May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.

March 12th: Purim Shows Us the Beauty of Standing Up Together

The following is a transcript of the sermon delivered by Austin Zoot at Temple B’nei Israel in Kokomo, IN.

Purim is a rabbi’s dream holiday for giving in a sermon. It seems like every year, the values of Shushan can be applied to the world around us. This year is no exception.

The story of Purim starts with a man, Haman, who, as advisor to the king, wishes that every man bow before him. When a Jew, Mordechai, refuses to do so, Haman becomes furious. Rather than taking his anger out on the individual, though, Haman decides that it should be all Jews who are killed. He plans to destroy all Jews, because of his qualms with one he didn’t like.

When Hama approaches the king to tell him of his plan to destroy the Jews, he doesn’t identify the Jews by name. Instead, he tells the king that there is “a people” living in the kingdom who are different, who have their own customs and rules. He claims that they are responsible for the ills of the kingdom, that they are the problem that keeps the country from greatness. The King, knowing little about the “enemy” tells Haman to do as he sees fit, giving him keys to do as he wishes. This is a classic case of scapegoating. We see it in Shushan, we see it in Medieval Spain, we see it in Holocaust Germany. In every case, it was the Jews who were blamed for the problems of the entire country.

Well, that faceless enemy receives a face when the king discovers that Mordechai the Jew had once saved his life. Through an interaction that showed the honor and bravery of the Jews, the king was able to have an example to offset all the stereotypes, to have experience that would later call into question the detail-deficient claims of hatred that Haman levied against them.

Well, the one thing Haman hadn’t counted on was a Jew who had found some power. Esther, the queen, who had used her beauty and her bravery to gain some standing in the court of the king, was able to stand up for herself and for her people. She revealed her identity to the king in order to show that the faceless people Haman hoped to destroy. She was willing to stand up and risk her own safety, her own ability to pass, in exchange for standing up for those who didn’t have the same opportunity.

Listening to the story of Purim this year, it rings true in the political landscape of America. We live in an America where a leader attempts to convince us that it is because of “others” that things are bad. Immigrants from Mexico and Muslim countries are the problem, and that without them, our lives would be so much better. Well, the truth is, if we got rid of Mexicans and Muslims, the problems would still be here. Instead of trying to find solutions, we have found ourselves finding scapegoats.

In our country, we are more siloed than ever. Social media certainly doesn’t help. We spend so much of our lives talking to people who look like us, sound like us, act like us. We lose sight of the diversity in the world because we are so able to find communities that match our own identity. This leads us to have far less contact with the “others” that we are sold to believe are the cause for the problems we face. Yet, we know what it feels like to meet someone of another identity and learn that they don’t fit into the boxes we’ve established for them. We meet an individual who doesn’t match the stereotype, and we are forced to confront the fact that maybe we don’t fully understand this other, that maybe there is more to other people than their religion or their culture of origin.

Having been in this position time and time again, Jews have a moral obligation to stand up for scapegoats, both those we know and those we don’t. Many (not all, but many) Jews have the ability to “pass” as white, to choose whether or not to display our identity. We have an obligation to ensure that America does not become Shushan, that we do not allow the “other” to become a scapegoat for the problems that we are too lazy or too distracted to actually confront head on.

In that regard, we have three role models in the Purim story.

We must be like Esther, who used her little bit of power to stand up for others. She refused to sit idly by and watch as her people were destroyed. She used her voice to defend those who had no voice of their own.

We must be like Mordechai, and be good emissaries to the rest of the world. Mordechai was able to represent the best of Judaism, and serve as an example, showing the rest of the world the good things that Jews can do. By living ethical, moral lives, we can become examples of what it means for Jews to be productive and cherished members of society.

And, most underrated in the Purim story, sometimes we need to embody King Achashverosh. You see, when the king discovered the plot that had been created behind his back, he was able to learn, to broaden his understanding of those living around him, and to allow the space for the society to expand to include others. It would have been simple for the king to ignore what was going on, to hide behind the bureaucratic process. But instead, he acknowledged he didn’t know something before, and demonstrated a willingness to change his behavior when he had learned more. We have the same chance. As we continue to learn more about the people around us, we have the chance to adapt, and to expand the way we think.

