How I Found New Views in Israel
I was “born and raised Jewish” in that 1940s and 1950s way – culturally tied to the religion, but not particularly interested in the religiosity itself. In that realm, Israel was a place we supported because it was the home of victims of the Holocaust and heroes who founded the nation. It was a far-away, exotic, and strange land that, as a Jewish homeland, demanded some monetary donations and the planting of some trees, even though few in my community in Rockaway, Queens, had any real religious ties to the local synagogue or to the nation itself.
Sure, I became bar mitzvah at 13 and attended High Holiday services, but even now, at 78, I can count on my fingers and toes the number of times I visited a synagogue after my bar mitzvah for funerals, special occasions, and other b’nei mitzvah.
So, when my daughter Amy, the executive director of Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, NY, invited me to join a congregational trip to Israel in October, I took some time to consider both my physical health and my interest in the “Holy Land.”
My daughter, who has been looking out for me since her mom, and my wife of 50 years, passed away, is persuasive, so it’s no surprise that ultimately, I said yes.
When I saw the itinerary, though, I had second thoughts.
As a minor historian and cultural Jew, it wasn’t the “usual suspects” – the Western Wall, Masada, the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem, the Old City, a few archeological digs, and a camel ride – that gave me pause. Rather it was the planned visits to several Progressive synagogues for Shabbat services, something I had studiously avoided over the years, as well as visits to meet Jewish cultural groups and a tour of several religious sites.
Still, the itinerary was too good to pass up and the trip probably was the last shot I had to get to the historical wonderland, so I signed up.
In the early morning hours of October 5, having endured an 11-hour, overnight El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, I set foot in Israel for the first time. I was surprised by the El Al security officers who wanted to know why I was there, when I last went to services, and whether anyone had asked me to bring a package on the plane for them. One nearby woman, who looked Irish, was asked to recite a Jewish prayer.
A short while later, there I was with the rest of our group on the bus to Tel Aviv headed for Shabbat services at the Progressive Beit Tefilah Israeli synagogue. I was not looking forward to the event, but I figured it was a small price to pay for the chance to see the historic sites that were yet to come.
We were greeted warmly by the rabbi, cantor, and about 50 congregants. I was surprised the service was held outdoors, in an atrium open to the sky but surrounded by four walls.
As it began, I was moved by the melodies of my youth, remembered from the Conservative synagogue where I had my bar mitzvah. Watching as people sang, danced, and were joyous in greeting the Sabbath Queen, I was, surprisingly, touched by their joy and the way the Jewish religion touched them – in a way it had never touched me.
During the 11 days in Israel that followed, we went to several synagogues and Jewish schools, meeting with officials, parents, and students. There was everywhere a connection between the nation and the Jewish religion. Rather than “We happen to be Jewish and we happen to live in Israel,” the prevailing attitude is “We are Jewish and we live in a Jewish nation.” There is, I learned, a big difference.
We also visited a community hard upon the security fence that separates Israel from Gaza. I asked a woman there why she would bring her kids to live in a place where rockets regularly fall on their heads and in which every home includes a safe room. Her answer: “Why do you want to live in a place where the schools have active shooter drills?” I had to admit she had a point.
I learned a lot on my trip. Among the most powerful takeaways were these: It takes a special person to be Jewish and to live in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox hold sway over everything religious and where a deadly missile might fall from the sky at any time. I learned, too, there is little chance for a compromise that will bring peace to the area.
The trip truly was an eye-opener, showing me not only the historical sites I had come to see, but also new and different political views, a closer look at the religion into which I was born, and, perhaps most poignantly, more of myself, including new perspectives and levels of understanding. Looking back, I have to admit I liked what I saw.