Taking Israel Off of Her Pedestal – Liora Alban

Note from the editor: In preparation to present my blog project at this week’s iCenter iFellows Masters Concentration in Israel Education Seminar (say that 5x fast), I asked a few folks I know have been following along to share the ways in which they have used the blog. A couple of people responded in such well-stated ways that I asked if they would be willing to have me share their words with you all. Here is the first of two responses.

I started reading the blog, 50 Days of Israel: Thinking About Israel from Slavery to Sinai after Dusty posted it on her facebook. Being a Jew, a future rabbinical student, and a person who struggles with her relationship to Israel, I was intrigued.

After living in Israel for a year, I returned with more questions than answers about this beautiful homeland. Although Israel has always felt like home, certain challenges and experiences in my last year made me take Israel off of its pedestal. I realized that the warm and utopian Israel which had been presented to me through Jewish education and youth trips is not the entire picture. Most noticeably, being a Progressive Jewish woman was difficult inside of traditional Jerusalem. I yearned to to sing, dance, pray, and ultimately, be, freely.

50 Days of Israel cements the fact that I am not the only committed Jew with these frustrations. The blog includes voices of friends and future colleagues whom I respect and whom allow me to sit comfortably with my own criticisms of Israel. They make me realize that with a love of Israel comes a wanting to improve it, and that this is okay. Further, the writers oftentimes present opinions on Israel that are new or different from mine. Sometimes I know the writers and sometimes I do not. Each writer answers the blog’s questions in his or her own way, encouraging me to ask myself those same questions. With each answer by a different writer, I am presented with something new to consider and a new contribution to my own answer. It is helping to carry me therefore along my own journey from slavery to revelation, from confusion about Israel to an understanding and acceptance of the beautiful complexities that shape this Jewish homeland.


Liora Alban  earned her B.A. in Religious Studies with a concentration in Judaism from The University of California, Berkeley in December 2013. She also studied religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Fall 2012 and Spring 2013. Although Liora grew up in Los Angeles and enjoyed exploring Berkeley, she cannot wait to make the move to Jerusalem in July 2014 as she begin pursuing her rabbinical ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


An Island in Time – Leah Citrin

Shabbat is an island in time. It is a chance to pause, reflect, and differentiate between the holy and the mundane. And although it exists in every city, in every country, every week, something special happens on Shabbat in Israel.

Friday afternoons in Jerusalem are an experience in and of themselves: the hustle and bustle of a city preparing to shut down for 24 hours. The rush of people at the shuk, the cooking and cleaning, the dinner planning, the frantic pace right up until the sounding of the siren, signaling that Shabbat has begun.

And then the peace and quiet sets in. There is time.

Time for relaxing, conversation, and casual strolls. Time to listen. The sounds of singing emanate from the shuls. The sounds of children laughing can be heard in the parks.

Shabbat is an island in time. Ahad Ha’Am once said, “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” Nowhere have I experienced this sentiment more than in Israel.

Yet I no longer live in Israel. Leading services or Torah study, I often work on Shabbat. A conscious effort is required to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. It doesn’t come as naturally right now.

So too does my relationship to Israel require this effort. It has been two years since I have visited. I no longer open Israeli news sites regularly. I have far fewer conversations in Hebrew. Yet I know that a return visit is all it will take to reignite the passion, the emotion, the connection. A taste of Shabbat, a foot on Israeli soil, is all that is required to remember how precious it is.

Leah Citrin, originally from Rye Brook, New York, is a rising 5th year student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati. After serving pulpits in New Iberia, Louisiana, and Kokomo, Indiana, Leah will begin her second year as the rabbinic intern at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati in the fall. An avid Yankees and Reds fan, Leah also enjoys playing tennis, softball, and running half-marathons. Additionally, Leah is excited to begin her iCenter fellowship in a few weeks!

Out of a Land of Static Bonds – Jay LeVine

As we move from Passover to Shavuot, we relive the mythic story of movement from slavery to the freedom necessary to experience revelation. Egypt is often equated with slaveryin the first commandment, God tells Israel “I have taken you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage (avadim).”

The Hebrew word avadim could also mean idol-worship, and understanding the Exodus as freedom from idolatry intrigues me. What is the significance of idol-worship for today? Idolatry seems so….biblical. No one really worships little stone figures anymore, right? And anyway, isn’t religious intolerance a major contributing factor to many of the ills in the world?

For many years, I assumed the term “idolatry” was more or less retired from active duty on the theological dream team. However, I came across an understanding of idolatry that has now convinced me that my appreciation of the state of Israel hinges precisely on an ongoing struggle against idolatry.

Erich Fromm defines idolatry as alienation from self. When we give up our power and locate it outside of ourselves – by placing athletes and stars on pedestals, by blaming others for our circumstances, etc. – we are practicing idolatry. Idolatry means giving up the freedom of choice; idolatry means quieting our creativity until we are static and powerless.

