Kol Nidre 5782: Committing to Israel

Do you remember those few good weeks? The period of 6-8 weeks this summer when it seemed like everyone was vaccinated and we briefly came out of our isolation? During that period, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel with our Cleveland Jewish Federation. I had not traveled anywhere in nearly eighteen months, so the prospect of international travel was daunting. After a long masked flight, I arrived at Ben Gurion International airport, submitted to the second of four nasal swabs the trip required, and made my way to my hotel for a mandatory two weeks of quarantine. The problem, however, was that my entire trip was only meant to be six days.

In order to break quarantine, I had to prove to the Ministry of Health that I had a sufficient amount of those coveted Covid antibodies. On the trip’s original itinerary, it was noted that we would be stopping at a gas station between the airport and the hotel for a serological blood test. I can understand if that sounds odd to you. However, Israeli rest stops are quite the bustling scene. I once entrusted a gas station pharmacist to fill an antibiotic prescription for me, so how would this be any different? My family still talks about my eating a prepackaged Israeli gas station ear of corn from which they never thought I would recover. A simple blood test paled in comparison.

Much to my chagrin, when we arrived in Israel we were informed that someone would be coming to our hotel room to administer the test. I entered my hotel room in Tel Aviv, pungent and weary from travel, and patiently waited for a knock at the door. A short while later, a woman about my age entered. She wore a jean skirt and a t-shirt from one of my favorite TV shows, Friends. She immediately began to flatter me. In Hebrew she said, “I was told that there is a man with a very American sounding name who speaks Hebrew well.” I admitted it was true. After chatting for a bit, this woman sat me down at the desk chair, pulled a needle out of her purse, and began to take my blood. Afterwards, she took a picture of my passport with what I can only assume was her personal cell phone. We chatted for a bit, she reminded me that I am not to break quarantine until I have test results, and she went on her way.

It wasn’t until after the door slammed that I gave the entire thing a second thought. Hmm. This unidentified woman entered my hotel room under the guise that she was a medical professional even though she lacked a uniform or any identification. She took my blood with a needle from her purse and placed the full vial back into her purse. Now she is walking around with a photograph of my passport on her cell phone. For a moment, I briefly questioned the legitimacy of the whole ordeal. Only for a moment though, as I was eager to shower and find some lunch. The next morning I received an e-mail from the Ministry of Health permitting me to break quarantine.

Why wasn’t I more skeptical of this entire situation? Generally, by our nature we Americans prefer an individualist society. Private things are meant to be kept private. However, it is natural to trust family in a different way than you trust strangers. I’ve always felt a familial connection toward Israeli Jews. In the end, I suppose all is well that ends well.

This story exudes a certain “je ne sais quoi” that makes us say, “rak b’yisrael.” Such an occurrence could only happen in Israel. We diaspora Jews would do well to explore this not-easily-named quality of Israeli Jews. We have a tendency to pigeonhole Israel and Israelis into some nebulous box defined by the media, or our own prejudices. Some of us attempt to map Israeli politics onto the American political spectrum wherein the Israeli right wing are compared to Republicans and the left wing to Democrats. In reality, many of the issues central to the American political debate are non-issues in the Israeli political arena. Israelis enjoy socialized medicine, a low crime rate, legal abortions, rights for her LGBT citizens, government funded gender reassignment surgery and IVF, and so on. On the other hand, many on the American left have begun to morph the once beloved fictional Israeli pioneer, Ari ben-Canaan, into a European settler colonialist. This, too, is simply not accurate given that more than fifty percent of Israelis are brown-skinned with Arab roots. All of this is to say that our relationship to Israel and Israelis is more complicated than we American Jews think. It saddens me that so many of us aren’t willing to put in the effort to work on this complicated relationship. Rather, we have relegated the responsibility of caring for our fellow Jews to those on the ends of the political spectrum. Sadly, many of them are committed to telling only one side of the story.

Whenever I am teaching about the State of Israel, I begin by examining relationships. I ask students to list as many relationships as they can think of: Friends, lovers, parent/child, siblings, grandparents/grandchildren, aunt or uncle/niblings, second cousin once removed who you see only at weddings or funerals, exes, crazy cousin who shows up uninvited and empties the buffet, etc. Then, I invite my students to examine their relationship with Israel and compare it to one of the relationships we have already listed. I do this because in order to arrive at a nuanced understanding of Israel, you have to be in relationship with Israel. It may be the relationship between spouses. Alternatively, perhaps the way you relate to your crazy, sometimes inappropriate uncle. Nonetheless, the relationship matters.

