There’s a story told about a man who was walking down Sderot Rothschild, one of the main streets in Tel Aviv, when all of a sudden he had a heart attack and immediately lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes, he looked around and found himself standing at the entrance to a hotel with impeccably groomed lawns, a magnificent pool with a lazy river, a lobby generously decorated with beautiful white marble, and a restaurant with a mouth-watering buffet clearly visible from the lobby. The man was at once excited to see all of these sights, and also puzzled as to where he was. So he went up to the reception desk and inquired, “where am I?”, to which the manager on duty replied, “you’re in heaven.” The man was still processing this amazing response when suddenly he was jarred awake by the current coming from defibrillator paddles on his chest. He was relieved to gradually discern that he had been revived and was very much still alive, but in the back of his mind he still recalled this incredible vision of what lay in store for him in heaven when his time ultimately came.
Several months later, the man was once again walking down Sderot Rothschild, when, sadly, he once again suffered a heart attack. Unfortunately, this time the paramedics were unable to revive him and he died. When he awoke and once again started to become aware of his surroundings, he realized he was at the entrance to a hotel, but it wasn’t anything like the one he had seen when he almost died months before. The lawns were unkempt, the pool was small and in need of cleaning, the lobby desperately needed renovations, and there was no sumptuous buffet to be seen. Surprised, he approached the manager at the front desk, who he recognized from the last encounter, and said—“excuse me, but aren’t I in heaven?” The manager replied, “yes you are”. The man said—“but wait a minute—what happened to the lawns, the pool, the lobby, and the buffet I saw the last time I was here?” To which the manager replied, “Ah, I’m sorry sir, you misunderstood. Last time you came, you were a tourist. Now, you live here.” J
As someone who has visited Israel over 20 times and spent a total of over two years’ time in Israel during my lifetime, including a number of lengthy stays, I can relate to this joke and to the difference in feelings and experiences between connecting with Israel from afar or via short visits as a tourist, and between living there for longer periods of time immersed in Israeli society. It’s one thing to catch a brief glimpse of an interesting and even tantalizing place, or see that place with rose-colored glasses from a great distance or from romantic stories we’ve heard. It’s quite another thing to be immersed completely in a country and its experiences to the point that you feel like you are no longer just a tourist. It doesn’t take long to realize that life in Israel—and Israeli society itself–is a lot more complicated and nuanced than you might have otherwise expected.
But given that we don’t all have the opportunity to live in Israel for any length of time, and that, for most of us, being supporters from afar or short-term tourists is the most we can manage, perhaps another lens would be helpful to define our evolving relationship with Israel, the lens of marriage. Specifically, I’m thinking of how, over many years of a relationship, we get to know our spouse or partner better and also differently. We might see that person differently at various points in time—from the day we first met, to our wedding day, to 25, or 50, or 70 years later. Our relationship develops and changes throughout the years, with highs and lows, moments both amazing and challenging, but, without a doubt, it is a real and lived and committed relationship as we continue to get to know our partner better, not just harbor a romanticized notion of marriage as a concept. This seems to me to be an apt analogy for our relationship with Israel.
