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RJ Guide: Reform Judaism—30 Stories
Section IX. Identifying with Israel


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RJ: Is the State of Israel important to you and to your Jewish identity?

Judy Fisher: In the summer of ’74, right after 11th grade, I went to Israel on a 7-week trip that changed my life. I walked through Jewish history, my history. I touched stones thousands of years old at the Wall, my history. I visited archaeological digs, swam in the Dead Sea, worked on a kibbutz, visited Yad Vashem. I felt the connection to my people, my history, my homeland, and I knew that we had to have this Jewish homeland to prevent the Holocaust from ever happening again.

When I grew up, got married, and had children, we sang Theodor Herzl’s words, “Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah” (“If you will it, it is no dream”) every night to our kids during bedtime songs. We’ve now taken them to Israel a number of times, to feel that sense of love and connection and being “part of something.” Israel’s also my homeland—the one place I feel fully comfortable being Jewish. I always wear my necklace with the Star of David there. In the U.S., I often tuck it under my shirt.


Wailing Wall
Courtesy of Washington
Hebrew Congregation

True, I don’t always like the political decisions Israel makes. But Israel is a sovereign country, and they are her decisions to make. Israel will always be my homeland.

Joan Pines: Israel is very important to me. After the experience of the Holocaust and years of other persecutions, it is vital that Jews have a homeland, a place where we are masters of our own destiny. Beyond that, I feel so proud of the Israeli people’s social, material, and cultural accomplishments—all despite their having to live in a country surrounded by a sea of enemies.

Steve Arnold: Even before I was a Jew, I was a Zionist. Israel represents both a global apology for the Holocaust and the final refuge of all Jews from the evil of the world.

Nancy Ruth: The evolvement of the importance of the land of Israel in Reform thinking has, perhaps, become the most significant part of my Jewish identity, both spiritually and emotionally. Much of my daily life is now devoted to efforts of strengthening ties between the Diaspora and the people of Israel.

Dawn Mollenkopf: This past summer, at the age of 41, I visited Israel for the first time. Oddly, everywhere I went, things seemed strangely familiar; I felt an unexplained sense of being “at home.” The climax of my experience was celebrating my birthday on a kibbutz and making bricks out of mud and straw in the same manner Jews would have done millennia ago in Egypt. Touching the clay made me feel completely connected to my history, people, and land. It was a bittersweet experience because it was not a birthday that my twin sister and I would celebrate together. In our spiritual journeys, she has chosen to remain true to her Christian upbringing, while I have chosen to return to my Jewish roots. That day, while I was building bricks with Jewish soil, my sister was leading the bell choir in the church school where she teaches. I was keenly reminded of my decision to follow the path less taken and the difference it has made in my life.

Dana Jennings: Judaism is not Zionism. It is a good and wonderful thing that the modern Israeli state exists, but worship of that modern Israeli state is not a good and wonderful thing. Many modern Jews have turned Israel into our Golden Calf in which the existence of the Israeli state supersedes Torah, prayer, and mitzvot.

Our truest homeland is not a swatch of earth in the Middle East, but Torah. And it’s important to remember that the mythological Israel that appears in our Tanach is not the Israel that appears in the news each day. That ancient world only lives in Torah.

Barbara D. Holender: I grew up in an ardently Zionist family. My mother was president of Hadassah (as were my aunts), organized the Women’s Division of Israel Bonds, and was acclaimed as a Woman of Valor for selling $100,000 of Israel Bonds in the course of her career.

As a teenager I belonged to Young Judea, played Hatikvah on the piano at Zionist meetings, and taught Hebrew songs and led dances at local Jewish schools. In 1947 I wanted desperately to make aliyah, but my parents absolutely forbade it. It took me a long time to understand why they wouldn’t let their daughter go into a war zone alone.

I did not get to Israel until 1983, the year after my husband died. I decided to take my daughter after she finished law school. “You know, dear,” I said, “next year….” “Mom,” she said, “I was going to take you.” “No,” I said, “that’s your graduation present.”

That was the total conversation. We knew where we were going. “Just promise me you’ll come home with me,” she said.

Laurence Kaufman: Zionism is one of my most important inheritances as a Jew. I still have vivid memories of going at a young age to New York in 1946 to meet the boat returning my mother from Basel, where she was a delegate to the first postwar World Zionist Congress.

I see Zionism and the centrality of Israel as integral to Jewish life. Those who want to classify Judaism as only a religion are in denial. I expect Torah to come forth from Zion, and I believe that Diaspora Jews have an obligation to support and defend Israel, which is a bulwark for Jews throughout the world. Only when Israel becomes a residence of choice rather than refuge for Diaspora Jews and ends Orthodox control over religious life can it fulfill its mission as the cultural nexus and spiritual center for the Jewish people.

Ellen Morrow: I believe that making Israel central to Jewish identity is dangerous. In our history we have had more time without a state than with one. If, God forbid, Israel were to cease to exist, given its current centrality, what would happen to Jewish identity? Let me add that I have serious reservations about a country that claims to be of my religion but only recognizes my legitimacy in small, hard-won steps. I have been disillusioned ever since 1976, when I went on a 6-month NFTY Israel program. Having been raised with a vision of Israel as a super-religious (with a small “r”) country where Jewish ideals could be lived, I found instead a male chauvinistic mentality, an Orthodox presence at the Wall that negated my Jewish value as a woman, and negation of who I am as a Reform Jew. What Israel needs is a separation of synagogue and state that somehow still preserves its Jewish character.

Jennifer Warriner: Israel is incredibly important to my identity as a Jew. Whenever my thoughts turn to the State, I have three simultaneous responses: 1) a tangled web of free associations about people and places runs through my mind; 2) a knot of love and respect wells up in my chest; and 3) I begin to wonder about the health and safety of my Israeli friends I know and love, who have taught me, nurtured me, and taken me into their homes.

My mental journey usually starts at Mount Carmel, where Elijah challenged the prophets of Ba’al, where Baron de Rothschild bought land and planted vineyards that became wineries at Zicharon Ya’akov, and where Sarah Aaronson and her friends in NILI died helping England eject the Ottoman Empire from Eretz Yisrael. Then my mind travels down the mountain to the Mediterranean shore at Caesarea, where Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death for his role in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132–135 C.E. That beach was also the inspiration for Hannah Senesh’s poem that we know as the song “Eli, Eli.” My mind then flies east on the route of Elijah and his storm clouds to King Akhav’s Palace overlooking the Jezreel Valley from Mount Gilboa. King Saul and his three sons died in battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, and today the mountain is sprinkled with memorials for Jewish soldiers who have fallen much more recently. At its northwestern base lies Ma’ayen Harod, the spring where Gideon chose soldiers for battle based on the way they drank water. It is also the original location of Kibbutz Ein Harod, established in 1921. Because the kibbutz pioneers wanted to remain cultured despite their rural setting, they opened an art museum that is now Israel’s third largest art museum. And my web of associations keeps on going, from Torah and Tanach to 20th-century stories, and from people to places and events, and back again.

Israel is so full of Jewish history and is the homeland of so many Jews I admire—I can’t imagine what it means to be a Jew without reference to that land.

The Rabbis Speak

“We are committed to the State of Israel and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in the land of Israel and encourage aliyah.... We are committed to a vision of the State of Israel that promotes full civil, human and religious rights for all its inhabitants and that strives for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors.”

—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999

To Learn More...

about Israel, explore “One Heart: Two Homes,” a five-session adult education program that addresses the deep issues surrounding having a personal relationship with Israel.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.