This Land is My Land: Israel Mission 2011

This Land is My Land
Cleveland Israel Mission Summer 2011
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria

When we sing, “This Land is your land, This land is my land, This land was made for you and me”- the song reminds us that we always have a place here at home in America. But for us as Jews, we have another home- Artzeinu- our land, the Holy Land, Israel. Old Hebrew folksongs that were played over and over on the El Al soundtrack recall Israel as Our Land- Artzeinu- “the land that was made for you and me.” Yet research study after research study examines the ever increasing divide there is between today’s generation of young Professionals and their lack of connection to Israel, coined the distancing theory by sociologists. Not having lived through the hey days of the awe-inspiring establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 or the amazing success of the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, without that surge of national pride for Israel, this innate connection to Israel is said to be missing from the next generation of Jewish leaders.

How can this problem be solved? Perhaps with the magic of Harry Potter himself. To tell the story of Harry Potter, JK Rowling needed 7 big books and 8 full length movies. To solve this riddle of building connections and a passion for Israel, it took only 7 days. Just a few weeks ago, I was part of a special 7 day trip to Israel. Cleveland’s Jewish Federation’s Young Leadership Division sent a 22 person young professional’s mission to explore and experience Israel- and in those 7 days, we graduated with an Israeli History certification, a minor in political science, a concentration in religious studies focusing on Judaism and the Bible and a shortened basic training for the IDF- the Israel Defense Forces. We built lasting connections that will leave Israel- Artzeinu- in our hearts. We truly needed one of Hermione’s time turners to see the entire country in just 7 days but alas we had no magic wands, although we were given a lot of shish kabob grilling skewers. There was no butterbeer to drink but there was a trip to a boutique winery in our sister city Beit Shean. There were no magical potions but we did visit many greenhouses that grew gourmet basil using the volcanic soil from the Golan. There were no house elves- we had to schlep our own bags. The one real connection to Harry Potter and our trip was how magical and enchanted Israel was for each of us. For example, where else can you get a kosher pastrami sandwich delivered to you at 3:30 in the morning (maybe New York).

Our group comprised a full mix of Cleveland’s Young professionals from singles to married with children, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated, east side and west side, those with strong ties to Israel and those without any connection to Israel at all, veteran Israel travelers and four first-timers. Just as we have been reading in the Torah, these last few weeks, like the 12 spies sent out by Moses to scout the land and bring back a report to the Jewish people, I will share a snippet of our journey with you. Our trip began in Tel Aviv at the Rabin Center followed by a special moment listening to David Ben-Gurion announce the establishment of the State of Israel at Independence Hall when the entire nation chanted the shehecheyanu prayer together and then like magic a hidden symphony orchestra began playing hatikvah like the Heavenly choir from on high and the nation joined together in singing those words of hope for the flegling nation. 63 years later, we added our voices and sang along reliving the birth of Artzeinu, Our Land.

We explored the old and new of Israel- old Jaffa and the original buildings from 100 years ago of the first Modern city of Tel Aviv- contrasted with the contemporary Batsheva Dance Company performance which included abstract dance scenes with a gigantic grogger, a coutroom scene, an astronaut and violent and racy choreography to the traditional Passover song Echad Mi Yodea, Who Knows One. We saw pictures of the original sand dunes of Tel Aviv and then had meetings in its tallest skyscrapers. Tel Aviv is home to some of the fastest growing innovative minds in the world as described in the book Start-Up Nation. We met with leaders of Israel’s Hi-tech Startups like Incredimail, the new version of Corporate Israel at Strauss-Elite and discussed the efforts of Advancing Women and Israeli Arabs in the workplace in Checkpoint Security Corporation. We visited Havat HaShomer, the special Army base largely supported by Cleveland which provides opportunities for at-risk youths who would never be able to serve in the army or live successful lives- but through the guidance of their female commanders, we heard the stories of how two young men straightened out their lives for the better. We met with Miri Eisen, who was the spokesperson for Israel during the second Lebanon War. She shared with us her view on the Arab spring and predicted that Jordan would be the next country to have a revolution.

Then, we traveled north and toured the gorgeous Golan Heights with a very bumpy jeep tour through vineyards and apple orchards, just like the bumpy history of the Golan. Encountering a pack of wolves, big snakes, battle ravaged tanks and mine fields and the Syrian border just a few clicks away where just weeks before Syrians attempted to cross the border into Israel in the Al-Naksa protest, we were reminded of some of the continual challenges that Israel faces with a story of how the kibbutzniks found a way to live in peace with the neighboring wild wolves- to add protective sheep dogs that never attacked but they respected each other. We traveled down to Beit Shean, our sister city, where we swam in the river with the fish nipping at our toes and walked through the 32 layers of history unearthed from the archaeological dig down to Roman times. We learned how Cleveland is helping to rebuild the infrastructure of Beit Shean, providing educational opportunities for the at-risk and unemployed population, building parks for the under-priveleged families to play with their children and placing the residents in the hi-tech job market so they can succeed and support their families. The news of the week of our trip was filled by two main stories- the preparations for the second Gaza Flotilla intended to reveal to the world the view of Israel as the oppressor to the Palestians and second was the boycotting of cottage cheese in protest to apparent price gauging by Israeli manufacturers.

