Writing on the Opinion Page of the NY Times today, David Brooks warmed my heart by doing what is rarely done anymore in public space: singing the praises of Israel for its miraculous accomplishments. In the interreligious peace work that has been a focus of my attention, it is often the case that those of us who are supporters of Israel are constantly looking for ways to justify Israel’s existence as a Jewish nation. It is not only in interreligious circles that this conversation happens. A growing number of American Jews, many in progressive communities such as mine, are equally if not more squeamish about the Israel that builds settlements, walls, and dozens of checkpoints on Palestinian land. Aside from explaining the reasons for some of these security measures (which is also worth discussing), this perception clouds a view of an otherwise remarkable country that gives us reason for pride and celebration.

I enthusiastically seek opportunities to tout Israel’s many great successes to those who may only know her as the adversary of her neighbors. In today’s column, Brooks begins his column by talking about the Jewish people, patting us on the back:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates. Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction. David Brooks, “The Tel Aviv Cluster,” NY Times January 12, 2010

I am often asked why the Jewish People is so accomplished and successful. I trace it back to our status as “outsider” and the need for creative, innovative thinking to survive. Our inwardness during a long history of persecution and separation from the majority culture led us to create a religious culture that focused on learning. Through that learning, and the practice of mitzvot, sacred action, we sought to control our own corner of the world, transcending painful life realities through acts of holiness. We have always believed in our God-given human potential to transform the world in partnership with our Creator. Nothing short of messianic optimism drove us to transcend our difficulties by reaching heavenward through learning and action.

Brooks observed:

In his book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” Steven L. Pease lists some of the explanations people have given for this record of achievement. The Jewish faith encourages a belief in progress and personal accountability. It is learning-based, not rite-based. David Brooks, “The Tel Aviv Cluster,” NY Times January 12, 2010

With this drive and creativity, and a thirst for learning and knowledge, our people shaped the modern nation of Israel. I remember how I first fell in love with Israel as a child, through the stories of the miraculous accomplishments of the pioneers who built a thriving nation from the ground up. This story took on mythic proportions in the ensuing years, especially after 1967. In the complexities of the continuing conflict, its glory has faded for some, obscured by pain. But, it didn’t matter – the miracle has continued to unfold – Israel has continued to demonstrate ingenuity in many ways. Its successes in medical research and care, scholarship, environmental science and innovation, and technology are nothing short of amazing. Brooks makes it clear:

Israel’s technological success is the fruition of the Zionist dream. The country was not founded so stray settlers could sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron. It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world. David Brooks, “The Tel Aviv Cluster,” NY Times January 12, 2010

Brooks gives Israel her due, and I thank him for doing it so unabashedly in public space. But he rightfully exposes the challenges of this innovation. Successful Israelis now face a choice – living in the shadow of Iran and her proxies, and enduring hardships of the ongoing struggle; or consider living elsewhere. In fact, many now talk of Israel’s “brain drain”, as many accomplished Israelis have chosen the latter. Brooks put it succinctly:

During a decade of grim foreboding, Israel has become an astonishing success story, but also a highly mobile one. David Brooks, “The Tel Aviv Cluster,” NY Times January 12, 2010

I would like to add one twist to this conversation: What would keep Israelis in Israel besides peace? I know it is not a simple question. Among the issues, I can’t help but wonder if the spiritual yearning that filled our ancestors with a love for the Land of Israel could also be a part of the puzzle. Israel, the fruition of our people’s dreams, held promise as the spiritual center, the Jewish home for the Jewish people. It is the one place on earth where we have the opportunity to build a society based on the wisdom of four thousand years of Jewish experience, to nurture a Jewish civilization unfettered by the restrictions of minority status. Yet today, Israel’s Jewish character is challenged by the increasingly extremist and fundamentalist views of the politically powerful Ultra Orthodox rabbinate. Far from being a Jewish spiritual home, it can be an alienating place in which to live a meaningful Jewish life on modern terms.

There are many exciting and encouraging new start-ups arising all across Israel in which secular Israelis are reclaiming their tradition. But many Israelis have yet to have access to these richly rewarding expressions of Jewish renewal. Many now venture to Asia for spiritual fulfillment as young adults. This is a topic for so much more conversation. But for the moment, prompted by the uplifting, yet sobering words of David Brooks’ column, I will share my hope and prayer for the “mobility” challenge he cited. It is a hope that the enormous drive, creativity, imagination, and innovation that have enabled Israel’s many successes will be applied to the Jewish life within Israel for all Israelis. Perhaps if Israelis – and Diaspora Jews — are more spiritually connected to our ancient story and the treasure of Jewish tradition, the next great chapter of Israel’s success can be written. Then Israel will continue to captivate the hearts, minds and resources of the entire Jewish people.