How do we connect to Israel?

The Israeli flag waves before the Western Wall. (Wikipedia)

Haredi men and Israeli soldiers stood side by side silently in their picture frames. The New Jersey synagogue was lined with photographs of the Holy Land. It seems like every time I come here, either I step into a picture that takes me back to memories of my yeshiva years in Israel, or a picture steps into my life by presenting opportunities for future memories to be formed – like last time when I bumped into the Rosh Yeshiva of Shavei Shomron (a yishuv near Shechem) and was invited for Shabbat. So, of course, when I sat down for maariv, I wasn’t surprised that an Israeli happened to sit next to me.

After maariv finished, the Israeli man caught my eye as he tucked in his chair and proceeded to go full IDF-mode, crawling under a table to do the hesed of tucking in another’s chair as well. He then went to pray by the aron and slipped out of the sanctuary before I had the chance to speak to him. I walked into the lobby to converse with friends, thinking that I had lost my opportunity to become acquainted with another Israeli.

As I left the side of the shul, I spotted him.

“Achi!”

No answer.

I ran to him stealthily, an ability I developed from exploring alleyways of the Muslim quarter.

“Achi!” I said again, this time only a few feet behind him.

He looked back at me, stupefied, “Yeah?” he answered in his most American accent.

“Oh, you’re not Israeli?”

“Nope. Why?”

“I like meeting Israelis, it reminds me of home.”

We spoke about that home and our shared desire to return. While in America, he suggested, we focus on the “conceptual Eretz Yisrael.” He explained, “A great Hassidic Rabbi taught that when Yaakov went to visit Yosef in Egypt, the Torah says he went to Goshen. Goshen is from the Hebrew words, gesha-na, or please come close. It means to say that even though Yaakov was outside of Eretz Yisrael, he was really always close. He was always there emotionally.”

“So,” the Israeli-looking guy closed, “I hope to visit you soon in Israel in person, but until then I will be there emotionally.”

And until I go to Israel this fall, I will also try to be there emotionally. Because it’s not always easy to feel like we are in a place when we live in a completely separate reality.

Earlier this month (6/2) was the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City. Thousands of Jews and non-Jews from all stripes of life came to express their support for the State of Israel. It is a beautiful thing to see so many people ally themselves with the homeland for the Jewish race. And yet, we need to ask ourselves what this parade is really supposed to make us feel. Are we only connecting to the physical State of Israel? Or do we also strive to forge a connection to the spiritual Eretz Yisrael?

Many people wore t-shirts that read “If I forget you, O Jerusalem…” The question is: how often do we really remember Jerusalem? Do we only remember it during a march, in prayer, or if a terrorist attack occurs, G-d forbid? Moreover, do we remember, or even contemplate what it means to have, the spiritual Yerushalayim at all?

Perhaps everyone who reads this will answer positively to these questions, in which case, please view this post merely as a personal diary entry. Maybe, I am only speaking to myself here.

This is not to bash the State of Israel or the paraders – I personally have marched for as long as I can remember. No, just the opposite, it is a reality check to ensure that I remember the historical and religious meaning of the Jewish homeland, which has been a focus of Judaism long before Hakamat HaMedina, 71 years ago. It is to ask of myself: do I support the state and pray for safety of its soldiers, many of them my friends, merely because of a nationalistic reason or do I sense the deeper purpose beyond the Jewish nation’s state and all its complexity? Is my love for Jerusalem only (my jaw tightens as I choose the word “only”) because it is the capital of the first country in 2,000 years where a Jew is guaranteed safety or is there a more profound, spiritual affection for our cherished Yerushalayim?

We exclaim each Motza’ei Yom Kippur “next year in Jerusalem!” Why do we want to go there? To take part of its culture, eat a falafel and smoke some hookah? Or do we make an effort to connect to the spiritual aspects of Yerushalayim and strengthen our relationship with G-d? If not for all the family, restaurants and tourist attractions – if there were only the footsteps of Avraham and a Wall – would we even want to visit Eretz Yisrael at all? Or would we rather wear a t-shirt, remember Jerusalem one day a year, and wave a flag in a parade from the comfort of New York City?

This fall I hope to move to “Jerushalayim” – and I coin this name with purpose. I hope to take part in its nationalistic and religious lifestyles and bridge the gesher tzar mi’od between Israel’s secular, religious, and even Arab citizens. Above all, I hope to meet, connect and develop memories with many more Israelis from all walks of life. I plan to document my journey and hope that you will join me for the adventure. Until then, I will be here in America trying, for it is hard, to connect to the emotional Eretz Yisrael like the rest of us.

About the Author
Shlomo Deutsch is a college sophomore who often finds himself conversing with very different people. His typical morning could include: praying at the Kotel with a group of 'settlers', followed by listening to Mohammed, his former (long story) 17 year old Muslim friend, dream about his ‘right of return.’ He would then call the US to catch up with his Open Orthodox chavruta as he walks to Mea Shearim to learn with a friend from Lakewood. Shlomo listens to all these opinions and tries to make some sense of them here on his Times of Israel blog.
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