What draws us to care about Israel?

10 TISHREI 5779 / SEPTEMBER 19, 2018

JCOGS friends, what a blessing to be here together.
This is now my sixth year leading High Holy Days
gathered with you all in our beautiful sanctuary.
It is an honour for me.
We have been through so much together,
and G-d willing, so much more ahead.

Today, on this holy day of Yom Kippur,
I want to speak to you personally about Israel:
the State, the Land, the People.

In a few short weeks,
Alison, the boys, and I are traveling to Israel for three weeks,
visiting Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and beyond.
I know what some of you are already thinking:
Traveling with 3 young children, including our 6-month-old Hersh?!
Sounds exhausting!
It surely will be, but also exhilarating!
We are excited to be in Israel together,
and grateful to JCOGS for the time to take this important family trip.

We’re looking forward to seeing Israel through our children’s eyes —
from a place of wonder and inquisitiveness —
and to witnessing the layers of Israel’s rich history — which is our history —
connecting with its current peoples and cultures:
the food, the music, the smells, the land in all of its beauty.
We imagine shopping at the shuks,
doing an archeological dig for a day,
heading to the beach, doing some hiking,
and visiting the old city of Jerusalem and the newest parts of Tel Aviv.

We are excited for our kids to be immersed in Hebrew
and to see Jews of all kinds,
indeed, to experience the diversity of Israelis
and even to learn some Arabic.
And did I already mention the food?
The hummous, the fresh produce, the sweets…mmm…Can’t wait!

Today, on this most holy day of re-examining our relationships
to make sure we are in right alignment,
take a moment to consider your own story —
your own unfolding relationship with Israel.

This summer,
JCOGS went on a journey of education and discussion about Israel.
We heard music with Israeli guests;
we ate delicious middle eastern foods;
and we learned together.

Before each Israel program
I found myself praying:
“Please, G-d, let this moment bring our community together.
May our diversity only make us stronger.”
Even today,
I stand before you with trepidation and humility
that my words might draw us together.

In the landscape of North American Jewry,
no topic rattles and divides our people more than the State of Israel.
And our community is no different than any other.

As we work with great energy and delight
to build community here at JCOGS,
we bring into many issues, not only our Israel engagement,
an awareness of the discomfort of sharing
with those who have different views.
That is what it means to be part of real community.
Communities like ours —
members who range from Reform to Orthodox to secular,
from politically conservative to progressive —
are a rare and precious commodity
in our overly siloed society.
I believe the beauty of our congregation
is in the bridge-building we are doing together.

At the beginning of the summer’s engagement with Israel
I shared these words with you from Yehudah Halevi:
לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב
My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West.”
And from Reb Nachman of Bratslav:
“Wherever I go, I am always going towards Eretz Israel, the land of Israel.”

For thousands of years,
from Spain to Ukraine, India to North Africa,
we have longed for the Land of Israel,
even we, here, in far-flung Vermont.
It still seems inconceivable that after
two thousand years of yearning, Jews have their own state.

When and how do we find ourselves drawn into
the unfolding story of the State of Israel?
What bridge in our hearts do we cross
to feel connected to that land and people?
Take a moment to reflect on what has shaped
your connection to Israel
or if you aren’t feeling that connected,
you’re welcome to reflect on that too.
(Turn to someone sitting near you
and share your thoughts for a few minutes in chevruta.)

Over the summer, we focused our attention
on the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage curriculum:
“Israel’s Milestones and Their Meanings”.

Remarkably, we now stand at multiple anniversaries:
100 years since the Balfour Declaration,
70 years since the establishment of the state,
50 years since the Six Day War,
and 25 years since the Oslo Accord.

The impact and ripple effect of these events
continue to shape who we are
and how we see the State, the Land and the People.

Some of us here today were alive
for the establishment of the State
or the Eichmann trials;
some for the triumph of the Six Day War;
or the vulnerability of the Yom Kippur War;
some for the airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews,
or the mass migration of Russian Jews;
some for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel,
or the disengagement from Gaza and the ensuing conflicts,
or the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange,
or the recent U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Each historic moment shapes our consciousness
and our ongoing conversation about Israel.
The diversity of generational experience in this room
is one of the most beautiful things about being in community.