So what do we think of our spouse Israel at 70, as opposed to Israel, say, at 25? In order to answer that question, we need to spend a little time reflecting on the 25 year-old Israel, or at least as we American Jews most likely viewed her back then in 1973, as well as on Israel now at 70. First, let’s take a walk down memory lane and reminisce nostalgically about Israel at 25. It was 45 years ago today, on Yom Kippur, when Israel’s enemies attacked her by surprise and threatened her very existence. Israel’s political and military leaders were initially thrown for a loop before quickly regrouping and, over the next three weeks or so, with the help of some impressive military operations and tactical achievements, eventually winning the war. The next few years after the war were difficult ones for Israel’s political and military leaders, and for Israeli society as a whole, because of the intelligence failure that led to Israel being caught by surprise when the attack came. Their feeling of military superiority, even perhaps bordering on invincibility, after the swift and decisive victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, was dealt a major blow by the way this conflict unfolded. Nevertheless, for most American Jews, this was yet another feather in the cap of Israel—DESPITE being caught by surprise on the holiest day of our Jewish year, Israel was still able to come back and ultimately defeat a significantly larger force in battle. Back then, we had an incredibly romantic attraction to Israel. We felt like the miracle of the Maccabees was alive and well in modern times, as demonstrated several times by Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, between 1948 and 1973; we envied, or, at the very least, appreciated, the communal living ideals of the still-thriving kibbutz movement, and, what’s more, after 1967 we had sovereign control over the Western Wall and the opportunity to pray there freely for the first time in close to 2000 years. Truly, the hopes expressed in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, were all being realized--Lihyot am hofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tziyon vi-yerushalayim—to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion, and Jerusalem. We had a sweet romance with Israel back then, and we loved her unblemished beauty without qualification.
Now let’s fast forward to Israel at age 70, the Israel of 2018. What do we see when we take a closer look? Surely we are starting to see some wrinkles in that attractive spouse we once knew. For one thing, the conflict with the Palestinians continues with a resolution still elusive and not really in sight yet at this juncture. There are persistent worries about regional threats, especially vis-à-vis Iran and Syria. There have been a number of corruption trials and convictions of prominent Israeli officials in relatively recent memory. There is growing and unresolved tension within Israeli society, including questions about the treatment of minorities and concerns over economic inequity in general, particularly around housing costs and the deterioration of public services such as health and education. The friction between religious and secular continues as well; the vast majority of Jews in Israel define themselves as “hilonim” (secular), and yet religious authority and state funding is still concentrated exclusively in the hands of, and controlled by, the religious “dati” minority. Finally, for better or for worse, the romantic, idealistic days of the traditional socialist kibbutz movement are all but gone, with modern kibbutzim functioning as communal settlements wherein people live independently and maintain their own financial independence as well.
With all these challenges in 2018 Israel, one might react by thinking that Israel is not quite as flawless as when we first grew to love her and spent our first 25 years together. So does that mean we need to move on from Israel or trade Israel in for a “younger model”, or insist on preserving that romantic picture we have of Israel from 1973? NO, IT DOES NOT MEAN THAT AT ALL. Because Israel at 70, with all her flaws, is in some ways a much wiser and more mature partner for us. Israel is in the midst of grappling with her own internal identity on several levels and is doing some serious soul-searching about what kind of country it is and can yet be. For one thing, there is so much more going on right now in Israel that is bringing disenfranchised, de facto secular Israelis back to Judaism and re-engaging them when Orthodoxy turned them off or away. For example, Dr. Micah Goodman, one of my amazing teachers at the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded Ein Prat, The Academy for Leadership, a secular yeshiva that started with only 6 students in 2001 and now numbers over 1000 graduates of its programs and educates 100’s of students each year. On its website, Ein Prat is described as:
A passionate Beit Midrash in which Israel’s young adults come together from across the religious and political spectrum to forge a new paradigm for Israel.
Students learn canonical Jewish and Western texts with one another, drawing inspiration from them for Israel’s future.
