Speaking About Israel on the High Holy Days:06 April 2011
Speaking About Israel on the High Holy Days
Presented by the New Israel Fund
Rosh Hashanah 5771
TALKING ABOUT ISRAEL FROM THE PULPIT
Talking about Israel from the rabbinic pulpit, especially on the High Holidays, can be the easiest thing in the world.
Easy?! Yes. Nothing is easier than telling your congregation what it expects and wants to hear. For certain kehillot, nothing is easier than shaking your head in your disappointment. We are losing our way, betraying our dreams, eroding our moral stature … you know the drill. In other kehillot, nothing is easier than shaking your fist, repeating the familiar vow to resist the Jew-hating Goliaths and standing faithfully with our beloved David.
We should be neither so obvious nor so oblivious nor so lazy. Each of these approaches might make us and our congregants feel better for a moment, but neither will help us build a better Israel or a better world. As rabbis for hundreds of thousands of Jewish souls, we owe them something deeper than cheerleading or moralizing. We owe our communities subtle reflections on Israel (whether on the holidays or ordinary Shabbatot) that will refine our Zionism: inspiring them with the achievements of Israel and Israelis – as well as contemplating the challenges we face, and helping Jews rise to the occasion of meeting them. Now that can be challenging.
In this letter, let me share some reflections on why this project can be so difficult and some kavvanot on how we might succeed in this aspect of our rabbinic work. First, let’s look at two difficulties and traps.
To speak wisely, you must know what you know and know what you don’t know. Most of us Diaspora rabbis follow Israel with serious interest, read newspapers, and visit regularly. None of that makes us experts. Our kehillot probably include people at least as well informed as we are on such topics. So I try to punch my weight. I try not to tell them what we can both read in the New York Times, or on Haaretz.com. I figure that what I have to offer my community is not my own informed opinion of what is going on in the public square – not necessarily wiser than their own – but rather the opportunity to contemplate questions and values emerging from religious tradition.
That doesn’t mean I presume to report God’s policy positions, for there are no such things. Many of us object when the religious right or George W. Bush or messianic settlers blithely declare what is moral, religious or “Torah-true;” but I bet that some of us believe inwardly that we ourselves know perfectly well what God favors on any number of contemporary topics, from gay marriage to the two-state solution. That approach creates more problems than it solves. For political policies are human controversies in all-too-human society, over which reasonable people can disagree. As the Talmud’s greatest tale (the “Oven of Akhnai”) insists, human disagreements can only be addressed through persuasive dialogue, not through divine oracles. Unlike God, who transcends categories of hawk and dove, Israel itself is a multi-partisan society, a community of argument, agreement and dissent. I want my synagogue to be the same. So when I speak about Israel, I most anxiously avoid saying anything that suggests our shul can be a home only for those who espouse “correct” political views. Instead, I think rabbis speak about Israel successfully when they do not identify religious teachings with given political programs, but when they invite reasonable discourse even with those with whom they disagree.
So, if rabbis cannot offer expert commentary about Israel and should not identify Judaism’s political platform, then what should we offer?
We can help people fulfill mitzvot. Ultimately, that is our job as rabbis: to help people identify what God and the Torah demand of them, give them the tools to perform their duties, inspire them to become the virtuous Jews they should be, and help them make a better world.
An overarching mitzvah in this project is ahavat Israel, the loyalty and care we are obliged to extend to our fellow Jews, as it is said: love your neighbor as yourself. This may seem overly tribal in our global age, but this mitzvah remains near the top of my ethical list, for we owe deep loyalty to our family members, whose history and destiny we share. To me, such a Zionist commitment is manifest, among other ways, when people visit Israel, support its economy and defend it against unjust accusations. It also demands that we show a sympathetic awareness of Israel’s unique security predicaments.
Much has been said over the years – in the past year especially, with the renowned Peter Beinart essay – about American Jewry’s failure to tolerate dissent or critical discourse about Israel. Perhaps this is so, and perhaps some of us work with congregants who seem unwilling to hear anything about Israel but the rosiest, most romantic images. But I would argue that rabbis can win moral authority for critical discourse on Israel by manifesting ahavat Israel, showing loyal, sympathetic commitment. Even the most defensive synagogue communities will find greater tolerance for criticism and dissent when their rabbis are clearly eager to labor with their Israeli brothers, sisters and partners on solutions that will improve society rather than not merely point to problems.
