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Let's Go Uphill to Israel

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, October 4, 2014


Once, there was a Chasidic Rebbe who had two sons. The boys amused themselves by playing a game they called "rebbe and disciple." Aaron, the five year old, asked Elisha, the seven year old, what penance was appropriate for having forgotten to say the blessing for an apple.

Elisha (pretending he was the rebbe) replied as he imagined his father might, "For forty days recite a special prayer after anything you eat." "You didn't do it right," little brother Aaron scolded.

"Of course, I did," Elisha insisted. "I've listened when a disciple asked daddy the same question and I answered just as he did."

Aaron replied, "I also listened, but you forgot something. Daddy always sighs before he answers."

... And so it is for us when we talk about Israel this morning.

This has been a sad summer offering us too many occasions to sigh

Most of all, we have sighed over the loss of life. It began with the three Jewish boys who were kidnapped in June. It continued with the brutal immolation of the Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Then came the deaths of soldiers in the IDF plus the deaths of so many people in Gaza who were made into human shields by Hamas.

So much to mourn. Much reason to sigh.

This past summer there was massive destruction in Gaza. This past summer (if Hamas had had its way), the intent was to wreak total havoc everywhere in Israel.

Leonard Fein (one of America's pre-eminent writers) may have captured the hard truth when he wrote as follows in early August.

"Once, I was in [the city of] Sderot, which for years was the prime target of rockets from Gaza. A friend who lives there explained to me that all the children of Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD. All of them.

"As it happens, I was in Gaza the very next day, chatting with a psychiatrist who explained to me that all the children in Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Sorry, they were both wrong. This is not a "post" anything. The trauma goes on, seething daily and not so rarely boiling over... What we have here is OTSD - ongoing traumatic stress disorder - OTSD."

So we sigh after this difficult summer.

And we read essay after essay trying to get to the bottom of what Israelis call THE MATSAV - THE SITUATION.

For example, last week I eagerly read an opinion piece by Yossi Klein Halevi, a thoughtful American who made aliyah many years ago.

I have good news and bad news. His essay expressed tremendous concern about many aspects of THE MATSAV - THE SITUATION. Klein Halevi is too clear-headed to imagine easy paths for going forward. On the other hand, he also believes Israelis have a great way of coping with their situation, which is why he concludes his essay with this anecdote.

The other morning, while driving my 16-year-old son, Shachar, to school, I said: "Here we are, in a traffic jam in Jerusalem. But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors."

There was silence in the car. Then Shachar replied, "I think about that a lot too."

Klein Halevi concludes - That was all he said. But that was enough. I knew my boy would be able to survive here.


When I think about Israel, I also think about the very same thing Klein Halevi considers.

When I'm not dragged down by headlines, I think about the ordinary details of daily life as they are lived in everyday Israel.

Of course, in Israel the "ordinary" isn't always what we expect. Here's an example from a recent trip. I was walking along a busy Tel Aviv street when I saw a sign telling all customers that here was a store which offered excellent service.

Here in the USA the sign would read 24/7. In the Jewish homeland, guess what? The sign read 24/6.

And if we have farmers' markets here in America, the same also takes place in Israel.

When I think of Israel, I picture Machane Yehudah, the open air market in Jerusalem that runs maybe four square blocks. The place is teeming with people who go from one booth to another sampling 75 varieties of cheese or 50 varieties of olives.

Picture ten stalls piled high with hot loaves of challah that shine under the lights. The challahs are next to my favorite: melt-in-your-mouth chocolate rugelach.

But you don't go to Israel for the food, although you do get to Machane Yehudah by walking the streets of Jerusalem. And here's something you don't find in most American cities where our streets are called Main Street and State.

In Jerusalem and throughout Israel, the streets have names with character.

For example, just walking from the apartment I rented last summer to Machane Yehudah involved a stroll through Jewish culture and the past.

Out of the building onto Sholom Aleichem street, named after the writer of Yiddish who wrote the stories on which Fiddler on the Roof was based. Onward to Bezalel Street named after the first artist mentioned in the Torah. After that head up to Shmuel Hanagid. Shmuel distinguished himself in Granada, Spain of the eleventh century where he was a linguist, scholar, and chief advisor in the royal court.

Take a left onto Ben Yehudah Street and your feet recall Eleazar ben Yehudah. A hundred years ago he transformed ancient Hebrew into the modern language spoken by 6 million Israelis today. Finally, make a turn onto Shiloh Street and you're back in the Bible walking on a street that calls to mind the very first place in Israel where our ancestors prayed.

Sholom Aleichem, Bezalel, Shiloh. Walking the streets of Israel is an exercise in memory, literature, and language. Something as simple as shopping for a peach draws you right through 30 centuries and 3 continents of Jewish meaning.

