In January, I was extremely fortunate and blessed to travel with many of my colleagues and new friends to Israel with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). This was a "different kind of trip." We did not float in the Dead Sea. We did not go up Masada. We did not even go to the Kotel (Western/Wailing Wall). The title of this trip was: CCAR Israel Trip - Art, Culture and Creativity: A Different Side of Israel.
This journey was coordinated with Da'at Travel/ArzaWorld. Our tour guide, an amazing and incredibly engaging educator, was Gilad Peled. Our fearless leaders and scholars were Rabbi Hara Person and Rabbi Dr. Carole Balin. This was a different kind of pilgrimage. Yes, we did explore Jewish history - but we did so through the art and culture of the past and present cultural leaders, beginning with the national poet of Israel, Hayim Nahman Bialik. Through art and culture, we were able to trace the beginnings of the Zionist idea of a homeland all the way to the present day.
This was a very intense week of travel. We arrived on Sunday, had an opening dinner with some of our Israeli Reform colleagues and then had an early night as we prepared for the week ahead! We began the week (on Monday morning) with a study session led by Dr. Rachel Korazim as we examined the impact of Bialik on the foundations of Israel. After reviewing some of his Yiddish and Hebrew poetry, looking at the tension between his Orthodox Yeshiva education and his vision of a secular Jewish State, we walked down Bialik Street in Tel Aviv. We were able to see the homes and architecture that illustrated the European-Jewish backgrounds of those early pioneers in Tel Aviv and the culture they established in their new Jewish homes. We ended this morning by walking through the Trumpledor Cemetery - considering the lives of the dreamers and builders of Tel Aviv.
After an intense morning, we were treated to a tasting tour through Shuk Hapishpishim - the Jaffa Flea Market. We enjoyed cuisine from a number of kitchens: Bulgarian, Bukharan, Middle Eastern, Persian, North African and Eastern European. We also saw some new cafes and restaurants as well - a true look at the diversity of culture in the Israeli culinary scene. Once our stomachs were filled, we toured the art scene in Tel Aviv by visiting a number of galleries. We were also able to meet with a couple of the artists and hear their stories. After a long day, we had free time for dinner and to explore. I (like several of my colleagues) took dinner to my room and passed out from an exhausting and exhilarating day!
The next day (Tuesday) brought us to a couple of places I had never been before. Even today, I am surprised how much of an impact these places had on me - on my identity as a Jew and as an American. We began our morning with a visit to the Um El Fahem Art Gallery. We were greeted by the founding director, Said Abu Shakra. He told the story of his family, specifically of his mother and the love she showed for him and his siblings. Said started this art gallery as a tribute to his brother, a tremendous artist. He introduced himself as a Palestinian, a Muslim and an Israeli. When asked about his citizenship as an Israeli - he made it clear that he considered himself proud to be an Israeli.
From the art gallery, we traveled to a place I visited in June 2019 with my congregation: Sindyanna of Galilee. This non-profit organization produces fine, fair-trade products while creating opportunities for Arab women, one of Israel's most underemployed sectors. We met with a couple of the employees, tasted some olive oil and were able to weave our own baskets (although it is more like a potholder). We enjoyed another fantastic meal - a Palestinian Arabic meal of maqluba (rice dish), mujadara (lentil concoction), salads and yogurts. We finished our day at the Polyphony Foundation, a music school in Nazareth which aims to bridge the divide between the Arab and Jewish communities in Israel through music. Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar, the founder and artistic director, spoke to us about his vision of using music to bring peace. We were also treated to a wonderful concert from a few of the students, ages 9-17. It was truly a wonderfully inspirational day. I hit the bed that night exhausted...but so thankful.
The next morning (Wednesday), thankfully, was a late morning. We were given a late start. We went to the Kinneret Cemetery, where many of the early Zionist pioneers are buried. We viewed a number of graves, taking time to talk about their hopes and dreams, their trials and tribulations and ultimately their successes. Several of my colleagues and friends treated us to a beautiful rendition of some of the early poetry in song. The Kinneret Cemetery is in a beautiful location, right next to the Kinneret. It was a beautiful morning...in every way. From there, we traveled to Jerusalem, to Hebrew Union College. We had a wonderful learning session with Rabbi Michael Marmur, and then were given time to meet some of the Israeli Reform rabbis and learn about their communities and congregations.
The following day, spent in Jerusalem, we meet with Rabbi Noa Sattath, the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement in Israel. We also met with Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. It was eye opening to learn about the efforts and movement of Progressive Judaism in Israel. They need us...and we need them!
While in Jerusalem, on Thursday, we were treated to a fantastic performance at the Kolben Dance Company. We met Amir Kolben, founder of the dance company, and were able to ask some questions about the company and the dancers. This was a really awesome experience. After lunch in the Jerusalem Market, Machaneh Yehuda, we were given a guided tour of the Israeli Art Wing of the Israel museum. The evening ended with an examination of a couple of short Israeli films at the Ma'aleh School of Film and Television. From dance to music to movies, we were given the opportunity to learn more about the history of Israel while also seeing the challenges and wonders of modern day Israel.
