CCAR on the Road Immigration Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation – Day 3

The last day of any mission, trip or conference leads one to think about travel and arriving safely at home.  I mean, what could this last morning offer us that could possibly match the power and intensity of the previous two?

The answer was not long in coming.  We began, as we had done the previous day, in study.  Instead of text, we were guided in history by our esteemed colleague, Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, Emeritus Rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston.  With the aid of video materials prepared by Rabbi Gary Zola of the American Jewish Archives, we learned the stories of senior colleagues who served in the South, rabbis whose names we recognized but whose stories were unknown to us.

For we had reached the moral crossroads of our journey to Montgomery and Selma.  What had the Jewish community done in the face of rigid segregation and the violence employed to maintain it?  We like to bring out the names of Reform rabbis who traveled South to stand with Dr. King  We mention Jews who were jailed, beaten and even killed during the tumultuous fight for civil and voting rights for African-Americans.  But most of them came from the North.  They played their valiant part and returned home, singed but not burned.  The Reform rabbis who lived in the communities of the South, who served Jews whose lives and livelihoods were at stake, had to balance a tightrope taut with fear and danger.

Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, Mississippi, Rabbi Milton Grafman of Birmingham, Alabama and Rabbi Charles Mantiband of Florence, Alabama and Hattiesburg, Mississippi were on the front lines as much as the more famous Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, if not more.  In a big city like Atlanta, you could find allies for equality.  In small cities like those mentioned above, one’s capacity to serve, one’s ability to survive, was much more tenuous.

 They were in physical danger from racists, but often without support in their own congregations.  Jews were afraid of losing their jobs, having their businesses torched and their homes firebombed.  Their fear was real and legitimate.  But from gradualists like Rabbi Grafman to those who took public stands against racism like Rabbi Mantiband, they stood and withstood pressures that I cannot imagine in my own rabbinate (despite once coming face to face with the notorious James Wickstrom of the Posse Comitatus in northern Wisconsin in 1987).

We then visited a holy place, the parsonage of Dr. Martin Luther King when he served in Montgomery.  Dr. Shirley Cherry guided us from the visitors’ center and told the story of the street we were on, how the neighbors opened their homes to the Freedom Riders from the North and hid them from the Klan.  She told of us Vera Harris, who lived four doors down from the parsonage where we stood and how she had personally fed and cared for those brave activists.  She told us that Vera was in her mid-90’s and was in hospice care at home.  All of us, 48 rabbis strong, would go that morning to her house and pray for her body and soul, that her passing from this world to the next might be without pain and in peace.

Dr. Cherry took us from room to room in Dr. King’s house, starting with the front room that had been bombed while he was preaching at church.  Coretta and her baby were there, but in a back room and miraculously emerged unhurt.  From there we went looked into the bedrooms and the saw the simple way the King family lived.  I was fascinated, as were my colleagues by the small study packed floor to ceiling with books and a writing desk.  She showed us the lovely dining room table where Dr. King would sit with his family for dinner and eat with guests, the simple and the high and mighty.

But the real sacred space in that home was the kitchen.  Dr. Cherry told us of Dr. King’s long, sleepless night after the bombing, when he was receiving 30-40 calls with hate and death threats each day.  He went into the kitchen, heated up some coffee and paced the floor to think of what to do.  He sat down and had his epiphany.  His enemies had hatred, guns and bombs.  He had faith, but felt despair. 

Dr. King pleaded with God, saying, “I think the cause we are fighting for is right, but I’m losing my courage…”  And he heard his inner voice call him by name and say, “Martin Luther, stand up for justice, stand up for righteousness, and lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  And all of the fears left him, Dr. Cherry said.  He went on standing for justice and righteousness until the moment he was struck down by the assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Into Dr. King’s kitchen chair Dr. Cherry had placed Rabbi Jonah Pesner.  I don’t think she knew that he is the extraordinary, inspirational head of our Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, which has placed fighting racism at the top of Reform Judaism’s agenda.  As she described the divine experience of Dr. King during his long, lonely night of the soul, Rabbi Pesner, sitting in that simple chair, wept freely, as did many of us with him.

She led us out to the Peace Garden behind the house where we gathered for the final time.  Dr. Cherry repeated what she he had declared to us over and over again that morning.  She said with all of her passion and inner fire that, “love is the ultimate security in the time of ultimate vulnerability.”  She concluded by saying that there are things in this world that will break your heart, but you must not let them break your spirit.”

These three days have wrenched my soul.  I have been touched by colleagues, scholars and heroes I had never known.  I have re-learned the lesson of our age, that radical hatred must be met head on with radical love.  Violence may win for a moment but faith and love and justice will prevail in the end, even if that is only be achieved beyond my lifespan.  This I believe with every fiber of my being.  By this ideal I will live the rest of my life.  For this I commit my head, hand and heart.  

This is the prayer of my life.  All from three days in Alabama’s furious past and thorny present.  Just three days to kindle within a spirit of fire, the fire of memory and justice.

Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

CCAR on the Road Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation – Day 2

Today started with us learning text, the lifeblood of our rabbinic life, the source of our authority.  It is essential that we not be seen merely as liberals, or worse, “do-gooders,” who can be dispensed with as those who lead with soft hearts instead of sharp minds.

Our teacher was our colleague, the incomparable Rabbi Rachel Mikva, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.  We started with the classic text from Pirkei Avot 1.18:  R. Shimon ben Gamaliel says:  “The world stands on three things, on justice, on truth and on shalom.”  In Montgomery, Alabama, these words strike directly to the heart.  They seem more compelling and urgent than Shimon the Righteous’ claim that the world stands on Torah, Avodah and Acts of Lovingkindess.

She introduced the notion of “A Torah of Race,” building upon Rabbi Ellen Lippmann’s framing of authentic Teshuva upon core values of confession, regret, restitution and resolution.  The supporting texts from tractates Ta’anit and Sanhedrin forced us to confront what we are required to do publicly to acknowledge our wrongdoing as leaders.  We learned once again how a stolen beam of wood fashioned into a palace might render the entire structure illegitimate. 

We could not look away from our own responsibility regarding the illegitimate structures of the society whose benefits we enjoy, often richly.  We could not evade the debt we owe to those persons who were owned, degraded and denied dignity and opportunity even as our country was enriched by their forced labor.

After our shiur ended, we visited the PowerHouse, where women are cared for and protected when they seek abortions in the state of Alabama.  In the midst of unrelenting harassment, Executive Director Mia Raven and her fearless clinic escorts protect women who need abortions because of their life situations.

Anti-abortion protesters try to thwart poor, needy women, mostly of color, who choose not to bring their pregnancies to term.  They may need money, a bed to wait for 48 hours before the state will allow a simple D&C procedure.  They receive a soothing voice and strong arms to guide them through hostile crowds of men and women who hurl curses and abuse as they walk the 30 feet from PowerHouse to the clinic.

“They have weaponized Jesus,” Mia declared to us.  The irony was not lost on us.  The Prince of Peace in Christianity was being employed as a vehicle of shame,  hatred and violence.  The stories we heard literally took our breath away and underlined that these extraordinary efforts were being taken in the name of reproductive justice, not merely rights.

We went to Selma in the afternoon, Selma of legend and dark fame.  The real Selma is down to only 20,000 people, mostly African-Americans now. There we spent time with Joanne Bland, a fierce woman of color who demands respect and attention.  She walked us through the events of Bloody Sunday, took us to the church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the crowds to motivate them and steel their will.  She told us of her own personal experience and that of her family during those fateful days.  She showed us the concrete slab where John Lewis and the other marchers stood and we each picked up a stone from that sacred place to remind us to be strong and courageous when standing up for justice, as she and all the rest of the marchers had done, even when threatened with death.

