Let the Land enter us!

This week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo gives the Israelites explicit instructions having to do with entering and living in the land of Israel.  There are specific rituals outlined to ensure that this group that has been a nomadic tribe for almost 40 years be tied to the holy land of Eretz Yisrael.  The Israelites are told to honor the land and the produce by setting aside tithes to God and dedicating those at the Tabernacle.  The Israelites must also write out the Torah on large plaster stones, near the river Jordan for all to see. These steles enumerated the laws of the land.  And there is a unique ritual that divides up the 12 Tribes into two groups of six to be stationed one group on Mt. Gezerim and other on Mt. Ebal. An elaborate ritual follows of blessings and curses that will befall the Israelites unless they adhere to the covenant in the land.

While these ancient rituals may not have much practical application today we can learn something important from them in our own day and time.  The values the jump out here and that should speak to us in contemporary times, is our Jewish connection to the sacred land of Israel.  All Jews no matter how observant or not, has a place in Israel.  This is our homeland; our ancient homeland. We are descendants of those very Israelites who came and settled the land per the covenant with our God.  The modern State of Israel is the rebirth of that ancient promise and we have a duty and responsibility that ties us to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel and its peoples.

The modern State of Israel is a complex place. Our love for Israel should recognize the complexities in contemporary life.  Like America has its issues and problems, so does Israel. But like America, Israel has many successes and things to be proud of, not the least of which is a vibrant and diverse culture and democratic values.

The Torah portion begins Ki Tavo el haaretz, When you come into the land.  Our job as Jews in the 21st century is to enter into a relationship with Israel. By going there regularly. Buying Israeli products and helping to sustain the land and its people.  Subscribe to Israeli papers, read from its great canon of writers and poets, build a connection with the people of Israel. It will lift your Jewishness to a new height.  And as much as we shall enter the land, let the land enter into our hearts and spirits.

I invite you to hear the Consul General of Israel at Kol Ami, Thursday night Sept. 18 as we host the launch of the Israel-West Hollywood AIDS Task Force.  6:30-8 pm . The West Hollywood City Council and the Consul General will forge a new bond of cooperation and exchange on issues of AIDS/HIV through this new and important task force.

Let the land enter us!

Puff of Cloud.

July 10, 2014

Dear Kol Ami Family and Friends,

I just concluded the second full day with the Rabbinic Mission of AIPAC. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and their mission is to be an effective lobby and bridge for Israel in the United States. Today I will always remember from this mission a puff of cloud.

While AIPAC is best known for making sure our American Elected Officials, Academics, and business leaders understand Israel, visit Israel and build relationships with their Israeli counterparts, this is the first time they have had a rabbinic mission to Israel. You can follow us on Twitter at #rabbinicmission2israel.

There are 20 rabbis mostly Reform and Conservative rabbis and one Modern Orthodox Rabbi in our group. Today we were supposed to have travelled to Ramallah to meet with a member of the Palestinian Authority and an important Palestinian political academic. But due to the changing situation here in Israel we were unable to go to Ramallah and the high ranking member of the Palestinian Authority was unable to leave Ramallah. But we did meet at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem with an important Palestinian political academic.

He shared with us the most recent polls of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and their attitudes toward peace. They also surveyed Israelis and asked them prospects for peace. Among Palestinians there is clearly a generational divide. Those 35 and older according to his polling are willing to accept a two state solution and are willing to accept Israel side by side as a matter of pragmatic consideration. But those 34 years and younger are more militant and will only accept a one state solution. This means Palestine only to the sea. He told us most Palestinians are secular and that only 25 percent want an Islamic state run by Sharia law. Seventy five percent of Palestinians was a democratic state. However the PA is a basically a two party entity, much like the United States. Hamas and Fataq. There are smaller parties but the two major groups gather 80 percent of the vote.

