ARZA Mourns the Loss of Innocents at Prayer



A statement from ARZA President, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, on the recent terrorist attack in West Jerusalem:

ARZA expresses its deepest condolences to the families of those who perished at the hands of terrorists today. An attack on innocents, and especially against innocent people at prayer in a house of worship can only be viewed as a purposeful act of violence with the intention of causing pain and death. All those who care about humanity and all who care about the integrity of all beings should decry such behavior and see it exactly for what it is – intentional and brutal murder.

We join with all who care about decency and who are pursuers of peace. We join with all Israel in our deep sense of sadness and mourning, and we hope and pray that all those of good will shall raise their voices high and drown out the forces of violence and terror.

The Real Hannah Senesh



By Josh Weinberg

It was 70 years ago this week, according to the Hebrew calendar, that a young Jewish girl named Hannah Senesh was executed by firing squad by the Hungarian-Nazi police force. She had been captured after parachuting into Europe with a group of Jewish paratroopers of the Haganah who were sent to rescue Jews from the Nazi war machine.

At the age of 23, Hannah Senesh became an epic and heroic figure largely due to the letters, poems, and diary entries she left behind, exposing to the world her deepest thoughts and feelings. Not long after her death, one poem that she had composed during a walk from her kibbutz, Sdot Yam, to the ancient Roman ruins of the port city of Caesarea (1 km to the north) became her most famous. Known to most as Eli, Eli, the poem Halikha LeKesariya (A Walk to Caesarea) was set to music by David Zehavi and proceeded to be prominently featured at virtually every memorial ceremony for the Holocaust and for Israel’s fallen – deliberately linking the two to forge a linear narrative in the young Israeli psyche.

While the classical Zionist narrative claimed Senesh as one of its own – total assimilation only to find redemption in her aliyah to the Land of Israel (Palestine at the time) – we now know that there is much more to her story than previously understood.

Just as the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s own upbringing (in the same city as Senesh) begs a deeper inquiry into the struggles of living a both Jewish and modern life, and that the Dreyfus trial was for him a tipping point rather than a great awakening, so too must we dig a bit deeper into Senesh’s own spiritual and evolving Jewish identity.

On September 18, 1936, a teenaged Hannah Senesh wrote:

I’m not quite clear just how I stand: synagogue, religion, the question of God. About the last and most difficult question I am the least disturbed. I believe in God – even if I can’t express just how. Actually I’m relatively clear on the subject of religion, too, because Judaism fits in best with my way of thinking. But the trouble with the synagogue is that I don’t find it at all important, and I don’t feel it to be a spiritual necessity; I can pray equally at home.

Later on November 2, 1940, she continued this sentiment by saying:

I was never able to pray in the usual manner, by rote, and even now neither can nor want to. But the dialogue man holds with his Creator…is what I, too, have found. I see the sincere, inner link, even if it comes through struggle within myself and through some doubt.

From reading her diary, we learn that her Jewish identity was much more complicated than often presented. Her struggle with belief, faith, prayer, and observance lead us to appreciate a deeper and more complex outlook on her life, challenging the classic Zionist narrative. Senesh reflected in her life on what many of us may be searching for today. Her worldview and outlook on Israel and Judaism is one that can resonate with those struggling to find the balance between our national, ethnic, and religious identities. For many Israelis, the discovery that she was not definitively secular, and that she struggled deeply with personal religiosity, may come as a shock. But it is also a welcome call to say that it’s okay to question, to have a grey area, and that there are many ways to be religious. Our Reform movement in Israel is ready right now to engage such seekers; to offer meaning to those for whom the polarizing dichotomy between “secular” and “religious” no longer answers their needs. Based on Senesh’s example, this struggle has been occupying the minds of Zionists and young people for many decades.

While many of Senesh’s writings were published and now feature prominently in Israeli and Diaspora ceremonies and liturgy, one amazing discovery came to light only two years ago. Sixty-eight years after it was written, the poem Hora L’Bat Golah (Hora to a Daughter of the Exile) was discovered in a drawer. Senesh wrote the poem in 1943 while she was being trained for her mission to parachute behind enemy lines.

Hora to a Daughter of the Exile (Translation by Elie Leshem)

A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging, It tugs at my body and heart The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus Dance and song, a wordless prayer, Hail to the future, hail to creation

But then a figure flutters before my eyes My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace My heart spurns the tempestuous singing, Far and near it consumes me whole

Blue eyes Such a bewildered glance A sad silence and a stubborn mouth The stillness grows in me I remain standing Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I

Click here to listen to the song composed for this poem.

On this 70th anniversary of her death, communities across Israel and throughout our Israeli Reform movement will be marking her life and contributions. I encourage our North American movement’s congregations to do the same. Let’s dedicate time to highlight the person she was and the legacy and challenges she left for all of us. This Shabbat, sing Eli, Eli not in a somber, mournful tenor, but in a celebratory and upbeat tone, since this is a prayer offering thanks and praise for life’s natural wonders that should never cease. On the 70th anniversary of this important hero, let us re-examine her life, her hashkafa (outlook and personal philosophy), and her contribution to Jewish life.

 

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

 

This post originally appeared on the rj.org blog as part of their Ten Minutes of Torah series.

I am a Liberal Zionist and this is NOT the End.



By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

A recent NYT op-ed by Anthony Lerman left me both puzzled and insulted. As a liberal Zionist, I am not at a crossroads, as Lerman directly accused in his sweeping and generalizing editorial, “The End of Liberal Zionism,” wherein he has unfairly categorized many of us in a camp to which we do not belong.

