Seeking Jewish Values Amidst Broken Glass

January 18, 2023Kara A. Wilson

Nearly two months ago, our Just Zionism group landed in Israel as the election to cement a far-right government in the Knesset was taking effect. Just Zionism is a progressive Israel initiative run by the Union for Reform Judaism and its advocacy office, the Religious Action Center. The program emphasizes social justice and building relationships with Israeli activists. When we landed, I had a surface-level understanding of Israeli politics but was about to get a crash course on the election's implications for the activists who were heartbroken by the results. It was difficult to determine the line between fear mongering and the potential damage of a Netanyahu-led coalition, flanked by parties like 'Religious Zionism" and "Jewish Power," to the social fabric of Israel.

Our group of young social justice advocates left the airport and immediately hiked the Sataf Springs in the Judean hills, where we ended up in a cave. Not quite sure what to focus on, I embraced the darkness that surrounded me, closed my eyes, and thought, Why am I here? I dropped everything to be here. Why? This moment was the beginning of what would be an unfiltered look at Israel's geopolitical challenges and a revelation of how those challenges play out among Jews with differing definitions of what makes someone Jewish.

When I finally opened my eyes and noticed the few tears that came along, I felt further from my identity as a mom, wife, and, quite honestly, Jew than ever before. I realized that while I desperately wanted to feel like I belonged in Israel as a Black Jew by choice, the times I feel most connected to this great peoplehood is in my own home; at my Shabbat table with my family, who were now 6,000 miles away. That is my truth. I started the journey with an airport interrogation as to why I was even going to Israel in the first place. I was part of a group, many of whom had shared Jewish camp experiences or worked professionally in Jewish organizations. I spent my entire first 24-hours in Israel feeling like I shouldn't have even applied to the program. The only entry I wrote in my journal that first night was: "Mom out of water ". It wasn't until the next night that I started to feel a sense of belonging as I talked with young Israeli Reform movement activists at FeelBeit. I asked, "What can we do to support the work you're doing?" Tal, a lawyer who was transitioning to policy work, said frankly, "We need your support, you're a Jew and you have a stake in what happens here."

Being a liberal Jew in America can feel as disorienting as sitting in a cave. The darkness comes in many forms: seemingly insurmountable social justice challenges, the rise of antisemitic acts, loud criticism of Israel, and calls to act against the state and its people.On top of all of that, we are often asked to accept the challenge of meaningfully engaging with Israel, whether we want to or not. How can we realistically engage as non-citizens in the context of a government that doesn't always reflect our views and can at times fervently reject us? We can actively seek the light that can be found in those on the ground demanding change. They are voicing our values and refusing to be silenced.

Born into a racial minority in the U.S., there are times when I see my skin as armor, a message, a duty; when I know it means something for me to show up as a Black woman, despite the toll that it takes. To be Jewish anywhere is to have that same responsibility. The responsibility can be optional, but when embraced, demonstrates solidarity with those who must show up. What do we do with that? Can we challenge ourselves to see our plight in the story of others? After seeing this raw picture of Israel, my takeaway is simple: Jewish peoplehood is complicated.

Some of us fight every second of every moment to feel Jewish while in "Jewish" spaces. Some of us have been told we're Jewish our entire lives and have never known what that means. This reality, fueled by politics, pulls us taut from every corner. We have a shared fate. A fate that, in its best representation, allows us to empathize with Jews all over the globe.

An image of a park in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood in south Tel Aviv that is covered in broken glass in urine.

On our last day I took a picture while standing in a park in the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, a picture that I knew could not possibly capture what I was seeing. We were in a park with new playground equipment. However, the park was covered in broken glass and urine, acting more as a shelter than a park for children. Nearby was an advertisement wall for the new light rail and the gorgeous skyline was in the distance. There are many truths in that image; hope for where Israel is going but visible negligence of situations on the ground. In the Torah, it's never explained how or why we became strangers in the land of Egypt. The more pertinent point is what happens in reaction to that circumstance. There have always been many strangers in modern Israel. While this new coalition may signal darkness, it is also a real opportunity to reevaluate what we need to do to display what a Jewish state driven by Jewish values does and believes.

I can say with absolute certainty that there is hope in the peace and social justice work happening in Israel, especially within the Israeli Reform movement. To name only a few, the work of organizations like IRAC, Kids for Peace, Standing Together, and Shorashim, is especially inspiring in their efforts to advocate for an inclusive Israeli democracy, transforming legacies of conflict into courage to lead change, and building long-lasting bridges between Israeli and North American Jews. These activists are strengthened and armored by Jewish values: values that drive them to demand change, even if only through one conversation and relationship at a time.They need our attention. They need our support. They need us.

Here are some actions you can take to support their efforts:

  • Learn more about the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism (IMPJ) and Arzenu advocacy efforts for liberal Judaism and religious pluralism in Israel.
  • Join the mailing lists for organizations like IRAC and the Association for Civil Rights Israel (ACRI) to see the work for change through Israeli courts, the Knesset, and government agencies.
  • Sign up for the ARZA newsletter for weekly learnings from Israel and interpretations for the diaspora.
  • Seek any local efforts for education and advocacy through your temple community or Jewish Federation.

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