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MERCAZ-Canada, MERCAZ USA and Women's League for Conservative Judaism offer a biennial essay contest.

Congratulations to the winners of our 2015-2016 MERCAZ-Canada, MERCAZ USA and Women's League for Conservative Judaism 2015/2016 biennial essay contest
Daniel Minden, Unionville, ON - 1st Place
Brittany Sacks, Calabasas, CA - 2nd Place
Raphael Gendler, Minneapolis, MN - 3rd Place
Shulamit Weinstein, Bala Cynwyd, PA, & Tamar Wohlberg, Ambler, PA - 4th Place

Mazel tov to Daniel Minden of Ontario
MERCAZ/WLCJ Essay Contest 2015-2016
First Place Winner

By any standard, Israel is a remarkable country, existing against all odds. Israel was created with the goal of being a liberal democracy in the Middle East, where religious minorities are protected, where free speech is a right, and where governments serve at the pleasure of the people. All of this would happen in a volatile and dangerous region where the words 'liberal' and 'democracy' are almost entirely foreign. Does Israel fall short of its founders' lofty goals? Of course it does, as does every nation-state. However, Israel comes far closer to those goals than any other country under its circumstances. For all of her many faults, Israel is the ultimate triumph of the Jewish people. Zionism was the vision to create a Jewish state in the land of Israel, and today, Zionism is the drive to strengthen and improve the Jewish state that already exists. We must strengthen Israel by identifying where it falls short of its goals, by encouraging Israel to bolster its relationship with the Diaspora, and by supporting Israel's legitimacy while identifying its shortcomings.

Zionism should never require uniformity. What it does require is unity. One who truly loves Israel cannot always support every action it takes, just as one who loves Canada has every right to criticize Canadian administrations. When a progressive rabbi criticizes government policy, she does so not because she hates Israel, but because she wants to feel respected in her Jewish homeland. She wants to improve Israel, to make it more welcoming to more people. When an Israeli votes for a non-incumbent party, he is inherently disagreeing with something the incumbent government has done. He does this not out of spite, but because he believes the country he loves would be better served by someone else in office. Similarly, when Diaspora Jews criticize an Israeli policy, we do so because we believe the country we love so much would be better served by another course of action. Criticism of Israeli policy out of love is perhaps the greatest gift Zionists can give Israel. Striving to improve Israel is the most sacred service we can offer her. Legitimate criticism of Israel must be encouraged because it is necessary. As the angel grappled and struggled with Israel, so must we. We must demand better where we see shortcomings, and we must strive to improve where we see injustices.

Israel should have a reciprocal relationship with the Diaspora. Israel is the land of the Jewish people, and it has an obligation to care for the Jewish people if it truly wants to be their homeland. Israel's concern and support for the Diaspora still needs to be bolstered. Yes, Israel already has a Minister of Diaspora Affairs, but that minister was criticized for attending a Conservative Movement school in New York. Many on the Israeli religious right routinely criticize Reform and Conservative Jews in North America and seek to deny liberal Israeli Jews legitimacy. This poses a threat to the unity of the Jewish people. Israel must do more to fix this blight. It is obvious that Diaspora Jews need a stronger voice in Jerusalem. The idea of an "AIPAC-style" Diaspora lobby in Jerusalem to add the Diaspora's voice to Israeli policymaking is a brilliant one that deserves serious considerationi. Israel might not exist today without the JNF's blue boxes, without AIPAC's political advocacy, and without the Diaspora's support. The Diaspora and Israel are interdependent, and they are each strengthened by the other's existence. We have seen the horrors that befell Diaspora Jews without Israel, but we have yet to see what would become of Israel without Diaspora Jews. Could Israel survive without a thriving Jewish Diaspora to advocate for her? Let's hope we never find out the answer to that question. It is in Israel's best interest, and indeed it should be her mission, to support and strengthen Diaspora Jewish communities.

It is the duty of Diaspora Jews to point out Israel's shortcomings, even in a world fraught with anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Israel strives to be a progressive democracy, and a progressive democracy looks at its own shortcomings and fixes them. If Israel seeks to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, it must recognize that most of the Jewish people live outside of Israel, and it must subject itself to the constructive criticism of those Jewish people. For the most part, Diaspora Jews' criticism of Israel is out of love. It is right for Reform and Conservative Diaspora Jews to lobby for an egalitarian prayer site at the Western Wall. It is right for Diaspora Jews to constantly question Israeli government and hold it to account. Legitimate criticism is not anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. It is the greatest gift we can give Israel. It must be our job to grapple with and criticize Israel as Zionists who love her and seek to build her up. If we fail to do so, we leave room open for those who seek to tear Israel downii.

The idea of the World Zionist Congress is for world Jewry to share its ideas about Israel and Zionism. The spirit of that Congress should be emulated in our schools, summer camps, and seminaries. Moreover, Diaspora Jews should visit Israel to gain a better understanding of both its strengths and shortcomings. This summer, that is what I plan to do. Drawing up plans to improve Israel is a never-ending process, because the measure of any great society is how enthusiastically it seeks to improve. Israel must always ask itself how it can better reflect the values it was founded upon. As one Israeli journalist puts it, "Zionism was created by people who held [Theodor Herzl's] "Altneuland" in one hand and Voltaire in the other and created here an enlightened nation-stateiii. As Diaspora Jews, it must be our duty to strengthen and protect Israel's progressive and liberal values. It must be our duty to ensure that there is always room in Israel for our feedback and our interpretations of Judaism, and in return we will provide Israel with the love and support she merits.

i Cohen, Roger. "An Anti-Semitism of the Left." The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Mar. 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
iiShavit, Ari. "World Jewry Needs an AIPAC-style Lobby in Jerusalem." Haaretz. Haaretz, 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.
iiiShavit, Ari. "Israel's Boorish Thugs Are a Disgrace, but Liberal Zionist Values Will Prevail." Haaretz. Haaretz, 3 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.


