Samuel Stern
Rabbi in the heartland of the USA

A Sermon on Israel from the Heart of the USA

Israelis protest the judicial overhaul in New York City's Times Square as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city to meet with world leaders at the UN's General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israelis protest the judicial overhaul in New York City's Times Square as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city to meet with world leaders at the UN's General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Delivered in Topeka, Kansas, at Temple Beth Sholom, the closest synagogue to the geographic center of the United States, on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784:

There are people who believe the age of miracles has long passed. That miracles no longer occur and haven’t for some time. While I am not one to speak of “everyday miracles” being on the same level as the splitting of the Red Sea, there is one miracle I know of in this world: the existence of the State of Israel. I say the State of Israel is a miracle, not for bombast or because the Israel of today meets my every hope for our land and our people, but because since the time of Moses, there has never lived, for a 75-year period, a people as fortunate as we.

Some would view my statement as hyperbole, and with those people, I agree to disagree. Today, we begin the Hebrew year 5784 and are all here to introspect and open ourselves up to cheshbon hanefesh. To do an accounting of the soul. To sum up what has been, and to appreciate what we have, and to consider what might lie ahead. Have we been successful? As people? As friends or family members? As Jews?

This year, as Israel celebrates 75 years as a sovereign Jewish state, I’d like to engage you all in the question: Has Israel been successful? And what comes next?

Israel has almost as many dimensions as there are people with opinions, Jewish people and non-Jewish alike. In some quarters, it is the worst and most hated nation on earth; for others, like me, it is a miracle. It is, at the same time, somehow full of wonderous accomplishments and frustrating failures. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote, “It is a story of unprecedented human triumph, but also a story of great suffering.” Polling bears out the idea that Israel’s story brings most Jews great pride in national rebirth. Israel’s founders wanted Jews to be a nation like any other. Like the French, Japanese, or Turks, a people living in our homeland with the same opportunities or challenges that any ethnic group or civilization should have the chance to succeed within. To end two thousand years of being subject to the power of people who tolerated Jews at best or hated us at worst. A nation like any other.

Becoming a nation like any other is difficult for many reasons, not the least of which is that Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. Unlike the dozens of countries with large Christian majorities or the 26 nations with Islam as their official state religion, Israel is the only country in the world with a Jewish majority. That fact alone attracts significant negative attention from those who push antisemitism, the world’s oldest hatred, even in the guise of more modern and forms like anti-Zionism. Still, Israel in 2023 (or 5784) is 75 years old, and though many people think of Israel as a fairly young country, it is actually older than two-thirds of the member states of the United Nations. That would make America one of the oldest continually functioning countries in the world. And speaking of America, we too exist as a multicultural democracy, supporting the values that Israel also has stood for, of liberal democracy, personal liberties, and national freedom of religion and conscience. Israel has been a nation ready to seek partnership, and America has stood as an irreplaceable ally to Israel for many decades. Over the last three-quarters of a century, this partnership contributed not only to the safety of the Jewish people and the United States of America but has served all of humanity through innovations in agriculture, terraforming, communications technology, medical treatments, and technology, water generation, and desalinization, Nobel prizes in science and mathematics, and so many more ways. Most importantly, Israel has changed the nature of the Jewish people from a wandering exilic culture, ethnicity, and religion to a people anchored in both history and geography, regardless of where we live. A people like any other, and like our neighbors of all kinds who are proud of their heritage and countries of ancestral origin while being proud and devoted Americans.

So, I think it is fair to say that by the measures of contribution to humanity and being good neighbors in the international community, Israel has indeed been a success over the past 75 years. It has far exceeded its founders’ dreams in changing the conditions of Jewish life all over the world. Now, what dream will carry Israel forward for the next 75 years? Zionism is an aspirational philosophy and, therefore, needs an aspiration.

The founders of Israel were taken with a secular messianic vision that imagined Jews from all over the world moving to Eretz Yisrael and building up the land while being built by it. After 75 years, there is no secular vision that animates Israel. David Ben-Gurion would be shocked at how radically wrong his belief was, that the ultra-Orthodox Haredim would choose to become labor Zionists. Instead, the population of those who hold to a narrow interpretation of Jewish law has grown, and now they have the power to control government funds and more importantly: all questions of Jewish status. Who is a Jew? Who can be married? Who can be buried? All decisions that come from rabbinic courts. This is but one way in which the Israel of today bears no resemblance to the Israel its founders thought they were creating.