The modern state of Israel is in my humble opinion a magnificent case study on this understanding of idolatry. On the one hand, Israel represents the best of the struggle against idolatry: It was founded on a premise of locating power within the Jewish people, instead of in external governments. In so many ways Israel has required and inspired tremendous creativity, in the arts, literature, technology, and more. Yet there are ways in which choice is constricted, where religious creativity is seen as illegitimate, when power becomes its own excuse and thus enslaves those who think they wield it.

For me, Israel represents the ongoing journey out of Egypt – out of a land of static bonds that hold back the creative free spirit.


Jay LeVine recently earned his Masters of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, where he will be continuing for his fourth year of rabbinical school in the fall. He grew up in southeastern Arizona and graduated from the University of Arizona with bachelor’s degrees in Finance and Judaic Studies. Among his passions are Hebrew poetry, indie music, and Jewish books. Check out his blog at jayasherlevine.com.

Revisiting the Pesach-to-Independence Day Narrative – Dave Mendelsson

During the first decade of Israel’s statehood, the Knesset passed a series of laws establishing new holidays—days of commemoration or celebration—which were added to the national calendar: Holocaust Day (Yom Hashoah), Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron), when fallen soldiers are remembered, and Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut).

These newly-consecrated days were placed in a deliberate sequence between Pesach and Shavuot, with the intent of undermining the traditional Jewish calendar. Instead of emphasizing, as the Passover Haggadah does, God’s “strong hand, and outstretched arm” (Ps. 136:12), and God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai, celebrated on Shavuot, a new narrative was created. This alternative narrative focused on the end of slavery and the fight for freedom, on the transition, accomplished by dint of human effort, from exile to independence.

The essence of the narrative was that no divine miracle had been carried out on our behalf, but we ourselves had struggled, taken action, and created a new society.

This narrative resonates deeply with me, and I identify with its central theme of the Jewish people’s taking responsibility for altering the course of its history. Slavery did indeed teach us to value and seek freedom, despite the heavy price–the great loss of life–this entailed. But I think the notion that the traditional narrative has nothing to teach us should be revisited.

Having put an end to the years of victimhood, we must remember the dangers of unbridled power. Perhaps a return to the timeline that culminates in Shavuot will revitalize our awareness of the ethical imperatives at the heart of the Jewish tradition, even if we believe that they were not given by God at Sinai, but rather formulated by humans, by prophets and sages who sought to inculcate the message that the power arising from nationhood must always be guided by moral purpose.


Dave Mendelsson is Director of the Year in Israel Program at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, Israel. Click here for a more extensive biography.

Chanukah in Egypt, Chanukah in Israel – Sam Spector

I have a confession.

While studying in Israel, I violated a commandment in the Torah.

Deuteronomy 17:18 states that God commanded, “Do not return that way (towards Egypt) anymore.” However, wanting an escape from my studies and lured by my worship for the false idol that was the beaches of the Sinai Peninsula, I decided to take my chances during Chanukah and return to the land of bondage.

I made sure when I packed my backpack that I included a pack of Chanukah candles, just because I was violating one commandment, heaven forbid I would not light the candles! In the desert, a few classmates and I found an isolated place. We nervously looked around, sang the blessings and kindled the festival lights. We hurried off before anyone could spot us, worried that our Jewish identity would put us in danger, and watched from a distance as the flames danced in the sand. I thought not only of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt 3000+ years ago and how they had crossed this desert to freedom, but also of the 80,000 Jews who populated this country a mere 80 years prior.

Today, the Jewish population of the largest Arab country is approximately 100.

Upon my return to Israel, my Egged bus passed massive hanukkiot with their billowing flames, and finally, after 7 hours of travel, I arrived back in Jerusalem. As the bus neared the station, I wiped away the fog on the window and gasped. Before me stood a high-rise apartment building, and in every single window was a lit hanukkiah, hundreds of them!

Though Israel is a place that is far from perfect, my Revelation came not at Sinai but upon my return to Jerusalem; this country is my home. For the Jews from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, Spain, Poland, Russia, Germany, France, and Egypt, among dozens more countries from around the world, who had previously been scared of the ramifications of expressing their Judaism, Israel is now a place for them to do so with pride rather than fear.

On that cold night, the lights of the hanukkiah and the freedom of my people warmed my heart and I fell in love with Israel.


Sam Spector was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, and studied at the University of California, San Diego, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Cum Laude with a B.A. in Judaic Studies. He is entering his final (5th) year of rabbinical school in the fall at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Sam is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Naval Reserves and the rabbinic intern of Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA.

Shedding our Skin, Acting on our Memories – Aki Yonekawa

The period of the Omer represents our growing distance from bondage and our proximity toward autonomy.

