A Fifth Cup – Going Beyond What is Required

By Rabbi Joshua Weinberg

Growing up, I struggled with the impression that being a Reform Jew meant that we did less. Fewer mitzvot, shorter holiday observance, and less time spent in Jewish education. It was a stigma that I carried with me as I wrestled with and contemplated my own Jewish identity. This lead me to a realm of experimentation with halachah (Jewish law) – pushing and pulling my ‘red lines’ as I grew and learned more.

Today, as many of us are busy preparing for Passover, I find myself less occupied by the meticulous aspect of the holiday’s demanded mitzvot, but searching instead for ways to supplement the narrative and to find meaning in a modern context. I commend those who find deep meaning in cleaning out their kitchens and sterilizing their homes, making sure that all leavening ceases at the 18-minute mark and [in the Ashkenazi tradition] nothing that could resemble wheat flour – such as legumes – will be consumed during Passover. However, I would like to offer an additional perspective on Passover by suggesting some meaningful ways to supplement the seder.

Zionism and living in Israel were the answers to my search for Jewish identity, and to me, Passover became a holiday of peoplehood. The central narrative became the one that we clearly state after we sing “Dayenu,” that B’khol Dor VaDor: “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt.” In the traditional Haggadah this statement is followed by a biblical and liturgical reading.

In the recently published Israeli Reform Haggadah, A Haggadah for Our Day, each page is supplemented with modern readings and interpretations. It includes a wonderful poem by Amir Gilboa (who many of us will recognize from the music set by Shlomo Artzi) entitled “Shir Baboker BaBoker” (Song of the Morning). In his interpretation of history, Gilboa talks about a man who “suddenly wakes up in the morning, feels that he is a nation and begins to walk. And everyone who he meets on his way he calls out to them ‘Shalom.’” The poem ends with the same narrative – that this man has woken with the newfound revelation of nationhood – and he “sees that the spring has returned and the tree is turning green since last fall’s tree-shedding of leaves.” There’s no more appropriate metaphor for Passover in my mind than the Spring being a time for awakening, discovery, and the realization that we are indeed a people and have the opportunity to come out of “Egypt” (literally ‘out of narrow places’) and enter the Land of Israel as a nation.

As we have collectively left Egypt and entered the Land of Israel, as Reform Jews who increase our observance as we adapt to our modern circumstances, we now need a fifth cup at our s’darim (plural of seder). There are many interpretations to the additional fifth cup, including Happiness Inside the State: Toward a Liberal Theology of Israel, by Rabbi Michael Marmur.

Rabbi Marmur suggests that the fifth cup is the “Cup of Confidence,” an understanding that comes from needing “the confidence to appreciate all that has been achieved so far, and the confidence to acknowledge that which is still at fault.” I suggest that we adopt a fifth cup for the fifth “verb” of redemption, which revolves around two verses in Exodus (6:6-7) commonly referred to as “The Four Expressions of Redemption”:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God…

However, in verse 8 there is a fifth verb used: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal.”

As Reform Jews and as Zionists let us use this verse as a way of saying that our fifth cup is the cup of peoplehood and our people are connected to the Land. This Passover, while we sit at our seder tables surrounded by family and friends, let us affirm that this is the time to remind each other that it is our obligation to go beyond our own families and communities and connect to our people and our land. And as the Haggadah says, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Chag Pesach Kasher V’Samei-ach!

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

The Invisible Arab Citizens of the State of Israel

By Rabbi John Rosove

The vote last week in the Knesset to raise the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% has been interpreted by some as an effort to exclude small Arab and Jewish left-wing parties in which 12 Arabs currently sit as MKs. Whether this is true or not, the bill raises the issue, once again, about the status of Israeli Arab citizens in the state of Israel.

MK Esawi Frij, the only Arab member of the left-of-center Meretz party, told me when my synagogue group met with him in the Knesset last October that he believes that Arab Israeli citizens (now 20% of the Israeli population) are loyal tax paying members of Israeli society and are not treated equally. I asked him if he would ever want to serve as a soldier in the IDF – “Sure” he said, “but only after there are borders between Israel and Palestine.” He added, “Israel is my country. I am an Israeli!”

Surveys indicate that when a state of Palestine is created most Israeli Arabs would prefer to stay in the state of Israel and be Israeli citizens.

Many articles in the Israeli press report and opine, as Mr. Frij told us, about the unequal allocations of Israeli state money to Israeli Arab communities in education, social services, business, and industrial investment. These reports leave this pro-Israel American Zionist to conclude that a genuine civil covenant that gives Israeli Arabs their full rights in the state of Israel has not been fulfilled.

