Reports and writings from the MASORTI-Olami delgation to the 12th Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, 1 Elul, 5782 / August 28-30, 2022
Rabbi Alejandro, Auruj Comunidad Amijai, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Rabbi Mauricio Balter, MASORTI-Olami
Harvey Brenner, President, N.A.A.S.E.
Hazzan Luis Cattan, President, Cantors Assembly
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Park Avenue Synagogue, New York
Sarrae Crane, Executive Director, MERCAZ-USA
Elias Garzon, Paris, Masorti Europe
Rakefet Ginsberg, Executive Director, MASORTI-Olami
Nilli Glick, MASORTI-Olami
Tammy Gottlieb, MASORTI Isral
Nicole Greenspan, Tel Aviv
Stan Greenspan, President, MERCAZ-Canada
Richard Helfand, President, MERCAZ-USA
Yizhar Hess, Vice-Chair, WZO
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth, Emanuel Synagogue, Sydney, AU
Dr. Theodore Herzl z-L
Isaac Herzog, President, State of Israel
Stan Greenspan, MERCAZ-Canada
Nola Lazar, MERCAZ-Canada
Nicole Greenspan, Tel Aviv, Israel
Sarrae Crane, Eecutive Director, MERCAZ-USA
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik, Congregation Tifereth Israel, Columbus, OH
Rabbi Ellen Wolnitz-Fields, Executive Director, WLCJ
Rabbi Mauricio Balter, MASORTI-Olami
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid & Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove (photo in Israel)
Congress opened by Yakov HaGoel, Chairman of the WZO
Opening night entertainment wth Israeli mentaist, Lior Suchard
UAE Archivist Ahmed Almansoori and Stan Greenpan in Basel
Former Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and Stan Greenpan in Basel
The President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, speaks at the CasinoStadt in Basel
Rabbi Alejandro Auruj, Argentina and Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth, Autralia at the Casinostadt
Father & daughter Nicole & Stan Greenspan at the Casinostadt!
Saturday night in Zurich!
L-R: Sarrae Crane, Rabbi Steve Wernick, Rabbi Ellen Wolnitz-Fields, Stan Greenspan
Saturday night in Zurich!
Tammy, Sharon, Adam, Steve, Elias, Hillel, Stan, Nikki
Rafi celebrating Rosh Hodesh Elul on the train from Zurich to Basel
Nola Lazar & Stan Greenspan on the train from Zurich to Basel
The Rhine River in Basel
From the streets of Basel
Three rabbis from three continents in Basel!
L-R: Hillel Skolnik, USA, Rafi Kaiserblueth, Autralia, Alejandro Auruj, Argentina
Three rabbis and an Israeli in Basel!
Alejandro, Hillel, Rafi & Nikki
From the streets of Basel
From the streets of Basel
The statue of Alfred Dreyfus in his birthplace, Mulhouse, FR
WZO Chairman Yakov Hagoel receiving his MERCAZ-Canada pin & coin
Nola Lazar & Nicole Greenspan in Zurich!
Nola Lazzar, VP, MERCAZ-Canada
Mirko Lebl, MERCAZ Brazil
Emily Levy-Shochat, Co-Presidnet, MERCAZ-Olami
Sarah Lipsey Brokman, CEO, The Honey Foundation for Israel
Roee Peled, MAROM Israel
Gadi Perl, MERCAZ Israel
Chancellor Shully Rubin Schwartz, JTS
Adam Schonberger, Budapest, HU
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik, Congregation Tifereth Israel, Columbus, OH
Wanda Teplitsky, President, Masorti Europe
Diana Wainstein, President, MERCAZ Argentina
Rabbi Steve Wernick, Beth Tzedec, Toronto
Rabbi Ellen Wolnitz-Fields, Executive Director, WLCJ
Sharon Yahav, MASORTI Israel
Reflections on The 125th Zionist Congress in Basel
Stan Greenspan, President, MERCAZ-Canada
Sometimes a story is best written from the end to the beginning. My daughter Nicole and I ended our Congress journey with a road trip to Mulhouse, France.
Mulhouse and Basel, Switzerland, share an airport. Mulhouse was once part of Switzerland. But being in the Alsace, it was a prize in two World Wars and one of the first places that fell to the Nazis in the Second World War. It was also among the first to suffer from the expulsions of the Jewish population. That was not why we went.
Nikki wanted to see the Bugatti Museum and Mulhouse was once the centre of the French automotive industry. It has a lovely synagogue on Rue Synagogue. It is empty.
My friend, Rabbi David Meyer, lives in Paris. I texted him that we were in Mulhouse and he was not pleased. His father was from Mulhouse and escaped the Nazis in Paris. He’s buried in the community cemetery, but David rarely travels the 600 kilometres from Paris to visit.
