Shana Tova. I am truly honored to be here with you this morning, as we celebrate our tenth Rosh Hashanah together. Where has the time gone? Of course, ten years is nothing compared to our cantor who is celebrating her 24th High Holiday with the congregation! She has served an entire generation, and then some. As Congregation Beth Shalom celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, it is wise to reflect that Cantor Perman has been our Cantor for over half of our existence! And one thing that I admire about her, among many things, is that her enthusiasm, and her gifts for leading us in prayer have not diminished over all these years. Some people, when they have served many years, may become tired—but not our cantor. She is just amazing. But, I have noticed one thing — that I am catching up with our cantor in one respect. When I was here one year, and she was here 13 years, she was here 13 times longer than I. Now, when I am here ten years and she is here twenty four years, she is only here 2 and one half times longer than I. In other words, I am catching up to her!
Two old Jewish men were sitting on a park bench, friends for many years. One looks at the other and says, “Oy”. The other looks back and says, “Oy”. The other replies, “Oy”, to which the response is “Oy”. They repeat this exchange a few more times, and then Max says to Irving, “I thought we weren’t going to talk about Israel”.
This morning we are going to talk about Israel. A number of troubling and disappointing news stories have come out of Israel within the last few months. The first news story was about the planned building of an egalitarian plaza near Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall, where non-Orthodox Jews could pray. This would have been an area where men and women could worship together, an area where women could put on a tallis and tefillin without fear of being harassed by Orthodox Jews who oppose women wearing tallis and tefillin for prayer. This construction of this plaza had been initiated by Prime Minister Netanyahu who was seeking to resolve an issue over the Western Wall that has plagued Israel for decades. This agreement to build this plaza was torpedoed by the Orthodox Rabbinate who had initially agreed to support it. The next story was about the release of a list of 160 rabbis whose documentation attesting to the Jewishness of potential immigrants in order to marry in Israel were rejected by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. The list was interpreted by some as an attempt by the Israeli Orthodox establishment to delegitimize rabbis from the diaspora who were not themselves Orthodox rabbis. The third news story was about a bill introduced in the Knesset that would put all conversions performed in Israel under the state-run Orthodox Rabbinate. This would mean that conversions performed in Israel by Conservative or Reform rabbis would not be recognized. This bill would not affect the status of conversions performed by Reform and Conservative Rabbis outside of Israel. However, many Jewish leaders in the United States see this as a step toward an ultimate goal of invalidating Reform and Conservative conversions throughout the world. This would also mean that conversions world-wide would be placed under the aegis of the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel. American Jewish leaders took these threats seriously enough that some have declared that Knesset members who vote for this bill will not be welcome in their communities. Others prominent Jewish leaders suggested that American Jews make our displeasure known by flexing our economic muscles through withholding donations from Israeli medical institutions or by boycotting El Al airlines when we travel.
If that is not enough bad press, we know that Israel is often maligned in newspapers, on television and on the internet in her dealings with the Palestinians. Often the press coverage is biased against Israel and biased coverage gives Israel a bad name. Young people read this reporting, young people who know Israel only as a powerful military state and who did not live through the frightening and vulnerable Israel of 1967. They were not born when President Abdel Raaman Alef of Iraq sent the chilling message on the eve of the Six Day War that, “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa.” They did not hear Ahmed Shukeiri, then President of the PLO say, on the eve of that war “This is a fight for the homeland – it is either us or the Israelis. There is no middle road. The Jews of Palestine will have to leave. We will facilitate their departure to their former homes. Any of the old Palestine Jewish population who survive may stay, but it is my impression that none of them will survive.” Today’s younger generations do not know the Israel of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, where Israel came very close to losing it all. They read of Israel condemned as the occupier, as the oppressor, as the intransigent one, as the country standing in the way of peace in the Middle East. They read of Israel being condemned as a belligerent, racist state — even as an apartheid state. They do not know their history – and at times we, the older generation, are guilty of forgetting it as well.
