20 years ago I embarked on a ship from Piraeus to Haifa with 40 sixteen year olds whom I was looking after with Jane Cutter. The genius educational idea of various people in the UK Jewish community enabled many of the 1500 children who went to Israel on tour that year, to simulate the Exodus Boat trip, which happened exactly 50 years earlier in 1947.
I was reminded of this as I tuned in to listen to Israeli radio this week on my commute to work. The programme was half-way through and the high culture discussion was too much to concentrate on along with navigating the Finchley Road. But the conversation in the studio was about the First Zionist Congress, which took place in Basel in 1897. The year I led Israel tour we also commemorated, with many Herzl impressions, the 100th anniversary of the first Zionist congress. We didn’t simulate the first night of this momentous gathering which had delegates from 17 different countries arrive in white tie and tails. But we did think deeply about the aim from the second day of the congress:

“The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Eretz ­Israel secured by public law.”

Now Herzl was the first President of the Zionist congress and lest you think that progressive Judaism was universal in its reticence towards Zionism, Rabbi Stephen S Wise, from the same city of birth as Herzl, attended the second Zionist congress. It was Stephen S Wise who founded the Jewish Institute of Religion (one of the seminaries for training progressive Rabbis in the USA).

Two years after I led Israel tour with Jane, I was a movement worker for RSY-Netzer and had been asked to speak at a general meeting on the future of Zionism. When I turned up at the meeting it turned out that the Zionist Federation had asked representatives of all the youth movements to speak and it was not just to speak, but a speech competition. I remember the other individuals from different movements had prepared lengthy scripts for their speeches. I had not been told it was a speech day and had made no notes to speak of.

I got up and spoke and made three points. I can’t remember them all and I cannot find the notes anywhere. But at the time the message was simple. We had to build a Gesher Chai between the rest of the world and Israel – A living bridge. It wasn’t my idea, it was Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield’s – he had talked to us repeatedly about the idea and it made sense to me. I presented three suggestions for creating the Gesher Chai including visits to Israel, and sat down.

I’m embarrassed to say that when I returned to the office I was informed that I had won the speech contest and the crowd were very impressed with my ideas. The moral of the story being obviously that one should never write down a script from which one reads…

A Gesher Chai. It’s an idea that still holds power and it was wrought in a world of the late 90s when already young people were beginning to question their relationship with the state of Israel. Of course, the Millennial generation think they had it first, but trust me I had many a meeting with senior educators where we talked about how to educate with integrity about the wonder of Israel whilst being true to its problems about the peace process (there still was one, just back then) and acknowledging the aspirations of the Palestinian people for their own state. You have to remember, I started university the year Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated and can still remember walking past my halls of residence to be told from the window of a friend’s flat that the prime minister of Israel had been shot and died.

I never went on a gap year to Israel, so my first real Gesher Chai was created by the Shlichim who came over to work in RSY-Netzer. I worked most closely with or was influenced by Julian Resnick, Yonatan Alter, Sharon Topper Amitai, Liat Konitchki, Merav Kallush, Noa Marom, Yudit Werchow. Then there were the educators who came over from Israel like Jeremy Leigh and, by the time I was a bit older, Colin Bulka who headed up the Shlichut programme for a while.

If I pick out just a few of their contributions, on top of their friendship, Julian taught me to think and to love the poetry of my people’s story, Sharon helped me understand how to turn loneliness and anger into creativity and action for my community, Liat taught me to be a humble host and to allow space for people to repent, Jeremy taught me nearly everything that lies at the foundation of my ideals as a Jewish educator. You see my most formative teachers, the people who have been my madrichim, have been Israelis. People who have synthesised the most inspiring dream of the Jewish people, with Jewish learning, a commitment to the world and to Jews around the world. It was from these people I learnt to grow up.

By the way, this learning continued when I went to live in Israel for my third year of training to become a rabbi. It was at Kehillat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem that I volunteered every week in the KEEP English Enrichment programme, under the guidance of Shachar Viso who latterly went on shlichut. Shachar taught me the boundless enthusiasm for Israel, its culture and the joy of being part of making history.

Throughout my early lifetime, the people who had an impact on my self-understanding as a Zionist (I know it’s a dirty word these days) came from the land flowing with milk and honey to the UK. The Gesher Chai was one way traffic. It was not until I was in my twenties that I spent a substantial amount of time in Israel and was taught by new teachers. And still later yet, when following the teacher who probably changed my life completely, we moved as a family to Israel so I could study at Haifa university. Dr Moshe Lavee, and his family I should say, brought to me and my family the gift of friendship and wisdom with great depth and sensitivity.

As a family our welcome to Israel took place at the Kotel Plaza, the site of this week’s news since the Israeli government has turned and turned again on whether an egalitarian space should be created at the kotel, whilst also suggesting that no non-Orthodox converts might be accepted in Israel. It’s become the symbol of how non-Orthodox Jewry is treated in and out of Israel by the religious right with power. When we arrived at the kotel to receive our identity documents we were taken to the back of the plaza in the site of an archaeological excavation of Roman period Jerusalem.

