Going at it Bottom-Up

May 19, 2013

I am back…after a few month hiatus.  A short explanation of what happened: As my readers may know, last summer I started working at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.  Along the way, I became involved in young children/ family Shabbat programming  (Among other things, I have been living a long-time dream of mine and found others who share this vision – monthly Shabbat morning excursions into nature all within 20 minutes drive of Jerusalem where we learn about the land of Israel from ancient to modern times, enjoy G-d’s creation, and have a short Shabbat service/story accompanied by guitar).  From January to May, I worked with JTS education students in Jerusalem for the semester.  And out of the blue, a congregation more or less in the Jerusalem area in a picturesque and lovely little town called Tzur Hadassah was looking for a rabbi.  I couldn’t pass up the opportunity as I truly love this work (as I love the other jobs I have too)

So, as my load becomes a bit lighter, now I’ve come up for air.  And following the plea of a friend, “Can you please start writing your blogs again??!!”  I’m back to share my thoughts on this amazing, dynamic, vibrant, land in which I live.  As the vintner Avi Yehuda that my father and I visited a month ago in the moshav of Shoresh (and bought a number of bottles of wine from him) put it – this lovely land and people of Israel are “gravelly” (mechuspas) – meaning a little rough, but full of rich texture.

Everyone is talking about the Women of the Wall. I have thoughts on it but would like to formulate them more carefully than for a spontaneous blog post.  But what I want to share in a way relates to this.

Oftentimes, people view the dynamic in Israel as a war or at least a struggle that is full of tension and sometimes gets ugly.  It makes people sometimes say, “Why even bother to care about Israel since it doesn’t represent me and my Jewish values at all?”  I think this view is misguided, of course.  Because of all the beautiful and wonderful and inspirational things about Israel and what it represents for the Jewish people, we (all Jews around the world) need to be involved and help it along the way, each of us in our own way.  I often struggle about what my “battles” ought to be.  When do I give up my family life for a greater cause?  When do I sacrifice precious work time(for which I need to support myself and my family) for a demonstration.  What am I willing to lose sleep over?  And so on.

And then there are the moments in my work when I believe, though it is small and doesn’t make the evening news, this is significant and part of the bigger picture.

My example this week is of our Tikkun Leil Shavuot (our late night study in honor of the giving of the Torah on this holiday) in Tzur Hadassah this year.  To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect.  This is a tiny town where 30 people at any event is considered to be a huge turnout.  Our theme was “The Meaning of Torah Today” in honor of our campaign that we are now kicking off to funding the reparation of our Torah scrolls (that survived the Holocaust, one written in Poland in the 1920s and one written in Holland in the 1700s)  I taught about “Reading from the Torah, Studying Torah, and Being Torah”, Rabbi Ofer Shabbat Beit-HaLachmi taught about his vision for reinterpreting mitzvot, and Rabbi Mira Hovav taught about the challenge of being a link in the chain of transmission from generation to generation as seen through the eyes of a S.Y. Agnon story.   

Needless to say, it was a very interesting evening in terms of content.  We finished at 2 a.m. – and everyone stayed till the end!

But equally as important for me were the participants.

Among the participating congregants: a psychologist, hi-tech manager, US Federation executive, therapist for victims of terror, accountant, a third generation owner of a Jerusalem furniture company, and a children’s educator, a regular participant in the congregation’s study group, .

Among the visitors: a Secular Rabbi who lives in town, a young immigrant from Argentina who is beginning the process of conversion and her husband, two young ultra-Orthodox men from Ramat Beit Shemesh (I heard a rumor they are considering leaving their  community) and a few unknown people from the town who quietly listened throughout the night. 

Not only that, but the vast majority of the participants are native Israelis – people who came to Reform Judaism through meeting it in Tzur Hadassah.  They want to learn and to take an active part in the discussion and say where our ancient sources meet them today.  They want their larger community to be open and pluralistic and a place where they can be both modern and Jewish.  They want a home where they can come celebrate the holidays, their life cycle events, and receive support as a family together, in a way that makes them feel at home.  They want to be social justice activists that take part in repairing the world. 

For me, this is my field of action.  Here in Tzur Hadassah, and everyday communities like it, the future of the State of Israel is being written.

