Israel, Up Close and Personal
Shortly after arriving in Israel a few weeks back, I had the privilege of welcoming a few busloads of our teens to Jerusalem.
Blindfolded, they stepped off their buses holding hands, moving slowly towards the edge of the Haas Promenade that overlooks the Temple Mount in the center of Jerusalem, a spot some have called the axis mundi, the place where heaven and earth touch. Just days before, these Reform Jewish teens had left their homes in North America and traveled to Eastern Europe where they stood together at Auschwitz and Birkenau contemplating the darkest moment in all of human history. Having experienced the remnants of Jewish life in Prague, they would journey next to the home most had not yet visited.
But now they were arriving for their first glimpse of the City of Gold. The creative NFTY in Israel staff finally asked the teenagers to remove their blindfolds. You cannot imagine the look of amazement and wonder on their faces as they opened their eyes to the setting sun over Jerusalem. Many believe that thousands of years ago Abraham and Isaac stopped at this same spot on their three-day journey to Mt. Moriah. It was here that they caught their first glimpse of the site of the akeda, which would one day become the site of the Temple. Saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4).
Rabbi Jacobs and NFTY participants at Haas Promenade
As one of their counselors introduced me as the next president of the URJ, a teen called out, “Wow, that’s a really big job!” “You’re not kidding,” I responded, “and one of the great perks of the new position is to be with all of you at such a transformative moment in your lives.”
They were not mere tourists, but rather young Jews on a sacredjourney of discovery and connection, and I asked them, when theyreturned home, to be ambassadors of understanding for our Jewish Stateamong our congregations and in the broader public.
Rabbi Jacobs and Gerry Daniel
On my first Shabbat, I traveled to Tel Aviv to celebrate the 20thanniversary of Beit Daniel and the Daniel Centers and the 95th birthdayof Gerry Daniel, who, along with his late wife Ruth, created thesevibrant centers of Reform Judaism in the heart of contemporary Israel. With groundbreaking outreach, cultural, social service and educationprograms led by Rabbi Meir Azari and his talented colleagues in themidst of this cosmopolitan Israeli city, an inspiring Jewishrenaissance is underway.
In between brilliant seminars at the Shalom Hartman Institute inJerusalem, one of world Jewry’s preeminent institutions of advancedJewish studies, where I have spent a part of each summer for the pastdecades, I met with extraordinary pioneers of our Israel Movement forProgressive Judaism (IMPJ). Many of these leaders are longtime friendsand active partners in the work of awakening Progressive Jewish lifein Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel). At severalgatherings of Reform leaders, Rabbi Maya Leibovich presided along withYaron Shavit. Maya is the rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple’s sistercongregation, Kehilat Mevaseret Zion (KMZ), in the Jerusalem suburb ofMevaseret Zion, and is now also chair of MARAM, the Israeli Reformrabbinical organization. Yaron Shavit is formerly the chair of KMZ andnow the Chair of the IMPJ. From Kibbutz Yahel and Lotan in the Aravato Har Helutz in the Galilee and the many Reform communities inbetween, I was inspired by the entrepreneurial Jewish spirit thatpermeates our flourishing Movement. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, dynamoexecutive director of the IMPJ, formerly a lead attorney with theIsrael Religious Action Center (IRAC) and a product of our IsraeliMovement, was instrumental in orchestrating a host of meetings tobrainstorm with me about strengthening the URJ’s connection to Israel ingeneral and to our Israeli Movement in particular. While in Israel, Ioverlapped with Rabbi Danny Allen, the executive director of ARZA, whois busy strategizing many new ways for our Movement’s Zionist arm tobuild bridges of connection between Israel and North America.
