Sunday, July 23, 2017

D'Var Torah: An Extraordinary Israeli Family and Bridge Between Israel and the Diaspora

[In my American synagogue, Temple Israel of Natick, congregants give the D'var Torah during the summer months. A few years ago, at a meeting of our Israel Action Committee, I suggested the committee should take advantage of the opportunity, with each year one of us giving a D'var Torah about Israel. Everyone then pointed at me, and I wound up giving it three out of the last four years. This year's was special for me because, by coincidence, I was scheduled for the same day as my mother's yahrzeit.

This was my D'var Torah as delivered, except for minor changes I made on the spur of the moment.


Today's double-parshah brings us to the end of Bemidbar, as the Israelites were ending their 40 years in the desert and preparing to finally enter the land of Canaan. Moshe distributes the portions of the land to the different tribes.

After being attacked by the nations that lived on the east bank, the Israelites were already in possession of a vast tract of land outside their originally intended borders. Shades of the yet-to-come Six-Day War.

The tribes of Reuvain and Gad had large numbers of sheep, found the land was good for grazing and decided to settle on the east bank, angering Moshe, who feared the other tribes would believe those tribes were afraid to continue into Eretz Yisrael. To alleviate the problem, Moshe made a deal with them: the tribes of Reuvain and Gad would lead the charge into the land of Canaan, but after the land was conquered they could return to their land on the east bank.

Moshe also gave half the tribe of Manashe territory east of the Jordan River. There are several explanations given; I'm partial to the explanation that Moshe was concerned the separation of the tribes would create a sense of alienation, but by having half of the tribe of Manashe on either side of the Jordan it would serve as a bridge, between the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael on the west bank and those in the Diaspora on the east bank.

Sometimes it feels as if Marsha and I, splitting our time between Israel and America, also serve as a bridge.

The first time I went to a General Assembly of what was then CJF, the Council of Jewish Federations - now JFNA, Jewish Federations of North America - the theme was ״אנחנו אחד,״ We are One. Actually, I don't remember what the Hebrew was; my Hebrew then was even worse than it is today. At that time, we didn't seem to need bridges between the Jews in Israel and America.

Today, we have lots of bridges, most prominently Partnership2Gether - the wonderful volunteer program Steve and Carol Doppelt run in Haifa each summer is part of that - and Birthright.

I'd like to talk about, one bridge, one family, an Israeli family which spans Europe, America and Israel. An extraordinary family but also a microcosm of the Israeli experience. I think it can give some insight into what it is to live in Israel, to be Israeli, with the clarity and the ambiguity, the heartache and the joy, the way Israelis cope with a conflict the Palestinian Arabs won’t end, yet still manage to live full, fulfilling lives.

Ervin Birnbaum is rabbi emeritus of Bet Israel, our Masorti synagogue in Netanya. He was born in Czechoslovakia, as a teenager fled the Nazi deportations to Budapest and fought with the Underground. Seventy years ago today, the British had just taken him off the Exodus - Paul Newman should have been playing him - prevented him from staying in Eretz Yisrael and put him on a ship back to the Europe from which he thought he was escaping.

He eventually landed in New York with his parents and brother, having lost most of his other relatives during the Shoah, earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University and his rabbinical education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, although in reaction to his experience in the Holocaust, he was an atheist at the time he served his first pulpit.

Ervin and his wife Hadassa, who grew up in New Jersey, have three sons, Aiton, Liel and Daniel, all born in America before they made aliyah in 1970. They settled in Sde Boker, where Ervin founded an English language college preparatory school at the urging of David Ben Gurion. They moved to Netanya in 1978, when Ervin became rabbi at Bet Israel as well as National Educational Superintendent for Foreign Language Programs of Youth Aliyah. In 1989, he founded Shearim, Gates, today the longest running Russian outreach program in Israel, and which he still runs, at the age of 88.

Hadassa is a retired social worker who, among many other things in retirement, was the volunteer coordinator for ESRA's (English Speaking Residents Association) Moadon for Young Disabled Men and Women. She's even more active and involved than Ervin, but I want to move on to their sons, grandsons and a special Shabbat service at Bet Israel this past winter.

Aiton is the eldest son. He's a psychologist and also a licensed tour guide who leads the monthly tiyulim, tours, Shearim organizes to help Russians learn more about Israel and which Marsha and I go on during our months in Netanya.

