Open the Door: Doors into Loving the Land of Israel

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When you visit Jerusalem, the white limestone buildings of old and new, rise out of the hills of the Judean desert. Buildings that are rooted in centuries of history. That have weathered wind and storm. Buildings that glisten with golden hue in the hot desert sun. Buildings which create a uniform vista of cohesion, that belies the religious and political tensions that have permeated eons.

Amongst the judiciously assembled stone-block upon stone-block, each structure, whether it be a house, a shop, or an office, is bestowed personality by perhaps a few architectural features. To my mind, none are more attractive than the doorways of these edifices.

Jerusalem doors are quite remarkable. Often photographed for their variety and beauty, you can find them on posters, on cards, in travel brochures, because of their individuality and craftsmanship. They are set in door frames – square or domed or arched. Sometimes the entrances are single doored. Sometimes two doors meet side-by-side.

Some doors are plain wood. Others are painted in Mediterranean hues of blues and greens and turquoises. Some are a mixture of middle eastern color.

There are doors adorned with intricate carvings of flora and fauna, others carved with swirls and scrolls, some with the infinitude patterns of Islamic art, others with a biblical scene or story. One passes doorways with simple black or copper metal work. One sees doors with intricate iron patterns and nature scenes, which could only have been welded by an expert craftsman.

There are doorways plastered with posters containing announcements in black Hebrew, Cyrillic, English or Arabic script on white paper– a meeting, a death, a proclamation. There are the metal roller-doors of the Shuk, the market, covered with graffiti and art that close at night to reveal their imprints. And there are wooden doors purposely painted with a picture or pattern.

Such are the beautiful entranceways into the buildings of the capital city of Israel, Ir HaKodesh, the holy city, Jerusalem. Beautiful doors that beckon us entry into their insides, just as Israel has always beckoned the Jewish community towards her midst.

Israel is an inextricable part of the Jewish conversation.

In the Talmud,[1] Rabbi Zera we are told, was desperate to enter the Holy Land, and he searched with no avail to find a ferry to cross a river to make his way there. Finally, he grasped a rope bridge, and crossed the water, in order to reach the land at the center of his soul. Rabbi Abba loved Israel so much that he would kiss the cliffs of Akko. Rabbi Hanina would take time away from his studies to repair Israel’s roads. Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi, when they would learn together, made it their custom to move from the sun into the shade, so they could avoid complaining about Israel’s weather. And, Rabbi Hiyya ben Gamda, rolled himself in the dirt of the land, because he took so much pleasure in her stones and dust.[2]

There are multiple unique doors through which we connect to Israel. Some doors open easily for us. Some doors open slowly for us. Some doors need a good, steady push. And sometimes, a door is so stuck, that we feel it may never open for us, or it would take a miracle to unlock it. These Israel doors line the streets of Jewish experience through millennia, till today.

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For some, the door of love of Israel comes from Religious School or Hebrew School experiences. There we learnt about the land tracing her waterways – the Mediterranean, the Kinneret, the Dead Sea, the Jordan–  marking out her cities – Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazereth and Eilat, on maps we colored. We sang the songs of her pioneers and her musicians, emphasizing the beauty of the land and the specialness of her history. Strains of the melodies of Zum Gali Gali Gali and Yeruslayim Shel Zahav, can be melodically recalled in our musical cortex. Our hands remember building the model Kibbutz out of popsicle sticks, and tasting Jaffa Oranges, and those “foreign” falafel balls. We learned a few modern Ivrit words as a lure to make the Hebrew of our prayers more relevant: Echad, Shtayim, Shalosh…

For others that door of learning about a Jewish homeland, in the black and white, either/or, concrete-operational world of childhood, evoked feelings of disloyalty to the America we loved. Could we be patriots if we felt an emotional bond to a land that was not the United States? The relationship to Israel tore into our young conscience.

