Bind them as a sign on your hand and on your head

December 20, 2014

When do people lay tefilin?
If we leave aside the Chabadniks who stand on street corners in Israel and in other heavily Jewish populated areas offering men to lay tefilin, you will generally find tefilin only in the synagogue. Men (and in liberal circles a number of women) lay tefilin during the weekday shacharit (morning) service. In Israel, a tefilin-laying ceremony is oftentimes a major part of the bar mitzvah ritual even for secular Jews, a number of families holding it at the Western Wall.
It seems that in the Talmud, tefilin were not just an accessory for daily prayer but they were worn by pious men (and therefore, most certainly by the Rabbis) at all times. There is an entire discussion about whether one is indeed permitted to wear tefilin on Shabbat and what one should do if one forgets to take them off before Shabbat (Shabbat 35b, 62a). There is also a discussion about where to place your tefilin while you are in bed – whether you are sleeping or fulfilling a mitzvah with your wife (Berachot 24a). Finally, there are numerous references to taking your tefilin off before sitting on the toilet. (Brachot 23a)
A story is told in Ketubot 104a:
Rabbi’s handmaid ascended the roof and prayed: ‘The immortals (“those above”) desire Rabbi [to join them] and the mortals (“those below”) desire Rabbi [to remain with them]; may it be the will [of God] that the mortals may overpower the immortals’. When, however, she saw how often he resorted to the privy (having a painful diarrhea), painfully taking off his tefillin and putting them on again, she prayed: “May it be the will [of the Almighty] that those above may overpower those below”. As the Rabbis incessantly continued their prayers (“they were not silent”) for [heavenly] mercy she took up a jar and threw it down from the roof to the ground. [For a moment] they ceased praying (“they remained silent”) and the soul of Rabbi departed to its eternal rest.

This tale raises a number of existential questions about life and death, our fears, and who or what truly is in control of the world. However, in the matter of the tefilin, it shows that the old, sick rabbi is following a lifelong habit of taking his tefilin off when going to the bathroom and then putting them back on, meaning he is wearing them all the time. The Tosafot add that the act of attending to his tefilin is a demonstration of his piety as one who is so ill as he was is generally exempt from wearing tefilin. My study partner, Rabbi Justus Baird, speculates that perhaps the place of the tefilin in the story was to show that, in addition to the prayers of his maidservant and disciples, Rabbi’s wearing of tefilin during his illness was his own fight against the impending Angel of Death.

Why wear tefilin everyday?

The obvious reason is a literal understanding of the verse from Deuteronomy, “You shall bind them (the mitzvot) as a sign on your head and on your forehead between your eyes,” and three other similar ones from other places in the Torah which are written on the klaf (parchment) inside the tefilin (all together on the hand tefilin and each in a separate compartment in the head tefilin). Someone who wears tefilin all the time is fulfilling this mitzvah to the letter – always reminding himself about following G-d’s commandments. Much like the idea of wearing a talit katan, an undershirt with fringes on the four corners of the garment following the commandment in Numbers, “You shall put fringes on the four corners of your garments and you shall see them and remember all of my mitzvot and do them.”

But tefilin are a more cumbersome accessory than an undershirt. It is walking around with a small box on your forehead and on your arm, as well as leather straps binding your head and your arm. For anyone who has worn the strap, you know how it often leaves a mark in your skin, and that’s just wearing it for 20 minutes.

In reflecting upon this practice of the Talmud rabbis, I ask: Does wearing the words constantly truly help a person to remember what he is supposed to do in life? For example, my whole life I have aspired to write a book. If I place on my body a physical embodiment of the words “Write a book,” would that encourage me to actually do it already?

When I place the tefilin on my arm and on my forehead, is the sign for me or is it for others? If it was just for me, I could place the sign in hidden places – like upon my heart which could be hidden under my shirt. Something on my hand and on my forehead are generally not hidden. Perhaps the wearing of tefilin was a badge of piety which was done mainly by rabbis and professional learners of Torah. It was a sort of status symbol which designated people who belong to a certain group or profession, both for themselves and for those they met who were outside their circles.

I have also read different sources which claim that tefilin were sometimes like a protective amulet.

What is certain is that the rabbis of the Talmud by and large had a deep commitment to the wearing of tefilin and it was considered one of the basic ritual mitzvot that a person fulfills to demonstrate physically his commitment to Judaism and G-d, right up there with kri’at shma and the Amidah.

