The Third Rail of American Jewish Life

Special thanks to Rabbi Adam Stock-Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in Minneapolis, MN for inspiration in this sermon.

Two elderly Jews, friends for many years, were sitting on a park bench. One looks at the other and says, “Oy”.
The other looks back and says, “Oy”.
The first person replies, “Oy”, to which the response is “Oy”.
They repeat this exchange a few more times, and then, Max says to Sophie, “I thought we weren’t going to talk about Israel.”

Over the past two years, we’ve spoken about a lot of things, you and I. You have come to talk to me about the ways you feel the world is burning down. And I have spoken from this pulpit about really difficult matters – about the erosion of voting rights, about economic inequality, about the horrors of the immigration policy of this administration, about this country’s desperate need for criminal justice reform, about the breakdown of the valuation of truth in 2018, and, above all, about the critical role that a powerful congregation of faith such as Shaaray Tefila can play in bringing justice to the world in the spirit of our ancient prophets.

We haven’t always agreed, and that’s what speaking with people you care deeply about looks like sometimes. I am grateful that so many of you have taken the time to reach out to tell me when you agree with me. And I am at least as grateful, if not a tiny bit more so, when you’ve taken the time to reach out to thoughtfully tell me when you think I’ve got it wrong.

I’ve had a lot of coffee with you in the last two years, and, for those of you who have taken the time, I think we have been able to have really nuanced conversations about very complicated topics that contain a multitude of truths.

Call me anytime. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee, and I promise to listen with an open heart regarding anything you care deeply enough about to want to actually do something about. I hope you’ll do the same for me.

And I could have taken up any of the topics I listed above once again this morning, because there is still so much to do, so much brokenness in this world. But I’m not going to do that, because, I am thrilled to say that, in our congregation, driven by meaning, connection, and purpose, many of you are actually already engaged in purposeful work on these issues. Together, we are helping to welcome a refugee family from Iraq. We are holding a series of events this year on issues of mental health. We are helping people commit to vote. We feed 100 New Yorkers every Wednesday in our soup kitchen, and we need more volunteers. We are organizing for justice with Manhattan Together.

And if you, personally, care about these issues, and are not yet doing this righteous work together with your fellow congregants, reach out to me next week, and I’ll tell you how you can get involved.

But there’s one thing I really haven’t talked about from this pulpit on the High Holidays. It’s a thing that I know some of you care about, because 20 or 30 of our members come out for a monthly speaker or program on the topic. But it’s the elephant in the room.

We’ve managed to discuss and work on really challenging topics with nuance and complexity in my first two years as your rabbi, all with a sense of mutual respect. But there’s one thing we can’t seem to talk about with nuance. Israel seems to be the new third rail within the American Jewish comm unity. And, I’ll be honest. I’ve avoided talking about it, too, because I’ve been so afraid that we might not be able to find a way do so with respect for differences of opinion.

I am not going to avoid it any more.
Let’s talk about Israel.

I want to tell you why I care about Israel. And I want to share with you why I fear for Israel’s future, and what I dream about for Israel’s future, and what I am committed to do to help bring that future to fruition. And then, I want to invite you to share with me, and with your fellow congregants, respectfully, how you feel about Israel, and what you are willing to do about it.

I could use this pulpit to tell you why you should care about Israel, what you should think, and why you should be as madly in love with Israel as I am. But that’s not my style, and that wouldn’t be authentic for either of us.

Instead, I want this to be a year of sharing, in which Shaaray Tefila models safe space to talk about our feelings for the Jewish State. I invite you to join me in making this the year when we decided to escort the elephants out of this room.

It has not always been so difficult to do this, to talk about Israel. Some of us can remember what it felt like twenty-five years ago this week, when speaking about peace was not naïve, but seemed a real possibility.

Perhaps, like me, you remember where you were at that moment; perhaps you also couldn’t tear your eyes away from watching as President Clinton stood on the White House lawn with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and ushered in what promised to be a new era of peace. This was just four years after the Berlin wall came down. There were hints that Northern Ireland’s intractable religious war could be resolved, and now- peace in the Middle East!

That was a quarter century ago. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. When world leaders spoke about Israel back then, there was admiration. Judaism’s gifts to western civilization were honored, Isaiah’s biblical vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares seemed imminent.

That was a powerful day for me as a lover of Israel.

My relationship with Israel didn’t begin that day, of course. My love of our ancestral homeland was instilled in me by my father’s parents, who I called Opi and Omi.

