A Rabbi in the House Column, by Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett, Temple Beth Abraham
If I had to pick one theme to celebrate about Israel that connects with us, especially as American Jews, it would be: stretching.
For me personally, Israel is where I found my own independence. As an 11th grader returning from Israel, I started planning my college year there almost from the moment I stepped off the plane. It was the one fixed point I knew about my college education before I was certain about where I wanted to attend or what I wanted to study. Due to the strict requirements of my college, I ended up on a one-year program where absolutely no credit was going to transfer back. I studied at Neve Schechter, the learning center at the time for the Conservative movement. So, I realized that every decision was up to me — what to study, regardless of what the program organizers wanted me to do; when to attend class or go into town; when and where to travel all over the land.
It was the year I stretched myself, to turn my Hebrew skills into spoken language. Based just on my Hebrew School, I had placed into third year Hebrew in college, and could read Agnon and Amichai—but I could hardly say a word. So, I forced myself to do it, on the bus and at the store, arguing with taxi drivers, and in the shuk. This was the first time I ever traveled to a city without knowing where I would lodge for the night. I turned 21 in Israel, and leapt into adulthood.
As an adult now, Israel continues to stretch me. The diversity of Israel has stretched me to love and admire the Jewish people as a whole in ways I was not accustomed to. I grew up defining myself sometimes narrowly— as Conservative and not Orthodox, because of the role of women; as modern and observant, in contrast to those who were only one and not the other; as part of the overlooked slice that is the religious Zionist peace movement. But because of Israel, I have come to have tremendous admiration for the chesed, the intense taking-care-of, in West Bank settlements and charedi communities. The day-today and every-Shabbat hospitality. I think of one particular story of a community after a terrorist attack just before Simchat Torah, where the community turned out to make sure the kids could celebrate even as their family members mourned. Israel stretches me to take note of the Jews most unlike me, in lifestyle or ideology, and tie myself to them and find something to admire about them, whether or not they have any idea about me in return.
Israel stretches us as it stretches itself to be a lab for Jewish values when everything is at stake, from life and death to technological advance to the destiny of the planet. Through organizations like The Arava Institute, which brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and others to learn environmental science together and explore solutions for the region and the world. Or The Shalom Hartman Institute, a think tank and learning center bringing Torah and Jewish philosophy to bear on the social, political, and ethical issues of Israel today. If we are tempted to think of Judaism as narrow, as only about what happens in our homes or on our holy days, Israel stretches us to see Torah everywhere, and not only for ourselves.
And as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy, Israel stretches us to see Jewish destiny interwoven with other people. As citizens and residents in the Jewish state, non-Jewish Israelis are also my people, our people. Israel stretches us to see them: Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, Baha’i, and more. We are stretched to see how each of their stories intersect our own, to see where their freedom is or could be part of our own sacred narrative of freedom. In a time of conflict, this is such a difficult stretch to make. I am, on a personal level, far less intertwined with Israel’s non-Jewish citizens than with even the most unlike-me Jews. But I recognize how Israel’s mamlachti’ut – Israel’s sovereignty as a state of all its people — requires us toward this stretch.
The Torah says that name, Israel, comes literally from the word for struggle. I will today prefer to translate that verse from Genesis differently: "For we have stretched with other people and with the Divine, and proven ourselves.” As we celebrate 75 years of Israeli statehood and launch the next 75, may Israel’s stretches continue to stretch us.