The 2013 Pew Center Study of American Jews found that whereas 40% of American Jews over the age of 65 said they were “very attached” to Israel, that number fell to 25% for those who were ages 18-29. Increasingly Israel is viewed by American Jews with indifference, disaffection, animosity and even embarrassment. As we all know, some of this is due to the intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkus, some of the reasons lie in Israel’s [and I quote,] “dismissive, inconsiderate and at times arrogant” attitude toward forms of Judaism that do not conform to Orthodox practice, liturgy and ideology.
Curiously, we Jews are often more critical of Israel than others. A recent survey found that 66% of Arab Israelis describe Israel’s “overall situation” as “good” or “very good” compared to only 44% of Jewish Israelis. A solid majority of both groups, 61% of Arabs Israelis and 73% of Jews, said they were optimistic about Israel’s future.
Joel Goldman, from Chicago, was 14 years old when he made Aliyah –moved to Israel — with his parents. On a field trip with his High School classmates to the Tel Aviv Library, he got to meet the great man himself, David Ben Gurion, who took a break from some research he was doing to greet the class. Ben Gurion asked the class, “How many of you were born in Israel?” All but three students raised their hands. “Where are you from?” Ben Gurion asked Joel. He replied that he was from Chicago. “Why aren’t more of your Jewish friends from Chicago coming to live in the State of the Jewish people?” Joel was flummoxed. He didn’t know how to answer that question, and as an oleh chadash, a new immigrant, his Hebrew was not all that good. “Nu,” said Ben Gurion as he waited for an answer. Finally Joel replied “I suppose all good things take time. Ben Gurion smiled and replied, “Pretty good answer for an American Jew.”
It is true – all good things take time, ESPECIALLY when one is building a nation. In the Book of Deuteronomy, G-d denies Moses entry into the Promised Land. Moses then implores G-d to “Let me cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.” A Chassidic commentary notes that Moses is asking to see “the good in the land”, unlike the spies who Moses sent in 38 years earlier to reconnoiter the land. At that time they came back with reports of all of the troubles in the Land, thereby demoralizing the Jewish people. Sometimes, I think, American Jewry is a little like the Israelites of that generation. We hear reports of difficulties in Israel and come to see only the bad in the country. Then we feel ashamed and angry and betrayed by Israel, which seems not to have lived up to her promise. Maybe some of us then distance ourselves in an attempt to shield ourselves from the pain, the disillusionment, and the disappointment we feel when Israel does not live up to our expectations of her as “a light to the nations”.
I want to share with you three stories from Israel that capture “the good in the land”. We rarely hear or read about these kinds stories. They are not stories about war, or religious conflict, or political calculation. They are stories about ordinary people that show a different side of Israel.
David Haber and his wife were on their way from Miami Beach to spend the High Holidays with their son, Jonathan, in Israel. Their son was what we call a “lone soldier”. A lone soldier is a young man or woman, born in the United States, or Canada, or France or Argentina, or any place without family in Israel, who chooses to enlist in the Israeli army to help defend the state. About 40% of lone soldiers enlist in combat units. On the El Al plane, a flight attendant asked why the Habers were going to Israel. The people in the seats around them overheard their answer. Immediately ten people, including the flight attendant, gave David and his wife their addresses and telephone numbers in Israel. They asked that Jonathan call and come over whenever he wants. When the family later went on a tour of Israel, their tour guide gave Jonathan a key to his newly renovated house and invited him to “come and stay anytime. My place is yours.”
That’s the “good” in Israel. These people didn’t care if Jonathan was an Orthodox, or Conservative, or Reform Jew. They didn’t care if he was an atheist. It didn’t matter to them whether or not he supported an egalitarian section of the Western Wall, or whether he supported settlements in the occupied territories. They reached out to him because he was a lone soldier, a young Jewish man with no family in Israel who was willing to put his life on the line to protect her. They reached out to him to tell him that he was always welcome to dip apples in honey at their home for Rosh Hashanah. They reached out to him because when we recite on Passover, “All who are hungry come and eat, all who are in need come and participate” we mean “those in need” it to include the lone soldier without a family to go to. They reached out to him because they were putting into practice the ancient dictum from the Talmud, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La Zeh” – every Jew is responsible for his fellow Jew. Every Jew has the obligation to come to his fellow Jew in a time of need. We see this ancient ethic put into practice when that lone soldier goes to fight on behalf of Israel, and when the Israeli invites that lone soldier into their home.
