Shana tova. The first time The State of Israel entered into my consciousness was 45 years ago. It was 1973 and I was almost 8 years old when Israel was invaded in a surprise attack. What I remember of it was that it was very frightening because we didn’t know if Israel would survive. It didn’t look good at the beginning. I remember my mother knitting helmet liners for the war. Don’t ask me why that would help, but I’m guessing that she had to do something and I guess knitting helmet liners was it. She made me one for Chanukah that year and I thought it was so cool because, after all, the Israeli army had won against all odds and they were so cool, so I would be too!
I’m sure that I was aware of Israel after that. I’m sure that we talked in Religious School about Israel too, but I don’t have any real memories of Israel again until 1979. Which is weird because the Raid at Entebbe happened in 1976 and you would think that I would remember that too, but I don’t. In any case, I remember the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Accords and I especially remember the picture of Prime Minister Menachem Begin shaking hands with President Anwar Sadat with a smiling President Jimmy Carter standing behind them with his hands on theirs almost like a benediction. That was the picture that was on the front page of the New York Times.
In March of 1979, when that picture ran on the front page of the New York Times, I was still in 7th grade. Just the year before, in 6th grade, I had Mr. Hanawalt and he showed us his copy of the New York Times from when he was a child. It was dated December 8th, 1941, with the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing us into World War II. I thought that was so cool that he held on to that newspaper. The New York Times showing the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was my first New York Times that I collected. I’m up to five cartons of newspapers now that I never actually take out and look at, so I’m not sure anymore why I collect them. But I remember the Peace Treaty and how it made it seem like finally, Israel would be secure. It hasn’t been, of course. But that’s how it felt at the time.
I do remember 1981 when Israel flew fighter bombers in tight formation to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor under construction. And everyone in the world shook their collective fists at Israel shouting: ‘how could you commit such an outrage! (we’re so glad you did).’ The first Lebanon War came quickly after in 1982 and that was the first time I felt uneasy about Israel, because of the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. But Israel held investigations, finding leadership responsible and relieving them of command, and I felt like Israel could make mistakes but did the moral thing to fix it.
When I was in college, over sophomore year’s winter break, I went to Israel with my high school friend Lawrence, on a Pan Am tour. Since it was a Pan Am tour, it wasn’t designed to be specifically Jewish and it wasn’t only from the United States. As it turned out, everyone but one woman from the United States, traveling alone, was Jewish. There were Jews from South Africa, Australia, Europe and the United States. It was an amazing experience to be with Jews from around the world touring the country we all had in common. But because it wasn’t a specifically Jewish tour, we also went to Christian and Muslim holy sites. I felt so connected but also had my perspective blown wide open.
The first Intifada was bad and so was the first Gulf War, but after that came the Oslo Accords, peace with Jordan and it felt like Israel was on stable ground. Until 1995 when Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. One of our own. How could it be? It was devastating.
In 1997 I decided to become a rabbi and in early June 1998 I flew to Israel with two insanely large stuffed bags, checked into a hotel and started to look for an apartment. That summer was one of the hottest they had recently experienced, it never rained, dairy products made me sick, I was poor with a food budget of $25 a week, I was in deep culture shock, and learning Hebrew was harder than I ever imagined. I wrote a series of emails home that I called ‘Ben’s Big Adventures’ and by July I had adopted a motto in those letters home: I hate this place, I hate this place, I hate this expletive deleted place. But after the High Holy Days and a Tel Aviv beach vacation during Sukkot, the rains came, the temperatures dropped, my system grew accustomed to the dairy products and I began to love it.
For the whole year, I only left Israel for three days and two nights during a winter break trip to see Petra and Jordan. Coming back into Israel across the Allenby Bridge, I remember that the border guards called forward me and my friend Jordana with whom I was traveling. They took our passports and asked “Do you have any connections to Israel?” Simultaneously she said ‘no’ and I said ‘yes’. We turned to each other and started arguing, at this point ignoring the border guards. What do you mean we don’t have any connections, I asked her. Neither of us have any family here. Yes, but I’m going to be a rabbi and you’re going to be a Jewish Educator, don’t you think that’s a connection. Just come in already, the border guards interrupted, waving us through.
$25 a week for food was not a lot, even then, so every Friday morning I went to Machane Yehuda to shop for food. They had the best food at the lowest prices and Marzipan Bakery had chocolate rugelach that were out of this world delicious. Machane Yehuda suffered a suicide attack one Friday. I had already been and gone by the time of the attack, so I was never in any danger. But my flower seller was killed. My ulpan teacher scolded me on Sunday. Now you have to shop at Supersol where they have a guard at the entrance. But by that time, I had picked up too much Israeli stubbornness. There was no way I was going to let them change me, I insisted. Besides, Supersol had terrible produce.
2002, Israel Bonds offered a trip to Israel for one rabbinic student each from HUC, JTS, and Yeshiva University. Everyone HUC asked turned them down because of the bombings that were going on with great frequency. So they opened it up to anyone and I grabbed it. Hey! Totally free trip to Israel and there was no way that I was passing that up! 2005 I won a free trip to Israel at the CCAR convention. That was so much fun! I haven’t been back since then, though.
How proud I have felt of Israel since I was last there in 2005. Israel has become a modern, wealthy, vibrant country. It is a world leader in technology, medicine, and research. The summer of 2014 was tough for me watching the Gaza War. With anti-semitism on the rise around the world, Israel was deeply criticized for having the temerity to defend itself against massive rocket attacks coming out of Gaza. What a change from the way the world reacted to the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Summer 2018 and I was working at Greene Family Camp. It was during an Ask the Rabbi session when an Unit Head, who was Israeli, asked me a question that genuinely puzzled him: When you have services here, why do you include a prayer for the State of Israel? I felt like I was back at the Allenby Bridge Crossing: what do you mean why do we pray for the State of Israel? My whole life has lead up to me feeling so deeply connected, of course we prayer for the State of Israel! But he felt that he’s Israeli and I’m American and we’re from two different countries.
I guess what shocked me the most about this question is that, if he is representative, Israelis no longer feel that there’s a deep natural connection between Israel and Jews living outside of Israel. I’ve heard that about American Jews, especially young ones, but never about Israelis. I’ve heard the criticism that Israel hasn’t always acted morally. I’ve heard Israel being held to a standard that no other country is held up to. I’ve heard how alienated some young Jews living here in the United States have felt about Israel. But I had never heard Israelis wonder why there should be a connection between Jews outside of Israel and Israelis.
Certainly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu courts Evangelical Christians more assiduously here in the United States than he does the Jewish Community. The current government of Israel has taken alienating actions against the Reform, Conservative, and even the Modern Orthodox movements of Judaism here in the United States. But my attachment to Israel is so deep in my kishkes, I can’t abandon it.
Where is the klal yisrael, the concept that all Jews are bound together? How can can our two communities just part ways, citizens of separate countries?
Avinu shebashamayim tzur Yisrael v’go-alo: O Heavenly One, Protector and Redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel and bless Jews living outside of Israel. Unite us, forging us with unbreakable bonds into one united People of Israel, as we once were in the days of my youth.
Kein y’hi ratzon. Be this God’s will.