I know that when they were escaping Germany in late 1938, they had dreams of going to Palestine. Opi escaped to Holland and was being trained to do farm work so that he could work on a kibbutz in Israel.

He was lucky to escape once again, just before the Nazis entered Holland, and I am grateful to the United States for taking my grandparents in.

They instilled in me a love for the land and people of Israel. They traveled to Israel several times, and bought many Israel Bonds.

And they introduced me to my Israeli family. While the two of them were denied by the British the freedom to make it to Palestine in the late 1930’s, some of our family did make it there. I think particularly of Opi’s cousin Gaby Neuberger, who served in the haganah, fought in Israel’s war of Independence, and then served in the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, his entire career.

When I spent my junior year in college in Israel, Gaby and his wife Leah welcomed me into their home as if I were one of their grandchildren. They were the first Israelis I ever really got to know, and I have seen them and my extended family on almost every one of the more than 20 trips to Israel I have made since then. Gaby and Leah helped me feel like Israel is my other homeland.

What does Israel mean to you? Do you feel like you have a second homeland, and does it bring you pride? I ask with genuine curiosity, because I don’t know most of your Israel stories.

As I thought about my grandparents and their commitment to the State of Israel, I thought of a story in the book of Numbers. There, the Israelites were on the verge of entering the land of Canaan at the end of our exodus journey, when two of the twelve tribes make an unexpected request of Moses.

They ask to remain outside the land. It seems that they have found fertile land on the opposite side of the Jordan river, and they seek permission to remain there, rather than enter the land of Canaan.

Moses responds with shock and surprise, and perhaps more than a little frustration. He is understandably angry that, having come all this way, some of the Israelites will now abandon their family as they do the work of conquering and upbuilding the land that will become Israel. Moses says to the tribes of Gad and Reuven, “Are your brothers to go to war while you remain here?”

The tribes of Gad and Reuven respond. They assure Moses that they will not abandon the other 10 tribes. They commit to be in the vanguard of the Israelites in the work of fighting for and settling the land. “We will not return to our homes [outside the land],” Gad and Reuven assure Moses, “until every Israelite is in possession of his portion.”

Omi and Opi were in the vanguard. They taught me by word and deed that I, a Jewish person living outside the land of Israel, have an ongoing responsibility to ensure the safety and security of our sacred homeland. In a world where Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran desire nothing more than the destruction of our Jewish State, I feel that I have the same obligation to defend Israel’s physical reality as my grandparents did, as the tribes of Gad and Reuven did.

Shaaray Tefila has done so much in recent years to show our congregational commitment to Israel, to express that we will not abandon those who have and are rebuilding the land. We brought a delegation of 25 people to the AIPAC conference this year; we host monthly speakers through our Israel Engagement Committee so ably led by Dan Adler; we are proud of our annual teen exchange with Ohel Avraham synagogue in Haifa, and our Israel-focused programs, like our amazing Yom Ha’a-atzmaut celebration. And I am so excited to be leaving in just 15 days as I lead my first congregational mission to Israel as your senior rabbi.

My grandparents taught me about the need for Jews outside the land to support with courage Israel’s right to exist. Israel needs me now more than ever, and I will be there for her, just as they were.

My mom and dad taught me to take care of my family, and my family takes care of me. I learn from and gain strength and inspiration from family. I welcome my family into my home, and they do the same for me. I celebrate with them in moments of joy, and I offer care and concern in times of challenge. Israel is where my sisters and brothers are rebuilding the land. They need me, and I need them.

I also care about Israel because I pray that my grandchildren, God willing, will be able to draw strength from the land and people of Israel, as I do.

I dream of being a grandfather someday – Ari and Lev, not too soon, please! There is so much I want to share with them, so much I hope to teach them. I want to tell them about their ancestors, and the journeys they made, from Spain in 1492, and then from Poland, from Russia, and from Germany in 19th and 20th centuries. I want to tell them what I’ve learned, and share my hopes and dreams, and hear about theirs.

And I want, especially today, to share with future generations my love for the land and people of Israel. I pray to have the honor of taking grandchildren to Israel on the occasion of them becoming bat or bar mitzvah, as my grandmother Rodess, my mom’s mom, did for me.

I have been alive for 48 of Israel’s 70 years, and have been privileged to see her thrive. And I have been blessed to live in Israel for nearly two years of my life. I have seen her beauty, her wonder, her dynamism and her promise. I hope someday to share that all with those yet to be.

