May 9, 2008
4 Iyar 5768
After celebrating Rosh Chodesh (the New Month of) Iyar on Monday and Tuesday, the rest of our week focused on our community’s identification with the State of Israel and all who live there. Together with our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, we commemorated Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) on Wednesday and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s 60th Anniversary Independence Day) on Thursday. Our students and faculty moved – both physically and emotionally – from the solemnity of singing Hatikva while lowering the Israeli flag to half-mast on Wednesday to joyously singing Israeli songs and dancing Israeli folk-dances in the Beit Midrash on Thursday. As part of these ceremonies, I shared with our students that each year on these occasions, especially after living in Israel for four years, I ask myself what it means to commemorate and celebrate these days as a Jew living in America, so far away from our homeland. When we are not actually in Israel to make the tragic pilgrimage to Har Herzl (Israel’s national military cemetery) on Yom Hazikaron or to dance in the streets and picnic in the parks on Yom Ha’atzmaut, how do we connect to the power and meaning of these days?
To help me answer these questions, I revisited the writing of one of the founding Zionists, Ahad Ha’am (who wrote this nearly fifty years before the Israel’s first Independence Day) and I read to our students his vision of the relationship between a Jewish homeland and Judaism of the diaspora: “(Judaism) seeks to return to its historic center, where it will be able to live a life developing in a natural way, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to broaden and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as it has in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the unhampered activity of a people living by the light of its own spirit . . . Then from this center, the spirit of Judaism will radiate to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, to inspire them with new life and to preserve the overall unity of our people.” For Ahad Ha’am, Judaism in the diaspora would not merely revolve around the State of Israel; Israel would become the heart of world Jewry, sending the lifeblood of Jewish culture and spirit pulsing throughout the rest of the Jewish world.
When I asked my students in morning minyan to respond to this quote, they became my teachers (as they so often do) and helped me see what Ahad Ha’am’s lofty vision looks like in reality. One student shared that while she sometimes has difficulty finding meaning in the words and ideas of the traditional Jewish texts she studies at Gann, because of spending time in Israel, she can connect to our texts as products of Jewish history and culture, many of which originated there. Her experiences in and sense of connection to modern Israel give meaning and relevance to her Jewish Studies at Gann linking our texts to the people and the culture that produced them.
A second student shared that when she prays facing East (traditionally we face East while praying in order to turn our bodies, minds and hearts toward Jerusalem), she is inspired by the fact that she is not merely praying toward the historic center of our people, nor toward a place that might someday be restored; she is, rather, uplifted by turning toward a place where she has personally been, where she has seen and experienced first-hand the thriving of Jewish life, culture and spirit that Ahad Ha’am describes. It is as if her relationship with modern Israel transports her spiritually to a meaningful place, even though she stands physically so far away.
These students, like many of our students, simply get it. They feel a connection and are living out our school’s mission to develop in our students a love of, commitment to, and relationship with, the State of Israel. As a community and as individuals, may we continue to cultivate and, when appropriate, wrestle with our relationships with Israel; and, in doing so, may we draw meaning and inspiration from Israel’s very existence and from the renaissance of Jewish life and the tremendous opportunities for Jewish expression that having a homeland makes possible.
Rabbi Marc Baker