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Walking Jerusalem’s Streets, Walking to Redemption

In 1996, the leading American Jewish historian, Jonathan Sarna wrote: “The Zion of the American Jewish imagination became something of a fantasy land: a seductive heaven-on-earth, where enemies were vanquished, guilt assuaged, hopes realized, and deeply felt longings satisfied.”
The Torah reports: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’” (Numbers 20)
This week, I returned to Jerusalem after a three-year pandemic induced hiatus. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, even though still jet-lagged, felt immediately restorative. I have returned home. I wonder. Is this imagined or real?
It is an incalculable blessing to live in this unparalleled time in Jewish history. I can spend less than a day of travel—albeit one filled with challenges and delays—and arrive in the land that prior generations only hoped to touch, and previous few succeeded in visiting and then only after arduous, and dangerous journeys.  I remain grateful that our congregation and its leadership recognizes the importance of its rabbi spending time in Israel and learning with Shalom Hartman Institute’s extraordinary scholars.
There is a sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel. Jewish history has rarely witnessed this. It stands alongside a creative and thriving Jewish diaspora. And our Jewish story has never experienced this.
I am thinking. What does it mean to travel with such ease between these two communities, to taste the dream, to see and feel what Moses was denied? On the other hand, what does it mean to confront the reality of Israel with its deeply felt longings satisfied but many of its hopes still unrealized?
The early Zionists argued that the Jewish state would make Jewish existence ordinary. Its normalcy and ordinariness would stand as testimony to its success.  These also conflict with the American Jewish imagination of Israel. The reality is not the heaven-on-earth we imagined. There is traffic. There are noisy construction projects. There are taxes. There are people living in poverty. There is violence. There are Palestinians denied the democratic rights celebrated by its Jewish citizens. American Jews’ fantasy becomes terrifying.
Then again, there is an intoxicating quality to walking the streets of Jerusalem. Am I stepping in Abraham’s footsteps when he saw Mount Moriah in the distance? Have I found the spot where Batsheva first saw King David? Is this hill where Isaiah prophesied: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Israel is both ordinary and extraordinary. I come here to reckon with both. When looking at it from afar too often we focus on the myth. We become disappointed when its reality contradicts our dreams. How unnerving that the Jewish state has not yet fully realized the ideals envisioned in its Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
Should we forego our dreams? No. Should we forego the work of helping to better Israeli society? Absolutely not.
Should we ignore realities? No. Should we pretend that these challenges do not exist? Absolutely not.
Should we celebrate the blessings, and successes, of Jewish sovereignty. Yes! Should we insist that our relationship with Israel and Israelis is fundamental to our Jewish being? Absolutely.
There is only way to sustain this relationship. Come here. Walk Jerusalem’s streets. Complain about the line at Ben Gurion airport’s passport control. Sip an espresso in the city’s cafes. Marvel at the reawakening of Hebrew poems and prose. Relish in the dreams of our ancestors as you traverse Jerusalem’s streets.
The poet and translator, Peter Cole who divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven, observes: “Walking is a way of deferring arrival, but also of making it possible.”
It is gift to return here, again and again.
About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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