On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

Israel in White and Gray

The snow in Israel—and me—at the Wall

The snow in Israel—and me—at the Wall

The story that dominated news and conversation during my first week in Israel this past December was the snow. A foot and a half fell in Jerusalem in the course of a three-day weekend: the most in a generation (and some say: in a century). Three feet fell in Safed. A friend in Tel Aviv got in the car with his daughter to drive up to Jerusalem and experience the novelty—and got stuck on the way, spending the night in the car before being rescued by police. The highway became clogged with abandoned cars. By the time I arrived on Tuesday, the snow had long since stopped falling, but had barely begun to melt. Streets and highways were a mess. I regretted that I had not brought boots. Everyone was talking about snow: poetically, philosophically, religiously, and always with a sense of excitement. The entire country seemed to bask in the sheer pleasure of changing the subject from the usual talk about “the situation” and “the peace process.”

The effort was not entirely successful. On the plane from New York City I read a front-page column in Yediot by Nahum Barnea—one of Israel’s finest journalists—called “Until the Snow Melts.” It began with a paean to the beauty of the landscape: “A golden sun shone yesterday on a snow-filled West Bank . . . you’d have to be crazy to think of giving up one inch of this gorgeous land, I reflected. It is forbidden to withdraw from even one meter—as long as the snow has not melted.” Barnea was being ironic, but his point was utterly serious; the very next sentence described with wonderment what had happened on the Shabbat of the storm, when Palestinian drivers were stuck in the snow alongside Israelis. “Sometimes the Palestinians helped to push, sometimes the Israelis helped . . . This was one of the only weekends in recent years when there was not a single disturbance on the West Bank, no incident whatever. No Palestinian stone-throwing, no Jewish ‘price tag.’ Another 364 days of snow, and we will have arrived at the messianic era.” [The translation is my own.]

Snow is normal for most parts of the United States. Cooperation among people of different nationalities and religions is common in New York City. Here in Israel, a different notion of normality operates on both counts. For a short while, a storm had left the country and all its problems, all its differences, covered in white. It really was marvelous to behold, even after the fact. My driver excitedly pointed out piles of snow and felled trees as we made our way slowly, ever so slowly, from the airport up to Jerusalem. My visit along with The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary to the office of MK Ruth Calderon,who spoke at JTS last year and who will receive an honorary degree at JTS this May, was rendered even more celebratory by the visage of snow a half-foot deep on the lawn outside her window at the Knesset. The beautiful Friday night services at the new Masorti congregation in Jerusalem, Kehillat Zion, were deprived of numerous congregants reluctant to take their kids out on dark, icy streets still strewn with branches, and piles of snow. And the TV talkshow Politika, of course, took up the question of who was to blame for the lack of efficient snow removal and failure to care for homebound people left for days without food and electricity. Would there be a price to pay in future national or municipal elections? Who would pay that price?

The soldier killed on the border with Gaza barely made the newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the snowstorm, though the incident became more significant as the deaths and near-deaths multiplied in the days that followed: a stabbing that seemed politically motivated; a suspicious parcel found on a bus in South Tel Aviv, with disaster narrowly averted thanks to a vigilant passenger and a driver who evacuated his bus seconds before the bomb went off; a missile from Gaza that landed harmlessly in a field; rockets fired into Northern Israel from Lebanon. This is the stuff of daily life in Israel, normal in a way snow is not. Were these isolated incidents or an escalation that will provoke a military response that may or may not cause further escalation? What would all this mean for the peace process that US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was about to arrive in Israel, is pursuing with such determination?

During my second week in Israel, the snow gone from streets and sidewalks in Jerusalem, peace and the absence of peace once more dominated headlines and conversation. “Why is it that no one here seems to care very much about Kerry’s initiative?” a friend asked the group at dinner after my first Shabbat in Jerusalem. “Is there really no chance it will succeed?” The politicians, pro and con, are keeping a low profile, for the most part; if the terrorists think there is a real chance for an agreement, bombs and missiles will likely increase in an effort to derail the process and so far that has not occurred. Extremist Israelis opposed to a two-state solution are behind the “Price Tag” movement to which Barnea referred in his column: vigilante actions designed to make sure that innocent Palestinians “pay a price” for every past, future, or contemplated attack on Israeli Jews, the price being fires set in mosques, slashed tires and broken windows, and other sorts of intimidation. My friend Gadi has formed a counter-organization that responds to the “Price Tag” gangs with visits to the victims and reassurance that Israel is a country of law and compassion rather than lawlessness. Everyone I spoke to seemed agreed that some sort of accord with the Palestinians is necessary, but disagreed profoundly on whether it is possible. Little had changed on this front since my last visit a year ago.