There is no one to care for these graves, they are overgrown and unkept, and it hurts David to have that happen.
The next morning, we traveled past the railroad station. We drove on the roads that the invaders in 1939 would’ve traveled. The night before, the doors in the apartment would not remain shut; Nikki pulled one so hard to close that she pulled the handle right off the door. We finally kept the doors from opening by placing our luggage behind them.
Mulhouse is empty of its Jews as is much of Europe.
Mulhouse was the birthplace of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer whose trial Herzl attended and awakened Herzl to the need for a Jewish state. Dreyfus lived in Basel before moving to Paris.
The circle was drawn for the first time when Herzl held the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. We closed the circle.
Back to the beginning.
My journey began with a very short trip to Israel prior to traveling to Zurich for the first part of the Congress events. I had not been to Israel in close to three years and I really needed a recharge of m Zionist batteries.
Over the 3 days I was in Tel Aviv, I walked from the top to the bottom and from shore to side, having falafel on Frishman, lunch in the Boursa and amazing dinners all over. I rode the high-speed train to Jerusalem and got very very lost following the MOOVIT bus app. I know Jerusalem well, and the app showed me places I had never imagined going to, places like Shufat and Issawah. Everything worked out and there are stories to be told afterward.
Off to Switzerland on Friday morning for a Masorti Movement Shabbaton with many of the leadership of the Conservative world. (I do wish we would drop that word and embrace “Masorti” for our name)
Landing in Zurich, I met Nola Lazar and Rabbi Steve Wernick who arrived from Toronto, as well as my daughter Nicole, who came as my “plus 1.” Nikki has worked as a shaliach at York University since making aliyah nearly 20 years ago, and was excited to attend the Congress, even it if meant hanging around with her father.
We began with a Masorti Movement weekend in Zurich, getting history lessons on the Jewish population, speaking about the topics of concern and putting bodies to the faces we had seen on Zoom for the past 30 months. The reconnections and new connections were essential to our moving forward as a movement with unified sense of purpose.
We left Zurich by train on Sunday morning, the first day of Elul. On the train, Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth of Sydney, Australia, blew the shofar marking Rosh Chodesh Elul, probably the first time that had been done on a Swiss Railway car in many decades.
We arrived in Basel and proceeded to the first day of the 125th. Security was very tight. Each entry to the hall required a full airport-style security check. The Swiss kept the protests to another part of the city; we did not hear or see any of that activity in the main part of town.
The 125th Congress was not the “typical” congress; no motions being debated, no words of discussion.
No, it was more of a Zionist Trade Show, where all of the speakers and presentations were, for the most part, positive. The Congress featured many of the leaders of our Masorti Movement, and included members of the current Israeli government as well as former members. Such notables as Yossi Cohen, who was Mossad Director from 2016-21 spoke about the Mossad operation to steal Iran's secret nuclear archive in Tehran and smuggle it out of the country.
Dana Azrieli, the Montreal-born head of the Azrieli Group in Israel, one of the largest commercial developers and the chair of the Azrieli Foundation in Israel spoke about the Foundation’s work in education.
Other notable Canadian speakers included David Matlow, Sylvan Adams and Gil Troy.
Each Congress includes a gala event each evening. The first night, August 28th, had the Israeli mentalist, Leor Suchard wowing the assembled masses and at one point had a group including Miriam Adelson, Dana Azrieli, Yizhar Hess, H.E. Ahmed Obiad Almansoori, Yakov Hagoel and Nachman Shai on the stage as participants/victims of his act. I remarked to people at our table that had anything happened to the stage, we would have had to reboot the entire Zionist exercise!
The second evening, August 29th, was the Gala, the real main event, with only 400 tickets available and over 1400 people at the congress, it was a very hot ticket. The line to get into the CasinoStadt, the location of the First Zionist Congress in 1897, meant rubbing shoulders with many of the luminaries in attendance. We had a wonderful conversation with Daniel Libeskind and his wife Nina. Nina’s father was David Lewis, the former leader of Canada’s NDP.
The CasinoStadt has been renovated back to its 19th-century glory, but that did not include air-conditioning in the 30° weather. It is a beautiful building and it was truly amazing to be in the room where Zionism really began.
The programme included a former Swiss President, Guy Parmelin, who apologized for Switzerland’s ongoing antisemitism and then criticized Israel over the Palestinian issue. Many of the descendants of those who were in the CasinoStadt 125 years ago were introduced, including Alfred Dreyfus’ great-granddaughter. President of Israel Isaac Herzog gave the keynote address, speaking of the past and the future.
