Cantor Jessica (Fox) Epstein
There is a photo on my living room wall of a young boy with a kipah on his head staring across a blockaded bridge. It is a bright, sunny day. He is looking across the metal span towards the clear, clean silhouette of a soldier on the other side with a machine gun.
The little boy is Israeli. The soldier is Jordanian. I took the photo in the spring of 1995. Our bus was returning to Jerusalem from a trip to the Golan Heights. We decided to stop at the new Peace Bridge over the river Jordan. The bridge was going to open the following day -- a physical sign of clear diplomatic progress. Optimism was in the air.
I haven’t noticed this photo much since I put it up about two years ago. But a few weeks ago, lying on my couch watching the news of the latest attack on our brothers and sisters in Israel, I saw the photo as if it were for the first time. Suddenly, rather than seeing the bridge which linked the two figures, my eye was drawn to the barricade and to the gun.
In the mid-90’s peace seemed close at hand. Israel was normalizing relations with some of her neighbors such as Jordan. There was no intifada or jihad. Tourists from around the world flocked to their respective holy places. Ben Yehuda street was bustling at night, and Mahane Yehuda market was packed during the day. There were a few bombings and one machine-gun attack in Jerusalem, but for the most part, things were quiet.
I fell in love with Israel during my year of study there. The sense of belonging to the piercing beauty of the Land, and the strength of those who founded and formed it, has never left me. Israel is more than a place. It is not just another nation. It is my spiritual home. In Israel lies the proof of the eternal spirit of the Jewish people.
In the 80’s and 90’s American Jews began to take Israel for granted, or as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We have been beset by spiritual amnesia.” By habit, Israel became something that had always been there and would always be there. We forgot about the mystery and the heroic struggle of Israel. Well, we’ve gotten a wake-up call.
The hard truth is that Israel has been engaged in a struggle for survival for the last fifty-four years and every moment since its creation has been a miracle. Twenty-first century American Jews, watching anti-semitism spread like wildfire across the world, have finally recognized that we cannot take Israel for granted. Over a hundred thousand American Jews of all denominations and streams concretized this theory on Monday, April 15. Jews from all over the country came together to say, “We Stand with Israel.”
Ultra-orthodox Jews in black coats stood sweating next to Hillel college students with belly rings. Lubavitcher mitzvah-men wrapped tefillin on anyone who would listen to their call for “Moshiach!” We all sang Hatkivah. We cheered Bibi and Rudy. Israeli flags were everywhere. My favorite scene: two modern orthodox guys giving out sunscreen to barely clad female students. Hey, we were all in it together. People shared water, interrupted the conversations of strangers, and booed Arafat’s name as if it were Haman’s. At the end of the long, difficult day, the best part was that Jews were Jews. I heard an unspoken message rise up from among the multitudes of Yidn: Let’s stop fighting among ourselves -- and fight those who seek to destroy us. It was hot, smelly, close, crowded, sunny, dehydrating, surreal and inspiring. Many people commented that it felt just like Israel.
Heschel compared the State of Israel to the Torah. Like the revelation at Sinai, it is not a one time event – but an event which unfolds and reveals itself in each generation. Israel is more than just a country where Jews can live in freedom and security, it is a place of hope and grandeur, sacrifice and blood.
As Jews who are privileged and blessed to see Zion restored in our lifetime, we have not only a responsibility, but a duty, to do all we can to see that Israel survives and thrives. Israel stands before each one of us as a personal challenge – how will we answer the call? Many of you came to D.C. for the historic rally, many of you have written letters or sent donations. But if you have not sent a letter to your congressman, senator and president, I urge you to do so and express your support for Israel. Donate to the UJA-Federation which helps our needy brothers and sisters in Israel. Buy Israeli products on-line and support the merchants and businesses there. Plan a trip to Israel, they need us now more than ever. And finally, pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for the entire people of Israel.
The rabbis teach us, “All Israel is responsible for one another.” When our bus stopped a fast food strip off I-95 North for dinner, we were approached by a guy in a Yankee hat. “Hey,” he said, “Where are you from?” “Bloomfield, New Jersey.” I replied. “Good. Some guy over there needs a ride back to Teaneck. His car broke down. We were only going to get him as far as Elizabeth. Maybe you can help him. He has a kid too.” “Sure, no problem.” I replied to the stranded man. “You can get on our bus, and I’ll drive you to Teaneck.”
The man and his son joined us at the combination KFC/Taco Bell but couldn’t eat anything. He and his son were Modern Orthodox and they kept strictly kosher. I felt bad for the son because they had no snacks. He kept asking me if I was sure it was ok to drive him back to Teaneck. “It’s really no trouble.” I said. “You’re giving me the opportunity to perform a very important mitzvah.” That quieted him, I guess he never heard of Reform Jews caring much about mitzvoth.
Our bus got into Cedar Grove at midnight. I was tired, but energized from the day’s events. It was warm and sultry, almost summery. I drove the man back up the Parkway to Teaneck, and spoke with him about the events of the day. He told me about the different shuls in Teaneck, and the politics and differences between even the Orthodox shuls there. He spoke at length about the Hannukah celebration that had been planned for and by the entire Jewish community. Kol Isha, the prohibition on hearing a woman’s voice, had been a big issue for members of the community because a local cantor at the Reform shul was a woman. “Me personally,” he confessed, “I have no problem with a woman’s voice. I really don’t.”
I replied, “I don’t have a problem with someone wanting to observe the prohibition of Kol Isha. Hey, they don’t have to come to my shul.” We smiled as we navigated the dark streets of Teaneck. When we finally reached his house, he thanked me profusely. I deferred his thanks with some embarrassment. “It’s really no big deal.”
Driving back down the Parkway at 1 a.m., I realized what I should have said was, “You would have done the same for me.” Maybe that’s what supporting Israel, the people and the State, is really all about.