ROSH HASHANA SERMON – DAY I
September 25, 2014 | 1 Tishrei 5775

Ever since my first visit to Israel in May of 1970 I have been fascinated with this place we call “the Jewish homeland.”

As a 14 year old I paid most attention to the beautiful young Israeli women.

But even on that first trip I began to develop a connection with Israel.

It was spiritually familiar to me…the place where my biblical ancestors had trodden and established Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.

Israel, the place my people had fervently yearned to be for nearly two thousand years…and now I was here.

That bond with this place several thousand miles away only grew as a result of a later adolescent pilgrimage to Israel, two academic years of study there and numerous trips over thirty plus years.

I read the morning newspaper and my eyes, like lasers, hone in on any article or op-ed concerning Israel.

I watch the television news and my internal antenna shoot up as I hear mention of Israel.

And so it was earlier this summer as Operation Protective Edge began when Israel could no longer tolerate the numerous Hamas missiles launched from Gaza.

Several times each day I would open up the website of the Times of Israel and read the live blog.

I read a variety of op-eds and analysis articles each day and did my best to participate in conference calls sponsored by different organizations.

I was invested in this one…

And so were many of you.

If my story isn’t precisely yours, many of you can share a similar story.

Whether it began with the blue box—the Jewish National Fund tzedakah box —as it did in my case or in some other fashion, for many of you, your abiding connection with the Jewish state began in your youth and grew stronger as you visited Israel and contributed to its well – being.

But a growing number of Jews, especially young ones, are not like me or those of you whose story is similar to mine.

They did not naturally invest significant time and emotional capital in this summer’s Middle East conflict.

That shouldn’t surprise us.

Seven years ago sociologist Steven Cohen studied American Jewish perceptions of Israel.

Take a look at Dr. Cohen’s 2007 study, and you will see a consistent pattern emerge.

As one moves in age from oldest to youngest, commitment to Israel tends to diminish.

Think about your children or grandchildren, and compare their views of Israel and commitments to your own.

Are their connections with the State of Israel stronger or weaker than yours?

Who acts more frequently on Israel’s behalf, you or them?

Please, before some of you say, “My children are very connected to Israel,” I know that is true for some of you.

But that likely is not the case for most of you.

To be honest, I don’t think the issue is entirely a generational one.

Irrespective of age, growing numbers of American Jews, especially those who have no personal history or relationship with Israel, are finding it difficult to relate to Israel.

They pay little attention to periodic wars and endless, unproductive peace negotiations.

They do not interact with Israel.

Instead, they see Mike Luckovich’s crass cartoon caricatures in the newspaper or similar depictions of Israel in the media or online.

“The problems in Israel are their problems,” they say.  Let them solve them.  We’ve got our own issues here.”

Us and them…one largely separate from the other.

For our sake and for Israel’s sake, it can’t be that way or become that.

I believe that we must care about Israel’s well – being because four thousand years of Jewish history tell me that despite our differences we are a single people.

I must therefore care about my fellow Jews wherever they live!

To do otherwise is to deny the bonds of Jewish peoplehood!

I further firmly believe that Israel’s well – being has an impact on the well – being of Jews around the world.

Many of us thought that Israel’s place as a safe haven for Jews in peril had come to an end.

This summer’s deeply disturbing anti – Semitic expressions that Jews experienced in parts of Europe must give us pause.

If you have not read Deborah Lipstadt’s August New York Times op-ed, “Why Jews Are Worried,” find it, read it and reflect on it.

Yes, even in 2014, the State of Israel must be a potential haven for Jews who need to know there is a place that will always welcome them.

But Israel as a safe haven is only one reason why Israel demands our attention.

There are other reasons.

First and foremost, we must care about Israel because our self-image as Jews and as a Jewish community is bound up with Israel.

Historically, the truth of that statement is in little doubt.

Consider the watershed date of June 1967 when Israel won an overwhelming victory in the Six Day War.

Before the creation of the State of Israel and continuing for nearly the next twenty years after its creation, the American Jewish community was largely powerless outside our own community.

But after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War this new image of a powerful Israel and of a self – assured Jew who assumed full responsibility for his destiny began to change our self-image, as individuals and as a community.

Here is one example to illustrate that change…the movement to free Soviet Jewry which gained momentum throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In 1973 when I was in USY I remember making several phone calls at our USY conventions to Soviet Jewish refuseniks.

Ten years earlier such calls would have been unimaginable.