If anything, positions on both sides have become more strident. The minister of defense gave a speech the other day in which he declared before a group of businessmen meeting to advance the peace process that “Anyone who thinks Israel has a partner for a two-state solution is deluded.” An editorial in Haaretz responded by mocking the notion that Palestinian leaders who fail to back the Netanyahu government’s plan cannot be a partner to peace: “Those who do not succeed in getting their hands on the ‘Price Tag’ gangs say there is no partner; those who will open bids this week for building 1400 new apartments across the green line say there is no partner.” Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners during my visit—including some convicted of murder—as part of the peace negotiations. The names of the Jews they killed were read aloud on the radio, one by one. I could not help thinking that this, too, is part of Israeli reality nowadays. The moral quandaries and calculations of risk are truly awful. How many Israelis will be killed and maimed by the murderers set free that day? How many deaths will be averted if peace is finally achieved by the process that includes this release of prisoners? Will that process be set back by the additional settlement building announced a few days ago? How can one decide?

One of the things I love most about Israel is that—despite or because peace has proven so elusive—love of the country translates, time after time, into optimism made effective by creative initiatives to make things better. One of my friends has formed a thinktank that gathers Israelis of diverse backgrounds to talk past the standard positions of “left” and “right” and “center.” Politicians associated with the group enjoyed marked success in recent elections for city council seats around the country. MK Calderon, in addition to bridging long-standing divides between Hilonim (secular Israelis) and Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Israelis), is trying to deal with Bedouin issues in new ways. Almost everyone I met seemed to be active in some cause beyond the normal concerns of work and family. The day before leaving Israel, I joined a group of Ashkenazi and Sephardi “religious” and “secular” leaders from across the spectrum that meets every two weeks so that its members can pray and talk about prayer. New minyanim seem to form all the time, including in “secular” Tel Aviv. The highways are more crowded than ever. So are the roads to Judaism. This is a country on the move.

I brought Ari Shavit’s best-selling book on “the triumph and tragedy of Israel” with me to read from inside his and My Promised Land. I will discuss the book in some detail in a future blog. But I can say without hesitation, walking the streets of Israel, talking to Israelis and Americans and the Americans who have become Israelis that “tragedy” seems entirely the wrong word to use when describing Israel—in part because Israel’s “triumph” is so nuanced, so solid, so human. Little is black or white. Gray is not a bad shade at all for a country that has achieved so much against all odds and therefore takes nothing for granted. Normal is big news here, almost as big as snow. It too shall come.

Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations

As JTS graduates continue to take their place in the professional world and put Torah into action, the conversation that has been Judaism for millennia expands exponentially. Does what they see in the world relate to their Jewish lives—and to the current statistics they’re reading in the newspapers? How can Conservative Judaism continue to offer free, honest, open, and passionate discussion in contemporary terms?

Please enjoy a few moments of my recent conversation with Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen (RS ’02), director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC in Manhattan, as we continue our discussion on the recent Pew Research Center study on US Jews.

Watch “Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations”:

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Reports from Jerusalem: A Week in Israel at War

At Eshel Avraham in Beersheba (left to right): Dr. Ehud Zmora, Dr. Irit Zmora, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Yizhar Hess, and Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary

I am leaving Israel for America in a few hours, along with JTS Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary. We have spent the day visiting Masorti communities around the country, including Masorti Congregation Eshel Avraham in  Beersheba, capping a week that for me included the usual round of JTS meetings and time with old friends, but now against the background of Israel at war. I feel relief to be heading home later this evening, but also strong regret at no longer being a direct part of what is happening to my people in the Land of Israel at a time of trouble. I am full of admiration for the discipline, confidence, and good spirit with which Israelis are handling the latest matsav to come their way. Marc and I have not encountered much jingoism or bluster this week, just recognition that missiles must be stopped from raining down on Israel, and pervasive sadness that the suffering and casualties are mounting on both sides. When will it end? The news today is about continued exchanges of both fire and negotiators. Hillary Clinton is on her way to the region. It might be that on this, the seventh day of the current conflict, Hamas will agree to cease from the work of destruction and permit an interval of rest. Like many Israelis, I am hopeful. But like all we have met, I do not count on it.