45fe1a9f77d1eabeb1dd7d03195da2f2For some of us, a door was opened to love of Israel in youth group activities or camp.  We re-enacted Biblical history alongside our friends.  We played out the arrival of the pioneers, as they fled to Israel’s shores to find freedom. We visited a supermarket using Hebrew words for food items. In youth groups and camps contemporaries learned Israel dances. We built bonfires out of wood collected from the surrounding landscape like they do in the land of Israel on Lag B’Omer. On Tisha B’Av we mourned the historical destruction of Jerusalem.

For other members of the Jewish community, whose teenage years were a time of angst, the enthusiasm of peers relating to a country so far away made them feel all-the-more distanced, not part-of the group. For idealistic teens who held values high, and were being bombarded by stories of an Israel that was not ideal on their TV sets, questions about the land arose, and were struggled with. Could they be in relationship with Israel, a land that did not seem to live up to the ideal of being “a light to the nations”?[3]

20161117_092503-01For some, a door which opened a love of Israel was a trip to the modern State – Birthright, NFTY in Israel, a planned congregational tour, or a visit to relatives. As their plane landed, a demonstrative outburst as El Al passengers clapped, setting the scene for emotional connection. Suddenly they were immersed in the guttural sounds of Hebrew which they vaguely recognized – Shalom! Baruch HaBa!

In the land of Israel, they were surrounded by people who have our body shape and hair and faces, who use Yiddish phrases in amongst the Hebrew, and have a wry Jewish humor. Connection was created with their tour guide, and bus driver, and the young Israeli guards who accompany them.

For others though, such a trip caused hesitation. Jews carrying guns, lots of guns. Soldiers stopping mothers and children at borders. Governments that do not treat the inhabitants in the land with full equality. Witnessing of religious Jews intolerant of secularism or other streams of Judaism. The door opened on difficult scenarios that alienated rather than attracted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor some in our Jewish community, the entrance way to Israel is through the door of history. Israel is replete with where we came from, who we are, values and our conundrums. As we found ourselves at the road dating to the time of our patriarch Abraham, leading up to Abraham’s Gate at Tel Dan, we realize our feet may be standing on the same stones as our father when he was there to rescue his nephew Lot.  In Hezekiah’s tunnel under the city of David, the Siloam inscription provides archaeological proof that David was the King of Israel. At Masada, the Jewish spirit to live a Jewish life with integrity is emphasized in martyrdom. At the tombs of Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides in Tiberias, we know that our rabbinical tradition loved Israel so much, that our rabbis could not bear to be buried anywhere else. In the Ari Synagogue in Tsfat, we understand that the mystics believed they were closer to the Shechina, by relocating to the Holy Land. In the Kibbutzim, we hear the struggle of the pioneers who made Israel bloom again. And in the center of Tel Aviv, we visit Independence Hall, and put ourselves into that historical moment of the UN vote, and the signing of the declaration of the new Jewish state.

For others, that door of history is marred with doubts, because we are unsure about the veracity of biblical claims, we find distaste of the multiple accounts of conquering and reconquering, beginning with Joshua, continuing in the stories of the corruption of the Hasmoneans, and in our learning that the re-establishment of a modern state is in a land, once inhabited by Palestinians and other groups. Do we have rights? Have we been right? Have we done right?

door-old-city-of-jerusalemFor some, a door of myth and prayer is the entrance that opens their hearts to Israel. Our spiritual literature talks of an ideal Jerusalem, Zion. In the Psalms David cried: “by the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion… If I forget you Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning…”[4] In our daily central prayer we pray for the return to the land of our ancestors, not just a physical return, but a return to a spiritual ideal: “Blessed are You God, who builds Jerusalem.” And Judah HaLevi in his beautiful poem, Songs to Zion, sings out this yearning for return to the Jewish homeland, even if its physical reality is not that hospitable: “My heart is in the east, and I at the furthest west”, bemoaning our exile.

