Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon: Why Israel Should Still Amaze Us

     In some ways it is strange to say that we miss, at least to some degree, the relative calmness in the Middle East prior to December 18, 2010.  That was the date Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire, which then became the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution.  This revolution was quickly followed with the fall of governments in Egypt (twice now), Yemen and Libya.  There is currently a civil war ongoing in Bahrain.  And there have been major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Kuwait, and Morocco.  And Middle East experts are concerned about the wave of refugees flooding into Turkey and Jordan.  They are especially concerned about Jordan because of its limited ability to take not only take care of so many refugees, but also even to provide them with water.

Not that I am advocating a return to dictatorial rule.  It’s just a fresh reminder of what a dangerous neighborhood Israel resides in.  The strained relationship between the United States and Russia, both of whom who have been active in the Middle East since the early days of the Cold War, does not help matters either.  I am not a prognosticator, and I have serious doubts about anyone who can predict how all of this turmoil is going to turn out. 

One consequence of all of this instability is that it has changed Israel’s security plans.  For example, Israel’s southern border is increasingly unstable as Sinai has become, for all intents and purposes, lawless.  So now Israel has to contend not only with Hamas in Gaza but also increased security concerns stemming from the Sinai Peninsula. 

There is also the ongoing concern, and I do not use that term lightly, of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Whether the strengthened sanctions will work, or Israel or Israel with the United States will have to mount a military response also remains to be seen.  But as most experts seem to agree, is Iran cannot develop nuclear capability.  A nuclear Iran is just too much of a threat not just to Israel, but to the world entire.

And yet the world was quick to welcome in the election of the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.  Of course the world will not be missing Mahmoud Ahmadinajad.  But if you ask diplomats off the record, they do miss Ahmadinajad because he put the crazy in crazy.  Rouhani is not really any more of a moderate than Ahmadinajad.  And as long as the Ayatollah remains in power, Rouhani is more of a figurehead anyway.  Experts believe that even as Rouhani has promised better relations with the West, he has continued to back the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program.  So just because Rouhani was elected, no one is really expecting anything to change in Iran.

However, at this moment, the most pressing issue is the ongoing Civil War in Syria.  I participate in a Facebook group of fellow Reform Rabbis.  The question was broached, are my colleagues planning on dedicating a sermon to Syria.  The consensus is that we all very much are gravely concerned, but due to the fluid and constantly changing nature of the situation and the world’s response, there is no way to effectively speak to it until we see how things are going to play out.  And now with Russia back in the mix and the possibility, though unlikely, of chemical weapons being removed from Syria, it is a wait and see game.  The truth is, we could spend hours dedicated to this topic and still not have any idea what the endgame will look like.  What we do know is that Syria’s ongoing Civil War does have significant regional and possibly world-wide implications. 

What is less well known is that Syria’s main enemy in the geopolitical world has been quietly opening her gates to treat the victims of the Syrian conflict.  According to the New York Times, “Since late March, almost 100 Syrians have arrived at two hospitals in the Galilee. Forty-one severely wounded Syrians have been treated … at the Western Galilee Hospital (in Israel), which has a new neurosurgical unit as well as pediatric intensive care facilities. Two of them have died, 28 have recovered and been transferred back to Syria, and 11 remain (t)here.”[1]

Admittedly, it is just a drop in the bucket, but unlike Turkey and Jordan, which have allowed in tens of thousands of refugees, Israel and Syria are still in a state of war.  This of course makes the story all the more incredible.

Yet, this quiet act of medical assistance is not well known and certainly not well reported in the greater world.  It is as if all of Israel’s wrongs, whether real or imagined, must be shouted out from the mountain tops, but those acts of mercy and kindness should only be mentioned in whispers from the valleys.

So despite all of the turmoil, all of the needless deaths, all of the suffering, Israel continues to be a bastion for what is good and right in the world.  And yet, far too many stories of Israel’s contributions are lost.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a newly formed JNF Program called ‘Rabbis for Israel.’  At it, the presenter spoke about new ways that the JNF is serving Israel, and even more importantly ways that Israel is serving the world. 

For example, I learned that Israel has a Philippine guest worker program.  Haven’t heard of it?  That’s not surprising because even some of those in JNF have not heard of it.  What this program does is it brings in guest workers to work the fields during the day.  That much is known.  But what is less well known is that these same workers then attend school at night learning about modern agronomy.  The goal is that when they return to the Philippines, they return with a marketable skill. 

Of all the countries in the world that have guest worker programs, only one country, Israel has this educational requirement in its guest worker program. 

But there are so many other stories as well.  As our JNF presenter explained, “Take the field of stem cell research.  In the United States, it is laden with restrictions and subject to religious taboos.  In Israel, where scientists are limited only by their imaginations and their budgets, they are using stem cells to develop new life-saving technologies and therapies every day, for practical application around the world.  For example, bone marrow transplants.