What are we prepared to place upon our bodies on a daily basis to remind ourselves of our core values?

Peace in Jerusalem

November 20, 2014

There are a lot of worried people now. In and around Jerusalem, they are worried that they will be the next victims of violence. They are worried that a random attacker will suddenly enter the classrooms of their children without warning. They are worried that someone will throw rocks on their cars. They are worried that angry protesters or soldiers will harm them or harass them. They are worried that their home will be demolished. The ones who love us and live far away are worried for us as well.

I am a little worried, I will admit. Perhaps the right word is unsettled. But it isn’t the first time in the nine years that I have lived in Jerusalem that violence has infiltrated our city. I am by nature a cautious person anyway. (though my mother may not agree with that :) )

Not everyone is afraid. Not everyone is suspicious and turning to hate. Here are a few examples from yesterday:

I dropped my son off at daycare, which is part of the YMCA Peace Pre-school in downtown Jerusalem. It is a pre-school where the kids are from a mix of Jewish, Arab, and international families. The staff is half Hebrew-speaking and half Arab-speaking. The Arab women come from Abu Ghosh and from the Jerusalem neighborhoods which are in the news. They greet us with a smile and Good-Morning in all of our languages “Boker Tov!” “Sabach al’hir!” I know my child is safe here. Here he is loved. Here is the proof of co-existence. Alexandra Klein, the director of the pre-school wrote beautifully to the parents yesterday:

“It is not a question of sides, who inflicts and who suffers. We are all in pain and under horror, and we are all on the same side. And which side is that? The side of the people who believe they can leave this world a better place for their children than the one they live in today. That’s the only side we’re on, and we’re together on that side.
… We’re all on edge, parents and teachers alike. Nevertheless, we’re determined to carry on and do our best to carry out our holy mission here, with respect to one another. This is what we’re dedicated to, always have been, and this is the choice we make every morning. Let’s try and be kind to each other, even these days – especially these days. Let’s leave the news outside the preschool, and do what we love doing and do best – raise our children together in love and respect, care for them, educate them, teach them sharing and confidence and hope.”

My husband was in reserve duty yesterday and he had taken the car with him. I ended up taking a taxi to my congregation in Tzur Hadassah. As I sat in the back as we went through heavy traffic, I noticed the name of my driver: Sammer. It is an Arab name. He was quiet and he was polite. There was terrible traffic. As we got closer and I went through my bag, I noticed something and said “Oy!” He started and turned around slightly to ask if everything is OK. I smiled and said, “I forgot to leave diapers for my son at his daycare.” (They were still in my bag) When we got there, I offered him 20 shekels more than we had agreed because of the traffic. He quietly said “thank you” and drove away. Arabs are not terrorists.

I have been a part of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem the three years I was a student and having been a part of the staff during the past three years. It is my home base in Israel. I have known most of the staff for the past 10 years, both Jewish and Arab. Whatever happens in this country, there is always a feeling of friendship and mutual respect. Yesterday, I gave Eli the parking attendant money to pass on to Faiz, the gardener, who had given me a bottle of olive oil that he had made from his olive grove. Trust. Friendship.

Tzur Hadassah practically sits on the green line, its closest neighbors being on the other side of the line – the ultra-Orthodox city Beitar Ilit, which many Tzur Hadassah residents shop and bank there and visit their doctors, and the Palestinian town of Hussan. In Tzur Hadassah, people who ride the “tunnels road” update each other if rocks were thrown that day. There are constant reports of “shabachim” (shohim bilti chukim – illegal presence) passing through the town, and incidents of break-ins to homes. There is a lot building going on in Tzur Hadassah, so of course many of the workers are Palestinian.

The conversations on the large Facebook group “Mothers of Tzur Hadassah” were expressing a lot of fear, worried that their children weren’t safe at school, and there was even a rumor that armed Palestinians had infiltrated the town (it was not true). At our meeting for mothers and babies, I asked the mothers how they were doing with the situation, expecting them to be anxious and wanting to be a source of support. One, the wife of a professional army officer, said that she was not worried. Another recalled her teenage years spent riding the bus from Givat Ze’ev to downtown Jerusalem during the second intifada and Palestinian snipers would occasionally shoot.