FIVE SCHOLARSHIPS IN THE AMOUNTS OF: $1,000, $600, $400 and $250 (2X)
The scholarship will apply to any conservative movement sponsored Israel program (including Israel programs taking place from June 1, 2016 and forward).

Applicants must be residents of Canada, Mexico, or the United States, in grades 7-12, and a member of a conservative synagogue. Each student may only submit one essay for consideration.


"A Critical Defense of Zionism"
This year's contest celebrates the 37th World Zionist Congress.

Essays must be submitted as a typed Word document or PDF form with the entry form as a cover page. Essays should be double-spaced, up to 1000 words. Submitted essays must be the entrant's original work, with quotes properly cited. (Citations do not count towards the word count.)

Click here to read a letter from a past winner.


Opening of Essay Contest:
October 13, 2015: Entry forms and additional information can be found here:

Deadline for Entries:
Entries must be submitted electronically by March 1, 2016. Late entries will not be accepted. MERCAZ and WLCJ cannot be responsible for delayed or misdirected entries. Read receipt requests are recommended.

Announcement of Winners:
All entrants will be notified by May 6, 2016. Winners will be announced publicly during the next Women's League convention.

Essays must be submitted as a typed Word document or PDF form with the entry form as a cover page. Essays should be double-spaced, up to 1000 words. Submitted essays must be the entrant's original work, with quotes properly cited. (Citations do not count towards the word count.)

Entries must be submitted via email. Mailed entries will not be accepted. Essays and the accompanying cover page should be emailed to info@masorti-mercaz.ca with the subject "MERCAZ USA/CANADA/Women's League Essay Contest". By entering this contest, the student agrees that all information submitted becomes the property of MERCAZ - WLCJ to publish at their discretion.

For further information, questions, or comments, contact one of the sponsoring organizations. EACH ENTRY MUST INCLUDE:

2016 Essay Contest Cover Page and Question (pdf)

In October 2015, the World Zionist Organization the 37th World Zionist Congress convenes, the next in the chain of international Jewish gatherings that began with the First Zionist Congress assembled by Theodore Herzl in 1897, and which have met every few years since. The World Zionist Congress is the closest thing we have to an international Jewish parliament. More than 700 delegates from Israel and across the world will be in attendance. Included in that number are nearly 165 elected delegates from the United States and Canada. In addition, hundreds more will be present as alternate delegates and observers. Of special note is the fact that at least 25% of the elected delegates will be "youth" delegates (ages 18 to 35) and 30% will be women. The Congress offers an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. Principles of Zionism, as set by The World Zionism Organization Jerusalem program affirm:

  • The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland, Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital, in the life of the nation.
  • Aliyah to Israel from all countries and the effective integration of all immigrants into Israeli society.
  • Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state, and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.
  • Ensuring the future and the distinctiveness of the Jewish People by furthering Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education, fostering spiritual and cultural values and teaching Hebrew as the national language.
  • Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people, and struggling against all manifestations of anti-Semitism.

The Zionist Congress is taking place during a time of conflicting and often noisy political challenges. We have seen the rise, particularly on the college campuses, of "BDS," the attempt by some on the political left, to pass boycott, divestment and sanctions resolutions against companies doing business with the State of Israel, and other anti-Israel movements. These challenges often leave members of the worldwide Jewish community confused about their own expressions of Zionism.

As Jews, we love Israel and take great pride in her accomplishments. From the Diaspora, we appreciate that Israel is a Jewish State. Shabbat is the official 'weekend'. Jewish holidays are national holidays, and it is Jewish culture that permeates the very air of the land. At the same time, we have seen statements and actions by the current Israeli government and the Chief Rabbinate that limit the expression of Jewish religious freedom in the Jewish State.

As Conservative/Masorti Jews, we are keenly aware of the lack of separation in of religion and state in Israel, dictated by an ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. The result is that our religious institutions, and others not endorsed by the Chief Rabbinate, are discriminated against. Our synagogues do not receive government funding, unlike Orthodox congregations. Our rabbis, notwithstanding a few exceptions, do not receive salaries from the state for performing religious services, unlike their Orthodox counterparts. They are not allowed to officiate at State-sanctioned weddings. Women are prevented from praying with tallit and/or tefillin or from reading Torah at the Western Wall. Reform Jews (often a code word for all non-Orthodox Jews) are labeled as sinners or simply not Jews at all. There are too many instances in which our Israeli counterparts and visitors to Israel feel like second-class citizens.

Answer the following question: What does Zionism mean to you? In developing your essay, please address the following questions facing the Zionist Movement, the legitimacy of Zionism and the Jewish State, and the limitations or shortcomings of the State of Israel vis-à-vis religious freedom for all Jews.

  • Does a defense of Zionism mean that we must defend every action of every Israeli government and politician?
  • Does Zionism call for a reciprocal relationship with Israel? In other words, does Zionism oblige Israel to care about the Diaspora community?
  • Can we support the legitimacy of Israel and still reserve the right to criticize Israel in the arena of religious pluralism and/or anything else? Can we criticize Israel in a world full of anti-Israel sentiment? And if so, how?

In your response, please consider what you hope to experience or learn during your expected visit/tour/program in Israel to help you develop even more fully your thoughts about Zionism and Israel.