Created in G-d’s Image

We studied the poetry of Yehuda
Amichai (above) with scholar Rachel Korazim
in her Jaffa home. 
It is wonderful to be back
following our nearly two week pilgrimage to Israel. Sixteen of us from our
congregation, joined by a son and his 84 year old father from the Boston area,
traveled the length and breadth of Israel, taking in the sites and learning
about the people and the country. We visited the new Rabin Museum in Tel Aviv
and studied the poetry of Yehudah Amichai with scholar Rachel Korazim in her
home in Jaffa. We visited an Arab town that straddled the “green line” and met
with Lydia Aisenberg, an Israeli woman who volunteers for an Educational Foundation called
Givat Haviva to enhance Israeli-Arab dialogue and cooperation. We met with
Rabbi Dubi Hayyum , a Conservative Rabbi in Haifa who studies sacred texts weekly
with an imam. We met Assaf Luxembourg, an entrepreneur in Tel Aviv who does
business with the Chinese.  He gave us
insights into Israel as the “start-up nation”. A chance meeting with a soldier at
a rest stop, a friend of our remarkable tour guide Kayla Ship, gave us an up
close view into what it means to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.  Just two Shabbats ago we worshipped together
at the new egalitarian section of the Western Wall. It was a deeply moving
experience. We studied and discussed the story of David and Bathsheba at the
ruins of David’s ancient palace. We explored Masada and we and floated in the
Dead Sea. We learned about wine production in the Negev and the geological
forces that create a natural wonder called a “Machtesh”.  We gazed at stars on a cool desert night and
listened for the still small voice that Elijah heard when he fled from King
Ahab. We picked carrots and plucked strawberries on the Salad Trail as we learned about desert agriculture from Uri Alon, a
former Israeli Navy commander turned high tech farmer. We sampled Israeli beers
on our bus as we traveled to the airport for our departure. We did all of that,
and much more. Even those of us who had visited Israel many times agreed that
we had experienced Israel close up and personal.
Uri Alon, of the Salad Trail
It is invaluable to see Israel up
close, and I hope that many of you here this evening will join us for our next
congregational trip to Israel in 2017. There is also great value, however, in
stepping away and seeing Israel from a more distant vantage point. We were at
services on Shabbat morning in Jerusalem when the rabbi of the congregation
welcomed a group of young people who were visiting with their day school from
Baltimore. Alluding to the recent unrest in their city, he cracked that they
probably felt safer in Israel than they did in at home.  Frankly I cringed when I heard that remark. It
struck me as unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, it felt like an insult
to their city of Baltimore.  Second, the
visitors were hardly the impoverished black youth who actually did feel
threatened by the police in Baltimore – they were white children of privilege
whose lives were far removed from the concerns of inner city African Americans.
Third, at the very moment that the rabbi made that remark, Israel was in fact
embroiled in its own controversy with treatment of Ethiopian Jews by Israeli
police. I had not realized this was going on there because I was focused on the
excitement of traveling in Israel and learning with my congregation. I only
became aware of the irony of his comment when I returned to the United States,
and could once again view Israel from afar.
          Just ten days before we arrived in
Israel Tel Aviv police were recorded on a cell phone beating a young Israeli soldier
of Ethiopian descent, by the name of Demas Fekadeh, for no apparent reason. The
release of the video led to demonstrations throughout the country that turned
violent in Tel Aviv as participants pelted police with rocks and bottles and
police responded with tear gas and stun guns. As in Baltimore, the
demonstrators were protesting not only the immediate incident of police
brutality, but the years of discrimination at multiple levels in housing, in education
and in jobs. Lieutenant Colonel Zion Shankur, a decorated member of the Israeli
Defense Forces and a member of the Ethiopian Israeli community, put it this way,
“I know that the moment I take off this uniform, I will no longer be that
successful Lt. Col. Shankur from the IDF, whose name precedes him. I will be
Zion the Ethiopian, who will not be able to easily get into any club in Tel
Aviv……. If I walk around Tel Aviv without my uniform and there is some act of
violence or a murder, I will be the first person police will stop. And that is
only because I am black.” 
Ethiopian Jews celebrate their first Passover in Israel (2012)
Of course, the historical
circumstances that brought Africans to the United States could not be more
different from those that brought Ethiopians to Israel. Africans were brought to
our shores against their will, as slaves. As we know they were oppressed and brutalized
for 250 years before their emancipation following the civil war. They then
endured legalized discrimination under Jim Crow laws for the next century
before finally winning equality in the eyes of the law in the 1960s. As our recent
history in Baltimore, in Queens, in Cleveland, in Ferguson and in Florida has
shown, there is still much work to be done to achieve equal protection under
the law.
Ethiopian Jews understand
themselves as the descendents of an ancient Jewish community dating back to
Biblical times and have been accepted as such by the rabbinate in Israel. They
are ardent Zionists who yearned to come to the Land of Israel and came there
willingly. Although their historical experience has been different from other
Jewish communities in Israel, they share a deep religious bond with her fellow
Jewish citizens. A particularly poignant reminder of this occurred as
demonstrations in Tel Aviv brought traffic to a standstill.  A group of white ultra-Orthodox men who
emerged from their vehicles to recite their evening prayers were joined by some
of the Ethiopian protesters to form a minyan.
Israel is indeed a country of
wonders, of innovation, of contradictions as we experienced on our trip there.
But it is also a country made up of human beings in all of our glory and folly.
The sages had a discussion about the most important verse in the Torah. Rabbi
Akiva said it was “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself” from Leviticus. Ben Azzai, his
fellow sage, disagreed. He chose a verse from Genesis, “This is the book of the
generations of man; on the day that G-d created man, He made him in the image
of G-d.” May we strive to see that image of G-d in each man and woman’s face,
no matter what the color of their skin.  As
Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference along with Martin Luther King said, “We need to turn toward each
other, not on each other.” To that, let us say, AMEN! 

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