It is not enough to say, as many Israel apologists reflexively proclaim, that Israeli Arab citizens have it better and are safer than they would be anywhere else in the Arab and/or Muslim world. In the context of Israeli democracy, whether such statements are true or not, they are irrelevant. If Israel is to live up to its own civil covenant with its citizens, then corrective action must be taken to move Israeli Arabs from second-class to first-class citizenship.

Fifty percent of all Arab families and two-thirds of Arab children live under the poverty line, and many Arab students drop out of school for economic reasons. Yarden Kof of Haaretz reports that the Arab Israeli school system is inferior to the secular Jewish school system, and that Arabs have less access to pre-academic preparatory programs than Jews. She describes 14 specific barriers that Israeli Arabs face in obtaining a college education, ranging from financial challenges to inadequate public transportation. Because the Israeli Arab community does not serve in the IDF they are automatically excluded from consideration in other programs as well.  (http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.530660)

According to another Haaretz writer, Meirav Arlosoroff, one quarter of all Israeli school children are Arab, and in five years the Arab population

“is expected to grow at a relatively fast rate of 3%, much lower than the 4.3% figure for the Haredi population, but much faster than the 0% increase of non-religious Israeli Jews. That means that both the Haredi population and Arab population represent increasingly large numbers of the Israeli overall population – and no one has been dealing with the Arab children.”  (http://www.haaretz.com/business/.premium-1.578944)

Israel essentially has within it two separate states, one Arab and one Jewish, and there is a huge gap between these two populations in their standard of living, income, quality of education, and employment rate. On the one hand the Jewish state of Israel is a developed Western nation, and on the other the Arab state of Israel is a Third World Country.

Professor Eran Yashiv, head of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy, and Dr. Nitza Kasir of the Bank of Israel’s Research Department, conducted a survey and concluded that it would be good business for Israel to close that gap. They say that the

huge price the State of Israel pays for being two countries within one state… loses [Israel] tens of billions of shekels because of the employment and educational backwardness of Israeli Arabs. …if Israel would succeed in closing the gap from which the Arabs suffer, the state would benefit form an additional NIS 40 billion through 2030 and some NIS 120 billion by 2050..[It is estimated] that some NIS 8 billion would be necessary to invest in the next five years in the Arab Israeli community and that the annual return on that investment would be 7.3%.” (http://www.haaretz.com/business/.premium-1.529415)

From the perspective of advancing Israel’s democracy, her commitment to equality of opportunity for all her citizens, and towards the development of her economy, Israel would be well-served to focus more of its efforts on raising the standard of living of its Arab citizens.

For more information see:
In Israel, Arabs get less” – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.579540)
Ignoring Arab education imperils Israel’s future” – http://www.haaretz.com/business/.premium-1.578944
Upper Nazareth mayor: No Arab school here as long as I am in charge” – http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/upper-nazareth-mayor-no-ara-school-here-as-long-as-i-am-in-charge.premium-1.494480
Israeli Arabs face extensive barriers to getting college education, report says” – http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.530660
Study: Integrating Israeli Arabs into the labor market would provide major economic boost” – http://www.haaretz.com/business/.premium-1.529415
Closing the gap between Israel’s Arabs and Jews” – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.529703
Discrimination against Israeli Arabs still rampant, 10 years on” – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.550152

Connecting the Dots

By Risa Barisch and Jason Paddock

It was downright arctic on a recent Shabbat morning as Alex Cicelsky spoke to dozens of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple members in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Snow had begun to fall outside, adding inches more to cold, icy peaks already on the ground, but Alex had transported us to a land of lush vegetation, hot sun, date trees, and aquifers.

Alex helped to create Kibbutz Lotan in the early 1980s in the Arava Desert in southern Israel. Each year, thousands of people visit the kibbutz to explore creative ecology and study environmental science and radical building techniques that are revolutionizing green architecture and construction.

Dynamic and engaging, Alex spent the morning speaking about the people who live and study at Kibbutz Lotan, and how the environmentally conscious methods they’re showcasing are working to change the world. Ambitious, yes, but he also offered a lot of good common sense. You just have to connect the dots.

Is the idea that we should be building our homes using straw and bale construction, as they teach at Kibbutz Lotan? Not exactly. Should we convert all of our plumbing to compost toilets? Not the point. Rather, Alex’s notion of connecting the dots can easily be done though the idea of Jewish mindfulness.

How can we connect the dots of what’s happening in the Arava Desert to our lives in the heart of New Jersey?

Act with intent. How we live is a direct statement of our beliefs. Everything we do, what we eat and all that we consume, expresses to the world who we are. We can be mindful of our relationship with the earth, and proclaim our Jewish values through every interaction with it.