So when I speak about Israel, I try to nurture my community’s commitment to the Jewish state. Indeed, only such commitment can authorize critical engagement at all. On what grounds should I try to influence Peru or Bulgaria? I am not threatened by the risks those nations face, nor will I enjoy the benefits when they thrive. But with Israel it is different. Rabbis speaking about Israel should affirm that we bear at least a junior partner’s share of Israel’s burdens and benefits, and therefore we bear at least a junior partner’s responsibility for building a better society.
But while we cannot do that work without love, we likewise must recall the Sages’ observation that real love requires telling sometimes painful truths. No person and no society is already perfect; like everyone, Israel needs loving, responsible friends to help it grow by confronting its challenges. It may be tempting to declaim about Israel’s failings, or equally tempting to rush to Israel’s defense at every suggestion of its shortcomings. But how will either approach help your congregants fulfill mitzvot? Our job is to mine the sacred tradition for compelling, eternal values, and then identify our deeds and duties that would live out our values in action.
In these terms, a successful talk about Israel would include asking a congregation to reflect on some of these elements of classical Jewish history, texts and ideas:
- Narratives of exile, wandering and homecoming, destruction and rebuilding;
- Economic mitzvot, such as those that restrain the exploitation of the vulnerable, and demand sharing resources with the suffering, including foreign workers and immigrants;
- Ethical duties, such as fairness and equality before the law, including for ethnic minorities;
- Intellectual values, affirming that all Jews should have access to Torah learning and be encouraged toward spiritual development, and indeed that all people have a share in productive human wisdom;
- Meta-ethical organizing principles, such as the fundamental worth of every human being, created in the image of God.
And not just reflect on those themes, but to do something about them! Successful synagogue talks about Israel ultimately arrive in action. As the Sages said, Lo hamidrash ikkar, the point is not the exposition, ela hama’aseh, but rather the deed.
It is important therefore to recognize those Israelis working to refine this society for which we share a measure of responsibility, and to support their efforts, materially and spiritually. Once, Diaspora Jews fulfilled the mitzvah of binyan Eretz Israel, building up the Land of Israel, by supporting halutzim, or pioneers, as they founded physical settlements. Today, responsible friends of Israel support new halutzim by supporting the social activists who are shaping a more just, more peace-loving society. For instance, Israeli activists seeking fairer economic and legal treatment for ethnic minorities, such as Arab citizens, are fulfilling the classical mitzvot to care for the stranger, the vulnerable and marginalized. When we rabbis lead our congregations to become their partners, we in fact help Jews share in these mitzvot. Activists laboring to increase religious pluralism are spreading access to Torah throughout society; may it be our privilege to help our communities share in this mitzvah. The New Israel Fund, of course, is a central organization that can help you find such partners, and connect you and your communities to do the mitzvot of supporting their work.
It may not be easy to talk about Israel to Diaspora Jews today, but it seems to me wise for rabbis to engage this topic, because few themes are so important to the Jewish people. The creation of a thriving Jewish society and state in the land of Israel in the 20th century (especially in the wake of the Shoah) is probably the greatest achievement in our people’s long history. And given Israel’s very real challenges in the coming decades, one of our jobs as spiritual leaders is to inspire the Jewish people to its necessary work in safeguarding our national home. Through your words, you can help Jews work to fulfill the commandment of binyan ha’aretz, building up our historic homeland, as it is said [Leviticus 25.18]: And you shall perform my commandments and keep my laws, and you will dwell on the Land with confidence.
Empowering Ethiopian Women06 April 2011
Empowering Ethiopian Women
Lakiya Yardeni of Ahoti – Sister for Women in Israel
Lakiya Yardeni is a born leader. The 48 year-old mother of six reached Israel from Ethiopia via Sudan in 1989 and settled in the northern Negev city of Kiryat Gat. After working in agriculture for many years, she started training the women of her community in leadership skills. Today she runs the Embroidery Center operated by Ahoti (Sister for Women in Israel), an NIF grantee which helps Mizrachi, Ethiopian, Arab and other disadvantaged women realize their economic, cultural and employment aspirations.
