Sign In Forgot Password

Israel in the Consciousness of the Reform Jew (Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5780)

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah Tovah and G’mar Chatimah Tovah: May we all conclude this day with a brighter outlook and a renewed spirit for the work ahead of us: the work of tikkun, of repairing the fractured world we inhabit, and repairing our souls as they yearn for fulfillment.

Since Rosh Hashanah, and really since the beginning of the month of Elul 40 days ago, we have considered what we have done wrong and how we were going to reconcile our broken relationships. And Yom Kippur is a day on which we consider how we are to improve our lives in the future. So, this morning I’d like to speak about Israel because of the wonderful possibilities of that small nation playing a positive and significant role in our Jewish lives.

Imagine this as the teaser for a new television program called “Israel: Religious Freedom for All Its Citizens”:

“Imagine an Israel in which the State treats all expressions and streams of Judaism – and other religions – with equal respect and dignity; where the State recognizes the right to freedom of religion and freedom from religious coercion...”

And here is the teaser for another episode:

“Imagine an Israel in which the State guarantees and preserves the freedom of worship for members of all faiths at their holy sites in the spirit of mutual respect and sensitivity..”

Or maybe you could be enticed to watch this episode:

“Imagine an Israel in which gender equality fully guides the state, and women are not demeaned or otherwise disadvantaged, whether on public transportation, in legal proceedings regarding personal status, at the Western Wall, and in other public venues and services.”

Well, they make not make scintillating prime time television; I think “Shtisel” or “S’rugim” would score higher ratings. But these aspirations and others are on the mind of Israelis today. Promoted by Hiddush, an Israeli organization nearly 10 years old, they stand for a renewal of the pledge, audaciously a part of the Declaration of Independence, that aspired to a society of equals.

That document courageously states the hopes for a future of dignity and respect: “The State of Israel … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it [the state] will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it it [the state] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it [the state] will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture … ”

This is an achievable goal, even though after 71 years we have not yet realized it. But the good news is that despite forces in Israeli society that strive mightily to establish a narrowly-based theocracy, there are many more people who still believe in and struggle to secure a society that honors all streams of Judaism, and people of other religious traditions.

I invite us to consider the positive vision of Israel, a society that would not dwell on past events and mistakes even though they make them, but one that dreams of welcoming new Jewish residents and streams of Jewish visitors; one that makes equal room for those of other religious communities; one that develops and promotes life based on the aspirations and values of Judaism; one where secular models of democracy guide the Jewish state despite variations in the practices of religious communities or the secular society.

* * * *

What is the nature of our connection with Israeli Jews? What are the challenges inherent in this relationship?

Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, explains that the challenge of Diaspora Jews connecting well with Israel is found in the degree to which we see Israeli Jews as members of our family.[1]

In a typical nuclear family, people view their spouse-parent-child relationships as primary; the “family” is the safety net that assumes that all will be present for each other no matter what, that we watch out for one another, that we have a special relationship to protect.

Inside this nuclear family, we experience life together. We celebrate, we mourn, we strive, we cry, and we laugh. All of that happens – for the most part – with people who are physically closer to us.

Outside of this primary relationship, we may have other relatives living hundreds or thousands of miles away with whom we DON’T share everyday life, and our family ties with them may not be as strong as with our primary family. We may feel concern for them, but the connection is not a primary one.

So, we might compare the relationships between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry to those distant relatives, people whom you hear about and feel empathy for, but the distance prohibits us from cementing a firm relationship. Perhaps there is insufficient reason to care about one another; or maybe we don’t share a vision of being close as family with one another.

Let’s see what the data say.

The American Jewish Committee last June released its annual survey of attitudes held by the Israeli and American Jewish communities toward each other, and visible were large disparities in how we feel about each other.

Almost a third [31%] of Israeli Jews consider us American Jews as “siblings”, and 47 percent consider us as “cousins”. Not bad. Yet only 13% of American Jews think of Israelis as siblings, and 58 percent of us see Israeli Jews as all kinds of relationships, and certainly members of an extended family. And in America, 28% of us don’t consider Israelis part of our family at all.[2]

Anecdotal evidence, however, does not always confirm this ‘relationship gap’. A few years back, I asked here as to the number of worshipers present who had visited Israel. The percentage of hands that shot into the air was significantly higher than the average of 35% of American Jews who have been to Israel. So, there is, at least within our community, a stronger recognition of family ties that bind us to one another. The challenge is to discover the association with Israel that motivates and excites us, and then strengthen and share that motivation with others.