I would like to offer a different picture than that of Lerman’s portrayal of liberal Diaspora Jews getting fed up with Israel’s conduct. On the contrary, this summer’s war has been a wake-up call for many liberal Zionists. So many have come to the realization that now, more than ever, is the time to be involved. Liberal Zionists realize that they have the opportunity and ability to help foster Israel’s Zionist core, which dates back to its “romantic” foundation. Our own Reform movement has worked to provide critical support for a variety of projects since the beginning of the current escalation of violence and rioting this summer. This support has led to the enhancement of co-existence projects between Jewish communities and their Palestinian-Israeli neighbors, and more.

As a liberal Zionist, I take pride in the fact that we openly express sympathy for the loss of Palestinian life in Gaza, question the necessity of ground incursions and targeted strikes, and actively support Israel’s ongoing – but lesser known – humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Further, I take pride in the notion that we do not turn our back on Israel, even though we may be at times critical. We do not view our connection to or support for the Jewish State as conditional, and we recognize that as Diaspora Jews we do have the luxury to choose how to support Israel. Israelis, however, do not have the luxury to ignore constant attacks on their fellow citizens, and Lerman, in his accusation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to establish an independent Palestinian state, fails to see that there are, in fact, other parties involved. Does being a liberal mean that the Palestinians must be absolved of all culpability for determining their own destiny? Even if Israel has the upper hand, which it clearly does militarily, should the international community give Hamas a carte blanche?

Furthermore, why does Lerman accuse liberal Zionists of being torn during times of war? The liberals that are my friends and colleagues have become more united in affirming Israel’s right to defend herself while staunchly believing in the need for a negotiated two-state arrangement. Let us remember how many reservists heeded their summons and went in to fight despite their own political opinions.

Also, to which rising trend in Israeli politics is Lerman referring? To the trend that turned out in Rabin Square last Saturday night? To the thoughtful discussion between famed left-wing laureate David Grossman and modern Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow? There has always been vitriol and intolerance from certain Israeli politicians. We are a people who take words seriously and cannot ignore threats or blatant illegal racism. Today, sadly, the examples of these are plentiful. Is this a trend worse than ’95-’96, where the Oslo process passed by a 51% majority?

Liberal Zionism does not lack agency. It is working hard to help its educators, rabbis, youth advisors and affiliates find a voice in the storm. It is mobilizing its constituency to support Israel, as Zionists and as liberals, and to deplore dangerous and demagogic voices coming from the right to far-right. While Lerman does not supply us with the vast research conducted and on whose behalf he writes, I can say personally that being a Zionist means to work to improve Israeli society and hold Israel up to high standards, in addition to wanting Israel to reflect our values. Most importantly, being a Zionist means that Israel is our family with whom we will always be connected, despite how each of us might chose to act were we in the Prime Minister’s chair. As a liberal Zionist I would encourage the government to look towards important diplomatic steps to end the current war – which would result in more than just another abbreviated ceasefire. We must look to the international community (including the Arab states) to help ensure that Hamas will stop firing rockets and mortars so that we can open the strip and aid in the rebuilding of Gaza.

Lerman does, however, make an important point with which I agree wholeheartedly – that now is the time to embrace the challenge of reclaiming Zionism and working to change Israel’s perceived image from its grassroots. Many years ago, I, like Lerman, fell in love with the romantic Zionist ideal. Now, as an adult, I am well aware that Israel is not perfect and has made its fair share of mistakes. I also know that Israel has had to deal with more strife, threat and unfair judgment than most, and that today’s Zionism of consequence must be an enlightened and thoughtful Zionism that admonishes racist and intolerant rhetoric while being cautious regarding those who wish to cause us harm. We liberal Zionists, therefore, continue to pray for peace and work to do what we can to improve the lives of those affected by the throes of war.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and a Res. Lt. in the IDF Spokespersons unit.

 

Unexpected Discoveries



By Lynnley Rothenberg

During these difficult times it is very important to talk about what we can do to help our friends and family in Israel. Going on a solidarity mission, contributing to “stop the sirens”; are both very impactful ways to contribute to the ongoing struggles of those directly affected by the operation. Sometimes showing support can be as simple as going about business as usual and NOT canceling your planned trip to Israel. This is what 40 young adults did when they decided to take a risk and participate on Birthright, in the middle of Operation Protective Edge.

I had the privilege of leading this exceptional group on their first journey to Israel. During the 10 day trip, we saw all of the traditional sights and heard the history that our homeland is known for. There were extremely high points, like seeing the sunrise at Masada and floating in the Dead Sea, and the solemnity of Yad Vashem . This particular trip experienced something very different than most Birthright groups. They had a little less than a minute to run to a bomb shelter when a code red siren went off. Naturally, the whole conflict sparked some very heated and intense discussions about current events.

One of the biggest challenges as a staff member was finding the balance between letting the participants air their feelings about the current conflict, and not letting it completely consume all of our discussions. The main question that we were faced with was, how do we still talk about other issues during this time?

As the representative of ARZA, I steered the conversation towards the issues of pluralism and democracy and worked with the participants to recognize their connection to the Reform Jewish community in Israel. Upon her return, one of our group members, Olivia, shared her reflections on her experience.

Throughout my life I’ve often wondered about my own connection to Israel. I have always considered the country a “religious homeland” but as a Reform Jew, actively practicing my religion has never been a particularly large part of my life. Thus my own connection to Israel felt shallow – I viewed the nation as a homeland, but not a home. However, establishing relationships with our Israeli participants made the experience that much more personal and powerful.

