Sermon by Yael Ingel/An Israeli in the Jewish community in America: Things you see from here that you don’t see from there

An Israeli in the Jewish community in America: Things you see from here that you don’t see from there

Yom Ha’azmaut sermon in Temple B’nai Shalom, April 12, 2013

Erev Tov,

Thank you – Rabbi Perlin and Rabbi Cameron for giving me the opportunity to be here tonight and celebrate with you Israel’s 65 Independence Day.  Some of you know me well as the JCCNV community Shlicha (meaning emissary) and Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel at George Mason University.  While some of you meet today for the first time, and I’m very glad for this opportunity.

I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about what I experienced and learned here in the last year and a half, almost two years.  Today I can definitely say that this period of time, which is the first time in my life I lived outside of Israel, has changed me and helped shape who I am today.

But before I share that with you, I would like to share with you my perspective of the holidays this time of year and how everything has an order to it..  Only a few weeks ago we celebrated Passover, the holiday in which we commemorate the liberation of the Jewish people.  During this holiday we gather as a family, both in Israel and around the world to remember the times when we were slaves and to appreciate again the meaning of being free.  I was born and grew up on Kibbutz Hazorea and I can’t forget the impression that was left on me by the size of the Seder we used to have – about a 1,000 people sitting, reading and singing together.

A week after Passover is over comes the Holocaust Memorial Day.  The timing of this holiday was set in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the only Jewish uprising during the Holocaust.  That’s a day we always commemorate with a ceremony in schools, even at the elementary level.  A siren sounded throughout the country for one minute when life came to a halt.  We also commemorate it on the Kibbutz, with my grandma, standing next to the memorial in the Kibbutz’s cemetery where her family members, which I never knew were commemorated, as they never got a proper burial.  She told us little about them because it was hard for her to talk about it.

A week later we have Israel’s Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers and the Victims of Terror, Yom Ha’Zikaron.  Another emotional ceremony, another siren, more tears.

And then, in a sharp transition, that is known in advance but always catches me off guard as if it’s the first time I’ve experienced it – we transition to the amazing, fun, impressive celebration of Yom Ha’azmaut – Israel’s Independence Day.

For me, all these weeks of spring holidays and memorial days, remind me of who we are, all of us, together.  During the high-holidays of Tishrei, in the fall, we deal much more with ourselves, with our own personal deeds, reflecting upon ourselves, on our connection with G-d and with our friends. But during the holidays of Nisan and Eyar, in the spring – we think, talk, deal and commemorate ‘us’, who we are as a group, as a people, the whole Am Israel – with our achievements, our past tragedies and the painful but inevitable connection between the two.

And here I am, in Temple B’nai Shalom in North Virginia in the United States of America, my second year in a row, this time talking as part of this beautiful ceremony and I feel this ‘us’, I feel it strongly.

I came here as the Shlicha of the Jewish Agency to Israel with a strong will and the goal to bring my Israel here to the Jewish Community of Northern Virginia and the students of Hillel in George Mason University.  To share with you what I love so much about her, what can make her special and meaningful here – 6,000 miles away.

During my work here, with different age groups and different people, I noticed that as much as I bring more of myself – I learn more new things every day.  Gradually I understood how much I had to learn and with time I could peel off of myself some of the layers of cynicism and skepticism that I came with.  As a good Israeli I grew up with cynical humor surrounding me, the kind of humor and attitude that helps us get over difficult days and situations in life.  They help get over the quite standard fear we experience when on any given day you usually have at least one friend or family member serving in the army, in the reserves or active duty.

It was just when I settled in here, that I could take off those layers of the defense mechanism I had built up and let the experience, and more importantly – the people that I met her influence me and get into my heart. I have to mention that before I came here I heard about the Jewish Community of North America (and about the community of Northern Virginia) but I was still skeptical about its connection to Israel. I was wondering – how is it possible that a prosperous community on the other side of the globe really care about us? Why should they? Israel is such a complicated place in so many ways.. Why should they involve themselves with it?

