We share with you today two personal reflections from Reform leaders in Israel.

On the left, a letter from Rabbi Ayala Miron of Kehilat Bavat Ayin in Rosh HaAyin. On the right, a letter from Reuven Marko, Chair of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ).


Dear friends and Colleagues,
I wanted to share with you my thoughts on these days of turmoil.

I was in fifth grade when the period of being on alert just prior to the Six Day War began. In the mornings we practiced going down to the school basement, which served as a shelter. In the afternoons we served cold drinks to the high school teenagers who dug trenches in the playground behind our house, since there was no public shelter in our area. If they were in the right mood the high school kids would let us hold the sacks while they filled them up with sand. Sandbags were then considered the ultimate protection so piles of them were placed at the entrances to the apartment buildings in our neighborhood. When the war was over, we were overjoyed with the large quantities of sand that spilled back into the sandbox in our near-by playground.

When the Yom Kippur war broke out, I was already in high school. As the terrible news trickled from the fronts, we were busy packing food packages for the soldiers and gathering at the local hospital gates to be taken as volunteers. My father, working as an engineer in the national Phone Company, was recruited for special missions of maintaining phone lines in critical areas of the country.
When the First Lebanon War began, I was a student in the film school in Tel Aviv. I was working on a project with a fellow student, an Israeli-Arab from the city of Akko. We found ourselves re-evaluating the material for the documentary we were filming at the time, and when the tragedy in Sabra and Shatila was exposed, we stood shoulder to shoulder at the large demonstration in the main square in Tel Aviv.
The First Gulf war found me sitting with my children on my bedroom bed, fitting the special anti-radiation masks on their heads. I was joking that Purim is just around the corner, but I don’t think they were really in the mood for joking.
Operation Protective Edge catches me in a totally different position, with my youngest son, Itamar, serving as a fighter in the armored forces. When he completed the tank commander course three weeks ago, we were relieved to learn that he was going to serve as a trainer in the upcoming tank commander’s course. It meant a ten-day crew preparation and then starting the course. The morning of the ceremony the first missiles were shot, and by the end of the ceremony we already sensed the commotion, leading to an abrupt change of plans. Early morning Sunday, instead of preparing for the course at a base near Netanya (not too far from where we live), Itamar travelled south. The young tank commanders and their trainees were all at the Southern border preparing the tanks for a possible ground assault.
What’s now left for me is to wait for news from him and pray.
With deep hope for days of tranquility,
Ayala


Dear Friends,
The last couple of weeks have been, once again, a testing period for the people of Israel, its government, the Israel Defense Forces, as well as for you, wherever you may be. Israel has entered this round of hostilities quite reluctantly, despite months and years of weekly, sometimes daily, shooting of rockets and missiles into the country, putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis in constant jeopardy. This has eventually led to operation Protective Edge that has been an ever escalating response to the constant attacks on Israel. The threat has increased to cover some five million of our citizens and north as Haifa and south all the way to Eilat, with the brunt of the fights being borne by civilians living up to eighty kilometer, or fifty miles, from the border with Gaza. It is a situation no country can tolerate and neither can Israel. The unfortunate result is that civilians on both sides are bearing the costs, scars and deaths. At this time, as the Government of Israel, has been operating cautiously, giving ample opportunity to also seek ways to return on a route to the cease of hostilities, we give it our full support. We also pray for the safe and successful return of the IDF soldiers in the air, sea and on land.The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism was quick to respond having our own Keren BeKavod on the ground, as a first responder teams. Distributing toys, treats, food, clothes and other items of need from well-stocked emergency storerooms we have prepared as part of the lessons made from previous events. We also continuously study what is needed by the people we try to help and as a result activity kits have been prepared to allow for home day camps for kids who prefer staying at home with their families. And we do not forget to attend those in the area of different faiths that deserve our attention and care too. Together with the Ministry of Health Affairs teams of rabbis and song leaders help those of need for spiritual and emotional uplifting. Our rabbis have and are organizing multi-faith prayers for peace that involve Muslims, Christians and Druze.From a personal perspective I can also tell you a little about my feelings regarding one of my six kids who is an officer, now called for active duty, being in charge of humanitarian aid. He is responsible for the coordination of this effort, making sure that safe corridors are open and that supplies can move as fast as possible to places of need. Here and there he has shared with me the frustration with those who take advantage of such opportunities to launch attacks resulting in an inability to provide much or all of the supplies needed. Nonetheless, he works ruthlessly to try and resolve obstacles to make sure that the utmost is done from his side.These are going to be trying days for all of us. Blame will be put on one side or the other. I think we all understand that this conflict must be eventually peacefully resolved. Unfortunately not all are truly and all heartedly involved in this process. We at the IMPJ are committed, even at tough times, to be attentive to the needs of others, open our hearts and souls to those men and women of peace, wherever they may be. And we will never forget our undivided commitment to a strong, flourishing, and just society in the Land of Israel, that can properly balance it as a democratic and Jewish state.

