Congregation Etz Chaim of DuPage County

Rosh Hashanah 5778- The Case for Supporting Israel

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 11:26am -- Rabbi Cosnowsky

          There’s a central prayer in our High Holiday Liturgy called Avinu Malkeinu - Sometimes translated as, “our father, Our King” The story behind the etymology of the prayer is that one year, during a particularly bad drought, Rabbi Akiva was said to have followed Rabbi Eleazar into the ark and recited these lines, showing his praise for God and showing his humility about his place on earth. With his words, the proverbial rains fell and the earth was nourished. From this tradition, we now say these words yearly on the High Holidays, showing our humility and asking for God's grace and nourishment for our earth as well. All of Israel does this - from the Orthodox to the Reform - all over the world - all Jews pray Avinu Malkeinu during this holiday. We may use different words, different translations or different melodies, but we all agree that this prayer is central to our worship.

          Unfortunately, that’s where the solidarity ends. When the topic of the state of Israel is mentioned, we Jews have opinions about our opinions on what Israel should do, shouldn’t do or didn’t do right the first time. No solidarity here. One thing that has been constant in our history is that we have differing opinions, some so strong that they split apart families and even congregations. I don’t want to take a public position on Israel today - I don’t feel the need to agitate whatever side doesn’t like where I stand. But there is one proclamation I would like to make. That is, whatever your opinion about Israel, her government and her people, despite the mistakes we feel are made, we as Jewish Americans, need to find some way to support Israel.

          Last Spring, I attended an interfaith event where I met several members of the local Muslim community. They invited me to a salon at their home in Burr Ridge where we ate dinner together and they shared their stories with me. These were somewhere between 18-25 men and women of various ages who had emigrated from Palestine and other Arab countries at different times in their lives. They had all become somewhat successful in America, but many of them still introduced themselves as Palestinian Americans. I sat in their living room while they fired questions at me about Judaism, Israel and the decisions that the Israeli government had made over the past 69 years. Their topics and questions were not meant to offend me, they were just curious as to how Israel made some of her decisions and defended her actions both in the past as well as today. What I learned from the sometimes uncomfortable 3 plus hour exchange was how valuable and important that meeting truly was. I didn’t feel unsafe or awkward, I was more curious as to how they came to their conclusions about Jews and Israelis and life in Israel today. When I left their home, I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated - I had a clear perspective on their position and I realized that they as Arab Americans, and I as a Jewish American, were telling two entirely different narratives.

          Imagine a Time magazine - one person is looking at the front cover, the other at the back cover. My takeaway was that it was uncomfortable to talk about what we saw. We agreed it was the same magazine, but our perspectives were so diametrically opposite of one another. It was as different as me saying, “I see a picture of a President.” And they were saying, “I see a man on a horse smoking a Marlboro cigarette.” Both of these perspectives, of the same Time magazine, were important for both of us to tell in order to break out of our comfort zones to learn from one another, to stretch ourselves, and to listen to the others’ perspective in a spirit of understanding and friendship, not contention. I say not contention, because I am still in touch with these Arab American’s today.

          So, I pose the question to you as my congregation - how much do you know about Israel? Would you be interested in learning more? Would you want to be able to dialogue about Israel in a more cogent and comprehensive manner?

          This past summer, after the Israeli government had reneged on their decisions to allow women to pray at the south side of the wall as well as opening up the age-old debate about who is considered a Jew in Israel, many expressed their dissatisfaction with the Israeli government. I got emails from congregants asking me how I could still say we should support Israel when it’s clear that Israel doesn’t support Reform Jews. But I’m not so sure that’s true.

Let’s look at some facts about Reform Judaism in Israel.

          Thirty years ago, there were hardly any Reform synagogues in Israel. Reform Judaism was seen as strictly American, and if there was any support for Reform Judaism, it came from the Misorati movement, or Conservative movement in Israel. Reform weddings hardly ever occurred because they were illegal and not recognized. Only Orthodox weddings were seen as binding. Today, over thirty years later, we have almost 50 Reform congregations all over the state of Israel. Hebrew Union College ordains about five to seven Rabbi’s in Jerusalem per year, all of whom are have found gainful employment in Israel, which shows that the Reform movement continues to grow yearly. Requests for Reform b’nai mitzvah and weddings by secular Israelis, who are fed up with the religious establishment and are looking for a religious alternative, are on the rise. So, when we face a setback such as Netanyahu reneging on a promise to allow women to pray at the wall, we know it means we are threatening the existing powers that be. So at this time, we shouldn’t stop supporting Israel, but rather, we should redouble our efforts to support Israel.

