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Friday, 31 August 2007

Intro - trip to Israel

Dear Members,

For the short version – this week we have one article on cremation in
Israel and one on an Israeli inspired youth village in Rwanda. We also
have a longer than normal introduction which you can read below…

It's been a while since I've written an introduction to our weekly e-mail.
The greatest perk when you are a teacher are the summer holidays and
I've tried to make good use of mine including a trip to Israel.
One discussion I had with many people out in Israel is how do we present
Israel to our members? At Pro Zion we are looking at ways to engage our
members and communities with Israel and with the vibrant Progressive
movement in Israel. But we are also a political movement supporting
Progressive Judaism in the not so glamorous world of Jewish and Zionist
politics. We also try and inform people of the political issues going on
in Israel with regard to the Progressive movement and pluralism in
Israel such as conversions, education and civil marriage. These
political headlines do not always make for pretty reading and this
week's first article on cremation in Israel is another example of this.
We cannot ignore these issues but at a time when many congregants in our
communities do not have strong ties with Israel we cannot just present
the negative issues if we want to encourage engagement with Israel. A
few years ago just after the election of Ariel Sharon I told a member of
my synagogue he should go and visit Israel – "Why should I go and visit
a country who have just elected a war criminal" was his reply. There is
a danger that by publishing the regular legal and political battles our
Israeli friends are fighting we will alienate UK progressive Jews who
feel that Israel isn't a place where they can feel at home. I hope
during the year at Pro-Zion we will be able to bring some more positive
stories about life in Israel and of the vibrant Progressive communities
there.

On my trip to Israel I managed to fit in a few engagements with our
friends out there. The first was on a Shabbat visit to the Or-Hadash
synagogue (http://www.or-hadash.org.il/index.html) during my first real
visit to Haifa. After a very musical service in a stunning building the
charismatic Rabbi Edgar Nof took all the visitors down to their bomb
shelter in the basement. Those of you who have been on our mailing list
for a while will have read the stories we sent out last summer about the
communities in the North during the Lebanon war but hearing the stories
first hand was another experience and one I cannot really do justice to
here. Bomb shelters in Israel are normally drab concrete rooms with
large blue metal doors. The bomb shelter at Or Hadash was nothing of the
sort, it was clean, floored and bright with beautifully painted wall
illustrations. It was refurbished through much hard work from the Rabbi
and locals last summer along with donations from the diaspora. Last
summer it became a refuge during the war for children whose families
couldn't afford to take them out of the city, packed and busy from dawn
until dusk – running this in a dark concrete room wasn't an option. As
far as social action is concerned that was very much the tip of the
iceberg and the work the community and Rabbi do providing services to
their city (such as Bar-Mitzvahs for children with terminal illnesses
and learning disabilities) show how important the progressive
communities in Israel are. Some other visitors asked how many members
the synagogue has – the Rabbi explained that you couldn't measure a
synagogue in Israel by membership but by activity and the activity in Or
Hadash is immense. 200 participants in Friday night services, 200 bar
mitzvahs a year, a few hundred conversions, a large kindergarten and a
range of cultural and educational programmes. I can't do all the stories
justice so if you are in Haifa I would strongly recommend a visit to
this community to find out for yourself – they are only too pleased to
receive visitors, not surprising when you hear they have over 20 sister
congregations across the world!

In between sightseeing, seeing friends and a friend's wedding I managed
to make a visit to Mercaz Shimshon which hosts the offices for Arzenu,
Netzer and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. I first met with
Dalya Levy the Director of Arzenu who filled me in on some of the news
from the World Zionist Organisation, the JNF and Jewish Agency. We also
discussed what Pro Zion was up to and I hope we may be seeing Dalya in
England sometime next year.
Dalya then arranged for me to meet Iri Kassel, the Director of the
Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. We talked about ways that we
could share the successes and positive work of the IMPJ with Pro Zion's
membership. As a start he invited any groups or congregations who go to
Israel to visit the IMPJ. They have a brand new visitors centre with a
fantastic promo video and posters which so far has only been shown to
groups of Americans.
As I said at the start, here in the UK, we don't tend to hear about the
fantastic work the movement in Israel does bringing people closer to
Judaism, helping those in need and providing fantastic educational and
social opportunities to a wide range of Israelis. I do hope Pro Zion can
increase our links with the movement in Israel so we can keep you
informed about all of the successes as well as all of the struggles.

Shabbat Shalom
Daniel Needlestone and all at Pro Zion

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