To be in your formative years when the state was born,
or alternately, when Israel won the Six Day War,
or at the time of the peace treaty with Egypt,
or the Oslo Accords, or the Gaza War —
the timing affects our emotional connection to Israel
and shapes who we are
and how we relate to this major part of Jewish life and history.

Which ones of these milestones are most significant in your lifetime?
Can you remember where you were when any of them occurred?
How have these events affected your life the most
and made you feel you are part of the story of our people?

During the summer’s Hartman curriculum,
we began with the 1917 British Balfour Declaration:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour
the establishment in Palestine of a national home
for the Jewish people.”
This set the global paradigm for a sovereign Jewish state in Israel.

In 1947, only two years after the Shoah’s devastation for our people —
the UN proposed the Partition Plan,
a division of Palestine between the Jews and Palestinians.

This is an extraordinary historical transformation for our people.

The “recognition by the United Nations
of the right of the Jewish people
to establish their State is irrevocable,”
reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
“This right is the natural right of the Jewish people
to be masters of their own fate,
like all other nations, in their own sovereign State…”

With the founding of the State,
questions arose that resonate to this day:
Is the Jewish return to the Land of Israel
about becoming a normal nation “like all other nations”?
Or is Israel meant to be different, “a light unto the nations”,
holding ourselves to a higher standard like the early prophets once did?
And yet, do we not ask that other nations treat us as any other nation?

The creation of the State brought up other dilemmas still alive today:
Even as the Partition Plan of ‘47
was accepted by what would become Israel and a majority of the UN,
the Plan was rejected by the surrounding Arab nations,
and seen from a vastly different viewpoint
than the majority of Jews around the world.
The divide between Israel on one side
and the Arab nations and the Palestinians on the other
became even more pronounced with the Six Day War,
Jewish control of East Jerusalem, and Jerusalem’s unification.

In the words of Arthur Hertzberg:
In 1967, “Israel was, for the first time,
the modern heir to David. It had slain visible Goliaths…
Even non-believers spoke of miracles.
In a very deep sense, the exile of the Jews, which had begun
with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70,
ended in the Six Day War…
(and) ‘cured’ Jews of the shame of powerlessness.
They were now admired among other nations,
and they could admire themselves…”
(“The Tragedy of Victory,” New York Review of Books, 1987)

In that war, Israel took control of the Biblically-defined land
gaining access to major holy sites,
most significantly the Western Wall – the Kotel – and Hebron.
Suddenly, G-d re-entered the historic imagination.
As Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim wrote:
“All of these (victories) could not have transpired
through human force alone . . .
The heavens fought through us, and we emerged victorious.”

To this day, our relationship to land, power and G-d are fundamentally altered because of the events of 1967.
Consider the image you hold of Israel in your mind’s eye;
you likely will at some point picture the Temple Mount,
the Western Wall and the golden Dome of the Rock.
Consider how Jewish power
impacts life in America, Israel and the world at large.
When does Jewish power serve as a source of pride for you?
Does it ever act as a source of shame?
Do you believe that it was the hand of G-d that brought
the victories of ‘47 and ‘67? In what sense?

These world milestones shape how we see Israel and the world
and can make us feel part of the unfolding story of our people.

My own connection to Israel began
in Jewish day school with friends from Israel
and in Young Judaea’s Zionist youth group.
Of the milestones in Israel’s history that have shaped me,
one stands out as most formative in my life.

Just a few days ago, September 13,
marked the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Oslo Accord.
The image of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat
on either side of President Bill Clinton
is still imprinted in my brain.
For the first time in decades,
the world felt a fragile hope that the war
between the Palestinian and Jewish peoples might end
and a new era of peace might begin.
I watched the ceremonies at my Jewish day school;
I spoke about the possibility of peace with my Young Judaea friends;
I touched a world event that touched me in turn.

Less than two years later,
and on the heels of the post-Oslo terrorist attacks,
on November 4, 1995,
the radical nationalist Yigal Amir,
an opponent of the Oslo Accords,
assassinated Yitzhak Rabin after a rally in Tel Aviv.

