This week's Torah portion, Parashat Behar (“at the mountain”), speaks to the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish thought and deed. Although the Jewish people have lived in many other lands throughout much of our history and continue to do so today, we always have been profoundly aware of our link to Eretz Yisrael. Throughout the ages, intense love between Jews and our homeland has permeated our prayers, our Torah and our hearts. After traveling to Israel for the first time on a WRJ Mission in 2017, I myself have fallen in love with the land of Israel and its people.
In this portion, we learn about the Sh'mittah, a resting year for the land every seventh year. The land is to lie fallow, released from cultivation. After seven times seven years, a Jubilee year, Yovel, is to be proclaimed in the fiftieth year. At the time of the Jubilee, slaves are freed, and property reverts to its original owner. These laws are an expression of God's ultimate ownership of the land and of the people. We must not exploit this land, which is simply on loan to us by its Creator. We must protect it and seek its revitalization. We also must protect the well-being of all members of our community. The laws are intended to correct the inequality of rich and poor and to ensure the economic and social freedom of the Israelites, whom God collectively redeemed from slavery in Egypt.
God instructs the Israelites: “Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.” (Lev. 25:24) What does it mean to provide for the redemption of the land? Rabbi Bradley Artson writes that according to most biblical commentators, this verse is understood as mandating a loving Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael. So how do we, as Reform Jewish women in North America establish such a loving Jewish presence in the land of Israel?
Modern Zionism represents a commitment to love of Israel and encompasses our Reform values of democracy, pluralism, and equality. WRJ passed a resolution in 2007 on Israel's 60th anniversary and ARZA's (the Association of Reform Zionists of America) 30th anniversary which still rings true over a decade later: “This is the time for Reform Jews to proclaim Israel and Jewish peoplehood to be core components of their personal and communal Jewish identities, no less so than God, Torah, personal spirituality, or a commitment to tikkun olam.”
WRJ has enjoyed strong bonds with, and a deep connection to, the State of Israel from its earliest days. WRJ is committed to advancing religious pluralism and equal rights for women and minorities in Israel and supports the important work of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Women of the Wall, and the Israel Religious Action Center. WRJ has spoken out for and about Israel many times over the years in statements and resolutions. Through the YES Fund (Youth, Education and Special Projects), WRJ grants tens of thousands of dollars each year to Israeli organizations. WRJ-Israel, one of our global connections, includes over twenty WRJ-affiliated women's groups in Israel. There is also a WRJ-Israel Twinning program which gives North American sisterhoods the opportunity to “twin” or “pair” with a WRJ-Israel women's group and build a long-term, mutually-beneficial relationship. WRJ has an Israel Education Team and an Israel Education group on Yammer, our online platform for sharing ideas and information.
Perhaps the best way to cultivate a loving Jewish presence in Israel is to visit Israel. WRJ members and staff travel there often, and WRJ organizes incredible missions to Israel, open to all women.
On my most recent trip to Israel with WRJ, in March 2019, I was inspired anew by the rich diversity of Israeli culture and by our Reform partners who are working tirelessly to create an Israeli society that treats all of its citizens equally and is aligned with our shared Reform values.
The day we arrived in Israel, we were warmly welcomed by Rabbi Rinat Safania and her community in Shoham for Erev Shabbat services followed by a bountiful, delicious home-cooked dinner. I met Rinat, a young and dynamic Reform rabbi, while I was in Israel last year. The work and activities she is doing with her growing community are impressive. I am excited to share that she recently invited me to become an overseas member of Kehillat Shoham – an invitation I was thrilled to accept!
During my trip, I celebrated Shabbat with two more Reform communities: Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, where the members not only embraced me but gave me the honor of an aliyah during their morning Shabbat service; and Kehillat Har-El in Jerusalem, where we were treated to another delicious home-cooked dinner with the congregation's Cantor Evan Cohen and his family.
In Tel Aviv, we met with Israeli artist Tamar Paley, a young Reform woman who creates ritual items for women like tefillin and tallitot that are truly unique works of art. And in Daliat El Carmel, we met with artist Bothania Halabi, a Druze woman who feels a special connection to the Jewish people and has created an entire collection of paintings based on her experiences connecting with Holocaust survivors.
In Haifa, we visited the Leo Baeck Education Center, a vibrant, pluralistic center comprised of schools for all grade levels, a progressive synagogue, a community center and social outreach programs serving all Israelis in the community regardless of religion, culture or background. They are dedicated to democracy, diversity, egalitarianism and human rights, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear from a group of Leo Baeck high school students as well as some of the staff about their leadership roles, engagement in the community, and plans for the future.
In Jerusalem, we met with leaders of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We celebrated with Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet and WOW's thirtieth year anniversary. We visited Yad LaKashish, a place which empowers Jerusalem's neediest elderly to remain active and productive members of society, teaching them skills to create all kinds of Judaica, gifts, and souvenirs, which are sold at their onsite gift shop. We also visited Susan's House, a unique workshop that empowers at-risk teens to find their place within society through artistic expression, personal investment, and creative initiatives.
Israel is an amazing place. I encourage you to learn more about Israel, to engage in meaningful Israel education and programming with WRJ, in your sisterhood, and at your synagogue. I encourage you to support Israel, with your voices and with your checkbooks. Reform Judaism is growing in Israel and thriving. There are twice as many Reform communities there today as there were ten years ago. Our Reform partners in Israel are doing tremendous work, but they need our support now more than ever. And finally, I highly encourage you to join WRJ on one of their upcoming missions to Israel. You will have the journey of a lifetime!
On this Shabbat, as we read about the land of Israel and the special bonds between the land, the people and God, let us take time to think about what Eretz Yisrael means to us and to think about the ways in which we can establish a loving Jewish presence in the land of Israel. May we all be inspired to deepen our engagement with Israel and help to promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all.
Karen Goldberg is a past president of Women of Isaiah in Lafayette, California and remains active on the WOI board. She is a past chair and continuing member of WOI’s Maagal Tzedakah committee. Karen has served on the Temple Isaiah board and executive committee, and currently teaches a family program at JQuest, Temple Isaiah’s innovative religious school. She is a member of the WRJ North American Board, the WRJ Pacific District Social Action task force, and the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.