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Am Yisrael Hai

01/18/2024 09:28:16 AM


Bruce Alpert

Terri has been collecting my various writings on our Israel trip.  They amount now to around 4000 words, which for me is the equivalent of two high holiday sermons.  I feel as though I have another 40,000 words here inside me, but I think they will have to come out in other ways.  They will do so over time, in response to your questions and in dialogue with one another.

Still, I feel the need to offer some concluding remark - not to end the discussion, but to give all the particulars of which I have spoken and written a larger context.  And so let me say a word or two about עם ישראל - the people of Israel.  

Terri and I have taken at least half a dozen “first trips” to Israel - where either ourselves or our family members, or members of this congregation are visiting Israel for the first time.  One is obligated on such trips  to go sight-seeing: to walk about the Old City, to float in the Dead Sea, to tell the story of Masada, to tour the bullet factory, the Golan Heights, the crowded, twisted streets of Tsfat.  Such tours are designed around the question “How can you go to Israel and not see …” - fill in the blank  But if you are really fortunate on such trips, you will get a glimpse of what really matters, what really makes Israel such a special place: its people.  

Terri and I have gotten to know many Israelis over the years - primarily through Terri’s work with Ben Gurion University.  Israelis have a reputation for being like the sabra fruit - with a thick, prickly skin that conceals a sweet interior.  The metaphor is useful but far from perfect.  Israelis are as varied and different as any other people.  That said, like other people, their personalities are, to some degree, shaped by their environment.  Many live in cities with the constant thrum that characterizes urban life.  And they live in a country under constant military threat and whose legitimacy is always being questioned.  The challenges of this sort of life have clearly etched themselves into Israel’s national character.  

What I really love about Israelis is that they wear their hearts upon their sleeves.  They will tell you what is on their minds without evasion or reservation.  Terri and I have many friends in Israel for the simple reason that Israelis are so genuine.  From the first time you meet them, you know who they are. One needs no long courtship to peel away the facade and discover the real person.  That real person stands before you from the moment you meet them.

I’ll give you an example.  I was taken around Kibbutz Be’eri by a man named Ariel.  We chatted a bit as he told me the stories of the horrors that had taken place there on October 7.  At one point, he mentioned to me that, as a builder, he has worked a lot with the Arabs from Gaza.  So I asked him, “what can you tell me about the Arabs?”

Look,” he responded.  “I have more in common with the Arabs than I do with you.  We live in the same place, we eat the same food, we listen to the same music.  I’m a Jew from the Levant which means I’m closer with the Arabs than I am a Jew from America.”

His comments were blunt, they were matter of fact, and they were delivered with little care for how I took them.  He wanted me to know, in no uncertain terms, that my being Jewish was of little account against a lifetime of experience.  I liked him instantly.  We’re going to try and get together in May when he comes to New York for his nephew’s wedding.

If our previous experiences in Israel gave us ample opportunities to make friends there, this trip took those friendships to a different place.  I won’t speak of individuals for fear of slighting those I fail to mention.  But in our travels we met soldiers and students, parents and children, wives and husbands, brothers, sisters and friends of every kind.  These are people we have to come to know in good times.  Now we have spent eight days with them during the most horrific of times.  We were drawn to do so out of love and concern.  And we take our leave from them with deepened admiration and awe.  Our friends in Israel are very special, very precious to us.

I am always happy to come home from Israel.  It’s the one place on earth that, every moment I am there, I feel my identity as a Jew being challenged.  Coming back to this congregation - to this community that I so love - is my answer to that challenge.  

And that is why I need to say to all of you right now, I really need you.  I really need you to help me build this Jewish community into something strong and vibrant and deep in its sense of connection to the Jewish world in general and to Israel in particular.  I need this because this time, when I came home from Israel, I left a piece of my heart over there.  It's a piece won’t get back, and I don’t want to get back.  But it’s left a space that I need to fill with a sense of purpose in being here.

The Jewish community of the United States is potentially facing some hard times - perhaps some very hard times.  As I have said in the past, the rise of antisemitism is raising the cost of being Jewish.  Many a Jew may conclude that the price of their Judaism - a price paid not in dollars but in a sense of standing apart from the rest of society -  is more than they are willing to pay.  We, as a community, need to pay it anyway.  We need to pay it because being Jewish is integral to our identity.  If it isn’t - if this synagogue isn’t in some way an extension of yourself  - then we are not living up to our shared destiny.

Everywhere you turn in Israel these days you will see the words that all of us were taught to sing early on in our Jewish education: עם ישראל חי.  In the trauma of October 7, Israelis have embraced the meaning behind their identity as a people.  We too are that people.  We too are Israel.  As Israelis now say of themselves, so may it be said of us: עם ישראל חי - the people of Israel live.

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Sat, June 15 2024 9 Sivan 5784