Israel 2009: An Eyewitness Report

Sermon delivered March 13, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

The first time I went to Israel was 1976, a few weeks after my Bar Mitzvah. I still remember the unique experience when the plane came in for a landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israeli music started to play. People began clapping. A Zionist passion pervaded the fuselage. This landing was like no other. We were arriving in the Holy Land. We were not visitors, but pilgrims. Though we would be in the country but a few weeks, we imagined ourselves pioneers for the Jewish people.

Three weeks ago yesterday, Toni, Robert, Daniel and I arrived in Israel once again. We were very much looking forward to our trip. Our arrival, though, could not have been more different from that 1976 experience. The airplane was full, but most of our fellow travelers were Israeli businessmen, not pilgrims. One person literally got on the plane with his dry cleaning, as though he were getting into his car, merely commuting. As we crossed into Israeli air space, we were warned to remain seated; we were not serenaded by Zionist tunes. Hold the applause.

Perhaps one would conclude that Zionism has died. Landing in Israel evokes no excitement, merely relief after a very long flight. A return from a business trip. A family visit. A convention. Not unlike landing in Newark or Atlanta.

No wonder some have written the obituary of Zionism itself.

Zionism is the hope for the rebirth of the Jewish people on our native soil. Zionism differentiates Israel from every other nation on Earth, lending a unique purpose to the Jewish State.

For young Israelis, though, the Holocaust is ancient history, like the long, painful journey that preceded it. More Israeli young people than ever seek to avoid military service, many of them successfully. Once upon a time, we celebrated Israeli ingenuity, as swamps were drained to create farmland, and they made the desert bloom. Now, those very phenomena have caused ecological disasters that threaten the nation’s well-being.

The concept of the Kibbutz is all but dead. Some that remain are supporting themselves by utilizing part of their land as American-style shopping centers. Capitalism seems to be a more vibrant “ism” than Zionism.

And yet, in my ten days in Israel, I was privileged to witness the emergence of a new kind of Zionism, a new dream of Jewish renewal on our native soil. Perhaps we need to abandon our old vision of what constitutes the Zionist dream, and permit ourselves to gain a new enthusiasm for Israel as the Jewish State really is.

Robert and Daniel have three first cousins in Israel: Ruth, Sarah and Hannah. When their parents uprooted them from Kansas City comfort to a new life in a strange land, the girls were 7, 5, and 3. Now, they are in their early to mid 20s.

Ruth, who was in Israel’s only co-ed combat unit, is now in college, studying Behavioral Science. She’s at a college called Tel Chai, in a town called Kiryat Shmonah, on the Lebanese border, much less than a rocket-shot from Hezbollah strongholds. This summer, when she’s on break from school, Ruth will be called to miluim, Army reserve duty, extremely rare for women but connected to her status as a combat soldier. Ruth’s boyfriend, also a Tel Chai student, is the son of immigrants from the then-Soviet Union.

Sarah is an Army Intelligence officer. On leave now, she is studying for Medical School entrance exams. Getting into Medical School would be easier in the U.S., where the family enjoys dual citizenship. Sarah lives in Tel Aviv, though, with her boyfriend Nadav, the son of immigrants from Arab lands and from India. She intends to be an Israeli physician, with an Israeli medical degree.

Hannah’s military service was more typical of Israeli women. She was a secretary. However, she was in an elite unit, the name of which inspires awe in Israel. She, too, is now studying for college admission. Before the Army, Hannah lived and worked in Kansas City. She could easily have forgone Army service, but she did not. Like Sarah, she has a boyfriend who is a descendant of the small Jewish community of India. Still in the Army, Yeffi is an instructor of the Israeli martial art called Krav Maga, quite impressive to Robert and Daniel.

Perhaps these portraits of our nieces are mundane. They are special to us because they are our family, but otherwise one could say that they are ordinary young women, charting their futures. Israel, though, is a small and insular country. Everything is more difficult there. Just the process of getting into college makes my head spin. Many American Jews view simply setting foot in Israel to be dangerous.

Israeli Army service, Israeli education – and, lest we forget, Israeli boyfriends – are part of a fulfillment of the Zionist dream of anybody who makes aliyah. One does not move one’s family to Israel, at considerable sacrifice, to have the children return to America. And yet, one never knows what the future will bring. The choices that Hannah, Sarah and Ruth are making seem to me to be what Herzl had in mind when he dreamed of our being a free people in our own land. They are examples of Zionism, very much alive and renewed, in Israel today.

Twenty-three years ago, I was a first year student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Straight out of college, I began my rabbinical studies, as all Reform Rabbis are required to do, at our seminary’s Jerusalem Campus.

Reform Judaism was basically unknown in Israel back then. Israeli Jews were either “religious,” meaning Orthodox; or they called themselves “secular,” the latter constituting some 80% of the Jewish population. Reform Judaism was considered to be North American, not for Israelis. For the bulk of Israelis, the Orthodox synagogue was the only synagogue, even though they would never enter it.

