On Yom Yerushalayim and Alexa’s bat mitzvah – May 23, 2020
Thursday was Yom Yerushalayim, the celebration of the reunification of Jerusalem in the 6 day war. There were so many options online for learning and even a virtual tour of the old city led by an organization called Thank Israeli Soldiers. I went online and followed a tour guide as he navigated through the narrow streets of the old city, it was pretty impressive. I have to say that with this pandemic a lot of creative and out of the box thinkers have tried their best to offer some amazing virtual programming. The JNF fundraiser and trivia night Thursday night was also a lot of fun.
As I followed the tour guide as he walked into the main shopping and eating area of the old city, past the cardo and down towards the kotel, he stopped by a man playing guitar who just happened to be playing love songs of Jerusalem. It was at that moment that I realized three things. One, the guitar guy was planted there for our enjoyment, but that’s ok, it was some nice banter and added to the experience. Two it was a bright sunny day, and I was watching at 1 pm EST which would be around 8 pm Jerusalem time and so I realized this had been taped and wasn’t live. Third, there were no other people around and I don’t think its because they were able to clear the city to do this, its because of the covid19 and people are still not really moving around and filling up the old city as they usually do.
This made me a little sad, to remember that this virus has not let up even as the restrictions are slowly being lifted and Jerusalem is not what it is meant to be as an empty city. At the same time I’m happy that Jerusalem is our united undivided capital since 1967 and so as soon as this pandemic ends, the Jewish people will once again flood the streets and its vibrancy will return.
Yom Yerushalayim marks a very similar time in our history. Looking back Jerusalem has always been our capital city, since king David established it during his monarchy. King Solomon built the first temple there which was destroyed until it was rebuilt. It was expanded and beautified by Herod under Roman rule until those same Romans destroyed in 70 CE. And for centuries it was left in its destroyed state, crumbling walls and pent up inside history. It wasn’t until the 19thcentury when some brave pioneers with help from wealthy Jews overseas like Moses Montefiore helped create some housing outside the walls and into the early years of Zionism when more and more came to the city to expand it and make it come back alive. Soon the hills around the old city were settled with buildings and apartments and shops and the Hebrew University. All this came to a sudden and tragic end in 1948 during the war for independence when Israel managed to win the war and create a country but Jordan held rule over the West bank including the old city. Jerusalem was once more a divided city, new from old, a dagger in the heart of the Jewish people and we were unable to walk through the streets and visit the kotel. Naomi Shemer famously wrote in her song Jerusalem of Gold,
The city that sits solitary
And in its midst is a wall.
The market-place is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.
Like today, the city was silent and filled with terror. The border ran right through the city, along what is today Jaffa road, solders on either side, a demilitarized zone in between, shooting back and forth. This lasted for almost two decades until 1967, the 6 day war. We all know the history, our military facing armies from all our surrounding neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, plus help from Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, not only fought bravely but our air force dominated the skies, our tanks steamrolled both north and south capturing the golan heights in the north to the sinai in the south. Our paratroopers in the middle of the country seeing an opening, struck through the Jordanian forces and capture the entire old city. They gathered by the Western Wall, blew the shofar, sang songs of peace and cried at the moment that the Jewish people had once more united Jerusalem as our capital.
We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and to the market-place
A ram’s horn calls out on the Temple Mount
In the Old City.
Yerushalayim shel zahav
Veshel nechoshet veshel or
Halo lechol shirayich ani kinor.
Jerusalem of gold
And of copper, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs.
We cannot forget Jerusalem, nor can we take for granted what it took to fight for her, to unite her as one city and to establish her as our homelands capital forever. When you travel to Jerusalem, the poet Yitzhak Yasinowitz says, you are actually returning. To the spot where you left off, even if you’ve never been there before, visiting friends old and new, arriving at former stomping grounds and watering holes to find them still pulsing or others torn down and rebuilt in the ever evolving life that lays down strata upon strata of this city of ours.
Of course there are layers to this beautiful city, as Rabbi Josh Weinberg writes, there is West Jerusalem and East, Arab Jerusalem and Jewish Jerusalem, Jerusalem of Haredim, Masortim, liberals, secular, mizrahim and Ashkenzaim. The Yekkes of one neighborhood vs the hippies of another. There is the Jerusalem of poets, philosophers, professors and politicians. There is Jerusalem of Halakha and Jerusalem of Aggadah. Jerusalem of on high and Jerusalem of down below. Each Jerusalem identity boils over onto another, blurring the lines of people, characters, and stories.
I am so thankful that I get the opportunity to travel and visit Jerusalem a lot and each time I do not take for granted how lucky I am. It was just last fall that I went with 6 members of our synagogue on the Momentum trip and we spent most of our time in Jerusalem, learning, touring and experiencing everything. It will be hard to forget shabbat, beginning with sunset over the western wall plaza along with the hundreds of other jewish fathers from around north America, together we went right up to the kotel to begin our kabbalat shabbat prayers and spontaneously began dancing and singing, along with a dozen Israel soldiers.
There is nothing quite like having spiritual moments in front of the wall. In the Eighth Chapter of the book of Nehemiawe read about what is likely the first documented public Torah reading in our history. Ezra, coming from Bavel, had it as his mission to bring a new Torah to a nation recently returned to their home. He assembled all the people at the water gate, read the Torah, translated it and celebrated. The people, overwhelmed with emotion, wept.
It was just a few months ago in December that my family, along with my extended family of in laws, sister and brother in laws and nices and nephews, a total of 17, spent two weeks in Israel to celebrate the bat mitzvah of Talia, Alexa and my niece Ashley. The climax of the trip was having them read torah in front of the kotel in the egalitarian section where families of all genders can gather together. It was a rainy and cold day. I had never seen so much rain in Israel as that week. Of course we know that Israel has such a dry climate they really need rain, but still, the week of my family bat mitzvah, couldn’t we get a little break. The forecast all week had said that the Monday we were planning go to was going to rain all day. I thought, how could it rain all day, there had to be a break for a little bit. We had to coordinate a lot of things, our bus and guide, the photographer and extended family meeting us. We woke up in the morning to gray overcast skies, rain and wind. Not a good sign. But I had faith. My trusty iphone weather app said there might be a break of only 30% chance of rain around 10 am. So we had the photographer come and take pictures at 9 in the hotel. Around 10 I looked outside, the rain had broken and while it wasn’t sunny, it was lighter. I said to everyone, ok this is it. let’s go. We quickly ran onto our bus and told the driver to floor it. of course this is Jerusalem, now the QEW, so we slowly meandered our way through the narrow streets not meant for buses and lumbered up the hill towards the aptly named Dung gate, the entrance closest to the kotel. We disembarked and in our nice clothing, holding umbrellas, scampered through towards the egalitarian section. As we found our reserved table, we saw another brave family starting their bar mitzvah and another and so we said ok, god is shining down on us. We quickly gathered and started the service. The attendant in charge of torah scrolls frowned as she gazed at the sky and held the key to the rainproof locker holding the torahs. I implored her to allow us to take out the scroll. With a grumpy sigh, she opened the door and allowed us without any pomp or circumstance to take out the scroll. We quickly unrolled it to the correct verse and the three girls one by one chanted their portions beautifully. We had some speeches, some tears, some mazel tovs and some raindrops began to fall. the torah attendant ran over, without a word, rolled up the torah and took it back to the locker for safe keeping, but nothing could quell our feelings of joys and happiness – standing in front of the kotel, where Jews had stood for centuries, offering our thanks and love to God. It was a special moment for both Talia and Alexa, though today was supposed to be just for Alexa to chant the entire portion she has prepared for the past year, along with her d’var torah and haftorah and luncheon. All of this has to be postpone but I am so proud that Alexa chanted a few verses this morning, a sneak preview of what is to come in October.
Its been 53 years since the city of Jerusalem was united. We can now take it for granted that we can visit all parts of the city, have a bar or bat mitzvah for our children, dance in front of the kotel on shabbat morning, see soldiers get inducted into the army in the plaza, watch tourists from around the world marvel at the immensity and holiness of the last remnant of the holy temple that stood there over 2000 years ago. This is where Jewish history took place, and where the Jewish future takes place. Jerusalem has been the symbol of our people and is now the center of our homeland. It is to visit and spend time there, to leave it and to return again and again.
As the poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
“In Jerusalem, hope springs eternal. Hope is like a faithful dog, sometimes she runs ahead of me to check the future, to sniff it out, and then I call to her: Hope, Hope, come here, and she
comes to me. I pet her, she eats out of my hand. I call her Hope.”
“שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃ יְהִֽי־שָׁל֥וֹם בְּחֵילֵ֑ךְ שַׁ֝לְוָ֗ה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ׃“
Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.“
The fight for Israel’s soul – High Holydays 5780 2019
Anat and Shmuel Carmel are a typical Israeli couple that fell in love and were ready to get married. As they stood under the chuppa, this past spring, at Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC, in front of a Rabbi, you might be wondering, so what? The sad truth is that these two Israeli’s were not allowed to get married in Israel and had to leave the country to say their vows.
