Who Seeks Jerusalem’s Peace?

May 24, 2017

Jerusalem Day.

Perhaps the only people who notice this day are people who live in Jerusalem.

This year, we notice it even more – It is 50 years marking this day.

What are we marking?  Here are some possibilities:

Fifty years of the reunification of Jerusalem.

Fifty years of the liberation of the Old City/the Western Wall.

Fifty years marking the Six Day War.

Fifty years of the occupation.

Fifty years of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, one step closer to the vision of the Complete Land of Israel.

As a person who tends to take the middle ground, who tries (perhaps to my detriment) to see all sides of a situation and empathize with each side, this day poses a particular challenge.  Up until a few years ago, the Jerusalem Day celebration was a mass march by mainly the nationalistic religious public who gathered from all over Israel to the Old City, known for raucously passing through the Muslim and Christian Quarters shouting slogans to the effect that all of Jerusalem is ours.  And one can imagine how such marches get out of hand with exuberant youth whose fire has been stoked by their leaders.

But recently, the rest of the public has begun to address Jerusalem Day with a plethora of activities – tours of different parts of Jerusalem from the Old City to Rechavia to the Bethlehem checkpoint meeting with soldiers and Palestinian workers, conferences that discuss Jerusalem, exhibitions and films that showcase the people of Jerusalem across the religious and ethnic spectrum, and a “family march” along the beautiful train track park ending in an event at the First Station.

I sat in a wonderful lecture that we hosted in my congregation in Tzur Hadassah this week, by Dr. Elan Ezrachi, who wrote a book (in Hebrew) “Awakened Dream: 50 Years of Complex Unification of Jerusalem”, who detailed for us the experience of Jerusalem from 1948-1967 and then the almost immediate changes that occurred with the opening of the border between East and West Jerusalem as they became one city under the jurisdiction of the State of Israel.  In the room, there was only one person who was old enough to have a visceral memory of this time.

I appreciated the lecture as it invited me to imagine what it was like to live in Jerusalem in 1967 – a city building a capital and new institutions though on the frontline border with an enemy whose gun was always drawn.  And then within hours, sovereignty over the central symbol of ancient Israel and the Jewish people’s most visceral connection with our ancestral home: The Western Wall and the surrounding remains of the ancient city of Jerusalem.

But I live a different reality.  In Jerusalem, the Western Wall is less and less a symbol of national heritage and more and more the personal property of the Ultra Orthodox stream of Judaism.  East and West Jerusalem do not look like a unified city – the complications of Palestinian aspirations to statehood and the subtle Israeli agenda to make Palestinians want to leave create a tenuous situation.

Outside of Jerusalem, again while Jewish sovereignty has returned to sites of historical and religious significance – the Cave of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs), Rachel’s tomb, site of the ancient temple at Shiloh, and others, unlike in 1948, the Palestinian population of conquered territories by-and-large stayed put, creating a demographic dilemma.

Far be it that I claim to be the one to explain the geopolitical situation of Israel.  However, my generation, those born after 1967, is the inheritor of implications of this historical moment of victory, reunification, liberation, and resulting military rule over a vast non-Jewish native population.

I too pray to Jerusalem and pray for Jerusalem.  My Jerusalem is Yerushalayimyerusha – shalom – A “heritage of peace.”  I feel we are making much peace in my part of town – the most Jewishly pluralistic neighborhood in the world.  And non-Jews live here in peace and tranquility as well.  We raise our children to treat equally all people with no connection to religious, race, ethnicity, or political affiliation.  We teach them kindness – to speak your mind with derech eretz, with respect and levity.  We teach them that the real winner is not the one who waves the victory flag of self-righteousness in the face of others, but rather the one who knows when to give in for the sake of peace.

The most beautiful oft-sung Psalm 122 of the pilgrim to Jerusalem implores us:

Seek the Peace of Jerusalem…Peace be within Your walls, tranquility in your palaces.  For the sake of my brethren and companions, I will forsooth say “Peace be in You.”

Let us all seek the peace for the sake of Jerusalem, for ourselves, our children, and for all humanity.

 

 

On Being

May 21, 2017

We are a family of many interests, and we truly believe that we should all explore different areas – sports, music, arts, spirituality, science, etc.  Our kids have after-school activities (not every day!) and play with friends once or twice a week.  And when they have free time they are often asking us to play with them, or they play with each other (which we absolutely love to do).

And then comes the inevitable statement:  Mom, I’m bored.

I look around our house – board games, endless materials for crafts, shelves of books, a backyard and garden.  How could one ever be bored here?!

And again: Mom, I’m bored!  What should I do?

I could think of a million things that one could be doing, but I don’t think that my job should be trying to tend to my child’s every whim and fancy and lack of imagination.

A few weeks ago, friends invited us to join a family-oriented bird-watching tour.  We got up early and met in a nature area.  You have to wait awhile to see the birds.  Then you need to find them in the binoculars.  Then you need to try to discern the tiny little features that distinguish each bird one from the other – a stripe on his feather, the shape of his wing, etc.  An activity that requires a lot of patience and a trained eye.

About halfway through, it comes: Mom, I’m bored.

I will admit that I did not discover a love of bird-watching on this trip, but I certainly treasured the time in nature and I appreciated the opportunity to notice so many things that I don’t see every day (And I will admit now – ever since that trip, I am much more aware of the birds in my surroundings, even though I still can’t tell half of them apart)  I asked myself, What am I doing wrong when my children feel so often that they are bored?

I began to recall some aspects of my Life Before Kids.

I remember a trip to Peru with my not-yet-husband Tamir.  One day, after having been to many of the more famous sites, we decided to get on a very local bus and go to a small local town which had no tourist value whatsoever.  We wandered the streets and eventually came to an area of terrace farming.  We separated, each walking in his/her own direction.  I sat down by myself for perhaps half an hour, just being, and also writing in my journal.

