ezrat Israel, the section set aside for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“It’s amazing to me that I had to go all the way to the US to learn about the egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel,” he said of his Los Angeles visit last August. “The first thing I did was go to the Kotel when I came back.
I felt that it was normal that I can touch the stones with my wife.”
Syrkin explained his involvement with Community, a project launched by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Gesher that aims to capture the most important issues for Jews in the Diaspora. In doing so, the project hopes to heal the growing rift between Israelis and their fellow Jews around the world.
World Jewry is very familiar with the State of Israel, but with this project, they were able to meet some impressive personalities of the Jewish State, Syrkin told The Jerusalem Post. He was part of the third Community delegation that returned last month from Los Angeles, where they visited Jewish schools and college campuses, and met with community members, leaders and rabbis.
Each Community project is comprised of 10 meetings with approximately 20 participants and includes an in-depth visit to Jewish communities outside Israel.
Syrkin talked about his experience speaking to Los Angeles Jews on behalf of Community and why reaching out to Jews outside Israel is so important.
Why did you decide to take part in the Community initiative?
It was very significant for me. I was so entrenched in my work, and suddenly I had an opportunity to explore my Jewish identity. I was told I’d meet American Jews and hear their stories – that really appealed to me. I have an older sister who lived in the States for 40 years. I’ve been there many times, but never really met communities and their leaders. The Los Angeles community is the third largest in the world and I was really moved when I saw their commitment to Israel and Judaism.
Based on your experience with Community, how has your relationship with Israel and the Jewish world evolved?
I always felt that Israel has a role for all Jews that just became more pronounced when I visited America, especially when it comes to secular Jews. They have their synagogue and religion, and Israel brings them a sense of unity. It’s important to them that Israel is a modern and democratic country.
Since I don’t live there, I would say my role as a Jew in the big picture is to make Israel a better place so it appeals to all Jews.
Israel is a small place, and sometimes living here, especially now, it’s very easy to forget the historical role of Israel or the scale of imagination and vision our founding fathers had. When you go overseas, you really see how significant that is to other people.
It also made me think of myself as a Jew in the world. Whenever I go to any other country and meet Jews, I feel an intense connection. I think it’s because my family is from Moscow, and was raised by an ultra-Zionist family. My father left all his achievements just to come to Israel. They instilled in me a feeling that sacrificing for Israel is worth it.
During my time in Los Angeles, I met young Jewish students in UCLA and it was very emotional for me. Some of these students were not Jewish by halachic standards, and you have to think how this country needs to find a way to build bridges with these people.
What do you think are other big challenges facing Jews in the Diaspora?
I wouldn’t be the first to say assimilation.
I don’t know if that’s the politically correct word to use these days, but that’s what it is.
Liberalism is a challenge too; the fact that Jews have such a great life and great opportunities in the secular world will reduce the number of Jews in the Diaspora.
I’m not sure it can be stopped, but we need to focus on keeping the Jews who want to be connected and reach out to them.
We also need to reexamine the “Who is a Jew?” question – those who feel Jewish and have a strong connection to their faith. As Jews we have an obligation to keep them as part of our family.
Living in Israel, you have a narrow view of what Judaism is. Seeing Reform and Conservative Jews shows that there’s a lot of ways to be Jewish and live a much more Jewish life than I do.
The Israeli government’s policy has shifted in recent years to take world Jewry more into consideration. Why do you think that is?
There are two things we need to do: One, if we maintain a liberal and democratic Israel, this will appeal to the Diaspora, and two, we need to see outside of our internal politics, which are influenced by haredim [ultra- Orthodox Jews] and special interests. We need to remember that there is a bigger picture, and make sure all Jews feel like they are a part of us.
Do you think Israel has an image problem around the world? If so, what can Jews do to help?
Israel has a terrible image problem. I make films and I’ve been showing my films in various forums over the years. One of the most important things we can do is invest in our culture and to make the name Israel synonymous with other things than war and occupation. I’m really not this extreme leftist, but believing in peace is an appealing notion. Being a peaceful nation can give hope to my children and children all over the world. Lately, I have a feeling people can’t just continue keeping the status quo.
Tamara Zieve contributed to this report.