No, it’s not about the Crusades or any Christian movement in the Holy Land. Catholic Israel was a term used by the great Jewish organizer (and my personal hero) Henrietta Szold. You may remember her as one of the founders of Hadassah who built the first modern hospitals in Israel, and organized the Kindertransport that rescued thousands of children from Nazi Germany, Some of us also know her as a dynamic editor of the Jewish Publication Society and one of the great—albeit under-recognized–early Jewish American thinkers.
When Jews came to America, it seemed like everything was new: democracy, religious freedom, an open society with choices and opportunity. Really, though, many things were the same: human beings, for one, with the same needs and desires, the fact of our Jewish relationship with God. In reality, our traditions didn’t change—what changed was how we viewed them and how we used them.
Jewish leaders struggled with the balance between old and new. Some reformers declared that, in deciding issues of Jewish practice, “the past gets a vote but not a veto,” meaning that tradition would be part of the range of practice considered, but could not overwhelm modern needs. Other scholars felt this formulation afforded our Tradition too little authority. They also worried that it was a faceless formula that left out the human soul, and more rational than religious. Ironically, also influenced by the best part of the New World, democracy, certain leaders began talking about a globally inclusive body of Jews that wrestled together with the question ‘what we Jews will decide about what we will do as Jews.’
They called that globally inclusive body of Jews “Catholic (meaning universal) Israel.” Membership in Catholic Israel is gained and maintained by casting one’s lot with a larger community of Jews who are similarly concerned with the project of living Jewishly.
Catholic Israel is about working together in an inclusive way to make decisions about how to live and what to do as Jews. It is not about personalities. It’s bigger than personalities. Nor is it concerned much about beliefs. In typical Jewish fashion, it understands that beliefs are as unique as the spark God placed within us.
In fundamentally quintessential Jewish fashion Catholic Israel cares about how we live and what we do. It is concrete, practical, and, because it is action-based, dynamic, and with real impact.
We might call the community of TEMV a form of Catholic Israel (maybe more than other communities because the term tips its hat slyly at our interfaith component as well). More than personalities and doctrines, we who have cast our lot together continuously and in continuity define our Jewish practice, I think, as: community building, social action aimed at poverty and literacy, ritual/prayer/spirituality, Jewish learning, supporting families and educating children, and interfaith outreach/celebration.
Even though it is certainly incomplete (and I hope you will add to it), the above tableau is awe-inspiring. Ours is, at once, a holy and earthy endeavor. It would be impossible without the visions of the past and the promise of the future. It would also be impossible were we not connected to a broader universe. Our lot is cast with the other temples and synagogues of the Merrimack Valley, Greater Boston, Massachusetts, and beyond. We are part of a massive mosaic of Jewish communities doing what they do to better the world and bring tikkun olam. It is not about competition. Rather, the greater the cooperation, the greater the concrete impact and the future possibilities.
Most importantly, we have cast our lot with the Reform Movement, its values and standards. We’ll speak more about that another time.
We are connected—to each other and to a broader Jewish universe. We know what we do as Jews, and will continue, having cast our lot together, to decide what we do together. Maybe it won’t be building modern hospitals or saving children in danger.
Or maybe it will.