I have had many moments like that in my life.  As a child, I always had trouble falling asleep (Not a surprise for those who know me).  I especially remember the delicious summer nights, I would get out of my bed and sit at the window in my room, which was open.  I would look out into the night which was always lit up by the moon or by the reflection of clouds.  I would hear the breeze rustling in the trees.  Perhaps a raccoon or skunk scurrying by.  Those were moments of sacredness when I felt a connection with the universe beyond humanity.

As a parent who is trying to give the best to my children, I am doing them a disservice by training them to think that someone needs to be occupying them all the time.  Aside from learning how to occupy yourself, I believe that they need to learn a very important skill: Being.

This past Shabbat, we hopped over to the Jerusalem Forest – nature right next to the city.  We came to a beautiful area overlooking valleys and mountains and I told my two oldest children, aged 9 1/2 and 7, to each pick their own spot.  They had to sit down or lie down.  They couldn’t be playing with anything or digging or anything like that.  They had to be there for ten minutes.  No talking.

They did it.

Then, I gave each one a notebook and a pen, and I told them that they had to write for ten minutes.  My oldest asked if he could draw a picture.  I said, No, you need to write.

And they did it.

Here is what they wrote: (They wrote in Hebrew.  Here is the translation)

The seven-year-old:

“I saw many trees and mountains and houses.  I heard music and also the wind blowing.  I smelled all kinds of plants and also the wind.  I felt that suddenly it was raining on what I am writing, and then the wind stopped.  But I was still cold.  Then I went to sit next to my mom.  I felt that my mom gives me ideas, like that I went to sit next to her.”

The nine-and-a-half-year-old:

“On the mountain across the way, there is a paved dirt road on the slope.  Past it, there are other mountains.  Beyond a low “wall” of stones, around fifteen meters at an incline of forty degrees.

“Raindrops begin to fall.  It is around 12:15 p.m.  I hear the voices of prayer of someone who is speaking loudly with a big loudspeaker.  Now it is really starting to rain.  I cover the page….

“On another mountain, I see a sort of tower.  A bird, it seems to me to be a Hoopoe, passes.  Clouds cover the sky.  There is the smell of a field-hole and dust in the air.  I hear the wind whistling.  I yawn, the wind whistles even stronger, and then it weakens.  The plants wave in the wind.  On the other mountains, it all looks silent, but it is not.”

With a little guidance, my children just were.  And, I also just was.  I forgot a pen for myself, so I had more time looking out.  I looked out at the distances, the layers of the clouds, the small black bug which was relaxing on my knee rubbing its antennae together.   The tree branches swaying in the breeze.  The drops of rain on my pants – each drop “plop!” and spreading a darker splotch on the cloth.  I too heard the prayer of the muazzin coming from the village across the valley.

We embraced.  I asked them and they answered as I felt – we all felt more relaxed, more at peace, more connected.

We owe it to ourselves to put aside time for being.  We can give our children a powerful tool for life if we teach them the practice of Being.

I say this knowing that my tradition is full of words – a foundation book, endless number of prayers, study and debate – but sometimes we need to put the words of others aside in order to connect with our true selves and with the universe.

Be.

Almost Pesach in Israel – the rain has gone – Spring is here!

April 3, 2017

A little piece of the tapestry of life in Israel in this beautiful springtime and almost Pesach….

A few weeks ago I took my children aged 9 and 6 to see a performance of Mulan, a Chinese legend made famous by Disney about a young woman who pretends to be a man because she wants to fight in the Emperor’s army.  It was a Shabbat morning and the performance was a part of the series called “Shabbat Morning”, a monthly family program at Beit Shmuel, which you and I know is part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism complex.  That week, the news were filled with the incitement by Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, who teaches at the army preparation yeshiva in the settlement of Eli, who said that women should not be allowed to serve in the army.  You can read about it here:

http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Will-the-IDF-cut-ties-with-rabbi-who-said-religious-women-in-army-become-non-Jews-483576

The theater was completely full for the performance by the enchanting Orna Porat Theater (they are simply excellent – quality children’s theater).  Mulan disguises herself as a man so that she can join the army.  In the end, of course, her true identity is revealed but she manages to save the day also as a woman.  Then the other soldiers accept her.  Her commander praises her abilities and she concludes saying that she saved the day not in spite of being a woman but because she is a woman.  The entire theater erupted into applause and cheers – just as much from the parents as from the kids.

Who knew the timing would be so impeccable for such a message for my son and my daughter.  Not that I want either one of them to be fighters, but they should know that their ability to fight, or anything else, is not determined by their gender.  And how comforting to feel hundreds of people around me sharing my sentiments…and seeing the parents and children taking notice of the photographs lining the walls of Reform Jewish life and talking about them as they left the theater.

Moving on….This time of year in Israel is delightful.  People are so happy – Jerusalem/Judean Hills winters are chilly.  They are beautiful as whenever we drive from Tzur Hadassah to Jerusalem we are driving through the clouds, as the mist always settles around this altitude.  But now, the rains have almost completely gone, the sun is shining, every corner of the country is green and blooming (except the deep desert, I imagine).  We are singing so many songs

The rain has passed

Come and Go out, my sister bride

Great joy – spring has arrived and Pesach is coming

Everyone is cleaning out their homes.  The kids in school are asked to bring sponges as they are doing Pesach cleaning in their classrooms.   All the pre-schoolers are practicing “Ma Nishtanah”.  In our monthly story-hour at the congregation, some little ones stood up on their chairs when I asked them all to sing with me!  As Pesach vacation is 2 1/2 weeks here (don’t ask), all of the 8-18 year-olds are off on camping tiyulim with their youth movements…our  Noar Telem youth will spend two nights camping in the Golan.  I am jealous…

I was asked to come teach the third grade classes at a secular elementary school in Tzur Hadassah about “Slavery and Freedom.”  In third grade, all the curriculum for the secular schools is to learn the book of Exodus.  I spoke with them about the meaning of remembering the exodus from Egypt, why we remember in the seder “Avadim Hayinu”, what modern slavery is today, and what we can do about it.  Of course, my lessons begin by talking with the kids about what is a rabbi, what is a female/Reform rabbi.  And I say to them very purposefully, “I am a rabbi for anyone – whether they consider themselves religious, traditional, or secular.”  Because oftentimes, secular kids think that anything that sounds religious is off-limits to them.

