More Than Just Sweetness

The following is the text of a D’Var Torah (sermon) that Spring 2018 alum Joanna Tasch delivered on August 17 to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California. Joanna is a rising senior in high school.

Growing up, I was always taught to love Israel. Looking back, my early love might have had something to do with sugar being involved whenever we were learning about Israel. In Shabbaton we made sugar-cookie and frosting maps of Israel; friends would come back from Israel with pop-rocks crackling chocolate; and some of the first words I learned in Hebrew were “glidah” (ice cream) and “oogah” (cake). When I was 5, my family traveled on the Beth Am family trip to Israel, and while I don’t remember much from our trip, I very clearly remember eating lots and lots of glidah on the beach in Tel Aviv. So naturally, my relationship with Israel was built on a solid foundation of sweetness, happiness, and sugar-rushes.

But as I grew older, and my understanding of the world became less sugar-focused and more complex, I also found my relationship with Israel more confusing. I understood that I had a strong support and love for the state of Israel, but I never really understood why. This past spring I attended URJ Heller High School in Israel hoping to answer that question. Heller High is a semester abroad living on Kibbutz Tzuba outside Jerusalem spent traveling around, learning about, and experiencing all that Israel is. This program is intense; on top of my junior year course load with AP classes and SAT tests, we took multiple field trips every week, plus a few larger trips. These adventures included four days in an Israeli Defense Force bootcamp simulation, hiking across the Northern stretch of Israel from the Kinneret Sea to the Mediterranean, and spending eight days studying the Holocaust in Poland. My time in Israel definitely felt like the longest four months of my life, but also the most rewarding.

Joanna (second from left) and friends on Kibbutz Tzuba

Spending four months living in Israel allowed me to deeply explore many of the different sides and perspectives Israel has to offer. Anyone who knows anything about Israel knows that it is not simple or straightforward by any means; it is the center of many complicated and sensitive political debates and social dilemmas. And while there are more levels and intricacies to Israel’s situations than I or anyone will ever be able to completely understand, living there for an extended time gave me the opportunity to understand Israel’s complexities with a greater capacity than I was able to before. While my exposure to Israel growing up was definitely sugar-coated, living there exposed me to many sides of Israel’s story. I soaked up the breathtaking beauty of its land, I reveled in the resilience of its people, I marveled at the richness of its history, and I was left utterly awe-struck that this was the homeland of my people. But I also saw some of the uglier sides of Israel. Life there can be messy, exhausting, and complicated. Israel is a controversial place with a lot of room for improvement, to say the least.

As I became exposed to more of Israel’s “less than perfect” sides, at times it felt that I had almost been lied to, or shielded from the “real” Israel. It’s kind of frustrating to hear about all of the suffering and conflict in a country that was always presented to me as someplace where I should feel safe and at home. It forced me to wrestle with challenging questions of how to reconcile my love for this place with aspects of this place that I didn’t support. At times I wished that I could just go back to thinking that Israel was all sugar-filled and perfect. That would be a lot simpler.

But as I kept learning more and more, I started to appreciate my broader awareness of all sides of Israel.

One of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a powerful TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she establishes that if we only hear a single story about another person, another country, another belief, another issue, we miss a critical understanding. My experience with Israel was the first time I fully comprehended the true value of that sentiment. I realized that my sugar-coated perception of Israel wasn’t untrue or deceitful, but that it was just incomplete. Now that I was seeing a more complete picture of Israel, my perspective was more nuanced and I was now much better equipped to tackle those big questions of what my support for Israel should look like. I know that I am able to support Israel wholeheartedly, while also acknowledging its flaws. I could now form a relationship with Israel that felt authentic, meaningful and lasting.

Joanna’s Jewish History class on a Tiyul (field trip)

I also began to realize how fortunate I am that I even had the opportunity to hear multiple stories of Israel. Many people only ever get to hear a single story that is accepted and taught in their communities. During my semester, we attended a gathering of Women of the Wall, a non denominational movement that fights for women to have equal rights at the Western Wall to read torah, wrap tefillin, wear tallit, and pray aloud. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable backlash against the movement, especially among ultra-orthodox communities. As we prayed, many onlookers screamed and whistled in protest, trying to drown out our voices. What struck me the most was how many of the protesters were women themselves, and how many of them were young girls. At one point my friend turned to me and said “I just don’t understand how they could be against their own rights. How could those girls grow up believing this is fair.” Her point makes sense; it seems illogical that women wouldn’t want more rights for themselves. But those women and girls protested because they were taught a single story that it is not a woman’s place to read Torah or pray aloud. When you only hear a single story, you come to know that as the truth. It was easy for my friends and me to become frustrated and to blame these people for being disrespectful to us, but it is more important to realize that these beliefs might not truly be their own, but rather a result of the single story they have been told. And that is why it is so crucial to incorporate diverse points of view in our discussions of Israel, and in our discussions of anything. While it is easier and more comfortable to settle for a single story, digging deeper for more perspectives to reveal a more complete picture is essential if we want to fix the problems in our society. The more perspectives we include and the more stories we tell, the more educated and informed our worldviews become. Commenting on this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, which means judges, Rabbi Matt Dreffin points out that it is imperative that we hear both sides of any story, that we have all the necessary information, before rendering personal judgement.

My teacher told us that “Love is what’s left after you know the truth.” My love for Israel now is stronger than ever. Israel used to just taste sweet to me. Now it is still just as sweet, but it is also sour, and salty, and rich, and a whole lot more satisfying. Shabbat Shalom.

See the full video of Joanna’s D’Var Torah

Announcing a New Heller High Partnership

By Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President We are writing to share the exciting news that the URJ Heller High school has entered into a partnership with Jewish National Fund-USA's Alexander Muss High School in Israel (Muss). Beginning this fall, URJ Heller High will take...

read more

English Class With Barry

Not every class at Heller High is oriented around Judaism. Students continue their general studies from back in the United States as well. I was most interested to see how an English course functioned in this unique environment, since I was a teacher of literature...

read more

Heller High Successfully Achieves Re-Accreditation

Quotes from committee: we have found the Heller HS to be an exemplary educational family, community, and facility The high level of continuity in staffing and leadership results in a high standard for planning and executing classes and activities, including half and...

read more

“Why don’t you try NFTY?”

Growing up in South Africa, from the time I was about eight years old, I was a member of Habonim; a Zionist youth movement. This was the time of Apartheid, and as my awareness grew, I found that I identified less and less with the country in which I was living. With...

read more

Masada: Then and Now

By Yael Lewis, Jewish History Teacher We have just officially completed the third full week of classes at Heller High! Last week ended with a bang for me. Right before another jam-packed week ended and the fun weekend started for the group in Eilat, we had a tiyul, a...

read more