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Summers of Sweet Surprises, and Hope for the Jewish Future
For many years, it has been my privilege and pleasure to spend summers in Israel.
With seven grandchildren close by, access to the family is easy and very satisfying. There is time to study and write, and to visit with the many friends who have made aliyah.
My wife, Diane Cover, is able to pursue her passion for painting. The results include stunning paintings of outdoor scenes that reflect her talent and the beauty of the land. In the small but lovely garden that graces our Jerusalem apartment, the sounds of song and prayer mix with the aromas of jasmine and roses. All of this makes Shabbat truly a foretaste of Eternity.
Israel does not lack problems. Internal tensions are acute. There is growing resentment by some over the political power of the ultra-Orthodox in the government, while others fear for the dilution of the role of Judaism in public and private spheres.
The country is conflicted about what to do with the children of foreign workers brought in to do work that was previously performed by Palestinians. It seems that communication between the various groups of Jews is weakening.
Israel's image in the world has suffered -- in many ways, unfairly. There is a sense that too many younger Jews in the Diaspora are disenchanted with Israeli governmental policies. Non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements face an uphill battle for recognition and governmental support.
Points of Light and Hope
But there are also points of light and hope. Tourism is flourishing. The Israel Museum has fully reopened, and its magnificent collections are now on display in an expanded facility. Reports of cutting-edge research in the scientific and medical fields are commonplace.
In the spiritual domain, new experimental prayer groups are springing up, involving Israelis who have been distant from the synagogue. Institutions such as Pardes and Elul and the Shalom Hartmann Institute attract people of different backgrounds and Jewish commitments to share in the study of Jewish texts.
Our family makes a small contribution to increasing communication among Jews. Every year, we co-sponsor an evening of study and prayer in memory of my late wife, Barbara Eidelman Wachs. In 1997, Barbara lost her life trying to rescue a child who had accidentally wandered into turbulent waters in the far north of the country.
During her illustrious career as a Jewish educator, Barbara taught every age group, deeply influenced hundreds of youth at the Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion Station (now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy), where the social-action program is dedicated in her memory. For the last years of her life, she served as family-education consultant at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education.
The uniqueness of the evening lies in its sponsorship and venue. Eight Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations in Jerusalem jointly co-sponsor and, in rotation, host this program. Each year, there is a distinguished lecturer, drawn from the Israeli or American Jewish academic world.
Some years, we have experimented with a joint Ma'ariv service. This is quite a complicated venture as many of the participants require a mechitzah to separate the genders for prayer, while others might feel as strongly that they want men and women to pray together.
What is exciting is that the presenters and the participants represent the entire spectrum of the community from secular to Orthodox (including a sprinkling of ultra-Orthodox), Ashkenazim, Sefardim and Yemenites. Ha'aretz praised the event last year as offering some hope for the future of pluralism in Israel.
What makes it possible is the neighborhood in the southeast part of the city, in which many American, Canadian, Australian and South African immigrants reside. Their congregations have a history of joint social-action projects and through this program, demonstrate their commitment to the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael, love of Jews for Jews.
Barbara, of blessed memory, was an elitist in that she had very high standards for herself and for others. But she also was a pluralist. She used to say that she had met two kinds of Jews -- those who took Judaism seriously, and those who did not. In her words, both types come bearing different labels.
Today, in the State of Israel, the Jews are building a national life that can become a blessing to the entire region and beyond. From afar, Israel looks unsafe to many people. But living here, one experiences life as more normal.
Israel is a wonderful place to be a child. Family values are strong. Parents are very devoted to their children, and neighbors will pitch in to help. My wife and I draw strength from being here. We are proud to share, however briefly, each year in the renewal of the national home of the Jewish people.
Saul P. Wachs is the Rosaline B. Feinstein Professor of Education and Liturgy, and chair of the Education Department at Gratz College.