The photo we could not take

As Israel celebrates its 70th year of independence, now is the time for Israel’s leadership to overcome the walls that divide us and to become the Jewish homeland that we hope for and need it to be.

November 29, 2017 19:48
4 minute read.
A general view shows Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerus

A general view shows Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

On July 4, 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, my father called for me to come inside immediately. My eight-year-old legs ran as fast as I could to find him.

“What’s so important, Dad?” Putting his arm around me, he pointed at the TV. “Look,” he said.

I expected some incredible fireworks display, but the news focused on a word I couldn’t even pronounce, let alone understand: Entebbe.

“Dad, what is this?”

He explained that a plane heading to Israel had been hijacked, that the Jews were being held against their will and that Israel ran a courageous mission that rescued the hostages. We watched in silence as then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin welcomed the hostages home, with blue and white flags waving in the background.

With tears pooling in his eyes, my father asserted, “This is why we have a Jewish state. Now that we have Israel, Jews will never have to worry again about having a home.”

While my eight-year-old self didn’t fully understand the details of the story, his impassioned message etched itself into my soul. From that moment on, the idea of Israel as our homeland framed my relationship with this faraway land and shaped my Jewish identity.

Time and time again this conception about what Israel stands for has thankfully been confirmed. And on one instance I even had a chance to experience firsthand a historic homecoming in Jerusalem.

Upon the release of the Soviet Prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein in 1987, I happened to be at his first stop in Israel, namely the Kotel, the Western Wall. Amid the celebration, one of my peers from United Synagogue Youth (USY) walked up to this newly freed man and handed Edelstein her Soviet Jewry solidarity bracelet that had his name inscribed on it.

That the Kotel was Edelstein’s first stop on his freedom trail is not surprising. The Kotel, once known as the Wailing Wall, is final remnant of the Temple from thousands of years ago. This sacred stack of stones has come to embody simultaneously the Jewish people’s historical roots and contemporary spiritual connection to the Promised Land.

Over the past few decades the Kotel has become embroiled in a dispute intertwining religion and politics. The issues boil down to control over this sacred space, the role of women in Judaism, the tension between Orthodox and liberal expressions of Judaism, and the government’s dependence on religious parties to maintain power. Unfortunately this conflict frequently descends into name calling, physical attacks and arrests.

Nearly two years ago an agreement was reached to create a third section of the Kotel plaza that would allow for an egalitarian prayer space where men and women could worship equally. There was a sense of jubilation that Israel had transcended politics so that the Jewish state could truly feel like home to all Jews regardless of their religious affiliation and practice.

Sadly, this summer the Israeli government tabled this agreement indefinitely. The political reality was the Likud party would lose its majority coalition if it moved forward with this plan. The message to world Jewry was that national politics trump global peoplehood.

Shortly after the Kotel plan was suspended, I was in Israel with a group of Jewish educators on a program called Qushiyot (literally “questions”) run by the Jewish Education Project (JEP) and the Jewish Agency. We learned to reframe the complexity of Israel through creating open dialogues about peoplehood, security, national identity and our connection to the land, rather than focusing solely on finding simple answers.

On the day our group visited the Old City I suggested that we take a group photo at the Kotel. It’s almost a prerequisite of our every Israel trip – USY, Birthright, UJA, etc. – to take a picture at “The Wall.” With the Israeli government’s about-face so fresh in our minds, this idea was suddenly not so simple.

In the shadow of where the Temple once stood, we engaged in a powerful conversation about our commitment to Israel and how we, as liberal Jews, don’t always feel our love reciprocated from our homeland. After our discussion we had time for personal prayer, yet ultimately we decided to pass on this group photo. In the midst of a situation that feels like a betrayal, it was simply a picture we could not take.

This month as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan, I pray daily that the Israelis government find the courage to do the right thing for the sake of the Jewish people, not the politically expedient one for their current coalition. I understand that this course of action may, in fact, cost them their jobs, but it will send a message from Zion that enfranchise Jews around the world. Imagine the power of this message of solidarity being communicated by the current Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, and the brother of the brave commander of the Entebbe mission, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Israel celebrates its 70th year of independence, now is the time for Israel’s leadership to overcome the walls that divide us and to become the Jewish homeland that we hope for and need it to be.

The author serves as the director of congregational education at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. He blogs on fatherhood and parenting at

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