On the drive to  Beersheba, we get instructions from our Eshel Avraham host, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, about what to do in the event of an air-raid siren. Park the car, and run to the nearest structure to take cover. If on the open road, lay flat on the ground with hands over head to protect from shrapnel. We get to  Beersheba not long after a missile had penetrated the Iron Dome, mercifully with no loss of life. We would learn a couple of hours later that another rocket had landed not long after our departure.

The news on the car radio features interruptions every few moments announcing where in Israel the sirens are sounding. One announcer reminds us to follow instructions, and assures us that with God’s help all will be well. Even sober newscasters, reporting missiles that fail to injure life or limb, add the words todah la-el (thank God). This is Israel at a moment when the normal boundaries between dati and hiloni are meaningless. Schools have been closed in  Beersheba all week. Stores are closed. The streets are eerily empty of pedestrians, there is almost no traffic, and inside shuttered homes parents are comforting children and one another, making sure TV or radio are playing loud enough to keep track of what is going on elsewhere in Israel—but not so loud as to muffle the sirens. Sixty seconds only to reach a safe room. Mauricio himself had a narrow escape several days ago, crouching under cover of a truck as the rocket soared straight overhead. It’s a serious time for the people of Israel.

Respite at Eshel Avraham

Marc and I made this trip to be with Mauricio, to stand with him physically, so he would not doubt the fact that Israeli Jews do not stand alone. The hug he gave me—and I gave him—carried more than the usual message. He thanked us for being there. I thanked him for being there, and not just for a visit. Two American Jews, accompanied by the head of the Masorti Movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, reinforced the conviction among the members of Mauricio’s family and his congregation that there really is a Jewish People out there and a Conservative Movement that cares for them. One by one, they tell us the stories of being under fire, having children and grandchildren under fire, comforting teenagers who seem to be taking things especially hard. A bar mitzvah is cancelled because of the matsav. A mourner is denied a shi’vah minyan. A vibrant synagogue that normally teems with life is empty. It was not a time for speeches, but for presence. Marc and I were proud to bring the JTS family with us to the Eshel Avraham family. Later, we went with Mauricio and two members of his congregation to a hotline-shelter in which they are volunteering—a center that is getting far more calls than usual, most of them the direct result of the conflict. Post-traumatic stress. Difficulty coping with kids who cannot leave the house for a week. There, too, we did not give speeches, but simply thanked the staff, composed largely of volunteers, for their hard work. They thanked us for coming. At normal times the exchange would count as pleasantries. Not this time.

In Kfar Saba, our next stop, the street outside the Masorti congregation of Hod Ve-Hadar is bustling. Kids boarding busses from school. Stores open. Not quite normal, since everyone has family in a place of danger. Sirens again today in Jerusalem and no doubt soon in Tel Aviv. But not the same as in the south. Two weeks ago, there were two Manhattans, north and south, and now there seem to be two Israels, north and south. I finish this letter at Kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee, where the quiet at sunset is truly remarkable. “Desert to mountains in one day,” says Yizhar. War zone to quasi-normality. Except that the radio and TV take one live to the front. It is a small country. I get the sense that Israelis are hopeful something will soon change in the rhythm of the conflict, but they don’t know what, and are not really sure what to hope for.It has been quite a week. Here is a brief day-to-day account:

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At the White House

9 Sivan 5772
Chancellor Arnold Eisen at the White House

Chancellor Arnold Eisen at the White House

 

Today, I had the honor of sitting across the table from the President of the United States in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. President Barack Obama and his Chief of Staff, Jacob Lew, wanted to meet with Conservative Jewish leaders from around the country. Our group—which numbered about 20—wanted to hear them speak directly, and perhaps more candidly than is the case in public, about key issues on our minds.