Why does it matter? For starters, Israel is where forty percent, some nearly 6.8 million, Jews live. If we truly believe the Talmudic dictum that, “all Jews are responsible for one another,” how can we separate ourselves from nearly half of the world’s Jewish population? As I like to point out, the root of the word meaning “responsible” is ayin/resh/bet. You may recognize the root from the word erev, or evening. In the same way that daytime and nighttime mix together at dusk, we Jews are inseparable from each other. This is true whether we agree with one another religiously, politically, or not.

Secondly, we Jews have made the mistake of falling into the trap of polarization along with the rest of the world. Sadly, the world Jewish population gains nothing by showing that we are as polarized as everyone else. Rather, we Jews should be using the tools of our tradition to lead the world out of this time of dangerous and militant division. It is true that American and Israeli Jews have different narratives. For Israelis, the world is a powerful place and so their ability to guarantee their own safety requires that Israel be a powerful nation. For American Jews, the narrative dictates that pluralistic society creates safety for Jews. The rise in anti-Semitism in America has shaken this narrative a bit. When I visited Israel this summer, for the first time I can remember, Israeli Jews were more pessimistic about American Jewish wellbeing than their own. This shaken narrative provides us with an opportunity to unite. Neither of us are certain of our future, neither of us are entirely reliant upon the other, we would do well to take a breath and exercise some humility and understanding.

This past May, the Pew Research Center released yet another study of Jews in America. Overall, it found that U.S. Jews are culturally engaged, increasingly diverse, politically polarized and worried about anti-Semitism. It also tackled our relationship to Jews in Israel. According to the survey, only 45 percent of American Jews see caring about Israel as essential to their Jewish identity. Forty percent of American Jews believe they lack commonalities with Israeli Jews. Meanwhile, according to a 2021 American Jewish Committee survey of American and Israeli Jewish opinion, 86% of Israeli Jews consider American Jews to be family.[1] There is a huge imbalance here. While the mainstream Jewish community overwhelmingly supports and seeks to build relationships with Israel and Israelis, this is not a given for your average American Jew. I once heard author and journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi, remark that, “The definition of American Jewish privilege is the ability to turn away from Israel. This was his way of describing the American Jewish ability to live our lives without needing to pay attention to Israel or how its existence might affect us.  We made it in the Goldena Medina, our own Promised Land, and even if our ascendancy coincided with Israel’s ascendancy in the second half of the 20th century, we did not see those events as interconnected as they really were.  The events of the past few years, especially this past spring and summer, has shown us that hatred of Israel directly affects Jews in America.  We can no longer ignore Israel, and we cannot avoid the question of whether or not we are a Zionist.

Now, you may be tired of hearing this trope from me. You may be thinking that Kol Nidre is not the time for us to be considering our connection with Israel and Israelis. You may have stopped listening minutes ago because I haven’t mentioned Palestinians, the Occupation, the problematic Israeli Rabbinate, or innocents in Gaza. Please do not misunderstand me, these issues are important. We should learn about them and debate them. First, we must understand the differences between ourselves and Israeli Jews, find ways to discuss these differences, and move beyond them. We live in a liberal democracy. Our motto is E Pluribus Unum, meaning “out of many, one.” While we American Jews were engaged with our welcome assimilation into 19th Century American Society, pogroms swept the East. Israel is an ethnic democracy, it is particularistic and seeks primarily to embrace the traditions and standards of Jewish culture. Each represents a different path to guaranteeing safety and security for world Jewry. Neither should give us a reason to distance ourselves from the other. Yehuda Amichai describes our shared past and future in his poem entitled, “The Jews”. I will share a bit of that poem now:

The Jews are like photographs displayed in a shop window

All of them together in different heights, living and dead,

Grooms and brides and Bar Mitzvah boys with babies.

And there are pictures restored from old yellowing photographs.

And sometimes people come and break the window

And burn the pictures.

And then they begin to photo anew and develop anew

And display them again aching and smiling.

Rembrandt painted them wearing Turkish Turbans with beautiful burnished gold.

Chagall painted them hovering in the air,

And I paint them like my father and my mother…

A Jewish man remembers the sukkah in his grandfather’s home.

And the sukkah remembers for him

The wandering in the desert that remembers

The grace of youth and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments

And the gold of the Golden Calf and the thirst and the hunger

That remembers Egypt.

And what about God?

According to the settlement

Of divorce from the Garden of Eden and from the Temple,

God sees his children only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

The Jews are not a historical people

And not even an archeological people, the Jews Are a geological people with rifts

And collapses and strata and fiery lava.

Their history must be measured

On a different scale…

Some time ago, I met a beautiful woman

Whose grandfather performed my circumcision

Long before she was born.

I told her,

You don’t know me and I don’t know you

But we are the Jewish people,

Your dead grandfather and I the circumcised and you the beautiful granddaughter

With golden hair: we are the Jewish people.