They weren’t worried? I asked. They shrugged their shoulders. You can’t live your life in fear, they said. Because one thing happened somewhere you can’t expect that it will happen to you. You do your best and you keep going in your daily life, and you deal with what you have before you. There are so many good people in the world, you have to remember.

One day in Jerusalem. I condemn the acts of violence, I condemn murder. I shudder to think that people are capable of committing such heinous acts.

I hope you read my words, I hope you learn about these good people, and I hope it helps you to believe that we can do it. For my fellow Jews, I remind you the shared vision of both the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Micah of the idyllic time, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. They will learn war no more.”

For my Muslim neighbors – I have learned that the word “Islam” has in it the word “salaam”, peace.
For my Christian neighbors, I have learned that Jesus was a peace-seeking figure who sought to bring joy and comfort to the world.

Let us live our teachings of peace.

Renewing Tefilin

October 22, 2014

Originally posted on RabbiStaceyBlank's Blog:

Tefilin.

From the outside, it looks like one of the most awkward forms of ritual – wooden boxes covered with black leather, with straps that wrap around the head and wind all the way down the arm with some contortion of knots and loops around the hand. For Orthodox Jews, laying tefilin is a basic practice that is part of the daily routine.

It is one of the oldest ritual objects that is still in use today. Remnants of tefilin were found from the times of the Second Temple. The Mishna, the first compilation of Jewish law after the Torah, treats the concept of tefilin as an understood, accepted practice.

It is also a practice that liberal Judaism has not touched. Yes, there are those who have reclaimed the practice and lay tefilin as part of the prayer ritual. In Israel, it is a part of the bar mitzvah ritual…

View original 1,316 more words

Renewing Tefilin

October 22, 2014

Tefilin.

From the outside, it looks like one of the most awkward forms of ritual – wooden boxes covered with black leather, with straps that wrap around the head and wind all the way down the arm with some contortion of knots and loops around the hand. For Orthodox Jews, laying tefilin is a basic practice that is part of the daily routine.

It is one of the oldest ritual objects that is still in use today. Remnants of tefilin were found from the times of the Second Temple. The Mishna, the first compilation of Jewish law after the Torah, treats the concept of tefilin as an understood, accepted practice.

It is also a practice that liberal Judaism has not touched. Yes, there are those who have reclaimed the practice and lay tefilin as part of the prayer ritual. In Israel, it is a part of the bar mitzvah ritual – the first and most likely last time that a secular young man or woman will lay tefilin. However, today, women have kippot that look like expensive hair accessories. You can buy a pink silk talit. Or any various colors or designs. Not to mention the vast expanse of creativity in synagogue design. But tefilin? Black wooden boxes and black leather straps and animal sinew threading it all together. Just as was done two thousand years ago.

I first laid tefilin as a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. I saw other students and rabbis laying tefilin. I thought, “This is a practice that I have to try, to understand how it feels, to know how to do it, and then be able to speak about it.” I had already adopted the mitzvah of wearing of the talit during prayer. I had tried wearing a kippah, and, after studying the original of the minhag (tradition), decided that I would not continue. So, I borrowed a friend’s set and made a commitment to lay tefilin for three months at the twice weekly tefila at HUC. At first, it was the most awkward experience. The boxes fell down. I couldn’t figure out how to make the “shin” on the hand. The straps on my arm were too tight or too loose. It was cumbersome holding the siddur while wearing them. As the time went on, however, it became more comfortable. I more easily made the loops, confidently wrapped and unwrapped. I felt the wood and leather pressing into my skin as I prayed – a true reminder – and then experienced the lightness when taking them off. The ritual moved from averse to interesting and thought-provoking.

As a fifth year rabbinical student after having made aliyah, I decided I needed my own pair. Cantor Evan Cohen took me to a store in the Machaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem. It was not clear to the seller for whom the tefilin actually were meant for, and I was clearly the buyer.
In my first few months as a rabbi serving a congregation, it was clear that I was going to have to teach young men and women how to lay tefilin, so I was glad that I had taken the time to learn. And I also had an appreciation for tefilin that I was also happy to pass on.

And I do appreciate tefilin.