On September 30th, a special session of the Va’ad HaPoel took place. President Herzog spoke again to a much smaller group and took a few questions. That afternoon, a photographer was available at the Three Kings Hotel, where the famous photograph of the contemplative Theodore Herzl was taken on the balcony outside of his room. Due to security concerns for President Herzog. Photos were taken and prints were given in special folders as souvenirs.
In my own photo, I posed holding a cell phone, as I am sure that Herzl would have been working hard to garner the support he always seemed to need for the next vote. There is always a "next" vote!
Many of the photos to the left of this page are from that balcony, albeit 125 years apart in some cases.
My four days in Israel renewed my Zionism. The two days in Zurich allowed us to renew our commitments to the Masorti Movement, and the 3 days in Basel brought the Zionist world together in a way no other congress has done.
By leaving the debates and arguments behind, the Zionist people spoke and listened to each other.
A small step, but important for our renewal.
Dr Yizhar Hess, Vice-Chair of the WZO, (MASORTI) addresses the 125th Wold Zionist Congress (link to video)
Yizhar begins his speech with Canadian content, speaking about our member, David Matlow of Beth Tzedec in Toronto, and his collection of Herzl memorabilia.
Connecting the Dots: The Basel 125th Conference and the Days of Awe
BY SHULY RUBIN SCHWARTZ
As the month of Elul began, I had the privilege of attending the international conference marking the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. What an exciting and moving event. Over a thousand of us came together in the same place and on the same date as that original gathering to celebrate Theodore Herzl’s remarkable achievement in assembling 197 delegates with varying Zionist views to discuss the idea of creating a homeland for the Jewish people.
Those of us in Basel last month understood viscerally how important it was to mark this moment communally, to marvel at the miracle of a thriving State of Israel, established a mere 51 years after that first Congress and poised to celebrate its 75th anniversary this May. Conference speakers were brimming with ideas for addressing societal issues, such as economic inequality and a lack of affordable housing in Israel, as well as global challenges such as climate change, all with the aim of maximizing Israel’s success and ensuring its sustainability.
At the same time, for all the spirited and fascinating talk, the silence on other vital issues—the needs of the Israeli Arab population, the unresolved status of Palestinians, the lack of religious pluralism—was deafening. It became clear to me that the panel I was asked to participate in—“A Twenty-first Century Zionism for a Twenty-first Century Jewish People”—was one of the few places where those challenges might be addressed. I attempted to do just that.
In Herzl’s time, Zionism was synonymous with the creation of a Jewish homeland. But what does Zionism mean now, especially for young American Jews who have only known a strong, flourishing State of Israel?
As I said to a room full of participants attending my panel, I believe a new Zionism for the Jews of today and tomorrow—one devoted to strengthening Israel as a Jewish, democratic State—will only be forged through deep learning, active listening, and engaged dialogue. In this time of reflection before the Days of Awe, there is much we can learn from the Yom Kippur Viddui, the confessional we will soon be chanting, about the roadblocks we humans regularly throw in the way of genuinely listening to one another, especially when we disagree.
In thinking about a Zionism for the 21st century, we must recognize that the Zionism many of us grew up with was forged in a very different era from today. My own family’s Zionist roots date back well over 100 years to my great-grandfather, Aron Shimon Shpall. Like Eliezer ben Yehudah, he spoke only Hebrew to his children in his eastern European Kremenets home. Forced to leave because of worsening pogroms, the family’s circumstances led the Shpalls to the United States and not to the land of Israel, which Aron had dreamed of inhabiting. Yet this did not deter him from his goals, for in his view, Zionism could be achieved not only by settling the land of Israel but also by promoting a rich Jewish national culture throughout the world. Toward that end, the New Orleans Talmud Torah where Aron served as assistant principal provided young Jews with an intensive, six-day-a-week, Hebraic Jewish education.
My family continued his tradition of speaking Hebrew to our children and devoting ourselves to the Zionist dream. As a historian, I also know the many ways that Jews all over the world and in every era consciously have trained their focus on Zion. This longing for Zion—embedded in our liturgy, customs, literature, song, and art—has fortified Jews and bound them to one another.
Yet my vision of Zionism has also evolved, in large measure because I have been privileged to work for over 30 years with smart, talented, Jewishly curious students at JTS. The intellectual, communal, and political context through which they connect with Israel, especially in the last 20 years, differs dramatically from my own. Not only have today’s young people grown up with a thriving Israel, but, for many, their world view is shaped by new insights into the historic and contemporary shortcomings of the United States that have touched a lot of us. Their love of Israel is impacted by concerns about equity, racism, and what they perceive as tribalism, and they worry that the State of Israel is falling short of its ideals of being a Jewish, democratic state. Some dismiss these young American Jews as uninformed, naive, or misguided. But if we are committed to the Jewish future and a Jewish State that lives up to our highest ideals as a people, we must engage with those whose love and support impels them to critique. This is especially true for those of us who are educators.
As chancellor of JTS, I lead an institution devoted to serious Jewish learning and open inquiry, to a flourishing Judaism and a Jewish, democratic state. I see JTS’s role as fostering an honest appraisal of Zionism’s present and future—rooted in history and anchored in love—which can point a way forward for the courageous leaders of today and tomorrow. These conversations must extend beyond the classroom and grow out of relationships with Israelis from across the political spectrum. We write off those who differ from us—in our own families, among our people, and in our country and the world—at our own peril. Rather, we must approach one another with radical empathy, which involves working hard to understand the feelings and views of others. As President Herzog said to us in Basel, “The Jewish People are one big family, and being family means regularly checking in with each other.” Though disagreements will always exist, “we must always insist on open, sincere engagement.”
This is so hard to do, as evidenced by the Viddui, which we recite repeatedly on Yom Kippur and which devotes so much attention to the harm we cause consciously and unconsciously through our words: idle chatter, foolish speech, gossip, the way we talk, speaking ill of others, everyday conversation; the confessional also includes the attitudinal failures we exhibit that further impede effective communication: clever cynicism, arrogance, condescension, stubbornness, rash judgment, baseless hatred.
We dwell on these shortcomings because they are ubiquitous in us humans. We fall short daily, if not hourly, in these areas. We inflict pain on those we love, assume we know what is right, and shun those whose words or stances seem beyond the pale. We must resolve to do better. Let’s measure our words, approach others with humility, listen more deeply, engage more closely, understand the perspectives of others who differ from us, and work together with them to envision a more perfect future.
Our tradition demands nothing less of us. Though we know we will fall short—and will thus need to recite the confessional again next year and every year after that—we must do our part to move toward achieving these aims, for they are essential to the future of our people and our world.
Tellingly, the Neilah service, including the final prayers of the day, concludes with a yearning for Zion: “Next year in Jerusalem.” In doing so, our tradition is reminding us that our personal reckoning ought not only make us better people in the coming year. We hope that it will also reinforce the connection to Zion that we share and thus deepen our ties to one another as Jews.
Ken yehi ratzon. May it come to pass.
From Gadi Perl, Advocat, MERCAZ-Olami member of the KKL Board of Directors in Israel.
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik, Senior Rabbi - Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, OH, (another of the Masorti Olami delegates in Basel) asked me to write something about what we do as Masorti in the National Institutions for Rosh Hashana.
I though you all would also be interested - Gadi
We used to think that if we raised are children to be good people, good Jews, that it would be enough. That if we taught them to see the good in people, to give to charity, to give up their chair to someone in need on the bus - that we had done our job. That’s what we believed. But It seems that we were wrong. It is no longer enough.
Each generation has its own task. Those who built Israel, those who restored communities after the Shoah , and those who fought for basic human rights for all man kind. If we thought that we could rest on our laurels, enjoying the fruit of our fathers’ labour, these few past years have taught us that לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ואין אתה בן חורין להיפטר ממנה.
Liberal Judaism is under attack. When you believe in compromise, nuances and acceptance, others who see you as weak, try to take advantage. In recent years Israel has seen a surge in nationalism and radical Judaism denying all form of egalitarian Judaism, conservative and reform alike. Our right to pray at the western wall denied, with families celebrating Bar Mitzva harassed, our women of the wall assaulted. Democratic values are ignored, with racist rhetoric running rampant.
It is the task of our generation to fight once again. This time for the soul of our people. For the right to love, for the right to be free, and for a world resting on foundations of compassion rather than force.
Among others, liberal Jewish values and even classical Zionism are also at risk. The National Institutions, where Jews around the world decide on connecting communities, land in Israel is purchased, and NGOs are funded - are a new fighting ground.
In KKL, where an annual budget of 2 billion shekels annually shapes Israeli lives, we are a part of that fight. We fight for the environment instead of spending money on land grabs, for transparency instead of political bribery, and for equality everywhere. In the past year we have more than quadrupled the amount of money, allocating over 50 million NIS to combat climate change. We have started projects that increase the use of solar panels in the peripheral areas, project that promote alternative clean energy, and clean up of streams and rivers. We are planning to increase this amount next year, and even more in years to come.
We are not in the majority. Not enough people came to vote last Jewish congress. We are few, against those who wish to see an Israel less democratic , and more orthodox and theocratic. But we are fighting none the less.
