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Erev Rosh Hashanah

09/01/2010 09:27:17 PM


Rabbi Carey Brown

September 13th, 1993.  The rabbi walked into my Confirmation class that night with tears in his eyes, holding a newspaper.  “Save this paper,” he said, “This may be the most important date in Jewish history of your time.”  On the cover was the iconic picture we all know well: Bill Clinton bringing together Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin for a handshake on the White House lawn.  The rabbi’s comments seem sadly naive now, some 17 years later, as we watch yet another attempt to broker a peace agreement. 

While the rabbi may have had a tendency for dramatic effect, I still can remember the feeling that I sensed in his passion – the feeling that what happened in Israel really mattered to us as American Jews.  I had not yet traveled there, there was not much discussion of Israel in my home – but I knew Israel mattered.  I knew Israel mattered from my Jewish education; I knew Israel mattered from the expectation in the my community that Jewish teens should travel to Israel while in high school; I knew Israel mattered from the passions that I sensed from the adults around me.  And as I grew older, and I experienced life in Israel in a personal way, I knew Israel mattered to me very deeply.  It wasn’t always an easy relationship, but in its growing complexity, it strengthened.  

The very first professional thing I did when I was ordained as a rabbi – in those few weeks between ordination and starting at Temple Isaiah – was to lead a Birthright trip to Israel.  Many of you are familiar with the spectacular 10-day FREE – yes, free – Israel trip for young Diaspora Jews.  Anyone who is between 18-26 and has never before been on an educational trip to Israel is eligible to participate.   So far, over 260,000 young adults from around the world have participated in Birthright trips. 

When the invitation arose to lead the group, I thought that it would be the perfect way for me to begin my rabbinate.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to start off in the place that had been so influential in my passion for Judaism. The opportunity to lead young American Jews for their first taste of Israel felt just right.   And maybe, just maybe, I thought, I could help create an Israel experience that would instill in them the sense that Israel matters.

Recently, I was curious about what happened to those Birthright participants since our trip 5 years ago.  Did they still feel connected to Israel?  How had they responded to the Gaza Flotilla this summer?   Had any of them gone back?  I sent an email to a few of the active participants and waited.  I promised anonymity in exchange for honesty.  I wasn’t expecting to hear from any of them, recognizing the heaviness of the topic.  Truthfully, I was terrified to receive responses from them explaining that they felt conflicted and disengaged from Israel.   

I received one response.  One response obviously does not make for good statistical analysis.  But I want to share it because I think that it is illustrative of some of the complexity we face as a Diaspora Jewish community in relationship to Israel.  It was from a young man, I’ll call him Alan, now in his late twenties.  I was surprised to discover Alan had moved to Israel and has been living in Tel Aviv for the past two years.

His email was one of the most thoughtful I have ever received.  He obviously has given a great deal of thought to questions of Zionism, his place in Israel, and the general state of Israeli-Diaspora relations.   He wrote,  “I constantly ask myself why I stay, and I think that ultimately, it is because I do feel a sense of personal obligation to Israel.  I'm not ready to admit that it can never be any better than it is right now… I feel like I have a duty to stay in Israel right now so as not to deplete Israel of an engaged left.”

But he refused to call himself a Zionist.

What has happened to the word Zionist, that a young Jewish man who has chosen to live in the heart of the Jewish state, feeling committed to the future of Israel and an active part of the struggle for her well-being, does not choose the label “Zionist?”  

This summer, the Jewish community was engaged in a soul-searching dialogue about this very question in reaction to an article published in the New York Review of Books.  The author, Peter Beinart, a journalism professor and a Modern Orthodox Jew, titled his article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”  You have may have heard Beinart himself, or discussion of his piece, on the radio, TV, or internet in June. It was a hot story and continues to be so. Even this week, my inbox was filled with articles and studies reacting to Beinart’s ideas.

