My 50-year love affair—with Israel

by | Sep 16, 2013 | Other News

This summer I thought a lot about my very first trip to Israel exactly 50 years ago. In July and August of 1963, I went on a program for high school juniors sponsored by Camp Ramah. It was only the second year of operation of the National Ramah Seminar in Israel that thrives to this day. Looking back, it was a summer that changed my life.

I went to Israel that time not because it was the fulfillment of a dream. Far from it. In fact, the previous summer, I told the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Rabbi David Mogilner, of blessed memory, that I had no desire to go to Israel, and wouldn’t he please let me instead come back to camp as a staff member. I’ll never forget his answer.

“Archie, going to Israel will be more valuable to you than all your years at camp and Hebrew School put together. You have no choice. You’re going next summer!”

And so I went, and Rabbi Mogilner was so right. That Israel experience 50 years ago captured my Jewish soul in a way I had never imagined. Seven weeks of traveling in the young, dynamic, barely 15-year-old Jewish state made me feel at home and connected to my Jewish heritage. That Israel trip, highlighted by a reception with President Zalman Shazar in his home and a presentation by Israel’s Nobel Prize winning author, Shai Agnon, started for me a love affair, so to speak, one that has continued for…well, 50 years.

During the week after I came home in August of 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the mall in D.C. I, like many other young people at the time, was moved by Dr. King’s speech and by his dream of an America of racial equality, harmony, and understanding. But now my commitment to a just America had to share mental space with another commitment—a passion for the State of Israel and its people. I now had my own personal dream—t h e dream of getting back to Israel—if not to live, then to study, to visit, to spend time, and to maintain and deepen the connection that began that summer.

In this article, I know I can’t trace my love for Israel through the next 50 years. Most of my long-time congregants know where I stand on that count anyway. Suffice it to say this—I have been fortunate enough to get back to Israel more than 20 times since that teen trip—visits that ranged from a year of study at the Hebrew University to a 1½ day mission to console victims of suicide bombings in 1994, to a three-week family trip which the congregation was so generous to fund after my 10th year as rabbi. In addition, I consider a major highlight of my years in the rabbinate to be five synagogue Israel trips, on which many synagogue and Jewish community members joined my wife and me for their first Israel experiences.

There’s another reason Israel was very much on my mind this summer. Up until this summer, my last visit to Israel was in February of 2009 when I attended the annual worldwide Conference of Conservative Rabbis, held that year in Jerusalem. Barely a month later, I suffered a severe stroke that left me nearly paralyzed on the left side. To this day, I have no feeling, minimal strength and limited balance in my legs. In the wake of the stroke, when it became clear how extensive was the physical damage, I began to reconcile myself to the reality that I had gone to Israel for the last time. Sadly, I would just have to be satisfied with working on behalf of Israel here in America, and living vicariously through other people’s Israel experiences.

But during this past year I began to look with a new perspective at my physical capabilities. As I found myself taking on and meeting more physical challenges, I began to say “why not?” I started to dream again about getting back to Israel. No, I wouldn’t climb Masada again. Or even stroll on the beaches of Tel Aviv. But I might well be able to pray again at the Western Wall.

And then this June, exactly 50 years after that 1963 Ramah Seminar, I did. The Rabbinical Assembly convention was again held in Jerusalem, and I set my goal to be there.

I will spare you the details of how it came about. My son, Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg, was able to participate in the convention representing his synagogue in New City, N.Y., and he sat with me on the long plane ride. I reserved one of the handicapped rooms at the Dan Panorama Hotel. I found a company that rented me a motorized scooter so I could get around Jerusalem a bit myself. The staff of the Rabbinical Assembly was incredibly helpful, and I am so grateful to them. Besides programming for 200 rabbis, they arranged for me to have a personal escort to guide me through the disabled entrances of the Knesset, where we met with the different ministers of the Parliament. They arranged also for a private security screening for me at the President’s house so I could be part of a meeting with Israel’s President Shimon Peres at his home, exactly 50 years after with meeting President Shazar. And of course, there was always Jeremy to fill in the gaps. When the scooter batteries gave out (as they inevitably did on the hilly Jerusalem streets), it was Jeremy who bought me my falafel on Ben Yehuda Street and who pushed me long distances so I could get my iced coffee at the Aroma Café. Maybe even more significantly, he helped me walk down the 60 stairs leading to Robinson’s Arch at the Western Wall so I could attend the Bar Mitzvah of a congregant family.

I took a certain pride in telling Israelis that I had been there 50 years ago. From the cab driver who no doubt thought of me as your typical American tourist to the Ben Gurion Airport security interviewer to whom I spoke in Hebrew, it seemed to impress the rarely impressed Israelis that I had walked those same streets 50 years before. There was a banner hanging outside Jerusalem’s best known falafel stand, “Melech HaFelafel” (Falafel King) on King George Street. It read “Celebrating 50 years.” Indeed, I had eaten at Melech HaFelafel back then. And now I had come again as it marked its 50th anniversary in business.

In 1963, I saw Israel through the eyes of a teenager. Israel has changed immeasurably since the emerging teenage country that it was when I first visited. Its flaws have been exposed since then, not just to anti-Semites or its traditional enemies, but also to those of us who care for it deeply. But flaws or no flaws, the magic is still there; and the personal connection and relationship with Israel I first felt in 1963 is, if anything, stronger than ever. None of us know what the future holds, either for ourselves personally or for the State of Israel. But on my last day, as I rode with Jeremy from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport, I made myself one more commitment. “I’m coming back here again,” I said. And this time I have no doubt that I will.

Now in the season of the High Holy Days, I pray that all who read this piece will join me in wishing a fulfilling year also to our brothers and sisters in the land of Israel. May we continue to learn about them, to support them and visit them, and as we say at the end of the Yom Kippur service and at the Pesach Seder— “L’Shanah ha-baa b’yirushalyim, Next Year in Jerusalem.” I pray that the dream will come true for you as it has for me.

by Rabbi Arthur Ruberg
Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Beth El