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HUC-MFA Seminar Israel Reflections 4-2016

Wed, 03/30/2016 - 12:00am -- Cantor Ben Ellerin

HUC-MFA Seminar Israel Reflections 

I shared the following words on March, 18 during shabbat evening services.  For anyone who wasn’t with us that evening, I’m happy to share my thoughts in writing.  The events of recent days and weeks show us that there are no easy solutions in sight but I encourage each of us to strengthen our relationship with Israel by choosing to connect, to learn, and to demonstrate our care through engagement.

At the end of last week’s torah portion Pekudei, Moses and the Israelites finally complete the building of the Tabernacle, or tent of meeting.  The Mishkan, as it’s called in Hebrew, was a portable sanctuary and residence for the divine presence as the Israelites traveled around the Sinai and Canaan.  Amongst the concluding verses of the book of Exodus, 40:34 reads:


לד  וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן, אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן.

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Adonai filled the tabernacle.

At the beginning of the book of Vayikra and our parsha this week, God calls out to Moses:


א  וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.

1 And Adonai called unto Moses, and spoke to him out of the tent of meeting, saying:

Some commentators conclude that that was the first time that Moses enters the completed Mishkan.  Moses, they suggest needed encouragement, he needed an invitation.

Earlier this year, I also received an invitation, although it came by email, not from a mystical cloud or fiery pillar.  It was an email co-sponsored by Hebrew Union College, from which I was ordained this past year, and Misrad Hachutz, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel.  The invitation was to participate in a week long seminar in Israel, meeting with community and political leaders in a concerted effort to help connect North American, and specifically Reform clergy and communities with Israel. 

Many of you may be aware the entire first year of study for a rabbi, cantor, or educator at Hebrew Union College is spent in Jerusalem.  And while a significant portion of our studies that year focus on life in Israel, past, present, and future, the special bond that is formed that year can fade if it’s not nurtured.  I’m very grateful that Rabbi Jaech helped me to attend the seminar and invited me to speak this Shabbat and it is my pleasure to share some of the interactions from my trip.

The seminar participants consisted of thirteen newly-ordained rabbis, myself, and one other cantor, and our first day focused on getting reacquainted with Israeli Society in 2016.  Since for many of us it had been several years since we were in Israel.  Our first meeting was with Professor Ruth Gavison, a Professor of Human Rights Law at Hebrew University and the 2011 recipient of the State of Israel’s highest honor, the Israel prize.  How do we balance building social cohesion with a multiplicity of opinions and backgrounds?  Before lunch we sat with a panoramic panel of Israeli and Palestinian educators to discuss what it means to be an Israeli today.

Following lunch we sat with Pnina Tamano-Shata a former member of Knesset (Israel’s national legislature) who is of Ethiopian heritage.  We discussed the ongoing challenges of young Ethiopian Israeli Jews, both the obstacles, and successes they have experienced in becoming a part of contemporary Israeli society.

Next, we traveled to meet with Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, a rabbinical judge and lawyer within the Haredi or ultra-orthodox community.  Together we discussed the evolution of what you might call the orthodox movements and the diversity that exists in Israeli ultra-orthodoxy.  As he described it, the many shades of black.  What we ultimately focused on together was the sense that the ultra-orthodox community is currently standing at a cross-roads between conservation and change.

Our last meeting before dinner was with the executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.  What is the Economic Condition of Israel and its People in 2016, what trends can be observed, and how Israel measures when you compare other nations. 

Dinner was followed by a survey of how Israeli society is portrayed internally in film and television.  This was the end of our first day.  We finally retired around 10 pm, collectively tired and jet lagged but excited and eager to rise at 7 am the next day to do it again.

If day one was to help reacquaint us with the diversity of Israeli society, day two focused on Israel as a specifically Jewish and Democratic state.  We began our day at Israel’s Supreme Court to meet with Justice Neal Hendel who was born, we learned, in Brooklyn.  We discussed the court’s pursuit of Justice and contemporary cases especially as they related to religious pluralism and the recent cabinet decision to dedicate a prayer space for men and women to pray together in a pluralistic and egalitarian way. 

The rest of our morning and afternoon was spent at the Knesset itself, where we had the chance to meet with Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli representatives.  We spoke back to back with Ahmed Tibi (United List), Sharren Haskel (Likud), Merav Michaeli (Machaneh Tzioni), and Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and to hear each of them speak passionately about Israel as a uniquely Jewish and Democratic state in such passionate but contrasting terms was inspiring to say the least. 

After lunch we sat for three hours to discuss exactly what the Jewish part of a Jewish and Democratic State could look like over the next few decades.  We were joined by three Israeli Rabbis, one from an organization called ATZUM whose mission is to remedy injustices in society, as well as the director of the “Human Rights and Judaism in Action” project from the Israel Democracy Institute, and the director of the Israel Religious Action Center.    

I wish I could continue in even greater depth but I want you all to be able to go home before Torah Study begins in just a few hours.  Day three focused on the strategic environment of Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East.  We discussed perspectives with Israeli political scientists, with a survey researcher for the Palestinian Authority, and a rabbi and community leader in Ofra, a religious settlement. 