This week we in Kehilat Tzur Hadassah will hold our 14th year of our twice-yearly blood drive.  Our community building turns into a blood clinic filled with beds as over 100 people from the area donate blood and enjoy donated Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  In Israel, there is a shortage of blood during the holiday times so this blood drive is critical.

And then what will be on the actual holiday of Pesach?  We’ll wish everyone Chag Sameach!  Everyone will be either hosting a seder or traveling to one.  Having lunch with my son today, we discussed our Pesach seder.  I can’t say how pleased I was when he suggested – inspired by our Kabbalat Shabbat service before Purim honoring Esther and Vashti in which we did the entire prayer in the feminine construct (remembering that Hebrew is a gendered language and our entire prayer refers to G-d and ourselves in the masculine) – that we also play with the gender of our retelling of the Hagaddah, that we imagine a female heroine saving the Jews.  We thought of different symbols for the ten plagues – ketchup for the blood, raisins for the lice, dark chocolate for the darkness, ice for the hail, etc.  And we still have a whole week to plan…

As for the rest of the holiday, many people will be taking vacation with their families during chol hamoed, whether around Israel or abroad.  We’ll gather as a community in Tzur Hadassah on the eve of the 7th day of Pesach, the end of the holiday, to read the Song of Songs and celebrate the day on which the Israelites crossed the Red Sea – not very far from where we sit today.  And I personally will give thanks – With all the frustrations and with all the challenges of leadership and what feels like a constant battleground for religious freedom and democratic values, we are indeed a free people in our land.  Maybe if we focus more on the love, we can defeat the hate.

This past Shabbat, we hosted complete strangers in our homes who are visiting with their North American Reform congregation.  It amazes me every time how we form instant bonds, and this experience gives us this sense of love and we feel a great strength in being part of the entire Jewish people.  It reminds me of Pesach, that time when we all crossed the Red Sea together, when we were the most unified people that we would ever be.  We left jubilantly singing, dancing and playing music.  Let us seek the unity and strive to speak only words of healing.

Visitors from New City, NY, transform an ordinary day in Tzur Hadassah

February 16, 2017

This week I had a wonderful opportunity to do something new: be a sort of private tour guide for American guests.  I am not an official tour guide.  And our tour was not your traditional tour in Israel. My guests were my wonderful colleague (and fellow native Clevelander!), Rabbi Brian Leikin of Temple Beth Shalom in New City, NY and congregant Steve Klein who came to Israel to participate in a seminar of an Israeli consulting company for innovative thinking.  Rabbi Brian wrote me a few months ago – ” I am coming to Jerusalem with a member of my synagogue….I was also trying to figure out stuff to do. He’s been to Israel before so we are both looking for ways to be inspired for five days–either study, being a part of Reform Jewish life and beyond…any thoughts???”

So this is what happened after I had some thoughts –

I picked them up at their hotel in Jerusalem.  We exited Jerusalem to the south traveling on Derech Hevron (the road that if we kept going and going would lead to Hebron), as the city became suburban with only apartment buildings and then sparse as you can look out over the hills and already see into Bethlehem (only a 10 minute drive away).  We turned to the Tunnels Road which leads to Gush Etzion, passing the Gilo neighborhood on the right (over the green line but a part of greater Jerusalem) and Beit Jala and part of the separation wall on the left.  Throwing around terms like Area A, B, and C, the green line, the West Bank territories, Judea and Samaria.  We passed the military checkpoint turning right for the short drive on the other side of the green line passing the sprawling Palestinian village of Hussan on the right and the sprawling Ultra-Orthodox city/settlement on the left.  We passed through the checkpoint and immediately turned left into Tzur Hadassah.

On this rainy day, we drove through the new neighborhoods being built in Tzur Hadassah, beautiful little duplexes and small apartment buildings, which overlook Beitar Ilit and in the valley the small Palestinian village of Wadi Fuqin, as I described the relationship between Tzur Hadassah residents and both the Ultra-Orthodox city and the Palestinian towns.

rabbi-brian-leikin-5At our building, they heard about our congregation’s history, activities, political achievements and challenges.  They also shared their fascinating story – something which I thought was unique to Israel and never imagined would happen in America.  They told how the Ultra-Orthodox were moving to their county in large numbers, running for public office, diverting funds and influencing public policy to serve only the needs of their own community, not taking part in overall Jewish communal life, and essentially creating a situation in which non-Orthodox Jews are beginning to leave the area.  I was really shocked.  It’s not just Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh!  One of our congregants Rabbi Gail Diamond joined our meeting, who told about her participation in a local program sponsored by Partnership Together (Jewish Agency) that brings together women of all backgrounds in our area – Orthodox, secular, Reform, Arab, lesbian, etc. – around the subject of music.  She brought a wonderful perspective to the topic.

