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Being Jewish Today
What is the central motif of our People’s history and the ongoing evolution of Reform Judaism? “Innovation, anchored in Jewish tradition.” Since its earliest days in Germany and throughout its history in North America, Reform Judaism has captured the spirit of that Jewish evolution. The Movement has been truly creative, yet ever conscious of the inherent tension between that creativity and the rootedness of Reform in traditional Jewish life.
Since 1889, the Central Conference of America Rabbis – the rabbinic leadership organization created by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was the visionary founder of today’s Reform Judaism in North America – has led the ongoing conversation about who we are as Reform Jews and what we believe. CCAR’s platforms and positions, the Reform responsa issued by the CCAR since 1906, and resolutions of the CCAR and our sister organization, the Union for Reform Judaism (originally founded by Wise as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), bear witness to our emerging Reform Jewish identities and theologies.
In a recent CCAR publication – A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path – we presented an in-depth examination of practices, rituals, and beliefs; our relationship to Torah and halachah; the centrality of social justice; and issues such as conversion, interfaith families, and the relatively new Reform community in Israel. Conversations in the Reform Movement are confronting those issues head on. Reform Jews disagree – sometimes passionately – about what Reform Judaism can and should become, but that very diversity of thinking is one of Reform’s great strengths. Robust discourse and evolution of thought are essential to Reform Judaism, ensuring that our Torah remains a living document that preserves Jewish tradition even as we transform it.
So what would Rabbi Wise think of our contemporary form of Reform Judaism? He would be proud of the accomplishments of the Movement, which has nurtured and sustained a vibrant American Judaism while expanding its Torah and practice throughout North America and elsewhere in the world, yet ironically he might not even recognize today’s Reform as the Reform Judaism he thought he had initiated.
A sugiyah in the Talmud imagines the biblical Moses sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, confused by everything he hears. Moses does not recognize his own Torah! Not until he learns about the influence of the Oral Torah – Mishnah and Talmud—does Moses begin to accept the dynamic impact of subsequent generations on the meaning and experience of Judaism.
Just as Moses before him, Wise would have to learn that our innovations are built upon the foundation that he constructed, but that since then every generation has added its own layer. Wise would be pleased that today’s Reform Judaism is grounded on his core values and vision – to make Judaism relevant, inspiring, and accessible for the contemporary Jew – but at the same time he might be perplexed by current religious practices, the breadth of denominational and institutional Judaism, the depth of our connection to Israel, and our People’s integration into general society.
Just as he sought to balance the economic, cultural, and spiritual realities of his time, Wise would appreciate how we strive to do so today. Some of his challenges in the late 1870s are also our challenges now: technological advancement (then, railroad; today, social media); demographic shifts (then, European immigrants; today, our welcoming of community members raised in different faiths or different cultures); and differences of opinion about issues of theology. Add questions about the role of Jewish law, how best to use language in the prayer service, and how to engage the next generation in communal and congregational life.
Another critical contribution to an understanding of who we are and what we believe comes from the Reform Jewish prayer books published by the CCAR, starting with the first Union Prayer Book in 1890 and continuing through Mishkan T’filah in 2006 and Mishkan HaNefesh in 2015. While our liturgical publications have contributed to the theological and moral unity of the Reform community and to a sense of connection between one Reform Jewish generation and the next, that liturgy reflects our unity, not our uniformity. Mishkan HaNefesh – our newest liturgical publication for the High Holy Days – maintains the gorgeous, poetic, and often romantic language of our prior prayer books, while offering ranges of theologies, ideologies, and traditions that allow for individual intimacy and communal involvement.
“Innovation, anchored in Jewish tradition” beats in the heart of Reform rabbinic leadership, motivating us to enhance community engagement and education, and to create inclusive communities for Jews from all walks of life and for those who wish to join us on our Jewish journey. Indeed, today’s Reform Judaism embodies a teaching of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935): Hayashan yitchadeish v’hechadash yitkadeish, “The old shall be new and the new shall be holy.”
– Rabbi Fox
What is our mission as Jews in the world today?
What does it mean to live a Jewish life?
What should it mean?
These questions go to the very core of what it means to be Jewish in the twenty-first century. After countless years of trial and pain, why are we Jews still around? Why does the world need Jews?
