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Rabbi Mitch's Weekly Teachings

Weekly Teaching 10/24/2014


Below is an abridged version of my first day Rosh HaShanah sermon. 

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Mitch


You may recall that last year on the holidays I shared with you the health challenges that our son Ezra faces. I'm happy to report that we've made good progress. Between last Rosh HaShanah and this summer he's had no cases in which he lost consciousness. Because he learned to manage his health issues, in the early spring Ezra began to lobby Roseanne and me to go to Israel. He wanted to go to Israel with his friends from Camp Ramah; his fellow Ramahniks: Ramah's Israel Seminar program is the natural bridge from the last year of being a Ramah camper, to the next summer for being part of an American Camp Ramah staff.

Ezra lobbied hard, but we were resistant. When at Camp Ramah in New England, Ezra was a mere 2 and half hours away. Israel, of course, is a day travel by airplane. We wanted Ezra to go; Ramah wanted Ezra to go; and most importantly our son really wanted to go. 

How could we say "No" to our child who wanted to spend time in Israel? From his youngest days we stressed how important the connection to Israel is for all of us. So we spoke with the Israeli Ramah Director, the Assistant Director, the group leader where Ezra would be assigned, the Ramah doctor, nurse, and social worker; And, finally, the Ramah nutritionist. With our worries and concerns addressed as much as possible, we prepared for Ezra's departure.

Little did we know.

Little did we think that we would have a dramatically different kind of worry; a worry shared by every Jewish parent with children who live in Israel. One week after Ezra arrived in Israel, Operation Protective Edge was launched with air strikes on Gaza, to counter rocket fire from Palestinian terrorists. Quickly matters escalated further with Hamas firing rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Ramah Israel Director, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, wrote a long, detailed letter to the parents, ending with the following words:

"....Each and every day of the program is being reexamined with regard to its safety and security. Since 1962 there has always been a Ramah Seminar in Israel... even in the toughest of times. Our knowledge of the country and our experience in programming... gives us the flexibility necessary to continue to run a program that is safe and secure, educationally viable, and a lot of fun. We will take care of your children as if they are our own and we will err on the side of caution to make sure they are protected. We want them to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they will tell their children about."


Soon after Rabbi Snitkoff's letter, he held a phone conference with the parents. It was an amazing experience. Understandably, every parent was concerned about their children, but there was a universal commitment to keep our children in Israel. There was a singular strong support in place. The feeling we all shared was pride in our children; pride that our children were facing the very same tensions that our Israeli brothers and sisters experience much too often. But, like every Israeli parent, I believe each of us also felt the helplessness of the situation, the inability to have control.


I know a lot of us prayed, even while knowing that prayers aren't enough. We learned a lot.


As American parents we came to understand that during a crisis, children in Israel perceive it differently than the way we experience Israeli crisis from our safe US vantage point. This is because being in Israel during tough times you witness first-hand that life continues. 

I enjoyed following the blogs of the young men and women, Briley Newell wrote: 

"...I often find myself wondering what my Jewish friends from Ramah, who didn't come with us this summer, are thinking. What would I have thought if I wasn't here now?...What would the news of a 100 rockets in Israel today mean if I was home? 100 is just a number. But today, our Israeli Rosh T'fillah (Prayer service Counselor) was called by the IDF and is praying in Gaza with his fellow infantry men. And, I, along with my friends, hear the sirens. And we too pray differently from before. It's no longer about maps and numbers; these are people and minutes of their lives. It's eye-opening and humbling to be part of. Hamas clearly doesn't care about me, only about my death. They do not see a child, they only see a Jew. Despite all this, it's absolutely necessary that we be here.


We are the people who will tell the story first-hand. For every one of us, at least 20 people will hear our actual experience, rather than hearing goal-oriented news broadcasts. It's our job to try and pass on what life is like while everyone here lives under attack. Everyone knows the sound of a siren, the pounding heart and rushing footsteps, the agonizing 10 minutes, and the collision of two rockets--; one from the enemy and one from the Iron Dome. It is important that we are able to share that reality with the world."

When we spoke with Ezra as the Gaza crisis broke, he didn't seem worried. Roseanne followed the news reports very closely, and was concerned about Ezra's emotional state. Ezra, trying to soothe his mom, said to her: "Don't worry mom, it's just rockets."


"Just rockets" didn't relax Roseanne; or me for that matter. But, it did reflect what Ezra and most Israelis were doing each and every day... trying to embrace the ordinary as much as possible. A few weeks later Ezra was on the phone with me and said; "Dad, today I'm really upset with Hamas." I thought, "Ahhh, he finally comprehends the seriousness of the situation." But, Ezra continued: "I met a pretty Israeli girl, and I was talking with her for about 20 minutes. Then the sirens went off and we had to run for the shelters."


"Afterwards, when I looked for her, I couldn't find her. Hamas really makes life difficult!!" 17 year old children don't worry about things the same way as we adults do! I think this is a good thing. But I started to think of Ezra's return to America and its safe haven. When Ezra enters college in the fall, his contemporary Israeli, soon to be 18 years old, will enter the Israel Defense Forces. 


I wonder when that mindset of invulnerability that young adults have, begins to lessen? On August 5th, Ezra sent us another email. He wrote how the Ramah Israel group observed Tisha b'Av; the ninth of Av; the annual day of mourning which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.Tisha b'Av also commemorates many other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout the years.

On the evening of Tisha b'av they listened to the ancient melody and words of Eicha; the Book of Lamentations. And, in the morning, as part of their Tisha b'Av commemoration, they focused on the Holocaust and Israeli Society. Then, they visited Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum.

Ezra wrote that even though he has been to Yad VaShem several times, this time was different. He and his fellow Ramahniks were asking a lot more questions. They wanted to understand the connection between the Holocaust and Israel today. Ezra shared that this day was especially "heavy". But, at the end of Tisha B'A "we sang Am Yisrael Chai and Hatikvah, and I felt better." 

Ezra has been singing Am Yisrael Chai and Hatikvah since his earliest memories. But, now, living in Israel during crisis, singing them has new meaning. The words recall the tragedies of our People, and the miracle of the rebirth of Israel; "The Jewish People Live; We Live forever!" And, "Our hope is not lost; the hope of two thousand years, to be a free people in our land; the land of Zion and Jerusalem." Ezra was beginning to get it, to really understand. Because he was right there; living through this crisis in Israel, he had a new appreciation for the words, "Being a free people in our land". 

I told Ezra the story of his grandparents. My mother and father traveled to Israel in the early 60's for their honeymoon. At that time, because they were Jews; they were not allowed to enter the Old City of Jerusalem. Jews weren't allowed into the Old City until after 1967 when Jerusalem was finally reunited. So, my parents went to the roof of the King David hotel, to drink in images of the Old City from a distance. I suggested to Ezra, "when you are in Jerusalem, stand in the Old City for each and every Jew who couldn't."


I've shared the personal story of my son's summer experience in Israel; with the hope that it inspires you to have a discussion about Israel with your children, and grandchildren. My focus as we start this New Year is to empower us all to be ambassadors of Judaism. Ambassadors for change in the way we Jews are appreciated. We can do this by educating ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren:

  • About the uniqueness of our promised homeland, Israel.
  • About the beauty of our religion and our Peoplehood.
  • And, about the ugliness of hatred, and anti-Semitism.

We want to help our children care about Israel.

We want to help our children understand that even though we don't live in Israel, it is our Jewish homeland.

We want to help our children to know that their relationship with Israel is different from their relationship to any other country in the world.

We want to help our children and grandchildren to make sense out of the constant tumult and craziness they see and hear in the news about Israel.

We want to help our children know how to think, and how to respond to the constant criticism levied against Israel.

Most importantly, we want our children and grandchildren to understand the strong connection Israel has to our lives as Jews in the United States.

What becomes so fascinating for we Jews who don't live in Israel is how powerfully the magic of Jewish life can be transmitted to us with a simple action; a visit to Israel. I've see this magic formula wield its powerful might over and over again. Every time I've traveled to Israel. Every time my family has gone to Israel. Every time I've led members of our congregation to Israel.


The best way for Jews to increase their identification with Judaism and to understand the importance of Jewish community is to go to Israel. Going on a trip to Israel is your own firsthand experience that's better than any sermon about Israel.

Imagine feeling for yourself the power of walking in the same dust your ancestors walked in.

Imagine seeing for yourself the revitalization of Jewish civilization in your own homeland.

Going to Israel is so important and so powerful, that it compelled the creation of one of the most important Jewish initiatives ever; "Birthright". Birthright offers a peer group trip to Israel for all young Jewish adults, from the ages of 18 to 26, from around the world. Through Birthright, more than 400,000 young adults, from 66 different countries, get to experience Israel. Everyone on Birthright learns firsthand the narratives of the Jewish People, the formative values of our Judaism; And, the blessings that are to be found in contemporary Israel.

If we want our children and grandchildren to understand their Jewish identity, they have to go to Israel and see firsthand the historic sites of our people. They have to literally touch the roots of our Jewish history and our Jewish Peoplehood. But, more than understanding where they come from as Jews, our children and grandchildren need to connect to the most vibrant center of Jewish life in the world today. For each and every one of us who hasn't been to Israel yet, or hasn't been for a while, we need to discover and constantly rediscover our Jewish home.


Most of us will never live in Israel. But, every American Jew needs to learn firsthand that at any time in their life, they can choose to call Israel, home. And, it's because of this that young people need to go to Israel. They need to be able to tell their own story; share their own experience with their own homeland.

I lived in Israel for 8 months before college. My life as a truly committed Jew was forged in Israel. My choice of professions was because of Israel. It is in Israel that my Jewish soul becomes most nourished; that my commitment to the Jewish People becomes ever stronger. And, like me, everyone who has gone to Israel for any amount of time, loves to share his or her personal experience. When we go to Israel, we hear our people's stories; past, present and future.


Israel is our Jewish home.


Israel is inextricably intertwined with our Jewish identity.


Israel is the place in the world that gave birth to our Peoplehood.


Israel is the one place in the world where we keep our Peoplehood together; after two thousand years of exile; as we always prepare to return Home.


Israel is the only place in the world that guarantees a home to Jews who need a safe haven.

I completely realize that we visit Israel understanding the realities of where it is located...But, when our son Ezra was there, during the height of the most recent Gaza war, he was kept safe. He and his fellow Ramahniks were guided where they could be and told where they couldn't be; and everyone who goes to Israel receives the same guidance.

Going to Israel isn't like traveling to other countries. But, we are at risk of losing who we are as Jews if we don't find the opportunity to go to Israel. Visiting Israel is the firm anchor by which we truly learn the meaning of our sacred heritage. Not, from a history book, but by breathing, living, and connecting with Israel on the most concrete level possible.

Birthright isn't just a name; it's a Jewish fact...Go to Israel. When you're there, you will feel the power of Jewish magic.You will truly know Am Yisrael Chai; Odeveinu Chai; that we the Jewish People live; and we will live forever.

And, as the words of Hatikvah; Israel's Anthem of Hope reminds us: 

"For as long as in the heart, within, a Jewish soul still yearns;
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still gazes toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem."



Rabbi Mitch




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