Rekindling an Old Flame

Delivered at Services on Rosh Hashanah Eve 5772 – September 28, 2011

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Each year, on the Sunday morning of our Confirmation Retreat, the students and I are joined by their parents for a few hours of intergenerational study and sharing in the Hill Country. Near the end, I ask the students and their parents to rank-order their Jewish priorities. I offer a list: God, Education, Israel, Observance, Social Justice, and the like. Each year, the majority of participants, particularly the parents, place Israel at the very bottom. Our Confirmation parents are not alone. Study after study has shown that Israel is peripheral at best in the lives of younger Jewish adults – and we’re talking about more than a generation, including my age group . . . not so young.

My, how times have changed.

Some here yet recall a November night in 1947. America had emerged from the nightmare of the Depression and from the national sacrifice that brought victory in World War II. Increasingly, American Jews were becoming aware of the horrific tragedy that had befallen our people. Six million, six million, dead at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. And what of the survivors? They had lost their families; their homes were occupied by the neighbors who had turned them over to the Nazis. Homeless, the remnant of European Jewry plagued the conscience of the world.

On that November night, American Jews were riveted to their radios. One by one, the announcer called the names of the world’s nations. At home, American Jews kept score: How many voted yes, and how many no. The General Assembly was casting ballots on the partition of Palestine, the plan to create two nations, one Jewish, the other Arab, side by side on land that both called home.

As if the very lives of European Jewish refugees were not sufficient, tens of thousands of Jews had relocated to Palestine in the previous half century. They had settled the ancestral home of our Jewish people, the land where Jews all over the world find our roots. They had given new life to the Hebrew language. After millennia when our people had been forbidden to own or work the land, these Zionists had drained swamps and made the desert bloom. They had established the modern world’s first-ever new Jewish city, Tel Aviv. Out of necessity, they built a Jewish army, recalling that 1800 years earlier, we had taken up arms to defend ourselves against the Romans.

And so it was, on that November night in 1947, that our people listened and waited. The totals were announced: Partition was approved. The Jewish State would be born, with the world’s blessing. The Jewish people greeted the announcement with dancing in the street.

In the years that followed, American Jews continued to watch, and often to worry. Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbors, attacking in large numbers in 1948, massing on Israel’s borders again in 1967. Would the Jewish State be called out of existence?

The answer was miraculous. In six days, only six days, the Israelis routed the combined armies of the Arab world. Israel would not merely survive, as its army vanquished the enemy that had sought destruction, uniting Jerusalem under banner of the Star of David.

The American Jewish community swelled with pride. So much would change, not only in Israel, but here, for American Jews. An age-old stereotype would collapse almost immediately. The image of the physically weak, defeated Jew had symbolized our position in the world from Medieval Europe to Philip Roth novels. That visage was replaced by the victorious Israeli soldier. Our American neighbors began to look at us with unexpected admiration. The battle had not been fought by American Jews, but we were beneficiaries. Israel filled us with glory. The impact is hard to overstate.

Then, just six years later, in 1973, as we filled our synagogues on Yom Kippur, we learned that the holiest day on the Jewish calendar had been desecrated by an invading army, again bent on Israel’s destruction. Ultimately, the Israeli army prevailed, but only after a real scare and terrible loss of life.

Now as never before the American Jewish community would mobilize. In the 1970s, American Jews accepted a new mitzvah: Thou Shalt Support Israel and advocate for the Jewish State.

Synagogues and Jewish Federations sponsored missions to Israel. Jews of every age – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, of every walk of Jewish life – were inspired as they took in the sights of Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall, climbed Masada, and met a long-lost Israeli relative. Jewish Federation campaigns grew, with Israel as the inspiration that also built local Jewish institutions.

Slowly, though, and imperceptibly at first, the last thirty years have lowered Israel’s appeal among American Jews. We continued to witness inspiring moments, but so many of our interactions with Israel have been more complicated.

Israel is now often seen more as Goliath than David. We are understandably concerned about the welfare of the Palestinian people, as are most Israelis. At the same time, we are bewildered and divided about whether and how that problem can be solved. Peace negotiations and the future of Israel and the Palestinians are important issues. However, those matters can distract us from our greater obligation. The American Jewish Community and the State of Israel increasingly act like lovers who have grown apart.

How can we rekindle the flame? It cannot be too late. Though Israel is now more self-reliant, Israel yet needs our support, as recent events make all too clear. And we still need Israel, and not only as a refuge from anti-Semitism.

We need Israel, uniting us as one people with one homeland, inspiring us wherever we have wandered, even in this land of our blessing.

We need Israel, our living laboratory of Judaism, where even Israelis who call themselves “secular” study Torah and Talmud, keeping our sacred heritage alive and teaching Jews everywhere.

We need Israel, as a beacon of democracy where democracy is not easy, as men and women struggle with how to preserve freedom and dignity in an often hostile world.

We need to be engaged with Israel, for the good of our Judaism, for the depth of our faith, for the inspiration of our community.

Israel offers much fire to rekindle the flame.

Perhaps you will be surprised that Central Texas is where my faith in Israel is deepened each summer. Our Reform Movement’s Greene Family Camp brings some 45 Israeli staff to Bruceville each summer. These young men and women have recently completed their compulsory military service. They are mature and purpose-driven, though most have yet to enter college. Every camper feels Israel’s touch, and our youngest adults of the Camp staff make even deeper connections. This summer, our own Amanda Millette told me, “Now, I have at least five friends in Israel who have invited me to crash in their apartments. I’m going to Israel this fall!”