 Olivia is just one example of many participants that have come back from their trip feeling empowered to have their positive Israel stories heard. Ours, was a very special group that is now inspired to become active members in the Jewish community both here and in Israel. I look forward to continue to be a part of their individual journeys.

Kesher Bus 841 is now back in the states and already has a reunion planned for the end of the month!

Rainbow Jews: The Gay Birthright Experience



By Ariel Naveh

So I am standing outside our not-so makeshift tent (this is of course referred to as the Disneyland of Bedouin Tents), having just excused myself from the larger group singing everything from selections from Aladdin to David Bowie to American Pie (which somehow becomes de rigueur whenever people get a hand on a guitar), the clear night sky is providing a rather breathtaking view of the stars, and I am deep in conversation with a participant about otherness and chosenness in the queer and Jewish communities. This is clearly not your average Taglit experience. If you have read Spencer Kornhaber’s excellent recent article in The Atlantic about his experience on an LGBTQ Birthright trip, you know that these sorts of trip experiences are on the rise, providing LGBTQ Jews with a unique perspective on life in Israel, along with a level of solidarity they may not have on other, more generic trips. I can say with absolute certainty that this was by all means the case with the group that I had the true pleasure of leading just a few weeks ago. Now, admittedly, some of that solidarity may have come as a result of traveling through Israel during peak rocket season, but much of it was the collective understanding that our group was a collective of ‘others’ sharing in and nurturing each other’s identities while informing them – and hopefully infusing them – with some Jewishness along the way.

Throughout our trip, we heard from gay parents, gay politicians, gay activists and advocates, all speaking openly and candidly about not just life in Israel, but gay life in Israel. That this was happening during one of the most precarious and contentious moments in the already tenuous Palestinian/Israeli conflict only enhanced our understanding of life in Israel, as we witnessed directly the surreal duality of living under a constant specter of threat and danger – our itinerary was updated hourly, if not more frequently, to avoid possible conflict zones – and living freely, openly, and proudly. We saw – and for a brief 10 days – became – Israelis who fight against the tyranny of conflict by just being who they – we – are. Almost as a matter of routine we had Israelis express immense gratitude that we traveled there in spite of the situation, but the truth is, it was a necessary perspective of life in Israel that would not have been seen or experienced by many had we been during ‘better’ times. We were doing ourselves a favor as Diaspora Jews attempting to forge a connection with a land that’s supposed to be our homeland, as much as we were the Israelis by visiting during such weighted and fraught times.

As we traveled all through Israel, our educator emphasized that we are not tourists in this land, but visitors coming home for the first time. This can be a real challenge if you don’t speak the language, aren’t all that familiar with the rituals and culture that surrounded us, and, like many, may have real and legitimate questions about Israel’s role in the ever more fragile peace plan. It can be even more of a challenge if you feel even more on the periphery because of your sexual identity or gender presentation. However, I, and so many of my participants, took this line – as cliché as it may sound – as an invitation to take part in the Israel conversation: we visited Israel, we experienced the conflict firsthand, we spoke to people who are helping to shape Israel’s narrative in all facets. As such, we now have the opportunity, or really the imperative, to engage in it, and to help others do the same. That we can engage in the conversation on Israel through the lens of ‘others’ makes it all the more important for our voices to be heard, and for us to speak up.

An in ordinate amount of ink has been spilled (or whatever the equivalent is with computers…pixels?) on answering the big question of what to do with participants following a Birthright experience. To me, the biggest strongest legacy we can leave these participants as they return home is the sense of ownership they feel in that crazy, 66 year old experiment we call Israel. This does not mean they have to agree with its policies all the time, in fact they can be rather angry with it much of the time. But they must engage with it. That’s what being a visitor in one’s homeland means, and throughout my 10 days as a leader for this incredible group of ‘others,’ I felt like I got to go home with my family.

 

Ariel Naveh is a rising 5th year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Originally from Long Island, he is incredibly excited to get out into the rabbinic world, and help Jews everywhere shape their own Jewish narratives

Family Matters



By Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President

If you need a hammer, I will be a hammer, if you need a nail, I will be the nail… We are as bars of iron, elastic but iron. Metal that can be forged to whatever is needed for the national machine. A wheel? I am the wheel. If a nail, a screw or a flying wheel are needed – take me! Is there a need to dig the earth? I dig. Is there a need to shoot, to be a soldier? I am a soldier…
– Yosef Trumpeldor (translated and paraphrased)

Trumpeldor (1880-1920), soldier, symbol of pioneering and armed defense in Eretz Yisrael, became a symbol to pioneer youth from all parts of the Diaspora. His concept of Zionism was intertwined with the establishment of agricultural communes in Israel, which, if necessary, would be defended by armed force.

For Reform Jews, “obligation” can be a funny thing. Our movement champions individual autonomy and encourages each of us to seek out meaning in personalmitzvot, leaving much to choice and often little to obligation. So what, if anything, are we obligated to do? Are we obligated to: give tzedakah? keep some form of kashrut? observe Shabbat? provide our children with a Jewish education? The topic of many books and dissertations, these questions require a much longer discussion. Specifically now the question arises regarding our obligation to Israel.

Do we have an obligation whatsoever to the State of Israel? Does Israel’s current crisis increase our responsibility towards it? Not surprisingly, few American Reform Jews would identify with Trumpeldor’s sentiment, and some find themselves ambivalent about how to feel or act regarding Israel. During the past month, while our Reform movement in Israel has stepped in to fill an important role in Israeli society – providing support, care, and respite – many American Reform Jews see it as obligatory to go to Israel now to help.

