We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this My Israel Story series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
I visited Israel this past February as a member of a Memphis Jewish Federation steering committee working to build a partnership between the cities of Memphis and Shoham. Together, we identify and implement projects that bring our communities together. We’ve hosted Shoham’s sister committee in Memphis, welcomed Israeli Scouts from Shoham, initiated twinning programs between schools in Shoham and Memphis, and hosted the Mayor of Shoham. On this trip, I got to know several members of the Shoham Committee very well and they showed me a side of Israel I had not seen.
This most recent trip to Israel was not my first. I traveled to Israel once before with my husband before we became parents. We visited with friends in Tel Aviv, traveled to Haifa, and enjoyed the beauty of the Galilee before heading to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Masada. We even enjoyed a Shabbat meal with one of Israel’s founding leaders and sat in the Elijah’s chair at the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue in Safed fifty weeks before welcoming our son Elijah to the world. It was a two-week adventure that included so many of Israel’s highlights.
This past February was a much different trip for me. Primarily, my purpose was to conduct MJF business in furtherance of the Memphis-Shoham Partnership. We kicked off our meeting with a seder celebrating Tu B’Shevat. We visited ruins and a vineyard, participated in a workshop, held formal planning meetings, and, of course, we ate. I attended Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kehillat Shoham, a Reform synagogue in Shoham led by Rabbi Rinat Sefania. I was welcomed for Shabbat dinner at one of the many Orthodox shuls in Shoham, where we were visited by Shoham’s Chief Rabbi, David Stav. Shoham is an amazing place, full of wonderful, vibrant, and diverse Israelis.
Despite my whirlwind schedule, my host managed to whisk me into the Old City before I had to return home. On this visit, I stood above the Western Wall in the Observation Garden looking out at it. I marveled at how meaningful the Wall is to so many Jews and how central it is to their relationship with Israel. But, I didn’t go down to it because I found myself struggling to relate to that symbolism. To me, the Western Wall today is a place where I am not welcome as a woman to worship God as God calls me to. The detachment I felt was visceral. I felt no connection to what many American Jews would view as a touchstone of Judaism.
Nonetheless, I did not feel alone. I felt a connection to the many Israelis accustomed to the tensions between democracy and theocracy. In the U.S., we often have a rosy picture of an Israel where Jews live together in peaceful harmony. But back in Shoham, I had seen an Israel much more real than that fantastic Eden. I discovered an Israel whose people care so deeply about their country that they are willing to speak passionately in protest against the inequities they see. They engage in grass-roots activism and organized protests demanding social action from their government. This is what democracy looks like and I could relate.
On this trip I learned that Israel is full of Jews who continue to demand recognition. At this time, I needed to relate to that Israel. Despite the barriers to my being able to pray at the Western Wall according to Conservative Judaism’s customs, I am a proud Jew and I have a place in Israel. I do not need to change who I am to belong. Israel is the home of all Jews. We all have a place in Israel.
 Legend has it that a childless couple who sits in the Elijah’s chair at the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue will give birth to a son within a year.