The second story comes courtesy of Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, who is best known for the co-authoring “Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul”. After a half century as a pulpit rabbi, Rabbi Elkins moved to Jerusalem where he now lives.
He tells about being in a crowded elevator in his apartment building. The doors of the elevator were about to close when a woman carrying a package rushed up. “Is there room for one more?” asked the woman. Another woman in the elevator replied, in Hebrew, with a saying from the Talmud, “No man ever had to say to his fellow – there is no room for me in Jerusalem.” She was quoting a passage about the pilgrimage holidays in ancient times – Passover, Shavuot and Succoth — when thousands would go to Jerusalem to worship and celebrate. Despite the crush of travelers to Jerusalem, there was always room for one more. So, too, in an elevator in Jerusalem in our time.
What struck Rabbi Elkins was that it was not a religious Jew who was quoting the Talmud, it was a secular Jew. What struck Rabbi Elkins was that it was not a man who was quoting the Talmud, it was a woman. What struck Rabbi Elkins was that it was not a scholar who was quoting the Talmud, but an ordinary person on the street. It made Rabbi Elkins feel good, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, that he had chosen a place to live where the average person could quote freely from sacred Jewish writings.
Israel is probably the only country in the world where thieves kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost of the homes they are robbing as they exit with their loot. Indeed that scene has been captured many times on security cameras. And I love it that when the police raided a home during a drug bust in Tel Aviv, they waited to make the arrest until after the mohel had completed the bris of the of the suspect’s son. Said the commanding officer, “I am happy that both the raid, and the bris, went well.”
The Israeli writer Amos Oz perhaps sums up our sometimes schizophrenic feelings about Israel when he writes, “I love Israel even when I cannot stand it. Should I be fated to collapse in the street one day, I want to collapse on a street in Israel. Not in London, nor Paris, nor Berlin, nor New York. In Israel, strangers will come and pick me up (and when I’m back on my feet, there would certainly be quite a few who would be pleased to see me fall) ….. I am afraid of the government’s policy, and I am ashamed too… but I am glad to be an Israeli. I’m glad to be a citizen of a country that has 8.5 million prime ministers, 8.5 million prophets, 8.5 million messiahs …. It isn’t boring here…… What I have seen here in my life is far less and far more than what my parents and their parents dreamed of.”
Yes, Israel is far less, and far more, than we could have ever dreamed of or wanted in a Jewish state. But, as 14 year old Joel Goldman said to Ben Gurion, “all good things take time.” I share these stories with you today to remind us all that despite the troubling news that sometimes comes out of Israel, there is so much good there that we don’t hear about. I tell them to you as well to temper some of the disappointment in Israel we feel when non-Orthodox rabbis and movements are not shown the kind of respect we deserve from the Israeli government, when plans for an egalitarian section of the Western Wall fall through. I tell them to you because I want to bring some of the spirit of Rosh Hashanah from Jerusalem into our synagogue today. And I want to encourage you all to visit Jerusalem, to travel to Israel, and to see and experience for yourselves the spirit of Judaism that permeates the country. Finally I want us to resist the urge to punish Israel when Israel doesn’t live up to our hopes and dreams. We should oppose withholding money from hospitals or refusing to invite Israeli politicians who disagree with us to our communities. We should engage in dialogue with those with whom we disagree and financially support institutions in Israel that promote religious pluralism.
There is a story – I don’t know if it is true or not – that a reporter once asked Prime Minister David ben Gurion what the most important issue in Israel was in his day. “Shalom”, answered ben Gurion. “So shalom, peace, is the most important issue,” said the reporter. “Not exactly,” replied ben Gurion. “Shalom means both hello and goodbye. Sometimes I don’t know if this country is coming or going!”
May we begin this New Year with “shalom” – with peace, with harmony, with integrity – in our lives, in our homes, in our communities, in our world, in Israel and between Israel and her neighbors.