 

Chanukah – increasing the light

December 8, 2012

Life just seems to be more and more complicated as the world “advances”. Especially we Israelis are trying very hard all the time to be the most innovative, the most advanced, and the ones who think of the new, cutting-edge idea first. Tonight, we began celebrating the holiday of Chanukah and there are eight days stretched before us of frenetic activity – evening meetings with friends and family to light the chanukiyah, cooking latkes (and not just the plain old kind – already tonight our friends made some combination of potatoes, leeks, peas, and some unidentifiable spices), a deluge of doughnuts from bakeries all over the city (I don’t pretend to know how to prepare them myself), Chanukah gelt in all colors and flavors, and endless events and performances to enjoy.

I already see my family seeking the simpler path to enjoy the holiday – my husband loves only the original jelly doughnuts, our favorite chanukiyah was made in pre-school from recycled materials found on the street, and our favorite latkes are plain old potato with apple sauce.

And I also think that it’s unnecessary to complicate things in trying to derive meaning for ourselves from the holiday. I’m always seeking things that not only I can apply to my daily life, but also my atheist husband and my five-year-old son (we won’t put too much on our 2-year-old daughter who’s just asserting her independence to dress herself in the morning!). I think that you shouldn’t have to find more than the simple words which normal people can understand in order to fulfill what I believe is the true purpose of all of our holidays: To be happy. And when we talk about happiness, we also mean to be concerned also with the happiness of others.

Of all the topics that are a part of Chanukah, we decided to focus on the centrality of light. The midrash tells of the first Adam who was afraid when he saw that the days got shorter as winter approached, and when he saw that the days got longer again, he made an eight-day holiday. We celebrate the miracle of the oil that created light that lasted for eight days. And the rabbinic School of Hillel taught in the Talmud that we add a candle every night in order to “increase in holiness.”

We sat as a family and we formulated together a list of eight things – one for each day – for how we can make more light in the world. And here they are:
1. Wherever you are – whether at work or at school – work hard to do what you need to be doing/learning.
2. Help someone else with something
3. Donate some money to tzedakah
4. Give someone a compliment that you don’t usually speak to
5. Tell a joke
6. Host friends at home for lighting the candles together
7. Write a new song about Chanukah
8. Try something new

May it be that when we sanctify and bless the Chanukah candles, we ourselves will be sanctified and blessed; when we increase the light in the world, the light within us grows as well; and when we renew our days, we will be renewed as well.

Happy Festival of Lights!

A visit in an Ashkelon middle school – Increasing the light

November 30, 2012

If you happened to read my last post reflecting on the rocket attack on Israel, I ended with a question: What can I do?

I was happy to receive a call from the Israeli Reform Movement who wanted to organize a group to go down to Ashkelon, which is located 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Gaza and 105 grad rockets were launched on the city and 13 caused damage to buildings, homes, and schools over two weeks of escalation between Hamas and Israel in November. We were asked to lead activities for students at a middle school as a way of easing their transition back into school. Many students suffered from shock and trauma and it was difficult for them to resume normal studies. I jumped at the opportunity and happily added to my car for the hour and twenty minute ride down from Jerusalem an Israeli rabbinical student, a young worker in the Reform movement headquarters, and the director of the Reform kindergartens. Our plan was to lead activities about Chanukah, since that fun holiday is just around the corner.

Driving through Ashkelon, which has some lovely parts and is by the sea, I didn’t see any signs of damage. It felt like a normal, beautiful sunny day in the land of Israel. At the school, we met more people from the Israeli Reform movement headquarters and six 18-year-old participants in the movement’s Pre-Army program from Jaffa. The energetic principal of the huge school (seven classes of at least 30 kids in each grade!) greeted us with a smile and was clearly organized for our visit – for me, already a sign that they wanted us to be there and made this a priority. She repeated the request that had been sent out in the email: Please do fun activities and nothing too serious or requiring too much deep thought. These kids need respite.

