Local rabbi finds inspiration in solidarity mission to Israel

BY RABBI HYIM SHAFNER

In the beginning of the Torah, when God first makes a covenant with our forefathers and sets out the mission of our people, God tells each of them that their children will live in their land, the land of Israel, and there they should be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

I have just returned from a 40-hour solidarity mission to Israel with 20 other American Rabbis and 20 Israeli Rabbis. Our mission was to visit those wounded in the recent rocket attacks, comfort mourners, sleep with the people in their bomb shelters and study Torah with them in schools only 10 seconds by missile from the border. I expected a country war-torn, angry and depressed, but instead I saw one of nobility and spiritual vision.

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I saw that only in a Jewish land can the living of torah in the every day facilitate the emergence of Judaism’s values and meaning into the real world. The Torah of Israel is not like the torah of the Diaspora, which is often simply a proscription for doing all things ritual and interpersonal. The Torah of Israel is much more and only it has the potential to be a blessing, “to all the peoples of the world,” as God commanded our ancestors.

One small example of which I experienced many: The city of Lod has become over the past 30 years an inner city blighted by Arab drug trade, some violence, the influx of many poor Jewish immigrants and much “white flight” to newer suburbs. Over the past 10 years, though, 200 religious Jewish families have moved to Lod.

In conversation with the rabbi of the community, in his comfortable but modest home, I asked why religious Jews would move to a city with little observant infrastructure and much difficulty.

Was it for lower housing prices? Was it to establish an observant presence and thereby bring their non-observant brethren back to Torah? Is the government paying them to move here? His answer was “no” on all counts. He said observant Jews were moving to Lod for something much more basic: to help stabilize the city. I was in awe. In the United States, Jews for whom Torah and observance are central do not move to East St. Louis “to help stabilize the city.” But this Orthodox rabbi and 200 Orthodox families had moved on their own to live here with noble and outward looking values in their hearts. Not to make their own community separate from others taking advantage of cheep housing prices, but to help stabilize a town that needed them.

I was witnessing the Torah’s values brought to bear on the real world in a way they could never be in the Diaspora.

Only in Israel, because all of life there is by definition an expression of the Jewish People, can we live a Jewish life that is not separate from our life in society and the greater world. Only there can we cultivate a world vision colored by Torah and focused through Jewish lenses that truly has the potential to be a blessing to other peoples.

We need Israel but, I learned, in unexpected ways, they need us too. The Israeli rabbis that we traveled with, part of an organization called Tzohar (window), are trying to make Jewish life in Israel accessible to the majority of its population who are not observant. Often, in fact, the burocracy of governmentally structured Judaism in Israel prevents Jews who do not already appreciate Torah from ever discovering its spiritual value. In bringing this gap between religious and secular that is so vast in Israel, and hopefully making the Torah available to all Jews there, the Israeli rabbis asked for our help. They asked us to assist them in building Jewish communities in which members are integrated with each other and yet open to welcome and embrace others. Though many Jews pray together in Israel, they do not for the most part, form warm, embracing communities. Diaspora rabbis they said are experts at building such communities. For Israel to build the internal bridges that it must, they say they need our communal vision and help.

My farewell to the land as I looked out the airplane window was seeing the baggage handler putting my bags on the plane. He was dressed in a jumpsuit, orange safety vest and kippah — a Jewish ritual head covering indicating the awe and humility we have before God.

A strange sight for an American such as me, but not for a Jewish land.

Only in Israel, only in a Jewish land can a Jewish society informed by Jewish values possess the potential, perhaps not yet fully realized, to be truly of the world and thereby a blessing to it.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation in University City.