Shmuel isn’t recognized as Jewish, despite being born in Israel, serving in the Israeli Army and living Jewishly his entire life. The issue emerged when his mother died and he tried to arrange her burial. He was blindsided when the Israeli rabbinate informed Shmuel that they did not recognize her conversion performed 30 years earlier in Romania, because she was hearing impaired. Shmuel was devastated to be classified as a person “without religion.”
He reluctantly decided to officially convert so he could get married, and worked with a Reform Rabbi. But even this was not recognized by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Because of all these obstacles, Shmuel had to fly to Washington to marry instead his hometown of Tel Aviv.
It’s a painful reality for many Israeli’s who aren’t given the freedom to live Jewishly the way they want in the only Jewish state in the world. The biggest irony with Shmuel and Anat, was that as soon as they were married, and returned to Israel, they were recognized as legally married, despite any orthodox objections.
There were two other couples that were married that day in Washington in what has been called “Three weddings and a statement”. Aviad and Tsion from Beer-Sheva are a same-sex couple, that cannot legally marry in Israel. Now that they are married, they will continue their journey to build a family with a surrogate in Canada because surrogacy, too, is illegal for same-sex couples in Israel.
Ilia Rabkin and Sahar Malka wanted a wedding reflective of their Judaism and their Jewish values. Malka explains, “I wanted to take part in the ceremony. I wanted to give him a ring. I wanted to read him my vows. We wanted it to be equal between us.” No orthodox Rabbi in Israel would provide this wedding, so they left the country to have a ceremony that valued both genders.
A recent survey of Israeli citizens found that four out of every five secular Israeli Jews, if given such a choice, would not get married under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
More and more Israelis are embracing their Judaism but, on their own terms, not those dictated by the orthodox establishment that controls matters of identity. This includes marriage, divorce, conversion and funerals. In the land of Israel, the homeland for all Jewish people, not all Jews are treated equally. The tagline of the liberal movements in Israel is “yesh yoter miderech echad lihiyot Yehudi” – “there is more than one way to be Jewish”. You don’t have to choose between black hat orthodoxy and secularism. There are many pathways, and I believe Israel should offer all the choices for everyone, but right now, this isn’t the case.
Last spring, Conservative Rabbi Dubi Chayoon was arrested for officiating at non-Orthodox marriages. Conservative Rabbi Mikey Goldstein in Rechovot had a fire in his synagogue and needed a place to hold services. No one would rent to a Masorti/conservative congregation, so they had to use their burned out building. Rabbi Gilad Kariv send dozens of counsellors to camps here in North American like Camp George so they can experience normative Jewish life and inclusive prayer and bring it back to Israel where it is sorely lacking.
You know that I love Israel. I think everyone here loves Israel. So many of you have visited our incredible homeland, and others are planning trips in the future, some even next month on our next JWRP Momentum men’s trip. And because we love Israel and support her, it’s even more painful when there are injustices taking place. That’s why we need to make our voices heard, to right the wrongs. To dream big for the Israel we all want.
And its appropriate to talk about it at the High holidays, because while it’s a somber mood, its also one of the most optimistic holidays in the Jewish calendar. Think about it. We all come here to confess our sins to God and our tradition says that we will receive forgiveness. We are all given a chance to start again. That is profoundly hopeful.
Second, the rabbis added even more positivity saying that people also will forgive each other. Humans can change. Who we were is not necessarily who we want to be. We are not locked in, we are capable of transformation.
That is the way we need to talk about Israel. We don’t need to list Israel’s successes or failures; we need to present a vision of Israel in the future that will be something everyone can connect to and affect change now.
It is reassuring to find that in recent polls of Israelis, pluralism and democracy are deeply significant issues. A survey on Israeli Jewish public opinion published just three weeks ago in the middle of September showed that religious freedom and equality earned a resounding 68% level of support. Israeli’s want change and they want their rights: the right to marry outside the purview of the Chief Rabbinate; the right for Reform Rabbis to be paid and for Reform synagogues to be subsidized on par with Orthodox; equality of women and men in the workplace, on buses and on the streets; human and civil rights for Arabic citizens and members of LGBTQ communities.
The survey also found that Israeli Jews are more likely to vote for parties that fit their general political outlooks and commit to pursue religious freedom & equality. That is why a majority before the election preferred a civil coalition government with Likud and Blue-&-White at its core, not depend on the Haredi parties.
Though the election results are in, the final government structure remains to be seen. The two major parties, Likud and Blue and White, have 30 seats each. Both need to form a coalition with smaller fringe parties. Or, they could work together to form a centrist coalition as most Israeli opinion polls want. The two parties have met with President Rivlin a few times over the past weeks to find a way to lead the country together though nothing has happened yet. The wildcard might be Avigdor Lieberman who controls enough seats to possibly force a coalition. He does not want to allow the right wing Orthodox, who represent 5-10% of the vote, to hold any power, especially as they continue to avoid serving in the army. In the end, no matter what government is formed, and no matter who becomes the Israeli Prime Minister, Israelis, and those of us who care about these issues in the diaspora, must continue to pressure leaders to prioritize religious freedom and equality.
Ruach Hiddush is an organization working in Israel on these issues and they have proposed the following: ‘Vision Statement on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’.
It is anchored in love and commitment to Israel and to Jewish peoplehood. Their vision implores Israel to grant equal rights to all of its citizen. Yes our homeland must be faithful and proud of its Jewish heritage. The state must insist on its Jewish identity and maintain a Jewish character for its public life, such as
- proper respect for Shabbat and holidays,
- Kashrut in its public institutions,
- teaching of Tanakh and other key texts,
- acknowledging and celebrating the richness and diversity of Jewish tradition.
Therefore, the State of Israel must grant its citizens the right to choose their own religious leadership so that they are not compelled to adhere to a State-sponsored religious establishment. The State should not grant governmental authority to “Chief Rabbis”—whether on the national or local levels. Rather, each Jewish community must be free to employ rabbis they choose. The State must not be an official sponsor of any one particular religious movement, but must respect freedom and equal opportunity and responsibility for all its citizens.
The State of Israel should provide a system for marriage and divorce that allows citizens to be married in Israel, in a religious or civil ceremony as they choose. If the marriage fails, the couple will be divorced under the aegis of that same authority.
Those who wish to convert to Judaism must have the right to undergo this process with rabbis of their choice, rabbis who are duly ordained and recognized by their respective major religious movements. These conversions must be accepted as valid proof of Jewishness by the State of Israel.
Israel must also ensure that all its citizens – including Haredi- fulfill their civic responsibilities and share fairly and appropriately in military/national service, as well as the labor force. There must be no religious, ethnic or gender discrimination.
Freedom of worship for members of all faiths at their holy sites has been a long held right. In keeping with this core principle, regard for divergent practices and gender equality should be accommodated in the spirit of mutual respect and sensitivity – even at the Kotel – the western wall.
I admit we face an uphill battle to implement this statement, but there are good news stories. Our Israel religious action centre in Jerusalem handles social justice issues on behalf of liberal Jews in Israel. A few years ago, women were forced to sit at the back of segregated buses in certain Haredi neighborhoods. CEO of the religious action centre, Anat Hoffman, decided this was a supreme court issue. She found an orthodox female lawyer who filed a suit and forced the bus companies to let women sit where they want. IRAC also won a recent victory banning racist politicians from the Kahani party from running in the last election.
Some other good news in the marriage portfolio. Even though some Israeli couples go abroad to get married, such as those in Washington last spring, there are couples now being married in Israel by reform rabbis. These weddings are only recognized as common law and not registered by the state, but some Orthodox rabbis, who understand the issue, will sign a marriage certificate and allow their reform colleagues to actually perform the ceremony.
It is a small victory on a long and arduous journey. We can help bring about change by supporting Israeli Jews, fighting for their rights. We can continue to raise the issue and join ARZA Canada to get our voices heard. I’m proud to say that in our congregation, almost every family has joined ARZA Canada. And what can Arza do? Well this year, the world Zionist congress elections will be held. Established by Theodor Herzl in 1897, the Zionist Congress is considered the Parliament of the Jewish People and comprises 500 delegates and meets in Jerusalem every five years. It enables delegates to exert ideological influence on both Israeli society and the global Jewish agenda, as well as allocate financial and other resources to various organizations in Israel.
The 38th World Zionist Congress is scheduled to meet in Jerusalem in 2020 and have elections. The US has 145 delegates and 40% represent ARZA the US Reform Zionist movement. Canada currently has 20 delegates and 6 are from ARZA Canada. A strong election last time ensured that 4 million dollars a year went to our Reform movement in Israel. Another high turnout among us will ensure that financial resources will continue to flow to our Israeli Reform congregations and institutions. It will also allow us to fill leadership positions in some of Israel’s national institutions, including the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). Only in this way can we continue to build a democratic society in Israel that truly reflects the Jewish values we hold dear: pluralism, equality, economic justice, and peace.
Our Israeli anthem says, “lihiyot am chofshi beartzeinu” to be a free nation in our land. Not every Israeli can say that today. Ahad Ha’am talked about how we are all in one boat, can we learn to row together?
I believe in an Israel that is faithful and pound of its Jewish identity and character, acknowledging and celebrating the richness and diversity of our traditions. This we do well. And I am also committed to a Jewish state that is democratic and pluralistic. This we have not done so well, yet. There is work to be done but optimism is a gift on these holidays, so let’s build on this positivity. We have to commit to where we want to go and aim for the horizon. Im Tirzu ein zo agadah – if we want it, it doesn’t have to be a dream – it can become reality. Let’s hope this comes in the sweet new year ahead. Shana Tova.