Our afternoon included a visit to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo which is on the far southern end of Jerusalem and was built beginning in 1967. It is annexed into Jerusalem and overlooks Bethlehem which is in the Palestinian Authority on the other side of the security fence.

We then spent a couple of hours at the Foreign Ministry learning about the challenges of Israel at the United Nations and a marvelous hour learning about MASHAV which is a department of the Foreign Ministry it is Israel’s International Agency for Development and Cooperation. Founded by David Ben-Gurion in 1958 this Agency works with countries around the world on issues of food sustainability, agriculture, health education, emergency response, and early childhood education and gender empowerment. They help developing nations around the globe and help by providing expertise and hands on experience to lift their nations up. Mashav works in countries like Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Eastern Europe, Micronesia, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Rawanda.

But just as we were learning more about Mashav. A blaring announcement came through the building, “Red Alert, Red Alert” with piercing sirens. Other employees joined us in the conference room we were in as it was a reinforced safe room. Four rockets had been launched at Jerusalem and we heard several booms. As the all clear sign was given and we exited the building, we could still see the cloud puffs where the Iron Dome had taken out the rockets.

We ended the day over dinner in a private home in Yemin Moshe (the Windmill neighborhood). Dr. Einat Wilf, a former member of Knesset with the Labor Party ( I met her last summer) gave a brilliant talk about the future of peace and the challenges and hurdles and opportunities between Israel and the Arabs.

There is no let up in the rockets landing all over Israel. Hamas has launched 400 rockets. There are only 6 Iron Dome batteries and Israel needs 14 to protect its cities.

Hamas who after 2008 was not supposed to have any more rockets has not only resupplied but has more sophisticated weaponry thanks to Iran. They used to only be able to reach Southern Israel. But now they can reach the entire nation.

The Israeli army has been firing and trying to take out rocket launchers and Hamas leadership. While civilian deaths are regrettable and deeply painful, Hamas uses them as human shields. Israel’s army not only leaflets before they shoot but they call the families to leave the buildings. What other army in the world calls the civilians and tells them to get out? Can you imagine Putin doing that in the Ukraine? Or the Taliban in Afghanistan? Or al-Sissi in Egypt?

The situation is complex here in Israel. And it has many nuances. And there isn’t time to recover from one trauma before there is another. But we in our comfort of the United States have no idea what it is like to try and run to shelter. And if you live in Sderot you only have 15 seconds. And in Tel Aviv 30 seconds to find shelter.

Yes we pray that there will be peace. And let us never lose that hope. And let us continue to urge Israel and her neighbors sit down and talk. And we should support organizations that help Israelis and Palestinians encounter one another. But this Shabbat will not be that time.

Tomorrow Shabbat will descend upon this holy city of Jerusalem. As the sun sets here the sky turns a beautiful shade of pink as the sun reflects off of the Jerusalem stone and the streets will get so quiet. I know as I attend services at Kol HaNeshama (One of Jerusalem’s Reform Synagogues) I will be praying for the peace of Israel and Jerusalem. I will be praying for the soldiers of the IDF who defend this country, her residents and its borders. I will be praying for the innocent Palestinians who are held captive by terrorists and corrupt leaders. And I will be praying for you and me.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger


As Rockets Fall

Written July 9, 2014

It has been a difficult time in Israel. I have been here in Eretz Yisrael for more than a week now. Arriving just before they found the bodies of Eyal,Gilad and Naftali. When the news of the discovery of their bodies came over the news I was with several colleagues and it was a palpable moment that took our breath away. Israel went into mourning. Jews from the right or left cried with their families. I was surprised how few cars were out in the streets . I was glued to watching the funeral and crying too. And then in the midst of mourning, a young Arab teen burned alive. Retribution by a gang of Jewish thugs. But it was cold-blooded murder.

