January 30, 2023 •
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Dear Friends:

I can’t remember the last time I was in Israel on my own.  For many years trips here have been with Temple (or other) groups; this week, I came alone.  I got to visit my sister Linda at her home in Haifa for the first time (the main reason for my visit) and have some other neat experiences.

Upon arrival at Ben Gurion Sunday morning I took the train to Haifa.  The Israeli train system is new and inexpensive and efficient.  The train station is right in the airport and in a short time you can find yourself in the middle any of the major cities.

The train to Haifa was crowded, with almost all the passengers in uniform.  I pointed this out to my brother-in-law when he picked me up at the Hof HaCarmel station, and he said that’s the way it always is on Sunday morning; young soldiers are heading back to their unit after Shabbat at home.  As always, when looking at young soldiers, I remember that they are the age of my own kids.

Linda has lived in some interesting places.  Born in Rochester, Minnesota, she grew up (like me) in Illinois then spent a few years in San Francisco studying music.  From there it was to Geneva, Switzerland for thirty years where she played in an orchestra and raised a family.  About fifteen years ago she married Moti, coincidentally an old friend of mine.

Moti was the first Israeli to be ordained a Reform rabbi in Israel, and for many years led the large Or Hadash congregation in his native Haifa.  He and Linda decided it was time for a change.  He spent the next decade and a half serving pulpits in Puerto Rico and Texas and, when it was time to retire, Moti and Linda decided on Haifa.

If you’ve never been there, Haifa is a pretty, rolling city by the sea.  The view from their pretty high up apartment doesn’t include the water but it does include some gorgeous hills.  At night, you can hear jackals, which is pretty weird and, at first, really scary.

Linda and I had a fun few days, getting caught up on each other’s lives and, especially, talking about her new life in Israel. Many of the usual subjects come up:  the high cost of living, the political situation, learning Hebrew.  I was impressed at how much Hebrew Linda had learned in a relatively short time but I guess she has gone through this process before, in Switzerland, Puerto Rico, and Texas.  (Okay, maybe not so much in Texas.  Or at least a little less.)

Interestingly, many of the retiree “issues” in Israel seem to be no different than at home:  securing pleasant and comfortable housing one can stay in for a good long time, finding fun and meaningful and stimulating things to do, and especially, in a new city, making friends.  Health care is a big deal too, of course, and in this case Israel has some definite advantages, including a superb level of medical practice, comprehensive coverage at almost nominal rates, and low deductibles for even the most expensive prescriptions.

It will be fun to follow Linda’s adventures ahead as the settling in process continues.  She is proud to be living in Israel, and I am proud of her.  And selflishly, it’s nice to know there is always a guest room – a really nice one! – waiting for me in Haifa.

Yesterday it was back on the train, to Tel Aviv, and to dinner last night with some of the Temple B’nai Abraham kids studying in Israel.  (The restaurant, Bellini, is walking distance from most of the popular Tel Aviv hotels and was great!)  Those here are participating in an Israeli gap year program, an undergraduate semester at Tel Aviv University’s school for foreign students, and one student working on an MBA at the university.

Happily, everyone is enthusiastic about being here and of the five I’ve been keeping tabs on, two are seriously considering making Aliyah (moving to Israel).  I’m a big fan of that.  Everyone talked about the Purim experience as being incredibly fun and that led to an interesting discussion about the nature of a Jewish country; when something you’ve always regarded as a minor, parochial, religious observance becomes a genuine national holiday…it’s different.  And very neat.

Every time I am with past or present TBA students – “our” kids – who spend an undergraduate semester in Israel, I am reminded how special it is that we provide our Ross Fellowships, the $5,000 no-need scholarship each receives.  I am not aware of any other synagogue in the country that does anything similar, and by so doing we help the Israeli universities and we make an enormous and wonderful Jewish investment in our own young people.

It’s impossible to be in Israel these days without, of course, discussing next week’s elections.  I admit that’s one reason I wanted to make this trip now and I am glad I did.  What will happen next Tuesday is anybody’s guess.

So what is going on?  In my case, just two taxi rides provided a world of insight.

Upon arrival yesterday at the HaHaganah train station I hailed a taxi to my hotel.  The traffic was terrible – no surprise in Tel Aviv – so the driver and I had lots of time together.  Israelis are not shy about talking politics so I asked him if he had decided for which party to vote.

“Bibi!” he said, shouting the word.  He told me that he had “been Likud his whole life,” and that the first three Hebrew letters his Iraqi immigrant parents learned were mem, het and lamed, the official symbol for Likud.

He liked Bibi because he felt Bibi was strong, would stand up to any enemy of Israel, and that the key issues Israel faced were, in his words, “bitachon, bitachon v’bitachon,” “Security, security and security.”  He acknowledged other problems Israel faces, and reminded me that America (my Hebrew is good but my accent reveals my origins) has its poor and its homeless.

“The others (meaning leaders of other parties) wouldn’t have the spine (my word) to deal with the Arabs.”

Earlier today I came to Jerusalem and had another long taxi ride.  This driver, fortyish, was born in France and came here as an eight year old with his Moroccan born parents.  He will vote for the Zionist Union, aka Labor, and was as vitriolic about Netanyahu as his colleague was laudatory.

“Iran is a danger,” he agrees, “but there are other bigger dangers right now.”  He noted the incredibly high cost of housing and the inability of young couples to buy homes and the growing economic disparity.  He believes Netanyahu is using Iran to misdirect people’s attention and believes his point is proved by Likud’s fall in the polls since Netanyahu’s trip to Washington.

Regarding the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors, he said, “we have to keep talking and talking and talking.  What choice do we have?”

Polls indicate a lot of last minute shifting, though today’s Ha-aretz importantly noted that Israeli polls have been historically bad indicators of what the outcome will be!  The big question will be whom President Rivlin will offer the opportunity to form a coalition, a decision in which he has some latitude.  And that’s a question that will only be answered next week.

From scouring the Israeli press this week, two aspects of the election strike me as especially significant.  First, turnout.  It seems Israelis are voting less but no one is quite sure who and how much less.  It didn’t used to be this way.  This is new territory for Israel.

Second, this election will be a referendum on the Prime Minister.  To say he is a polarizing figure is an understatement.  Another article in the paper today quoted several unnamed Likud officials stating that the party’s fall in the polls since Bibi’s trip to Washington was not about the party, but about him.  Maybe they’re just cravenly complaining about sour grapes, but I don’t think so.  His is a personality that arouses strong emotions.

So now I am in Jerusalem, in the offices of the organization for which I used to work, the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  For those who have travelled with me here in recent years, this is right down the hall from where we’ve had our wonderful Saturday morning services, overlooking the Old City.  I came to meet my colleague and old friend Joel Oseran, who has officiated at many Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for TBA families that wished to have a service in Israel.

I’m hanging out using the Internet while Joel finishes his workday.  Then we’re going to head out to dinner.  His wife, Rachelle, can’t join us as she is in India.  She is one of Jerusalem’s most popular yoga teachers and leads contemplative trips to India several times a year.  (A Rhodesian-born Jerusalem yoga teacher leading groups of Israelis to India each year…who knew?)

But first we’ll make a quick trip to the Old City so I can go to the Wall.  I try to go every time I am in Jerusalem, this time especially so as I am carrying with me notes of r’fu-ah sh’leimah (complete healing) for some members who are in need of, shall we say, special handling.  I am, in this role, what is called a shaliach mitzvah, one who, as an emissary, performs a mitzvah on behalf of another.  It is a responsibility I take seriously, and one I am honored to fulfill.

Tomorrow, up early in the morning for the long flight home.  I will not arrive in time for the service tomorrow night but I look forward eagerly to celebrating Saturday morning with the Halper and Zuckerman families as Jesse and Emma become B’not Mitzvah.  And I look forward to seeing Robin as well, and getting ready for Noah and Molly’s visits home for Pesach.

So Shalom to you from Jerusalem.  As always, sha-alu lishlom yerushalayim, keep this city, and this land, in your prayers. And let us pray that whoever becomes Prime Minister after next week is blessed with the insight, wisdom and understanding to lead Israel in a way of peace and security, with prosperity and opportunity for all.

See you soon, and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Kulwin

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