In some way, I feel like we’re living in a time not dissimilar from the time of the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah lived and spoke God’s words around 500 BCE, when the Jewish people had returned from Babylonian exile, and had built the Second Temple in Jerusalem. There is a fascinating incident in the 7th chapter of Zechariah that speaks to me now, and that I pray speaks to you, as well.

The text there says that two men came to the priests of the rebuilt Temple to ask a surprising and yet logical question. They ask: do we still have to fast on Tisha B’Av

They want to know: now that the Temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, and the people have returned from exile, do we need to continue to observe the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day that the first Temple was destroyed some 70 years earlier?

It seems a good and fair question. The trauma of exile is behind us, they say. We have returned to Zion. We used to sing by the waters of Babylon, as we lay down and wept for Jerusalem. Can we stop fasting and rending our clothes on that anniversary now that we are home again? Why do we need to bring up sore subjects and long-standing challenges? Can’t we just celebrate?

God responds by saying that fasting on Tisha B’Av was never simply about longing to return to the land. “Thus says the God of hosts:” Zechariah prophecies. “Carry out mishpat emet – true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, or the stranger…. [On the day you do these things], [God says], the fast of [Tisha B’Av] will become [an] occasion for joy and gladness… if you love honesty and integrity.”

The question the men asked in the 5th century before the common era is a question that some Jews might be asking today, 25 centuries later. Now that we have returned to Zion, can’t we stop mourning for past losses? Can’t we stop looking back, rehashing complicated history? We have a state of our own. Is that not enough?

I submit to you that Zechariah’s response to the men calls to me just as it called to them. He says, essentially, “You’re asking the wrong question. The aspiration God has for you is not just returning to Zion, but something much bigger. The return to Jerusalem 2500 years ago, the return 70 years ago, was only a precursor to the work we need to do as a nation.”

What will turn our mourning into dancing, the prophet says, is when we achieve what Zechariah calls mishpat emet – true justice.

I celebrate the State of Israel and what it has become. I rejoice in shivat Tzion, in our people’s return to Zion. I rejoice that Israel has become the Startup Nation, and that she has the power to defend herself after thousands of years of Jewish powerlessness. I rejoice at the Torah that still emerges from Zion.

And, I know there’s more work left to do. Return to Zion is not enough, if Israel is to be a light to the nations. And saying that there is still work to do does not mean I am not proud of what Israel has done and accomplished. And saying there’s more work to do does not mean it is all on Israel to do the work. All it means is that Israel is a work in progress, and that I need to be a part of that work.

I celebrate Israel’s joys as I’d celebrate any family simcha; and I bring my love and concern to bear in the challenges she faces; just as I celebrate with Israel’s joy, I must be able to be honest about what makes me say “oy” when I think of Israel.

I love Israel, and, I also hate what is happening to Israel’s soul today. The government has made decisions that violate Jewish values, and make my blood boil.

Just in the last year, Israel’s governing coalition has passed an anti-democratic nation-state law, denied surrogacy rights to LGBTQ Israelis, escalated personal attacks against progressive organizations I care about, and detained American Jewish activists at the border, baselessly interrogating them about their political beliefs and associations.

As an American rabbi, I can’t ignore the message the Israeli government is sending to diaspora Jews:

Stick to the playbook. Send Israel your money, your youth, your tourists and your unquestioning loyalty. Don’t talk about the millions of Palestinians denied equal protection, freedom of movement, or the right to vote for the national government that dictates their lives.

Don’t visit Bethlehem or Ramallah, where you might hear a Palestinian narrative. Pay no attention to any of the groups where Israelis and Palestinians speak frankly about both the challenges and the possibilities for a shared future.

As my colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous has written, “Israel holds a multitude of truths. It is a Jewish state, yet moral leadership tends to come not from its official rabbinate, but from its artists, academics and activists. It is a proud, striving democracy that fails to uphold basic democratic norms for many under its control. It is a young nation of exemplary ingenuity, imagination and frankness that has failed to use that same creativity and honesty to seriously deal with what sovereignty means when one profoundly traumatized population holds great power over another.”

Twenty-seven years ago, I had the incredible good fortune to fall in love with someone who, for whatever reason, loves me back. And you want to know what I’ve learned above all in these past 27 years?

When she challenges me, as she does, to be my best self, and live up to my ideals, and when I challenge her to be her best self and live up to her ideals, that does not mean that we don’t love each other. It doesn’t mean that in order for one of us to be right, the other must needs be wrong.