Israel is often in the headlines here in North America, but rarelywill you read about the “Spiritual Start-Up Nation” exemplified by thenew Reform communities there. I met with four young Israeli rabbinicstudents from HUC who are changing the religious face of Israel:
- Galit Cohen Kedem is growing a Reform congregation in the middle of Holon,an Israeli city of almost 200,000 people just six kilometers fromTel Aviv. Her skills as a community organizer and her previousinvolvement with the innovative Beit Tefilla Yisraeli make heruniquely able to engage Israelis of all ages who seek a spiritualidiom that speaks to them.
- Having grown up on a large, secular kibbutz, almost-ordained rabbi Gadi Raviv leads a growing congregation, Yedid Nefesh,located in Carmiel in the Galilee.Through social networksand old fashioned outreach, he is helping to shape a new Reformcommunity in this former development town.
- Gila Caine, to be ordained by HUC in Jerusalem this November, is serving a 30-year-old Reform congregation in Kiryat Ono. Completing her certificate at HUC’s Blaustein Center for PastoralCounseling, she is breaking new ground with her trailblazing workbringing Jewish spiritual healing practices to patients withinIsraeli hospitals.
- Or Zohar leads Tefilat Halev,the newest member of the Daniel Centers near the hippestneighborhood in Tel Aviv. As a musician and composer, he has succeededin bringing young Israeli artists and seekers to discoverspiritual anchors for their newly developing Jewish identities.
Rabbi Jacobs and Avital Sharansky, Camp Swig, 1978
In addition to meeting some of the young, up-and-coming Israelileaders of our Movement, I also met with established Israeli politicaland thought leaders. Perhaps the highlight of those meetings was mytime with Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency. As we satdown, I took out a photograph taken of me and his wife Avital in 1978at Camp Swig in Northern California. Natan was then in a Sovietprison and Avital was on a speaking tour raising awareness of herhusband’s plight. While Avital had originally planned to address thecampers, staff and journalists in English, as she stood at the podium,she switched immediately to Hebrew. Responding to this change, thedirector of the camp motioned to me to join her on stage andtranslate. It was a challenge. It wasn’t the words that were hard totranslate; rather, she spoke with such emotion and power that it wasvery difficult to convey her message. Avital had begun by explainingthat her husband was languishing in a Soviet Gulag because he wanted tospeak and study Hebrew in a country that prohibited religiousexpression. That was why she felt it was so important to speak inHebrew to the audience at this Reform Jewish summer camp. I wantedNatan to know how that moment deeply affected my life. The connectionmade on this personal level continued in our institutional discussions.The Jewish Agency is an important funder of our Reform Movement inIsrael, and there is much more we can do together.
Rabbi Jacobs and Israeli Supreme Court Justice Hanan Meltzer
Later that day, I sat privately with Deputy Prime Minister MosheYaalon and other cabinet ministers including Benny Begin, Ehud Barak,Shalom Simchon as well as MK’s from a range of political parties. Themeetings were warm and constructive. There is no shortage of toughpolitical issues to discuss, but these were meetings to get to know oneanother for the important work that awaits me as the leader of thelargest movement in Jewish life. I shared with Benny Begin that whenhis father Menachem Begin came into power in the late 1970s, RabbiAlexander Schindler was Chairman of the Conference of Presidents ofMajor American Jewish Organizations. Rabbi Schindler was the keyAmerican Jewish leader to make sure that this new Conservative PrimeMinister would be supported by the Jewish establishment, which hadstrong ties to the many previous labor governments. The message wasclear: the past leaders of the Reform Movement have been deeply devotedto Israel. I made sure that each of the leaders I met understood thatmy presidency of the URJ would be deeply committed to fostering evencloser ties between North American Jewry and Israel.
As we were leaving the Knesset, Noam Shalit, father of Gilad Shalit– a French-Israeli IDF soldier who was captured by Hamas in June 2006and has been held as a hostage since then –, was also leaving. Wespoke for a few minutes, and I conveyed to him that the Reform Movementstood with him and his family as they’ve tried to win their son’srelease after five years in Hamas’ hands. He asked that besidespraying for Gilad our Movement would speak up more loudly to secure hisson’s release. I assured Noam that our Movement believes that boldaction along with prayer is the best way to change to world. I praythat our congregations will make Gilad Shalit’s release one of oursacred obligations.
