Shabbat and an end to an incredible journey

Final blog entry. I write this from several places. The Dan Panorama in Jerusalem, my last morning; Ben Gurion airport before departure; and the plane while others around me work to fall asleep.

Shabbat evening, we had another opportunity to connect with an Israeli Reform community. This time, Kehillat Tzur Hadassah, in the town of Tzur Hadassah, a bedroom community 45 minutes outside of Jerusalem. It just so happened that we were set up with a congregation whose rabbi I know very well— Rabbi Stacey Blank. We overlapped during our years learning in Jerusalem. Israel seems to be the land of wonderful coincidences.

We often think of coincidences as things that randomly occur together, without any reason. There’s a saying, “there’s no such thing as coincidences.” I prefer to understand this word according to its literal meaning. Incidences occurring together, without judgment or thought as to why or how they occurred. Rather than immediately deciding that something occurred deliberately by the hand of God, or completely randomly, let’s simply acknowledge how wonderful it is when two disparate parts of our lives come together. Let’s give gratitude for terrific moments and leave metaphysics and philosophy to the theologians and philosophers. Why rule out any possibilities when we can’t possibly know the truth?

So yes. Coincidences happen in Israel. All the time. At Beit T’fillah Israeli, I ran into Nancy Lewitt, the head of student services at HUC in Jerusalem. Coincidence? Yes, and significant, because I had sought to visit with her during our time in Jerusalem, and she couldn’t meet because she was going to be in Canada during our time there (funny, one Canadian in Israel, and one Israeli in Canada. I know). So, thinking I wouldn’t get to see her, it turns out that we both decided to go to the same place to pray. The Temple Emanu-El group upon my arrival, Nancy before her departure. Coincidence. Fated? Maybe. Random? Maybe. Does it matter why? I’m just appreciative of the moment.

Back to Tzur Hadassah— what a lovely community. Their synagogue is a small building sitting atop a beautiful valley in the Judaean hills. Given their elevation, the sounds of mortars and explosions from Gaza and the areas around it carry loudly to the synagogue, but they are far enough away that apart from the noise, things are fairly normal. Tzur Hadassah is a community of mostly young families; lots of children and parents, some grandparents. So, we found ourselves in their multi-purpose sanctuary sitting in a circle surrounding a central rug that soon filled up with kids playing during services, including Stacey’s three adorable children. In addition to a service filled with singing, Stacey led an engaging story for the children with their acting out the parts, and gave a rather substantial series of blessings to kids, teenagers, and teachers who will be going back to school this week.

Following services, we (the Temple Emanu-Elites) detached into smaller groups so that we could join our respective host families for Shabbat dinner. These families were all seriously-committed members of the community, and all mixed couples (one partner native-Israeli, one partner native-American). With my host family, though we had never before met we quickly found common ground and had a great time together. And again, in the realm of coincidences, it turns out that Ilan, my host, works with a very close family friend.

I feel like my writing has been primarily focused on the war and how people in Israel are reacting to it. It is so important then for me to point out that while our conversations around the dinner table certainly touched on the realities of the matzav (translated as situation, meaning the war), we spent even more time discussing philosophy, psychology, movies, and other topics beyond my recollection. Life continues.

And again,  another coincidence this evening. In one of the other three host families, the father, Akiva, is good friends with our driver, Moti. Apparently Akiva sold Moti insurance.

Shabbat morning, most in the group decided to go to the Israel museum, so I trekked half an hour through the German Colony (a pleasure) to get to Kol Haneshama for services. As always, I ran into old friends there and spent as much talking as praying.

Shabbat afternoon was even better. Starting with the most important Shabbat rite of all, a shluff (a nap), we continued with a program that used to be my regular Shabbat ritual when I lived in Israel. I used to grab a guitar and a book and hang out in the park at Yemin Moshe. As the sky darkened and havdalah approached, I would walk through this neighborhood, up and down the stone paths, admiring the masonry, metalwork and gardens in their many colors under the waning light. As Keshet planned it, this would be our group evening program, concluded with Havdalah. The only thing that could have made this Shabbat better would be having Miriam and Nava in Israel with me.

Sunday, our last day in Israel. Today we met with Yitzhak Sokoloff, the director of Keshet. He typically meets with tour group at least once on trips and provides political briefings along with Q&A. He gave us a lot to think about.

Yitzhak told us about a Palestinian friend of his who four years ago was smuggled out of Gaza. Why did he seek this? He found out he was on a death list for “collaboration.” This collaboration was his being involved in a coexistence dialogue group. And sadly, as soon as tensions flared up and militants began emerging from the tunnels in and outside of Gaza (they use them for internal purposes too), they went straight for his house and killed his two brothers.