Liel, a teacher, is the middle son. You read about one of his sons in 2014, although his name wasn’t given. During the last Gaza war. Liel’s son was critically injured and it was touch and go for weeks as Liel and his wife and family, brothers and parents, were living every Israeli family's nightmare.

The youngest is Dani, who is a businessman, the CEO of SodaStream. A few years ago, he was honored as Israel's outstanding exporter. He brought some of his Arab workers from the SodaStream factory in Mishor Adumim to the ceremony, at the president's residence in Jerusalem, and insisted that he be subjected to exactly the same security screening as his workers. He was incensed when they were subjected to more rigorous screening than he. When he was presented with his award, he publicly chastised Shimon Peres for the way his  Arab workers were treated.

His company, of course, has been one of the most prominent targets of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, in spite of the fact that he employed over 600 Palestinian Arabs at wages 4 times what they would have earned if they had jobs with the Palestinian Authority. This anti-Israel movement especially targets companies operating beyond the 1967 armistice lines even if those businesses provide much needed employment for Palestinian Arabs. When Dani was forced to relocate his company to Rahat, in the Negev, he provided bus transportation for his Arab employees and fought the Israeli government to provide work permits for as many as possible.

The Birnbaums are a very musical family. The Russian outreach program Shearim got started in 1989 when Ervin saw Russian immigrants begging for money as street musicians. He convinced one of them to come to Bet Israel the next Monday at noon. At Shabbat services, he ordered everyone in the Congregation to come back, Monday, noon, for a concert.  Except for some holidays and summer breaks, there's been a concert at the same place, in the heart of Netanya, every Monday ever since.

Aiton and Liel serve as rabbi and cantor for the High Holiday services at Bet Israel. Dani used to serve as a High Holiday chazzan at a synagogue in Cincinnati. Dani's wife, Bat Ella, goes on concert tours. Although she's totally secular, her music is all tefillot, many from her late friend, Debbie Friedman, with whom she often sang. It would be fantastic if Temple Israel could get her to perform here on one of her tours.

Once a year, for Hadassa and Ervin's anniversary, the whole family comes and runs the service, which that Shabbat is like going to a hootenanny. Last Friday night, the family led a musical Kabbalat Shabbat, which I've heard was fantastic although we missed it because we're here for the summer.

In my opinion, the best voice in the family belongs to Nitzan, Bat Ella and Dani's son. In fact, I think he has the most beautiful singing voice I've ever heard. I've told his grandmother he should be sent to tour college campuses here in America.

One Shabbat last summer, he led services for the first time. Marsha and I, being here in Natick, missed it. But we didn't miss an even more special Shabbat a few months ago, when Nitzan led Shabbat services the day before his induction into the army.

During the service, after the Torah reading, we recite the prayer for Israel. It's the same one we will say here in a few minutes, on page 149.  With his father standing beside him, Nitzan so beautifully chanted this prayer for Eretz Yisrael the day before being inducted into the IDF.

Dani was standing beside Nitzan because, in our synagogue in Israel, we follow the prayer for Israel with the prayer for the safety of our soldiers.

That Shabbat, that was Dani's job.

Dani, whose nephew the soldier had almost been killed little more than two years before, chanted the prayer for our soldiers, standing with his son the day before his induction ... and with everyone in the congregation standing with them both, as one with the entire family. It doesn't get more Israeli than that!

In Israel, it's all personal and always personal. Everyone has close relatives or friends who have been injured or killed in war or in terror attacks and everyone - except for some of the ultra-Orthodox - worries about their children in the army.

I really can't describe the emotions I had ... we all had ... as that father, our friend, whom many had known since he, too, was young, read the very personal prayer for the safety not just of anonymous young men and women defending us all, but for the safety of his own son.

One of the other reasons sometimes cited for Moshe allowing the tribes of Reuvain and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, to dwell outside Canaan was the benefit the Israelites could derive from support outside, from their Diaspora. And remember Moshe insisted those tribes join the rest of our people during wars.

Today, we have a larger Diaspora than two and a half tribes out of twelve and, as in Biblical times, we have plenty of internal disputes. But we should always remember our connection to each other, that we are one large family, and like any family we must support each other.

Parents, like Dani and Liel and Aiton, and grandparents, like Hadassa and Ervin, and young men and women, like Nitzan, need and deserve to feel that our hearts, not just in Israel but here in the Diaspora, are with them.

שבת שלום.

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