Postings From Israel July 2014

Jerusalem, July 14, 2014 (post #1 of 6)

Dear Bet Am Shalom,
Tonight is my first night of this timely trip to Israel.  I am here with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.  It is (and I'm still shocked to say this) our organization's first official visit to Israel.
I arrived with no more incident than I ever do.  I'm sitting in my hotel room looking out at the Jaffa Gate.  Below, a loud and joyous concert is going in the Sultan's Pool entertainment venue.  It is an "iftar" celebration, part of what Muslims do each night of Ramadan after their day of fasting.  Around the bend, near the Damascus Gate, a group of angry Jews is marching in what has become a nightly "revenge" protest against Arabs.  (Do you need this footnote? A fifth of Israel's citizens are Arabs, and much more than a fifth of this holy city.)
Tomorrow I expect to be awakened at dawn by the church bells from the Lutheran tower (also right outside my window); the muezzin of the many mosques in the Old City and just to the other side of it in East Jerusalem; and of the jackhammers at the construction project across the street. We rabbis, too, will be making the familiar noises of the weekday morning davening.   Not that there's so much peace and coexistence here, but there is a tapestry of peoples and religions living together nonetheless, and it's most palpably felt in the sounds of Jerusalem at sunrise. 
Because Tuesday is the 17th of Tammuz, the fast that begins the three weeks leading up to Tisha b'Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temples), many Jews and Muslims have organized a coordinated break-fast tomorrow night.  It's a sort of prayer for the cessation of hostilities, if you will.  
Israelis are rightfully spooked by the random rocket fire coming from Gaza. Many are also spooked by the thought that their sons might be sent into Gaza for a ground war.  
Meanwhile the air force continues to do its work, as do the Iron Dome interceptors.  Were it not for those space-age gizmos, you would be reading about much horrific bloodshed on this side of the border.  The Iron Dome, plus the rocket warning system (which we were all briefed about immediately upon arrival!), have saved countless Israeli lives (Jewish AND Arab).

As much as we might not have much sympathy for Gazan civilians caught in the line of fire (given Hamas's cynical practice of placing its launchers and munitions in homes, schools, and mosques), many in Israel are trying to get their voices of sympathetic protest heard. The human toll over there is painful, and it is real, and it needs to matter to us, regardless of our politics. I am happy to tell you that Israelis are donating blood to be used by official Israeli medical teams serving Gazans injured in the air raids.
Every last Israeli Jew stands with their neighbors in sympathy and support. Every one of them needs OUR support at this hour.  Still, you need to know that the outward univocality of Israeli solidarity - so necessary for a tiny society to survive - is hardly univocal within. Talk shows, politicians, and military analysts vehemently disagree with each other about the efficacy of the bombings, the extent of human suffering it causes and whether a ground ward is a worthwhile trade-off for long-term quiet.  All of this can be heard loud and clear on the internet, television, radio, and press.  This remarkably free country encourages an openness of dialogue and disagreement which, I'm always sorry to say, is quelled in the ranks of our own diaspora Jewish community.  For us, "solidarity" means univocality.  For Israelis - and this is one more reason I am passionately in love with Israel - univocality would be laughable, and tragic.
Tomorrow we will meet at the Shalom Hartman Institute with the famed journalist Yossi Klein-Halevi.  I urge you to read his remarkable recent book, "Like Dreamers."  There he chronicles the careers of the paratroopers who took the Old City on the last day of the Six-Day War, and how different members of that corps created the settler movement, the Start-Up Nation high-tech economy, the emergence of Orthodox nationalism, Peace Now, and the disaffected Left.  
In the afternoon we will go to the Knesset to meet its most celebrated new member, Ruth Calderon.  Ruth, a consummate educator, was famous for creating Jewish sacred text learning centers for secular Israelis.  Now she serves as one of the most unlikely (and welcome) members of Israel's parliament.  On Wednesday we'll be in the West Bank meeting with leaders of the settler movement, some of the very people featured in Klein-Halevi's book. 
In days ahead we'll have more adventures.  Yes, we all hope our "adventures" don't include air-raid sirens and rockets.  We'll all be careful, whatever that might mean.  But on that subject, let me share something I heard in our opening circle this afternoon.  Someone recalled that in the Book of Numbers in the Torah, the spies sent into Canaan by Moses returned to the desert with a report that emphasized little of what they actually saw, but a lot of what they feared before going in.  Our job - and this is one of the reasons I'm writing to you - is to tell you that the alerts are real, the concern is palpable, AND that you should have no hesitation about coming here yourself.  
