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On Israel, Rosh Hashanah 5775

(Rosh Hashanah 2014 / 5775)

I want to thank all of the people in the past few days who’ve cautioned me not to talk about Israel. And for forwarding articles to me, such as the recent one in the New York Times, describing how several friends of mine had already gotten into major hot water with their congregations, before Rosh HaShanah even started, because of saying anything about Israel, one getting attacked from the right, the other from the left. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

It was a thrill to be back in Israel again, this summer! Somehow ten years had slipped by since I’d last been there.

I have to say, though, that I was also a bit crotchety when I got there, after an all-night flight. And then the sherut, the shared taxi ride into Jerusalem, took forever. And then navigating the sidewalks was more hazardous than I expected.

You see, the ride took longer than expected because between Ben Gurion Airport and Jerusalem, an entirely new town – Modi’in – had sprung up since I’d last been there, and someone needed to be dropped off there. And walking on the sidewalks was hazardous because most people were looking down at their cell phones instead of where they were going. Plus there were the Segway tours to make room for.

At the hotel, I was pleased when I walked out onto the mirpeset, the balcony, to find a view of part of the wall surrounding the Old City. And was annoyed that the view would have been much better if there weren’t a massive construction project blocking much of it.

That’s when it dawned on me: Israel as it actually is today, was getting in the way of how I remembered it, and how I wanted it to be. The reality was getting in the way of my nostalgia. In my mind, Israel was frozen in time, standing still. The actual Israel, though, hadn’t slowed down for even a moment.

And that’s when I remembered something that Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli writer, had said, when he’d spoken last November to a group of rabbis. He observed that American Jews, for the most part, had fallen in love with an Israel that we didn’t know. During the Six Day War era, back in the later 1960’s, we idealized it, we put it on a pedestal, it could do no wrong. And now, as American support for Israel, while still strong, is not what it once was, American Jews are falling out of love with an Israel that we also don’t know. Israel is a much better, much more interesting, much more complex country than many American Jews are able or wanting to see.

Israel was disappointing me because it hadn’t stayed the same as I remembered it! Out of my annoyance that a construction site was blocking my view of the ancient wall around the Old City, or that an entirely new town had delayed my own arrival in Jerusalem, grew a resolve that I would try, as hard and as much as possible, to understand the State and the people of Israel, on their own terms. Not what I expected them to be, but rather trying to understand their lives, their situation, their place in the world, as seen through their eyes.

That first evening, we went to what is called First Station. A new railroad had been built, and just as some developer would have done in the United States, the abandoned station was transformed into an outdoor mall, complete with upscale shops and restaurants. It even had a beach built into one end of it, including a wave machine in which people could surf.

In the middle was a covered area set up with a giant screen, part of the annual Jerusalem Film Festival. People of every age had come out in the early evening to do folk dancing. At first it seemed so quaint, but after a little while it became clear that even in this case, Israel hadn’t stood still. The steps looked old, but the songs were all contemporary Israeli popular songs. And each different song had its own distinctive set of steps. Building on the old, Israel had continued moving forward.

By the time we’d finished eating, the folk dance area had been set up with many rows of chairs, and people were arriving early to get seats, to watch the World Cup soccer match on the giant screen. And although it may seem strange to us American Jews here in the United States, where many people still despise Germany, and would never buy a German car, most Israelis were rooting for Germany over Argentina in the game.

I was pleased to find that the itinerary for the rabbinic mission was designed to give opportunities to hear from Israelis about what their experiences were like. We met with many of the progressive religious groups, getting a sense of how rapidly Israel is changing, in terms of supporting liberal expressions of Judaism, and translating and transforming them so that they are relevant to a growing number of Israelis who used to think the only two options were to be ultra-Orthodox or rabidly secular. As one rabbi told us, “Israelis love poetry and to sing. Just don’t tell them that they’re praying.”

We spent one day with settlers in Gush Etzion, and another with Bedouins who lived in trailers and caves that at any moment might be destroyed by the Israeli government. We spent time in southern Tel Aviv with the leader of an organization that helped African refugees who had risked their lives to get to the safety of Israel, where they were officially ignored, but unofficially given orange vests and shunted into jobs that no one else wanted to do. After that, we then noticed orange-vested men everywhere, cleaning the streets. We went on a graffiti tour of a part of Tel Aviv that was quickly being gentrified, learning to read the pictures and symbols on walls that would soon be torn down. After that, we then saw those same symbols and pictures all over the city.