* * * *

How do we come to know Israel living some 6,000 miles away? First is through teachers who come to share with us.

Some of you may be familiar with our Israeli sh’lichim here in Madison. The sh’lichim are the Jewish Federation-sponsored emissaries from Israel who help to awaken the spark of interest in Israel matters. And during my tenure in Madison, we have had some exceptional sh’lichim teaching us about and connecting us to Israel. Our current new sh’lichim – who are newlyweds, by the way – are no exception to this, and I hope you have an opportunity to meet them.

They both came, last week, to attend our Rosh Hashanah morning services, and they enjoyed them very much.

And talk about Jewish geography: I was speaking with our community Sh’lichah, Danielle, and it turns out that her father was a young resident of a certain youth village at the same time and in the same youth village that I spent my first summer in Israel. He was 10, and I was 15; so, I began to think back and wonder if he was the young kid – who knew a lot more than I did about farm life – working with me when we irrigated the banana orchards or mucked out the cow barn.

Anyway, the presence of the sh’lichim here in Madison – and in the other communities where Israelis go to connect with Diaspora Jews – has, over a long time, demonstrated that a connection to Israel is desirable and necessary.

Our religious school children feel it when, in Third grade, they take a year-long virtual trip to Israel (though I don't think they get to eat schwarma). We adults, if we have taken advantage of our congregational trips to Israel, know the joy and good nature of Israelis whom we meet along the way. People have visited on b'nai mitzvah trips, business trips, and other excursions. We are fortunate to have had a lot of TBE members visiting Israel.

Another way we learn about Israel is through our religious movements. We are informed that Israel is becoming a place of pluralistic religious fervor; being "religious" there is no longer the purview solely of the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox community.

We see organic Jewish life from many religious communities: from the Haredim to the standard dati or Orthodox Jews; from masorti or Conservative Jews to mitkadmim – Reform and Progressive Jews – and hitchadshim or Reconstructionist Jews. And there are independent communities of prayer and learning among the older and younger Israelis, especially the secular ones, Jews who are exploring their Jewish roots in search of values by which to live as Jews in the Jewish and democratic state of Israel.

Israeli Jews have also become more focused on religious and social matters as primary motivations for voting. We see this in the priorities of Israelis as they went to the polls recently.

Beginning with the election in April and continuing with the election held a few weeks ago, opinion polls demonstrated that security matters took a backseat to the influence of the religious right in Israeli life. We also learned that voters overwhelmingly wanted all men and women, including the Ultra-Orthodox, to serve in the army; most citizens want religious exemptions from national service to disappear. Secular Israelis also wanted the Orthodox rabbinate out of the personal and religious lives of Israelis. And there was a strong public expression that the next ruling coalition NOT include the religious parties.

In short, public attitudes and motivations for voting now center on developing true Jewish and democratic life in Israel. For in addition to its position as a place of Jewish refuge, Israel stands as an exemplar of Jewish literary and cultural creativity, coming from both religious and secular world's. And there is still appreciation for the rich cultural diversity of Israel, due to the immigration of Russian, Ethiopian, and other ethnic communities.

Our family may be an extended one, but its riches are beyond count.

* * * *

There still remains, though, the nagging question of how we view our relationship with Israel, and the degree to which we would want to be involved in the life of Israel herself.

According to that same American Jewish Committee survey, 63 percent of Israeli Jews believe it is “not appropriate for American Jews to attempt to influence Israeli policy on such issues as national security and peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” while 57 percent of American Jews feel it is appropriate for them to do so.[3] This statistic suggests our strong desire to connect to Israel. The challenge is to find the context where this makes the most sense.

We could always take the route that my niece’s son David traveled this past year. As a 20-something interested in serving Israel, he joined the two-and-a half year Garin Tzabar program of the Israel Defense Forces, and is now serving in a combat unit. Short of officially making aliyah, David now can fulfill his aspiration for service to a cause greater than himself. Whether he eventually immigrates will depend on other many factors, though his parents are supportive of his efforts. We're simply hoping he'll find a partner before he makes that big decision.

As for us, we can sit here in America and complain, and physically protest various Israeli government actions. But that is less likely to be effective.

Or we can lend our voices to the overall movement to expand the civil and democratic society in Israel and we can do this through our participation next year in the international elections to the World Zionist Congress.

