I am leaving this coming week for a brief trip to Israel, and will be returning to Forest Hills right after the New Year. Inasmuch as this is rare time away from office and home, I shall be utilizing this opportunity to take a two-week hiatus from my weekly articles in this space (barring unforeseen circumstances), and look forward to coming back to the weekly challenge with batteries recharged and perspectives similarly revitalized. Thank you to all of my faithful readers!
As I’ve begun informing friends and family and members of my community that I’m going to be away for a while, more than a few people have asked me why I’m going to Israel. Really, I thought? Why would you ask me that?
I do realize that some are making the logical assumption that I’m going for a conference or meeting, or some professional reason. During my tenure as President of the Rabbinical Assembly and also when my late mother was ever-so-slowly dying there, I went to Israel quite frequently. I still try to get to Israel at least once a year to see my sister and her family, and many friends. I’m sure as well that when there is time on this trip, I’ll use the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and check in on the causes that occupy a lot of my professional time here.
All that is true. But the greater truth is that I’m going to Israel because, when presented with some version of a reasonable block of time and I’m able to travel, Israel is almost always where I choose to go. I don’t need a reason to go to Israel. Ever since I returned from my junior year abroad at the Hebrew University in 1971-72, I have honored a pledge I made to myself then to return whenever and however possible.
When I was younger, my frequent trips were a way to quench, at least for a short time, that feeling of absence generated by being away from a country that I love, and feel completely at home in. It was great to go back and visit favorite restaurants and sites of interest, and of course see family and friends.
As I’ve gotten older, and, more specifically, since a critical piece of my rabbinate involves having to explain Israel to Jews who have never been there and have many questions about its politics and policies, I go back to Israel as often as possible to see, hear, and feel for myself what is actually going on, as opposed to having my opinions be shaped by The New York Times and other news outlets not favorably disposed to Israel.
I go to Israel whenever I can to be reminded of the Israel I know and love, despite its many faults. I find that if I don’t go back often, my opinions about Israel are far too often shaped in some measure by media outlets that I simply don’t trust, and often know to be biased against her. It’s not that the papers are “bad papers.” The Times is a great paper. But when it comes to being fair to Israel, it’s not a great paper, and I don’t want it playing such an important role in forming my opinions.
So yes … I go to Israel to breath the air, take its temperature, see for myself what it feels like to walk the streets, eat in its cafes, and drive its roads. I go to form my own opinions, and give me the first-hand knowledge that I need to come home and translate Israel for my community. How I wish that all Jews would do the same! It is still true that fewer than half of American Jews have visited Israel …
Full disclosure: While I am doing all this personal research, I have every intention of visiting my favorite restaurants and places, and seeing family and friends. Israel is a great place to take a vacation, because it has endless options for virtually all tastes. But the ultimate truth is that I need no reason to go to Israel other than always, always counting the time until my next visit. No other place in the world has that hold on me.
See you on the other side!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.