We then drove over to a neighboring moshav called Nes Harim, to visit the  Raviv Winery.  We met Dina Raviv who, together with her husband, runs the winery.  She made aliyah from America at the age of two.  The winery is really her husband’s passion and dream.  He works as an engineer during the day and deals with wine in his spare time.   A few years ago they turned their 10-dunam backyard into a vineyard.

rabbi-brian-leikin-7  This is the first year they are producing wine from their own grapes. We came to them because last year, I turned to the four wineries located in our close proximity and asked them to donate a bottle of wine for an event in our congregation.  Dina responded positively then, so I thought I would try her now.  Again, she said yes and graciously met us in the middle of the week, showed us the cellars, let us taste from the vats and from the bottle.  We bought a few bottles (you can only buy them at the winery – they only make a few thousand bottles a year).  I already have some ideas for future contacts…

https://www.facebook.com/ravivwine/

Then we headed back past the military checkpoint.  We met our congregants Lonny Baskin and Phil Saunders who operate a small non-profit called Path of Hope and Peace, to create dialogue between Jews and Palestinians in our area.  We met with them Ziad Sabateen and Ali, peace activists from our neighboring Palestinian village of Hussan (which is Area B).  We rode with them into the village and visited at Ziad’s home.  We had not had the opportunity to have lunch (very important for me!) and when I mentioned I would pick up a snack at the gas station, they refused and said we would take care of something at Ziad’s house.  I gave them some money and they came back with a feast of chicken, spiced rice, laffa bread, and hummus.

rabbi-brian-leikin-6

I will try to summarize the conversation – Ali and Ziad told their personal stories and that of their families.  Ziad told of the 1980s when soldiers cut down his family’s olive trees and beat his family.  He joined the intifada.  He was in jail for a number of years.  There he found his way to seeking peace and not violence.  He joined Combatants for Peace, an organization of former soldiers and Palestinians involved in violence who now speak out against violence.  He met Rabbi Menachem Froman, a settler and peace activist, and he became his disciple.  Ziad and Ali said that they do not care what kind of state there is.  They just want to be able to provide for their families, have freedom of movement, and leave peacefully whether their neighbors are Arab or Jewish.  We discussed many complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also with Lonny and Phil.

Finally, we visited in Gan Tiltan, the public kindergarten which is in cooperation with our congregation and gives Jewish enrichment based on pluralistic egalitarian values.  Because it was going to take the taxi a little longer to get there, Rabbi Brian and Steve had to stay while I led an activity for the kids.

gan-tiltan-6This year, the theme of my weekly activity with the 4-5 year olds is community involvement and we emphasize a value and do a good deed/project for every holiday.  As we are now getting ready for Purim, I started talking about Mishloach Manot (sending gifts of food).  I connected it with last week’s Torah portion Beshalach where the Israelites were “sent” by Pharaoh out of Egypt. We reviewed the story and our guests were amazed how much the kids already know.  And, of course, how appropriate that here is where our visit ends – educating the next generation from a young age to celebrate diversity, love and respect others even if their practice is different from yours, and give these values Jewish names.

Rabbi Brian and Steve left me with these words:

“This has been a life-changing day.”

Indeed it was.  It was a powerful experience to share my everyday life and show the reality as opposed to the news sound bite.  To meet someone and after an hour feel a strong connection with them.  To see how much is different and yet how much we have in common.

In the spirit of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, when we read the standing at Mount Sinai and the receiving of Torah, we remember that we all stood at Sinai together.  Our meeting this week was a happy reunion.

 

American Israelis and America

January 31, 2017

My fellow American-Israelis,

Of the estimated 170,000 American citizens living here,  approximately 30,000 voted voted in the recent presidential election (compared to 80,000 in the 2012 election).  It is reported that the vast majority  voted for Donald Trump for president. I can believe it when a mere 400 people turned out for a solidarity rally with the Women’s March in Washington, DC., on January 21.

Though I wouldn’t call politics my favorite sport, I believe in political discourse and the importance of advancing a culture of respectful debate.  I live in Jerusalem for the past 12 years, since I made aliyah.  When my husband and I returned to Israel in 2005, we debated where to live.  I was very open – any place would be a great adventure for me.  It was my secular, native Israeli husband, who grew up on a kibbutz in the North and a Tel Aviv suburb, who decided we should live in Jerusalem. In many ways, Jerusalem is a challenging place to live – it is a city fraught with tensions – between Arabs and Jews, between Ultra-Orthodox and everyone else.  It is both an international city serving as a place of pilgrimage for three Western religions, and it is also a place of residence with diverse neighborhoods each with its own unique character.

There are, of course, many Americans who live in Jerusalem.  With all of the tensions Jerusalem  has heaped upon it, I have always felt and said that the southern neighborhoods of Jerusalem are the most pluralistic and tolerant areas in the entire world.  I am a Reform Rabbi married to a secular Jew.  In the four buildings we have lived in during the past decade, our neighbors have been secular Jews, traditional Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Arabs of all ages.  They have been native Israelis, Palestinian, American, Italian, French, Moroccan, and British.  I will take as an example the Orthodox neighbors we had – mostly Americans.  We would come to their homes for Shabbat meals, our children would play together, and our Orthodox neighbor even came and slept in our apartment with our children when we had to go to the hospital late at night with the arrival of our third.  When I would tell my secular Israeli non-Jerusalemite friends about this, they were often in shock – they couldn’t believe secular/Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews could get along, let alone be friends.

I believe that one of the important things which American olim have contributed to Israeli society is the sense of tolerance and pluralism. Americans know what it is like to live in a diverse society. They understand what a minority can feel like.  Speaking for myself, I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly Jewish but even still, there were black, Asian, Indian, and white Christian kids.  The pervading culture was Christmas and Easter and Sunday was the “official” day of rest.  Just going to the mall you interacted daily with people of all backgrounds (even some Israelis who worked the kiosks).  In college, I made friends from around the world including Greece, China, and, yes, even Iran.

In the United States, people, by and large, get along.  I was in New York on 9-11 and that very day we went downstairs to the Arab Muslims who own the minimarket below my apartment and we stood together against terrorism.  When I would ride the subway and my magen david necklace would hang out, an Ultra-Orthodox white-bearded man says to me “Shalom.”

