From Our CEO
Hugging and Wrestling
May 28th, 2021

“Why are you traveling to Israel?”

It’s the question El Al’s security staff asks passengers as they check in for their flight to Israel. It’s the question I asked 25 prominent New York rabbis, who on two days' notice agreed to join a UJA-funded mission to Israel. They answered as 25 rabbis would — with reflections straddling the personal and the collective. No two the same.

Backing up, as I reported last week, we brought this contingent of rabbis, the first mission on the ground since the fighting began, to show solidarity with Israel in the aftermath of the 11-day conflict with Hamas and bring comfort to traumatized Israelis. But beyond that, we hoped the rabbis — who represent the broad spectrum of Jewish New York, and whose communities have vastly different perspectives on the current situation — would come to listen to the people on the ground and to each other with open ears and pre-set narratives cast aside.

Some rabbis come from communities staunchly supportive of Israel while others come from communities that, while supportive of Israel, are highly critical of various policies of Israel’s government. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, whom we met with on the first night of the trip, referred to these groups as the “committed untroubled” and the “committed troubled.” Some rabbis have both groups (as well as a third group, the “uncommitted troubled”) in their congregations, and so largely avoid speaking about Israel from the pulpit to avoid alienating congregants with differing points of view. And in the Jewish community more broadly, those on the right and those on the left far too frequently stay in their own corners, unwilling and uninterested in engaging the other.

We encouraged the rabbis to “hug and wrestle” with Israel, and each other, a phrase coined by our partner the Jewish Agency for Israel. And to facilitate, we met and heard from a diverse group of people who framed the complexities of Israel: the head of a trauma resilience center in the south; members of Knesset from Likud and Yesh Atid; Jews and Israeli Arabs living in Lod; a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem; Jewish young adults who choose to live in the Israel border towns near Gaza, helping to lift up besieged communities; and members of our Co.Lab initiative who come from every sector of Israel — from Haredi to Bedouin.

There are no easy answers, to be sure, but the willingness to listen to narratives that might make us uncomfortable or challenge previously held assumptions is a start. The hugging and wrestling done on the personal level is also how we’ll learn to engage with others rather than avoid. It’s how we’ll become a stronger, more connected Jewish community, despite our many differences. And with so many issues facing us, including the disturbing rise in antisemitism, our ability to come together as a more connected community has new urgency.

Going back to the original question — “Why are you traveling to Israel?” — here is what some rabbis answered:            

  • I’ve been longing to be here. And this is my first time on a plane since the pandemic, the first time in a room physically together with other rabbis.
  • My congregants wanted to come and can’t. I’m on a shlichut, a mission, for them.
  • I’m critical of so much that’s happening here, but I need to show up for family, which is what Israel is to me, and hold my criticism for now.
  • I’m here for my 18-year-old son, who struggles with what he learns about Israel at a progressive Jewish program and what he hears at his more traditional yeshiva. I want to help him reconcile those two narratives.
  • I came because it is too easy to fall into the trap of seeing a complex and nuanced situation in simplistic terms — as right vs. wrong, good vs. evil.
  • To bring back a message of hope when so many voices cast Israel in the light of despair.

I’m grateful to each of the rabbis for making the trip and hope they’ll return to their congregations and share these experiences. One of the most moving was a visit in Ashkelon to the home of Sigal Arieli, whose house suffered a direct hit by a Hamas rocket. She works for the Jewish Agency and part of her job is to deliver checks from the UJA-supported Fund for Victims of Terror, provided to those in Israel who have lost loved ones or had their property destroyed. Sigal has devoted her life to helping others, and now she was the one in need of our community’s support.

Describing her work, Sigal said, “Whenever we go with check in hand, we say, ‘You’re not alone, and we’re here representing the world Jewish community.’” She said she had never before felt the comfort she extends to others like she did with these rabbis who came from New York to stand with her.

Many in our community will continue to hug and wrestle with Israel, as we all should. But in this moment, what mattered most was showing up to say, “Whatever happens, you’re never alone.”

Shabbat shalom and wishing you a restful Memorial Day weekend with friends and family.