High Holy Day Sermon by Rabbi Lana Zilberman Soloway 2023

The State of Israel is Too Important to the Jewish People to Leave it to Israelis Alone

“Why should I continue to support Israel?” asked one of our Congregation Or Ami congregants when I was visiting the synagogue last February. That question arose because of actions promoted by the then-new Israeli government, considered to be the most far-right and religious one in Israel’s history. This government desires to change the face of the country. The coalition agreements include unprecedented policies that will give more power to ultra-orthodox religious institutions that will harm the rights of many minority groups.

This government’s declared intentions and desired future steps include:

  • Redefining who is a Jew, amending the Law of Return by removing the “grandchild clause” so that only people born to Jewish parents, rather than Jewish grandparents would receive automatic citizenship.
  • Revoking state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, rejecting the conversions done by Rabbi Paul, Cantor Kyle and me, and thousands of non-orthodox rabbis around the world, including Israel.
  • Legalizing gender-separated public events.

Paving the way for the government to pass a law exempting yeshiva students from military service.

And this is just the beginning.

I understand why some Jews in North America worry that Israel is no longer a country of their pride and joy, and want to disconnect their attachment and support. Having said that, I would like us all to consider some additional viewpoints to this very complex and nuanced situation.

Although this current Israeli government gained power through a democratic election process, many Israelis, including large numbers of those who voted for present coalition members, feel like the government is taking their slim majority in an aggressive, power-driven direction, ignoring minorities and pushing through laws and more importantly budgets to bolster the right wing, ultra-Orthodox agendas.

One of the first actions taken by this government is understood by many as a constitutional coup, trying to create so-called judicial reform, which would reduce the oversight power of the Supreme Court and allow the government to be both the legislature and the executive authority. In this scenario, no other official body would be monitoring government actions. First steps of this reform have already been taken, endangering, according to many people in Israel and around the world, the very foundation of Israeli democracy.

In response, over the last nine months, millions of Israelis have embarked on the largest social protest ever seen in Israel during its seventy-five years of Statehood.

During the last thirty-seven weeks, the demonstrations evolved and expanded to over 700 locations, where millions of people are marching the streets every single week. They come out with signs, flags, songs and slogans, to protest against the judicial reform, but also using this unique opportunity to cry out loud about various painful issues of injustice inside Israeli society, including the trampling of women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the Arab Israeli rights, and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

I wish you could see the protests firsthand. They are truly incredible. I took my kids out of school multiple times, so they could see and experience a living example of the freedom of speech, and the evidence of the Israeli public’s dedication, stamina, and grand desire for a better future. I am truly inspired every time I attend and see people of all ages and different religious backgrounds put up a fight by showing up and recommitting to an Israel that we all believe in and care about.

There is no doubt that the protests are effective. Although several problematic laws of judicial reform have been put in place, many others have been put on hold. All sectors of Israeli society are affected by it. More and more people join in various ways, including reserve officers and pilots who are refusing to continue their volunteer reserve duty service if the reform continues.

For some of you, the question of supporting Israel transcends this or any other government. Israel claims a central place in your heart and I thank you for that.

Yet others struggle with their connection and support. For you, I want to address the question: Why should you continue to support Israel?

The State of Israel is seventy-five years old, which is considered very young for a country. Where was the United States of America when it was only seventy-five? And yet, in only 7.5 decades, Israel has become an international power of education, medicine, pharmacy, science, technology, military and innovation. It made a barren desert bloom by developing state-of-the-art irrigation systems and agricultural technologies used all over the world. Israeli organizations are the first ones to be on the ground of any international crisis, offering supplies, help and support, whether it’s the tsunami in Haiti, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the fires in Maui, or the most recent earthquake in Morocco.

And yes, just like any other country, it is far from being perfect.

Like some of you, I am worried, but I am also hopeful. 5783 was a historic year, and it seems that the new Jewish year 5784 will be even more so.

One of my favorite verses in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is in the book of Eicha (Lamentations), a verse that we sing when we return the Torah scroll into the Ark: Hashivenu Adonai Eleicha venashuva, chadesh yameinu keKedem (Bring us back, Holy One and we shall return, make our days as they were, Kedem, before.)

Israel has a strong foundation of Kedem – beforeness. We have all the Jewish people who lived before us to thank for that. Now it is up to all of us to make sure Israel will also have a strong Kadima – which means, going forward, into the future. The relationship between American Jews and Israel is core to that happening.

I often ask myself about the essence of Zionism in the 21st century. Theodor Herzl, who envisioned a Jewish nation-state, was a Zionist, so were the founding fathers and mothers of the State of Israel, inspirational leaders like David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Golda Meir. Millions of olim, new immigrants who came to Israel from all over the world, feel like they are fulfilling their Zionist dream by making Israel their home.

For 125 years, the purpose of Zionism and the joint project of the Jewish people was clear: building a national home, fighting for the fall of the Iron Curtain, bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and more.

But what about today: What does Zionism mean in 2023? What does it mean to you? What is the current joint project of our people?

I believe that the role of Zionism in our time is fighting for the future of the State of Israel, and the joint project of the Jewish people nowadays is reconnecting both with Israel and with Jewish people around the globe, in the same way the generous American Jews collected 50 million dollars when Golda Meir came here to ask for their support in May 1948, and as 50,000 brave Soviet Jews came to meet her in the Choral synagogue in Moscow on Erev Rosh Hashanah later that same year.

So why should you continue to support Israel? Because we are family, and this is what family members do for one another: we support and love each other, even when we strongly disagree at times. Once you are born into a family, you cannot leave it, no matter what. You can fight for it, you can strive for it to be better, you can and even should disagree when things are going wrong, as long as you don’t renounce yourself from it. When you care, your heart is in the right place, even at times, when continuing the relationship can be painful, or embarrassing, or both.

This evening, we are welcoming the new Jewish year, as we say Hayom Harat Olam, which means: Today the world is pregnant, pregnant with possibility and newness. It’s a new year, I am new to you, we are new together.

As an Israeli and as one of your rabbis, whether you agree with what I shared or are challenged by it, I am asking you to give our joint national home a new chance.

Please don’t give up. Continue to support the State of Israel, educate yourself, travel there and explore, with Congregation Or Ami or on your own, participate in the many conversations about Israel that we begin right after the High Holy Days, challenge me with difficult questions, do your best to understand Israel’s complexities and the nuances, because Israel is so much more than what you see on the news.

Remember, we don’t walk out on family.

And also, the State of Israel is way too important for the Jewish people to leave it to Israelis alone.

Your support matters now, maybe even more than ever before.

L’shana Tova. Happy New Year.