David Lerner

Israel: the Sacred and the Broken

Inevitably, something strange happens on an Israel trip. Many wonderful things too, but often some unforeseen challenge: a blizzard hits at take off, our luggage does not arrive until the next day, our flight to Newark to catch our El Al flight is cancelled and the last minute bus comes two hours late and goes the wrong way….

Something happens.

This year, our congregational trip went pretty smoothly – we had an amazing group and a wonderful time. On the last night, we held our farewell dinner in Beit Shmuel, an educational center that also contains a function hall that has a spectacular view of the Old City walls in Jerusalem.

HavdalahWe began in a large circle on the patio outside as we sang havdalah. Now, I always love havdalah – the combination of the wine, the spices and the fire ignite the senses, embedding Shabbat into our souls so it remains with us during the week.

After that moment, we shared what the trip meant to us.

As we boarded the buses for the airport I sighed a breath of relief, feeling that the trip had closed on a high note and with almost no problems.

Our most skilled senior tour guide, Ezra Korman, then whispered to me, that once in a while buses get stuck on the street we were on, since people park illegally. Ten seconds later, it was clear that we were stuck, the buses couldn’t move!

If we did not figure a way out, we would miss our flight.

It was ironic since one of the first comments Ezra made at the beginning of the trip, was that people would often have to get off of a public city bus and literally pick up cars that were blocking the bus’ path.

So that’s what we did.

Moving an illegally parked carA team assembled and we lifted the back of the car that was blocking us, since the back of the car is lighter than the front with its heavy engine. But it still blocked the buses. The front had to be moved onto the curb, but we could not do it. It was too heavy.

And that’s when we started bouncing the car, lifting the front end to give us the power to get it onto the curb with only minor damage.  After moving a few more cars, we were on our way home.

* * *

But the trip was filled with peak moments that did not involve moving cars. We explored the history of the land of Israel, and the struggle to create a state, including a visit to the underground bullet factory Israel used leading up to the War of Independence.

Food was another focus from the more mundane including optionsKosher McDonald's like the Kosher McDonald’s, a traditional Bedouin meal, a Sephardic-style repast in the home of a woman in a development town in the south, an elaborate Shabbat dinner at the grand Bereisheet Hotel overlooking the Ramon Crater that felt more like a wedding feast.

Israeli AppsWe saw Israeli innovation including all the Apps created in the country; our families visited Haifa led by Me’ir Sherer, our Director of Congregational Learning, connecting with the sixth grade students with whom we have been skyping.

But for me, the most incredible parts were – surprise: the davening! The spiritual, prayerful moments where we could explore our modern approach to Judaism in our historic homeland, that’s where it comes together for me.

We did that with Kabbalat Shabbat services overlooking the Ramon Crater the first week. We did that at Masada where Talya B. had her first aliyah, and we did that in Jerusalem, where a crack team of Emunah commandos zipped through the Old City to stake out a spot overlooking the Kotel on our second Shabbat.

That service, filled with ruah, right across from where our Beit HaMikdash, our Temple, once stood, where we, as egalitarian Jews who believe that men and women should have equal access to our tradition, did that by having my daughter lead, was powerful.

We also celebrated bnei mitzvah on the first Shabbat, on Masada, and at Praying at Masadathe egalitarian Kotel. The space where we are allowed to hold egalitarian services is just south of the Western Wall and farther down, making it more ancient, and there, Noah J. had his first aliyah as a Bar-Mitzvah and we celebrated Ithai and Asaf’s Israeli B’nei-Mitzvah.

There was much joy!

Currently, there is a fight over the future of Judaism in Israel and sadly, right now, the Ultra-Orthodox are winning and the non-Orthodox, us, are losing.

The agreement to share the Kotel has been torpedoed by the Ultra-Orthodox; we found out that a couple of days after we prayed in an egalitarian manner at the egalitarian Kotel, also known as Robinson’s Arch, a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews took over that space one morning, bringing a mehitzah, a divider between men and women and shutting down egalitarian prayer.

Praying at the KotelWe also learned that the day after we left Israel 1,000 girls from right wing yeshivot – religious schools – were bussed in to disrupt the services of the Women of the Wall.

And then there are the challenges of peace. While we appreciated the dangers and threats Israel faces in terms of terrorism and the antagonistic and destabilized countries that surround her, we saw the separation wall and could feel how hard it is for the Palestinians on the other side of that.

A group of us traveled to Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city to see an attempt to try to build a modern, more liberal city for the 21st century, complete with a zip line and even a winery – which is unusual given its Muslim population and Islam’s laws against the consumption of alcohol. We also learned about the Israeli settlement on the next hill and how it is given preferred treatment in terms of resources like water and land.

