Five Rabbis Walk into a Café

Eric Narrow


Five rabbis walk into a café packed with soldiers seeking a much needed break from the chilly winter winds blowing through the Judean hills.  No, this is not an intro to a bad joke. Rather, it’s simply the end of a powerful week in Israel on a tour led by Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF).   Although they represent the vast spectrum of American Judaism, a shared love for Israel brought them together to work towards greater American Jewish connectivity.


Aside from the fact that each of the rabbis has been to Israel many times, seeing the cultural and socioeconomic future of Israel’s frontier regions firsthand gave them a new perspective on Israel to take back to their communities.


“Many rabbis are unaware of the huge scope of JNF’s work other than trees,” said Sarah Azizi, JNF Director of Manhattan, “This trip introduces them to JNF’s work in Israel at a whole new level, inspires them, and in turn, brings back the importance of our mission to their communities.”


Indeed, the trip was nothing short of inspirational, showing years’ worth of authentic Israel experiences in just one week.  More important than the sites, which many had previously visited, was learning the stories about the people making some great strides in Israel’s future.  “Your average young person is looking for a niche tzedakah, for something that matters to them,” said Rabbi Chaim Marder, of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, “This is our opportunity to make this generation’s Zionist dream alive again.  Whether it’s at Halutza, or the development of the Negev and Galil, there is something here for everybody.” 



The eye opening experiences of this trip, filled with the diversity of Israeli culture, offers values and lessons that can be incorporated into every congregation.  Witnessing firsthand the inclusion of people with special needs into the Israel Defense Forces through Special in Uniform; learning about sustainability and plant sciences with Bedouin ecologists at Wadi Attir; meeting with residents of the border communities of Halutza, who each shared stories following last summer’s escalation of terror and arson from Gaza. Only through the unique lens of Jewish National Fund did these individuals find a distinct and personal connection to today’s Israel.


“JNF projects a Zionism that doesn’t get into partisanship. It’s just about the goodness of Israel, and building communities, and not just physically, but through the woven fabric that makes it a community or kehillah,” said Rabbi Howard Buechler, a Conservative Rabbi from the Dix Hills Jewish Center, “It’s also about compassion.  Each of us were choked up to learn about the history of Kfar Etzion and standing at the Three Boys Promenade, and the compassion we saw of how Israelis work to make everyone equal.  This whole mission has been a reconceptualization of seeing compassion in action.”


21st century Judaism has cast a wide net for religious, political, and cultural Jewish identity, but Israel still remains a common ground for shared values and lessons that binds the Jewish community together.  For Rabbi Hanniel Levenson, the spiritual leader of the nondenominational Congregation Mount Sinai, an independent and inclusive spiritual center in Brooklyn, the trip was life-changing: “This has been a really nourishing and filling experience.  I am reinvigorated in a way I have not felt in a long time.” 


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