It seems that the longer this conflict goes on, to Israelis, leftists lose more and more credibility. It becomes clearer every day on the ground that we’re not dealing with a group with any sense of respect for human life and human rights. In Israel there remain some who protest, shouting, “end the occupation!” The implication of their words is that this entire conflict is Israel’s fault. While most in Israeli society hate these opinions, people tolerate the leftists because Israel is a free democratic society. Meanwhile, in Gaza, when people disagree with what Hamas is doing, or, worse, if they seek peace with that Zionist entity, they are executed, sometimes lynched, and if they’re lucky, only shot in the knee caps.

Some Israeli soldiers in Gaza encountered civilians chained to their homes, and when the soldiers went to release them, bombs exploded. Booby-trapped Gazans. And then, Hamas sends out radio broadcast congratulating bereaved families for having their children and loved ones sacrificing themselves for their greater cause.

Meanwhile, the foreign press fails to note that Israel often works to use smart bombs that can pierce a window and only hurt those in that specific room. This means that soldiers stay on the ground nearby to better ensure accuracy, risking their lives to limit casualties. And, this is a very expensive system. Israel has spent millions of dollars developing it. They actually invest in minimizing deaths and injuries.

I know it seems, through my reporting, that I’m painting a very one sided picture, with Israel as good guy and Hamas as bad. Frankly, I think Hamasis as bad as it gets. That being said, I do believe in the goodness of Palestinians. There are decent people in really awful situations in Gaza.

What’s important is not winning the war; it’s getting to a better place and bridging divides. Coexistence is possible, it happens. In Jerusalem, as I mentioned in the last post, Jews and Arabs live and work side by side. At my very hotel, both Arabs and Jews cook, serve tables, bartend, carry luggage, and welcome us upon our arrivals.

The Torah demands,

צדק צדק תרדוף למען תחיה  וירשת את הארץ…

Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land [of Israel]… (Deuteronomy 16:20)

The land of Israel can only be our home when we pursue justice with all of our being. We must have institutions for justice – judges, courts, police. We ought to each behave in an ideal manner, but we’re not naive. There are those who will act against justice, against society, and against God, so it is upon us, as a society, to ensure that their impact is wiped from our communities, and that we remain pure and good.

Israel has not reached this level of perfection. And unfortunately, the Torah doesn’t actually tell us how to do it. Yitzhak Sokoloff is of the opinion that the Torah is not a guidebook for how to live in a just society. It’s a challenge. Torah paints a picture of what ought to be. To be that holy people (קדושים תהיו, holy shall you be, Leviticus 19:2), we need to strive for our best, and meet the ideals of the mitzvot given to us at Sinai.

For Yitzhak, the state of Israel is this work in progress, striving to bring our people closer to justice and holiness. Israel is the place where we can finally treat these texts as real, as literal. Having our own judges and police was impossible without our own state. Now, finally, we can fully live the words of Torah. We have everything now at our disposal to fulfill the divine challenge. And so, we work at it. As difficult as it may be at times, as much as our neighbors may test us, and as much as others in this world may see only our errors, we must continue to seek holiness and be that light to the nations. It’s only in Israel that we, the Jewish people as a whole, can reach our fullest potential.

After this meeting, we visited Yad L’kashish, a lifeline for the elderly, where retirees in Jerusalem are given work making crafts to be sold in the gift shop. In return, they receive a monthly stipend, some additional health benefits, and a bus pass. This great organization provides them with more than this however. Often, days for the elderly bleed into each other, without regular schedules or purpose. Thanks to Yad L’kashish, these people have work and regular community, and they get to produce things with their hands of which they are proud. At Temple Emanu-El, we will have a new cut metal matchbox case, courtesy of our friends at Yad LaKashish.

8b 8a

We then participated in archeological sifting at the Temple Mount, and I found an ancient nail from Roman times (the kind used with a hammer), and a roof tile too!

Lunch followed, and I had my first falafel of the trip. Only took nine days of being in Israel…

Every good trip requires reflection, and so we concluded by debriefing at the hotel and sharing what we thought to be the most meaningful experiences of these two weeks. Overwhelmingly, everyone had an amazing time and was grateful to not only see historical and holy places, but to really get to know people here too. The group was filled with love for this land and people, as well as for each other. We’ve been blessed to be a group with a strong sense of community and mutual care. We also lucked out with an amazing tour guide and bus driver.

From the airport: Many of you know that I have a tradition of eating at the Kosher McDonald’s every time I pass through Ben Gurion airport. I’ve done so since my first trip to Israel in 2003. Sadly, I discovered today that all McDonald’s at the airport have been replaced by Burger Ranch, an Israeli chain. It’s just not the same.

I finish this entry sitting on the plane heading home. It’s 2:36 am Israel time, 7:36 pm EST. It has been such a privilege to learn and experience Israel with the Temple Emanu-El group, and I have learned so much over these past two weeks. I’m sad that our time in Israel has ended, but I am thrilled to be returning home to my family and community.

From strength to strength, and home to home.


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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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