Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Legal War

Israel Update:

In my first day Rosh Hashanah address last fall, I revisited where we stood in the wake of the intense military conflicts in Gaza.  That summary, and those predictions, continue to hold true.

First, low level terrorism has continued in a rough and unorganized fashion. Brutal individual attacks with cars or knives have replaced suicide bombers, but are no better.  The cousin of one of our members lies in hospital still, while his wife and ten children at home, from the November machete attack on a morning minyan in Har Nof.  (To help his family, go to

Second, the post military phase always results in investigations.  Israel has proceeded with these credibly, as always. Rhetoric and accusation eventually gives way in the face of facts, and Israel has nothing to hide.

Third, Abbas' leadership of the Palestinian Authority is in serious trouble. Hamas has successfully convinced large parts of the Palestinian electorate that only they can take action against the status quo. On the other hand, they have also demonstrated that their leadership results in destruction.

Fourth, the Israeli government views Abbas and Hamas as linked and sees no immediate openings for peace talks.  In this situation, Netanyahu has done what he has always done: proceed with land development, secure the borders, punish attackers and their homes that are in reach, keep an eye on Iran, and assert the Jewish nature of the State. He is confident enough in his position to have called for early elections, to be held in March.

Fifth, with no progress in negotiations, devastation in war, and lack of confidence among his own people, Abbas has made his only remaining move: complete commitment to legal battles in the international political arena. This is their only, and best, unilateral move. If he fails in this regard, his career may very well be over.

Sixth, the bid for statehood.  This past week, the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition in the United Nations failed by one vote in the security council.  Of course a US and British veto would have stopped it, but they were not needed.

Now, their next best move will be the International Criminal Court in The Hague. There is no clear way to keep them out, so what will occur when they join it?  This move will also trigger Israeli and US economic sanctions.  Whether the PA as an organization could survive a failure here also be in question.

The truth is, the court will become a regular venue for Israeli and Palestinian incriminations.  Neither side ever thinks that it is wrong, so we should be prepared for new levels if recriminations about the court as cases are won or lost. Stay tuned as early cases become precedent law for future talks or treaties. Despite the risks, I firmly believe that the sweep of legal decisions in the ICC will be for Israel's good. Israel has nothing to fear from a legal court, and having a venue to try Palestinian terrorists will surely be a good thing.  While military superiority is still necessary, peace is ultimately ushered in by lawyers and diplomats.

And with all of this, Israel stands to prove its democratic nature once again in a free and fair election.  There is no internal consensus on any of Israel's policies, and there is much to openly debate. Read some Israeli news, or even plan a trip.  Now, more than ever, we need to stay educated and involved.

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Who Wrote the Torah, and Why Does it Matter?

It has become a shorthand matter of faith in contemporary Judaism to speak of the first 5 books of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] as having come entirely from Moses, al pi Adonai by the word of our God.  Yet this question always was, and probably always will be, messier than that.

"Who wrote the Torah?" is a live question of faith in our tradition, and no single answer could possibly be affirmed with any certainty. Surprisingly, we are not the first generation of Jews to ask the question. Even more surprisingly, we are not the first to accept the possibility of historical development of the Torah over time.

In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bava Batra 14b-15a, the classical presentation of the question is best portrayed.

Who wrote the Scriptures? — Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job. Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and [the last] eight verses of the Pentateuch. Samuel wrote the book which bears his name and the Book of Judges and Ruth. David wrote the Book of Psalms, including in it the work of the elders, namely, Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Yeduthun, Asaph,... etc...The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as it has been taught: [It is written], So Moses the servant of the Lord died there. Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, 'Moses died there'? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. Said R. Simeon to him: Can [we imagine the] scroll of the Law being short of one word, and is it not written, Take this book of the Law? No; what we must say is that up to this point the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears, as it says of another occasion, Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words to me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.  Which of these two authorities is followed in the rule laid down by R. Joshua b. Abba which he said in the name of R. Giddal who said it in the name of Rab: The last eight verses of the Torah must be read [in the Synagogue service] by one person alone?  — It follows R. Judah and not R. Simeon. I may even say, however, that it follows R. Simeon, [who would say that] since they differ [from the rest of the Torah] in one way, they differ in another.