Anshe Emeth has been certified a Green Faith synagogue: through a multiyear process and a lot of hard work, the building that is the center of communal Jewish life in New Brunswick has been greened through the integration of environmental themes into our worship, religious education, and building maintenance. The certification required an examination of and changes in our interaction with our environment.

We’re very proud of our efforts, but Alex helped us to realize that more can always be done, and that teachable moments in conservation abound. His suggestions for our synagogue—including an “electric mezuzah” (doorpost meters showing how much energy is being consumed and conserved at any given moment) and placing photographs near the windows in our religious school overlooking our garden to show our children what the plants look like in each of the seasons—are simple but powerful ways to connect the dots. By making our green initiatives part of our image, people will see that it’s important to our community.

“You learn what really sticks to your soul,” Alex said of the inspiring work carried out at Kibbutz Lotan. If we can pinpoint what sticks to our Jewish souls through mindful acts, we can continue to improve our environment and ourselves—and our future.

Risa Barisch Paddock and Jason Paddock are members of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ. Risa is an editorial and media specialist for the Mason Gross School of the Arts and Jason is the marketing and PR coordinator for the State Theatre, both in New Brunswick.

Unto Zion We Shall Give Torah

By Rabbi Joshua Weinberg

“All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which Adonai had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law… 8 And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, who was the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people: ‘This day is holy unto Adonai your God; mourn not, nor weep.’ For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.” (Nehemiah Ch. 8:1-3; 8-9)

And there you have it: The first-ever written account of a public Torah reading. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra the Scribe did something daring and completely unprecedented. In an unveiling ala Steve Jobs, he produced a parchment scroll with writing on it, stood on a platform, and read aloud. For the first time ever, and with the help of translators (mavinim or mayvens), the people heard their own story, which, in fact, brought them to tears. Bringing Torah to the people – a routine occurrence that now happens every three days – changed the face of Jewish history forever. The secret of Ezra’s success, in my opinion, was, as is often the case in real estate, location, location, location. Although he could have waited at the site of the destroyed Temple for the people to come to him, instead he made his way out to the water gate, where the people were, bringing the Torah to them. Much speculation surrounds this landmark moment and last week, as I stood at the bottom of the City of David in Jerusalem, right where the water gate might have been, I tried to imagine what bringing Torah to the people might look like in a modern setting.

Ezra united the Jewish people around a simple message. The Torah belongs to everyone and we must rejoice in it. This fundamental principle of Jewish life reminds us that we are, first and foremost, a people who identify with a collective narrative and are governed by our interpretation of the Torah’s law. We are a holy people who relish the opportunity to ritualize and sanctify all practices surrounding the Torah and its reading, and why we are proud to follow in Ezra’s footsteps by giving the gift of Torah. And like Ezra, we are giving an actual sefer Torah (Torah scroll).

Through the generosity of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego and the efforts of Rabbi Michael Berk, “Torateinu ARZA – Our Torah to the Land” is in the process of sending a Torah scroll from San Diego to Jerusalem. Since early February, this scroll has been visiting communities across the United States and is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem at the end of June, just in time to go straight to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for Rosh Chodesh Tammuz (the Jewish month of Tammuz, roughly corresponding to July). Its final destination is Shaar HaNegev, one of Israel’s newest Reform communities, and the sister community of San Diego.

Isaiah writes that Torah comes forth out of Zion and Jerusalem; but now we also have the opportunity to bring Torah into Jerusalem.

“This project is meaningful because it combines two of the most essential elements of Jewish life in one tactile experience,” explained Rabbi Debra Robins, when the scroll passed through Dallas, TX, by way of Temple Emanu-El. Helping this Torah scroll make its way across our country and then to our homeland brings our big Jewish community into closer relationships with each other. We are really connecting with the other congregations who are part of the adventure. At the same time, this project not only allows the words and teachings of Torah to touch our hearts and heads, but also allows us to touch the Torah with our hands and to hold it in our lives. It’s wonderful!”

Finally, this initiative gives us an opportunity to provide alternative Jewish expression in Israel. Interacting with the scroll as it travels, gives us a tangible and direct way to support Israel – both through the gift of the scroll itself and the support being generated along its journey. “One of the most important lessons I learned was that the Torah and texts of the Jewish bookshelf are ours,” says Student Rabbi Yael Karrie, the spiritual leader of Shaar HaNegev. “I wanted to have my own experience with Torah, and bring that to others. No one has a monopoly on the Torah, and we all have to work to develop our own individual and communal connections.”