The first few people who spoke to our group tried to impress on us how traumatized a society Israel is. 80% of Israelis didn’t originally come from democracies. And 85% percent came from traumatic situations. Another person described how Israelis experience trauma as cumulative, one trauma on top of the other, without having the time to process it.

My recent thinking about how Israelis see things is bookended by Yossi Klein Halevi. After hearing him last November in Philadelphia, he spoke to our group this summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. And here’s where I’m going to talk a bit of politics. This is the point where it will be tempting for people to heartily agree or to disagree with what I’m about to say. So I want to be very clear here: I am not about to state anything about any of my positions on Israel. Rather, I want to present one Israeli's understanding of the contrast between how American Jews and Israeli Jews see things differently. What he has to say is not the only view, but if he’s right it’s the majority view among Israelis, and no one here has to agree with it, but it’s important that we here in the United States at least understand it. For what it’s worth, after hearing Halevi’s perspective, I did my own informal straw poll of the various Israelis I met afterwards, and they all, to a person, immediately agreed with what Halevi had said.

He described a sea change that had occurred in Israeli politics, a revolutionary shift in the Israeli population. In the past, there had been a virtually even split between the political left and the right. Now, he said, there is a 60-70% centrist majority. And that this new majority reflects not a compromise, but a paradox.

You see, 70% of the Israeli Jews believe that a 2-state solution with the Palestinians is an existential necessity. AND, 70% think that a 2-state solution with the Palestinians is an existential threat. He said that this is why Bibi Netanyahu is now the second-longest leader in Israel’s history. He said that no one really likes him, but he captures the paradox perfectly, on one hand being clear that you can’t trust the other side, while also seeming to support a 2-state solution. With this balance, he represents the outer embodiment of the internal conflict, the dualism, going on within the centrist majority.

He explained further: most Israeli Jews were transformed by the First Intifada, or Palestinian Uprising, which began in 1987 and ended around the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993. As peace talks grew more hopeful, the majority of Israelis came to understand what the left had been saying, that a policy of building settlements, and occupation of another people, were a recipe for disaster, and would never lead to peace.

Then, in the Camp David summit facilitated by President Bill Clinton in 2000, Israel basically offered the Palestinians an agreement that would give them a state, and their response was not only to end the talks, but to start a Second Intifada, responding to an offer of peace with four years of terror. At that point, a wide consensus grew among Israelis that the political right had been correct about the threat Israel faced, that Palestinians were not interested in peace, but rather only sought the eradication of the State of Israel. This shattered the hopes of an entire generation of Israelis.

Yossi Klein Halevi also sees the year 2000 as forming a dividing line between how Israelis and how American Jews see the situation. His sense is that most American Jews still see the conflict in terms of right vs. left.  After recently spending 6 months in the United States promoting his amazing book, Like Dreamers, his experience was that the right wing here is trapped in a mindset from the 1970’s and 1980’s, before the First Intifada. This view holds that if only enough force is used, then the problem will be solved. His experience also is that, in the United States, the left is trapped in a 1990’s mind-set, with Oslo making it seem that a peace deal is close and possible. But, both of those views, both the exclusively left and the exclusively right, are only minority views in Israel today.

He had a lot more to say about the state of politics in Israel and the United States, but we can save that for another time. My intent here isn’t to convince anyone, as if I could, to change your mind, but rather to illustrate that American Jews tend to see things very differently than Israelis do. In short, while American Jews mostly stick to their different camps on the left and the right, in Israel the majority now believes that the left was proven right about the occupation and settlements, and that the right was proven correct about the threat that Israel faces. To be a centrist, according to Halevi, is to take the external conversation between right and left, and to internalize it. It is, he says, an unbearable place to stand, but that’s where Israelis are at the moment.

When asked what American Jews could do to be supportive of Israel at this time, he identified several different areas. First, he spoke at length of the cultural and religious transformations currently underway in Israel. The fierce split between the religious vs. the secular has now basically disappeared. The divide is now mostly between the Haredi, the ultra-Orthodox, and the rest of society. He re-iterated the new openness of Israelis in general, and the official recognition and financial support of the Israeli government in particular, toward pluralistic expressions of Judaism. There are experiments in liberal Judaism in Israel that are both unique to Israel, but also far more open and influenced by developments in the United States.

