Sermon: Shabbat Atzmaut 2018 – from Jerusalem to Highcroft Gardens

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 April 2018

When my colleagues Mark and Colin led our Yom HaAtzmaut event last year, a Zionist Tour of London, there was one location that they missed out: number 28 Highcroft Gardens NW11.  Just around the corner from here.

It was to Highcroft Gardens that, when in London, some of the leaders of the Jewish Agency in Palestine in the 1940s, would drop in for a cup of tea.  They went there to visit my grandmother and her young son, while my grandfather was away serving as Jewish Chaplain in first North Africa, and then Western Europe.

The most historically significant of their visitors was Moshe Shertok – later he would become Moshe Sharett – and he was Head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, in effect the chief negotiator with the British Mandatory Authorities.
Later Sharett would be a signatory to the Declaration of Independence; was Israel’s first foreign minister; was elected to the Knesset in Israel’s first elections; and he would also be Israel’s second prime minister, between Ben-Gurion’s terms of office.  He is now probably best known as the face on the 20 Shekel note.

My grandfather, as Jewish Chaplain to the British Army, had met with Shertok during his first visit to Jerusalem, seeing him in his home in Rechavia, and they became friends.  In fact, in 1944, Shertok tried to persuade my grandfather not to return to the UK, which would very much have changed Levy family history.

On that first visit to Jerusalem, my grandfather also saw the Western Wall for the first time, an experience which he found strangely alienating.  “The noise of mingled voices” he would later write, “my distinct allergy to the men who swayed frantically around me and the sight of uniformed policemen gave me no peace of mind”.  He would have preferred quiet in which to reflect on where he stood.  “Ein chadash tachat hashemesh”, you might say.

And talking of, “there is nothing new under the sun”, he also experienced something that for him, an English Orthodox Rabbi, was unexpected – at best indifference, and sometimes hostility, towards rabbis from ordinary, non-religious Jews.  For example those he met while accompanying Shertok to a meeting of the Histadrut, the Trade Union organisation.  He would later understand that the encounters of these Jews with an orthodox rabbinate in Israel had led them to hold rabbis and religion in very low regard.  “Ein chadash tachat hashemesh” indeed.

Why am I sharing this little bit of Levy family history?
This Shabbat, we begin our week of ‘Israel at 70’ events here at Alyth, a full programme of learning and discussion, celebration and commemoration.  As we do so, we should not forget the important place that Israel continues to play in our family histories, and in the history of the family of Israel.

We sometimes forget that the establishment of the State of Israel was an event in our, collective, lifetimes; an event that was deeply personal to many.  When I, as a stroppy teenager in the 1980s (hard to imagine, I know), argued with my grandparents during the first intifada, I utterly failed to appreciate that he had been there, that he was there as a fledgling state was being built – by exceptional, dedicated people, struggling with how to build a new country, a new society, how best to negotiate the challenges of relationship with hostile neighbours.

We should not forget, too, that there has been only 70 years to deal with these enormous complexities of society and relationship – many of which still remain.  The experiences of my grandfather still resonate, after all.  And new challenges and complexities are constantly added to the mix.

But nor should we forget the idealism of many of the founders – an idealism which, the modern State of Israel does not always reflect.  Their vision of the society which they would build was one that not only sprung from the vulnerability of Jewish history, but also from the importance of Jewish ethical values.  As Moshe Sharett put it in front of the nations of the world, when, as foreign minister, he attended the United Nations in May 1949 asking that Israel be admitted to the General Assembly – “Deeply and reverently conscious of its mission in Jewish life, Israel will strive to keep the Jewish name high and to live up to the noble record of Jewish tradition”.

As the State of Israel turns 70, we pray that it is able to live up to this ideal.  For the story and the promise of Israel is one that encompasses us too – it encompasses our families, it encompasses our Judaism, it encompasses this community; we are inextricably connected to it; it reaches all the way from Jerusalem, from the “mingled voices of the wall”, all the way to Temple Fortune, NW11, to just around the corner and beyond.