The answer is HOPE. Yes, we Jews represent an incredible and most core value for humankind. We represent and live by hope. We are a concrete response to the Ecclesiastes statement that all of life is vanity. (1:14.)
We read in Tanach, “A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up.” (Proverbs, 24:16.) As some have said, life is all about the ability to get up from challenge. Greatness is defined as getting up one more time than you’ve fallen down. The Torah defines someone who’s righteous not as someone who had succeeded, but as someone who has persevered. It creates a paradigm of what righteousness is – trying to do what’s right; getting up from failure; and continually moving forward.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that Western Civilization is the product of two cultures: ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The Greeks believed in fate: the future is determined by the past. The Jews believed in freedom: there is no “evil decree” that cannot be averted. The Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy; Jews gave the world the idea of hope.
The whole of Judaism – though it would take a book to show it – is a set of laws and narratives designed to create in people, families, communities, and a nation habits that defeat despair. Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of mankind.
I believe that it is abundantly clear why the national anthem of the State of Israel is titled “Hatikvah” – the hope. For almost 1,500 years, we Jews kept alive our hope for a return to our land. The Passover Seder ends with the statement, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem and the Land of Israel are at once a concrete hope for a better reality and a metaphor of the eternal possibility of hope being fulfilled.
I am taken with the statement of the author Rebecca Solnit who writes, “Hope is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine.” For her, hope instead is an embrace of the unknown, a gift you don’t have to surrender, and a power you don’t have to relinquish.
We are a hopeful people. We are never broken.
– Rabbi Joseph
Don’t do it. Don’t make the deal.
You know the one I mean – THE DEAL. The one where you tell your kids that they can stop participating in Religious School and youth group after their bar or bat mitzvah.
I know, I know, they’re super busy. There’s soccer, and dance, and tennis, and play practice. Student government, and baseball, and theater. Not to mention the homework, which they’re doing at night when they should be sleeping.
I get it. Really. Things are different now than they were when we were young. Kids are overprogrammed and busy and stressed….and did I mention busy?
A few weeks ago, I was with our teen leaders at Temple Israel as they prepared for the year ahead. These brilliant, talented, kind, loving teens shared stories about being part of our youth community – what an incredible safe space it has been for them, how the relationships they’ve made through our programs are the deepest and most meaningful, and how they’ve grown as humans. They talked about being welcomed with open arms, about feeling the most ‘themselves’ when they’re together, and about the role models they’ve met and become along the way.
There is something so incredibly special about being part of a youth group – part of a sacred community. In a time and place when we’re running kids ragged, and they’re spending much of their down time staring at their phones, we give them this amazing opportunity to BREATHE. To be Jewish. Together. With a safe, warm, welcoming community guided by wonderful mentors and staff.
Your teens (well, most of them) are never going to be professional soccer players or dancers. But given the right foundation and the right opportunities, they will be conscientious Jews, good people, and strong leaders for the rest of their lives.
So send us your kids. Let us borrow your teens. We promise it will make a difference, not only in their lives, not only in your lives, but in the landscape of American Judaism for generations to come.
– Rabbi Lader
As Cleveland natives know, this city used to be the home of the Empire chicken restaurant and a major provider of kosher chickens for Jewish households. The six chickens in my backyard coop that provide my family and friends with fresh eggs would be horrified to learn that I eagerly checked on the internet to see if that restaurant had been re-opened.
In fact, Jewish identity used to be that simple and easy to prove – serve roast chicken for Shabbat dinner and matzo ball soup on Passover; know which food goes with what holiday, and why the rabbi at Mrs. Meisel’s wedding was so offended by the presence of real shrimp in the shrimp cocktails at her reception.
But the Empire chicken empire has fallen, not only in Cleveland but also throughout the American Jewish community. As members of the Reform movement today may choose vegan Thai food to eat on Shabbat, it has become more difficult to identify simple outward markers that establish a sense of Jewish authenticity.
I remember my mother storming into the kosher bakery that made the best challah in town, then returning empty handed to our car vowing never to shop there again. She had asked my eight year old blonde-haired sister to pick up our challah order while she picked up the dry cleaning at the shop next door. My sister had done so, but left the bakery with some confusion.
Why, she asked, did the lady in the store tell her that she was a pretty little shiksa? My mother entered the bakery, gave the challah back to the manager, and informed him that the use of that Yiddish word was disrespectful to both Jews and non-Jews.
