Fighting for our Renewed Jewish Ethos

Published in the Long Island Jewish World/ Manhattan Jewish Sentinel 4/02
By Howard Teich

As we watch the Israeli Defense Forces bravely fighting to secure the safety of a future Israel, we also have a fight that we must take on here in America, for it is an important fight for the future of our Jewish peoplehood. It  is the fight for our Jewish literacy, the understanding of our Jewish history, vision and destiny.   And we must do it now.  And then we must use it to speak out more forcefully.  And we must be reinvolved on a more grassroots level on the issues of importance to our community.

For today, too many of our Jewish community who don’t know who we are, and what we have fought for these thousands of years.  If we were truly literate, then our ability to answer so many of the unanswered questions now swirling about would be easy.  I say to those who have been asking, “What can I do to help at a time like this?”, commit yourself with the intensity of the Israeli soldiers to restoring the literacy we have lost of our great Jewish heritage.  Only then can we become an effective fighting brigade for our Jewish people, through a way that we have been trained as a Jewish people, through our ideas and our thoughts.

Here’s how I approached it.  I asked myself, “Where can one begin?”   At this time of year, with Passover recently over and the Counting of the Omer underway, and with the continuing tragic events in Israel, look at G-d’s  instructions  to Moses as he led the Jewish people out of Egypt and through the Sinai, toward the Promised Land.

I turned to my Bible, presented to me by the Sisterhood of the Huntington Jewish Center for my Bar-Mitzvah in 1959.  According to the Torah, we were given the land of Israel, by G-d, to keep the Commandments, “Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of these people, that when they have all these statutes, they shall say, “Surely this great victim is a wise and understanding people (Deuteronomy 4.6).”

And we were given the warnings by G-d, in Deuteronomy8.11, “Beware lest thou forget the Lord thy G-d, in not keeping his Commandments, and his Ordinances and His Statutes, which I command thee this day,”;  in Deuteronomy 8.17, lest “thou say in thy heart:  “My power and might of my Land hath gotten me this Wealth.”; and finally, in Deuteronomy 8.19, “And it shall be, if thou shalt forget the Lord thy G-d, and walk after other gods, and serve them and worship them, I forewarn you this day that you shall surely perish.  “As the nations that the Lord maketh to perish before you, so shall ye perish; because ye would not harken to the Word of the Lord your G-d.”

G-d promised our people the land of Israel.  If we broke our commitments, and didn’t follow the Commandments, it could be taken away for a period of time.  Upon our learning anew, and respecting, and following the G-d’s commandments, we would be returned to the Land of Israel.
Interestingly, in Numbers 33.55, G-d warns Moses that, “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then shall those that remain of them be as thorns in your eyes, and as pricks in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land wherein ye dwell.  And it shall come to pass, that as I though to do unto them, so I will do unto you.”

I couldn’t help asking myself, and then others:  Does G-d have a role in the events today in Israel? If so, what must we learn and what must we do to fulfill our commitments to G-d in order to make Israel the full and continued reality promised by the Bible and G-d?  And what message is G-d giving us?

As an example, one of the people I asked the questions was Devorah Halberstam, director of government services of the new Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights (dedicated to the memory of her son Ari, who was killed in 1994 in a terrorist attack on the Brooklyn Bridge because he was a Jew).  She told me that Rebbe Menachem Schneerson ten years ago said that there will come a time when Israel will offer to give all the land back, and the Arabs won’t accept it.  Rabbi Schneerson, she said, had the opinion based on the Torah,  that Israel was endowed to us by G-d, and we should not give back the land.

So, we must study our modern day history, and become better advocates for the State of Israel and for our people, to help shape our future.  As I tried to answer the questions, I looked at Triumph of Survival by Beryl Wein, given to me years ago by Sy Siegel, and also I looked at Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, given to me by Michael Stoler (Siegel and Stoler are friends deeply involved in Jewish life and community). I also spent several hours reading the English version of The Book of Legends (Sefer Ha-Aggadah), an extraordinary compendium of our Jewish thinking,and Rabbinic legend and lore, compiled by Hayim Nachman Bialik in early 20thCentury Russia.

In the introduction to the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, David Stern argued that restoration to a geographical homeland was not enough.  The danger was that though we “might succeed in physically restoring the Jews to their homeland, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people, the restoration of the Jewish ethos, would be overlooked in the process.”  Bialik compiled the volume precisely because he found in our literature the knowledge of the “Nation of Israel, the secret of the Jewish genius, of the national ethos.”

I read about Hatikvah, The Hope, the national anthem of Israel from a poem written by Hebrew poet Naftali Hertz Imber who died in 1909.  We sing it all the time, or at least hum along, and it says in part: “Our Hope is Not Yet Lost/ the hope of two thousand years/ to be a free people in our own land/ the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

I thought about a young Israeli, then 28 years old, who commented to me a couple of years ago at The Salute to Israel Parade office, that he doesn’t understand why American Jews would have such a parade.  He was doing a documentary on the parade, so young Israelis would understand.  When I told him we shared a 2,000 year period of praying for our return to Eretz Yisrael, and we shared a common interest in its future, he couldn’t yet fathom the connection.