Friday morning took us to a hidden gem in Jerusalem - we visited an art gallery, listened to a musical performance at the School of Music and Silence, saw some amazing street art and visited a fashion house. We also had two important sessions - 1 with Journalist Dan Feferman and 1 with former Ambassador Dan Shapiro. We discussed the current situation from a political perspective. It was interesting to hear all of the different ways one can think about and view the challenges of living in Israel, as a Jew, Christian, Muslim or other.
We broke off into groups to spend Kabbalat Shabbat services at one of the local Reform communities, followed by a wonderful home hospitality dinner. It was very moving to be in a Reform community in Israel. What a tremendous day - not very busy, but inspiring, eye opening and moving, nonetheless. On our last full day in Israel (Saturday/Shabbat), we met with Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan. She is one of the most successful and important of the new generation of Israeli writers. She told her personal story to us...opening herself up and showing her vulnerability as an Israeli. Our day ended with a wonderful farewell dinner at T'mol Shilshom, a wonderful restaurant and second-hand bookstore where Israeli authors and artists meet.
This pilgrimage/journey/trip to Israel was unlike every other experience I have had. It was challenging at times, eye opening at times, joyous at times...and mostly exhausting. It was exhilarating to see the many sides/shapes/perspectives of Israel through a kaleidoscope of views. I am an American Jew who unabashedly loves Israel. I will never apologize for that.
The sounds of silence would be welcome now
As my mind swirls with thoughts and questions.
The screams, the put downs, the anger is ever present
As my soul yearns for quietude and peace.
The colors which have always been obvious to me
Are blended together in shades of dark light and light dark.
Do you see the anguish present in the light
Or the darkness present in the anguish?
Perhaps I will close my eyes and imagine peace or hope
Yet when I close my eyes I am afraid of what I may miss.
What if the world ceases to exist
Or the existence present ceases in the world?
I turn my eyes and attention upward
Hoping that God will respond to my despair.
Will what I hope for ever come to be
Or will I stop hoping for the future?
Adonai – be with me as you always have been.
Hashem – guide me in the path forward.
El Shaddai – protect me from continued despair.
Shechinah – meet me, direct me and stay with me.
Israel – the homeland of the Jews, the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael, Ha-Aretz. As a kid, I always envisioned what Israel would be like. I saw the many posters in my synagogue, I watched the videos and read the stories. When I first traveled to Israel in 1999, what I experienced on my first trip I could not have been prepared for. There were modern buildings. We had dinner in a mall. Israel was just like America in so many ways. As a tourist, I was in awe at the beauty and wonder of Israel. Sixteen years later, I am still in awe at the wonder that is Israel, but I am also keenly aware of the challenges and questions facing Israelis every day.
While I was living in Israel in 2007, I took a taxi with a few of my friends to go to the mall. As was usually the case, the driver started to ask us about our visit to Israel. When one of my friends, a female cantoral student, remarked she was studying to be a Chazanit, the driver stopped his cab, yelled that there was no such thing as a female Chazan, and then kicked us out of his cab. This story is a clear example of some of the questions and challenges facing Israel, even today.
Rabbi Miri Gold earned the dual distinction of being the first female AND the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive a paycheck from the State of Israel as a rabbi. Anat Hoffman, often seen being arrested at the Western Wall for her leadership of Women of the Wall, just wants the right to pray, read Torah and wear a Tallis. These are just two incredible women doing their parts to ensure gender equality in Israel. Rabbi Gold, because she is not an Orthodox rabbi, is not granted the same status as her Orthodox colleagues. The very character of the State of Israel is affected by these unequal policies. By denying its non-Orthodox Jewish citizens equal treatment under the law, Israel violates its own Declaration of Independence, which guarantees freedom of religion.
As a rabbi, I stand 100% with Israel. I love Israel – the people, the food, the culture. However, as an American Jew, I understand also that there are opportunities for me (and all American Jews) to help shape the future of Israel. Israel is not just the homeland for Israeli Jews; no, it is the homeland for all Jews. As a Reform Rabbi, I support ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America. ARZA speaks for all Jews, providing a valuable voice for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Religious Equality among all Jews, and for the safety, security and stability of Israel, the Palestinians and the entire Middle East Region.
So, the question is – will you step up and do your part to help create an Israel that cherishes the same values we cherish?? Each of us has a critical voice, and a critical opportunity. Israel was founded to be a pluralistic and democratic Jewish state. By supporting ARZA in the WZC election, you will ensure that the dream of the founders of Israel will be realized.
How can you be involved? Visit arza.org/election to learn more about the elections, and how your vote will matter. Beginning January 21, 2020, and running through March 11, 2020, VOTE. You can vote online or with a paper ballot. The vote costs $7.50 for those over age 25 and $5 for those 25 and under. The future of Israel is in your hands!
I am a husband, father and rabbi - just trying to help to make the world a better place!