Even when I was there, our seminary had a program for Israeli rabbinical students. I knew of exactly two. The Reform Movement would make grand statements, but seemed to be making little headway, with a very small number of congregations, mostly made up of immigrants from North America.

Though I have visited Israel many times since 1986, I did not know how profoundly things had changed until this most recent trip. One of those two Israeli rabbinical students from the ’80s is now the dean. Rabbi Michael Marmur is a visionary. He saw an Israeli spiritual revival, and he made it Reform.

What do you call a large and growing group of so-called “secular” Israelis, who gather near the trendy Tel Aviv Port every Friday night at Beit T’fillah Yisraeli, or “The Israeli House of Prayer?” In the summer, they meet on the beach, hundreds of them, some of them in shorts and tank tops. Their leader is studying to be a Rabbi at Hebrew Union College. Esteban and his community don’t like to be called “Reform,” but they certainly are religiously progressive Jews, the Israeli version of us.

The same may even be said of the so-called “secular Yeshiva,” also in Tel Aviv. There, “non-religious” Israelis have adopted the name of the traditional Jewish house of study, where they pore over Torah and Talmud, to gain insights for modern Israeli life. Some mark Shabbat; others do not. Some celebrate Holy Days at home, others at the synagogue. They may eschew the American-sounding “Reform” label, but they are practicing progressive Judaism religiously. My discussion leader is studying at Hebrew Union College, and will be a future Israeli Reform Rabbi.

Two weeks ago, on Shabbat, I traveled all the way to Haifa, six hours on a bus, just for services and Shabbat dinner. There, I met Gabi, the Student Rabbi of Congregation Ohel Avraham. Gabi is around my age, but he only learned of the existence of Reform Judaism six years ago. He used to be an Orthodox Rabbi. Then, disillusioned, he became “secular.” Now, Gabi leads worship with fervor and feeling, to men and women praying together, a congregation made up almost entirely of Israelis. Had you been with me, you would have thought you were at the Barshop Auditorium service, missing only the English.

During a day celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv, I went with a group to that city’s oldest cemetery. Needless to say, it’s not as old as our Temple Beth-El Cemetery on Palmetto Street, but it is historic. Among the luminaries interred there is Ahad Ha-Am, an important early Zionist thinker. Ahad Ha-Am dreamed of a critical mass of Jews, living in the historic land of Israel, and there building a center of Jewish revival.

Ahad Ha-Am envisioned that new kinds of Torah study, Jewish language and art and literature and music would come forth from Israel. Perhaps he did not imagine that progressive Judaism in Israel would require institutional support from North America, but today’s Israeli rabbinical students are building a uniquely Israeli form of progressive Judaism, born and nurtured on Israeli soil. The old Zionist vision lives a new life in 2009.

Finally, I want to tell you about Attef and Amnon.

Attef is the first Arab ever admitted to the Executive MBA program at Hebrew University. Attef is a man with a mission. In his mind, his Bedouin community has plenty of doctors and lawyers and teachers and other professionals. They need business people. When asked if he would prefer not to be an Israeli citizen, that there were no Israel, Attef brushes the question aside. His mission is clear: to build a better life for his own people, who are citizens of Israel.

Attef has made scores of Jewish friends in Jerusalem, bringing them “home for Shabbat,” as it were. Raised in privilege, Attef’s home is lovely, but the village is not. There’s no running water at school, funded by the same Education Ministry that pays for the education of Jewish Israelis. Attef, though, betrays not a trace of bitterness. He’s looking to renew his people’s life in the Jewish State. What is that, if not Zionism?

And, if I needed further proof, I was introduced to Amram. A senior Israeli official, Amram is an experienced urban planner. He has volunteered to take a new job, overseeing development of several previously unrecognized, unofficial Bedouin villages in the Negev that are now being developed with government assistance and approval. I asked Amram: “Why would a Zionist take such a job?” His answer is as clear as it is convincing, as complex as it is simple. He can be idealistic: Israel cannot reach its Zionist potential, living up to its own Declaration of Independence as a democracy, if it does not provide the same rights and services to its Arab citizens that it provides to its Jewish citizens. Amram can also be purely practical: Israel has enough Arab enemies outside its borders, and must not cause even greater enmity among its own Arab citizens. And what can be expected, other than hostility, from citizens who are not granted the same opportunities and development that is offered to other citizens of a different religion and ethnicity?

Amram, who has worked in Jewish communities for decades, now reaches the end of his career in Bedouin villages. This work may be his greatest Zionist endeavor. He is strengthening the Jewish, democratic State of Israel. He is living Jewish values.

Ten days in Israel, in 2009, renewed my Zionist spirit, rekindling my love of Israel. Each visit moves me. And yet, this year was different. Zionism, believed to be on life support, has been given new life. The desert of Zionism has begun to bloom, if you will, with new flowers and plants. May we all draw strength and inspiration from the Zionists of 2009, even as we recommit ourselves to our own Zionist dreams.