The essential point here is that a simple reading of the peshat (plain sense) of the last verses of Deuteronomy demands that we conclude that Moses did not author the final verses of the fifth book of the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud let the words of the Torah and simple logic prove it to them. They could have concluded "Well, God must have given it to Moses as a vision of prophecy," but they did not.  They drew the conclusion that the next leader, Joshua, wrote the verses about Moses' death.

The importance of this can not be understated, because in fact there are many places in the Torah where anachronisms or geography force a logical conclusion that a given passage was not written in Moses' time and place. This idea, heretical to some, is not new or modern. As we see, the rabbis of the Talmud engaged in this idea, and so did Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, one of the chief traditional commentaries on the Torah.

Ibn Ezra, who lived and worked in Spain, Italy and Northern France in the 12th century, was the first to genuinely conclude that the examples of later authorship are widespread.  In his commentary on Deuteronomy 1:1-2, he points out that the whole narrative of the final book of the Torah is from the point of view of someone who is living already within the Land of Israel.  It could not be Moses, therefore, since Moses never entered the Land.

He proceeds to cite several of the examples:  Deut 1:1-2, Deut. 21:22, Gen. 12:6, Gen 22:14, Deut. 3:11, and more.  For example, Gen. 12:6 reflects, "And the Canaanite was then in the land..." which could not have been written by Moses OR Joshua, since it is reflecting backwards on a past time when there were Canaanites in the Land.  In Moses' time, the Canaanite was still in the land, so he could not have addressed the issue in that way. In Deut., 3:11, it reflects that the captured iron bed of King Og of the Bashan is "today in the hands of the Ammonites," who also did not exist at Moses' time. Since it was Moses and the children of Israel who defeated King Og of Bashan, he would still have had possession of it! Only a later author could have written such a line about it being in the hands of some other (later) nation.

Of course, Ibn Ezra's thinking is clear, precise and correct. Whether we like it or not, we must conclude that at a minimum there are a fair number of instances where the lines of the Torah could not have logically been written by Moses. So what? Nu?

There are a few ways you could take this information.

You could, as fundamentalists will, decide that all of these examples are prophetic visions of Moses writing the entire 5 Books of the Torah as we have them today. This is unnecessarily pious and contrary to the ethos of the Talmudic discussion and the teaching of Ibn Ezra.

You could, as humanists will, decide that all of these examples prove that the Torah is entirely a later compilation of human authors whose works are redacted deliberately, but unskillfully, into a large hodgepodge of passages.  This is unnecessarily critical of the unity of the final document, and is dismissive of centuries of Jewish belief in the divinity of these books and their ultimate value as sacred beyond mere human ingenuity.

Both of those options are equally strong positions to take, but in my mind are extreme and unhelpful.
Inbetween those bookends you have a range of possibilities - Ibn Ezra and others have claimed that these are all entirely books of prophecy, but that much of the Torah is written by later prophets, not Moses.  This idea should be entirely comfortable for the religious Jew. It endorses the sanctity of the Torah and God's role in its authorship, while affirming the peshat of the Torah as being both sensible and authentic.

The alternative middle road, from a religious view, would be to say that most of the Torah is "authentic" from Moses, but certain lines got added, tinkered with, or errantly changed by later scribes. This is also logically possible, but the least palatable, as it makes the Torah a receptacle of widespread error and "forgery."

There is, therefore, only one path which is reasonable, authentic to the words of the Torah, and entirely faithful to the God of Israel as author of both Jewish sacred writ and Jewish sacred history as found in that writ:  The Torah is a compilation of prophecy over a long period of time, largely written in the Land of Israel long after Moses had lived and died.  "And God spoke to Moses, saying...." is a refrain to be understood in its most simple and direct meaning.  A narrator is remembering for us a time when Moses and God spoke, and he is conveying the content of that conversation.

Did Moses write "Sefer HaTorah HaZeh," this very book of the Torah?  Yes, he most certainly wrote a Book of Instruction (Heb. Sefer Torah), and the content of that Book is still with us.  But the Torah which we have is that PLUS much more. 