I was surprised to find out that not only is it possible for this community to care so much but you do it in an amazing way, and in so many places.  Only when I got here did I understand the broad meaning of being one people.  I used to think of that in terms of only Israelis, but only from here I could see the connection and unity of the Jewish people as a whole.  It’s hard for me to explain how thrilled I was last year when I heard in this room the prayer for the State of Israel (Hatfila Leshlom Hamedina) or to see the hundreds and thousands of people who came to celebrate with us for the Israel Street Festival or my students at George Mason who brought a birthday cake for Israel, and threw a party for her this week..  Because what’s more exciting than people who love Israel and are committed to it even though the physical distance between them is so tremendous?  To be a Zionist in Israel is really simple, but to be a Zionist here is harder and takes more will power and for that you have my deep true appreciation.

I learned a few more important things while I was here: I learned that some terms that I thought I knew where not absolute.  I learned that a synagogue where kosher laws are not kept strictly is still a synagogue, and that there are so many different beautiful ways to be Jewish.  I learned that when you have real freedom to choose, and in depth education – every person can find the way that suits him to be Jewish.  I also learned it’s never too late to ask for that education you need in order to make the right decision for yourself.  That I learned from one of my students, who grew up in an Atheist home, and only when her little brother was sent to Shul to study for his Bar-Mitzvah, when she is already in college – was when she decided she wanted to find her own connection to the Jewish people, which in her case was the connection to Israel and that’s how I got to know her.

I learned about tolerance, and how you can cooperate with someone who is just the opposite of you.  If it’s a joined Thanksgiving service for Jews and Christians, a joined memorial service for 9/11, a synagogue that’s hosted in a church for the High-holidays, a mosque being hosted in a synagogue and more and more…  Even in the university we were able to get one time into a deep and honest conversation with Arab and Jewish students…  I only hope that these conversations continue in the future.

I learned that there are cultural differences that I need to work very hard at bridging.  A student in one of the religious schools I talked to asked me once, where do I prefer living better – here or in Israel? And quickly he added: but tell us what we want to hear, ok?  And I laughed and thought about how many times I had to change and adapt the way I speak so my ideas will be heard, in a more soft way. Not direct and aggressive like I was used to.

I also learned that in order to be Jewish here you need to work harder than I ever imagined.  You need to ask your teacher permission to miss class so you can go to a Passover Seder or because it’s Yom Kippur.

I learned here what devotion is, from the amazing members of the community who teach in the religious schools.  One of the teachers here invited me to come to her class and talk about my life in Israel, but from the whole thing what I remember is her telling them that when her mother passed away, what was important to her was that some soil form the Land of Israel will be buried with her, and I remember how moved I was to hear that.  Or when I spoke to high-school students about serving in the IDF, and the advantages and disadvantages of stopping your life for two or three years in order to give back to your country, and Rabbi Perlin asked them the question that I did not dare to ask: How many of you, if there was a war today in Israel and your help was needed would you leave everything and hop on a plane?  More than a half of them raised their hands and I choked.

I learned about humility, when a girl from confirmation class asked me about mixed schools of Jews and Arabs in Israel, and how come they are the ones who are private and cost a lot and not the other way around?  And I was amazed by the simplicity of the question and the knowledge and open mindedness that stood behind it.  And how come I never asked myself that question when I was in Israel, but maybe that’s what this is about – things you see from here, you can’t see from there.

I learned about personal connection and how important it is, because in the end, from all the experiences what you remember is how people made you feel.  And how happy I am that I got to meet the great group from here that went to Israel, and not only that – I can promise you that my mom will never forget you.  Because for her you were the proof that I didn’t just disappear from home for two years to run away to live somewhere far, but that there was a goal to it and that it was worth it.

So I learned a lot here, and what do I take with me back to Israel?