Joanne had us drive on our bus slowly, no more than 15 miles per hour, so she could point out all of the significant places of her Selma, a place of so much pain and resilience it took my breath away.  After sharing with us the story of the heroes of the march and its martyrs, we finally began our walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, tracing the footsteps of the heroes from 54 years ago.

Though the bridge is enormous in my imagination, the actual structure is quite modest.  The walk across it is positively placid.  Walking slowly over the span I had to listen silently for the police sirens, the bullhorns, the anguished cries of the beaten from a half century ago.   On the other side is a park and shrine and a chance to speak to another witness who was there, who gives his vivid testimony to anyone who will stand and listen.

Finally we went to the Selma synagogue, Mishkan Israel.  Once a place of thriving Jewish life, it now serves four living members.  The structure is from 1899 and was built in only six months.  Its style is Romanesque and it is filled with rich wood and lovely stained glass.  The president (the youngest of the four remaining members) shared the story of the community and his love for the building.  For the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, the sanctuary was filled like it had not been for years.  But the footfalls have faded and such was the uniqueness of our rabbinic visit that the local television news was there to report on it.

We prayed in the social hall and my silent b’rachot were for mercy, compassion and justice for all who had suffered as well as for the will to respond to the urgent call to combat racism that still haunts our country, North and South, today.  

And I pray now  – God, may our hearts and minds stiffen our backs, gird our loins and guide our hands to combat all those harm Your beloved creatures with their hatred, all who refuse to accept the simplest of our spiritual truths, that we are all one people, all from one God.  We Jews declare that God is One and we are one.  Could any truth be more clear or pressing today?

Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

CCAR on the Road Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation

Montgomery, Alabama is a clean, glistening city.  Sunlight dances off the white, marble dome of the Capitol building.  There are posters for an African-American candidate for Mayor this year.  You might think that its terrifying past of racial terror is in the rearview mirror.

But then you talk to Pastor Ed Nettles, lifelong resident of Montgomery.  After sharing his memories of terrifying Ku Klux Klan marches he admits that his white neighbor living next to him turns his back on him every time they are near each other.  After recalling the childhood abuse he suffered from a white man stepping on his hand so he wouldn’t pick up a Mardi Gras necklace, he shakes his head slowly when we ask if things really are better.

He says that it will take several generations of young people who won’t tolerate with the legacy of hate, who will then finally throw off the yoke of this city’s racist legacy.  This is a legacy which still honors Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, which fought defend white peoples’ right to own other human beings, specifically because of their color.

That racist legacy is brilliantly brought to life by the Equal Justice Initiative, the work of Bryan Stevenson, the author of the best-seller, Just Mercy.  The initiative is publicly shared in two parts.

First, there is a museum chronicling the history of slavery and degradation of people of color over the centuries in America.  We walk the exhibits in silent awe and shame. 

But the museum is filled with more the eye-catching pictures and powerful video re-enactments and timelines. In one room there are hundreds of large jars, 24 inches tall and 6 inches wide, filled with dirt.  These soil samples are from where each of thousands of African-American women, children and men were lynched, murdered on the merest pretext, often in front of enthusiastic, blood-thirsty crowds.  Shelf after shelf neatly stacked with row after row of jar after jar – each one containing the DNA remains of a lynching victim listed by name.  We walk by the jars and read the names of the dead in silent awe and shame.

From there we take a shuttle from the Museum to the Memorial.  The memorial is composed of large, 10 foot slabs of metal with the name of more than 800 counties in the US in which lynching took place for the better part of 90 years.  Each slab has the names of the victims listed.   They are suspended from the ceiling of the outdoor exhibit.  We enter and walk the grounds in silent awe and shame.

There is a plaque on the grounds that reads as follows:

For the hanged and beaten.
for the shot, drowned and burned.
For the tormented, tortured and terrorized,
For those abandoned by the rule of law
We will remember.

With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice,
With courage because peace requires bravery,
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle,
With faith because we shall overcome

Yizkor – We will remember.  It feels like visiting Yad Vashem, but with no end of this story. We walk from the grounds in silent awe and shame.

I pound my head with my hand, trying to comprehend – Fellow Americans did these atrocities.  And past has been prologue – Fellow Americans still perpetrate violence against people of color because they are deemed to be of less value than white people.  The past was slavery and lynching.  The present is mass incarceration and violence, even death at the hands of the police and other white people.

At the end of the evening, back at the hotel, I walk slowly back to my lovely hotel room.  In silence and in shame.  And this is just day one.

Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

CCAR on the Road Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

What Matters in Israel

I continue to think about my recent mission to Israel in the midst of the Gaza Operation. I have written my political analysis, but there was another aspect to my trip. We rabbis went in order to see for ourselves the critical events of those days, but we also travelled there as a “solidarity” mission. We were trying to show the people of Israel that they were not alone or isolated. This was an opportunity for twelve American rabbis to connect with the people.

 We had our numerous official meetings, and they were significant. We met with Knesset members, military leaders, local politicians, and government spokespeople. We talked with our Israeli Reform rabbinic colleagues, social justice activists, journalists, and writers. But our most significant conversations most often occurred in informal, unplanned, spontaneous moments. In only five days I tried to see as many of my friends as possible. I wanted to know their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. I sat and talked with Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians I know well. I spent time in conversations with cab drivers, waiters and waitresses, and shopkeepers. I grabbed lunch with soldiers taking short breaks from the Gaza battles.

 Perhaps my favorite encounter occurred completely by accident. We went to a mall outside Ashkelon, near the border with Gaza. We wanted to find a clothing or sporting goods store where we could buy socks, t-shirts, energy bars, and other items for the Lone Soldier Center in Jerusalem. A few of us walked into a camping store and encountered five soldiers just back from Gaza. I asked them what they needed, and they said they were looking for camping headlamps. It turned out that they were part of a unit of twenty-five soldiers attached to a tank division. Their job was to repair the tanks at night after whatever battle took place during the day. It didn’t take long for our small group of Reform rabbis to purchase enough headlamps for all the members of the unit. In the process, we made friends and spent the afternoon talking with them over coffee at Cafe Aroma. One worked at Google. Another owned a pub. One was an engineer. We shared pictures of children and grandchildren and told our various stories. I am not sure I will remember the military briefings or talks from Members of Knesset, but I will remember the conversations with those IDF reservists at the mall in Ashkelon.

 For me, that is what matters in Israel. The politics can be infuriating. The leadership is often deeply disappointing. There are troubling forces at play in Israeli society. I have no patience for the Ultra-Orthodox control of family law or the messianic fanaticism of the Settlers. But the ordinary Israeli people are remarkable, and every conversation seems intense and passionate. The Israelis I know truly want to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. They want to live a good life with meaning and values in a beautiful Mediterranean setting rich with history and significance.

 I always return to Israel because I feel an intense connection with the people who live there. Let us pray that they will find peace in this next year.

Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

CCAR on the Road Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Interactions: CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

Anyone who has ever planned a trip knows that a great deal of time and effort is involved. This emergency solidarity mission took us across this country over the five days and provided opportunities to hear from a variety of experts including four Members of Knesset. And without exception, every one of these meetings was of great value.

Just as our Tradition teaches us that there is meaning in the white spaces of the black letters in the Torah, sometimes our most profound experiences occur not in the scheduled instances but in the spontaneous ones. The unplanned interactions were, for me, the most meaningful moments of this trip.

