Reflections on Making Aliyah 25+ Years Later
Jun 16th 2016

June 11, 2016 / Shavuot 5776

Keynote at the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot program

On August 17, 1989 our family, then numbering Cheryl and myself and our four children, Danya, Ari, Elina, and Batya, stepped on to Israeli soil as new immigrants to Israel. More than 25 years later our family count, besides Cheryl and myself, comprises our four married children, and our 13 grandchildren, ranging from 14 to 2 years old.

On that day at Ben Gurion airport, we were greeted by my brother-in-law, Rabbi Richard Yellin, and the IDF's military ẖazzan, the late Arie Brown. We were among a tiny group of less than 30 immigrants to receive our temporary identity cards; a far cry from a year later when Ben Gurion Airport was welcoming 35,000 Russian immigrants, every month.

Although I will speak in the first-person, understand that many of my sentiments reflect those of Cheryl, as well. Over the years we gradually realized there are, in fact, TWO 'Israels'; the so-called political one that grabs headlines in the world press; the Israel of political intrigue, its internal scandals, and our on-going conflicts and contention with a host of external enemies. 

I want to reflect, first, however, on the other Israel; the one far less familiar; the Israel where citizens try hard to build a life, a family, a home, a community, a nation. This Israel is about interactions that take place between secular and so-called 'religious' Jews, between Israelis and minorities: Christian Arab; Muslim Arab; the Druze community; foreign workers.

This Israel revolves around family, friends, school and community; around constructing meaning and joy; ever aware on the back-burner of the brain, that uncertainty and danger lurk around the bend, ready to upset our efforts to hold on to saneness and stability. It is this day-to-day Israel that I want to tap into first, and not the Israel that steals headlines.

I begin with the importance of Hebrew in our family's life. In 1984 our youngest daughter, Batya, was born at the Hadassah Hospital branch at Mt. Scopus. When she was a year old we returned to Toronto after my three-year study period at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I then served as rabbi at the Beth Sholom Synagogue, until our aliyah fours years later. 

During those years I spoke only Hebrew to Batya, whereas I spoke only English to our three other children. Danya, Ari, and Elina, of course, had Hebrew in their pockets because of their three previous years within the Israeli school system. Batya, however, was another story. She left Israel as a one-year old. At the time, we had no idea that by her fifth birthday we would be back in Israel, permanently.

So, I made the decision to speak only Hebrew to her, while speaking only English to her older siblings. By about age three, Batya picked up I was discriminating against her. Go and explain to a three year old my stubborn insistence why I was singling her out for special treatment. She was not a happy camper. By age 4 1/2, having made our decision to make aliyah, I made a pact with Batya. I promised her that the moment we set foot on Israeli soil I would switch to English, which I did.

Needless to say, two things happened. Batya integrated beautifully into her Hebrew-speaking kindergarten class; and to bring the story full-circle, today, when I need to deliver a formal Hebrew lecture, guess to whom I turn to edit my Hebrew text? In fact, a portion of Batya's earning power professionally is as a bilingual translator of Hebrew into English, and vice versa.

One of the treasured gifts we have given our kids is their bilingual fluency. And today this gift also belongs to several of our older grandchildren. One of the heart-warming aspects of Hebrew is how our children speak to one another in English because we insisted when they were growing up to use only English inside our home. Yet, a dramatic change takes place when they talk about their work in their respective professions. Then, they slide into Hebrew as their vehicle of communication. To see them go back and forth in conversations combining street talk in English, and switching to professional talk in Hebrew, is fascinating to watch from the sidelines, and to my listening ear, nothing short of joyful!

It is a privilege to communicate in Hebrew. I grew up as a survivor of the three-day, six hour-a-week seder experience. This meant I was completely fluent in reading Hebrew; I knew the prayers in the siddur by heart, but with little comprehension. My literary Hebrew amounted to saying: 'Ani Chafetz Latzate' having to do with leaving the classroom for the bathroom. Only as an eighteen year old, post-high school, after spending a year in Israel, did I get the fundamentals of Hebrew under my belt, a proficiency that increased some years later as a rabbinical student in Jerusalem. By the time I made aliyah in my early 40s I remember standing in awe of my American-born rabbinic colleagues, members of my Jerusalem Masorti congregation, Ramot Zion, in French Hill. They spoke Hebrew with ease when giving a sermon, or teaching a class.

