Ready to Be a Rav Ba-Yisrael – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk; Rosh Hashanah Evening- Congregational Service Sermon

Below are the remarks shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Erev Rosh Hashanah worship at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, in the congregational service on Sunday, September 16, 2012. We invite you to share responses, or to forward these remarks and the link to our blog to others, as we seek to engender important discussion and dialogue about Israel and its message in our community. Shana Tova U’metukah! May it be a good and sweet year for us all!

During my final year in rabbinical school, Rosh Hashanah came just a few weeks after the birth of our first child. I was up late each night- long beyond the 2am feedings to my son. For even when he’d return to sleep, my nerves were frayed about the research still required to complete my master’s thesis. I called my teacher Rabbi David Ellenson for assistance, as he had written extensively in my area of research, prayers for the Land of Israel. But he heard the tremor in my voice and realized I needed something other than educational counsel. With concern and love, he responded to my questions. Then he plaintively asked me a question of his own. He asked: Are you ready to be a rav bayisrael, meaning “Rob, Are you ready to be a rabbi of the people Israel?”

I don’t remember how I answered him. But when I stand before the ark each year and plead with God to let our prayers find favor, it is my teacher’s question I hear echoing still: Are you ready to be a rav bayisrael? And I continuously ask myself: Am I ready for that responsibility, not just for this congregation, but for the congregation of Israel?  Now no matter what the New Year brings, at each new juncture in my rabbinate, I continue to hear him ask me, “Are you ready?” a question that surely must have been asked by Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson, Yisrael.

If you come to visit my office, you’ll see just outside my door I placed a large photograph taken in the City of Jerusalem at dusk. You’ve got to see this photo! The sky above the city is touched by a purple hue and the Jerusalem stone buildings shine as gold in waning sunlight. Often I stop in front of this picture. Without much trouble, I hear the sounds of walking the streets there. I hear the voices of tour guides describing the archaeology and mythology of Jerusalem. I hear the wailing sound over a loud-speaker of the Muslim call-to-prayer. And I hear the bustling sound of Western Jerusalem, where cafes, fruit markets and fashion shops compete with the sounds of new light-rail trains and Israeli taxi cabs. I’m here in Cleveland but for a moment I’m in Yerushalayim.  The photo itself links my life here in Cleveland to Yisrael, our people wherever we dwell.

Nothing helps seal that idea for me more than when I make a pilgrimage to the modern State of Israel. In the past two years, I have had the unusual blessing of making three separate journeys to Israel: two visits in the company of interfaith Christian and Muslim leaders, and a third trip this past spring guiding three dozen of our temple’s adults. Surely I returned this May from Jerusalem eager to work with temple in building an array of new Israel projects!

But a meeting I had on my return with a group of Jewish young people stopped me right in my tracks.  A previous Bar Mitzvah celebrant and his classmates had come to seek my insights for a research paper about Israel and the Palestinians.  I listened carefully to them as they asked a series of rapid-fire questions. Yet the questions on each boy’s lips betrayed:

  • Accusations against Israel: including that Israel always stokes the fires of conflict
  • An at-ease posture with emotionally explosive terms such as Palestine and one-state solution
  • The simplistic idea that only a willingness to negotiate land stands between Israel and peace.

The tone of their questions was terrifying. What was worse- there was no tremor in their voices. They asked their questions without emotion. None had ever seen Israel anywhere except in the newspaper. So it was as if they had no stake in the outcome. Because of this, I challenged them to rewrite their questions and reconsider their assumptions. I told them they should examine was the demographics of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. I told them to study the birthrates, the economic opportunities, and the poverty confronting Israeli and Palestinian leaders. These would be good predictors of whether or not to expect more of the status quo. They wrote down notes of my response, but just as swiftly returned to their script, asking: “Rabbi, when the Palestinians win back all the land, how will they treat the Jews?”

I stuttered. I stammered. You know, I love working with young people, but I realized there was a vast chasm between my responses and these kids’ questions. In their presence, I realized that more than ever before, my responsibility as a rav ba-yisrael is to get them to see Israel with their own eyes. For while a generation of young people supposes without so much as a quiver in their voice, that the Palestinians might take over all the land, I cannot see Jews anywhere in the world having a viable and meaningful path ahead as Jews if Israel loses its land and its security.   I can no less imagine life without a strong and sovereign Jewish State of Israel than I can imagine a world in which I can’t breathe or hope freely or live with the idea that when I leave my home it won’t be attacked. In fact, if Israel’s right to exist is left in the hands of others, no Jew worldwide, not anywhere will be the same.

Friends I live in America. I love my life here, in the very community where my wife Joanie was raised. I am a proud citizen, grateful for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States. Here I can work freely and productively as a Reform rabbi at a wonderful congregation that is committed to building peace and mutual understanding. Indeed here we celebrate our heritage in an unparalleled exceptional nation. But when I look back at the end of my life, and I am asked what memory triggered a lifetime of Jewish commitments? When I consider what helped me to sense my place in Jewish history, the answer will not ever be in doubt. The most important thing I ever did or saved for or hoped for as a Jew was the pilgrimage I first made and the relationship I then built with Israel!

