Reflections on the Mizrachi World Orthodox Israel Congress
BY ODELIA GLAUSIUSZ
Walking into Mizrachi’s World Orthodox Israel Congress last Thursday, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After picking up my name tag, I tried to orient myself. The lobby was filled with book stands and people were milling around. The international flavor of the event was obvious; a friendly lady from San Diego introduced herself to me as we walked upstairs, and I soon bumped into delegates I knew from London. There was a palpable sense of enthusiasm and optimism in the air.
Dr. Rena Novick, Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, summed up the atmosphere of the Congress: “It’s incredible to be with so many like-minded people who are committed to advancing the Jewish story, to advancing the Religious Zionist story; people who are both bright-eyed but also reasonably realistic about the challenges we face.” By the end of the day, I saw that Dr. Novick’s insight was spot on. The panelists were thought-provoking and forthright in addressing our community’s challenges, but also hopeful that these challenges could be overcome.
Miriam Peretz, recipient of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society, set the tone in her opening address. She stressed that our strength as Jewish people in the Land of Israel is due to the ruach, the spirit, of the people who live here. Above all, she emphasized that we are obligated to look out for one another. “When I see you,” she said, looking out at the audience, “I see yachad, oneness. I feel that you are my brothers and sisters.” Natan Sharansky gave the final opening address, and similarly concluded his speech with the words, “Zionism unites everyone.” For him, as a Jew in Ukraine, “to be Jewish was to be born with a disease.” But after 1967, Israel entered his life. He realized we are a people with an incredible history that he, too, could be a part of. “You discover you have a family, a state. When you discover this identity, you have the strength to start fighting… you are sure that all of Israel is fighting for you.”
In a later session I sat next to another friendly lady, who turned out to be Sondra Sokal, vice-chair of World Mizrachi. She commented that though the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israelis has so often been antagonistic, “this [Congress] has been so different, so purposeful, and so focused on bringing people together. It’s refreshing.” Similarly, Rabbanit Rachelle Fraenkel noted the “interesting blend of people that came from abroad,” and the sense of connection between everyone: “There’s a lot of excitement, a feeling of growth of Religious Zionism in chutz la’aretz, and it wasn’t always that way. It’s growing again, and there’s enthusiasm and a great energy here.”
At a session on “Defining and Developing Women’s Torah Leadership,” a vibrant panel of inspiring female educators spoke with infectious passion. They addressed the unique contributions that female community leaders have to give, and the need not only for Torah teachers, but also for lay leaders to properly guide and impact the lifestyles of Jewish women today.
The need for leadership was a consistent theme throughout the day. At a session addressing the worldwide shortage of educators and rabbis, the panelists discussed the severity of the problem as well as creative plans to increase the number of quality candidates entering the field. I was struck by these educators’ idealism, and left the room with a better understanding of the challenge and renewed hope for the future of Jewish education.
Another fascinating panel addressed the ways in which technology is reshaping Judaism, while a rooftop tour of Jerusalem offered a succinct and eye-opening explanation of Jerusalem’s current geopolitical climate. The last session I attended, “From Antisemitism to Ohr Lagoyim: Religious Zionism’s Moment to Impact the Nations of the World,” was an eye-opening discussion between two Jews and two Christians about Am Yisrael’s impact on the broader world. Whether we realize it or not, millions of non-Jews around the world are turning to us for leadership.
Rabbi Leo Dee opened the evening Mishmar sessions with moving words about faith and how a growth mindset is the key to happiness. He asked us all to “take energy and direct it into something you’re passionate about, in memory of Lucy, Maia and Rina.” It was a fitting challenge to end an extraordinary day. How will the hundreds of rabbis, educators and lay leaders present channel the passion and insight gleaned from the Congress when they return to their communities? By the look of inspired determination on the delegates’ faces, it was clear they are up for the challenge.
Odelia Glausiusz recently moved to Jerusalem where she works as a freelance writer.