With the war in Gaza hitting a fever pitch, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum wrote a prayer for peace. Within the prayer, she recited the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children. She urged her congregation not to harden our hearts to suffering, wherever it occurs.
A member of her board resigned immediately. He posted his resignation letter publicly on Facebook, accusing her of spreading propaganda for Hamas.
Rabbi Ron Aigen faced a similar challenge, but from the other side of the spectrum. He asserted his belief that Israel had lived up to the highest ethical teachings and practices with regard to what it means to engage in a 'just war.' A congregant wrote him a letter saying that he was quitting the synagogue because there seemed to be no room for criticism of Israel.
A few decades ago, Israel was the one unifying factor amongst Jews. Across the board - Reform, Conservative, Orthodox ... Talk of Israel would provoke feelings of statehood and pride. It was safe to assume that for most Jews, Israel was truly a homeland. The land of milk and honey. Many of us recall the power of the images of the chalutzim turning the desert into an oasis. We recall iconic pictures from the 6 Day War, engendering a sense of detached Israelite patriotism from even the most detached of American Jews.
But those days are past. Now, congregants are leaving their synagogues, their homeland of sorts, because of divisive views shared on Israel. What once brought us together now wedges us apart.
With these thoughts, I have some trepidation as today I share some thoughts on Israel. These thoughts are mine alone; whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing, I simply ask all of us to to realize that no one of us has the complete picture, as if there even is such a thing. We have snippets of facts, we have very strong emotional feelings, and we have the humility of being limited human beings. Please remember, when Hillel & Shammai were furiously debating over a piece of Halachah, God's voice came down and told them, Eilu V'eilu Divrei Elohim Chaiim, These and these reflect the words of the living God. With regard to the conflicts in Israel and the many, many passionate opinions on every side, *Eilu V'eilu Divrei Elohim Chaiim. ... Caveats now aside, I want to talk about Israel.
And I can't reflect on Israel without talking about Ultimate Frisbee.
When we arrived to start our first year of rabbinical school in 1999, one of my roommates had an idea to play ultimate frisbee on Friday mornings. In Jerusalem, Friday is like our weekend, as many relax and get ready for Shabbat. Michael had played on Yale University's club team, and he talked me into trying it out.
He posted flyers at Hebrew University and at other public places around Jerusalem.
Eventually, our small cadre of HUC students expanded. After a few short weeks, we had about 20 regulars. This became part of our Friday ritual. We'd go to the park in the morning, play ultimate frisbee for a few hours, and then we would all go to the shuk to buy vegetables and challah for Shabbat.
Ok, great story rabbi. Why is this relevant to this day of Yom Kippur?!
Our ultimate frisbee group was a very interesting mix of HUC students, and Eish HaTorah Yeshivah students. Eish represents a different side of the spectrum than Reform Judaism. They are shomer negiyah, meaning that they don't touch women. They are shomer kashrut and shomer shabbat. And for a good many of them, they looked upon our conception of Judaism on a range scaling from condescension to downright contempt.
We argued about halachah. We argued about whether or not God wrote the Torah. We debated for hours once about whether or not there is a 'right' way to observe Shabbat. On one particularly heated discussion, they asked us not to invite 'our girls' to play. We told them, No girls, no game.
But, we loved these guys. We had a great time playing with them. We would banter and kibbutz at the shuk, sharing different Israel experiences. We talked about what brought us to Israel, and what brought us to Judaism. On one Shabbat, they hosted us at their yeshivah, as we prayed together, ate together, and learned together.
Some of you may have heard this story before, as it may be the single most powerful memory I have during my time in Israel. During our fall break, three classmates and I had a not-so-smart idea. We thought that we would be able to rent a car and successfully navigate Israeli roads ... and Israeli drivers. We wanted to spent Shabbat in S'fat, the birthplace of mystical Judaism, of Kabbalah.
We had to check in to the hostel before Shabbat, and we were running out of time. Just a few minutes before sundown we frantically arrived. We got directions to a famous synagogue and walked as quickly as possible.
