Tag Archives: Israel

Israel’s Story is More Complex Than That – Tazria-Metzora 5777

Our tradition always features multiple layers of stories, and this period of the year is especially resonant. There is the Exodus story of Pesah / Passover, leading to the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. There is the agricultural framework of the spring harvests. There is the counting of the omer, climbing the 49 rungs as we ascend toward the Sinai moment of contact with God.

Last week we commemorated Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Tomorrow evening we mark Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for those who have fallen defending the State of Israel. And then Monday evening and Tuesday we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, marking 69 years since David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State.

In Israel, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are particularly somber days. On both days, there are sirens that sounds throughout the country, two minutes on each day, during which everything, and I mean everything, grinds to a halt. All over Israel, people stop what they are doing and stand. Cooks stop cooking. Barbers stop cutting hair. Office workers stop sending email. People who are driving stop their cars, get out, and stand quietly. It’s extraordinarily powerful.

In the spring of 2000 I was studying at Machon Schechter, the rabbinical and graduate school affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement, for my first year in cantorial school. On Yom HaZikaron, I went to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem where there is an annual solemn ceremony commemorating all those who gave their lives defending the Jewish state, attended by most of the leaders of Israel. I was actually waiting in the security line with hundreds of other people when the siren went off, and I must say there is nothing quite so powerful as standing, packed in tight, surrounded by people, none of whom are moving or talking. It was surreal and unforgettable.

Most American Jews have a difficult time understanding the power of Yom HaZikaron in particular. Few of us, particularly those of us born after World War II, know somebody who died on the battlefield. But in Israel, everybody does. Most people have served in the Israel Defense Forces, really the great equalizer of Israeli society. Everybody remembers a friend, a cousin, a neighbor, who gave his or her life for the Jewish state. Everybody takes a moment to remember them on that day.

Yom Hazikaron

And everybody also understands the narrative that this week suggests. Of course Yom HaShoah is a week before Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut – it makes total sense. And many Israelis are all imbued with the notion that the Shoah led to the establishment of the State. That the Jewish people, devastated by the death machine of National Socialism, arose from the ashes to build a tough, scrappy nation that is now an economic power, the only democracy in the Middle East, the pride of world Jewry.

My father-in-law, Judy’s father, Ervin Hoenig (alav hashalom), was a Shoah survivor who helped build the state. In 1944, when he was 19, the Nazis deported him and the roughly 100 other Jews from his small village in Slovakia to Auschwitz. He survived the selection upon arrival; many of the others in his transport did not, including his mother. He labored in a nearby work camp for seven months.

When the camp was liquidated and most of the prisoners were forced to march west, he got “lucky”: he had been injured and was in the infirmary, but, knowing the Nazis would not leave anybody behind, he summoned all of his strength to sneak down into the basement and hide among sacks of potatoes and corpses. And then the Nazis left, and it was quiet for two weeks until a Soviet regiment of Mongolian soldiers arrived to liberate the camp.

After studying at the university for a few years in Prague, Ervin eventually found his way to Israel, where upon arrival he was handed a rifle and immediately transported into the front lines of the War for Independence to serve with the Palmach, one of the Jewish paramilitary organizations that fought against the Arab armies.

And there are many such stories. Israel emerged from the gas chambers, just as Ezekiel’s dry bones of the valley were re-animated, flesh and sinews magically knitting together to form living beings. (We read that haftarah / prophetic reading two weeks ago on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah.)

But the story of modern Israel is not so cut-and-dried. It’s a wee bit more complicated. One striking thing that Ervin told me about was how in the early years of the State, the Israelis who were not survivors did not “get it,” did not understand the depth of the Nazi horror. “What was wrong with you people?” they would say to him. “Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you just let them round you up and take you to the camps?”

The narrative of the creation of the State of Israel, at least in those earlier years, was not necessarily about the Shoah. While there is no question that the UN vote for partition on November 29, 1947 passed because the Jews had the sympathy of the world, Ben Gurion’s people were not Holocaust survivors. They were Zionist ideologues. They were pioneers. Most were people who immigrated to Mandate Palestine before the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the Jewish world to help build what would become a new state.

They came, in the words of the poem by Naftali Herz Imber that ultimately became the national anthem of Israel, “Lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu,” to be a free people in our land. They came for the purposes of self-determination, to re-establish a place that the Jews, long strangers in strange lands, could call home, a place that would settle them among the other nations of the world, a place of pride.

This is an Israel that did not come into being in 1948. It did not even really begin with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the same year that Congregation Beth Shalom began, in which the British crown pledged to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Nor did it begin with the first wave of Zionist aliyah in 1882.

You might say that this Israel dwelt in the hearts of Jews all over the world for millennia – Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years – as they sat in ramshackle synagogues in Poland or in the markets of Persia, wailing by the waters of Babylon in Baghdad and waiting patiently for the messiah in Morocco. The return of those prior to World War II came from an ancient yearning for a national identity and a home to go with it.

The resurrection-after-the-Holocaust narrative is over-simplified. It neglects the Jaffa Orange, a key to early agricultural success, entirely. It leaves the political heavy-lifting of Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann out, not to mention the early Zionist writers Ahad Ha-Am and Hayim Nahman Bialik.

But national stories are like that. Consider American history: the Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere’s ride. There is always more to the story than such simple narratives can provide.

And Israel’s contemporary reality is equally complex. Every now and then I meet American Jews who are afraid to travel to Israel for safety reasons, because they have bought into the media-induced perception of Israel as a place where citizens live in constant fear of terrorist activity. But I know, having spent far more of my life there than in any other country save this one, that you are far safer walking down the street in Israel than in America, for a whole bunch of reasons.

