Loving Israel, Kol Nidrei 5778

on Sunday, 01 October 2017. Posted in Rabbi


Kol Nidrei – How Can We Love Israel?

In 1993, I visited Israel for the first time. I joined with others from my synagogue on a congregational trip with our rabbi. One afternoon, my rabbi and I got into a taxi and separated from our group for the rest of the day. We were off to see a sofer, a scribe, so that our congregation could pur­chase our own Torah scroll – until that time, the only scroll we had was a Holocaust scroll lent to us from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in England.

So why was I in the taxi that incredibly hot day, in a long sleeved shirt and a long dress, with my rabbi? As I was a past president of our synagogue, he wanted me there to offer an opinion on behalf of the lay leadership before he was about to spend close to $16,000.

The sofer was a very nice Orthodox man. Given his understanding of Judaism, he would not shake my hand or make eye contact with me. My rabbi didn’t think he would appreciate my being a past president of our congregation, so I was called the “wealthy donor.” He mostly spoke with my rabbi, but he tried to include me.

At one point, he brought us into a room and opened a drawer. From it, he brought out about a half a dozen scrolls, and excitedly placed them in my arms. I was very confused. With his under­standing of Judaism, I should not have been allowed to touch a Torah scroll, as I might be menstruating and pass along my ritual impurity. I smiled, and he opened one of the scrolls, anxious to show me his beau­tiful work. And then I understood.

The first three words were – vay’hi bimei achashveirosh – it happened in the days of Achashveirosh. These were scrolls of the book of Esther, one of the Biblical books lacking God’s name. In traditional Jewish communities, it’s okay for women to touch or hold these scrolls because a scroll lacking God’s name cannot become impure.

While the sofer and I didn’t live similar Jewish lives, we did our best to respect each other. I covered my arms and legs, knowing the importance of modesty in his community. He lavished me with scrolls so I could see his work and be a part of the conversation and decision-making on the purchase of the new Torah scroll. And while I could not touch any of the Torah scrolls he had to sell, he happily let me look at them and even smiled when I read – not chanted, but read – the first day of creation from one of them. We were seeking points of intersection, rather than looking to see what separated us.

Four years later, in the summer, of 1997, I was again in Israel. This time I was there to study with a group of lay leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was living at the time. We were mostly Reform and Conservative American Jews, studying with Israeli modern Orthodox pluralistic Jews who welcomed us dearly.

One night, however, the program differed. We met with an ultra-Ortho­dox representative of the government to speak about the future of Judaism. One member of our group asked him if he considered us to be Jews. I remember his response like he was sitting before me now: “Oh, I accept that you are Jewish – assuming your mother was Jewish and her mother was Jewish all the way back. You’re Jews – you are just sinning Jews who have no place in the world to come.”

Israel. In one breath I love it and in the next breath – well let’s just say I am not quite as fond. One of the biggest challenges for me as a Reform Jew and Reform rabbi is the second-class status of non-Orthodox Jews. That is very hard for me to reconcile with the image of a Jewish state for all Jews.

And 2017 has been a very hard year for non-Orthodox Jews, especially Reform Jews, in Israel. Let me explain why.

Reason one. In 2012, Prime Minister Netanyahu invited Natan Sharansky, the former refusnik from the Soviet Union who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, to lead an effort to bring about a solution to the lack of egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In 2016, Sharan­sky and his team reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and adopted by the government. But on June 25th of this year, Netanyahu announced a halt to the plan after being pressured by the Haredi ultra-Orthodox members of his cabinet.

Mind you, the solution wasn’t so radical. It would have given the Reform and Conservative movements oversight in an area called Robinson’s Arch, around the corner and out of sight of the main prayer spaces at the Western Wall. Reform and Conservative Jews already use that space; Orthodox Jews don’t.

The response to Netanyahu’s announcement was swift. Both the Jewish Agency and the leaders of the Reform movement canceled scheduled events with Netanyahu. Isaac Fisher, a long-time highly generous supporter of AIPAC, suspended all future donations to Israel. The American-born rabbi Daniel Gordis, who made aliyah nearly 20 years ago and who is often critical of American progressive Jews, urged those same Jews to stop supporting Israeli govern­mental entities, such as El Al airline.