Sincerely Yours,
Reuven Marko

Rahat Reflections from Yael Karrie



18 Tammuz 5754
Guiltless before the Lord and before Israel: Comments on the Torah Portion Matot and the Fast of 17 Tammuz by Yael Karrie, Student Rabbi in Sha’ar HaNegev

A Bud / Tamir Greenberg
When my mourning became excessively hard for me, I imagined
My essence as a pointless sack of flesh
But then, almost unnoticed,
Before my astonished eyes
A green bud pushed through into my soul
Simple, clear and determined to sprout forth
[The Thirsty Soul, Am Oved: Tel Aviv 2000, p. 29; our translation]

The desert soil is parched now. The open expanses of the Sha’ar Hanegev region, which in regular times inspire a sense of awe, now recall threats on the radio and in idle conversations. A journey through this land reveals a golden dawn of harvested wheat, like a freshly-shaven head, surrounded by a shining halo.

As we drive toward Rahat, Oren tells me of driving through this area at night, the darkness illuminated only by an occasional meeting between an Iron Dome missile and a Qassam rocket. “I just kept on driving,” Oren tells me. “This whole situation is unreal. When it’s all over I’ll have to go and see someone with ‘Doctor’ before their name. I listen, nod, and open the window to smell what is left of the field that was once here.

We meet up at Beit Kama intersection. Oren managed to get back to his home in Sderot from the Kinneret. I picked him up in Sderot and we drove here. Rotem and Avi drove from Sderot to Jerusalem and then back here. Tamar came from Mevasseret Zion. Tired faces took on an appearance of excitement, longing, and curiosity ahead of our encounter.

As we drove toward Rahat the sun was setting, the last rays bathing the Bedouin city in a soft, bluish light. On the street people prepare to break the daily fast, hurrying home, the orange embers of barbecues flutter all around, smoke rises up. Tables loaded with the finest delicacies.
We drive into the yard of our hosts’ home. A large group of young men and women in their twenties welcome us with a mixture of joy and astonishment. “Did you really come to break the fast with us?” A sweet voice close to my ear tells me: “If you make a wish just before you break the fast, it will come true.” I close my eyes for a moment and make a wish.

We eat together, hands passing salad to and from, meeting half way, exchanging glances with those on the other side of the table. The conversation is lively and flowing. There is a tremendous thirst for intimacy, for understanding, for identification, for someone to listen.

The meal draws to a close, our bodies relaxed and comfortable. Each of us is invited to say a little about themselves and why they chose to come to the meeting now, “in this reality, in an Israeli light.”1 People talk frankly about their fear when they go to Beersheva that people will recognize them as Arabs and beat them on the street; about the aunt from Gaza who was killed in the middle of the Iftar2 by shrapnel from an Israeli mortar; about the children in Sha’ar Hanegev and Sderot who have been sleeping in protected rooms for three weeks. There is a sense of a forced silence that we are suddenly able to break here, in their home, at the same table, as we pass a cup of bitter coffee from hand to hand.

After freeing ourselves of this burden, we speak with bright eyes of manifestations of volunteering in our communities. A tremendous joy and excitement at the attentive atmosphere, intimate and warm, with tears of empathy. “A green bud pushed its way into my soul / Simple, clear and determined to sprout forth.”

In the Torah portion Matot the tribes of Gad and Reuben ask to receive a portion of land to the east of the Jordan River, and not to enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Children of Israel. The portion begins with a description of the extensive flocks held by both tribes, subtly suggesting to the reader that the reason for their demand is financial: they do not want to endanger their livestock. Moses reprimands them for their demand, and in return they promise that they will build an enclosure for their flocks and children, will go out to war as a “vanguard before the camp” and will not return home before each tribe has its own portion of land in Israel.

Moses accepts their offer and teaches them an important lesson. In his reply, he switches round their phrase “flocks and children” to “children and flocks,” emphasizing that they should be concerned firstly for the former rather than the latter. He continues: If you indeed are a vanguard before the camp and return home only when all Israel has a portion of land, “then you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel; and this land here will be yours to possess before the Lord.”
On 17 Tammuz 5754, the walls between Jews and Muslims were cracked at various locations around Israel – not by battering rams but with dates, bread, and a glass of cold water.
The “vanguard before the camp” was not a company of combat soldiers but a group of citizens, anxious but hopeful, from the People of Israel and the People of Palestine, worried about their children and about the fate of their people.

On my way home to Kibbutz Dorot, my mouth still full of the sweet taste of the Katayif desert and the encounter, I felt “guiltless before the Lord and Israel,” ready to water the bud that had sprung forth there and to transform it into a blooming garden.

* Thanks to Eliaz Cohen who dreamed, conceived and initiated the Choose Life initiative, which led to joint encounters to break the fast of 17 Tammuz and the Ramadan fast at locations around Israel and around the world.

From Shalom Hanoch’s song “Israeli Light.”
The meal that breaks the daily fast during the month of Ramadan.

Postcard from Israel



ARZA’s development assistant Lynnley Rothenberg is leading a Kesher Birthright trip in Israel.