And I also know that the political dialogue is never as simple as some would have it as well. Anti-Israel critics tend to characterize Israel as a monolithic oppressor of millions of Palestinians, that even the lefty intellectuals sipping cappucinos in Tel Aviv cafes and Jewish students on American university campuses are somehow monsters who deny civil rights to innocent, stateless victims. And on the other hand there are zealously pro-Israel activists who profess that Israel’s leaders can do no wrong, and even deny that there is such a thing as a “Palestinian.”

Life is not that simple. There are nearly 13 million people on that tiny strip of land – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Circassians, Karaites, Samaritans, black, white, Asian, etc. – and we should all continue to seek a way that they can all live side-by-side, each under his own vine and fig tree.

If you would like to expand your understanding within this complexity, you might want to check out the podcast produced by the Forward called “Fault Lines.” It features a reasoned, respectful, intelligent discussion between a hawk and a dove, Rabbi Danny Gordis and journalist Peter Beinart.

It is essential that we, as Hovevei Tziyyon, lovers of Zion/Israel, not reduce Israel to any such simple narrative, that we seek out the multiple narratives of Israel to better inform our relationship with it, so that we will all continue to act on those two millennia of yearning, so that the State of Israel will continue to be reishit tzemihat ge-ulateinu, the dawn of the flowering of our redemption.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/29/2017.)

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Letter from the Tel Aviv Beach – Huqqat 5776

A funny thing happened on my way to Israel.

Apparently, an anonymous threat had indicated that there was an explosive device located in one of the plane’s kitchens. Nothing was found, even after searching the aircraft upon landing. For a brief time in Swiss airspace, we were accompanied by Swiss fighter jets, although I am not sure what they would have done if there had in fact been a bomb on the plane (God forbid!). Perhaps they would have evacuated us in mid-air, James Bond style?

I emerged from baggage claim into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, and there was a sea of journalists with TV cameras and microphones and all sorts of recording devices. Since I had not checked any bags, I was among the first to emerge, and was accosted by a posse of them, who were asking questions like, “Do you know anything about the alerts? Did you hear anything? What happened on the flight?” My answers were not very interesting, because they had not told us a single thing (or if they did, I was asleep at the time). From my perspective, the flight had been utterly, completely normal. In retrospect, they probably did not let us know that there had been a bomb threat, because it might have led to chaos on the plane.

The rest of my week in Israel was far less exciting. Nonetheless, no matter how many times I go back, Israel is always magical to me. I often wish, as I am traveling around the Jewish state, that I could collect all of the little moments of amazement that strike me – the sunset over the Mediterranean, the beauty of the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee as seen from the mountains all around, the ironies of the Byzantine rules of Israeli bureaucracy, the striking entrepreneurship of the Israeli people, the scene of Orthodox families rubbing shoulders with vacationing Arab families on the Tiberias boardwalk, and on and on.

I must say, however, that there is no place that makes me feel more proud to be Jewish than the Tel Aviv beach. Yes, the sand and the scene are awesome, and the water is warm and inviting, and the people are friendly and the mood is groovy. But even more than that, it reminds me of the central thing that I love about the modern State of Israel: that it is completely normal for there to be a beach, where completely normal beach things happen, in the Jewish state.

tel-aviv-beaches

What I see on the beach is not merely the sand and the waves and the volleyball and the surfers, but rather the ordinariness of it all, that people of all walks of life and backgrounds and religions and ethnicities can gather in this place to simply enjoy the few moments of freedom they have before returning to the rest of their normalcy. The beach is a great equalizer: everybody parks themselves on the same sand; everybody dips into the same water.

And yet, the lifeguards are calling through their megaphones in Hebrew. And the meat served in the beach restaurant is kosher (even if the restaurant itself is not hekhshered). And you are only a few steps away from the Trumpeldor cemetery, where some of the greatest figures in Zionism and Israel’s fine and performing arts are interred. And as you look both directions, north and south along the Mediterranean shore, you see more and more buildings as the city with the world’s largest Jewish population continues to grow and reshape itself. And the tourists and residents and guest workers and diplomats and journalists on the beach who are chatting in French, Italian, German, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic, American English, Australian English, English English, Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, and a bunch of others that I can’t even recognize all know that they are in a Jewish land.

My son and I spent many hours on the beach last Shabbat, most of the time body-surfing the voluptuous waves (is it OK for a rabbi to use the word “voluptuous”?). And while he was merely enjoying the beach like everybody else, I was in a state of Zionist reverie, reflecting on how special this ordinariness was.

The only thing that interrupted this dreamy afternoon was how filled the water was with non-biodegradable refuse: fragments of plastic bags, Q-tips, bottle caps, swathes of netting, lost undergarments, and a variety of less-mentionables. Indeed, at first I collected a few larger items and brought them to shore to dispose of properly. But there were just too many to deal with – a sign both of Israel’s tremendous success as a destination and the downside to overloading the system.

The other item of unpleasantness was a small altercation between a down-on-his-luck panhandler with a nasty skin disease and an American busker. The American had apparently set up his guitar-based operation too close to the panhandler, and so my son and I happened to be walking by when the panhandler threw a plastic bottle filled with water at the busker in the middle of a song as he stormed off in anger to find a better location.

I suppose that one thing we learn from the beach is complexity, that Israel is not simply some picture-perfect Disneyland where the streets are paved with Jerusalem stone and everybody frolics in Judaic glee. On the contrary – Israel is a complicated place where the politics reflect the diversity of all of its residents. And all the more so – the sea of languages heard at the beach is a small representation of all of the voices who are weighing in on the fate of this tiny country and its range of prickly-on-the-outside-but-sweet-on-the-inside people.

