Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Relational Judaism and Israel - Rosh Hashanah 2 2013 sermon

I thought long and hard about this morning’s sermon. ‘To speak, or not to speak’... that was the question. Rabbi Melissa Weintraub writes, ‘In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears sentiments like, “I’m not going to get fired for my politics on gun control or health care, but I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.” Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this, the “Death by Israel Sermon.” So perhaps I should have waited until after my contract is renewed but… but…

Last week, there was a vigorous debate on the email listserv of the ‘Rabbis Without Borders’ Fellowship of which I am a part as to whether to broach the subject of Israel during these High Holydays or not. It was largely recognized that, just because we have a large, captive audience before us during this season, that our congregants don’t come at this time of year to hear politically-charged position papers. That doesn’t mean that we can never speak of anything that also occupies space in the political realm, but that we must choose our approach and our timing with thought. What do we seek to achieve? Who will feel ostracized or left out of the one-way conversation in which we hold court?

First, let me say something about what I won’t be talking about. I won’t be talking about the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East. As a Rabbi, I take a keen interest in the unfolding of events. Like you, I am concerned about the unrest in Egypt and Syria. The images we have seen reflecting the effects of chemical weapons in Syria are horrific, and our hearts are surely feeling enormous pain at seeing the suffering of children and hopelessness of a situation that has no easy solutions and seems unlikely to be calming any time soon.

While the situation may provide an opening for Israel and the Palestinians to work on making progress toward peace with less interference from nearby Arab countries, the possibility of violence spreading or being redirected, possibly with encouragement from Iran, also makes this a very uncertain time for Israel. The one thing we can say with any certainty is that we are witnessing change on a scale that we might never have imagined just a few years ago. And so, far from feeling that this round of peace talks is just the ‘same old, same old’, we should be heartened by the possibility of change there too, just as we have witnessed such enormous change in the region in a relatively short period of time.

I do not have the expertise to offer you a better analysis of the current situation than any you can read for yourself in the Jerusalem Report, Ha’aretz, or any other source penned by reporters or expert analysts. So that is not what I’m going to focus on this morning, important though it is.

This entire period of the High Holydays my focus is on Relational Judaism. In the book with this title, Rabbi Ron Wolfson outlines many aspects of the relational work that we should be doing in Jewish community: at the level of Self (developing personal spirituality), family, with friends, a sense of relationship with Jewish living, with Jewish community, connection to a sense of peoplehood, a relationship to Israel, a sense of global connections and, ultimately, our relationship with God. So it is evident to me that there is a relational way to talk about Israel and that, in the context of the work that I want us to do together as a community, this is an important conversation to have. And I believe that if we truly think about Israel, talk about Israel, and engage with each other on Israel from a relational perspective, we can go an awful lot further with the conversation than might otherwise be the case.

So this morning I’d like to share some stories to exemplify what I mean by a relational approach to Israel. These are stories about hope and about possibility. They don’t in and of themselves bring us peace in the Middle East. They don’t necessarily give us the answers that have eluded so many for so long. But, at a time when dialogue about peace between Israel and the Middle East often comes with the declaration ‘no preconditions,’ I believe that the relational approach is a precondition for true peace.

In his book, ‘Relational Judaism’, Rabbi Ron Wolfson discusses our relationship with Israel as one of the vital aspects of relationship building that needs to be deepened in Jewish communal life. He reports on the impact of ten years of programming in one congregation in St. Louis that sent their 15 year olds on a Summer-long program to live with Israeli youth in a Moshav in the 1970s. At the 30th reunion of those who had participated in the program, they surveyed the more than 300 people who had participated over the years. This revealed that the experience had created a ‘reference relationship’ with Israel that many respondents claimed was one of the most important influences in their lives, evidenced by many of the now-adult participants maintaining regular contact with their Israeli ‘families’.

Even with all of the options available today for teens, families and adults, 59% of adult American Jews have never been to Israel. Of the 41% who have made the trip, 19% have only been once. Only 36% of Reform Jews have visited Israel. 31% of American Jews say they have no interest in visiting Israel.

And yet, the same survey that produced these numbers found that 71% of those surveyed agreed that ‘caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.’ I know that a trip to Israel is expensive. But for those who are able to take other kinds of expensive trips, putting Israel on the priority list is one of the most transformative things you can do. The Federation is running a trip this November, and I would love to gather enough congregants together to lead our own trip in the next 2-3 years.  
Short of a trip to Israel, it is not easy to create opportunities for meaningful relationship-building with Israel located here in the US, but it is certainly possible. Our Israeli emissary program is one example of success – our kids build genuine relationships with the two young adults who come and serve our community every year. Many keep in touch with them once they have left via Facebook. For our younger kids, this is often the first time that some of their stereotypes about Israel and Israelis are challenged as they come face-to-face with a real-life Israeli who brings their love of their country with them.