She shares this dispatch from Bus 841:

Anyone who has been on a Birthright trip can attest to how much of a balagan* the 10-day-journey can be. Trying to see the highlights of a country with so much incredible history in just a few short days is no easy feat. For a first timer, experiencing all the sites, sounds, tastes and emotions that Israel evokes can overwhelm even the most seasoned traveler. However, when you add in rockets being fired at most of the major cities on a daily basis, a whole new layer of Israel is revealed that most Birthright trips don’t see.

Our Kesher Birthright trip left Monday morning, July 14th, when operation “Protective Edge” was completing its first week. It was practically impossible to ignore what was being said about Israel and feel completely confident about picking up and flying into what the media portrayed as a war zone. And yet, here I am, currently traveling through Israel with an amazing group of 18-26 year olds. Bus 841 is made up of young adults from all across the country. They come from many different backgrounds and are at various stages in their lives. Some came with friends, others with a significant other. There were even several who were brave enough to come alone. The one thing that unites them all is that they did not let anything get in their way of their desire to explore their Jewish identity in the State of Israel.

In just a few short days, we have already visited the old city of Jerusalem, participated in Bedouin hospitality, hiked Masada and Ein Gedi and floated in the Dead Sea. Tomorrow our group will have the opportunity to meet their Israeli counterparts and start to make their connection to the people of this country even more personal. I know they are all looking forward to learning how the others live.

lynn

As a Birthright alumna and a guide, I don’t think there is ever a Shabbat that is more welcome than the Shabbat spent in Israel during Birthright. We are all looking forward to a day of spiritual reflection, and more importantly a day of rest, and are wishing for peaceful and quiet Shabbat.

*Balagan = in Modern Hebrew a word for chaos or fiasco (borrowed from from Russian); “it was utter and complete balagan!”

Déjà vu All Over Again



By Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President

If you ever feel like following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a sad rerun, where you might find yourself saying “no, don’t go in there!” or humming a refrain of “Mah Nishtanah HaLailah HaZeh…?” then you wouldn’t be far from reality.

Israel has once again come under fire. Hamas has unleashed a barrage of hundreds of rockets from the Gaza strip towards major population centers in Israel. Israel, in its response, has launched operation “Protective Edge,” with the purpose to fulfill its obligation to defend its citizens from external threats and to cripple Hamas’ rocket-shooting ability. For the third time in 5 years, we are witnessing another war-like escalation between Israel and the small strip to the South-West. I would like to take a step back and offer the following brief analysis of the current situation:

Who are we Dealing With?

Less than a week after the nation buried Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists, Israel finds itself engaged in another bout of warfare with Hamas from Gaza. In similar fashion to January 2009 and November 2012, Hamas has no defined objective for their actions. Hamas knows that the more rockets they fire, the further they reach and the more citizens are endangered the more Israel will have to respond plundering Gazans into further destitute. It knows that Israel will attack from the air and will eventually have to launch a ground incursion into Gaza ensuing massive loss of life and accruing lasting damage to its infrastructure. So why does it do that?

In 1987, at the early stages of the [first] Intifada, Palestinian Islamists created the -arakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah or the Islamic Resistance Movement. The acronym itself means “strength and bravery” according to the group’s covenant. In its early years, Israel saw It as a potential ally in the struggle against the PLO (the enemy of my enemy…) only to confirm that Hamas is dedicated with all its might to the destruction of Israel (see article 35).

Hamas was bent on torpedoing the Oslo peace process throughout the 1990s and carried out several terrorist attacks.

After Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Hamas had a carte blanche to build Palestinian society and to show the world that Palestine, sans occupation, could be a vibrant thriving productive society. However, Hamas funneled any and all resources into the destruction of the existing infrastructure and the smuggling of weapons and materials for rocket production.

In 2006 Hamas won a landslide victory in the Palestinian national elections after which, in 2007, they violently took over and expelled PLO reps from Gaza creating Hamas-Stan.

Rather than flourishing, Hamas – to its constituency’s detriment – continued to prioritize fighting Israel over all and continues to produce, smuggle and stockpile large caches of rockets, missiles, mortars and anything they can get their hands on.

The rockets continued to fly in their thousands and Israel subsequently launched Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, and then Pillar of Defense in 2012. Much historical discussion can be had as to whether or not those two operations achieved their goals. What we learned is that it is much easier to start the operation than to end it. Now, Operation Protective Edge – or “solid cliff – צוק איתן” in Hebrew – is off and running. It is yet unclear whether or not we will see a massive ground operation or whether or not Hamas will be able to inflict serious damage to Israel.

Why are they doing this?

The recent operations in the West Bank took a toll on Hamas. The leadership of Hamas saw the arrest of some of its top West Bank leadership as a call to act. In desperate need of a popularity boost, they needed to something to be perceived as powerful and in control. Action means lashing out at Israel and unleashing their stockpiles of rockets, shocking us at the previously unseen long ranges reaching as far as Haifa. While doing this, it is clear that Hamas does not want to be dragged into a war, and is seen as ‘poking the bear’ with a stick with the not-so-subtle hopes that Gazans – as a result of Israel’s response – will suffer humanitarian losses which will result in the international demonization of Israel. It is clear that no one wants a full scale ground invasion into Gaza, and it is likely that Hamas is looking to create a short-lived escalation to be followed by an Egyptian brokered cease-fire to which they could claim victory.