Israel sermon HHD 2018 5779 – On Israel’s 70th Birthday
2018 marks the 70th birthday of the founding of the modern state of Israel back in 1948. There are so many things we can be proud of- a democratic nation, a strong defense force that has repelled every attack, a safe home for Jews from around the world, a light to all nations, especially in technology, agriculture, renewable energy, and medicine. Israel has become a vibrant melting pot of Jews, creating a unique mosaic. Of course even after 70 years, Israel is not the perfect nation we hoped she could be. Our country is a Jewish nation that contains people of all religions, some of whom do not feel included. Our borders that were established in war, are not all safe now, as enemies beckon at the door. The territories we conquered during vicious battles, contain inhabitants who do not want to be part of the Jewish state and instead, prefer to fight for their own state. It’s been a tumultuous journey and there are still bumps ahead.
With a majority of secular Jews, as well as a vocal and powerful population of Orthodox Jews, and a sprinkling of Reform and other variations, Israel continues to struggle to determine how to be both Jewish and democratic. As an example just this summer Tel Aviv wanted to close the busiest highway in Israel over 6 consecutive shabbatot when the road is least busy in order to finish building a pedestrian bridge. The Knesset overruled the municipality because it would cause work to be done on shabbat even though the workers were not religious and wanted to work on those days. As we know our Jewish halacha clashes with modernity but the issue often extends to how certain of the most orthodox adherents of Judaism use political power to establish and dominate all aspects of Israeli life – including life cycle events such as weddings, adoption and funerals- which don’t always make sense for secular people.
Like I said, there are a lot of speed bumps in the way. Meanwhile, I’m here in the diaspora, preaching about Israel. I don’t live there, though I do visit often. We all live here, but are still part of the people Israel. We want to be part of the conversation there, to have a say in how Israel moves forward, and we’re hoping and praying and working to make Israel the best country she can be. How do we manage to balance our wishes with the reality there?
It’s interesting to consider that from the very first moment Jewish people set foot in the land, there was a discussion about some who wanted to live outside its borders. In the book of numbers, chapter 32, Moses divides the land among the 12 tribes, but the Rubuenites and Gadites ask if they can remain on the East side of the Jordan river and not cross over. Moses is aghast. After forty years of wandering, we finally get to the promised land, but two tribes say thanks but no thanks, we won’t go. Why? Because the land outside Israel was ideal for grazing cattle and the Reubenites and Gadites were herders. What does Moses do? He asks them, “will your brothers go to war while you live here?” Moses says they must join the rest of the nation as they conquer the land, and once they have reached their goal, they can settle on the other side of the Jordan River. The Rubenites and Gadites agree, stating: “we will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion”. They participate in a meaningful way, yet will live outside Israel.
Though these events took place over 3,000 years ago, this is the model we continue to follow today, as contributing Jews who don’t live in Israel. We want to be part of things. We feel a responsibility and will work hard for the soul of Israel, where our hearts reside, even if our bodies live here.
But what I find challenging today, is that what I want for Israel seems to be moving farther from what Israel wants. The divisions within Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora are more deeply divided than ever before. There are two poles, doves and hawks, and the middle is disappearing. There are those who on one side are focused on Israel’s security amidst an unstable world vs those on the other side who focus on Jewish values and the democratic principles of the Jewish state. While these views aren’t new, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the two sides are totally unable to bridge the gap between them, or recognize any legitimacy in the arguments of the other side. If this were a game of chess, we’d be in a stalemate.
What I’d like to suggest to you today, during this holy season, is that we, as reform Jews and liberal lovers of Israel, embody the sensible center, at a critical time when this center is collapsing.
Where is this centre? Let’s examine the two sides more closely.
The hawks point out that the Middle East is extremely unstable. Syria was wracked by years of civil war, with people so busy fighting one another, they didn’t have time to attack Israel. This negatively affected the surrounding region as countries have been weakened by massive numbers of Syrian refugees, and destabilized by floods of Jihadist warriors. Miri Eisen, a middle east expert, reported in a briefing this summer, that the civil war is nearing its conclusion and Syria will be back under the rule of Bashar Asad. This will impact Israel because the 79 km, shared border, is in tatters. Even more alarming, is that the Iranians who entered the war in support of Asad, now control dozens of bases and have publicly announced their plan to attack Israel. Already, there have been drones and rockets shooting into the Golan district.
And we certainly cannot forget about Hamas, looming from the south, continuing to fire rockets, storms the fences and send over flaming kits to start forest fires. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an end in sight. And who can we talk to to control the situation. Hamas is a terrorist entity controlling the strip and would probably win an election in the West Bank as well. Meanwhile, two million sit in the Gaza strip, hopeless, with no future. It’s a no-win situation. We have to defend our border from fanatics but, at the same time, we want to help the majority find a peaceful solution. Sadly, it appears peace is impossible. The occupation may be unfortunate, the hawks say, but there is no alternative to the status quo.
The doves, of course, envision a far different scenario. Peace is always possible, but the government of Israel has shifted dramatically rightward. In an era when ultra-nationalism is sweeping the democratic world, Israel’s government has also moved in a nationalist direction, often with concerning extremist overtones.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has faltered when it comes to maintaining democratic norms in Israel. He’s embraced right-wing governments such as Poland and Hungary which depend on the support of anti-Semitic elements. And, as the primary champion of the recently passed nation-state bill, Netanyahu has offended every non-Jewish citizen of Israel by refusing to recognize their legal equality.
The doves, while generally liberal, do not expect the most right-wing government in Israel’s history to be liberal. But they do expect it to express, more emphatically, its commitment to a just peace with the Palestinians. Disappointingly, no steps have been taken to address the peace process, to find a solution. Instead, we are just maintaining the uneasy status quo.
Furthermore, the doves can’t understand why the Israeli government has aligned itself exclusively with right wing parties in North America. The consequences have been grave. Israel has undermined the crucial principle of bi-partisan support for Israel, the central premise of pro-Israel advocacy in North America for 70 years.
And finally, the doves, mostly non-Orthodox Jews, have been infuriated by the never-ending insults they have suffered at the hands of Israel’s government. Reform and Conservative Jews are still denied recognition in Israel. There is still no place for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. And Israeli government representatives, while professing solidarity with Jews everywhere, quietly acknowledge that Evangelicals matter more to them than liberal North American Jews. Like us.
The doves also point out that, within the Arab world – alliances are possible. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the gulf countries are on the side of democracy. This is positive for Israel, bringing dialogue to the table. We have even heard stronger Arab leader’s voices extolling Israel’s right to exist, as part of the middle east. These leaders are slowly bringing the most conservative countries on earth into the modern world. Israel should not step backwards towards more conservatism but embrace the modernity she has already achieved.
Given today’s grim reality, where do we, as Reform Jews, come in? The answer, according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is that we must be the voice of the sensible center. We know Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core, and Israel cannot be sustained without the Jewish people on its side. We are linked by one covenant and a shared history, how can we find the common ground.
There is a Talmudic story that might provide some insight. In temple times the priests organizing the sacrifices had an important job to immediately clean off the ashes after each sacrifice on the altar. This was such a coveted role, the priests often fought amongst themselves, racing up the stairs to the altar. In Talmud Yoma 23a, there was one instance when, in racing to the top, one priest stabbed another to death. A tragedy.
The high priest immediately declared that the knife violated the sanctity of the sacrifice, and therefore no more sacrifices could take place. The father of the dead priest disagreed, saying it is permissible to use the knife, consequently ignoring the death of his son right in front of him. But the status of the knife fails to address the point. The Talmud says that when the father cares more about the purity of the knife then the death of his son, the temple system fails, the family fails, the state fails.
The Talmud didn’t abolish the sacrificial system over this incident, the system has power for good but everyone needed to be aware and not lose focus on the big picture of why people were offering sacrifices to God, not the mechanics of the sacrifice itself. So too Israel is a nation built on hope and idealism, but power can be distorted if we lose sight of our goals. If we are serious about Israel as the homeland of all Jewish people, we must ensure that every Jew has the opportunity to love Israel, to visit Israel, to support Israel, and to speak out and even critique Israeli policies if we feel they don’t live up to her highest potential.
We will not be silent when the decadent Chief Rabbinate, backed by the government, rejects the world’s largest Jewish denominations. When the police arrest a conservative rabbi for performing weddings. When the Israeli Knesset passes a controversial surrogacy law preventing male, same-sex couples from finding surrogate mothers in Israel to carry their child. We liberal Jews must insist that Zionism be what its founders intended—a movement of the entire Jewish people.
