Walking through the small, neatly kept Congregation Kneseth Israel cemetery in Annapolis, Md., last Friday was, as usual, a bittersweet experience.
Visiting not only my parents’ graves but those of many people I knew from childhood triggered a host of recollections, from heartwarming to tragic. The brave World War II naval captain and hero who later, as president of the congregation, steered its move to growth in the suburbs; the lively woman of deep faith, my Mom’s close friend who died suddenly at 47; my own good friend’s twin brother, who died in infancy, the small gravestone symbolizing a life unlived.
As I walked alone in the stillness, I relived a world of memories, noting that there seem to be fewer people each year with whom to share them.
Indeed, I know more people in the cemetery in Annapolis than in the synagogue, many of whose members have moved to the community in the years since I moved away. Coming back to my childhood home puts me in a time warp — a pleasant, even embracing one — where I have to remind myself that the building I still refer to as “the new shul” is almost 50 years old now, and where some of the older congregants no doubt would ask me if I still want to be a shortstop for the Orioles when I grow up. (In truth, looking at how the team has played the last 14 years, they could probably use me in the infield, even if I am ancient — and left-handed.)
Visiting the graves of loved ones in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days is a traditional Jewish custom that resonates with me, helping me put the past and future in context before praying for another year of life’s blessings.
On the eve of this Rosh HaShanah, my thoughts and prayers turn not only to family and friends but to our increasingly fractious American Jewish community, reflecting the chasms in our society in general. We are, more and more, a people worried and frustrated over events that seem beyond our control, from financial decline to a sense that we have lost confidence in the certitude of an ever-brighter future.
We bemoan the state of our leadership, when those at the helm seem vulnerable, unsure of solutions and so entrenched in their own ideology that they cannot respect or compromise with those who hold differing views.
As a result, our fears lead us to shriller voices, shorter tempers. Nowhere is this downward spiral more evident than in our communal debate over the fate of Israel, a subject that once unified our diverse community but now divides it most sharply. Surely the clash is so fierce because the stakes are so high, each side convinced the other’s path will lead to disaster.
We watch with growing concern as the Arab Spring unleashes decades of stored hatred among the masses toward the Zionist enterprise. Israel’s three decades of border calm with Cairo is gone; Mubarak, who cynically allowed the media to scapegoat Israel in deflecting criticism toward his own government, is no longer around to stop the demands of the street.
Turkey’s leader, rebuffed in his hopes of acceptance into the European Union, cynically has aligned his country with Iran and taken up the cries of its foot soldiers, Hamas and Hezbollah, in blaming Israel for the region’s problems.
And then there is the United Nations, which seems united only in its obsession with and anger toward Israel, prepared to negate the very essence of its charter — peaceful negotiations between parties to resolve differences — in championing the Palestinian cause.
Jerusalem is not blameless. It could have taken a proactive stance, charting a course of compromise rather than appearing passive, if not helpless, as the Palestinian Authority set its sights on statehood by bypassing the Israelis.
But the central problem is and always has been the refusal of much of the Arab world to accept a Jewish state, a condition that pre-dates settlements and border disputes. And it is time for those who love Israel — its history, land, people and aspirations — to speak as one voice in support. If not now, when?
Visiting the cemetery on the cusp of a new year, I am humbled by the achievements of those who came before me and all too aware of the fragility of life. I am as confused about what comes after death as I was as a child. But I believe in the eternity of the Jewish people, and of the promise of Israel. And I pray that the new year will find us turning, each toward the other, in working to ensure our survival and growth as individuals, as a community and as a people dedicated to fulfilling that promise.