Friday, July 11, 2014

Peeling Away the Layers – Report from Israel. July 11, 2014

My Dear Friends,
Anyone who has travelled to Israel knows what it’s like to stand in one place and see multiple layers of history and reality unfolding in front of your eyes.

·         On Top of Masada – gazing at the splendor of Herod’s palace – with its luxuriously appointed bath houses, swimming pools and guest quarters – but also seeing the unfolding of a story of a Jewish life, a Roman conquest, a tragedy and a symbol of resistance and strength.

·         In Jerusalem  - at David’s Citadel at one and the same time seeing layers upon layers of civilizations:  Jebusite, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Marmaluke, Crusader, Ottoman, British and Jewish,

·         In Tel Aviv – seeing the vision of the pioneers who, 100 -  years ago dreamed of a Jewish city built on empty sand dunes on a Mediterranean beach - and how that dream has blossomed into a vital, energetic. modern metropolis that is a center of culture, high tech and economic growth

Archeologists know that ancient civilizations built upon the ruins and resources of those which came before them.  This is why a Tel – a Hebrew word that describes an archeological site on a hill is so compelling and confusing to archeologists around the world.
Truth be told – anywhere you go in Israel – you will find yourself overwhelmed by the depth, complexity and beauty of this incredibly multi-layered country –the touchstone and center of our historical and spiritual lives.

And so, when I originally thought about what I might speak about tonight, the day after Sue and I have returned from Israel – and 4 days after our group of travelers and pilgrims have all come home as well – I was planning on talking about what we did, what we saw, how we felt upon returning – and how all of us are now different as a result of our trip.
I didn’t think that I would be addressing an ever-escalating military and societal crisis that is gripping the Jewish State and, indeed, the entire Jewish world at this very moment. 

Silly me.

I should have known that, just as you can’t see only one layer of  history at any given moment in Israel, you also cannot speak of one aspect of the reality of daily life without, invariably, getting caught up in the crazy quilt of  historical, political, spiritual and security details as well.

So what happened these past 3 weeks? 

We had an incredible, life-changing trip. In addition: 
·         4 young men were murdered – 3 Jews and one Muslim.
·         In response to these horrible attacks, we saw an outbreak of racist rhetoric and violent clashes
·         And then…. overnight, hundreds of  rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip.
·         Operation “Protective Edge” was launched in responsive to Hamas’ unrelenting rocket attacks.
·         As these missiles were launched all over Israel – from Sderot to Netanya, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva – over 5 milllion Israeli citizen’s lives and security were jeopardized.
·         We witnessed how the Iron Dome missile battery system has worked almost flawlessly – preventing disaster and devastation in the most populated areas of Israel.
·         Over 30,000 reserve troops have either been called up or put on alert
·         A ground offensive against the Hamas terror cells and rocket launchers is poised to begin.

As always, Israel is being unfairly criticized from all sides for a so-called disproportionate response to Hamas’ terror.

As always, Israel, while sensitive to such criticism, is doing what it must do to protect her citizens from harm and we, as Americans, as Jews, as Lovers of Israel, can do no less than to support Israel in her time of need.
And all of the world is watching and waiting to see what will happen next.

So I will begin by talking about the first layer - our trip itself.

In the weeks and months before we left for Israel, our group of 47 individuals met  several times and talked about what we would be experiencing together.  I stated then that traveling to Israel is different than travelling to any other country.  I told everyone that we were not going as tourists, or as visitors, but as Pilgrims.  Yes – we would see beautiful sites, take guided tours, eat lots of food, stay in some wonderful (and some not-so wonderful) hotels…..but we also would be travelling – not only on out feet, but in our souls.   The experiences that we would share together would change us – as individuals and as a group.  We would be different people when we returned to the States than we were before when we left.

From the moment we touched down in Israel and travelled immediately to to Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Nature Reserve, to plant trees, we saw how this trip would impact us.  While we were planting, we asked members of the group to think about why they were planting trees.  Were they planting in memory or in honor of others who never had the chance to fulfill this vital mitzvah of building up the Land of Israel?

And people shared.  We talked about relatives who had died.  We shared our hopes and dreams for our children and the generations to come.  Tears and laughter freely mixed as we got a glimpse of each other’s’ souls at that sacred moment.

And this was only one of many powerful moments that shaped a group of individuals into a Havurah – a community bound together by common experiences, values, hopes and dreams.  [I’m thrilled that there are a lot of people here tonight who participated in our last Temple trip two years ago – and who also experienced the life-changing results of being Pilgrims in the State of Israel.]

We not only covered a huge amount of territory during our 10 days in Israel, we also met some extraordinary individuals: 