For other members of the Jewish family, these prayers and these mythical yearnings seem like an extension of a story that does not speak to us. Some of us born into Judaism, and some of us who become part of the Jewish community later in life, struggle with such a connection to the homeland. We are willing to forgo this line of thinking because it is not part of the spirituality we innately feel in our own lives. What has Israel got to do with our connection to the Holy? Isn’t holiness everywhere? Surely Judaism, should be more universal, than a particularistic loyalty to a land in this modern day and age?

Some find a door to Israel because it is the native environment for Jewish religious expression. There, in the land, the agricultural resonances of our Holy Days finally make sense, as the first rains fall at Sukkot, or the almond trees blossom at Passover. How wonderful it is to be in a place where everyone celebrates Chanukah with menorahs burning in window boxes by the door. And on no place on earth can you find more of a variety of Jewish religious expression than in the land of Israel, with the multicultural mix of diasporas that fed it, and the richness of the cross pollination of that Jewish expression.

For others, the intolerance of religious pluralism alienates. Where Orthodox does not acknowledge Reform, or Conservative, or Reconstructionism. When women are tormented for wanting to pray at the Wall wearing Tallit and reading Torah. When instruments cannot be played on Shabbat. When restaurants must be closed on sacred days to maintain their Kashrut license. A door is created that is closing or slamming on their connection.

sta50585Some in the Jewish community find their door to Israel through Jewish pride. The amazing technologies that have been developed by our people, such as machines that can extract water from the air, cures for cancer, or upright wheelchairs that allow greater mobility. They appreciate the strategies of the Israeli government and army, that is committed to protecting a Jewish people and keeping Zion safe for all Jews. They beam with a broad smile when an Israeli, Gal Gadot, acts on the screen as Wonder Woman, a symbolic representation of female strength and, (for the Jew) Jewish power in the world.

Yet others see in Israel a door of shame, because the land does not live up to the ideals of humanitarian needs that we would want from a Jewish state.  The Knesset is not always motivated with our ethics. The soldiers of the IDF sometimes act questionably. Our social conscience begs us ask difficult questions about the placement of settlements. Arab towns located within Israel borders do not receive enough money for basic infrastructure such as roads and water and basic health. And we question the oppression of others even though we acknowledge that the safety of each Israeli and tourist is important too.

Some Israel doors open easily for us. Some Israel doors open slowly for us. Some Israel doors need a good, steady push. And sometimes, a door is so stuck, that we feel it may never open for us or it would take a miracle to unlock it.

Through some doors, one of us notices one detail and others of us concentrates on another detail.

As we walk through the alleyways of our Jewish life, what is certain, is that the doors of Israel are ever present. We cannot avoid them in the streets of Jewish life and existence for they are evident at every turn.  They are part of Jewish tradition. They are part of Jewish reality.

As a Jewish community, we need to engage and open the beautiful doors, the scarred doors, the welcoming doors, the scary doors. We cannot choose to ignore the doors for they are a stunning architectural feature of who and what we are.

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At the end of this High Holy Day season, at the final service of Yom Kippur, Neilah, we are told that the door closes on our repentance, yet the door is never truly locked. The multiple, varied doors on our connections and disconnections to Israel should never be locked.

What if we used the opportunity of this season to share the view from our door with others and extend that opportunity throughout the year? What if we were to engage in respectful conversation of the details which we see, and seek to understand the opinion of those who see the details in a different light? What if we were to listen to the multiple conversations outside the door, under the doorframe, and inside the doorways?

The discussion on Israel needs the fullness of each of our stories, each of our views, each of our joys, and each of our concerns. We must be impelled to examine the lines, the carvings, the decorations, the ironwork, the handles, where the doors lead, where the doors shut. And figure out, which doors can we walk through with comfort? Which doors can we walk through with discomfort? What doors must we push open so that the conversation includes all individuals as part of this Jewish conversation? What doors do we need to enter and speak our truths to impel change?