Fatah (the PA government under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas), is in a precarious situation having recently joined Hamas in a Palestinian unity government. Hamas would love nothing more than Fatah joining in with them in the battle against Israel, and Fatah knows that doing so is really not a considerable option. By joining the unity government Abbas already made a strategic statement and decision and now he has to decide as to which path he chooses. At the recent Haaretz peace conference, Abbas said all of the same things, and end with a warm wish to make peace asking Israel to take advantage of this opportunity. He is painfully aware of the opposition that exists from within the Palestinian community, and no better picture captured the moment then the empty all at the end of the peace conference as all but one of the participants fled to the nearest bomb shelter as the sirens rang through.

As David Horovitz posted in the Times of Israel: “Hamas is firing some of its vast rocket arsenal because it has nothing much to lose anymore — that it has lost the support of Egypt; that it can’t get the money to pay salaries; that it is retaliating for the deaths of several of its terror operatives in a tunnel that collapsed upon them after Israel had the temerity to attack it; that it is seeking to reassert itself as the only credible “resistance” to Israel…”

What it is resisting, is not entirely clear. If I had to guess, it is resisting the hard work of taking responsibility for self-determination and its fate and the fate of its constituency. As al-Qaeda reminded us on Sept. 11, 2001, it is far easier to destroy than it is to create. Firing rockets and espousing violence is actually the easy way out. It’s the cheap trick that the self-conscious bully uses in school to attract attention.
 

What do we think?

I am generally wary of anyone who claims to know exactly what must be done, and I am never envious of those in power who are responsible for fateful decision making. Sometimes it is also ok to identify with multiple views. On the one hand we want strength and harsh responses to violence, and on the other we want to minimize the loss of life at all costs and to return tranquility and peace for both sides.

There are those on the left, such as Haaretz correspondent Gideon Levy, who bluntly ask “what did you expect?” We keep 1.5 million people locked up in the largest open air prison, while blockading it and expect then to be complacent about it. Did Netanyahu expect Hamas to sit idly by while he piggy-backed on the kidnappings to arrest and re-arrest the top echelons of Hamas in the West Bank.  There is NO military solution to this problem and every opportunity to explore diplomacy has been missed.

Furthermore, many in the international community will point the finger and accuse Israel of disproportionality and of using excessive force. That since Israel shares a far lower death toll, it cannot be “fair”. Israel should only respond once many more are killed and that until the Israeli death toll is higher, it cannot respond as it has been. Hamas’ own claim that Israel should NOT be allowed to respond to rocket fire from Gaza into Israel by firing from Israel into Gaza often picks up traction and will undoubtedly be repeated and spouted on college campuses and social media despite its ridiculousness.

On the right, there will inevitably be those who chastise the government for not doing enough. What would America do if a quarter of its population was sent running to bomb shelters at all hours and faced a gross economic downturn as a result of a loss in tourism and investment?

The right will point out that any attempt at negotiation has always been met with unrealistic expectations and the Palestinians will not even recognize Israel as the Jewish State. Moral equivalencies will fly off the cuff, explaining that they celebrate murdered teenagers while we are ashamed by it. There are those that will recommend extreme draconian measures of collective punishment such as cutting off of electricity, water or other basic utilities until the rockets stop as those are the only ways in which they will surrender. There simply is NO diplomatic solution, and they only understand violence and strength.  The right will remind us that in every generation there rises up an enemy to destroy our people, and Hamas is today’s Haman whose very name we must obliterate.

 

Get us out of here.

Israel painfully extracted itself from Gaza 9 years this summer, with the knowledge that they might have to return. No one wants to be in Gaza any more than we want to be in Lebanon. The government and the generals must formulate a clear and multi-faceted exit strategy for a wide range of scenarios that will make exit as painless as possible. Gaza has the potential to be a lose-lose quagmire in which we do not want to sink. As soon as the objectives are achieved, leave.

For those of us watching and following closely from abroad it is difficult to identify and as much as our hearts and minds are with our Israeli brethren, we do not have to get up from our computers every time there is a siren. That is not to say that we don’t have an opinion and should not voice it loudly – we do and we should. We should also write, talk, tweet, comment and blog about everything we read feel and think.

We must support Israel, and must continue to be thoughtful Zionists who pay very close attention to what happens, to who says what, and how words can spiral out of control. While we all desperately yearn for peace, we must also help and react during war.

May we see peace in our days and quiet in our streets.

