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April 25, 2014  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

What it means to be a Lover of Israel

By Rabbi Daniel Treiser Temple Bnai Israel, Clearwater

As a child growing up in the ’70s, I learned about Israel’s early history, both real and folkloric, in Hebrew school. I knew the story of Israel’s brave chalutzim, the pioneers who settled the land.

I learned about the War of Independence, the miraculous fight to give birth to a Jewish state. Some of my teachers could share their own memories of the miraculous victory in the Six Day War, or the narrow escape from defeat in the Yom Kippur War. I learned history through textbooks with maps, and her culture from eating falafel at family education programs.

But none of this really meant anything to me until 20 years ago, the year I spent living in Israel on the Federation-sponsored Otzma program. Living all over the country, interacting with many different segments of Israeli society, I began to appreciate Israel in a whole new light. I began a relationship that has grown and strengthened over the years: I became an Ohev Yisrael, a Lover of Israel.

To be a Lover of Israel is to share a special relationship with her. It means feeling a connection, almost innately, that Israel is more than a Jewish homeland, but MY homeland as well, even if I may not physically be there. A Lover of Israel feels a spiritual connection to her, appreciating that so much of what we do as Jews comes from our faith born in her hills and her deserts. Like anyone in a relationship, a Lover of Israel thinks constantly about his or her partner, is concerned for the other’s well-being, interested in ensuring their health, vibrancy and vitality, and would do all you can to support the partner.

To be a Lover of Israel also means that even if you LOVE her, you may not always LIKE what she does. When Israel takes a course of action that you think is dangerous, immoral, or just wrong, a Lover of Israel voices displeasure. It might sound strange to say that a Lover of Israel should criticize her. For so many years, Jews have worried about voicing criticisms of Israel out of fear for what others might think or say. After all, Israel has more than enough enemies who think it can do no right. But if we truly want Israel to be the best it can be as a democratic and Jewish nation in the Middle East, then we must maintain an active voice of both support and concern.

Indeed, there is much for which we should be concerned. The peace process has again reached a stalemate, thanks to obstinacy on both sides of the negotiating table. The Israeli government continues to maintain a policy of settlement growth and expansion of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Though surveys of Israelis show an overwhelming majority of Israelis favor moderate political views on nearly every issue, the government is forced to placate extreme right-wing factions to maintain a ruling majority in the Knesset.

The haredi ultra-Orthodox continue to maintain their hegemony over all religious matters in the Jewish state, demand exemption from military service, while at the same time continue to receive tremendous financial support from the State. And the year old “Sharansky plan,” to create an alternative, egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel is all but dead, because of infighting among its supporters, Orthodox rejection of the plan, and political feet dragging.

Israel continues to confront these challenges along with all the “regular” issues a nation confronts (care for its citizens, a housing crisis, wealth disparity, etc.) on top of the very real ongoing existential threats from Iran and neighboring countries, fading support in Europe, and attempts like the BDS movement to erode financial, academic and developmental support here in the US.

With so much to be concerned about, it may seem easier to just say, “Forget Israel… It’s not worth the effort.” Indeed, many American Jews have started to take this approach. But the truth is, Israel is essential to our lives. As Americans, Israel remains our strongest ally in a very dangerous neighborhood. And as Jews, Israel could not be more important to us. It is the hope of returning to the land of our ancestors, of creating a home built upon our ancient customs that has kept our people alive throughout the centuries. It is the one place in the world where we can be sure Jews are welcome, are safe.

At a time like this, when there is much to be concerned about in Israel, this is not a time to turn away. Lovers of Israel must stand by her, even in bad times. And we need to let our partner know how we feel. Israel needs to hear from the American Jewish community that she must reclaim her role as a religious democracy, a country based not on strictures of one interpretation of the Torah, but upon the morals and the values of Judaism that we cherish, of respect for one another, of Klal Yisrael, an inclusive approach to all Jews, of protecting each person’s rights to individual freedom.

How can we do this? First, we must stay informed. Make news of Israel FROM Israel a part of your routine, and know what is really happening there. Read Israeli sources like the Jerusalem Post or Ha’aretz in English online. Subscribe to the Jerusalem Report.

Second, speak out for Israel. There are several different ways to promote a pro-Israel agenda in the United States. Organizations like AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or J-Street, are two groups who have very different approaches to supporting Israel. Yet both groups lobby our government on behalf of Israel. Explore them both, understand their approaches to Israel, and join them in ensuring America continues to support Israel for years to come.

Third, we can provide financial support of organizations that do work in Israel, be it through donations to Federation, the Jewish National Fund, Friends of the IDF, or denominational programs like ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists in America) or the Masorti (Conservative) movement.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we must visit Israel. Travel to our ancient homeland. Explore the sites that make this tiny sliver of land one of the most beautiful, most interesting, most important places in our entire world. A trip to Israel is not a vacation for a Jew. It is a pilgrimage. It is an experience that will literally change your perspective on your relationship with the Jewish homeland, change your understanding of our faith and our culture, change your entire life.

The news events we heard around Passover, the shooting at a JCC in Kansas, the purported registration of Jews in the Ukraine, reminded us more than ever of the necessity for a safe, secure and vibrant Israel. We concluded our Passover Seders with the words, “Bashanah Haba’ah Bi’Yrushalyim — Next Year in Jerusalem.” On this 66th anniversary of modern Israel’s birth, may our hearts always be turned to Jerusalem, our thoughts and our prayers always for the well-being of Israel, a land where the Jewish ideals we cherish come to life every day.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned, on a rotating basis by the board.

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