My plane last night was half-empty.  (Should I say half-full?)  A tour organizer told us that we were her last group for the summer, since everyone else had cancelled.  I couldn't help noticing that an NCSY (Orthodox youth movement) group of teenagers on my plane looked undaunted.  I'm happy to report that the Reconstructionist group from Camp JRF, Noar Hadash, is indeed coming here (including two kids from our own shul).  
I invite you to think about coming for a few days this summer.  Think about what it means to show up when Israel starts to feel alone.  By contrast, think about what it means to come here only when it's quiet, when you can stroll in the beautiful shops and hike in the breathtaking countryside, and take in the inspiring views of Jerusalem, and easily forget the price Israelis pay every day to give us those privileges.  And then think again.  
Stay tuned.  As time permits, I hope to send a few more blog reports from the road. Wishing you all well, and praying for peace for all Israel and her neighbors.
Rabbi Lester Bronstein      


Jerusalem, July 16, 2014 (Posting #2 of 6)

Dear Bet Am Shalom Friends:
On a difficult day in Israel, one calls to mind Naomi Shemer's beloved song, "Al Kol Eleh" ("for all of these").  There she sighs that one must be thankful for the "d'vash" (the honey) and the "oketz" (the stinger of the bee that gives the honey).  
We began our day in the one synagogue in Israel that could truly call itself Reconstructionist, M'vakshey Derekh here in Jerusalem.  As we began our brief weekday davening, word came of a cease fire.  Our service was ebullient.  Some colleagues cried throughout.  Hope would carry us through the day of fasting and contemplation as we observed 17 Tammuz. [Historical note: This became a fast day because it marked the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that ended in the city's destruction three weeks later on 9 Av.] Sane voices had obviously prevailed. Children in Gaza could stop cowering.  Our Israeli sons would be spared another round of heroic battle and casualty.
We enjoyed our remarkable morning session at the Hartman Institute with journalist-scholar Yossi Klein-Halevi. He challenged us to understand why Israelis hover politically in what he calls the "unbearable center."  He told us that after the first Intifada (in the late '80s), Israelis realized that the Left had been correct - the settlements were untenable, corrupting, and corrosive.  In the second Intifada (2000-2003), Israelis learned that the Right had also been correct in arguing that territorial compromise would not ultimately lead to peace with an opposite number who wanted not compromise, but the dissolution of Israel altogether.  
He told us that in his most recent six-month lecture tour in the U.S., he realized that American Orthodox Jews, for the most part, live in the 1970s, still believing that more strength and resilience will carry the day for Israel, and that the Territories can remain an eternal part of the Israeli dream.  On the other hand, he said, American Liberal Jews still live in the 1990s, in the time of Oslo, still not disabused by the sad truth Israelis have all come to know since Intifada II, the Gaza withdrawal, the Second Lebanon War, and now three Gaza conflicts: the Occupation must end, but its end will bring us even closer to an enemy that will never agree to be our neighbor. Damned if we don't, but perhaps more damned if we do.
Needless to say, some of my colleagues pushed back on his analysis. But as you know from hearing me talk about Israel over the years, I agreed with him almost entirely.  I've often said that Israel must do the "right" thing for its own conscience (and should have done so decades ago), but that doing so will in no way lead to "peace" as anyone conceives of that term.  
We went on to the Knesset, where we had a delightful session with Yesh Atid ("there is a future") Party member Ruth Calderon, the famed secular Talmud teacher and adult educator.  She taught us a passage of Talmud, a strange Kafkaesque story about a marriage infected by distrust, which she told us was a Rabbinic parable for the "divorce" of God and Israel after the Temple was destroyed. The story fit the season on the calendar, but more immediately fit the sense of danger and abandonment that hovers over modern Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.  One upside was our finding out that such text study had become a small part of the weekly routine of the Knesset, and that more than a few politicians periodically took in the learning (and, one hopes, the ethical inspiration of our textual tradition). Studying Talmud in a committee chamber of the house of parliament reminded us of the marvelous disconnect that is Israel.