A country, a Jewish people that prides itself on the value “choose life” has within it such depravity. It shocks the nation. The burnt body of Muhammed Abu Khadeir gave Israel another blow and made many realize that the rhetoric that they have espoused has consequences. Words matter and the words of revenge, the cycle of violence represented by this has given Israel pause. This was a reason for more tears for Muhammed, his family and for my Israel who is so conflicted and so battered from every side. Even as the Army went door to door on the West Bank searching for the 2 murderers of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad.

But these deeply saddening events have taken place against a background of a barrage of rocket and missile fire from Hamas. Since the agreement of Fatah and Hamas to create their “unity” government, the rockets have fallen through the south with increasing volume. And then yesterday, as Israel called up reservists and gathered at the border of Gaza the rockets reigned down on an ever increasing circle of Israel. Sderot, Beersheva, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Last night it took me a minute. I heard the sirens. But it didn’t compute. The TV was on. I was watching it and hearing it as if numb and realized this wasn’t just far away but overhead. Hurriedly I found the safety of the shelter with others in the hotel. Shaken and realizing that Israel has entered a new and frightening phase it was a night of little sleep. All of Israel is vulnerable to the missiles.

Even though I have had many tears this week. I am strengthened in my commitment to Israel by being here. By sharing in the Israel experience. Not just in times of quiet and celebration. But in these extraordinarily difficult times. And I know our rabbinic presence in Israel bring strength to Medinat Yisrael.

May Israel be kept in our prayers. For peace outside and within.
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is President Elect of the CCAR. You can follow her travels this week in Israel @deniseeger #rabbinicmission2Israel. Or @AIPAC

Complex Miracle, Israel

Israel’s Independence Day is a day for rejoicing. Next Tuesday Israel will mark 66 years since its rebirth on the international stage.  Yom Ha-atzmaut, Israel Independence Day is not just a secular holiday but for all Jews around the world, Israel’s rebirth day is the fulfillment of an age – old dream.  It is a miracle.

It was only 2 weeks ago as our Passover Sedarim ended that we all exclaimed, “Next Year in Jerusalem”. Dreaming of Israel and Zion has been a deep part of our rituals and prayers throughout millennium.  And today, when we as the Jewish people are blessed with seeing a vibrant Israel before our very eyes, we should give thanks for this miracle in our midst.  We will observe Yom Ha-atzmaut at services this Friday night at 6:45 pm.

Today more than ever Israel needs our support.  And supporting Israel doesn’t mean that we agree with everything that happens politically in Israel.  But it does mean that we Jews have responsibility to correct the naysayers, who want to deny Israel’s existence, or are a part of the BDS movement which urges boycotts and divestment of companies that do business in Israel.  This movement’s real aim is to destroy Israel.  Israel is a thriving democracy, different than ours, but it is a democracy.  Israel is trying to define itself. What is a Jewish Democratic State to be like? What is the role of others? How do we balance these things?

Sadly, the peace process once again has been paused.  But as Israel celebrates its 66 years of modern independence we cannot let those who would destroy Israel succeed.  Israel like the United States has policies to praise and policies we wish to change.  Society is complex. But there is much to celebrate on Yom Ha-atzmaut. Not the least of which is the miracle of Israel’s rebirth!

I want to share a poem with you written by a young man, Eitan Press who made Aliyah to Israel in 2009. It captures the complexities of the modern State of Israel and of life there. Happy Birthday Israel.

In Israel

by Eitan Press


In Israel, people with guns

are shooting at people with bombs


In Israel, everywhere is dangerous

“don’t get blown up” they say


In Israel, Moses saw the Promised Land

Jesus returned pardon for injury,

& Mohammed tramped with Gabriel


In Israel, a lot of people talk to God

In Israel, God whispers back “One”


In Israel, Arsim & Chassidim & Haredim

Walk in the park with Datim & Chilunim


“Ma Ha Matzav?”

