Jews of a certain age might share similar early impressions of Israel. In Chicago, where I grew up, the young congregants at Lawn Manor Hebrew Congregation were inculcated with a firm commitment to the Jewish state. We saved our dime tokens to plant our trees, circle danced Israeli style (Mayim, Mayim! ), and practiced rudimentary Hebrew conversation. During and after the 1967 war, the Chicago area Jewish community held multiple events to raise money for Israel. All were urged to support the young state by holding Israel Bond drives.
What follows are only a few of the new “Israel bonds” formed on the June Temple Emanu-El Israel Pilgrimage, June 11-23.
There are 43 Israeli Reform congregations. Rabbi Samuel Cohon arranged for our Temple Emanu-El group to visit five. The Reform/Progressive movement in Israel is in many ways an alternative Jewish path. Yet progressive Judaism in Israel is steadily growing in popularity. These pluralistic communities work hard to maintain gathering spaces and buildings in which to gather and pray, and to retain rabbis. Reform Jewish congregations, like all non-Orthodox Judaic communities, receive a much smaller percentage of government funds from the Israeli state than Orthodox congregations do.
We visited our Women of Reform Judaism twinning congregation, Emet VeShalom in Nahariya and learned about their rewards and struggles in Israel’s North. Descending into their refurbished bomb shelter/multipurpose space, we were struck by this community’s steadfast commitment to ensuring that progressive Judaism is nurtured and thrives in their vicinity. Emet VeShalom’s passion renewed our resolve to support Temple Emanu-El’s WRJ twinning project.
In Ramat HaSharon we welcomed Shabbat with Congregation Darchei Noam. This community worked for over a decade to finally inhabit a building of their own. Land, parking, electricity — each aspect of establishing a viable worship place has not come easily in the Israeli context. The terrific president of the Darchei Noam board,
Ilana Dothan, who has led the congregation for 20 years, spoke proudly of their success. Our Temple Emanu-El group and traveling partners from St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church joined them in a beautiful communal meal following services.
The next Shabbat brought us to Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. Congregation founder Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman led the service, combining traditional prayer with meditative and breath practices, as well as beautiful harmonizing singing. Worshippers, local and visiting, filled the sanctuary. The head of our Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, with whom I recently studied in Atlanta, was also in Jerusalem. Talking with him was a beautiful reminder how connected Jews are around the world.
Bonds of friendship
This Israeli pilgrimage deepened existing Tucson friendships and developed new and meaningful relationships because of our fabulous shared experiences (too numerous to name) on this voyage together.
Through the miracle of Facebook, my Israeli friend Cheryl Birkner Mack and I deepened our special friendship, decades after working together as B’nai B’rith Girls in Chicago. Cheryl has been active with “Women of the Wall.” She spoke passionately to our Temple Emanu-El and St. Philip’s group, describing the history and purpose of Women of the Wall, and the efforts of this egalitarian group to simply pray as Jews at this sacred site.
Spiritual bonds: together in joy and sorrow
On our first day in Israel, Rabbi Cohon led a morning prayer service on the roof of our hotel, overlooking the Mediterranean. How can I describe chanting the Sh’ma in Tel Aviv, Israel? One word: home. Days later, when emerging from a tunnel surrounding the kotel, one by one we dramatically beheld a magnificent and beautiful surprise seeing the Wall for the first time at Robinson’s Arch. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai elegantly has observed: “The air in Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams.” The power of place was indeed palpable and visceral.
Also shortly after our arrival, Israeli teens Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel were kidnapped. Their safe return was foremost in everyone’s prayers throughout the visit, and it was utterly heartbreaking to later learn of their horrific murders. Would I have burst into tears as I heard the news during a meeting at Temple if I hadn’t deepened my bonds to Israel in the previous weeks? I don’t know the answer but the fact is my love for the country and its people is now deeply embedded in my heart and soul. They were our children. Those on this trip are forever connected with Israel in joy and sorrow.
Postscript: I wrote this article shortly after returning from our Israel pilgrimage. The situation has turned very grim for our Israeli friends and the innocents of Gaza. With Israel and Jewish people around the world, my heart prays that the conflict will end soon.