I don’t remember having sleep problems when I was younger, except one time on a plane to Israel that ended up embarrassing me before hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
This past week my friend from New York, Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, visited Los Angeles and we reminisced about an emergency mission to Israel that he called twenty-two years ago when he served as the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) representing 1.5 million American Reform Jews.
Ammi had invited me to join a group of twelve Reform Rabbis from the United States and Canada who would join with our Israeli Reform leadership to protest the government’s plan to change Israel’s 1950 Law of Return with respect to conversion. The Law states that any Jew can become a citizen of Israel. It does not mention those who convert to Judaism but by presumption includes every Jew-by-choice. The ultra-Orthodox political parties and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate sought to change the Law to exclude converts whose conversions were overseen by Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionst, and even modern Orthodox rabbis, and include only those who convert according to the strictest standards of Jewish law and with the approval of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
I traveled the farthest of anyone in the group and did not sleep on the plane. We arrived in Tel Aviv at 10 PM Israeli time, thirty hours after I awoke in Los Angeles to catch my planes to NY and Israel. Waiting for us at Ben Gurion Airport were a swarm of media and an enthusiastic welcoming delegation of Israeli Reform movement leaders. We were quickly whisked away by bus to Jerusalem to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Minister of Finance Yakov Ne’eman, an Israeli litigator who led the commission charged with overseeing the change to the Law of Return. Bibi and Ne’eman kept us in the PM’s office until midnight trying to persuade us gently not to oppose the government’s agreement with the ultra-Orthodox and Chief Rabbinate out of concern for what they said was the principle of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.
Everyone in the government knew we were in Israel and why. Overnight, an international conference call was convened between the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements resulting in our unanimous agreement to stand against the government and oppose any change in the Law of Return. We believed then that such a change would indeed threaten the unity of the Jewish people and alienate much of world Jewry from the State of Israel.
After meeting Bibi and Ne’eman, we checked into our hotel and got a few hours’ sleep. We awoke early, had breakfast, and scurried to a press conference stating our resolve to oppose any change in the Law of Return. We met again with Minister Ne’eman who did not sit down and screamed at us charging that “your opposing this change in the Law is the worst calamity to confront the Jewish people in 2000 years since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.” Ridiculous hyperbole, yes – but, Ne’eman’s courtroom dramatics were shocking and unnerving, and they set the tone for what was to come.
From there we drove the short distance to the Knesset to meet with four or five political parties including the Labor Party leader and future Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Likud Minister of Trade Natan Sharansky. Not only did the Members of Knesset we met tell us we were going to lose this battle, but our being in Israel was the lead story on the hourly Israeli radio news (Kol Yisrael) and on the front pages of all the Israeli newspapers. The pressure on us was enormous.
The Knesset convened in the afternoon and the bill was scheduled to be introduced by the Prime Minister. Ammi and I sat together in the balcony watching and listening to a raucous screaming match between different Members of the Knesset who opposed or supported the bill. The Speaker of the Knesset warned everyone that whoever continued to interrupt the session would be removed by security. At least 10 MKs were escorted one at a time out of the hall.
When the noise finally ceased, Netanyahu took the podium and began to speak. I was so weary by then that I fell asleep and don’t remember anything he said, though I learned later that he repeated what he told us in his office the night before.
After the Knesset session, to be continued later that night, I hailed a taxi to take me to the airport to return to LA for a funeral I promised to lead the next day. I was in Israel for only 28 hours. It took me a week to recover.
The night I left Israel, the news anchor on Israeli television introduced the story of our being in the Knesset on the evening news saying: “The Prime Minister exhausted a delegation of American Reform Rabbis in Israel who came to oppose changes to the Law of Return.” A few seconds passed and there appeared my picture sleeping in the Knesset balcony. My slumber was broadcast to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in their homes.
Ammi still laughs when recounting the story. When he told me about it after I returned home, I was mortified but in hindsight appreciate the humor of it all. By the way – we won that battle and the change to the Law of Return was tabled. It would come up again. Thankfully, the Law remains untouched and with this new government and with Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv as the Minister of Law and the Constitution, it won’t come up anytime in the near future.
After that truly exhausting experience, I vowed never to go on an emergency mission to Israel. Shakespeare was right: “Sleep is the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”