Plant a seed and watch it grow: a little bit of Kibbutz Lotan at OSRUI



18 months ago I introduced Alex Cicelsky of Kibbutz Lotan to OSRUI’s Associate Director, Susan Alexander in the hope that ARZA could help foster a partnership between the URJ’s first camp and Lotan.  I watched Susan’s excitement grow as they discussed the possibility of bringing the values and teachings of Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology (CfCE) to OSRUI campers. A year later the camp sent Arielle Solomon, their new Teva Specialist, to the CfCE Green Apprenticeship program.  Below Arielle describes the experience and her vision for bringing what she learned to Reform Jewish youth at camp:

Kibbutz Lotan’s Green Apprenticeship is a lot more than just a course about sustainability, agriculture, natural building, and ecological design. By living in the Bustan neighborhood, where participants lived in 10 geodesic domes covered in straw bales and mud, we were able to truly internalize the concepts we learned in our lessons, as well as put the sustainable technologies and methods of ecological living to the test. For two months I simultaneously slept in a dome, which was cool during the hot days and warm during the cool winter nights, and learned about the effectiveness of their design in my classes. We used concepts such as Bal Tashchit, or do not destroy, in our everyday practices, and learned about Kibbutz-style living and intentional communities.

One of the main focuses of the Green Apprenticeship was permaculture, or the designing of integrated systems through the use of ecology. Rather than simply learning about permaculture principles and concepts, we were able to use them in our every day lives outside of classes. We were constantly using local resources, such as branches from the date palm plantation on the kibbutz, and climate-specific knowledge, such as which vegetables grow best in the Arava Desert, to build and create and learn by doing. Our teachers pushed us to learn about the flora, fauna, and geology of the Arava, to solve problems on our own (but ask for help when needed), and to take advantage of the opportunities and resources on the kibbutz.

For the Teva program at OSRUI, I strive to emulate the same encouragement and support that I received on the Green Apprenticeship by engaging campers with place-based learning and hands-on experiences. In addition to playing an active role in tending the new garden, the campers learn how to identify local plants to strengthen the connection to their home-away-from-home. We help the campers observe and appreciate what is around them while thinking about our needs versus the needs of the ecosystem in which we live. Judaism is an agricultural and an ecologically-minded religion, and we use Teva (both the garden and what we can find growing on its own) to teach campers how to be more enlightened and environmentally-aware Jews. Although southern Wisconsin is a very different climate than Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava Desert, the way we approach ecological mindfulness is the same.

 

Torateinu ARZA – in Israel!!!!



By Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President

“משה קיבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע, ויהושע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה.” אבות א:א

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.” Pirkei Avot 1:1

 

Dan, the customs official at Ben Gurion airport, had just told me to have a seat with my Torah and wait. For those of us accustomed to Israeli bureaucracy, the fateful “wait here a few minutes” might seem like a true test of endurance, and a warning to cancel all plans for that day. When he came back offering me a cup of coffee, I really thought I was in for it. However, 10 minutes later we signed the necessary paperwork, paid our fees and were actually cleared to leave with our Torah.

“So, is that a real Torah anyway?” he asked as we were leaving? “Absolutely,” I said “A great mitzvah…” he called out to us with a wink that showed us that even the customs official felt the importance of bringing the gift of Torah to a fledgling Israeli community and that Israeli bureaucracy is, of course, also Jewish…

Standing in the arrivals hall, back near the vending machines, we took the Torah out and I passed it to Yael Karrie, the student rabbi of Shaar HaNegev. Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, I wasn’t sure how a woman would fair holding a Sefer Torah in the airport, and we decided it would be worth the risk. I handed her the Torah, and an elderly head-covered woman came running up to ask if she could kiss the Torah, and ‘may it bring good things for the people of Israel!’

Traditionally, when we take the Torah out of the ark during services we chant the following words from the book of Isaiah: “כי מציון תצא תורה” – From out of Zion comes Torah”. Over the past 6 months we have had the pleasure of changing Isaiah’s words. One specific Sefer Torah has been on a journey from West to East – from San Diego to the Negev. As we bring the Torah to Israel let us now say: “”אל ציון תצא תורה – “UNTO Zion shall go Torah”. “Torateinu ARZA,” or “Our Torah to the Land” is an initiative of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), through which one Torah scroll — generously donated by Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego — is traveling the country, synagogue to synagogue, and will then be donated to Kehilat Sha’ar HaNegev, a Reform community in the Northern Negev desert. Since February, the Torah has been visiting dozens of our communities, events, conventions and ceremonies. I had the great honor of walking with the Torah during Shabbat morning services at the URJ board meeting in Cincinnatti, and now the even greater honor of receiving the Torah as it landed at Ben Gurion airport in Israel.

We had previously planned for our Torah – Torateinu – to join the celebrations at the Kotel and to send the message that until the egalitarian section of the Kotel is completed to our satisfaction, we will keep asserting the right of women to read from the Torah in the women’s section. We then subsequently made the hard decision that this was not the right time to bring the Torah into the Kotel plaza. The Tfila of Rosh Hodesh – both from Women of the Wall and many others – was dedicated and directed towards the three kidnapped teenagers Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali, who we continue to keep in our thoughts as we move from shiva to Shloshim.