And who can ever forget the massive display of public Jewish support for Soviet Jewry at that December 1987 Washington, D.C. gathering when a quarter of a million people chanted, “Let My People Go!”

We asserted ourselves on behalf of Jews in need on a grand scale, an assertiveness rooted in a transformed self – image based on “the new Israel.”

That spirit eventually energized American Jewish advocacy efforts on behalf of Israel in the halls of Congress.

In 2014 all of us recognize how tremendously significant and effective those efforts have become.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis juxtaposes two well-known pictures to symbolize American Jewry pre-1967 and post-1967.

They are extreme perhaps, but the juxtaposition of those pictures captures a truth.

The first picture is that terrified Jewish youth, Tzvi Nussbaum, with his hands up in the air in Warsaw in 1943.

That, according to Danny Gordis, was American Jewry before Israel’s 1967 victory transformed our self-image.

Exaggerated – Of course!  But it does capture something of our powerlessness prior to 1967.

And the second picture that came to symbolize American Jewry after 1967?

A picture from the Six Day War itself—the picture of those three young and handsome Israeli soldiers standing next to the liberated Wall, looking up with pride and awe.

Yes, that became our American Jewish self-image – proud, confident and assertive.

Pre – 1967 – Our American Jewish community had little influence.

Post – 1967 – We sought and gained greater influence with regard to issues that mattered to us.

Now, in 2014 and beyond, were things to change, were the world or we to perceive of Israel as other than strong, self-assured and exemplary – I worry about what the long-term effect would be on our self-image.

I worry about what would become of our efforts and their chances for success, both within and outside the Jewish community.

Israel continues to impact our self-image in other uplifting ways.

Think about it.  How do you respond when you learn that a group of Israelis is the first foreign delegation on the scene of a natural disaster?

Or what about when you hear that Israelis have taken Palestinians or Lebanese or Syrians into Israeli hospitals for treatment?!

Doesn’t it fill you with pride?

Every time I hear about these actions I say, “That is what it means for a Jewish state to live Jewishly.”

Only Israel can do that.

Yes, Israel inspires us, not always perhaps, but frequently.

Finally, Israel and its future must matter to us because the State of Israel engenders rich Jewish values and priorities.

Today the Jewish state is the single place in the world that can fully embrace Jewish values and apply them throughout society.

It is the only place where both religious and secular Jews live according to the rhythms of Jewish time.

It is the single place in the world where people can ponder what it means to be a Jewish state beyond the fact of a majority Jewish population.

Only a strong, self-assured, reflective and pluralistic Israel can consider that question in any meaningful sense.

Their answers ought not matter only to them;

They should matter to us if we are to maintain a meaningful connection with the only place our tradition calls “holy” and to which our people yearned to return for nearly two thousand years.

Personal presence, personal readiness to act is central to this day.

Earlier in our service this morning Cantor Lieberman chanted “Hineni.”

This prayer reflects the doubts of the Cantor who stands before God as the representative of our community.

Still he says, “Hineni” – “I am here.”  I will act.

Tomorrow morning we will read the Akedah story.

At the outset, God calls out…

“Avraham,” and Abraham responds, “Heenaynee” – “I am here.”

As Abraham and Isaac set out for Mt. Moriah, Isaac calls out to his father – “Avi” and again Abraham responds, “Heenaynee” – “I am here.”

And when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, God calls out to him “Avraham, Avraham” and Abraham does not hesitate, “Heenaynee” – “I am here.”  I am ready to act.

My friends, now is the time for each of us to pay attention – to see the tenuous place of Israel in the world today, to recognize Israel’s  abiding meaning to us and to our collective well-being, to celebrate the unique potential of the Jewish state and to resoundingly say – “Heenaynee.”

“I am here.”

I will devote time to Israel.

Even when I have concerns I will give of my resources to the State of Israel.

I will engage with the State of Israel and, in word and deed, I will ask my family members and friends to do similarly.

Now is the time to say as a community “Heenaynu” – “We are here,” and we will act.

For two-thousand years our ancestors dreamed and prayed “…lihyot am chofshi b’artzaynu…” to be a free and sovereign people in our Land.

Hatikvah – More than sixty-six years ago the abiding hope became a reality.

Today we must continue to nurture that dream and reality, our dream and reality.

Today the State of Israel needs us, and we need the State of Israel.

In the year ahead, may we, our families, our friends and community act boldly to support the Land, the sovereign state and the people that ought to mean so much to us.

Amen.