Given recent events in Israel, I have to admit that I’m a bit nervous about the reception I’ll get in Israel as a Reform rabbi. I had hoped to have the flight to reflect and relax and get my head around the conversion bill and the Kotel decision. You see, I always look forward to the peace and quiet of traveling alone. The longer the flight, the better. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with my family — we do it a lot — but having hours of uninterrupted time to read, watch movies, snack and sleep always proves a welcome respite and time to think. This coming flight to Israel will not be that.
Gate B21 here at JFK’s terminal 4 is filled to the brim. Birthright participants with extra large name tags fill rows and rows of plastic seats chatting excitedly and getting to know one another. College-aged Christians with big crosses and Christian rock t-shirts munch on McDonalds and talk about their home towns. Fellows from the Weitzman Institute loudly share their latest scientific research. A group of young Orthodox women sporting knee length skirts and plain print shirts take pictures with our plane in he background. And then, scattered about, the usual El-Al mix of tourists and ultra-Orthodox and Israelis trying to get home.
I’m headed to Israel for two weeks of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Two weeks to dig into sacred texts with rabbinic colleagues from around the world. We’ll be examining Israel 50 years after the Six Day War and looking to our ancient texts for insight into where we are today and where we might go in the future. After the painful week with the Western Wall and conversion bill decisions, it will be good to be with like minded colleagues committed to pluralism and open religious exploration.
I’m not sure what I’ll find when I get to Jerusalem. I know that most of its residents will just be going about their day-to-day lives — sipping coffee in cafes, heading to work, children in school. But other groups will be deeply engaged and enraged, deeply troubled or very excited about recent political developments and what they might mean for this constituency or that. I, for one, feel aggravated and a bit rejected. For all that I do to teach children and adults about Israel, the government seems to say: you’re not welcome. For all the trips I’ve led seeking to build bridges between my community and Israel, the government seems to say: stay home. For all the letters I’ve written and sermons I’ve given and arguments that I’ve had supporting the Jewish state, its government seems to say: we don’t need you.
But here’s the thing, Israel can’t get rid of me that easily. Nearly 20 years ago, on my first trip to Israel, a passion grew within me. The passion burns for the Israel — visions of the millennia, an Israel-vision of the prophets, a house for all peoples. My passion burns for the Israel of the early Zionists: free and democratic and wholly Jewish and thoroughly modern. My passion burns for the fight of my Israeli Reform rabbinic colleagues who seek to foster a progressive religious voice, to break down the false and dangerous dichotomy between religious and secular. This government can do what it likes, but they will not so easily push me away. This government can do what it likes, but I will continue to build relationships with like-minded Israelis to work for an Israeli future which welcomes all Jews, no matter which section of The Wall they use.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous about this flight. I’m not sure I’m going to get the sleep I usually squeeze in on the JFK to TLV route. I don’t trust all the college aged folks to quiet down after the meal. But the excitement in the air is palpable, it is infectious, it is Israel. And I can’t wait to get there!