When I recall that scene, I am embarrassed about the ways that Jews have complained about stereotypical depictions of Jews, yet have used internal stereotypes to determine other people’s religious purity. I would hope that we no longer assume that appearance, last names, or knowing a few words in Yiddish are things that confirm Jewish identity.
Does Judaism become one’s faith simply because we choose that box on a hospital admissions form rather than checking the box next to “NRP” – no religious preference?
Can we find intrinsically meaningful factors to bring us together and affirm our Jewish identities not based on boundaries that feel arbitrary or xenophobic?
Is it more respectful of ourselves and others to forget about Jewish identity requirements and accept the eventuality that there will soon be two Judaisms? One will be under the strict supervision of the Israeli Haredi Orthodox rabbinate, which meticulously guards the lists of those Jews with proper religious pedigrees and those Jews whose conversions are deemed acceptable. The other Judaism will be the one in which I proudly will find a seat.
My mother’s mother, Alta, legally changed her name to Ruth when she went into the mikveh in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The three Orthodox rabbis who stood on the other side of the mikveh’s closed door waited to hear the sounds of splashing water and her careful recitation of the Hebrew blessings.
Grandma Ruth wasn’t Jewish until those rabbis said that she was Jewish. For the rest of her life, she was proud of her choice. Then, this past year, the 23andMe results told us that my maternal line had been Jewish all along. So how should we define the real meaning of Jewish DNA?
Let’s figure this out together, both by diving into a study of our traditional texts and by harvesting from the wisdom that we hold within our hearts.
- Rabbi Schwartz
Warm and Welcoming?
- Imam Ismaél Chartier
- Rabbi David Ellenson
- Reverend Mitra Jafarzadeh
- Rabbi Michael Marmur
- Rabbi Sally Priesand
Burt Bacharach and Hal David composed these words: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It's the only thing that there's just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. No not just for some but for everyone.”
In 1965, those two men sat down and penned those amazing words, hoping and praying that their generation would leave racial inequality, war, poverty, and the basic human condition of selfishness in the past.
Here we are 54 years later. The world still finds love in short commodity. Hate, antisemitism, racism, anti-LGTBQ, and xenophobic rhetoric have captured our society again.
Inclusion is the missing element. Inclusion is central to unconditional love. Building a community that is warm and welcoming has to have unconditional love at the cornerstone of its foundation.
Being warm and welcoming isn’t just for those who look like you, think like you, speak like you, act like you, and love like you. Being warm and welcoming has to start with those who are not you – those very people who think unlike you, worship unlike you, love unlike you, live unlike you; act, vote, marry, and look unlike you. The very people who are – in fact – very different from you.
Love is the hardest lesson to teach, but it is the only lesson worth learning. Love is the most controversial subject that people of faith can discuss.
We are commanded to love God with all of our hearts. Doing so includes loving all of God’s children – all of us; those like us, and those unlike us – with all of our hearts too.
Love is difficult, yet beautiful. Love is complicated, yet freeing.
Love is the answer to all of our prayers.
Love is the welcoming community.
- Imam Chartier
As we move into the twenty-first century, the task that confronts your congregation and our Movement is how to make our synagogues and other institutions relevant, compelling, joyous, meaningful, welcoming, comforting, and challenging to the vast and diverse array of people who participate in our community and enter our spaces.
If we are to respond to the challenges that lie ahead, we need above all to be aware of the larger American context in which your Temple is situated. We must begin by recognizing that ours is no longer a largely homogeneous immigrant community seeking to adjust to the United States. Despite the newsworthy and painful reappearance of antisemitism in unanticipated ways over the past year, American Jews have been accepted into American life in unprecedented ways.
Intermarriage rates have soared and traditional Jewish communal attitudes opposing exogamy have undergone revolutionary changes. Old ethnic patterns that formerly divided the Jewish religious community are also no longer present. A vast cultural and ethnic heterogeneity – a heterogeneity that even now continues to grow – has come to mark the community, both demographically and ideologically.
We must candidly admit that current trends have led many to abandon the Jewish community altogether. The State of Israel is often a source of debate, as well as pride, for contemporary American Jews. At the same time, the voices of women and LGBTQ persons have been empowered and have found novel expression, and in modern-day America Judaism there is a vibrant sense of religious revival and a renewed search for religious and spiritual meaning.