The Sages of the Talmud base the idea of tefilin on the notion that it is written four times in the Torah to place the mitzvot as a sign — ot in Hebrew — upon your hand and on your head/between your eyes. (Each version says it a little differently). So, these four sections are written on parchment and placed within the tefilin. Like we are commanded to wear fringes on the four corners of our garments to see them and thus be reminded to do them (today this manifests in the wearing of the talit), wearing the tefilin, essentially, is the reminder of doing the commandments through touch — you feel the box on your forehead and on your arm, you feel the straps on your arm and hand and around the nape of your neck, and thus you remember what is written in the box, and you do them.

A year ago, with my chevruta, Rabbi Justus Baird, I began exploring the notion of tefilin, tracing its development through the rabbinic literature, understanding the main ideas of the rabbis in creating this ritual and its development. At the end of this study process, I plan to propose some ideas for the creation of tefilin in the 21st century.

I will share now what we studied today from the Talmud, Ta’anit 20a-20b. It is a well-known story in my circles:
Our Rabbis have taught: A man should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the
cedar. Once R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his
teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his donkey by the riverside and was feeling happy and full of himself because he had studied much Torah. There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, ‘Peace be upon you, Sir’. He, however, did not return his salutation but instead said to him, ‘Good for nothing, how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’ The man replied: ‘I do not know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, “How Ugly is the vessel which You have made”.’ When R. Eleazar realized that he had done wrong he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, ‘I submit myself to you, forgive me’. The man replied: ‘I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman who made me and say to him,”How ugly is the vessel which You have made”.’ He [R. Eleazar] walked behind him until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, ‘Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master,’ the man asked them, ‘Whom are you addressing thus’? They replied, ‘The man who is walking behind you.’ Thereupon he exclaimed: ‘If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in Israel’! The people then asked him: ‘Why’? He replied: ‘Such and such a thing has he done to me. They said to him: ‘Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.’ The man replied: ‘For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.’ Soon after this R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon entered [the Beth Hamidrash] and expounded thus, A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah, Tefilin, and Mezuzot.

This story is ambiguous in many respects and it is quite challenging. Many questions can be asked, and it presents moral dilemmas without giving definitive answers. However, in my search for references to tefilin in the Talmud, I note the connection between the metaphor of the reed and the pen that writes Tefilin. In the passage previous to this one, the rabbis taught that the ‘reed grows by the water and its stock grows new shoots and its roots are many, and even though all the winds of the universe come and blow at it they cannot move it from its place for it sways with the winds and as soon as they have dropped the reed resumes its upright position.’

What, according to the sages, makes a reed so hardy and able to survive? Its ability to bend and to be flexible.

The words written in the tefilin are unchanging – they are the same words from our ancient Torah. They are the roots. Each passing generation faces different circumstances and must bend and reposition itself and go in different directions as the wind blows, and circumstances beyond our control create new situations. We hold on to the source, but our survival also depends upon our ability to extend ourselves, go in new directions, and demonstrate give-and-take. The reed that writes the klaf for the tefilin represents fluidity, movement, perhaps even to be likened to an ever evolving dance.

The Torah has volumes written on it and reinterpreting it, just as the style of its covers and adornments have varied over time and from culture to culture. The Mezuzah contains parchment with words of Torah but its encasement today could be a capsule of stone or a figure of Kermit the Frog.

What about tefilin?