In listening to the fullness of our dialogue, we might just begin to open new doors. New doors for connection to each other and new doors for connection to the state of Israel. Doors which might bring the ideal Israel, closer to actuality, in the world in which we live.

That would be a door worth opening.

[1] Ketubot 112a

[2] Psalm 102:15

[3] Isaiah 49:6

[4] Psalm 137

Never Alone: The Israel Connection

Sermon Theme for 5775 – Jewish Identity

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

When the incursion into Gaza commenced this last summer during the war now known as Operation Protective Edge, among the first Israeli casualties was an American who had made Aliyah. Texas born Sean Carmieli was the son of Israeli parents. He had made Aliyah from America, and was what is known in Israel as a “lone soldier – one who has come to live in Israel not having the physical support of his large family to go home to.

When he died, his friends went to social media, concerned that Sean would have a small funeral, since the family and the friends he grew up with, lived in Texas. They published a photo of him draped in the flag of his soccer team, Maccabi Haifa. The officials of the team saw this photo, empathized with Sean’ story, and urged fans to show up to the funeral, so that Sean would not be buried by his family alone.

In less than 24 hours, Sean Carmieli’s two sisters and 20, 000 people gathered at his funeral. They came in scout groups and biker groups. They came young and old. They came as individuals in tears. Most had never met Sean. Ariel Horowitz penned an amazing song paying homage to this poignant moment at the beginning of the war:

Esrim elef ish, v’atah ha’rishon /Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —

Esrim elef ish, acharecha ‘Sean’ /twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,

Tzoadim b’sheket im prachim/ marching in silence, carrying flowers:

Shtei Achayot, esrim elef achim/ two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.”

For me, one of the most moving lines of the song, filled with poignant lines is –

“a young woman holding a flag who doesn’t know why she’s crying so much when she’d never even known you.”

There are times we identify or are identified with a cause. The Jewish people and Israel are causes that are inextricably intertwined. Our relationship as individuals with Israel is one we must choose to be engaged in. We have no choice but to make it part of our identity as Jews.

My own politics are neither AIPAC or JStreet. I know we have folk to the right and to the left in their beliefs on Israel who sit here at BCRC this evening, and people who feel distanced from Israel. My politics are unaligned but they are not ambivalent. I am a Zionist and understand that my identity as a Jew cannot be separated from Israel, land and people. As Yossi Klein HaLevi stated so eloquently in a recent Rosh HaShanah article about the events this last summer: “I am, like many of us, a confusion of emotions. I am angry and fearful, grieving and grateful, proud and ashamed and, despite everything, hopeful”[i]

I believe in a two-state solution. I feel sympathy for the Palestinians caught in a nightmare world created by terrorists and am livid that the world perpetuates the Hamas myth that more casualties on their side, which Israel tried their best to avoid, makes Israel the villain. I feel sadness and fear for Israeli friends caught in the horror of constant terrorism hanging over their lives and for mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters grieving over their children. I accept as true that the conflict perpetuated by Hamas and reluctantly engaged in by Israel radicalizes Palestinians. I am angry that the UN has turned Israel’s right to defend herself into a war crime.

I dare to dream that peace is possible, and it will come, as Golda Meir said, “when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us” and when we begin to see the humanity in the Palestinians faces and souls. I advocate that we should speak out lovingly in our critique of Israel, but with Israel our loyalty should remain. For in Israel lies my heritage and right, our heritage and right. And when Israel is vilified in false reports in the media, it is my responsibility to speak out.

But not everybody feels as I do. There are Jewish pundits, journalists and activists and tribe members, who take the position that Judaism is separate and different to supporting the land of Israel. What happens in Israel does not reflect on Judaism and Jews elsewhere. They take the side of the Palestinians who portray themselves as the underdog, even if an element of that underdog is using terrorism to further its cause, in the name of social justice.

