What Israel Means to Me

When I was in second grade, I won an essay contest. The Jewish Agency asked young people across the country to respond to one question – what does Israel mean to you? In retrospect, my family should have understood this as a sign that I was destined to be a rabbi. But back in 1986, all I remember was my elation at winning the $200 prize.

Last year, while cleaning out the basement I stumbled across my essay. The handwriting was something that only an eight-year-old girl could replicate, with hearts drawn in place of dots over the “I’s,” I wrote, “what Israel means to me is hope. Hope that the world can be better, can be safer and can be a place where all Jews have a home.” 

Today, almost 40 years later, I still believe this to be true. Israel has the potential to be the actualization of the dreams, and yes, hopes of the Jewish people. I have loved Israel my entire life. But living away from her has allowed me to be distant from her complexities. 
I have traveled to Israel many times and during rabbinical school lived in Jerusalem for a year, but things change in the Middle East in a matter of seconds. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to join AIEF – the American Israel Education Foundation – the charitable foundation associated with AIPAC on a seminar for progressive rabbis in Israel.

AIPAC is a bi-partisan organization that works to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship. I wanted to return, deepen my understanding of what is happening and learn from trusted colleagues and professionals how to more impactfully share Israel with you, my synagogue community. I am profoundly grateful to AIPAC for giving me the opportunity to explore and learn with them this summer. 
There is so much to share and teach about my trip. My hope this evening is to share just one facet of my experience and focus on the issue of pluralism and Jewish practice in Israel and how we as American Jews can be engaged and involved. 

Many of you might already be aware that a significant difference between democracy in the United States and democracy in Israel is the role of Judaism. Israel is both a democratic and a Jewish state. What this means is that unlike in the United States, religion and state are not separate. Currently, religious decision making is tightly held by the Orthodox Rabbinate or Rabbanut and backed by Orthodox-Jewish political parties who hold seats in Knesset – Israel’s parliament. What this means is that Reform and Conservative Judaism are not recognized as legitimate forms of religious expression.

This plays out in the public sphere in a myriad of ways. Weddings and conversions performed by Reform and Conservative Rabbis in Israel are not legally recognized and with few exceptions, these rabbis are ineligible to receive state-sponsored salaries. There are constant debates about who is a Jew, what businesses can be open on Shabbat and ongoing discourse and actual legal cases regarding the separation of genders on public buses and even airplanes.

There is no bigger flash point than the most sacred and holy place in Jewish tradition – the Western Wall or Kotel. The Kotel is currently controlled by the Orthodox Rabbanut, and Orthodox prayer conventions are imposed upon everyone who visits the holy site. Men and women pray separately with a barrier in between them. Women must dress modestly. Congruent with Orthodox Jewish practice, women are not allowed to pray out loud, read from the Torah or wear Tallit.

Women of the Wall – Nashot HaKotel - challenges this status quo. Established in 1988, this brave group of women meet monthly at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh – the new Jewish month. The women of Nashot HaKotel are Reform, Conservative and yes even Orthodox Jews. They are Israeli, American, French, Canadian and every other nationality you can think of.

Together, they fervently believe women should have equal access to the Kotel. They believe, similar to our own Reform Jewish practice, that women should be allowed to pray as they choose, read Torah and wear Tallit at Judaism’s holiest site. Over the years, through acts of civil disobedience and by bringing lawsuits to Israel’s Supreme Court, Nashot HaKotel have fought for equal rights and protection under the law.
Two years ago, the Reform and Conservative movements won a victory in the fight for formal recognition. An agreement was negotiated by Natan Sharansky – chair of the Jewish Agency - between the progressive Jewish streams and the Netanyahu government. The government agreed to build a larger egalitarian prayer space near Robinson’s Arch – an area within the Western Wall complex.

Unfortunately, construction at this site has yet to begin, and it is unclear if the Netanyahu government intends to make good on this agreement. Because of these negotiations and their increased visibility, Woman of the Wall has come under ever more virulent attack as they gather together each month to pray. 

I joined Nashot HaKotel last Friday at what was one of the worst and most violent mornings at the Kotel in over a year. 150 women and many male supporters gathered to pray. We were ringed by ultra-Orthodox men throwing projectiles and spitting at us, Haredi women blowing whistles in our faces and making shushing sounds, and signs and posters decrying the belief that Reform Judaism is not religion. The police stood silently by, refusing to remove the people harassing us.

I was hit in the head with hard candy – and was told at least it wasn’t a rock. I was spit on and forced to place my body between an ultra-Orthodox harasser, and two young women, joining us from Birthright who were sobbing uncontrollably because of the intensity of the experience. 

