Mercaz/WLCJ Essay Contest

Rethinking Zionism ~ What Does Zionism Mean to Me?
MERCAZ-Canada, MERCAZ USA and Women's League for Conservative Judaism offer a biennial essay contest.

3rd Prize: Abigail Sara Elson, Congregation Har Shalom, Potomac, MD

Rethinking Zionism:
My Spiritual Zionism

I am a Zionist. I pray towards and for Israel, I speak Hebrew, I follow Israeli politics, and I sing Hatikvah proudly. But as a member of a United States military family, America has been my homeland which my family has pledged to “defend and protect.” As I have grown up and attended a Jewish Day School in which Zionism is a key value, I have had to settle in my heart and mind how the two fit together. Nevertheless, I can proudly affirm that I am both an American and a Spiritual Zionist.

I am part of a long chain of Spiritual Zionists. Ahad Ha'Am defined Spiritual Zionism as the “establishment of a sense of Zionism to revive the Jewish spirit and culture in the modern world where religious Jews would replace their ancient attachment to the Land with a new cultural renaissance.”1 Within Spiritual Zionism, I view Israel as an anchor to the Jewish people. It connects the various countries to our spiritual homeland and keeps all Diaspora Jews grounded and connected to both each other and their past. While the tides and currents of history and politics may shift Jews in the Diaspora, the anchor of the Jewish state keeps them firmly grounded in the morals and ethics of the Jewish people. Spiritual Zionism is how Jews living in the Diaspora can genuinely have a connection to Israel without living in the land itself. Israel is the national spiritual center for all Jews sitting at the core of their Jewish identity.

The chain of the anchor moves and flows with the waves of the ocean just as the relationship of Jews to Israel changes in every generation. Every generation needs something different from Israel. Following the Holocaust, many Jews needed Israel as a country of refuge and a chance to start new lives after the antisemitism they faced. Later generations needed Israel as a source of pride in our peoplehood. And now, in 2018, Jews worldwide see Israel as their rock in an era of constant change. American Jews, who link their political beliefs to their spiritual selves, see Israel as a peaceful democratic ally in the tumultuous Middle East. By the same token, Israel must be conscious of their decisions since Jews around the world have a stake and a voice in Israel as a nation. Consequently, it is my generation’s duty to enable Israel to reach that state and hold it accountable.

In modern times, Jews live all over the world with varying denominations, sects, and traditions. Zionism connects Jews from around the world in one common belief. When all Jews participate in prayer, they direct their focus toward the East, toward the Land of Israel. This focus is what guides the spirit and passion for our faith. Israel represents in our religion the messianic ideal of a peaceful society viewed by the Diaspora as an “exemplary society with unique moral and spiritual character. 2

In my Spiritual Zionism, Israel serves as the moral compass other countries historically have strived to attain. The morals and ethics found in Judaism are the basis for Israeli society, and with the help and support of Diaspora Jews, Israel will ultimately become that utopian society. It is important to point out, that while my Spiritual Zionism holds Israel at a higher moral and ethical plane, I recognize that the modern political state of Israel has not yet reached this idealistic construct. As a relatively new country in the context of history, Israel as an anchor is bound to drag in the sand with the issues and challenges the state faces. It is not likely that a parliamentary government can always make the proper decisions. And yet, Jews in the Diaspora can take comfort in knowing the foundational roots of the Jewish state of Israel are firmly grounded in the bedrock of Judaism.

Recent studies show that there is an increased number of young Jews who identify as spiritual, but not religious. They “feel connected to ‘something much larger than themselves’ and ‘felt particularly connected to the world around’ them and to a ‘higher purpose.3 While the younger generations of Jews may not practice in the same way that their ancestors have, they still feel a sense of importance in being connected to something greater than themselves. In my view of Spiritual Zionism, that “something” is the state of Israel. The revival of the Jewish faith revolves around that definition of Spiritual Zionism. Israel sits at the center of their emotional connection to the faith of their ancestors and presides at the core of any religious practice.

Young Jewish people around the world see Israel as an essential link in their history and family’s culture. Although not everyone is willing to make Aliyah, move to Israel, trips for young adults are crucial in the development of their Jewish identity as a reminder that there were thousands of years of Jews before them, and that they are a link in the chain of generations.

Throughout history, scholars and visionaries have shaped the future by learning from their forefathers. As Ahad Ha’am was the founder of Cultural or “Spiritual Zionism,” people like Albert Einstein embraced Ha’am’s vision and adapted it to how he saw the Jewish community at the time. Einstein, who was an American deeply rooted in his Zionist beliefs, stated in 1929, "Zionism springs from an even deeper motive than Jewish suffering. It is rooted in a Jewish spiritual tradition whose maintenance and development are for Jews the basis of their continued existence as a community."4 While I am excited about experiencing Israel for my first time this summer, I am also curious as to how my views as a Spiritual Zionist will change following my visit. Something I know for sure, though, is that Israel will continue to be at the forefront of my Jewish identity and something that anchors my beliefs as I continue to grow as a committed member of the Jewish people.

1: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. “Cultural Zionism,” Israel: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.
2: The Jerusalem Program,
3: Isabella Tara Burton. "“Spiritual but not religious”: inside America's rapidly grong faith group." Vox, 10 Nov. 2017.
4: “Zionism: Quotations on Zionism.” Jewish Virtual Library, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise,

Burton, Tara Isabella. “‘Spiritual but not religious’: inside America’s rapidly growing faith group.” Vox, 10 Nov. 2017. spiritual-but-not-religious
Chapin Metz, Helen, ed. “Cultural Zionism,” Israel: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.
The Jerusalem Program, “Zionism: Quotations on Zionism.” Jewish Virtual Library, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise,