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Some reflections on Israel

 
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From the Golan to Samaria/Shomrom to Revava to Ramallah

Cousins’ lives and life situations can be very similar — and very different. This is true within families as it is within the Jewish and Palestinian nations.

Immediately after my son Eytan and I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, a couple of days before starting our participation in this year’s Israel Bonds rabbinic cabinet mission, we drove up to Moshav Avnei Eitan in the southern Golan Heights. We were visiting cousins Tova and Yossi and their nine daughters.

Our Golan relatives are among the 20 families who were evicted from Gush Katif in 2005. They moved from the extreme south to Israel’s northernmost reaches. Tova and Yossi left Kfar Darom, its Gazan neighbors, and its southern Negev winds to experience the heights of Israel, along with views of their new Syrian neighbors. In our small rental car, we felt the ferocity of the Golan’s harsh northern winds.

There was a stark contrast between the outside elements and the home we entered. Once inside, we were greeted by warmth and unmatched Israeli hospitality. The family was finally in its new home, after eight years in temporary quarters. Their previous house was a four-bedroom prefab trailer provided by the government. Most of the family’s possessions were packed for them by the army before their eviction from Kfar Darom, because they didn’t want to be “complicit” with their own evacuation. Years’ worth of possessions were stored in a shipping container in their backyard.

The family joyously showed off their new, modern, spacious, custom-built ranch house. Despite being home to children from 2 to 18 years old, the house was neat, roomy, serene, cheerful, bright, and filled with much love and geniality.

Early the next morning, we drove to Samaria/Shomron for another family reunion. After descending the heights of the Golan, we traveled south along the Jordan River until we came to Derech Allon, the road that winds its way westward through Samaria/Shomron and the Judean mountains. This road was supposed to be the first step in implementing the Allon plan, which would occupy a narrow corridor of land along the west of the Jordan River up to the eastern slopes of the Samarian mountains in order to assure some strategic depth and security while relinquishing the rest of the West Bank to Arab-Jordanian control. The plan never was implemented. None of the sides agreed. In the meantime, military reality changed. The area still is disputed between Israelis and Palestinians. Jordan long ago bowed out of any active offer to participate in a solution and open its borders to more of its Palestinian cousins.

Allon Road meanders across biblical landscapes that haven’t changed for hundreds of years. Sheep, goats, and shepherds outnumber cars and trucks. Red warning signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English warn drivers not to proceed into “Area A,” which is under Palestinian Authority control. “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli law.” The hilly, windy road passes large, empty, arid mountainous vistas that transfer you back to the time of the prophets, almost three millennia ago.

After driving through the past, we enter the present reality of Israel’s settlements in Samaria/Shomron, the West Bank community of Revava. Before you enter Revava’s security gate, you can look west and see the Jordanian Valley and Israel’s ancient past. Entering Revava, a short half-hour from Petach Tikva and Tel Aviv and near the new Israeli city of Ariel, it is difficult to believe that this beautifully placid, well-manicured suburban community was established as recently as 1991.

Though not as densely populated as its name suggested — “revava” means “ten thousands” and comes from the blessing to Rebekah found in Genesis — the new town is home to a few hundred Orthodox Jewish families, plus students studying in both girls and boys yeshivot. There are new houses and a new synagogue, and the local nursery school is expanding. In front is a large sign in red letters: “Don’t give in to Kerry,” reflecting the community’s political views and commitment to remaining where they are. We visit our relatives’ lovely home, enjoy the beautiful garden filled with fruit trees, grape vines, citrus and blossoming almond trees, and marvel at the serenity.

Just a few miles west of “Area A,” and its warnings, Jews are living in a modern, placid community of lovely, suburban homes. The politics of settlement remains a day-to-day conversation and a source of concern, while the joy of home, religion, culture, family and friendship remains constant. We get back into our car so that we can be in Tel Aviv before 1: p.m. We drive quickly along Israel’s Route 5, a modern expressway, and arrive in Tel Aviv in half an hour, a few thousand years removed from Samaria and its reminders of Israel’s biblical origins.

Israel Bonds takes us to meet with the political, intellectual, cultural, and scientific movers and shakers who are changing Israel’s present and reshaping its future. In Tel Aviv, we visit the bright leaders of Check Point, Israel’s major internet firewall security firm, who have helped propel Israel into the forefront of 21st century innovation. Its modest building stands in the shadow of Google’s massive modern skyscraper just around the corner.

