Feeling Stuck and Loving Our Home - Israel and American Jewry

Feeling Stuck and Loving Our Home - Israel and American Jewry©
Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre 2779/2018
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Whenever people talk about our community at Shaarei Kodesh, They describe it in the following ways:

It’s so haimish, we feel so welcomed when we go…

It’s a no matter how you dress another how large my bank account is, you always feel accepted and loved...

It’s a place where children can feel free to run in the sanctuary, and where they feel at home

And of course my favorite, “Shaarei Kodesh…it’s that storefront shul across from the gas station!”

As a congregation, we define ourselves by our people and what they do, the actions they take, but, whether we like it or not, we are also defined by our physical place, our home.  

When I tell rabbis about our congregation and our space, they tell me how jealous they are, how lucky we are to own a building, not to have a permanent space that weighs us down.  They tell me, our building is an albatross around our necks!  

But I answer them by telling them, we have some freedom, but you don’t know what it’s like not to have a permanent home.  There might be some freedom, but at the same time, there is so much uncertainty.  There's also an old saying, no one washes a rental car.  My wife reminds of this quote every time she steps into my messy rented office at Shaarei Kodesh.  

As a society, we seem to be leaning more towards renting than buying, whether it is homes or cars.  

Is it better to rent or to buy?  Honestly, I don't know the answer, but, I can tell you this – I doubt any countries during our 2,000 years in exile said to us, “You Jews are so lucky you don't have a country of your own.  You don't have to raise taxes, you don't have to have an army, you don't have all those responsibilities that we have.”  As our answer, I would show them the suitcase that was packed by the front door in our homes, a custom of many, during those 2,000 years of renting, or as we call, wandering.   No matter how secure we felt, we dwelled in rentals, not homes for 2,000 years.  

We will read about more about our tortured history tomorrow during the Martyrology service, Eileh Ezkerah.  For 2,000 years, We prayed for our return to our home, but we waited.  

In the late 1800's, a minority group within the Jewish people came up with a plan:  let's build a home in the last place we actually had a home – in Israel. Years later, in 1948, our people stopped renting and settled down into a new home that was our old home – the land of Israel.  This year, Israel celebrated her 70th birthday, but times have changed in 70 years, and so have our feelings toward the Jewish state.  

At our local high holiday sermon seminar, and this is actually a true story, we were speaking about what to speak about, but it started to become a conversation of what 'not' to speak about.  Some said speak about politics, others said no.  Some said:  "Speak about Jewish observance", others said, "No, we don't want to alienate anyone!"  One said:  "Speak about Israel!" Almost everyone said, "No!"  I looked around and thought, are we actually living out the old joke between the rabbi and the temple president who said no to everything the rabbi wanted to talk about it and ended by saying, “Well, talk about Judaism!”

It's not easy to talk about Israel from the pulpit nowadays.  

This summer, the American Jewish Committee undertook a groundbreaking survey on the attitudes of American Jews and Israeli Jews toward each other.  

It's a long survey so I cannot go into great detail, but let's just say, it's troubling.  When it comes to almost every important issue – the peace process with the Palestinians, settlements, Jewish religious pluralism in Israel, the Kotel compromise, Israeli Jews think almost completely differently than Jewish Americans.  The statistics show that we are growing farther and farther apart.  We say tomato, and they say, Agvania (that's tomato in Hebrew by the way).  

But what troubles me more is what I hear from some of my friends and congregants.  Anecdotally, I have had several people come up to me, people who were donors to pro-Israel organizations, who used to visit Israel said to me, “This year, Rabbi, I’m not going, I’m not visiting.  This year, I'm not giving.”

At a recent event in Washington D.C., an Israeli ambassador said that this year, when the Iran Deal was torn up and when American moved its embassy to Jerusalem, was the best year Israel has had in her 70 year history.  But for many Jewish Americans who are not Orthodox, seeing a Nation-State Bill passed that doesn't acknowledge Israel's Democratic roots; seeing the Kotel compromise which was to set up one wall for all streams of Judaism collapse after it was promised and passed.  It seemed that, to many over here, it wasn't Israel's finest hour to many across the pond.  

It seems like we, the Jewish cousins living across the ocean from each other, cannot agree on anything.  But, there is actually there is one thing:  78% of Israelis and 69% of U.S. Jews agree that a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, and 79% of U.S. Jews and 87% of Israelis agree that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people. 