The early Zionist writer Asher Tzvi Ginsberg, known generally by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am, envisioned Israel as the merkaz ruhani – the Jewish “spiritual center,” guided not by halakhah / Jewish law necessarily, but by the values that Judaism teaches us. While there were several competing varieties of Zionism extant in the early 20th century, you could make the case that Ahad Ha’am’s was the one that probably came closest to being fulfilled. And it is certainly my merkaz ruhani: I go there to recharge.

One poem that often resurfaces when I am visiting Israel is Yehuda Amichai’s Tayyarim / Tourists:

תיירים / יהודה עמיחי

בקורי אבלים הם עורכים אצלנו

יושבים ביד ושם, מרצינים ליד הכותל המערבי

וצוחקים מאחורי וילונות כבדים בחדרי מלון,

מצטלמים עם מתים חשובים בקבר רחל

ובקבר הרצל ובגבעת התחמושת

בוכים על יפי גבורת נערינו

וחושקים בקשיחות נערותינו

ותולים את תחתוניהם

ליבוש מהיר

באמבטיה כחולה וצוננת

פעם ישבתי על מדרגות ליד שער במצודת דוד, את שני הסלים

הכבדים שמתי לידי. עמדה שם קבוצת תיירים סביב המדריך

ושימשתי להם נקודת ציון. “אתם רואים את האיש הזה עם

הסלים? קצת ימינה מראשו נמצאת קשת מן התקופה הרומית.

קצת ימינה מראשו”. “אבל הוא זז, הוא זז!” אמרתי בלבי

הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת

מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה

ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

 

 

Tourists – תיירים

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.

They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,

They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall

And they laugh behind heavy curtains

In their hotels.

They have their pictures taken

Together with our famous dead

At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb

And on Ammunition Hill.

They weep over our sweet boys

And lust after our tough girls

And hang up their underwear

To dry quickly

In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists

was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see

that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch

from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,

left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

***

The day-to-day normalcy of human existence to which Amichai points, coupled with Ahad Ha’am’s vision of the spiritual center were demonstrated in abundance all over Israel as I collected my moments of amazement. Israel is neither a merely a museum of ancient ruins nor a bookshelf full of stories stretching back thousands of years. It is a society that exhibits all of the positives and negatives of human existence. It is upon us all to take that into consideration as we ponder and weigh in on Israel’s future, the future of not just the holy sites, not just the ancient connections, but of all the very real people who live there. And we should measure Israel not by Yad Vashem and the Kotel and the high places of Christianity and Islam, but by Israeli willingness to continue living those Jewish values, by being a light not only to the nations  but even unto Diaspora Jews.

Ahad Ha’am is buried in the Trumpeldor Cemetery, a stone’s throw from the Tel Aviv beach. And I am certain that he is grinning and stroking his beard as he contemplates what the Zionist dream has become. Imperfect, yes. But also beautiful.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2016.)

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Your Next Vacation – Vayyiggash 5776

I experienced a certain amount of relief two and a half weeks ago at a rather unusual time. I was boarding a plane at Newark Liberty Airport. My relief was not, as you might expect, that I had discovered that there was nobody in the seat next to me, or that the plane was equipped with free wifi, or even that the in-flight staff was exceptionally friendly. Rather, it was that this flight to Israel was fully booked. Indeed, it was bursting at the seams: families with young children, religious Jews, secular Jews, a teen group from a non-Orthodox Jewish high school, even some non-Jews. (They are easy to pick out: they’re generally the ones who pay attention when the flight attendants tell them to sit down and fasten their seatbelts or to stop talking on their phones.)

I had been concerned that this would not be the case. I had been worried that there would be not only an empty seat next to me, but lots of them. Flight tickets were relatively inexpensive this year, and I figured that the prices were low because the stabbings had scared away the tourists. But this is not the case. (It may be that the prices have been lower because the price of oil has declined so much. We’re paying significantly less at the pump here, and in Israel the price of gasoline was the equivalent of merely $6/gallon, which is much lower than it’s been for the last decade or so.)

Whatever the reason, this plane was full. Despite the two-month-long wave of terror attacks in Israel, despite the worldwide criticism of Israel in the wake of the Gaza mess two summers ago, despite BDS and their supporters, all of these people were flying to Israel. And that’s a very good thing; although Israel’s high-tech sector has been booming for years, the economy still depends on tourism, and it is a growing sector — it accounts for 7% of the economy, which does not sound like much, but has the additional added value of bringing in lots foreign currency.

I have been on flights to Ben Gurion Airport when the seats were sparsely populated. I was in the north of Israel when Hizbullah’s rockets were falling there in the summer of 2006. I was in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, when the streets of the midrakhov on Ben Yehudah were painfully quiet and nearly every cafe had its own security guard out front who frisked every entering customer.

But that was not the case on this trip. I was happy to see chartered buses crawling throughout the land, piled with tourists from all over the world – in one kibbutz dining hall I noted Christian tour groups from Taiwan, Singapore, and a couple of different American locations. Israelis are not cowering in their homes, forlorn. Life goes on in the Holy Land.

And of course it always does. The Israeli character has been toughened by decades of terrorism; Israelis are accustomed not only to living with it as a given, but also to minimize their fear through rationalization. It’s a self-protective mechanism, of course, but it is also the only real way to continue living. We cannot allow fear, and much less the purveyors of terror to dictate our daily choices. And that is as much true in America as it is in Israel. If we let ourselves be scared by terrorists, they win. That’s why they are called “terrorists.”