We are your emissaries of radical empathy, of radical integrity, and radical love of Erez Israel. We need you to know this. To understand that it is done in your name. That we hope that we make you proud. And that you will be there when we call for help.
Herzl and Me
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Rosh Hashanna 2022
“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word...it would be this: At Basel I founded
the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”
These words, written by Theodor Herzl in his diary on September 3rd, 1897, upon leaving the very first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland reverberated through me as I myself flew out of Basel on the occasion of the 125th-anniversary meeting earlier this month. Herzl’s famous words took on a heightened resonance in no small part due to the fact that when I left Basel I did so, not, as Herzl did, on a train to Vienna – but on a plane to Israel. Let me explain. I was already halfway across the world to present at the conference, I had not one, but two, family weddings in Israel, a few meetings in anticipation of Israel’s seventy-fifth next spring, my kids were all doing their thing, and Debbie was happy as long as she had a ticket to the US Open. Why wouldn’t I just hop over to Israel? I buckled in and listened to the cockpit crew speak a combination of German and Hebrew, sitting not far from elected officials of the modern State of Israel on their way home, in a mode of transportation whose very existence not even Herzl imagined possible. One would have to have a hardened heart not be moved by it all.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of Political Zionism, the convener of what was, in Daniel Polisar’s words “The most politically significant meeting of any group of Jews in the last 1800 years.” The man who, in less than ten years – from Dreyfus to death, set in motion a movement whose impact on the Jewish people finds it's equal perhaps only in the Bible itself. I had just sat in Basel’s Stadtcasino where the First Zionist Congress convened - in the room, literally, where it happened – in the company of the President of the Modern State of Israel. I had gone for a jog that morning and taken a selfie overlooking the Rhine River posing as Herzl (minus the beard, add the Lulu Lemon). Herzl was a visionary, on top of everything else he achieved in his brief forty-four years, in 1902 he wrote a utopian novel Altneuland (Old-New Land) imagining what a Jewish State would look like twenty years henceforth. And now, it is one hundred and twenty-five years after the Congress, one hundred years after the imagined future Herzl wrote about, and nearly seventy-five years since 1948, when the dream of Israel became a reality.
It was a lot to take in and my mind began to wander. I was literally and figuratively at thirty-thousand feet and my thoughts turned to the obvious question: What would Herzl say? Were he to be at my side, doing what I was doing, seeing what I was seeing - what would he think? What would his reflections be about the condition of the Jewish people? About Israel, about the Diaspora and about the relationship between the two? As had others before me, I began to envision an imaginary journey. Herzl and Me, Me and Herzl – together for a day in the Modern State of Israel.
This was not the trip I had planned on, shepherding the founding father of political Zionism through Israel but as I stood there watching my new friend stand in front of the biometric scanner at Ben Gurion Airport – trying to frame his face in the camera - I began to warm to the idea. “At the very least,” I thought to myself: “There might be a great Rosh Hashanah sermon in all this.”
Having made no plans I had to think on my feet. Where to take Herzl? It was the first thought that came to my mind – take Herzl to Herzliya – the beautiful coastal city north of Tel Aviv. That would be a great welcome, let Herzl see not just his vision a reality, but the city bearing his name. I lent him a pair of shorts - his legs needed a splash of sun. We strolled up and down the beach, museums, hotels, archeological sites, restaurants, embassies, and estates. I made sure we passed the street in Herzilya named Altneuland – figuring he would get a kick out of that. I could see the astonishment in Herzl’s eyes as he heard modern Hebrew being spoken, as he saw Israelis enjoying the beach, bikini straps alongside tzizit. Israelis chasing after their children, arguing over parking spaces – doing all the things people do – but now it was Jews doing it – in a Jewish state; living freely, unselfconsciously in their sovereign land. It had the elegance and ease of a European beach, but the people, the food, the music was distinctly Middle Eastern. A new Jewish identity that had never existed before. I could see Herzl absorbing all he was seeing. I had read my Herzl, his speeches, his short stories, even his diaries. Herzl was a prophet of Jewish pride. Zionism, at its core, was the path by which the Jewish people could be purged of a Jewish Ghetto mentality and rehabilitate themselves to stand tall as Jews free of the self-abnegation wrought by millennia in exile. And here it was - in plain sight! Jews just being Jews or more precisely – being people. It might have been the hot Israeli sun, but looking back, I would like to think it was a tear that I saw running down Herzl’s cheek. This is what it looks like when Jews have sovereignty when they are the subject of their own sentence and not the object of someone else’s. Herzl’s dream – alive and well.