When we ‘know’ Israel only through the cable news stories, and the politics of the peace process, it can be polarizing and complex. We want it all to be nice and neat. Only knowing Israel in this way is not an easy way to feel connected. For some, through their involvement in organizations such as AIPAC or J-Street, the connection can be made, and that is largely because of the conventions that both organizations run superbly, providing many opportunities to meet and talk with others. And both organizations seek our involvement so that we do our part to ensure that a strong relationship continue to exist between the US and Israel. But those calls to action can fall on deaf ears if we haven’t yet made that connection for ourselves.

So I want to share some stories with you. Stories of conversations and experiences that I have had. For me, these have been my way into feeling connected with Israel.

Just the other week I was asking one of our Israeli congregants about her memories of Sukkot in Israel. Listening to her describe the family and neighborhood traditions, I was reminded of my own first experience of being in Israel at Sukkot, hearing singing coming from the Sukkah on the balcony of the apartment across from mine, smelling the foods, and seeing everyone out in the neighborhood to visit with each other. The conversation was a window into an experience, with smells and tastes. Its an experience we want to taste at our Israeli-style Succot celebration this year, providing opportunities for all of us to hear stories, see images, and share an experience that brings Israeli culture to the fore.

I have always made it my mission, when visiting in Israel, to find opportunities to speak with Arab Israelis and Palestinians. I spent a year in Israel, arriving there shortly after the 2nd intifada began. The old city was quiet, and the shopkeepers had plenty of time to chat. I spent extended visits over mint tea with some of them, listening to their stories of what was happening in the West Bank, and the conversations taking place in East Jerusalem. I even traveled into the West Bank and two refugee camps, led by one of those who I had befriended over time, to see things for myself. It opened my eyes to another perspective that, when we only do ‘Jewish Israel’ we can never find. And, whatever you may think of that perspective, my understanding of what the conflict is about and what both sides want was enormously deepened by having taken the time to sit down and have those conversations.

Back in the US, it also gave me access to the Arab Muslim population that was involved in interfaith work with my congregation and others in my last community in Bridgeport. They invited me to speak about the Jewish and Israeli perspective on the peace process, because they knew that I had listened to their perspective, and we had a mutual respect and, eventually, love for each other, even though we disagreed when new events in the conflict arose. The bridge building we were able to do locally was built on friendship and trust first, and is something I dearly hope to develop again over time in our larger community here.

In my own family, there is a broad range of perspective and experience. Suri’s sister made aliyah to Israel when she was 19. Her husband taught for many years at the Technion and his column is published regularly in the Jerusalem Report. For many years they have been involved with the Masorti – the Conservative – Jewish community in Haifa. They have 4 adult children. 3 are progressive and secular.

One became ultra-Orthodox, is a physician and is married to a Rabbi who teaches in a yeshiva. They have 8 children. For a number of years they lived in a settlement in Gaza, until the evacuation several years ago. As you might imagine, there are many perspectives around that Shabbat dinner table. But there is respect, listening and learning, that takes place when complex issues come up for conversation.

One cannot help but emerge from these kinds of discursive and relationship-based conversations with a very different kind of personal connection to Israel and the people of Israel. One gains entry into the diversity of perspective and experience of Israel’s citizens. There can be no two-dimensional analysis or understanding of what is happening or what will happen – it is complex and multi-dimensional, and ever-changing. When one is tempted to make statements about Israel, the perspectives gained from relationship-based conversations with different people brings about a little more humility – an awareness of what we know and what we don’t.

But more than anything, taking the time to listen to Israelis and Palestinians, here, abroad, online, at conferences or Jewish learning workshops, with shopkeepers or neighbors you may know whose families come from the Middle East – opening the conversation in order to listen and get to know the other – is transformative. Here in Westborough we have neighbors from Syria – they need our concern and compassion. The JDC (Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), supported by us individually and through our Federation, is doing work on the ground to provide emergency supplies to Syrian refugees in Jordan. You need to know that the Jewish community worldwide is doing that. And so do our neighbors. We have neighbors from Palestine. We have neighbors from Lebanon. We have neighbors from Israel. Our kids are going to school with their kids. We shop in their stores. We work in offices with them. So, take a seat and make a friend in these places too.

Perhaps you can’t go to Israel this November with Federation. Perhaps you’d like to wait to travel with your congregation, or perhaps you’ll be inspired to start making plans for a family trip. In December, our Union for Reform Judaism Biennial conference will be held in San Diego. There are quite a few of us already planning to go. ARZA, the Reform Zionist Association, will be celebrating their 36th anniversary there. Ruth Calderon, an exceptional scholar who started a Talmud yeshiva for secular Israelis and is now a Member of the Knesset, will be teaching and speaking there. And other Israeli voices will be present among the keynote speakers and the musicians. Consider joining us there.

Whether with neighbors, fellow congregants, at conferences, or even reading widely online … a fully rounded and deeply grounded Jewish identity includes a relationship with Israel. So let’s not shy away from the conversations. We don’t have to debate, and we don’t have to argue. We just need to listen. Let the conversations begin.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this Rachel. Very well said! The slogan here during the anti-marriage amendment fight was, "Have the conversation," and it worked well. Good luck with your conversations about Israel this year. Shana Tova.