I was resisting writing a “final” (because while my physical time in Israel is over, the journey is still going on) entry about my first year of graduate school, but this past week I had the opportunity to speak at Shabbat services at my Temple, which gave me the motivation to write something about my year. The words I gave are below:
Imagine a place where the street signs are in the same language as your prayer book. Where the words you hear on the street sound like what your people have been reciting for thousands of years.
Imagine a place where the busses wish you happy holidays on Purim, where you can eat everything in restaurants on Passover and where the streets are so empty on Yom Kippur that you can lie down in them.
Imagine a place where people don’t consider you a Jew. Where people make nasty comments to you for practicing your religion the way you want to.
Imagine a place that evicts certain people from their homes and redraws borders. Where everyone eats challah on Friday nights around the table together. Where Orthodox men and sometimes women thrive, where the hummus is so good that you can never eat it anywhere else again.
Well, you may have guessed by now that all of these places are the same: Israel, where I studied for the past year, my first year of Rabbinical School at HUC. I think the Israel year is essential for future American Jewish leaders; it helped me to gain some firsthand insight into the multifaceted, controversial country that is so important to our people.
I was so fortunate to study there during a time of relative peace, in which we did not have any threats of rockets and the army reserves weren’t being called up en masse. I know that this newest surge of violence is on everyone’s mind, but tonight I would like to focus on my experiences over the course of my time there.
This week’s Torah portion is “Mattot”, tribes. Living in Israel really prompted me to ponder this idea. On one hand, I felt closer to the tribe of the Jewish people since everyone and everything around me was Jewish. It was a miraculous feeling to be the majority in Israel, to live in a place that runs by the Jewish calendar, and especially to not have to listen to Christmas carols for six weeks in the winter.
On the other hand, the tribes within contemporary Judaism are very clearly delineated, and I didn’t necessarily fit in. In Israel, you are either “secular”, which means that you don’t really observe Judaism on a day-to-day basis, yet still have Shabbat every week with your family, or you are “religious”, which means that you are Orthodox. Our tribe, Reform, does not really have a place in modern Israel, a disturbing fact that prompted most of us HUC students to feel alienated from our homeland. The struggle to open Israelis eyes to Progressive Judaism, in which people can be authentically Jewish without being Orthodox is a slow, uphill battle within Israeli society, but it is continuing to make small strides.
Throughout the year there was much discussion about Israel’s Judaism. Did we, as future Reform Jewish professionals, truly belong to Israel’s tribe? Will Progressive Jews ever fully be a part of Israeli society? Is that all irrelevant, because we are lucky to have a Jewish state at all?
My questioning of my tribe began even earlier in the year, when I went on a trip to Bethlehem, sponsored by J Street, a non-profit that works towards a two-state solution. I heard firsthand from multiple Palestinians about Israel’s unfair actions towards them, how Israel did such things as put them through daily humiliation at the border when they tried to get to work, or re-zoned their village so that their home did not belong.
This happens this week in the Torah, too, when God instructs Moses to lead an attack against Midian. Why would members of our tribe, whose inhabitants know plenty of suffering, put other tribes through such terrible ordeals? How do we justify our actions when there is not an audible voice of God telling our leaders what to do?
Throughout my learning, I explored these difficult questions and many others with classmates and teachers. We were told to absorb as much of Israel as possible, but many of us came away with uncertainty about our relationship with it. As American Reform Jewish leaders, what is our place in the tribe of Israel? Can we ever feel truly accepted there? And how do we internalize what we learned and bring it back to share with other American Jews without presenting a biased perspective?
In one section of this week’s parashah, the descendants of Reuben and Gad actively choose not to enter the land of Israel. Moses asks them, “Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here? Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which the Lord has given them?” This section hits home for us Diaspora Jews, especially now. Israel is incredibly important to our tribe, but how do we, a segment of the tribe that has chosen not to enter the Holy Land, fit in?
I don’t have any answers to all of my questions, but I am grateful for my time in Israel, which gave me the knowledge to ask them. For now, I say to pay attention. Read about Israel, visit if you can, and be conscious of what is happening there. That controversial section of desert in the Middle East seems far away at times, but we have a strong connection to it. Where else in the entire world can you imagine busses saying Chag Sameach at holiday time?
When I think of Israel, I imagine an incredibly important place for my tribe. I imagine a place I love, even when I disagree with its actions, a place I have a gut instinct to protect and defend. The actions of my tribe are not perfect, and I have chosen not to permanently enter the Holy Land. But, I hope to remain connected with it, and continue to explore the way our smaller tribe fits into the whole, as I pray for peace for all tribes, each imperfect in its own way. Shabbat Shalom.