At the same time we should celebrate Israel when she shines. Let me give you one amazing example from this past summer, the gay pride parade in downtown Jerusalem. I saw it with my own eyes a year earlier in 2017 standing on the sidewalk cheering with my family. There was a startling amount of security. All roads leading in and out were evacuated, there were iron barriers protecting the marchers, and a squad of police at each intersection. This may seem like more than enough, but just 3 short years ago, Shira Baniki, a 16 year old marching in the pride parade was stabbed and killed by an orthodox extremist. This attack did not stop the march. Not at all. It has grown larger each year in Jerusalem. Now it is but a fraction of the size of the Tel Aviv Pride Week where 250,000 gather annual for one of the best pride festivals in the world. But we know Jerusalem as more conservative, with a higher orthodox population, more shops closed on shabbat, and generally less open to progressive values and ideas. Tt’s even more impressive that 2018 was the largest gay pride parade ever with over 22,000 participants. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, head of ARZA – our reform representative organization in Israel, walking in this year’s parade wrote, “we can draw strength from those who continue the fight for equality in our democratic homeland”.
We are a proud liberal denomination, but at the same time solidly rooted in political realism. We have no illusions about Israel’s leadership, but we certainly don’t have any misconceptions about her enemies. We understand the importance of our Tzahal – the Jewish army and Jewish power, and we thank God that Israel possesses both. Stateless Jews are defenseless Jews, and Israel means that Jews can use force, if necessary, to remain safe and free. But we must heed the warning against a Zionism of fear or Holocaust obsession. We are not the victim anymore. We are strong and powerful and cannot abuse it. We must remember where we came from and use our position to promote peace. And yes, peace may not come for 5 years, or 10, or 50. Still, contrary to those all around us, we believe it will come, and bringing it about is a sacred task.
We do not hate or oppose the Palestinian people; we continue to respect their aspirations for independence. And we know that without dignity for the Palestinians there can be no true dignity for Israelis. Without peace for the Palestinians, there can be none for Israel.
Reform Jews know that the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in its ancient homeland, is one of the most just and moral causes of our time. However, we also know that to occupy and control the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, and to negate their right to create their own state, side by side with the State of Israel, is not just or moral. It doesn’t coincide with Jewish values.
To be clear, I am not suggesting equivalence here. Israelis and Palestinians are not equally responsible for the absence of peace. Our national movement has been far from perfect; theirs has been mostly murderous. They have missed countless opportunities to meet at the table, to find compromise, to seek peace together. Nonetheless, no matter what, Reform Jews will always be on the frontlines of the struggle to transform the conflict into a serious search for peace. We continue to be motivated by the hope of building a future together, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, dominated not by fear and hatred, but by optimism and a commitment to the peace of Jerusalem.
This is not a simple message, but these are not simple times.
Let us summarize: What does it mean for Reform Jews to be the sensible center?
In regards to the peace process it means that we oppose the messianic settlers and the occupation-forever Jews. Because we know that Israel cannot forever enslave another people.
The centre means we never say there is no partner for peace on the other side – there are always solutions and compromise – we must avoid absolutes, we must work harder, we must aim for the horizon.
The sensible center also means we don’t capitulate. We oppose the give-back-the-territories-now-no-matter-what Jews. Because we know that ending the occupation prematurely could mean chaos and endless terror for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
in regards to the nature of Israelis jewish democracy, the sensible centre means we must clarify religious rights and freedoms for liberal and orthodox alike. To not let religion colour politics in one way. Yesh Yoter mederech echad lihiyot Yehudi. We must push our liberal agenda harder because we are the minority. We must challenge the status quo and ensure Israel’s Jewish character is for all not just the black hatted one.
The sensible centre is tough-minded realism, honest criticism, insistence on religious freedom and non-stop striving for peace.
The prayer for the state of Israel says “barech et medinat yisrael reishit smichat geulateinu” – god bless the state of Israel the first flowering of our redemption. Our state is a mixture of a spiritual and political events. We are always in that space, between particular and universal ideals. God has a special relationship with our homeland, yet God is above all peoples and nations. God is here and everywhere. Adonai is both avinu – our father and also bashamayim – in the heavens. We must remember that, Israel is both our nation, a special Jewish land, but also a democratic country, a member of nations of this world.
A sensible centre means that while Israel is neither perfect nor innocent, we have not lost our faith in Israel, and never will. And therefore, we forever pledge to Israel our unconditional love.
Not uncritical love, of course, but unconditional love.
Yom kippur sermon 2017- The value of braking and taking it slow
In the spring, when my 2006 Honda Accord was at the 300,000 kilometres and counting, parts started going, one after the other. Until then, I’d been happy with my car, and wasn’t really thinking about replacing it. Until a member of our congregation, Marc Vejgman, steered me towards a new car, pun intended. And not just any car.
Marc asked me how much I spent on gas each month, driving my Honda. About 350 dollars, I told him. He asked if I’d be interested in a car that uses no gas, with monthly payments less than 350 dollars, the amount I’d been spending on gas. I scoffed, said that was impossible. Marc smiled and proceeded to tell me about the exciting technological advancements in electric cars, and the subsequent lower prices. In fact, to encourage the growth of electric cars, the federal government offered a new incentive on electric-only cars in March, right around the time my Honda was starting to need major work. It’s a 14,000 dollar rebate on select models. Enticing.
I looked at the Ford Focus, mainly because Marc recommended it. (He happens to work for Ford, after all!) When I arrived at the dealership, there was just one Ford Focus available. It had been built in Flint Michigan and was on its way to Oakville. There were no options, no choice of color, which suited me fine. I don’t like having to make too many choices. I just wanted a car that wouldn’t be too expensive to drive.
The salesman told me my monthly payments would be exactly what I pay each month in gas, 350 dollars, exactly what Marc had said. And there was additional government rebate on an electric charger for my home – I was over the moon. I handed the salesman my credit card, and picked up my new electric Ford Focus a few weeks later. The salesman got in the car with me to explain all the gadgets and how the battery worked. To my surprise, he told me I’d get around 220 km on one charge, depending on how fast I drove, and on how well I braked.
What was that again? How I braked?
He nodded his head and explained that whenever the brake is pressed, the car is recharged. In other words, when you slow down, you’ll go farther. If I stopped completely, the battery charged even more. This blew my mind!
Apply the brake, slow down, get more mileage, go farther.
What an amazing car, what an amazing way to look at life, and.. what an amazing idea for a sermon for the high holidays!
This is a fast world. We eat fast food and buy fast fashion. We drive fast to get places. We try to fast-track through school, we get the nexus pass to go faster through airport lines. We drive in the express lanes, we expect and demand high speed internet, we want LTE fast cellular phone service, and we want to speedread. At Canada’s wonderland, we want the fast-pass to get on the Leviathan roller coaster, because it’s the fastest ride in the park. Speed is king.
Even our food is getting faster. Instant oatmeal, because who has time to let water boil. Or how about the the ubiquitous pop tart? There are directions on the Pop Tart box, two sets of directions. One is for toasting. Take the pop tart out of the package and put it in the toaster.
But if that isn’t fast enough, take out the pop tart and put it in the microwave for 3 seconds. 3 seconds! If you only have three seconds to make your breakfast, you need to re-examine your lifestyle and choices. Yes, life moves pretty fast, but if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss the most important moments. My electric car can go very fast, but it works more efficiently if you slow down to get more out of the charge, more out of the performance, more out of life.
Baseball is a sport that also reminds us to go slow. Do you know how long a typical baseball game runs? Nobody has the answer because the game is not based on time. It ends after 9 innings, as long as one team has more runs than the other. If it is a tied game, they keep playing. This can be frustrating. Some people watch the game and can’t believe anything happened at all because of the slow speed. But there is a lot going on, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned through this particular sport. A year ago, baseball fans witnessed one of the most dramatic world series ever played, between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. While Toronto fans understand patience, waiting for our Leafs to win the Stanley Cup, which hasn’t happened since 1967, we can’t hold a candle to the Cleveland Indians who haven’t won the series since 1945. The Chicago Cubs hadn’t been champs since 1908, back during the Ottoman Empire.
Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse used to say, any team can have a bad century. But in the fall of 2016, the team was young, playing great and had made it through to the world series. They had fought back down 3 games to 1 in the best of 7 series and then it was game 7, the deciding game in Cleveland. The Cubs took the lead by 3 runs heading into the 8thinning and Cubs fans around the world were counting down the outs. Suddenly, the weather took a turn and storm clouds appeared. Against Aroldis Chapman, one of the most fearsome pitchers in the game with 104 mph fastball, the Indians got a single, a double, and an impossible home run to tie the game. Minutes later the skies opened up and it began to pour. For those who like a fast game, this one took its time. I remember Jacob trying to stay up but it was past midnight and he had fallen asleep.
Theo Epstein, the General Manager of the Cubs, headed from his seat to a meeting inside the stadium to get an update on the weather. He related this story as his commencement address last spring at Yale University.
He said that as he passed by the Cubs clubhouse, he saw all 25 guys on the team squeezed into the weight room, shoulder to shoulder. It was an unusual sight, they never met there, especially during a game. As he got closer he saw Chapman in tears. The guys were consoling him. The catcher, David Ross, 38 years old about to retire after the game, gave him a hug and said, “We wouldn’t even be here without you, we are going to win this for you, for each other”. Jason Heyward spoke up. He had the worst season of his whole career and was mired in a slump, but said, “we are the best team in baseball, we’ve leaned on each other all year, we’ve got this”. Then, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who survived pediatric cancer said, “nobody can take this from us, we have each other”. And then, 23 year old Kyle Schwarber, who spent 6 months recovering from an injury with physiotherapy, and miraculously making it back in time for the world series said, “we win this right here” and grabbed a bat. Sure enough, the rain cleared and shwarber got up to bat and got a hit. Then Zobrist doubled down the line and the Cubs took the lead. At 12:47 am Kris Byrant fielded a ground and threw to first base Rizzo for the final out and 5 million Chicagoans danced in celebration – in ecstasy and relief.