·         From an Ethiopian born, Ashkenazi Orthodox Rabbi named Sharon Shalom who leads a congregation of Russian Jews and survivors of the Shoah in Kiryat Gat, 
·         to Felice and Michael Friedson – founders of the Media Line – a small, independent news service that has access into both the Israeli and Muslim Arab world – and thereby have a unique and powerful perspective on how facts and rumor are both utilized and manipulated by the press and governments on all side of the various conflicts in the region,
·         to Anat Hoffman – one of my personal heroes in Israel – and our Scholar in Residence this past year – who talked about the dangers of racism and misogyny in Israel.
Throughout all of our travels, we were fortunate to have been led by our tour guides, Ariel Fogelman and Maya Sandak – as well as our fearless and expert Driver, Shlomo.  Yitzhak Sokoloff, the founder and Educational Director of Keshet Israel Travel, also joined us on several occasions and taught us.
At the end of our journey, in a small Jerusalem restaurant, we talked about what we had experienced.  Many of us shared meaningful and powerful expressions about what the trip had menat to them, but I want to share one with all of us.  Ethan Abramson,  a young man who, only a few months ago, celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah at Temple said the following (and I paraphrase):
“When Rabbi Black told us that the trip would change us, I was scared – since I liked the way that I already was and didn’t want to change.  But then I experienced everything with everybody else and I realized that while I didn’t change all that much on the outside – my soul had changed – and I’m all the better as a result.”
Ask any of the people who were with us these past two weeks and they will share how with you just how much they were impacted by the experience.
And that was the first layer of our trip……. Here comes layer #2:
The day before we left for Israel, I spoke at a Rally here in Denver in support of the families of the three boys who were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by Hamas operatives in the West Bank.  All of us hoped and prayed for their safe return to their families.  Unfortunately, our prayers were not answered in the way we wanted.  In a blog post that many of you may have already read, I wrote the following:
This morning, …we sat in the ancient synagogue on top of Masada and broke the news [of the murders of  Eyal, Gilad and Naftali] to our group. We chanted the El Malei Rachamim - the prayer for the deceased and we recited the mourner's Kaddish as well. We also talked about the juxtaposition of this horrible news with our location. Depending on one's perspective, Masada has a multiplicity if meanings. For some, it symbolizes Jewish power - our fighting spirit. For others, it is a symbol of weakness - of Jews who took their own lives (according to Josephus) - rather than standing up and fighting to their deaths. For still others, Masada is a symbol of Jewish extremism - some scholars believe that the Jews who fled to Masada were the instigators of the Jewish revolt itself.
You can see that Masada means many things to different people. And yet, one consistent theme is that of Jewish power. The cold-blooded murder of our children served no purpose other than make us feel powerless: to instill fear and anger in the hearts of the citizens of the Jewish State. The way that we respond to this horrific murder is a measure of our values and our character.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the gruesome revelation of the deaths of these three innocent young men, a wave of racist and violent reaction rolled through the State of Israel.  On the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, gangs of hoodlums marched and shouted:  Mavet L’Aravim! – Death to the Arabs!”  A Facebook page calling for revenge against the Arabs quickly gathered over 30,000 ‘likes.’  The country was in turmoil. And then, the unthinkable happened.  A young Palestinian Arab named Mohamed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped, tortured and burned alive by a group of Jewish extremists.
When we met with Anat Hoffman, she reminded us about how she predicted 6 months ago that the current climate of racially charged language and overall tension in Israel would result in a lynching in 12 months.  Unfortunately, she was incorrect – she was off by 6 months.
Yes – it is true that the horrific reality of Mohammed’s death was followed by an immediate condemnation from within Israel.  The whole nation was shocked to confront the fact that Jews could commit such a horrific act.  Many people have pointed out the difference in the reactions between Israel’s condemnation and soul searching following the murder, and the voices of rejoicing and celebration in the Palestinian community in the wake of the discovery of the bodies of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.  But we cannot allow ourselves to say:  “we are better because we did not rejoice.”  As Jews who believe in the principle of all humanity being created in the Divine Image, we cannot pretend that all of these murders occurred in a vacuum.  To do so is to close our eyes to the truth. This is not only about the 3-6 Jewish punks who did something terrible. It is about the fact that racist ideologies, "price tag" Justice and extremism have been allowed to flourish. It is about the fact that unless and until the current government begins to acknowledge that they cannot sustain a situation that is based on protecting one people and oppressing another, there will only be more tragic violence from all sides.
And that was layer two…..
And in the midst of all of this soul searching that took place, the day that the majority f our group left Israel to return home - the rockets began to fall – hundreds of them - not only in Sderot and Ashdod in the far south – near the border with Gaza, but in the center of the country – in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Instantly – all Israel sprang into action – as it has done so many times before.  Everything was set aside in order to acknowledge the existential reality facing the Jewish state on a daily basis.  The IDF went to work – first by air, and now ground troops are massing on the borders of Gaza. 
Sue and I stayed a few etra days after the group left to visit family.  We were in the far north of Israel when the rockets were aimed at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  We were out of harm’s way, but we felt them nonetheless – in the pictures on the television, in the anguish in the faces of the parents whose children were either in range of the rockets or in the green uniforms of the IDF, in the incredulity of the public that, once again, Israeli citizens were forced to flee into bomb shelters.
One thing that has become perfectly clear during this past week is the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome system in shooting down Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks – but even this brings small comfort.  Israel should not have to use precious resources to build a defensive shield.  Nothing about this current conflict will bring peace.  It will only serve to reinforce the deadlock between both sides.
My friends, I began my remarks this evening talking about the multiple layers of experience that are part and parcel of the Israeli landscape. None of them exist in a vacuum.  They are all intertwined. In essence, the only way to truly understand Israel is to adopt the tool-kit of an archeologist.  We have to brush away and explore each level of reality we find. Today’s current events are the direct result of yesterday’s triumph and trauma.  It is vitally important for all of us to find out as much as we can about Israel– as well as to experience it first hand – as 47 of us did these past two weeks.  Each layer of reality is attached to another that preceded it – and another before that as well.  Each time I travel to Israel, I come back changed.  This time was no different. 
And so, let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and let us show our support for Israel as well –with our dollars and words and our presence.  But we cannot only show our support.  When we see things that concern us – such as racism and violence in our midst – we cannot remain silent.  Our job – as Chovevei Tzion – as lovers of Zion – is to commit ourselves to study, to travel and to support a healthy, secure, democratic and moral Jewish state.  There is no other path to peace.
Shabbat Shalom

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