In Israel, people build walls, both literally and figuratively. To give one example that is symptomatic of the messages emanating from many sectors of Israeli society: When I met a group of native-Israeli Orthodox high school students from Beit Shean who were about to visit my native Cleveland last year that Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis sit together on local Boards of Rabbis in the United States, their answer is, “That’s because Jews are a minority in the United States.  They have to stick together.”  I cry out to them, “And here, in the State of Israel, in the Land of Israel, Jews don’t have to stick together?  They have license to belittle each other and negate each other’s existence?”  Have we forgotten Kol Yisrael arevin zeh l-zeh – All Israel is responsible for one another?  Have we forgotten Derech eretz kadma l’Torah – Decency and kind behavior should precede Torah?  (translation from the Orthodox Union web site)

My friends, have we not learned from history?  What goes around comes around.  When we Jews are the majority, when we have the responsibility of sovereignty, we have all the moreso the obligation to construct a society based on decency and kindness.  We all read the same haftarah on Yom Kippur – (Isaiah 58:6-8) “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?  Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him, and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your reward.”

I have read that many Americans in Israel voted for Donald Trump because of his stated policies toward Israel and as a backlash against Obama’s policies.  Trump will not hinder the Israeli government from expanding settlements in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria area.  Trump will move the American embassy to Jerusalem, officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Referencing a Jerusalem Post article from October 24, 2016, one can find other reasons like identifying with Republican values and an utter dislike of both candidates so picking the least hated candidate.

This week, among other distressing actions, President Trump signed an executive order that, “for 120 days…bars the entry of any refugee who is awaiting resettlement in the U.S. It also prohibits all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. until further notice. Additionally, it bans the citizens of seven countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen—from entering the U.S. on any visa category. This appears to include those individuals who are permanent residents of the U.S. (green-card holders) who may have been traveling overseas to visit family or for work—though their applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis, a senior administration official said Saturday.” (source: The Atlantic.com January 28, 2017)

We, the generations of American olim, are the descendents of mainly European Jews who chose not to move to Palestine to build the Jewish State but rather moved to the “land of opportunity”, the United States.  We are, by and large, the descendents of refugees.  My great-grandparents were persecuted in pogroms throughout Eastern Europe and traveled by foot across Europe at night to reach the ship that would take them to America.  Many Holocaust survivors found refuge in America.  Imagine if Trump was the president of the United States then.  He could reference the right-wing Lechi whose militant attacks were defined by many as terror attacks and say that all Jews are a danger to the United States and not have let our ancestors in.  Perhaps it sounds ridiculous to us, but for how long do we laugh or shake our heads in disbelief as he signs one executive order after another?  Can we truly say that the persecution and discrimination against other minorities is not our problem?

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that one who saves a life it is as if he has saved an entire world.  Our tradition also teaches us that pikuah nefesh, the saving of a life, is the mitzvah that is performed before any other mitzvah.

I would like to remind my fellow American-Israelis what we are doing here in Israel.  We did not come here the victims of persecution seeking refuge in the only place that would take us as Jews.  We came here because of our ideology to join the dream to be a free people in our land.  We have much to contribute, including our American idealism, problem-solving approach, politeness, value of hard work and perseverance to achieve success, history of struggle for equal rights for women and for minorities, and our sense of empathy knowing what it is like to be a minority in a society.

If we voted in the last presidential election, we demonstrated that we feel some connection to America and to the American democratic process.  It means that we also have a responsibility for the results. American democracy is majority rules with minority rights.  The United States of America is a country that was built by immigrants from its inception to this very day.  Our ancestors were recipients of that opportunity – and not saying that they did not experience discrimination – but they were given an open door.  Imagine if that door were to suddenly close today.  Even to us.

Think it can’t happen?

The Trump administration dramatically and indiscriminately closed America’s doors to people from a small number of countries.  Iraqis can’t enter America but Saudis can.  People with green cards – permanent resident status – who happen to be this week abroad, cannot enter America.  As part of their statement about this executive order, a senior Trump administration official was quoted by multiple news sources, including Time.com, “It’s important to keep in mind that no person living or residing overseas has a right to entry to the U.S.,” the official said.

Though news sources are saying that Trump’s recent executive order does not apply to American citizens living abroad, it sounds like a future one could.  And that’s talking about us.  It means that our children don’t get to visit their grandparents.  It means missing family weddings and bar mitzvahs.  It means possibly not being at the side of a loved-one when, G-d forbid, they fall ill.

When we allow baseless hatred to spread throughout the world, we can be sure that it will arrive at our doorstep.  Our duty, as Americans, as Israelis, as Jews, as decent human beings, is to speak out against baseless hatred and discrimination.  We need to speak up for liberty and justice for all.  It’s there in the Torah, it’s good Jewish values, and our collective memory knows what it is like to be victims of baseless hatred.  If we do not speak up now, than when?

Parashat Shmot – The dialogue of leadership

January 20, 2017

(Delivered today at Kehilat Tzur Hadassah with guests from Congregation Emanu El of Westchester)

Today marks a momentous day in the history of the United States, and it is truly an event of significance for the entire world.  In just an hour, Donald Trump will being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. A change in leadership of arguably the most powerful country in the world.

We begin a new book in the Torah this week – as America and the world begin a new chapter in leadership.  We begin the book of Exodus (in Hebrew called “Shmot” meaning “names”)  We are reminded of the arrival of the families of the children of Jacob to Egypt and what seems to be a very successful immigration – so much that their numbers grow tremendously which one would imagine is a sign of prosperity.  But then, it seems that the other shoe falls –

ח וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף. ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ. י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ.

