A Summer in Israel

Allow me to paint a picture in words. Imagine a huge terrace at the Israel Museum n Jerusalem set for an elegant dinner for 175 people. To the west, the sun is beginning to set over distant suburbs and to the south we see the Valley of the Cross and Rehavia, one of modern Jerusalem’s oldest neighborhoods. To the east, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, stands on a hill with the flag of Israel blowing in the wind. The men and women gathered around the tables are enjoying fine Israeli wine before the dinner is served, and the chairman of the evening calls James Snyder, the museum director to the podium. He comes forward holding a dog lease in his hand and as he addresses us his miniature poodle stands quietly at his side. She has probably heard this speech before many, many times before. We learn that the Museum was reopened in July 2010, after a multiyear refurbishing at a cost of $100 million. James Snyder, who had been the Deputy Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, had been invited in 2001, by the Board of the Israel Museum to come visit with the hope that they could woo him away from the MOMA. When he arrived in Jerusalem and beheld a visage similar to what we saw that evening it was love at first site. And here he remained now the director of a museum more spectacular than it has ever been since its establishment in 1965. The memory of that beautiful evening will remain in my mind as a highlight of this past summer’s Israel visit.

If you love Israel, and your only contact with Israel this year has been through the American media, you are no doubt filled with anxiety and fearfulness. The book of Numbers tells us that Israel is a nation that will dwell apart, but we take no pleasure in seeing that prophecy realized. With the Palestinian push at the UN for statehood dominating the headlines, Israel is described as obstructionist and oppressive. This is no feeling with which to enter the New Year. Since last Rosh Hashanah, I have had the privilege and pleasure of two stays in Israel. In October I was there for 8 days as I participated in the Aravah Ride, joining 117 cyclists on a bike-ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, 287 miles. In the five days we spent riding, I saw Israel from a wholly new perspective.

This past summer, for eight weeks, while I was on Sabbatical, Lisa and I lived in an apartment in the heart of Jerusalem. We had not spent so extensive a time in Israel since my first sabbatical in 1985. Tonight as we enter this new year of 5772, I want to lift your spirits, and mine. I will share with you some of what I saw and did and my hope is that this will give you a new perspective on Israel at this trying time.

Let me tell you what I saw of Arab life in Israel. This is important to know as a contrast to what I recently heard in an interview with the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority. He was asked if Jews would be able to live in the new Palestinian state they were seeking. He responded in the negative. In other words he is looking forward to the first country since the Third Reich that would be officially Judenrein. That is de facto the case in nearly the entire Arab world, but this was a statement from a government official. Compare that position to what I saw in Israel. In October, most of the bike riders were North Americans, but several Palestinians participated as well. Many were students at the Aravah Institute, the non-profit organization for which we were raising funds. This institute does work to promote the cause of environmentalism in Israel and organizes dialog between Arabs and Jews to promote understanding. Most of those students have become ambassadors to their families and neighbors living in Arab countries. They explain what it is like to live in an open democracy, where fear of the government is not the dominant emotion.

During our summer stay, we visited shopping malls several times. Arabs shoppers can be seen everywhere. Like the Jewish Israelis, they have come to do some serious shopping. Their arms are loaded down with packages. The supermarket nearest my daughter’s home, just south of Jerusalem, is called Rami Levi. It is quite a sight to see Arab shoppers lined up at the kosher meat counter. Arabs are both shoppers and employees in the store and I certainly did not feel any tension between them.

There is much more Israel could do to reduce discrimination against its Arab population. I think this has been a shortcoming for 63 years. Nonetheless, the position of Palestinians in Israel is far superior to what they experience in most Arab nations.

We did unfortunately have one occasion to visit the Beit Shemesh emergency room; the result of a rambunctious grandson’s walk on stonewalls instead of the path. In the waiting room, Arabs and Jews sat together knowing that everyone, irrespective of ethnic background would receive excellent care. Lisa and I also spent several hours visiting Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Again, Arabs and Jews interact on every level.

I also want to share some observations on the economy in Israel. While our economy here is in the doldrums, to say the least, in Israel it is humming along. If the unemployment rate in the US were as low as it is in Israel, and the US bond rating as high, I would be very pleased.

