Rabbi Mauricio Balter made a plea for greater person-to-person contact between Americans and Israelis.
“We need to work hard with each individual American Jew and each American synagogue to strengthen their relationships with Israel,” said Balter, bringing a message from his congregation in Be’er Sheva to American Jews as a guest of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.
Balter is the religious leader of Kehillat Eshel Avraham and the president of the Masorti (Conservative) movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. On Aug. 28, he concluded a five-day visit to the United States, where he attended a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly and visited friends in the Greater MetroWest area.
In a lilting accent inflected with the Spanish he learned in his native Uruguay and later in Argentina, the Conservative rabbi told NJ Jewish News, “Many people have a weak Jewish identity, and Israel should be a component of their Jewish identity. Israel should not become a title or a name but a face. For Israelis it is very important for people to be in touch with people in the Diaspora. This will give the opportunity for all the people to be in touch with each other.”
His synagogue is one of the recipients of funds from the Greater MetroWest religious pluralism committee, which encourages development of non-Orthodox Jewish congregations and institutions in Israel. It also receives funds from the Ed and Barbara Zinbarg Family Foundation.
Balter made aliya in 1995, and began his rabbinical duties in Kiryat Bialik before moving to Be’er Sheva in 2010.
Although his main duties include promoting Conservative Judaism in Israel, he was preoccupied with the war in Gaza, which had lasted 50 days.
He lived in northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War. In Be’er Sheva, he experienced Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, as well as the latest hostilities, dubbed Operation Protective Edge.
“This time was very different because rockets came near people’s homes,” said Balter. “For a long time, 50 days, it was very difficult for people to live with the feeling you can be a victim of one of the missiles. Living 40 kilometers from Gaza, people have one minute to get to the shelters” when the warning siren sounds. “We had to go into the shelters too many times to count.”
Not all of the many rockets hurled at Be’er Sheva were shot down by the Iron Dome defense system.
“Four of them flew in low enough so that the Iron Dome could not destroy them,” said Balter. “Fortunately, they landed between buildings and no one was injured. How do we explain this? I don’t know.”
Unlike many American rabbis, Balter views people throughout Be’er Sheva as his constituents, not just the 500 families who belong to his synagogue.
So, when his city was under attack, he mobilized friends and neighbors to assist others.
“We did two rounds of telephone calls to all the people in the community to ask how they feel and what they need,” he said. “People have different needs. Some have kids in the army. Others are old persons who can’t go out of their house and need assistance. Others have traumas from different wars. Each person has a personal experience about each situation, and we try to give them personal solutions for their problems.”
As he prepared to return home, Balter told NJJN he is worried about the near future.
“Next week we begin classes in our schools, and we are concerned about kids in the street walking to school. It can be very dangerous for them.”
Workers have replaced the windows of Eshel Avraham with bullet-proof glass, and although his synagogue is equipped with three shelters, Balter said, “If there is a siren on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur we have no possibility to protect all the people. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur all of the synagogues are very full.”
And yet, he called himself “an optimistic person. I believe there will be a solution within time. We need to have dialogue with our enemies. This is not easy, but if you dialogue only with your friends you don’t solve the war,” he said.
Balter’s host, Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein, agreed.
“For the first time unofficially in this terrible war, you see moderate Arab nations like Egypt seeing the danger of Hamas in a way that never happened before,” said Silverstein. “Hamas has had less support in the Arab world than at any previous time it has had a war with Israel.
“With all the tsuris of the war, the Iron Dome is a miracle in protecting people’s lives. I think there are reasons to feel optimistic.”