Is Yom Ha’atzmaut Taking a Beating?

There was a time when all you had to do for Yom Ha’atzmaut was play a Naomi Shemer song and plunk a couple falafel balls into a pita, and Jews would swarm into a hora, waving their plastic flags, tears in their eyes and lumps in their throats.

Not so anymore, when most of today’s kids and their parents are more likely to read about than remember the founding of the state or the Six-Day War, events that for many formed the touchstone of an unconditional attachment to Israel.

And when that visceral emotion doesn’t exist to soften the harsh blows of the media or even the loving criticism lobbed from the pulpit, positive identity with the land suffers.

Rabbi Jerald Brown of Temple Ahavat Shalom, a large Reform congregation in Northridge, keeps all this in mind when he creates a Yom Ha’atzmaut service, which he directs toward people in their 30s and 40s and their children.

“These are people who were not present at the creation and a great many were in elementary school at the Six-Day War,” he says. “For them Israel is more likely to be defined in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Wye Agreement… and particularly for our congregation, in terms of denial of equal rights to non-Orthodox Jews.”

This year he chose readings from modern Israeli poets about the sacrifices of young soldiers, and pieces by contemporary thinkers about peace and tolerance.

“We don’t presuppose an automatic and visceral connection to Israel,” Brown says. “In fact the pieces are chosen more with an eye toward shaping that connection.”

Brown deals head-on with the issues that trouble his congregants. For his Yom Ha’atzmaut sermon, he put a positive spin on the conversion controversy by discussing how “the best interests of the State of Israel and of non-Orthodox world Jewry are served by the furtherance of religious equality.”

Rabbi Robert Krause of Temple Beth Torah, a 90-family Reform synagogue in Granada Hills, approached Israel’s birthday differently, saying this was not a time to address issues such as pluralism, a topic he deals with at other times.

Instead, he likes to throw an old-fashioned party, with falafel and the hora for the religious school kids, and a special service for the congregation. His goal is to “make Israel come alive.”

Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge says that for his Orthodox congregants, Israel naturally comes alive in the regular performance of mitzvot and in the daily prayers directed toward Jerusalem.

While he acknowledges that the younger generation may not have the feelings of those who were around in 1967, he says love of Israel is based on more than the last 51 years.

“Our emotional attachment to Israel is based on Eretz Yisrael, on the Land of Israel which we have had for 3,000 years,” he says.

Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks also emphasizes that biblical connection, as well as contemporary history, in the religious school curriculum.

“I’ve tried very hard to keep my congregants as close to Israel as I can,” says Olins, who doesn’t sense any disaffection among her membership. “Maybe because of my feelings the congregation reflects my energy.”

On Friday night, a member who was a fighter pilot in the Israeli army addressed the Conservative congregation, and on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the religious school spread throughout the building to celebrate with song, dance, art projects, and of course, food.

In school and in shul, “Israel is always spoken about in nothing but the highest terms,” says Olins.

In fact, Olins, who sits on the executive board of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinic Assembly, rarely deals with the issues of pluralism and politics from the pulpit, saying she would rather discuss them with her colleagues.

Larry Tishkoff, shaliach (emissary from Israel) for the Jewish Agency, thinks that is the proper approach, since he believes “the majority of congregants in a synagogue are not as concerned as the leadership” about issues such as the conversion controversy.

When criticism from the pulpit is heaped upon an already damaged image of Israel, developed in large part by the media, Tishkoff has no doubt that identity with the land suffers.

He points to the fact that the vast majority — as much as 80 percent — of American Jewry has never visited Israel, while many of these same people take trips to Europe or the Far East.

“It’s less an economic question than a question of desire,” Tishkoff says. Seeing Israel in person is the best way to replace the negative images with “the real Israel,” he says, and form a lasting and meaningful connection.

All the rabbis interviewed for this article agree, saying they have scholarship funds set up for Israel trips.

But only a small percentage of American Jews will take such a trip. For the rest, rabbis and educators know they face the same challenge in raising interest in Israel as they do with other aspects of Jewish life.

“There isn’t the emotional attachment to a lot of things Jewish,” says Krause. “That’s why we have to educate them. If they haven’t been exposed, our job is to expose them so we can light a fire.”