For example, we visited Bet Tefilah Yisraeli, a widely-popular community that holds spirit-filled Kabbalat Shabbat services outside at the Port of Tel Aviv, which was strongly influenced by the model of services innovated by B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan.

He also said, in words echoed by many other people we spoke with, that, aside from the external threat posed by the Arab world, Israel continues to face challenges to its democracy from within. In recent years, numerous bills that would limit Israeli democracy have been introduced in the Knesset. Many have been defeated. American Jews can help support resistance to any further anti-democratic initiatives.

Finally, Halevi said that the other major area that Israel needs to focus on, and which American Jews can also be supportive of, is to greatly improve the treatment of the over 20% of the Israeli population who are Arabs. Israeli Arabs have been almost completely peaceful for 66 years now, and Israel must now give them full equality (with the exception of a few key security areas). They can no longer be treated as a second class minority. While peace may not be possible at this time, these actions are part of clearing the way so that peace will be more likely in the future.

There so much more about the study mission that I could tell you about, including a major highlight, a tour of Yafo with two guides, one Jewish and the other Arab, who told parallel histories of the city and moving stories about their own lives. Or the former paratrooper who returned to his kibbutz and created an ecological laboratory that he called a “beit midrash l’mayim” – where we learn Torah from water.

And, oh yes, there was also a war going on.

During the week before I left, I spoke with parents who had children in Israel. We discussed how their job as parents was to be concerned, but that they should also know that their children were safe. And I was all set to fly there myself on Saturday night. But then came my very own dark night of the soul. At the very last moment, just minutes before Shabbat began, my phone rang. It was my friend in Israel. Missiles had been fired toward Jerusalem. She hated to say it, but she didn’t feel comfortable coming to the airport to pick me up. Of course, I understood, and we joked how the taxi drivers knew how to drive quickly and dodge the missiles. And clearly, there was less exposure taking a one-way ride in a taxi than her making a round-trip. I had to ask myself, “Am I crazy choosing to fly into a war zone?” After a few moments of doubt, I thought of my friends who’d already flown over for the mission. And of my friend in Jerusalem. Of course I would join them.

Waiting for the sherut at Ben Gurion Airport, I heard my first explosions, two dull thuds in the distance. I asked the dispatcher what it was, and he just shrugged, a “what can you do?” gesture. Later, I would learn that two missiles had been fired toward Gedera, about 20 kilometers south of the airport. The explosions were the sound of the Iron Dome defense system intercepting the missiles mid-air.

That evening, in Jerusalem, there was what turned out to be a false alarm, but we all scrambled toward the closest safe space, a stairway in the First Station outdoor mall. As we left the sheltered area I happened to look up, and saw that the solid cement walls were open to the sky. We didn’t know it then, but there would be no more missiles fired toward Jerusalem, which made sense, since they were so inaccurate that there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t hit East Jerusalem or the Temple Mount.

Once we shifted to Tel Aviv, though, the alarms came frequently. Gathering in a stairwell during one, a friend came running wrapped in his towel, straight from the shower. Another siren sounded during our Shabbat dinner. A few days later, on the graffiti tour, we scrambled for a shelter, listened to the multiple explosions of Iron Dome intercepting the missiles, and then simply resumed the tour where we left off. A final one happened in the airport as I was leaving, with a huge throng of people trying to squeeze into a relatively small area.

In both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there were 90 seconds from missile launch to impact, which gave the sirens enough time to go off and for people to get to a safer place. But imagine being in a southern Israeli town such as S’dorot, right across the line from Gaza. From launch to impact, there could be as little as 15 seconds. [count silently 15 seconds] for a siren to sound and to get to a shelter. Which meant that people mostly didn’t ever leave their homes.

The usually busy Port of Tel Aviv, with its boardwalk and shops and restaurants, was not quite deserted, but let’s just say you didn’t have to wait on any lines at an ice cream shop. Not so much because people in Tel Aviv felt overly-scared of the missiles, with the warning time and Iron Dome, but it was hard to do happy things while your country is at war, and while your children, or your relatives, or your friends children, were fighting in Gaza just a few miles away.