As we strolled to the edge of town – my new friend pointed to some big buildings in the distance. “What is that?” “Oh, that.” I replied. “That is a high-tech industrial park.” Herzl was big into science and futurism. “When you wrote Altneuland,” I said to him, “you imagined a country with cars, telephones, telegraphs, electricity and even elevated trains. Israelis call that over there their Silicon Valley – microchips, pharmaceuticals, AI, desalination technology, and a whole lot more.” “Herzl,” I said, “as we looked out to the Mediterranean, “you imagined the day when oil would be found here. Well, it took longer than we would have liked, and God has a wicked sense of humor – but over there, I said, pointing at the distant horizon off the coastline – “there is enough natural gas – get this – that Israel exports it. And Israel exports a whole lot more: Art, music, literature, cooking, culture, Shtisel and Gal Gadot. Herzl, you imagined an Israel with a Peace Palace – ready to distribute humanitarian relief whenever fire, flood, famine and epidemic strike, a light unto nations with commitments to all of humanity. Herzl. Israel is that light to the world in ways that you never imagined.”
I was having fun, hitting my stride, I mean who doesn’t like playing tour guide – so Herzl’s next question caught me a bit off guard. “Elliot, the year before I died, I asked that I be buried next to my father in Vienna, until that time that I could be buried in the Jewish State. Elliot...What happened? Where am I buried?” Our next stop, I knew, would be Har Herzl, Mount Herzl, the place where, in 1949 just after the state was established, Herzl’s remains were reinterred. Whatever Herzl felt about seeing his final resting place, he never shared with me. But I watched him as his attention turned to take in the rest of Har Herzl – the military cemetery for Israel’s fallen soldiers. I knew to choose my next words carefully; we were on sacred ground in more ways than one. “Herzl, you dreamt of a Jewish state – and the fact that we are standing here is but one of the innumerable indicators of your dream fulfilled.” But your dream was also a bit naïve. In your fin de siècle liberal faith, you believed that a Jewish presence here would be welcomed with open arms, that we would dwell among the Arabs like brothers. You were so convinced of it that you thought the Jewish state would need no army. But you need to know that this State was not given to the Jewish people on a silver platter. I pointed to the headstones, many clustered by Israel’s wars - 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, the First Lebanon War, the Second Lebanon War. “These souls – they are the silver platter upon which the Jewish state was given.”
“Israel is a strong state,” I continued, “and exciting as it is to live in an era when Israel signs peace treaties with one gulf state after another, Israel is still not at peace. Israel exists in a hostile environment surrounded by nations with the stated intent and military means to do it harm. It is because Israel has rejected the moral purity of exiled victimhood, that Israel faces the choice of how to imperfectly defend itself, a choice Israel makes every day and would make any day. You Herzl, you imagined an Israel of tolerance and non-discrimination, and there was no way you could have imagined the rise of a Palestinian consciousness that rejected Jewish immigration. Sadly, Israel has yet to find peace with the Palestinians living alongside and within its borders. Today your dream of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic, a place where – in your words, “different nationalities are accord[ed] honorable protection, and equality before the law,” is a fairy tale. And while there is no shortage of blame to go around – the political discourse is getting more extreme, more toxic and more intractable. I get it, I know, the Middle East is not the Upper East Side, America is hardly a model of civil discourse, and I shouldn’t tell Israel what to do from my comfy armchair. But I know what I know, be it America, Israel or anywhere. There is something deeply troubling about the unholy mixture of nationalism and religious zealotry. With yet another Israeli election this fall, I am worried, deeply worried - I am sounding the alarm - about what the results may bode for Israel’s diverse population, Israel and Jews around the globe, and Israel and the world at large.
I kept talking but I could tell that Herzl’s mind was elsewhere – it was not the first time the attention of my audience has wandered. Herzl was staring at a building on a nearby mountain, a complex of buildings really. “What is that?” my friend asked for the second time that morning. I knew what he was looking at: Yad Vashem, the State’s official Holocaust memorial museum. How was I going to explain this one? Maybe he had noticed that his youngest daughter Trude was not buried on Har Herzl? Was I going to be the one to tell him that she was one of the six million, murdered in the Theresienstadt concentration camp? I took a deep breath. “Herzl, the pamphlet you wrote in 1896 outlining your vision for a Jewish state was called “Der Judenstaat: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question.” Whether it was the populist demagoguery of the Dreyfuss trial, the coarse thuggery you experienced outside a German pub, or the genteel antisemitism of your college fraternity – you understood that Jew-hatred was endemic to the soul of Europe. You knew the failed project of Emancipation; you believed that the Jewish question – the question of how Jews could be both Jews and citizens of the modern world - could only be solved by way of Jewish self-determination. You feared the dark possibility of Jews wearing a yellow badge. Herzl, you had no idea how dark the night would become. That a genocidal regime would arise whose answer to the Jewish question would be the final solution. To be a Jew today is to live in the shadow of a throbbing and soul-crushing “If only.” “If only,” Herzl, your dream had arrived in 1932 and not 1948. If only that were the case, then millions of our brothers and sisters and their descendants would be alive today.”