All of this newfound interest in learning amongst self-defined “secular” Israelis is certainly very intriguing and encouraging, but Judaism is not just a religion of the head; it is a religion of the heart and the spirit as well. No matter how much we learn about Judaism academically and intellectually, our experience would be greatly lacking without exciting opportunities for prayer for communal prayer. And, thankfully, those opportunities, too, have been springing up constantly in the last decade or so. The most prominent such example of this is the unbelievably well-attended pluralistic and egalitarian weekly Kabbalat Shabbat services during the summer at the Namal (port) in Tel Aviv and at the First Railway Station in Jerusalem. I have to describe this scene for you: the Railway Station, also known as the Tachana, is a pedestrian area with stores, restaurants, coffee and juice bar shops, an expansive open seating area in the middle, and a bike/walking path passing by on the outer edge of the whole area. Every day, and every night, Jerusalemites pack this area, shopping, schmoozing, walking, eating, and relaxing. And on Friday at 5:00 PM, hundreds of people, again, from all Jewish backgrounds, Israeli, and foreign, gather together in the open seating area in the middle for a Kabbalat Shabbat service with musical instruments and dancing led by some of amazing liberal Jewish rabbis and prayer leaders in the Jerusalem area, including from Masorti (Conservative) congregation Tzion and the Jewish Renewal congregation Nava Tehila. Often there are easily 500 or more people who attend this service. For some of the people present, it is definitely a religious experience, fulfilling their need to recite Kabbalat Shabbat. For others, it is probably more of a spiritual experience animated by the music and the dancing. And then there are probably hundreds more people who pass by while this service is going on, stop, watch, and listen for a few minutes and briefly connect with their Jewish souls before they continue on with their walking, shopping, or schmoozing. I must tell you, this is truly an amazing and impressive phenomenon to be a part of—I sent Irving Prengler and his family to the Tel Aviv service during their trip this summer, you should ask them about their experience. I would submit that these pluralistic and progressive services would not have been possible in a mainstream setting in Israel until quite recently.
The bottom line is that Israel may not be exactly the same romanticized lover we knew when Israel was born or was 25 years old. But as Israel continues to mature and our relationship with her has evolved over the years, we have gotten to know and experience different sides of her that weren’t even necessarily a part of “Younger Israel’s” character back when we first met and fell in love. Moreover, one of the other things that we discover over the years of a long relationship, if we didn’t already know it before we committed to that relationship, is that it is virtually impossible for us to love absolutely everything about our partner in that relationship, or to have it be the case that nothing our partner does would ever irritate or frustrate us. J David Horovitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel, said as much in terms of American Jewry’s relationship to the Israel of today when I heard him speak back in August at the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium. He noted that Israel is not a monolith—it’s not “Israel this”, or “Israel that”, Israel is a big tent and there are things we love about Israel and also things that may frustrate us greatly about Israel. There’s room for both in the relationship, like in our marriages. Moreover, he added, Israel is not Disneyland. J “We used to defy conventional wisdom because Israel was the one beating the odds and thus no one criticized Israel for the way it went about it…. But terrorism has muddied these waters”, said Horowitz—“Hamas fires rockets indiscriminately into Israel and we’re trying to keep our people safe; we can’t fix this narrative, it’s complicated and challenging, while we’re also trying to act morally”. As for concerning or alienating decisions the Israeli government has made regarding Jewish pluralism, like reneging on the Kotel Agreement, Horovitz opined that “walking away from the Kotel Agreement was simply a decision of political pragmatism relative to the coalition. Bibi was not about to let the coalition crumble. effectively saying, sorry it has hurt your feelings, American Jewry, but we really had no choice”.
The bottom line is, it is more complicated to love Israel these days, as Horovitz himself said to our assembled group last month. But, he added—we still need to find a way and push through, to continue embracing the relationship while simultaneously speaking up and pushing to make Israel the place we want it to be in terms of its Jewish values.