The numbers don't lie – they tell us that we need each other.  

If I may differ from my rabbinic colleagues, tonight is a perfect time to speak about Israel as our home, because it connects beautifully to the holiday of Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur is a holiday that revolves around the action taken in the Holy Temple that once stood in Jerusalem.  The high holiday season did not begin last week, it actually began on Tisha B'Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple and our expulsion.  The day after Rosh Hashanah, we observe one of the four minor fasts, the Fast of Gedaliah, marking the assassination of a Jewish leader who almost brought the Jewish home back after the first exile in Babylonia, but was assassinated by a fellow Jew.  The high holidays now are meant to be deeply personal, it is about improving you, but it also about the collective 'you', the Jewish people.  

The destruction of the first Temple, our first home, was actually a new beginning because it began the story of two homes for the Jewish people – the story of Jews living in Israel, and in the Diaspora.  It was the beginning of a concept of a binary home – where the major Jewish populations resided in two places:  the land of Israel and a country outside of Israel; it was at that moment when we began the delicate dance together.  

This summer, I went on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation the charitable organization for AIPAC, for Rabbis from the Progressive movements in Judaism.  I went alongside 20 other Conservative and Reform rabbis for a life-changing trip, to see the complexities of Israel, our home, both body and soul.  Tonight, I want to share what I learned about our home, the state of Israel, and what we must as we move on from Israel's 70th birthday celebration, and journey to the future.  

First, I want to share what I learned from a village outside of the Gaza Strip called Kfar Aza.  This summer, as we got off the bus, I saw children playing, people living their lives, smiling and laughing – it was Kfar Aza, a small and seemingly serene Kibbutz just outside of Gaza City, so close in fact you can see Gaza City from the kibbutz. 

We met with one of the residents, a woman named Chen Abrahams, who showed us a red parachute that she found in her backyard – it was used to send a bomb into their kibbutz from Gaza.  She showed us how the Kindergarten had to be reinforced like a bunker.  How they developed a new game like Monopoly, that helps children identify and talk about their feelings of terror and helps them cope with the PTSD they have.  We could smell the smoke in the air, the remnants of tires burning from Gaza, and the crops of the kibbutz which were in flames due to incendiary kites that were flown from Gaza.  

During our trip, I also learned that Israel still has many security struggles that we may not fully understand.  We went on the northern border, between Israel and Syria and Lebanon.  I saw with my own eyes, Russian airplanes bombing towns just miles away in across the border.  As we were getting a briefing, we saw the war that we only usually see on television.  Israel is on the border with the most destructive civil war in the Middle East.  An oasis of calm in the Middle East.

The First Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion famously said, “The Arab countries can lose 50 wars against us and still survive, but we can't afford to lose one war.”  Nowhere was that more apparent than on this day Yom Kippur, 45 years ago when Israel was attacked by the neighboring Arab countries.  After the euphoria of the Six Day War, Israel and Jewry came back to earth and realized its vulnerability.    

To my friends who were frustrated with Israel's security policies this year, let me say the following:  let us try and understand their struggle.    

But, at the same time, we must also struggle, because it is part of our very name.  

Tonight is a very special anniversary.  The Zohar teaches us that tonight, the evening of Yom Kippur, is the night when Jacob wrestled with the angel and received his new name. 

Before Jacob confronts his brother Esau, he leaves divides his family and goes across the river alone.  It was there, alone, where he struggles with an angel.  Jacob and the angel wrestled all night – battling back and forth.   And then, morning came.  The angel said to Jacob, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But Jacob answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  (Genesis 32:27)

The angel told him: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Only after this struggle does Jacob get the strength to confront his enemies and unite his family who were separated.  So too must we embrace the struggle.  

To my friends who were frustrated with Israel this year, let me say the following:  struggle with Israel, because it is through the struggle that you will find a deeper love.

Israel's body needs protecting, that's why we must advocate for her protection here in America, but we must also advocate for her soul.  As a Jewish American, I advocate for her soul by promoting Jewish religious pluralism in Israel, and this summer, it got personal.  I stood up and protested when a Conservative/Masorti Rabbi, a friend and colleague of mine whom I studied with at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, Dubi Haiyun, was arrested in his house at 5 am for the crime of officiating at a marriage between two Jews.   

