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Clergy Column by Rabbi Jon Prosnit

Israel at 75! So Much to Celebrate; So Much to Do
March/April 2023
The most memorable Passover seder I ever attended happened the year after I graduated from high school while living in Israel on a pre-college gap year. The seder happened in a small community called Chatzrot Yasaf on the Mediterranean coast of Israel between Akko and Nahariya. I lived in Chatzrot Yasaf as part of a joint program between my youth movement, Young Judaea and the Tzofim, Israel’s pre-army scouting movement.

Chatzrot Yasaf was one of Israel’s last caravan cities (now dismantled) that was home primarily to new Israeli immigrants from Ethiopia. It was run down; families crammed into trailers, minimal access to public buses or other services, makeshift and crowded classrooms. There were accusations of racism — immigrants of Ethiopia treated differently than new immigrants from other places — with a Judaism directed and dictated by an Ashekanz Orthodox rabbi. However, it was also a miracle, this little community that came out of nowhere in the Holy Land, to welcome Jews searching for safety and a better life.

While the seder was led in Hebrew, the primary language was Amharic (I didn’t understand much) as over 500 people gathered on the community’s makeshift basketball court to celebrate our holiday of freedom. We sang the songs and spoke the words of the seder. “In every generation, one must see oneself as if one had personally experienced redemption.” These new immigrants were celebrating their first Passover in Israel. Their journeys to the Promised Land were long and harrowing. At 18 years old, I didn’t entirely understand the power of that moment — the dream of Israel — Lihyot ‘m chofshi be’artzenu, Eretz-Tziyon virushalayim — To be a free nation in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

A few weeks after Passover this year, Israel will turn 75. It’s a remarkable moment for this young country. I get chills every time I land at Ben Gurion Airport. I love Israel: The buzz of Tel Aviv. The chaos of the Mahane Yehudah market before Shabbat. The raw untouched beauty of the Negev. The wonderful fruits and vegetables at each meal. There is no greater experience than wandering the alleys and streets of Jerusalem, the city of King David.

I hope you can see the majesty and miracle of Israel’s 75th birthday. I hope you can find a way to celebrate this wonderful moment. It is yours to celebrate. Listen to a new Israeli musical artist. Take a Hebrew class. Attend the program at Beth Am Keeping the Jewish State a Democracy: A Vision for Israel with Orly Erez-Likhovski, Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, on Saturday, March 4. Read an Israeli book. (If you’re interested in one of the best new Israeli authors, check out the collection of stories by Omer Friedlander called The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land.) Attend the Oneg Israel program on Zoom with Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret on Saturday, March 25. Travel to Israel. Cantor Jaime Shpall led a trip to Israel last summer and we are in the process of coordinating two travel opportunities to Israel for 2024. If you want to travel on your own, any of the clergy would be happy to talk to you about an itinerary.

Don’t like the drastically rightward shift of the New Israeli government? Neither do I. I’m appalled by the brutal occupation of millions of Palestinians. I’m crushed by the stripping of democratic norms by the Israeli government. This Government’s open hostility towards LGBTQ+ people, Reform and Conservative Jews, and its clear prioritization of Jews over non-Jews in Israel is devastating.

If you feel this way... we need you more than ever. We cannot let the hardliners, bigots and nationalists be the only voices in the Israel conversation. I know it’s easy to check out, to say that’s not my battle to fight. Please don’t. Please continue to engage and wrestle and question, and know that those actions are exactly what our people have been doing with Israel for millennia.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the head of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America), reminds us that our covenant with Israel has always been more than just “being.” He writes that the covenant, “...was about upholding the moral character of the State as mandated to us not only by our formative collective experience of being slaves in Egypt, but from the moral imperative to establish just societies outlined in the Torah that we received upon leaving Egypt.” This continues to be our legacy; to fight for the soul of the country we love so much.

75 years young. What a remarkable country.  Happy Passover and Yom Ha-Atzmaut Sameach.

Rabbi Jon Prosnit

Wed, May 29 2024 21 Iyar 5784