All these factors must have a decisive impact on Reform Judaism and on the work of the synagogue. While divisions will continue to exist among the Jewish community in America, Reform Judaism has rightfully welcomed contemporary Jews of all stripes, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations to become full participants in the cultural, social, religious, and political life of our community. We acknowledge that ours is a diverse world and we struggle to be as inclusive as possible, even as we realize that the complete achievement of such inclusion remains challenging.
We also must understand that Reform Judaism today stands at a crossroads, where trends of waning Jewish commitment and attachment compete with pockets of intense Jewish revival and knowledge. The task of your synagogue as a leading institution is to help all Jews strengthen those pockets. It requires recognition that such revival and knowledge will take place both within and beyond the denominational universe and the four walls of institutions.
At the same time, the future of Judaism in North America, in Israel, and throughout the world depends to a large extent on the ability of Reform Judaism and your synagogue to maintain and revitalize Jewish religious tradition in a voice that is relevant and inspiring to the Jewish people today.
The past has witnessed enormous creativity and efforts to meet the challenges of the modern situation. The years to come will require no less.
– Rabbi Ellenson
At first, these questions seem impossible for me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, to speak to. But then again, our work in the world is dependent upon finding solidarity with those who know who they are and understand how they are called to identity and justice.
Knowing who we are means knowing who our people are, finding a community where we can live into our best values – that is the community of harmony and resonance, a place where we are loved, and loving, no matter what our flaws or struggles might be. Living into our values includes working, reflecting, and studying, but also relating to others, because our individuality, no matter how valuable it is, simply cannot shape us the way that community can. This first form of community to which we belong helps us form a core identity, but it is never enough.
We also need people who are different from us, people with whom we may have some things in common yet who see the world from perspectives different from our own. We need those people – whose values are the same as ours or so nearly adjacent to ours that we share them, but whose perspectives are different from ours – so that we are challenged to expand our own world view.
This second form of community, when embraced with integrity and genuine respect, leads us to a deepening of reflection, both for ourselves and for everyone involved – a greater effectiveness in building a more just world; and a wider understanding of who we are, and how we might be together.
Put more simply, we all would be better off if we could be even more authentically who we are, while being in respectful, creative relationship with each other.
I believe that if the divine exists at all, it must be larger than our understanding, more compassionate than our hearts, and would surely welcome all forms of belief and non-belief, for creation has brought forth all varieties of people, and the nature of the creator is to love its creation.
With that said, I serve many congregants who hold a Jewish identity alongside their Unitarian Universalist congregational involvement or membership. We each have the right to define ourselves, and we each have the right to change our minds.
Frankly, I'm not sure I can tell anyone how to be Unitarian Universalist, much less advise anyone on how to be Jewish. But I can ask questions, and I can sit with questions others ask of me.
In finding the space between, and in entering that space together, the work of religion, of re-connection, begins.
- Reverend Jafarzadeh
Your historic congregation and its great new Rabbi strive to maintain a warm and welcoming atmosphere. I hope to support that goal by complicating the conversation.
I want to suggest that when we think about contemporary Jewish life, the distinctions known to us from the natural sciences among solid, liquid, and gaseous states can be useful.
Designated behaviors, beautiful buildings, a Jewish State – these all express solid Jewish commitments. But Reform Judaism has always emphasized the liquid nature of Judaism – its openness to change; its adaptability; its diversity. And increasingly in American Jewish discourse there are those who can tolerate only a whiff of Judaism, a general spirit, an atmosphere, but are worried or alienated by more solidly Jewish iterations. For them, Jewish identity is not meant to be more tangible than a gas.
In my presentation I will suggest that, as we strategize for the Jewish future, the fourth state – plasma – may be one worth considering. I will ask the question: How do we make sure that a warm welcome does not become lukewarm, that an emphasis on the liquid does not make us tepid?
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that those who offer passion and certainty are attracting more adherents than those promoting complexity and irony. What must follow the warm welcome to ensure that our strategies of hospitality yield a healthy blend of the solid, the liquid, the gaseous, and the plasma states of Judaism?
– Rabbi Marmur
It often is difficult for non-Jews to understand why we care so much about Israel and Jews around the world. Our sense of peoplehood sets us apart from other religions – that is why our prayers are written in the plural. In my opinion, the greatest challenge facing any synagogue is the need to strengthen its sense of community.
