Making Pilgrimage to Israel

A group of teenagers this week asked me a series of questions for a school project about Israel and the Palestinians. I was appreciative of their visit, but troubled by several of the questions, including: “Rabbi, if the Palestinians win back all the land, how would they treat the Jews?”

I stuttered. I stammered. I saw a chasm develop between me and these kids, for whom the first clause in their question raised no emotions. And I don’t remember what I said first. But I do know that I told them: “you’d better get to Israel, and I’ll take you there. Because I cannot contemplate the ceasing of Israel to exist out of the Palestinians winning control of all the land. I can’t imagine a Jewish people worldwide, my daily endeavors, my most heartfelt prayers, having anywhere near their relevance or meaning in a world where Palestinians control all of what is now the Jewish state.”

I am not the first nor will I be the last rabbi of Anshe Chesed to confess that: I can no less imagine life without a vibrant and strong and sovereign Jewish State of Israel than I can imagine a world in which I lose my ability to hope, to breathe freely and live with security that when I leave my home it won’t be attacked relentlessly. That’s the truth of my beliefs: I see that if Israel were to lose its existence as a Jewish state, it isn’t just Israelis who’d be in jeopardy. No Jew worldwide, not in America or anywhere would be the same.

Friends, I live in America, and Shaker Heights is both the community in which my wife was raised and my children are being raised. I love it here, and am grateful for the opportunities that I have in America. Here I can work and educate as a Reform rabbi. Here I can drive just a few hours to see my parents and my brothers, my nieces and nephew. Here I have tremendous opportunities made possible by the freedoms afforded me in this unparalleled nation in Jewish history.

But when I look back on my Jewish life, when I am asked at the end of my life: what moment in my Jewish life truly lit my soul aflame, made me feel the radiance of the holy, and gain an appreciation for my place in Jewish history, the answer won’t be in doubt. The most important thing I ever did or saved for or hoped for as a Jew was to make pilgrimage to Israel. My first visit twenty-five years ago, my last visit, concluded just three weeks ago. And ten trips in between are each precious times in my life. 

Right now if there is one thing I am more convinced of than ever—it is that the most precious thing I can do with my time is be sure that Jews encounter Israel for the first times and for repeat visits… that my educational and spiritual leadership of our Anshe Chesed rests upon many pillars. But the most impactful thing I can do long term is help Jews to truly encounter Israel and come to know Israelis.

What terrifies me today, especially among some of our young people, is the dominant mode of thinking in our American Jewish culture. It is a win/loss mentality. The kids in my office seemed to picture the battle between Israel and the Palestinians as some kind of contest, a heavy-weight prize fight, where the bell will one day ring, and a bruised up young man will hold a golden belt over his head saying, I win. I am the champion.

No such luck. Neither Israel nor the Palestinian people will eke out a split decision without more blood and brokenness. That is a truth as real as is anyone’s sense of promise they feel as a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or any pilgrim to cross Israel’s borders and see its land and people up close. Too often we shut ourselves out from the earthly and troubling reality in which Israel finds itself repeatedly, because in America, we are so fond of compartmentalizing our Jewish lives. This is the part of me that relates to Beachwood, and this the part of me that connects to Ohio, and finally this over here is the distinct part of me that relates to Israel, which can be squired away, brought out only as I see fit or when an occasion draws it out of me..

This is precisely the opposite mode as what Jewish tradition commands. In the Torah it is pilgrimage, getting our feet moving onto the soil of Israel, turning toward Israel physically and spiritually at our most sacred festivals and moments in our lives. This is what the spiritual outlook of our tradition has conveyed for the centuries previous to the miracle of their actually being a modern Jewish State of Israel. And some wrestling with that notion, teasing out its meaning, and savoring its taste at Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, on Yom Haatzmaut- Israel’s independence day, and Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day are part of the continuity of the entire household of Israel, the Jewish people wherever they live.

The late Rabbi David Forman, founder of Rabbis for Human Rights,  one of whose books is aptly titled with the metaphor: “Israel, On Broadway; America, Off-Broadway,” demonstrated through his life’s work that the word Israel can’t be squired away in meaning from B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, which was our name in the Bible and it is a name that still speaks of our very essence. He taught of Israel as an expression of Jewish totality- “Medinat Yisrael” (the State of Israel, “Eretz Yisrael” (Land of Israel) and “Am Yisrael” (People of Israel). Each of these elements, “State. Land, religion and people, an embrace of language, culture, politics, society, and most importantly, history.  Together they are the basis for Jewish identity. To isolate any one of these categories is to limit Jewish life.”