My first visit to Israel was 25 years ago and my last visit just a few months ago. But somewhere in between, I began to link my life here- as a Jew and certainly as a rabbi, to the precious task of encouraging Jews and non-Jews, fellow moms and dads, kids and grandparents, students, congressman, ministers and imams to encounter Israel with their own eyes and develop their own conclusions.

Of course visiting Israel is the best way to help people understand its vulnerability in the world. But what I crave even more for all the kids in our temple is to form relationships with the Israeli people, and to grow our understanding of Israel through celebrating what Israel’s people enjoy most. Israel’s music and food, its art, its language and culture, the incredible innovations born in Israel and the investments they have made in a better world. As a rabbi, I strive to link Israel to our prayers at every major holiday. For our liturgy exalts Israel as the dawning of redemption. Our prayers help us see Israel in ways other than how it is depicted in the news- as a nation dealing with Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks, a nation rallying the world to confront a potentially nuclear Iran, and a nation battling Palestinian refugees in their midst. All these depictions are true, but just as truthful is the admiration we Jews hold for our homeland, the hope we have held in it for two thousand years.

Are you ready to be a rav bayisrael? I ask myself, and I tremble as I realize how much work there is to done. For when I listen to the conversations about Israel, particularly heightened by the Presidential Election, I see how many Americans hold a picture of a battle between Israel and its enemies as a kind of heavy-weight prize fight, where one day after more rounds of fighting, a bell will ring, and a bruised up young man will hold a shining golden belt over his head saying, “I win. I am the champion.”

No such luck! Neither Israel nor anyone it contends with will win anything but more bloodshed and heartache through status quo efforts. There is so much more that Israeli leaders and Jews worldwide will need to say and do. Yet many in our community are reticent to speak up for Israel, and keep its challenges sequestered from the honest conversation and dialogue needed in our communities.

This is precisely the opposite of what our tradition commands!  Indeed Torah recognizes the ugly reality of armed battles to secure Israel’s borders. It doesn’t hide the struggles of the Israelites to define the proper boundaries between them and other tribes. But these challenges never stopped our tradition from advocating for pilgrimage to Israel.

It never stopped us from turning to Israel physically and spiritually, as the central biblical act for observing holidays. In the modern age, it has never stopped us from making Israeli communities one of the primary investments of our federated campaigns.  And it has never stopped us from holding up the State of Israel as an Or La-Goyim, a radiant glowing light with potential to impact the entire world.

The late Rabbi David Forman, author of Israel, On Broadway; America, Off-Broadway, taught that Israel is not just a name but an expression of “Jewish totality.” He cautioned that we should not isolate state, land, religion and people, and thus limit the meaning of Jewish life.  And I believe David was right! Of course, Zionism is meaningful wherever we advocate its principles. But a “totality” in Jewish identity is, to my eye, a product of Israel. Why? : Because in Israel an army of Israel’s own citizens guarantees its protection. Why?: Because in Israel it is Jewish living, laboring and pausing for Shabbat that is at the very essence of civil life. Why? :  Because in Israel our people do indeed yearn for peace, knowing that an end to the bloodshed for them could also mean an end to bloodshed for everyone.

It is this same yearning for peace in Israel and the Middle East that I cling to from a distance. I hold that yearning even as I watch daily while Israeli leaders respond to the rage and provocation of extremists inside and out of its borders. I watch with concern as tension rises within Israel, over security, over democracy and over religious zealotry. I watch and I hurt- but nevertheless I pray with you that Israel will one day will reach a permanent peace agreement.  For it is my hope that by the time I have grandchildren, they I could make pilgrimage with them to an Israel that dwells securely next to a neighboring Palestinian people they once controlled.

And you and I can certainly differ on whether this vision is realistic. But holding this vision, this vision that combines a universal ideal of peace with a very particular aim of peace for my people, makes me just a liberal Jew, but a liberal Zionist Jew.

Still I am so troubled to see what gets published by others who call themselves liberal Zionists. In articles and speeches, judgments are rendered and not just by news outlets – even in the bulletins of our sister synagogues.  One I visited last year published an article written by its founding rabbi. He wrote that after more than 2 decades as a rabbi, he now believes that “Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethnic nationalism… [that]…a Jewish state by definition cannot be democratic.” His basis for his newly public antipathy toward Zionism boiled down to a simple binary equation. He said that Israel is “Immensely powerful and the Palestinians powerless; Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians the oppressed…[and] God calls us to be on the side of the oppressed.”