Let this Torah be a symbol of light, unity and good will that is so desperately needed in Israel during these days. Let it show the world that we in the Reform movement hope to make Torah accessible for all Jews and that our communities and congregations place Torah in the center of their existence. As each community held and then passed the Torah, we became aware of the importance to have a strong presence in Israel. To work for recognition for our movement and to show Israeli society that there are many ways to be religious. The more votes we have this coming spring for the World Zionist Congress elections, the more our Reform communities in Israel will thrive, and the more Torah we will be able to give to Israel and to the world.

The Torah has now made Aliyah, and I encourage you all to go visit it (and the community) soon! This could not have happened without the generosity of Rabbi Michael Berk of Temple Beth Israel, San Diego and Rabbi Rebecca Epstein for her meticulous coordination, enduring oversight and of course, passion for Israel, Torah and the Jewish people.

For more stories and pictures of the Torah’s travels and visits: https://www.facebook.com/torateinuarza

NFTY at 75 – Think Big



By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

A Jew who participates in the suffering of his nation and its fate, but does not join in its destiny, which is expressed in a life of Torah and mitzvot, destroys the essence of Judaism and injures his own uniqueness. By the same token, a Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate, desecrates his Jewishness.
– Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik Kol Dodi Dofek, (based on RaMBaM’s Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:11)

At the first CFTY leadership training institute that I ever attended, I took away a simple and direct meta-message: Think big. Don’t settle for mediocrity, and stop doing the same things over and over again. It was an exciting time, just days after the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton as they came together to sign the Declaration of Principles &ndash part of the Oslo accords. CFTY quickly got organized and put together 5,000 signatures on our “Megillat Shalom,” which affirmed our commitment and support for (what we thought would be a lasting) peace in the Middle East. Signatures in hand, we took our scrolls to New York. With the help of then ARZA Director Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, we presented them to both the UN’s Israeli Ambassador and the UN’s official Palestinian Mission.

For a youth movement, ‘think big’ means not accepting the status quo. During my NFTY years, and especially while I was president of the Chicago Area region, we spent a lot of time talking about what it meant to be a Reform Jew. We debated the oft-quoted seemingly cliche catch phrase “choice through knowledge.” We realized that for most of our peers, that phrase symbolized a convenient way to rationalize a do-whatever-you-want approach. In our attempt to ‘think big,’ we wondered what it would mean for members of our movement to take on more ritual observance. Would NFTY make it possible for teens to attend events if they preferred not to drive on Shabbat? Would NFTY accommodate those who kept a different and more stringent policy of kashrut? Would NFTY engage Hebrew speakers or did “inclusion” encourage, if not enforce, a lowest common denominator approach to Jewish life? I knew that the next chapter in my life would be dedicated to answering those questions.

Of course, instead of answers, came more questions. Much has been written about the effects of long-term Israel programs on Jewish identity and involvement. For the past 14 years, the Birthright Israel program (not a long-term experience) has defined the success of a visit to Israel as a force in creating Jewish identity, the core motivating factor behind the existence of the program. My time on EIE and subsequent return visits turned out to be the most meaningful and formative of my identity. I came to feel that we in the Reform movement had missed the boat, and were playing ‘catch up’ to the greatest drama of our people’s collective existence &ndash: one that I wasn’t going to miss. Zionism, for me, became the manifestation of my identity search. Identifying with Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ben Gurion, Kook, and Magnes, I found that there is no Judaism without Israel, and that Israel is a deeply Jewish entity.

In Israel, I found a place where the meta-narrative of the Jewish people is common knowledge, and where the Jewish public culture eliminates the age-old Diasporic minority complex. It was NFTY that brought me to Israel, and it would be through NFTY that I would attempt to impart my love of the Land, the importance of peoplehood, and a deep connection to Jewish culture, literacy, and tradition, by leading trips and teaching Jewish history to younger NFTYites.

I was fortunate to have mentors who taught me how to teach, including Baruch Kraus, Rabbis David Forman z”l and Lee Diamond, Uri Feinberg, and Amy Geller. They showed me what it means to care deeply for what Israel is, and even more for what it could be.

Having come on aliyah, I realized that simply living in Israel was not, as some may argue, a substitute for Jewish living, engagement, and mitzvot. It was incumbent on me to figure out where my ‘red lines’ were and what being Jewish would look like in Israel. Would I still go to synagogue? Would I drive on Shabbat? Would I make ritual and observance decisions differently in Israel than I would have stateside? My answer was yes.

Joining the Reform movement in Israel and congregation Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, I assumed a different level of knowledge and background. Welcomed into a community of youth-movement graduates who had come to Israel looking for the same things that I was seeking, I felt at home. I wanted to become part of this movement that had so much to offer, not only to an ex-Patriot Zionist olim like myself, but to Israelis, for whom the old-time polarizing dichotomy between religious and secular no longer answered the needs of the mainstream.

