Virginia Commonwealth University

The Holy Land Away From Home: Richmond’s Jewish Community And Its Connection To Israel

Posted: May 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Portfolio | No Comments »

The Holy Land Away From Home: Richmond’s Jewish Community And Its Connection To Israel from Doug Callahan on Vimeo.

Doug Callahan and Eric Steigleder

The rabbis we spoke to represent these Jewish movements:
Reform:  Less emphasis on strict, biblical requirements. But in recent years, Reform Judaism has taken a more traditional turn.
Conservative: Somewhere between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. There is a stronger emphasis on traditional practices than Reform, but more progressive than Orthodox.
Orthodox: Highly traditional. Worship services are conducted in Hebrew. There is a belief in the divine creation of the Torah.
Chabad-Lubavitch: An offshoot of Hasidic Judaism with traditional leanings. There is a strong emphasis on intellectualism.

“There’s no such thing as a monolithic view,” Reform Rabbi Jesse Gallop said.

Indeed, Jews in Richmond are nothing if not nuanced. While the vast majority of the community expressed support for Israel, they differed in the extent of their support and the reasoning behind it. In developing their connection to the land, members of the community pull from different combinations of religion, culture, and history.

From the birth of monotheism to the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, the land of Israel has served as a religious and cultural bastion of Jewish identity. It is because of this rich history that many modern Jews have placed Israel at the center of their religious faith and political worldview.

This support has been brought into sharp focus following the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. Beginning with the overthrow of the Tunisian regime and quickly followed by the toppling of Egypt’s government, the extent to which these popular uprisings will affect Israel has yet to be seen.

With widespread revolts in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and an entrenched, NATO-supported opposition leading a military campaign against the Libyan government, Israel’s future safety has been called into question by many supporters.

Senator John McCain voiced such a concern to Greta Van Susteren, saying, “Israel is in danger of being surrounded by countries that are against the very existence of Israel, are governed by radical organizations.”

This unwavering support of Israel is nothing new for American political leaders, and it’s certainly not uncommon for American Jews.

According to a 2010 Brandeis University study, some 63 percent of those surveyed who identify as Jewish said that they “felt ‘very much’ or ‘somewhat’ connected to Israel,” while 75 percent stated that “caring about Israel” was integral to their Jewish cultural heritage.

The same holds true here in Richmond, where the small but active Jewish community feels a strong connection to the land, even from 6,000 miles away.

According to executive director of the Richmond Jewish Community Center Jordan Shenker, the Jewish community in Richmond is relatively small, numbering only 10,000 individuals.

“When you have a minority population in that range of minority,” Shenker said, “you have some verifiable challenges to say ‘how do you build community?’”

But Rabbi Yossel Kranz, executive director of Chabad of Virginia, pointed out that although the community is small, it is extremely active.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Richmond Jewish community is one that is very involved,” Kranz said. “As diverse as we may be, everybody is involved. Everybody participates.”

This involvement dates back to Virginia’s colonial era, according to Virginia Commonwealth University’s World Religions website.

Isaiah Isaacs, the first Jewish resident of Richmond to appear in historical records, was a Revolutionary War veteran and patriot. Isaacs was also a merchant, and following the war, he and a partner founded a business which came to be known by locals as “The Jews Store.”

In 1789, Richmond became the home of Beth Shalom, only the sixth Jewish synagogue in the country at the time.

This history of Jewish involvement in the history of Richmond carries over in the Civil War as well. As president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis’ secretary of state, secretary of war, and attorney general were all Jewish.

The Jewish population in Richmond has continued to grow and thrive, as evidenced by the number of temples, schools, and organizations that have appeared to cater to what has been identified as a relatively small group.

With such an active minority, it’s not surprising that the issue of Israel would be one Richmond Jewish leaders would be more than willing to discuss. Indeed, the very existence of a Jewish state has been at the forefront of Jewish life the world over.

