Thoughts on Returning From Israel

Photo: Since 1988, “Women of the Wall” has fought for women's right to pray collectively and aloud with Torah scrolls, tallitot, and tefillin at the Kotel. The women in Rabbi Mikelberg's group were blocked from approaching the wall but did their best to pray. 


In this column by Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg, of Temple Israel of Ottawa, the rabbi shares his recent experiences while on a trip to Israel where he was upset to witness extreme levels of senseless hate as the mood of the country is riled up by the proposed judicial reform. 

As Jews we’re lucky, we have many homes. Our physical homes, our spiritual homes, our ancestral homes. I’ve recently returned to my Ottawa home from my Israel home, as in the land of my people with whom I share so much. I was part of a mission of 250 Reform Rabbis from across North America. Our journey was one of solidarity, learning, and advocacy.  

This is not the community article that I would like to be offering.

My preference would be to speak about the Reform movement flourishing in Israel, now encompassing more than 50 congregations across the country. Or about interfaith efforts throughout the region bringing together Jews, Muslims, and Christians in unique ways. Or even about Israeli technological advances, charting new territory. However, I cannot in good faith begin my processing without first delving into something much deeper. I was shocked to witness extreme levels of senseless hate that threaten the societal fabric of our beloved Israel. Jew against Jew, neighbour attacking neighbour, right vs left. The animosity at the present between siblings is tragic and demands that we as Diaspora Jews take note and speak to charting a new path. My words are coming from a place of a deep love of the land and its people and a yearning for a better tomorrow. For as long as I can remember, Zionism has been a passion of my being.  

Allow me to convey my thoughts in a few vignettes: 

  • On Rosh Chodesh Adar, a time associated with great happiness and cheer, I accompanied my female colleagues in attending Women of the Wall. The beginning of the month is traditionally a women’s festival, as well as a special day associated with the reading of Torah. Traditionally at the Western Wall, these phenomena are separate, with women on one side of the wall and the Torah reading alongside the men. Since 1988, “Women of the Wall” has fought for women's right to pray collectively and aloud with Torah scrolls, tallitot, and tefillin at the Kotel. The morning began slowly. Intentionally, security guards were only letting us pass one by one, examining us with scrutiny. Our group was finally allowed to pass, but not the five Torah scrolls that we carried. The mood on the other side of the security gates was anything but sacred. The women got as close as they could to the Wall, but they were blocked by Orthodox women of all ages who had intentionally come early to serve as an obstacle. They tried their best to pray. For the men who gathered in the main plaza, we were greeted by Orthodox teens blowing loud whistles and hurling vulgarities at us. We were defiant, resilient, and enthusiastic. While we could not worship as we would have chosen, we did all gather as a group towards the end of the morning away from the wall but still within sight for a reading of Torah. 

  • Front and centre at the present are the government’s plans for Judicial Reform. Judicial Revolution would be a better term to describe the intent. The mood of the country at large is riled up, as right takes on left and vice versa. The opposition is taking to the streets en masse (photo at right shows an aerial view of a protest). The government seeks to neuter the power of the Supreme Court, allowing it to govern as it so chooses without checks and balances. The rights of minorities are at risk. Democracy is being threatened by extremist elements. A word of hope, for hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets in protest in the name of inclusion and justice, is unheard of. There can be no more slumbering. Having taken part in these protests myself, I can share that the mood was exciting, powerful, and inspiring. The president of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, addressed the crowd, quite noteworthy for a non-Israeli. His words were one of love – all of us bound together to raise our voices and stand strong. 
  • My trip did not include a visit to the West Bank. But the region was never far from my thoughts. The wrathful words of Ministers Ben Gvir and Smotrich have riled up the region. They attempt to paint the Muslim and Jewish residents of the area in definitive terms, but a more appropriate analysis would appreciate the two peoples with contrasting narratives, challenges, and hopes. Recent days have been terrible for all. While I was in Israel, three young Jews were slaughtered by terrorists. Our hearts are broken as we mourn the loss of brothers, Hallel and Yagel Yaniv as well as Israeli American Elan Ganeles. To witness young innocent lives cut short with such brutality is horrific and speaks to the gravity of this moment in time. The perpetrators must be brought to justice. However, the Jewish vigilantes that paraded in the region violently in turn also must be condemned and brought to justice. Violence never justifies violence, and justice is not served by an eruption of extrajudicial action and collective punishment carried out by individuals seeking vengeance. All parties need to come to the table as siblings of common lineage and values. 

Each and every one of us bears responsibility for the direction of our world. Most of the time we make healthy choices, as constructive efforts that build us up rather than take us down. But sometimes each of us goes a different route, the yestzer ha’rah as in our wicked inclinations become dominant. It’s then that we make mistakes, and we take ourselves backward. We ought not to brush off these behaviours, we can learn from them. There is a danger with nastiness, it can become oppressive and take over our being. And it tends to lead to further nastiness contagiously spreading. Each of us has memories of quarrels between friends, wrongdoings for which we feel anger, and mistakes that we’ve made at a weak moment.  

Too many energies around the world at the present are dedicated to hate, disrespect and intolerance. We’ve become grounded in these negative forces, and find ourselves stuck, polarized, unable to chart forward ground. We fear the other, we brush them off, we leave no room to find commonality. And often time this other is our sibling. What a shame it was to visit Israel, the land of our brothers and sisters, and witness such animosity. I can point fingers at the other side, but more helpful, I’d like to demand that all of us do better at awakening to our shared humanity, to the essential quality of compromise, to the potential for the promise before we tear one another apart. Most of us are not Israelis, but we still serve an important role as Diaspora Jews in doubling down on our support of a vision for the land that sits with our shared values and dreams. May we one day remember these dark days, and how we rejected the hopelessness for a pathway of light.   

As Ottawans, we can even teach our Israeli friends the power of crossing boundaries and exploring all that we share. I feel blessed to now call the capital my home for almost four years. Early in my tenure, Rabbi Reuven Bulka Z”L invited me for coffee. We met in Starbucks. It was a beautiful chat, we discovered much in common. He spoke to me about the special connection that he made with Temple Israel’s Rabbi Emeritus, Steven Garten. I shared with him that I do not take for granted that we are meeting in such a public setting. At that he was quick to reassure, “Of course, where else would we be? Welcome to the city!” What a different world we would be living in if all shared such compassion and care. 

This trip was not a shiva visit rather it was one of great meaning and re-connection. As always, a visit to Israel is special and unique. I felt at home. There are only a few places in the world for which we feel such a precious connection. Again, my words today are that of love, coming from a proud Zionist. The work is not just for them, or for us, it is for all. Let us process the global hate that is conquering all and make a place for love. Alongside Moses and Miriam, Hertzl and Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin, we hold our heads high, we demand better, we continue to dream, and we do so as one.  

--Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg has served the Temple Israel Congregation since 2019. Over his Rabbinic career, he has served congregations in Toronto and Vancouver. He also serves as the chair of the Reform Rabbis of Canada and sits on the leadership board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).