I entered first a seventh grade classroom, armed with about five different activities depending on how things would go. Discipline is generally an issue in Israeli schools, and I was happy to see a teacher there to assist. I divided the class into two groups and we had a “contest” answering trivia questions about Chanukah, and then we had a “sing down” of different Chanukah songs (there are more Israeli Chanukah songs than for any other holiday!). They got really into it, and they even learned new things about the holiday. From there, I went to a 9th grade class that was much smaller (Only afterwards, the teacher said, “Maybe I should have mentioned before you started that this is a class of kids with learning disabilities”). We started the trivia, but emotions ran high among some girls. So, I switched to a more serious topic – but optimistic! – sharing some Jewish sources about the value in Chanukah of light – our need for light, the inner light that resides in each and every one, and the teachings in Judaism that instruct us to bring that light to the world. The students spoke about making peace, there should be no more war, being loving people, and how we can be supportive to each other. I ended the day with an 8th grade class. What can I say – it was the end of the day and the 13-year-old hormones were raging! We also did the trivia game and as the time ran out, I was proud of myself that I managed to pull the class together (better than the teacher was doing, I am sad to say) and leave them also with the message of the special light that each of them has inside of them.

The amusing part of the day – each class was fascinated with my foreign name and my accent (all the kids I met were native Israelis except one girl who was excited to tell me after the class that she was born in Canada). So at the start of each activity, I had to explain my origin and framed it to them in a joking way: You guys are the real tzabars (natives), and I am the real Zionist!

The fascinating part of the day – This was Israel. In each classroom, there were white Ashkenazic kids, dark kids of North African descent, Russians, Ethiopians, some boys with kipot, some boys with earrings. This was Israel’s melting pot/salad. There was youthful enthusiasm, joking and laughing, singing, alongside hormones and teenage spats. But our common conversation – in this secular public school – was around our holiday, Chanukah and there was a place and a message for all. And despite the shouting, the emotions, and all the antics of this age, I really did feel the love and appreciation from the kids and staff.

We never spoke about the rockets, not with the kids and not with the teachers. On the one hand, I was so focused on my mission. But also, it wasn’t what I came there for. We came there to smile, laugh, be a part of the Jewish People, and to move on together.

A view from Jerusalem in light of 1000 missiles falling in Israel

November 21, 2012

I love living in Israel (have I ever mentioned that before?).

Even now, as terrorists send missiles over half the country, I love living here.

I live in Jerusalem. We’ve had two missiles launched in our direction this week. On two occasions I heard the air raid siren. The first, we were at home preparing for Shabbat – we took our children and went to the basement of our apartment building. My native Israeli husband knew what to do – find the most protected spot and wait ten minutes. The second, I was at work at Hebrew Union College and was near the bomb shelter, joining my son and his kindergarten class there. One teacher asked the kids to explain why we are here. Tears came to my eyes as five-year-olds said matter-of-factly, “There was a missile sent over by people who want to hurt us. But we are in a safe place.” And all the kids were calm – my son was in a corner, not noticing me, playing with his friend. My daughter slept through it during her afternoon nap at her pre-school (she was in a safe place) and my native Israeli husband was driving to the university. Did he stop the car and run into a building? No, he kept driving.

After both air raids, I was shaken up, unsettled. I tried to imagine the person who sent the rocket, its trajectory over Israel toward Jerusalem, the second it appeared on the radar screen of the Israeli army and the person who pressed the air raid siren button, all the people running for cover or not, and finally the explosion in the field near Palestinian villages outside of Bethlehem both times. This is not a war, I think. This is terrorism.

I think of my fellow dwellers here who are all equally suffering the terror – Jews and Arabs and visitors from other countries – especially those in southern Israel who hear air raid sirens on an hourly basis. There is a law that all buildings built after a certain year must have a bomb shelter. Also, these missiles that are sent over have really, thank G-d, killed and injured very few people. This is terrorism – ruining the economy for the week, putting people in a state of panic. Look what two missiles toward Jerusalem has done — people are afraid, edgy, children having nightmares and crawling into bed with their parents. I imagine what hundreds have done to people in the south.

As Nancy Lewitt, the director of student services at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, relayed to me what her native Israeli husband said to her during the Persian Gulf War (remember, Israelis were carrying gas masks and preparing for biological warfare), “Israelis don’t leave.” I look over the course of 2000 years of history and am reminded again of the powerful meaning and miracle of having a Jewish homeland today. This is our place, and we, in the end, need to be relying upon ourselves to protect ourselves. All Jews around the world need to be mindful of the importance of having Israel and of having Jews who are dedicated to making our lives here, in good times and in times of trouble.

The solution is peace. I ask my government to make peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank to show the other Palestinians that terror is not the means to achieve nationhood. I truly hope that my government leaders want peace and don’t just make excuses because they hold a false belief that one day all the Palestinians will leave and they will rule over all of “the complete Land of Israel” (whatever that is, anyway). I pray that the Palestinians will demand from their leaders to live in peace with the Jews and that they can understand that making peace can create opportunities that will help us all flourish and thrive.