“And there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, “Here, the children of Israel are a people, greater and mightier than us.  Let us be wise lest they will multiply and they will call us to war and will join our enemies and will fight us and will rise up from the land.” (Exodus 8-10)

How did a situation of enmity come about between the king of Egypt and the Israelites?  On the face of things, it seems that the problem is wholly the king.  The Talmud presents two opinions: Rav says that the king was really new, meaning a few generations had passed and he did not have the personal connection to Joseph and appreciation for what he did for the Egyptian people.  Samuel says that it was the same king as that who knew Joseph but that he became like one who did not know Joseph and made new decrees, meaning that the king changed his mind once the danger had passed – “a fair-weather friend.”  The Kli Yakar (Poland, 16th Century), says that the king did not understand Joseph’s legacy.  He didn’t understand how Joseph came to Egypt guided by G-d’s hand in  his brothers’ attempt to destroy him and to annul his dreams.  If he would have understood, he would have realized that enslaving the Israelites was against G-d’s will and thus a big mistake for Egypt.

However, there always two sides to every story.  Most sources point the finger immediately at the king of Egypt.  I ask, Could the Israelites have contributed also to this conflict?

The Italian commentator Sforno hints at this possibility.  He says that surely the acts of Joseph are recorded faithfully in the annals of Egyptian history and that the king and the Egyptian people hold Joseph and his family in high esteem.  The problem, he says, is that the Israelites themselves had changed as a society – at the time of the new king they had lost their moral compass and were not, to say the least, the model citizens that Joseph and his family had been in their time.

Leadership is attained in different ways today – by democratic vote, by consensus, by default (there was no one else), as an inheritance, or by proving himself through passing a series of tests.  A leader has great privilege and great responsibility.  A leader makes decisions based on any number of factors.

But however s/he is chosen, s/he never works alone or in a vacuum.  Leadership is a partnership between the leader and the led.  Halachic literature (Jewish law) has a basic rule that any ruling which the rabbinic leadership makes, if it is found that it is too stringent for the people or that people are not following the ruling, that ruling may be annulled.  In other words, leadership can fully succeed only with the consent of governed.

As we begin a new presidential term, there is hope that a new leader can be new perspectives and new solutions to old problems.  However, the role of the people does not end at the voting booth.  The dialogue continues – along with all the governing bodies – as the citizens respond to the words and deeds of the president.  I believe there is a need for heightened alert – there are an unprecedented number of hate crimes in the recent months.  I think it is alarming that 30 JCCs received simultaneous (false) bomb threats twice in the course of a week.

I believe we are at a very importunate moment and are reminded that we, wherever we live, must be diligent as always in sounding loud and clear the values that Reform Judaism has always strived to bring to the forefront of the public agenda in Israel and in the United States: That all humans are created in the image of G-d and must be treated with the same respect, and that we have the responsibility to be the stewards of this world.  That the most important mitzvot are the mitzvot  of how people treat one another.  That each and every person has the responsibility of doing tikkun olam, of making the world a better place for our children and for all living creatures.  We believe in pluralism and respecting people as they are.  We believe in inclusion and that our tent is big enough for all who wish to join us.   We believe in complete gender equality.  We remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and therefore we have a responsibility to help all whose hand has fallen whether they are of our people or if they are a stranger (Deuteronomy).

Leaders come and leaders go  Civilizations rise and they fall.  But the people, our texts, and our values are eternal.

When we finish a book of Torah, we say “Strength! Strength!  And let us be strengthened!  Chazak chazak v’nitzchazek.”  Maybe when we begin a book of Torah, we ought to say something as well: ZachorI  Hazkir!  V’nizacher!  Remember!  Remind!  And we will be remembered!”

How Israelis see the American Presidential Election

December 6, 2016

I have been asked over the past month, “How are Israelis reacting to the results of the presidential elections in the US?”  So, after enough people have asked, I figured that it might be worthwhile to put out my analysis from my little corner of Jerusalem.

First of all, I will disclose that I voted absentee for Hillary Clinton.  I was very excited for the possibility of a woman president and I thought she was a well-qualified candidate.  I share many of her stated social values, and I believe that she sincerely cares deeply for the American people and has dedicated her professional life to improving people’s lives through public policy.  She is someone who has vast experience in national government and could have used that to navigate the presidency.  And I do appreciate an American government who nudges Israel to not forget about always trying to make peace, even when it seems almost impossible.  I didn’t expect perfect, and certainly every candidate is flawed.

Many in my liberal circles were shocked at the results of the election.  These include Americans, both those who grew up in America and those who have American citizenship through their parents and thus also have the right to vote.  People, especially children, are in shock to discover quite ugly facets to America which they had thought were passing from the collective consciousness – the bigotry, xenophobia and messages of hate and ignorance which was heard time and again by Trump supporters is unprecedented.  And the ability of more mainstream Trump supporters to turn a blind eye to such hateful and violent expressions, or pooh-pooh it,  was even more astounding.   The media reports that the voter turnout for the 300,000 American Israelis this year was much lower than in 2012 (JTA).  Many say that Orthodox Jews tend to vote Republican and that non-Orthodox Jews tend to vote Democrat.

Many cite that what sways an Israeli American’s vote is the candidates’ stances on Israel.  It seems to me that both candidates hold a position which reflects the general attitude of their parties or at least the behavior of the most recent American presidents – The Democrat pressures Israel all the time to hold talks with the Palestinians and work toward a peace treaty that would include concessions on both sides.  The Republican leaves Israel alone on the Palestinian issue and lets Israel do what it wants (which, in recent years, is to expand the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories).  So, perhaps that is how many Israeli Americans voted – only taking into consideration this particular issue.

My nine-year-old son brought home varying messages from school (he is one of two kids in his class who has an American parent).  The teacher said that most Americans think both candidates are bad and they are choosing from the lesser evil.  A friend told him that he heard that Trump is better for Israel and Clinton hates Israel.  This same friend was at our house today, and he was now saying that Trump is dangerous and very bad.