Rather than lovingly critiquing Israel, angsting with her people on the state of her soul, wanting the best for the Jewish homeland, they voice their dismay of Israel as a “them” rather than an “us”. If in disagreement with the policies of the Israel government, they voice that to the world at large, differentiating themselves from such behaviors, believing that there are no consequences for the Jewish people, and dismissing the arguments that criticizing Israel in such a way has a greater long-term effect on the Jewish people.

But there are repercussions for every anti-Zionist voice which affect us personally. Protests and demonizing Israel has melded to make anti Jewish rhetoric strong once more. In the past one might have been able to argue that anti-Zionism was not anti-Semitic. But these hatreds are more aligned than ever before and can clearly no longer be separated.

This last year has seen a rise in anti-semitism. It is hard to fathom the numbers found in the ADL Global 100 Report, the recently published index of surveyed anti-Semitism, that tells us that over a quarter of the world population holds stereotypes and hatred of Jews.[ii]  Much of this anti-Semitism is based in historical biases but reinforced by negative reports around Israel. The Anti-Defamation League has well documented in their Global100 reort, the belief by many in the world that Jews and Israel are one and the same. What I believe to be biased tainted anti-Israel discussion in our media, has spurred larger anti-Semitic repercussions. In this last year, there has been an acceleration of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which are in essence made of the same cloth.

Anti-Israel rhetoric is pervasive. From the divestment and sanctions put in place by the Presbyterian Church towards Israel, to the propaganda of the BDS movement that has falsely labeled Israel as an apartheid state, to the vilification of Israel at the UN, without condemnation of the terrorists Hamas who provoked and sustained the most recent conflict.

Anti-Semitism has followed quickly on its heels… From the political leaders in Turkey, Venezuela and South Africa who have called for violence against their Jewish population. To the protests on the streets of New York that damaged Jewish stores, to the calls in France for Jews to be gassed and bombed, the ice bucket challenge that turned into the blood bucket challenge at Ohio University followed by the arrest of Jewish students who protested this grotesque action, to the unlikely candidate running for US senate in Kentucky, who posted a sign on folks lawns with a central platform that reads: “With Jews We Lose”. [iii]

Two weeks ago in Jackson MS, my rabbinic colleague Ted Ritter from Congregation Beth Israel, ordered a salad and was asked by the owner: “A full size or a Jewish size?” When Rabbi Ritter asked the owner what he meant he explained: “It’s small. Jews are cheap and small. Everybody knows that.” Incredulous, and thinking he may have heard the owner incorrectly, he asked “Did you really just say that? The owner then asked him if he was a Jew and when the rabbi replied “Yes”, a whole lot of expletives followed, and the rabbi was asked to leave the restaurant. Rabbi Ritter wrote publicly on this, “It was all a bit surreal, so I left.”[iv] And then he spoke out asking for an apology fitting this Jewish season of forgiveness.

Anti-Israel opinion has garnered into anti-Semitic reality. Being anti-Zionist has become even more obviously than in the past, a synonym for and a justification for Jew-hating.  Anti-Zionism has become without equivocation just another guise for Anti-Semitism.

On the Facebook page of my dog breeder there is a cute picture of a puppy looking a lot like my Zuchon dog Ben Bag Bag. His mouth, face and paws are covered in a red lipstick he has been playing with and chewing. His little mouth has an innocent dog look. The caption reads: “No. I have not seen your lipstick. Why would you even ask me that? I’m insulted. Every time something goes missing around here, everybody looks at me.”[v]

We might ask what we have done to be blamed? We might claim to our friends and society – that Israel is not us. But will they understand? Will they listen? They see Israel as us. They see a smear of lipstick all over our faces. We have no choice but to make Israel part of our own Jewish identity, because the fate of Israel and Zionism is linked as one to us as Jews in the minds of others. Like our 19th and 20th century ancestors, Israel is our haven, Israel is our representation, Israel is our country – because we are Jews linked historically to our birthplace.