And remember that the news media are not our friends in this regard. If it bleeds, it leads, and they are in the business to sell you something. They want Israel to appear dangerous, because we read that stuff. But it’s not. In the two weeks that I was in Israel, there were (if I can rely on the accuracy of Internet searches) four attacks on Israeli civilians, only two of which actually took place within the Green Line; no Israelis died, although roughly 15 were injured. In the United States in that period, the statistics suggest that over 4,000 Americans were shot by guns in the same period, and of those, 420 were homicides. How many of those did we read about in the news? (Based on averages given here.) Yes, terror attacks are disturbing, and they undermine all hope for a peaceful future. However, the picture that some of us have of Israel as being more dangerous than other places is simply not accurate.

***

My intent here today is not to speak about terrorism; it is, rather, to convince you to visit Israel. I moved to Pittsburgh from a community that was very strongly connected to Israel. Many of my congregants in Great Neck had relatives in Israel, or even if they did not, had been to Israel on multiple occasions. True, it is easier and somewhat less expensive to get there from New York, with direct flights plentiful on multiple airlines, but I have been somewhat surprised here in Pittsburgh. In forums where I have inquired about travel to Israel, those who have been there are usually in the minority.

We should change that. Many of us want to support Israel, but do not know how. Here is an excellent way to lend your support to the Jewish state: go there.

And all the more so, we need to go to Israel particularly when the situation is bad. I have witnessed a number of tour groups fall apart because something scary happened on the streets of Jerusalem.

But I have some unpleasant news for all of us: in light of recent events, no place in the West is any more safe than any other. Now, that does not mean that we should be afraid — there is no point in adding terrorist threats to our burgeoning list of contemporary fears. We should of course ensure that law enforcement is doing its job, and be vigilant. But Israel is no longer unique in this regard; we are all in the same boat.

So that should give us all the more reason to go to Israel: you are actually safer there! Why? Because Israelis have been trained, effectively from birth, to watch for and report suspicious activity. Because everywhere you go, there are security personnel of various types. When was the last time your car was checked on the way into a mall parking lot? It happens all the time in Israel.

Given that, I want to enumerate for you just a few reasons why you should plan your next vacation in Israel, whether you have been there or not:

  • Support the Israeli economy. Israel is not cheap, it’s true. But when you travel there, you have access to a whole spiritual dimension that you may not find in other locations..
  • Get in touch with your heritage. The streets of Israel are filled with Jewish history and life. By walking those streets, by meeting your cousins, by visiting the ancient locations from where our history emerged, you will connect with our national story in a way that is simply impossible anywhere else.
  • Israel competes with any other vacation destination in the world for relaxation opportunities. Beaches? Oh, yeah. Museums? Some of the best in the world. Scuba diving? Eilat is gorgeous year-round. Fine dining? Some of it is even kosher! And the cafes are awesome. Hiking? There are incredible vistas and amazing trails all over.  Israel has been described as a half dressed lady: lusciously robed in green landscape to the north, with the Hermon mountain seasonally snow-capped, and naked to the South with the mesmerizing Negev desert and the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea.
  • Learn. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, the best place to understand Israel and the complexity and precariousness of her position in the Middle East is to visit. We Americans like to weigh in on Israeli politics and military strategy, but the most honest way to approach this is to actually be there and soak up the environment. Nothing is ever black-and-white, and being on the ground and talking with the people who actually face the challenges of the region on a daily basis can be extraordinarily revealing.
rakevel 2

Haifa.

And there are many more reasons to visit, not the least of which are the falafel, the shawarma, and the hummus.

When I returned to Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, I had a funny sensation: the feeling that Pittsburgh is home. I have lived in many places: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, New York, and of course Israel. “Home” is a difficult concept for many of us today, as people are more mobile than they have ever been.

Today in Parashat Vayyiggash, we realize that Yosef has really become a naturalized Egyptian. When he finally breaks down and asks his brothers about home, he does not seem nostalgic for the land of his birth; he inquires only about his father’s health. He does not say, “I’m coming back with you to our home, and my servants will send with us enough food for a decade.” He does not even engage small talk about the state of things back at the Israelite ranch. Rather, he invites his family to come down with him to Egypt, to create the first diaspora community, and to set in motion the series of events that will lead to slavery and then freedom and return to Israel.

Home, for Yosef, is Egypt.

Our home is here, it is true. We are loyal Americans, committed to all of the principles that this country upholds, and grateful for the freedom from oppression which it has provided for our parents and grandparents, and for this same freedom and opportunity which, we hope, it will continue to offer those who come from afar.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book of Bereshit / Genesis, which we will read next week, Yosef will request from his family that when they leave Egypt and return to Israel, they should bring his bones with them to be re-interred in the land promised to his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Yosef understands that his real home is there.

And today, living here “be-sof ma’arav,” at the end of the West, as the great poet Yehuda haLevi put it in 12th-century Spain, we are still undeniably connected to that small strip of heart-breakingly beautiful, holy earth halfway around the world.

So go there. Soon.

And let me add by way of conclusion that in the handful of parlor meetings that we have held since I started here, many of you have mentioned that we should host a congregational trip to Israel. So let’s do that. Let’s put together a task force and make it happen next year. That would be a wonderful thing. If you want to make it happen, come talk to me.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/19/2015.)

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Bringing Light: The Message of Hanukkah

I’m writing from just about as far north in Israel as one can be, in the mountainous hamlet of Neve Ativ, just west and slightly downhill from the lofty Druze city of Majdal Shams, perched high on the Hermon mountain shared by Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It’s the upper limit of the Golan Heights, and my son and I were able to look down tonight into the Hulah Valley below, framed by the lights of Kiryat Shemonah. There is actually no wifi in our cabin (I know… Can you believe it?), so if you’re reading this I have already returned to a more central locale.