I have to admit, I think I need to do more personally to help the situation. We were happy to host friends from the South as much as we could and as much as they felt comfortable with. I hope we can take part in rebuilding efforts when this is all over. Soon there will be elections in Israel, and I plan to help those who are running for office who I believe can do the best to secure Israel’s future. I will continue to teach about tolerance and peace and continue to prove that this is a central tenet of our Jewish sources and heritage. And I need to explore other ways to take action. If you know of some, let me know, and I will share with you what I discover as well.

The Day After the American Elections in Jerusalem

November 7, 2012

I just had a meeting with the representative of my organization’s insurance company.  One meets with this type of rep to cover the rainbow of coverages – first and foremost to decide on your pension plan, then to see if you want additional life insurance, and finally to decide if you want to extend your extra health coverage to your spouse or children (Apparently, our socialized medicine system is not so complete, but I have to say that even this extra health coverage costs no more than $20 a month)

The meeting takes almost two hours to make a few relatively simple decisions.  But it was my first time having such a conversation and I wanted to learn all the different terms, especially as it is no secret that numbers and financial matters are not my strong point.  I wondered how much he was “selling” me and I was buying his version of what to buy or not.  Though he seemed like a nice enough guy. 

Of course, the social issues always are lying between the lines. 

My insurance representative wears a crocheted kippa (kippa seruga) marking him as an Orthodox Zionist.  When I referred to my husband as ben-zugi (literally “my male partner”) rather than the traditionally used ba’ali (literally “my master”), he was very respectful of this and made sure always to call my husband ben-zugi and even to write it this way on his form. 

As he typed my street address into the form, he asked if I live in Jerusalem.  I was surprised that he didn’t know my street, so I asked him if he is coming from Jerusalem.  Though his office is in Jerusalem, he lives in Efrat.  This is a quite large and established town in the West Bank settlements. 

He also had to put my profession into the form.  I told him, “Rav.” (rabbi)  He said, “That’s your profession?”  I said, “Yes.” After a few moments of typing other information, he said, “What a second, isn’t a woman rabbi called rabba?”  I said, “Yes, actually.”  He said, “So, why don’t we enter it that way?”  I said, “It doesn’t matter to me.”  So he changed my profession to rabba. As part of his questionnaire, he asked me if I have dangerous hobbies (I think he meant skydiving and the like).  I said no and joked, It’s my profession that might be considered more dangerous.  We both laughed and agreed – dangerous only in certain neighborhoods.  Though he added, “Though those people wouldn’t even consider you as that.”

As on many forms in Israel, they ask when you made aliyah to Israel. After I told him the date (September 3, 2005), he asked, “Are you happy with your decision to live here?”  My reply, “Yes, of course.  Why?”  Him: “It just seems to me that life is better and easier in America.”  My reply: “People have problems everywhere.”

Finally, my office was buzzing around me with the news of the results of the American elections.  I told my insurance rep, “I voted for Obama.”  He asked me why.  I explained (in the most simple way possible as he had already stood up and was on his way out), “I’m a liberal on social issues and I think he is good for Israel.” I explained how I think that a good friend also helps you to make peace.  He then brought up the Oslo accords and explained how they failed and how we don’t have a partner on the other side.  I said it’s hard to say whether there was failure or the solution was the wrong one or if other things happened along the way, but the fact of the matter is that American presidents have been a part of making agreements that an Israeli prime minister has not been able to do alone and we must always be working to find a solution – whatever it will be.  He said, Maybe our leaders don’t have the courage to make peace?  Or perhaps there is simply no one to talk to, no chance for peace in the current situation.  I said, I think peace is a very difficult thing and demands a very courageous and wise leader to make peace.  And in most situations I believe that our leader will need the backing and pushing of an outside friend to truly make it happen. He said –

My phone rang.  I was 15 minutes late to my next meeting.

We both smiled, chuckled a bit, and said, “Todah Rabbah – Thank you very much.  Shalom.”

Happy 7 year Aliyah Anniversary!

September 6, 2012

ImageI made aliyah seven years ago on September 5, 2005.  I will never forget this date because on most forms I have to fill in, in addition to my date of birth, identification number, and address, I usually have to also write my date of aliyah. 