The following summer on a high school trip,
I had the fortune of spending 7 weeks in Israel for my first time.
On a free weekend, I visited with an Israeli friend and high school buddy
who had recently moved back to Israel.
He brought me to כיכר רבין‎, Rabin Square,
the renamed site where Rabin was shot.
There, I shed tears,
feeling anger, hurt, frustration, confusion, and fear,
but also feeling that hope, while greatly fractured, was not entirely lost.

Like small notes left in the Kotel wall,
the walls of Rabin Square were etched with prayers and thoughts
at the ad hoc memorial.
There I left my own note to Rabin:
“How could someone SHOOT! a man that represents PEACE!
I have decided not to give up,
Because of you.”
I took a picture of the note so that I would remember.

Since then, I have always been drawn
to bridge building between peoples,
the hopeful, solution-oriented efforts that bring people together,
the relationships built and sustained over good and difficult times.

When Alison and I were last in Israel, Adar turned 1.
While my rabbinical school classmates were living in Jerusalem,
Alison and I took the opportunity
to, once again, live in Haifa,
a Mediterranean port city built on Mount Carmel,
and the only major Israeli city
where life is mixed between Arab and Jewish residents.

Adar’s birthday party was emblematic of our experience in Haifa.
After almost a year of living there,
we gathered together with the many friends we had made.
Up on the wall, we put large brown paper
where people could write birthday wishes for Adar.
Our friends wrote out their wishes:
in Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and English.

When we go back in a few weeks,
we hope to reconnect with our many friends in Israel.

We also hope to explore through our kids’ eyes
the ways that Israel is a just and diverse society
and the ways it moves forward towards greater justice for all its inhabitants.

We will connect with the Yemenite Jewish family of a dear friend of Alison’s
who died in a car crash along with her mother and two children,
and go to the Kibbutz in the Negev where they met.
And we will talk with Or Yarok,
the Israeli NGO that works to make driving safer in Israel.

We hope to visit the village of the Arab-Israeli families
that we helped host in Boston
when they worked for a summer program that Alison was in charge of.
And we will connect to some of the coexistence initiatives across Israel
that seek to tie Palestinians and Jewish Israelis together
and build a shared future.

We will also connect with some of the exciting new communities
that are engaging secular Israeli Jews in spirituality and religious life.

And I will attend the annual Jewish Federations
General Assembly Conference, taking place this year in Tel Aviv, and titled:
“Israel and the Diaspora: We Need to Talk.”
The program will focus on our shared heritage and future,
the different ways that Israelis and Diaspora Jews
see themselves and the world, and the ways we need each other’s perspectives to survive and thrive as a people.
I am doing my best to live inside and sustain the fragile hope
that we can build bridges between people
for the sake of a better tomorrow.

That hope grew a bit stronger when we drew closer together as a community over the summer’s Israel learning,
and began to model bridge-building and communal cohesiveness –
even in the face of differences – within our own community.

I was proud of the way we engaged with each other —
the learning, curiosity, and creativity,
the Jewish values, mutual respect, vulnerability,
and building of trust —
each of us speaking in what we believe
are Israel’s and our people’s best interests.

How we each care about Israel,
or other important parts of our Jewish story, may diverge.
Your story may be different from the person sitting next to you,
your level of investment may be different.
Yet as a Jewish people, even in far-off Vermont,
we find our own ways to care about Israel,as we care deeply about each other.

And we are just getting started.
There is more to come with future programming.
There is more to hear from each of us and every one of you.
All of us have our own stories that yearn to be heard,
as our relationship with Israel grows and evolves.
None of us has the full picture without each other.
We need to hear each other to be a whole community.
I believe that we can be a model for other individuals and communities,
and that work has already begun.

Today, on this most holy day of re-examining our relationships,
may the way forward be one of hope.
In the words of my Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld:
“Od lo avda tikvateinu.”
She writes about the words from the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva:
“Our hope is not lost.
We are not so bitter
Or resigned
Or complacent
Or cynical
Or callous
That we have lost the capacity to hope for a different reality.
That we have lost the capacity to work for a different reality…
May we have the courage to say:
Od lo avda tikvateinu.
Our hope is not lost. We are still hoping. We are still a people of hope.”

A fragile hope, but a necessary hope;
one of building bridges,
and one of action and care.

Gmar chatima tova,

may we and the State, the Land, and the People Israel all be inscribed in the Book of Life and Hope for this coming year, and a sweet and happy new year to you all, Shana tova.