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Addressing Israel/Palestine: My Story, a New Resolve

(Rosh Hashanah 2014/5775)

This Rosh HaShanah, a day we seek repentance and repair, I want to do some teshuvah (repentance) with all of you – with this community.  I want to acknowledge a way in which I have not lived up to my own aspirations and have lacked courage – by failing to address issues related to Israel.  Over the years, I have organized dialogues and programs and spoken on a few Shabbat services, but in nine years of leading High Holiday services, I have never once talked about Israel – or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the High Holidays.

Israel is one of the biggest projects of the Jewish people in our long history.  It is a project that Jews are invested in and involved in.  And because Israel is connected to our religious, historical and cultural tradition, its actions affect Jews and Jewish communities around the world, especially in the United States. 

Yet, talking about Israel can be very difficult in the Jewish community because there are intense divisions in the community about what the nature of our relationship should be.  My worry, along with my own internal struggles, has stopped me from speaking over these ye After the Gaza wore broke out this summer, I found myself losing sleep reading news analysis or editorials.  I shed a lot of tears.  I felt utterly heartbroken.  Even though the events of the summer shook me to the core, they also woke me up and inspired me to reconnect and re-engage. I made a commitment to do teshuvah--turning, repentance-- in my relationship with Israel and with the conflict. 

Martin Buber teaches that to do teshuvah, it is important that we start with ourselves --that we examine our own lives and our own souls and move from there.  In that vein, I want to begin this teshuvah by sharing my story – my story of my relationship with Israel, the land and its people from the lens of three different experiences there.

I tell my story in the hopes that this can be an opening to deeper, more honest and self-reflective conversations about Israel in our personal lives and in our community.  And I share this with inspire us all to reflect on our own relationship with Israel or with Israel/Palestine and encourage us to new commitments in the New Year.

I first went to Israel in 1993 with a teen tour.  I remember vividly sitting in the airport, anxiously meeting the 37 other fifteen and sixteen year olds that I would be spending the next 6 weeks in Israel with. Even though I grew up in mostly non-observant home and not a particularly Zionist one, I knew that I had to go to Israel with NFTY, the Reform youth movement, before I graduated high school because this is what all the major youth group leaders did.  On the flight, I remember watching Haredi (ultra-Orthodox men) shuckle and sway (even though I didn’t yet have the language for this kind of prayer). When we landed and got out of the plane, several members of our trip got down right then and there and kissed the ground.  I, being an average 16 year old, followed the example of my peers.  Kissing the ground-- awkward and unsure-- I felt an intense connection to a place I had literally been in for 30 seconds!  I was filled with hope and promise.  

Ironically, my first full day in Israel I did something that could have landed me in jail! I brought a small tallit to the Western Wall, put it on and prayed with it.  This is an act that members of the feminist prayer group, Women at the Wall, have been accosted and threatened for. Yet, somehow, I managed to unknowingly transgress Jewish tradition and Israeli law and have a profound experience of prayer at this ancient site.

On our trip, we did most of the things that a first time traveler would do to Israel: go to Yad Vashem, Israel’s powerful Holocaust museum, ate copious amounts of Israeli cheese, shopped and hung out at Ben Yehuda street, traveled to the beach, and yes, rode the ubiquitous camel ride, which were all positive experiences at the time.  But what I fell most in love with was the seamless blend of the old and the new that I witnessed.  A Shabbat I spent with an Israeli teen, whose family was “secular”, embodied this. I joined the family for a special meal, Kiddush and motzi.  After dinner, we changed into party clothes and spent hours dancing in a discotheque, slept in and spent the day on the beautiful Tel Aviv beach. 

From this experience, I began to see Israel as an important part of my life and my identity; I thought about it as a place I could return to again and again; a place where my heritage sang.  To use the metaphor or family, Israel was like a relative that I had been introduced to at a family reunion. 

In the spring of 1999, I found myself buying a ticket to Israel, with a return flight booked for 11 months later.  I was on a spiritual quest to find out if I really did want to become a rabbi.  My plan was to explore that question while immersing myself in Torah study and Jewish community at the PARDES Institute in Jerusalem.

Spending a year (almost) of my life in Jerusalem was absolutely transformative.  Jerusalem is a place that is ancient and new at the same time; a place of tension and intensity; a place of piety and spirituality; a place that feels strangely nothing like and everything like home at the same time.  I can close my eyes and still hear the watermelon vendor that I walked by every day on the way to school saying “AVA-TEAH! AVA_TEAH!”  I can practically taste my favorite falafel, and the marzipan chocolate rugeleh that we got from the shuk that melted in your mouth, leaving you wanting more.  I can visualize in my mind’s eye, the routes of the many places where I would take a walk or visit friends.

I remember fun adventures like seeing drag shows at gay bars downtown and spending secular new years in the middle of a desert.  Daily, my heart opened in love to that place. 