Why is the Western Wall such an important issue for America’s progressive Jewish community? It’s not because of the holiness of the site; very few progressive Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple or desire that it be rebuilt. Rather, the Western Wall represents, for many, the place that Jews gathered as one people for over 1000 years. After the Temple’s destruction in the year 70 of the Common Era, Jews were expelled from the Western Wall until 1967, when the Israel Army secured the site during the Six Day War.

After a nearly 2000-year absence, the return represented the completion of the establishment of the state of Israel, the victory of the War, and the end of the remaining sense of galut, or exile.

Reason two why it has been a hard year for progressive Jews in Israel: Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month Elul, was Wednesday, August 23. It is traditional on Rosh Chodesh to read a special passage from the Torah that commands us to announce the new month. Rosh Chodesh is asso­ciated with women, as women were given the gift of Rosh Chodesh, a time of study, for refusing to participate in the making of the Golden Calf.

The Israeli feminist organization, Women of the Wall, seeks to hold a Torah service at the Western Wall on every Rosh Chodesh morning. Women of all denominations, yes even Orthodox, make up Women of the Wall. The ultra-Orthodox authorities who govern the Western Wall object to these women bringing in a Torah scroll. So they harass the participants, and have even had them arrested.

In August, two American women, both students at my seminary in Jerusalem, were taken aside as they tried to enter the Kotel outside of the Western Wall and were told to lift their shirts and skirts so that they could be checked for possibly smuggling in a Torah.

The Israeli Supreme court had already told Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall, to stop invasive body searches of women seeking to pray at the site. Rabinowitz’s responded that the body checks were done for security reasons, “in coordination with and at the direction of the Israeli police.” The professor who accompanied the 15 students demanded that the guards stop. They refused.

Eventually, the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel intervened. After he warned the guards about the illegality of what they were doing, they stopped the body checks.

The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and the Women of the Wall Torah services are closely related. Solving the first problem provides a solution for the second problem as well.

Here’s the third reason it’s been a difficult year for Reform Jews in Israel. Earlier this month, on September 6, Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, called Reform Jews worse than Holocaust deniers because we reject traditional Jewish law. Last November, he called Reform Jews “evil,” claiming that we don’t observe Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but still want to pray at the Western Wall. I don’t mind him expressing whatever opinion he wants. I do mind that the Israeli govern­­ment pays his salary.

Prime Minister Netanyahu chastised Amar, saying, “All Jews are part of one family and the diversity of our people should always be respected. I categorically reject any attempt to delegitimize any part of the Jewish people.”

And yet, that is just what Netanyahu did 13 days after Amar said his hateful words. Netanyahu now claims that Reform and Conservative leaders are using our desire for egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall for political purposes, “a clandestine way to gain recognition.”

Add to these reasons the following: Israel’s refusal to engage seriously in any peace talks or efforts with the Palestinians, Israel’s refusal to stop illegal settlement activity in the West Bank, and now 50 years of Palestinians living under Israel rule, and most progressive American Jews struggle with How to Love Israel.

But I do love Israel, just as I love the United States. But to love my country doesn’t mean that I must love my government – because I don’t.

I love the ideals of my country and what my country has historically represented. That is true for me of Israel, too. I love what my country can be. That, too, is true for me of Israel. And I love the many, many good people of this country. And that more than anything else for me, is true of Israel.

After Hurricane Harvey, a couple in Houston – well known in the City for their philanthropy – opened their own home to people who had physical limitations and could not stay in shelters. They encouraged other people in the City to do the same, and created a chain of hosts. That’s what I love about America.

Likewise, when an Israeli family on vacation in the nation of Georgia was in a devastating jeep accident, they were airlifted back to Israel on Yom Kippur; a doctor left Kol Nidrei services to care for them. The next morning, Hadassah hospital employees skipped services and walked over six miles to tend to the injured family members. That’s what I love about Israel.

An Israeli blogger who calls herself Forest Rain – I’m guessing that is not her real name – writes beautifully about what she loves about Israel. These are her words:

“Through Israel, my existence expands outward and encompasses much more than my individual self. I am more than just me – I am my family, my friends, and the strangers who live beside me. I am not limited to my individual space or time. I am the Nation of Israel living in Israel, around the world and spanning centuries. I am me and at the same time I am also my ancestors stretching out behind me and future generations stretching out before me.