What was the message that Theo Epstein took from this historic achievement? In that players’ meeting, time stood still. No one rushed to try to get the game restarted. This team connected to each other by instinct, no one told them to have a team meeting. Theo said,
“a lot of times in life we put our head down and focus on our craft and our task and keep to ourselves, worrying about our numbers or our grades, pursuing the next objective goal, building our resumes, protecting our interests. But others go through our careers with our heads up, as real parts of a team, alert and aware of others, embracing difference, employing empathy, genuinely connecting, putting collective interests ahead of our own. Keeping our heads down is safer and more efficient. Keeping our heads up allows us to lead and every now and then, to be part of something bigger then ourselves and to truly triumph. We will all have our rain delays. When we are slowed down, forced to brake when we want to go fast. There will be times when everything you have been wanting, everything you have worked for, everything you have earned, everything you feel you deserve is snatched away it was seems like a personal or unfair blow. That is called life. When these moments happen will you be alone at your locker with your head down, lamenting, passing the blame? Or will you be shoulder to shoulder with your teammates, connected, with your head up, giving and receiving support?
Don’t wait for the rain delay. Don’t wait to brake. Things can happen, a ground ball takes a bad bounce. But when players, people, know each other well and come together and trust each other so they can open up and be vulnerable and connect to each other they can lift each other up. You’ve already won, no matter the outcome on the field.
There is a wonderful midrash about Moses that reminds us to slow down and keep your head up. Moses was a go-fast person, because he was born into a fast paced world. God said go quickly to Egypt and free the people. When Pharoah finally agreed after the 10 plagues, they had to leave quickly for fear of Pharoah changing his mind. They didn’t even have time to let their bread rise giving us our matzoh. When they got to shore of the Red Sea and God parted the waters, they had to quickly get across before the Egyptian chariots reached them and the water closed over them. Moses had to move fast, always be at the front of the group. But going through the desert is not always quick, especially with 600,000 people.
In the desert, someone was always crying, someone was always fighting, someone was always slowing the group down. A few people were older, others had to limp along or be carried. The blind needed assistance, little children walked slow, and many were scared of what might come and didn’t want to move at all. It was a slow moving group. Moses complained to God, who told him, each person is unique and goes at his or her own pace. When they finally arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses rushed up to get the Torah, but God made him wait for 40 days and 40 nights.
Meanwhile, at the foot of the mountain, people had made a golden calf and were dancing and singing around it. Moses was furious and smashed the tablets into a thousand pieces. Moses went back up to God. He was not prepared to immediately give Moses a new set of tablets; what if he smashed them again? God told Moses “first go and put all the pieces back together”. Moses said, “I can’t pick up all the pieces myself”. So God said, “find a thousand people to each pick up one piece”. Most of the Israelites were ready to move on and were in a hurry to get to Israel, the promised land. Moses began working all by himself but soon he noticed people were helping him. They were the folks who walked slower, who limped, who were elderly or very young, who were scared or nervous. They didn’t like to hurry, and had plenty of time to find all the pieces. Slowly but surely, they started to put the pieces back together, day by day. Some were starting to give up that they would ever finish, but Moses said, the 10 commandments are the best thing God ever gave to us. I broke them in anger. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, we have to go slowly and find each piece and put the tablets back together.
When God heard these words, he called Moses back up the mountain where He’d prepared a second set of commandments. God instructed Moses to build a golden ark to hold the new stone tablets. It took a long time to make the ark, but nobody complained and no one wanted to go too fast. When it was finished, Moses put the new stone tablets in the ark, as well as all the broken pieces – they are holy, too. No one is a broken person because of their age, their sight, their feelings and especially their speed. People of all abilities carried the golden ark, and although it caused them to go a little slower, nobody complained. Moses walked along with those at the back of the line, “we are all going to get where God wants us to go, he said, there is no need to rush”.
So, during the important moments of your life, remember that slowing down can actually help you get ahead. Slow down, you move to fast, gotta make this moment last. When traffic slows you down, remember as you apply the brake, you are using less gas, or less battery and you will eventually get where you are going.
Remember Moses and his rush to get to the finish line, before he realized its the journey, not always the destination, that matters, and the people you meet along the way that make it all worthwhile. Sometimes the back of the line is okay.
And think about the 2016 cubs, and the rain delay. The team wanted the game to finish. They wanted to win the world series, and they did, by slowing down and connecting to one another. In our own lives, the best moments often happen when we’re stuck. We all want to aim high and achieve the most we can, but when it rains and things go wrong, and that will happen to all of us, gather your teammates together, keep your head up, rally around each other, and support those who need it the most. You’ll end up raising the spirits of everyone around you, as well as your own. Shana Tovah.
High holiday sermon on the 6 day war – 1967-2017 – 50 years later
About halfway through our synagogue’s trip to Israel, I remember we left Jerusalem and headed to the north. As our bus and slowly ascended up the mountains in the Golan heights, out of our each windows we could see far across the fields and mountain ranges in the distance. At first glance, the viewit appeared beautiful: farms and ponds, small villages, gorgeous birds and tranquil skies. The bus pulled to a stop at the top of Mount Bental. We disembarked and squinted[Office1] our eyes in the blindinghot sun. We followed the dusty trail and come upon the skeleton of a concrete bunker with tunnels burrowed into the ground, and lookout points at each corner. Once we we’dere all gathered at the top, point where we could see in everyall direction,s, our guide began the story.
This is the spot where Israel’s destiny changed, he began.. Look down the valley. , Tthose are all Jewish farms. Up until 1967, we were down there, too. but who was on this mountain, the Syrians stood here, on the mountain. And they did not want us living here. , Tthey aimed and shot at farmers. T, they sent missiles down into our homes, they terrorized us for decades. It got worse.Finally, enough was enough. In June 1967, tg, the Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian armies massed on the borders ready to attack. Many thought this would be another Holocaust, onlybut this time would mark the final chapter in the history of our people. How could a tiny country survive being attacked by 4 countries on all sides?. The Arab leaders threatened to destroy Israel and throw the Jews in the sea. And so, in the blink of an eye, the war began. It started in the south. Israeli planes attacked the Egyptian air force at sunrise. , Before the Egyptians could even get their planes off the ground, Israel destroyed all their aircraft and the runways. INext, Israel ground troops and tanks moved in, and took over the Sinai desert, and restored the port to the Red Sea.
2 days later, the attacks focus shifted to the middle of the country. Jordan had controlled the west bank and Jerusalem for 19 years, since the 1948 war of independence, but now finally Israeli forces broke through. , Tthey captured town after town and pushed the Jordanians back to and over the Jordan River. We recaptured and unified Jerusalem. , Ffinally, after 2 milleniamillennia, our Jewish capital was back in our hands, and Israelis were free to pray once again at the kotel, the western wall. The shofar was blown and people came to the wall crying within joy. The war was turning in our favor.
By day 4, time came for Israel to turn her attention to the north. Right here where we are standing, our guide explained.. How can could Israel attack up the mountain? , Itits would be suicide. But we had a few tricks up our sleeves. First, there was is our man in Damascus, the super spy Eli Cohen. Embedded in Syrian society, disguised as a wealthy Arab businessman, Eli met with top officials of the Syrian army who invited him for a tour of their military outposts along the border with Israel. Eli realized these posts are attacking Israel and made a suggestion. He said,
‘your soldiers are here in bunkers, subject to attack and the heat of the sun. see below the Israeli villages plant trees to protect them from our snipers. Lets do the same thing, plant trees around each bunker, to protect them from snipers and give the solders shade’.
The Syrians agreed. Eli sent a note to Jerusalem, when you attack the Golan Heights, aim at every cluster of trees.
Then we had And another lucky break. As the war shifted dramatically in Israel’s favour, there was a call at the UN fcalled for an immediate ceasefire. But Israel knew this was Israel’s their only chance to take the Golan. Doing so would and protect the Israeli farms and stabilize the region. Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban addressed the UN. While he was speaking, there could be no vote on a ceasefire. He talked and talked, and talked and talked, for over 12 hours, while Israeli forces were foughtighting hill by hill. When Finally he finally stopped talking, it was exhausted but its nighttime,so the UNand they moved the vote to the following day. There was much confusion. and Oover the radio, an announcer said it was announced that all Syrian forces were pulling out to end the war. All the Syrian soldiers in the bunkers heard heared thise inaccurate message and thought they’de been left behind .so Tthey left started leaving their posts and fled eeing back to Damascus. Over 6 miraculous days, instead of utter destruction, , Israel had doubled in size and secured all her borders.