I don’t believe in such binary equations. Do you? Why should any of us accept the false premise that one party in a conflict is entirely right and the other entirely wrong? These assertions are commonplace in American life, where our political parties trade vicious accusations painting in black and white issues, including those related to Israel, that are most definitely gray. Why should I buy the same binary line of thinking when it is applied not by politicians running for office, but by a fellow rabbi? The answer is: I shouldn’t.

A newspaper editorial published just a couple of weeks ago, similarly raised my fury. Its author claimed that the security barrier in Israel, the wall and fence separating Israel and the West Bank has debatable merit as a deterrent to terror. Why? The author states this is true because “suicide bombings in Israel effectively stopped at the end of the Second Intifada in 2005.” I read this passage thinking, what exactly does the article’s author think stopped the second intifada?  What was responsible? As ugly as the security barrier is, and I have seen it both from within Israel and in the Palestinian territories, the attacks in the intifada came to a halt when a determined Jewish people realized that to be safe from extremists, a barrier would have to be constructed and patrolled! It was not what any peace minded individual would want to see between our peoples forever. But seven years later, we know that the presence of that security wall has cut deeply against the capacity of extremists to walk right down the road and carry out their rage, their insanity and their brutality on our people!

Friends, I have come to believe that:

  • Liberalism and Zionism are indeed compatible values- but only when we define these  values honestly, and always educate ourselves about the views of the other,
  • And compassion for refugees, homeless now for 5 generations can be held in the hearts of Jews who wants a strong Israel. Indeed supporting Israel now means more than condemning extremists who attack it. It also means helping Israel to have the courage to change the status quo. That could mean it seeking further agreements to assure its peace and security. It could mean resolving any dispute with the newly charged-up government in Egypt. And no doubt it will mean serious repercussions for Israel in its relationship with Iran.  No matter what path Israel chooses, support from here in the US, by those who have seen its borders will be crucial!

These were ideas simmering within me while guiding our temple group in Israel last spring. And I won’t soon forget our ascension to Jerusalem where we had come for Shabbat. During our climb through the Judean hills, I looked around our bus and realized how many of our travelers had been alive longer than Israel itself.  I asked questions to each person about their hopes and wishes for the Israeli people, which I learned were remarkably unified. No sooner did our group spend Shabbat walking the ramparts of the Old City, no sooner did the group visit Israeli homes and enjoy building personal relationships with people who live there, than a feeling of unity wrapped around us.  When Shabbat neared its conclusion, we gathered at a park as the sun began to set, and shared our memories of our travels. As I lit the Havdalah candle, each of us dedicated ourselves to be living memory triggers for one another. Then I called out the words of Isaiah: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love Israel; rejoice with her in joy.” As you can tell, I feel uplifted just sharing these memories.

But I want you to consider them an invitation to join us, right now in building a strong connection from here to Israel, a connection we and Israel both need as we go forward in strength!


  • For we at Fairmount have committed ourselves to bringing hundreds more of you to see Israel. You’ll soon be able to expect that encountering Israel is woven into congregational life.  Whether you go through Fairmount or through another trip, by all means lech lachem– go forth! But please, tell us how and when you go so we count you among the next 1000 of us to encounter Israel.


  • And step up with the temple to support Israelis during times of hostility. Just last week, we played host at Fairmount to the leaders of NATAL, Israel’s Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. They told us that a contribution shared by our temple last spring was used by NATAL to provide support to a seven-year old little girl in Ashkelon. So stressed was this girl from previous Hezbollah rocket fire, for nearly two years she slept with her jeans and shoes on and her legs off the side of her bed, ready at any moment to run for shelter. When her family called NATAL, it was Fairmount Temple’s support that provided the care of social workers who came to her home, who counseled her and engaged with her in healing activities, including art, music and other activities to help her imagine and then live more safely because we believe in her well-being.


  • Finally, I want you to know that I am personally working closely with our Reform movement on developing a trip to Israel for our young people, a Birthright trip, which means it will be free of charge. This way young people aged 18-26, who grew up at Fairmount Temple, can build lasting bonds with Judaism and Israel under our sponsorship. I will have more details later this fall about this path-breaking adventure. For it is my hope that a Fairmount Temple Birthright Israel trip will attract hundreds of our young people over the years ahead, most of whom I do not yet know, but all of whom can trigger our allegiance to a new vision of Israel in this generation. I truly believe in our young people, and believe they can deliver the unity that the State of Israel and the people of Israel all over the world so desperately need.


No doubt, success in these projects will not be simple. But a rekindled hope for both a liberal Zionism and a secure Jewish State of Israel is within reach. I see it coming. I just know I see it. So I think what I am trying to say is: I am ready to be a rav bayisrael. But I need your help! I need your help in seeing and supporting Israel in its totality- our state, our land, our culture and our resilient people.

In what lies ahead, I know many words will be remembered and many more forgotten. But let not these words go astray. As we enter the Jewish New Year, let our hope for Israel, the hope of 2000 years, not ever be lost. Liheyot Am Chofshi Be’artzenu- to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.