The fun part is trying to figure out which is which, and when they came from.  That is the work of biblical criticism - to identify the contexts and origins of the prophecies in the Torah.  It is still sacred work, and it is not necessary to experience it as an attack on Judaism.

Why does it matter?

1) It is true.  And truth matters, even when it is inconvenient.
2) It preserves the Torah in the face of secular critique.
3) It broadens the kinds of study we can engage in when we seek meaning in the Torah.
4) It recaptures the talmudic spirit of inquiry in an age of religious reactionaries.
5) By allowing the use of the human intellect, Judaism can remain relevant to the greatest scientific and secular minds of our people, not just those who already accept all of its teachings.

Truth is truth, God is truth, Torah is truth.

Enjoy it all.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

When a rabbi embraces that he is gay.

A prominent friend and colleague announced publicly today that he is a gay man. He is lovingly divorcing with his wife - another friend and colleague - and his Congregation has given him their full support for him to remain as their rabbi.

We have come so far.  We must allow every person to recognize and welcome who they really are.  God's creation of people is so varied, so diverse... finally we see a time when fear and prejudice do not rule the day.

I am proud of the Conservative movement's advances in the past 30 years, and that this can happen so beautifully - albeit poignantly and painfully for my friends on their most human level. But the discovery and embrace of truth is always sacred, and this is especially so.

May these two rabbis, their family, friends and congregation all be blessed for a sweet new year.

Please read this remarkable announcement.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

From our colleague in Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker

From: Chaya Baker, Rabbi, French Hill, Jerusalem
Sent: 7/30/2014 8:07 AM
To: Chaya Baker
Subject: Ramot Zion checking in...
To all our dear friends and supporters overseas,
We so appreciate your concerned and supportive emails and phone calls.  I apologize for the group email... but do want to update you on how we are faring these difficult times here at Ramot Zion.

At the beginning of the fighting there were several sirens in Jerusalem.  Thankfully our preschool classroom is itself a bomb shelter and therefore the kids could stay protected and relatively unalarmed.  Last night Hamas shot another rocket at Jerusalem, which luckily was intercepted by the Iron Dome system.  Our families and friends elsewhere in the country - all the way from the Gaza border to Tel Aviv and beyond - are less fortunate: they must run to find shelter several times a day and hear the rockets exploding overhead either intercepted by Iron Dome or sometimes - regrettably - on the ground, on homes, schools, businesses and vehicles.  People leave home as little as possible because you never know when you will be under attack.  Even during a ceasefire...  You can imagine what that does to the economy and to the general morale.  Not to mention the elderly, the sick and the disabled, who cannot easily run to shelter and who are often alone and helpless...   It's scary and sad and we are praying for it all to be over.

We at Ramot Zion have been supporting our members and our brothers and sisters in the south, checking in on the community elderly, offering home hospitality to families from the south, sending foodstuff and supplies to families who spend more time in bomb shelters than out of them, and home-cooked meals to our soldiers.  We are in the midst of organizing - in collaboration with the municipality - a farmers' market for merchants from the south to sell their merchandise in Jerusalem (of course in a facility with a bomb shelter) since they have had virtually no business for over three weeks.

Some 30 soldiers from RZ were drafted on the emergency draft to active reserve duty: Sons, daughters and siblings of congregants (including my own sister...), husbands and fathers.  We are all very tense and worried for our loved ones.  However we realize that this is necessary for the survival of Israel; that if it weren't for our soldiers there would be scores of terrorists roaming Israel, having sneaked in through the many tunnels they have dug right into our border towns and kibbutzim, murdering or kidnapping the residents of those places and others, and there would probably be hundreds more rockets shot at our cities.  So we pray for the safety of our soldiers and keep busy offering help and support to their families: periodical phone calls, cards, home-cooked meals, and help with the kids.

It is all so terrible, since on top of all this difficulty the human tragedy in Gaza is overwhelming.  Our hearts ache for the Gazan civilians who are suffering such terrible casualties.  We wish the international community would exert pressure not only on Israel but also on Hamas for using them as human shields, forcing them to stay in their homes that house terrorist activity when they would rather evacuate, and executing those who dare to protest.

