Friday, October 15, 2021 – ט׳ חֶשְׁוָן תשפ״ב
“All journeys have secret destinations to which the traveler is unaware” ~ Martin Buber
Geography Matters. Being there matters.
In one of the greatest scenes in modern screenwriting, in the 1998 movie “Good Will Hunting,” Robin Williams’ character explains to Matt Damon the young mastermind, that there is a meaningful difference between learning about something in theory, and feeling, seeing, smelling, and touching it in real life. The message here is simple. Sometimes you have to be there to see it, not through a screen, or phone, or curated social media posts – to be there in real-time.
Avram understood this. His relocation from his home, birthplace, and parent’s home to this unidentified land required him to take the first step into the unknown.
Even more important than God’s command for him to leave his home and relocate was the commandment to walk, see, feel, and connect with the Land that God allocated to him,
ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאׇרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרׇחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה׃ (בראשית יג:יז)
“Rise Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for you I have given it.” (Genesis 13:17)
The Israeli poet and writer Amos Keinan (1927-2009) framed it this way:
“…You need to walk, to breathe in the scents, absorb the colors – this is how meaning is created.”
Virtual tours are great – when travel is prohibited. But there is no replacement for being there, seeing for oneself, talking to people, and internalizing all that one encounters.
So is the story today. Less than half of all North American Reform Jews have been to Israel. In this day and age, a meaningful experience in Israel ought to be a standard for every Jew in the world. This, of course, is not a new argument and was the basis of the greatest philanthropic/programmatic initiative of the past two decades (See: birthright Israel).
Contemporary times bring a different and more dire need.
“…אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃”
“…to the land that I will show you.”
This year we have an opportunity to bring more young people to Israel. Last year we were blessed by having nearly 750 participants in our NFTY in Israel, and thanks to the generosity of RootOne – a new initiative that aims to help bring tens of thousands of Jewish teens from North America to Israel on immersive summer teen trips – we hope to significantly increase the number of Reform Jewish teens who come to Israel. We need every person to spread the word and share the message far and wide. They can come during high school for a summer or a semester, or join Reform Jews from around the world and Israel for a year after high school
What Land will we show them?
Will we show them the “Land of Milk and Honey?” They will float in the Dead Sea, climb Metzada, visit the Kotel (including the Ezrat Yisrael – The Egalitarian prayer section of the Western Wall), hang out in Tel Aviv, sample Israel’s culinary delicacies, and hike in the North and South seeing Israel by foot.
How much time do we spend exposing them to Israel’s challenges? They will meet Israeli non-Jews and Palestinians, see mixed cities, buffer zones, and borders exemplifying Israel’s perpetual security threats and concerns. They will learn about racism, poverty, and disparity in the State. Some will excuse these things as “normal” and that every country confronts such phenomena (true), and some will claim that a Jewish State should be morally superior and be judged on how it takes care of the powerless in our society (e.g. the orphan, widow, and stranger – Deuteronomy 24:17-19)
How do we convey to our students the rich cultural diversity of Israel and establish a deep and long-lasting relationship while not shying away from Israel’s shortcomings and moral inadequacies?
This week the State of Israel celebrated Yom HaAliyah (Aliyah Day) –a national holiday, voted into law 5 years ago was created to celebrate the contribution of immigrants to Israel. This day is mainly celebrated on the 10th of Nisan (the day, according to the Book of Joshua, when we are told that the Israelites crossed the Jordan river into the Land of Israel). In schools it is celebrated on the 7th of Heshvan – a day we in the Reform Movement refer to as ‘Diaspora Israel day’.
On this day we celebrate more than the individual contributions of those who chose to (or were compelled to) leave their homeland, their birthplace, and the home of their parents for the ‘Land that we will show them.’
We mark and acknowledge the fact that the State of Israel was created by the Golah (the Diaspora), and not vice versa. It was Jews from abroad who, like Avram, felt compelled, were called by a higher calling and purpose, and went forth to create a Jewish society and a Jewish sovereign entity, and despite the rejection of one’s former existence, the new Jewish society is a product of the Diaspora.
The revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940) wrote:
“As a result of the Golah [the dispersion of the Jews], Jewish influence is noticed in a thousand places simultaneously. This aspect of Galut has value and it should be cherished. Clearly, the various parts of Judaism are fragmented, and they lack the unifying force; we have large settlements around the world, but (we do) not have a metropolis, (we have) a large periphery without a center. We need to work hard in order to create the center in the form of a territorial autonomy; it will be a destination for Jewish immigration, a hub of Jewish culture and the locus of power for the Jewish People.”
In Jabotinsky’s world “a hub of Jewish culture” preceded, and was more important than, a “locus of power.” Building Israel as a cultural hub and a locus of power has succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations. Unlike other Zionist leaders who promulgated the notion of “Shlilat HaGolah”- (rejection of the Diaspora), Jabotinsky recognized the essential role of Diaspora Jewry in helping to build and shape the character and culture of the Jewish State. Jabotinsky understood the importance of the interconnectedness of the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. However, the project is not over, and it is upon us to make sure that we continue to go, and bring with us our culture, heritage, and practice to keep building and strengthening the Jewish State and the Jewish people.
On Erev Yom HaAliyah, I had the good fortune to sit with a delegation of Israeli municipal and regional politicians who came to ‘discover America’. They left their homeland and their communities with the express interest in familiarizing themselves with Jewish life abroad. As it turns out, that with all of the complicated questions about what to show visitors, tourists, and pilgrims in Israel, we ask the same questions about Israelis coming here. Unfortunately, we didn’t take them to the Grand Canyon, nor did they venture down to the Texas-Mexican border to see difficult stories up close, but they understood the purpose of coming, of being here. We will continue to invite our Jewish and non-Jewish Israeli family here, and we will continue to go there. The journey will take us to build and we, in turn, will be built by it.
And as God told Avram, Just Go.
 Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, “The News of Odessa”, 1912