I was in utero during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and born a month later. That was just 25 years after Israel’s founding and 28 years after the official end of the Holocasut. My religious identity formation was marked by the refrains of “Never Again” and “Am Yisrael Chai…the People of Israel lives.” I have only a few overt memories of Israel though I am certain it was a constant subject in Religious School. I remember a third grade simulation that included boarding a pretend airplane in my childhood synagogue’s social hall and “touring” the Promised Land. And I vividly remember Israel’s 35th birthday. Each year we participated in the “Walk for Israel” when the whole community would come out and walk around Lake Bde Maka Ska with signs and posters and singing. We’d get sponsors and raise money from our friends and neighbors. I particularly remember the Walk for Israel at its 35th birthday because we all got posters to bring home from Sunday School. It was in contemplating my poster on my wall in my bedroom that it occured to be that my father was older than the Modern State of Israel. What struck me as so funny then has been a reminder to me ever since of how new the Modern State of Israel really is.
I was in utero on Israel’s 35th birthday and born a few months later. And so even though I missed this particular “Walk for Israel,” these Walks were also an important part of my earliest memories and connections to Israel. Though I don’t recall the exact year, perhaps it was Israel’s 45th birthday, I vividly remember the excitement of arriving at the Milwaukee JCC at the end of that year’s Walk for Israel to find camels, yes, real live camels, just waiting for us kids to ride them. It was at this moment, high in the air on a camel’s back, with blue and white face paint on my cheeks and Am Yisrael Chai blaring from a boombox, I started to dream about a foreign land that someday, I knew I would call home.
My first “real” visit to Israel was the summer before my Junior year in High School. I was 16 and ambivalent about going because I really just wanted to stay home and hangout with my friends. But an opportunity materialized that I couldn’t pass up and I travelled with a group of 20 American teens and 20 Israeli teens, first for a week in Poland and then 5 weeks in Israel. That experience changed the course of my Jewish identity and my understanding of Israel in profound ways. On the level of Jewish Peoplehood, I made connections that summer that remain part of my life today. 30 years later, I am still in contact with others in that group, both American and Israeli. And as significant in different ways, I remember realizing how small the country was on the day we drove from Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights to Eilat. And if I had been aware of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a teenager, I didn’t really understand the geography of it until that drive from north to south when we joined an army escort through the Jordan River Valley with an armed soldier on our bus which was common in those days. And when we came near Hebron…I just remember a lot of chain link fence. I also remember a sunrise hike on Mt. Shlomo along the Egyptian border when we shared food and water with an Egyptian soldier posted on the other side of razor wire. I keep a photo of that exchange in my study here at Bet Shalom.
When I was in High School, I watched in envy, as many of my friends returned home from summer in Israel programs, impacted perhaps more by the social implications of having not had an experience that all my friends were having, than by a true understanding of what I was missing out on. But by the time I got to college I experienced a profound feeling of disappointment when just as I was preparing for a semester at Hebrew University through the University of Minnesota’s Study Abroad program, the U decided to cancel and discredit all study abroad programs to Israel because of the escalating violence of the Second Intifada. So instead of journeying to the land I had been taught was a safehaven for the Jewish people, I traveled instead to Prague, a place where so many Jews had either left or been murdered, but was, according to the University of Minnesota in 2003, a proper safehaven to learn about Jewish history and culture. The irony was not lost on me and only heightened my yearning and my resolve. And so, as I immersed myself in the rich and beautiful story of Eastern Europeran Jewry, I found myself connecting to the Zionists who came before me, feeling like a 21st century version of the 12th century Spanish poet Yehudah Halevi when he wrote, libi bamizrach, v’anochi basof ma’arav, My heart is in the East, and I am at the edge of the West.
1999/2000, the year Debbie and I lived in Israel, during my first year of Rabbinical School, was one of the most peaceful time periods in a decade before it, or since. Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated just three years before we moved into our Jerusalem apartment. Within a year of our moving to Cincinnati for my second year at Hebrew Union College, there would be 25 suicide attacks with dozens murdered and hundreds injured. While we lived there, there was a palpable hope in the air. It felt like peace. Ehud Barack was the Prime Minister and it seemed as if there was going to be peace with Lebanon. On Shabbat, my friend Sami who lived in Ma’alei Adumim would walk toward Jerusalem and Debbie and I would walk toward Ma’alei Adumim and we’d meet up in a Palesitian village somewhere in between for fried cheese and baklava. Once on Shabbat, we drove with Sami deep into the West Bank, going village to village on dirt roads and we stopped to help a family harvest olives from their trees. It felt so free and secure.
I arrived for my year in Israel in the summer of 2007, a year after the Second Lebanon War and a few years after the Second Intifada. Ehud Olmert was Prime Minister and there was an atmosphere of nervous calm in the air, a sense of relative peace and security… but with a lot less hope for lasting peace, and a lot more fear that things could break at any moment. People openly talked about being afraid to ride city buses, but most of us did anyway. My classmates and I didn’t live our day-to-day lives in fear, we still had dinner at the best restaurants in East Jerusalem, built relationships with Arab Israelis, and walked freely in the city that became our home. But even still, there were moments when we were reminded of the fragility of peace, and the reality of terror. We had practice drills in the bomb shelter at HUC and would occasionally receive emergency alert messages through our phones, which keep in mind, were not yet smartphones.