Against this backdrop I pull up another memory: during my early years teaching at the Schechter rabbinical seminary and graduate school, where I would teach for two decades, I would enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester with considerable trepidation. About to lecture, off-the-cuff, to Israeli students at the Master's level, my rehearsed opening line was: "As you can hear from my 'Hebrew' accent, I am a native Sabra." That broke the ice, for me, allowing me to settle in, and not to fear a student correcting my grammar, or add a nuanced comment to an idea I had put forth. I also learned a valuable life-lesson: it is OK to have students feel your vulnerability; that you don't always have to have it all-together. In fact, showing vulnerability made it possible to forge and craft relationships with my students, both in class and in the cafeteria.

Another aspect of daily life revolves around community-building: Our children are splendid illustrations of the proverb: "it takes a village to raise a child." It is very fair to say our four kids grew up feeling adopted by a host of members in our French Hill synagogue-community, Ramot Zion, located next to Mt. Scopus and the Hebrew University. 

Our lives socially and spiritually revolve around the synagogue, made up of a majority of English-speaking immigrants, along with a very respectable number of native-born Sabras. All ritual ceremonies, davening, sermons, board meetings, and classes are conducted exclusively in Hebrew; alongside a comfortable acceptance of English within synagogue social settings.

I now have a fuller appreciation of what is meant by landsmanschaft organizations; the kind that steered Toronto synagogue-leaders a century ago to have their synagogues known by their countries of origin: the Russian schule, the Poilishe shil; the Romainische shil; where Yiddish and other European languages mixed in, as our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents slowly inserted English into their vocabularies.

It was the landsmanschaft society that provided the social structures and support mechanisms along the road to social and economic integration; the synagogue functioned as one of the guiding lights towards full-fledged Canadian citizenship. So, too, has our French Hill synagogue-community functioned as a half-way house on the path to our integration into Israeli society. 

Community spirit has certainly infected our three daughters, Danya, Elina, and Batya. Each of them and their husbands Eitan, Roni, and Amir, have consciously selected to live in neighbourhoods that pulsate with communal warmth; where there is a deep sense of caring for the 'other.' A tender illustration of caring happens in Batya's community, Kfar Adumin, a ten minute drive from the northern end of the Dead Sea. When a mother gives birth, members provide mother and family with meals for an entire week, allowing them to focus exclusively on their new addition. In our French Hill community, when there is a bereavement, a hesed committee goes into action offering the grieving family major meals during the week of shiva.

Another exhilarating aspect of our Israeli life is the Jewish and Israeli Rhythms of the Country: the rhythms of Shabbat, the Holidays, and the days that both commemorate and celebrate the Zionist dream, two thousand years-in-the-making. As my kids put it: "It's so natural to be observant where we are the majority population." Walk the streets during Sukkot and you see non-observant Israelis putting up a sukkah, decorated with Christmas-coloured red and yellow tinsel.

Yet, there is a distressful side to this natural Jewish rhythm. When I was dean of the Schechter Rabbinical School, I invited Shulamit Aloni, the late Israeli left-wing secular politician to speak to our American and Israeli rabbinical students about her career. What mesmerized me was her noticeable comfort level in peppering her off-the-cuff chat with an awesomely rich range of citations, pulled effortlessly from the Hebrew Bible. She pointed out that for her generation that came of age on the cusp of Jewish statehood, Bible study was a mainstay of general education; and why not: the land of Israel was an open-classroom, and the Bible the primary tool to make the classroom come alive.

Sadly today, the high school curriculum in Israel's secular-public school system, where most students learn, no longer devotes serious time to probing the ethical values of the Hebrew Bible, values that are underscored in Israel's Declaration of Independence. In part, there is a rebellion against a perceived association of the Bible with religious-brainwashing, of seeing the Bible as child-like myths, as 'bubba-maises,' irrelevant to the complexities and polarities of the human condition.

Today, more than ever, open-minded Israeli educators, of all stripes, are convinced our general education system needs a deep mid-course correction. We need to devote more time to the Humanities, alongside science and high-tech learning. No one argues that Science and Technology are crucial instruments that place Israel at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs.

The hard-sciences teach us 'How' to build a nation; Jeremiah, Job, and Micah compel us to ask: 'Why' the State of Israel is crucial beyond its vital role as a shelter from Jew-hatred. To ponder the question, 'Why,' steers us to our Jewish classics, and to world literature. For many Israelis the nation is meant to be about aspiration, about polishing our humanistic impulses; impulses rooted in the Jewish classics.