Day four began with a deeply moving meeting at the home of President Reuven Rivlin.  Although the president of the state of Israel is largely a ceremonial figurehead role, without executive power, his meeting with us at the Presidential residence was remarkable on several accounts.  Reuven Rivlin as a politician has not always been sympathetic to progressive Jewish movements.  In 1989 he referred to Reform Jews as “idol worshipers,” and as recently as 2007 refused to address Reform rabbis by their title.  But the past decade has seemed to turn his perspective in the direction of pluralism.  In November 2014, he welcomed at his residence over 50 Reform leaders on the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College and told them, “We are one family and the connection between all Jews, all over the world, is very important to the State of Israel.” And to my colleagues and me, just this past Thursday, March 3rd, not only did he address each of us as Rabbi, he said, “to me, anyone who feels Jewish should be considered Jewish.”  His position as president may be largely ceremonial but he is the President of Israel and his words give me hope for the next ten years of progressive Judaism in Israel.

I could go on and on about the incredible and moving meetings we had with social activists and political leaders.  We met with communities in Netiv Ha’asara and S’derot who have only seconds of warning to take cover with their families when they are attacked by terrorists in Gaza.  And we met with Israeli Rabbinic students and rabbis who are showing the country and many Israelis for the first time that there is more than one way to be Jewish.  And you know what?  People are starting to like what they see.  There are now roughly fifty Reform congregations in the state of Israel and many more rabbis engaged in social justice.  We met with strong partners in the government and foreign ministry who value pluralism and who want to connect through real even if sometimes difficult conversations. 

This was a complex trip, organized by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself, whose goal was to help educate community leaders on complex issues.  But it was all and is always based on a deep and unshakable foundation of love.  If you have never been to Israel, we need to go together as a community so that we can fall in love together. 

Please by a show of hands, raise your hand if you have ever been to Israel.  Keep your hand raised if you’ve been more than once.  I can’t tell you how immensely fortunate I feel that I had to live in Israel for a year.  Before my first year at Hebrew Union College I was deeply embarrassed about how little I knew about Israel, that in fact I had no real relationship with Israel to speak of. 

I knew I loved Israel because for almost two thousand years we have prayed for Jerusalem and Israel but that was the extent of it.  But for all that I really knew about Israel, it could have been the Land of Oz or Big Rock Candy Mountain. 

I’m grateful I had to live in and engage with Israel and develop a deep and adult relationship with the land and people because moving from a world of black and white to a world gray is hard.  And when you don’t “have” to do it, you have to “want” to do it.  I went back to Israel with HUC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this month because I deeply want to have an ongoing relationship with Israel and now that I’m back, I want to help anyone who wants to make that connection for themselves. 

To bring it full circle with this week’s parsha, Moses spent nearly an entire year building the Mishkan with the Israelites in the wilderness, but after it’s completion he didn’t enter until God called out to him, until he heard an invitation.  I promise I’m not trying to draw any comparisons here, but here is my invitation to Temple Israel with regard to the State of Israel … Dare to Care. 

I’ll share one of the major obstacles that kept me from building a personal relationship with Israel in my teens and early twenties in case it resonates with anyone else.  I was deeply intimidated by the criticisms I was hearing about Israel.  I identified as both liberal and intellectual and I was afraid, what if I go to learn about Israel and I learn there’s something I don’t like?  As a teenager and in my early twenties, words like occupation and apartheid made me afraid to learn more.

But not learning more wasn’t the right answer.  I was letting other people’s platforms stand in the way of building my own relationship, stand in the way of seeing for myself.  In fact, the more that I engage with Israel and the deeper my relationship grows, the less those words scare me.  The more I read about Israel, the more I talk with Israelis, the more I know what to do with those scary and often inflammatory words, how to wrestle with them and how they do or do not hold meaning in my relationship with Israel.

Not everything we read or see or hear about Israel will be easy or comfortable to process but then again, Israel is a real and complex country like any other real and complex country.  In fact, I’ve heard rumors that some people are troubled by situations our own country. (For instance)

Like someone standing on the outside of the Mishkan, we will never know what is inside unless we accept the invitation to enter.  We cannot rely only on other people's descriptions of what they say happens inside.  We have to “Dare to Care” and connect ourselves.

When we dare to care, from the inside of the tent, we also have the opportunity to make a difference in the future of Israel.  Look at the recent successes for liberal Jewish movements who want to pray together at the Western Wall.  That was a direct result of concerted North American Jewish influence.  But the struggles unfortunately are far from over.  As we speak there is a bill before the Knesset aimed at banning Reform and Conservative Jews from using state-run Mikva’ot, or ritual baths.

For over 65 years, Israel has needed North American support in many different ways.  Today we can help Israel by developing our own personal relationships with her, making visits, and supporting those individuals and organizations that help build a secure, peaceful, and pluralistic Israeli future. 

Let’s help each other take these important next steps.  Maybe for one person that means reading one article a day from an Israeli-English Newspaper like Ha’aretz or YNet.  As questions arise, don’t be shy or afraid of conversation.  Come talk with me, Rabbi Jaech, Guy Felixbrodt or one of the many other Israelis whom we are fortunate to have in our Temple Israel community.  I would love to see us organize a trip to Israel so that we can engage and learn and deepen our relationship with Israel together so let’s take the first steps here at home in Croton on Hudson.  Thank you and Shabbat shalom.

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