A few miles south of Tel Aviv, we visit Israel’s sewage waste water treatment complex, which takes 85 per cent of the waste water of Israel’s residential and commercial centers on the Mediterranean coast and transfers the purified water to the Negev in the south to irrigate the desert producing bumper crops each year. No country comes close to Israel’s rate of reusing scant natural resources. Spain, coming in second, re-uses 18 per cent of its wastewater. The sewage treatment center is not only feeding the desert — it also has become a teaching workshop training representatives from countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America to make the best use of ever-diminishing water resources.

The contrasts between the past and the present are stark. It isn’t until the two of us visit the modern Palestinian city of Ramallah on our own, following the Israel Bonds Mission, that we also experience a modern Palestinian metropolis. Banks from throughout the Middle East have set up headquarters in this bustling city. Technology centers are growing. Office and apartment rentals are attracting premium prices. Ramallah is growing daily.

An honor guard stands in front of Yasser Arafat’s Mausoleum and beside his tomb, but we are the only ones to visit the empty space. Police and soldiers stand guard on the well-traveled streets as PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his entourage drive by. No one seems to be paying too much attention.

It was easy for me to forget that I was in an unfriendly, potentially dangerous Palestinian territory until Eytan reminded me not to speak Hebrew. We were keeping a purposely low profile. For Israelis, this was “Area A,” potentially dangerous and illegal to visit.

As we prepare to leave Israel, questions arise: Will Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama succeed in helping the parties reach an agreement, despite those on both sides who are against any compromise? Will Israel and the Palestinian Authority come to a mutual understanding and create a nation that Palestinians can call their own? Will Palestinians acknowledge that Israel was created to be a Jewish state? Will Israelis and Palestinians recognize that the status quo is neither viable nor neutral, and that it is the long-term best interests of both nations to come to a two-state solution? Will these two nations be able to stand side by side with true peace solemnizing their partnership? Will the shadows of past territorial give backs and agreements, and the violence which has subsequently exploded from Gaza, and the terror which is currently emanating from the Sinai, be averted in any future land swaps and peace compromises?

Despite the oceans, lifestyle and sometimes political proclivities which divide us, familial cousins enjoy seeing one another and reuniting. Can Israeli and Palestinian cousins, the children of Abraham and the children of Ishmael, cross the seas which divide and separate them? Can they each have their own houses, welcome each other into their homes, and be good neighbors and become like family?

These are some of the questions which stay with us as we leave Israel and family and return to the United States to digest what we have seen and to dream about tomorrow.

 

Rabbi Richard Hammerman
Richard Hammerman of Caldwell is rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Toms River, a former senior vice president of the World Council of Conservative/ Masorti Synagogues/Masorti Olami, and a member of the rabbinic cabinets at JStreet and Israel Blonds.
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Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Scandals in the rabbinate

In the wake of the recent, highly publicized mikvah scandal, I wonder what possesses men and women who have dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Judaism and its values to abandon those values.

Often enough this occurs in the domain of sexual wrongdoing, but there also are recorded instances of such ethical offenses as the misuse of discretionary funds for personal or family needs, and criminal activities including the embezzlement of synagogue or Jewish organizational assets. The parties involved often have sterling records of service to the Jewish community and are well-respected as clergy in their denominations and then suddenly all hell breaks loose regarding a discovered transgression that is not a mere peccadillo. Why does this happen?

 

 

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Speaking about the unspeakable

 

A view from the pew

The recent debates over the so-called Jewish State basic law was the catalyst, though not necessarily the true cause, for the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.

What was this debate really about? As a Chanukah gift to ourselves, I suggest that each of us do a Google search of the following list of internationally recognized legal documents: the Balfour Declaration; UN Resolution 181, dated November 29, 1947; the Israeli declaration of independence; and UN Resolution 242, dated September 1967.

Each of these internationally recognized legal documents are proof that for nearly a century, the international community has affirmed and re-affirmed the right of the Jewish people to re-establish ourselves as an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. You will note as well that over that same century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora has affirmed our responsibility to recognize the political and religious rights of non-Jewish residents of the pre-1948 community and of the equality under law of all citizens of Israel.

 

 

Divided we fall — united we may stand

As I look out on the world from my vantage point in relatively safe and protected Teaneck, I am often reminded of these lines by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Here, in the United States, we seem less united than at any time since the Civil War. In much of the Arab world internal sectarianisms and a return to tribalism seem to hold sway. Within the Jewish world we seem to have splintered into ever smaller, more closely defined, exclusive and exclusionary fragments. Even in Teaneck, we are deeply factionalized.

 

 
 
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