At Central Synagogue

Reflections on Board Trip to Israel

Posted March 9, 2018

Our board recently returned from a trip to Israel. After an amazing week exploring the country, Abigail Pogrebin, President, and Jeremy Fielding, Vice President, have shared their thoughts on their incredible experience.

Visiting Maturity…
By Jeremy Fielding

What does it mean to visit a country that is showing its signs of age in the best ways, as well as in the more challenging ones too?

That is what 30 of us - Trustees and their spouses, as well as our clergy leadership and Executive Director – just did, visiting Israel for a week on a Board Mission.

Yes, we were there to demonstrate our commitment to, and belief in, a vibrant and strong partnership between the two most successful Jewish communities in modern history – American Jewry and Israel.

And we were also there to explore the complexities of Israel today. Among other stops on our itinerary, we confronted the questions of the Territories and the Palestinians, visiting Ramallah and a refugee camp, as well as a nearby Jewish settlement; and Jewish religious pluralism, hearing from the leaders and change-makers of Progressive Judaism in Israel and sharing havdallah with our friends from the Reform community in Modiin. We visited Yad Vashem to understand how Israeli society wrestles with the impact of the Shoah; and met with entrepreneurs to discuss the challenges facing Israel’s high-tech “Start-Up Nation” economy. And we sailed on the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv to learn how Israel integrates the disabled and others into society.

What strikes me is how Israel in many ways has evolved in its approach and expectations to these challenges. With maturity, with 70 years as a state, comes perspective and tempered expectations… an understanding of what is and isn’t possible…a stubbornness born of experience and weariness; and yet also a commitment to hope and idealism that is no longer perhaps naive or utopian. All of this we heard over and over in our conversations with Israeli political and civil leaders. With the leaders of the Reform movement in Israel; with Palestinian partners for peace in the West Bank; with experts in Christian-Jewish relations; and with leading educators.

As we all mature, we begin to accept and live with contradictions in ourselves. We are less quick to judge. We recognize inevitabilities. And we seek to ensure that the legacy we leave to future generations is strong, positive and meaningful.

That was what we saw in Israel over and over during this past week. Our job, as a community, is to engage with Israel, understand where Israelis are coming from on issues of concern to us, and also to take our place at the table. We have an important role in ensuring the American Reform Jewish voice is heard in helping to shape the future of the only Jewish state we have. And as a leadership, we are committed to doing so.

During our Shabbat services in Jerusalem, our President Abby Pogrebin shared a profound commentary on the Parasha, talking about how Moses became stronger through carrying both faith and doubt. That is what we too did, and are stronger as a result.

Ki Tisa
By Abigail Pogrebin

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we are fortunate enough not to have to deal with leprosy, boils, bodily fluids or the minutiae of building a tabernacle. Instead, we get high drama and cinematic climax on Mount Sinai. Moses ascends to receive the law from God and comes down the mountain only to discover that the Israelites have doubted him and built an idol in his absence: the notorious, sacrilegious golden calf.

Rabbi Dena Weiss of Mechon Hadar points out a particular detail in the Torah’s text which I’d never learned before: the events of today’s Exodus parasha — about Sinai and the golden calf —are retold all over again by Moses himself later in the Torah, in Deuteronomy, at the end of Moses’s life. He recalls that when he went up the mountain the first time carrying the blank Tablets for God to inscribe, he carried the tablets with two arms — one tablet in each arm. But when he goes up the second time — after smashing the first set — he carries the tablets in just one hand.

God sees that Moses broke the tablets in anger and tells him to make them again and go back up to get the law (again), but with one change: he should preserve the broken set. Moses is instructed to carry both. Both will be placed in the tabernacle and carried to the Promised Land. Moses does this. He carries the new tablets and the broken — this time with just one arm, not two. How did the same load suddenly become lighter? How did the burden suddenly become manageable with just one arm instead of both? Did Moses become stronger? Or did the fact that the assignment changed actually lighten his load?

I’d posit that Moses did become stronger —not physically but spiritually. He became stronger because this time, he carried the broken tablets too; he carried the doubt of his people. They had built a golden calf because they doubted him and God. Moses smashed the first tablets because he was furious at their doubt. But he chose to fight for the doubters anyway, and entreated God to give them another chance at revelation — at receiving the law — and indeed, he climbed that mountain all over again. But this time, he was carrying not only renewed resolve —represented by the fresh tablets, but also renewed reality — because he had kept the broken ones. Both will go into the ark — broken and new, doubt and faith.

I’d argue that when we carry both faith and doubt, our load is lighter because it’s truer. Who among us hasn’t felt flashes of faith and also flashes of skepticism? On this trip, I imagine we will feel both — faith in Israel and doubt about some of its choices. Faith in the Jewish future, and also doubt about what shape that future will take. We are lucky enough to have Rabbi Buchdahl, Cantor Mutlu and our guide, Mike Hollander, to help those of us with some doubts to climb Mount Sinai again, to renew our covenant with the Jewish people and with Israel. I personally feel unburdened —a little bit lighter— when I can be more honest about what’s both broken and whole when I can hold certainty and ambivalence, the new tablets and the shards in one hand. That’s a truer place for me to be as I come back to Israel and re-ascend to Jerusalem on this Shabbat morning.

Rabbi Buchdahl talked in her Rosh Hashanah sermon about unexpected gifts of brokenness. Hard as it is to fathom, sometimes we are better for — lighter for — exposing and carrying what’s imperfect. I hope, in this brief week, that we will carry both tablets in one hand. Instead of weighing us down, that might unburden us of some of the baggage we all discussed last night, which we’ve brought with us.

Moses retells in Deuteronomy the events in today’s parasha:
“So I made an ark of acacia wood, cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hand.”