Everyone’s favorite fun-fact about Purim is that God’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the Megillah, the story of Purim. The entire story happens without any divine intervention or involvement. The symbolism is quite beautiful. It would be easy to sit back and wait for God to swoop in and fix the world, to take the ownership away from us. But that isn’t how it works. Instead, it is on us to make sure that we are preventing the kind of scapegoating and blame that threatens our society. If we wait until someone else will save us, someone else will stand up for others, it may never happen.

May we stand up for others like Queen Esther. May we be good representations of our own people like Mordechai. And may we continue to change and grow as we learn more and know more like King Achashverosh.

Chag Purim Sameach. Happy Purim.

January 17th: Speak Up or Say Nothing

2017 has not started off kindly for Jewish Americans. A menorah in Phoenix was vandalized, a rabbinical school was defaced, and a march was scheduled to antagonize and harass a Jewish community in Montana. Yet, one event on the horizon may or may not change the way the American public views the Jewish community, and it may or may not even be a good idea.

rabbi-hier
Rabbi Marvin Hier

Rabbi Marvin Hier is scheduled to deliver the benediction at the inauguration for Donald Trump on January 20th. Hier is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization that describes itself as an international Jewish Rights institution. He is also the founder of the Museum of Tolerance.

For a rabbi to have an opportunity to stand in front of the country and offer words of inspiration and Torah would be an incredible honor, and serve the American Jewish community well. For several years in the early 1900s, a rabbi speaking at the swearing-in was a mainstay. Since 1985, though, no rabbi has been involved in delivering a benediction. In a vacuum, this would be an ideal situation for Hier to make a statement, both verbally and visually, of the strength and vitality of the Jewish community in this country.

With an inauguration as volatile and contentious as this one, though, Hier finds himself in a troubling situation. Donald Trump has just finished a presidential campaign rife with conflict, and left huge populations of Americans feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, or threatened. The future is a scary one for those seeking religious tolerance, and a man in the business of working to create tolerance could be in a very difficult spot.

Rabbi Hier must serve the American Jewish people by demonstrating what it looks like to be a soldier of peace, and a creator of tolerance. That could come in one of two ways.

On the one hand, Rabbi Hier could deliver opening words that bring the country together. He could speak about the importance of healing, of looking out for one another. He could demand that the incoming administration take seriously the call for all Americans to be treated with respect and given a chance to be successful. And he could insist that Donald Trump use his new position to make great the lives of all Americans, not simply the ones who match his worldview.

On the other hand, Rabbi Hier is in a position to use his selection to make an even greater statement: he could step back and refuse to speak at all. By refusing to speak, he would be telling the world that the man taking over as Commander-In-Chief has failed to live up to Jewish values, and isn’t worthy of the words of a man who uses Torah to make the world a better place. In an act of public commitment to what is right, he has the opportunity to demonstrate the American Jews will not stand for the kinds of injustices that have been suggested over the past two years.

Regardless of what Rabbi Hier chooses to do, he cannot duck the responsibility. He cannot deliver toothless words that do not demand that the world do better. He cannot afford to offer pleasantries and sweet nothings when the world is looking to him to speak out for those without a voice.

A benediction is an opportunity to take a moment and reflect upon the holiness of a moment, to connect with one another and with God. On Friday, Rabbi Hier must use the microphone to either make a very important statement in the name of Tolerance, or not say anything at all.

December 31st: The World Can’t Settle When It Comes to Israel

It seems that, over the past few years, the United Nations has made it a habit of putting forward a piece of toothless legislation meant to slap Israel in the face, only to have the American Jewish population cry out in protest. The American government has gotten quieter and quieter in their support of Israel, moving from a die-hard support of Israel to a far more tepid policy, one that says support out of the mouth, but actions that leave the question open to interpretation.

This time around, the UN has put forward a resolution in which it calls out Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, and the pattern starts all over again. The problem is, the situation appears totally devoid of context, and leaves Israel open to fundamentally unwarranted character criticism. 