Hanukkah is, as you might imagine, a happy time in Israel. Sufganiyyot (jelly doughnuts) are everywhere; schools are closed, and there are performances throughout the country. And, of course, there are lights and lightings all over – I was in a franchise of a well-known coffee-and-sandwich chain around sunset time last night, when the manager announced over the intercom, “OK, everybody, time to light the candles!” I had been nursing a kafe hafukh (literally, upside-down coffee, it’s the common Israeli term for cappucino), and there were only 3 or 4 other patrons. But the waitstaff, all clearly secular Jews, found kippot, produced a hanukkiyyah with two candles (plus the shammash) and motioned for everybody to gather around the bar. And then, despite the fact that I was desperately trying to mind my own business, they volunteered me to lead us in the berakhot. So I sang for a bunch of strangers who hummed along – they had no idea that they had picked out the only Conservative rabbi/cantor in Israel – and we had a joyous moment of Jewish holiday bonding.hanukkiyyah

More so in Israel than in America, Hanukkah carries a message: that of bringing light where there is darkness. In my own childhood, Hanukkah was the Jewish answer to Christmas – we lit lights proudly and placed them in the window to demonstrate that we were different. We played dreydl games  and ate latkes and sang silly songs about the joy of the holiday and ate chocolate coins (the best ones were always those made by the Israeli chocolate manufacturer Elite). But the message was always of (a) the miracle of the oil and (b) the Maccabean victory, neither of which really resonated so much.

But Israelis seem to get it right. The songs sung by children on this holiday invoke the theme of light. It suggests to my adult ear the classically-understood role of the Jews in the world: to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is our obligation in this world to bring light where there is darkness, that is, to reach out to those in need, to seek peace and pursue it, to protect God’s Creation zealously, to live the values taught by our ancestors, to apply the principles of Talmud Torah, of Jewish learning to illuminate this otherwise unenlightened world, to counter the forces of chaos, terror, and hatred with love, equality, and reason.

That is the message of Hanukkah. That is the light we bring. חג אורים שמח! Hag urim sameah! A joyous and enlightening festival of lights to you and yours.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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What We Need to Teach Our Children, and Ourselves, About Israel – Hayyei Sarah 5776

I’m flying to Israel in a couple of weeks to spend some quality time with my teenage son. My flight tickets were relatively cheap – that’s good for me, but not so good for Israel. Prices are down, of course, because demand is down. And demand is down because of the recent rash of stabbing attacks. Not so good for the Israeli economy, which naturally depends heavily on tourism.

I must say that every time I visit Israel, and I go often (I am proud to say that I have flown there about 30 times in the last 15 years), I have to kvell a wee bit. I am so proud to see what Israel has become – a highly-developed country on par with much of the West – and all the more so because of the obstacles that Israel has faced. Not that everything about Israel is wonderful – the traffic is horrible in the big cities, the cost of living is ridiculous, and there is a constant feeling of pressure that many Israelis feel – but when you pull back the lens, what you see is very impressive. I remember seeing poll data in recent years that despite all of their societal and political challenges, Israelis are actually among the happiest populations in the world. And that’s really surprising, given that most of them are Jewish.

Of course, the obvious reason to be proud of the State of Israel is that it is, in some sense, a fulfillment of centuries of Jewish yearning. One might make the case that this yearning began with the tale in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, when Avraham needs to find a burial place for his deceased wife, Sarah, and so negotiates with the Hittites for a plot of land in Hevron (Hebron), right smack in the middle of the Judean hills. The Torah is particularly explicit – not only does it describe the purchase of this piece of land and the formal negotiation through which Avraham and the Hittites arrive at a price, but it also identifies the specific area surrounding the Cave of Makhpelah.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hevron

Many of us might read this passage as a deed to Makhpelah, and arguably an ancient anchor point for the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. Certainly, many commentators believed so: a midrash in Bereshit Rabba (79:7) cites it as one of three places in Israel for which the nations of the world cannot taunt the Jews by saying that they are stolen lands. (The others are Joseph’s Tomb in Shekhem and the Temple Mount. Interesting that all three are today in contested areas!)

Jerusalem Old City Gates & Walls map The Old City of Jerusalem is ...

And throughout history, from the time of the Babylonian Exile (beginning 586 BCE) and thereafter, Jews living in Diaspora have looked to Israel as our spiritual home. We have highlighted our connection to the land in poetry, song, and tefillah/ prayer.

We are extraordinarily fortunate to be living in a time in which there is Jewish sovereignty in that tiny strip of land. Think of how our ancestors living in Iraq in the 6th century CE or Spain in the 12th century or Poland in the 15th century must have thought about Israel: distant, dream-like. The idea of a Jewish state in Israel, where Jews from all over the world could visit easily and regularly must have seemed so remote as to be inconceivable.

Who could have imagined that, 67 years after the creation of the Jewish state, that Jews worldwide would have to battle Israel’s ideological opponents both within and without our ranks? Who could have imagined that having a Jewish state would require constantly having to defend its legitimacy? Who could have imagined that Israel would be singled out for special criticism even as the neighboring government in Syria kills hundreds of thousands of its own people?

A week and a half ago, I sat with a group of teens at the JCC to talk about Israel. I was invited by Carolyn Gerecht, whom many of you know. My goal was to put the recent stabbing attacks in perspective. So, once we had established some of the basic facts of the situation, I took them on a whirlwind tour of the history of Zionism and the modern return to Israel.

We spoke about the earliest rumblings of Zionism, even before it was known by that name, in the middle of the 19th century in Eastern Europe. We spoke about Theodor Herzl and the Zionist Congress. We spoke about the British Mandate and the War of Independence and the Six Day War. We spoke about the Oslo accords and the Intifadas. We spoke about the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the subsequent series of military engagements with the terrorists of Hamas. If they were listening (and I know that some were), they learned quite a bit.