Lakiya recalls, “When I first started organizing leadership courses, the men refused to let their women come. I coaxed them. Please come just once a week, I said, and learn about Israeli society. In the end 70 women came.” However, Yardeni felt that the leadership courses were not enough. She wanted to develop programs that would alleviate the economic distress faced by women in her community. She decided to commercially market traditional crafts of Ethiopian women – weaving, embroidery, sculpture and more – and thus the idea of the Embroidery Center was born. Twenty-six women currently come to the Center, and Ahoti markets their products mainly through the Comme Il Faut fashion enterprise. Among the women at the Center is Chahainesh, a recent immigrant from Ethiopia. She says with tears in her eyes, “I get between $20 and $30 for each item I make. This is the first money I have ever earned.” Yardeni observes that the money the women earn buys them more than basic necessities; “it also buys them the respect of their husbands and pride in their own traditions and capabilities.” At the same time, these women are preserving and taking pride in traditional handicrafts that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Founded in 2000, Ahoti creates models of occupational empowerment such as the Ethiopian Embroidery Center (now being replicated by a group of Arab women) and the Women's Community Kitchen project, which has trained women with cooking skills to set up a cooperative catering business. Ahoti has also opened Israel's first Fair Trade store, located in Tel Aviv and promotes awareness of fair trade practices in Israel. Ahoti has been funded by the New Israel Fund since its founding, and receives consulting services from Shatil.
Advancing Jewish-Arab Equality and Coexistence06 April 2011
Advancing Jewish-Arab Equality and Coexistence
Amiram Goldin of Shatil
The son of Holocaust survivors, long-time peace activist Amiram Goldin has a lifelong ambition to see Arabs and Jews in the Galilee learn to live and work peacefully together. After moving to the Galilee in 2000, Amiram was shocked by the plight of the Arab citizens there: "It was a big issue that made me decide – either I stay here and work for change or leave with no hope." Two years later, the unthinkable happened: Amiram’s son, Omri, was killed in a terrorist attack. For Amiram, this tragedy strengthened his resolve and dedication to co-existence, reinforcing the belief that it is crucial to the country's future.
“The easiest way to keep going on with your life is to want revenge. But all our life we have been involved with the peace camp in Israel. All our life we have gone everywhere we can to encourage and keep up the peace process -- and Omri was always with us. So we didn't change our ideas… we thought that it was our duty – like a will from him – to continue to be very active about peace and compensation and equal rights to all the citizens of Israel.”
In 2002, Amiram founded Neighbors for Joint Development in the Galilee, a non-profit organization made up of professional architects, urban and regional planners, engineers, environmentalists and mediators, Arabs and Jews, who work together to advance equitable planning and development in the Galilee.
In 2007, he joined Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change Organizations in Israel, to head Shatil B’Galil (Shatil in the Galilee) in Rosh Pina, created to specifically empower civil society in the north and foster Jewish-Arab relations in the North. Today, Amiram continues his involvement in Shatil as Coordinator of the Acco Jewish-Arab Taskforce for Shared Society.
Shatil (“seedling” in Hebrew), New Israel Fund’s Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change Organizations in Israel, was established in 1982 to strengthen civil society efforts and promote democracy, tolerance, and social justice in Israel. Each year, Shatil provides close to 1,400 nonprofit organizations with consulting, training, coalition-building assistance and other services. In addition, Shatil reaches out to disadvantaged populations–new immigrants, Arab Israelis and residents of development towns–to help them realize their rights and play an active role in determining the policies that affect their lives.
Protecting Human Rights06 April 2011
Protecting Human Rights
Dafna Banai of Machsom Watch
Mother of three and grandmother of two, 60 year-old Dafna Banai lives in the comfortable suburb of Ramat Aviv. Contrary to her former beliefs, and unlike anyone around her, Dafna has become one of the leaders of Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch), the women’s organization that works to address restrictions of freedom of movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Every week, Dafna goes to the West Bank where she and her colleagues observe and document violations of human rights at checkpoints.
Machsom Watch (machsom means “checkpoint” in Hebrew) was founded in January 2001 in response to repeated reports in the press about human rights abuses of Palestinians crossing army and border police checkpoints. Machsom Watch was founded by three women – Ronnee Jaeger, a long time activist with experience of human rights work in Guatemala and Mexico, Adi Kuntsman, a feminist scholar who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1990, and veteran activist Yehudit Keshet, an Orthodox Jew – and now involves 400 volunteers. MW’s volunteers observe and document activity at West Bank checkpoints and have also begun to monitor proceedings at military courts. Due to their perseverance, the police now relate with greater seriousness to complaints of settler violence filed by Palestinians. In 2007, Machsom Watch, together with NIF, initiated an innovative campaign against the humiliating treatment of Israeli Arab and other non-Jewish passengers on flights to and from Israel. New Israel Fund has provided grant support to Machsom Watch since 2006 and through Shatil also provides the organization with consulting and training.