And then on the way back to Jerusalem through the West Bank, we were stuck in a one-hour traffic jam enabling us to feel the uncertainty that Palestinians feel every day. Was there a roadblock? Insufficient infrastructure? Was there a security threat?

Recently, the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, passed a law “that bars entry to foreigners who support boycotts of Israel or the territories it controls.”

The law could block many self-described Zionists and even some American rabbis and tour operators from traveling to Israel, depending on how broadly it is applied. It drew condemnation from several U.S. pro-Israel groups, who warned that quashing free speech would play into the hands of Israel’s opponents.

While I strongly protest the BDS movement with its tactic of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions, there are many Jews who do not want to buy products from West Bank settlements.

Rabbi Art Green recently wrote a letter asking Israel if he will be arrested this week when he is scheduled to arrive in Tel-Aviv since he does not use wine from the West Bank for kiddush.

I fear that this new law will turn the rift between the current Israeli government and liberal American Jews into a chasm.

There is so much brokenness….

Jewish-Arab circusBut, we also went out of our way to find signs of hope. We visited a Jewish-Arab circus in the Galilee that strives to bring these two peoples together around a fun activity. First, I was struck by the lack of infrastructure. Since it was an Arab city in Israel, it was clear that this community was not receiving the same funding as Jewish cities. But then I saw these young Arab participants – how they were pushing themselves to be in a group with Jews. I was most impressed with a young woman from the very patriarchal Arab society who had the courage to participate while wearing her hijab – another sign of hope.

But the best highlight of hope was our visit with Kids4Peace, an organization that brings Christians, Jews, and Muslims together. We heard the stories of the organizers – one a young Muslim man named Munu from south of Hevron who viewed Israelis and Jews as his mortal enemies, which makes sense given his family’s experience of the Israeli army and its soldiers. He described his journey toward working towards reconciliation and peace. We were so moved by his story and the narratives of the other participants. They reminded us that amidst all of this hurt and brokenness, there are signs of hope.

Dor Yohay, our shinshin (Sh’nat Sheirut – year of service from Israel) fellow this year joined us for parts of the trip and he asked how does one reconcile in the Kids4Peace program that the Jewish kids will go into the army while the Palestinian kids will go to work, to university, or do something else. [Most Druze and some Bedouins in Israel do service in the Israeli army.]Kids4Peace

The Kids4Peace leaders all responded with beautiful answers. The Israelis talked about how everybody brings their own identity and tries to feel comfortable about their situation and feel okay about serving their country.

Munu said that he understands that the army exists and that the experience of meeting the others in a peaceful setting and developing trust and understanding can be helpful to all.

A woman, who grew up as an Israeli Arab in Jerusalem spoke about her hope that in the future Arabs will be able to hug the Israeli soldiers who greet them at the checkpoints and that she could go through one of these checkpoints as a human being and not be humiliated. Perhaps she might be greeted by one of her students at Kids4Peace.

Additionally, she spoke about asking the Palestinian kids if they had their own country if they would serve in the army and that kind of thinking leads to an ability to further understand the Jewish child’s service in the army.

It was an intense moment in a wonderful conversation and one that I will never forget.

So, how do we experience the sacred and the brokenness in our own lives, in the world and in Israel?

In a time when more and more American Jews, liberal Americans, and non-Orthodox Jews are drifting away from Israel, can we continue to build bridges that enable us and our children to feel connected?

We must find the courage to stand up for what we believe to be right: a two-state solution to the conflict, a truth and reconciliation commission like the one that took place in South Africa that allows each side to admit that they have hurt the other, to make sure that all of Israel’s citizens are treated fairly, to put an end to hatred, violence, and incitement that takes place on both sides of the conflict and to demand our rights to be egalitarian Jews in Israel so we can pray as we practice.  Personally, I hope to be allowed to function as a Conservative rabbi in Israel – something I cannot do now without, for example, an Orthodox rabbi performing the ritual parts of a wedding ceremony with me.

The model of holding both of these – the sacred and the broken comes from this week’s parashah.

The Talmud states that the tablets that were broken in this morning’s reading (Masekhet Bava Batra) were placed inside the Ark of the Covenant along with the complete set.

The shards, the broken set, are placed next to the second set; they are both held together. So it is with Israel, we must hold both the sacred, the wondrous, the joy, and the broken.

As we move forward as a community, let us redouble our efforts to maintain our deep connection to Israel and Israelis, challenging Israel to move in a more moral, tolerant, peaceful, and religiously pluralistic direction.

I invite you to travel with me as we journey towards a place of wholeness and peace.

[All photos were taken by Temple Emunah members on the 2017 Multigenerational Israel Adventure.]

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.