Like Ezra, many rabbis, cantors, educators, and youth professionals are working tirelessly to find their “water gate” – the location at which they will meet people in order to provide meaningful experiences that positively impact both individuals and the collective. Just as Ezra publicly introduced Torah reading to the Jewish people, so too are we helping to bring one scroll to a small but significant kehillah (community). Follow the Torah on its journey, and look for it as it passes through your community.

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

The Presbyterian Church USA Confronts an Extremist anti-Semitic Faction

By Rabbi John Rosove

Yet again, anti-Semitic extremists within The Presbyterian Church USA have asserted themselves with the publication of a new “study guide” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This “guide” was released by the “Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” and is titled “Zionism Unsettled.” It comes with a companion DVD.

In its self-promotion, the Guide states its purpose this way:

“What role have Zionism and Christian Zionism played in shaping attitudes and driving historical developments in the Middle East and around the world? How do Christians, Jews, and Muslims understand the competing claims to the land of Palestine and Israel? What steps can be taken to bring peace, reconciliation, and justice to the homeland that Palestinians and Israelis share? 

Zionism Unsettled embraces these critical issues fearlessly and with inspiring scope. The booklet and companion DVD draw together compelling and diverse viewpoints from Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel, Palestine, the US, and around the globe. By contrasting mainstream perceptions with important alternative perspectives frequently ignored in the media, Zionism Unsettled is an invaluable guide to deeper understanding.” 

This is hardly a guide to deeper understanding because it outright rejects the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, calls Zionism a “pathology”, “heretical” and “a doctrine that promotes death rather than life.” It accuses Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” calls it an “apartheid state” and charges that Israel, despite being the only democracy in the Middle East, is inherently discriminatory towards non-Jews.

The guide ignores historical context altogether and shows no sympathy towards the Jewish victims of war and terror, nor does it justify Israel’s legitimate security concerns based on one hundred years of hostility against it. The guide even says that Jews have no inherent right to defend themselves.

The same anti-Semitic faction that produced this guide attempted at the last national conference of the American Presbyterian Church to pass a resolution supporting the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement, but failed by a small margin. This group intends to bring a BDS resolution again to the June national conference, not motivated as a protest against certain Israeli policies in the West Bank, but against the very existence of the state of Israel.

Thankfully, there are many fair-minded and decent Presbyterians who have condemned the guide, reaffirmed their friendship with the Jewish people, support for the state of Israel and for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Among Israel’s greatest defenders is The Revered Chris Leighton, who serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has heavily critiqued this guide in “An Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church” http://www.icjs.org/featured-articles/open-letter-presbyterian-church-0

He writes in part:

“The condemnation of Zionism, in all its forms, is not merely simplistic and misleading; the result of this polemic is the theological delegitimization of a central concern of the Jewish people… Even a cursory study of history reveals the varied and complex forms that Zionism has taken over the centuries. The yearning for their national homeland has been woven into the Jewish community’s daily life for millennia. The Torah (Deuteronomy) and the Tanakh (2 Chronicles) both end with images of yearning to return to the land; synagogues face Jerusalem; the Passover Seder celebrated annually concludes with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.” To suggest that the Jewish yearning for their own homeland—a yearning that we Presbyterians have supported for numerous other nations—is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent is to deny Jews their own identity as a people. The word for that is “anti-Semitism,” and that is, along with racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other ills our Church condemns, a sin.”

This guide does not contribute to dialogue or mutual understanding between American Christians, American Jews, American Muslims, or any of the parties in the Middle East because it is a vicious polemic against one of the principle actors in the Israeli-Palestinian drama and against the position of anyone who would support the fundamental right of the Jewish people to a state of their own.

For the complete story, see the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s report in Ha-aretz (February 20, 2014) – http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.575067

Wrap-Up / Take-Aways

By Rabbi Neal Gold

Back on the ground in the Old Country and I’m thinking what the takeaways from this ARZA Leadership Mission are.

It was a very full week. Each day was densely packed with meeting inspiring people—activists for social justice, pioneers living their ideals, and leaders of the Reform movement, teachers and students, and the occasional politician. Dozens of ideas for teachers to bring to Shir Tikva and places to go with groups on future visits.

My biggest takeaway is about Reform Judaism in Israel.

I’ve been a longtime supporter of and participant in Reform communities in Israel. I’ve had friends who are integrally involved in communities here and a few who have been the founders of their synagogues.  But the truth is, it always felt like a speck in the landscape of Israeli life.  It would be nice, but slightly sad, to sit in a shul with a miniscule handful of other Jews, or to show up with a group and triple the size of the congregation for the evening.