One of the best ways to build community in a synagogue is by coming to services every week, or at the very least every other week. Coming to services regularly is a way of building community and supporting your clergy. Coming to services is important – I write that with some hesitation, because I know it’s an invitation for you to stop reading right now.
I’m well aware of what you’re thinking. Some of you can proudly say that you already come every week. Others are feeling a little guilty for having drifted away. But most of you are probably thinking: “Come to services regularly? Yeah; right. What else would you expect her to say? She is a rabbi, after all.” So please stick with me a little longer.
Now that I am retired, I face the very same challenge that you face every week when Shabbat dawns: to go to services or not to go to services. It may surprise you to know that, except when I’m out of town, I go to my temple every Shabbat. I sit in the last row of the sanctuary, where I can enjoy the view from the pew.
I will admit that sometimes I have to push myself to go, which gives me a greater understanding of why people choose to stay home. But on those occasions when I find myself hesitating, I try to follow my own advice, to remember what I used to teach before I retired – that it would be nice if every time we came to worship we would have a profound religious experience, but that’s unlikely, because we bring to the service ourselves and everything that happened to us that day. Often we are tired, in a hurry, fighting traffic; the crisis of the moment on our mind. We rush into the sanctuary, plop down, and think: “Okay, Rabbi, Cantor – inspire me!”
That’s just not going to happen each and every Shabbat. After all, rabbis and cantors are human too. But always remember that by your very presence in the sanctuary you have made it possible for a community of Jews to pray together, and that too is important. In fact, more than important, it is critical to the strength of a congregation.
When we create a spiritual community, we come closer to God. When we show up for services every week, we contribute to the survival of our People. And when we are there to greet everyone, no matter their background or beliefs – reminding us that we are all part of one human family; all of us God’s children; all of us worthy of respect, dignity, caring, and compassion – we ensure that our congregation is warm and welcoming.
– Rabbi Priesand
Our Relationship with Israel
I approach this the only way I can – as an Israeli.
For over 25 years, I have visited North American Jewish communities and your communities have visited ours. We have witnessed your rich Jewish heritage and your proud Jewish identity.
In times of war and in times of peace, Israel has always been the beneficiary of immeasurable support from our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Diaspora; and we yearned for your “peace” and freedoms.
Today, we see that the Jewish communities across the U.S. are going through difficult times. We – your brothers and sisters in Israel – understand your concerns and sympathize with your pain.
In recent years, much has been said about the strained relations between North American Jews and Israeli Jews. During my visits to Jewish communities across the United States, I always felt the good will and closeness between us.
At the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, we believe that a healthy Israel is dependent on a healthy relationship with our People in the Diaspora. In fact, this June, we are hosting Israel’s first American Jewish Festival for Israelis, in celebration of the bounty and beauty of North American Jewish culture.
Natan Sharansky once said that “[American Jews and Israeli Jews] live in such different conditions, we don’t make enough of an effort to understand the other side.” The Daniel Centers is working toward giving Israelis a deeper understanding of the American Jewish experience.
I continue to be inspired by the words of another great Israeli, our current President Reuven Rivlin, who recently said this about the Israeli-American Jewish relationship: “We must embark on a new path…of shared commitment to justice, to Jewish and human mutual responsibility…with a true partnership based on really knowing each other.”
– Rabbi Azari
The State of Israel is at once exhilarating and frustrating, inspiring and challenging.
Israel is both Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. As part of the Middle East, we continue to be in the throes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as a military superpower in a highly dangerous “neighborhood.” We have made the dessert bloom, revived Hebrew and Hebrew culture from TV series to poetry, and become a high-tech first-world leader in many fields such as medicine, science, and communications.
We are a mixture of ethnic groups and an assortment of Jewish histories spanning the globe. We are increasingly divided in matters of Judaism and democracy. We struggle with making our own Arab citizens feel at home, and they struggle with us. The founding socialist-secular ethos is in retreat, while more religious and extremist views are accepted and embraced.
How do we reconcile these contrasts? Are these matters a conversation for Israelis only, or should we include Diaspora Jewry on all issues regarding the Jewish nature of Israel? How has the fledgling Israeli Reform Judaism emerged as a powerful middle ground and bridge among these contradictions and challenges?
