Still a Land of Promise


As I write these words, Passover is less than a month away, and I am preparing to take part in the Jewish Federation’s Israel mission. This will be my third visit to the Promised Land. I spent nearly a year there during my first year of rabbinical school in 1992-1993, and I led a mission from Oklahoma City in 2006.
Though I have always had a bond with Israel, the nature of this connection has changed through the years. Growing up in Memphis, I learned about Israel as a safe haven in the aftermath of the Holocaust and as a point of pride for the Jewish people. This was a comfort, because at an early age, being a minority, I experienced antisemitism and felt the pain of feeling like “the other” –someone who did not belong. From childhood, I knew that Israel was always a place that would accept me unconditionally if my birth country rejected me.
Even as a youth, I always knew my identity was complex and nuanced. At the same time, I could honestly call two places home: the United States and Israel.
When I started college in 1987, my ties to Israel became challenged. At the University of Michigan, I struggled simultaneously to be Zionist and politically progressive. As I participated in various organizations, I found myself having to defend not only my connection to Israel, but Israel’s very legitimacy. It’s disheartening that college campuses have become even more divisive. When I labeled myself as a Zionist on campus, I had to deal with debate; when students label themselves as Zionist today, they have to deal with ostracism and even violence. 
When I visited Israel the first time, I felt an immediate emotional connection. I was home. I had never felt like part of the majority before. I felt safe.
Almost 31 years later, I am preparing to go back. Sadly, what is going on there politically has tainted my expectations. I am saddened and frustrated that so many Israeli Jews do not want me to feel welcome. But then again, with the state of affairs in the United States, many of my fellow citizens do not want me to feel welcome. We live during surreal times.
And yet, my support for Israel remains, despite how many of my fellow Jews have chosen to wield their political power in divisive ways. I still look forward to returning to home turf.
Thousands of years ago, a mixed multitude began their journey to reach a Land of Promise. Does modern day Israel remain the Land of Promise? Absolutely. None of us will ever arrive at the Promised Land, because in many ways this is an idealized vision. In the meantime, we all have to navigate the pragmatic land of Israel as it is versus the land of Israel that could be.
Israelis are still part of my extended family, regardless of what some of my family may think of me and regardless of what I think of them. I have always been and will continue to be grateful for Israel’s existence.
As Passover draws closer, I think about Moses. I wonder what he thought and felt about the Promised Land. He devoted the majority of his life to leading a mixed multitude to a place he was forbidden to enter. 
Words alone cannot express my gratitude that I can enter Israel. I can hear the cacophony of languages. I can dust off my Ivrit Modernit (modern Hebrew). I can walk the streets. I can eat the food. I can interact with the people. In the same day, I can visit archaeological ruins and experience the bustling first world. 
I hope Moses knows what his beautiful and amazing mixed multitude has become.

Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area.


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