I was at a small party a few days after the election.  The host, an American Israeli, asked people to share the glimmer of hope they might feel even after the results.  People did some reflecting, but generally the conversation would turn very quickly to matters of internal concern to Israel  – poverty, refugees, issues of gender, religion and state, etc.  One might say, “Oh, that’s so Israeli!  Israelis just like to talk about themselves and they think they are the center of the world.”  I think this is just human nature.  I was just in America.  Here people have a perfect opportunity to ask me about all kinds of things happening in Israel, but most of our conversations they talked about their own lives and challenges.

I also noticed that, among the upset liberals, a number of people, notably men, came right up to me before I even opened my mouth.  They assumed (correctly) that I voted for Clinton and they all said something very similar: “Don’t worry!  I know you’re sad that there isn’t a woman president, but it’s OK!  You’ll see that things will even be good with Trump.”

The government here is more or less keeping quiet.  Prime Minister Netanyahu called to congratulate Trump.  I know there was an issue surrounding a party of Jewish organizations in New York at which Stephen Bannon was set to attend as well as Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador (Bannon didn’t attend in the end).  Trump makes the news in Israeli newspapers daily.  As Israel is closer to Europe, there are many eyes on major elections in Europe to see if it is not just the US but if it is a trend of going to the extreme right, which many associate with fascism and ethnic supremacy/intolerance for minorities.

Finally, I have been digging deep in the recesses of my mind recalling our citizenship course in high school.  I can’t recall how many times I’ve had to explain to people what is the Electoral College.  It’s something that is hard to fathom here. It’s one of those things that the more you explain it and actually think about it, the more it makes you wonder about it.

I appreciate the shock that many of my family and friends are going through.  I would like to say that maybe it can all be OK with the incoming president, but I am really not sure.

But then I look at the political situation in Israel and calm down a little bit.  I did not vote for the Likud party which is now in power.  I have seen how the Likud’s coalition with national religious and ultra-Orthodox political parties have strengthened the extremist religious establishment in Israel who work every day to exert their hegemony over Israeli society and whose sole aim is a society ruled by an extremist interpretation of Jewish law through coercion and oppression.  Having said that, I know that life goes on.  I am strengthened by seeing how much support there is for a Jewish democratic pluralistic society on the local level of political life.  I have so much work to do and so many people who continue to seek the Judaism which I am committed to.  There are so many people and organizations that work to advance dialogue and co-existence between Jews and Arabs of all religions and demographics.  More than you can imagine.  We continue our work, we keep a positive attitude, and we are out there reaching out to people, creating more dialogues, building communities, and having small successes.

I truly hope that my American friends and family who suddenly discovered the fire burning in their belly after the result of the election will keep that fire going and will create some real political action.  Here in Israel, politics is personal.  Here, political decisions affect our everyday lives in every facet of our lives.  People make a point of being informed, and everyone has an opinion to vehemently share with you and you are expected to be as passionate about your view.  I think that the more people involved in the political process, the more healthy the democratic society.  I hope and pray that, at the very least, Americans as a whole take their democratic process serious and make themselves a part of the creation of public policy, not just every four years in the voting booth.

 

Back at the Western Wall – And the Bigger Picture

November 2, 2016

I just returned from the Kotel.  After dropping my 3-year-old son off at pre-school, I got on my bicycle and pedaled to the Old City.  I was told the egalitarian tefila for Rosh Chodesh was going to start at 8:30 at Ezrat Yisrael, the section of the Western Wall that is designated for egalitarian prayer.  However, soon I saw some friends who said that the plan had changed – the egalitarian prayer was taking place in the general Western Wall Plaza.  I took a deep breath, mentally bracing myself for the shouting, the shoving, and the overall words of hate of ultra-Orthodox by-standers.

I went up close to the center of the prayer so that I could hear the prayer leader and join in.  I am here to pray in the place that is the heart of the Jewish people with others who share my joy in prayer, a number of whom I know personally from my neighborhood in Jerusalem, liberal Jewish circles around Israel, and visiting colleagues from abroad.  I put on my talit.  I smiled seeing men and women holding Torah scrolls.  I happily took a picture of a friend and his mother, she holding the Torah scroll.  I felt semblances of a  spiritual experience.

When I came to the egalitarian prayer-protests at the Western Wall plaza over the past summer, it was very hard for me.  I stood there and I cried.  Tears ran down my face.  I felt tremendous pain as I experienced the shouting, the fists, the degrading expressions.

Near me, as I prayed, there were little boys running around, about nine or ten years old, shouting degrading things.  I suddenly knew what I had to do.  I knew what we need to do, all Jews.  I turned to them and I said “shhh” very gently.  I smiled at them.

On our way out, they were standing in a line, shouting.  A friend asked, “How can they say such things at such a young age?”  I answered, “They don’t know what they are saying.”  As I passed them, I reached out my hand to pat them on the shoulder, just as I would do to my own son who is the same age.  I smiled at them.  I said, “May you find goodness, happiness and blessing in your lives. May all your ways be ways of derech eretz. (being a good, nice person)”  They hesitated for a moment.  An Orthodox woman stood behind them, watching quietly the interaction.

I will not be a part of hatred.  I will disagree, I will speak my mind, I will practice Judaism the way that I believe – the way that perhaps G-d has inspired me to do.

Indeed, the Western Wall struggle has become symbolic of a larger issue.  It is not just about prayer.  It is about legitimacy, acceptance, and how we make it work as the Jewish people when we have complete sovereignty over ourselves.  It is about making Judaism once again about study, family, meaning, and spirituality for all the people, and not as a tool for political power and financial gain for a pushy narrow-agenda minority.  It is about reminding everyone that the Jewish tradition is a tradition of geographic and ideological diversity.

