Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Lo Nafsik Lirkod
We Will Not Stop Dancing

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

Here we go, jumping in to the fractious fray, where everyone is shouting at the top of their lungs with utter certainty that they are right, and no one is listening to each other. And the media... Well, the media conform sink to the lowest common denominator, reporting every conflict as if it is a scorecard of opposition between two sides, not an anguished act of conscience torn between two compelling sides who are probably both right.

Reporters focus on the contest, and ignore the content.

I am writing about the excruciatingly painful decision of the leadership of the American Reform movement, announced two weeks ago by the President of the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national Reform movement) Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to cancel its teen tours and trips to Israel for this coming summer. But before I dig myself into any kind of deeper hole than I am already in, let me come clean.

The NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) Summer Israel experience changed my life. I am a rabbi because of it. Far more importantly, I am a committed Jew and a passionate Zionist because of that trip I took, for eight weeks, between my 11th and 12th grades, oh, 24 years ago. So I am biased. The NFTY trips to Israel are the biggest in terms of attendance... and among the best in terms of quality... of any way for an American teen to experience Israel. They were three decades ago.

They remain so today.

So I am an advocate of these trips. I believe in their importance.

For American youth. And for Israel and Israelis. I believe in their power.

And I believe in their safety. Time and again I have told my congregation here in Buffalo that I believe that travel to Israel is far safer then, well, then driving around Buffalo in the winter. Now? Yes, now. Even now.

(Especially now? Do YOU own Firestone tires??)

We need Israel. Israel needs us. I am a Zionist.

And I am a hypocrite.

Since last October I have itched, I have yearned to get on a plane. To do what? To just go. To leave home, to go home, to show the world what home means.

And I have not done so. First there were interviews. Then there were expenses. Then we were expecting. (Well, we still are. Although by the time you read these words...???) Now we are packing. Every moment offers its own excuse: a new baby, a new city, a new job. Life gets in the way.

I feel the bitter taste of an old joke gone sour in my mouth. How many Zionists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five, four to go out and find a fifth person to do it for them.

So how can I even open up my mouth, and wade into the fray of the current argument over whether these trips should have been canceled? I am hardly the one. But in the midst of hysteria and hypocrisy, unfortunately, I cannot keep silent.

First of all, I think there is an awful lot of griping and grousing in the world. Rabbi Eric Yoffie made a very difficult decision, and whether we agree with it or not (one day I feel one way, another the other), it's a whole lot easier to react to it than it was to take this action in the first place. Criticism has been ubiquitous and deafening...and really tiresome (with apologies to Firestone once again). This one did not like how this sentence sounded, this one didn't like the way the press release looked, this one agreed with the decision but thought it should have been announced differently, this one didn't like the city the speech was made in. I am exaggerating, but the point is that when you get this kind of reaction, what is really going on is that everyone is in agony, and no one has the right answer. And sometimes everyone acts as if they do.

The mayor of Jerusalem was particularly pugnacious. Ehud Olmert announced that he was cutting off all ties with the Reform movement. Right.

As if he really had any to begin with.

There's two things I want to say about this whole horrible mess. The first is that things are not as simple as they seem. And the second is that sometimes they are as simple as they seem. (Sorry. You expected coherence? On this topic?)

Here's the first point. I know someone whose son was in Israel on an American-run semester-long program recently. They were told that they were to stay put in the location of their program, that there were to be no optional activities, that security concerns trumped the normal secondary benefit of these trips -- exploring a new world, in a safe but partly unstructured fashion. All instructions which were safe, and sound, and reasonable... and ridiculous.

Because here's the thing. These kids are... ON A TRIP. They are not sitting on their hands in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods, in their own familiar world. The analogy with American kids visiting Israel, and the Israeli kids who grow up there DOES NOT HOLD. All the arguments and accusations against American parents who "think there children's lives are more important" than the lives of Israeli children (according to the accusers) miss the point.

Oh, I'm sure it was bad PR to cancel the trips publicly. It came at a bad time. It wasn't handled perfectly (and what ever is?) But at least part of me thinks (I can't believe I am writing this) that Rabbi Yoffie was right.

The thing about kid's trips to Israel is that kids are... well, KIDS. They NEED that aspect of the trip that involves the unfettered exploration. The part that is the first to be lost in the face of this level of security concerns.

This accounts for why the Birthright trips of college students are down less than the high school programs. Birthright is shorter, the participants are older, they ALREADY by-and-large live away from home and for both of those reasons the participants can handle these particular changed circumstances better than tenth-graders away from home for up to two months.

And adults, by this logic, SHOULD be going to Israel now... in droves. I hope the newly announced Reform movement ADULT solidarity mission to Israel at the end of July brings more adults to Israel than the canceled youth missions ever would have. It's the only way to respond to this difficult choice. It's the only answer. Even if I will not be on that trip myself.

The difference between the cancellation of many of the NFTY-kids and the continuation by the Birthright programs is NOT, and should not be reported to be, a difference in a level of Zionist commitment. For God's sake, no offense to Birthright, but it's actually almost the opposite -- Birthright is a free program -- and a wonderful one -- for college students who HAVE NEVER BEEN ON AN ORGANIZED TRIP to Israel before. Those who signed up for these NFTY trips are HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS motivated to go on an expensive trip at an earlier age. So the difference here is not one of Zionist fervor. It is one of social circumstance. And sorry, media-folk, but I haven't seen anyone reporting the story that way. Maybe it's too complex a reality to report. Maybe all this name-calling makes for better headlines. You can't boil a complex subject down to just a few words.

Well. But, then again. Maybe you can.

As much as I understand my movement's decision, and as much as I don't like seeing us take it on the chin for a hard choice, one counter image comes to mind. I have heard that there is a sign hanging up now, for all to see, at the entrance to the Dolphinarium Discotheque in Tel Aviv, sight of the horrendous suicide attack that led Yassir Arafat to eventually attempt to pretend to act like a civilized human being for an hour or two.

The sign has three Hebrew words on it. They are words which hit me at the core of who I am. Or at least who I claim to be. They are perhaps the most inspiring three words I have ever heard.

What are the words.

The sign says, I am told, just this: "Lo Nafsik Lirkod. "We will not stop dancing."

I don't know what to say, exactly, about the details and politics of particular trips. All I know is that these three words give me a lot to think about. As an American. And as a Jew.

Take them with you for a while. Bring them in to your own soul. Chew on them, and ponder them, and figure out for yourself what it means to you.

Lo Nafsik Lirkod.

We Will Not Stop Dancing.