Mercaz/WLCJ Essay Contest

Rethinking Zionism ~ What Does Zionism Mean to Me?
MERCAZ-Canada, MERCAZ USA and Women's League for Conservative Judaism offer a biennial essay contest.

1st Prize: Dalya Kahn, Congregation Beth Am, San Diego, CA

Carefully folding my hands into the fabric of my tallit, I grasp the top and bottom of the parchment, cautious not to let my skin and all its oils come in direct contact with the section of the holy scroll unrolled in front of me. Standing amongst my fellow campers, I look around and see we've formed a complete and closed circle with the exposed Torah before us--each using our tallitot as a protector for the book, each in silent awe at the sight before us. In the final days of my last summer at Camp Ramah in California, my edah immersed itself in nature for a week of growth and reflection as our time as campers came to a close. On Thursday morning, a Torah reading day, we walked up to a big open area in the mountains and unscrolled the entire book. We read from it, sang while holding it, delivered words of compassion before it, and lifted it as one for hagbah. Never in my life had I felt a greater sense of pride in my Judaism than when I was a part of that circle, holding my section of the Torah, looking around at the amazing people with whom I share this sacred book of our people. That morning, up on the hill, seeing the faces of people I've grown up with holding the basis of what brought us together years ago, I felt whole.
Zionism is wholeness. Zionism provides a sense of oneness to Jews all over the world. Zionism emphasizes a coming together of all Jews not in spite of our differences but because of them. Judaism, as a religion, is built on interpretation, question asking, and evolving, so naturally, there's going to be a broad spectrum of views on how one practices the religion. That being said, what it truly means to believe in Zionism is to trust and be confident in two central ideas: that every Jew is supportive of his/her fellow Jew, no matter the affiliation or practice; and that Israel and everything associated with the Jewish homeland is open to and accepting of all Jews. This is what I strive for, not only for myself, but for every Jewish community in Israel and the diaspora. To not disregard any fellow Jew for not dressing the same in public, davening and studying the same texts in the same ways, or engaging in only one mode of celebration. Taking our differences and embracing the multifaceted beauty of our diverse and complex religion enables us to understand each other and unite with each one another in ways that we couldn't if we weren't accepting of those differences.
Looking into the future of Zionism and the Jewish people, the most important thing to think about is how we treat each other within our religion. We, as Jews, are in charge of our own existence; it's an internal obligation, within ourselves individually and within our communities, to support one another and come together to ensure a Jewish future. Zionism doesn't ask us to get caught up in the fine print of the religion: arguing about whether or not to eat legumes during the eight days of Passover; whether or not there should be a mechitza that divides men and women during services; whether or not we should daven shacharit, mincha, and maariv every day. Zionism supports and commands our not getting so worked up about disagreements that we forget the commonalities present in our heritage. That we are the oldest monotheistic religion, and have continued to thrive even while overcoming the worst obstacles humans can endure. That we are all grounded by the ideals of tikkun olam and giving tzedakah. That we all perform mitzvot, practice the rituals associated with Shabbat and the holidays, and participate in Jewish life milestone events. Even if we don't read Hebrew, we are guided by the Tanakh, Talmud, and traditions brought forth by those before us, shaping our religion to what it is today. Our knowing of how to behave and how to be is what unites our different Jewish selves. Through this knowing, we also know what it means to be a Zionist.

As my edah finished up our Torah service and slowly rolled the individual sections of the Torah closer to where the two sides would eventually meet up, we began singing the song Acheinu:
Acheinu kol beit yisrael, han'tunim b'tzara uvashivyah, haomdim bein bayam uvein bayabasha
Our siblings the whole house of Israel, those in trouble or captivity, who are over land or sea.
Hamakom yirachem aleihem, v'yotziem mitzara lirvacha, um'afaila l'orah, umishiabud lag'ulah, hashah bagala uvizman kariv
May God show them mercy, and bring them from distress to comfort, from darkness to light, and from slavery to redemption, quickly and at a near time.

Those lyrics were more than just a song to sing. They were words I wanted to live by, coming to me straight from my soul, my neshamah. Regardless of where we were, whether we were Ashkenazi or Sephardic, reform, conservative, orthodox, reconstructionist or a member of any other movement that connects us to our Judaism, we were together. Holding that scroll, the Jewish past was presented to us, but we were amongst each other: the Jewish present and the Jewish future. We understood what it meant to be united. What it meant to be those siblings of Israel, helping each other even when we didn't have everything in common. And most importantly, what it meant to believe in Zionism, not only for the continuation of the holy land Israel, not only for making aliyah or continuing the Hebrew language, but so that Jews anywhere and everywhere could come together and celebrate the spirited connection that has enabled us to flourish throughout time.