It’s everywhere, it hasn’t ended,

& the eyes of man offer no resolution


In Israel, there is more gas

generated by falafel

than many other countries


In Israel, there is a little coffee shop

That sells used books and people come & write

While young beautiful Israeli’s sweat for Shekalim

And still smile even though they are tired.


In Israel, most people don’t fight

Just like everywhere else.


In Israel, the army is a part of puberty.


In Israel, Jews want to know “Why?”

Just as much as everyone else.


In Israel, a lot of people are waiting.


In Israel, soul eaters are dressed like soul savers

& the water in the mikvah is dirty.


In Israel, apathetic hipsters don’t care about the fact that they are in Israel


In Israel, hash is more available than weed


In Israel, the land is still a maiden who loves you

Even though she has a thousand scars

Her eye is still bright & she holds out her hand.


In Israel, my heart has found a place to put down roots.


In Israel, wrestling with angels is a national past time.


In Israel, what is forgotten is remembered.


In Israel, brothers play paddle ball

every week on the beach in Tel Aviv


In Israel, a dream greets the dawn

And is a babe, a man, and an elder all at once.


In Israel, the City of Gold’s light,

Is not made of pavement.


In Israel, Shabbos is coming

And it’s time to rest.


This poem appeared in the Huffington Post April 15, 2013

My trip to AIPAC 2014

I have just returned from 2 1/2 days in Washington D.C.  I was attending the annual AIPAC Policy conference along with 15,000 others who love Israel. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This important organization builds bridges and support for the State of Israel with the United States. AIPAC educates Congress and our elected leaders and works to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the U.S.  AIPAC works effectively on college campuses with campus student leaders to combat the Anti-Israel fervor and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel. They educate and reach African American leaders, Hispanic leaders and Christian leaders and educate them about the strategic importance of Israel and a side of the story that they may not have heard before. As we heard from the President of the Washington local SEIU 87, a dynamic Latina, named Olga Miranda said, “I never knew Israel’s story until AIPAC introduced me to it. I merely repeated what I heard on the news. Today I know there are two sides to every story. I am pro-Israel and I am the face of AIPAC.”

While I have attended local AIPAC events I had never been to the annual policy conference. We heard from an array of speakers including Hon Isaac Herzog, the head of Israel’s Labor Party, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Charles Schumer, and Sen. Robert Menendez, head of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.  It was amazing to me in a town so divided by partisanship to see the House Majority whip Rep Eric Cantor (R) stand side by side with the House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) and together talk about their common and strong support of the Israel -U.S. relationship. Hoyer couldn’t resist chiding the Jewish Cantor that he had been to Israel more times!

One of the most powerful presentations came from Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen  of Florida and Pnina Tamano-Shata (Yesh Atid) the first Ethiopian Member Knesset.  Side by side they each recounted a similar story of being refugees: one from Cuba and one from Ethiopia and their journeys to become legislators and all they had in common. The common values of freedom and democracy and opportunity of Israel and the United States were never more evident.

All of this and many workshops on everything from the peace process, the war in Syria, Israel’s technology revolution, Iran, fighting Boycotts of Israel, the rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe, climate change and water issues in the US and Israel and so much more; workshops for Christians, students, Latinos, LGBT receptions and how to lobby Congress. Tuesday of the conference is devoted to lobbying your Congress person and Senators for Israel.

I also learned despite some critics that AIPAC is real bi-partisan.  There has been a lot of critique on the left that AIPAC became a Republican stronghold.  I didn’t get that.  It was clear they were committed to bi-partisanship both in representing Israel’s political spectrum and the here in the U.S.  Yes there are partisan Jews on both sides of the aisle.  But as someone who is center left on Israel, meaning I believe strongly in states for two people, a Jewish democratic Israel side by side with a Democratic Palestine both who can live in peace and security, I did not feel out of place at all. Other progressives were there and I believe it is important to gather there so that the entire spectrum on Israel is represented and is part of the solution for a healthy Israel -U.S. relationship!

I learned a lot in a short period of time. I hope next year some of you will join me for AIPAC Policy Conference 2015. It is March 1-3, 2015. Registration is already open. If you love Israel and you want the US and Israel to remain strong partners for peace, freedom, trade, innovation, democracy, and security then you want to be a part of AIPAC. Join me there. I have already registered. How about you? If you want to register or view the videos from the conference here is the link:  www.aipac.org

Ron Diskin: Mapping defenses against HIV | Health | Jewish Journal

Come hear Dr. Ron Diskin TONIGHT at Kol Ami at 7 pm.  Hear about his important research fighting HIV/AIDS.  This is a joint program with Israel’s Consul General, the Weizmann Institute, Kol Ami, The City of West Hollywood, Being Alive, Founders MCC, The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and the West Hollywood Library Foundation.  AND ITS FREE

1200 N. La Brea Ave, West Hollywood


Ron Diskin: Mapping defenses against HIV | Health | Jewish Journal.

Reflections of Israel on the 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War

Yom Kippur Morning – Reflection of Israel on the 40 Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War

Boker Tov, Good Morning.Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May you all be sealed in the Book of life.

As many of you know this summer I completed my Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative and graduated as a Sr. Rabbinic Fellow of the Jerusalem based Institute.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a place of higher learning, teacher training; it is a Jewish think tank and research institute, a place of rabbinic leadership and Jewish communal lay leadership training. It is a place where academics from all nations gather to discuss Israel, Judaism and modernity, and religious ethics.  The Hartman Institute runs two Orthodox High School one for boys and one for girls, trains IDF, Israeli Defense Force officers in Jewish ethics and the ethics of warfare, and provides an opportunity for North American Rabbis of all denominations to gather to study in a free-wheeling Yeshiva setting, encountering the texts and philosophies of our Tradition and apply them to the contemporary world.
It is important that you know my three years there were sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.  They underwrote my learning and travel to Israel for the last three and half years.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a public thank you to the leaders of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, the Shalom Hartman Institute and all of you who continue to support the Jewish Federation Council.   I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank you, our congregation and our staff for supporting me in this opportunity to broaden my learning and vision and engagement with Israel and the texts of our tradition.

My encounters in Israel these last 3 ½ years have only made my love for our ancient land grow deeper. I have learned to see a different Israel; a more complex and mature Israel than the naïve Zionism of my childhood. And it has changed my heart. As the medieval poet Judah HaLevi wrote  “My heart is in the east, but I am on the edge of the west.”   This morning, as we commemorate 40 years since the Yom Kippur war, my heart is turned eastward to Eretz Yisrael and her neighbors.

I don’t know about you, but in 1973 I still remember as we exited the grand sanctuary of TempleIsrael in Memphis, TN. (after counting the pipes of the organ all morning) everyone was standing on the steps outside and the foyer worrying and talking.  The Rabbi had announced at the conclusion of the morning service that Israel had been attacked that day.  Everyone was so upset.  I remember the following days as the casualties grew and the fierceness of fighting continued as Egypt and Syria kept making incursions into Israeli held territory. It would be almost three whole days until Israel could muster enough of its forces to begin to hold off the combined Arab armies.

Somehow this war would be a different war than 1967’s six day rout by Israel.  Fierce fighting continued for three weeks.  Ending only by diplomatic cease-fire and when Israeli troops had made their way within 25 miles from Damascus in Syria and crossed the Suez Canal encircling the city of Suez and Egypt’s entire Third Army and the Israeli army was only 63 miles from Cairo.  Despite the UN Ceasefire there were skirmishes between the Egyptian army and Israel until January of 1974 and on the northern front with Syria until May 1974.

But the 1973 war was different.  Despite many warnings as early as Rosh Hashanah that both the Syrian army and Egyptian army were amassing troops and tanks, the high level military commanders in Israel did not believe that the Arab armies would strike out against Israel post 1967.  And in papers recently released then Prime Minister Golda Meir, admitted she knew war was imminent but could not call a preemptive strike. This left the Israeli army very unprepared for the attacks on Yom Kippur Day 1973.  They were taken by surprise.