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What Israel Means to Us

/ 3 Iyyar 5772
“Turning the World Upside Down,” by Anish Kapoor, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

“Turning the World Upside Down,” by Anish Kapoor, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

For my Yom Ha’atzma’ut blog, I have invited Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, alumnus of The Rabbinical School and The Davidson School, to engage me in conversation on what Israel means to us. Before coming to JTS, Charlie, a U.S. citizen, voluntarily served with distinction in an infantry unit of the Israel Defense Forces (2003 to 2005). He is currently our director of Digital Engagement and Learning.

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The Magic of Jewish Summer Camp

/ 25 Adar 5772


Amy Skopp Cooper, national assistant director of the National Ramah Commission of JTS, director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York, and 2011 winner of the prestigious Covenant Award, on the joy, power, and community of serious Jewish camping.
I spoke last week at the Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp on a panel, hosted by the Jim Joseph Foundation, with President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University and President David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We were there to celebrate the enormous achievements of serious Jewish camping in North America in recent decades, to thank donors such as the Jim Joseph Foundation who have greatly assisted in that achievement, and to reflect upon the still-greater possibilities to be tapped in years to come. I share the gist of my presentation to the Foundation for Jewish Camp here. Read the rest of this entry »

Israel in Winter

/ 13 Adar 5772

A friend wondered aloud, as we sat in a Jerusalem restaurant on a mild winter day in mid-February, why it is that books continue to be written, and reviewed in Ha’aretz, asking whether Israel has a future.

“Is there any other country in the world where this could happen?” she said.

None came to mind. Nations routinely worry about all sorts of things: political divisions, economic stagnation, ethnic conflict, and the like. Few, even if they were born more recently than the Jewish State, seem plagued by anxiety about their very survival. Read the rest of this entry »

Coming Closer to Israel

/ 10 Tevet 5772

I read the responses to my December 21st blog posting on the topic, “Distancing from Israel,” in the wake of a spate of news reports from Israel that graphically illustrated one piece of the problem we face in trying to overcome such distancing. It’s upsetting to many of us here in North America to see pictures of Haredi kids dressed by their parents with yellow Jewish stars in order to liken Israeli police enforcing Israeli law to Nazi murderers of Jews. It’s hard to watch settler extremists torch mosques and break into army bases to protest government policies and law-enforcement that they do not like. It’s painful to Jews brought up to be proud of the Jewish role in America’s civil rights struggle to see images of Jews in Israel separating men and women on buses on religious grounds or hurling abuse at a little girl because she does not dress as they think she should. And sometimes—often—it’s very hard to find images of Israel in our media that counter those. Where are the positive stories that do make us swell with pride? Read the rest of this entry »

Distancing From Israel

/25 Kislev 5772

The American Jewish Committee sponsored a consultation last week on the subject, “Are Young Committed American Jews Distancing from Israel?” I was asked to present my view of the matter—and to address the question of what needs to be done.

Yom Ha’atzma’ut (State of Israel Independence Day) Celebration at JTS

I don’t have any doubt that our community has a problem when it comes to engagement with Israel. It has long kept me up nights and now occupies a large number of my waking hours. Like many of us who are active in Jewish life in North America, I love Israel deeply. The very meaning of my life is bound up in Israel’s existence and achievements. I believe the very survival of our community depends on these as well. It pains me to see connections between Israel and North American Jewry—the world’s two largest and most important Jewish populations—attenuating. American Jews can’t do a whole lot to bring peace to the Middle East but we can bring our community closer to Israel. It seems urgent to me that we do so.

Any measures aimed at solving the problem should recognize that it is not limited to young Jews and it is not new. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption Ads: Not a Misunderstanding

/10 Kislev 5772

Now that the Israeli government has wisely (but, so far, only partially) withdrawn from its website the videos meant to discourage Israelis from settling in America, marrying Americans (Jewish or Gentile), and ending up with children who can’t tell the difference between Hanukkah and Christmas, American Jews too should step back from the skirmish and coolly appraise just what the flap was about.
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