We sat there in silence looking at Yad Vashem, a few minutes that felt like an eternity, a silence broken by two short words. “And now? And now, Elliot? Has the world learned its lesson? Did the horror of the Holocaust excise the cancer of antisemitism? We can’t bring back the six million but has the fact of Israel’s existence resolved the Jewish question as I had hoped?” I felt myself fumbling, I needed to compose my thoughts. “Herzl, complicated as the roots of antisemitism may be, on a certain level it is no different than any other irrational hatred. Haters are going to hate. People still hate Jews for being Jews, but here in Israel where nearly half the Jewish people live, Israelis can handle themselves, they can address threats from abroad, they can take out threats before they become threats and, when someone does do harm to Israelis,” I said, thinking about Munich fifty years ago, “Israel makes sure the world knows that it takes care of its own. It’s not a pleasant way to look at it, but it is also not inaccurate to say that Israel is the most formidable response to antisemitism for nearly half of world Jewry – exactly as you imagined.”
“But that is only half the story” I continued. We were now on Jerusalem’s light rail going from Yad Vashem to the Old City. “For the other half of the Jewish world, the half who don’t live in Israel, antisemitism remains a lived reality about which Israel does and can do very little. There may have been a time when the fact of the sovereign Jewish State served as a shot in the arm for Diaspora Jewry – a proud display of Jewish self-determination – important everywhere but especially in far-flung communities where Jews are a minority. And Israel remains a safe haven for Jews in need of refuge; these days Jews from both the Ukraine and Russia. But to the Jews of Pittsburgh, Poway, Colleyville, Charlottesville, Brooklyn and Paris, to American Jews of the next generation – Israel is not and is not perceived to be a defense against antisemitism. The mere fact of Israel’s existence neither makes my children any safer nor feel any safer. For a Jewish student on campus, for a Jew aligned with progressive causes, Israel is not only not an antidote for antisemitism but, in the eyes of the antisemite, yet another reason to justify it.
We had arrived in the Old City, sitting in the courtyard facing the Kotel. I had been doing most, if not all, of the talking, but it was in Herzl’s next question that I realized it was Herzl, not I, who was in control of the conversation. “So why Elliot? Why are you living there and not here?” This question cut to bone. I had just made the argument of the challenges of Diaspora Jewish life. I had just shown him that Israel is the living, breathing argument for Jewish self-determination. I am an adult. I have agency over my life. I know how to buy a plane ticket. Why had I, why have I, sidestepped the call of Jewish history?
Honesty is always the best policy, so I decided to lead with the truth. “Truth be told I began...I struggle. Debbie and I - we struggle. We thought of moving to Israel before we got married, we thought of moving when we did get married and we still think about it - this story is not yet done. We have family there. Our children go back and forth. They know that nothing would make us more proud than if they made aliyah to Israel. To be a Jew is to live with certain tensions – between our universal and particular commitments, between tradition and modernity, and, given the lived reality of a Jewish state - where a Jew should live. Being Jewish is not so much about resolving these tensions but about naming them honestly and living them authentically – in our families and in our community. Our synagogue puts Israel education, Israel engagement and travel and Hebrew language at the forefront of our mission – if for no other reason that I can’t imagine a contemporary Jewish expression without Israel as part of it. I know the privilege of my existence. I know I don’t need Israel as a refuge, nor do I live with fear, real fear, for my Jewish self – a statement as extraordinary as it is unprecedented in Jewish history. But some days, Herzl, I just cannot believe that I have not made the willed choice to live in the reality of Israel.
“And yet,” I continued, “as aware as I am of the claim Israel makes on my being, I am doubly aware that Israel is not my Judaism and Zionism is not my religion. Judaism is my religion. Israel is part of my Jewish identity, not a substitute for it, and somewhere along the way I discovered that I am more comfortable living my Jewish life in America than in Israel. A Judaism that is free of the coercive powers of the chief rabbinate. A Judaism that seeks to celebrate not squash innovation, creativity, and inclusion. A Judaism in which all Jews, men, women, straight, gay stand equally before God and Jewish law. I motioned to the Kotel, at the segregated men and women, the Haredi men in black hats, the modesty police scolding women to cover up their bare shoulders. Just this summer, I told Herzl pointing to an area off to the side, a young man celebrated his bar-mitzvah at that small side courtyard - the section where men and women can pray side-by-side, and even there they were surrounded by heckling Haredi Jews calling them names and ripping up their prayer books. It was not me, but the Prime Minister of Israel who noted the bitter irony that “Israel is the only Western country in which Jews don’t have freedom of worship.”