We know the historical reasons for these things:  The rejection from the Israeli religious establishment. The failure of North American Reform institutions to seriously and perpetually support the movement on the ground. The perception that “Reform” was an Anglo import; that it was “inauthentically” Israeli.  That Israelis historically chose Orthodoxy or secularism; the Orthodox shul was “the shul I didn’t go to.”  Et cetera.

But I have to say, I leave this week with a very different perception:   There is a momentum to the Reform movement in Israel right now that is very exciting to see and be a part of.  I found a real sense that all around the country that there is a real desire for an authentic Jewish alternative to the extremes of right-wing Haredism and utter secularism.  And Reform communities are filling this niche.

It’s easy to resort to platitudes, so let me itemize just a few places where I saw this:

  • With our friends at Or Hadash in Haifa, who have a beautiful and spiritual Shabbat celebration in song. I look around the room and see Israelis, not just American ex-pats, which is certainly a sign of success.
  • With Reform rabbis like Edgar Nof, especially when they provide Jewish life-cycle services to secular Israelis who would be completely alienated form a state-sponsored Orthodox rabbi.  (We went to a beautiful bar mitzvah in Netanya. The family almost certainly hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue in a long, long time.  The tears of joy as this boy, in sneakers, chanted from the Torah were so authentic – in part because, I suspect, the tears were so unexpected.)
  • With non-synagogue institutions, which really shape the fabric of Israeli culture. I’m thinking of Beit Daniel/Mishkenot Ruth in Tel Aviv, the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem, each of which is making an impact in a way that a synagogue can’t.
  • The community in Sha’ar Ha-Negev on the edge of the Gaza Strip. Liberal Judaism is not just for affluent denizens of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa; here, in a corner of the country, is an electric and growing community (in the shadow of Hamas missiles).
  • Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Yahel:  pioneering in the desert, the next chapter of the classic land-based Zionist dream of livnot u’l’hibanot:  building, and thus being re-built ourselves.
  • The incredible Anat Hoffman and the Israel Religious Action Center, who are the frontlines of the political and legal battles to hold Israel to the values of justice, freedom, pluralism, and peace that it was founded upon.  The victories of creating a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall and government recognition for Rabbi Miri Gold are two game-changers for Israeli society – and “regular Israelis” have the Reform movement now as part of their consciousness.

So my biggest takeaway is: Whereas once Reform Judaism in Israel seemed to be a bit of tilting-at-windmills, it has become very clear to me that the movement is arriving at a tipping point in Israeli culture. Secularism can’t answer the questions of deeper meaning and yearning for transcendence that people need. Orthodoxy, sadly, is linked with the closed-mindedness of the religious right in this country. And rabbis who emphasize social justice, mutual tolerance, and the pursuit of peace are finding a wider and wider audience of adherents.

There are currently 40 Reform congregations in Israel, in addition to schools, kibbutzim and other communities, and cultural centers.  I really believe this number will double in the next 10-15 years. Success breeds more success, and there is a momentum here that is so wonderful to see.

North American Jews:  We have a task before us.  Be part of it; invest in it; support it – and come and see it with your own eyes.

Shabbat with Rabbi Miri Gold & Other Pioneers

By Rabbi Neal Gold

A beautiful Shabbat evening with the chevra at Kehillat Birkat Shalom on Kibbutz Gezer. Many thanks to Rabbi Miri Gold, David Leichman, and many new friends for another Shabbat that was invigorating, fun, and inspirational.  It was the antidote to a heavy, heavy day – and it was the perfect way to cap an unbelievably full week with song and prayer in a setting with yet another group of pioneers.

For those who don’t know, Rabbi Miri Gold (no relation – at least, no more than the one you and I share!) is a historic figure in Israel.  She was the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive government recognition and financial support as a regional rabbi – the sort of taxpayer support that Orthodox rabbis receive constantly.  The receipt for the bank transfer is framed and hangs outside the synagogue.

Have no doubt about it, this is yet another place of real Israeli pioneers who are transforming the face of this country.  There is a transformation that is taking place in Israel, a rebellion against the notion that Judaism, as a religion, must be an Orthodox-or-secular proposition. It is a privilege to sit here in this marvelous place and sing Lecha Dodi.

But Shabbat isn’t political, Shabbat is an opportunity to be with friends, to sing together, to review what has been accomplished in the past week. And I needed all of that. With hearts full of gratitude, our week begins to wind down, and we begin to contemplate how to take all the different pieces of this ARZA leadership mission back to our communities in North America.  My next post will try to be a summing-up of what this trip has meant and how to harness its implications upon our return.  In the meantime:  Shavua Tov, a productive and meaningful week to all!


