This is a guest post by Rabbi Avi Olitzky, Rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN, and third in TC Jewfolk’s series of excerpts from local High Holiday Divrei Torah.
A short five years ago was my most recent time spent in Israel. Just after Sarah and I were married, we moved to Israel for the year. But with respect to those feelings and personal details I mentioned moments ago, allow me to be candid: I was petrified to go to Israel. It was not because of the terror. It was not because of the suicide bombers, or buses, or even living abroad for the first time. It was because I fell in love with Israel in 1998. And when Sarah and I were planning our year in Israel, the Israel of 1998 was long gone. I was not spending a year in the country that I preached about, that I fell in love with – I did not know where I was headed. I was scared.
[Ki Ein Shikhichah lifnei kisei kivodekha v’ein nistar mineged einekha – For you there is no forgetting, from You nothing is hidden]
It was the end of our year. My wife and I were walking with close friends—a classmate of mine from the UJ, and his wife and son—on our way to a Yom HaZikaron Service, Memorial Day in Israel. We were reflecting on the past year and how wonderful it was to be in Israel. How we will miss the smells of wild rosemary and jasmine and lavender. How we will miss our community and the constant Jewishness free-flowing in the air. And then, a discordant interruption to our conversation, the siren went off.
For 60 grave seconds, on the evening of Memorial Day, a siren blares across the nation. Everyone stands in silence.
It’s an eerie scene. Smiles turn to pallid blank faces. People stop their cars mid-street, exit and stand at attention. Even babies stop crying. The bartering in the market stops. The bickering in the Yeshivas stop. The guns stop firing in the north. The Buses run later on their routes. And the police officer and the criminal both stand in silence to remember those many martyrs whom have fallen. 60 whole seconds.
Few times in my life have I felt such a chill. I looked on in amazement. Frozen in time set to the melodies of silence and Shrill. The siren stopped and I turned to Sarah, “That was really powerful: could you imagine if we did that in the States on Memorial Day?” And Sarah replied, “Yeah, that would be something, but you know, here in Israel, sadly, they need a siren like that in place, and it’s not only to memorialize their fallen – it’s to sound an alarm and to warn people.”
[Ki Khishemkha ken tehilatekha, kasheh likhos v’noach lirtzot. Ki lo tachpotz b’mot haMet ki im b’shuvo midarko v’chayah – Your glory is Your nature: slow to anger, ready to forgive. You desire not the sinner’s death, but that he turn from his path and live]
It was late on a Saturday night following Shabbat in Jerusalem. I knew that it was close to the start of the Spring College Semester for Americans because that week I was receiving calls daily on my cell phone from previous USYers and students of mine that had arrived in Jerusalem to study abroad for their Junior Year. Sarah went home and I was going with some friends for a slice of Kosher pizza after a birthday party that night. Sbarro of course.
It was 2:00am. My friends and I walked and schmoozed and caught up and found ourselves on a deserted street off of Yaffo. During the day, Yoel Salomon is known for its cafes and galleries, and its safety, as it is only a pedestrian walk. At 2am, the same could not be true. Three young thugs approached us, and barked at me in Hebrew. I told my former USYers to run, as I stepped forward, intercepting to chat with the trio. I was frank. I told them they were mistaken, they did not know us and to have a good night. With my friends at a far distance, we got into a bit of a scuffle, and then the first punch. I was hit smack in the eye. One of the thugs held me down, and as I wriggled free, fully prepared to defend myself, stood up, braced myself to swing, and met the brutes eye-to-eye. I saw it. All three of them had Jewish Star necklaces. All three of them were Jews. I went numb. I went blank. I got very close to the one that hit me, pressed my face against his, and told him to leave, glaring. His two friends began to pull him back. Ben Gurion’s Israel was here.
I’m a pacifist. But I was ready to swing. And then I saw their Judaism. And then I realized how special and bizarre and complicated a place Israel really is. I couldn’t swing. I was frozen. I wore a black eye for a month and it was some of the best Torah I learned that year.
I can go on and tell you stories about Hoshanah Rabbah at the Kotel, about building our first Sukkah, about burning our chametz with neighbors in the street, about the tastiest of restaurants and feeling like Indiana Jones, about kashering our burners for pesach at the local grocery store, about being several blocks from one of the bombings in Tel Aviv, and those stories come with time, but today is just a taste.
And now, the Israel that Sarah and I left just about four years ago, yet again, is no longer. One month after we left, the Second Lebanon War broke out and those infamous kidnappings took place—and though the fate of the others were tragic, Gilad Shalit’s life still treacherously finds itself frozen in the midst in captivity. We’re now facing a new Israel. An Israel different than 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. An Israel different than 1995 when one of my childhood heroes Yitzchak Rabin was murdered. An Israel different than 1998 when I fell in love with our homeland. And now an Israel different than the nation with which over that year my love affair was rekindled. An Israel of hotels once packed with tourists, then fleeing kibbutzniks, and now, God-willing tourists again. An Israel that pays a higher price for cropped and photoshopped images and media-based propaganda than for soaring rockets and bomb shelter childhoods.
A renewed covenant awaits us this year. Renewal of our selves. Renewal of our covenant. Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Settling the land of Israel. … We must ensure progress toward religious pluralism rather than religious extremism in Israel. We must ensure progress toward Israel’s legitimate existence. We must ensure progress toward Israel’s perpetual safety and security.
I am a firm believer that the American Jewish community cannot exist without Israel and Israel cannot exist without America. It is my prayer for all of us this year that when we hear the word Israel, we begin to glow uncontrollably with delight. That we feel young again. May we all come to see and taste and hear and feel Israel. May She be under our constant guidance and protection, and may we be under God’s constant guidance and protection. May her defenders on the ground be safe and accurate. May they protect in the name of peace and not war. And may the Jerusalem of our dreams finally become a Jerusalem of reality. May we be renewed. May She be renewed. And together, may we both be blessed to walk influenced by the Sweetness and Mercy of the Divine for this New Year.
Interested in joining Rabbi Olitzky at AIPAC Policy Conference this year? Email him at aolitzky [at] bethelsynagogue.org