Parashat T'rumah 5783
Delivered on February 24, 2023
Having just returned from a month-long sabbatical, spending that whole time in Tel Aviv, I have much to say about this time away. Yet I have struggled with how to talk about Israel tonight. In one version of tonight’s sermon, I am the man on the street, sharing reflections on the political situation based on what I heard from Israeli friends and colleagues. In another version, I am my peacenik self, praying that things could be better if we all sat down and talked.
Talking about Israel is becoming more and more complicated. We have long referred to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Hebrew as HaMatzav, the situation. A central question has long been about how we, as American Jews, relate to and be engaged with HaMatzav. Yet right now, there isn’t only one matzav. Israelis and Palestinians are confronting many realities: Right now, Israelis are contending with a movement to override the authority of the Israeli judicial system. This legislation would eliminate the primary check on the Knesset and the government ministries, making Israel's claim as a democracy meaningless. In the last month, we have also seen attacks on Israelis in East Jerusalem that killed several, including a six-year-old child. And the IDF has performed raids in Jericho, Jenin, and Nablus that has killed and injured many and sparked further Palestinian protests and clashes. Earlier this month, former CIA director William Burns said that the political, social, military, and economic landscape in Israel/Palestine bears an unhappy resemblance to the beginning of the Second Intifada.
I will admit that all that is happening in Israel scares me. So, how are we—as American Jews—to feel about all this?
To answer that question, I want to narrow my focus to three stories that will help us orient some of what is going on in Israel back toward some Jewish core values. Placed together, they are a fractured, incomplete meditation on the meaning I drew out from this time away. I pray they are a spark of conversation with each of you about where and how Israel influences our lives as diaspora Jews today.
This trip was my children's first time in Israel. Liz and I do not have family in Israel. While we've both lived there and traveled there often, the pandemic washed away any opportunities for us to get to Israel until this year. Because our kids our young, we called this trip the Tour du Playgrounds. Each day, we would go exploring various playgrounds around Tel Aviv. We played on the beach, the pocket park playgrounds, and the large-scale play structures in major areas like the Port of Tel Aviv.
This visit to Israel differed from the trip to take the kids to the Kotel or tour major historic sites. By orienting our time in Israel around our children's experience, we unlocked a different slice of Israel that Liz and I rarely accessed. Rabbi Gordon told us about a community center near our apartment. Our little one attended toddler music class, and Liz met other parents. Lior, our older son, and I met sweet dogs out for walks in the park behind our building, striking up conversations with their owners. We began to see another side of Israel where everyone gets up, goes to work, makes dinner with their families, and does it again the next day.
Yet, as the days passed, I realized what we were doing was making an impression on our children. They will not remember this trip. But those quieter moments, those ordinary moments of just being in Israel, mattered. They heard their parents speaking Hebrew to others. They will take for granted how amazing it is that they visited sites closed off to Jews for thousands of years.
After visiting the Biblical Zoo and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I drove us to the Tayelet, a spot toward the Southeast of Jerusalem that gives a panoramic view of the Old City and West Jerusalem. It is often one of the first places groups visit, where guides provide a full scope of the history of that ancient, sacred city. I stood there with Lior and gave him his own personal tour of Jerusalem. I pointed out where else we had been: We could see the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College, the King David Hotel, and the tower at the YMCA. And then I pointed out the Old City, the Kotel, and the Temple Mount. I explained to him that he was standing in a place that many of our people had prayed they could return to and that they had little opportunity to do so. Now, he was standing there. It took so many people across decades and centuries of prayer and action to enable him to stand there that day. Of course, I was the one who got emotional. As we stood there, taking in the view, I whispered, “That’s cool.”
Then, we heard a camel snort loudly in our ears and a man asking us if Lior wanted to hop on and take a picture.
When we travel to Israel and spend time there, the land and its people make an impression on us. They leave a mark that speaks to who we are as a people. For generations, we have designed mizrachim, panels meant to be hung on the Jerusalem-facing wall of our homes, orienting our prayers. Through all the ins and outs of what’s going on in Israel, we are called to hold onto that place’s ability to transform our sense of connection with something greater than ourselves—a history that spans millennia, and the longings of generations of Jews maintained for centuries has to mean something.
That brings me to another distinct moment. We spent all but one Shabbat at Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv's Reform synagogue. We were met with tremendous hospitality. The kids sat in as much of the service as possible and then went to a playroom that delighted them. And Liz and I got to be congregants. These moments are precious, and we do not take them for granted.
Our second Shabbat at Beit Daniel they were celebrating several members who were completing their conversions. The conversion program at Israeli Reform synagogues is distinct. The Israeli Rabbinate does not recognize these converts' status as acceptable since the Rabbinate rejects any form of Jewish expression other than the orthodox one they validate. It is a political statement as much as a spiritual one for our Israeli counterparts to continue to promote conversion.
At that service, Rabbi Galia Sadan, who has overseen hundreds of conversions, called the students forward, placing a Torah in each person's arms. With the congregation standing, the students sang the Sh’ma, and she blessed them with the Priestly Blessing. Seven people were together proclaiming their chosen connection to Jewish life and Torah. Circumstances had brought them to Israel, and they wanted to count in. These were not people of European descent. These were individuals who were raised in South Asia, the Former Soviet Union, and elsewhere. Some had come to Israel for work. Others had fallen in love with an Israeli. Now they were here, and now they wanted to belong. And they did what they needed to do to say they were Jewish in their heart and their soul.
