American Jewish Identity and Israel

Upon returning from Israel in early May, several people at our Temple Beth Hatfiloh synagogue came to me and expressed both their positive impressions of my blog and a desire to have me do something Israel-related at TBH. I wasn’t sure what to do and neither were they. So I got together with Rabbi Seth Goldstein to talk about it.

The topic of Israel is a very sensitive – even raw – one in our community. Olympia is the home of the Olympia Food Coop which was the USA’s first grocery-type store to join the BDS (Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions) boycott of all Israeli products. As a charter member of the Coop some 40 years ago, that action caused me to quit membership, and the boycott continues to be a significant cause of pain and alienation for me and many others in our community – both Jewish and non. Olympia was also the home of Rachel Corrie, a student at The Evergreen State College, of which I am an alum, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003, while trying to protect a Palestinian family’s home from demolition. That death became a cause celebre for the international Palestinian rights movement.

TBH’s relationship to these larger internationally significant issues has been fraught. The temple has lost membership. Friendships have ended or been strained. And the topic of Israel and our American Jewish relationship to it has been downplayed because of it.

It is in this context that Rabbi Seth and I talked about what exactly we wanted to do and say about Israel. Rabbi Marna Sapsowitz, TBH’s former principal Rabbi who is still an Olympia community member, had encouraged both me and Rabbi Seth to use my blog as an entry point for conversation. When Seth and I sat down to discuss this, he indicated that he did not see a productive conversation coming out of people describing their political positions vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine. I agreed. While I provided observational views and political/historical context in some of my blog entries, it was easy to see how delving too deeply into that might risk any dialog quickly devolving into unsettling and unsolvable semantic and political argument.

What we determined was more promising was an opportunity for people who had ever visited Israel to more directly describe their motivations for going there and their actual experiences and insights. It turns out that 6 TBH members had been there in the last few months and many more had been there in the last two or three decades. So we decided to have a facilitated conversation about American Jewish Identity and its relationship to Israel as part of a Shavuot educational session. I would lead off with a description of my own motivations for Israel travel and then facilitate others in doing the same.

Last Saturday night, the event occurred. About 40 people turned out and about 10 ended up speaking about their experiences. I distributed out to folks the following “instructions” for their informal talks:

If you are open to talking a bit about your experiences visiting Israel, here are some guiding questions to help structure your contribution to our discussion:

  1. When did you go and for how long?  If it has been more than once, can you describe the frequency of your visits and any significant differences between the different visits?
  2. Who did you go with?Why did you go?  What were your motivations?  What did you hope to see or learn or accomplish or otherwise experience?
  3. What are your current connections to Israel (familial, practical, spiritual?) and how does that relate if at all to your perception of your Jewish Identity or the Jewish Identity of loved ones?

I then led off the evening reading out loud the following material:

On October 14, 1980, my dad was a dead man resting. Convalescing at a health-oriented moshavah in Israel after flying in a couple of days earlier from India, he thought he was feeling a tad better that morning.  Along with my mom, his travel companion, Dad was on sabbatical from his teaching gig at the UW School of Social Work; studying intergeneration wellness communities throughout the world.  The Israeli moshavah was one of those communities. 

Clearly, that moshavah analysis was the most immediate reason for his visit to Israel.  He knew of no Israeli relatives at the time.  As a secular Jewish man brought up by irreligious parents, he was not planning a visit to the “holy sites.”  Yet, he wrote in his journal that October 14th day of his father:  “Charles was such a stirred up, spiritual soul!  Why have I been fooled by his railings against the ‘bombast of the religious’ and not seen his own deep and abiding well of Jewish sentiment.”  Dad wrote on: “I now feel the shma closer to me than ever.”

The next day, Mom and Dad visited Beit Hatfootsot, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora at the University of Tel Aviv.  It was there that Dad’s dysfunctional mitral valve gave up on him and he died on the museum floor.

14 years later, I visited that same museum with my aging mom, who was already showing the debilitating signs of Alzheimer’s. It was my first time in Israel and Mom’s second.  At that time, my own feelings about Israel were decidedly mixed.  Emotionally drawn by the many heroic stories of its pioneers, I felt connected with Israelis as part of my Jewish identity, yet also highly critical of Israel’s politics and policies in relation to the Palestinian Arabs.

It was in that first visit to Israel, that I met dozens of relatives.  I reconnected with an Israeli musician friend whom I knew from Seattle.  I traveled from the northern tip of the country to its southern tip. And for the first time in my life, was surrounded by people who wanted me to join them.  Join them in what?  Join them in the great adventure of building a Jewish nation.   Every day there was exhilarating. Fascinating.  At times disturbing and more than once a bit scary.  But it was undeniable.  I felt a kinship with these people, even though I did not speak their Hebrew language. A kinship with my Haredi relatives, oddly enough, no less than my secular ones.

I’ve gone back twice since that first visit almost 39 years ago.  Most recently for 3 months from early February to early May of this year.  When I got back this time, I was encouraged by Rabbi Marna to share my experiences with the TBH community. I had been writing a blog that she and a few others had read, and she felt I had something to say.  As it turns out, 5 other TBH members had also been in Israel at the same time I had been!  So after talking it through with Rabbi Seth, and some of my fellow Israel visitors, we decided upon this event that we are now about to dive into.

For it is not just 6 of us who have been to Israel.  Many community members of TBH have gone to Israel.  And it is not a stretch to conclude after conversations through decades with a lot of them, that their Israel experiences were an important part of their decision to explore their Jewishness. To remain Jewish. To join TBH, or just to keep a heightened attention to Jewish or Israeli topics.

Tonight, we want to have an opportunity to hear from each other about our experiences in going to Israel.  But because just about everything about Israel is controversial, emotionally sensitive, and a source of potential vulnerability, we want to put some structure to this discussion.

((It was at this time that I made sure that the “instruction sheets” were available to any who wanted one.))

A bit of context before we dive in.

Why is Israel important to many of us?  In the spirit of counting the Omer, which we just finished earlier today, let’s look at the numbers (Wikipedia, 2017).

Core Jewish
% of 
total (world)
1 Israel 6,451,000 44.5%
2 United States 5,700,000 39.3%
3 France 456,000 3.1%
4 Canada 390,000 2.7%
5 United Kingdom 289,500 2.0%

Our connections to Israel are emotion, spiritual and for many of the people you will hear from tonight, highly practical. What the world population figures tell us is that if you are a Jew in the 21st Century, the highest likelihood is that you are either an American or an Israeli.  And the back and forths between these two countries will continue to be major factors in the evolution of Jewish identity. Israel’s second language is clearly English, with New York accents all around you as you walk the streets of Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city. Conversely, estimates of Israelis now living in the US (mostly in the New York and Los Angeles metro regions) range from just over 100,000 to upwards of 500,000.


In my presentation I then went on to talk about my motivations for going to Israel, which you, my devoted blog readers already saw discussed in the most previous entry.

It was a very satisfying evening. People had an opportunity to express themselves about their intimate experiences with Israel that had been built up over many years. Some of these experiences were quite lovely. Others, frightening or troubling. But collectively, the richness and complexity of the relationships were revealed.

I’m not sure whether a follow up to the Shavuot discussion is called for or would be useful. It had value as a moment of expression and insights for those present. I can see it would have been valuable too for many others in the shul who have been to Israel or may go in the future to have similar evenings. We’ll see if there is that interest, but for now, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to share my Israel experience with others. And I hope to have the opportunity to return again to family and friends soon.


2 thoughts on “American Jewish Identity and Israel

  1. Dear Daniel,

    Thanks for sharing, even your non Jewish friend is learning something about how American Jews relate to Israel. The countries where most Jews have decided to live is interesting in itself. Except for France, am I wrong to notice that the current demographics represent a move away from Europe after WWII? I would guess that Israeli and the US must have been the major immigration destinations

    I learned even more about you. I knew your dad died of a heart attack, but didn’t remember it had been in Israel. Also his own insight into his own dad’s nature was interesting too. With all of that going on, it seems kind of inevitable that the Israeli trip was your first major step on your freedom journey.

    And now you seem to have taken yet another step with the TBH facilitation. It will be interesting to see where it all goes.

    Things are settling down here and the new place is much more habitable. I do miss my life in Olympia, but the view and such compensates at times well.



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