For me as always, Jerusalem was the highlight of the trip. Overlooking the city from Har HaTzofim, Mount Scopus, we sang and recited the shehecheyanu. And as night fell, we finally made our way through the Old City of Jerusalem, led by our guide we saw the famous Hurba synagogue- which was built by Moses Montefiore and was considered the most beautiful synagogue in Jerusalem. It was destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948 and when Jerusalem was reunified- all that was left was rubble. In 1970, they gathered some of the rocks and recreated the famous arch of the synagogue which stood as the symbol of the Jewish quarter of the Old City. Today, that arch is no longer there, it is replaced by the majestic newly restored synagogue that symbolizes Israel’s continual rebirth and building for the future.

As we wound our way through the twists and turns of the Old City, marveling at the beautiful doorways leading to so many possibilities- one of the participants received an email- that Omri Casspi, the only Israeli basketball player in the NBA was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now, the person that received the email happens to work for the Cavs and it seemed like bashert, it was meant to be, that as we were making our way to the Kotel, the Western Wall, it was ordained that our team would bring home Israel’s star. Needless to say, we were very excited to be Clevelanders in Israel at that moment.

However, even that did not compare to returning to the Kotel- the Wall- late in the evening- as fireworks were booming above in celebration of a Muslim wedding that evening in the Arab quarter. I approached the wall to place my notes in its worn cracks and to whisper my prayers into its ears to bring to God. And when I reached out my hand to touch the Kotel, I felt like I was in a sci-fi story because my hand seemed to go into the Wall itself- connecting me to those stones worn with handprints from all hundreds of previous generations.

Later, I visited the tent set up next to the Prime Minister’s office by the family of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas terrorists five years ago. In the middle of the makeshift tent, there is a seat left empty marked with a sign reserved for Gilad. In that tent, Noam Shalit, Gilad’s anguished and entrenched father, asked me to ask all of you to send letters to our representatives, senators and the International Red Cross to push to get a sign of life that Gilad is still alive and is being treated humanely.

Finally, Shabbat in Yerushalayim is like a piece of Heaven. We returned to the wall and faced the complexities of religion in Israel as we separated men and women and made our way to the Kotel. Surrounded by circles of fervent singing and dancing led by the most ultra-Orthodox Jew, a group of soldiers on the women’s side, or for us a Conservative rabbi- we raised our voices in prayer and song to welcome in Shabbat- caught up in the spiritual high of Shabbat in Jerusalem as if a tiny portal opened and we ourselves were in Heaven for those few moments as I led the prayers and we danced shoulder to shoulder as one.

That is a slice or better a scoop of today’s Israel and some of our stops on a 7 day whirlwind with a wonderful tour guide and for me- a group of fantastic new friends. I learned once again that Israel is a paradox: a mix of old and new, complex and multi-faceted filled with successes and challenges, and very real from cottage cheese boycotts to mine fields. A main theme of our trip focused on Israel’s success using innovation, vision and initiative or simply chutzpah- in the business and hi-tech sector, in the social services to better its people, in agriculture and tourism, and in the political scene.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the continuation of the story of Pinchas, a hero of the Jewish people. As the Israelites were seduced into idolatrous sexual practices by the Midianites, Moses and the people were crying with despair, paralyzed in the moment. Finally, one Jew stood up to stop the Israelite’s sinful turning away from God and Jewish traditions. With vision, initiative and lots of chutzpah, young Pinchas grabbed a spear and ended the rebellion by killing the leaders of the revolt. Pinchas is rewarded by God with a brit shalom- an eternal covenant of peace- and an elevation to the Priesthood. This complicated story has some interesting footnotes written into our Torah. Pinchas’ name is not written normally. It is written with a miniscule Hebrew letter yud. The letter yod already is the smallest letter in the alef-bet- although it is considered one of the most important- as it is central to God’s name- and has the numerical value of 10- relating to the Ten Commandments.

Why would the yod in Pinchas’ name be written so tiny to be barely legible in the Torah when at this moment of saving the Jewish people, he is acclaimed and rewarded by God? The Rabbis present several explanations for the smaller yod. First, they suggest that the smaller yod implies that Pinchas’ action though justified to save the Jewish people was still an act of violence which diminished his spirit as he had to take lives to stop the plague. Pinchas’ zeal, his spontaneous and passionate reaction to rise up to save the Jewish people may in fact be flawed because he took precious souls.

On the other hand, other rabbis suggest that the small yod in Pinchas’ name is a sign to all of us that we too have the ability to be like Pinchas and to save the Jewish people in times of trouble. The small yod is called in Yiddish the pintelle yid meaning a little Jew, or better translated a small Jewish spark. We all have that pintelle yid, that small Jewish spark inside our souls and it is our responsibility to make sure that it remains vibrantly lit. For those of us on the trip, we were a bit like Pinchas or maybe you could say Harry Potter- sparking that inner lighting bolt- fanning the flames of what we hope will be a lifelong connection to the land of Israel, creating a passionate Jew that will care for and about Israel in his and her heart- cry out when she is in pain and exalt when she is at her heights of joy- stand by her ready to protect her not as a soldier but as an advocate and supporter.

May we all continue to nurture our connection to Israel- by traveling to Artzeinu- Our Land, by staying up to date on Israel’s news, by donating to Israel and Federation, by speaking to others about our views on Israel. And may the pintelle yid- that Jewish spark inside of us always burn brightly as we sing about Israel, “This Land was made for you and me.”