About thirteen of us trekked up Mount Zion in the late afternoon for the encounter I told you about in my first posting.  Muslims were preparing to have their nightly "iftar" ("release") from the daily Ramadan fast.  Jews were moving toward nightfall and our "release" from the fast of 17 Tammuz.  A hundred or so Jews and Muslims gathered at an interfaith cultural center next to where King David's tomb purports to be.  There, in a quintessential Arab "bustan" (a garden courtyard), we introduced ourselves, shared hopeful blessings, listened to teachings from a rabbi and a sheikh, and then broke the fast together.  Twilight had enveloped the scene.  The horn sounded from the Muslim Quarter in the Old City.  Firecrackers were going off in the distance.  We shared fresh dates, and then a modest buffet (halal and kosher).  The knowledge that a cease fire had come on this day of shared fasting pervaded the atmosphere.  We had not yet heard that the cease fire had failed, and that during our gathering an Israeli had died from mortar fire while bringing food to troops on the border.  
Honey and stinger.  "All of these."
Stay tuned.  Today we go and dialogue with leaders of the settler movement.  Then a hike with Noar Hadash, the Reconstructionist youth from Camp JRF in the Poconos, here on their high school senior year trip. Let's hope for a surfeit of honey as the day unfolds.
Rabbi Les Bronstein


Tel Aviv, July 18, 2014 (post #3 of 6)

Dear Bet Am Shalom Friends,
I suppose you're worried sick.  You just read (or read yesterday, if it's already Friday when you're seeing this post) that Israel began a ground operation.  It's true.  But no one here seems particularly panicked. Concerned, for sure.  Not panicked.
One rabbi on our group is here with his wife.  They lived in Israel for a number of years.  Now they live in Long Island.  But their son is in a crack combat unit, and he will certainly be crossing the border into the Gaza Strip, if he hasn't already.  He has been telling his parents for over a week that his group is prepared (even eager, in a way) to get in there and get the job over with.  The "job" is not reckless killing (God forbid). The job seems to be the rooting out of rocket launchers, caches, and tunnels.  Today a group of Hamas commandos were killed when they emerged from a tunnel onto the Israeli side of the fence.  So stuff is happening, and let's hope it goes quickly.  As I wrote several days ago, no one on this side of the battle wants any lives lost.  But innocents have suffered and died already, and more will die in the next few hours.  Israel's soldiers - kids the age of my kids - could die as well, God forbid (did I use that expression already?).
The alternative is to let the rocketing continue.  I don't think that's an option a sane person would choose, especially after three cease-fires.
Tonight, Yoni (my son, who by the way is not in the IDF) and I strolled down the Tel Aviv boardwalk.  We sat at an outdoor café and had a lovely meal. And Goldstar beer! While we were walking, the siren sounded.  No one got too upset.  We calmly headed into the nearest building.  Then we heard the muffled boom of the Iron Dome.  The siren stopped.  Everyone came outside and resumed whatever they were doing.  Quite a lot of people were out tonight: biking, jogging, strolling, playing beach volleyball, sitting and making out, etc.  To Israelis who know what war feels like, this doesn't feel like a war.  Yet.
Yesterday afternoon we met up with the high school kids from Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement camp.  Two of the participants are our own Gabe Faden and Daniel Katz, who look terrific, healthy, and well-bathed.
What sophisticated kids we have in our movement camp program!  We joined them in hiking a section of the old "Burma Road" that was hastily built in May 1948 to bypass the Jordanian siege of Jerusalem.  We ended up at the site of an Arab village abandoned (routed? destroyed?) in the wake of making the road.  We all sat together and talked about the ethical imperfections of attaining independence.  The kids were invited to relate it to today's situation.  They were most thoughtful, much as those who attend our Monday night classes during the school year.  
I was proud of our movement for allowing our students to hear the multivalent story of Israel's origin, and to think for themselves about how to integrate the "bad stuff" into their overall love and pride for Israel.  Our Bedouin style dinner following the hike was the most fun we "alte kockers" had had since we've been here.  For me, though, it was a celebration of their parents' commitment to sending the kids despite the situation, as well as a celebration of our commitment to honest education and that most beloved of Jewish values, truth.
Speaking of Bedouins and truth, today we (not the kids!) bused down to the Hebron hills, and then on to the upper Negev, to visit "non-recognized" Bedouin villages.  These are villages that claim a long history in their current locations.  But for various reasons the Government wants the residents to move, and to join up with well-serviced Bedouin townships in the area. Sometimes the "coaxing" takes the form of tent and residential cave demolitions.  
This is an old issue already.  I can't believe it's still going on.  It would be one thing if the Government practiced its evacuation and home demolition procedures on Jewish outpost start-ups (which are illegal, but which somehow find a way to hook up to the water and electric grids).  But it only condemns the Bedouin version, and these are hardly start-ups.  It's another one of those stories you wish weren't true in a decent country like Israel.  
If you ask me, these Bedouin are making the wrong choice for the 21th century (or even the 20th).  They should live like their Bedouin cousins (whose well-appointed towns we passed through): lovely homes, municipal services, opportunities for their children to get a decent education and a way up.  But if one is true to the principles of human rights, one must allow indigenous peoples to make those choices for themselves.  This is yet another case of a very Western Israel (and its never-ending plans for the future) clashing with a more ancient way of life typical in this part of the world.  It's probably another reason why Israel's very existence provokes jealously, mistrust, anger, antipathy, and, as we are seeing this very week, total rejection.  
This morning we sat with leaders from the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (what Israelis call "ha-Reformim").  From Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the rabbi who leads the movement, to Rabbi Naama Kelman who is dean of the HUC-JIR Jerusalem campus, to the three   Israeli Progressive rabbis we heard from, all of whom are trying to build a "native Israeli" alternative model of Judaism for a new kind of Jew, every speaker inspired us beyond what we dared to expect.  Non-Orthodox Jewish practice in Israel is finally coming of age, though its numbers are tiny.  I'm talking about Progressive (aka Reform), Masorti (aka Conservative), and various fellow travelers (like us, although we still have no real beachhead here).  
One reason it is inching forward, in addition to its finally realizing that it won't work to copy the models of its American counterparts, is that it has shifted its main focus.  Up to now, Progressive and Masorti leaders worried about religious pluralism in Israel, where such pluralism still only exists under the legal radar.  But now they've made the decision to concentrate on showing Israeli society that the centerpiece of Jewish tradition is...being a mentsch!  While the Chief (Haredi Orthodox) establishment continues to worry about picayune details of kashrut and Sabbath observance in every corner of public (and private) life it can get its hands on, the Progressives are emphasizing Jewish ethical values (!) in the courts, in the army, in the public schools, in labor every "secular" area where a true Jewish society needs to take responsibility for what you and I would call the Jewishness of its actions.  It seems that that message is resonating with Israelis.
So let's end with that bit of good news.  Another time, I'll tell you about our most pleasant visit with two spokespeople for the settler movement. I'll talk about my nostalgic opportunity to daven in the HUC campus synagogue today with our Reconstructionist colleagues, in the very room where Benjie and I attended the early morning service day after day for a whole year, just thirty-one years ago.
Re the situation: Try to follow the news on Y-Net, or Haaretz English edition, or some other source whose reason for existence is to cover the Gaza conflict as a local story.  Try not to pay too much attention to sensationalist broadcasts and papers whose goal is to get you to tune in to its ads, or who might be subtly pushing a political agenda, right or left. 
Tomorrow night we'll be attending the Progressive Israeli-style service at the outdoor Tel Aviv port.  Word is that it will be moved inside as a precautionary measure.  How sad.  But how wonderful that Israelis of some religion and no religion will come together around the sacredness of song and Shabbat.  I'm positive they'll be singing about peace and hope.  Vo den?  They're Jewish, after all.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Les Bronstein


Tel Aviv, July 20, 2014 Sunday evening (posting #4 of 6)
Dear Bet Am Shalom Friends,
Where shall I start?  With this evening's 7pm news on the radio? Thirteen Israeli soldiers have lost their lives down there in the Gaza Strip while rooting out tunnels [Midnight update: eighteen soldiers] [Monday update: twenty-five soldiers].  The newscaster was naming them slowly, along with their ages and places of residence.  I think I would weep for their parents even if I didn't have boys who would be down there right now if we lived here.  But I do indeed have boys their age.  Do I need to elaborate? 
And I'm sure that some of what you see coming out of Gaza is true, context or no context.  Civilians are dying, some of them their kids. Here the highest officials are reiterating that they have no fight with the Palestinian people, and that they pity these poor souls caught like baloney in the sandwich of a dastardly regime's game.  ("Baloney" is my analogy, not theirs.)  I see on my handy laptop that more than a few Europeans, as well as some folks in Denver, are not pleased that Israel is returning fire to Hamas's incessant rocketry.  Yoni and I were musing that the venom emerging from the crowds in Paris plays like déjà vu of Theodor Herzl's experience when he went there as a journalist to cover the Dreyfus trial and came up with the idea that a Jewish national state might solve the problem of "normalizing" the Jewish people.  I'll let you sit with that irony for a moment.
Everyone here hangs on each tease of a cease fire (there was a humanitarian one today, requested by Hamas, then broken by Hamas).  People think, though, that it would be good for Israel's border areas (which now include Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and places scores of miles inland) to make some headway at reducing the threat of rockets as well as the tunnels used for kidnappings and weapons smuggling.  So people want it over with, but they want it not to have been in vain.
Now chew on this: tonight at 8pm the Israel Defense Forces set up a hospital on the Gaza border to treat wounded Palestinians.  Let that news speak for itself.
Up in the north, where we spent our time today, professional "coexistence" people tell us that both Israeli Jews and Arabs up there are tending to withdraw into their enclaves.  Tension breeds rumors.  Arabs hear tales of violence in public places, so they retreat.  Jews, too, stay closer to home.  
Great news from a bunch of Israeli Arab kids we met with today way up in Dar al Asad, high in the magnificent Galilee (which I always call Israel's Berkshires).  Sitting with us in their joint Jewish-Arab community center, the kids said they are continuing their regular socializing with kids of both ethnicities.  'Yes' was their answer to my question about whether they bring up "the issue."  They talk about it openly.  They say their friendships have not been affected.  They clearly see themselves as the next generation, far beyond the hang-ups and fears of their elders.
Today we saw this famous Jewish-Arab circus I've been hearing about for a few years.  All of these kids are acrobats, and their flips, unicycle routines, trapeze feats, human pyramids, and so forth are nearly as mind-boggling as the fact that they are inter-ethnic.  And they were joined on stage by a visiting group from St. Louis, which included both black and white Americans.  Particulary amazing (to me, at least) was the girl dressed in hijab and acrobat costume going through the entire routine while fasting for Ramadan.
Friends, on a day when we were reading hard news from the south, we were feeling the blessings of some visionary social workers' hard labor.  At the conclusion of the performance, the organizer said to us, "Go back and tell people that this is going on here, too."  So I'm telling you, with tears in my eyes, that young black and white and brown arms are catching each other in the air in a circus act in the State of Israel.
In Tel Aviv, folks are out on the street and in the cafes.  Tonight we walked way across Kaplan Blvd, up Ibn Gabirol past the memorial at the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, all the way across Ben Gurion Blvd, and up Dizengoff.  People are strolling, sitting, drinking and eating, biking, and so forth.  These Israelis are simply not going to let themselves get scared away from enjoying the country they worked hard too hard to create.
This morning we met a true hero of Israel, Avital Geva.  If you read the book I recommended to you, Yossi Klein Halevi's "Like Dreamers," you'll know Avital as one of the paratroopers in the famous photo at the end of the Six Days' War.  He is the kibbutznik/artist/educator who took an unused building at the center of his kibbutz, Ein Shemer, and made it into a greenhouse/hangout/youth center.  There he singlehandedly revived and reconstructed the idealistic dream of the kibbutzniks for a lost generation of teenagers.  Today he and his son Atar run the greenhouse as a regional center for ecological-scientific learning and Jewish-Arab cooperation training for high schoolers.  Avital is a sort of secular rebbe, a mystic (my word, never his) who uses algae and plantings to explain the "oneness of everything, the energy that connects the entire universe."  I hear they're bringing the exhibit to the JCC of the Upper West Side during Sukkot.  We all must go and meet them.
One word about Shabbat: On Friday at sundown we went as a group to the fairly new "hot" phenomenon called "Beit Tefilah Yisraeli" ("Israeli House of Prayer").  Usually held outside at the popular Tel Aviv port to attract passersby, it was moved inside due to the threat of rockets.  (One alarm went off just as we were leaving the hotel, and another during dinner.)  Their service is patterned after BJ in Manhattan.  They've even got an Argentinian rabbi leading the whole thing, just like at BJ!  And a top-notch combo consisting of a drummer, a female singer, and a pianist.  Their musical choices include tunes and lyrics familiar to average NON-religious Israelis.  The energy in the room was palpable, since everyone there was sharing emotional pain about the war, as well as intense gratitude to be together - in Israel - and to be able to support one another with our most ancient and reliable go-to source of comfort, the songs of our Shabbat.  
One of the drop-ins was the Orthodox rabbi who heads the yeshiva that two of the three murdered Jewish boys attended.  The fact that he was present there and then, without flinching at the mixed seating and singing and unorthodox liturgical layout, meant that this place still has its vital soul, though we old-time Israel goers don't always recognize it so easily.
Our rabbinical tour ends tomorrow at lunch.  Yoni and I will stay on for a few days to visit relatives.  I'll try to write once or twice more, since the situation will undoubtedly morph, and we'll be able to take in the perspectives of our Israeli relatives and friends.  Thank you all for your warm words of encouragement following each of these postings.  