And so, our guide said, we stand at thise lookout and we see see tthe battle scars on the land – the minefields, burned out tanks and abandoned bunkers. It’s different to learn about historyit from a book then it is standing where events there took placeseeing it. Our guide pointed to hills in the distance and told us they were in Lebanon.tells us He turned and pointed in the opposite direction., see those hill over there, that’s Lebanon. TAnd see those hills on the other side, that is Syria, he said. See the car driving along that road, that’s a Syrian car. See this sliver down the middle and the highest peak, where we are?, Tthis is Israel. Its tiny. , at least Wwe control this spot, but we have enemies at each border, which means and we must be vigilant at all times.
The 6 day war victory was reminiscent of the a miracle of David vanquishing Goliath, a complete transformation of the powerless, homeless Jews of the Holocaust into the strong, sovereign Israeli who would never again be at the mercy of another country’s hatred and violence. Still, wWe can never let our guard down, like we did. We did once, in 1973.,Wwe thought we were secure, but and the enemy attacked again on Yom Kippur. and Wwe[Office2] almost lost it all. Rooted in our turbulent storythis framing, the continued threat to Israel’s existence by neighboring Arab countries, violence from Palestinians, and the persistence of anti-Semitism in the world has made the concern for safety and survival, of paramount, an and on-going basis during these last fifty years.
But Oof course, there is another side to consider. While the Golan heights and the Sinai desert were mainly devoid of people, the land in the middle of the country, is highly populated.full of people. Suddenly, we had strong borders, but we also controlled land that included our enemies.
Israel’s victory was the beginning of fifty years of military occupation of 4.75 million Palestinians who lack citizenship and basic rights such as freedom of movement. They, who are regularly subjected to detentions and searches, curfews, punitive and administrative house demolitions, confiscation of farmland, and are under constant, demoralizing surveillance. This scenarioframing underscores the morally untenable and discriminatory policies that distinguish between Jews and Palestinians living over the Green Line. , Itand views the Jewish settlements and their supporting infrastructure, such as bypass roads, checkpoints, military presence, and unequal water allocation, as destroying the possibility of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. In this framing, the last fifty years of prolonged military occupation is viewed as an assault on the Palestinians’ humanity and dignity, undermining the moral and democratic fabric of Israel, and seems to be a failure, on our part, to live up to Judaism’s essential moral imperatives.
Israeli historian Gershon gorenberg Gorenberg calls it ‘the accidental empire’. Even Dduring the war, as we took the land without thinking about what we’d we didn’t know what to do with it and the people who lived there. We never thought we would be left with such a dilemma. This is now an the existential question facing Israel[Office3] that Israel must face up to. This year, the 50th anniversary of the 6 day war – we are sadly no closer to finding a solution then the day twe the war ended.
We cannot deny that the modern state of Israelof Israel is the most transformational event for Judaism since the destruction of the temple. In the words of SY Agnon, it is the first flowering of our redemption – resheit smichat geulateinu. But as our redemption emergedbegan, a catastrophe began for the Muslim inhabitants of the land, who are now known as Palestinians. Not that they are totally immune from blame. Their leaders rejected the first partition agreement in 1947, which would have created a Palestinian state right beside Israel. And they fought against Israel year after year. They supported Jordan, Syria and Egpyt through each war. But at the same time their goals were similar to ours. They wanted , a country to call their own, in athe land where many had lived in for generations. We could argue ,historically, that Jews were therewho was here first, but there is no denying that people were living in this land called Palestine for generations. So they call it the nakva – the disaster – and we have been in limbo every since – each side claiming they are right.
We can’t even agree upon language to describe the land that was conquered in 1967. Is it the West Bank of the Jordan River or the occupied territories. It could be called the disputed or administered territories. The land could be called by their biblical names – Judea and Samaria, (Yehudah v’shomron). Whatever you call this land, it is ground zero in the middle east debate and raises never ending questions: Does Israel cede it in some sort of two state solution and how much? Does Israel remove its ½ million settlers as it did from the Sinai in 1982 and Gaza in 2005. Does she pay reparations to Palestinians whose land was seized? Will Israelis be reimbursed who were forced from Arab lands? Aare Palestinians permitted to return to their homes that were seized? Wwhat to do we do about Jerusalem? , iIs it s it Israel’s undivided capital, or should it be a shared capital of two states? Sshould the status quo be prolonged?
Two years ago I had an opportunity to visit Hebron, a city in the disputed territory that might serve as a lynchpin for the whole issue. We arrived by armouredarmored bus after because we had to going through multiple checkpoints to arrive. So many soldiers guardeding each and every stop along the way, our best and brightest were forced to considerprejudge everyone who arriveds at the checkpoint as a potential terrorists. We headed into the old city of Hebron, which looks a lot like the old city of Jerusalem. Iit’s a city within a city, and totally surrounded and guarded by the Israeli defensce forces. When we got off the bus, and it was quiet and peaceful and beautiful. We walked in and visited the gravesite of Abraham and Sarah. In Genesis ,weGenesis, we read that Abraham first bought this land as a final resting place for Sarah. But as we find it happens so frequently in Israel, the holiest site is shared. Muslims also revere Abraham as a great prophet, and so they have access from the opposite side. , but Tthere is no mixing of Jews and Muslims today, though. There had been open worshipping existed until 1994, when a Jewish terrorist named Baruch Goldstein came to Hebron here and shot 29 Muslims at prayer. Ouour guide talked about how impressive this site was, how that every Jew in the world should have the opportunity to visit Abraham’s grave. Tthere are bar mitzvahs and weddings there. You’ll find there is a whole Jewish neighborhood and shuk market with fruits and vegetables. Hebron is its one of the great est sites in all of Jewish history, farway older than Jerusalem itself, in terms of importance to Judaism..
The fear, however, is that if a spot like this wereas given to the Palestinians when as they created a state, the entire site would be looted and destroyed and Jews would no longer t be able to visit here ever. Unfortunately, Sadly this is exactly what happened when Nablus was given to Palestinian control in 2000. , the tomb of our patriarch Joseph was looted and burned, and access was prohibited to Jews. Israel recovered it in operation defensive shield in 2002, and it’s been refurbished, but now, only Jews can worship there now. I came away from that discussion convinced we had to keep Hebron and Nablus under Israeli control. I and didn’t see a way to allow the Palestinians to have a state and rule these holy sites.
Then we met with an ex-solider from “breaking the silence”. He had served in the IDF here in Hebron. His job was to keep the peace. He hated every minute of it, not serving in the army, but rather, the inhumane treatment of Palestinians daily. He talked about midnight incursions into Palestinian homes to check ID, intimidating families and and writingemeaningless reports that were ultimately thrown in the garbage. He talked about theis market asbeing bustling and full of life with Arabs and Jews side by side before the Intifada. Now ,onlyNow, only Jews are allowed. Tthe Palestinians side has been walled off. He talked about destroying Palestinian homes, pointing training his gun aton children, denying basic freedom of movement in the name of security. And this soldier emphasized tThe never-ending supply of soldiers, as well as the nd hundreds of thousands of shekels requredrequiredneeded every day to keep a few Jewish families and a grave safe in the middle of a city of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. , Why are we doing this? for what reason? Soldiers die ying and are injured, Palestinians dieying and iare are njuredinjured, day after day, check point after check point, for what reason? . I left the at discussion in a daze, not sure of anything anymore.
I believe the current situation is untenable, morally problematic ,andproblematic, and not in Israel’s best interest. I never condone violence. The Palestinian people who started an intifada to protest their occupation in 1987 and again in 2000 – with violence, suicide bombings, murder of civilians and constant terror attacks – are never in the moral right. This is never the way to peace or to force negotiations. But the bitter truth is, we still need to find a solution. The separate fence built between 2004-2007 has given us a decade of relative peace, but its has only separated and hidden the problem that still bubbles under the surface.
Those on the right lay claim to an ongoing Jewish presence in the west bankand and refuse to give up any of the land. Perhaps then , option that is Israel should finally annex all the territories currently under dispute and call it all Israel and give every person citizenship. This is not a realistic proposal. First of all, millions of Palestinians would be free to go anywhere in Israel. and Bbased on past experience, we can expect more violence, terror and bloodshed. Palestinians They have publicly announced the desire to kill all Israelis and replace Israel with a Palestinian state. There is nothing to suggest they would not follow through with this threatact. Moreover, sinceas Israel is a democracy, if we givingePalestinians citizenship, would mean they could an legally electvote in a Palestinian prime minister. It would be the end of our and then we no longer have a Jewish state. This will never happen.
The left argues that the continued occupation and settlement is illegal, damages the fabric of Israeli society and demands the immediate withdrawlwithdrawal to pre-1967 borders. But if we simply pull out and allow for for the creation of a state of Palestine along the 1967 borders, they could attack Israel anytime and anywhere. What about the 560,000 Israelis who live in the territories, would they live there as citizens, how could we protect them?
Because we love Israel so much, we must strive tbe able to find a solution in the middle. We must start to examine this dilemma with a sense of humility. , that Pperhaps we can , at the very least, acknowledge that the Palestinian people have suffered for the past e 50 years while we’ve been trying to work this out. We nmust acknowledge and that Jews who voluntarily moved and setttled into this conflictede area did so with the intention of building a strong Israel for the future. And we must acknowledge that and that successive Israeli governments did not know what the future would hold, and based on the continuous state of war our homeland has endured since independence, the delay of a final decision on the disputed territories was not necessarily the wrong decision. , Let us remember that Israel is an incredibly strong and vibrant country. The press is free, the supreme court is separate and holds lawmakers accountable, the economy is strong, and the army is stable and prepared. We are not what we were in 1967, nor 1997. Today, we are able to do things we couldn’t do at the time of the last Intifada.