Some reflections on this date which I do think of as a sort of anniversary – like a date marking the marriage between me and Israel.

 I love living in Israel.  The more I live here, the more I am happy that I have chosen this place to be my home.  I love my Jerusalem apartment which usually has the windows open, the flowers on my requisite porch and seeing the greenery of those flower-potted porches on the buildings adjacent to ours.  Most places I go in Jerusalem now, I meet people that I know.  I love the views of the ancient buildings and the new.  I love the Hebrew language which connects past, present and future, and I have found expressions that perfectly say what I want to say that I find it hard to translate. 

 I love the intimacy that permeates the society.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I want my space as well.  I’m learning to not be afraid of arguing here and to not take it personally.  I love Shabbat here – cars or no cars, television or no television, touching light switches or not, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem — it just feels like Shabbat and I love it.  I love traveling within Israel and visiting all of the beautiful nature, culture, and historic spots, or just eating out at a restaurant. 

I love my work here.  I am constantly inspired by creative, driven people who want to make the world a better place. 

 I feel responsible here and always feel like I am not doing enough to help my fellow – the Jew (in all of his/her manifestations), the Arab Israeli, the Palestinian, the foreign visitor.  And there is so much to do – as there is in any other place.

 I love that people want so much to do it better here, to bring it to the next level, to bring joy to their children and grandchildren – and to quote the Bible and Jewish sources as they do it, and then point to the place where that quotation took place.

 I have an American accent when I speak Hebrew.  That will never go away.  In more than a few instances, native Israelis make a note of this with the notion that I’m not “authentically” Israeli or didn’t grow up with the right cultural context that would enable me to get what it means to be Israeli.  But then I remind myself of the others that have an American accent —  Golda Meir, Stanley Fisher, and so many of my esteemed and respected colleagues.  And of course, most dearly, those people with whom I work and play and those whom I am able to help and never make one mention of it.

 And I’m a bit worried about the state of public school education here, as next year my son will enter 1st grade.

And I’m concerned about rising costs, right-wing elements that border on fascism, racism, and violence in our society.

And I’m here to help.

Mazal tov!

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September 6, 2012

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The New Tisha B’Av

July 30, 2012

What can Tisha B’Av mean today?

Tisha B’Av is not a day ordained by G-d in the Torah but rather it is an observance that was created by people in reaction to an event: The destruction of the First Temple.  This was a tragic and traumatic time for the Jewish people and the leaders felt a need to create a new ritual – to help people recover from the trauma, to integrate the experience in order to move on, and  later on to commemorate the experience to preserve the memory. 

Throughout history, other events “joined” this day – the destruction of the Second Temple, the first expulsion of Jews from England, the Spanish Inquisition marking the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and most recently the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.  As well as events that pre-date the destruction of the Temple – for example, the tradition teaches that this is also the day the spies that Moses sent to scout the land of Israel returned with a bad report.

There obviously was a need for this type of commemoration as Jews continued to observe it for over two thousand years.  Again, it is not a day commanded by G-d.  It is a day that we people created for ourselves to help us deal as a collective nation with an event that grieves us.  Jewish communities have been doing this throughout history – calling for a fast in the community when a local tragedy occurs.  And this is exactly what the State of Israel did, for example, in creating Yom HaShoah after Pesach, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

How do we and how should we observe Tisha B’Av today, especially when we live the miracle of the modern State of Israel? 

In Jerusalem, you feel Tisha B’Av in that it is a quieter day with less traffic.  There are shop owners who choose to close but much of the everyday life of the city is open.  City employees have the day off.  If you go to the Western Wall (which was the retaining wall of the Temple) throughout the night, you actually feel like you are at a big party and the atmosphere often feels far from mournful.  Outside of Jerusalem, it is a regular day and most people go about their normal business without any reminder of the day in the public space.  And I’ve been told that many people abroad, except for the strictly observant, don’t even know what the day is. 

As a Jew whose aim is to synthesize tradition with the modern world, I believe that we need to re-examine and redefine the purpose and meaning of Tisha B’Av.  I don’t mourn the destruction of the Temple in and of itself and I don’t pray for the establishment of a Third Temple, nor for a messiah, nor for the re-establishment of animal sacrifice.  What I do is participate in the memory of loss – a function so crucial to the survival of the Jewish people just as I participate in the memory of liberation at the Pesach seder.  I want to give honor for those who gave their lives and suffered for the greater good and for the survival of the Jewish people.  In Israel, a few events are being organized by liberal communities to use Tisha B’Av as a day of raising awareness for social responsibility within our society.  I think this is certainly a welcome venture.