Israel is a tiny country. And with mandatory army service, it is impossible to not know someone who is currently involved in the conflict. A brother. A son. A nephew. The friend of the son of a friend.  Doesn’t matter if you are hotel maintenance or a Member of Knesset. And more than three weeks into Operation Protective Edge, everyone has his or her own personal experience with sirens or dashing into a shelter. No one is immune to the constant threats.

This is what we came to do: to listen. Not to pontificate. Or speculate. Not to solve. Or to advise. But to listen. To really listen.

IMG_2099In Ashkelon, we met some soldiers while shopping for the Lone Soldier Center: In Memory of Michael Levin, whose yahrtzeit was just this week. While our task to buy supplies for the Lone Soldiers was admirable, we had actual soldiers right in front of us. So we introduced ourselves. We told them who we were and why we had come to Israel right in the midst of the war. They told us that they were combat mechanics charged with fixing the tanks and other vehicles coming out of Gaza. We asked them what could we buy that would be the most beneficial.

“Headlamps,” they said. So that they could use both hands to work in the dark.

So we did. We purchased headlamps. For their entire unit.

And we listened. And looked at photos of their wives and their children. And, after taking pictures so that their buddies would believe that a crazy group of Reform rabbis had come all the way from the United States just to be there in that moment and buy them new headlamps, reluctantly we parted.

Days later, we learned that “our” unit had been the one tasked with fixing the tread on a tank damaged in Gaza. Our headlamps were being put to good use.

Over and over, we told people why we had come now. Why, when common sense ought to send us running in the opposite direction, our emotions prevailed and brought us to Israel.

“How long have you been here?” asked Dror, the taxi driver.

“Just a week.”

“Those huge bags for just a week?” he laughed.

“They were filled with things I brought for the soldiers. Now they are mostly empty.”

His eyes glistened. As he whispered, “thank you.”

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is the editor of the CCAR Newsletter.

CCAR on the Road Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Insight and Inspiration from the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

On very short notice, a group of twelve American rabbis, all members of the CCAR, embarked on a five-day mission to Israel. It was our hope to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Israel during a difficult and challenging time. It was also our hope to gain insights into the current situation, unmediated by the cacophony of cable news reports and the flood of postings on Facebook.

When I announced my plans to my congregation two days before I left, I received an overwhelming number of responses. Most people said, be safe, but so many others also thanked me for going, hoping that I could help them understand what was occurring in Israel and Gaza.

Our impulse for demonstrating solidarity was quickly validated. When we arrived in Israel, everywhere we went, everyone thanked us for just being present—for being there. That in itself was significant in many ways.

But we also went in search of greater clarity and understanding. I want to share some of my first impressions. The situation is incredibly complicated. There are no easy answers. There are not even any difficult good answers. This most recent Gaza war is heartbreaking, infuriating, frightening, but even, at times, inspiring.

CCAR trip visits Reform Kehillat Yotzma in Modi'in.
CCAR trip visits Reform Kehillat Yotzma in Modi’in.

This past year, I read, as well as taught and discussed, Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Keeping that book in mind was a good place to start in gaining a background on current events.

His book validated my own favorite phrase: All problems started as solutions. It should be remembered that Hamas was created by Israel in the hope that it would be a conservative, religious based organization to oppose the PLO, a radical secular group led by Yasser Arafat. Hamas had been seen as a solution. Today, it is the problem. Shimon Peres once said: “It is easy to be clever, but far more difficult to be wise.”

I will offer a couple of recurring themes, motifs, memes. First, there is a difference between tactics and strategy. The Iron Dome is a tactic. Tanks, planes, and drones are tactics. Tunnels are tactics. War itself is a tactic. But is there a real strategy for dealing with Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank? Tactics often maintain the status quo. True change requires strategy and vision. One can easily imagine the current tactics leading to victory, but as military conflict comes to an end, will Israel confront another eruption of violence in another year or two? Is the long-term goal merely managing the violence, controlling the population, “mowing the grass”? The realistic fear is that there will inevitably be a continuing series of uprisings unless the greater issues are addressed. Any long-term strategy must be based not on military power but on politics, economics, and education. Many feel that Israeli leadership has squandered the opportunities of the last five years to truly come to grips with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, Gaza became more and more unlivable, a place of hopelessness for a people with nothing to lose.

Instead of any possibility of reconciliation, the tactical choice for both sides was continued terror followed by a military response. In that setting, war would be inevitable. If not now, sometime soon. And, sure enough, there is war, but to my mind, this was an unnecessary war.

It began several months ago when Hamas, seriously weakened economically and politically, was forced to join in coalition with the PA. That was a political defeat for them. Yet Israel then broke off negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank followed. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and he did so with absolute certainty. For eighteen days all of Israel and the Jewish world was obsessed with the fate of those youths.  Borrowing from the public relations campaign devoted to the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, Jewish social media filled with people holding posters saying, “Bring Back Our Boys”. Israel and world Jewry were consumed with the fate of these boys. But JJ Goldberg, writing in The Forward, claimed that the boys were kidnapped by a rogue family/tribe tied to Hamas but not directly answering to Hamas. Even more troubling, it appears that the boys were killed almost immediately and that the Israeli authorities knew. Some say that Israel was not certain of those deaths and could only know for certain once the bodies were discovered. That may well be true, but the ginned-up PR campaign was, in my mind, cynical manipulation that, in the end, had devastating consequences.

Once the boys’ bodies were found, there was profound national mourning, a communal cry of weeping. But genuine pain among most Israelis devolved into racist hatred that manifested itself in racist gangs roaming the streets shouting Death to Arabs, Death to the Left. Arabs were beaten up, and, most horrifically, the teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir, was burned alive by right wing thugs. In the protests that followed, his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir, an American citizen, was beaten by border police, and the beating was captured on video. There was revulsion and outrage in most of Israeli society, but quite quickly attention was redirected to rocket attacks from Gaza. Rocket firings from Gaza began in full strength. But were the attacks from Hamas really a direct response to the death of Muhammed Abu Khdeir?

On the Israeli side, the kidnapping of the three youths provided the pretext for the re-arrests of Hamas operatives who had been freed in return for the release of Gilad Shalit. The re-arrest could be seen as a breaking of the 2012 truce agreement. While rocket fire from Gaza into southwestern Israel had continued, the massive number of rocket attacks only began at this point. Were the rocket attacks really in response to the killing and beating or, in fact, a reaction to the arrests of the previously freed prisoners?

I offer no idealization of Hamas. I believe they are very bad actors. They use terror to try to absolutely destroy Israel. Annihilation is their ultimate goal. Their leader, Khaled Mashal, now based in Qatar, wants to eradicate the State of Israel from the holy land. Any means can be used to get to that end. In his thinking, Palestinian civilian deaths are an asset to that cause. They help weaken Israel and turn the world against it. Yes, Hamas hides in civilian areas. Their headquarters are embedded below a hospital. They put weapons in UNWRA buildings and fire rockets from schoolyards and mosques. All that is true.

Yet, with full implementation of the Iron Dome defense, Israeli leadership knew that Hamas was militarily impotent. Israel commanded the air. But Hamas still possessed the potent tactic of fear. The rocket attacks were aimed (loosely defined) at civilian populations. We visited Sderot, Gdera, and Ashkelon, towns where rockets strike terror and fear. People run to shelters. Children’s playgrounds have equipment built with reinforced concrete to be used as shelters in case of attack. Parents and children can’t leave their homes or go to summer camp or the community pool. It is an untenable situation.

Emergency food supplies for communities in the south.
Emergency food supplies for communities in the south.

