(This is the text of the sermon that I delivered on March 6th 2015 at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington)
I want to start this evening by asking you to close your eyes and picture home.
I am sure that all of us will have different images that flash before our eyes, picturing our current houses, the family home in which we were raised, or various other places to which we have a connection. We might even have the picture of people coming into our heads, as we know that home is not just about the bricks and mortar, it is also, and even more significantly, about the people.
Next week my grandparents will be leaving their home, the apartment in which they have lived for the last 18 years. At the age of 87 it is unfortunately no longer practical for them to live on the third floor of an apartment block without an elevator and so they will be relocating to live nearer my uncle and aunt.
I have heard people talk about the challenge and in some cases distress they felt when their parents left the home in which they were raised – their childhood home; but I have never heard anyone speak about the upset at their grandparents moving. I am feeling this sadness right now. While I am sad that their move is necessitated by their old age and in my grandmother’s case her deteriorating health, I am also sad that I will be losing my connection to their apartment.
These grandparents are my mother’s parents, and this apartment is their home in Israel, in the heart of Tel Aviv. I was trying to work it out recently, and on various trips to visit them, as well as two years when I lived in Israel, I have probably spent close to 6 months squeezed into their small spare room. But more than this, their apartment was my home in Israel, it was my space where I felt comfortable to kick off my shoes, rummage through the kitchen cupboards, and lounge around in front of the television.
When I picture home I have 3 images that come into my mind. In the first instance it is wherever Micol and Gabby are, this is the place that I call home, and it is currently our house in Port Washington. Then there is my parent’s home in London, the house in which they have lived for almost 25 years, and where I spent all of my teenage years and beyond, really growing up. And then there is a third place, my grandparent’s home is the tangible building, but in reality it stretches outside of their walls to encompass the whole city of Tel Aviv and to stretch north, south, east, and west covering the rest of the country of Israel, the other place in the world that I call home.
In the weeks leading up to our community Israel trip I found myself getting increasingly nervous about our ten days in Israel. Yes, there were a lot of logistics to take care of, and various educational resources that needed to be prepared in advance of our departure. But I began to realize that it wasn’t all of this work and the practical details that were making me nervous, I was generally anxious about bringing people from our community to Israel.
This was not about any security concerns, as the participants on the trip commented often they felt so safe that they didn’t even think about security, and it wasn’t about being responsible for 30 other people in a foreign country. My anxiety was the kind of anxiety you feel when you bring someone home for the first time, opening your house to them and introducing them to your family. I wanted them to love the people as much as I do, I wanted them to feel the warm embrace of the country, and I really wanted them to fall in love with the place, so that they too would consider it to be their home.
I would love to spend the next hour sharing pictures and telling you about every element of our ten days in Israel, but I won’t. Instead I want to share with you a few experiences that really speak to the Israel connection our group was able to develop.
When we left for Israel we thought that we were leaving the snow and bad weather behind, little did we realize that we were actually taking it with us.
In the middle of our trip we made our way south to the Bedouin village of Kfar HaNokdim. That evening we were welcomed into their tents, and given the weather luck that we had all trip, it then proceeded to rain for most of the night. People slept as best as they could in preparation for the next morning when we were making our way to Masada for our hike up the mountain.
Now I have been privileged to climb Masada with a variety of groups on several occasions, and the one constant each time has been a little of bit complaining from the participants. They’ve admired the view and they’ve appreciated the history, but they’ve also always moaned about the struggle to the top. This was the first time I have ever climbed Masada without hearing a single word of complaint from anyone in my group.
It might have been because our Community Synagogue members are a hearty bunch, who don’t let mountains stand in their way, or it might have had something to do with the group of people climbing the path alongside us.
As our bus pulled into the Masada parking lot, yes, Israel has not just made the desert bloom it has also ensured convenient parking for tourists, we saw literally hundreds of Israeli soldiers slowly walking up the path towards the base of Masada. As we discovered these young boys, virtually all of them around 18 or 19 years old, were coming to the end of a 50 kilometer hike, through the night, to mark the conclusion of their basic training. While we had heard the rain through our tents, they had been marching outside, in the rain, for over 30 miles, in boots and uniforms, carrying backpacks and supplies.
Some of the boys were limping, others were making their way slowly up the mountain, but all of them were determined to make it to the top. As we walked alongside them it was impossible to complain about our hike to the peak of Masada, knowing what they had been through over the previous 12 hours. I think that none of our group complained because we were in awe of these young men and their dedication. Struck by their youth, they all looked so young; and impressed by the fact these Jewish boys were taking responsibility not just for Israel’s safety and security, but for ours as well.
On the top of Masada our tour guide Uri told us about the history of Herod’s desert fortress and about the Jews who made their home there in the aftermath of the Second Temple destruction. As we learned about the bitter end to our people’s story atop this mountain, choosing suicide rather than death or slavery, in the distance we saw our Israeli soldiers.
Together they were gathered around Israeli flags, being addressed by their commanders and officers, most of whom were not teenagers, but were in their early 20s. As we heard about the powerlessness of our people on top of this mountain we watched the soldiers chanting and cheering, declaring together Sheynit Masada lo tipul – Masada will not fall again, before singing our national anthem of Hatikva in one unified voice. In this place of death and destruction we bore witness to the Jewish rebirth in the land of Israel and to the young people who are ensuring our Jewish future there.
