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With Hope in Our Hearts | September 30, 2019

Rabbi Allison Berry

It was Micah’s first trip to Israel. As we boarded our plane in Paris, I told him I had a secret, which he would learn the moment we arrived in Tel Aviv. During the entire flight, he bounced in his seat, asked me a million questions and begged me to tell him what the secret was. I didn’t. When the plane finally landed, everyone cheered and clapped. Micah turned to me looking confused, and asked, “Why did they do that? What was that?” “That’s the secret,” I explained.  “The secret is we are home.”

It’s the only place in the world where passengers regularly applaud when the plane lands. Has anyone ever clapped upon arriving at Logan Airport? Rabbi Spike Anderson shares, “...As Jews, every airplane’s arrival at Ben Gurion is a miracle in the truest sense of the word.” (1)

This was something I understood even at Micah’s age, when I entered an essay contest sponsored by the Jewish Agency (2), answering the prompt: “What does Israel mean to you?”

In my little girl handwriting with hearts drawn in place of dots over the I’s, I wrote, “What Israel means to me is hope. For thousands of years, the Jewish people hoped to return to a place where every one of us would feel safe and be welcomed. I’m proud Israel is that place.” There I was - a nine-year-old pisher - thinking I could win this contest.

It wasn’t until a few years later, that I finally traveled to Israel to celebrate my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. After that, I was lucky to go often. And each time, I knew that as soon as the plane touched down, I was part of something greater than myself.

I loved Ha-Aretz - The Land - in the way the rabbis of the Talmud taught. That city on a hill, Jerusalem, was Yerushalayim shel ma’alah (3) - the city of “above.” The city God promised to Abraham, the mountain on which King Solomon built his Temple. Israel and particularly Jerusalem belonged to me.

I lived in Jerusalem during my fourth year of rabbinical school. I went crazy shopping in the shuk - the market - hailing a cab and trying to speak bad Hebrew with the driver, and the beautiful freneticism of Friday afternoons in the moments before Shabbat. But, during that year, for the first time, I also traveled to the West Bank and saw a different side of Israel. I witnessed the hopelessness of many Palestinians. And on a day I will never forget, a bus exploded minutes after we left the station in Tel Aviv. That’s when I experienced Yerushalayim shel matah (4) - the Jerusalem of “below,” where life is complicated, often tragic and hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived there.

For a Jew in America, the texture, the arguments and the constant anxiety Israelis live with every day, can feel distant. Yet, as my colleague Rabbi Dara Frimmer writes, “I’ve come to realize that the more time I spend wrestling and embracing this country and her people, the deeper my commitment grows. I am compelled to defend Israel and to challenge her. I am more than a tourist. More than a Diaspora donation. I am...writing Israel’s next chapter.” (5)

Like Rabbi Frimmer, I feel my connection to Israel deep in my soul. And so, as we enter 5780, I endeavor to speak about this love and ask you to hear me with an open heart.

I believe the existence of the modern State of Israel is nothing short of a miracle. Zionism, the promise of the Jewish return to the land, is the answer to thousands of years of aching to live as one people, free from fear and free from hate. Yossi Klein HaLevi explains in his book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, “I see my presence here, as part of the return of an indigenous, uprooted people, and a reborn Jewish state as an act of historic justice…” (6)

We are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, because of our connection to the land. It is one of the reasons we are proud to be Jews. And so, it can be all the more challenging to watch from the sidelines and try to unravel the complexities of Israel’s democracy. Although Israel is part of us, we are not Israelis who know the workings, language and morays that come with living there day after day.

And yet, despite both the physical and sometimes cultural distance, the majority of us feel so connected to the Jewish state, that 92 percent of American Jews identify in a variety of ways as pro-Israel. (7) At the same time, we also know there is a great deal of diversity and nuance in how this support is expressed and actuated.

In the past year, I’ve experienced this diversity at every turn:
In February, I stood with 60 Temple Shalom members as we watched Shabbat descend over the walls of Jerusalem. We gathered our children close as we shared our hopes for our trip to this holy place.

I spoke to a couple here in our community, who voted for Donald Trump exclusively because they believe he is the leader who can keep Israel safe.

