Veterans: From America to Kibbutz Gezer

"Israel is not the democracy it's supposed to be," Gold says. "There clearly isn't separation of church and state."

Rabbi Gold 88 224 (photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Rabbi Gold 88 224
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Rabbi Miri Gold and David Leichman From Detroit/New York to Kibbutz Gezer, 1977/1976 Though gezer means "carrot" in modern Hebrew, the kibbutz that bears its name sits on a green swath of land near Ramle that was known as Gezer a good 1,000 years before the orange vegetable came to share the word. Yet the edible connotation is appropriate for the longtime home of David Leichman and his wife of 30 years, Rabbi Miri Gold. The pair met in the kitchen of the kibbutz and have chopped many a carrot side by side. LIFE BEFORE ISRAEL Gold was raised in a Zionist household in Detroit; Leichman in one in Queens, New York. "Although we didn't know each other, we have a very similar story," says Leichman. "We both grew up in Conservative families, who even used the same cookbook, Jewish Cookery." Both visited Israel for the first time in 1966 on high-school programs that would change the course of their lives. For Gold, the seven-week trip led to a decision to come back for her junior year of college. "After that year, I knew I wanted to come back here to live. I just didn't know exactly when or how," she says. "When the Yom Kippur War came, it speeded up my plans." She spent three months in the kitchen of Kibbutz Grofit just after the war, determined to return. For Leichman, the visit led to a position as regional head of United Synagogue Youth's Israel Committee. He, too, returned to Israel to start college, but the pull of late-1960s social revolution drew him back to finish school in the US and immerse himself in Israel activism. During the summers of 1971 and 1973, he led American Zionist Youth Federation trips to Israel and later worked for the Jewish Agency and the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Upon moving to Berkeley, California, after graduation, he headed the Northwest Region of Young Judaea. There, he and several like-minded friends prepared for aliya by learning practical skills such as cooking and shoemaking. Unbeknown to him, Gold had also moved to Berkeley, where she connected with a seed group, or garin, planning to move together to Israel. By 1974, the group had decided to go to Gezer, a defunct kibbutz with a long history, waiting to be given new life. "Our garin wanted a community that would not fit into the secular or religious kibbutz model," Gold says. "We agreed we wanted to have a kosher kitchen, so most people could feel comfortable eating here. At the same time, we were going to try to create a liberal Jewish community, blending where we came from - mostly Conservative and Reform homes - with Israeli Judaism, a lot of which comes from the kibbutz movement." ARRIVAL Driven by identical goals, Leichman had joined the garin and made aliya in October 1976. Gold arrived in February, just as the group completed 10 weeks of ulpan. After learning farming, factory and fixing skills for six months at Kibbutz Tzora ("I think everyone in our garin had a degree in humanities or social sciences," says Gold with a smile), she and Leichman found themselves running the kitchen of what would become their lifelong home. To her disappointment, Gold saw that the religious ideals of the group weren't translating to reality. "Everybody was struggling to figure out how to make the place work on a daily basis and the Jewish thing never really took off," she recalls. Soon, however, the kibbutz secured a Torah and invited Levi Kelman, a newly minted Conservative rabbi who now leads Kehilat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. He remained at Gezer for four years and officiated at Gold's much-delayed bat mitzva. SETTLING IN After marrying in 1979, Gold and Leichman got involved in activities such as clandestine trips to the Soviet Union on behalf of the government, along with Leichman's father, Gil, who now lives here half the year. Leichman went from the kitchen to the vineyards, and then ran educational seminars for the kibbutz movement. Drafted in December 1980, he served four months as an army cook. "After basic training, I came back to the kibbutz and they said they wanted me to build houses. I said, 'You've got the wrong guy,' because to this day I can't change a light bulb or hang a shelf straight." But build he did - more than 50 houses and other structures for the next six years. During that time he and Gold were also building a family. Eliora was born in 1981, Arishai in 1984. Then the kibbutz movement sent them as emissaries to the Boston college community. They spent nearly three years there, and their son Alon was born just five weeks before their return to Gezer in 1989. While in Boston, Leichman often asked people what symbols or experiences made them feel Jewish. "Beyond food, I heard 'synagogue' and 'rabbi' and 'Torah' and 'candles' and 'wine' and 'Shabbat,' but the word 'Israel' rarely came up," he says. This discovery sparked idea to build an educational nature park at the kibbutz to promote an understanding of the essential tie between Jews and the land. For the past 15 years now, about 10,000 visitors - students, clergy, tourists and prisoners - come each year for hands-on learning experiences at the park, called Pinat Shorashim, under Leichman's direction. DAILY LIFE Despite their culinary beginnings - both are still enthusiastic chefs - Gold and Leichman became renowned for other pursuits. Gold became the third female Reform rabbi in Israel. This accomplishment had its roots in her determination to continue what Kelman had started.From learning how to lead services and give bar and bat mitzva lessons, she made the logical leap and enrolled in rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem in 1994. The kibbutz gave its blessing. "We agreed that I could be a better breadwinner for the kibbutz as a rabbi," she says. Since her 1999 ordination, she has been overseeing religious life at the kibbutz - everything from securing paper goods for its recent Tu Bishvat seder to visiting the sick and teaching classes. The Gezer synagogue became Kehilat Birkat Shalom, a regional Reform congregation. In the meantime, Leichman initiated Arab-Jewish friendship enterprises in nearby Ramle. He also turned his passion for softball into a well-known league and was instrumental in constructing, at Gezer, what is now the home field for the Israel Baseball League's Beit Shemesh Blue Sox and Modi'in Miracles. Alon Leichman combines IDF service with his professional career pitching for the Blue Sox. OBSTACLES "Hebrew," says Leichman. "I'm fluent, but I can't say that my Hebrew is as good as my English." For Gold, the hardest obstacle has been political. "Israel is not the democracy it's supposed to be," she says. "There clearly isn't separation of church and state." BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "It is filled with challenges of bringing the kind of Judaism that is meaningful to me to this country, along with issues of gender equality, environment and Arab-Jewish relations," says Leichman. "I feel at home," says Gold. "And yet I also feel in some ways removed. Home always has good things and bad things about it." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Have a sense of humor," says Gold. "Balance that with assertiveness to make sure you get what you deserve." "Believe in the future," adds Leichman. To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]