When I visited Israel this last year, as a Jew living outside the land of Israel, I was given the opportunity with a number of rabbis to visit the Knesset and to make the views of world Jewry heard on religious pluralism. Israel has always understood that what happens in Israel effects the Jewish world. That is why they allow Jews from other countries, not just rabbis, to lobby at the Knesset. We too need to have such an understanding. They are us. We are them.

This means that we need to make sure that we are educated around Israel. I have put together this evening, a sheet with resources for you to take, that will help you with this endeavor. You need to peacefully arm yourself through knowledge. To protect yourself and our people, you must become familiar with the history of the Middle East and its mindset. You must read history books and articles, play video games to teach us about the complexities of the situation (such a game night is on our Adult Education agenda), attend plays and films that show us the complexity of Israel and her neighbors today.

You must visit Israel if you can and become sensitized to the realities of everyday living. You must understand what it is to live as part of the Jewish people with Israel at her center. You must comprehend what it means to be a tiny democratic country surrounded by hostile nations. You must keep abreast of Israel’s politics, her challenges, and her struggle with mores.

Join organizations that are Israel focused. Educate your friends and those around us about Israel, and respond to newspapers and media when you see things that are falsely reported.

You must partake in having our voices heard in Israel.  ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists here in the United States, speaks for us as a Reform Movement in Israel. Who of you would be willing to take the lead in running an ARZA membership campaign among our congregants? Or is there some other Israel focused organization that speaks your Jewish language and politics that you might join?

Make sure that our children have a strong connection with Israel. Perhaps we as a congregation might consider a Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip for our families? Or you might speak about Israel in your car pool or around your dinner table? Or you might consider collecting Tzedakah from your kids allowance for a cause they designate in Israel fostering their connection.

You should consider buying Israeli products, trying Israeli foods, listening to Israeli music and learning Hebrew. Tout Israel’s achievements and be proud of her scientific and cultural and humanitarian endeavors. You must draw your soul closer to this country to which you will always be identified.

We must bear in mind that they, Israel, are us, American Jews. What happens there is linked to what occurs to us here. Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh B’Zeh. All Israel is responsible for one another.

In Ariel Horowitz’s song about the funeral of Sean Carmieli, the lone soldier, he sings:

“They came to thank you and to say goodbye,
to say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier
or a nation that dwells alone…”

Israel can never be a nation alone. It is our country even though we live here and are loyal to the United States. It is a nation that dwells inside our Jewish souls. Our destinies are linked.

It is our business to foster and maintain that connection. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom/May the One who makes peace on high make peace for us, in the autumn that Sean Gavrieli did not live to see.

This Kol Nidre, a night when we renounce vows that we did not fulfill between ourselves and our God, may we make a vow…. to recognize that Israel is part of our Jewish identity. May we make a vow to march with Israel through our lives. May we vow to honor her and to work for her and to pray for the peace of Israel and all Jews, wherever they live around the world.

Anthem: Esrim Elef Ish (Ariel Horowitz)

Translation (with thanks to Julian Duband who notated words, music and provided this translation)

Chorus

Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
in silence, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.

The soccer fans

who came wearing scarves in the team colors,

and a young woman holding a flag
who doesn’t know why she’s crying so much
when she’d never even known you.

Twenty thousand people…

They came to thank you and to say goodbye,
to say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier
or a nation that dwells alone
as long as in Texas, Haifa and Gush Etzion
there are people like you.

Twenty thousand people…

May the One who makes peace on high
make peace for us in the autumn
that you will not live to see, Sean,
and that’s why they’ve come here, from elderly to infants,
from Haifa, from Gush Etzion.

Twenty thousand people…

Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
silently, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers,

Twenty thousand brothers.

[i] http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/as-we-enter-rosh-hashanah/

[ii] http://global100.adl.org/

[iii] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/kentucky-write-in-senate-campaign-slogan-jews-lose-article-1.1945010

[iv] http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2014/09/23/rabbi-says-asked-leave-restaurant-jewish/16116385/

[v] zuchon lipstick