It is so distressing to see the way this war is portrayed in the world, the anti-Jewish (not anti-Israeli) demonstrations across the world, the lies and false footage dispensed by Hamas, and the double standard and one-sidedness of the media.

On the social front we are dealing with groups within us lashing out at one another.  This war, coupled with the intensity of new social media, is bringing to light a great deal of animosity among Israelis of different political convictions and we at Ramot Zion see the amelioration of that animosity as one of our main missions at this time.  Our Tisha B'av commemoration will be a joint study session with Orthodox synagogues in French Hill - the first ever and the result of delicate, intensive efforts - in the spirit of finding common ground and nurturing fraternity.

I would like to end with a prayer for peace - among Jews, peace in our entire region, and peace among the nations.  I hope you will dedicate time in your services for prayer for the safety of our soldiers and civilians and for an end to this violence and peace for all.

With warm regards,
Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker


הרבָּה חיה רואן בקר
קהילת רמות ציון
בר כוכבא 68, הגבעה הצרפתית

Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker
Congregation Ramot Zion
Bar-Kochba St., French Hill
Jerusalem, Israel
Office: 972-2-540-0621
Cell: 972-54-553-2393

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why the FAA is helping Hamas, not America

On Tuesday, a single missile hit between two houses in the Yehud neighborhood near Ben Gurion airport.  The FAA responded by banning U.S.A. air carriers from flying to Ben Gurion airport.  Today, I was very disappointed to learn that they have continued the ban for another 24 hours.

It is a horrible decision, with no basis in actual danger to the airplanes that fly in and out of Israel. The decision empowers Hamas, and leaves Israel alone to help her people once more.

Here are several facts that everyone should know:

1) After 10 days living under Iron Dome we learned quickly last week what every Israeli knows: most missiles are not a threat, and are allowed by Israel to hit the ground. The Iron Dome technology immediately tracks the incoming missile, and projects very accurately where it will land.  If it is not landing in a populous location, it is ignored. If it is headed toward an important target, like the airport, it is destroyed by the Iron Dome missile. 86% accuracy on intercepts has kept Israel, and the airport safe through this incessant barrage.

2) Of 2,000 missiles launched, less than a half dozen have been anywhere near the vicinity of the airport (meaning within 3 miles), and NONE have ever entered the past present or future flight path of any airplane going or coming from Israel.

3) The Hamas missiles are "dumb" bombs.  They have no tracking or guidance.  They are basically large fireworks tubes with an explosive head. They can only hurt what they actually run into. They are not "aimed," but "pointed" - up and north, for example. The odds of a 4 ft. long dumb missile on a South-North trajectory hitting an airplane coming or going from the Mediterranean on an East-West trajectory are nearly zero. Astronomically small.  Bird strikes and turbulence baffles are much more common and much more dangerous.

4) The Hamas missiles are weak. Their payload can blow up a studio apartment, but not a whole building.  When landing on the ground, they cause a hole about 2 feet deep, and send shrapnel flying. They can not significantly harm the runway or buildings of the airport. Even a direct hit is almost purely symbolic.

5) The FAA is making a false link to the Malaysian flight.  The FAA announcement linked their decision to heightened concern after a Malaysian civilian airplane was shot down over the Ukraine last week, killing everyone on board.  Are you kidding me?!. There is NO analogy. The Malaysian plane was targeted with sophisticated Russian military grade Surface-to-Air missiles, with full navigational controls and targeting capabilities. Hamas missiles are surface-to-surface "dumb"missiles fired from over 40 miles away. The two have nothing to do with each other.

6) El Al continues to fly. So do a majority of airlines that service Ben Gurion airport.  This FAA ruling was a leadership move by the U.S., which other airlines and countries then followed.  Why would the U.S. do this?

6) Is Secretary of State John Kerry is looking for leverage with Israel? I am sure that the FAA made this decision, but that doesn't mean it can't be used in the larger context.  As long as Iron Dome is working, and Israel can continue business as usual under its protection, there is no reason for Prime Minister Netanyahu to do anything but charge ahead against Hamas and its tunnel and missile infrastructure. Shutting down U.S. flights to Israel supports the Hamas agenda and puts pressure on Israel.