“People simply don’t believe that right here – next to them - are human beings for whom taking their child to the doctor has become an impossible mission”, says Dafna. “I can’t just sit around and do nothing. Somebody once told me that historical processes aren’t necessarily linear. I want to believe that’s true.”
Advancing the Status and Rights of Women in the Orthodox Community06 April 2011
Advancing the Status and Rights of Women in the Orthodox Community
Chana Kehat of Kolech – The Religious Women’s Forum
Chana Kehat, daughter of one of Me’a She’arim’s foremost rabbis, is one of the most prominent feminist activists in the religious community. A mother of 6, she has a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy, and was awarded the President’s Volunteer Award. With NIF’s support, Chana founded Kolech in 1998 to promote the rights and status of women through a consensual process of change from within Orthodoxy.
Chana explains that the name of the organization was inspired by the Song of Songs: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet. [This] may be interpreted … as the unique promise of the Almighty, throughout human history, to listen to the female voice”.
Kolech now has 9 vibrant branches throughout Israel, and is the central national organization advancing issues such as gender equality curriculum for schools, fighting on behalf of “chained” and abused women, addressing the taboo subject of sexual harassment in the Orthodox community, speaking out against the Rabbinate on issues of women’s rights, and promoting increased religious roles for women within Orthodoxy. Kolech, together with NIF and other organizations, made headlines this year when it helped lead a public campaign against segregation and humiliation of women on gender segregated public buses that run through ultra??Orthodox neighborhoods, opening a hotline and an internet blog for victims.
Now on the board of Kolech, Chana’s latest initiative is an institute which will train women and men to be Orthodox rabbis and religious-court dayanim. They will form a cadre of Orthodox spiritual leaders who represent a moderate religious worldview and an egalitarian approach to the role of women in Orthodox society.
Chana has become a role model for many women, but at the same time, has had to deal with severe criticism and attacks by some elements of her community. She won a victory against her detractors when a labor court overturned a ruling that would have allowed a religious college to dismiss her due to low student attendance of her courses. Chana claimed that in fact college administrators had discouraged students from taking her classes due to her feminist activism and views. In the appeal, Chana's attorney wrote that her client's "one and only offense is that she dared to sound a feminist call within the religious Zionist community, and to fight for women who had suffered rape and sexual harassment. Worse, she had the gall to succeed in her efforts."
Promoting Liberal Orthodoxy06 April 2011
Promoting Liberal Orthodoxy
Yonatan Benarroch of Ne'emanei Torah V'Avoda
As a youth in the religious Zionist B’nei Akiva movement, Yonatan Benarroch felt uncomfortable with the increasing extremism of Israel’s religious community. Yonatan’s consternation at the growing intolerance in his Orthodox community, particularly after Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, intensified his commitment to reviving the liberal Orthodox movement. Today, he is the chair of Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avoda (NTA), a movement that works toward a more open and humane Orthodoxy.
“Everything our organization does is closely deeply rooted in Jewish values. We are deeply committed to empowering a tolerant and pluralistic Judaism, and working with a religious community that is undergoing rapid radicalization, a trend which presents a significant threat to the delicate fabric of Israeli society. The tikkun I am privileged to experience by virtue of my activities in Ne’emanei Torah Va'Avodah is the close and intense encounter with the representatives of the other denominations (Reform, Conservative and secular leadership). My role has given me the rare and exciting opportunity to form a true partnership between the Orthodox movement and other, pluralistic movements. Such collaboration would not naturally exist in the current Israeli reality, and I hope that it will lead to a great connection and affinity between the different movements, and within Israeli society – where divides and dissent are so prevalent.”
An NIF grantee for the last 7 years, Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avoda is a modern orthodox Zionist movement, promoting a moderate worldview and advocating tolerance and openness. NTA was founded to challenge the growing extremism and Haredi influence in Orthodox Jewry, which threatens the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel, and promote values of tolerance, equality, and justice in religious society. Its three main objectives are to encourage critical public discourse among the Orthodox, to bring pluralistic values to religious education and to change the structure of religious services in Israel to reflect the community. It has become one of the leading organizations promoting a range of issues on the liberal Orthodox agenda, including women's rights and expanding women's roles within Judaism. Today, with Yonatan as chair, NTA is involved in collaborations with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and secular partners, and is working on the creation of an international alternative religious court for conversions. Yonatan also worked towards the successful establishment of the first pluralistic cemetery in Jerusalem.