What it means is that we want honesty and integrity in our relationship. It strengthens our relationship. It is what ensures that our relationship will last.

The rising generation of American Jews, is increasingly alienated from Israel. Even some of Shaaray Tefila’s best and brightest teens and twenty-somethings tell me that they’re tired of the fantasy, a defensive story of half-truths. They’re really smart and savvy. In conversations I’ve had with them, it is clear that they are able to understand that history is complicated and that national narratives can be messy.

Yet many American Jewish community leaders, while wringing their hands over the lost generation, persist in the sanitized approach to teaching young people about Israel. They argue that it’s simply not possible to instill a love of Israel while exposing its faults. They are wrong.

Our kids are smart, and they can handle nuance. It’s what will prepare them for complex life on campus, and life in the big world.  I take inspiration and courage from them.

My Zionism is courageous enough, strong enough, to tolerate being challenged, to see Israel not in black-and-white, us-and-them, zero-sum terms. And, my Zionism is humble enough to admit that there are a multiplicity of valid perspectives on these challenging issues.

When I admit that Israel has work to do, when I say out loud with humility and some sadness that Israel has not yet lived up to the Jewish and democratic ideals set out in her own declaration of independence, I know that the same can be said about the United States, my other homeland.

And, when I say that about the United States, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love this land that took our family in when we were running from persecution. It actually means that I am passionately, madly in love with her, and that I am committed to helping her to be the best she can be.

And it also means that if I stay silent, if I don’t urge my homelands, the United States and Israel, to be the best they can be, that I am complicit in keeping mishpat emet, true justice, from being realized in my lifetime.

This commitment is why I spent four days last fall in the West Bank on a trip called Encounter, where I listened to narratives I’ve never heard before in 20 trips to Israel – narratives of Palestinians in Bethlehem and Ramallah who, like me, want nothing more than freedom and self-determination.

This commitment to justice and truth is why I am so proud that our congregation has long been a committed supporter of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, an organization that seeds Reform congregations in Israel, and that works to secure religious freedoms that are under threat in the Jewish state.

It’s why, when I travel to Israel with 26 pilgrims from our congregation, we will make time to hear competing narratives.

It’s why I hope that at least 25 of you will join me at the JStreet Conference in October 2019, so that we can learn first hand that being pro-Israel can also mean that we have the right and the obligation to speak out when the policies or the actions of the Israeli government are hurting the long-term interests both of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.

And it’s why Shaaray Tefila will be partnering in the coming year with an organization called Resetting the Table, to facilitate communication skill-building for charged conversations on Israel.

But I’ll be totally honest. I don’t know where we should begin this dialogue, or what our baseline is. Because I don’t know what you think, what brings you pride and joy about Israel, what brings you pain, what you hope and pray and long for, and what you are willing to do about all of that.

For this reason, you will receive in your email, at the beginning of next week, a questionnaire about your perspectives on Israel which will provide us with tremendous insight into where our members stand with regards to the Jewish State- what your hopes and fears and dreams are for Israel in the next 70 years.

I ask you to take the time to fill it out; you may of course fill it out anonymously, but I would be exceedingly grateful if you’d be willing to include your name, so that I can call upon you to participate in upcoming conversations on this crucial topic.

I want all of you to love Israel as much as I do. I want my grandchildren to love Israel as much as I do. In my lifetime, I will do all that I can, and challenge this congregation to do all that it can, to secure Israel’s safety and security, period. I will do that with courage.

And, with humility, I will admit that there is still work to do, and I will challenge this congregation to work to support Israel in ways that help justice and truth meet in Jerusalem, that take into consideration all of the people who live there. And with humility, I will admit what I don’t know. And for starters, I admit today that I don’t know where most of you are. And that I want to know.

There is no shortcut for this conversation. It will take time and effort. It will require courage and humility from all of us if we are to be successful. I want to say that once more. It will require courage and humility. From all of us.

Today, on this Yom Kippur, I ask you to invest the energy to learn, to listen, and to talk about Israel, allowing for complex truths.

To me, Israel is a beautiful place, central to our identity as Jews for thousands of years.

And, Israel faces big challenges; may those challenges all be resolved by the time my grandchildren come along. May we someday rejoice on Tisha B’Av together, instead of fasting. I hope future generations will be proud of the work we did, to make that possible, to bring mishpat emet to our land, to make more joy and less “oy,” with courage and humility.

Shanah tovah.

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