          There are a few ways to do this: The easiest is to become a member of ARZA - Association of Reform Zionists of America. ARZA is not only a great lobbying group, but also they take groups to Israel through NFTY and Kesher Birthright. They do great work, and through them, we can show our voices and have input into the democratic process in Israel. Pamphlets with information about ARZA are available in the rear of the sanctuary.

           Currently, conversions which occur outside of Israel - such as Reform and Conservative recognized conversions are still accepted in the law of return. Of course, the bill which was introduced last June by the Chief Rabbinate would change that. If that law passes, only conversions done in Israel would be recognized and only if they are done through the state conversion system. So our effort needs to be redoubled, not abandoned. Secular Jews who are first being given an alternative to the religious establishment need our support.

          Which leads me into the quagmire of the politics of supporting Israel…As a liberal Jew, there is an increased conflict between our desire to support Israel and the disturbing trends of Israeli society and the actions of the Israeli government. We hear stories from the mainstream media about the atrocities inflicted by Israelis on the Palestinians, and vice versa. Who do we believe? Which side is right? Truly it is painful - I know I find myself torn between two narratives, knowing the truth is somewhere in between. And yet, despite the internal struggle, I maintain, that even with her warts and all, it’s still important for us to find a way to support Israel.

          The Talmud teaches “Eylu v’eylu divrei eloheim chayim.” Which means, ‘these are the words of the living God.” (BT Menachot 29b) We are not unified by agreement, rather by love. But we at least have to consider the narrative of the other side. And when we’ve studied our position, and their position and consider it with love, we can come to our own decision. It’s never easy to do - think about Thanksgiving dinner with family members whose positions about life fall on the opposite end of the political spectrum as you. Do you still love them as family? Using that logic, we can still love Israel, despite disagreeing with her positions on certain topics.

Here are some actions we can take to support Israel:

          First, we can support Israel financially - whether that means buying Israel bonds and or going to Israel next Spring as a congregation and spending money there to support Israel’s economy. I wasn’t an expert on Israel bonds until Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah last June, when so many of you got him Israel bonds as a gift. Thank you - you showed me that when we buy Israel bonds, we are not only supporting Israel, but also we are investing in the future - hers and ours! And it’s a good investment for us to make because it pays between 2-3% interest which is better than what you’d get at a bank! And safer than the stock market! And to buy Israel bonds is an easy mitzvah to do! There are Israel Bond applications available at the rear of the sanctuary as well.

          But if you don’t want to support Israel that way, or if you don’t like that interest rate, I encourage you to consider coming to Israel with me on a family trip. We will be having a planning meeting about the trip on Tuesday night, October 3rd at 7:30pm. Come and learn about the itinerary, pricing and see who else is going. You may then decide that you want to buy a bond.

          Third, come and learn about Israel! I’ll be teaching a Melton class starting in October which will outline the origins of the Arab Israeli conflict. You’ll learn how each group came to their distinctive narratives and understand how we got to the current situation. The class takes place during the day, but we will be recording it. The class will have a nominal fee, but no one will be turned away because we have generous scholarships available so there won’t be any congregant left out! And from this study, you will have a more informed understanding of what it means to truly be a part of the community of Zion.

          Israeli’s are amazing people. They are called sabras - hard and prickly on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside. Let’s go meet some of them, see the lives they've lived day in and day out and then decide for ourselves.

          There’s the story of that flight attendant on El Al, the official airlines of Israel, who asked the question of the man sitting in business class, “Would you like some dinner?”

He asked, “What are my choices?”

She answered, “Yes or no.”

          Sabras are wonderful people - they live out the reality of the dream Theodore Herzl held when he said, “we want an ancient land where we can blossom a new Jewish spirit.”

          Let’s remember to support Israel in whatever way we choose - financially, emotionally, or studiously but we must do something. And when we do, our perspective will change to a more positive one with a deeper understanding and appreciation of our Jewish homeland. May this be our Rosh Hashanna mission. Shanah Tovah.