But the fear of rockets, and the subsequent focus on the Hamas tunnels, exemplified the schizophrenic Israeli attitudes of invincibility and vulnerability. Israelis feel invincible from the air, both in offense and defense, but there is a feeling of great vulnerability because of the threat of the tunnels beneath their homes, kindergartens, and greenhouses.

The Iron Dome is really quite incredible. It is able to calculate the trajectory of a rocket and intercept only those rockets that would pose a real danger and let the others fall in open fields. It has been a game changer. Hamas was ultimately impotent in terms of attacks from the air. I was reminded of the Ali-Foreman fight. In his rope-a-dope tactic, Ali just took all of Foreman’s punches until his opponent was too tired to hold his arms up. Finally, in the eighth round, Ali knocked out the exhausted Foreman. With the Iron Dome in full operation, Hamas could fire off a thousand rockets until its storehouse was exhausted. None of those rockets was effective.

That is not to say that the aerial attack was not frightening, but it was ultimately ineffective.

Israelis became attuned to the sirens and warnings of the rocket attacks. Everyone had apps on their cell phones tied to the alarms and telling them where the danger might be. Three times during our own trip we had to react. Twice when we were in a meeting in a home in Ashkelon, overlooking the Mediterranean, the sirens sounded, and we found shelter in the stairway or in the home’s safe room. Once the sirens sounded at 2 a.m., and guests in our hotel in Tel Aviv came out of their rooms and went to the secure area.  (I slept through that one.)

The Iron Dome was managing the rocket attacks, but the discovery of the tunnels was far more terrifying. The existence of the tunnels was not really new information. Hamas had used the tunnels before; the capture of Gilad Shalit was the best-known example. But the Israelis did not fully appreciate the extent of the tunnels. Once this became known, people could easily imagine sitting down to dinner or going to sleep and suddenly having terrorists pop out of the ground to kidnap or kill them or their children. This would be a nightmare scenario, and Israeli forces reported discovering plans for a coordinated attack on Rosh Hashanah that would have resulted in terrible deaths as well as kidnappings.

But, once again, these are discussions of tactics, not strategy. The Israelis will figure out a way to defend against the tunnels. I suggested a twenty-six mile trench. Seeing the road building engineering taking place along the Bab el Wad entrance to Jerusalem, it is clear that Israel has the capability to move mountains. There will be better sensing devices. There was talk of artificial earthquakes collapsing the tunnels. Perhaps they will sink steel plates into the earth. Give them time. There can be an effective tactical response.

Ultimately the Gaza war will end. As I write this, it appears that the IDF is redeploying and withdrawing from Gaza. The compelling question now is what will come after the war. What will be the future of Gaza and the Palestinians, and most importantly, what will be the future of Israel? The true threat to Israel is what is tunneling beneath the surface of the society.

There was overwhelming support for Operation Protective Edge. The IDF remains the beloved institution of Israel, “our beautiful self,” in the words of Miri Eisin. The soldiers are everyone’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors. Most every Israeli supported the goals of combatting Hamas and bringing peace and security to Israeli kibbutzim and towns. We arrived in Israel only a few days after the funerals of Sean Carmelli and Max Steinberg, American youths who had gone to Israel and volunteered for the IDF. As “lone soldiers” they were without the typical family circle of support. But their funerals demonstrated that they were adopted by the entire nation. More than 20,000 people attended their burials and, more significantly, truly mourned for them.

Anat Hoffman addressing the CCAR group.
Anat Hoffman addressing the CCAR group.

Israel was united in grief when soldiers died, but, when this war ends, will the sense of unity last? In all our meetings and discussions we returned to a recurring theme: what will follow the war? Israeli society has deep fissures, chasms, fractures. At the moment they may be on the back burner, but Israel will have to confront dangerous forces from within. The horrific death of teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir exposed the extent of racist fascism in certain sectors of the Israeli population.  The Settler Price Tag gangs (Tag Machir) have operated with virtual impunity for the last number of years. They attacked Arabs, Israeli leftists, Christian clergy, and others. The writer Amos Oz has called them Jewish neo-Nazis. There has been little or no effort to catch them or punish them. They have been supported and encouraged by equally racist rabbis and politicians. In a meeting with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, she said that too often in Israel the lesson of the Holocaust is that the world is against us and seeks our destruction. Instead, she said, the real lesson should be: how does a democracy disintegrate into fascism?

Many people have warned of the pending earthquake waiting to erupt once peace returns. There are great divisions in Israeli society. Avrum Burg once stated that, in Israel, there are extremists on the right, extremists on the left, and extremists in the middle. But this is now more than a humorous phrase. The Price Tag neo-Nazi gangs represent one extreme manifestation, but the Israeli Jew-Israeli Arab tension is very real. There are members of the Knesset and members of the ruling coalition that have called for the denial of some basic civil rights of the Arab citizens of Israel. More than 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, and yet their position in the Jewish State often seems precarious. Marauding gangs have also attacked leftists, or those they perceive to be on the left. In addition, and with less violence, there are two distinct worlds in tension between the settlers of the West Bank and Israelis living on the coastal plain. The settlers are seen as religious nationalistic fanatics, while the Tel Aviv, Herziliyah, Haifa Israelis are seen by the right wing as hedonistic secular heretics.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman has spoken about the multiple tribes of modern Israel.  Some of the bitter animosity that exists between those tribal groups has already resulted in violence. There is renewed fear that whatever cohesion that has existed in Israeli society is quickly breaking down. There are the ultra-orthodox and the secularists, new Russian immigrants and the Israeli Sabra society, Sephardim and the entrenched Ashkenazi elite, the underclass and the oligarchs. Add to that the frustration over political corruption and a lack of opportunity for those without the necessary connections, and there is deep concern about a potentially volatile battle for the future direction of the Jewish state.

The Zionist dream was about returning the Jewish people to a normal existence. From the year 70 to 1948 Jews had lived without power. They were subjects in other countries, and they had little control over their fate. But 1948 changed all that. The Jewish people had power, and today Israel is indeed a powerful nation in terms of its military and economy. It was easy to be ethical when powerless. How does a state act with the highest morals when it is powerful and when it must battle a terrorist enemy deeply embedded among a civilian population living in a densely populated urban environment?

We met with Colonel (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, Deputy Commander of the Southern Brigade. His PhD thesis was: “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces.” Col. Gruber was quick to admit that neither Israel nor the IDF was righteous, but there were rules of engagement based on clear objectives and standards. Having said that, collateral damage was inevitable, given the nature of these battles. Israel must accept some of the responsibility for the consequences of its massive fire power. The death of innocents, especially children, was heartbreaking.

Candles on Har Herzl
Candles on a fresh grave on Mount Herzl.

Finally, the Zionist dream was a democratic Jewish state where the eternal values of prophetic Judaism could be lived out in the real world, not just in the minds of theologians and philosophers. When the final tank leaves Gaza, and when the fighter jets return to their bases, what will be the future of Israel?  Will the Settlement Enterprise continue its course in direct conflict with the definition of Israel as both democratic AND Jewish? It can’t be both, if Israel continues to occupy the West Bank. Will fascist racists continue to influence the ruling coalition of Bibi Netanyahu? Alternatively, will a coalition of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and many of the Emirates come together to create a peaceful Gaza where economic opportunity provides hope for a population that has been living lives of desperation? Will this coalition be able to create a new Marshall Plan for Gaza? More importantly, will this finally be the time to recognize that the old tactics will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? There is talk that new peace initiatives are surfacing in response to the Gaza war. If so, there may still be hope for a solution to Israel’s life among its neighbors.