If we are part of the Jewish people, then we unequivocally have an obligation to the largest Jewish community in the world and the only sovereign Jewish political entity. As Shmuel Rosner recently penned in The New York Times,

If all Jews are a family, it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin. If Jews aren’t a family, and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.

Being family does NOT mean that we blindly support each other or hold back criticism – often the contrary. Being family DOES mean that we drop everything and help out. It means that we somehow alter our own lives to come to the aid of our family members in need. Being family means that we participate in the fate and the destiny of our people -whether we like it or not.

It was Rav Joseph Soloveitchik who most clearly articulated the notion that as Jews we all must share a common fate and a common destiny. The Rav enumerated four positive consequences of the awareness of a shared fate. He stated, that as Jews, we share historical circumstances, suffering, responsibility and liability, and activity.

While it is beyond us to change or control our fate, we can and are obligated to alter and influence our destiny. Soloveitchik explains,

Destiny in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical being.

It is our common destiny that we must join together and work hard to change.

Having just returned from a week in Israel, I felt the effects of the current war on the state of Israeli society. I felt the trauma of soldiers, the exhaustion of volunteers, and the deep sigh of those who know that the results of the most recent violence will last for months to come. The message from Israelis was clear – they are fighting a war of ein breirah (no choice), and we as Jews must also see our role as an obligation for which we have no choice.

How do we translate our obligation to support Israel? Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Give money. Financial support is crucial, and through the united Stop the Sirens campaign, we and our partners have been able to raise significant sums that translate to real work on the ground.
  • Go to Israel now. Despite recent trips by the CCAR and ARZA, less than two dozen Reform Jewish groups have made solidarity trips to Israel to show support (excluding individual trips or other organizations). These trips are important and make a difference to those who only see the myriad of cancellations. Despite our immediate and continual news availability, there is no replacement for being in Israel to truly understand the reality on the ground, and to internalize feelings that information, however plentiful, cannot provide.
  • Share knowledge. I recently met someone who explained that she took on an additional mitzvah to read and comment on at least five Israel-related articles daily. I applauded her adopted humra (religious stringency), and now suggest it to others.
  • Create a safe and warm environment to discuss Israel in your congregation. There is no greater issue dividing the contemporary Jewish community right now than Israel. What is needed now is to come together to talk, discuss, and share feelings and thoughts. As Dr. Alex Sinclair wrote, we should aspire for “unity without uniformity.”

While living outside the land of Israel affords us the choice to participate in Israel’s fate, we must now affirm our Jewish peoplehood and recognize our obligation to do what we can for our Israeli brethren. Together, we must work to ensure the sanctity and security of our joint destiny.

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

For more on our recent mission and how to travel to Israel now, visit ARZA online.

ARZA Solidarity Mission: Day 4 and return to the old country- home.



By Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, ARZA Chair

Below is the concluding report that I prepared prior to my arriving at JFK this morning. As I am sure you all know, our hopes are that the missile strikes would not begin again and that the ceasefire would hold. I have chosen to leave my words as they were written prior to the renewed shelling.  Let us all hope and pray that the missiles will go silent again very soon.

Jerusalem, no missiles, no sirens, not even a false alarm as the day begins.  Of course, a quick breakfast and we are on our way.

We enter one of the great historic buildings on King George Street.  It is home to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund, and the World Zionist Organization. Just walking the halls you feel the history of the Zionist enterprise since Theodor Herzl first called into session the World Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland, dreaming of a return to the Jewish national homeland. (The next World Zionist Congress will be in October 2015.  You all will hear more about it soon as you will be eligible to vote.  I hope to be on the ballot, representing our Reform Movement).

We meet with Becky Caspi, one of the unsung heroes of the Jewish People.  Together with a small staff, Becky and her colleagues have been busy meeting with representatives of towns and cities in the south, reviewing requests for proposals and evaluating them to see how to help those in need of respite care, relief, trauma counseling and so much more.  From the very beginning of this war the Jewish Federations of North America have been working with all of these groups to provide vital assistance.  Imagine some 45 thousand children who are taken out of the area where missiles are falling; they are taken to safe areas, to parks, going on “vacation” so that they do not spend every moment of the day in safe rooms.  And there are hundreds and hundreds of families who have been evacuated because where they live has been endangered (including some of the areas where Hamas has built underground tunnels, with terrorists ready to pop up out of their holes to kill Jews.  I wish I was exaggerating).  You won’t read about the details of the evacuations in the press because to publicize it would give Hamas a sense of victory; remember, its goal is to rid the area of Jews!)

To date, through the JFNA Stop the Sirens Emergency campaign, more than $12 million dollars has been allocated.  And it is all being allocated to JAFI (the Jewish Agency for Israel), JDC (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), ORT (the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training), ITC (Israel Trauma Center), IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) and Masorti (The Conservative Movement’s arm in Israel).  I am always overwhelmed by the Jewish communities of North America and how they respond to crises wherever Jewish life is endangered.  Our own Jewish Federation of Middlesex County is a full participant in this endeavor (if you have not yet made a financial commitment to the Federation’s Stop the Sirens Campaign, please do so). We get a full and thorough briefing. But, of course, Becky’s response to us is, “I am not going to say thank you. I am going to say Kol Hakavod.  Do not underestimate what you have done in coming. I am aware of the cost, the time, and the effort. And the impact on all of us is beyond measure.”

