How to be Jewish in the diaspora


I set foot in Israel for the first time in June 1965. Having just turned 21 and looking forward to my senior year at Columbia come September, I was to spend most of my summer volunteering at K’far Menachem, a Mapam (seriously socialist) kibbutz located roughly in the center of the triangle formed by Tel Aviv, Be'er Sheva and Jerusalem.

When I landed at what was then a rather shabby Lud (now Ben Gurion) airport, a couple of members of K’far Menachem were waiting to put me, my backpack, my banjo and my guitar in the open back of a truck and whisk me off to the kibbutz.

Before I climbed onto the truck, one of the kibbutzniks told me, in slow, comprehensible Hebrew, “Im atah rotseh l’hiyot Yehudi, atah tsarikh lagur po  v’l’daber Ivrit,” or, “If you really want to be a Jew, you must live here and speak Hebrew.”

The fact that I was planning to apply to rabbinical school and eventually become a rabbi in the Reform Movement did not seem to impress him.  The root, the very essence of Jewish identity, from this young man’s perspective, was land and language – the land of Israel and the language of Hebrew.

It comes as no surprise that the events of Oct. 7 and its aftermath – the barbarous, murderous Hamas attack on Jewish settlements in southern Israel, followed by the Israeli army’s retaliation, killing close to 30,000 Gazans as of press time, most of them women and children – have caused many of us American Jews to reconsider our relationship with our fellow Jews in Israel.

Many writers for magazines and newspapers have published probing articles in the wake of these tragic events, such as the one in the Jan. 15 issue of The New York Times headlined “Is Israel Part of What It Means to Be Jewish?  Now, the Answer Varies.”

To answer the question posed in the headline, for most American Jews, Israel is part of what it means for us to be Jewish, but certainly not all of our Jewish identity.

As many of us have come to understand since the founding of Israel on May 14, 1948, we American Jews have developed a profoundly deepening sense of how our identity differs from the nationalist sensibilities of Jews living in the nation of Israel.

The author of the Times article, Marc Tracy, focuses on the thinking of Rabbi Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, whose recently published book, “The Necessity of Exile,” argues that “Jews today outside Israel – 75 percent of whom live in the United States (6,000,000 or so) – should embrace diaspora, the state of lives outside of homeland, as a permanent and valuable condition.”

While more Jews today live in Israel – approximately 7 million – than in any single diaspora community, somewhat more Jews live in the combined diaspora communities than in Israel.  That is reason enough for us Jews who do not live in Israel to develop a Jewish identity that acknowledges the complexity of who we are, from whence we have come, and to where we are headed.

Here in America we must build a Jewish existence that embraces the opportunities and challenges of our particular diaspora community, while continuing to nourish and to be nourished by our fellow Jews in Israel.

To quote my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, reading the recent Times article on the meaning of diaspora was like experiencing “déjà vu all over again.”

Ever since my first visit to Israel back in the summer of 1965, I have known both viscerally and intellectually that my identity as a Jew is conditioned by the fact that I live in the American diaspora.  Like my fellow Jews here in the United States, I am a creature of the diaspora.

It is no accident that those basic Hebrew words spoken to me by a kibbutznik from K’far Menachem have stuck with me for almost 60 years, for it was at that moment that I came to grasp the fact that the Jewish identity of an American cannot possibly be that of an Israeli Jew.

To state the obvious, we American Jews do not live in Israel and do not speak Hebrew as our daily language of discourse.  We are citizens of the United States, we call our land America, and we speak English as we go about our lives.  Because we live in the diaspora – that is, outside of Israel – our Jewish identity is ethnic and/or religious, but not national.

And yet … and yet …. During each of my subsequent visits to Israel, I have experienced a deepening feeling of identity with both the land in all its physicality and with the language of Hebrew.  In a certain sense, I was beginning to feel that Israel is a place in which I could truly belong.

Does my love for America and my evolving love for Israel mean that I contradict myself?  To quote Walt Whitman (1819-1892), one of America’s greatest poets, “Do I contradict myself?/Very well, then … I contradict myself.”

And so it is that in the end, when I am being lowered into my grave, the Jerusalem stone that I stuffed into my backpack on the Erev Shabbat prior to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, shall accompany me in my casket.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at