It seems almost crazy that we need to equip our teenagers with this information. American children of French extraction do not need to be prepared to defend the existence of the French Republic. But as we all know, there is plenty of misinformation, exaggeration, and downright lies about Israel that are being spread as truth, and we have to make sure that our children do not fall victim to falsehood.

There is a lot of concern nowadays about college campuses and where our children stand on Israel. But here is the problem: to truly understand the news from Israel, to dig beneath the headlines, one needs at least 120 years, and arguably 3,000 years of historical background.

You may know that the current attacks in Israel seem to be the result of a social media campaign, not organized by any particular organization, to stoke Palestinian anger over a rumor that Israel plans to upend the status quo over the Temple Mount. Without getting too deep into this, since Israel captured it in 1967, the Temple Mount has been controlled by a Jordanian Muslim trust called the Waqf. An increase in visits by Jews to the Temple Mount in recent years has resulted in the concern that Israel intends to take over control of the Temple Mount from the Waqf, even though Israel has stated firmly and clearly that this is not the case.

Judaism has traditionally discouraged Jews from walking around on the Temple Mount. Even though the Temple has not stood for nearly 2,000 years, there is a concern that it would be inappropriate for us to tread on the area that had been the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies (the inner chamber where the Ark of Covenant was kept, and wherein the Kohen Gadol / High Priest would enter once a year on Yom Kippur to pray for forgiveness on behalf of all the Israelites.) Nonetheless, I visited there in 1999, and even entered both the Mosque of Al-Aqsa at the southern end of the plaza, and the Dome of the Rock itself, which sits approximately where the Temple stood at the rocky outcropping at the top of Mount Moriah.

After paying my entrance fee, I was given a guide to the area produced by the Waqf that contained the following tidbit of information (this is a direct quote):20151109_142051_resized“The beauty and tranquility of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem attracts thousands of visitors of all faiths every year. Some believe it was the site of the Temple of Solomon, peace be upon him, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, or the site of the Second Temple, completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, although no documented historical or archaeological evidence exists to support this.”20151109_142105_resizedNow, had I not already been aware of the wealth of archaeological information that does in fact exist, I might have believed that statement. But I know that, despite what the New York Times printed a few weeks back (prior to issuing a correction), there is no scholarly debate on this point: both Temples were there. That location was undeniably the ritual and political center of Israelite and Jewish society for centuries.

I only had one hour with those teens at JLine, so I covered only the bare essentials. But we need to equip them with more information. They have to be able to spot a bald-faced lie like I did, and speak up.

We have to send them to Israel, and not merely on fun tours of the clubs of Tel Aviv and wineries in the Golan, and not only on archaeological tours of our ancient sites of holiness. We have to give them the background that will enable them to put all of the elements of the current situation into perspective. They have to know not only about the history of the Temple Mount, but about the Balfour Declaration, the UN Partition Plan vote of November 29, 1947, the Camp David peace agreement, and on and on. Our teens have to have these dates and places and agreements in their heads and on their tongues. If they do not, then the forces of denial and untruths will continue to whittle away at Israel’s legitimacy, at her very right to exist.

And that does not mean, by the way, that we have to deny the Arab, Muslim and Christian history in the land, as (in some cases) they have denied ours. On the contrary, we must continue to take the high road. We cannot lower ourselves to the level of those who peddle misinformation. And we have to give our children a whole lot of credit here: they will know that when we are committing sins of omission. We have to give them a complete picture, and acknowledge the breadth of history dwelling in that land.

And let’s face it – this is not easy, especially when it seems that our teens are harder and harder to reach. But the very size and importance of this task points to the necessity of ongoing Jewish education after bar or bat mitzvah. (This is a subject that has been raised around me continuously since my arrival in Pittsburgh; it came up several times at the inaugural meeting of Beth Shalom’s brand-spanking-new Benei Mitzvah Committee, two nights ago.)

Even though the deed to Makhpelah is in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, there are thousands of years of history that follow. We have to know that history, and we have to teach it to our children.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/7/2015.)

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Optimism, or, Building Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah – Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5776

There’s an ancient rabbinic story (now quite dated) that goes something like this:

How can you tell the difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Israel?

The optimist is learning Arabic. The pessimist is learning Russian. (This worked better back in the good ol’ days of the Cold War.)

I am not going to give the Israel sermon that some of you might be expecting. I’m not going to talk about the return of anti-Semitism after 70 years of retreat. I’m not going to talk about Europe or college campuses, or, for that matter, settlements and peace processes. I’m not even going to talk about Iran. I am instead going to talk about what very few commentators are willing to engage in: optimism. Hope for the future. Because really, it’s all we have.

I have been an ohev tziyyon, a lover of Zion, for all of my life. I have lived in Israel. I have a son that lives there whom I visit regularly. I am tremendously proud of everything that our people have accomplished in the modern return of Jews to Israel, from the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, to the many scientific advances that Israel has given to the world, to the easy availability of excellent coffee and, more importantly, free wifi everywhere in the Jewish state.

I have a qesher / connection with the land of Israel, a qesher that is also (as we discussed yesterday) seasoned with a sense of qehillah (community) and qedushah (holiness). In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that my Jewish identity, my qesher with Judaism, would be incomplete without Israel. When I met Judy for the first time, we discovered that we both had this love of Israel; hers was nurtured in a secular Zionist upbringing, while mine was more closely tied to my relationship with Judaism and Jewish life. We have since confessed to each other over and over that this Israeli qesher is a cornerstone of our relationship.

Given the current state of affairs, I am sorry to say that 5775 was not a good year for optimists. Public opinion on Israel in almost every place in the world except the United States has shifted away from Israel. Israel has come under fire in every quarter, from academic boycotts to an attempt to exclude Israel from international soccer tournaments to the performing arts.