Beinart’s main thesis is that the American Jewish Establishment has failed to give the large majority of American Jews space to connect with Israel in a way that is consistent with their values.  His observation is of the leadership of the largest Jewish institutions in the United States being unapologetically lock-step with the policies of the Israeli government. He writes, “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Beinart wasn’t specifically talking about Jews like Alan.  Alan is engaged and living with a daily sense of the complexities of Israel all around him.  But Alan’s disengagement with a Zionist identity is reflective of the discomfort held by many young American Jews today.

I do not agree with everything that Beinart wrote in his article, yet I appreciate it for the challenge that it presents to us as an American Jewish community.  He is asking us to consider the important role that we have in preserving a positive, progressive Zionism.  

There is much for us to be concerned about as progressive minded Jews in relationship to Israel.  This year we saw women being arrested at the Kotel for having the audacity to pray with a tallit or read from a sefer Torah.  We nearly had the Knesset vote into law a bill that would have given the Orthodox rabbinate complete control over the status of converts to Judaism in Israel.  We witnessed Hareidi protests against the integration of Ashkenazi and Sephardi students in the same classroom.  And, frankly, we were observers of some very ugly human rights violations against migrant workers and Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. 

It’s no wonder that so many American Jews feel apathetic or detached!  But if Israel matters, then it is not for us to throw up our hands and give up on our claim to the notion of a just Zionism. 

I know that there are some in our congregation who are unsure of Israel’s role in their life, and many others who are actively engaged with Israel.  If you consider yourself to be firmly attached to Israel, take a moment to think about why.  


Was it a personal experience in Israel – maybe as a teenager or on a congregational trip with Temple Isaiah?  Do you have strong feelings of pride stemming from the founding of the state, the 6-Day War or the raid on Entebbe? 

Think about those historical moments of pride that I mentioned.  They are not in the first-person experience of anyone under 40.  Young Jews’ experience of Israel – from a non-personal, distant view – is of Lebanon, intifada, and a strong right-wing shift in Israeli political leadership.  That is, unless someone has a personal connection with Israel – an experience visiting Israel and/or relationships with Israelis – young Jews’ observations of Israel are largely connected with conflict. 

This reality was exactly the purpose in creating the Birthright program.  The philanthropists and organizers behind it recognized that Israel experiences are one of the most significant indicators of attachment to Israel and moreover, positive engagement in Jewish life.   

And yet… it would be foolish of us to swat away the warnings that Beinart brings to the table with a Birthright counter-argument.  Birthright does well to engage the detatched and bring them into a relationship with Israel.  But we are at risk of loosing passionate, engaged Jews who every day feel less connected to the future of Israel. 

Creating opportunities for these Jews who don’t feel that they have a place at the table to discuss Israel must be a priority for the sake of Israel and for the sake of American Jewry.  According to the preeminent sociologist of American Jewry, Steven Cohen, “Younger Jews believe they have only two acceptable choices if they are to remain welcome in conventional Jewish precincts: public advocacy or private ambivalence.  If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews, organized American Jewry will need to provide a third alternative -- one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics.”[1]

On Israel, there is no monolith of opinion one way or another – God forbid!  Two Jews, Three Opinions, right?  What is important is the complexity of the spectrum of ideas about Israel and the ability to continue to allow the diversity of opinion to flourish.

We all need to have some relationship with the State of Israel as modern Jews.  We cannot dismiss it or turn away.  Our very belonging to the Jewish people obligates us as a part of the whole.  And Israel needs us all.  I’m not advocating blind support, but we all must be connected because, like it or not, Israel is significantly tied to our Jewish identities.  Israel matters. Too many young Jews are dropping out of relationship with Israel because it is uncomfortable.  I have colleagues who have told me they have decided to keep discussion of Israel out of their congregations because it is too divisive.  This is a hard topic, but disengagement is not a helpful solution.

