From the January 2019 Temple Beth Ami Chadashot (Newsletter)
I am writing these words in mid-November. The pain of Pittsburgh is still raw as we mourn our loss and look to our own safety. At the same time, intense political turmoil in Israel has called the future of the current government into question. I learned long ago never to make any predictions about Israeli politics, so I do not know what the reality will be when you read these words, but the combination of events in Israel along with the rise of anti-Semitism around the world has placed Israel very much at the center of my thoughts.
First, I have always been and remain a proud Zionist. As a child, I remember my incredible pride following the Yom Kippur War, and again after the Camp David Peace Accords with Egypt. Israel was a living example of the Zionist dream to protect our people, live in peace with our neighbors and bring light to the world. I never doubted that we would succeed, eventually, in all three areas.
That said, for well over a decade there has been a growing divide between Israelis and diaspora Jews, especially those of us living in America. As a rabbi, I felt an obligation to support the State of Israel; yet more and more I found myself in tension with the policies of her government. I understood that my children were not at risk the way Israeli children are, that it was not for me to try to dictate how a sovereign nation should govern itself. And, I mourned for the seemingly intractable problem of finding a way to live in peace and security with our Palestinian neighbors, and the senseless and cyclical loss of life for which there seems no end in sight.
Then, over the past two years, the government of Israel issued a series of decisions and statements which effectively denigrated and delegitimized diaspora Jews, especially those of us who are not orthodox. My sense of betrayal, disappointment and anger could not be exaggerated. At my lowest moments, I came close to giving up on Israel altogether, cutting my losses and just focusing on Jewish life here.
Yet, I still believe in the Zionist dream. I still believe in a State of Israel which can be a beacon for all Jews: not because of rising anti-Semitism, not because of fear, but because the dream has intrinsic value, and if we will it – it will be more than a dream.
For those of us who are worried for our safety here in the States, I would remind you that those who would cause us harm are the outliers, not us. In Nazi Germany there were no solidarity rallies after attacks on the Jews, and in America the government does not seek to harm us, but rather seeks justice against those who do.
Could that change one day? Yes, perhaps. But we are nowhere near that kind of crisis, and I do not recommend making Aliyah to Israel because we are afraid.
I do, however, think that Israel deserves our support, and we hers. In fact, I think we need each other now more than ever.
The Jewish people has become just as tribal as anyone. We are split not only by where we locate ourselves on the political spectrum, but also by our denominational affiliations (or lack thereof) and whether we live in Israel, in America or elsewhere in the diaspora.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I read an Israeli newspaper article describing an extraordinary response to Pittsburgh by Israeli law makers from across the political spectrum. On November 7, a group of about 25 Knesset members came together in an emergency meeting to demand that the government of Israel recognize the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. They were convened by six MKs, including two from the leadership of the current coalition. The government is unlikely to listen, but what makes this so important is how it breaks down the divisiveness of our own Jewish inner tribalism. Following the tragedy at Pittsburgh where Conservative Jews were attacked, these MKs recognize that the Zionist dream is for all of us, not just for Israelis and the orthodox. That is an important and valuable concept, fully in consonance with the Zionist ideal. Yet, we must also remember that Israeli politicians are practical. While this meeting took place before the challenge to the current government, the MKs were also shown a startling new statistic: fully 13% of Israelis now identify as either Reform or Conservative. This does not mean that they necessarily affiliate, but it does mean that they share our commitment to pluralism.
Whether we agree or disagree with its policies, Israel is a true democracy; her government represents the will of the people. More and more Israelis are coming to understand and appreciate that they do not need to make the binary choice between being religious (orthodox) or secular when deciding how to express their Jewish identities. I am confident that this is only the beginning and look forward to an Israel which truly represents the pluralism of the larger Jewish world.
As American Reform Jews, we have a vested interest in helping to ensure the continued growth of Reform Judaism in Israel and strengthening our personal connections with our Jewish homeland. In the next several months there will be two ways for you to make a meaningful difference.
First, please look for information about to 2019 World Zionist Congress elections. While the specific date of the elections has yet to be determined, our participation is critically important. The WZC determines not only how millions of dollars will be allocated by the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency in Israel, but even more importantly, who will be responsible for working together to implement the decisions of the WZC. This is how real pluralism is built; as secular, Reform and ultra-Orthodox Jews work together towards common goals, we break down the barriers between us. When we have more information about the elections, we will send the information to you, but please make sure to vote! Every vote for the Reform block is a vote for greater pluralism in Israel and around the world.
Second, I am pleased to announce our next congregational trip to Israel, scheduled for July 2020. A complete itinerary with pricing (apart from airfare) should be available no later than the end of January. I hope that you will join me on the trip of a lifetime! For more information, or if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to give me a holler.
Shalom u’vracha (peace and blessing),
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras