Dear Friends,

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!

I am in the midst of an incredibly stimulating and well-planned tour of Israel with a great group of 33 individuals ranging in age from 15 into the 80s. I have been working with Keshet Educational Tours, our tour company, for more than 20 years. Their mission, as indicated by their name, is to educate while we tour, and they just keep getting better and better. Our trip is really a seminar-on-wheels, with fabulous educators teaching us about different aspects of society, history, politics and nature in Israel, alternating with fascinating experiences, sightseeing and large amounts of great food. It is odd to say this, but right now being in Israel actually feels like a break from the turmoil of our own United States.

I only have time to give you a small taste of my experiences thus far, and will write more in the coming week. But let me begin at the beginning. As I emerged from my plane last Sunday at Ben Gurion Airport I scanned all the advertisements – for yogurt, for banking, for cell phones – all in Hebrew. And as always, I marveled that we Jews had, against all odds, reinvented ourselves, rebuilt a long-lost homeland, resurrected our ancient tongue, and here I was again, living a miracle. That sense of awe always overtakes me when I am in Israel, and doesn’t leave me, even as I grapple with the intractable problems and existential questions that accompany life in Israel. During my cab ride from the airport I had what felt like the perfect introduction to my time here (and a chance to practice my Hebrew, as well.) My driver was a sweet young man from Tel Aviv, and after we greeted one another he said to me, “We in Israel are used to living in a balagan (a great Hebrew word which means “a mess”); now the whole world is a balagan – even the United States is a balagan!” I responded, “You’re right, but at least here in Israel this is our balagan!” And so it is, and I still cannot help but embrace it.

Our group convened that evening at our hotel, and in the morning we headed off on our adventures. One high point for me was meeting with David Breakstone. David Breakstone is the brother of our own WJC member Diane Colello. David is also the Vice Chair of the World Zionist Organization, and the founder of Israel’s Theodore Herzl Museum. A passionate educator, David has spent his adult life in Israel promoting Herzl’s original vision of Zionism: a movement not only to create a refuge for World Jewry from anti-Semitism, but also a movement to create a Jewish society that could be a model of equity and social justice for all of its citizens. No one will dispute that Herzl’s utopian dreams are far from being realized, and are even in many aspects receding. Other less generous versions of Zionism battle for preeminence. But thanks to people like David Breakstone, Herzl’s dreams have not died, and the educational center he created stimulates countless Israeli students and teachers to think about the founder of Zionism’s vision, and to consider what kind of nation they themselves might want to work for.

We had the privilege the next day of learning from another amazing educator, Noam Zion, a scholar at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. The late American philosopher David Hartman founded the Hartman Institute in 1976, shortly after he had moved to Israel. Its mission is to reinterpret Jewish teachings for the challenges of modernity, such as religious pluralism, democracy, and especially the unprecedented challenges of a newly powerful Jewish state. How can one apply Jewish ethics to the implementation of state power? Is it even possible for a nation state to behave ethically? The Hartman Institute has become a leading center and influential think tank in Israel for political, educational, military and religious leaders to explore these challenging questions.

Noam Zion was one of the scholars responsible for the creation of the Israel Defense Force’s manual on the ethics of warfare. All IDF officers and soldiers are required to study this curriculum. Professor Zion led us through a lesson that describes the training these soldiers receive. Rather than a simple book of rules, the curriculum teaches soldiers how to pursue ethical decision-making in complex, dangerous and even life-threatening situations. Professor Zion described the substantial effort the IDF has made to train soldiers who will respond ethically in tremendously difficult conditions. He described the extreme challenges of what is known as asymmetrical warfare: a uniformed army confronting a civilian population, among whom are unidentified enemies. I cannot even begin in this brief paragraph to do justice to the nuances of Professors Zion’s teaching. Suffice to say that this was not propaganda – it was mind-expanding education in the best sense, raising for all of us more questions than answers.

Kayla Ship, our terrific Keshet tour guide, told us that when the Keshet staff had a strategic planning meeting, they came up with a tagline for their educational mission: “It’s Complicated”. In all of the meetings we have thus far had, no teacher or presenter has insulted our intelligence. No question has been off limits. I am deeply impressed by the education our lovely group has received thus far, our minds expanding and bending, our assumptions challenged, sometimes painfully, sometimes thrillingly, sometimes both at the same time.

Which brings me back to my own mission statement: if you want to really understand Israel, you must come here, preferably more than once. Panel discussions, op-ed pieces, and “60-Minute” reports are completely unable to bring this place to life, and we ourselves become talking heads as we debate Israel from afar. It may be complicated here, but it is also vibrantly alive, and I am so grateful to be traveling with this wonderful WJC group as we bend our minds and wrap our hearts around this extraordinary land.

More to come next week – until then, Shabbat Shalom and take care of yourselves!


Rabbi Jonathan