What Israel Has Taught Me
by Robert Orkand

I have been to Israel more than 40 times, and on each visit, whether I’m leading a group of my congregants or leading an Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) group, I’ve learned something new about Israel, and about myself. Ten lessons stand out:

  1. I am part of an ongoing experiment of the Jewish people and my voice needs to be heard, not only in support of Israel and her people, but in opposition to anything Israeli leaders may say or do that runs counter to the highest ideals of our religious faith. The Jewish society we build in Israel—the experiment—will ultimately prove or disprove our claim, as articulated by Rabbi David Hartman, that the Torah is truly capable of sanctifying every aspect of human reality and is capable of giving new moral and spiritual dimension to a nation’s politics. To succeed, Israel must become the supreme expression of the Jewish spirit.

  2. The Bible is alive when you walk upon Israeli soil. At the spring of Herod, I imagine Gideon selecting his troops, and on Mount Gilboa, I feel the spirit of King Saul as he consults a soothsayer before going into his last battle. At the cemetery beside the Sea of Galilee, I “visit” the chalutzim, the pioneers, who planted a new society against all odds. Standing at the Kotel, the Western Wall, I am aware that Jews have prayed there for centuries, folding their scribbled prayers into the crevices between the stones. At that moment I hear the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, for whom the wall symbolized “the Old Mother crying for all of us. Stubborn, loving, waiting for redemption.”

  3. A miracle is in progress. For two thousand years, Jews finished every seder and every Yom Kippur with the words Bashana ha-ba-ah b’Yerushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem. It was always L’shana ha-ba, next year. Previous generations of Jews could have only dreamed of a Jewish rebirth in the land of Israel. Today, we behold the end of our people’s exile—a miraculous victory of hope over despair.

  4. In Israel Judaism ventures out from the home and synagogue into the street. Hebrew is everywhere. Everyone speaks the language and typically all signs, newspapers, magazines, songs and plays are in Hebrew. On a congregational trip, one of my congregants said, “Wow, even the manhole covers (which have Hebrew words on them) are Jewish.”

  5. Israel interweaves the old and the new. Some Jerusalem neighborhoods look like they were transported from 19th-century Poland; others rival Silicon Valley on the frontier of technological innovation. On the beaches of Tel Aviv one sees scantily clad women; in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem strict rules of modesty apply. How well these contrasting visions of society coexist may determine the success or failure of the Israel experiment.

  6. Jewish power can be both a blessing and a curse. For Israelis, “Never again” means never lacking the ability to defend oneself. Israel’s challenge is to wield its considerable power in ways that ultimately lead the nation to peace rather than to war. HesehhPower alone will not secure peace and the kind of nation Israel’s Zionist founders envisioned.

  7. Jewish religious extremists who want to impose their theology on society are no less dangerous to a democratic society than are Christian or Muslim radical fundamentalists who wish to do the same. The divide between the ultra-Orthodox and the majority of Jewish Israelis is growing and threatens the nation’s very soul. I’ve witnessed first-hand the tension between the ultra-Orthodox (the haredim) and Jews who do not follow their ways. Despite Israel’s Supreme Court rulings, some buses remain segregated, with women forced to sit in the rear. Politicians have portrayed Reform Judaism as an abomination and enemy. Some years ago, while on an ARZA Rabbinic Cabinet mission to Israel, we wanted to hold a prayer service at the Western Wall and applied to the police for a permit. Our group was granted permission, but we were forced to pray within a fenced corral, surrounded by haredim who screamed obscenities at us and bemoaned the fact that Hitler had not “finished the job.” One of the members of our group, the son of Holocaust survivors, was about to jump the fence and throttle one of the screaming haredim. A photo of me holding him back appeared the next day in The New York Times.

  8. Israel is one of the noisiest democracies in the world. Israelis are engaged in a non-stop debate about everything. During my most recent trip to Israel I witnessed tens of thousands of citizens of all ages protesting the growing gap between rich and poor and the lack of affordable housing. In contrast to the riots occurring in Arab countries, which often lead to violence, these Israeli demonstrations were like block parties, where people agreed on the problem but were so divided on possible solutions that consensus was hard to find. Nevertheless, the noisy demonstrations caught the attention of the Israeli government, a commission was appointed, and certain steps were eventually taken to ease the housing problem, though much still needs to be done.

  9. In Israel I am constantly rediscovering my Jewish self. I know that sounds strange, especially when said by a rabbi, but to be in Israel is to experience Judaism in a wholly different way. At home, I wear a kippah in the temple or when I am in my role as rabbi outside the congregation. In Israel, as soon as I get off the plane I put on a kippah. I am now in a place where I can be as Jewish as I want to be."

  10. In Israel, as opposed to other travel destinations, I think of myself as a pilgrim rather than a tourist. I have visited France, Italy, and England, among other wonderful places—the food is great, the sites breathtaking, the museums fascinating. Yet, these destinations are and always will be always foreign to me. But when I travel to Israel, I feel the sense that I’ve come home.

Rabbi Robert Orkand is the rabbi of Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut.
    Union for Reform Judaism.