The first World Zionist Congress took place in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, and its primary goal was to establish the state of Israel. Today, the Congress serves as a parliament for the Jewish people to determine policy for the World Zionist Organization, designates the Organization’s course of action, chooses the leadership of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund in Israel, and allocates funds to causes in Israel and the Diaspora. Closer to home, the Congress makes decisions that affect Reform Jews in Israel and across the world, and allocates considerable funding to Progressive Jews in Israel.

In elections five years ago, prior to the last meeting of the World Zionist Congress, Progressive Jews in America elected 56 delegates to the 500-member World Jewish Congress. It may sound small, only ten percent, but because our delegates voted in coalition with partners from other countries, movements, and Israeli political parties, we had a broad seat at the table, secured funding for Reform organizations in Israel, and helped to influence policy for many progressive causes. In this coming election cycle, the Reform movement both in Israel and the Diaspora could likely garner $20 million for their institutions.

But along with the money for our own movement, the Reform-Progressive presence on this governing board could have significant impact on Israeli social policies.

As a result of progressive Jewry’s presence at the last Congress, we influenced the appointment of key professionals to carry out our Reform Jewish values regarding equality, pluralism, and our commitment to a two-state solution. We joined with Israeli political parties to influence Israeli society in matters of conversion, marriage and divorce, religious pluralism, gender rights, and combatting racism. We passed key resolutions in the World Zionist Organization’s policy body for equality, transparency, and societal pluralism.

In short, our participation matters.

My offering you this information today is in preparation for the international voting that will take place beginning on January 20, 2020, and will extend for 50 days.

At that time, we will ask you to vote, and we hope that you vote for the slate connected to ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists in America. This is the one significant way that we Diaspora Jews can, indeed, influence what happens in Israel. The positions we take in the Congress next year will directly help our Israeli sisters and brothers who wish to create a civil and progressive Israeli society consonant with Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Please watch your electronic inboxes and our synagogue bulletin for information about this election in January. There are four simple requirements to vote in this election:

  • Be 18 years of age or older by June 30, 2020
  • Self-identify as Jewish
  • Agree to the Jerusalem Program, the official platform of the WZO and the Zionist Movement
  • Pay the minimal $7.50 processing fee

Five years ago we were fortunate to have had Jane Taves, one of our more active TBE members, as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress meeting. For this upcoming election, she serves as a member of the campaign cabinet of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as a congregational coach for us and three other congregations. Our Temple Beth El coordinator/captain will be our Associate Executive Director Kendra Sager. Along with a team of members, we will create ways to educate us and encourage us to vote, promoting a strong voter turnout and result.

If you would like a fact sheet covering some of the aspects of the election, as well as different websites for you to visit to learn more, I have them here and will hand them out after services all day today. Please see me.

Our participation really will make a difference. We can affect real change and become even more visible as our political influence increases. If we increase our Reform presence in the World Zionist Congress:

we will be able to directly promote the cause of liberal Judaism in and for the Jewish state;

we will be able to directly influence Israeli society toward both its democratic and Jewish destinies;

we will bring nearer the day when we will actualize the values of religious and societal pluralism for all of Israeli society;

and we will find even more positive reasons to support Israel from wherever we are in the world: as it will be a place with expanded creativity and ways for all Jews to create firm connections with our homeland.

* * * *

Five years ago, Reform and Progressive Jews secured a significant delegation at the World Zionist Congress. That was not the first time that Reform Jews participated in those elections, but it was the strongest showing to date. So that was, perhaps, a teaser to what’s to come in the elections and in our participation next year.

All it takes is imagination to perceive the future, a future of increased Israel activity for us all.

If you’ve not been to Israel, I invite you to imagine a place where one’s Jewish roots can be nourished by the soil of hundreds of years of Jewish history and learning; a place whose citizens are called sabras, after the hearty – some would say “tenacious” – prickly cactus pear, which is bristly on the outside, and mushy and soft and inviting on the inside.

If you have not been to Israel lately, I invite you to consider a return trip to re-orient yourself with the land and its fast-paced development.

Israel continues to be that ‘miracle on the Mediterranean’ that remains special to us. Is it what Theodor Herzl dreamed about when he remarked, “If you will it, it is no dream.”? He was a visionary, so it’s entirely possible that he was able to envision a land of great promise. You will see amazing changes there, and the potential for reaching its goals are still bright. Let us hope that we can all imagine Israel as a land of equality and dignity for all people. Let us then work for those changes.

L'shanah tovah!


[1] Rabbinic webinar August 29, 2019



January 28, 2020 2 Sh'vat 5780