All of this was devastating. But little did we know, this was the least of it. As we attempted to leave the Kotel plaza, a crowd of ultra-Orthodox men surrounded us. The police were finally forced to intervene and formed a human chain to push back the tide of harassers. Eventually, we made it to a bus that drove onto the Kotel security ramp, so we could exit safely. Firmly ensconced on the bus, I shook with fear, as Nashot HaKotel’s leader, Anat Hoffman, showed me the remains of a prayer book that had been set aflame by the angry mob. 

Days later, I am still shaken when I think of what could have happened. As Anat wrote in a blog post about the incident: we know all too well when books are burned, people can easily be next. 

I share this story with you not to scare you or dissuade you from engaging with Israel. I share this story with the goal of increasing our awareness about the necessary and unique role American Jews can play as the nature and character of Israel’s democracy continues to be decided. 

We know that this week, the Knesset passed a bill, called the Nation-State bill, that is antithetical to our values as progressive Jews. Yet, we must not walk away. We must double down on our engagement, our passion and our will to create change. It is only when we engage, when we wrestle and at the same time hold Israel close, that the Israel our Zionist forebears dreamed of creating can come to its fullest and most beautiful fruition.  

There are small and simple things each of us – each of you - can do. First and foremost, we, as the progressive American Jewish community, can be strong supporters of organizations that represent progressive Jewish interests in Israel - the Union for Reform Judaism and the Israel Reform Action Center are two examples. 

These groups work tirelessly to bring our message of equality and pluralism, and our deep and abiding desire to be engaged with Israel to the Prime Minister’s office, Knesset, the Jewish Agency and others who are in positions of power. Last week, when our group met with members of Knesset, it was clear some might not like, fully understand or agree with our message, but they hear us. 

We can call and write the Consul General’s office – like I did today – to express our concern and consternation about the lack of police protection for Women of the Wall or to share our outrage regarding certain pieces of legislation. 

When we travel to Israel, we should share our progressive Jewish narrative with those we meet. We can proudly wear Tallit and Kippot in public spaces (and this is not always a simple or easy thing).

We can teach by word and deed that inclusion and tolerance are at the forefront of our Jewish values. Many secular Israelis are desperate to create a colorful and rich Jewish life outside the control of the Orthodox rabbinate – we can engage with them, explain who we are, what we believe, and invite them to join us. There are Israelis waiting to be our partners.

As we build relationships with organizations like AIPAC, we must partner with them in order to ensure progressive Jewish voices and values are a vital part of their agenda.

We can engage with and support Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Reform Action Center on social media – after Shabbat - go onto Facebook and “like” the Woman of the Wall page. We can read, read and read some more about Israeli culture, politics and policies so we can be better informed, and act as deeply educated advocates.

Tomorrow marks Tisha B’Av – the day we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Kotel is the last remaining wall of that Temple. Tradition teaches us that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam – baseless hatred. Last week, I experienced baseless hatred at the holiest of Jewish places.

But sinat chinam – baseless hatred - is not the end of the story. We are taught by Rav Kook – the first chief rabbi of Israel, “if we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324).

Last week, despite the display of sinat chinam, I experienced many examples of ahavat chinam – boundless and generous love. 
This is just one of these stories: On our trip, our group met with a myriad of Jewish voices from across the spectrum of Israeli and Palestinian society. As we stood, looking across the Israeli border to Lebanon, we had the pleasure of meeting Lt. Col. Sarit Zehavi of Israel’s Defense Forces.

After our briefing about border security, as we prepared to board the bus, Colonel Zehavi stopped our group leader. And she apologized. She apologized for our disturbing experience at the Kotel. This highly decorated military officer wanted to be sure we understood the incident at the Kotel was NOT Israel. She wanted us to know Israel was our home and that our voices mattered. She wanted 20 progressive American Rabbis to know that she too would lift up her voice, be our partner and work with us to build our dream of a better, more just Israel. 

Tonight, on this Shabbat before Tisha B’av, as we reflect on the pain caused by sinat chinam, I ask you to remain engaged with the holiest place of our people. I ask you to believe in ahavat chinam – boundless and generous love. When I was eight years old, I wrote, “what Israel means to me is hope.” I still very much believe this to be true.

Rabbi Allison Berry is the co-senior rabbi at Temple Shalom in Newton, MA. Rabbi Berry joined the Temple Shalom community in 2011 as the Associate Rabbi and Director of the Grades K-6 SHACHARITEducation program. She is deeply committed to the fact that Temple Shalom is a diverse community, welcoming people of traditional and non-traditional backgrounds, interfaith families, Jewish-by-choice, non-Jewish partners, members of the LGBTQ community, people with physical, social or cognitive challenges and those searching for meaning.

This blog originally appeared on Temple Shalom's blog