Ultimately, however, the real existential threat to Israel is internal. It is quite miraculous that Israel has thrived for sixty-six years in spite of continuing war, absorbing millions of immigrants and living with deep religious and tribal divisions. But it has. The question now is what is the vision for the future? Amos Oz has stated that Israeli leadership has been driving a car with a windshield covered in black paint. The only means of navigation has been the rear view mirror. They are very aware of where they have come from, but they are unable to see the road in front of them.

I went to Israel on a last minute mission to demonstrate solidarity and to arrive at a deeper, more authentic understanding of the current conflict. As a small group of rabbis, we achieved our goal as a solidarity mission. As for greater understanding and clarity, the situation is enormously complicated. I cannot claim to have arrived at clear solutions to a conflict that has frustrated so many thinkers and analysts. Yet I continue to return to Israel. I always find it inspiring and energizing, while, at the same time, it remains demanding and often infuriating. To me, Israel matters. I always try to remember that Israel was created and built by idealists, dreamers, and visionaries. Let us hope and pray that it can be led once more by those ideals of equality, opportunity, and peace.

Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

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Prayers of Anguish: From Israel at a Time of War

We offer this selection of readings and prayers from the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission for your use this Shabbat. Please use them with attribution.

 These first two prayers were written by liturgist Alden Solovy, inspired by the insights and yearnings of the rabbis who participated in the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission.


When Peace Comes: A Meditation

When peace comes,

When the tunnels are gone and the walls come down,

When we sing together as brothers and sisters,

We will remember these days of sorrow and grief,

Of rockets and terror,

Of longing and despair,

As a memorial to those who were lost,

As a remembrance of our mourning,

As a monument to our yearning,

On the road to wholeness,

On the road to wisdom,

On the road to our days of rejoicing.


IMG_3454Oh you children of Abraham,

You sons and daughters of Sarah and Hagar,

What will you become?

How long before shalom and salaam

Echo in these hills,

In these valleys and on these shores,

As shouts of awe and amazement?

How long before we remember

To hold each other dear?


One God,

Maker of All,

Banish war from our midst.

Speedily bring forth justice, understanding and love.

Bind these wounds and heal our hearts.

On that day the children of Ishmael

And the children of Isaac

Will dance as one.

Joy will rise to heaven

And gladness will fill the earth.


We are One

My heart breaks when Jews profess their anger, loathing or distain for other Jews.

My heart breaks when Arabs profess their anger, loathing or distain for other Arabs.

My heart breaks when Jews profess their anger, loathing or distain for Arabs.

My heart breaks when Arabs profess their anger, loathing or distain for Jews.


Maker of Peace,

Heal our broken hearts with new vision,

New wisdom and new compassion,

So that we embrace each other with understanding,

With wonder and amazement,

And with love.


IMG_1244Wholeness is our journey,

And wholeness is our destination.

With Your loving hand,

God of Old,

We will find the path.

Let the Jewish people now say, “We are one.”

Let the Arab people now say, “We are one.”

Let Arabs and Jews now say together, “We are one.”

Let all people now say together, “We are one.”


The following prayers come from Rabbi Yehodaya Amir, the Acting Chairperson of MARAM – the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis. The CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission were introduced to these prayers during a t’filah experience with our Israeli colleagues this week in Tel Aviv. We hope to be able to offer English translations in the near future, but in the meantime, here is the original Hebrew.

שאלו שלום ירושלים


תְּפִלָּה בְּעַד עַמֵּנוּ וּבְעַד אַרְצֵנוּ

רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָם, קַבֵּל נָא בְּרָצוֹן אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ לְמַעַן מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַמָּהּ. הָרֵק אֶת בִּרְכָתְךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ. הֲבִינֵנוּ מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ, וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּנוּ אֶת מוּסַר נְבִיאֶיךָ – “עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱלֹהֶיךָ” (מיכה ו, ח).

הַעֲרֶה רוּחֲךָ עַל כָּל תּוֹשָׁבֵי אַרְצֵנוּ, טַע בָּנוּ סוֹבְלָנוּת וְכָבוֹד הֲדָדִי. עֲקֹר מִתּוֹכֵנוּ שִׂנְאָה, אַלִּימוּת, כְּפִיָּה וְנִצּוּל לְרָע.

פְּרֹשׂ אֶת סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמְךָ עַל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל תְּפוּצוֹתָיו. אָנָּא, תֵּן עֹז בְּנַפְשָׁם לָבוֹא לְאַרְצֵנוּ, וְיָשַׁבְנוּ בָּהּ שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד.

אַמֵּץ אֶת לֵב חַיָּלֵינוּ, מָגִנֵּי אַרְצֵנוּ; וְהָיְתָה רוּחָם עַזָּה, וְנִשְׁקָם – טָהוֹר. שָׁמְרֵם בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ, הַנְחִילֵם יְשׁוּעָה וְגָבְרוּ עַל אוֹיְבֵינוּ. אַךְ, אָנָּא, תֵּן שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בָּהּ כָּל יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ, וְקַיֵּם בִּמְהֵרָה חֲזוֹן נְבִיאֶיךָ: “לֹא יִשָּׂא גּוֹי אֶל גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה” (ישׁעיהו ב, ד). אָמֵן.

מי שברך לפצועים

מי שברך אבותינו אברהם יצחק ויעקב ואימותינו שרה רבקה רחל ולאה הוא יברך את הפצועים בני שני העמים השוכבים על מיטת חוליים. ייתן ה’ בלב הרופאים המטפלים חכמת לב ושכל טוב, לסעדם לרפאם ולחזק את רוחם; ישרה האל מרוח קדשו על כל קרוביהם ואוהביהם לעמוד לימינם בעת מצוקתם ולהעניק להם אהבה ואמונה; יאמץ ה’ את רוחם לבחור בחיים גם בעת מכאוב וסבל; ישמע ה’ את קול התפילה ויחזקם למען יוסיפו ויידעו שנות בריאות ויצירה, שמחה וברכה. ונאמר: אמן.

מי שברך לחיילי צה”ל

מי שברך את אבותינו אברהם יצחק ויעקב, ואימותינו שרה רבקה רחל ולאה, הוא יברך את חיילי צה”ל ואנשי כוחות הביטחון הנלחמים למען בטחון ישראל ושלומה. יתן להם ה’ עוז לצאת חושים נגד אויבינו הקמים עלינו, ורוח איתנה לשמור על ערכיהם ועל צלמם בעת מבחן זו. יגן ה’ עליהם מכל צרה ומצוקה, למען ישובו בשלום ובשמחה אל משפחותיהם ואל חבריהם, ולמען ימשיכו ויפרחו כבני אדם וחוה וכאזרחי מדינתם.


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Fields of Life, Part 4: CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel

From Day Three of the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission 

“May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true. May you always do for others and let others do for you May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung. May you stay forever young. Forever young, forever young, may you stay forever young.” (Bob Dylan, 1973)

I’ve made the pilgrimage to Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem many times to pay tribute to the presidents and prime ministers of the State of Israel. I’ve stood silently and reflectively at prominent monuments, and felt the pride of a nation that is my second home.

This morning we entered into quiet of the Cemetery and sat in the shade, listening.

Shema Yisrael, Listen Israel… 

We listened to the wind breathing through the trees.

We listened to the yeshiva children dancing along the stone paths, conscious of this sober place yet unrestrained in their childhood.

