Today is my 51st birthday. This special day falls between the conclusion of my recent
trip to Israel and the arrival on Tuesday evening of Tu Bishvat, a Jewish holiday
celebrating the natural world, especially the importance of trees.
A well-known story we tell on Tu Bishvat recalls a man named Honi, who encountered
an elder planting a carob tree. Honi said to the man, “You must be a fool if you think
you will live to enjoy the fruit of the tree you plant today, for it will not bear carobs for
many years.” The elder replied to Honi, “When I was born, I arrived in a world that
already had trees. That’s because my grandparents planted them for me. And I now am
planting for my grandchildren.” And so Honi came to understand the precious
importance of planting seeds for generations-to- come.
While Tu Bishvat calls for planting actual trees, particularly in Israel, we can also look to
the trees as symbolic of our ancestors’ investment in us and our own investment in
future generations. In this more poetic spirit, I’m reminded of a moment I enjoyed
recently in Jerusalem and the special planting opportunity it represents.
To help celebrate its 60th anniversary, I spent Shabbat morning at Kehilat Har-El,
established in 1958 as the founding congregation of the Israel Movement for Reform
and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). After prayer that day, I listened to a talk by Rabbi
Gilad Kariv, who is Executive Director of the IMPJ. Rabbi Kariv spoke about Har-El, it’s
significant role in having shaped six decades of vibrant, liberal Jewish life, and the
importance of infusing Progressive Judaism throughout more of Israel.
My ears really perked up when Rabbi Kariv began speaking about one Felix Levy, the
same Felix Levy who served Emanuel Congregation in Chicago as its rabbi for 47 years.
I am blessed to be one of Rabbi Levy’s successors. Rabbi Kariv went on to share how
Rabbi Levy presided over the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1937,
when it drafted the Columbus Platform. Thanks to Rabbi’s Levy’s leadership, the CCAR
converted its anti-Zionist attitudes that marked the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Rabbi
Levy believed that a vital Reform Judaism in Israel meant a vital Reform Judaism in
North America and the greater Diaspora. He was right.
For me, my experiences in Israel, and in particular in a progressive context, have
strengthened my Hebrew, sharpened my command of sacred text, and nurtured within
me an abiding sense of klal Yisrael [an enduring love and affection for my people and a
deepened awareness of and passion for Jewish diversity and its inclusion in everyday
communal life.] How does/has/might Israel strengthen(ed) your life as a [Reform] Jew
in North America/the Diaspora?
Like the elder in our Tu Bishvat story, Rabbi Levy and his colleagues helped plant a
seed that has blossomed into beautiful atzei chaim, beautiful trees of progressive,
inclusive and creative Jewish life in Israel. Trees that have nourished Rabbi Levy’s own
grandchildren, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, a Reform rabbi in Jerusalem, and Rabbi
Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi, the first woman ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel and the
Dean of HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem, and his great grand-daughter
Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered who was just ordained in the class of the 100th Israeli
Reform rabbi and serving the community at Kibbutz Gvat in Emek Israel.
I felt pretty lucky to be at Har-El to hear Rabbi Kariv’s message in the first place; a
happy bit of serendipity and synchronicity for this current Emanuel rabbi so proud of
the legacy of his predecessors. But the moment was made even more exquisite by the
actual presence of Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi and her husband, Dr. Elan Ezrachi, who are
both coming in late March to visit Emanuel and other Reform communities in Chicago.
What a great moment and context in which to offer them an early welcome Naamah
and Elan and, more importantly, to witness their own naches (pride and appreciation).
Kol ha-kavod to Rabbi Levy, his colleagues, his descendants and their chevrei, and 40
some communities and congregations that have helped to make Reform Judaism in
Israel a precious reality throughout sixty years and counting - l'dor va’dor, from
generation to generation.
As was confirmed that Shabbat morning, there’s still much work to be done: to plant
new seeds throughout Israel, to cultivate and renew strong and healthy trees of
progressive Jewish experience. Doing so will not only strengthen the roots of Reform
Judaism in Ha’aretz but here in North America and throughout the Diaspora, too.
Make it a day of blessing and be a force for good.