Two Jews, Three Opinions, One Heart
July 2, 2014. Tel Aviv. Summer is so often about our kids—but this summer, we have all had a stark and tragic reminder of how fragile life is and how often our children are put in harm’s way by actions with which they have nothing to do.
I am about to return to the U.S. after almost two weeks in Israel, where I had the sorrowful experience of attending the funeral service yesterday in Modi’in for the three boys, Naftali Fraenkel (z”l), Gilad Shaar (z”l), and Eyal Yifrach (z”l), who were brutally murdered after being kidnapped on their way home from school.
Among the most moving—and comforting—moments at the service was the eulogy of Rabbi Dov Zinger, Dean of Yeshiva Makor Chaim in Kfar Etzion, where two of the boys studied. Amidst his personal remembrances, he offered an adaptation of a simple yet familiar line; instead of “two Jews, three opinions," he said, “two Jews, three opinions, one heart.”
I walked with Rabbi Gilad Kariv, inspiring leader of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and together we joined tens of thousands of mourners in the blazing heat because it wasn’t enough to listen on the radio; it felt important to stand with these three families and a remarkable cross section of our people. The crowd was clad mostly with kippot, scarves, tzitzit, and skirts, but the feeling of connection was deeper than outer garments. From where we stood, we were barely able to make out the area where the family sat, in front of their sons wrapped in the blue and white flag of Israel. The family vans could barely get through the crush of the crowds, and a half dozen people near us fainted from the heat. Medics were quickly summoned, and the crowd cared for those overcome with emotion and heat.
During these excruciating hours of national mourning, a deeper sense of unity overrode the usual and often antagonistic distinctions of politics and Jewish practice. Those three boys belonged to all of us. These remarkable families asked that political speeches not be interwoven into their ritual of mourning and loss. Politicians and rabbis were moved and challenged to follow the spiritual clarity of the teens’ mothers.
So much on this trip to Israel was about the future—and our young people. Early in my trip, I spoke with one of our Kesher Birthright-Israel trips as they wrestled with complicated questions of contemporary Jewish life in the Jewish State. They shared their first impressions of Israel, and I saw the wonder and excitement in their eyes along, with their desire to be meaningfully engaged with this country we all so love. As Israel and the Jewish world focused on three Jewish teens, I helped orient NFTY staff as they prepared to lead hundreds of teens who are now traversing our ancient/modern homeland.
Last Shabbat, I was privileged to experience the growth and vitality of our Reform Movement here in Israel by worshipping with two of our congregations. On Friday night, I joined Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, whose thriving congregation in Holon is truly a miracle of the start-up nation. Four years ago, there was no Reform Jewish life in this city just south of Tel Aviv. But like former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who knew how to make the desert bloom, Galit has built a web of relationships with many young families and others who are thirsting for a Judaism that speaks to their inner longings and core values. To celebrate Pride Shabbat (as so many of our congregations in North America did on the same date, as part of global Pride weekend), she invited two young men who work for the municipality to share their stories about being gay in Israel.
The next morning, in Jerusalem, I witnessed the graduating 12th graders at Congregation Kol HaNeshama as they were called up for a collective aliyah, a reading from the Torah. Out of 17 graduates, a whopping 15 are spending next year in mechinot, pre-army programs where they will study, learn, and serve communities throughout Israel. The idealism of these youth was overwhelming. After that, of course, they will go to the army. One of the aliyot called up all of the parents of soldiers who are serving in the IDF, and in many cases were directly involved in the search for the Naftali, Gilad,and Eyal.
This was truly a Shabbat when I saw our living Reform Judaism in all of its splendor, as values that are engrained within our religion so lived by these young Israelis—and even by the older ones, too. Indeed, we are all a part of a whole. Ours is a young movement in Israel, and we are making an impact. Just last week, the Israel Democracy Institute published a survey that found 51% of Israelis want Reform and Conservative Judaism to have equal standing to the Orthodox in marriage and conversion. That shift is the result of all of our collective efforts in leading a transformation of Jewish identity in the Jewish State.
Rachel Fraenkel, Naftali's mother, said in her eulogy to her son: "Rest in peace, my child. We will learn to sing without you. We will always hear your voice in our hearts." And we, too, will remember with love the faces and hopes of three teenage boys whose tragic deaths brought us together in a powerful experience of unity.
This week we read the Torah portion titled Balak, named after a Moabite king who desperately wants to curse our ancestors as they camped out in tents on the outskirts of the Promised Land. It’s a familiar narrative of Jewish history, a non-Jewish leader who wishes us harm. But remarkably, Balak becomes a part of King David’s family. How? In tractate Sanhedrin 105b, we learn that the biblical Ruth, our most inspiring Jew-by-choice, was the great granddaughter of Balak. She was also the great-grandmother of King David, the one from whom the messiah will descend.
And every day we sing the words of Balak’s emissary Bilam: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov,mishk'notecha Yisrael, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5). Though Bilam spoke these words intending to curse our people, only words of blessing crossed his lips. A curse becomes a blessing, and an enemy becomes part of our family.
This sounds very naïve and incredibly hard to believe, especially after the last few days. But this is the Torah portion that Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal’s families will read this week, just as it is the same Torah portion that all of the Reform Jewish teens traveling through Israel and camped out at summer camp will read. Let us draw strength from the intense unity we are still feeling, and from the sacred texts that surprise us and stretch us to new ways of being.