March 8, 2019
Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Westmount

As most of you know, I spent two weeks in Israel at the end of February. I went with a group of young couples from Montreal – all under the age of 40. I was the Jewish Educator on a trip called “Honeymoon Israel,” (HMI). To be clear, it was not anyone’s actual honeymoon!

Honeymoon Israel is a North American program established in 2014; between 15 and 20 communities participate; we are the only Canadian city on the list. Since it’s inception, more than 1,000 couples have traveled to Israel with HMI. Close to 75% of the couples who travel with Honeymoon Israel are interfaith – a Jew married to or in a committed relationship with a non-Jew. The ration was true of my HMI group. The goal of the Honeymoon Israel program is to help couples create community with deep and meaningful connections to Jewish life and the Jewish people. The trip aims to engage couples in an open-ended manner and to help them figure out how they might connect to the Jewish people and how they can incorporate Jewish values and traditions into their families. The program does not have a specific agenda or prescription for this, but rather, seeks to support couples in their own exploration and to foster the organic development of community. Each trip includes fun, adventure, touring of both Jewish and Christian sites, Jewish ritual and some time for romance. The trip incorporates exploration of and conversation about the role of “Jewish” in the couples’ lives.

Honeymoon Israel’s tagline is “It’s about the journey.” In this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, the last in the book of Exodus, the Israelites complete the tabernacle that will travel with them during their trek through the desert. They will be accompanied by a pillar of fire by day and a cloud at night. The third to last verse in the portion says, “When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys.” (Ex. 30:36). I find the use of the plural word “journeys” to be curious – but it is perfect for this sermon about Honeymoon Israel. Every one of the Israelites experienced their journey through the wilderness differently. So it is with our Honeymoon Israel couples: they each experience the trip differently. Like the ancient Israelites, ultimately, each couple will find the space for God and Judaism in their lives in their own way.

Our group members came from all over Greater Montreal, from off-Island to downtown, and with wide ranging Jewish perspectives. Part of my job on the trip was to facilitate conversations about how to navigate the sometimes muddy waters of an interfaith relationship. We had some meaningful conversations about planning a wedding, dealing with in-laws, and Reform Judaism.

I want to share two specific experiences with you, and then conclude with some general impressions of Israel.

Experience #1:

On our first Shabbat in Israel, we were fortunate to hear a talk given by a leader in the world of Jewish Education. Avraham Infeld has strong opinions about Israel and the nature of Jewish identity. He asks the question “What does it mean to be a Jew?” He maintains that, as Jews, we will never be uniform, but we must be unified. Infeld describes Judaism as a five-legged table: we need at least three of the legs in order for the table to stand. His theory really deserves more than a few paragraphs in this sermon, but in a nutshell, here are the five legs of the table:

  1. Memory – Jews don’t have history; we have memory. Sometimes there is no connection between memories and facts. Remembering is part of our narrative, and memory is activated through education.
  2. Family – Jews are a huge, worldwide family. Infeld believes that conversion is to Judaism what adoption is to a family. We Jews adopt those who choose us. Belonging to the family of the Jewish people means having connections and being responsible for other members of the family – even our most distant cousins.
  3. Sinai – Whether the event really happened or not, our tradition says that we became a people at the foot of Mt. Sinai. From the Sinai experience, we learn that certain values and rituals are part of our inheritance as Jews.
  4. The Land and State of Israel – The Jewish family has a homeland. While Jews may have their individual homes anywhere, Israel is the only place that is a home to all Jews. The Jewish State ensures that there will never again be a Jewish refugee with nowhere to go.
  5. Hebrew – as we, here in Quebec, well know, language is not only a means of communication; it is also a way of transferring culture across generations. The Hebrew language unites Jews from all over the world. Infeld doesn’t expect that all Jews will become fluent in Hebrew, but he does advocate for some knowledge of words and phrases and their inherent values.

As I said, it is hard to sum up Infeld’s hour-long talk in just a few paragraphs, but I can tell you that the members of our group – Jews and non-Jews alike – resonated with his ideas, and appreciated the broad, welcoming, inclusive brush strokes with which he paints the Jewish people.

Experience #2:

Almost every North American Jewish Federation is partnered with a community in Israel. Montreal’s partner community is the city of Beersheva and the surrounding area of B’nei Shimon. Although I think our Federation could do a better job of publicizing this partnership, it is a relation that goes back thirty years; funds from Montreal have had a big impact on the Beersheva’s development from a sleepy desert town to a thriving high-tech center of the country.