I think we can start with the framework that Yitzhak Rabin began with during the Oslo accords in 1993– . That is determining three types of areas within the west bank. Those under complete Palestinian control, those under shared control and those under Israel control. I think Israel should annex into Israel the largest Jewish settlements that are currently across the green line but very close and have large populations such as Ma’ale Adumim. In exchange, Israel wouldill give up certain equivalent areas on the Israeli side of the Green Line to a future Palestinian state. Israel must acknowledge the 50 years of occupation and alsoand that PalestinainsPalestinians do have claims in land in Israel and reimburse them. I would demand the Palestinians also acknowledge Jewish claims to the land, but I wouldn’t wait for it to start the peace process. We should always take the higher ground. Slowly, the areas that are under complete Palestinian control wouldill come together to form a patchwork Palestinian state. Over time they couldan be woven connected together, even to the Gaza Strip, without encroaching onto Israel. There It could be some sort of protected highway, bridge, tunnel or high speed train.
There will be painful sacrifices to be sure, on both sides. Many smaller Israeli settlements would ill have to be disbanded one by one, and the people will be resettled in Israel. we would give up part of our ancestral lands. I understand this. We all remember howIt was painful it was with the Gaza Strip, but we accomplished it for the overall good of the country.
What would ill be the eventual capital of the Palestinian state? . Maybe it would will be East Jerusalem- withand givenanother name. It’s essentially a separate city right now anyway, and no one goes there except for the army. It wilcould l be demilitarized and separated. Jerusalem will always be Jerusalem, the one that we visit, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
I don’t claim to have thought through every scenario or answered every question, . but But it’s a framework that we started along this road in 1993 and got off track with the assassination of Rabin in 1995. We need another leader with vision, patience and strength ,suchstrength, such as Rabin to restart this process. There is no perfect solution, no perfect way to go with negotiation or and compromise. Everyone has to give up something and many extremists on both sides wouldill be unhappy. But I have to think that its’ got to be better then what we are dealing with right now. I know I’m an optimist, but I want to see think of a world where Israel, and by extension, the Diaspora, Jewish people living everywhere else, wouldill have one fewer reason to be considered scapegoatsless thing to be blamed with. No longer would ill Israel be faced with the boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns. Perhaps Jewish students on campus wouldwill not be faced with messages of Israeli apartheid and feel shame about our homeland. Maybe other Arab nations would ill be given the opening they need to establish real diplomatic relations with Israel, to organize a and a basic framework for regional stability. Even though Imagine taking that bus ride up the Golan Heights on a trip to Israel and saying, look there at Lebanon, tomorrow we are going to hike through the famous Cedars of Lebanon – as we sing each Shabbat Tzakkik katamar yifrah c’erez balvanon. There see that joint farming venture with Syria, they grow the best produce in the area.
Tthe bible tells us to love our neighbors. We can try to at least , atolerate accept neighbors and they could tolerate us. . Maybe attacks would continue but at least we would have taken the concrete steps towards peace. and Wwe could reclaim the ethical and moral stanced that characterized Israel before the 1967 war, . wWhen world opinion saw the Israeli state as a champion of human rights, “or lagoyim”, a light to the nations. , that Eeven in a world of harsh realities, fear and hatred, Israel could represent what is possible and was is hoped for. Then truly our capitol of Jerusalem would be a city of god, a shining light – Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.
High holiday sermon about synagogue trip Israel this past summer 2017
I want to start with one of my favorite moments from Israel this summer. Since I got to Israel early, I was waiting in the airport as our group of 25 from Shaarei-Beth El disembarked from the airplane at Ben Gurion airport. For those who have not been there in a while, there have been some upgrades. In the old days, remember the airplane would come to the terminal but they didn’t have a jetbridge. Instead you disembarked by walking down the old school staircase onto the tarmac and then buses would pick you up and transfer you to the main terminal building. The one benefit of this was that when you got off the staircase on flat ground, you could stop and kiss the ground right as you arrived, kiss the tarmac. Sure it was probably dirty and often hot, but that was the tradition and I remember doing it myself years ago when I went for the first time. But now there is no staircase, you get off the plane via the jetbridge and go right to customs and then baggage and you never even see the ground. I wasn’t really thinking about all of that when our group approached – but of course that was Bonnie Hyett’s first question as she came off the plane and saw me at the welcome area, “Rabbi where do we kiss the ground”. I looked around in a panic. Of course, they came right into the building. Now what to do. Kissing the terminal didn’t seem like the right fit. Nor in the parking lot beside the bus. I thought for a moment, what would make the ideal spot? I made an official rabbinic decision. Since our first stop would be the beautiful Tayelet park overlooking Jerusalem, we would kiss the ground there. And it was so. And Larry was there ready with his camera, the first of over 2000 pictures he told me he took over the two weeks. Not to worry, he has since culled it down to only 1000 and plans to make a picture book for everyone to see.
What is it about Israel that makes us want to kiss the ground the moment we get there. Because we are so excited to be in Israel. The Rambam wrote a unique halacha saying “Great Rabbis would kiss the ground of Eretz Yisrael, and kiss its stones as well as roll in its dust. The Talmud records that Rabbi Abba would demonstrate his great love for the Land of Israel by kissing the rocks of Acre as he returned to the Land. Indeed Rebbe said that the air of Israel is holy in and of itself, “the air of the Land of Israel makes one smart”. so as soon as you enter Israeli airspace you can blow a kiss and fulfill the age old custom and breath in the wisdom. I agree, there is something in the air, something magical when you finally arrive in Israel. I notice people actually cheer as the plane is landing they are so excited. I love even going through customs, the officer looked me over and asked, “are you the leader of the group”. I said yes. He stamped my book and said, thank you, Bruchim Habaim welcome”. I wanted to highlight three moments that made this summers trip particularly meaningful.
As we rode on the bus to Jerusalem, right away you are struck by two sides of Israel. The road was freshly paved, it had just been expaned from 2 to 3 lanes, greatly reducing traffic jams and our guide Ron pointed out the marvel of technology paving new bridges and widening the tricky windy roads up the Judean mountains. At the same time he pointed out that we are passing Modiin, where there is evidence that people have lived there for about 3000 years, when people rode to Jerusalem by donkey. Then as we continued zooming along he pointed out burned out shells of trucks lining the road. they are memorials to the israeli’s armoured carriers that tried to break the Arab blockade of Jerusalem during the 1948 war of indepenance. The arabs owned the heights and shot down at the vehicles as they slowly climbed the steep roads, most of them left as they were from the day they were attacked. Eventually we found backroads to Jerusalem and won the war and the road has been in Israeli hands ever since. All this we learned in the first few minutes of our trip.
While I can proudly say this was my bar mitzvah trip, meaning this was my 13th trip, the truth is that this was the bnai mitzvah trip of 5 young adults of our congregation. Rachel Hamburg, Josh Freeman, Julia Hyett, Raquel Weinstein and my own son Jacob.
Even as I say these words I’m getting emotional. In my dreams I had hoped one day to take my children to Israel and read the torah at our holy sites and now this had actually come to fruition.
Jacob actually did two bar mitzvahs. The first was a week earlier with his first cousin, my niece Emily. We held a service with our families and in-laws at the Kotel. As many of you know, the kotel is divided into two sections, one for men and one for women. While this is not a synagogue, and for thousands of years jews wept, celebrated and prayed at the wall in groups without dividing by gender, since the 1960’s, there has been a division. For many years there was a status quo but women continually felt marginalized that they could not pray like the men could, as men did not feel comfortable hearing women’s voices. Women could not have the torah at their section either. For decades a group called Women of the Wall have been fighting to have equal rights at the kotel and have monthly services where they sneak in tallitot and a torah and have a full torah reading. While it seems unusual that in the state of Israel women don’t have equal prayer rights, the tide is slowly starting to turn as the Israel supreme court has ruled it unconstitutional to prevent women from praying. However the religious authorities who run the western wall plaza are still unwilling to bend on this issue. While I love Israel, there are moments when I find it frustrating that things aren’t as they could or should be, and this is one of those situations. I find it insulting that as a man I can walk around the kotel area and walk up to the wall with plenty of room to myself while women are forced to cover up their hair and shoulders and legs and squish into the womens side that is 1/3 the size of the mens. For this and many other reasons, we decided to hold the bar mitzvah for Jacob under Robinsons Arch, otherwise known as the Davidson Centre. When you picture the kotel plaza, that is only half the western wall. After the womens section is a bridge that leads up to the dome of the rock and on the other side the wall continues but doesn’t have a easy to access plaza. However it is still has holy and beautiful. In fact I think its better. You don’t have ultra religious people telling you what to do. Its not crowded and busy. Men and women can pray together. Its party shaded in the morning. And you can reserve a spot with a table and a torah scroll. On the morning of our reservation we came there and it was a pleasure. There were of course at least a dozen other bar and bat mitzvh happening that day, between the two sections, as it was a Thursday torah reading day in the summer – that’s high season.