I take back with me the feeling of the community that I’ve experienced here, a ”togetherness”.  The community that surrounds you, and is there for your whole life, through all the important moments in it. Here I feel the power of the community, in the difficult parts of life and in the happy ones.  The community life is a way of giving and getting back that to me feels magical and unique.

And what would I like to leave behind when I return to Israel?

I would like most of all, to pass on my deep love for the State of Israel, the wonder of the miracle of its establishment and the recognition of the wonder of us speaking in a language that was considered dead for 2,000 years.  I would like to leave here the reason I cry every year on the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers and the Victims of Terror (that is coming this Monday) and the same reason that makes me celebrate that same night with a fireworks show and a party and the next day with a family BBQ and a hike around the beautiful nature reserves I have near my home.

Hand in hand with this huge love I have for Israel,  I would like to leave behind some of the understanding of the complexities of the State of Israel, because I as well, learn new things about it every day. Our country is full of extremism, full of contrasts and that for me, looks a bit like a 3,000 piece puzzle: from the outside it looks crazy and impossible to put together, until you come closer and see the little pieces.  Every one of them is beautiful in itself, but it’s a shame they don’t always fit exactly together. And every one needs to polish a bit his rough edges so they all fit together.

The issue that has been lately in the news, the Woman of the Wall being arrested at the Western Wall for reading from the Torah and putting on a Talith, is an example of it.  On the one hand I understand well now the importance of woman prayer and their wish to pray in the holiest place for the Jewish people, but on the other hand I see the Israeli society, how Orthodox Judaism has been dominant in it for decades and I try to think – how do you create a situation that respects everyone and does not put us in a situation where a Jew fights a Jew?  Natan Sharanski, as the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was asked by PM Netanyahu to bring up a proposition for a solution to this conflict. Maybe his suggestion, to create 3 areas in the Western Wall, one for man, one for woman and a mixed area would promote the dialogue on this delicate subject?  I really wish it would.  I think it’s a process that all of the Israeli society needs to be involved in, and the legal system may not be the answer here, as it is not the tool to educate people, so it’s important someone else takes that job.

Someone, I don’t remember who, once told me that I shouldn’t be surprised with all the BALAGAN (craziness) going on in Israel.  When the U.S. was 65 (years old), they said, we were fighting a civil war. This is very accurate. Israel is very young in state age, and is still searching for herself. Fundamental issues regarding the core foundations of our society, like recruiting ultra-orthodox to the army and practicing Judaism in any way one chooses, are being debated and decided as I speak.  I began this sermon by saying that: “things you see from here that you can’t see from there” and I will end this sermon by saying that this aphorism is also true when it is being said from Israel.  So as the US is a kind of a “big brother” to us, it’s really important to have a constant dialog with Israel and Israelis to understand what they think and how they see things, as sometimes it’s a very different perspective.  I also think that, even if you think we are doing something wrong, we can’t just change our ways, we need to make our own mistakes and learn from them, and that’s the only way to grow up.

My wish is that you all find a place in your heart for Israel; I strongly believe that anyone can find interest and connect with Israel.  If it’s byhosting a summer Shaliach that’s coming here for camp in your home, if it’s going to Israel, maybe even for a summer program, a gap-year before or after college or to study a semester in one of our fine universities.  Maybe you’ll watch an Israeli film at the Jewish Film Festival that’s starting next week, or just rent one from Netflix.  Maybe next year your family will take part in a new pen-pal project called the Same Moon –, one family from B’nai Shalom is taking part in the pilot program now.  With this project a family from here switches letters with a family in our partnership area in Israel so they get to know one other better. Or you just carry it in your heart.

As for me, I am returning home in the summer, but a part of me will always stay here.  Know that you have a true friend in Israel, one that you can always seek advice from, use as a resource, and of course when in Israel, pay me a visit.

MAZAL TOV to Israel on her 65th birthday!  May Israel, the Jewish people and the entire world will know only peace.