We spent two days in the Beersheva area, exploring and learning. One of the most inspiring experiences we had was a visit to the Sodastream factory. Sodastream makes these household machines that convert regular water into soda water; they sell them at Canadian Tire and Walmart. I don’t even like seltzer and the tour made me want to go out and buy a Sodastream. Not only is the mission of the company to save the planet by cutting down on the use of single-use bottles, it is also dedicated to making peace.

Sodastream employs about 3200 people. Jews, Palestinians, Druze, and Bedouin all work side-by-side in the factory. We had a chance encounter with Sodastream CEO Daniel Birnbaum after we had already taken the tour of the factory. He asked us to be ambassadors for peace – tell people what we saw at Sodastream. He said, “Here at Sodastream, we make peace every day and along the way we make some soda.” When you buy a new Sodastream, you will find an Israeli flag printed on the box along with the words “This product is produced by Jews and Arabs working side-by-side in peace and harmony.” Now, that message is printed, but it started out as a sticker. We were told that the Norwegian equivalent to Walmart objected to selling a product with an Israeli flag on it, and they asked Sodastream to ship the product without that sticker. Birnbaum, the CEO, refused – and said we ship with the sticker or we don’t ship at all. He then invited the principals of the Norwegian company to visit the factory. They took him up on the offer, and now, they are Sodastream ambassadors. They proudly sell Sodastream machines with the Israeli flag on the box.

I could tell you more about our Honeymoon Israel – and would be happy to do so at the Oneg Shabbat. I would like to conclude by sharing a few impressions of Israel. I had not been to Israel since 2011, so it was wonderful to be back in this land that is so dear to my heart. In some ways, it felt like home – and in others, it was a country that I did not recognize.

The development and the growth that has taken place during the last seven years is astonishing. New roads, new buildings, new towns, even. In 2011, the Light Rail in Jerusalem had been completed but they were still testing it. It was running, but without passengers. Now, it is a part of the Jerusalem landscape – even the controversial Chords Bridge at the entrance to the city.

Although the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab countries are still quite volatile, internal politics and societal divisions seemed to be more at the forefront of the news and of peoples’ conversations. People are debating serious issues around the role of religion in Israeli society; corruption abounds, and elections are about a month a way. Our guide – a third generation Israeli in her 40’s – told me that for the first time in her life, she is thinking of leaving her beloved homeland. She is disillusioned with the government, and fears that Netanyahu may win another term in office.

The stranglehold of the Orthodox rabbinate on Jewish life affects all areas of life – from how rabbis are paid to who can get married and buried. And of course, they control the Jewish religious sites throughout the country. If you saw the news today, you may know that, on International Women’s Day, the Women of the Wall held a 30th anniversary Rosh Chodesh service at the Western Wall plaza, (the Kotel), that was violently disrupted by ultra-orthodox Jews, and according to the statements I read, the police did not adequately protect the women’s right to conduct their service.

Despite the problems Israel faces, it is my second home. I will continue to work for peace, for the equal rights of non-orthodox Jews, and for the protection of Israel’s right to exist.

After services, I am happy to speak further about my trip, and even to show pictures, if you are interested.

In conclusion, I want to read a poem that was published in the Times of Israel. The author expresses a lot of my feelings about Israel.

A Poem to Israel, by Phoebe Harvey

The land of milk and honey, the land of falafel and pita.

Where lemon, sweet mango and pomegranate trees overshadow the street, and new seasons overflow with olives, figs, dates and artichokes.

The land where truth and opinion are never withheld, where honesty and humor flow freely without a price or tax charge.

The land that bears scars of pain and anguish, where fallen tears could create a tide, but this is a warm home where millions have been saved, each breath is a gift and you are close family to a stranger.

Littered streets, plastic cups and soda bottles thrown to the sun scorched roads without a thought, even by those whose hearts beat Zionism and who would give their lives to protect all that is Israel.

A fresh breeze in Jerusalem could tell 3000 years of history, and so could the aged man in the shuk, hands filled with shabbat candles and eyes brimming with wisdom and soul,

The land where survival against affliction is not a question, and thriving is inclination. Maybe one day there will be peace without turmoil, maybe.

The land of Abraham, Isaac, David and Jacob, the land that Moses never reached. A precious gem in the desert whose wonders cannot be fully expressed with words, A land beyond description where even a handful of earth is without silence.

A land forever misunderstood but where would we be without you?  If I forget you I will no longer write with a right hand, I will no longer love with the same heart and my soul will forever be in a wandering restless diaspora.

Here we are together under the white sun being embraced by the warm desert breeze.