I write this as I am returning to Chicago from a week spent with a number of rabbinical colleagues in Israel. The purpose of the trip was to expose our group to the creativity and innovations that are occurring in Israel, as well as to consider the continued societal and political challenges that Israel faces. The trip was sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and run by the same travel agency I have been using for congregational trips to Israel since 1998, Da’at/Arzaworld Tours. It was led by Rabbi Hara Person and Rabbi Don Goor. Th title was Israel: Innovation, Change and Creativity.
Highlights of the trip included lectures on how Israel is becoming a leader in the field of hi-tech. We also visited hi-tech centers in Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion University in the Negev. We met social entrepreneurial start-ups like Soapy, a company that provides hygienic soap and water to schools in India (and also sells their systems to McDonalds, KFC and Subway in the States). We learned how finally Israel is taking recycling seriously. We visited a program for abandoned children that gives them a beautiful place to live and a second chance at life.
We also met with Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of the religious action center of Israel, an institution devoted to fighting for the rights of liberal Jews in Israel so that they can enjoy government support as well as the support given to the ultra-orthodox. We met with a West Bank settler and his dialogue partner, a Palestinian, who has suffered greatly from the occupation of the West Bank. These two men, part of a group called Roots, are not meeting to seek peace so much as to seek a way to live without violence and to speak of a new paradigm for achieving a sense of equality in the relationship between Jews and Palestinians.
On a cultural level we enjoyed delicious Israeli cuisine, tasted Israeli wine and even whiskey, visited the newly renovated museum for the Jewish experience in the Diaspora, and enjoyed watching the highly rated Amos Kolben modern dance troupe of Jerusalem.
Unlike my home in Chicago, weather was beautiful and the country was humming with excitement due to the upcoming national elections. While we were there, the former Chief of Staff of the army, Benny Ganz, announced his intention to compete for Prime Minister. His speech was seen as electrifying and game changing.
To sum up, I would say the mood in Israel is generally optimistic. People feel very much alive and excited about the future. The majority would prefer a future without having to police Palestinians and their lands but there is little hope in that regard that such a peace plan will come soon. Indeed, people do not speak of peace. They speak of lack of hostility and making some kind of agreement. Israelis also would like to see the Orthodox establishment be more tolerant of non-Orthodox denominations like Reform Judaism, but the work is slow and will take a lot of money and time to convince the government that liberal voices need to be heard.
On Friday night we visited the amazing Reform synagogue outside of Jerusalem, Mevaseret Zion and their youth group led service (on the topic of feminism) was inspiring and could have fit right at home in NFTY.
Reform Judaism is alive and well in Israel. There are over 100 Reform rabbis practicing. Their jobs are not easy but they are bringing our religious values to a secular public in need of such a spiritual and relevant perspective.
I cannot promise that any trip to January will have such great weather (although I can probably guarantee that the rates will be lower than the summer and the weather better than Chicago). But I can promise you will find in Israel a vibrant, complicated, heterogeneous country that offers experiences for Jews and non-Jews alike that will challenge you, delight you and sustain you. The other rabbis were a joy to be with and our guide, Yishay, was outstanding. I am so grateful to Da’at and the CCAR for offering us this trip.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.