With good reason, Jews around the world take pride seeing mobile medical hospitals set up shop in countries reeling from natural disasters. With good reason, Israeli hospitals commit to the Hippocratic oath. As refined by Maimonides, himself a physician, he added a line: "May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain." So, it comes as no surprise to us that relatives of Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, his daughter, granddaughter, and mother-in-law, all have received medical treatment in Israeli hospitals over the past few years. 

This is all the more reason to send out a distress call. As I speak, a group of Jewish Knesset members want to legislate the setting up of segregated maternity wards for Jewish and Arab mothers. In the sports arena, fans of Jerusalem's Betar soccer team, have warned the team's administration not to hire an Arab to play on their team. Or, when a nucleus of these same fans leave the stadium, go into the shopping mall across the street, and beat up an Arab worker in the silence of the night.

Or, in January this year, when Israelis on a Greek plane from Athens to Tel Aviv insisted that two Arab-Israeli citizens be removed from the plane for fear they were terrorists. Even after they were cleared a second time to fly by airport security, sixty to seventy Israeli Jews still insisted the two Arabs be removed. The Arabs eventually agreed to deplane; they were put up at a hotel and flew home the next day. 

There is no 'magic bullet' to end these blatant expressions of racism. It is evident to many, however, that our inability to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict has contributed to festering discrimination, confined, thankfully, for the moment, to fringe elements.  It is clear to teachers of the Humanities that our children require not less, but more exposure to the ethical insights of our  literary masters.

Pondering the debates and controversies of a Hillel and a Maimonides, of a Plato and a Shakespeare, prod us to deliberate the 'Why' behind our efforts to erect a total Jewish civilization. Science and High-Tech provide the necessary skeletal infrastructure; the Humanities provide time-tested moral and democratic compasses for our schools, our homes, our work-places, and for the practice of civility in the political arena.

Listen to these sentiments of an Israeli with name recognition:

Would you say that the average Israeli citizen is proud of being a  Jew? I don’t think so. One can only be proud of what one knows, not of what one does not know. And we, unfortunately, do not know. I was born in Israel. I had all my education here from kindergarten through university. But what did I and others of my generation learn in all those years of schooling that might have made us proud of our Jewishness? 

We were the sons and daughters of rebels, we had no Judaism in our upbringing whatsoever. The result was that our generation in a way lost its roots…With our generation there was an attempt to create not Jews, but New Israeli Men and Women. In the process we were disconnected from those earlier generations whose Jewishness was inscribed in their hearts.

Reaffirming the identity between Israel and Judaism seems to me a prerequisite for survival. Not all Israelis have to become Orthodox, but first this country must be a Jewish state and Jews must be proud that it is Jewish and that they are Jewish.

These are the reflections of the late Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

In bringing in his name, I am reminded of another Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. I remember exactly where I was that Saturday night in November 1995 when he was assassinated. I was watching the movie, 'Crocodile Dundee' with my son, Ari. Several months later I found myself in an awkward position. Wanting to reach out  educationally to several Israeli teacher-training institutions, located outside the large urban centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I advertised a lengthy list of topics. Hearing back, everyone of them, without exception, only wanted to hear about one topic: Did Judaism have anything of substance to say about tolerance and acceptance of the 'other;' about the person who is different?

I was astonished. In the country only a few years, I found myself teaching veteran Israeli teachers, many of them principals in the general school system. They were desperately on the lookout, hoping that Jewish sources might have something of ethical worth to say about tolerance, intolerance, and respect for diversity.  I was warned that wearing a kippah would put me behind the eight-ball; my kippah would label me as insular, and close-minded; it would single me out, prima facie, as intolerant, as a person with little respect for the secular Israeli. Out of a series of lectures I gave that year, the Jewish Agency of Israel published a booklet I authored intended for classroom use, entitled The Battle for Tolerance and Pluralism in Judaism.

In the same vein,  I tell the story of my teaching at Jerusalem's David Yellin College in the mid-'90s. Established in 1913, it was among the first teacher's colleges to teach in Hebrew. The college today has an enrollment of 5,000 students, representing all groups of Israeli society: Jews, Arabs, Druze, and Circassians. At the last session of the semester of my 'Introduction to Judaism' course, a number of Jewish students blocked me from exiting the classroom. They interrogated me in friendly fashion, claiming there was no way I could call myself a 'religious' Jew. In fact, my wearing a kippah was obviously fraudulent. I obviously put it on for show, sure that I took it off as soon as I turned the corner outside.

