What is a Zionist?



By Rabbi Stacey Blank

In the midst of the modern State of Israel’s “High Holidays” – last week being Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and this Wednesday being Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) which leads right into Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day), I am considering what it means to be a Zionist or a lover of Israel, what it means to be a citizen of the State of Israel, and what it means to live outside of Israel and feel a connection with this entity.

I have been thinking about it in the context of my parents’ (who live in the US) most recent visit at the beginning of March and recent events. My parents’ connection to Israel is me, my husband, and now their most cherished and beloved grandchildren (who feel very close to them despite the distance – thank you Skype!). I made the choice to make aliyah to Israel almost seven years ago. Aside from my hometown of Cleveland, I have lived longer in Jerusalem than anywhere else. My husband is a native Israeli who, aside from his two-year stint in Los Angeles because of me, has lived here in Israel.

For me, there were two experiences on this visit that made a very deep impression on me.

First, we carefully crafted a trip up North with my parents that would combine ancient history, the recent history of the building of the State of Israel, and fun touring of a few of the local wineries. The highlight was our tour at Chatzer Kinneret (The Kinneret Courtyard) which was recently renovated.  It helps tell the story of the 2nd Aliyah wave of immigration to Israel at the end of the 19th Century/beginning of the 20th Century. This was the training farm for many who went out to work on the kibbutzim. Many famous names in Israeli history passed through this place. However, what made the biggest impression was our guide – a guy in his 20’s with great English. He explained that he lives on an “urban kibbutz” whose members are dedicated to preserving the history of Chatzer Kinneret and promoting Zionism. What is Zionism for him? Taking the example of the people who came to Israel in the 2nd Aliyah – Many came and when life got too hard here, they left. Those that stayed were no more than 1% of all the Jews in the world. These pioneers are proof that even a small group bearing incredible ideals can make a tremendous impact on the world. They stuck to their ideals, and because of them, we have a modern State of Israel. What is Zionism? According to our guide: Zionism is about the people. Not which land you have or not. It is about making a better Jew and creating a society that takes care of its own and promotes the best in Jewish values.

I, of course, was moved. My mom was also, as she kept saying afterwards, “That was so interesting….”

However, soon after, our idyllic voyage was interrupted. My dad ate a bad mixture of food (I assure you: This can happen anytime anywhere, even in Cleveland, Ohio) and it hit him pretty bad. It got so bad that upon our return to Jerusalem, we decided to visit the walk-in clinic called Terem. After three liquid infusions and no improvement, we decided to go to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital. An ambulance was called promptly and brought him swiftly to the hospital. We arrived to a crowded emergency room. Every orderly, nurse, and doctor (Jews, Arabs, natives, immigrants) we met was friendly, professional, and even worked hard to make us laugh. 90% of the people we encountered spoke English. The doctor on staff was excellent and made the right treatments and gave the right tests. Eventually, the specialist doctors came to visit us as well and provided good diagnoses and treatment. Other people who were there with their families offered to help with translating, if needed. Everyone was doing their best, and they did it very well. However, we also faced the reality: he was ‘checked in’ to the emergency room because there was no room in the hospital wards – evidence of the overcrowding in Israeli hospitals that we hear about all the time. At least they moved him to a back corner, away from the hubbub of the main emergency room floor. Thank G-d, he recovered and only had to stay a few days.

Things certainly don’t work here in Israel like they do in America. The infrastructure is relatively young and it’s not always the most “comfortable.” But people are doing it here in Israel, we’re making it work. There are people who are dedicated to building an egalitarian, tolerant society and they are doing it with a smile and a genuine desire to give and to help. They/we are working to create a broad Jewish community that supports its own and others in need both who live here and who come from abroad.

These experiences help me when I encounter prejudice and irrational bigotry, both on the street and in the national arena – Last week, I walked down Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem and encountered verbal abuse by a secular-looking man to a woman in Muslim headdress as he passed her by. She looked at me and shrugged and said in Hebrew, “Extremist.” I shook my head and said, “No, that was terrible. That behavior is unacceptable.”

Within the same hour, I saw a man with kippah and peot carrying a backpack with the sign in Hebrew “We are all Shalom Eisner.” Shalom Eisner is a senior IDF officer who struck a Danish protester with his rifle a little over a week ago. Eisner was then removed from his position but vocally denied any wrongdoing.

It is most important to note: We are not all Shalom Eisner. I am not Shalom Eisner. I imagine that many of those who work in the Shaarei Tzedek hospital emergency room do not identify with the violence displayed by Eisner. I am sure that the members of the urban kibbutz that promote the heritage of Israel’s pioneers do not identify in the least with Eisner’s actions.

So, here’s to the everyday Israelis who do the great work of making Israel a safe, moral, tolerant, and pluralistic society promoting the best of Jewish values and Jewish culture. Most of them are not in the headlines, but they should be. Ken yirbu, may their numbers grow and gain strength.

Rabbi Stacey Blank has served as the rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam, an IMPJ Congregation in Ramat HaSharon, since 2007. She also helps facilitate the relationship between the youth organizations BBYO and Tzameret, as well working with families and individuals who arrive from abroad, mainly performing bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and weddings. This piece was originally posted on her blog.

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