I had coffee with a Temple member who confided that he was devastated by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Wiping away tears, he reflected that Israel was not the place his parents (or mine) promised it would be.

I met with a college student who grew up at Temple Shalom. She told me that she was confused about why her university’s student government supports BDS. I explained to her, that BDS or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement promotes these tools to force Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. BDS is particularly active on college campuses. Many people who affiliate with the movement, hide behind this platform to express an anti-Semitism that promotes eliminating Israel and the Jews who live there.

All of these conversations and more, have moved us from an appreciation of the beauty and the miracle of our homeland, to something so political and so fraught with controversy, that many of you who identify as Zionists have chosen to disengage entirely from the conversation.

And who would blame you?  Now in America, Jews who identify as progressives are sometimes forced “to check their Zionism at the door” before social justice groups will allow them to rally against racism or for women’s rights or for immigrant justice. Recently, organizers of the Dyke March in Washington D.C. equated a rainbow flag with a Star of David on it with the Israeli flag, and demanded it be removed, claiming it was a Zionist sign of oppression that made other attendees “feel unsafe.” (8)

And, at the same time, some Jews who identify as conservative, feel obliged to ally with people who allegedly back the State of Israel, but don’t always have the Jewish community’s interests in mind. The President of Hungary who has spent time with Prime Minister Netanyahu, calls himself a friend of Israel. Yet we, experienced first hand on last fall’s congregational trip to Budapest, that there is an active government campaign, led by this same president, to rewrite the story of Hungary’s involvement in Jewish deaths during the Holocaust. (9)

I’m truly frightened by this ongoing tension between the political right and left in America. Both sides are using Israel as a wedge in their battle against each other. And who wins? Not us. Because in truth, factions on either side would be much happier if we erased ourselves.

So how do we sort through this? How do we manage the complexities of what it means to be Jewish and American in 5780?

First, we need to get clear on our relationship to Israel. Listen to the words of Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, who asks why the word “Jerusalem” in Hebrew is written in the plural form: (10)

Why is Jerusalem always in twos, one of Above
And the other Below?
... I want to live in a Jerusalem of the middle
Without turning my head above and without
Wounding my legs below.

The Talmud takes it even further explaining, “There isn’t really a dispute. Both Jerusalems - the one of above and the one of below - face one another. You cannot get to the heavenly one without traversing the earthly one.” (11)

So how do we find Amichai’s Jerusalem of the middle?

We celebrate everything our homeland offers, and we express our frustration and disappointment when the modern state sometimes doesn’t live up to our Jewish values.

Many of us worry that the possible annexation of the West Bank will impact Israel’s ability to be both a democratic State and a Jewish one. Many of us are angry that the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate totally controls Jewish religious practice. But these feelings do not have to diminish our love for Israel. It is because we are so strongly connected that we need to stay in the conversation, support our homeland and work for change.

Knesset member Stav Shaffir recently wrote in the Forward, “As an Israeli leader fighting for a better future...I need those who share my values in the United States and around the world to join and support us — not to turn their backs.” (12)

So let’s show Shaffir we have her back. Before our children go off to college, let’s tell them the story of the Jewish state. Let’s explain that we believe Israel can be a strong, safe nation for all Jews, a compassionate country which values the humanity of the “other,” whose leaders like Shaffir and many others recognize they serve something greater than themselves.

We must give our children the tools to understand who they are so they can go off into the world confident and clear about their Jewish identity and their place in Jewish history. We are being told that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist, but we’ve forgotten - or some of us don’t know - why Israel came to exist in the first place. After thousands of  years of hate and oppression, Israel is the dream of our people fulfilled. This doesn’t mean we need to teach our children that everything Israel does is always right, but we can tell them it is their birthright to engage, to wrestle, to hold Israel close and to get to work actuating the dream of what could be.

We must double-down on our engagement with Israel and understand that Israel is not only our territorial homeland - in the words of Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, “Israel is a permanent moral commitment.” (13)

There are many ways we can live out this commitment. First, we can support Israeli organizations and leaders who share our vision for a democratic and pluralistic, Jewish state. Right here in Boston, The Joint Distribution Committee, the New Israel Fund and Boston Partners For Peace all do good work, and you can get involved. (14)

We must continue to build partnerships with our neighbors. It is vital we take our seat at the table, and talk to them about the nuances of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. We need to tell them why we are connected to Israel and how it is impossible for us to separate from the place that makes us a people. We can explain to our friends that BDS is, at best, an ineffective way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, at worst, a mouth-piece for hate.