As I sung Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” while leading Kabbalat Shabbat in a Kiryat Gat boarding school it hit me. I realized that this familiar melody I had grown up with at camp and NFTY, composed by a Reform cantor, was evoking similar feelings in a group of Israeli kids of Ethiopian, North African, and Russian origin – who had never been part of NFTY, gone to camp, or heard of the composer. At that moment I understood that it was time to take my Reform Zionism to another level. Aliyah was one step. Though I was a century too late to drain the swamps and build the kibbutzim, it was the time to join our movement to help build Reform communities in Israel and offer religious alternatives to those who were searching.

Today, as the President of ARZA, I think back to the simple direct message I got as a teenager. We must think big; we must not settle for mediocrity, and we must utilize our strengths – to build community and find the right formula for religious existence. Learning from the magic and strength of Israel we must build a Jewish society, and continue to challenge and further what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state. Fortunately, we can do this together, since our relationship with our Israeli movement is growing and becoming stronger. My single dream for every Jewish high school student is to receive the same gift that I was given – the gift of time and study in Israel. Let’s use these experiences to build and to be built, and not take “no” for an answer.

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

The state of Israel in America (Part 1 of 3)



By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

My heart is in the East
by Yehuda HaLevy (Toledo, Spain 1085 – 1140)
My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West;
How can I taste what I eat and how could it be pleasing to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I am in the chains of Arabia?
It would be easy for me to leave all the bounty of Spain –
As it is precious for me to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

In 1815, Mordecai Manuel Noah was removed from his position as American Ambassador to Tunis by then Secretary of State James Monroe, citing Noah’s religion as “an obstacle to the exercise of [his] Consular function.” In 1825, with little support from even his fellow Jews, and as a precursor to modern Zionism, Noah tried to found a Jewish “refuge” or sovereign entity at Grand Island in the Niagara River. It was to be called “Ararat,” after Mount Ararat, the Biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark (all narcissism aside). He purchased land for $4.38 per acre to be used as a refuge for Jews of all nations. A cornerstone was placed there, which read, “Ararat, a City of Refuge for the Jews, founded by Mordecai M. Noah in the Month of Tishri, 5586 (September, 1825) and in the Fiftieth Year of American Independence.”

Needless to say, Noah’s radical reactionary vision never took and we are all left to wonder ‘what if…’? Sadly, this precursor to the Territorialist camp of political Zionism never made it onto the short list of other ideas floated for Jewish sovereignty, including Argentina, Madagascar, Birobidzhan, and Uganda. Noah’s pipe dream of founding a Jewish State near Niagara never came to fruition, and the Jews of [North] America pledge allegiance to either her majesty’s branch (in the North) or to any one of the 50 United States of America. Just a century and a quarter after Noah’s failed attempt at Jewish political sovereignty, the family of nations was blessed with a Jewish State.

Fast forward 66 years. The United States houses the second largest Jewish community in the world. Many of its members do not aggressively seek to live in a Jewish society. Even more Jews find their connection to the Jewish State a source of controversy and divisiveness. Some have taken the extreme measure of sidelining and silencing all debate and discussion on Israel in order to stave off any potential uncomfortable confrontation, while others search for new and creative ways to engage, educate, and advocate for Israel.

The fact of the matter is that when living in the United States (or anywhere outside Israel), one is not faced with having to constantly think about and contemplate the issues facing the Jewish State. However, for a loud and present group, one’s stance on Israel and its issues serves as a litmus test for belonging to and remaining an active member of the Jewish community. Let us take, as a case study, the recent vote for J Street’s admission into the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The secret ballot has now been outed and we know who voted and how. My thoughts on this are that we, as Zionists, need to do all that we can to include those who care about Israel – not alienate them. It occurs to me that we should all worry far less about how others engage with Israel, and confront the more daunting issue of the great masses of American Jewry who simply don’t engage at all.

This is a precious moment and an unparalleled opportunity to step up and be proud that we have diverse opinions (as we always have), and to say that part of being a Reform Jew is to care deeply and passionately about what happens in the Jewish State. Perspective never hurts either, and we must take into consideration that few Israelis have heard of this past fortnight’s vote, and don’t really put all that much stock into what appears to be much ado about nothing.

In terms of Israel activity on our side of the pond, I think that many Israelis are asking the following questions: Do American Jews care about us here in Israel? Are all American Jews going to come on aliyah to Israel or are they at least wrestling with the idea (even though when all is said and done they may not)? Do we [Israelis] have anything to gain by viewing the American Jewish community as more than one large ATM? What would it look like to separate religion from State, and what if our existential threats were slightly diminished, allowing us to worry about other matters?

While some of the answers to these questions are complicated and some are straightforward, Zionism, right now, has to be about getting our two heads (Israel and North America) onto one body and working together. While I look up from Haaretz or YNet sometimes, I gaze dreamily, wishing that Manuel Noah had been successful, saving us all a lot of tsuris (troubles, suffering). Then I hum a few bars of Ehud Manor’s classic “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” (I have no Other Country), and realize that despite what some of the classical Reformers believed, America is not the Promised Land. It is upon us to be thoughtful Zionists, engaged and willing to put in some work so that we can firmly state that the Jewish State is for us and all Jews.