Sending you love from your Israel,
Rabbi Les Bronstein


Train to Acco, Tuesday, July 22, 2014 (posting #5 of 6)
Dear Bet Am Shalom Friends,
This morning Yoni and I took a short walk in Tel Aviv before checking out of our hotel.  We passed the Turkish Embassy just a couple of blocks down.  Their flag was at half-mast.  
I had read earlier today that Turkey has declared a three-day period of mourning for the dead of Gaza.  So we didn't need an explanation, but the symbolism of the Turkish flag flying in protest to Israel's actions down the coast was poignant.  I'm glad you can do that sort of thing in Israel.  God forbid it should ever change.  Reports of citizens attempting to quell other citizens' demonstrations by resorting to various forms of violence scare me.  
I also read that Israeli Arabs have staged protests around the country.  What can we say?  Israeli Arabs constantly debate with themselves and each other about who-in-the-heck they are.  Many of us American Jews of generous spirit are ready to call them "Palestinians" or "Palestinian Israelis," but every one of them I meet - even in "leftist" contexts - refers to him/herself as an Israeli Arab.  Privately many of them (especially women) say to their Jewish friends and co-workers that they absolutely don't want their towns and villages to be incorporated into a re-drawn green line that would make them part of the Palestinian state (the so-called "land swaps").  The difference in women's rights over here and over there is mind-boggling, and these women probably lose a lot of sleep thinking about the prospects.
But today we saw and said hello to plenty of Arabs, and we sat with three Arab women on the train just now.  Every time I see them out and about, I breathe a sigh of relief.
Yoni and I are now in phase two of our tour.  Phase one, the RRA study mission, has now concluded.  All in all it was hugely successful.  For me, part of the measure of its success was the very fact that it happened.  I've always felt that the RRA's not ever having made an official visit to Israel in the forty years of its organizational existence was one big example of avoidance behavior.  We may be the rabbinic arm of the movement that most emphasizes "peoplehood," but we've been pretty non-committal about this most visible sign of our peoplehood, namely the Zionist state.  Yes, there are many pieces to our jigsaw puzzle of Jewish identity, and yes, Israel may not even be the biggest one for all of us.  But it is the piece at the center of the puzzle, no matter what we think or feel.  Our job is to engage with that piece, and never to work around it.  
So here we were, engaging our hearts out.  And here was my second measure of our success.  I think our colleagues opened themselves to hearing and seeing things beyond what they expected.  Israel is one big Rorschach, as we all know.  But to come to Israel and see more than we ourselves bring to the act of seeing - that's an achievement.  And that's what I think happened on this trip.  
A few of our colleagues stayed on for a short seminar with "Encounter," a group that takes people (mainly Jews) into the Territories to stay with Palestinians and hear their narrative.  Having done a lot of this sort of thing in the past, I opted not to go, though I would recommend it for those who are not already predisposed to "hearing" a Palestinian version of what happens here every day.  For the rest of us, Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land" provides a good primer to this story.  However, I urge you to read to the end of his book, to the part where he usually loses left-leaning readers.  Try to hear him telling you that for many Palestinians, a big part of their narrative is the assumption that there is simply no place for a Jewish state in this part of the world.  I try to keep that concept in mind as I continue to work for the two-state "solution," knowing that for many millions of people it's no solution whatsoever.
Yoni and I visited Benjie's uncle and aunt last evening (really, her mother's first cousin).  We spent the usual three hours at the table, eating and schmoozing and catching everyone up on the news about each member of the family.  Then came the pictures on the iPhones, and then the old family albums, and so forth.  Priceless.
Then we heard a huge boom, but without the benefit of the warning siren.  So we knew that the incoming rockets weren't anywhere near us, but the boom was impressive nonetheless.  We went to the TV and proceeded to watch incessantly for the next two hours.  Indeed the rocket was intercepted outside our district.  But the real news was that of the incoming names (and numbers!) of Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict; the numbers of Hamas fighters killed; the numbers of Gazans killed and wounded; a round-and-round analysis of the various ceasefire proposals and tunnel destructions; and heartbreaking news clips of the soldiers' funerals, and President Peres's shiva visits, and Mrs. Netanyahu's shiva calls.  At some point I stepped back and realized that we were doing what millions of Israelis were doing at that very moment: watching the same television feed from our living rooms, and wondering how much more of this déjà vu we would have to go through in our lives.  For my relatives sitting with us - both of whom fought in the War of Independence (the aunt's 25-year-old brother was killed in that war) - the fact that this was "old news" did not make it a smidgen more tolerable or predictable.  