Perhaps what I loved the most about my year was celebrating Jewish holidays within a culture that operates on Jewish time.  From the quiet, almost abandoned streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, to the sukkot that were put up in parks, restaurants, and on virtually every apartment balcony, Judaism was more than something you “did” in your own community, but part of the sights, the smells and the feeling of daily life.  Even those who were not observant extend greetings of “Hag Sameach” as a holiday approaches.  I loved (and I dearly miss!) the fact that right before Shabbat, I could go to any number of delicious stores and buy a multi-course traditional Shabbat meal – within steps of my apartment. There was something so magical about celebrating Judaism within a community, a town, a city that lived by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar.

I also fell in love with the diversity and eclectic nature of Israeli society. Through a “mifgash” – a meet up or social – I befriended some Israelis.  During a visit to one of them in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, we walked to the main kikar (square) of the town and for no apparent reason, there was a huge outdoor festival, with tons of people filling the square; with young girls performing a few dances; and teenagers playing instruments and marching bands. The mood was joyous and spirited; people young and old, some religious, most not, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian.  My heart was filled with joy and hope and love and connection not only to the land but to the people.  Then my friend pointed out to me the song that was playing on the loudspeaker: “Aizeh Medina” which means “What a country!”

Of course, I knew Israel wasn’t perfect.  I struggled to assert myself as a progressive, religious person in a culture that sees religion in black and white terms of “religious” (read: Orthodox) and “secular.”  I knew about security concerns and I was cautious about taking city buses. And I was aware that there were Palestinians living close by that did not have the same rights that I did as a U.S. citizen.  I attended a few talks, had some disagreements with teachers who lived in the settlements, but that year, I primarily lived in the safety and security of the bubble of my yeshiva. 

Going back to the family metaphor, after living there, Israel felt like a beloved family member. I might not always agree with her, but I loved her deeply.

I returned from Israel in July of 2000.  In September of 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount – where Al Aqsa mosque, a holy shrine for Muslims stands- and the second intifada broke out.  It no longer felt possible, even from my comfortable home back in Philadelphia, to think about Israel without also thinking about the conflict.  I began learning more about the occupation and about the settlements.

I read about the conflict from the lens of the Palestinians and from Israelis like Amos Oz who lovingly criticized Israel and her policies. I was opening my heart to new narratives, new voices that spoke to my values.  Whenever I spent time thinking about the land, the place, the people, my heart would rush open and I would feel a deep sense of connection.  But clouding that was an increasing concern over the treatment of Palestinians and the increasing influence of Israel’s religious right.

In 2005, I returned to Israel for a six-week stay.  I vowed that this visit, alongside my studies, I would spend time witnessing and learning about the conflict, and in particular about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

One Sunday, I boarded a bus for an educational tour organized by an Israeli human rights organization.  We drove to parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank to see first-hand the Separation Barrier.  The “separation barrier” is a fence or wall that seals off sections of the West Bank from Israel proper.  The separation barrier gained popular support when the number of suicide bombs increased during the second intifada. 

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when we parked the van and went outside.  In front of me was a dark grey, concrete wall as wide as my eyes could see and reaching up toward the sky, absolutely impossible to scale or find a way through.  At one small point stood an Israeli soldier and what seemed like an endless line of Palestinians, mostly men but some women and children, waiting for entry. 

Witnessing this scene, I felt shocked, overwhelmed. 

What would it be like, I thought to myself, to live on one side of a fence like this?  To know that people and a community lived on the other side but you couldn’t hear them, see them, get to them? 

The tour guide then took us to meet with some Palestinians who talked about the impact of the wall.  One woman described how the wall literally divided her village in half – it ran through the middle of the village (half was on the Israel side and half on the Palestinian side).  Before the construction, she and her sister lived a five-minute walk from each other’s houses.  Now the two of them lived on opposite sides of the fence. To get from one house to the other, she went through a checkpoint, often with a long wait, and then had to get several different buses that finally got her to her destination.  A commute that used to take less than five minutes would often take 6-7 hours.  When she cried tears of outrage and frustration, I felt her deep sorrow and pain and it shook me deeply.

Another Sunday, I joined staff and volunteers from Rabbis For Human Rights, a rabbinic organization dedicated to defending and securing human rights in Israel and the Territories.  One of the areas that RHR works on is housing demolition in the West Bank, which is a regular practice of the Israeli army.  The government says that the homes targeted are of terrorists or their relatives, yet the vast majority of homes demolished are of Palestinians who are not connected to extremist activities.  It is reported that since 1967, there have been 27,000 homes or other home structures like livestock fencing have been destroyed. 

RHR organizes rabbis, rabbinical students and Israeli citizens to rebuild homes of Palestinians.  This is the ultimate “Sisyphus” project: they rebuild these homes- knowing that it is likely that this house this same house will likely be demolished again.  The volunteer day was hard for me on many levels.  Because of the extreme heat that day, we could only go out for short periods of time.  In the course of the day, I only laid down a few bricks. It was painful to feel that I couldn’t physically or metaphorically repair enough of the damage done. 