Let’s start with the settlements. In the early 2005, the Israeli government disengaged from Gaza, essentially forfeiting the territory to complete Palestinian rule. The Gaza Strip and West Bank proceeded to become the central hub for Palestinians living in the Middle East, and, today, is controlled by the majority party of the Palestinian authority, Fatah. It is vital to note that Fatah, in an election in 2006, turned over control to Hamas, a known terror organization with rampant hostility to the Jews and the Jewish state.

After the removal of Israelis from Gaza in the mid 2000s, Jewish settlers have since moved into the areas at the boundaries of the settlements, slowly choking off what little spaces exist in the territories to begin with. These are Jewish families who believe that Israel’s government had no right to give land away, and that they will ignore whatever anyone has to say about it: this land is Israel. Period. It is impossible to ignore the fact that cost of living in these areas is also dramatically lower, making it to one’s financial benefit to intrude on Palestinian land, rather than to live in Israel proper.

This is where today’s politics get nasty. On the one hand, the settlements are terrible for the state of Israel. In effect, these individuals are forgoing Israel’s policy on land and impeding on the land that Israel gave up. To the international community, this looks as though Israel is unwilling to follow the agreements they established a decade ago. Yet, to attack the settlers, one essentially must attack Israel for not having done enough to stop them, and thus seem to be in opposition with Israel.

Israel, of course, has an obligation to ensure that its citizens are abiding by the law and living where they are supposed to live. But, that means that Israel is guilty of being negligent, not malicious, or unable to control its people, not governmental encroachment. Israel would hardly be the only country in the world without a strong grip on their population. It’s part of the cost of a democracy, something that Israel knows in a Middle East without a peer in that regard.

To make matters worse, Fatah seems to love talking about the settlements. By continually having Jews encroaching on their land, they are able to argue that the Israelis are bullying them, that they are somehow abusing them day in and day out. It doesn’t matter what else Israel does in aid, it doesn’t matter what other humanitarian actions Israel takes. This is a constant ace-in-the-hole for the Palestinians to remind the world that the Israelis refuse to keep their people where they belong. Regardless of what Palestinians do to Jews in Israel, the fact that Jews encroach on their land is enough to play the sob story on international television.
What had once been a fairly mundane plot to make Israel look bad has now turned into a real problem, because America fell for the trick hook, line, and sinker. America has every right to be in opposition to settlements. Settlements are not only bad for Palestinians, but bad for Israel’s own work in defending itself on the world’s stage. To say that settlements are bad for peace is a relative no-brainer. The problem is, those statements need to come within the context of full support of Israel and the work that Israel is doing to create a safe homeland for Jewish people, and for the right of Israel to exist.

Where the Obama administration has failed the Jewish people isn’t in agreeing with the notion of UN’s issue with settlements. The issue is that they haven’t said anything else. They haven’t done nearly enough to establish that the settlements are an ill created by a fringe community of rogue Israelis, and that the real, true state of Israel is better than that. The President and his staff have an obligation to educate the public and create understanding regarding what role Israel has to play, and why a country with a bad situation is not inherently a bad country (a notion that a country as divided as America right now should be able to understand.)

The political situation in the Middle East right now is playing off of the ignorance of the public. The settlements are a problem for Israel, and one that, if Israel was smart, they would get control over immediately. But by the United Nations taking cheap-shots at Israel for their treatment of the Palestinians, it helps to establish a global distrust and animosity toward the Jewish state that it does not deserve. By stripping the situation of its context, the Jews and the Israelis are left completely open to criticism and critique, and need the help of the American people and the American government to stand up for them.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have been working hard to try to create an environment for peace in the Middle East. Along the way, they have tried to get the Israelis to play nice while they are chastised and ridiculed in front of the world, while the Palestinians continue to refuse to come to the negotiating table. Why would they come to the table when the world will create bad press and hatred toward the Jews for them? It’s time that the American government stop holding different standards for the Israelis and the Palestinians, and demand that the Arabs meet the same level of scrutiny, something that has been woefully absent in the discussion.

Settlements are a problem for Israel, and should be dealt with. On their own, a criticism of the settlements is perfectly reasonable. But without the proper context, a political attack on Israel of this nature could have catastrophic repercussions not only for Israel, but for the relationship with the United States.