During this liminal wandering space, we shed the skin of our slavery while maintaining the memory of our narrow existence in Egypt.

Even as we shed that slave mentality, it is impressed upon us that we must hold dear the memory that we were once strangers in a strange land.

What is the application of this memory?
How do we put into practice?

One of the lessons that our long sojourn in Egypt teaches us is that we must be kind to the stranger. We express our empathy to the oppressed minority because we have walked in their shoes. However, there is another side to this coin. As we move from bondage to autonomy, the Promised Land represents our future of being a free people, an autonomous nation. This comes at a price.

The Israelites learn in the desert the laws and systems that they will use to govern, they fight battles to conquer the land. The modern state of Israel can be seen to represent the same symbol of autonomy for a people that existed for so long as strangers in strange lands. We were strangers in Spain, Morocco, Germany and Poland. We were strangers in Russia and in France. We lived always with the knowledge that we were living on borrowed time, that the powerful majority could push us out when we became to numerous, too powerful, too noisome.

For some, this memory leads to a deep empathy with those who are pushed out of their lands. For others, it leads to a fierce protection of the land that provides the answer to this reality. For many of those protectors, in order for Jews to exist in the world as an autonomous people, Israel must remain Jewish. Are these reactions to the same memory in conflict with one another?

The success of the State of Israel has brought refugees into its borders – people who have been pushed out of their own lands by war, violence, conflict and poverty. How we approach these refugees serves as a measure of what our own memory of being strangers means to us.

Do we express our empathy, embrace them as we wish we were embraced when we were orphaned?

Or, do we bind together, protecting our borders for the sake of our own continued autonomy and our right to live in a land where we are not Other?

In this period of reflection, let us think about how our memories drive our actions – what we want to shed and what we want to hold dear as we make our ascent toward freedom.



Aki Yonekawa has the pleasure of living and working at the beautiful Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University where she runs educational programming for field trips, retreats and conferences. She came to Brandeis-Bardin in 2001 to work at Camp Alonim for a summer and has remained working at the campus in some capacity ever since. When she is not in Brandeis, CA, she teaches religious school, volunteers for LimmudLA, leads Birthright trips, and is working with a group of teenagers in the San Fernando Valley to develop a conference for local teens focusing on Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Aki is currently a candidate for an MBA in Non-Profit Management and an MA in Education at American Jewish University.

Israel: A Work in Progress – Rabbi Naamah Kelman

When the Israelites left Egypt they were destined for a land that they would rule. In fact much of the Torah and especially Sinai was meant to be a “manual” for settling in the Land of Israel. The “Promise” of Promised Land is in the possibility that we might be able to build a society that lives by the highest ethical standards spelled out at Sinai and for much of what comes after. Israel and the Jewish people for that matter are and have always been a work in progress; perhaps it begins with that never ending ancient journey.

So the question for Israelis today is how do we leave slavery and get closer to the best possible free selves we can be?

The modern state of Israel was founded on many of these principles but like every society we fall short, and we argue about it louder. As a Reform rabbi in a place where we struggle for recognition and acceptance, my journey is defined by leaving the “slavery” of sexism, racism, and fear of others, extremism to a place of inclusion, democracy, and more equality and justice. Slavery is fear and hopelessness, revelation is hope, compassion, and fairness. We continue to go back and forth, wherever we are, releasing ourselves from slaveries (old and new) and reaching for the essence of Sinai, where everyone sees the image of God in the other.


Rabbi Naamah Kelman was Ordained by HUC-JIR in Israel in 1992 and has devoted her career to strengthening the Reform Movement’s outreach, community organizing, and Jewish education. She has been intensely involved in the emerging education system of the IMPJ and was among the founders of the first Progressive Day School, where she has overseen the development of curricular materials, teacher training programs, and family education. At HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, she has strengthened the Year-In-Israel Program for North American first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students, advanced professional development for the Israeli Rabbinical Program, and has been a catalyst for new and innovative programs in the areas of pluralistic Jewish education and pastoral counseling. (biography pulled from here)

Zeitchem l’shalom – Jeremy Gimbel


This sign, which sits at the exit of Jerusalem sums up Israel for me. The story of Israel that every American kid should learn is the story of being cognizant of time and space. Israel is a complex place, but what has stuck with me is that it is a place that recognizes, and celebrates, Jewish time and space. When you enter Jerusalem, there’s a welcome sign. As you leave, there’s this sign: tzeitchem l’shalom. Not, “L’hitraot – see you soon,” but “go to peace.” The language also comes from the Shabbat song, Shalom Aleichem, which is addressing the ministering angels of peace. In a nutshell, the sign is telling us that we have a higher purpose; not just to go towards our destination, but to go towards peace AS ministering angels of peace.

