Sermon: Partnership in Israel, never the Korach way

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 19 June 2018

Relationships have a way of not quite going the way that you would expect.   I imagine that Moses would have expected his cousin Korach to be supportive of his tough task of leading the Children of Israel across the wilderness to the Promised Land.   Yes, his cousin might have occasionally been among the grumblers who complain about the hardships of the journey, but then Korach was one of the Kohath clan whose role it was to carry the holy vessels of the Mischan on their shoulders when the camp moved on.   He could have been assumed to be among the most loyal of the Levites to the project of reaching the Promised Land.

But that was not to be.    The most serious challenge to Moses’ leadership in the forty years of wandering does not come from one of the tribes junior to the Levites in the holy order, but rather from right in their midst.   Korach, Moses’ cousin, is the one who accuses him of making up the laws of the Torah which formed the Jewish people and of taking the power for himself.

Pirek Avot (5:20)  is pretty certain why this happens.    In a well-known passage it says that having an argument and challenging another person is not in itself a problem as long as that argument is, in the words of the passage, “for the sake of heaven”, that is for the sake of trying to get to the best decision.   The example is given of the hundreds of arguments between Hillel and Shammai in the Talmud where they build Jewish practice and law such as the most effective way to light a Chanukkiah, eight candles on day one down or one candle on day one up.  Hillel’s argument for increasing holiness on the festival wins, lasts to this day and that’s fine.  But if the argument is self-serving, driven by ego or ignorance, like that of Korach against Moses then it is not “for the sake of heaven” and should simply not take place.   It contributes nothing positive to build on.

Often in our relationship with the State of Israel as a diaspora community, we can seem to be in the position of the attacking cousin.   We are supposed to understand the difficult challenges that our Israeli cousins face and wish the best for them and join them in celebrating their successes, building their future and facing their challenges.   Arguing, for certain, about what this future might be, a discussion for the sake of heaven.

Instead, Korach like, we seem to join those who just challenge Israel as a whole with little knowledge about the realities of life there.  Challenging, like Korach, only from our own perspective, not listening to the perspective of Israel and Israelis.

We need, as a congregation in London, to make sure that our links with the reality of life in Israel are very strong so that we can continually join our Israeli brothers and sisters in the lives that they are living.   We need to be part of their development, understand their struggles and support what they are trying to create.    We also need to participate in the arguments and discussions that are going on in Israel now.    We do not need to be slavish supporters, rather wholehearted participants.  The best way for us to this as a Reform Synagogue is surely for us to get involved with the tens, or if recent surveys are correct suggesting that 12% of Israel’s Jews identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism, hundreds of thousands, even millions in Israel who share that values that this Synagogue stands for.

Over the past twelve years Alyth has been first twinned with and now in partnership with the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa.   This is a high school and primary school, series of community centres around the city, subsidiary schools in deprived neighbouhoods and a Synagogue, Ohel Avraham, which bring the best of Reform Jewish values to the city in Israel where, not coincidentally, Jews and Arabs most effectively co-exist.   The Leo Baeck Center is now under the leadership of Rabbi Ofek Meir, a long-term friend of this congregation.

The Leo Beack Center has just celebrated its 80th anniversary – it was established before the establishment of the state by Reform Jewish German refugees who had made Aliyah to pre- state Palestine.   Our relationship with Leo Baeck has changed from a twinning to a partnership because Leo Baeck Center recognized that there was a lost opportunity in not working with many other Synagogue communities in Britain who shared its values.  So today it brings its learning, leaders and students to many UK and American communities to help us to be part of the life of Israel.

For example, this summer, as for more than a decade, Leo Baeck Center Youth Leaders will be part of Alyth’s Summer camps and on Sukkot Rabbi Ofek will be here at Alyth to teach and to preach.

Now it’s time for Alyth to expand our connections to Israel, to increase knowledge of the Jewish state and her people and to be of positive help to her development alongside our relationship with Leo Baeck Center.


Last week I spent a few days in Israel meeting with leaders and Rabbis of a great Israeli phenomenon.   These are the new Reform communities which are springing up in heartland Israeli towns.   They are founded by Sabras, native Israelis, they are Mizrachi and Ashkenazi, they are full of young families.  They are creating a uniquely Israeli Reform Judaism and their reach in their towns is way beyond the numbers who are paying members of the congregations.

We need there to be a strong Israel Movement for Reform Judaism for ourselves because, as Rabbi Richard Hirsch, former Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism wrote “if we don’t establish ourselves as a significant presence in Israel in a generation we will be at margins of Jewish history.” (q in CCAR Journal, Fall 2017, p.38)  And we need to share Jewish religious meaning with the lives of the majority of Jews who live in Israel.

These new IMPJ communities are doing this work.  On Sunday, I visited Holon, a town of 200,000 just south of Tel Aviv.  There Kehaillat Kodesh v’Chol was founded eight years ago.   In those years it has grown to be a community of sixty member households with its own Rabbi, Galit Cohen Kedem, two kindergartens in the city and a primary school now up to year three.    Hundreds of people in the town join in their activities which include Kabbalat Shabbat in the town square, hikes on Shabbat, a thriving youth club, a food bank for the poorest people in the town, fundraising for Syrian children and being involved through young people in the Israel Defence Force in humanitarian supplies to Gaza.  Their open Judaism is bringing secular Israelis and Israelis of Orthodox upbringing who have ceased to be religious into engaging Judaism which makes a difference to Israel.

Then I went to Gedera – just inland from Ashdod.   In a town of 25,000 against the opposition of the local mayor, this community is of a similar size to that of Holon.  Their Rabbi is Noa Mazor, sister of Haifa’s Rabbi Oded Mazor.  They of course hold their Shabbat and festival services but take the work of community way further, including offering support to every woman in the town who has just had a new baby.   They have embraced the Ethiopian Jewish community in the town and joined in with their Sigd festival.   Many of their children go to Reform summer camps in the USA and they have celebrated 30 Bar and Bat Mitzvahs this year.

If we at Alyth can join in with Israel by supporting one of these or a similar community, then we will find ourselves as part of the arguments for the sake of heaven that go on in Israel.   They are positive and quite different from the arguments with Israel which can cause British Jews to distance themselves from the Jewish state.

Combining these relationships with our existing relationship with the very well established Leo Baeck Center makes us part of the future as well as engaged in the present.

Just before the passage in Pirke Avot where the Rabbis say that controversies such a Korach’s challenge to Moses will always lead to failure on both sides there is a passage which says:   “If love depends on some selfish cause when the cause disappears love disappears; but if love does not depend on a selfish cause it will never disappear.”  Unconditional love lasts.   We need to foster a love for Israel which is unconditional.    The love for any particular government of Israel is of course conditional on what it does, but when you get to join into the work of the people of Israel then the love becomes unconditional and it will last.

May we be cousins of Israel who seek to understand her struggles, join in with her development, know her through her life and foster love in our community.