On the morning of our first full day of the mission, our hearts rose at word of a cease-fire. By the time our morning service ended, we heard that Hamas had refused to agree to the temporary truce, and that missiles were already flying again. That roller-coaster of hope and fear would accompany us all the time. The tension, the fear, were never too far below the surface.

Throughout the world, and within the United States, there was great disagreement about what the proper response to Hamas’ missile firing should be. Yet, from the Israeli perspective, it was remarkable how united virtually the entire Jewish population of Israel was throughout the conflict. People who had spent a lifetime leaning leftward agreed with everyone else: What can we do, they would ask? How can we be safe? Hamas wants to destroy us, to drive us into the sea. You can’t reason with pure evil, with people who seek only your destruction, your death. Yes, while the world debated from the outside, Israelis who rarely agree about anything were all of one mind. We have to defend ourselves.

Because of the incessant missiles fired by Hamas from Gaza, and Israel’s response, and the discovery of the tunnels into Israel, it was easy to forget how the entire conflict had begun. When we visited with settlers in the West Bank, our bus paused beside a cement bus shelter, the bus stop where Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer, had been trying to hitchhike home for Shabbat, late on a Thursday night, when they were picked up and murdered. A make-shift sign at the bus stop read in Hebrew, “Rachel is crying for her sons.”

The three were buried on July 1. Later that night, and into early morning of July 2, 3 Israeli Jews cruised the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, looking for a lightweight victim who could be easily forced into the car. At 3:48 AM, they came across a slightly built Palestinian teenager named Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16 years old, waiting by himself for his friends near the mosque on the main road of the well-to-do neighborhood of Shuafat, only a few yards from his home. After he was forced into the car, it sped off to a forest near the western entrance to Jerusalem. He was dragged from the car, bludgeoned on the head repeatedly with a wrench, and then set on fire. The 3 Jews then fled, leaving him to die.

A number of the Israelis we spoke with said that Hamas starting the war with Israel deprived Israel of the chance to properly come to terms with the murder of the 3 Jewish teenagers.

And some of them added that it also prevented Israel from fully facing the implications of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. We hold a view of ourselves, they said, that Jews just don’t do such things. But we did. And some Israelis weren’t even upset that it happened. If Hamas hadn’t started the war, the murder would have led to a major reckoning on the part of Israelis, to a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.

We were deeply moved one morning when Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, quietly said, “We mourn the loss of four of our boys,” the first time we heard said aloud that all four of the teenagers who were murdered were citizens of Israel.

Which leads to one final point about the recent war. It is human nature to care more about our own, to assume the best of ourselves and the worst of our enemies. It leads us to say, and to believe, that “they don’t value life the same way we do.” And this statement may very well be true about the leadership of Hamas, since they place such a high value on martyrdom, and that leads them to turn many of their own people into martyrs, whether they want to be or not.

Yet, it’s critical that we not close up our own hearts. When we see images on our tv’s and computers of grief-stricken Palestinian mothers and fathers mourning their dead daughters and sons, we have to make sure that we don’t give in to the easy temptation of believing that their grief is any different than our own would be. As more time passes since the missiles have flown, Israel being Israel will continue to debate whether it went too far or if it didn’t go far enough. The unity it experienced during the war will give way to the usual fierce debate that characterizes Israel politics and society. What I’m saying has nothing to do with whether any particular action or strategy was necessary or justified. It’s just that, however justified Israel’s response was to incessant missiles being fired at its people, we all witnessed a human tragedy.

Israeli children in S’dorot and Ashkelon have been deeply traumatized by the war. And Palestinian children in Gaza, through no choice of their own, have also been traumatized. In fact, that’s how the conflict began, with innocent children being brutally murdered. It’s a human tragedy. And rather than closing up our hearts to that fact, I pray that we’re able to instead hold onto that reality, to help remind us, and inspire us, that we adults in this world have a responsibility to create a world where children can grow up without experiencing war.

Before I knew it, late one afternoon I was back in a sherut, on my way to the airport. On the way, I got a call from Julia, asking if I knew that my flight was cancelled. No, and there was now no turning back, since I was in a shared taxi, and also had just checked out of my hotel. As it was, it was a good thing to be at the airport, to snag one of last seats out of Israel, as the few remaining flights to anywhere were disappearing rapidly.