I am also continually on that journey, moving from the slavery of egotism and self-centeredness to working as a messenger of peace and goodness. Israel helps remind me that this journey continues, no matter where you reside – even in the holiest cities – we must be constantly reminded of this most sacred duty.
Jeremy Gimbel is an avid enthusiast. He is also part of the incoming iCenter cohort.


Peering Into the Land – Rachel Levin

Last time I was in Israel, I went to the outside market in Jerusalem on a Friday morning, the busiest time of the week as everyone prepares for Shabbat. I fought through the crowds, elbowed left and right. I was sufficiently frustrated and grew even more so waiting in lines at the central bus station.

By the time I sat down on the bus, cheese borekas in hand, my feelings had resided. I couldn’t imagine departing for the states in less than 24 hours. The trip had only been 9 days, but I’d experienced a lot: time with family and friends, the loss of musician Arik Einstein, Hannukah celebrations in the streets.

When the Israelites begin wandering through the desert, they are disconnected from both home and identity. They are no longer slaves, but not yet a nation in Eretz Yisrael. The traditional Hagadah narrates the story of leaving Egypt but stops one verse before entrance into the land of milk and honey.

I stand with the Israelites peering into the land.

Every Friday morning, I crave that shuk experience. I want to feel vibrant Jewish life around me, knowing that the person who elbowed me at the shuk would likely invite me in for Shabbat. My relationship with Israel is not naïve. Nonetheless, Israel fills a piece of myself. It’s where I regain my sense of belonging to Jewish people, place, culture, and religion.

I stand with the Israelites peering in. Will I enter or remain at the edge?

Working in the field of Israel education, I am continually thinking about ways to connect Jewish youth to Israel, viewing a relationship with Israel as integral to Jewish identity. But connection to Israel emanates in many forms. My physical pull to the place is only one story.

How is Israel a part of your life?


Rachel Levin: serves as a Program Coordinator at the iCenter for Israel Education in Northbrook, IL. She joined​ the iCenter team after participating in and being inspired by the iCenter Masters Concentration in Israel Education. Since her first trip to Israel on Birthright in 2004, she has found a way back each year. In 2012, Rachel earned an M.A. in Jewish Education and an M.A. in Jewish Nonprofit Management from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. 

Safety, Freedom, and Mutual Responsibility – Dan Utley

Tonight, on Chol HaMoed Pesach*, we read a special Torah portion, a re-read of Exodus 33-34 that recounts Moses’ debate with God in the aftermath of the Golden Calf.

Moses wants to truly know his leader, guide, and mentor whom he has followed through many trials, and God complies…partially. God says: “I shall have all my good pass in front of you, and I shall invoke the name YHWH** in front of you, but I will hold my hand over you as I pass by and all that you see will be my back.” (Exodus 33:19 & 33:23 – trans. R.E. Friedman)

While the text goes on to recount the commandment to observe Passover, it is worth exploring this sensitive encounter between God and Moses. Their dialogue models for us a relationship based on mutual trust, protection, and the promise of freedom.

Safety, freedom, and mutual responsibility ring out in our Passover story. We recall the exodus while taking on the tasks of feeding the hungry and welcoming guests.

Safety, freedom and mutual responsibility are themes that Israel too has lived by and struggled with throughout its history. Our modern state of Israel has placed the safety and freedom of Jews as a top priority since its inception.

In the summer of 1974, 100 Israeli soldiers led by the late Yoni Netanyahu raided a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda that was carrying 248 passengers from France – 100 of them Jewish. In the 1980s and 1990s Israel led Operations Moses and Solomon where thousands of Ethopian Jews plagued by famine and later by persecution were transported to Israel by the Israeli government. There are many other stories as well involving Jews from Soviet Russia and Middle Eastern Countries.

Safety, freedom, and mutual responsibility – in the Talmud we read “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.” (Shevuot 39a) all Israel is responsible for one another. Israel has lived these words. In small ways I believe this philosophy lies in the consciousness of all of us as members of am yisrael.

At the end of the seder we read “l’shana haba’ah bi’rushalim,” next year in Jerusalem. While we will not all be in the physical city of Jerusalem next year, we can read this phrase as a call for us to rebuild our relationships with Jews in our own community and worldwide, in safety and in freedom.


Dan Utley  is a 4th year rabbinic and education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, CA. Serving as an iCenter fellow, Dan enjoys studying about and engaging in Israel and experiential education.  Currently Dan is a family educator at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine, CA and summer assistant director at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA. 

This post was taken from a longer d’var torah written and delivered by Dan on 4/18/2014 in Banning, California


*Chol HaMoed Pesach: literally meaning, “the secular part of the occasion.”
**YHWH: The English representation of the Hebrew letters yud-hey-vav-hey that come together to pronounce God’s unpronounceable name.