The war continues – Reflections from Jerusalem/Tzur Hadassah

July 26, 2014

As the emails start rolling in again – “Are you OK?” from friends in the US following the latest news in Israel, I think it’s time for another report from the Jerusalem-Tzur Hadassah line.
The answer is generally – Yes, I am OK. I am not a Palestinian living in Gaza. I am not a soldier sent to Gaza. I don’t have a close relative or friend who is there. I don’t live in the south of Israel which has daily bombardments of rockets. We “only” got three sirens in Jerusalem.
But I am not as OK as someone living in Cleveland, that’s for sure. As my mom said after she asked about what’s going on here, “Well, everything’s good here. My problems seem silly now.”
Two images, both from last weekend:
We spent a family weekend with my husband’s extended family taking over a friend’s house in a little village halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. From their porch, you have a clear view to Ramla, Modi’in, and Tel Aviv about 25 km away. We are sitting down to dinner when someone shouts, “Interception!” I turn around to look out the window to see a flash of light in the sky like a small firework. It was a second Hamas missile intercepted by Iron Dome. Seen right out of the window. And, of course, followed by the boom. We took a hike the next day in the neighboring Eshta’ol Forest – we heard no warning siren, but we heard booms all day long.
That Saturday evening, I was in Tzur Hadassah for a lovely evening in which we hosted Cantor Debby Martin of Temple Beth El in Madison, WI. She sang and taught a beautiful program. The entire time we could hear boom, boom, boom, boom. People checked their phones – we were hearing the first night of the Israeli attack on Gaza. Most days this week that I was in Tzur Hadassah – there are booms. Hamas rockets, Israeli artillary?
My husband was supposed to have reserve duty recently. He is in the well-known 8200 Intelligence unit (re: Start-Up Nation). This was not convenient as we are planning to move apartments at the end of the month. They cancelled his reserved duty the minute the war started. (By the way, in case you have any doubt in your mind – this is a war) I would rather have had the inconvenience of routine reserve duty than this war. The ground war started on Saturday night. Tuesday he got a call – we’re calling you in tomorrow. Then they cancelled it. Then they called him Wednesday – we’re calling you in tomorrow. This time he really went. This is called Tzav 8 — the call to reservists in time of war. He was also called for the Second Lebanon War, one week after our marriage. I can’t really comment on this, since he is in intelligence and he can’t tell us anything anyway. He’s close to home, don’t worry :) We’re still supposed to move on Tuesday. Celebrate our son’s birthday party with friends from his class on Monday. We looked at each other and said, “We’ll take it one day at a time.”
In Jerusalem and in Tzur Hadassah, everyone knows someone who is in Gaza, and a few even have an association with a soldier who was killed (One of the fallen soldiers was the son of a good friend and co-worker of my mother-in-law. I did not know her son, but I know his mother who is a wonderful person. Heartbreaking.) It is part of every conversation we have — at the Mother-Baby group, at the Torah study class, at the bar mitzvah lesson, and certainly this past Friday evening – we said a special prayer for the soldiers and we remembered the name of every soldier that was killed this week.
Of four bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies of families from North America that I was supposed to officiate at these past two weeks, three cancelled. I stood with the family that decided to come despite the conflict at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall (Ezrat Yisrael) and it felt even more poignant — these soldiers died for us. So that we can have Israel as a place of refuge for Jews who have been persecuted in many lands for many generations. So that we can have Israel as a place of celebration to connect with our ancient past and with our sacred places. So that we can continue to build a vibrant society and continue to aspire to be a “light unto the nations.” We are in their debt.
I am particularly troubled by the reports of racism and violence this week against Arabs and against people and demonstrations which identify as “left wing.” I believe, as ever, that the State of Israel needs liberal Judaism. Our Movement in Israel is doing so much to help those in the line of fire and providing us with the tools to support our communities spiritually in this difficult time. The Reformers of the 19th Century were trying to stop assimilation. We in the 21th Century need to stand fast by the Jewish values of caring for the other – ger v’toshav v’chai imach- “the stranger and resident among you”, ukaratem dror ba’aretz — proclaiming liberty throughout the land, ve’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha – to love your fellow as yourself, and, of course, that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d. Among a long list of important Jewish values.
I hope and pray that we will build this Israeli society in the memory and honor of those brave soldiers who died for us. Thank you to everyone from near and far for your support.

