by Rabbi Steve Burnstein, Director,
Anita Saltz International Education Center
A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of spending a morning with a delightful group of young adults who were in Israel on a seminar of Jung and Jüdisch (Young and Jewish). Young and Jewish is the German affiliate of Tamar our Movement’s organization for Progressive young adults.
This was not a first-timers’ “feel good” trip to Israel. These intelligent young adults were participating in a more serious seminar. As they traveled the country they addressed some of the critical challenges facing Israel and the Jewish People. They confronted a variety of social justice, political and religious issues. I hoped to help them unpack some of these experiences and facilitate discussion around their questions.
One of the most interesting aspects of my work as director of the Saltz Center is the international makeup of our programs. Each of our seminars is tremendously enhanced by the opportunity to experience Progressive Jewish Peoplehood while learning with Reform Jews from around the world.
Their experiences as twenty-something Liberal Jews from Germany added a particular perspective and insight to their encounters here in Israel. One of the comments that most resonated with me was regarding treatment and status of refugees in Israel primarily from Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan. They could not comprehend how the Jewish State of Israel could allow the detaining and deporting of these asylum seekers.
While shocked by statements and actions from the Israeli public and leaders – including Interior Minister Eli Yishai – the participants were happy to learn about grassroots efforts to turn this around. We should be proud that the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism launched Jerusalem’s first preschool for children of refugees and foreign workers.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we learn that God has expectations about how the Children of Israel are to behave when they enter the Land of Israel. There is an elaborate ritual taking the first fruits of the Land and acknowledging that they, like the Land itself, are gifts from God.
After placing the first fruits in a basket and presenting them to the priests and placing them on an altar, we are commanded to recite a passage reminding us that we were once strangers in a strange land: “
My father was a fugitive Aramean
.” (Deuteronomy 26:5).
When we reap the harvest of the Land given to us by God we are commanded to remember, to acknowledge, that our ancestors were homeless, wandering, fugitives. In our pain, misery and oppression we cried out to God who showed mercy and kindness; saving us “with an outstretched arm and awesome power” bringing us, eventually, to freedom in a Land “flowing with milk and honey.”
The ritual doesn’t end here. Unlike with many of the sacrifices where we are to bring them to the altar and leave them for the priests, here we are commanded about the fruit of the Land given to us by God: “enjoy together with the stranger, the fatherless and the widow all the bounty that the God has bestowed upon you.”
Remembering our own oppression is meaningless unless it impacts our actions. We continue to retell the story of the Jewish People – OUR story – in order to learn from it. The story should shape our lives and guide how we see the world and how we treat others.
As a nation, we in Israel have much upon which to reflect as we approach the High Holidays. May we continue to work toward fulfilling the dream of a Jewish State that reflects the highest values of Torah. May we learn to embrace the stranger in our midst with compassion.
If you are passionate about social justice and want to get involved please join us for the
Roswell Social Justice Seminar
December 27, 2012 – January 3, 2013.