And what about God?

Once we sang Ein Kelohaynu/“There is no God like ours,” now we sing, Ein Elohaynu/“There is no God of ours”

But we sing.

We still sing.

For Amichai, and for myself, it is not about politics, but peoplehood. It is not about religion, but about shared faith. As Yehuda Amichai alludes to in his poem, Yom Kippur is a day of unique closeness between God and Israel. In that Yom Kippur is the day that God provides expiation for all of Israel’s transgressions, we Jews should feel connected to one another today as well. On Yom Kippur we are reminded of our shared destiny.

I would like to suggest a model for how we American Jews might consider our connection to our Israeli brothers and sisters today. It is based upon the oft-quoted statement in Pirke Avot by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiah. He said, “עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת.” Or, “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend, and judge each person toward merit.” Let’s break this down further:

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב/Make for yourself a teacher: Who is your teacher when it comes to learning about Israel and Israelis? If your answer is solely the Western media, I invite you to broaden your horizons. I believe that Canadian Israeli author and journalist, Matti Friedman, says it best. He explains that there are more reporters covering the Arab Israeli Conflict than the entirety of China or India. Why? Because it is fun and easy to be a reporter in Israel. You can go to an area of conflict during the day and record your broadcast while wearing a flak jacket and then still have a great evening at a Tel Aviv bar. People want their news to be simple and clear, but there is nothing simple or clear when it comes to the Arab Israeli Conflict. If we want to understand, we have to dig deeper. We have to read history. We have to hear multiple narratives. Ideally, a Rav is much more than a teacher. A Rav is someone you can trust, someone who puts you on a path toward asking yourself the right questions, and someone who invites you to embrace complexity. Another way of understanding this maxim is to note that the word, “Rav” can also mean multitude. You may recall the Erev Rav, or the mixed multitude who joined us on our journey from Egypt. Taken in this context, we might understand aseh lecha rav to mean, “Make for yourself a people.” This brings us to the next part of our teaching.

וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר/Acquire for yourself a friend: At the core of the word, “Haver” is the Hebrew root meaning connection. Therefore, this statement invites us to question who we associate with and who we are attached to when it comes to our relationship with Israel. We must forge relationships and understand Israel on a personal level. Though I do not have family in Israel, I have been blessed to travel to Israel many times. On each trip, I have connected with individuals who have enriched my understanding of Israeli life. This is as true for the Israeli teenagers I befriended when I myself was a teenager traveling to Israel as it is for the Israeli scholars, politicians, and social entrepreneurs I have had the opportunity to meet as a visiting rabbi. However, you don’t even have to travel to Israel to meet Israelis! Our Cleveland Jewish Federation brings Israeli emissaries to our communities every year. This year, our Shaarey Tikvah community has been assigned to Itay Adanya. You will have opportunities to get to know Itay, to hear about his home and his family, and perhaps his hopes and fears for when he returns to Israel and enters the army. Consider hosting an Israeli emissary in your home for a period. The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and the Mandel JCC are always looking for willing hosts. My family has found this to be a truly rewarding experience.

וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת/Judge each person toward merit: A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC. Along with some rabbinic colleagues, I attended a dinner hosted by Israel’s then Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. After debating whatever the newsworthy events were at the time, Ambassador Dermer simply said, “People have to decide if they want to believe the best or the worst when it comes to Israel.” No sovereign nation is perfect. Every country has its cautionary tales of poor leadership, baseless hatred, and political missteps. In the end, will we approach our relationship with Israel from a place of love or a place of skepticism and mistrust? I think we will find the former to be a more fitting path.

Just ten weeks ago, I was in Israel, sitting at a table in our sister city of Beit She’an. The room was a little more packed than I would have liked with a meaningfully diverse group of Jews. While we worked on building the relationship between the Jews of Cleveland and our brothers and sisters in Beit She’an, there was a quote from David Ben Gurion at the center of each table. It read, “The connection between the State of Israel and World Jewry is not merely or primarily a bond of need and utility, but is first and foremost a bond of destiny and fate.” As a Jew and as a Rabbi, I fear the severing of this shared destiny. On this day of healing and unity, I pray that we Jews can recommit ourselves to one another in the way we strive to recommit ourselves to the Divine. We are Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. We are the children of Abraham.  It is a necessary part of our identity to be connected to our brothers and sisters.  On this Day of Atonement, as we recommit to our highest aspirations, to become the individuals we want to be, let us engage in the fullness of our Jewishness, and devote ourselves to our Zionism and to the people of whom we are an integral part.

[1] https://www.ajc.org/news/top-5-things-american-and-israeli-jews-should-know-about-each-other

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