7) Israel must respond as it always has: take matters into its own hands.  Already El Al has increased its flights, and reached out to those stranded in Paris and elsewhere. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew back and forth on El Al yesterday just to make the point:

The Jewish State's airline stands ready to bring you home, when nobody else will.  

After all, isn't that the whole point behind Israel, anyways?  Isn't that the founding ethos of the Jewish State at its core?

Hopefully the FAA bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.  will grow a backbone, listen to the military analysis, and lift the ban.  There is NO reasonable assessment of danger at Ben Gurion, and NO reason to continue the ban.

After all, John Kerry flew in and out of Israel in the last two days... why can't we?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Our Last Day: Tel Aviv - the "old-new" city

Saying Goodbye - for now

We began the day today with a pilgrimage of sorts to Independence Hall - Heikhal Ha'atzma'ut. This building was Meir Dizengoff's original home from the first settlement outside the walls of Old Yafo, and was a clear and new beginning of a new city. 

After a short film about the building....

When we entered the Hall at about 9:00 a.m., the news was telling us that there was a cease fire agreed upon.  Our "Red Alert," "Y-net," and "Ha-aretz" I-Phone apps all buzzed to tell us that a final missile had been fired in the south from Gaza at 8:57.  We enjoyed that idea for about an hour, until it became clear that Hamas had no intention to honor a cease fire.  Instead, they enjoyed the Israeli quiet and fired dozens of missiles in a barrage into Israel once again. 

...we entered the hall were David Ben Gurion pronounced the State of Israel on Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948. We heard a recording of the actual pronouncement, and stood for HaTikvah.

From there we went to Kikar Rabin, the open park where Yitzhak Rabin, z"l, was assassinated by an Israeli extremist opposed to the peace process.


From there we needed a dose of living modern Tel Aviv, so we went to Nahalat Binyamin and the Carmel Market.  Here we tangibly supported Israel with a fair dose of tourist spending!  The Carmel market has everything from artist colony jewelry and art, to fresh fruit and open air music.  Well worth the trip for any visitor.

Chocolates and Candy abound!

Sundries of all sorts

And the freshest fruits and spices you would ever hope for!

After supporting the Israeli economy in the market, we made one last touring stop at the Palmach museum.  The Palmach began under the British mandate as a resistance movement, but eventually was absorbed into the regular army in the war for Independence in 1948.  

The "War for Independence" is poorly named, as Independence was granted freely by the United Kingdom and the United Nations, who were the legitimate authorities at the time. Ever since, Israel has fought for its existence, not its independence.  There is no real war any more with the neighbors, as Egypt and Jordan are invested in peace, and Syria and Lebanon have their own worries. 

The current situation is about Tel Aviv, not the territories.  The West Bank and the Palestinian authority have not joined Hamas' private war out of Gaza.  Israel joined a cease fire effort and the Hamas announced clearly that they are not interested "as long as we are occupied."  Since there are no occupiers in the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority is willing to talk, Hamas is clear that it is the existence of any Jewish state at all that is the problem in their eyes.  Theirs is the 1948 war, still raging.

None of the missiles came near us in Tel Aviv until the late afternoon when we were back in the hotel... we spent 10 minutes in the shelter, heard two big booms from Iron Dome destroying the incoming missiles, and back to our rooms to watch t.v. until dinner.  Just another day.

I am proud of my tour, of my people, and of Israel. We behaved like Israelis while we were here.  We kept on. We did not cancel or run. We avoided the places that the army did not want us to go to.  We stayed the course, experienced reality, and saw some of the most informative and inspiring sites in the land. We made real friendships with genuine Israelis in Arad, and have sealed our sister congregation relationship with a warm hug and  a promise of return.

I could not ask more of Israel, or more of B'nai Shalom, at this difficult but important time. This was a trip to remember for all our lives, but even more it is a trip to inspire us to come back to B'nai Shalom ready to work for Shira Hadasha and for Israel.

Kol HaKavod.  Im eshkakheikh Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini.  If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, may my strength wither.

One last walk on the sea shore, one last schwarma, one last breakfast buffet... and off to Ben Gurion airport for our return.