I believe David was right: the totality of Jewish identity exists in an Israel and among a B’nai Yisrael that evolves and grows, and I pray, grows in peace and security next to a neighboring Palestinian people we may one day be able to say, “we used to control.”

Lately I’ve been re-reading as well from the writings concerning Israel of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He wrote that  “Zion is not a symbol, but a home, and the land [of Israel] is not an allegory but a possession, a commitment of destiny.” He turns in his book “Israel: An Echo of Eternity” to the uniqueness of the feeling that Jews have when entering a relationship with the city of David, with Jerusalem, and when I read Heschel’s material I’m reminded of the powerful time I have taken recently in traveling to Israel last month with a group of 33 Fairmount Temple members, many of them on their first visits, but nearly all of whom were alive longer than the State itself.

On Friday afternoon, April 27, my wife and I spoke by phone as we traveled from the North down toward Jerusalem. And she said: I didn’t speak to you yesterday. How’s the trip been going?”

I responded: “It is truly wonderful, the experiences we’ve shared already, one after the other, have been moving and inspiring. Everyone is seeing an Israel grounded in the realities in which it lives. Yet they’ve also been uplifted by celebrating Israel’s independence, and they’ve seen and mourned up close with Israelis on memorial day for soldiers. Most of all, everyone is being good to each other and growing as a temple community.”

“… And I know it’s going great,” I said, just as our bus began to climb the Judean hills, “because they haven’t even seen Jerusalem yet!” Joanie voiced her approval, having a feeling of Jerusalem’s special quality in her own memories. Then she told me to have a Shabbat Shalom, and that she could tell how fulfilling this was for temple, and that she couldn’t wait to hear how people felt once they came into Jerusalem.

Heschel says: “On the eve of the Sabbath, at the decisive moment… in the midst of calling upon the soul to welcome the Sabbath, we become engrossed in what is holy in space. But what is holy in time has leaves its imprint…on Jerusalem. For here one feels: This city was meant to be by God. There are hills in the world more impressive, valleys more blessed with fertility and beauty than those of the city of David. Yet none is so rich in allusions, so evocative.”

This was true for my fellow Fairmount travelers in Israel. No sooner did our group spend Shabbat walking the ramparts of the Old Walled City, experiencing time growing our appreciation and understanding of Jerusalem, than did a feeling of unity wrap around our group of Anshe Chesed travelers. It was so exquisite when we shared our memories of the first week of our journey and concluded the Sabbath overlooking the Temple Mount from a park near our hotel. As I lit the Havdalah candle, before I began the melody I called out the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love Israel; rejoice with her in joy.”

I feel uplifted again just writing and speaking these prophetic words and sharing some of my recent Israel memories with you. I do so as a way of inviting you to join us in building such powerful memories on your own terms.  I hope and pray you’ll come to Israel with temple on a trip, and take a chance to deepen your spiritual life through the sacred value of pilgrimage in Jewish life.

Whether it is through the aegis of our synagogue, or in another context we can recommend, lech lachem, go forth, and get yourselves to this precious part of the Earth, this place where God showed Abraham and shows each of us today if we’ll look eastward. In the coming weeks when you receive your temple bulletin you’ll see some of the photos of our recent trip, and there are more being added each week to the new temple website. You’ll also begin hear the announcement of a trip Rabbi Caruso is planning to guide to Israel for families in December of 2013

Finally, as a response to the kind of challenge I faced in connecting those kids who visited my office last week, I am working with our Reform movement leaders to develop a special trip to Israel for young people who are 18-26, a Birthright trip, free of charge, made exclusively for travelers who grew up at Fairmount Temple. more info on that coming soon.

I welcome your thoughts and responses, and I pray that if not physically, than spiritually, you’ll take a pilgrimage or send a young person on our Birthright pilgrimage, whether for a holiday or a mission or even a vacation. Then we’ll all begin to feel the solidarity and hopefulness that our people in Israel most needs.  May you go forth and return, in peace,  and with increased understanding and knowledge of Israel.