Speaking of time and space, I want to tell you about one fabulous event from our last congregational trip to Israel. One of the girls was set to become a Bat Mitzvah on a Thursday morning. The travel agent and I made arrangements for the service to take place in a stone synagogue on the Golan Heights. Jews lived up there in the village of Katzrin 1500 years ago, and we were going to stand on the exact stone floor our ancestors used so long ago.

We couldn't do our service, however, without a Torah scroll, and the travel agent promised me from way back here in the USA that a Torah scroll would be there.

The night before the service I wondered how a Torah would end up on the Golan Heights at 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and I wondered too what I would do if it was rolled to the wrong spot. How would our tour group wait 20 minutes under the hot July sun while I rolled the scroll?

Lo and behold, no need for concern. The scroll was there when we arrived and it was also rolled to the right spot.

But here's what touched me as I showed our Bat Mitzvah girl the scroll just to be sure she recognized her verses.

Seven days earlier she and I had stood at this very lectern in Massachusetts reading from our Sinai scroll. Now, we were 5000 miles away; I had opened a scroll I'd never seen with a history I didn't know, and it didn't matter. The words were the same. Our Bat Mitzvah girl chanted them in Israel precisely the way she had chanted them in Springfield.

One wide world; one Jewish world; one Jewish connection from Springfield, Hartford or Phoenix all the way to Israel!

The very next night our group brushed up against that same sense of Jewish wholeness when the sun set for Shabbat in Jerusalem. Here's what makes that occasion so memorable: It's the fact that Jerusalem actually becomes different on Friday and Saturday. Here in the Diaspora we talk about Shabbat, candles and quiet on the seventh day. But the honest truth is that all of us are hard-pressed to feel Shabbat in a world so busy with restaurants, shopping, and movies on Friday and Saturday.

It's different in Jerusalem.

I didn't have to preach a sermon about the change of pace on Friday afternoon. It simply took place all around us. Jews slowed down. The cars on the streets disappeared. Shabbat happened.

Jewish wholeness - We weren't a minority working to make Shabbat; we were part of the whole.

All this is why I want to take another group of Sinai members to Israel this July. I want to travel with you so that you can see and feel Israel for yourselves. I want to encounter the ordinary lives of Israelis who sit in traffic jams, love their iPhones, attend children's ballet programs and cheer their children at soccer games.

While we are there in Israel, we will make time to learn about Gaza and the West Bank. We will try to understand history the way Palestinians read it. We will try to understand how Israelis experience the Palestinians.

I can't guarantee it, but I would love to arrange a meeting with someone like Dr. Raphael Walden - deputy director of the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv and a lay leader of the Israeli Reform Movement. Rick Jacobs, the leader of our Union for Reform Judaism, recently described how Dr. Walden conducted himself over this last summer.

In addition to treating Israeli soldiers and civilians, Dr. Walden co-chairs Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and spends his free time caring for Palestinians in the West Bank. During July and August, he helped arrange for medical supplies to be delivered to Gaza hospitals because he couldn't imagine treating the injured without supplies. Dr. Walden's faith required him to care deeply about Israelis, but his compassion extended to all those affected by the war.

Wouldn't you like to meet this man and others like him who embody Israel at its best? I mean watching the news last summer it was only too easy to believe Israel was conducting the war in Gaza without any sense for the effect of its bombs. Terrible images on television obscured the fact that no one in Israel took delight in the Palestinians' pain. People like Dr. Walden mourned what was being forced upon them. They never forgot how tragic war is. Israelis don't do that.

When we are in Israel, we will also visit several centers of Reform Judaism. I'm looking forward to the dinner we will have at Congregation Ra-anana, which is in a suburb of Tel Aviv. We will break bread with the members of that Temple and learn first hand what it is like to be a Reform Jew in Israel. You've all heard that right wing Orthodoxy presents a huge challenge to the vast majority of Israeli Jews. Given the choice between having a State that follows the strictures of Jewish law as opposed to having a State that is fully democratic and Jewish, the Orthodox seem to be pushing for restrictions and halacha above all else.

How do Reform Jews in Ra-anana feel about that? Do they fear losing their rights? How do they see the future?

Let's sit down with them in person and learn.

While we are at it, here's one other side of Israel I want to see this coming summer.

I want to visit the site of a new Israeli project called SpaceIL.

SpaceIL is Israel's entry in the competition for the Google Lunar X Prize to build an unmanned spacecraft, land it on the Moon, and move 500 meters across the lunar surface. The first team to do this wins a $20M prize. SpaceIL is among the teams now favored to win.

You should understand, however, that the mission of SpaceIL goes beyond this competition. SpaceIL's vision is to become a presence throughout Israel inspiring Israeli school children to become involved in science, technology, engineering and math. SpaceIL will use the prize money to further this mission.