I see my fast today – as well as my prayer, my study, and my visit to the site of the Temple — as my identification with those who suffered – from those who suffered from the destruction of the Temple and the conquests of Israel by world empires whether they suffered death, injury, starvation, or loss of faith to the Jews who suffered persecution throughout history. 

Reform Judaism teaches us not to limit our concern to only Jews as we see ourselves as part of the great family of humanity.  Therefore, I also see Tisha B’Av as an opportunity to raise awareness of suffering in the world —  from those who are being returned to South Sudan to a land of poverty and starvation to those innocent victims of the civil war ravaging our neighbor Syria.  And if one should ask how I can identify with the suffering of our would-be “enemies” or with a non-Jew in general – at least let us think of the children and babies.  I fast to remind myself that fasting for one day is really nothing compared to the daily suffering of so many millions of people.

Our ceremonies and study need to help us develop our empathy for the plight of others.  This year, I studied with Rabbi Ada Zavidov at Congregation Har El about the tears of the Sages and tried to understand and identify with their feelings of anguish.  I heard the book of Lamentations chanted and read and imagined the images that inspired the prophet to write his lamenting of the destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem as he did.  I visited the Old City of Jerusalem and gave an impromptu tour to non-Jewish visitors (friends of a friend) from Spain and tried to recreate in my mind – as well as to convey to them — what took place there that brought about such destruction and mourning.  I spoke with my children about ahavat chinam – the importance of baseless love and giving – which our tradition teaches us for this reason the Temple was built in the first place.  I thought  about what I can do for future Tisha B’Av days that can further these ideas and introspection.

And I gathered inspiration for the day after Tisha B’Av when I will return to the everyday world and with hope that I have more strength and wisdom to strive for a just and loving society.

“Returning the Crown to its Ancient Glory” — Returning Judaism to the People

June 20, 2012

Today’s musings on Israeli society – the real, everyday Israeli society and not the headlines – are from two separate experiences I had officiating at a bat mitzvah and a bar mitzvah.

I worked with Shira, a fourth generation Israeli, who studies at a well-regarded school whose banner is that secular and religious kids learn together (they even have quotas for each type). After seeing her modern Orthodox friends have a bat mitzvah that included some kind of ceremony with a Torah, she decided that she wanted to learn to read from the Torah but participate in a ceremony that reflects her more liberal orientation (She and her family define themselves as “secular”). With her family, I built a program of study of Jewish topics and I taught her the cantillation system. Shira can now pick up any text of Torah and chant it. We had fascinating discussions both one-on-one and with her family. Together we constructed the prayerbook combining traditional Jewish prayers, Israeli songs, and modern interpretations of traditional prayers. Shira designed the cover. A friend of the family accompanied the ceremony a few weeks ago on cello which took place in the family’s spacious backyard with guests sitting on colorful pillows. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Afterwards, I was sitting with Shira’s grandmother. By the way, her atheist grandfathers did not participate in the ceremony as they did not support the idea of any religious ceremony. Her grandmother explained their secularism and said that when it came time for Shira’s father’s bar mitzvah, they asked him what he wanted to do. He surprised them by saying he wanted to have a traditional bar mitzvah, read from the Torah, and go to the synagogue. So, he did (Shira wore his talit from his bar mitzvah) but that was the end of that. What she said next still rings in my head, “Our generation was the generation that didn’t have options. The only option we had was that we have to overcome. You weren’t supposed to talk about your feelings. You were supposed to keep it to yourself and just get through life.”

** ** ** **

This week, I officiated at a bar mitzvah of a family from the US who has a lot of family here in Israel. The ceremony was at the Southern Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. The congregation of around 80 people sat on the steps – the very steps which our ancestors climbed as they made pilgrimage to the Temple and entered the gates whose outline you could see over their heads – and we, on the “bimah”, were at the bottom, overlooking the valley now known as the City of David, which is thought to be the original site of the Jerusalem which David built 3000 years ago (today it’s an Arab village but that’s another story for another time). We sang, I shared stories and insight as we went through the service, the bar mitzvah boy read from the Torah beautifully and shared a mature-beyond-his-years d’var torah (speech). His mom cried, his secular father blessed him in the most moving way, and his grandmother presented him with a talit that had belonged to her grandfather originating in Latvia.