This mini-war: On the road between Jerusalem and Tzur Hadassah

July 12, 2014

My week.
Monday evening sitting in someone’s home in Tzur Hadassah, around 10 p.m. Talking about some great ideas. Suddenly, without warning, the alarm siren goes off. We are sitting in his protected room. He and his wife hesitated to bring their kids until they heard the booms (the booms, as I learned later, can be heard from pretty far away, as my husband in Jerusalem about 20 kilometers away, who had grabbed our three sleeping children and brought them downstairs in our building to the most protected area, heard them too)
I was shaken up. I called Tamir, my native Israel, and asked what should I do? Sleep over? He said, “Ma pit’om…what suddenly?…Come home.” So, after chatting a bit more to calm my nerves, I drove home, keeping my brother in Columbus, Ohio, on the line as I made the 25 minute ride. This week, by the way, I have not taken the “tunnels road” that crosses the green line for 10 minutes going by Beitar Ilit and Hussan. And I have found that the most veteran Tzur Hadassah residents are doing the same.
Tamir’s words to me when I came home were: This is what you do: When there is a siren, you go immediately to the protected space. When it’s over, you carry on as usual. These are the orders of the home command.
So, when my friend asked if I thought she should still have her daughter’s birthday party at a park on Thursday afternoon, I said yes – carry on as usual. We’re sitting in the park, the kids are in the mini pool. We’re eating hotdogs, talking about the situation. And, yup, here comes Jerusalem alarm siren #2. We go to the nearest building, huddling in the hallway, until a local says, “Come down to the bomb shelter.” There we go, all set up. My son, almost 7, who is enthralled with his newly acquired reading skills, had to be torn away from his book to go into the building. The second he entered the bomb shelter, he found a chair, sat down, and continued reading. My daughter, when I shouted at her to come, stared at my dumbfounded. Eventually, she came. All the moms tried to play off their nerves once we got to the bomb shelter, saying to their kids, “Isn’t this fun? What a great room!” The birthday mom took a photo – a birthday party to remember! She reminded of my words “carry on”. I stood by them. After the few minutes passed and we heard the booms, we returned to the birthday party. Carrying on.
I left Tamir with the kids at the party to continue on to a wedding that I was officiating at. The wedding was supposed to be at a moshav where the couple lives, near Tzur Hadassah. The bride called me Tuesday. “Stacey, are you still officiating at our wedding on the moshav, with the situation?” Me: “Are you still getting married?” Yes. “So, of course I’m coming.” The bride called me Wednesday. They decided to move the wedding and found a place in Jerusalem, very accessible to a protected area, unlike the space on the moshav. The alarm had gone off two hours before we stood underneath their huppah, everyone there determined to celebrate with them. (And it was a beautiful wedding)
I went to my congregation in Tzur Hadassah for kabbalat Shabbat services last night. Not too many people were there. (Everyone the night before had cancelled coming to our Torah study – just after the alarm siren). The prayers took on a different meaning. They asked to recite birkat hagomel, the blessing for someone who had gone through a life-threatening experience. We all recited the blessing. And we all recited the response. Certain prayers stood out to me Hashkivenu Adonai Eloheinu L’shalom…. Oh YHWH Our G-d, lie us down in peace, and rise us up, our King, to life….We read selections about peace, hope, and faith, which the Reform Movement had sent us. We prayed for peace for all peoples.
Tonight at 7 p.m. was alarm siren #3 in Jerusalem. My son jumped to attention immediately and walked calmly downstairs. My daughter again hesitated. When we are down there, my daughter (age 4) asks, “Why are we here?” My son (age 7) answers, “So we won’t die.” I again, am shaken by the experience. My husband says, “You haven’t gotten used to it, huh?” I ask my son, “Were you scared?” He says, “No.” I believe him. I was about to leave for Tzur Hadassah for an event we have been planning for many weeks now with an artist who arrived from the North. Should we cancel? No, was everyone’s response. We carry on as usual. I sent out the text message – “There’s wine, there’s art, and there’s a safe room – come to the kehilah!”
In the middle of the evening – which really was very lovely – we heard booms without any alarm. People whipped out their phones. There was a hit but not exactly in our area to warrant the alarm. A few people jumped up and left. Everyone else wanted to stay, but you could see that people were having a harder time focusing. We continued on, but not for too much longer.
What to think being here? What message do I want to send my family and friends abroad? I feel I must respond. On the one hand, I am not afraid. I am in awe of my country which goes to such great lengths to protect its citizens – the Iron Dome is amazing. Of the thousands of recruits who are being called up to serve and go willingly. Of the people in my communities who offer help and who seek my and my congregation’s help to get through this. It’s really a test of nerves. That what the terrorists want – to get on our nerves. Of the daily life that continues here. I think of the Palestinians getting killed, both guilty and innocent. I think that there are hundreds of armed conflicts going on around the world. I reflect: Why? How could a person think this is preferred over living in peace? What is this thing called humanity? For this we were created? These images of G-d who are set on killing and terrorizing? Here is nothing compared to other places in the world. A bar mitzvah parent just wrote me – oh yes, remember when we had that sniper running around the D.C. area? Now that was scary!
I suggest to everyone to do what your conscience leads you toward – come here/be here, if you are prepared for more uncertainty than usual, still witness to a thriving moving society where everything is open and happening. Or donate money to causes that helping those who are really caught in the thick of things in the settlements close to Gaza. Petition the leadership, all leadership and every leadership, to give full gas to bring PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.
And, as my congregants and I determined last night, never lose hope or faith.

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.


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