Home Religion a conversation with Orly Erez-Likhovski

a conversation with Orly Erez-Likhovski








Last week, I sat with a group of Jews in a synagogue. It was an adult education session, and I had asked them to complete the following sentence: “When I think of Israel, I am…”

Those were the reactions – what goes through their minds as they think about Israel, and what goes through their souls as they think about Israel.

I was shocked, but I was not entirely surprised.

I have come to understand, and even accept the fact that the emotional ties of American Jews to Israel might not be as deep as we had once imagined them to be.

Let me give you just one data point for this.

Consider the Taglit Birthright program, which sends young American Jews for intense experiences in Israel. It has vastly increased the number of young American Jews who have visited Israel. I recently heard that 53,000 young Jews have registered for upcoming Birthright trips. 30,000 will go, and the rest are on waiting lists.

This is amazing.

But, it does not obscure another fact. In his new book on Israel, Impossible Takes Longer, Daniel Gordis compares the statistics of Jews in Diaspora communities who have visited Israel. 70 percent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel. 95 percent of Jews in the UK have visited Israel. 70 percent of French Jews, who have a habit of staying – largely, because of their perception that Jewish life in France has become increasingly dangerous. 70 percent of Mexican Jews have visited Israel. More than half of Argentinian Jews have visited Israel.

American Jews? 40 percent.

So, yes – there is emotional distance between many American Jews and Israel.

Fifty years ago, the Arabs launched a surprise attack on Israel. It was probably the most precarious single moment in Israel’s existence, up to that moment. We know those dark days as the Yom Kippur War. The military threat was real, and it was existential. Israel felt that everything was at stake.

Everything seems to be at stake again.

The election of this current government of Israel, with its extreme right wing, racist, homophobic, and the-majority-of-American-Jewry-phobic elements has shaken the Jewish world — in a way that we have never seen.

The current situation has only exacerbated the emotional distance between American Jews and Israel. We are at an existential crisis with each other. To quote one of my colleagues, we need family therapy. 

So, let me introduce you to an institution in Israel that you need to know about – now, more than ever — IRAC – the Israel Religious Action Center. It is affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which is Reform Judaism in Israel.

Their work has never been more crucial.

For decades, IRAC has been struggling for Israel’s democratic soul. It fights both for religious pluralism and against gender segregation in the public sphere.

This has often been a lonely battle. But over the past nine months – nine months! A gestational period! — the pro-democracy protests have brought millions of Israelis into the streets. They know that when you are fighting for Israel’s democratic character, it also means fighting for an inclusive Jewish identity. There is more than one way to be Jewish, and Orthodox extremists do not have the exclusive right to define Judaism.

So, in this podcast, we welcome Orly Erez-Likhovski. Since November 2022, she has served as the executive director of IRAC. She graduated from the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University. After clerking at the Israeli Supreme Court, she studied for a Masters degree in Law at Columbia University, New York, focusing on human rights, and she is a member of both the Israeli and the New York bar.                                                               

One last thing.

We are in the festival of Sukkot, the celebration of the harvest, when Jews dwell temporarily in ramshackle booths — the sukkah.

The sukkah is not only a booth, or a hut. It is a metaphor for any dwelling that is shaky and unstable.

As in this quote from the prophet Amos (9:11):

On that day,
I will set up again the fallen booth of David [sukkat David ha-nofelet]
I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew.
I will build it firm as in the days of old…

The prophet does not call the kingdom of David and Solomon a house, or a castle. He calls it a sukkah — a vulnerable structure.

Fifty years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel is still vulnerable to external military threats; that would be called Iran.

But, also fifty years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel is vulnerable to internal existential and moral threats.

That is why I am glad that IRAC exists. Listen to the podcast, and revel in the work that Orly and her partners are doing.



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