We leave Becky and walk a few blocks to Ben Yehudah Street.  We are going on a shopping spree, well, sort of.  We spread out into a few small groups and I go to one of the army surplus stores.  I buy a few flashlights that a person wears on the forehead. And I also purchase a Pakal kit. This is a portable coffee maker, including thermos, gas container and cooker.  These items will be given to “lone soldiers,” who are serving in the army. These soldiers are living here in Israel without having family here. They don’t have parents and grandparents to buy them these items.  So we do and then we bring them over to the “Lone Soldiers Home.” Among the lone soldiers is Ben Rathauser, one of our Temple’s young men; and Koby Hodes, who graduated from the Temple a year ago is about to become a lone soldier, too.  Koby has joined me for the day.  Such a nice young man!

It’s not a home, but it is a home. It’s located on the second floor of an alley off of Ben Yehudah Street.  There is another one in Tel Aviv and also in Be’er Sheva.  The “Lone Soldier’s Home” is a place for the 5900 soldiers, mostly from North America, but also from other parts of the world, who have come to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.  Here they can come for all kinds of help: aid in getting an apartment, furniture, advice, friendship, join for a barbecue or share in a beer, and so much more.  Everyone in the country knows about lone soldiers.  In fact, one of them, Max Steinberg, was among the first to be killed in action in Gaza.  Some 20,000 people showed up at his funeral.  He was a young man from California.  He is now one of the many buried on Mt. Herzl in the military cemetery.  I’ll visit his grave later in the day.  And one young man told me that he received 37 invitations to be adopted by families in Israel.  We drop off our gifts; they will soon be given to lone soldiers.  A quick bite at one of the old favorite humus and falafel stands on King George Street, and then off to Mt. Herzl.

The next hour or so will be very quiet for each of us.  We walk among the graves of some of the heroes of the Jewish people; not the scholars or Nobel Prize winners, or philanthropists; and we don’t visit the area where Israel’s political figures are laid to rest.  We are there to visit the graves of those brave, courageous soldiers who gave their lives in defense of Israel and the Jewish people.

I stop at the grave of Jonathan Netanyahu, brother of Bibi.  He died in the rescue of Jews at Entebbe in Uganda many years ago. You can tell from the pebbles and stones on his grave that many come to visit and pay homage.  And I stop at the grave of Michael Levin, a lone soldier, who died in the 2nd Lebanon War a few years ago.  He was from Philadelphia. On his grave are all kinds of items, pebbles, stones, Phillie’s hats, and more.  Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA’s president tells us that he knew Michael Levin; they had played basketball together every Friday Michael and his best friend Ben would meet and drink coffee together.  Sometime after his death, Michael’s mother visited Israel and went to the cemetery. When she got there, she found Ben (it was a Friday) with his Pakal (the portable coffee kit) making coffee. At first she was angry until Ben told her that he and Michael used to drink coffee together every Friday. “Ben,” she said, “please come every Friday and continue to drink your coffee here with Michael.” More quiet and more visiting graves, some very freshly dug, only a few days ago.  There have been 64 killed by Hamas, 60 soldiers among them.  And Hamas wants to declare victory!

Speaking of victory, there is no victory here.  I think Israel is in trauma.  The population is exhausted from a month long battle, from more than 3500 missile raining down anywhere at any time, from running to safe rooms or lying down a few feet from the car until the “red alert” is over, worrying about sons and daughters and husbands and fathers who are on the front or in Gaza.  No one is suffering Post Traumatic Syndrome because they are still in the midst of the trauma.  The PTS will come later, and the country will find a way to confront it.  Israel has no choice.  And there is not victory for Hamas; they have brought about death and destruction to the Palestinians that is incomprehensible.

At the same time, in Israel, I have never seen such resilient people.  Today, people were out in the streets, at the cafes, going to work as they have done every day. To do any less would give Hamas a victory.  But the tourists have cancelled, the hotels are empty, and will probably remain so for several months.  And who knows what will happen tomorrow at 8 AM (Friday) when the 72 hour ceasefire comes to an end.  Everyone is wondering.  A few friends have said to me (with a bit or sad humor) “Since you brought the ceasefire with you when you arrived, perhaps you could stay longer so that Hamas does not start up again.” I hope that my friends, that all Israel will have a quiet Shabbat.  Everyone needs the rest.

One more stop, over to the NFTY office. NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) is our movement’s youth program. Some 500 high school students spent the summer in Israel this year.  Only 4 went home because of the war.  The NFTY staff in Israel and New York made sure the kids were safe every day, designed and redesigned an educational program that transformed all of these kids into “Zionists” forever.  And these folks communicated with parents every day, every moment of the day, reassuring them that their kids were safe.  We owe them our deepest respect and gratitude. I am sure it will be a summer they will never forget.  And now they are preparing for Birthright groups due to arrive, and in a few weeks, the next cohort of EIE students who will be studying for the semester.

A few minutes at the hotel to pack, down for a quick dinner, and off to the airport.  I am on El Al Flight 001, bound for JFK.  Three nights in Israel, two nights on the plane.  One of the flight attendants asks me what I did during my stay in Israel.  After I tell her, she pauses, and says, “thank you for coming, from all of us.  You can’t imagine what it means to every person in Israel.”  The same refrain, but genuine and heartfelt. I don’t know, I don’t think that what I did was so special or noble.  I came because I had to, I visited with anyone I could, and I let them know that they are not alone.