When I was a rabbinical student in Cincinnati, I went on a solidarity mission with the Federation during the height of the suicide bus bombings…when more than 40 of these terrorist attacks were occuring on average each year. Groups came from all over North America. I ran into Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Sim Glaser at the Western Wall.
In the 12 months that I lived in Jerusalem, I had only one moment of true panic, of seeing, and being part of how Israel responds to what initially felt like terror. I was at a soccer game with some classmates and one of our professors. A scene, which under normal circumstances, is enough to produce panic from fan enthusiasm alone… when suddenly there was a large boom and all the lights in the stadium went out. Announcements were made that the game was canceled and everyone must exit the stadium. There was fear but also action, leadership, surprising order, and calm. We found out after the fact that it was an electrical malfunction and not a terror attack, but the response was emblematic of a country who was ready, almost expecting, this exact moment.
I have had the privilege of spending more than two years of my life in Israel when you add it all up. I love our Holy Land as much as anyone who has not made Aliyah. And at times I’ve considered that too. For sure Israel has issues. There is no Garden of Eden. But, “libi B’mizrach…My heart is in the East.” During college, I spent a summer in a leadership program and we met with Palestinian Authority officials in East Jerusalem. I will always remember when we were ushered into a conference room that had a huge map on the wall of the Middle East. It said Palestine and did acknowledge Israel. I remember how viceral my response was. I was so angry. And I have the same response to this day when I walk into a Jewish classroom and see a map that doesn’t show the West Bank and Gaza as separate from Israel. I have believed in a Two State Solution…dividing up the land into two countries, one for Israel and one for Palestine…since I remember being aware of the idea. And it has been the agreed upon approach to the conflict for much longer than I’ve been alive. In 1947 it was called the Partition Plan, negotiated by the League of Nations and accepted by the Jewish World.
I have also believed in a two state solution for as long as I can remember and have been continuously distressed about the expansion of settlements that slowly, year by year, make the potential for the establishment of a Palestianian state less and less possible. So when I traveled to Yeshivat M’kor Chaim, a High School in K’far Etzion, which is part of the larger Gush Etzion settlement bloc of the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem, I was uncomfortable. This visit was in 2011, when I spent the summer in Israel as part of a fellowship with the HUC School of Education that sought to push and expand our notion of Jewish peoplehood. It was almost like a test to see how reform rabbinical students and yeshivah boys would interact. What we experienced that day in K’far Etzion was a true human connection with Jews who understand Judaism and Zionism in a fundamentally different way than we do. We heard more than one person say “this is my land and I deserve to live here.” We heard a confident expression that Gush Etzion is, and will be, accepted as greater Israel, even by the left… Both because of the important historical role it played in the narrative of the 1940s and also because there is already such a firm stronghold in the settlement bloc, that their expansion is natural growth, not new people coming in from the outside. That night I returned to Jerusalem with more questions than answers about the role of the settlements in any future two state solution. And also questions about my role as an American Zionist and soon-to-be rabbi in engaging and educating about the complexities and challenges that stand in the way of peace.
We don’t talk about settlements or suicide bombs with our first graders. It isn’t developmentally appropriate. We talk about Israel with children the same way we talk about Noah and his Ark, or the splitting of the Sea. We tell big foundational stories that we hope to build on throughout peoples’ lives. We hope that each person’s theology grows with them. When you are three you need to be able to believe the Sea split. When you are 30, you need to believe you are still a “good Jew” even if you no longer believe in those kinds of miracles. Regrettably, we’ve done a better job over recent generations of transmitting Ahavat Yisrael/the love of Israel associated with traditional Zionism than a nuanced understanding of Israel’s geo-political situation and challenges. Not long ago, a young woman came to me and expressed anger that we never taught her the whole story…that we only celebrate the many Israeli Nobel prize winners and the Startup Nation ingenuity. We praise Israel’s tech genius, drip irrigation and the cherry tomato developed there. But we haven’t talked enough about the Occupation or Jewish religious extremism.
In recent years, we have started to integrate more of these conversations into our curriculum with our older teens in Confirmation and Post-Confirmation. They are difficult discussions and ones that teens who have gone through our program are ready for. It is why we say that the milestone of b’nai mitzvah marks a transition toward a deeper exploration of Judaism. It is a beginning, and not an end to the lifelong pursuit of struggling with all that pulls at our heads and our hearts. My love for Israel is unwavering. And it is precisely this love that compels me to also explore and express my concerns and my criticism. As my relationship with Israel continues to unfold, I pray that I will continue to fall in love with, and be challenged by, the country, land, and people who are so much a part of who I am.
This morning we have shared parts of our personal stories. I experience a magnetic east in my life…a pull toward Jerusalem…as so many Jews before me have for thousands of years. I feel so fortunate to have been able to cultivate such a deep and personal relationship with Israel during my life. I am excited to return there this February with many of you. Politics and security are just one part of a much bigger story and connection. I hope that in this year ahead, you’ll take time to consider the space the land of ancestors, stories and prayers holds in your identity. We have many opportunities in our program over the coming months and we hope you’ll join us. We look forward to learning together and sharing in our Ahavat Yisarel – Our love for Israel.
We conclude with a prayer for peace in the Middle East by Alden Solovy:
Light of truth,
Source of wisdom and strength,
In the name of our fathers and mothers,
In the name of justice and peace,
Help us to remember our history,
To mourn our losses together,
So that we may,
Lay down our weapons and live.
God of all being,
Bring peace and justice to the land,
And joy to our hearts.