As the young woman at the hotel desk said to me last night with a sigh of exasperation, "we hate all of the loss of life, and that's what makes us who we are."  We agreed that despite the frequent and horrible examples we've seen lately of Israeli Jewish racism, nationalism, anger, hatred, intolerance (do I need to go on?), the overwhelming majority of Israel's citizens refuse to lose their humanity, even when they have no choice but to push back against attackers.  
Now we're heading north to see my relatives at Kibbutz K'far Masaryk.  Four generations of my cousins live there.  The patriarch, my mom's first cousin Misho Stein of blessed memory, was very dear to me.  He helped found the kibbutz in 1933.  More on him some other time.  Meanwhile, we're eager to spend quality time with this beloved part of our family, and to find out what they're thinking and feeling right now.  They have been out of the range of the rockets and sirens, though they have had their turn numerous times over the years, most recently during the Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon in 2006.  
Sending you all love and regards from this lovely Israeli train.
Rabbi Les Bronstein


El Al flight 001 TLV to JFK, July 25, 2014 (Post #6 of 6)

Dear Bet Am Shalom Friends,
On the last two days of our journey we covered many miles of the Land of Israel, and for the two of us, many years of nostalgic memories.  Yoni and I spent two days and a night with our kibbutz cousins in the north.  There we reacquainted ourselves with the newest little children in the family.  My cousin Ramah and I resumed our forty-year conversation about each and every twist and turn of our family in Europe, America, Israel, and God-knows where else.  We shpatziered around the kibbutz, visiting its original sites and buildings and recalling its important role in the history of what became the Jewish state.  Whenever I go there, I marvel at the fact that I actually have a blood connection to that place and story. 
We talked a-plenty about "the situation." But there wasn't much to say.  We all agree on the basic parameters of the story.  We all worry ourselves sick about the loss of life and the seeming intractability of it all.  (Sometimes we say "the inevitability" of it all.)  Still, our relatives seemed eager to go on with our visit as planned despite the background noise of the war.  They simply don't want to miss an opportunity to connect with family, to reminisce, to catch up, to be "normal" with their American kin.
We had one interesting surprise at the kibbutz.  In the last half-year, they officially kashered their dining hall.  They did it because it allows kosher-keeping tour groups (like those we run for Bet Am Shalom, for instance) to use the kibbutz as a meal stop.  It brings in income.  But why is this a man-bites-dog headline?  Because this kibbutz is part of Shomer Hatzair, the movement that historically guarded the left-most anti-religious flank of the kibbutz system.  Apparently, some members complained about going kosher, saying it represented the encroachment of the ubiquitous Orthodox.  But they went along with it anyway, and my cousins - who have become a bit more tradition-minded in the last twenty years or so, thought it was a nice way to connect with Jewish identity and culture (I'm translating from their Hebrew), even though they would never believe that the obligation to observe kashrut came from some amorphous place on high.  Go no!  My Israeli relatives are Reconstructionists!
We concluded our trip with a visit to K'far Saba.  We stayed with the Mazors, who are one of the families that have become like relatives to us over the decades.  Edna Mazor teaches basic Judaism to soldiers who are new immigrants (usually from the Former Soviet Union) who know absolutely nothing about Jewish traditions, customs, or history, even though they are in uniform defending the State of Israel.  Yoram Mazor is a leading Reform rabbi in Israel.  He edited the Reform siddurim used throughout Israel, and he serves as the "av bet din" or head of the committee of Progressive rabbis who perform conversions for new immigrants, mostly from the Former Soviet Union, and also for newborns and adoptees when the official Rabbinate won't deal with their cases.  This is especially true when the birth mother or adoptive parent is gay, or when there is some other "problem" with the family background that the Rabbinate can't square itself with. 
Yoram and Edna drove us north yesterday to Givat Haviva, where the Reform youth movement has its summer camp this year, and where their son and daughter - both Israeli Reform rabbis! - are serving on the educational staff.  By happy coincidence, the movement rented this facility for the summer rather than their usual location farther south.  Happy, because they would have had to move north or close down when the rockets started coming.
That's precisely what happened to the Masorti (equivalent of Conservative) movement camp did.  They relocated way up near the Golan Heights.  They were visited yesterday by a group of American Conservative rabbis who flew in on a hastily arranged trip to show their support for the citizens of Israel. 