There is an irony I want to share.  When I was in Sederot I met a group (two busloads full) of Christians, (from Christians United for Israel).  There was at least one from every state in the U.S.  Like, us, the came to be in solidarity with Israel.  And they are with me on the plane back home.  They also came for a few days.  I asked a lot people to join me.  So many said they wished they could, but they didn’t come.  The Christians did come.  I can’t get it out of my head.  Jewish leaders from America have come.  They always do. But what about rest of the Jewish community? My dear friends at home, Israel needs you to come and to come in big numbers; not to come as tourists, but to come as family who care deeply.  The Israeli economy is in shambles, the hotels are empty.  One taxi driver told me his business is down 80 percent.  Israel doesn’t need Tzedakah, it needs us to come and bring our support. And if there is another opportunity for me to return to Israel in the coming days I hope you will join me.

By the way, it may take months and the cost to Israel is enormous, but the economy will recover, and tourists will eventually return, but for now, you and I should be doing all that we can.  My guess is that by Rosh Hashanah, normalcy will be restored.  Israelis will argue with each other about the government, about taxes, about the economy, and about a one state or two state solution.  You and I and they will engage again over the issues of Women of the Wall, conversion, discrimination against women and Arabs, the legitimacy of a rapidly growing Reform Movement and its right to be fully recognized in Israel.  That’s how it should be.  And I will ask you to join me in the World Zionist Congress elections so that we can fight the good fight on behalf of all of these issues and concerns.

You see, the Israel that we dream of is not yet a reality.  And there are forces of hate in Israel, racists who are even willing to kill Arabs, thugs who will mug people on the street, and gangs of ultra-orthodox youth who are the antithesis of everything you and I stand for.  That’s Israel, too.  After all, Israel is not some mystical fantasy. It is a very real and exciting and thrilling land and people. And after two thousand years of dreaming about what it would be like to have a place where Jews could determine their own destiny, we now have it, for sixty six years we have it. The cost has been blood and sweat and tears and money and sacrifice and pride and joy and the dedication of World Jewry, together with every person who lives in the land of our ancestors.

Let’s celebrate all of that with pride, in solidarity, and together continue the sacred work of making Israel a model, a beacon of light in a world that has become so dark, for all the world to see.

I am looking up at the screen on the wall. It says we are somewhere over Italy.  Next stop, JFK.  I think it will take days to process it all.  For those of you who have been patiently reading my words, I hope that I helped you to see a picture far different than the one you have seen on television, Facebook, or the newspapers.  My reporting is biased, for sure.  I have brought report of the most courageous people on the face of the earth, the “chosen people,” the “people of the book,” our brothers and sisters in Israel.  I can’t imagine Jewish life without them and without the power of the Land of Israel that has nurtured and inspired our people since Abraham first heard the call of the Divine.

To everyone: Shabbat Shalom. I hope to see you at Temple later tonight.  We will welcome the Shechinah, God’s Divine Presence, into our midst; we will sing songs of Shabbat celebrating Creation and the gift of Torah; and we will say words of Kaddish for all of our loved ones, for the 64 who perished, and for all the innocent lives that were lost in these past days.

ARZA Solidarity Mission to Israel: El Hanegev, Day 3



By Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, ARZA Chair

I am writing at the end of a very long day.  Today I stood on a hill overlooking Gaza. I could see the high rise buildings built by the Israelis for the PLO in 2006 after Israel left Gaza.  Remember that the PLO was kicked out by Hamas.  And I could see the EREZ crossing, the place established by Israel for 40000 Palestinians to come through to work and visit each and every day. Closed since Hamas started the heavy shelling a month ago.  And I could see the Mediterranean as well. Distance means so little and so much at the same time.

As we drive to the overlook, we stop and pick up my friend Gilad whose daughter became our daughter in 1982 when she was an exchange student and lived with us. He and I and our families have been family since that time.  He is one of the founders of Sederot. Together with Leah, his wife, they raise four children, one lawyer, two Phd’s and one doing security for El Al.  Gilad was born in Iraq; walked to Israel when he was a  kid, although three days of the trip he was on a donkey. He goes with us and we talk about peace and war, about Hamas (he calls them a gang that terrorized Gaza and won’t be happy until all Jews are out of the Middle East. He tells me that there was a time when he would shop in Gaza, his friends from Gaza would come to his house and they would attend each other’s weddings. No more.)

We eat lunch at Steakiyah Eli, a little “greasy spoon” where Eli and his wife make incredibly delicious Moroccan food.  A real feast.  No one has eaten there in about a month. And as we go there you can see the “safe rooms.” In Sederot, you have 15 seconds to get to the safe room before the rocket lands.  Gilad says “no problem! Sederot has a great future!”

We say good bye and hug, until next time. And now we are off to meet with young  people from Ayalim, a program for young people to build and rehab old sections of town while they are in college and then live there for a few years.  It is based on a powerful Zionist dream that the young will build the future just as they built the past  What a story!  And we are there to work.  We carry bales of insulation for the housing and I spend a few hours spackling  plaster board for the walls. Its good to be of help. The housing shortage in Israel is very significant. I am doing my part to build a a tomorrow.