How cool is that! This winter we'll be sharing the excitement of SpaceIL with our own Religious School kids. Next July I've got SpaceIL on our itinerary.

So, tell me.

Can you make this trip?

We need a minimum of 20 people (first timers... never been to Israel, this is your chance). Last June over 20 people expressed interest. Since that time, I've further refined the itinerary. We've now got financial support from the Grinspoon Foundation. Registration is open on the Ayelet website. (Ayelet is our tour company.)

Here's the calendar. By November 15, I would like to hear from you. If you don't officially register, let me at least know you are interested. Then check what you need to check and register by February 1. Once we have our minimum group, we have a trip.

Security? Safety?

Here's my promise: Back in 2006, a full Sinai tour was set to go. Days before our trip, violence erupted in Israel and, because I would never endanger any one, we cancelled the trip. We did not take risks. The next summer was different. We had a wonderful, safe trip.

The same will hold true for this trip. Safety will be paramount. But the goal right now is not to wait so long that the chance to have a trip passes us by.

So read the material in this morning's handout and let's go to Israel.

But if you can't go or if these dates don't work for you, there are other ways to be part of Israel.

First, you can participate in a global Jewish enterprise. A year from now - in October 2015 - the World Zionist Congress will convene in Jerusalem. The Congress brings together delegates from all over the world. The Congress chooses representatives to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund, and other organizations and they determine how millions of dollars raised from Federations around the world are spent in Israel.

Here's the key: If the voice of Reform Judaism is heard loudly at the Congress, more funds will be directed toward Reform Jewish organizations in Israel. That means the voice of liberal Judaism will be stronger in Israel. Currently, the Reform movement receives over $5 million each year in Israel. A strong Reform voice at the Congress means that amount will remain or even grow.

And how do we have a say in all this?

We can vote for the makeup of the American delegation that goes to the Congress. Elections for the delegation will take place this January and we can vote.

You can vote and directly affect Israel.

You can register to vote for delegates representing ARZA - The Association of Reform Zionist Association.

I know it all sounds quite political. But we've done this before. A number of years ago we voted for the ARZA delegation to the last World Zionist Congress and the results were much greater support for our Reform brothers and sisters in Israel.

Here's what you can do today, even though the actual voting doesn't happen until January. Today, when our service concludes, head out to the lobby, find the round ARZA table and grab this pledge card. Don't worry about the details. All I need is your name on the card. Place it in the blue box on the table. That will tell me you are interested in this project. You'd like to learn more. I will be in touch.

And what else can you do?

Buy an Israel Bond. Jeff Cossin already spoke eloquently back on Rosh Hashanah morning about the importance of Bonds. You can purchase a small Bond or a very large Bond. Every Bond is important. Complete the cards at your chairs and place them in the boxes that ushers will be holding at the end of our service.

Or if you want to go online (no paper), visit our website. The link to Israel Bonds is on the homepage.

Finally, please join me upstairs in the Magen David Room at 1:30 p.m.

Do you remember the computer survey we did two years ago about attitudes toward Israel? Hundreds of you completed the survey and wrote powerfully about pride and concerns regarding Israel. I reported on the survey a few months after that, but I would love to share those results with you again. PowerPoint from your Rabbi. I think you'll be amazed to see what the congregation felt in 2012 and to see if our feelings have changed or should change. The presentation this afternoon will not be me talking to you; it will be an opportunity for full conversation.


So tell me. Are you tired of sitting? Ready for some exercise?

If so, you'll appreciate this anecdote. Last summer when Marsha and I were in Jerusalem, I attended a seminar for two weeks. Getting there required a 25 minute walk early each day.

Every morning the sky was blue and the sun shone.

And every morning I puffed my way to the seminar because, coming or going, there are always hills in Jerusalem. In fact, some people say it always feels as if you are heading up hill when you enter Jerusalem.

You might even say that building and maintaining the Jewish State is an uphill struggle. Standing by Israel is in these complicated times is an uphill struggle. Imagining a resolution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is an uphill struggle.

Who needs it?

Who needs the struggle?

I do.

Because something new is happening in Israel, because something new is being created in Israel, because something my grandparents only dreamed about is taking place on the shores of the Mediterranean. Jews are fighting to claim their rightful place in the sun, but they are also writing, inventing, drawing, painting, planting, harvesting, learning, singing, falling in love, marrying, and struggling to build a home for their children.

What a grand experiment.

What a gift for you and me to be alive when Jews are able to have a country of their own.

My name is Mark Shapiro. I am proud to support Israel in all the ways I have suggested. This Yom Kippur morning I hope you will join me.

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