There is one area of employment in Israel that is both particularly problematic and being positively addressed. Unemployment in the Ultra Orthodox community has always been a problem. In that society study is revered and it is considered praise worthy for a man to spend his entire time in the Bet Midrash, the study hall. It is also considered a mitzvah to have many children. Not surprisingly, these two values have come into conflict and poverty in the Haredi neighborhoods is alarming. To that, one other conflict may be added: exemption from Army service. While in every other sector of Jewish society, young people go from high school directly into the IDF, putting their lives at risk to defend the country; the Haredi population is exempt as long as they are engaged in Torah study. The girls are exempt because it is considered immodest to serve with men, and many of them are married and bearing children by the time they are 18. Lisa and I visited a program called “Mafteach” which literally means key. This is an acronym, and like so many others, no one remembers what the letters stand for. This Joint Distribution Committee program is seen as a possible key to solving the problem I have described. Mafteach is a job bank and counseling center that was created especially to serve the Haredi population. The directors and counselors are themselves Haredim, a part of that society and therefore very sensitive to the values and needs of their clientele. Men come in with years of Talmud study experience, and not much else, and somehow, the experts in the program advise them on how to create a resume that will land them a job. Sometimes that involves specific training and sometimes it involves army service where skills can be developed. The amazing reality is that men from this society are taking the advice and beginning to earn a living, pay taxes, and are now productive members of the society. They can now feed their families with dignity. Women as well are finding jobs and they are highly valued by their employers for their work ethic. This program is a small, small start toward solving a very big problem, but seeing the start was impressive. By the way, the program office is located in the area of Jerusalem affectionately known as Silicon Valley. It is where my son-in-law works. You would recognize most of the names on the signs because those corporations are traded on the NASDAQ. There are more Israeli companies on the NASDAQ than companies from the entire European continent.

Let me share a vignette that combines many aspects of life in Israel. Our apartment was in German Colony on the second floor of a former British police station. There was a spectacular bakery and vegetarian café on the first floor and the aromas that wafted upward were quite a temptation. Six days a week, it was a very busy corner. Crossing the street was a challenge because the traffic was so heavy. When we left the apartment on late Friday afternoon to walk to shul, the contrast was as startling as it was inspiring. Shabbat had descended on Jerusalem. Occasionally a vehicle would pass, but essentially, the shul-goers owned the street. After dark on Saturday night, we would walk out to the main thoroughfare and were again amazed by the volume of traffic. Parking spaces were in high demand, and you could hardly pass on the sidewalk because of the crush of people going out to the restaurants, ice cream parlors and cafes. For most of the summer, across the street from the café on our first floor, we saw a house being renovated. As the end of the summer approached, one day an Astroturf lawn was put in, and the next day a sign went up in the large picture window, “Soap Deli – Open.” I had to go investigate and what I found was spectacular. In the first room, shelves were filled with what appeared to be luscious fruits, vegetables, candies and bakery items. I thought it was a strange way for a deli to display its menu. The next room had shelves of the lotions and creams you would expect to see in an upscale spa. What was going on here? In fact, the delicacies were all made of soap. None of them were toxic, but neither were they edible. Incredible! I had never seen such realistic, delicious looking faux fruits, vegetables, cakes and candies. I spoke with the manager and learned the story behind this amazing place. In Eyn Kerem, the neighborhood of Jerusalem where the Hadassah Hospital is located, there is a vocational high school. This shop was the outlet for what the students produced. The agricultural division leaned how to grow the various plants that would yield the needed oils, herbs and dyes to create these products. The manufacturing program created the products from the farms produce. In the business program they learned how to run the outlet store. Even more impressive was the fact that autistic students were integrated into the program as well. That explains why it was so important for the soaps to be non-toxic. The program so impressed me that I wanted to make a donation. I mentioned that I also have a Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund and I am always on the lookout for especially worthy causes that help people. His response took me by surprise. They do not accept donations. They want to demonstrate that you can do well by doing good. The way to support the program is to purchase their products. Then I thought of another important question. If I would come back with a group of thirty or so people on a trip to Israel, could we visit the school and farm? Could we volunteer for a few hours to work with them? His answer was an excited “BETACH. Absolutely.” This is just one new sites Lisa and I will put on our list for the trip we hope to do this coming summer.

I could go on and on about experiences this summer. We visited so many interesting places and people that I could keep you here all night but I will have compassion on you. We are going to be here many hours in the next few-days. At the AIPAC conference last May, Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East. Israel is what’s right in the Middle East. I think he is absolutely correct. May our prayers for peace in Israel and the world be answered in the New Year we begin tonight.

AMEN