By the end of Operation Protective Edge, a chorus of voices started harmonizing a discordant melody. The refrain insisted that “liberal Zionism” was failing to “support Israel” and that “Liberal Judaism” did not embrace its obligation to nurture Zionist commitments. Following the advice of our ancient sages, I resisted the urge to respond with an immediate rebuttal. Instead, I used this space on the TOI blogs to post three pieces which served as an understated way to belie those ill-tempered and misguided claims.
This post is a little different. Here is a detailed and direct rebuttal to that strident chorus of doubters and misbelievers based on the experiences in my ad-hoc congregation on Yom Kippur. It builds on my last post, Eleh Ez’kerah: These I Remember.
First, readers need to know that this congregation was comprised on Jews not affiliated with a synagogue. They represent the rising majority of Jews in the US outside of orthodoxy. Despite not being part of a formal congregation, they all still felt the pull to be in services for the Yamim Noraim. These services were not free; people were asked to buy tickets to attend. This is extremely significant; it points to the future of US Jewry, what it finds meaningful, and how to engage them successfully. After all, there were free options available to them, but they were all under the auspices of a Hasidic outreach organization. These families decidedly did not want orthodox services; they wanted a contemporary approach to the traditional liturgy and were willing to pay for it.
When it came time for Eleh Ez’kerah, seven readers came forward to read the names, ages, and home-towns of the fallen IDF soldiers. The youngest reader was 16; the oldest maybe 30. That our readers were the same ages as the fallen was not missed by the readers themselves, or the “Jews in the pews.” These young men and women read from pages that included the pictures of the men who were being remembered. After each reader concluded, we used push pins to post the pages to the wooden dividers behind the aron kodesh. The pages stayed up through the end of Yom Kippur. This wall of faces personalized the reality of these deaths for the congregation. I was reminded of the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, who insisted that to see the face of someone was to have responsibility for them. In our case, I know that at the very least, we all felt a connection with each of them. I commented that “66” is just a number until you see the faces of men who were sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers who leave surviving families, girlfriends, perhaps boyfriends, and certainly other loved ones.
During the readings, the firehouse across the street sounded an alarm. It startled more than one person with strong Israel experiences. For all of us, the timing of the alarm was equally spooky and appropriate.
Our teqes concluded with the traditional El Maleh Rahamim for the fallen of the IDF. Our shlihat zibbur from Kibbutz Ketura was too overwhelmed to chant; she had attended the shiva at one of the fallen from a neighboring kibbutz, and had connections through her kibbutz with yet another fallen soldier. I chanted in her stead. This is the third consecutive year I have engaged a member of Ketura to serve in this role, and not for the lack of qualified people here in the US. It is a point of pride for the people who attend our services that we are supporting Israel with our deeds and not just with our words. Thousands of shekels go into Ketura’s kupah every year from us.
Our alternative Eleh Ez’kerah was profoundly moving and meaningful. As a liturgical experience, it worked extremely well. People were engaged, attentive, connected to it, and moved by it. Our teqes also affirmed that love of Israel and connection to Israel is alive and well among liberal Jews, and that liberal Zionism supports Israel in direct and meaningful ways. To those who feel that liberal Judaism and liberal Zionism fail in developing and sustaining these important commitments, I have but one response: buy your tickets, and join us next year. If you come with an open mind and an open heart, you will see these commitments lived out for yourselves, and walk away with the knowledge that despite the claims to the contrary, there are indeed US communities of liberal Jews in which Liberal Zionism is both vibrant and vital.