Best as I can tell, Herzl, the impetus for your vision of a Jewish state was to address antisemitism and infuse the Jewish people with pride. I am and will always support Israel, especially those whose vision of Jewish life reflects my Jewish values, and I will always worry and work for the safety of our people against those who would do us harm. There will be a day when the Cosgroves establish a home in Israel and spend at least part of the year there. But with the limited number of years we are allotted in this life, I would rather spend my waking hours living a proud and passion-filled Jewish life and inspiring my community to do the same. Why do I live there and not here? Because it is there, not here, that I can best build a Jewish future for half of our people.”
The day was late and the sun was setting. Honored as I was to spend time with Israel’s founding ideologue, I sensed we were about to part ways, not to mention the fact that this unplanned visit had cut into the time I had blocked off to write my Rosh Hashanah sermon. But as I motioned that it was time to go, Herzl took me by the hand and this is what he said: “Elliot, one hundred and twenty-five years ago I convened a congress that gave rise to the Jewish State. Like Moses transported through time to the study house of Rabbi Akiva, you have given me a chance to see that the seeds of my vision, different as it may be from the current reality, have come to fruition. But my dream was the dream of a European Jew in 1897 – a time and place as different to yours as night-is-to-day. Elliot, what is your dream for the Jewish people? My moonshot was aimed fifty years out. Where do you want the Jewish people to be in fifty years? Because Zionism is not a destination; it is an aspiration. An aspiration for Jews to live freely and fully and safely as Jews. An aspiration for Jews to be anchored in their attachment to Israel, but to never confuse that attachment for Judaism itself. An aspiration that wherever Jews may live, Israel, America or around the globe – we are a people, one people. An aspiration that our commitment to our land and people goes hand in hand with our commitment to all of humanity.
Elliot, aspirations are aspirational. They take effort, they require stamina and they demand the requisite resilience to weather frustration and setback. Urge your community not to give up on Israel, that no different than one does not become any less a patriot by dint of one’s critique of country, so too one does not become any less a Zionist for objecting to Israel’s shortcomings. Remind your community where America was seventy-five years into their nationhood – in 1851 – and what America still had to endure and overcome. Israel has come a long way and still has a way to go, but we will only get there if you, our most committed, urge us, nudge us, critique us and most of all - support us on the path forward. If, as you say, Elliot, Israel makes a claim on your identity, then not only do you have a right, but you have a responsibility to remain a vested stakeholder in Israel’s journey.
I think, though I can’t be sure, Herzl smiled for the first time that day, and this is what he said to me: “Elliot, you seem to know me all too well - next summer you might consider reading a good detective novel rather than my diaries. You know how for me, an assimilated European Jew, the path back to Judaism was by way of a Jewish State. A dream of a Judaism proud and empowered, of Jews at home in their skin and tradition, a Judaism freely expressed. Our dreams, Elliot, are one and the same. Of course, I want you to keep Israel in your heart, to live here if you can, we’ll leave the light on for you. But your leadership ledger Elliot, your legacy will be measured according to the degree to which your Jews are at home not in Israel but in their Judaism. Teach them, Elliot. Give them the tools. Empower them to keep Jewish homes, to live according to Jewish time and tradition. Give them a place to start, a pamphlet on their seats, a program – for starters - to revitalize Shabbat, a spiritual placeholder in their week. Inspire them to live passion-filled Jewish lives. In the synagogue, at their Shabbat tables, on campus, wherever they go, in their hearts and in the fullness of their being.
My dream Elliot is your dream, and your dream is the dream of every Jewish soul. And what was true for my dream, is true for yours, and true for all: If you will it, it is no dream, but if you do not, it will remain a fairy-tale.”
And just like that, my friend took his leave.
Today is Rosh Hashanah, a day given over to our dreams, as Jews, as a Jewish community, and as a Jewish people. Let’s dream big in the year and the years ahead. Most of all - let’s make those dreams a reality.
At the CasinoStadt in Basel
At the CasinoStadt in Basel
The view from the stage at the CasinoStadt
MERCAZ-Canada's Nola Lazar and Stan Greenspan
The golden ticket to the CasinoStadt
The Masorti delegation in Basel
The 125th Anniversary World Zionist Congress, August 28 - 31 in Basel, Switzerland. Find out more here https://125fzc.org/
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"Bougie" has one!
The 125th Anniversary Commemorative Coin is available now, while supplies last!
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Lier la communauté juive canadienne à l’Israël
מחברים את הקהילה היהודית בקנדה לישראל
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