L'shana haba birushalayim... Next year in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Tobin's B'nai Shalom Israel Trip, 2014

Peace in our Day,

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Monday, July 14, 2014

Early Zionism

It Does NOT Begin in World War II

Today, Monday, we travelled north of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean coast. The landscape now is green and lush, and the land is populated with millions of Israelis here in the center of the country. Passing Netanya we started our day in Caesaria.

 Herod's Ampitheater is rebuilt for modern use:

One end of the chariot race track.

Many, many statues have been found in this once opulent city.

Here we recall Rabbi Akiva and the prayer for the Martyrs in our Yom Kippur service. This was the capitol of Roman power in the area, displayed and enjoyed by King Herod, who also expanded and built the structures around the second temple in Jerusalem.  Here the Rabbis of the mishnah ruled that one can pray the shema in Greek, if that is the language of your understanding - and Hebrew even if it is not. Here the Jewish revolt against Rome began, with the Romans' crushing Jewish independance as a result up in Jerusalem and beyond in Massada. We learned the lesson that the Jews of Caesaria were also willing to die for their freedom and religion, even though they may have been those who lived in the Roman style city and had to pray in Greek because they did not know Hebrew. Our people has always been made of different kinds of Jews and in our travels we have come to know many of them.

The first Aliyah to Israel: Zikhron Ya'akov:

Next we traveled to the lovely town of Zikhron Ya'akov. Here we went to the Museum of the First Aliyah.  Did you know that there were already more than 2 dozen Jewish towns in Israel before 1900? The first modern Zionists came from the Ukraine, Russia and Hungary in the 1880's.  They bought land and built towns, learning to farm the land with great difficulty. A plague of Malaria killed dozens of their children, still to be found in the cemetery here. The museum shows in detail, with a mix of movie and standing presentations, the personal stories of the first families of Zikhron Ya'akov.


This is a quieter town, slightly off the busy highways of the coastal plain, but it houses the REAL history of Zionism.  Israel received an enormous influx of Jewish population after WWII, but they came to an ALREADY EXISTING Jewish settlement. Towns, farms, kibbutzim and city neighborhoods up and down the country were already thriving Jewish settlements before WWII broke out. Emmense tracks of land had been purchased by the Keren Kayemet, Rothschild and others. Legal and peaceful immigration had continued for decades since the founding of Zikhron Ya'akov and the other first towns. 

But the British changed that as WWII progressed, and beginning in 1939 they began detaining Jews who tried to enter Israel, and limited immigration to 1,000 a month - virtually nothing when you think of the millions living in Europe who were about to be murdered by the Nazis.

Atlit - The British Detention Center for "illegal" immigrants.

Many of our group were stunned to learn that the British built detention camps in Israel, with guard towers, barbed wire, and barracks that separated families, men from the women and children. We learned of the difficulties that Jews who tried to come by ship faced: overcrowding and sickness... only to be captured by the British, towed to port in Haifa and bussed or moved in cattle cars by train to the camp awaiting processing or expulsion.

A ship like the ones they came in, restored as an educational living museum inside:

This barracks had 20 beds. By 1946 there would be over 70.  Tin roofs, no insulation, and locked in at night, summers were sweltering and winters frigid in the bunks.

The British were not cruel, and did not wish to harm the Jews, but as the population in the camp shifted from pre-war settlers to post-Holocaust refugees, they remained insensitive to the idea that putting Jews behind barbed wire in camps may not have been a humane act. Once more we see the sacrifice and commitment of those who would come to make Israel their home.

Modern Sacrifice: The Carmel Forest Fires Memorial.

We finished our trip up north with a quick run up the Carmel Mountains on hairpin turns and a single lane bridge.  Here we saw the destruction on the hillsides of the Carmel Forest fire, and recalled the 44 persons who were killed in it, most in a bus trapped by the raging wind-blown flames. At the top of the hill, a beautiful modern memorial is dedicated in their memory.


... And with one last view from the heights of the Carmel down to the Mediterranean in the distance, we returned to our hotel for a closing dinner.

At the dinner we reflected on our highlight moments. We asked, "What will come of this trip?" and we noted that many things had changed in us.  What do we know now that we did not know then? 