By Rabbi Neal Gold

Friday our ARZA mission spent in Ramallah, just a few miles (a stone’s throw?) from Jerusalem.

Ramallah is the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority. The influx of money meant to catalyze the peace process means it is a relatively affluent city; there are some beautiful homes, high-rise hotels, Birzeit University, and a flourishing business community.  I observed it to be relatively secular, by which I mean the concentration of mosques in the neighborhoods seems thinner than other Arab towns I’ve visited.

We were here with Encounter, an organization devoted to bringing Jews to hear Palestinian narratives on their own turf.  We spent some time on Thursday afternoon “training” for the experience. We discussed the skill of active listening. We were encouraged to ask hard questions, but we were also warned that this was “not a dialogue”; the purpose was to be good listeners, not to engage in ideological debates.

We were prepared to hear the hard stuff. Nothing I haven’t heard before, I’m sure, but coming from the mouths of Palestinian people on the ground and in their homes would almost certainly have more power and meaning than, say, the ill-informed denizens of American campuses or the anonymous bleatings of Facebook, et al.

9:00 AM and we’re in a stone meetinghouse in Ramallah with Sam Bahour, a businessman and entrepreneur (he’s from Youngstown, Ohio, so his English is perfect), and Amal Khreishe, an activist for women’s rights and empowerment.

Sam is the more compelling and eloquent of the two.  As a businessman, he has a unique perspective. He moved to Ramallah in the ‘90s after the Oslo Accords because of his desire to be part of the new Middle East; he noted that encouraging telecommunications in a market of integration was a key element of the accords.  The assassination of Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 and the subsequent implosion of the peace process quashed his enthusiasm.  As a businessman, he accuses Israel of “micromanagement” that ensures that any Palestinian entrepreneurial project will not succeed.  But he still speaks of the urgency for peace, even as he describes his view of the grotesqueries of occupation.

The questions we ask him are respectful.  Where are we headed?  He speaks of an urgency for anyone who desires a two-state solution. He describes his daughter, whose attitude is not unusual for her generation.  She tells him, “Your generation was dumb. After 20 years, what have we gotten?  You accepted Oslo, and all we got in return were 500,000 settlers on the ground.” His daughter has a different approach:  surrender, tell the Israelis they’ve won… and start shifting the argument to a single democratic state of Palestinians and Jews.  If you don’t like that prospect, Sam implies, get to work quickly, because the next generation does not view the world the way his generation does.

We drive a bit around Ramallah, and have lunch in a fancy hotel where the remainder of our meetings will take place.

Our next conversation is with Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a social scientist who puts some hard numbers on the trends in Palestinian society.  His analysis is rather fascinating, but I won’t describe it all here – just my most important take-aways.

His organization recently asked West Bank Palestinians (they surveyed Israelis as well), “What do you think Israelis ultimately want?”  20% agreed that Israelis want “security.”  But 80% believed that Israelis want to annex all the territories and expel the Palestinians, or at least deny them their inherent rights.

The point is, there are wild discrepancies between Israelis and Palestinians when they look at each other – and every side views themselves as moderates.  Both sides in his survey seem to say, my side supports peace – but the majority on the other side does not.

There is a lot more.  Trust me, we asked the questions and raised the objections that we all were feeling.  But remember, this was not a debate or a dialogue – this was about being exposed to the Palestinian narrative.

My takeaway from Dr. Shikaki’s session:  He believes there is a window of opportunity for political negotiations – and it’s urgent, because it is going to slam shut soon, too. He agrees that the young generation is much interested in one-state solutions as well.  (Every Israeli and most every American Zionist I know considers this an absolute non-starter.)

We are feeling challenged but we are feeling good. We’ve met articulate and honest people who have not held back their real feelings, but have also refused to relinquish hope in a shared future.  That changes with our final session.

The last session was disappointing on many fronts.  Up until now, we’ve met with five individuals who have told us personal narratives about themselves and their families. It’s been occasionally painful, but pretty much what I expected.  Our final meeting breaks the mold (and some of the promises of Encounter), because we meet with a political apparatchik.  She’s Ms. Varsen Aghabekian, a government official directly connected with political negotiations on behalf of the PA.  And my cautious hopefulness, along with others’, gets sucked out of the room.

No personal narratives or stories here; just the party line.  The basic requirements that the PA absolutely needs to “live in peace and prosperity next to our neighbor, Israel”:  end the occupation; reel in every settler who lives on the Palestinian side of the Green Line; make Jerusalem Palestine’s capital; solve the problem of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from 1948. Settlements, the security wall (“we think it has nothing to do with security”), bypass roads, the “Israeli lack of seriousness” in negotiations.  A refusal to have an interim agreement.  The Palestinians have already accepted that they will only receive a tiny fraction of “historical Palestine.”  Et cetera.