From Sederot it is on to Shaar Hanegev, the community that is getting the ARZA Torah.  Because of the war the Torah has remained in Jerusalem until Simchat Torah when it will be dedicated.  We meet the young rabbinical student. She has not been home in a month because she has been doing relief and respite work in her community.  She has also been going to military camps on Friday nights for the last month leading Kabbalat Shabbat services for the soldiers. I think, mostly, she is singing to them. When someone asks, does the army let you, a female rabbinical student, let you do this?  She answers, “I didn’t ask.  They needed me.”  It’s part of the Reform story going on here.  Israelis are desperately seeking spirituality, some are finding it in the traditional world and others in the exciting world of Reform — egalitarian, democratic, pluralistic.  We in the US have no idea how lucky we are to have vibrant and thriving synagogues that offer so much! We complain too much about our synagogues and how much they cost; They are vital communities that sustain and comfort and lead and teach and so much more.

There was even more to this day, it began with a ride to Be’er Sheva, one of the oldest places in the world. Abraham was in Be’er Sheva, and so was Jacob and Rachel and Leah.  The place holds such power in our history. I remember being in Be’er Sheva in 1971. It was a backwater town, dusty and dry. Not anymore.  Beautiful  homes and high rise buildings and a world class university.  It is also home to many who have come from the former Soviet Union.

In Be’er Sheva we visit with elderly people who are in a gathering place. They have spent a lot of time here this last month.  It is one of the few places where they can safely be when the missiles are coming. We bring them flowers and plants to grow in their homes.  We sing songs and dance. They tell us their stories, where they come from, which of the men served in the Soviet army and fought against Hitler.  One woman cries as she tells me her tale and thanks me for coming. She looks a lot like my Aunt Billie, my mother’s oldest sister. Perhaps we are related:  actually, we are — we are Jews!

And then a visit to the Gan, the pre-school and kindergarten. The kids are delicious. We bring them toys and games and crayons and coloring books. We dance with them and sing.  Behind the play area, hidden by a curtain, are their beds, piled on top of each other, their stuffed animals strewn about. I have to remind myself — during these last days these kids have spent a lot of time inside!

And the day ends, actually the night begins as we leave the south and wind our way up to Jerusalem.  My nephew Ari is waiting there for me. He lives in Jerusalem now, together with his wife and young daughter.  He is teaching as he chose to be a Rabbi, too.  And I know that no matter how tired I might be, he will have questions, lots of questions, some of the same questions that I have asked these past few days as well:  when is war permissible, how do you not let hate overtake and consume your soul, why is the Jewish people treated differently than anyone else on the face of the earth,  what does God want from us and when can we say to God, enough already?  Should be a very interesting cup of coffee that he and I will share before I close my eyes for a few hours.  Tomorrow the sun will rise over Jerusalem, I pray there will not be any sound of missiles, and we have more work to do as our mission has not yet come to an end.

 

ARZA Solidarity Mission to Israel, Tisha B’Av and Day Two



By Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, ARZA Chair

Upon arrival I hit the streets. We are staying at Mishkenot Ruth, a boutique hotel in the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv. Jaffa is the old port mentioned in the book of Jonah. So it goes back to biblical times.  It is becoming gentrified, so today it is filled with both Arabs and Jews.  During the last month, there have not been any demonstrations or riots among the Arabs who live in Jaffa.  As I walk the streets, I see shops and bakeries and stories.  It is pretty quiet but it is also the middle of the afternoon, normal quiet time.

At dinner, we have an orientation about what we will be doing these days.  Over and over our host thanks us for coming.  They want us to know that our presence means that they are not alone. And they are very grateful.

We head off to Beit Daniel, the leading Reform Synagogue in Tel Aviv.  The place is packed with people. It is Tisha B’av, the 9th day of the month of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, twice destroyed and both times on this day.  After the prayers, we observe the reading of the Book of Lamentations (Eicha).  Members of the congregation sit on mourning benches or on the floor.  The mood is subdued. The music, quite lovely, sung by a single soulful voice accompanied on piano, “Eli, Eli…. O Lord, My God, I pray that these things never end….”  And the song ends with “the prayer of the heart.”  It is quite beautiful and touching.

Again, we are thanked for coming.  They tell us that “you have no idea how important you are to us and how much your visit means to us, thank you for coming.”  And the take away from the evening?  One person said to me “We have been observing Tisha B’Av for a month.  The missiles keep coming, more than 60 of our boys have been killed in action, and others have been injured.  Even though we feel safe, we are afraid.”

A quick sleep and the alarm goes off.  The ceasefire is on!  But it is preceded by about a hundred missiles from Hamas.  Maybe it was their way of saying Good Morning!

We are headed to Gedera and Ashkelon, two cities that were hit with lots of missiles over the course of the last month.  Should be quite a day.

As I think about this mission, in a sense I am here as an antidote to the media.  Last week, 1800 people were killed in Syria. But the media has not mentioned it all. The New York Times is fixated on Bibi Netanyahu and his “animus” with Obama.  It’s much more complicated than the way the Times portrays this. Remember, the current administration has provided the funds for the Iron Dome which has prevented the death and destruction that would have otherwise occurred throughout the south of Israel.  And the rest of the media?  I think that Hamas should send every news outlet a thank you letter; thank you for not telling the truth, thank you for enabling us to convince the world that we are all innocent civilians, thank you for being our allies in war of Terror against the Jews.

There is a quiet as we travel to our first stop; different than the usual noise of the country.

We make a stop in Raanan this morning.  We will help in food packing.  Happy to do so. We pack celery, hundreds of packages of celery, and onions, and cucumbers, too.  Put in about two hours of labor. The vegetables will now be circulated to the needy throughout the country.  We work at a warehouse. Usually people work in the fields. But today is Tisha B’av and the fields are closed.  Happy to do our part. That is why we came. On to Gedara.