The group has grown close, and it is barely descriptive to say that we have made friends with members of the congregation that we may have never spoke with otherwise in the next 40 years. This is the magic of congregational trips: Rabbi as teacher, and members as friends. Each took care of the other as we navigated the often challenging steps and paths of our journey, and all came out enlivened and touched by our common experience.

Tomorrow we will finish our tour, by returning to the place where Israel was declared a state, by visiting Rabin square, and with a visit to Palmach museum.  More on that... later.

Rabbi Robert Tobin

As we were returning to Tel Aviv there was an air raid warning siren in the city.  We were still 40 minutes to the north, and not in the line of fire. Two missiles were successfully shot down by the Iron Dome defense system, and no one was harmed.  In the south there have been some injuries of late - one a serious injury of a man in a car, and yesterday two children lightly injured by shrapnel. All remained quiet in Tel Aviv for the remainder of the day and night.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Goodbye to the Desert, Hello Tel Aviv

Ancient roots and Modern commitment:

One of the most important archaeological sites in Israel is Tel Arad, outside of the Negev city, Arad, where we have spent Shabbat in the warm hospitality of the city and our sister congregation Shira Hadasha.

Tel Arad:

This enormous site spans centuries of human habitation.  In the valleys and caves of the region, early bronze age habitation is clear. By the 10th-8th centuries before the common area, during the early Israelite monarchies, the city of Arad is large and fortified.  Within one finds a temple structure with Canaanite relics as well as the earliest example of the "House of God" terms using the unique Hebrew name for God Y-H-V-H. Was this site a mix of theological beliefs, representing an early time before monotheism had completed its ascendancy in Israelite society? One thing is certain: Israelites, believers in Y-H-V-H, echoing the early temple in Jerusalem, lived here for several centuries during Biblical times.

This is not a surprise, as the Torah's memory of its earliest history is down south: in and around Beer Sheva. Here Abraham and Sarah settled, Isaac and Rebecca married, and Jacob returned to dwell with his wives Rachel and Leah.  All lived in the south of modern Israel, not Jerusalem, nor the North. 


While in the isolated and comfortable parking lot of Tel Arad, we talked about the missiles being fired by the dozen daily at Israel in the south and along the coast.  We were about to turn west towards Beer Sheva and for the next four days we would be certain to hear the air raid warning sirens, and need to move to safe places and bomb shelters.  This is an important part of being in Israel and loving Israel.  This is simply what we must do, and I am so proud of my congregation for facing it without fear or hesitation.  We learned how to be safe, and had a practice drill for leaving a bus in an open area, and remaining calmly on the ground for the time necessary to let the danger pass.

Perfect practice drill!! Way to go, folks.

Ne'ot Kedumim:

We said Good-bye to the desert and turned north, to Neot Kedumim outside of Modin, along the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway.  Here we enjoyed a picnic lunch under the shade of an enormous carob tree, surrounded by the biblical plants and spices of our land.




  Fruit of the vine

And of course, we participated in a prayer for God's blessing on the land and a symbolic tree planting ceremony thanks to the Jewish National Fund.




Tel Aviv:

We travelled on to Tel Aviv, and checked into our hotel. I had not been in my room 5 minutes when we heard the sirens blow.  Calmly we went to the bomb shelter, as I marked the time on my watch.  In Tel Aviv you have 90 seconds to get to safety - quite a long time, really.

At 65 seconds we found our way into the shelter, sat down, and talked about our day.  5 minutes later the all clear sounded, and we returned to our room.  Turning on the news, we learned that two missiles fell in the streets of Ashkelon to our south and two others headed to Tel Aviv were destroyed by the Iron Dome anti-missile system which the Obama administration has always supported aggressively. No one was hurt. Just as we practiced, and done without surprise or anxiety.

Iron dome anti-missile system in action over Tel Aviv.

After a seaside swim in the pool, we had a wonderful dinner out together, enjoying Israeli appetizers, chicken skewers and shared thoughts about Arad, Israel and our own community.  Israel trips are magical in how they change people's attitudes and understanding of both Israel and our own relationships. To watch the new friendships and respect grow between members of B'nai Shalom who didn't know each other just a few short months ago is intensely gratifying for a rabbi. As we enter our last few days here, I know that my hopes are already fulfilled for each of them.