For some in the room, the “active listening” that Encounter trained us in has gone out the window.  I’m just sad, because what I’m hearing are a politician’s answers to our questions. I ask if she can acknowledge that there is any validity to the Jewish or Zionist narrative. I receive a snide answer:  “What, do you want me to acknowledge that some Jews have lived here for a long time? Sure…”  But no recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, as being crucial to the Jewish narrative in history.

Our day in Ramallah comes to an end.  Here are my takeaways:

(1)  The last session leaves a sour taste in my mouth – I wanted to hear people’s personal stories, not political pabulum that I’ve heard and read countless times.

(2)  But I did hear my share of personal stories from the five other encounters we had – and that was a good experience.

(3)  Simply being in Ramallah was rather amazing – I’m not the only member of our group who kept saying, “I really can’t believe we’re here.”

One more thing:  My pride in ARZA for saying, this is an important experience for our leadership mission as well.  It’s important to be uncomfortable. And listening to Palestinian narratives in no way implies that I’ve relinquished a Zionist narrative. It simply means – isn’t there room for people to be able to listen to each others’ stories? Isn’t that where any glimmer of peace (anywhere) resides?

Lotan, Yahel: Pioneers in the Desert

By Rabbi Neal Gold

Of all things I love about Israel, I think there is one umbrella that captures most of them:  The opportunity to live out, on a daily basis, a life of idealism.  I know that’s possible anywhere – but it doesn’t happen everywhere.

A journey south into the desert puts this most obviously on display. The desert was where David Ben Gurion envisioned Israel’s future would lie:  ideals lived out pioneering the arid, craggy desert and making it flourish. That never happened, not in significant numbers, anyway; the overwhelming majority of Israel’s population lives in the central swath of the country.

In the 1970s, deep in the Arava desert – in the southern zone of the country – two Reform movement kibbutzim were established a few miles from each other:  Lotan and Yahel. They are idealism regained, and the people who live there are 21st century pioneers in every classic sense of the word. I love it here.

The biggest tragedy is that they are Reform Judaism’s “best kept secrets.” Let’s make it not so – these two places embody every proud value of liberal Judaism.  And they are so different from one another.

First, it is great to be back at Kibbutz Lotan, one of my favorite places in all of Israel. Lotan has established a name for itself as the environmental education center of Israel.  Spending a few hours with Alex Cicelsky is a whirlwind of knowledge, inspiration, the spirituality of the Earth, deep Torah wisdom, and more. He shows us a life of permaculture: creating a sustainable life on the earth that is creative and meaningful, that can be exported to the rest of the world, and that is infused with holiness.  We walk in silence as the sun rises over the hills of Jordan (biblical Edom), meditating on the timelessness of this soil.  He shows us the mini-village were students from around the world have come to learn the unique lessons of sustainability here in the desert.  He shows us toilets of the place, which use every organic and natural process to reduce waste to nothing!

Lotan is a must-visit for groups that come to Israel – and I hope that I can bring Alex to Shir Tikva in the year ahead to teach his special, holy brand of Torah.

Just up the road is Kibbutz Yahel. I haven’t been here in years, and this too is an inspiring place.  Funny:  two Reform kibbutzim in the heart of the desert, approximately the same age, just a few miles from each other—and the couldn’t be more different.

Yahel’s new initiative is a large consumer complex with stores and restaurants – a shopping rest stop on the road down to Eilat.  This has sprouted up alongside all the classic tropes of the kibbutz:  a large dairy farm with hundreds of cows, and sophisticated techniques for milking them and all that. But that’s not what’s special to me about Yahel.

We go into their Beit Midrash – and find a place that will feel much more familiar to American Jews: A library with the Talmud and other classic Jewish texts.  Liberal Jews who come together to study ancient words form an open and inclusive perspective.  Here in the heart of the desert is a liberal yeshiva in a community based on equality and interrelationships.

Hillel Tobias, a founder of Yahel, speaks our leadership group. He is a gentle man, who speaks with love about the goals of this place. But it’s hard for him to get the words out; he gets choked up and almost begins to cry.  Why? It’s clear – he simply loves what they have created here, his life’s work of building a community based on noble Jewish and liberal values.