How do I know?  Because tonight when we were waiting through our endless delay at the airport, up walked our dear friend Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center.  He had answered the call to organize the trip!  Now he was going back on our plane.  You can't make the world smaller than it already is.
Rabbi Tucker recounted the Conservative rabbis' agenda, and it made me feel a bit jealous and guilty.  For one, they went down to Sderot and Ashkelon to visit the folks who have suffered the most from the trauma of rocket barrages, jet flyovers and smoke wafting over from nearby Gaza.  They paid a shiva call at the home of one of the soldiers killed this past week.  They had a conversation with the mother of one of the three Jewish boys kidnapped and murdered several weeks ago.  She told them that as horribly sad as this was for them, she nonetheless had grabbed her other children, held them close, and promised them that they would continue to have a happy family life together. 
Rabbi Tucker assured me that our Reconstructionist rabbis'  "normal" itinerary was just as important to Israelis as what their group had done.   For in our case, we had long ago scheduled ourselves to meet with this group and that institution, with this organization and that pioneering speaker or teacher.  We had made reservations at hotels and eating establishments throughout the country, north and south.  In each place, we were among the only groups who didn't cancel when the shooting began.  So by following our plan, we un-dramatically demonstrated our love and admiration for the people and places we visited, and we provided them with desperately needed income in a season where tourist dollars have all but disappeared. 
All along I have been reporting to you a kind of "routine" about the life here running parallel to the crisis.  That may have been less true down near the Gaza border.  There, restaurants and community centers have been mostly closed.  People crowd the streets and beaches only as necessary.  The El Al clerk who checked us in tonight told me she lives in Ashdod (as far south as you can get before crossing into Gaza), and she was happy to tell me that the mood in her beloved city was confident and proud.  Forgive me, but you know how addicted I am to schmoozing with anyone and everyone.  But she was more than glad to weigh our checked bags, print our boarding passes, and give me a full "schmoozy" update on the situation in the south.  That's Israel for you, if you open yourself to it.  And at a time like this, when the usual anti-Israel tone across the world has been turned up several notches, these people are ready for you to come here and talk to them like neighbors - like family.
Our last "event" in Israel consisted of sitting with the Mazors in their living room to watch the televised swearing in of Israel's new president, Ruvy Rivlin.  Again we felt connected to the entire population huddled around their screens.  The president is not the prime minister, but in a symbolic way, he may be even more important as an eminence grise, an ombudsman, and a beacon of the best of Israel's values.  That was especially true of the outgoing president, the one-of-a-kind Shimon Peres.  His farewell speech was nothing short of historic in its literary grandeur and thematic sweep.  The new president used his time to inspire as well.  I liked when he pulled a kippah from his pocket, announced that this was “a new kippah for a new presidency,” and recited the Shehecheyanu with his children and grandchildren.  Then he removed the kippah and proceeded to speak about the past, present, and future of the country. 
Both presidents filled the Knesset hall with sober hopefulness, with poetic plays on the word "tikvah."  They talked about the bloody sacrifice going on that very minute.  Even as the one-hour ceremony proceeded, three red-alert announcements flashed across the TV screen.  And as the cameras panned the room, it was evident among the familiar faces of Knesset members, cabinet officials, and invited dignitaries that the Arab Knesset members had boycotted the ceremony. 
The speaker of the Knesset added a beautiful flourish.  He quoted the passage in the Talmud that records the liturgy that was recited in the Second Temple when the Kohanim would change shifts. 
They closed without the usual cocktail reception, but they were sure to add the part where the two military chaplains sound the shofar.  Then they sang Hatikvah.  I was particularly sensitive to the fact that those songs and symbols make Arab Israelis feel even more excluded from the thrust of this society than they otherwise would be.  I know, I know.  Harmonizing "Jewish" and "democratic" may be impossible, in the purest sense.  But try not to forget how "excluded" (to use a euphemism) Jews have been feeling across the globe in these last weeks.  If Israel is the "cause" of it, then we'll need to think hard about what might have "caused" the same phenomena long before anyone dreamed of a Zionist state.
I look forward to seeing all of you over Shabbat and the days ahead.  I hope you'll consider joining us for the brief and poignant Tisha b'Av service on Monday night, August 4, where we'll have a chance to reflect on the fact that despite the dark episodes of our history, we persist in standing for something profoundly human.
Rabbi Les Bronstein
Our journey has come to its conclusion, but not without a send-off from our friends, the rocket sirens.  




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