I advocated for her soul this summer when I stood with the Women of the Wall who advocate for rights at the Kotel for the other streams of Judaism.  

I do this because I have met too many Israelis who have told me that they had to travel to America and visit Conservative and Reform synagogues to fall in love with Judaism.  I believe that Masorti Judaism can succeed in Israel and help give Israelis another way to connect to their faith.  

America is my home, but so is Israel; it was a lesson I learned from my grandmother.

In the early 1970’s, my grandmother, Eta Baum, Zichronah L’vracha, a Holocaust survivor, made a decision:  she wanted to buy a second home in Israel.  They decided to buy an apartment in the resort city of Netanya because they had many friends from the old country, Hungarian and Czech, who settled in this city after surviving the Holocaust.  When our family would visit Israel, for summer vacations, we stayed in this apartment, whether they were with us or not.  Something I never asked until recently was, why not just rent?  It was only recently that I found out that the apartment wasn’t just for them, but it was for us, so we could have a piece of home in Israel.  

Years after she passed, I lived in Israel, two of the best years of my life.  Her love of our home transferred to me, and it will transfer to my children, no matter what.  

Having a homeland was of vital importance for the early Zionists.  It wasn’t just a safe haven they were looking for though, it was a place where Jewish culture and our future could flourish, where we wouldn’t be defined by other nations, rather, where we told the world who we authentically are.

As I thought back to my time in Kfar Aza, the kibbutz right outside of the border of Gaza City, I realized that there was an unspoken question that we didn't ask Chen:  why stay here?  But she answered the question without us even asking.  Chen said the following:  “This is our life, I feel stuck, we feel stuck.  This is my home...and I love it.”  These words encapsulate what it means to be a Zionist, whether we are here in America, or living in Israel.  Sometimes we might feel stuck, but this is our home, and we must love it.  

This year, despite my negative experiences at the Kotel, I heard about another experience.  One of our congregational families wanted to have an aliyah for their daughter at the egalitarian Kotel – they texted me frantically – can you help?  What could I do from America?  I sent a message to my colleagues – within minutes I able to get them to match them with Masorti minyanim three in one day.  We are growing stronger.  

Rabbi Haiyun was released from jail and is now running for political office to advocate for change in Israel.  He now has a waiting list of Israeli couples who want him to officiate at their weddings.  

Israel just celebrated her 70th year of Independence – today she begins a new chapter.  Israel is no longer a new-born; she’s a 70-year-old who has experienced both triumphs and tragedies in her life.  The Mishnah tells us that at 70, we have reached the fullness of years, and 80 is the year of strength (The Ethics of Our Fathers 5:21).   She might be 70, but Israel has plenty of opportunity to grow, and us with her.  

This year, I hope we can grow together in the following ways:

1. We can learn about Israel together.  This year I will be teaching a 9 part course put together by the Shalom Hartman Institute called Engaging Israel:  Foundations for a New Relationship.  It will focus on the diaspora relationship with Israel.  

2. We can support Israel's body by buying Israel bonds and/or going to AIPAC's policy conference with me this year as we lobby for Israel's protection.  

3. And finally, we can support Israel's soul by supporting the Masorti movement in Israel, not just in dollars, but action.  When we visit, make sure to visit Masorti synagogues – when you go to the Kotel, make sure you visit Ezrat Israel – the Egalitarian side of the Western Wall.  

If you haven't been to Israel for a number of years, I urge you to look to your left as you are leaving the airport.  You will see a mural celebrating 120 years of Zionism, and a quote from Zionism's greatest leader, Theodore Herzl who famously predicted a Jewish state within 50 years of the first Zionist Congress in Basel.  Here's his quote:

“I once called Zionism an infinite ideal...as it will not cease to be an ideal even after we attain our land, the Land of Israel.  For Zionism...encompasses not only the hope of a legally secured homeland for our people...but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection.”

There is a mitzvah that we perform tomorrow night, after our bagel and lox.  Our rabbis wanted us to start building our Sukkot, to put the first nail in the piece of wood.  We don't have to finish, but we have to start.  Why build a home when you can rent one?  Because I guess I'm just old-fashioned.  For 2,000 years, we rented, but now is the time embrace owning our home, and building upon it.  

Gmar Chatimah Tovah.  


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