And we listened to a mother’s story of her first-born son, Guni Harnik, killed in the Lebanese War in June, 1982. “Guni was not killed because he hated Arabs, or because he wanted to be a hero. He was killed because of his love for this beautiful land … He wanted there to be peace upon you and all of Israel. And if one day there is peace, and no more wars, then the story of Guni will be like a fairytale … something you remember like a teddy-bear or a song…”

Of Guni, Rabbi David Forman wrote that “he was the paradigmatic example of a Jewish hero: selfless and devoted.”

He was a Jewish hero because it wasn’t his death that this young soldier Guni Harnik gave to us. He gave his life – his love, his devotion, his energy and dedication. He offered up his heart and soul.

Guni Harnik wasn’t a martyr. He fought in war to save lives. He was a life-giver.

“May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true. May you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you. May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong. May you stay forever young. Forever young, forever young, may you stay forever young.”

FrishmanBlog2We rose from our places and walked along paths graced by tall cedars. We climbed steps, our eyes grazing the ground for small stones to carry with us. We came out onto a plateau, a cemetery set apart from the monuments of leaders. The military cemetery for the young soldiers.

The gravesites are beds. They are raised and set in a frame of Jerusalem stone, blanketed in rosemary and lavender. The pillow is their gentle attribute, words engraved in gold sharing name and lifespan and combat unit. This one we stood before was Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of Bibi Netanyahu, commander of an elite Israeli army commando unit and the only Israeli soldier killed during during Operation Entebbe in Uganda on July 4, 1976. He was thirty years old. We all knew his story, but we listened to it again. A deeply righteous young man who wanted only to save lives, of hostages, of his own team. He gave his life so others would live. And through memory – though it is not nearly enough — Yoni lives. And though memory, a dream lives on.

FrishmanBlog4We stood quietly by the gravesite of Michael Levin whose story we had heard the day before visiting the Lone Soldier organization. We listened to his life again. We Jews remember by becoming more righteous. We remember influence, purpose, hopes and dreams. This is how life carries on with meaning.

We walked from there to another section, covered by a vast canopy, a sukkah of sorts to protect us from the sun. All who stand there feel so vulnerable.

These graves are decorated with photos of young men and women in their prime, beaming in their uniforms. Athletic badges lined the borders of one, a Sponge-Bob balloon bobbed over another, little rocks with favorite sayings and tiny toys rested. And flowers… fake flowers, real flowers, color everywhere. Life.

IMG_2135And a few rows further: mounds of sandy earth covered in wreaths of flowers, red, yellow, green, orange… Mounds of earth piled high over fresh graves, the newest losses.

Four fresh mounds of earth.

And three young men sitting over the sites, mourners, psalms in hand, tears in eyes, bodies davening in the pain of loss. Back and forth back and forth, lips moving quietly, open and close open and close, tears trailing down down …

And next to these raw, fresh graves at the edge of this new line was the grave of Max Steinberg, a lone soldier, age 24 from Woodland Hills, California. 30,000 people attended his funeral last week.

FrishmanBlog5We wondered how his site had been completed so quickly – the walls raised, the blanket of rosemary sown, the pillow resting with its gold engraving. Someone suggested that it was hurried along so that his family would still be here and know that their son’s burial site was whole. That when they returned to California, they’d carry in their hearts the picture of his body protected, his resting place secure.

Then Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr realized that where we were standing was the spot where the next graves would be…

And we knew this would be soon.

And since this morning, four more soldiers have been killed in a booby-trapped UNWRA building leading into a Hamas tunnel.

These are the names of the 56 Israelis soldiers who died since July 8 in this war to preserve life.

  • Sergeant Daniel Kedmi, 18.
  • Sergeant Barkey Ishai Shor, 21.
  • Sergeant Sagi Erez, 19.
  • Sergeant Dor Dery, 18.
  • Staff Sergeant Eliav Eliyahu Haim Kahlon, 22.
  • Corporal Meidan Maymon Biton, 20.
  • Corporal Niran Cohen, 20.
  • Staff Sergeant Adi Briga, 23.
  • Staff Sergeant Moshe Davino, 20, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Sergeant First Class (res.) Barak Refael Degorker, 27.
  • Chief Warrant Officer Rami Chalon, 39, served in the Paratroopers Corps
  • Captain Liad Lavi, 22, served as an infantry soldier.
  • Staff Sergeant Avraham Grintzvaig, 21.
  • Staff Sergeant Gal Bason, 21, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Second Lieutenant Roy Peles, 21, served in the Paratroopers Corps.
  • Staff Sergeant Amit Yeori, 20, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Staff Sergeant Guy Boyland, 21, served as a combat engineer in the 7th Armored Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Guy Levy, 21, served in the Armored Corps.
  • Sergeant Oron Shaul, 21, was a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade, killed in action.
  • Master Sergeant Yair Ashkenazi, 36.
  • Lieutenant Paz Elyahu​, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Li Mat, 19, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Shahar Dauber, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Captain Dmitri Levitas, 26, served as a company commander in the Armored Corps.
  • Captain Natan Cohen, 23, served as a company commander in the Armored Corps. He was posthumously promoted from the rank of First Lieutenant.
  • Staff Sergeant Avitar Moshe Torjamin, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
  • Master Sergeant Ohad Shemesh, 27.
  • Sergeant First Class Oded Ben Sira, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Dolev Keidar, 38, served as the Commander of the Geffen Battalion of the Bahad 1 officer training base.
  • Sergeant Major Bayhesain Kshaun, 39, served in the Northern Brigade of the Gaza Division.
  • Second Lieutenant Yuval Haiman, 21, served at the Bahad 1 officer training base.
  • Sergeant Nadav Goldmacher, 23, served at the Bahad 1 officer training base
  • Staff Sergeant Tal Ifrach, 21, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Yuval Dagan, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade
  • Sergeant Shon Mondshine, 19, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Jordan Bensemhoun, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Moshe Malko, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, served as a lone soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Oz Mendelovich, 21, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Gilad Rozenthal Yacoby, 21, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Captain Tsvi Kaplan, 28, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade and was set to become a company commander.
  • Major Tzafrir Bar-Or, 32, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Max Steinberg, 24, of Woodland Hills, California, served as a lone soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Shachar Tase, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Daniel Pomerantz, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Sergeant Ben Itzhak Oanounou, 19, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Oren Simcha Noach, 22, served as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Bnaya Rubel, 20, served as a combat soldier in the 101st Battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade
  • Second Lieutenant Bar Rahav, 21, served in the Combat Engineering Corps.
  • Sergeant Adar Barsano, 20, served in the Armored Corps.
  • Major (res.) Amotz Greenberg, 45.
  • Staff Sergeant Eitan Barak, 20, served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade.
  • Staff Sergeant Matan Gotlib, 21, of Rishon LeZion, a combat soldier in the elite Maglan unit.
  • Staff Sergeant Omer Hey, 21, of Savion, served as a combat soldier in the elite Maglan unit.
  • Staff Sergeant Guy Elgranati, 20, of Tel Aviv, served as a combat soldier in the elite Maglan unit.
  • St.-Sgt. Guy Algranati, 20, of Tel Aviv was killed in a booby-trapped tunnel shaft in southern Gaza on July 30. He served in the elite Maglan infantry unit.
  • St.-Sgt. Omer Hay, 21, of Savyon was killed in a booby-trapped tunnel shaft in southern Gaza on July 30. He served in the elite Maglan infantry unit.
  • St.-Sgt. Matan Gotlib, 21, of Rishon Lezion was killed in a booby-trapped tunnel shaft in southern Gaza on July 30. He served in the elite Maglan infantry unit.

We walked silently down steps, and stood in a circle to reflect together, to offer Kaddish, sanctifying the gift of Life.