To be continued…

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

 

Why I Support J Street Joining the Conference of Presidents (Hint: It’s Not about J Street)



By Rabbi Rick Jacobs

This week the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations will meet to consider the application for membership from J Street. J Street, which calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” has successfully completed all the administrative requirements for membership. The Conference – which exists to bring together the entire Jewish, pro-Israel community – now has to decide if it will create an ideological litmus test for membership. Doing so would undermine its very reason for existing.

The Conference of Presidents was founded in 1956, at a time of great growth in American Jewish organizations. At the time, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his administration wanted a streamlined way to consult with the American Jewish community, rather than having to reach out to or poll dozens of organizations. The conference established a unified voice for the community, one that government officials could consult on important matters.

If the Conference begins to limit its membership based on organizations’ views on specific policy issues, it ceases to represent the entire American Jewish community. The vote this week is, therefore, a referendum not on J Street but on the Conference itself.

I sometimes agree with J Street and sometimes disagree with J Street, much like every other member of the Conference. I think, for example, that their support for Secretary of State Kerry’s peace efforts has been smart and well-developed. I think they were largely wrong on the timing of Iran sanctions. I could offer a similar analysis of virtually every member of the Conference.

Most importantly, it simply does not pass the “smell test” to argue that J Street is outside the mainstream of American Jewish life. The J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, for example, comprises more than 800 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic students, including five past presidents of the nation’s largest rabbinic organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The questions for the Conference are stark. Does the “pro-Israel” tent stretch as far to the left as it does to the right? Is it the role of the Conference to enforce one political point of view, or to provide a forum in which different voices are heard? Will the Conference close its ranks or continue to serve as the central address for the Jewish community on Israel issues?

The Union for Reform Judaism will support J Street’s application for membership in the Conference of Presidents. We will do so because we believe in the role the Conference plays in our community. Excluding J Street would make clear that the Conference is no longer the voice of the entire American Jewish community on Israel issues. That would be a real loss to our community.

 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ.

We Had to Use Music to Change the World



By Louis J. Dobin

Recently I flew in from Israel and stopped in New York on my way to Texas to attend the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) Gala. It was a wonderful evening, and put me in touch with people from every generation of my life – those with whom I work now, those who once worked with me, and those from my past who are still working to try and change the world. What struck me about the Gala (in addition to the outstanding honorees – Paul Reichenbach, Peri Smilow, and Rabbi Kroloff), was the primacy of music in the life of modern-day Israelis.

When I first attended the URJ (then UAHC) Eisner Camp-Institute in the 1960s, camp music as we know it today was still in its infancy. Debbie Friedman was a kid at the time, Dave Nelson, Jeff Klepper, and Danny Freelander were my age. Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols had not yet been born. No one had put a guitar on the pulpit of a synagogue, and the Board of my synagogue had to vote on whether to allow me to play guitar on the bimah.

I remember our 1960s song leaders Hank Sawitz and Jerry Breiger at Eisner, and Bennett Miller and Jimmy Shulman from NFTY, strolling up and down the middle of the dining room singing songs that were primarily from the American folk movement. The songs were about coal mines and dust bowls and civil rights-themes that hinted at the social forces about to rock American society. I was a child at the time, about ten years old, but my dream was to be like those song leaders. Pete Seeger was the deity of song leading, and Tom Paxton, Peter Paul and Mary, and Paul Simon were just over the horizon. And song leading was done with a banjo!

Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, the first NFTY Songbook, published in 1966, contained all English material. By the time I went to Israel for the first time in 1968, as a 14-year-old guitar player and fledgling kibbutznik, Israeli Hebrew music was starting to appear on the scene in America. Through the Israel Song Festival and the Chasidic Song Festival, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” “Shir Baboker Baboker,” and all of the other songs on Side 2 of the first Songs NFTY Sings album became popular,

By the time 1971 rolled around (basically still the ’60s!) there was an explosion of musical creativity. Jewish kids were writing their own music, which combined Jewish themes, biblical verse, Hebrew lyrics, portions of the liturgy, good old American folk-rock, and eventually, rock and roll. The musical creativity combined the desire for change with the changed circumstances in our relationship with the State of Israel. NFTY decided that its social action project would be to fund raise to help build Kibbutz Yahel. My contribution, as NFTY’s past treasurer, with the help of a group of friends and $100 in “venture capital,” was to create the first Songs NFTY Sings record album. What followed was a second, third, fourth and finally, an entire series.

Lots of us knew that this was what we had to do – use music to change the world. It was a time when one person with a guitar could galvanize thousands of people in front of the Washington Monument. It was a time before you needed a five-piece band, back-up singers, and a light show to make an impact.

I mention this, not to wax nostalgic (although seeing everyone at the ARZA Gala certainly made me long for the good old days of my youth), but to reassure myself and to reassure you that we can still change the world with music. “Sing Unto God a New Son” is still as relevant today as it was then. So pick up your electronic keyboard, plug it into your “Garageband” app, and get going!

Louis J. Dobin has been the director of the URJ Greene Family Camp since 1978.