It was surreal to spend the night watching as the departure board listed one flight after another as cancelled, first all US flights, and then the dominos kept falling as many European airlines followed suit.

Iron Dome was 80-90% effective, but one missile from Gaza had slipped through and destroyed a home less than 5 kilometers from the airport. Hamas scored one of its biggest victories of the conflict when that threat led to the United States cancelling flights to Israel.

Instead of my 11:30 PM flight direct to Philadelphia, I was rescheduled onto the 6:00 AM El Al flight to Madrid. El Al wouldn’t allow check-in until 5 hours before the flight, so it wasn’t until 1:00 AM that I found out that I was only stand-by. Staying up all night, with some help from the all-night CD store helping me stock up on new Israeli music, I wasn’t cleared to have a seat until after the final boarding call, and had to do a true O.J. Simpson through the airport…passport control…security, and then finally, actually in a seat on the plane. We sat for a while on the tarmac, and finally lifted off.

And suddenly, just like that, after 10 days of constant alert for the next siren, we were airborne, and in less than a minute, we were out of the range of Hamas’ missiles. We were out of harm's way.

Such a relief; and such guilt, that I could so easily just get on a plane and fly away.

How quickly the reality of daily life in Israel slips away; how quickly can Israel be left to face its burdens alone.

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem /Let my right hand wither. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth / If I stop thinking of you; If I do not set Jerusalem / Above my chiefest joy.”

(from Psalm 137)


There are a number of things we can do, individually and as a community, to fulfill this commitment voiced in Psalm 137, to not forget Israel:

In our Religious School, Cantor Goldberg and I are committed to Israel being an important part of the curriculum.

The 7th grade has a unit on Israel. Harvey Cohen is offering a Hebrew high school elective on Israel. Thanks to a gift from last year’s graduating senior class, beautiful and detailed maps of Israel will be placed in every classroom.

The next time you’re near the middle entrance to the building, take a look at the brand new bulletin board which we just put up, which will be exclusively dedicated to keeping Israel culture and programs and news literally before our eyes. By the way, if you’re interested in helping to curate this board, please let me know. One or two interested people should do just fine.

Our adult education program this year will feature extended discussions about many of the historical and current challenges that make Israel what it is today, and which define the challenges it faces. Please pick up a flyer outside the door, on the literature table, to learn more about the one book about Israel that everyone is encouraged to read, and please join us for a series of four discussions on Sunday mornings. It’s Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.

There are so many other things that we can do:

  • Subscribe to Jewish magazines and newspapers, or read them on-line.
  • Support Israeli businesses.
  • Give your time and your financial support to groups that support Israel.
  • Let our elected officials know that Israel matters to you -- write letters, make calls, send e-mails.
  • On your way out of the sanctuary, pick up information about Israel bonds, which you’ll find on our information table.
  • Make sure that your children go on Birthright trips, and encourage them to spend a summer or semester or gap year there.
  • Read Israeli books. Watch Israeli movies (we have a great DVD selection in our library).

The most important part of our study mission to Israel wasn’t printed on our itinerary. It’s this: simply showing up. Just being there. And while this is always true, it was only more so over this past summer. All of my friends and colleagues on the mission were so moved by how much it meant to Israelis that we were there, especially then, precisely at a time when it could easily feel like just about all the rest of the world was abandoning them. Every Israeli we met said, “thank you for being here.”

So of all the things we can do, individually and as a community, the most important is to go to Israel. Every year at the end of our Pesach seder, and in just 10 days at the end of Yom Kippur, we say “L’Shanah Haba’ah b’yerushalaiyim” – next year in Jerusalem. Let’s not just say the words. Let’s do it. Let’s go. The name of our community is B’nai Israel. The children of Israel. So let’s truly be the children of Israel. Let’s go home.

More details about what’s possible will be in the bulletin that should arrive in your mailbox in the next week or so. And there’s something to do immediately. As you leave the sanctuary today, you’ll find a table with what look like pledge cards. There’s one for each family. And there’s a place to indicate, by placing a sticker in different places, whether you’re potentially interested in an adult trip, in a family trip, or not at this time. Please fill out this card before you leave today.

L’Shanah Haba’ah b’yerushalaiyim” – next year in Jerusalem.

And Shanah Tovah Umetukah – A Good and a Sweet Year, to all of us, to our families, and to all of Israel.

And let us say, Amen.



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