I believe that our relationship is crucial for remaining one Jewish People, despite the distance and differences.
The great Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver promoted Zionism out of his passion for Reform Judaism and the Jewish People, but he neglected to advocate for Reform Judaism in Israel. That is the task at hand. We must fight together to assure a “passionate moderate” liberal Judaism for Israelis.
For too many decades secular Israelis allowed the Orthodox to determine too many aspects of their Jewish life. Increasingly, they are taking it back, although we have not reached the tipping point of it making a difference in the Knesset.
As the first woman to become a rabbi in Israel, and as a veteran American Olah of over 40 years, I have witnessed a sea change in Israel. As Dean of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, I watch how our U.S. students and our Israeli students interact and build partnerships.
Let’s explore how the grassroots, underdog Israeli Reform Judaism is growing and changing the landscape and conversation of what it means to be a Jewish State. American Jewish participation is required!
– Rabbi Kelman
For our discussion about “Our Relationship with Israel,” I offer these insights and observations:
The aspirations of Israel’s founding vision, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, are most closely aligned with those of Reform Judaism. And on matters of religious freedom and equality, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews share core values and principles with Reform Judaism.
The significance for Reform Judaism of the State of Israel is both underappreciated and not fully perceived. Most missing is recognition of Israel’s role as a laboratory for the relevance of Judaism in the contemporary world – Israel tests the viability of a modern nation-state that aims to be both Jewish and democratic. As a result, Reform Judaism has not regarded the State of Israel with as high a priority level as it merits.
The non-Orthodox Jewish movements that are directly impacted by the discriminatory policies arising from the Israeli political alignments, which distort both Israel’s founding vision and the will of the Israeli people, never have developed a comprehensive strategy to contend with the overarching challenges inherent in Israel being both a Jewish and a democratic State.
The bond between American Jewry and the State of Israel is critical for the sake of Jewish unity and peoplehood, and is a vital strategic asset for the State of Israel. While Israelis may be ambivalent about the degree to which their government should take into consideration the views of American Jewish leadership on domestic and security matters, a large majority – 68% – responds affirmatively when asked whether they view positively greater “engagement from American Jewish leadership in advancing religious freedom and equality in Israel, such as in legalizing civil marriage and divorce and in doing away with the monopoly of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate”.
For the sake of Israel, Reform Judaism, and the Jewish people, our Movement needs to be far more engaged, outspoken, and committed in its relationship with Israel. In so doing, we need to be strategic, informed, and responsible. We must realize that inasmuch as the Kotel controversy may be relevant to many American Jews, it is a marginal issue at best for the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. Therefore focusing on it, as the Movements have done in recent years, would neither significantly enhance religious freedom in Israel nor grant Reform Judaism greater acceptance and relevance. There are other challenges in this arena of the unholy alliance of religion and state, which Israel faces, shared by both Israelis and world Jewry. These include, for instance, the right to family and gender equality. This is where our advocacy should focus.
Now more than ever before, we can establish partnerships across religious and political lines, and our efforts should reflect the unifying potential that this struggle offers. A prime initiative to advance this cause is the “Vision Statement on Israel as Jewish and democratic state,” which has already been endorsed by key leaders of Reform Judaism, along with others in all streams of Judaism and from different political camps.
– Rabbi Regev
This generation of high schoolers and college students has a radically different relationship with Israel than any generation before. The relative security and power attributed to Israel, unimaginable to any previous generation, has concretized the inverted narrative of David and Goliath as an unquestionable truth.
In a post 9/11 world, students have grown up amongst a fear of terrorism and domestic gun violence. In hope, we have taught our students that the sacred purpose of our faith is to fulfill the destiny of a people liberated from Egypt to flourish and protect the vulnerable in our midst. We have been vigilant to educate our students with a deep concern for the safety and welfare of Muslim and Black communities in America as part of our prophetic imperative.
The Torah instructs, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Deut. 16:20.) When we look at the text from which that statement is drawn, we find a directive not only of a social action orientation, but also of a covenantal contract tied to our connection to Israel.
As educators of this generation, we have taught Israel and tzedek as separate commitments. This generation’s connection to a Jewish and democratic state of Israel wavers; in the absence of historical memory, they read Israel’s political stances as inconsistent with the liberal, Jewish values to which they are deeply devoted.