One of these Israeli young adults, Oded Fromovitz, visited our congregation in March of 2010. A veteran of the elite Golani brigade in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Oded doesn’t look like a war hero. He is slight of build. He is soft-spoken, but he exudes energy when he takes up the subject of his native land. As a shaliah, an Israeli representative, for two years in northwest Indiana, with summers in Central Texas, Oded lit the fire of Israel’s living reality among previously disaffected American Jews.

Imagine . . . What if we had a shaliah of our own at Temple Beth-El? Budgetary concerns are real, but are for another day. Tonight, dream of a young, dynamic Israeli, infusing our Religious School students with the life of modern Israel. Envision a thoughtful veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, available for conversational Hebrew classes and round-table discussions about Israel, not only in our Temple but throughout the Jewish community – and, just as critically, in churches and at universities around our city. We have been sending eight or nine teenagers to Israel each summer, most of them inspired by Israelis at Greene Family Camp. Those numbers, and their enthusiasm, would surely grow with the full-time encouragement and inspiration of an energetic young Israeli at our Temple.

This summer, I was privileged to travel to Israel with our Mayor, Julian Castro. I also read Start-Up Nation, the book that describes Israel as home to more start-up businesses per capita than any country on Earth. I was inspired anew. The spirit of the early Zionists lives in the Israelis of today.

Northern Israel, once a swamp, drained by the early Zionist settlers for agriculture, is now home to Iscar, Warren Buffet’s first acquisition outside the United States. Our Mayor’s group met Stef Wertheimer, the grizzled veteran who founded the company, described in Start-Up Nation. Wertheimer has a vision of planting more industrial parks like the home of Iscar, where Jews and Arabs work side by side in a meritocracy, with mutual respect and productivity that benefit the nation and a broad array of its citizens. Stef Wertheimer, a Zionist since the days before 1948, is still busy draining the swamp.

A generation ago, Israelis built the National Water Carrier, to bring water from the Sea of Galilee to the cities in the center of the country and all the way to agriculture in the Negev. Now, though, the Jordan River has slowed to a trickle, and the Galilee is at dangerously low levels. With the Mayor’s group, I visited a desalination plant on the Mediterranean coast at Hadera. Soon, Israel will meet its entire fresh water need through desalination. Israeli ingenuity continues to make the desert bloom.

Natan Sharansky, once a courageous Soviet Jewish refusenik, now a leading Israeli, is deeply concerned about the distance that has grown between us and our brothers and sisters in Israel. Scharansky urges us to renew our bonds, saying: “I know from the story of Soviet Jewry how the connection to Israel, the discovery that we are part of the great story of our people, inspires and gives you the will to fight.” He concludes, “The very survival of the Jewish people is in danger.”

The months ahead will be tough for Israel, and for American Jews. Another United Nations vote will soon be tallied. The United States has vowed to veto any move in the Security Council, and that’s a good thing. In the General Assembly, though, this time, the vote will not go Israel’s way. However formulated, the unilateral declaration of Palestinian Statehood will serve those who seek to delegitimize Israel without bringing any tangible improvement to the lives of Palestinians. Israel will be under attack. We American Jews may feel threatened as Israel’s proxy. We who have benefited from the glories of Zionism must not run from the Jewish State. We must build what Sharansky calls “solidarity, commitment, or connection among Jews.”

Note that Sharansky says “or.” Not all of us can or will support Israel in the same way. But we must all love Israel. We can all be Jews who care deeply about our Jewish State.

Let us heed the shofar’s clarion call: 5772 must be a new year in our relationship to Israel. No more may we avert our eyes from troubling articles and less-than-inspiring realities. No more may our commitments and our donations slide. No more may Israel fall to the bottom of our Jewish priorities.

For me, supporting Israel means visiting Israel regularly, speaking Hebrew, supporting the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, AIPAC, and the New Israel Fund, as well as our Reform Movement institutions in Israel and ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. Many of you also support some or all of those endeavors; others will align themselves with causes as far-flung as J-Street and the Z.O.A. Harei gam zeh meshubah, all of these represent meaningful engagement with Israel and our Jewish people, so all will be for blessing.

This year, plan a trip to Israel, as we were urged by Bill Goodman, in his first words as our Temple President. Everyone deserves to see the new ways that Israelis are making the desert bloom, draining proverbial swamps, and building a dynamic future for the Jewish State and the world. Cantor and Rabbi Berlin and I are eager to arrange congregational missions to Israel in the year ahead; you will be hearing more soon.

This year, consider sending your own child or grandchild to Greene Family Camp, or donating to our scholarship funds so that we can send even more than the fifty Temple youngsters who went to Bruceville last summer, touching scores of Israelis personally and culminating in travel to Israel after Confirmation.

Read Start-Up Nation, if you haven’t done so already. Find inspiration in 21st Century Israel, just as a previous generation was fired up after the Six Day War.

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate creation. We rejoice in the possibilities of new beginnings. Let 5772 be the year we fall in love with Israel all over again. Let us rekindle the flame, and keep it burning, as the Torah commands, “never to go out.”