Astounded, I asked them what they meant. Their response: How could I possibly be the Jew I claimed to be if I taught Judaism in an open and pluralistic manner; that I respected and weighed their insights in classroom discussions. They found it out of sync with their perceptions of Judaism that I would place hard-to-answer life-questions on the table, and then offer diverse answers; and actually invite them to join the dialogue, to debate the perplexing questions we all have about why we are here and how we might best live our lives. My non-judgmental approach, they claimed, fit into the model of a secular teacher, not one who claimed to be religious.

The students could only relate to Judaism as a 'How-to-do' religion. My teaching added philosophy and psychology to the mix. I assured them that I am in love with Judaism because it is deeply concerned with the 'Why' questions of life. I told them that daring to ask 'Why' questions was a good step towards the formation of their own Israeli and Jewish identities. 

I move on now to the 'other' Israel. Because of time limitation I will tackle only one subject; I will avoid issues like the unprecedented challenge in 2000 years of Jewish history of how to convert and integrate more than 200,000 Russians whose Jewish identity is challenged by Israel's Chief Rabbinate; and the irony that Israel is the only country where my credentials as a Masorti rabbi are denied, depriving me of the official right to officiate at the weddings of my children. Fortunately, I found a way to 'beat' the system, but that's another story.

Instead, I pivot to an ethical issue that has made world headlines, as recently as two weeks ago, when I chanced on CNN's Fareed Zakaria's foreign affairs show, GPS. His panel aired the video showing a young IDF soldier in Hebron deciding to put a bullet into the brain of an incapacitated, and neutralized Palestinian terrorist. An autopsy, performed by Israeli forensic doctors in the presence of a Palestinian forensic doctor, revealed it was the soldier's bullet that killed the terrorist.

After all the military reports came in, the IDF top echelon has indicted the soldier on a charge of manslaughter. Had the Palestinian terrorist been killed during his attack, ending his life would have been declared legal under Israeli military law.  However, ending the terrorist's life, once he was incapacitated, denied him the basic rights of protection accorded to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

No Israeli needs to be reminded that we live in a bad neighbourhood; that those hostile to us, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas wish us only death; that we remember one day a year that unspeakable war of genocide that annihilated a third of our people seven decades ago; that one day a year we remember those Israelis who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so we might have a Jewish and democratic state.

With this reality 'in your face,' our religion, yet, calls for the promotion of life, whenever possible, even to a terrorist, incapacitated and neutralized. I do not make this up? It is inscribed in the IDF Code of Ethics. The relevant passage reads: 

IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants, or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

This ethical ruling has sparked vigorous debate within the country.  One public opinion poll finds 57 percent of Israelis who think the soldier should never have been arrested; as does Israel's new Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman. Only five percent polled say they would characterize the shooting, as murder. The statistics are telling; they reflect the country fractured, if you will, between the power of the 'sword,' and the humaneness of our sacred Writings. To paraphrase former Defense Minister, Moshe Ya'alon, who took a stand against the soldier's actions, the incident goes to the core of how to gauge the moral compass of the country.

Laying charges against the soldier is a tough call. It is backed by my son-in-law, Roni, who shared a story one night when we had our kids over to talk about our decision to make aliyah. In his mid-30s, Roni serves as a reserve IDF commander on the Lebanese border. He oversees the welfare of a hundred soldiers. A few months ago he and other officers travelled with new recruits to Poland where they visited all the 'traditional' Shoah sites.

I asked Roni the purpose of the trip. Yes, one purpose was to drive home the motto:"Never Again!" Recruits need to internalize Israel's determination to resist those who rise up to destroy us. At the same time, the trip had another lesson of equal magnitude: on Polish soil the IDF recruits learned about Nazism's barbaric, inhumane treatment of Jews and other minorities. From this comes a take-away lesson: IDF soldiers are expected to act otherwise; to implement the Ethical Code of Conduct when exercising control over the huge Arab civilian population living over the Green Line. Power, the recruits were told, needs to be tempered by a universal and Jewish moral compass, ever aware of how easy it is to degrade and humiliate other humans when you have the power and the might.

Moshe Ya'alon, also, a former IDF Chief of Staff, has pitted himself opposite, what he perceives, as Prime Minister Netanyahu's capitulation to members in his party who have sympathy for the IDF soldier charged with manslaughter; as well as against the Prime Minister himself who called the parent's of the soldier in a show of sympathy for their predicament.

So, Israel, at age 68, stands at a crossroads. My daughter Batya, who herself lives over the Green Line, has a penetrating observation: "It is hard to remain moral, confronting a non-moral enemy. Perhaps, this is the biggest challenge we face." A significant portion of Israel's Jewish citizens acknowledge that ruling over hostile Palestinians is hardly a robust  recipe for the emotional health of the nation. Unlike our 'cold' peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, successive Israeli governments, and the Palestinian Authority have failed to erect even the semblance of a cold peace, much of the blame resting with the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority itself. 