I took some hope from the owner of the house who served us tea on breaks from building.  This was the FIFTH time that his house was demolished. “Did he think it would be the final time?” we asked,  “No,” he said. “Did he think peace was possible?” we asked, “We always must think peace is possible.” 

When it was time to leave Israel, I felt different this time than I did in times past.  My relationship with Israel was changed.  I had seen some things I wished were not true. I had glimpsed some of the pain and suffering that stem from this conflict and from the power-imbalances that exist. 

To continue that family metaphor, Israel became like the (great)-aunt, whom I loved but some of whose actions also embarrassed me and made me want to run in the other direction.

As time has passed, I started to call that great-aunt less and less; I stopped writing letters.  Sure, I kept informed, to read some articles, I even went to some conferences.  But I began to feel more and more distant. The gap between the Jewish values that I try to teach and live by and the realities in Israel pained me. The excitement for new possibilities for peace gave way to disappointment and even hopelessness.  And I felt myself turning away, shutting off the pain.  I buried my hopes, dreams for Israel, alongside that love that had been born in me, down to a place inside me that I couldn’t readily access.   

And then, this summer came.  And I could not run, I could not hide.  I could not choose to forget or be too busy to engage.  I couldn’t prioritize other issues that were “closer to home.”  Because Israel, Gaza, war, bloodshed – were right there – in my face, in every news source, in my social media.  And I felt it deep in my heart.  And I read news article after news article.  And I cried and I cried.

My heart went out for the Israelis, especially those children growing up with constant worry for their safety or having to have bedtime in the bomb shelter.  And for the Israelis who lost their lives.  Through Facebook, I kept tabs on friends and colleagues directly affected – their fear, longing, and sadness were palpable. 

And I wept for all those Palestinians killed: 2,139 Palestinians and the x number displaced.  The number itself is incredibly hard to comprehend.  And of those dead, 490 children. 490 innocent children who will never get to play soccer, have playdates- whose lives were cut off before they could even begin.  As a mother, my heart aches.  And to me, this isn’t not only about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about being a human responding to the tragic loss of life.

And I have been struggling-- What could have been done that might have averted this horrible tragedy?  What does the future hold?  Will the solutions that I had been hoping for and wishing for come to be?  Are they even possible? And how do I begin to take responsibility for all that is happening and build a future that reflects a vision for peace and justice?

These are my questions, but each of us has questions.  Each of us has struggles.  And each of us has our own story.  Some of us in this room are Israeli or have Israeli family that are dear to us and that shapes and affects our relationship. 

Some of us have a deep love of the people, the land, and the history.  Some of us have spent time traveling or learning in Israel. Some of us have spent time in the West Bank.  Some of us have never been to the Middle East but nonetheless thought about or wrestled with what it means to be a Jew living in an era of an Israel that is powerful and can defend itself.  Some of us are not Jewish or did not grow up Jewish and have an entirely different lens on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than others.

Some of us are deeply engaged with Israel, through organizations across the spectrum of political opinion.  Some of us do not know what to do.  Perhaps like me you have felt disconnected or unsure, anxious or afraid.  Perhaps this can be a year, in which we all can find ways to turn: to turn towards what challenges us, to turn towards this historic project of the Jewish people and try to have a voice in its future, to turn towards each other.  

Even as I wrestle, I am taking inspiration from the Untane Tokef prayer we said earlier- which teaches us that to shape our lives and our world for the better, we need three things: teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity or righteous deeds). 

This year, I am committing to doing teshuvah in my personal relationship with Israel.  Instead of burying or repressing my love for Israel and her people because of the challenges I see, I can allow those feelings live side by side with my fears, frustrations, and disappointments.  Instead of looking away, I can honor and embrace my own inner struggle and the tensions that live inside me.  Instead of closing down, I will listen to others’ viewpoints in an effort to grow in empathy and wisdom. 

I am committing to bringing Israel and Palestine into my tefillah - my prayers in the coming year.  Opening my heart in prayer will allow me to feel pain, heartache, and longing.  And it will inspire me to never give up hoping or working toward a better future. 

And I am committing to review my own personal tzedakah (charitable giving) and include causes that support efforts toward peace, justice and understanding in Israel.  Right before this holiday, I made a donation to the Bereaved Parents Circle, an organization of the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers of people who have been killed in the conflict – who have every right to turn away from the other side but instead they turn towards each other in dialogue and share their vision of forgiveness and reconciliation with Israel and the world. 

In the beginning, I stated that I share my story in the hopes that it will inspire us to even greater dialogue and honest reflection and in the hopes that it might inspire us to new commitments.

On this day, as we enter the new year, I want to invite you think about:

  • Where are you in terms of your relationship with Israel and with Israel/Palestine?  Is there any healing that is needed in that relationship?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for the land and the people that live there?
  • What is your resolve, what are your commitments as we enter a new year?

Let us continue to ask difficult questions.  Let us consider teshuva (turning), tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (charity and righteousness) as a pathway forward.  May this New Year be one of openness, courage, and hopefulness.  May we turn in ways that heal us, our people, and the world. 

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