Israel education of children, adolescents, and adults must be evolving and nuanced, seeking information from all sides and cultivating empathy for members of two marginalized peoples. Our community needs to learn to love Israel and its people and to feel obligated to it. At the same time, we must not silence the Torah inside our youth that drives them to honor the lives of all people, protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.
While many of these students feel a strong commitment to their Jewish identity, they espouse a deep alienation from Jewish legacy organizations and seek to make public what they see as a hypocrisy in American Jewish values. Differences around Israel politics have led to schisms in communities. The American Jewish community’s internal debate about Israel has become a media obsession.
Today, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s charge for us rings truer than ever: “Are we going to take counsel here of fear of what this one or that one might say, of how our actions are likely to be misinterpreted; or are we to take counsel of our inner moral convictions, of our faith, of our history, of our achievements, and go forward in faith?”
For many contemporary Jews, our “inner moral convictions” come in conflict with the discourse coming forth from Israel’s leadership. And yet, this is complicated by the confluence of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism around the globe.
The current crescendo in criticism of Israel within our communities coincides with an increasing sense of the important role that Israel plays in ensuring the safety and protection of Jewish people world-wide. We live in the heart of those tensions, and in this moment – as decades ago – we must go forward in faith.
-Rabbi Levin Rosen
Israel is much in the news – its geopolitical dangers and opportunities; alliances and adversaries; accomplishments and shortcomings; the unending challenge of being simultaneously a Jewish and a democratic state; its complex domestic politics and oversized role in America’s; its relationship to Jewish identity; and its connection to resurgent antisemitism throughout the world, including the United States. There are countless serious issues to consider and discuss.
But other essential dimensions of Israel are less evident from afar; aspects that Susie and I have long known and loved, and with which retirement allows us to get reacquainted. As you may know, we own a small apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, where we hope to spend 6-8 weeks each Spring and Fall. When we signed the contract in March 2016, we were told it would be finished by the end of the year, but we failed to ask what year! We finally “received the keys” in late 2017 and were able to begin making it a home.
Across and along the nearby street are colorful greengrocers, charming cafes, and small shops offering meat, fish, bread, cheese, wine, all manner of Israeli comestibles, flowers, giftware, Judaica, and convenience items. There are a lighting store, a framer, laundries and hairdressers, a pharmacy, corner markets, and grocery stores. Nearby are playgrounds and pocket parks; a multiplex theater that’s open even on Shabbat; a plethora of synagogues, including Kol Haneshama, the Reform congregation where we have long worshipped; a long promenade with a spectacular view of the Old City and the Judean desert; and “the Mesilla,” a landscaped walking and bike path laid on the tracks of the former Ottoman Era railway.
Yesterday, we did something seemingly mundane – we took the bus. Using our “RavKav” transit cards, the senior fare was the equivalent of 80 cents. (Our apartment has indoor parking, but we don’t have a car here, an unnecessary expense when public transportation is so reasonable and convenient.) Why “seemingly” mundane? Because the outing’s purpose was to register our new address with the Interior Ministry, as Israeli citizens are required to do.
After millennia of wandering and trauma, the restoration of sovereignty in our ancient and eternal homeland was – and remains – miraculous. There is nothing mundane about the privilege of citizenship in the Jewish State, including the right to vote, as we recently did, or even the minor administrative tasks that citizens must perform.
While many are unhappy with the outcome of the election and some are bitterly disappointed, that is hardly unique to Israel. And to paraphrase Mark Twain, “The rumors of the death of Israeli democracy have been greatly exaggerated.”
Given the wars that Israel has had to wage in self-defense, the ongoing scourge of terrorism, much of it Iran-sponsored, and the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one would think that Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens would avoid all contact with each other, if not be at each other’s throats. Not true, especially in Jerusalem. Wherever we go, Israel’s diverse demography is evident. On the street, and in buses, stores, restaurants, malls, workplaces, parks and universities, hospitals and clinics, Arabs and Jews mix and interact freely. Peaceful co-existence is not the exception here; it is the norm.
When all is said and done, “Israel’s situation is complicated.” Life here is sometimes tense, but more often joyful, with ample causes for both concern and celebration. What a gift it is to grapple with the former and to experience the latter!
– Rabbi Block