We need to extend our hands across the political divide because we cannot allow the right or the left to define Jewish beliefs or Jewish behavior. We must clearly articulate what it means to be both American and Jewish for ourselves. If we don’t, those who hate us will do it for us. Our love for Israel does not make us disloyal Americans, and our support of progressive causes does not make us disloyal Jews. Our identity as Americans and as Jews is not mutually exclusive.

I hope you will join me for a more extensive conversation about all of this and more in October with Bari Weiss. Bari is a NY Times journalist and proud American Jew who grew up at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Her new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, addresses action steps we can take right now to stand up in the face of rising hate against Jews here and abroad. (15)

And finally, we are returning to Israel this March. Come with us. Then Israel will become real for you, not a faraway place in your imagination. You will meet many Israelis working towards the ideal of Yerushalyim shel Malah - the Jerusalem of Above. Going there will ensure, as Rabbi Sharon Brous explains, “that we know what we are talking about when we engage in the geopolitics of love.” (16)

Today, on the first day of the New Year,  I reach out to ALL my Jewish brothers and sisters. We are one ancient community - Am Yisrael - the people of Israel. Join me, debate with me, respectfully disagree with me, but do not allow the politics of hate to tear our community apart. We must find our way to a sacred and purposeful middle.

Rosh Hashanah is sometimes called: Yom Teruah - the Day for the Sounding of the Shofar. This word - Teruah - comes from the Hebrew root, “to warn.” (17) The shofar blasts are intended to call us to attention - to make us sit up straight and be aware. They also warn us of impending danger. Teruah - we must hear the warning call, and then we must act.

Be my partner. This morning I stand with colleagues across the country and say: Teruah. “For those who have opted out of the Israel conversation – return. Sh’varim. For those who have surrendered to cynicism – return. Tekiah. For those dreamy-eyed idealists, floating above the fray – return.” Return with pride. Share your love for Judaism. Share your love for Israel. Take your seat at the table, and may no one make us afraid. (18)

Ze’ev Maghen, a student leader at Columbia once asked, “What is the key to [the Jewish people’s]...survival against all odds?...History teaches us...that those who...chose to build, to educate…, to defy...with Jewish learning, Jewish observance and Jewish strength - bring our people survival, salvation, a future.” (19)

Micah, this is the true secret: this is what has sustained our people for so many centuries.

I’m proud to say, the essay I wrote, hearts and all, won that Jewish Agency Essay Contest. And I stand by the same message today: Israel is a place of hope.

When that plane landed at Ben Gurion last February and everyone clapped, my family and I clasped hands, and recited Shehechiyanu thanking God for enabling us to reach this moment, in this place: our holy, beautiful and imperfect homeland - for the first time. Yes, we had returned. And we continue to persevere, with hope in our hearts, until we can return again.


(1) Facebook post, July, 2019. Rabbi Spike Anderson

(2) The Jewish Agency for Israel has been in existence since 1929 played an important role in the establishment of the state and today works to build a partnership between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state - website:

(3) Talmud Ta’anit 5a:11, there is also a concept from Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler: “One who really wants to mourn Yerushalayim must work on rebuilding it.”

(4) Talmud Ta’anit 5a:11

(6) Klein HaLevi, Yossi. Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, Harper Collins, 2018. P. 17.

(10) Amichai, Yehudah. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem’ in Open, Shut, Open, 1998.

(11) Thank you to Rabbi Yael Ridberg for pointing out this text:

(14)  JDC:, New Israel Fund:, Jewish Community Relations Council, Boston Partners for Peace:

(15) Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Random House. An advanced copy was gifted to me by the author, expected publishing release date, September, 2019.

(18) Thank you to Rabbi Darah Frimmer for the inspiration for this paragraph.

(19) Quote found in Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Random House. An advanced copy was gifted to me by the author, expected release date, September, 2019. P. 166.

Mon, May 27 2024 19 Iyar 5784