On Being a People – Thoughts from a Diaspora Jew

I’ve just returned from Israel. Coming home from Israel is never easy for me. I love being in my homeland. I feel a closeness to my people and my faith whenever I am there. It’s exciting to go and a whirlwind when I’m there. This last trip was no exception. However, it was more intense than usual.

First of all, it started with personal grief. My mother in law passed away the week before my trip which caused me to delay my departure in order to be home to support my husband and family through shiva. The trip to Israel was filled with anxiety, doubt and sadness. I had just gone through a family crisis, yet here I was going to Israel. Was it the right thing to leave my husband in his time of need? Should I have forgone the entire trip? If so, I would leave my daughter without a parent to bring her back from a summer program. I knew if I went, I would feel a deep connection to G-d and I would be supported in all I did. I was going to be with family. So off to Israel I went.

The atmosphere in Israel was stressed. Shortly before I arrived the religious right convinced/forced Netanyahu  to shelve the agreement he made to create a pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel last January 2016. They also determined that only certain, ultra-orthodox rabbis could perform acceptable conversions in Israel. Both of these decrees hurt. As a Jew living in the US, I am connected to Israel on a spiritual level. Modern Israel was founded as the homeland for all Jews around the world. All Jews, not just ultra-orthodox Jews. All Jews.

For decades I have been visiting Israel and I feel less and less connected to the religious Jews each time I go. Why? Because they exclude me. They exclude me because I am conservative/masorti. They exclude me because I am a woman. They exclude me because I don’t conform to their extreme views. But this land was built for world Jewry, not just ultra-orthodox Jews. Israel is for me, for my children and my future grandchildren. Israel is in my soul and I want to be part of the equation.

For me, going to the Kotel, is the most essential piece of my Jewish existence. We fought for the right to pray at our holiest spot. I pray toward the East to face Jerusalem, to face the Kotel. When I get to Israel I want to go to the Kotel as soon as possible. Before independence, it was not an orthodox space, it was a mixed space for all Jews. How did we lose freedom of religion in our own homeland?

I visited the Kotel on a Thursday morning. It was crowded. Bar mitzvahs were happening in every possible space. I heard so much joy. There was also a larger than normal presence of police and army due to the murder of two Israel police officers on the Temple Mount the week before. I felt safe with all the security around me. I felt at home. I was at peace. I could pray with all my heart. But it was still separate.

My sister was with me and together, we went to the area that had been designated for pluralistic prayer at Robinson’s Arch. Both of my daughters had their Bat Mitzvahs here. Back then, there was only a small platform adjacent to the wall. Today, not only is there a small platform, but a much larger space has been created for mixed prayer. Four or five b’nai mitzvah were going on when we got there. It was a beautiful experience to watch. So, I saw there was improvement, but will it stop, will it be removed? What will the Rabbanut try to do next?

On my touring in the Old City, I did a great deal of learning. I learned that a significant reason for the destruction of the Second Temple was infighting between the Jews at the time. We were killing each other because we disagreed with the right way to pray. The Romans were able to watch us destroy ourselves so they didn’t have to work very hard to destroy our community. We did most of it ourselves.

Doesn’t the Rabbanut see the parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now? Do they really want to destroy all of us, simply because we connect to G-d differently than they do? Who are they to judge us? Who are we to judge them? G-d created us in his image, b’tzelem Elohim, why are we trying to destroy each other? There are others who want to exterminate us as a people. They don’t care if we are religious or not. The fact that we exist at all, is what they are fighting. Shouldn’t we focus on terrorists killing us instead of focusing on controlling how people talk to G-d?

Erev Shabbat of my first week, was filled with unspeakable horror in Halamish. A terrorist climbed over the security fence, walked into the home of a family celebrating the birth of a child and started hacking the family to death. Shouldn’t we focus on preventing more death? We need to stop fighting ourselves. We are not our own enemies. We are family. We are a People. We need to be united not divided.

Then there is the conversion bill. Shouldn’t we welcome any person who wants to join our community? It’s not an easy People to belong to. We Jews, have it tough wherever we live. Even in Israel. Becoming a Jew is a long process of learning, whether you study with the Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. You must learn the history of the people you are joining. You must learn the laws and customs. You must realize you are becoming a part of a new family, with many challenges and conflicts. Why can’t the Rabbanut understand that however, a person becomes a Jew should be respected. Is Jewish Law meant to discriminate amongst ourselves. I thought we welcome strangers into our homes. Didn’t Abraham welcome the messengers sent by G-d to test him? Isn’t welcoming the guests one of our mitzvot, one of our customs. If it is, then why should we turn our backs on people simply because they didn’t learn how to be a Jew in our house. We need to teach tolerance and acceptance in order to live a righteous life.

To be a mensch, is something we teach our children. To believe in one G-d, is to be Jewish. The Ten Commandments, do not describe how we are supposed to believe in G-d, just to believe in G-d. The Sh’ma does not tell us how to believe or how to pray. It says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord in One”. I think the Rabbanut, needs to truly think about this prayer and realize that we are one people believing in one G-d. We may be different, but we are one, regardless of those differences. Stop trying to destroy our People from within. Sh’ma.

About the Author
Stephanie Z. Bonder was born and bred in the Garden State of NJ. She developed her deep love for Israel when her father first started talking to her about Israel when she was a little girl. Her love for Israel continued in her college years, when she studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Currently, Stephanie enjoys her career as a general studies teacher at Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange, N.J. In her volunteer hours, she is a 5th generation life member of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. As a past region president, she currently is involved in the Membership department of National Hadassah. Stephanie also works to educate adults on Jewish Peoplehood and current events in Israel through her involvement with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest.
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