I recall the now infamous handshake of Rabin and Arafat at the White House in 1993; I hoped we were on the verge of a cold peace; that our children would enter the army under tranquil conditions. Now, as Cheryl and I scan the horizon we see our grandchildren enlisting, with not that much having changed for the better.

And here's the rub: In the Star Wars movie, the Jedi Master Yoda, has these wise words: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” When you feel under siege it is impossible to be magnanimous towards an opponent. By 'you' I mean Israelis subject to suicide bombers and knife-wielding lone wolfs, and I also mean our Palestinian neighbours who endure humiliating scrutiny of their persons at check-points, the airport, their homes, and in their olive groves.

To add fuel to the split in the country's war of words is the view of Major General Herzl Halevi, the first Orthodox Jew serving as head of Israel's military intelligence: Halevi challenges the claim that Palestinian violence is due to increased incitement by the Palestinian Authority. Halevi argues instead that Palestinian despair and frustration with the status quoare more prominent causes that have led to the past year's spate of terrorist attacks around the country.

History buffs can add another component to the bristling debate: Nationalism is a two-edged sword. It fashions pride and self-respect. It can also lead to the rejection of minorities living among majority cultures.

Almost a century ago, a young Jewish historian, Salo Baron, who would go on to become one of the most respected interpreters of the Jewish experience, articulated the principle behind Jewish expulsions from European countries in the Middle Ages: Nationalism. Some thirty years later, when asked at the Eichmann Trial what was the main motivating factor upon which anti-Semitism rested, he answered: Dislike of the unlike; dislike of the other who is other than you!

We Jews have the 'Exodus to freedom', and the 'Shoah of victimhood' burned into our historical consciousness. Baron cautions, as do a cadre of IDF top echelon, that Israel walks the tightrope between defending universal freedom, and the ethnic impulse that can turn, if not careful, towards xenophobia, rejection of the unlike. The IDF leadership's actions, to date, give me hope that our democracy, with all its ruckus, is stable and vibrant.

Given the political ruckus, what can be done to lower the temperatures of disillusionment and cynicism? Actually, quite a lot. Not, however, from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. Numerous citizens' projects are in play in the country. While peace cannot be negotiated from the bottom up, it can be built bottom up. People-to-people programs break down barriers; when this happens it is harder to demonize; stereotypes erode and fear lessens. Despite the horrific situation, there are grassroots initiatives of Arabs and Jews who come together in common-sense projects.

Cheryl participates in a synagogue project with other members going regularly to Hadassah Hospital, around the corner from where we live. There they connect with Jewish and Arab patients who come together to spend a few hours in the afternoon, in between their medical rehabilitation programs. Our members speak to them, play games with them, do their nails, often bringing Arab and Jew together around the same table where they share their life stories. In fact, it is the hospital itself which functions as the ice-breaker. Illness knows no boundaries of race or religion.

Another venue of Arab-Jewish interaction is the Supreme Court. At the top of the pyramid, Israeli Arab Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran was chief overseer of Israel's election two years ago. At the popular level I call to mind a project which Cheryl started at the Supreme Court where she worked for more than fifteen years directing the Chambers of the President. She facilitated social and educational programs for all the workers at the Court, offering Jewish and Arab workers day trips, on-sight child day care during the summer months, and was a listening ear to work-related complaints. The Supreme Court acts to support co-existence among workers from different cultures and religions.

One more brief illustration: There are six public schools in the country called "Yad b'Yad,"—Hand-in-Hand: The Center for Jewish-Arab Education. With locations in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Haifa, Tel Aviv and Kfar Saba, the schools are bilingual, with each grade level balanced equally between Arab and Jewish teachers, and Jewish and Arab students. All students become bilingual. I am struck that one of the mothers in the school lost her father in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. How ironic that she now sends her child to a fully integrated Jewish-Arab school, betting on the proposition that working at peaceful co-existence is a far better wager than going to war.

So, after a quarter century in Israel this is where I and Cheryl are at; where we have moved to: We are committed to an Israel that we love in the face of her imperfections; our vision and yearning is that our children and grandchildren will carry the torches of tolerance and pluralism we have lit for them; and we both realize we have a very long road ahead before Isaiah's vision will become a reality:  

"In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria, [her former enemies,] as a blessing on earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them [all], saying, Blessed be my people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My very own Israel" (Isaiah 19:24-25).