In what would become a recurring theme on our trip, the weather interfered with our plans for Shabbat afternoon in Tel Aviv, and so instead of a hike we made our way to Kikar Rabin – Rabin Square, in the heart of the city. It was in this square that my sister and I played as children, running around with my parents and grandparents. It was here that I danced with a Torah scroll, celebrating Simchat Torah outside with a group of Hasidim. And it was to this square that I came together with over 200,000 Israelis to remember the legacy of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, 2 years after his assassination.
For the group, I was uncertain of what they would make of this site. There is a powerful monument to Rabin, with stones broken from the Golan Height, placed together at the spot where he fell. But it is a site where you tell a story, rather than looking at ancient buildings or museum pieces from the past. Uri shared his story about being a student in Israel in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination; of how a somber mood swept across the country, of people crying during lectures for no reason, and of the uncertainty of Israel’s future.
And I shared my story of hearing the horrifying news while at a friend’s Halloween party, of assuming that it must have been the work of an Arab terrorist, never suspecting that it could have been a Jew who did this. And then I talked about how it felt to be surrounded by 200,000 people singing songs of peace and crying as we remembered this hero of Israel, this man who embodied the military struggle for the State of Israel, and died, as he sought to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, fighting for peace.
Members of our group were visibly moved, struck by the gravity of the events which took place in the spot on which we stood. And lost in their own thoughts about war and peace, about a man who defended our people, and who gave his life with a song of Shalom, a song of peace, on his lips.
And then towards the end of our trip it snowed, and virtually the entire city of Jerusalem came to a standstill as everything closed down, not for Shabbat, but because of the white stuff all over the ground. We were not to be discouraged, and on Friday morning we wrapped ourselves as warmly as we could, we put on whatever semi-appropriate footwear we had (because who brings snow shoes to Israel?) and we made our way to the windmill in Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish settlement outside the walls of the Old City.
And even in Jerusalem, what do you do when it snows? You build a snowman; or in our case, we built a snow Rabbi. But this was no ordinary snow construction, because our snow Rabbi overlooked the Old City. As we took photographs we captured not just the snow, but the Tower of David and the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. We did what people do when it snows across the world, but we did it in a place that is steeped in history for our people and for all of the Abrahamic religions.
Coming from the snow of Port Washington to the snow of Jerusalem was a reminder of the fact that Israel is at the same time like any other place in the world, but also totally unique and different from any other place in the world. It is the place where young men and women, like the soldiers we saw climbing Masada, are determining what the Jewish future will look like, how Judaism and power can coexist, and what it means to live as Jews in a Jewish State. And then as we experienced at Kikar Rabin, it is a young country in a difficult neighborhood, struggling to pursue the values of peace and justice, while at the same time ensuring safety and security for all of her inhabitants and citizens.
As we shared reflections on the afternoon of our final day in Israel, it was clear that the members of our group had found a new place to call home; a place with which they all felt a deep connection through the history, the land, and most importantly the people. In unique and different ways each person in the group had fallen in love with an element of Israel, each love was personal, but it was clear that the fire of passion for this small country had been ignited in the souls of each one of us.
And the challenge for the group, and for each one of us who considers ourselves Ohavei Zion – lovers of Zion, is what to do with that Israel connection now that we are back in America.
I would like to suggest that we need to keep ourselves informed, we need to advocate, and we need to be active in our relationship with Israel.
We need to be informed, ensuring that we are able to go beyond the black and white portrayal of Israel in much of our American media. All too often the issues of Israel are simplified so as to fit into sound bites on the nightly news. We miss the nuance of the arguments, the struggles of a young country, and the challenges of what it means to have our Jewish home in the Middle East. We are lucky to have access to so many sources of information, and we have to be diligent in remaining up to date with what is happening there.
Today, as Israel, and by extension the Jewish world, faces new threats and challenges in the court of public opinion, in the theater of global politics, and on university campuses in America and the Western World, we need to be her advocates and defenders. That is not to say that everything Israel does is right, but it is to say that she deserves to be treated in the same way as any other country, and not to be singled out for abuse, condemnation and attack. We can rely on the Israel Defense Force for military protection, but they need to be able to rely on us for protection in both Global and American politics. We must be their front line defenders and advocates.
And then we must be active in having our say over Israel’s future. We cannot vote in the Israeli elections taking place in a just over a week’s time, but we can vote in the World Zionist Congress Elections. We can have our say on who will represent American Jewry as Jews and Zionists from across the world come together in Jerusalem this October to debate and determine the future for important institutions of our community such as the Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund, and others. Rabbi Z and I are proud to stand as part of the ARZA slate, and we hope you will take the time to vote for the type of Israel you want to see in the future.
When you board the El Al plane, flying to Israel, the slogan says: hachi babayit baolam. It literally means the most at home in the world, but they translate it as ‘home away from home’. Israel’s national airline, like all of Israel is for us our home away from home. And I hope that each one of us has the opportunity to experience firsthand what it feels like to go home when that home is Israel.