Tomorrow we return to the past in Ceasaria, Atlit and Zikhron Ya'akov, among other stops. We will see the story of the first modern Jewish settlement of Israel, and return to our question of Zionism.  What is Zionism at all, and what is it in our day? At a time when terrorists daily shoot missiles at our cities, we must know who and what we are if we are to face them.  Only from a deep understanding of our place in the Zionist dream, and its worth, can we know for sure that the sacrifices are small compared to the achievements that we are privileged to see happening every day in this remarkable country.

...more tomorrow...

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Shabbat in Congregation Shira Hadasha in Arad:

Wow!  What a Shabbat we had today.  [Sorry, but no pictures of course!]

Last night we walked 10 minutes from the hotel to Shira Hadasha, our Masorti sister synagogue in Arad.  Together with about 15 members of the shul, we sand the songs of Kabbalat Shabbat and walked back to the Hotel for dinner.  

After another huge Israeli Hotel meal, we sat in a circle as one combined community, tossing a ball back and forth with the person catching taking a few minutes to talk about themselves.  What wonderful stories!  The people of Israel, all touched by the Shoah and the wars, are a fascinating mix of cultures, countries and visions. We quickly warmed up to each other, and were laughing and teasing, or solemn and supportive, as people lives were shared.  We stayed late into the evening, cherishing the special nature of this time.

In the morning everyone came to synagogue, and many of our members took aliyot to the Torah in Israel.  Our own Noel Meltzer was the Maftir, and led the shacharit service.  As Rafi Freeman, one of the leaders of Shira Hadasha told us, the phone call to God here is a local call.  It sure did feel like it. I gave a sermon about the daughter's of Tzloph'chad and how the rabbinical tradition unabashedly declares them to be wise women, torah scholars, and prophets.  The education of Jewish women at the highest level of Jewish learning is ancient, natural and good.

After lunch, we had free time in the pool or for a nap.  In the mid afternoon, friends of Francesca Peckman and Ken Krauss  came from a kibbutz to visit us.  Real kibbutz life still exists in Israel, but it is hard as the younger generation has tended to move away. Nevertheless, the hard work and idealism of these now middle aged veterans of Israel is another testament to the spirit of Israel and the care for the common good that the culture is based upon.

A Pirkei Avot study, minchah and seudah shlishit followed, and in the evening we were treated to the highlight event of our time in Arad.  Mayor Tali Ploskov came "for 10 minutes" and stayed 45 minutes with us.  An immigrant from Moldova, she started as a maid in a Dead Sea hotel, and today is the Mayor of Arad.  Only in Israel! When asked about the future of Shira Hadasha, she said clearly and deliberately: you will always have a physical place in Arad.  

We then heard a moving presentation from the director of Ethiopian absorption here in Arad, and from an Ethiopian Jewish rabbi who came here and now leads his community's synagogue.  Once again, the stories we've heard a shadows of the reality when you meet the real people. Thanks to the generosity of a NJ donor, they have a beautiful synagogue, and thanks to Shira Hadasha's Rafi Freeman the local Arad community created a strong non-profit to aid the families as they integrated into Israeli life. When asked if he had advice for Shira Hadasha, this Orthodox rabbi responded: I am ready to help you anytime.  An open mind, pluralistic outlook that comes from personal relationships and understanding.  It was a very encouraging evening all around!

This relationship between B'nai Shalom and Shira Hadasha is now very real.  Each of us were touched by the other, and we are members of this synagogue here.  We have new friends and family now in Arad. And they were particularly grateful not only for our support and our memberships in their community, but in our commitment to be here "at this time, despite the situation."  Our steadfast presence here does more than tell them that they are not alone:  It proves it.

Tomorrow we are in the outdoors, with a jeep tour of the desert, an exploration of Tel Arad, and picnic and hiking in the JNF's Ne'ot Kedumim, as we say goodbye to the south for now and turn to the center of the country for our last few days.

Shavu'a Tov from Israel,

Rabbi Tobin