When the ceremony finally finished we were told we were going to stand beneath the Israeli flag in the centre of the plaza and sing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem). Just as we began climbing the steps our leader called us back – he had been told we weren’t permitted to sing Hatikvah beneath the flag because we were a mixed group (of men and women). So Hatikvah was sung out of sight and sound of the easily offended charedim who control the Kotel area. That did not stop the Western Wall Foundation (the charedi non-governmental organisation which administered the kotel area) providing us with a copy of Rabbi Judah Halevi’s poem ‘My heart is in the East‘ – which some claim to represent a sort of medieval proto-zionism. How strange – the charedim who, whilst shifting in their stance on Zionism, have historically been anti-zionist, control the plaza at the heart of the capital city of the State of Israel. This control is to such an extent that the national anthem of the State cannot be sung by a mixed group in a location under their control – effectively turning a national heritage sight into a synagogue. I rather think that instead of handing out Judah Halevi’s poem, the organisers might better have distributed ‘The City of Slaughter‘ by Bialik, in which he lambasts the fervently Orthodox for their concern with the minutiae of Jewish law over saving their family and themselves from a pogrom. But perhaps that would have been just a little too counter cultural.

Israel is a complex place to live. There are competing claims to land, religion, history, identity and authority. It is far from perfect. It is also a work in progress and that’s what makes it exciting – where nearly 6 million Jews are living and trying to understand alongside their fellow citizens what it means to live in a Jewish and democratic State. This is the place where the Jewish future is being decided nationally not just individually and in families and communities.

The Children of Israel have left Egypt behind and yet at this moment of trouble they describe their plight as the antithesis of the promised land. “Why did you bring us to this wretched place with no grains, or figs or vines or pomegranates. There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 20:5)

Our biggest mistake is to think that we are in the place of plenty and Israel the parched and dry desert. We may think occasionally that the State of Israel has become a wretched place but to only engage with Israel as a wretched place is to abandon a dream of Herzl and the people who live there with whom we can truly build something great and from whom we can learn so much.

There is a simple formula that I am going to state that may also make me unpopular. We cannot, as progressive Jews, only spend our time, or appear to spend our time, moaning about Israel and the policies of her government and then expect to have power, influence or carry the weight of public opinion in Israel. This time round, the power of money and diplomacy influenced Netanyahu to change tack, but we cannot only respond as if in an emergency.

If we care about who has access to the outer supporting wall of Herod’s temple. If we care about injustices carried out in our name. If we care about pluralism, equality, justice and peace in the place that has become the home to the largest population of Jews anywhere in the world. Then we must show we care in ways other than complaining like the children of Israel throughout the book of Numbers.

That means we must double or triple our support, investment and exposure to organisations and institutions sympathetic to progressive Judaism. But secondly, and here’s the impossible challenge, we must send our young people (under 35s) to Israel on medium to long term programmes with partners who reflect our values. We should send our educators on serious immersive programmes. And we should dig deep to massively reduce the cost of those programmes so that everyone who wants has the opportunity to learn from the great teachers like the ones I mentioned above. A fund for the future. And we should champion the cause of choosing to make our homes in Israel.

We must engage, engage, engage, in the incredible Zionist project so that when we want to stake a claim in the power struggle to realise the dream we are at the table and not just moaning from the side. And also, you should write to His Excellency Ambassador Regev to tell him you expect members of our community to be given equal recognition in conversion and equal access to pray as we wish at Israel’s holiest site.

I was reminded of a poem by Yehuda Amichai, the poet whose work I was first introduced to by Julian Resnick. Amichai in his last collection of poems writes the following poem which yearns for freedom, slightly mocking the paper prayers stuffed into the rocks – perhaps they have no more hope of success than the startled birds. They seem in search of freedom and release from between the heavy stones:

Why Jerusalem, why me?

Why not another city, another person?

Once I stood at the Western Wall

when suddenly a flock of startled birds soared up,

shrieking and flapping their wings like bits of paper

with wishes scribbled on them, wishes

that flew out from between the massive stones

and ascended on high.

למה ירושלים, למה אני

למה לא עיר אחרת למה לא אדם אחר?

פעם עמדתי לפני הכותל המערבי

ופתאום, להקת ציפורים עלתה למעלה

בקריאות ובמשק כנפיים, כמו פתקות בקשה

שהשתחררו מבין האבנים הגדולות והכבדות

ועפו אל על

We wish for a freedom that lies in escape from the clutches of the rocks. Why not another man, why not another place? Because from here we deal in standing before the wall and it is here, in the physical, constrained and imperfect now that we must be partners to build the world of the future. That’s where the Children of Israel are headed and that’s where we should be aiming for. Towards the dreams of those on the Exodus boat some 70 years ago and the dreams of the 200 souls present at the first Zionist Congress just 120 years. For if you will it, it is no dream. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.