That is not to say the founders of the modern State of Israel are the model for our Zionist aspirations for the next 75 years, either! David Ben-Gurion, Labor Zionist leader and first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, who I admire, wrote: “Today we are in the process of writing a new Torah…with pioneers and farmers…[and people] in every walk of life.” But we do not wish for a new Torah! As a Jew committed to the moral vision of the Torah (as the reform movement is), I do not wish to restrict anyone from how they choose to interpret Judaism, just to be free to a valid interpretation myself. I believe the Torah is perfect as it is, for us to interpret in every generation as is our command from God. In Deuteronomy chapter 30, verses 12 to 14, we read: “[The Torah] is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us…” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do (or make something of) it.” We have the power to make something of our existing Torah, and we do not need to be bound by the interpretations of the narrowest kind, like some Jews may choose to. We can find a new path, not only in our observance of Judaism but in our approach to the future of the Jewish state as well.

Many of you are aware that there is currently a major protest movement in Israel that seeks to protect Israel’s strong judicial system from being politicized by a radical government. They argue this government seeks to undermine democracy by making it possible for this government to install the judges it wants (whereas the current system forces compromise between the government and the opposition and legal scholars), that this government wishes to allow corrupt convicted officials to return to high public office and worst of all, that this government wants the power to overrule the Israeli Supreme Court or make its laws not subject to judicial review (which is a key aspect of the judiciary in every liberal democracy). Governments seeking more power aren’t new. Corrupt officials running and winning office isn’t new in Israel or around the world either (especially in Israeli parties where the rabbis pick the politicians and tell their people how to vote).

Until today, I subscribed to the old standard line. That American Jews didn’t have ‘skin in the game’ and should not wade into Israeli domestic politics. Please let me be clear: I am a supporter of AIPAC and proud of it. I enthusiastically support the relationship between America and Israel because I believe it is in the best interests of both nations and both peoples. I still believe that and will continue to believe it.

There will still be many who oppose me because we do not send our children to the IDF at 18 and do not face the horrible fear and dread for every Israeli parent when conflict comes. We in America do not have under 20 seconds to run to bomb shelters in the middle of the night because genocidal terrorists are firing rockets from a couple miles away. I get that. I empathize with that. And even this will not stop me from saying what I have come here tonight to say: It is time for American Jews to become more engaged with and outspoken about Israel.

Journalist Mira Fox spoke to two young Israeli protest leaders, Tal and Edo, 18 and 19, last week.[1] They spoke with her because they feel, “It’s really important for us that our brothers across the ocean hear the voice of this beautiful new generation.” I couldn’t agree more. For the first time in my lifetime, there are Israelis asking American Jews not just for our monetary contributions or to call our congressmen about a defense package. From important scholars like Yossi Klein HaLevi and Rabbi Daniel Gordis to Tal and Edo, kids learning how to organize, there are more and more Israelis who want us engaged in their struggle for the future of Israel.

To Tal and Edo, and the youth of Israel who do not want to live in an authoritarian state or a theocratic state, and the many young adults like them that as the protest movement has grown have moved from secularism to seeing the beauty of Reform Judaism, I promise an ally in me. I will share their fight in any way I can: to stop expanding settlements based on religious belief, to stop funding schools that only teach Gemara without teaching science, to refuse to see a beautiful land I love become like Iran, with gender-segregated public buses. I will make every Israel conversation about pluralism, the only ideology that fits a free society. And every dollar I donate will support my values. I invite you to join me.

I will still love Israel; I do. I am motivated by genuine love. I still believe Israel is a miracle for the Jewish people and for the world. I will still defend Israel from anti-Zionists who want us to be dependent on other nations again, because I want there to be an Israel 75 years from now more than I want to be alive 75 years from now. This is what it means to me to be a religious Zionist, a term I desperately want to take back from the extremists. It means fighting for Israel, a Jewish state we believe in, and that reflects the whole, complex, tribal nature of the Jewish people. I invite you to join me. Together, we shall do our part so our children can gather and celebrate 150 years of the State of Israel.


About the Author
Samuel Stern is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom of Topeka, Kansas. Ordained by HUC-JIR in Los Angeles in 2021, Rabbi Stern has participated in numerous fellowships, including with AIPAC, the One America Movement, and the Shalom Hartman Institute, and has been published in the quarterly journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
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