That war also almost led to a real confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviets.  In those years Egypt and Syria were client states of the former Soviet Union. Both were armed by the Soviets and its officers trained by the Soviets.  Throughout the war as tension increased the US and the Soviets almost entered the war. In one naval battle, Israeli and Soviet gun ships exchanged fire off the coast of Syria.  Luckily Henry Kissinger’s brilliance saw this encounter as a way to woo Egypt from the Soviet sphere. And today Egypt still receives serious financial and military aid from the U.S.

Five years later-the Camp David Accord of 1978 would bring peace between Egypt and Israel and the price was the return of the Sinai Peninsula.  But the Yom Kippur war changed something in Israel and her soldiers and the country.  For the first time they were defending the territories captured in 1967.  And Israel came within hours of losing the entire country and using nuclear weapons.  The losses were great for Israel during that war 40 years ago today.  And for the first time Israelis began to question their own governmental and military tactics in a new way.

And that questioning that began there 40 years ago today-is never more apparent than in Israel than now.   What kind of state should Israel be?  As it in now 65 years old, what kind of Jewish Democratic Israel should unfold?

Israelis have had enough.  There is an important debate that is going on in Israel about the role of public and governmental Judaism.  As the Haredim, the ultra Orthodox communities continue to grow through tremendous birth rates, traditional and secular communities in Israel have become embittered at the public control of the Chief Rabbinate over daily life and the lack of involvement in the State by the Haredi communities by paying taxes, and being part of the workforce.  Hence the recent law that passed the Knesset requiring Haredi Ultra Orthodox men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.  I have to admit when I spent a day at the officers training headquarters this summer I was stunned by the number of Hareidi Jews black hats, knee briches and arba kanfot flying as they walked briskly through the corridors on their way to army offices.  This is a definite change. While not all Hareidim are supporting this change and several Haredi soldiers have been beaten up as the came home on the weekend to their ultra-observant neighborhoods, increasingly this compulsory service will indeed change the Hareidim-it will help them adjust to modernity and force them to learn a trade and it will change the Army and all of Israel as secular Israelis and Hareidim meet and must work side by side.

This questioning and protests within in Israel has been a fascinating progression in the life of the Jewish state. Just a couple of months ago –there were elections for the New Chief, Ashekenazi and Sephardic rabbis of Israel.  For the first time ever, more moderate Religious Orthodox Jews ran against the Haredi rabbis.  While they didn’t win this time they came very close.  There have been many reports and questions even asking why there still is a chief rabbiniate in Israel controlling such areas of life, including marriage, birth and death and conversion and Kashrut.  These have been questions Reform and Masoriti communities have long asked and fought for, now it is being asked in many other corners of Israel and within the Israeli government itself!  In Jerusalem in Machne Yehuda, the large central market, a group of restaurateurs have gathered to create their own certificate of kashrut, rejecting the Jerusalem Chief rabbinates’ certification and the fees and often outrageous rules they must follow. This is but one example of the pendulum swinging and people asking for themselves: “What kind of Israel do we want?”

And many of you no doubt have followed the news stories about the Western Wall and the efforts of Women of the Wall to organize its monthly women’s prayer service there.  I have spoken about it before on the High Holy Days.  Again this summer I went in July for Rosh Chodesh Av to pray in the early morning service at the Kotel.  It was really different than previous summers, because this year group leader Anat Hoffman recently named Person of the Year by Haaretz Newspaper in Israel and the Women of the Wall group sought a new court ruling from Jerusalem District Court about the ability to pray at the Kotel.  It used to be that the police would arrest the Women of the Wall for praying there. Now the police have been charged with protecting the Women of the Wall in prayer.

We gathered at 6:30 am at Gan Hapamon, Near the Inbal hotel 350 women and 100 men boarded buses and were now escorted by police into the OldCity. Now the police was protecting us from the angry crowds of Haredim.  When we arrived we were ushered into the KotelPlaza without a hassle but we didn’t make it very far.  For the Heads of the Right Wing Yeshivas had called on the young women age 12-17 to arise even earlier and more than 5000 young girls blocked our way by filling the women’s side of the Kotel.  And stuck in the upper plaza we faced a line of young Charedi teenagers in their streimels and payot yelling obscenities at us while old women blew whistles.  The police would not let us try to push forward near the Kotel and so we led our joyous Rosh Chodesh service in the back of the plaza-with the Charedim, screaming at us, and throwing water bottles and eggs and the many us who had gathered. There were lots of N.American women rabbis in this gathering in July because all of us who were at the Hartman Institute this summer had joined together in solidarity for these Rosh Chodesh prayers. One young pregnant rabbi was hit by a water bottle.  Luckily she was okay. But it was disheartening. The man was arrested.  Here we had changed the way the police acted toward Women of the Wall but we were outnumbered and outgunned by the Yeshiva students.

Last November, the story and the momentum began to change-when the police arrested Anat for wearing a tallit during prayer at the wall.  They arrested her as they have before. But this time they stripped searched the former city council woman, and threw her in a cell with several prostitutes naked until the next morning.  Usually she would be charged and released in several hours.  After the outcry from within Israel and from liberal Judaism here in North America the Israeli government officials had to take note.  They were embarrassed but still the following months the police under orders of the Kotel rabbi arrested several prominent Reform women rabbis as well for carrying their talitot into the KotelPlaza.

Again the cry of Diaspora Jews was beginning to be heard.  I worked closely here in Los Angeles with our Counsel General here in Los Angeles to create a Rabbinic Task Force.   I knew that we had a unique opportunity to influence Israel and to convey the urgency to the Israeli government that squelching the prayers of women dedicated to prayer, and continuing to empower Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz the rabbi of the Kotel to have the police act like thugs would only aver to damage Israel further in the larger Jewish community outside of Israel.  On that task force are Rabbi Laura Geller and I,  Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Eddie Feinstien,  Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea,Rabbi Kalman Topp modern Orthodox rabbi of Beth Jacob, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin Modern Orthodox rabbi of Agudath Yisrael of Century City,  Rabbi Yitzhok Adlerstein of the Wiesenthal Center-who represented even more right wing Orthodox movements, Rabbi David Eliezeri of Chabad of Orange County, and Rabbi Judith HaLevy and Rabbi Steve Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist movement.  It was a group that never had sat down before. We began to talk about the Kotel and what does it mean for the State of Israel to discriminate against some Jews.  It has been an interesting roundtable.  Not that we always agree. But unlike the Board of Rabbis where some of these further to the right rabbis won’t participate, they all do care about Israel, and what kind of Israel is going to exist!

Over the last year, we have met several times. Including a private meeting with Ambassador Michael Oren, scholar Michah Goodman, Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  the president of our Union for Reform Judaism and of course Natan Shransky who was charged with solving the situation at the Western Wall and the ability of WOW to be able to pray and the issue of egalitarian prayer.—Men and women together.

There have been ongoing negotiations at the highest level. In Jerusalem, in Washington, D.C. and New York, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement and Modern Orthodox movements here in the Diaspora have been heard. And when recently the Minister of Religious Services and head of the Israel Beytanu Party, Naftali Bennett  tried to do an end run around the compromise that has been reached, again the voices of North American Jewry spoke out and were heard.

