The Picture We Could Not Take

On July 4, 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, my father called me over to the TV.

Putting his arm around me, he pointed at the screen, “Look.” I expected some incredible fireworks display, but the news focused on a word I couldn’t even pronounce, let alone understand: Entebbe.

“Dad, what is this?”

He explained that a plane heading to Israel was hijacked, that the Jews were being held against their will and that Israel ran a courageous mission that rescued the hostages. We watched in silence as then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin welcomed the hostages home with blue and white flags waving in the background.

With tears pooling in his eyes, my father asserted, “This is why we have a Jewish state. Now that we have Israel, Jews will never have to worry again about having a home.”

While my 8 year old self didn’t fully understand the details of the story, my father’s impassioned message about this faraway homeland etched itself into my soul and shaped my Jewish identity.

On one instance I even had a chance to experience firsthand a historic homecoming in Jerusalem. Upon the release of the Soviet Prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein in 1987, I happened to be at his first stop in Israel, namely the Kotel, the Western Wall. Amidst the celebration, one of my peers from United Synagogue Youth (USY) walked up to this newly freed man and handed Mr. Edelstein her Soviet Jewry solidarity bracelet that had his name inscribed on it.

That the Kotel was Edelstein’s first stop on his freedom trail is not surprising. The final remnant of The Temple from thousands of years ago, this sacred stack of stones has come to symbolize simultaneously the Jewish people’s historical roots in and contemporary spiritual connection to the Promised Land.

Over the last few decades the Kotel has unfortunately become embroiled in a conflict intertwining religion and politics. The issues boil down to control over this sacred space, the role of women in Judaism, the tension between Orthodox and liberal expressions of Judaism, and the government’s reliance on religious parties to maintain power. Sadly this complicated situation frequently descends into name calling, physical attacks and arrests.

Nearly two years ago an agreement was reached between  governmental ministries, the Jewish Agency, rabbinate and Jewish denominations to create a third section of the Kotel plaza that would establish an egalitarian prayer space where men and women could worship together. There was a sense of jubilation among Conservative/ Masorti and Reform Jews around the globe that Israel had transcended politics so that this space and the Jewish state itself could truly feel like a spiritual home to all Jews.

This summer, however, the Israeli government tabled this agreement indefinitely. The political reality was the Likud party would lose their majority coalition if they moved forward with this plan. The message to world Jewry was that national politics trump global peoplehood.

Shortly after the Kotel plan was suspended, I was in Israel participating on a program for Jewish educators called Qushiyot (literally “questions”) run by The Jewish Education Project in partnership with Makom, the education lab of the Jewish Agency. Instead of focusing on finding simple answers to Israel’s challenges, we learned pedagogical methods to navigate the complexity of Israel and to create open dialogues about peoplehood, security, national identity and our connection to the land.

On the day our group visited the Old City of Jerusalem, I suggested that after our time of prayer and reflection at the Kotel that we take a group photo there, which is almost a prerequisite of every Israel trip – Birthright, UJA, USY, etc. With the Israeli government’s about-face so fresh in our minds, the routine group picture at The Wall was suddenly not so simple.

In the shadow of where the Temple once stood, we engaged in a powerful conversation about our relationship and commitment to Israel. Many of us have family in Israel, visit often and support a plethora of Israel-based causes, including lone soldiers. Living with Israel in the forefront of our minds and the priority of our prayers is a value many of us try to teach our students and our own children. Yet a theme emerged that we don’t always feel our love reciprocated from our homeland.

In the midst of a situation that feels like a betrayal, ultimately we decided to pass on this group photo. It was simply a picture we could not take.

This month we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan. I pray daily that the Israeli government finds the courage to do the right thing regarding the Kotel for the sake of Jewish peoplehood, not the politically expedient one for their current coalition led by the current Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, and the brother of the brave commander of the Entebbe mission, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Israel celebrates its 70th year of independence, now is the time for Israel’s leadership to overcome the walls that divide us and to become the Jewish homeland that we hope for and need it to be.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor works at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue as the Director of Congregational Education. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education and leadership. He serves as a volunteer fundraiser for Lone Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.
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