The Jewish community is not known for promoting conversion. Our reputation is that we make it hard to become Jewish. Working with conversion students is a powerful experience. For those of us who chose Judaism for ourselves, you know the ins and outs of making that decision. It is fiercely personal, wonderfully internal, and spiritual. That regular folks in Israel today are saying yes to creating a life there and crafting a spiritual identity there—especially a progressive, Reform identity—really moved me.
But the politics need critical attention, too. And that is the last brief story I want to share. Over our five weeks in Israel, each Saturday night, we saw thousands upon thousands of Israelis taking to the streets in protest of the proposed legislation to override the authority of the Supreme Court, taking away power from the main instrument that keeps Knesset leaders in check from corruption and other criminal behavior. The legislation threatens Israel as a democracy. It undermines the Israeli economy. Many within Israeli society are putting up their hands in protest. The schools shut down for a day because the teachers would not teach. Healthcare professionals have been considering a strike as well. Some religious Israelis are protesting, and now reservists in elite combat units of the IDF are saying they may refuse to serve if this legislation goes through.
One Saturday night, Liz went to the protest. She joined our new friends from Beit Daniel, who held a havdallah in the square before the main events began. I stayed home to get the kids set up with dinner and bedtime before a babysitter arrived, and then I joined her. Before I could head out, I heard a noise on the street. We went outside to check it out, finding hundreds of people marching and chanting with banners and Israeli flags, making their way from our neighborhood in the North of Tel Aviv down to the main protest site at Kikar HaBimah, the square at the national theater.
Israelis are upset with the actions this government is taking. And like the Hitnatkut, the unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and 2006, what is going on in Israel right now around the judiciary is about Israelis and the Israeli government. It is a contest for the democratic soul of Israel. Embracing that this is by Israelis for Israelis is essential before we, as American Jews, make it about us. But, if these new laws go into effect, they will impact our connection to Israel.
Israel as a democracy allows us, as American supporters of Israel, to maintain some semblance of hope about the place and meaning of the State of Israel. We have lived with the State of Israel for seventy-five years as a reality. It is not a dream. It is a real country, warts and all. And for those seventy-five years, we, as American Jews, have argued that we must care for Israel by visiting there, supporting it with our presence and our dollars. If Israel slides away from being a true democracy, no longer having a judicial branch with any absolute authority to enforce justice on the part of its citizenry, the vision of what Israel is and who it is for will continue to slip away. Israel will become the embodiment of a vision held by a few powerful individuals, debate and compromise will become meaningless, and the erosion of confidence that diaspora Jews have in Israel as a potential power for good in this world will continue on pace if not accelerate.
I recently read an article by Yaakov Banjo. Banjo heads AGAT, the central planning unit for all Israeli military branches. In the latest edition of Maarachot, the IDF's magazine of thought and analysis, Banjo describes the last twenty years as a golden age for Israeli security. I struggle to see how two intifadas, continued threats of rocket fire, and several incursions into Gaza and Lebanon constitute a golden age. Still, he writes that American support and backing were critical to these last decades. With America’s dominance in the world being challenged, the open question of the Middle East’s strategic importance to American interests, and the many tests of American support coming from both the Jewish public and certain political figures, Banjo describes a future for Israelis that will become less secure. “These will continue to be challenges in the future,” he writes.
A goal is for Israel to maintain itself as a secure, democratic, and Jewish state. I worry about the status of these three adjectives that describe Israel’s identity. Taking my children to playgrounds all around Tel Aviv had more profound meaning than giving them a vacation from the regular playgrounds of the Berkshires. Standing on the Tayelet, describing the scope of Jerusalem’s history to Lior, we tapped into that sense that we are a part of something greater. Seeing these individuals at Beit Daniel say yes to a progressive, Reform Jewish life taps into that sense that we are a part of something greater.
Israel's character is under threat from within, and we, on the outside, have little agency to do something about it. But I remain hopeful that Israel still has something to offer you and me and that we have something to offer Israel.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat T’rumah, we read, "Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you" (Exodus 25:8). The Israelites wander through the wilderness when God tells them to build the Mishkan and directs them exactly how to do it.
The goal of this exercise is to create a space where God can dwell among the Israelites as they continue their desert wanderings. We know how to make spiritual space in the wilderness. But the goal is always to get to the promised land. I am reluctant to think of what would happen if we were to turn our backs on Israel. We would be able to find a spiritual center, but we would still long for a Promised Land.
But supporting Israel right now does not mean kashering what this government is pushing forward despite all alarm bells being sounded. This is the conversation I hope we can have going forward: Where are you at with Israel these days? Are you following what is happening, or have you noticed yourself turning away more and more? Does the promise of Israel, the potentials for hope and peace still resonate for you, or do they seem like the naïve dreams of prior generations? These are conversations I would welcome with you.
I'm not ready to turn my back on Israelis, nor think they are prepared to release themselves from the rest of the Jewish world. At this time, we, as American Jews, are invited to consider our place in the debate about who and what Israel will be. And if we have any say, if our vote counts for anything, it would be to get back to a vision of a nation that protects the lives and rights of all within its borders and that it is a society dedicated to the pursuit of peace.