But the compromise that has been reached is as follows: Women of the Wall are allowed to pray with their tallitot, in the manner of their custom, with their prayerbook at the Kotel, but also eventually there will be adequate facilities in another area of the Kotel, near Robinson’s Arch that will be open 24/7, and that will be entitled for liberal prayer, including Reform and Conservative prayer of men and women together.  There are more than 100 torah scrolls owned by the State of Israel at the Kotel, but so far Rabbi Rabinowitz has refused WOW access.  The new compromise will allow access to the Torah scrolls and prayer books.  But this plan will take time to make happen.  And much remains to be seen as to how the interim is handled!  Women of the Wall had a beautiful and successful Selichot service at the Kotel including the sounding of the Shofar on Sept. 1.  So it remains to be seen how on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan the story will unfold.

But a significant part of the compromise is that for the first time Reform and Conservative Rabbis will be recognized by the State and there will be a new configuration of the foundation that controls the Western Wall Heritage Site, including liberal Jews and women who will make up the group!

Israel is changing in many positive ways.

But Israel won’t change if we just walk away.  If we simply opt out and say we don’t care.  We American Jews, we have a stake in Israel. Even if we don’t make aliyah, move to Israel.  Israel is our homeland. It is the land of our heritage, our roots as a people.  Even if you as a Jew have yet to visit there, Israel belongs not just to Israeli citizens, but to the Jewish people. The land of Israel is a pillar of our faith, God Torah, and Israel.  The land and the people of Israel-the People of Israel is not a political message but a spiritual one and include each of us here.  We are Am Yisrael. I want to encourage each of you-to visit Israel. To understand the place you have there, can only be if you visit there. And revisit there.  Going to Israel is even if it is your vacation-is different than a trip to China, or Greece, France or a Caribbean Cruise. A trip to Israel is a spiritual pilgrimage because it is a visit to the land of your ancestors.

The conversation in our country these last few weeks of the horrors endured by the Syrian people, and the potential for strikes against Israel by chemical weapons of Syria or the nuclear weapons of Iran should give us all pause.  It is not if Iran might make a nuclear bomb it is only when.  And the brilliant tactics that they have used agreeing to engage in talks and disarmament only to ramp up their spinning centrifuges should make us wonder at this new offer by Russian and Syria to engage in disarmament of chemical weapons when we have been trying for years to have this happen, only to be blocked at the UN Security Council by Russian and China!

We Jews have strived to learn from our history.  We Jews have said “Never Again”. Never again will we let a Dictator round us up and gas our people.  What about our obligation to other people? Will we stand silently by? As our Torah portion this afternoon asks of us?   Will we stand silently as Israel faces a chemical and nuclear threat? Or a barrage of rockets from Hizbollah or Hamas?

Will we stand silent when we seek an Israel that is more just and more democratic, when it fails to be? Will we stand silent or will be as members of the Jewish world, be willing to raise our voices for Israel?  In good times and in bad? We can argue Israeli politics, just like we argue politics here in the states.  But Israel is more than its politics. It is a place of complexities, and irony. It is a place of contradictions, and history, the home of many peoples and our Jewish home as well.

My experiences at the Shalom Hartman Institute have taught me this: We Jews are all a part of Israel.  We have a stake not only in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel but whether we live in the modern state of Israel or not, we Jews around the world have a stake in the success of the nation of Israel and we have a voice there as well.

In November I will return to Israel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Women at the Wall along with a number of women rabbis. We will help usher in Rosh Chodesh Kislev. While we are there we hope to continue to uplift our voices that Israel matters not just to Israelis but to give evidence that Israel matters to all Jews everywhere and the right to pray and to practice Judaism in our custom is a powerful testament to our Jewish values and faith.  Israel is a precious place not just for Israelis but for you and me.  Use your voice as a voice for Israel, now and always. Use your miles to get there.  It is making a difference both here and there.

May Israel continue to flourish in this New Year.  And may we help to bring the bonds of friendship between America and Israel even closer in this year ahead.  Protect her and all its residents.  And let the gift of peace flow upon Israel as a nation as she seeks peace with the Palestinians and all of her neighbors.