Rabbi Ada Zavidov’s Article

Rabbi Ada Zavidov’s Article



A few days before Purim 5771 (2011), I traveled on behalf of Kehilat Har-El to visit the Reform and Liberal Jewish communities of London. The visit also included a lecture at the "School of Oriental and African Studies" (SOAS) at the University of London, which among other things is also known for its hostility towards Israel and Zionism. At the invitation of the school’s “Israel Society”, I delivered a lecture titled: “Israeli, Humanist, and Zionist: Not a Contradiction”. The organizers of the lecture thought that around 10-20 people would come to hear me speak, yet to our surprise several dozen students entered the hall, many of them Muslims, including women wearing the hijab.



 Granddaughter Rav Ada Zavidov in Beit- Aba

I opened the lecture stating that I am not speaking as a politician nor as an ambassador, but rather as a rabbi, describing the Judaism and Zionism that I


believe in, one whose “ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace”, together with my sincere belief that the Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and hence our unalienable right to live there. At the same time, we all need to listen to one another, to internalize the suffering of the “other”, and strive towards peace between our two peoples. I concluded with the “Prayer for Peace” by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, which includes the words: “We have not come into this world for friction and dissension, not enmity and jealousy and vexation and bloodshed. We have come into the world solely that we might know You, eternally blessed One” (“Ha'avodah Shebalev”, p. 84).


Then it was time for questions. Most of them of course were difficult, albeit expected. At a certain point, when I mentioned the “Partition Plan” of 1947 and the fact that the Arabs refused to accept it, some of the Muslims, and one Jew (!), stood up and walked out of the auditorium in protest. Apart from this instance, however, the lecture proceeded without any further drama. We were particularly happy about this when it came to our attention following the lecture that some of the Muslims had planned to “sabotage” the event but had changed their mind during the speech (though it should be noted that a few days following my lecture, a student was physically attacked during a protest on behalf of Israel at the very same campus).


The following day, Friday evening, I was invited to attend a Kabbalat Shabbat/Arvit service at one of our congregations affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and then speak to its members following their potluck dinner. The topic of my talk was: “The Challenge of Supporting Israel among Progressive Jews.” I encountered very harsh criticism of Israel by those present, to the point where nothing positive was said about the country at all. One of the members didn't cease speaking about the “settlers” and how much damage they were causing, while another member of the congregation shared that her family “made aliyah” but left Israel and returned to London before her son was drafted into the IDF, stating, “What do you mean that
he has to serve in the territories?!”


I tried my best to emphasize the positive regarding my country and homeland: not everything is negative in Israel, so come be a partner with us in repairing not only the world but Israeli society as well. Don't disassociate yourselves from us, since Reform Jews also live in Israel and are in need of your support, and so on and so forth. However, in the depth of my heart I felt the alienation towards us, not to mention indifference.


If you ask me where it was more difficult: at the SOAS campus or among my fellow Jews, my response would be that davka among the “members of the tribe” I felt more lonely as an Israeli and a Zionist than in front of the young Muslim university students...


Zionism for me isn't a choice. It is part and parcel of my DNA, an inseparable part of who I am. Even if I tried to fight against it with all my strength, I feel that the struggle would be lost from the outset. I grew up in Israel of the 1960's, in secular Tel Aviv, in a home with deep Israeli roots, “planted” by both the opposing Revisionist and Labor movements. My mother was raised at Kibbutz Degania Bet in the Jordan Valley by the pioneers of the “Third Aliyah”, and many of her classmates were killed during the War of Independence in defense of the valley. As a young adult she was one of the founders of Kibbutz Urim in the Negev, together with my father z”l. My grandfather, alav hashalom, the journalist and author Abba Ahimeir, was very close to Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and when my mother was born, being the same year as Jabotinsky's 50th birthday, he named her “Ze'eva” in honor of the Revisionist leader. During the British Mandate in the early 1930's, my grandfather established the Brit Habirionim, which was the first anti-British underground movement in Palestine, before the Etzel or Lechi, and whose goal was to expel the British from the Land of Israel and establish an independent Hebrew state.


The men of the Brit Habirionim, among them the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, acted primarily through protests and demonstrations against the British: during Chol Hamoed Sukkot 1930, they demonstrated in Tel Aviv during the visit of British Under-Secretary of State Drummon Shiels, and as a result my grandfather was arrested by the British for the first time. In July 1931 he acted against the population census held by the mandate authorities and was arrested again for the second, third, and fourth time... In May 1933, he led his followers in a campaign to remove the Nazi flags flying above the German consulates in Jerusalem and Jaffa. On June 12, 1934, court proceedings began against him with the accusation of belonging to the illegal movement Brit Habirionim. Among the “incriminating” documents found by the British police was written his following statement: “Youth, you must stand in the breach. If your heart is warm and aches for your downtrodden people in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora, prepare to be among the fighters for the liberation of Zion!” (“The Man who Turned the Tide”, page 247). In July 1934, my grandfather was convicted by the British authorities to 21 months of imprisonment with hard-labor and spent his jail-term in the “Russian Compound” prison inJerusalem. On August 4, 1935 he was freed, and the first place he visited was the Western Wall.


