From the Travels of Rabbi Perlin: Reconnecting with Israel

From the Travels of Rabbi Perlin:  Reconnecting with Israel

November 21, 2022


Yesterday morning, we landed back in Los Angeles after 15 hours of flying from Israel to LAX, so today is really my first moment to reflect on my return to Israel after three years of Covid kept me away.  Reconnecting with Israel on this trip meant reconnecting with family, friends, and fellow HUC Board members from Jerusalem to Haifa.  I could write a book about the last two weeks, but I will distill my thoughts into five key reflections for you, my beloved TBS family.


I am still a Zionist.  With the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric, Israel is still the fulfillment of centuries of Jewish longing from a forced Diaspora.  Zionism is the simple dream that there is one place on earth, the size of New Jersey, where being a Jew is possible because we are the only remaining remnant of the original inhabitants of that sacred space on Earth.  We were plundered and exiled by nations and religions. Zionism affirms our right to return to our sacred land.  And Zionism does not preclude the co-existence with those who came after us, conquered us, and lived on the land in more recent years, or live beside us today.  From its founding, Zionism is democratic, pluralistic, and just for all peoples and citizens of the Jewish State.


Reform Judaism is thriving, even as it struggles.  Under attack every day, rabbis and congregations sacrifice and work tirelessly to offer a Judaism that is modern, authentic, and vibrant to answer the spiritual yearning for God, traditions, and “Jewish” life and ritual.  Gary and I belong to quite a few Israeli congregations.  We went to a congregational meeting at Beit Samueli in Ranaana, and Shabbat services at Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem one week and Ohr Hadash in Haifa the next.  I met with the leaders of the Reform Movement and took two different classes about the new Israeli Reform prayerbook.  Our voice is the loudest religious voice for pluralism, equality, justice, and democracy.  Reform Jewish leaders are fighting battles in the Supreme Court and seeding new communities and congregations in the hope of reaching 100 synagogues in the next five years. One of my rabbinic friends is teaching spirituality and Torah in Jaffa and another is opening up her synagogue to help transform her community.  Both synagogues were full on Shabbat and filled with music and vibrant community,  As American Reform Jews, we need to do all we can to support these rabbis, as the government still only pays Orthodox rabbis.  But, I am hopeful and encouraged.


Hebrew Union College, our Reform seminary is visioning the future of Jewish leadership for those who live between being the two perceived options ultra-Orthodox/Orthodox and secular non-religious.  I had the privilege of participating in the opening of our new plaza and entrance on our Jerusalem campus as part of the HUC Board of Governors and co-chair of its Israel Committee.  The President of Israel AND the head of the Jerusalem Foundation spoke of the importance of the work we do and the graduates we train to the landscape of Israeli civil society, especially now. The vitality of our Israel campus for our American and Israeli students’ needs to be advertised throughout the Jewish community.  And in addition to all of that success, we welcome the Ulpan Milah program which has hundreds of Muslim and Christian students from a host of ethnicities studying Hebrew together.  Our Teacher’s Lounge is an exciting program bringing Palestinian and Israeli teachers together in two-year cohorts to study how to teach children co-existence, and this is done by having the teachers model it.


The new government is dangerous and threatens democracy and the Jewish soul.  The American ambassador, Tom Nides, joined us for Shabbat dinner to discuss the future of Israeli democracy in light of the recent elections.  His candor was echoed by so many people we spoke with who have serious concerns about the extremists in the Netanyahu coalition.  In the name of the supremacy of Israel being a Jewish State, these extremists put forth messages of hate to those who are not like them, which of course is unacceptable and totally inconsistent with our Jewish values. I met with the head of ACRI, Israel’s largest social justice organization and the head of IRAC, our Reform social justice arm, and both know there are difficult days ahead.


Everywhere you go, there is construction, and construction is the symbol of hope, renewal, and the future.  I have never seen so many new buildings going up in one country.  To look at all of the construction, one can just imagine the vitality and possibility that such growth brings.


Exactly 50 years ago, I went off to High School in Israel, and when I returned at age seventeen, I left a part of my heart there.  Fifty years later, I still leave a part of my heart when I return home. How grateful I am that the heart that returns with me is filled with deep relationships and memorable moments, pride in what Israel has achieved, renewed energy to continue to work to keep the democratic dreams of her founders alive, and a rekindled mission to support all efforts to sustain and grow liberal Judaism in the land that I love.


As you light your menorah this Chanukah, join me in praying that Israel’s light never goes out.



Rabbi Perlin