It would not be fair of me to stand on this bima and encourage every one of us to engage with Israel without giving any concrete ideas of how to do this. 

So here are a few ideas, certainly not a comprehensive list.  I encourage you to continue the conversation with me and with each other about what else could be on this list.  

It is ideal, of course, to spend some time in Israel and I cannot state more strongly my engouragement for those who have never been to Israel to try to make that happen.  But since I cannot expect the whole congregation to travel to Israel at once, here are some things we can do from Massachusetts:

Talk about Israel.  If you have children at home – talk to them about Israel.  Hearing about Israel at the dinner table is going to automatically give them a sense of relationship to Israel.  The conversations do not have to be from any particular point of view, only brought up.  And the conversations should not just be between our children and us – they have to be with one another on an adult level as well.  Our opinions are so complex and so interesting – we have to share them with one another, lest we allow ourselves to give off a message that there is no room for diversity of opinion about Israel within the Jewish community. 

Ah, you say, but how can I talk to my kids or friends about Israel if I myself don’t really know what I think?  Make a point of learning!  Temple Isaiah has a wonderfully engaged Israel Action Committee.  This year Israel Action is starting a new project called, “Café Haifa”: A once-a-month series inviting temple members to take part in discussions of all aspects of Israel and Israel-related activism. They will be held on Sundays from 11:15 AM – 1 PM with the hope that the timing allows more religious school parents to be able to join in the conversation.  The first event will be October 3rd. 

And speaking of Religious School… at Temple Isaiah, we focus explicitly on Israel in the 5th and 9th grade curricula.  One of the endeavors we are undertaking this year in the school is to update the 9th grade curriculum to reflect the complexities of Israel. We need to acknowledge the challenges that many of our teens have told us that they come into the classroom having already experienced in school or among friends when Israel comes up.  We want to be sure to instill in our children the value of ahavat tzion – a love of Israel with the understanding that there are many ways to show our love of Israel.

We feel that being securely in relationship with Israel is one of the biggest gifts that we can give to our students.  College campuses are hotbeds of anti-Israel activism and I want them to know how to maintain a feeling of connection with Israel even as they are challenged by their classmates about what that means.  And, of course, we will continue to encourage our teens to spend time in Israel, experiencing a summer or semester while they are in high school.

But Israel is not just about politics or conflict.  Find yourself engaged with Israeli culture and innovation.  Listen to “hagiga,” the Israeli music program on WERS on Sunday mornings on your way to or from Hebrew school to hear a taste of Israeli music.  Go to see a film during the Boston Israeli Film Festival this year.   Attend an event highlighting Israeli technology or innovation – CJP sponsors such speakers throughout the year.

We can also connect with Israelis.  We are fortunate this fall to have a young man from Haifa, Guy Sarussi, as part of the Temple Isaiah family.  Guy has just arrived in Massachussets and is being hosted by the Maurer family – thank you Maurers! – and will be with us this semester.  We are so thrilled that Guy is here and are looking forward to learn from Guy about life in Israel. 

All of us can find a place on the wide spectrum of Israel engagement within the Jewish community.   When Peter Beinart wrote that he sees young Jews feeling that they have to choose between supporting Israel and following their values, it strikes me as a very narrow vision of what opportunities actually exist for us to be in relationship with Israel.  Our values are important and we must not feel that they need be compromised in order to love Israel. In fact, it is precisely because we love Israel that we must find ways to allow our values to be reflectind in the ways in which we engage with Israel.  

There are countless organizations out there that allow us to do just that. Find a place at the table for yourself; there is plenty of room.  

Find it with The Temple Isaiah Israel Action Committee,
With AIPAC or JStreet or The New Israel Fund
Find it with Rabbis for Human Rights, CJP, CAMERA or Friends of IDF,

Find it with the Women of the Wall or Congregation Or Hadash in Haifa.

Wherever your place is – find it. 

Find it, because Israel matters. 

L’Shana Tova

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782