Perhaps you heard about the American Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu, who was initially forced out of a Spanish reggae festival because he would not repudiate his support of Israel. After an international outcry, the organizers relented and allowed him to perform, and he gave them a little dig by singing one of his particularly pro-Israel tunes, a paean to Jerusalem, with exultant pride:

Jerusalem, if I forget you

Fire not gonna come from me tongue

Jerusalem, if I forget you

Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do

(The song references Psalm 137:5-6:

אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי. תִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי אִם-לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget; let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.)

In the midst of the last war with Hamas, in the summer of 2014, while there was much carnage and loss of life and Israelis going in and out of bomb shelters something truly unfortunate happened in Jerusalem. (This was really only a footnote to everything else that happened that summer.) The Jerusalem light rail system, the Rakevet HaQalah, was attacked. Well, not the entire system – only the three stations in the Arab neighborhoods of the united city of Jerusalem: Es-Sahl, Shuafat, and Beit Hanina. I have considered the ramifications of this quite a bit in the context of what I personally know about Jerusalem.

I lived there for about seven months in the year 2000, just before the second Intifada erupted, when I was a cantorial student at Machon Schechter, the Israeli teaching institution of the Masorti (Conservative) movement. At that time, there was no light rail system, and there was (at least until that summer) a certain amount of optimism in the air. Peace was on the way. The Oslo accords were not yet dead. There was hope for a future of cooperation, of an economic dividend on both sides of the Green Line – the Palestinians had even built a casino in Jericho with the intent of attracting Israeli tourists. Ramallah was becoming a fashionable place to visit.

Living in Jerusalem is something like living in Gan Eden / Paradise. Well, that is, for the first few weeks. Then one starts to be aware of the traffic (which is particularly vicious), the high cost of living, the heavy tax burden, the tensions between the various demographic groups, the political snake-pit that is the Knesset, the thornier parts of the Israeli character, and so forth.

Back to the Light Rail: In an effort to help curb the traffic problem, in the early 2000s the city began to build its light-rail system. For a few years it actually made traffic in the Holy City even worse, as Rehov Yafo / Jaffa St., the main drag in central Jerusalem, was torn up to build the rails. It opened in 2010, and I first rode it on a visit in 2011. It’s beautiful – stylish, efficient, well-designed. (It runs on the honors system, which is, I suppose, appropriate for the Holy City – you buy your tickets outside and self-validate on the train. Inspectors do come through and check from time to time, although I have never seen one.)

And, call me crazy, but as an engineer, I appreciate things like this: it has electronic crawling signs telling you of the upcoming stops and warning you about suspicious packages. But here’s the cool part: it’s in three languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English. So, if you can picture this for a moment, there is a kind of linguistic compromise in play on the sign. First it crawls from left-to-right for the Semitic languages, and then it reverses direction for the English. Once the English is done, it crawls back the other way again. I think that’s really cool.

But the most powerful, symbolic feature of the light rail system is that it was designed to serve both Jews and Arabs, in what is largely a segregated city, still segmented by imaginary lines. People could board the train in Shuafat and get off in the center of the city. (Although I suppose that many people here have been to Jerusalem, I would hazard a guess that very few of us have been to Shuafat. I have never been there, and I have walked many, many streets in Jerusalem.)

The fact that some Arab neighborhoods were to be served by the Rakevet HaQalah / the Light Rail was heralded as something that would be a boon to the economy. Roughly one-third of united Jerusalem’s population is Arab, and the perception is that many of these neighborhoods are under-served by city services.

Against the backdrop of the war with Hamas in Gaza last summer, the three stations in Arab neighborhoods were attacked by Arab youths and heavily damaged. For several months, the trains stopped running north of the Giv’at HaMivtar stop in French Hill. Those neighborhoods were cut off.

Some time last spring there was a captivating article in the New York Times magazine about the “psychology” of cities, and in particular how breaking transportation connections, like bridges or rail service, serves to weaken the morale of people on both sides of the breakage. Indeed, internal breakage in cities causes depression: economic and social. It drags the local population down. Neighborhoods feed off of each other for energy when people and goods flow freely. When areas are cut off from each other, says research psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove, the vitality drains away.

Now, we might be inclined to think of those who attacked the stations in the Arab neighborhoods as savage enemies of Israel and the Jews. And they probably see themselves as Israel’s enemies. But I think a more accurate understanding is that they are in fact enemies of the future. They don’t want cooperation. They don’t want any acknowledgment of or participation with the State of Israel or with us, the Jews, or even anybody on the Palestinian side who cooperates with the Jews. And they certainly don’t want united Jerusalem to feel united.

I think that we can all agree that the light rail is a good thing for Jerusalem, for everybody who lives there. Connections are good. Flow is good.

Understanding this, Israel restored the stations, and they were functioning again about three months later. But the wound in the heart of Jerusalem is still undeniably there. And all the more so: the trains are running, but the dialogue is not.

In the Jewish mind there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, and Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem. Yerushalayim shel mata has been ravaged for centuries by war and dysfunction: destruction of two Temples and two millennia of subsequent conquerors. By contrast, Yerushalayim shel ma’alah has always been under God’s sovereignty; it is the ideal to which the earthly Jerusalem aspires, the Jerusalem of our tiqvah / hope and our tefillah / prayer. We must admit that although we, the Jews, now control Yerushalayim shel matah, and safeguard the freedom to worship for the three major religions who revere her, Jerusalem is still a far cry from the heavenly ideal.

