Eleh Ez’kerah. These I Remember

American Jew. Liberal Zionist. Conservative Jew. The past year it seems that pundits across the Jewish world have been focused on the increasing irrelevancy of these identifiers. The term “American Jew” implies for many Israelis a serious disconnect from the State of Israel and its complex realities. In the face and in the wake of Protective Edge the phrase “liberal Zionist” has carried with it an implied dismissal of any real commitment to Israel. Finally, the concept of “Conservative Jew” has all too often confused the vitality of the approach that is Conservative Judaism with the challenges facing the institutions of the Conservative Movement. I reject the notion that liberal Zionism, the American Jewish community, and Conservative Judaism are the vapid concepts that they are portrayed to be. I challenge that critique from many angles, but share one particular example of why it need not be true, and what can be done to reframe the conversation.

The setting for my example is the musaf service on Yom Kippur. Deep within the service is the recitation of the martyrology service known by its liturgical title Eleh Ez’kerah, “These I Remember.” This section of the service combines the Talmudic accounts of ten ancient rabbis martyred by the Romans. Later, these accounts were retold as medieval Jewish stories, and even later, reframed into the liturgical expression we have today. Undoubtedly the Ashkenazi Jews who introduced this new liturgy in their day were motivated by the historical memory of the Crusades.  For them, it was their ancestors who were executed by “the new Rome”, the Church, which was recalled by this dirge. The idea of a minyan of Torah scholars executed by Rome was understood as an attack against the Torah and the entire Jewish people. The survival of both despite the genocidal efforts of Rome was redolent with meaning for the survivors of the Crusades. It is my sense that for most American Jews today, Eleh Ezkerah fails to convey the visceral impact that it carried for the traditional Jewish communities of pre-modern Europe.

I don’t recall when I first decided to introduce an original and contemporary take on this part of the service to my congregation. It has easily been over fifteen years. Each year I offered an introduction to the traditional service, explaining why it was part of the High Holy Day prayers, what Judaism understood martyrdom and dying for the Sanctification of God’s Name to be, and why I was replacing it with a contemporary alternative. I would explain that in every age and across the world there were Jews who were attacked and even murdered simply because they dared to exist as Jews. While the Roman efforts to annihilate Judaism failed, that ancient animosity has never disappeared. My congregants knew from their own experience and from reading news headlines the truth of that reality. Then, I would invite ten readers to come to the pulpit. Each reader carried the small biography of a terror victim published on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Sometimes the bios were not of Israelis at all, but foreigners who died for daring to be in Israel. Sometimes the Israeli bios were not Jewish, but Druze, Christian, and even Moslem terror victims.  Sometimes the list included combat deaths of IDF soldiers. The larger message was to affirm that even today, Jews and Israelis are targeted for attacks simply for being Jews and Israelis, and that often, the violence directed against us claims others even beyond our own. Every year someone different would approach me afterwards with their appreciation: a parent of a child who narrowly avoided a bus bombing in Jerusalem; the cousin of a person whose unit took casualties while repulsing a terror attack; the visiting Israeli whose own family was irrevocably changed by terror. This past year, my cantorial soloist visiting from Israel sat in tears as she experienced this contemporary martyrology. She told me she was thinking of the kids she watched grow up on her kibbutz who never came home. She also shared she never expected to see an American congregation make such a strong connection with the Israeli reality in this way.

This year my list was already well developed before the start of Operation Protective Edge.  During the course of the campaign, I realized that I needed to modify my modification of Eleh Ez’kerah. I realized that irrespective of the divisions of geography and philosophy, within and between the Israeli and American Jewish community we need to affirm our shared connections and commitments. I realized that I needed to find an apolitical way that American Jews could share in the sense of loss with their friends and families in Israel, one that focused not on government policies but on human realities. I realized that American Jews needed away to affirm that the brave soldiers of the IDF were truly committing themselves to die in order to protect the Jewish State, and the Jewish People.

This year our observance of Eleh Ez’kerah will be dedicated to the 67 members of the IDF who died in Operation Protective Edge. Their names, ages, and hometowns will be read during the service by volunteer readers. The special El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer for the IDF will be chanted, and we will conclude with the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. I can anticipate that hearts will be somber and again that tears will be shed.  At the same time I will be proud as an American Jew, a liberal Zionist, and a Conservative Rabbi that on that holiest of days, in those holiest of moments, the connection we will share with Israel will be spiritually transcendent, vitally meaningful, and inspiring long after the Days of Awe have concluded. I welcome and invite you to do the same.