Lord Balfour, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, in1917, gave a real nudge to the process of rebirth when he declared that he favored a national home for the Jewish people, and for that he became a hero of the Jewish people, and we should know that. The homeland was to be carved out of the Ottoman Empire, and the countries of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria were only then created in the 20thCentury, and Israel was to include all of the West Bank, including parts of all three of those countries.

Another piece of information we should know, the Jewish claim to the City of Hebron goes back to Biblical days.  It is the burial ground for our matriarchs and patriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Leah.  Hebron is one of our holiest spots.  Yet, we were forced to leave in 1929, when there was a pogrom of the Jews of Hebron. We resettled in 1931, were evacuated in 1936 under renewed anti-Jewish attacks, were not allowed to resettle there when it came into the hands of Jordan in the 1948 War of Independence, and only in 1967-8, were we able to visit, and once again live in one of our holiest places.

We must know our history, if we are to decide whether justice is served by our staying in Hebron forever. For me, the answer is yes.  We should know why, and be able to advocate for it.  The Hebron Massacre symbolizes the Arab attempt to tell us that we should not be able to live in one of our holiest places, and the answer, for me is that is not acceptable.  We cannot permit the Arab people, nor any people, from restricting us as they did from living in our historic city.

Lest we forget, and I remember because a group I then co-chaired, called the Roundtable, made up of the Presidents of the New York Young Leadership organizations, held a rally in 1982, on the fifth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, and we called it “Israel’s Sacrifice for Peace.”  The entire Sinai was returned to Egypt in the hope for peace, including full normalization of relationships with Egypt.  And we gave up oil in the Sinai.  And we gave up resorts in the Sinai.  And we gave up training bases for the military and the Air Force.  And we gave up Biblical land.  That return mandated that we Jews could not live on that land, and the settlement of Yamit had to be pulled down, literally destroyed because we could not remain on what was thento become Egyptian land once again.   All for the hope of peace.

In Jimmy Breslin’s column in Newsday this past Friday, he quotes Irish-American leader and lawyer Brian O’Dwyer (whose family has always stood together with the Jewish people and Israel), from a conversation he had with him on the way back from Washington, DC, relating a story from our trip to Israel with then-Mayor David Dinkins in 1993.  I say “we,” because he mentions that “Howard Teich, Patricia Reberg, Suzan Johnson,” and “Dr. Ruth” together with Father Mychal Judge all held hands, at Father Judge’s request, and sang Silent Night in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And Brian O’Dwyer mentions, “It was quite a thing.  If we went today, they would not let us in.”  Although when Israel controlled Bethlehem, it was open to everyone, Jews, Christians, and Moslems, today under Palestinian control, we cannot go there.
Don’t forget with every right is a responsibility.  We do have a responsibility to our neighbors, for in a modern world, which is part of being a light unto the nations.  Together with anger, we must have empathy.   And we must take a lookat whether our values and ethos today as a people in Israel, and as a Jewish people throughout the world, the way we are living our lives and the way we are portraying them, is in keeping with our Promise.  We must take responsibility for the bad and the good, and we must question our role, and G-d’s role in the Jewish condition today.
This is a watershed time in Jewish history, a unique time for a generation born to the largest degree after the Holocaust and with the State of Israel.  For our Jewish heritage, our destiny is in our hands. We are carrying the torch for our people.  I was told that the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s daughter, last week on television, said that the Arabs must acknowledge that Israel is, and must be, a Jewish state. That is significant.  Many of us take that for granted, and yet, that is not the position of some Jews in Israel, who see Israel as a democratic country to be proud of, but not necessarily a Jewish State.  And that’s what Israel must be accepted as by the Arabs and the world.
How we carry out G-d’s will, and how we remain a light unto the world as a people who accepted the Torah, and who accepted the responsibility once again of Eretz Yisrael, and how we remain a modern people, that is not only an Israeli issue, it’s an issue for all of us.
And that responsibility that we have in Israel, and towards Israel, is also one that we have in regard to world Jewry.  And we can make a difference.
We cannot make that difference, however, without knowing our history in Diaspora as well, and in America we cannot do it without knowing of our great freedoms and achievements in America.  New Yorkers have led the way in this past century, and it is time for a renewal of that dedication and energy, not just on a leadership level, but from the entire community.  We’ve done a lot, and we haven’t yet done enough. This is a time to remember our Jewish heritage, and be proud of it.  The months of April and May are the centerpiece of our Jewish Heritage NY2002 celebration.  So study, and go to one or more of the many events and activities that are taking place. Come out to show your support at the Salute to Israel Parade on May 5thand at rallies around town.

And most importantly, use the thoughts of this article to question your friends and others, study, and make demands on your Jewish leaders, and speak out for what you believe.  In the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Rabbi Yohanan is quoted as saying, “Why is Israel said to be like the olive?  Because as the olive will not yield its oil unless it is crushed, so Israel does not return to the right way unless they are crushed by affliction.”   Let us use this most difficult period to find the right way, for we all must be fighters on the front lines, for ourselves and for our people, whether in Israel or in New York.