Shlicha's/Shaliach's View

After years in Tucson, seeing Jewish identity differently

Guy Gelbart
Guy Gelbart

It is time to say shalom, the He­­brew word for hello, goodbye and peace. We came in peace, we go in peace. How does one summarize three years? Do you list all the events you created or took part in? Do you make a list of achievements? What was most significant about these three years? Is it the relationships that were created? Friendships? Memories?

When I came with my family to Tucson three years ago, I came to give. I thought we were here to bring Israel to the community, to teach, to preach, to educate, to advocate, to do this and that, to give! We did not expect to receive. As time went by, reality proved us wrong: The more we gave, the more we received. With every new person we met we learned something new. With every lecture I gave I gained knowledge.

The magic of the Israel-Diaspora relationship is all about this diffusion of Jewish identity and culture. As a hiloni, a secular Israeli, I grew up with the Jewish identity of a Zionist sabra; a concept of Jews as a sovereign people, a free people in our land. We celebrated all Jewish holidays, read the entire Haggadah every Passover, fasted on Yom Kippur, built a sukkah at our home for Sukkot, yet never waited for a miracle. We spoke, read and wrote Hebrew fluently, learned the Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings) and some of the Talmud, yet never truly engaged in prayer. My relationship with God was never a significant element of my Jewish identity. Another element that was missing from my Jewish identity was the connection to Diaspora Jews. I grew up in an Israeli society in which to be fully Jewish meant to live in Israel, speak Hebrew, celebrate the holidays and serve in the Israel Defense Forces. My connection to Jewish peoplehood was through history books. Diaspora Jews were perceived as the everlasting victims, the ones who died in pogroms, who keep their heads down as they are offended by the non-Jewish majority. The role of American Jews was perceived as giving political and financial support to Israel, then making aliyah — moving to Israel and joining the real thing.

Three years of being part of the Tucson Jewish community have changed my world; have changed me and my Jewish identity significantly.

I found out that there are more shades of being Jewish than I could ever imagine. While in Israel being Jewish meant being somewhere on a one-dimensional scale between dati (religious) and hiloni, here I met multidimensional Jewish identities, with more options and versions, flavors and colors than I ever thought possible.

To some degree it was like my first experience with American cottage cheese. Buying cottage cheese in Israel is a very simple task: there are only two or three options on the shelf, they all taste good, cost about the same and come in the same size. On my first trip to the grocery store in Tucson, I found myself in a far more complicated situation: large curd/small curd, soft or hard, fat levels, variety of sizes, prices and packaging styles; I was overwhelmed by the choices.

American Jewish life was much the same story: Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Conservadox, Reform of this type, Reform of a different type, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, individualistic, cultural and the list of options goes on and on. A confusing yet magical variety; a magical candy store for the wondering Jew. At times, I got lost and confused, overwhelmed by the endless options. I met people who stretched the boundaries, raised challenging questions and presented fascinating alternatives, from meeting a Reform transgender rabbi in a shul in Los Angeles who raised questions about God’s gender to witnessing an ultra-Orthodox wedding at Chabad Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Even buying kosher food became a multiple-choice quiz with an endless list of kosher observance styles and levels.

Suddenly my relationship with God has changed from nearly not existing to “it’s complicated.” My concept of Jewish peoplehood and Diaspora Jews has completely altered.

I became fascinated by this complex multidimensional world. The deeper I went, the more people I met, the more complexities and magic I found.

With this magic, this variety, came the understanding of the huge challenge we are facing: the price we might need to pay. This magical variety makes it harder to find common ground. As Jewish identity shifts into an individualistic, consumer style of identity, we are at risk of losing our joint collective identity as a people. What are the boundaries? What is the glue that will hold us together? Do we still share the same values, memory, knowledge, faith, land and traditions? Can we find one compass that will show us the way through the desert so we don’t get lost?

All those questions have awakened within me. My family and I will bring them back to Israel with us.

We will cherish the friendships, relationships and knowledge we gained here, forever. We are taking a piece of Tucson back with us.

I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for taking this journey with us. I hope we have touched your heart, too.

May each of us find our own peace in a strong and thriving Jewish identity with Israel at its heart. May peace arrive in our days for Israel and for the world.

L’shana haba b’yerushalayim — next year in Jerusalem,

Toda Raba (thank you very much), love you all,


Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.