Several decades later, I found myself looking for a synagogue in Jerusalem. The year was 1990, and very few of those around me had then heard of the Reform movement. Those who did told me that among the Reformim, men and women sat together, which of course spoke to me. That's how I arrived at Kehilat Har-El and instantly I knew that I had found my spiritual home. Here I could be both a Jewish Israeli and an Israeli Jew, each identity complimenting each other. Everything was so very Jewish and also so very Israeli and Zionist: “Avoteinu and Imoteinu”, “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'ase shalom aleinu, v'al kol Yisrael,v'al kol b'nei ha'adam”, modern Hebrew poems weaved in between our ancient prayers (which we call “Shiru Ladonai Shir Chadash), and an enlightening siddur. And no coercion. This was exactly for me!


A few years passed, and I was now registered for the Israeli rabbinic program at HUC's campus in Jerusalem. I was among the “second generation” of Israeli women rabbis following the pioneers who came before me: Rabbis Kinneret Shiryon, Naamah Kelman, and Maya Leibovich. My classmates were Rabbis Miri Gold, Mira Raz, and Maayan Turner. We were the only Israeli women who were studying for the rabbinate at the time in the early 1990's. It's difficult to describe today the responses that we received then, when we told people that we were studying to become rabbis, from amused puzzlement to true antagonism. It was indeed “going against the stream”.


We have all come a long way since then: the women who study for the rabbinate today are generally treated much differently. We women rabbis are no longer a curiosity, and many of our Israeli congregations are led by women. In general, in the past few years, our movement has made inroads into Israeli society that in the past we could have only dreamed of: activities in the kibbutzim of the north and south of Israel, a youth movement and pre-military preparation course, and impressive social justice programs. An increasing number of Israelis support us and our way and enjoy the services we offer: study programs, bnai/bnot mitzvah ceremonies, and weddings; our movement has dozens of preschools while at the Jerusalem campus of the College the men and women who study for the rabbiniate come from very different and varied Israeli backgrounds. Indeed, there is no doubt that we are blessed with many achievements and successes.


I too have been privileged to serve as the rabbi of Kehilat Har-El, the first synagogue where I was a member, and from the day that I entered its doors, I've held it close to my heart. Har-El is the founding congregation of the Israeli Reform Movement (53 years ago), and many of its longtime members were survivors of the Shoah and builders of the State. Har-El for me is a “preserve” of Zionism without quotation marks, the classic Zionism of long-ago when we dreamed of a beautiful and just state that would serve as a “light unto the nations”.


Yet together with the achievements of the Reform Movement in Israel, there are still many Israelis who have yet to encounter it or who see it as a foreign transplant, while many others who enjoy the services that our movement offers have no intention whatsoever to join it or take any responsibility towards furthering its establishment in Israel.


Concerning our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, some of them are acquainted with Israel only through the media, and see only all the failures and corruption, placing an emphasis only on what is missing. But others, like our friends, the Reform Zionists in North America, relate to us warmly, with support and love – to the members of the Israeli Reform movement in particular and to the State of Israel in general. One can express criticism, since indeed there are many things that are in need of repair in Israel. However, what is important is that this criticism come from a place of love and caring, rather than coldness, anger, or indifference.


For all those who are disappointed (and I am among them!) by the Zionist dream, the State of Israel as it is today, its government, leaders, and faulty morality, I would like to quote what the Torah says about Moses at the end of his life. As we read here, Moses expresses his overwhelming desire to enter the Promised Land: "I pleaded with the Eternal at that time, saying, 'O Eternal God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.' But the Eternal was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Eternal One said to me, 'Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:23-27).


The choice of wording here is critical: Moses asks God, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land...”, while God commands him to ascend to the summit of Pisgah (i.e. Mount Nebo), saying: “...The Eternal showed him (Moses) the whole land: Gilead, as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negev; and the Plain – the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar. And the Eternal said to him, 'This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 'I will assign it to your offspring.' I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there” (ibid 34:1-4).


"Moses' request was to cross over and see the 'good land', the good part of the land, the beautiful Land of Israel. But God showed him all of the land, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly; the land lush with flora and fauna and water-springs, but also of desolation and waste... For God said to him: 'This is the land...' Moses was an idealist, so God saved him from the compromise, the bitter truth, the land that was imperfect (Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, “Torat Am” for the book of Deuteronomy, page 54).


 Ahad Ha'am, in his treatise on Moses, wrote: “'From the other side (of the Jordan) he would see the land, but to it he would not cross over'. Moses brought his people to the “border”, prepared them for the future, and gave them an lofty ideal to which the people would raise up its eyes in times of sorrow and be a source of consolation. But from now on, others will come who are better suited to compromise with life, doing what can be done and accomplishing what can be accomplished... Moses remains the prophet, dying with a shining countenance upon his face and with words of comfort on his lips till the end of days...”


The pioneering Zionists that built the State of Israel and we that live in it today are like the “others” that crossed the Jordan and entered the Land. We know that it is not only “good”. It is everything! “This is the land” and we have a purpose in it, important, difficult, and idealistic.


I wish us all here in Israel the faith, strength, optimism, vision, and ability to cleave to our roles in changing Israeli society and not despair, while to our brothers and sisters overseas, I pray that you continue to “cleave” to us and not drift apart. The connection between us is important, vital and crucial for us all!


Rabbi Ada Zavidov is the rabbi of Kehilat Har-El in Jerusalem and former chair of MARAM.

CCAR Journal, April 2011
Translation: Cantor Evan Cohen, Kehilat Har-El