Fol­low­ing Israel’s dec­la­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence in 1948, armies from Syria, Lebanon, Jor­dan, Iraq, and Egypt led an inva­sion into the newly-formed nation to defend what they viewed as the Pales­tin­ian home­land. An armistice signed in 1949 estab­lished an uncer­tain peace between Israel and its neighbors.

In 1967, Dur­ing the Six Day War, Israel was again embroiled in con­flict with Syria, Egypt and Jor­dan. With the con­clu­sion of hos­til­i­ties, Israel gained con­trol of the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Penin­sula and the West Bank.

Con­flict reared its head once again in 1973 dur­ing the Yom Kip­pur War, in which Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in an effort to recoup land lost in the Six Day War. The fight­ing ended when cease­fire agree­ments were signed the fol­low­ing year.

The Camp David Accords, signed by Pres­i­dent Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Min­is­ter Men­achem Begin of Israel in 1979, estab­lished peace between the two coun­tries. Under the terms of the agree­ment, Egypt would rec­og­nize Israel as a legit­i­mate state, and Israel would sur­ren­der con­trol of the Sinai Penin­sula to Egypt.

In 1982, fol­low­ing increased ten­sions with the Pales­tin­ian Lib­er­a­tion Orga­ni­za­tion (PLO), Israel invaded Lebanon. In 1987, Pales­tini­ans led the first intifadah, a pop­u­lar upris­ing in response to Israeli occu­pa­tion. This was fol­lowed by a sec­ond intifadah in 2000.

The Oslo Accords, a treaty signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993, estab­lished the prece­dent that both par­ties would rec­og­nize the oth­ers right to exist. How­ever, it was not enough to stave off this sec­ond upris­ing, nor has it calmed ten­sions between the two groups.

With this long and ardu­ous his­tory, it makes sense that many Israelis, as well as a large con­tin­gent of Dias­pora Jews (mem­bers of the Jew­ish faith liv­ing out­side of Israel) take the bib­li­cal com­mand­ment to occupy the Holy Land seriously.

Jonathan Waybright, professor of world studies at VCU, has studied Israel extensively. He said the religious reasons for the Jewish connection to land is simple, and it can be found in religious text.

“The land is the promise,” Waybright said. “You can read in lots of places in the Bible that God promises the land, and the Jews are to take possession of it . . . So it’s the promised land for Judaism and for Jews.”

However, Waybright said that the history of the area makes the issue much more complex.

“It’s a little bit more tricky, historically,” Waybright said, “because lots of little people seem to be getting pushed around the block in the world. And Judaism felt that it got pushed around a little bit, and it’s now pushing back into that land.”

Reform Rabbi Jesse Gallop of Congregation Beth Ahabah said, “When Israel was founded, through the Six Day War, up into the seventies, there was a view of Israel as an underdog.”

“As Israel has stabilized and strengthened,” Gallop continued, “it has become a first world country, with great medicine, technology, stable economics. And especially during the 90s, when it started to make peace with its neighbors, there was a euphoria like, ‘wow, no longer is it the weak little cousin. It can hold its own.’”

Conservative Rabbi Gary Creditor cautioned that although Israel has grown by leaps and bounds, it still has its fair share of enemies. Therefore, though he said that disagreements with Israeli policy are legitimate, he feels he must maintain strong support for the nation of Israel.

“Because there are those who not just disagree with Israel, but want to see Israel destroyed,” Creditor said.

For America’s part, governmental policy has long showed a strong support for the state of Israel. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has provided close to $3 billion to Israel every year since 1985.

Waybright suggested that the stance is one based on security.

“It’s in our best safety interest to have an anchor in the Middle East,” Waybright said.

However, he also insisted that he doesn’t know the real reason for America’s support, and that very few people truly understand the politics involved.

“No matter what local Jews may be doing here,” Waybright said, “they’re certainly supporting the lobby all over the states that is interested in gaining billions of dollars from the United States. Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t know.”

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