The Israeli relatives sat in the congregation. They smiled, they sang along. They felt good. An older woman approached me after the ceremony, “We Israelis have been deprived of our Judaism. Through this ceremony, I see there is a way to get it back.” I nodded. She grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and said, “Really, I mean it. They took away our Judaism.” I nodded again and said, “I agree. I understand.”

* ** ** ** ** *

I may have an accent. My childhood and youth may not have been spent immersed in the Israeli culture. I didn’t serve in the army (though my husband still serves in reserve duty).

But I think that Israel is better off that I am here as well as my colleagues who are both native Israelis and immigrants like me, so that so many Israelis – from young to old – can connect with the values and approach of Reform Judaism. Israelis deserve to feel Jewish and they deserve a Judaism that fills them with happiness, pride, and meaning.

Jerusalem Day 2012: A City Divided

May 20, 2012

Today, I boarded the #56 bus in Ramat Shlomo – the first neighborhood in Jerusalem (really more like a close suburb) that was planned solely for Ultra-Orthodox residents – as part of the “Freedom Riders” initiative of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.  We were riding to enforce the law that people can sit anywhere they want on the bus – as these buses, which are funded with public money (meaning: my taxes) have become segregated lines in which women sit in the back and men sit in the front.  We were the first ones on the bus and I noticed the sticker at the front of the bus and over a door in the middle of the bus reminding the passengers of this law.

I was full of tension – would there be violence?  (I have experienced Ultra-Orthodox people shouting obscenities and throwing potatoes at us when I walked with the Women at the Wall)  The ride did pass quietly, but our presence was certainly felt.  One man turned to Steven, who works at the IRAC, and asked him: “Who’s paying you to make this provocation?”  He answered, “I just bought a ticket and got on the bus, like everyone else.” 

I sat near the front where there are four seats that face each other.  No one sat next to me and most of the time no one sat facing me.  Men in black jackets and black hats crowded the aisles, preferring to stand crowded in the front than sit or move to the back.  Many ultra-Orthodox women paused, hovered, stood next to the seat for a few moments, and then moved to the back.  A woman who looked about to give birth sat next to me, also looking hesitant, until her husband found her a seat in the back.

Noa, the vice-director of the IRAC, said this was one of the tensest rides she has taken in awhile.  Though it was quiet and restrained, our presence was certainly felt on the bus.  It was a quiet struggle, one step forward in upholding human rights inIsrael.

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I took this “Freedom Ride” on Jerusalem Day, the day marking the conquering of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, the day that the Jewish people returned to the site of the Temple, to the ancient foundations of Jerusalem.  Some say this is the day ofJerusalem’s “reunification”.  Among the main events of the day is a march led by right-wing nationalistic movements and youth, including settler movements, (lots of knitted kipot and tzitziyot hanging out of the shirts) that will purposely track through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and through predominantly Arab East Jerusalem. 

In a recent meeting of Israeli Reform rabbis, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the Dean of Hebrew Union College inJerusalem, challenged us to rethink Jerusalem Day and to create activities that reflect our love and hopes forJerusalem. 

Since then, I have been trying to formulate my own thoughts on how to answer that challenge.

First of all, I do believe that Jerusalem should be the capital of the State of Israel and is the eternal center of the Jewish people.  I too celebrate that all Jews have the possibility to access the holy and historical sites in Judaism.

To start with, I think Jerusalem Day should be a day of getting to know Jerusalem – it should be a day of mass study in Jerusalem, throughout Israel and in the whole Jewish world, on the meaning of Jerusalem throughout the ages – in the parks, in the halls of study, in the malls, in the archaeological sites.  By study, I mean texts, tours, plays, and games (depends upon the age).  Some of this learning should also be about the non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem, today and throughout the ages.  I could support a march to the Western Wall that would be respectful and hopeful, that would sing songs of peace and hope.  The march would be coordinated with the representatives of the populations who live along the route.  The message would be peace and co-existence.  The aspiration would be how to exercise Israel’s sovereignty and control over the holy sites and to live the instruction of the Psalmist (122:6-7), “Seek out the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you enjoy tranquility.  May there be peace within your ramparts, tranquility in your palaces.”

That would be a cause for celebration!


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