***

Israel is a very complicated place. When you visit Israel as a tourist, you see what some dismiss as “Disneyland Israel”: the Kotel, the Old City, the wonderful museums, the fantastic food, the sense of peoplehood and sovereignty twisted together in a magical bow that resonates deeply with those of us who make our home in Diaspora but (to paraphrase Yehuda HaLevi) whose hearts are in the East . There is something tremendously gratifying about quenching our yearning of 2,000 years by hiking in the desert, weeping at the Wall, and partying on the beach in Tel Aviv.

But Israelis have a much more nuanced understanding of their own country. It is small, crowded, and relatively poor: salaries are low and cost of living is high. Army service and the constant threat of war are ever-present. Never mind the breakdown between Arabs and Jews – the rifts just among the Jews seem insurmountable: religious vs. secular, Ashkenazi vs. Eastern / Mizrahi, right vs. left. It’s very hard for Israelis to be optimistic about the future.

Those of you who know and love Israeli pop music are probably familiar with the first Israeli supergroup, Kavveret, who were sent to the Eurovision song festival in 1974 to perform their hit, Natatti Lah Hayyay – “I gave her my life”:

נתתי לה חיי

ירדתי על ברכי

יאמינו לי כולם

למדתי מה זה סתם ונעלבתי.

I gave her my life

I got down on my knees

All will believe me

I learned the meaning of nothingness, and I was insulted.

The lyrics are cryptic, but most Israelis understand this song to be a critique of their own state: you give everything to her and she knocks you down. And I have lived there long enough to assure you that every Israeli feels this way at some point.

In truth, it is really a part of the Jewish psyche, both in Israel and the Diaspora, to see ourselves as constantly under threat of disappearance. In his essay from 1948 entitled “Israel: The Ever-Dying People,” philosopher Simon Rawidowicz posited that this innate pessimism dates all the way back to Moses, and is a constant in Jewish thought and culture right up to the present day. And we see it on display in its full glory throughout the Jewish world.

Pessimism aside, Rawidowicz concludes his essay by pointing out that, “a people who have been dying for thousands of years means a living people.” We are still here, and where are the Canaanites? The Babylonians? The Assyrians? The Romans? The modern states of Greece and Egypt are barely shadows of what they were in ancient times. And yet we’re still here, and we even have a Jewish state. The ever-dying people is still alive. Thriving, even. Am Yisrael Hai.

One might even say that Zionism, the political movement that began in the late 19th century advocating Jewish national self-determination, is the most optimistic venture that we have ever undertaken as a people. Given the status of most of our people at that time, it was a bold vision indeed to think that we could establish our own state in the land renamed Palestine by the Romans eighteen centuries earlier.

True, it was borne of pessimism: In France, the first country in the Old World to grant Jews full rights as citizens, the young Hungarian journalist, Theodor Herzl, was covering the Dreyfus affair in Paris in 1895. It occurred to him that if an angry mob of citizens of the most enlightened society in the world at the time could march through the streets chanting, “Mort aux Juifs,” (“Death to the Jews”) then there was no future for Jews in the Diaspora. It was this pessimistic outlook which inspired him to convene the First Zionist Congress in Basel two years later. The rest, of course, is history.

Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you will it, said Herzl, it is no dream. That is an undeniably optimistic statement.

And you know? We can still follow Herzl’s lead. We can return to the tremendous optimism that yielded Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, the greatest Jewish miracle of our time. And who brought about that miracle? We did.

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine the Israel that you want your great-grandchildren to visit, to know, to love. Is it a peaceful place? Is it well-developed? Economically stable? Vital? Not bathed in fear? Living in harmony with her neighbors? A vibrant, Jewish democracy? Imagine that for a moment.

We will disagree about the various political wranglings that must take place to build that Israel. As the old joke goes, two Jews, three opinions.  And it is OK to disagree, as long as we do so respectfully. But everybody around the table has to keep talking to each other.

(An aside: Regarding respectful disagreement, I’m afraid that on the domestic front we Jews and ohavei tsiyyon / lovers of Israel on both sides of the recent debate over the Iranian nuclear deal have been guilty of not merely being uncivil, but downright appalling public rhetoric, so much so that the Anti-Defamation League had to speak up to condemn it forcefully, calling it “hateful,” “vicious,” and “dehumanizing.” I certainly hope that such horrible discourse will never be heard again.)

While a pessimist is never disappointed, optimists live happier lives.

These Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, these ten days of repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are among the most forward-looking days of the year.

We gather to pray and sing, and of course to eat, and maybe hear a few bons mots from the rabbi. But we also gather to yearn for closeness with God, to ask for forgiveness, to seek reconciliation, to hope for a good year, to carry the sweetness of these apple-and-honey soaked days into 5776. In short, we should be filled with optimism on these days; we acknowledge that we have the power to change our lives, to change God’s decree. That is an incredible thing!

If we can do that for ourselves, we can also do it for Israel. Let’s keep looking to the future, and keep talking, and counting on the measure of Divine goodness that enabled Israel to come into being a mere 51 years after the First Zionist Congress. And we must keep building and rebuilding those literal and figurative rail lines.

So what’s the action item, rabbi?

It’s not so easy. Yesterday, I suggested the action item of wearing white on Yom Kippur. That’s simple.

Today, the action item is to follow the lead of Theodor Herzl, and turn pessimism into optimism. Think positive. Be hopeful. Not in a Pollyannish, naive kind of way.  But rather in knowing that doing so is part of our heritage, our tradition.  It is what God wants of us on these days, and beyond them for our lives.  I know as little as you do about the future, but I am pretty certain that hoping for and working toward a good outcome has a better chance of success than defeatism.

Consider optimism. Come on over to the sunny side of Jaffa Street as we inch toward Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem.

Shanah Tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/15/2015.)

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