There is something unexplainable that happens every time I leave Israel… Slowly but surely as a trip comes to an end and regardless of what I came to Israel for, I experience a deep sense of nostalgia mixed with a profound feeling of sadness and self pity. I know, it sounds dramatic! Let me explain; Many years ago I made the decision that I would stay on this side of the ocean, that from here and at a considerable distance from the very young and newly again established sixty five year old epicenter of The Jewish World I would devote my life to the service of The Jewish People. There is nothing wrong with that except that I was brought up to believe that to be a true Zionist, to absolutely realize the zionist dream one must at some point and without hesitation unequivocally pack ones bags and move to Israel. This idea was so engrained in my being, that to put it in terms that King Solomon would have used and understood it was set as a seal upon my heart! “Loving Israel means moving to Israel, there is no other way!”
Things have changed so much… My father used to say to me that one of the hardest things for him as a teenager was growing up in a world without Israel! I have always understood those words not only as my father reminiscing about his youth but as a true, blunt and very direct warning. Now, I understand something that I didn’t understand some years ago. To be a Zionist today means to strengthen Israel in any way possible! There is however another interesting part to this not so shocking observation: Being a zionist today means making sure that Israel understands its responsibility in knowing how, when and why it also needs to strengthen the Jewish World! Every Jew should always long for Zion! The moment one stops longing for Zion that means that there is something wrong. My longing, however, was always accompanied with a sense of terrible uncalled for shame. The type of shame that a person experiences when caught doing something wrong! After many years of work within The Jewish Community I finally understand that it is not me that should feel the shame but those who fail to understand the importance of Israel and I am not speaking of people outside of Israel only… I am talking about the hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide who send hundreds of thousands of emails every day feeling enraged about acts of antisemitism occurring miles away from their own homes but who in reality do nothing other than feel that indignation and press send! I am also talking about the Israelis that I encounter every day when I travel or study through Israel who don’t hesitate to tell me loud and clear how crazy I am for loving Israel so much! I recently had a conversation with an Israeli who told me: “Look, I live in the Land not of milk and honey but of corruption and taxation! We have a former President incarcerated for rape, a former Prime Minister who gets indicted every other week and a current Prime Minister that is involved in some sort of financial impropriety every Tuesday! Should I love this Land?” To which I replied that at least corruption gets investigated, rapists get thrown in jail even if the rapist happens to be The President of Israel (Katzav). Just a couple of days ago, in what seems to be yet another set back to the advance of pluralism and multicolor and multifaceted Judaism in Israel two Chief Rabbis were elected that represent not hope and vision for a better future but the same narrow minded approach that has distinguished that office for the last several decades. LIke I say to many of my friends who seem to be so discouraged… This is not the end, just the outcome of one of the many battles that will be fought on the hard and difficult path to becoming a “Normal People” in a “Normal State” and that by the way includes the realization that the office of The Chief Rabbi is an Ottoman invention that should hold no weight and no space in the twenty first century.
As a young country of sixty five years, Israel is a walking talking laboratory of what Judaism ought to be and should not be, of what Judaism is and what it has yet to become! Is it perfect? Absolutely not! What I ask myself more often than not is if it is a place that can teach something to my children. The answer most of the time is unequivocally yes. A couple of months ago, I experienced a moment of weakness when a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in a long time convinced me to fly ElAl with him as we traveled to The Rabbinical Assembly Convention in Israel together. When the moment finally came and we boarded the plane, I must admit that the plane was old. The food was not great to say the least and the security check went from a nuance to insultingly ridiculous when the security person asked me if “Beth Sholom is the name of my congregation or is that some sort of a franchise that exists in every city…” But deep down, there is something amazing about boarding a plane with a Star of David on its tail. To know that a little over seventy years ago we were left alone to die as a people by everyone in the world and today we can determine our own destiny! At the end of this very same trip when I was driving down from Jerusalem to go back to the airport, I saw the old 1948 convoy in the middle of the road and tears came to my eyes! Self determination! That is what Zionism is, that is what it always was and that is what it must always mean. Those of us who do not live in Israel have also an important role to play, we give each other strength!
I have a good friend who lives in the hills of Samaria. He made Aliyah from Argentina right after the Jewish Community Center in Argentina was blown to pieces almost twenty years ago. His son Joel, his oldest of six children just entered the IDF. I recently spent Shabbat in his home right when Joel was coming home after almost six weeks away in training. The young man was exhausted but he was so proud… His sister and brothers prepared a sign for him that read “Welcome home to our brother the greatest hero in the world!” By the way, did I mention that in Israel I cry all the time! Joel made a commitment to himself not to enroll in a Yeshivat Hesder which would have softened the time he served in the army! Three full years, he sees himself as a shield between the terrorists, Israel’s enemies and his six little brothers and sister! How can this not make you cry and how can this not make you proud! This is Zionism and this is self determination!
As a Conservative Rabbi I sometimes struggle to understand the deep disconnection that exists between some of my congregants whom I love, and Israel. To some Israel is just a country on the other side of the world. As much as I try to explain that Judaism is not only a religion but a way of life that binds us together as a people, I am clearly not being successful enough in making that obvious connection with which Israel explains herself in a very direct way! One of the reasons why I became a Conservative Rabbi and not a Reform Rabbi or Orthodox Rabbi (aside from the obvious theological differences) was because of Conservative Judaism’s indisputable historical link to Israel. “The only one of the movements Zionist since inception!” That is what MK Naftali Benett said to The Rabbinical Assembly Convention gathered at The Knesset on June 26, 2013 as he spoke to us about the new face of a more pluralistic Israel.
So yes, I am learning to live with my new found sense of peace. It’s kosher to be a zionist and not live in Israel and there is no need to be embarrassed by it. During my life I have had many opportunities to make Aliyah. To the admiration of the cab drivers, supermarket cashiers, bank tellers and convenience store owners in Tel Aviv who think I am a “giant” because I am leaving the “dream” in Las Vegas, I will remain there if God grants me strength and inspiration for many years to come. Somehow I know, deep within me that just as I have chosen to teach and preach and inspire about the importance of Shabbat and Gemilut Hasadim and Kashrut and Tzedakah and T’fillah, I must continue to make that connection between Israel, the land of milk and honey, taxes, rising real estate prices, amazing food and impatience… with every one that crosses my path. Zionism today means strengthening each other, finding meaning in each other’s vision and in each other’s dreams because after all the mission is exactly the same!