In Israel, a company called Pluristem Therapeutics, based in Haifa, has developed a placenta-based stem-cell treatment called “PLX” that can save patients suffering from bone marrow failure.  This past summer, a 54 year-old woman with lymphoma cancer was receiving chemotherapy, but her condition continued to deteriorate, necessitating a bone marrow transplant.  Unfortunately, the transplant was not successful.

Pluristem’s PLX cells were then administered to her at Hadassah Medical Center.  Her health improved dramatically, and eventually she was released from the hospital.  At about the same time, PLX saved the life of a seven-year-old girl suffering from aplastic bone marrow. 

Today, Israel has insured the effectiveness of bone marrow transplants – and in so doing, is making the world a better place.

Israel is at the forefront of the development of new treatments and therapies for multiple sclerosis.  Israeli companies have developed two major M.S. medications that are now used by 70% of M.S. patients throughout the world.

And there are so many more stories.  An Israeli company, Mapal Energy has developed a new way of aerating the bacteria that are used to purify the contaminants in waste water.  This new technology replaces the current one, consisting of mechanical aerators, at a cost savings between 50 and 80%.

            Israel has also gotten involved in biological pest control.  For example, Gall wasps in Australia were a blight on the eucalyptus tree, and threatened the entire industry.  Two Israeli scientists isolated the enemy of the gall wasp, another type of wasp that acts as a parasite and kills the gall wasp. 

            Not only has Israel helped to save the wood industry in Australia, but this product has been used in China, Thailand, India, Turkey, Italy, Kenya, Uganda and Brazil.  The strange paradox is that the diplomats of many of these countries consistently attack Israel, and yet Israel is quietly helping their economies.  And there are so many confounding stories like these, while the countries denounce Israel, yet quietly seek her guidance, advice, technology, and so much more.  It is a strange world in which we live.

But the world aside, there are also other major developments in Israel as well.  For example Israel recently discovered the mega gas fields titled Tamar and Leviathan located off the Israeli coast from Haifa.  These massive discoveries will soon transform Israel as they will adequately look after Israel's domestic needs forever and thereafter to supply foreign markets.  A number of countries are pursuing involvement in these finds.  Among them are Russia, China, Europe and South Korea.  Vladimir Putin, of all people, was in Israel a few months ago pursuing a contractual relationship with Israel on its gas development projects. Tamar is due to come online sometime in 2013 and Leviathan to follow in early 2014.  Additional target areas are being explored all the way down the Mediterranean coast of Israel.  The likelihood is that a pipeline from the gas discovery area will be built to Cyprus and on to Greece. This will help Greece with some of its financial troubles. It is expected there will be a plant built to liquefy the gas at the Greek end of the underwater pipeline.

Geologists have recently completed a large mapping of most of southern Israel and preliminary findings indicate there are vast amounts of oil trapped in rock layers under about 15% of the State of Israel.  This shale oil is technically difficult to extract but Israel and the companies involved are becoming very familiar with the methodology to extract this oil called 'fracking'.  Fracking is not without its own challenges and controversies, but the possibility of oil in Israel is an intriguing one indeed.  Perhaps Moses was right after all.

The World Energy Council and Israel Energy Initiatives have completed a detailed study and presented it to the government on their estimates of Israel's shale oil potential. They estimate that Israel's shale reserves could contain as much as 250 billion barrels of potentially recoverable oil.  This would be putting Israel on a par with Saudi Arabia in terms of its oil reserves!

Israeli planners believe that if the gas and oil finds reach the levels that the potential indicates, Israel's current group of allies, trading partners and opponents could drastically change. Israel's geo-political standing in the world will also change.  It’s amazing what friends can be made when you have oil and gas to export!

Currently China is in very serious negotiation to build and finance most of a high speed railway from Eilat to Ashdod.  This would allow tankers and freighters to avoid the Suez Canal as well as cut the time frame from canal usage in half, by using the railway. This is a huge development for Israel as it will open up the Negev, which was always the dream of David Ben Gurion. 

            Of course the ultimate dream is for Israel to be at peace with her neighbors and with the Palestinians.  Currently there is a renewed peace effort ongoing, with Secretary of State John Kerry spearheading this effort. 

            As always, most experts are skeptical including those at AIPAC who noted with regret the recent resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad from the Palestinian Authority back in April.  Fayyad, a former economist at the International Monetary Fund, first came to prominence when he was named finance minister of the Palestinian Authority in 2002.  After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Fayyad become prime minister.  His tenure was defined by institution-building, including in the areas of finance and security.

            During his time, security cooperation with Israel became the norm.  In partnership with Israel, during this time, the PA built 1,700 community development programs, 120 schools, 50 health clinics, and 3 hospitals.  More than 1,000 miles of road were paved and 850 miles of water pipes were installed.