I thought about our stories.

I thought about our young B’nai Mitzvah students, standing with the Torah in their arms.

To each of them, I say, “As you hold this Torah, not only does it become part of you, but your story becomes part of the Torah – and of us. Your story deepens and changes us. You hold this Torah in your arms. And you hold us. As the Torah will support you, so will we. Our stories are shared.”

Our stories are shared. Our stories last. Our stories live. When we listen. 

Shema Yisrael. What will be our destiny? Our purpose? Our influence? Who will be loved?

Who will live longer because we cared enough to give all that we could?

“May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift. May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung. May you stay forever young. Forever young, forever young, May you stay forever young.” (Bob Dylan, 1973)

 Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the rabbi of Barnert Temple, in Franklin Lakes, NJ.  She is also the editor of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur. 

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Field of Hope, Part 3: CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel

From Day Two of the CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

It’s the 23rd day of the war in Gaza. This is a war. For Israel, it’s not a choice. It’s an obligation.

Though I feel physically safe, truly, I don’t bear the emotional weight that Israelis do daily. Sirens don’t disrupt my life; I return to New Jersey Thursday night.

 Today we woke early to a full day. After a night of two sirens around 3am, we slept until 6:30, woke and met with Israeli Reform rabbis in Tel Aviv. We drove to Jerusalem to deliver packages to the Lone Soldier Organization. After lunch, we talked with leaders of Tag Mei’ir, the Light Tag an organization devoted to countering racism and hatred. Next we gathered at the Knesset and met privately with four Members of Knesset. Our final meeting was with the Director of a Coalition of Trauma Management Organizations. We ate dinner at 9pm.

And then I came into my room and turned on the TV to catch the news. Oy. It’s so depressing. Every foreign station – CNN, BBC, SkyNews – is anti-Israel. It feels as though we are living in two different worlds. Everything I have witnessed — every video and collection of photos we’ve seen; every person we’ve spoken with (and the selection as been quite diverse) have corroborated the same things. The rockets are embedded in civilian and humanitarian sites. The tunnel network is an underground city and extends 70 feet beneath the earth and out into Israel and beneath Israeli homes. Without a doubt: Hamas is intent on destroying Israel. What are the journalists not seeing?

IMG_2114So let me step aside form the war for a moment.

Let me share two experiences from this lengthy day that uplifted me.

Tag Me’ir: Light Tag

Over and again Israelis have been sharing their concern over rising extremism.

In November 2009, three right-wing orthodox rabbis, including the Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, published a book published called King’s Law. It included all possible Jewish texts justifying the killing of non-Jews. The book ignited attacks on Arabs. In December that year, one of the authors added an article specifically relaying the idea of a price tag for Arab actions – a quid pro quo, but displaced. If an Arab anywhere hurt any Jew, any other Arab or Arab sympathizer was fair game for revenge. 34 churches and mosques have been defaced. A bomb was thrown onto a Palestinian taxi with a full family inside, all severely injured. Grafitti, threats, intimidation and violence have grown exponentially. These Jewish terrorists call themselves Tag Mechir, meaning Price Tag.

Outraged by the corruption of Judaism, other Jews created a counter organization, Tag Mei’ir, Light Tag. With the support of IRAC (our movement’s social justice and advocacy organization in Israel, directed by Anat Hoffman), they appealed to the Supreme Court. After three years, the Court determined that the book wasn’t inflammatory! Tag Mei’ir appealed. The Court agreed to another hearing – in February 2015.

So Tag Mei’ir gathered a coalition of 45 groups from across the religious spectrum to protest and raise consciousness that Israel will not be bullied by the extremists. Not prosecuting anyone has led to copycat behavior, leading to the recent murder of Mahmoud Abu Khadir, the young Palestinian killed in Jerusalem in revenge for the Hamas murder of the three Israeli teens.

Now, with the war, the entire Israeli population has moved to the right. So the extremists are even more so.

Just last week, three Arabs were severely beaten with iron pipes in south Jerusalem. When the police arrived, they didn’t rush the victims to the hospital. First, they interrogated the beaten men to see if they had brought this on themselves. Consider all the ways in which this harms everyone. So: Tag Mei’ir visited the men at Hadassah hospital, wanting to offer comfort and apologies. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, joined with them. Entering the hospital room, the patients flinched at the sight of their yarmulkes, certain this was to be another attack.

Tag Mei’ir brings another Jewish voice to the attacked communities. Members visit different Arab sites or communities impacted by Tag Mechir to show support, decrying Jewish terrorism. At each event, the media is invited, and the victims and the group dialogue publicly. The message: Jewish terrorism isn’t Judaism, and we are ashamed of that behavior.

More Voices of Hope

This afternoon, we spent almost three hours with four Members of the Knesset: Nachman Shai from Labor, Dov Hanin from Chadash, the Arab-Jewish party, Dov Lipman from Yesh Atid, and David Tzur, from HaTenuah.

It was enlightening and exhilarating. I have much to share but for now, let me tell you about MK Dov Lipman.

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman with Rabbi Steve Fox
MK Rabbi Dov Lipman with Rabbi Steve Fox

MK Lipman is an orthodox, American-born Jew from Silver Springs, MD. He came to Israel in the summer of 2004 for the first time. Everyone on the plane was making aliyah. The pilot said, “Relax, enjoy the flight, I’m taking you home.” In that moment, all became clear to him: he wasn’t running away, he was running to…

Dov Lipman traveled through Israel, and when he came to Bet Shemesh, he observed what appeared to be a very diverse community. He thought it would be perfect for his family. It turned out that it lacked that pluralism he thought he was joining. A horrible series of attacks on young orthodox girls came from extremist men who felt that the girls shouldn’t be standing on the street. Lipman wrote about it on Facebook. His post was picked up by a secular Tel Avivian, who arranged an interview on TV, which led to a huge rally in Bet Shemesh, organized by Lippman and the secular activist – and Lipman discovered the power of collaboration. That became his vision. When Yair Lapid asked him to join his political party, he agreed.

MK Lipman fights for the rights of all Israeli citizens. He’s an absolute enigma to the Knesset: a staunch orthodox Jew who cares about the rights of women, of secular Jews, of each and every Israeli, Jew and Arab.

My eyes welled and my heart filled as I listened to the integrity of his passion.

He declared, “It’s not just ‘how do we get along?’ We are Jewish and democratic. Yet we don’t agree on what is a Jewish state. Are ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ even compatible? What worked in 1948 doesn’t work now. We now have extremes and we’ve pushed people away from Judaism. I have learned: you can have different ideologies. But we agree on 80% of the issues and should move those forward. Then we can discuss the remaining 20%, and we will work them out. Each of us will have to give up some. You have to pick and choose.”

We are different: reform, orthodox, men, women, straight, LGBT, Arab, Jew…But Israel belongs to us all. And it’s possible, if you are patient, if you are thoughtful, if you are smart and sensitive and committed, it is possible to realize the vision. Lippman absolutely inspired us. This is Israel. Our Israel. The field of hope.

Is there hope?

Today more rockets fell, more missiles struck ammunition piles amidst homes and schools, more tunnels were attacked and more terrorists and soldiers wounded and killed… It was a terrible day. More journalists condemned Israel. More Israelis questioned American understanding of the Middle East. Egypt and Israel are joined with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to squash Hamas. Quatar and Turkey are allied with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Isis and Hezbollah and Iran to achieve the extremist Islamic agenda. No one is certain of next steps.