Its become quite a scene. We just walked in but others had arranged for a procession to march down to the kotel area, complete with drummers, shofar blowers, balloons, floats, dancers, it was like a Disney parade. We made our way to our reserved space and what’s also unique is there are giant building block stones left scattered on the ground as they were found by archeologists over the past decades. But they have uncovered the actual street level from roman times, many metres lower then the wester wall plaza. We were therefore on the same level as our ancestors as they walked these steps. As Jacob and my niece Emily sang their torah portions, all around us we heard the voices of other 12 and 13 year olds chanting, the voices bouncing off the walls, living testimony that Jewish tradition carries on and can never be silenced.
The main bnai mitzvah celebration with the group of 5 happened on a Friday morning, the day after the group arrived. We offered two options for everyone. If you wanted to hike up Masada, the bus left at 4 am, which arrive at Masada at 5:30 giving people an hour and half to hike up and watch the sunrise over the desert. This is something that everyone should try and quite a feat. Its hot and its steep but making it to the top gives you a real sense of accomplishment. Have our group walked up the snake path. The second option was to arrive at Masada at 8 am and take the cable car, this might be considered the more sane option. Either way we all met at the top at 8:30 am and our tour guide Ron took us around. Let me stop for a moment and tell you about Ron.
I’ve been to Israel many times. I’ve heard from many guides. I’ve heard from many teachers. Many of us on this trip had guided trips. We all agreed that Ron Singer was the best guide we had ever met. From the moment he met us he was full of energy and enthusiasm. His laugh was contagious. He is Israeli who speaks great English but with some unusual phrases that always had us laughing. Whenever the day started he yelled out “Be Excited” forcing us to put a smile on our faces. When he wanted to make a special point he often crouched down on the ground and said “listen to me” and then explained his point. On Masada he took us to a room and explained this was the bath house. Imagine for a second. We are on a mountaintop in the desert. There is no water here and we are on a mountain. But King Herod wanted a bath so he got a bath. Engineers somehow figured out how to dig deep enough to catch runoff water during the few flash floods each spring. The water bubbled up the mountain into the bathhouse, that was dug deep and plastered over so water wouldn’t seep into the limestone. It was built with arches to avoid the steam rising and condensing on the ceiling and then dripping back down. There were special vents so that fires could be build outside and the steam would enter the room to keep it the perfect temperature. Ron had only three words to describe such an ostentatious and remarkable engineering and architectural wonder – it was Un-Believe-Able. I will throw in some more Ron-isms throughout this sermon, I will use my special air quotes to let you know.
So now we are on Masada and after touring the site we can gather in the synagogue. This was the place of prayer for the Jews who capture Masada in the time of the Romans. I think most of us know the story, that during the revolt, the Jews fled here and held this stronghold for many years. The Romans took their time defeating every Jewish town from the north to Jerusalem and destroyed the Holy Temple. Eventually they made their way to Masada. They built a giant ramp over the course of many weeks and finally rolled up a giant ram and broke down the defenses. But as their best soldiers entered the compound, they were surprised to find no to fight. The Jews decided together to take their own lives rather then be killed by the Romans or worse taken into captivity and sold as slaves.
Now we were here 2000 years later, on the same spot. And our children chanted the torah. The romans attempted to destroy our people, as many have tried over the centuries. But we are here. We are proudly jewish, wearing our tallit and kippah. We used a little torah that Bonnie brought from Oakville, that was given to Emma when she was consecrated at Shaarei-Beth El, and she carried it up the mountain like moses. We will never be destroyed. The modern state of Israel is here to stay. And as Josh Freeman was about to start his portion, two birds flew up to the railing behind him and began chirp. Ron, a bird expert, could hardly contain his excitement. “look at the birds” he called out – “my dear friends, Chaverim, they are so happy they are singing with us”. I gathered the group of 5 in a huddle for a special prayer and blessing, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. This set the tone for the for the entire trip.
The second moment was having Shabbat in Gedera. Gedera is not on most itineraries to Israel, it’s a typical small town out of the way, about a half hour southwest of Tel Aviv. It’s a commuter town, settled by Jews who made Aliyah in the 1880’s to escape Russian Pogroms. Gedera is atypical because it contains a Reform congregation started just 7 years ago by Israeli’s. the Reform movement took many years to gain a foothold in Israel. Most israeli’s are either religious or secular. For many, they didn’t know there was anything in between. The slogan of the Reform movement is “yesh yoter miderech echa lihiyot Yehudi” There is more than one way to be Jewish. What we take for granted is a Judaism that includes our ethics and morals, that allows for gender equality and creative prayers and celebratory music and beauty. The president of this is Adi Cohen who lived in Texas for a few years while her husband was in school and saw reform Judaism in action. She wanted to bring it back to Israel and found out that indeed there are now over 40 reform congregations around the country. But there wasn’t one in her home town so she started one. That was seven years ago. They put up a poster for yom kippur and sold out the hall they rented. After a few years they were able to hire a Rabbi, Myra Hova another home grown Israeli trained in the Israeli rabbinic program of the Hebrew Union College where I also went for a year. Adi has 4 children and all they’ve known is this congregation and their Rabbi. One of her children went with a friend recently to a bar mitzvah and came back to Adi and asked, “how come men and women sit separately, and why was the Rabbi a man?”. You don’t often here that in Israel but it’s beautiful.
Adi hosted Friday night services in her backyard the night we got there. Why? Because while there are a dozen orthodox synagogues in town all paid for by the state, there is no building for the Reform congregation. they had to fight just to allowed to use the lobby of a nursery school. And this isn’t even guaranteed. Adi called the school just to make sure their spot was available and were told, oh sorry, we forgot to call you but we are in the middle of a construction project and you can’t use the space. ”What are you talking about…”. So Adi did what any synagogue president has to, she quickly emailed and called everyone to help and moved the Shabbat service to her backyard. Everyone helped, bringing chairs, tables, and the sound system. By the time our Modi our bus driver figured out the new direction and pulled up in front of her house, the congregation was settled in as though they pray there each week. The sun was setting, we settled in on chairs or on the ground and they were so grateful and thankful that we came. They know groups don’t always come to small Israeli towns or visit small congregations such as theirs. And that was what made it so special. Rabbi Hovav loved that we brought so many kids, theirs is also a young congregation with dozens of bnai mitzvah each year. At one point they called up some young adults who were graduating high school. We do a similar prayer here at SBE to bless our children as they go off to College. But in Israel its different, these young men and women are going into their compulsory army service. The parents came up with their young adult and offered a different kind of prayer, that they stay safe and return home. It was very moving and reminds us of the types of lives the typical Israeli lives, with children in the army, constantly guarding her borders. Our smaller worries about grades and residence pales in comparison to these true life and death situations.
After we finished the Shabbat service, another congregant had our entire group to her house for dinner. It was pot luck and the food was delicious and the conversation even more satiating. It reminded me of our Shabbat services here in Oakville. I sat with a dad with 4 kids who didn’t want to talk politics, or the economy, just regular conversations about our kids and swimming lessons. Larry Hyett talked to a soldier who explained how he recently was on a mission into Gaza and what he saw there. There was a kids table and after 5 minutes it was as though they were best friends. In fact, one young girl after talking to Emma, Julia, and Josh decided she would come to Camp George next summer. Shalom – Kaput.
I am so thankful we have twinned with Kehilat Yuval of Gedera – part of the domim program matching north American congregations with Israeli start up Reform shuls. I hope this is just the beginning of a long term connection between our two synagogues – doing visits, sharing education resources, email pals among out students. I have promised them that the day they get an ark, we will help get them a Torah scrolls since we have three and they have none. Who wants to go to Israel on that trip?
Finally, the third moment I want to highlight was towards the end. Each person on the trip loved our tour. We all connected in different ways. For some it was the food, I remember getting off the bus for lunch and as Ron said “lets attack the falafel stand”. It was a simple stand, at a regular corner, but the most delicious falafel and shwarma. For some it was the archaeological dig, going into a cave and digging with shovels and actually finding pottery from people who lived there 3 thousand years ago. Walking through Yad Vashem with Ron was one of the most powerful experiences for me. I know about the shoah, I teach about the shoah, I’ve been to the museum but Ron walked us through and told us stories and gave us an emotional rollercoaster. He finished at the hall of records, usually I would just walk by but he told us a story of a man who lost his family in the holocaust and never wanted to visit yad vashem or talk about it. finally he was convinced to go and he went to the hall of records to fill out a form for his sister so that her name would be entered in the database as someone who died and would me remembered forever. As he finished the sheet, he gave it to the office staff who began to enter the information when suddenly he realized that the sisters information was already there. She had filled out a form for her brother, she had survived and was living in Israel. Even now its emotional again. I walked out of the room in a daze and Ron gave me a big hug and I wept. Each of us had a moment, where we laughed or cried or our eyes widened in wonder and amazement. And that was when I knew people had connected to Israel in their own unique way. Then people started talking about what we didn’t get a chance to see and how this was just a taste and they wanted to come back for more. I overheard the kids talking about doing a semester of high school in Israel, or coming on birthright or a semester of University. That made my heart overflow, that each person had developed a personal connection to our Jewish homeland, they wanted to return and solidify that relationship and that the call would continue, bashana ha’ba b’yerushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem.