Miri Bernovsky's 5779 Rosh Hashanah Remarks
Exactly one year ago today, I stood on this bima for the first time. It was the second day of Rosh Hashana, I had just recently arrived to the United States from Israel, and Rabbi Rein asked me to speak briefly from the Bimah during holiday services.
I was nervous – I have never spoken in English in of front so many people before – but at the same time, was also very excited. I spoke of how my family used to celebrate Rosh Hashana and other Jewish holidays in “underground conditions” in the Soviet Union, for fear of religious persecution, and of how all of that changed when we made Aliyah to Israel three years after I was born.
The reaction I received from the people who were sitting here – from you – made me forget all my nervousness. I was flooded by love and support. It was the beginning of a new year – and for me, the first step in a fascinating journey.
The year that has passed since that day, was mostly a good year for me. I learned a lot, made new friends, visited the homes of inspiring families for Shabbat dinners, and my friends here tell me that I’ve also improved my English – thank you for saying that.
For all of that, I’m grateful to everyone here at the Agudas Achim community. Thank you for making me feel that I’m surrounded by one big family.
Speaking of family. For me, the relationship between my country, Israel, and the American Jewish community, is a family affair. And I’ve always believed that inside the family, it’s important to speak openly and honestly with one another. That’s why I can tell you that the past year was also, at times, a very challenging one. If you’ve read a newspaper sometime in the past 12 months, you probably know that there were some events that happened both here and in Israel, that didn’t exactly make my job an easy one…
So there are three things I wanted to tell you today, that relate to some of these big, dramatic questions we are currently facing – in Israel and in America.
My first message to everyone here at Agudas is: don’t ever hesitate to come and talk to me about these issues. That’s what I’m here for. Anyone here who has ever visited Israel probably knows that we Israelis don’t shy away from discussing difficult issues… As long as we are all respectful of one another, an open dialogue is crucial for the success of our relationship. And as some of you know, before coming to work here as a Shlicha, I was a social worker in Israel. Social workers usually make good listeners...
There is another thing I want to point out. Many of the stories that come up in the news in Israel and could seem distant and far-away from here, are in fact close to home and very personal for me.
When a Conservative Rabbi in Haifa is taken for police questioning because he performed a non-Orthodox wedding, that directly affects me. As many of you know, I also got married in a non-Orthodox wedding – deliberately breaking a law that was passed by the Knesset a few years ago. Over the summer, when Rabbi Dubi Hayun was taken for questioning, I joined a large protest of hundreds of Israelis who were married by non-Orthodox rabbis. Our protest played an important part in the Israeli legal system’s quick dismissal of the investigation against Rabbi Hayun. For that, I feel proud.
When you hear in the news about tensions along the Gaza border, it usually means that my friends and neighbors in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the closest place in Israel to Gaza, are due for a sleepless night of sirens and explosions. When Amir and I visited Israel this summer and went to our home in the Kibbutz, we experienced more than 15 rocket launches in just one Shabbat. The discussions about war and peace are not theoretical for us and for our friends in Nahal Oz – they are as real as it gets.
When the Knesset passed the “nation state law” this summer, we had a strong disagreement about it within our own family. My father was strongly in favor of the law, because he thinks it will emphasize Israel’s Jewish character. Amir’s father, on the other hand, joined a petition of retired senior IDF commanders against the law, because he said it discriminates against his Druze and Bedouin soldiers. And yet,
despite these disagreements, we are one family. We can disagree, and when we disagree, we need to talk about it. But the bottom line is: We’re all in this together.
Which leads me to my final message. Over the past year, I’ve heard many uplifting and inspiring stories from members of our community abut their connection to Israel. We have members here who have served in the IDF, or who have children and grandchildren serving as we speak. We have members who have lived in Israel, members who go there very often, and also others who have visited only once, but will remember that visit forever. Every time I’ve heard such a story, it always warmed my heart.
At the same time, I have also heard from members who feel sad or disappointed about certain things that are happening in Israel. And some, unfortunately, have even said something along the lines of – “I give up”. (Pause)
Well, friends, I will tell you honestly – I don’t have the option of giving up. And in my opinion, neither do you. Israel and the American Jewish community are too important to each other. We can’t give up on one another any more than someone sitting here can give up on their own family.
The right thing to do, in my opinion, is the opposite of giving up. It is to get involved. Feel free to come to me with questions and ideas on how to do that, as some in this community have already done over the past year.
One member asked me, while I was in Israel this summer, to forward a donation on her behalf to an organization of Israelis living on the Gaza border, who help Palestinian citizens from Gaza receive life-saving medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. Another member asked me about ways to get involved in supporting the Conservative Masorati Movement in Israel, which is growing and getting stronger. Recently, a third member came to me and asked for ways to support my Kibbutz, Nahal Oz, as it overcomes the damages caused by Hamas.
There are so many different ways for us to be active, involved and influential. There are also ways to learn and expand your knowledge and understanding of the
situation – one of them is to join us on our upcoming congregational trip to Israel in December.
I have no doubt that the new year will bring with it some new challenges. But together, we can overcome them. I want to once again thank everyone here for making my first year at Agudas Achim so memorable and enjoyable – and I can only wish that the upcoming year will be even better. Shana Tova u’metuka.