The older I get, the more idyllic the kibbutz lifestyle seems to me. Reform Judaism is supposed to be based on noble and idealistic principles:  Living out lives of justice, peace, and Tikkun Olam in ways that are infused by Jewish tradition, often re-cast with new interpretations and perspectives.  That is often hard to do (try as we might) in the buzz of suburbia, in the rhythms of the Diaspora.

But these pioneers in the desert are really making a go of it.  Come and see for yourself.

Israel’s Worst, and Best

By Rabbi Neal Gold

I’m in Tel Aviv on the ARZA Leadership Mission. This is Part 2 of Monday’s reflections.

The second half of Monday careened between two poles of the best and worst of Israel.

The afternoon was very powerful.  Our group from ARZA went to the most depressed and desperate part of Tel Aviv – the area by the so-called “new” central bus station – which has in recent years become brutal crime zone, just blocks from other, trendier parts of the city.

There, Jewish signposts fade away, and African languages and graffiti and food emerge.  In this crime-ridden neighborhood, among the drug dealers and brothels, many of the nation’s Darfuri and Eritrean refugees reside.

Here we met Elizabeth Tsurkov, an inspirational Russian Jewish activist who is the Projects Director for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.  Elizabeth taught us the stark reality of the nearly 50,000 (her number – our tour guide disputed it) refugees from those two countries who are stuck in Israel.  Stuck – because they really don’t have the legal status of refugees; they are illegals who can’t leave  and who can’t really be here either.  Some sleep in the park here.  They are one of Israel’s dirty secrets, and this neighborhood is an invisible one to the rest of the Jewish world.

Elizabeth introduced us to Adam, a Darfuri refugee and activist for his community. Dressed impeccably in blue blazer, slacks, and dress shirt and shoes, Adam speaks five languages including quite fine English. He told his story, escaping the Arab Muslim Janjaweed murderers in Darfur and fleeing to Cairo. In Cairo, he “saw the lights of Tel Aviv” and imagined the freedom there, and started a trek across the Sinai to Israel.  Sleeping one night in the Sinai, he was found by Israeli soldiers and imprisoned  before being brought into Israel as a refugee.

He told his story bluntly, unemotionally. He told about the work he does advocating, with Elizabeth, for those who are all alone in a new land. But what really killed me was this:  I’ve learned Jewish history in recent years, said Adam. I learned about the Shoah. How the Nazis massacred six million Jews, twelve million people.  And he chose his next words very carefully; they were gentle – gentler than I am able to relay here.  After the experience of the Shoah – how can you do this to us, let us be turned into something less than human?  (Those weren’t his words, and he did NOT compare the Africans’ experience in Israel to Auschwitz. I am very sensitive to Holocaust comparisons. But that was my internal monologue speaking.)

I know the issues of illegal immigration are complicated.  But Adam’s words (and his name – “human”) ring painfully in my ears for our country, Herzl’s safe haven for Jewish refugees who had every door in the world slammed in their face.  Have we learned nothing from Jewish history?


After a hard afternoon – dinner time. And, thankfully, another glimmer of the best of Israel:  my new friend Yuval Bdolach.

Yuval’s idea was stunningly simple and, like many Mitzvah-heroes, on the surface hopelessly naïve.

It was all about Lod:  a desperately depressed town that few Israelis and no tourists visit; if it’s known at all, it’s known because (a) a town with this name existed in Talmudic times; and (b) it’s the closest town to the airport.

Yuval got the idea that what Lod needed was an infusion of young people.  Not young people who would displace the current residents of the town; but people who would invigorate the neighborhoods that had become hopeless and scarred by political corruption. So he created scholarships to incentivize university students to move to Lod (it’s just 15 minutes from Tel Aviv).  And unbelievably, they came. To clean up the common areas.  To create community centers for children with nothing to do.  To challenge the political malaise.  To stay, and become part of the fabric of the community.  And sensitive to doing it the right way – not displacing the locals, or driving up rents.

The project is called “Halutzim Hadashim L’Yisrael” – Israel’s New Pioneers. Although he was more excited about its alternative title:  “Re-Lod.”  And we spent a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other, about how to find those who would invest in a group of idealistic young people who are quite literally and obviously transforming a community in real time (best idea: they need a Ben & Jerry’s to come in, just as B & J do in inner cities in America).

Talking with Yuval, it was easy to imagine that a city that today is known for squalor, will in a few years’ time be vibrant, renewed… alive.  They’re building hope.  Next visit to Israel with a group, we stop in Lod – who would believe it?

Seeing a young idealist activist, without an ounce of corrosiveness in his soul, was awesome.  We spoke with Yuval for an hour and a half, and could have kept going.

It was a full day of Israel’s darkest corners – and brightest lights of hope and inspiration.  It was reality.