We were exhausted. We were hungry. We were wearing t-shirts and jeans. And we were clearly American tourists. Each worshipper wore the full get-up of traditional Orthodox garb, including a very large tallis. They had imposing beards that only enhanced our feelings of not belonging. Close to the beginning of the service, my friend Ben whispered, One of these things is not like the other. ... We felt like we had been transposed into Mark Twain's sequel of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
As the service neared completion, we started thinking about dinner. In S'fat, there was no way to get anything once Shabbat had started. We figured that we just wouldn't have dinner, and we'd eat breakfast at the hostel in the morning. But just as we were preparing to leave, a man came up to us, speaking in Hebrew. He invited us to his home for dinner.
Dinner was amazing in every way possible, but I want to focus just on the fact that we were invited to dinner. If the situation were reversed, would we act the same? It was on this Shabbat that I felt at home in the homeland.
During that year in Israel, Wednesdays were reserved for tiyullim, for educational trips around Jerusalem. On one particular Wednesday, our professor Paul Liptz asked us do something different. Groups of students were assigned to particular neighborhoods around Jerusalem. We were to look around and talk to people. Ask them questions. Find out what they think about different things; politics, religion, culture ... I had the idea of asking passersby for directions to Hebrew Union College, as a way to see if they knew about Reform Judaism. Professor Liptz even dared us to knock on doors and ask to use the bathroom!
For a few hours we played sociologists, speaking with people, taking note of the demographics of the neighborhood and asking questions. As time grew short, we felt more daring. My friend Melissa said, Let's knock on someone's door. I'll ask if I can use the bathroom
We walked to the first house we found and knocked on the door. We all stood back in nervous anxiety, as Melissa asked to use the bathroom. The woman let Melissa into her house and closed the door.
We couldn't believe that it actually worked, that a stranger would let another stranger into their home just to use the bathroom. A minute later, she opened the door again and said, My granddaughter is visiting me for the afternoon and we're about to have lunch - come join us!
As we sat in her beautiful garden, we 'fessed up to the truth of why we knocked on her door. She talked to us about Israeli culture and we talked to her about Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College, and life in America. To an outsider, it would have looked like a group friends and family having lunch. Hiney Mah Tov Uma Naiim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad, How good it is that friends, brothers and sisters can sit together.
One last vignette from my year in Israel.
My roommate and I decided to visit Gaza. A bus left from East Jerusalem and into the West Bank. Our guide took us to various places, talking about the various conflicts that have erupted, and giving some context to the struggles of its citizens.
We walked into a refugee camp and spoke to residents there. Their lives were ones of suffering. They wanted good schools and safe housing. They wanted opportunities for their future. These people, these grandfathers, grandmothers, sons and daughters were not focused on the annihilation of the Jewish people or of Israel, they were focused on their own betterment.
I don't remember many specifics of that day, but I remember quite clearly coming out of the West Bank grateful that I decided to go there. It provided a perspective that I never would have gotten from watching the news or reading a newspaper. It made things more complicated, not less. But as we know, Israel is named after Yisrael, meaning, 'to struggle.' We must engage in these complexities, and not reduce them to simple, trite statements. Our namesake, Yisrael demands that we struggle with the varied realities of Israel.
I love Israel. I have been four times, and each time it is enhanced my Jewish identity. With full conviction, I believe that I am a better Jew because of Israel. But, I also struggle, sometimes greatly, with some of what happens in Israel. It hurts me that women are not allowed to pray at the Western Wall in the same manner that I am able. It infuriates me that an EL-AL flight was recently detained on a runway for eleven hours because black hat Jews refused to sit next to women. In our homeland, Liberal Judaism is often treated as a blight upon world Jewry.
I have no answers this morning. Just as the cruel decree of life can surprise us with unforeseen consequences, nothing I will say today will bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
But even as we struggle this morning, there is comfort and peace. Each vignette that I shared deals with seemingly disparate people coming together. What seemed like an 'us' and a 'them' merged into 'we.' These experiences give me hope that there can indeed be peace in our homeland of Israel. Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu, there will yet be peace amongst us. Not peace amongst them, and peace among them .... peace amongst us.
I ask that we, sitting here today, do not harden our hearts. On this day of days, let us open our hearts in order to welcome the stranger, embrace the guest, and most importantly, be open to becoming Yisrael ... to struggle with the complex reality of Israel's life by learning from others whose experiences are different than our own. Eilu V'eilu Divrei Elohim. These and these reflect the words of the living God.