But we have become certain that our coming here, our being in Israel this week means so much to each Israeli we’ve met: the politicians, the activists, the soldiers, the cab drivers, our friends, our families…

And this we believe: the Jewish State must be the home for all Jews. At the same time, it must not be racist, it must embrace all its citizens, it must strive to excel as a place of hope and dreams.

And in so many ways, Israel does.

Today, we learned that the front used to be on the border. Now the front is the home. Every Israeli man, woman and child must learn to be ready for the siren, to race into the shelter, to be disrupted at any time of day. It is nerve-wracking and debilitating. Every parent is afraid for her or his child, for each soldier who is someone’s child. Every person prays for a true peace — though hope for peace is low, and a ceasefire would suffice.

But every Israeli is not satisfied with merely living in a land in the Middle East. This is Israel, the land of hope, Hatikvah. No one is giving up.

Everyone is giving more.

 Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the rabbi of Barnert Temple, in Franklin Lakes, NJ.  She is also the editor of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur. 

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Fields of Gray, Part 1: CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel


“When the night lies so still
Oh before I go to sleep
I come by, I come by
Oh just to look at you
In the dim light I say
That in my own small way
I will try, I will try
To help you through.”

(Fields of Gray, Bruce Hornsby, 1993).

Ultimately, it’s about the children. Israelis, Palestinians…

Our trip was to include a visit to the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, a city on the Mediterranean Sea, halfway between Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip. Wounded soldiers are treated there. Last night, we were asked politely not to come because so many visitors had inundated patients.

But my godson, Daniel Reichenbach, the son of NFTY’s Paul Reichenbach, is there. Dan is 23, a “brother” to my sons and daughter. He made aliyah, joining sisters Sara and Joey. And he entered the Israel Defense Forces, finishing basic training this year. His unit was called into Gaza three weeks ago.
I can’t imagine how his parents manage this, especially long distance.

Here’s an excerpt from another father. Rabbi Nir Barkan  co-leads our sister congregation Kehillat Yozma in Modin. His son is in the IDF. He writes:

“Omri is a combat soldier in one of Israel’s elite units and is fighting on the front in Gaza. We haven’t heard from him in six days and the worry and anxiety are eating away at our souls. For most of the day, we manage to avoid the nightmares, but the nights….the nights. But I’ll return to the nights later.
“The weekend newspapers lay strewn around us in piles, as in homes everywhere – here in Israel and abroad. This weekend everything – the news items, endless interpretations, assessments, speculations of ‘what if’ and ‘maybe,’ opinion columns and feature articles – deals with Operation Protective Edge which began 19 days ago and shows no signs of ending.

“I think to myself, ‘I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.’ I don’t share my thoughts with Anat who is trying to pass these difficult and suspenseful hours by flipping back and forth between TV news channels and internet sites. She has created a Whatsapp group for the parents of Omri’s unit – a collective therapy support group of parents equally as helpless as we are.

“The exposure of the threatening Hamas tunnels, the discovery of huge stores of ammunition directed at Israeli settlements as well as the continued firing of rockets at Israeli targets all leave me with the feeling that this is a just and unavoidable war – even given all the evil and horror that war general – and this one in particular – brings.

“I choke when I hear the phrases ‘a war for our home’ and ‘a unavoidable war’ – not because I have the slightest doubt that these statements are true, but because this is the first war in which Anat and I are parents of a combat soldier at the front. We have been fighting daily for our very survival for more years than we have had a State. A war for our home. An unavoidable war. Truly there is no other option. Those who study history know this to be true. A hand extended in peace (and mine is extended despite everything) is no substitute for a watchful eye and eternal caution. Any peaceful solution or resolution will be greeted by me with wary caution. I am suspicious of international friendships – not surprising given the complicated and conflicted neighborhood in which I was raised.

“It’s one thing for Anat and I to have been in a lifelong, continuous struggle to maintain our sanity – as children, adolescents and adults in this country. It’s quite another to have a son fighting at the front…

“We somehow get through the days… but the nights. The nightmares cross decades of traumas. They leave us with black circles under our eyes, with a perpetual feeling that it’s difficult to breathe and with a terrible fear – a fear of an unexpected knock on the door, of a Red Alert siren, of a telephone call notifying us that…..

“We are so impatient to hear the phone ringing with the special ringtone we’ve set for Omri’s calls. So impatient to hear his beloved voice in real time saying “Hi Abba….I’m okay” – tired and battered but whole in body and soul. We are so impatient to learn that the traumas of war that have accompanied us have not been imprinted on his flesh.”

How grateful and relieved to learn this morning that Omri was safe. I can’t imagine.

So Dan Reichenbach has been serving in Gaza, too. And then Sunday, he came down with a virus; he was removed from combat and sent to Barzilai Hospital. Wonderful news!

I had to visit, to hug and shower him with kisses. Our group agreed, and this morning, we drove down to Ashkelon.

Two days ago, Israel learned that Hamas’ vast network of tunnels stretched out to beneath the kibbutzim and moshavim in central southern Israel. Hamas planned to attack on Rosh Hashanah, kidnapping for ransom and murdering men, women and children. Each tunnel is burrowed over 70 feet underground. The underground landscape of the Gaza Strip has been transformed with concrete and electricity – an untold sum of money and supplies smuggled in from Quatar and Iran, and supplies “reallocated” from the Palestinians themselves. All those Israeli fears about cement not being used to build the schools and hospitals and residences: justified.

And 160 Palestinian children have died in forced labor.

Yesterday I saw photos and videos from Reuters showing Hamas terrorists using children as shields. Ambulances filling with terrorists, old men with grenades strapped around their bellies walking into Israeli hospitals. (Israel has set up a field hospital for Palestinians at the northern border of Gaza, and welcomes ill Palestinians into hospitals such as Barzilai). One film showed a wounded terrorist on a stretcher, then a man hiding his machine gun and people beginning to wail – only the scene of the wailing for an “innocent victim” made global news.

How often does the news report that Israel broke the newest cease-fire? Or announce loudly “Israel resumed fighting” and then as an afterthought “because Hamas began rocketing?”

P1390690Two days ago in Sederot overlooking Gaza – and I heard Hamas break the morning cease-fire with rocket launches. And then, I saw the Iron Dome response, it’s white laser trail streaking the sky.

There is no doubt, friends: Hamas rockets are buried under schools, hospitals, mosques. Under homes, in parks where children play.
Life is as precious to Palestinians as it is to Israelis. Children are precious to all

But not precious to Hamas.

It’s hard to believe that evil is real. Even with the horrific impact of gun violence in our nation, we’ve not associated this with people deliberately out to kill us. Our murderers are insane with access to weapons.

Evil people are sociopaths. They care not for the value of a life. The worst are those who engage others in their quest to destroy.
We Jews should know better. Survivors of the Holocaust and their families understand this.

On July 11, in a phone call with Ari Shavit (author of My Promised Land, a difficult and troubling expose about Israel’s formation by this Haaretz journalist – a must read), Ari offered this moral context in the analysis of the Hamas-Israeli conflict. “We are facing an evil force. I feel for the people of Gaza; they’re suffering and they’re impoverished. This is their life experience. But Hamas – so called government and leadership – is truly a religious fascist regime. It’s not only evil because of the way it wants to destroy Israel, but because it oppresses its own population (and mistreats minorities). The human shield is immoral.”

I entered Barzilai Hospital and found my way to Dan’s room. I was so happy to see him — and him to see me. Three army buddies were visiting, and it was wonderful to meet them. It was very hard to leave. I took pictures and texted his family.

Walking out of the hospital was heavy and sad.

I took a deep breath and returned to our bus.

Our children are precious to us.