My second Shabbat began at Kol Haneshamah in Jerusalem for theirsecond annual Gay Pride Shabbat. Once again, the unique voice of ourIsraeli movement sang a “shir chadash” a new song of inclusionand tolerance not often found within the religious circles of our holycity. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman has built a thriving religiouscommunity for over 25 years “not by might, and not by power but by My spirit…” (Zechariah 4:6) The spirit of this unique synagogue, with itsinfluential modes of prayer and music, reverberates through many of ourNorth American congregations.
Shabbat morning at HUC, I was privileged to hear a brilliantlyinsightful D’var Torah from the vice-president for academic affairs ofHUC-JIR, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur. His drasha was constructed upon ausually overlooked verse “The angel of the Eternal then stationedhimself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side.”(Numbers 22:24) With great homiletical ingenuity, Rabbi Marmur framedthe spiritual challenges of finding oneself “between a rock and hardplace,” a place familiar to many of us. He showed us how such a placecan, as it is in the parasha, be a place of revelation, and called thisa “revelation of pressure” as opposed to other divine human encountersfound in biblical narratives. At kiddush, I learned that Iwasn’t the only one who found his teaching speaking directly to megiven the many tough challenges currently facing our Movement and ourpeople. And I connected his insight with the line later in ParashatBalak where we read, “Then the Eternal uncovered Balaam’s eyes.”(Numbers 22:31) Perhaps, precisely at times when we find ourselves”between a rock and a hard place,” our eyes may be opened topossibilities previously unknown.
On my last day in Israel, I sat with the amazing executive directorof IRAC, Anat Hoffman, and her senior staff. Their new Freedom Riderinitiative is meant to win back the right of women to sit up front onpublic buses, which Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community has tried tosegregate. This social justice arm of our Israeli Reform Movementtakes on the toughest challenges to Israel’s democratic and pluralisticprinciples. Through legal remedies and grassroots organizing, IRACechoes the ancient call of Amos “Hate evil and love good, and establishjustice in the gate.”(Amos 5:15)
In many ways, the Jerusalem campus of HUC is a model of what we wouldlike to do here in North America, which is to bring under one roof themajor institutions of Jewish life. In Jerusalem, HUC-JIR, IMPJ, IRAC,WUPJ and NFTY all share one gorgeous sprawling campus overlookingJerusalem’s old city. The goal in sharing space is to integrate thecore missions and enhance efficiencies, bringing real synergy to thesacred work that must be done with cooperation and shared vision.
I rushed from IRAC to a seminar for the first year rabbinic,cantorial and education students who were just starting their year inIsrael. Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of HUC and Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback,director of the Year in Israel Program, invited me to join a panel toframe for these future Jewish leaders the question of why they are inIsrael.
It seems to me that their great opportunity is to fall in love withIsrael, in whatever way is most immediate to them. Perhaps throughtheir immersion in our burgeoning Movement or in the larger spiritualrenaissance that is taking root throughout the country, especially inpreviously closed secular hearts. Or maybe they’ll find volunteerprojects that put them in relationship with Ethiopian children orMizrahi (Jews descended from the Arab world) teens or Arab Israelis whoare hoping to shape an even more inclusive and just society for allIsraelis.
I’m back in the States, and soon those NFTY teens will also bearriving home. Each trip to Israel makes yet another claim on us. Ithink of our North American teens taking off their blindfolds andseeing the land with all of its beauty and all of its challenges; butno longer will they [see] the land from afar (Genesis 22:4).No, from now on they will see it up close and very personal. Wouldthat all of our North American Movement could see Israel up close inall of her glory and accomplishments – and yes, with her wondrous andvexing challenges. For to know Israel, is to love her.