I would be remiss in addressing the current state of our relationship with Israel without also noting that it would be assuming too much to think that everyone in this room, or in the American Jewish community, EVER had a romanticized relationship with Israel to start with. Many American Jews who were born in the last 20-40 years never knew that Israel, never saw Israel in acute crises for her existence, nor her incredible and even miraculous emergence from those crises into a position of great strength, and have never been to Israel via Taglit-Birthright or any other means. So the only Israel they may know is the one that is currently struggling internally and externally with its Jewish soul and often portrayed as a neighborhood bully while having to respond to constant external threats and attempts at de-legitimization. To anyone here today or in our community who feels this speaks to your relationship with Israel, or to your children or grandchildren on college campuses struggling with this same issue, I would ask of you and them only this: give a relationship with Israel a chance. Think of it like a blind date, if that helps. J We’re setting you up with someone we think you might like and want to spend time with when you get to know them, and not just surface-level get to know them, but REALLY get to know and appreciate and respect Israel for both her strengths and weaknesses, struggles and triumphs. Yes, we might be disappointed or hurt by how Israel’s government has been handling its African refugee issue. But can’t we just as easily be excited knowing that Jews around the world always have a home to return to, even if it’s never yet been their home, and inspired by Israel’s contribution of drip irrigation to the world, or the amazing work that Sivan Ya’ari and Innovation: Africa are doing to bring Israeli solar, agricultural and water technologies to rural African villages, or Israel’s medical teams being first on the scene to assist when crises occur around the world, or Save a Child’s Heart in Holon, near Tel Aviv, which has helped save the lives of more than 4,800 children from 57 developing countries and trained more than 120 medical team members from these countries to create centers of competence in their countries? And for one other nice feather in Israel’s cap, would you believe that Israel is the 11th happiest country in the world, per the 2018 U.N. World Happiness report—and that’s living in the Middle East with some rough and threatening neighbors. The U.S., with Canada and Mexico on its borders, is only the 18th happiest country. We all have our issues, right? J Remember, when we are in a relationship with someone, we don’t have to love everything about them. We love them for who they are and accept their flaws, just as we must accept and deal with our own inevitable flaws and imperfections throughout this High Holiday season.
My friends, I think it’s time to move beyond the idea that Israel must only be seen in purely romanticized terms, and, moreover, set aside the notion that the only Israel we can, in fact, love is the flawless, pure, romanticized version of it, the one we remember from long ago, or the one our parents or grandparents told us all about. It’s important that we make space in our individual, familial and communal narratives for a commitment to Israel that is built on knowing Israel inside and out, what inspires us about her and draws us into her embrace, and what frustrates us about her. This will provide us with the foundation of a healthy and strong relationship, one that is nuanced and real and that can withstand tough times, one that demands of both Israel AND of us to help each other grow and be the best versions of ourselves, just as any healthy relationship in our lives ought to do.
And yet, all of this said, I would not dismiss romanticism altogether. Even for those who may not yet feel as if they have a passionate connection to Israel, I would submit that it is still possible to feel the butterflies in your stomach of first love, to experience the completely irrational, yet totally encompassing romance with Israel that sweeps us off our feet. When we go to Israel, we find ourselves, we learn about our history, and we might just ignite a Jewish fire and a love inside us that we never knew existed. To that end, I would like to invite you to join us on our Congregation Shearith Israel Multi-Generational Family Mission to Israel this summer, from June 23 to July 4 of 2019. With the help of Mission Chairs Angela Horowitz and Doug French and the Israel Tour Connection (ITC), we are planning an amazing pilgrimage that will have something for people of all ages and for first-time Israel travelers and veteran travelers alike. We’ll see modern Israel and ancient Israel, “classic” tour sites like the Old City, Masada and the Dead Sea, as well as new and different places that you probably have not seen before. And most of all, we’ll experience Israel together as a congregational family, deepening our relationships within our community at the same time we are each strengthening our connection to Israel. Just like buying an Israel Bond is an investment in Israel and in our relationship with Israel, so too, is spending time in Israel a vital investment in that relationship. We have trip flyers available on the tables outside the sanctuary, and we’ll be having another information meeting for the trip on Wednesday night, October 3, at 7 PM in the Pidgeon Family Theater. If this summer is not the right time for you, I encourage you to plan a trip to Israel soon, whether with family, with Birthright, Federation, or any other Jewish organization.
Israel may not always be the perfect, immaculate hotel the man in the joke first experienced, but I can assure you this: It is, and will always be, uniquely Israel, and uniquely ours. May this new year of 5779 usher in a year of peace for Israel and its Palestinian neighbors, and may we all be able to say, “L’Shana Ha-Ba’ah Bi-Yerushalayim”—next year—or hopefully even L’Shana Ha-Zeh—this year–in Jerusalem! Ken Yehi Ratzon, please God, may it indeed be so.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share