This past Wednesday I had the extraordinary privilege to accompany two hundred NFTYites to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Western Wall as you know is one of the most powerful symbols for the endurance of the Jewish people. The Kotel is not a wall of the Second Temple that stood over two thousand years ago, but rather a retaining wall that surrounded the Temple, but nevertheless, this series of carved stones has stood as a symbol that is no less authoritative than the Temple itself. The Temple in Jerusalem was for our people the central address for where God dwelled on earth and where our people would come three times a year (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However all that ended in 70 ACE when the Romans destroyed it and ended Jewish sovereignty for over two thousand years; until 1948 when a Third Jewish commonwealth was established as the State of Israel. For many of these young people this was their first time being in the Old City of Jerusalem and for many, this was the first time that someone in their family had been to this awesome place. And as we rested next to each other close to the Wall, I asked them the question, “So what does this word “Jewish” mean anyway? As you know we use this term all the time, as in Jewish summer camp, Jewish values, and Jewish identity…” Apparently, the participants have been listening to their educators because they answered me that the word Jewish or Judaism originally comes from the word Judea, the place where they were standing at that moment. And we talked about how our people came from this place, Judea (an area surrounding Jerusalem that continues south to the desert), and why someone who was from Judea was known as a Jew or in Hebrew, someone from Yehuda יהודה was known as a Yehudi יהודי . We are Jews because our people came from Judea and it was because of the Romans and a terrible war, that someone in their family or someone connected to their family was forced to escape from this place and this is how we became known around the world as Jews. And as a result of having to flee Judea some of us went to Babylonia, Spain, Germany, Morocco, Russia, Poland, Iraq, Ukraine and as we wandered, other people joined us along the way and then suddenly we found ourselves in New Jersey, California, Chicago, Cincinnati and New York and here were these young people back to where the whole story began. Quite unbelievable. So then I asked this multitude of sixteen-year-olds “who has stubborn people in their family’?” And everybody without an exception raised their hand. And I explained to them that this was definitely true as they come from families who stubbornly held on to the memory of this place and who reminded themselves over the millennia through different customs and laws that one day they would return to Jerusalem. Whether it was by breaking a glass at a wedding, praying in the morning, saying the Birkahat Hamazon after eating a meal, or even saying at the end of the Passover Seder- “Next year in Jerusalem.” It was a transcendent moment where they could experience a place….. a feeling… if you will, that their families have been dreaming about for centuries. And these young people are actually a small minority in Jewish history because while their ancestors may have prayed, and sang about Jerusalem, very few ever got to see it. As it says in the Hebrew Bible about the Jewish people, we are an Am Kasheh Oreph– עם קשה עורף A Stiff Necked People and we do not let go easy. Standing at the Kotel with two hundred young Reform Jews who had actualized the dream of generations and looking at the rocks that were thrown down by the Roman soldiers was nothing less than miraculous. And it simply doesn’t make sense that our people and these kids from these families held on to this dream of return for this long, and yet there we were.
However in addition to this amazing moment and the story of the Jewish people returning home, there was another part of the story that was a little more complicated (with Jews this seems to happen a lot). I explained to these young people that the story of the Jewish people coming home was indeed amazing and that when the Jews came back to Israel, they came from over one hundred countries around the world. So yes, Israel is like a family homecoming. And like family, in times of trouble Israel has been there for Jews from around the world, bringing them home (think of the Jews from Arab Countries, Ethiopia and from the Former Soviet Union) . Unfortunately just like family, once we bring you home ,we make you a little crazy. And that is the story of the Jewish people, coming back home, and trying to set up a sovereign country after two thousand years of living in Diaspora . Everybody has a different opinion and even more so, everyone thinks they are right. Questions range from, ” What do we mean when we say a Jewish state?” What is the role of religion in the Jewish state? “Who defines the interpretation of Judaism?” “Who is in charge of marriage, burials, and conversions?” Who controls national religious sites like the Kotel?” Unfortunately, many of these questions were never fully addressed because Israel was always concerned about simply surviving attack after attack by her neighbors. However as time has gone on and Israel has grown stronger and more secure, some basic questions about the nature of Israeli society have begun to be addressed. Like questions about the role of religion in Israel and this is where the Reform movement has become an agent of trueTikkun (making society more just). For all of the wonderful achievements of Israeli society, one of the most difficult problems that remain is connected to the nature of religion and state. And this manifests itself through the monopoly of the Ultra-Orthodox controlling all state institutions connected with life cycles- marriage, birth, conversions, and burials -in the Jewish state. Due to a number of historical reasons, the State of Israel came into being with the Ultra-Orthodox controlling all aspects of life connected to Judaism. This has been problematic for a majority of the country and has been a long protracted fight between many streams of Judaism who need and deserve to be represented from Reform to Conservative and Modern Orthodox etc. One of the most contentious points of Ultra-Orthodox coercion is that without any right, the Ultra-Orthodox assumed ownership of the Kotel not long after the 1967 war. And until a few years ago there have been no options at the Kotel for egalitarian prayer, for women to hold services or for women to read from the Torah . Thanks to Women of the Wall and other Progressive Jewish movements, today there is an egalitarian part of the Kotel, but it is far from acceptable for Reform Jewish needs and it still faces threats of being closed down by Ultra-Orthodox pressure on the government. The other day our two hundred NFTYites were crammed together in the egalitarian part of the Kotel where young men and women prayed together. They sang, they prayed and learned about the miracle of the Jewish story. And at the same time, they learned about how much work still needs to be done in order to make the State of Israel more just, more egalitarian and more pluralistic. But that has always been the job of Reform Jews and the Kotel was an important place for this lesson of Renewing the Old and Sanctifying the New.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem
Rabbi Rich Kirschen
Director of Israel Programs