            Unlike so many other Palestinian leaders, Fayyad reasoned that the path to Palestinian statehood requires political transparency, economic development, and demonstrating that the Palestinians can govern themselves effectively through durable institutions built from the ground up.  Losing a partner in Fayyad could prove a tremendous obstacle to overcome to say the least, especially if the PA returns to a more authoritarian model.

            But peace still remains a viable possibility, now even more so.  Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have a vested interest in a successful peace process for a host of reasons, least of all, the security of both.

            This is the background information.  There is both good news and troubling news to report.  The situations continue to be fluid, and can change at a moment’s notice.  But our commitment to the Jewish Homeland is unwavering.  And there is much we can do to show our support for this island of tranquility in a sea of troubled waters.

            First off, you can buy Israel Bonds (like this one), which you should have at your seats.  We’ve tried to make it easier than ever.  Attached to your tickets is a sticker.  All you have to do is remove it and put it on the postcard indicating what kind of bonds you would like to purchase.  Keep in mind, this is not a donation.  All Israel bonds are an investment.  And this year, like last year, any bonds purchased in the Baltimore area will be doubled. 

            Our goal at Har Sinai Congregation is to have 100% participation in Israel bonds.  And you can even donate your bonds back to the congregation or pay your Associated dues with them if you wish.  Also, Israel bonds are not a donation, they are an investment.  So buy early and buy often, as your investment not only helps Israel, but also helps your family and the greater community as well.  When Alex was born, he received many wonderful gifts including Israel bonds. We are so excited to use those bonds to help set up Alex’s college and/or therapy fund, just like we did for Emily and Noah.

            You can also join us in our pilgrimage to Israel.  We are planning a family trip to Israel leaving June 22, 2014.  We have worked hard with our service provider to make the trip more affordable for everyone with a particular emphasis on families.  It is also specifically scheduled to take place when schools are out of session.  So please let me or David Carp know if you are interested.  Or just ask any of those who joined us two years ago, they all had an amazing time.

            Likewise, we are also planning a congregational trip to Jewish Argentina in February.  This trip, which will be led by Cantor Gerber and his wife Graciela, an Argentinian herself, will be guiding you through many wonderful experiences.  We encourage you to look at our website and contact Cantor Gerber for more information.  For the Argentinian Jewish community, which has also had its fair share of challenges, is also a proud supporter of Israel.

            As I mentioned the JNF is doing important work in Israel as well.  Currently they have an amazing development in Be’er Sheva.  They have been developing a river park that runs through South Central Be’er Sheva modeled after the river walk in San Antonio, Texas for those of you who have been.  They have also built an amazing park, a promenade, a large lake, and an amphitheater.  The goal is to make Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel, a destination. 

            JNF continues to focus on Israel’s environment, agriculture, green space, and green technologies.  So, if you are so inclined, put a few shekels in your blue pushkies and send them off to JNF.  They are doing important work in Israel.

            And then there is the political support Israel needs here in the United States.  We at Har Sinai Congregation are proud to continue our partnerships, ARZA (more information is in your seats), the Israel Religious Action Center, J-Street and with AIPAC.  I know it is a lot of alphabet soup there, but each of these organizations is working towards Israel’s betterment in their own way.

            For example, I am planning to attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference this year coming up in March.  I hope some of you will be able to join me.

            As always, there is much that we can do.  But perhaps the most important thing we can do is to educate ourselves about all the good that Israel offers the world, so that we can then educate others.  Israel has consistently lost the PR campaign.  But what is even more distressing is how Israel is perceived among our own young adults.

            In the words of a JNF presenter, “the next time you see, or hear a criticism of Israel, think of how much poorer the world would be without this tiny Jewish democracy that struggles and achieves against insuperable odds.”

            We note that on this 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, where Israel’s very existence hung by a thread, Israel has since managed to radically transform herself into a beacon of what is more right than wrong in the world.  From saving lives of victims of the violence in Syria, to her technological and medical advances that are making the world better.  From her agricultural prowess she is sharing with the world, to the energy conservation developments that are making the world more efficient.  The world certainly would be much poorer without Israel.  She did and still needs our help and support to continue to share these gifts with the world.

So whether you can buy Israel Bonds, join us on our Israel trip or our Argentina Trip, advocate for Israel, or support her in any number of ways, I encourage you to do so.  I for one feel better knowing Israel is there.  And what an amazing and vibrant country she is, even in these troubling times. 

I would like to conclude with the aspirational words of prayer offering up by Isaiah some 2700 years ago, though seem just as apropos today as they did then:

“AND THEY SHALL beat their swords

into plowshares and their spears into

pruning hooks. Nation shall not take

up sword against nation; that they shall

never again know war.” (Isaiah  2:4)

Cayin Yehi Ratzon, May this be God’s will


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