“My fellowship is the strength, wisdom and belief of all people as reflected in me. I am the bones in the ground in Jerusalem, the ashes in the concentration camps, the soldiers and the children of Israel. I am the blood soaked into each grain of dirt in this country. I am all the tears ever shed by my people. I am the centuries old longing to be free in our own land.

“Israel is a nation because she is a family. The children of Israel belong to everyone in Israel. One stunning example was when the people of Israel collectively held their breath, waiting for Gilad Shalit on the day he was returned from the bondage of his Hamas kidnappers. An entire nation stopped for a single person. It happens over and over – every person matters, every life must be accounted for.

“I love Israel because she is passionate. Our reality can be harsh but it is also invigorating. Tradition and modern life are intertwined. People care, no one is apathetic. Life has meaning. Strangers will die for you so that you may live. Israelis don’t wait for the authorities to save them. We save ourselves. And each other. And anyone else we can help on the way.

“I love Israel for her stubbornness. No matter how big the chal­lenge, she always tries and often succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Israel knows she isn’t perfect but she tries hard to get there. Our standards are high and our stubbornness keeps them steady. We aim for the stars and beat ourselves up for ‘only’ reach­ing the moon. We fall, dust ourselves off and try again the next day.”

As an ohevet Yisrael – a lover of Israel – I want this beloved country to be a place for all Jews. In the prayer for the state of Israel, written in 1948 just four months after the declaration of statehood, the authors[1] pray to God ush’lach or’cha va-amit’ha l’rosheha sareha v’yo-atzeha, “send Your light and truth to all who lead and advise.” That remains our prayer today. But prayer is not enough.

I am willing to help Israelis work and fight so that we progressive Jews can call it our home just as much as the Orthodox can. I invite you to join me in this effort. Here is what we can do:

First, remind ourselves of the words of the founding documents that say, “The State of Israel ... will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … and it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience.”

Second, we can direct our donations for Israel to such organiza­tions as the Association of Reform Zionists of America, which passes those contributions on to the Israel Movement for Progres­sive Judaism. These are our people in Israel.

Third, we can contact the Boston office of the New England Consul General Yehudah Ya-akov, ask for a face-to-face meeting, and insist that the rights of the non-Orthodox Jews in Israel be respected and treated equally by the Israeli government. This is not so outlandish. He has been to TBJ and has been looking for a reason to return. In our conversations, we must emphasize the position of the Reform movement on egalitarian prayer space and our support of Women of the Wall.

Lastly, we can support Israelis by visiting the country. Spend your shekels at their hotels, shops, and restaurants. You’ll support the country, eat some of the best food you’ve ever had, and see some of the most beautiful places on earth. Our congregational trip in February includes several opportunities to meet with Israelis in their homes or offices, allowing us to see the “real” side of Israel, not just the places tourists visit. Please, visit the website on the bottom of the flyer on your seat. And then let me know that you want to join us.

In the Haftarah portion we will read tomorrow morning, the prophet Isaiah tells us, “Build up, build up a highway. Clear a road. Remove all obstacles from the road of My people.”[2]

I pray that this New Year brings with it a renewed commitment by us, progressive American Jews, to do all we can to remove the obstacles that keep Israel from fully embracing all ways of being Jewish. The roots for Reform Jewish practice have been established. Over 50 Reform congregations flourish in the land. More then 200 non-Jewish Israelis convert with the Israeli Reform movement each year. Requests for Israeli Reform rabbis to officiate at weddings, b’nei mitzvah, and other lifecycles overwhelm the small group of rabbis.

And most recently, Elena Sztokman, the former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, left Orthodoxy to enroll in the rabbinical program at my seminary in Jerusalem. She stated that only Reform Judaism was committed to the full equality of all Jews in Israel.

There is more to be done. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot, “The day is short and the work is much; the reward is great, … and the Master of the house, [meaning God] is pressing.”[3] Let us respond.


[1]Chief Rabbis Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, with author S.Y. Agnon

[2]Isaiah 57:14

[3]Pirkei Avot 2:15

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Yom Shlishi, 3 Elul 5778

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