There is a beautiful line in our worship service, “Blessed are You, Adonai, who returns the presence of God to Zion.” I am mindful of God’s presence in the miracle of the modern State of Israel every time I touch down at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.
I had the good fortune to spend nine days in Israel for the annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbis association. Every seven years the CCAR meets in Israel, like a sabbatical year, to honor and deepen our commitment and connection to Israel. And since our state-side conferences meet during the week, it is particularly special to celebrate Shabbat together in Israel with colleagues.
One very powerful experience occurred the first night of the conference, when 300 Reform rabbis gathered at Dormition Abbey, a Catholic monastery near the Old City in Jerusalem. The Abbey has been the site of several “price tag” attacks by Jewish extremists, and as an expression of friendship, we visited some of the monks who live and work there, and together sang songs of unity and holiness. Then, in a gesture of pluralism and tolerance, we marched in the cold winter air from the monastery to Jerusalem’s center for Reform Judaism, Merkaz Shimshon, with each rabbi holding a light, a symbol of co-existence.
A second powerful memory was that of all of the Reform rabbis in a large hall with theater-style seating, in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. We were there to take part in a special session with a variety of Israeli government and Knesset leaders. The two-hour session was led by Avraham Naguise, the head of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee on Israel and Diaspora relations, who began his remarks by sharing with us that this house of the Jewish people was ours as well, and he welcomed us home. This was truly an historic moment: fifteen Knesset members spoke supportively of our cause in front of three hundred Reform rabbis, and it validated our struggle for pluralism recognition in Israel. One Knesset member, Tamar Zandberg, expressed that we were “proof you have more than one way to be a Jew.” As leaders of the international Reform movement articulated, there is a “quiet revolution” in the state’s approach to non-Orthodox denominations and Diaspora Jewry. There is still a long road ahead, but this was one very significant step.
The Knesset gathering was not the only success this winter for liberal Judaism in Israel. In January the Israeli government committed to the development of a new compound at the southern end of the Western Wall, giving official status to non-Orthodox denominations. Over the years, the main plaza of the Western Wall has adopted the customs of a strict Orthodox synagogue. Men and women could not pray together and women were not allowed to read Torah. For the first time, women and men will be able to pray and sing together as well as read Torah in an egalitarian environment. This prayer space will not be under the control of Israel’s chief rabbi. During my visit early on a sunny morning, one hundred and fifty rabbis — women and men — gathered to sing and pray and hear a woman chant the sacred words from the scroll at the site which will be developed into a beautiful and pluralistic prayer space.
When making a pilgrimage to Israel, one senses it is a land of conflict and of conflicts. Very little is straight forward and much is highly complicated. At a pre-conference text study session at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Yossi Klein Halevy shared that most Israelis would say that a Palestinian state is an existential necessity for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic, while most Israelis would also say that a Palestinian state is also a threat to Israel’s existence. There is no abundance of optimism when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians. Even the Labor party, the left of center party, recently stated that there is no immediate hope for peace and that nobody can bring peace now.
I remember standing at a promontory in East Jerusalem, facing the West Bank, and seeing how the current settlement policy in the West Bank will only make it harder to achieve a two-state solution. Yet we advocate and we work and we hope. We focus on how much we have built as lovers of Zion and we celebrate the unfolding narrative of the Jewish people. After being created only sixty-eight years ago, Israel’s accomplishments are miraculous. And yet, it has far to go. I am reminded of this beautiful poem by Nahum Waldman:
A Prayer for Israel
We pray for Israel,
Both the mystic ideal of our ancestors’ dreams,
And the living miracle, here and now,
Built of heart, muscle, and steel…
May those who yearn for a society built on human concern
Find the vision of the prophets realized in her.
May her readiness to defend
Never diminish her search for peace.
May we always dare to hope…
All God’s children will touch hands in peace.
And may that time come soon.