I am sitting in the foyer of a school in Gedera. This is the place where the Reform congregation holds Kabbalat Shabbat Services. They don’t have a building.  Gedera is located near Ashdod and has been hit with lots of missiles over the last month.  We feel safe. We know what to do, how and when to go to the shelters. But the ceasefire is holding, so maybe it won’t be necessary.

The Rabbi is a young woman who grew up in Jerusalem.  She is lovely and she loves music. She is the founding Rabbi of the congregation.  Started it on Yom Kippur five years ago. Now building the community. By the way, she thanks us for bringing the ceasefire. We don’t argue.

What’s the role of the Rabbi during this crisis?  Mira, the Rabbi, says it is about bringing people together, eating together, and spending time together.  “I visited in hospitals; the people needed us. They can’t get out and so we went to them.”  It reminds me of 9-11.

Here in Gedera, 150 kids came together for keren b’chavod (one of the projects to keep kids safe and occupied, run by the Reform Movement in Israel (IMPJ) and supported by the JFNA Stop the Sirens Emergency Fund),  to be together with art, music, and play.  And the kids helped put together packages for those in need and for shut ins.

Again, thank you for coming. “You have to understand that here in Gedera most of us have no connection to Jews around the world.  We only know Jews in Israel and we think that we are alone in the world.  Your visit helps us understand otherwise, and we are so very grateful.”

I can only imagine what the rest of the day will bring.  Thank God the ceasefire is still in place.

Choices and Voices



ARZA Communique – Solidarity mission

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President

August 6, 2014 – 10 Av 5774

It is easy to quote Deuteronomy 30:19 during times of peace. It is easy for us to say “choose life” when all is quiet and nothing is threatening us. When we are responsible for our collective fate, then we must also make difficult choices. Every day in Israel brings with it difficult decisions, which become tremendously complicated during war. For the past 29 days Israel has been at war, which is why we chose to come. Our ARZA mission made up of rabbis and lay leaders, made the conscious decision that Israel is in crisis and we wanted to be there.

Upon arriving here, we dealt with the usual expressions of gratitude from our hosts for having made the trip, and for being here. Everyone we met was genuinely appreciative that we were here, and I only wish that more of us had made the journey.

It is one thing to land in Israel during a war, and another to land on Erev Tisha B’Av – the Jewish people’s day or mourning and by far our saddest day of the year. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel, my tired eyes skimmed the poetic chanting of Lamentations, and couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness mixed with a sense of somber reality. When the going gets tough, we come together as community. We sing, we pray, we study and we talk.

We talk about choices that we make. We chose and choose to be here, and everyday reaffirm that choice. Every Israeli, every Jew who is here, is here out of choice, postulated one of the congregation’s rabbis. “In all honesty, we do have other places to go but we are committed to being here, to building and creating a vibrant Jewish society that affirms the ultimate choice – the choice of life.” On the day of destruction, when we highlight our lachrymose past, we spend our time coping and beginning to rebuild.

I learned that the past few weeks have been filled with dilemmas and difficult moments that are not newsworthy and don’t get covered as effects of war. The challenge of finding shelter for 700 Tel Aviv pre-schoolers, or convincing a bride to return from the Golan Heights for her wedding, and dealing with the financial setback of an empty guest house for the month of August, to name just a few.

As we make our way through parts of Israel this week, I am constantly moved by stories and choices that exemplify resilience and ideological variance. One friend expressed her extreme dismay with the inflated Gazan death-toll, and made a point to go to all of the left-wing demonstrations. “You wouldn’t believe the things I hear there from the opposing right-wing demonstrators,” she explained. Vitriol, hatred and racism to sum it up. “Yes, Hamas is a terrorist organization, but to respond by spouting slogans advocating killing all Arabs and anyone who sympathizes with them?!?! This time they’ve crossed the undrawn line of societal and democratic norms…”

Yet another friend plainly stated, that while the some of the rhetoric is absolutely poisonous, “what are we supposed to do when we are genuinely at war, and our own people call our pilots ‘murderers’?” And so it goes, that the despite unity and wide spread support for the mission, some of the societal rifts still run deep.

~~~

When Adi Efraimi moved to Gadera with her husband, she quickly realized that for Yom Kippur she would have to go to the Orthodox synagogue, and was not at all excited about it. Soon after she came to the conclusion that there had to be a liberal option in Gadera, and now joined by Rabbi Myra Hovav, the dynamic congregational duo has developed a tight-knit community full of life-cycle events, including over 50 births in the past year.

Making a rare appearance at home since Operation Protective Edge commenced, Adi’s husband, shared with us his role in the air force. A combat helicopter pilot, he deals mainly with search and rescue and is highly involved with making sure that the IDF avoids as much collateral damage as possible. To hear him describe the pain that comes with loss of life, was moving, as was his careful expression of resilience in the face of terror.

We left Gadera with a strong sense of optimism. A steady optimism that speaks to the quiet resilience of Israel reminding us of the old adage “we have survived the Pharaohs will get through this as well…”, and great pride in the miraculous against-all-odds Reform congregation that has been created there. I could only imagine what they would be able to do with if they had a simple office and a pre-fab building instead of meeting in the entrance of an elementary school and people’s living rooms.

Our day ended with a tremendous cultural evening of song and prayer with Jews from across the religious spectrum. Listening to words and music of Shlomo Gronich and representatives from much of the Jewish renewal world of Israel – coordinated largely by the Reform movement, we found comfort and inspiration.

Especially now, so many made the choice to come together, to talk, to comfort and be comforted, and to choose life and resilience in the face of circumstances for which we have no choice.