For me, it is about the families who are found around the world, like the families in my community.  The young mother who, in a meeting of other parents who want to provide liberal Jewish education for their children, in reaction to another parent who expresses the possibility that other parents will oppose the presence of a woman rabbi (which goes against tradition) or of a rabbi at all (the symbol of religious coercion), says, “That’s exactly why we need this.  I don’t want my children growing up afraid.  I want them to have this education exactly so that when they grow up, they will know how to live in a pluralistic society, that they will have a strong, positive Jewish identity.”

I will return to the Western Wall plaza for egalitarian prayer when I am called and am able to join.  Along with my talit and my siddur, I will come armed with a smile, a warm touch, and words of love for all of my fellow Jews.

The Intimate Connection Between Social Responsibility and Spirituality

October 12, 2016

(I delivered this drasha in Kehilat Tzur Hadassah, Yom Kippur 5777)

I spoke last year about the imperative of pluralism, of acceptance, and tolerance, and I called for us to act.  A number of us gathered to discuss these issues throughout the holiday and on into the year.  So, the good news is that we have done some wonderful things in the past year:

  • The friendship of members of our congregation and Kehilat HaTzur va’HaTzohar (Orthodox) has led to new initiatives like co-sponsorship of this recent blood drive which brought a record number of donors
  • In the shadow of the past year’s “knife intifada”, we began working to raise our awareness about some of Tzur Hadassah’s closest neighbors. We have opened an Arabic course to begin to try to literally understand.  We are exploring possibilities of encounters/dialogues to help so many of us who have never met a Palestinian, and Palestinians who have never met an Israeli who is not a soldier to hear with our own ears, and know for ourselves the different narratives. (And on the table are thoughts of a dialogue with our neighbors in Beitar Ilit)
  • We marched as a delegation of Kehilat Tzur Hadassah and Noar Telem in this year’s Gay Pride Parade. We joined over 10,000 people (the usual number of participants is 2000) of every possible religious background, age, and gender persuasion to make the largest, most beautiful statement about love and understanding that I perhaps have been a part of.
  • We host Jewish groups and individuals and non-Jewish tourists from all over the world in our community, explaining to them about our tradition and showing them a warm, welcoming Israeli Judaism.

These are great initiatives, and I send a big yishar koach to the organizers and the participants.  I am sure that everyone here does good things in their lives.  But this is the hour of cheshbon nefesh, a personal accounting. I especially ask myself – as I ask all of us to do –  Am I really doing all that I can?  I have some dilemmas, but perhaps they will resonate with you.

Almost every day, I see the horrifying pictures of the destruction in Syria, and the heart wrenching stories of the refugees, Especially the children.  It is estimated that over 400,000 people have been killed, 4 million have fled as refugees, and 6 million are displaced within Syria.

In North America , there are Jewish communities adopting Syrian refugee families.  I know we are in a complicated position as Israelis – Syria is Israel’s enemy!  We can say that our government provides humanitarian aid to Syrians.  We can join the efforts of an organization called Amaliah that is helping to coordinate Israeli humanitarian efforts.

And then, as happened this Sunday in Jerusalem, there is a terror attack, which hurts so badly.  And the talkbacks begin: Don’t help Arabs, they just want to kill us.  Anyone who helps an Arab is a hater of Israel.

The reason not to help: They are not my people.

I received a call last week from a man in Beit Shemesh.  He was asking for financial help with a long list of personal tragedies.  I asked, What about your community?  He said, they are busy raising money for the synagogue building.  I call his rabbi.  He verifies the situation, describing the man as someone who tries very hard.  The welfare system is not helping this family enough.  Any help that can be given would be a blessing.  I talk it over with our congregant who has been spearheading our efforts to help those in need as a community.  She said, “This is hard because it is out of our area/demographic.”  We decide that we will make a general appeal to people to give tzedakah, (You are welcome to leave tzedakah in the kupah) and we will try our contacts in Beit Shemesh to find someone who can be in a better position to help.

The reason not to help: This person is not my neighbor.

We are in touch with the regional council’s social workers responsible for the Mazleg.  We ask them what they need help with, and then we as a community decide what we are capable of doing.  Over the past six months, we supported as a congregation a single-mother by providing weekly meals.  We invited the local schools (and our Gan Tiltan!) to participate in food collection for needy families in Mateh Yehudah, providing boxes and publicity and coordinating pick up.  When I spoke at a local classroom this month whose pupils spearheaded their school’s food drive, and really when I speak with any group, they are always shocked when I tell them there are people in Tzur Hadassah who are struggling to put food on the table.

The reason not to help: I don’t know my neighbors.

Why have I shared all of this when our topic chosen this year is Spirituality?  What does social responsibility have to do with spirituality?  Everything.

Spirituality is about connectedness.  It’s what tells me I am part of something greater than myself.  There are a number of things which are greater than me – my tradition, my ancestors, humanity, creation, and G-d/Divine force.  The G-d that I believe in is the greater force encompassing humanity, this world, and the universe.  This force runs through all of us, through all of the world.

My credo is: G-d is one.  One is all.  All is G-d.  This is connection – we are all part of a unified whole, and it is what tells me that caring is my obligation – for my neighbor, my fellow Jews, the other peoples with whom we share this land, people around the world that I will never meet. For me, spirituality is celebrating the uniqueness of the separate parts and recognizing them as part of the whole. 

When I was a child, I was taught for the first time a concept called Tikkun Olam, which has become the guiding principle in my life.  I remember as an eight-year-old, instead of regular classes, my synagogue brought us all to rally to free Soviet Jewry, telling us to call out “Let my people go!”  Every Rosh HaShanah, they gave us empty supermarket bags, and on Yom Kippur we brought the bags back full with food to donate to the needy.  At the time, I didn’t fully understand what we were doing, but the experiences planted the seeds for these values.

What is Tikkun Olam?  Actually, it is a very spiritual concept.  The origin of the term in the Talmud.  In certain instances when a ruling was made that might go against general principles, the reason given was מפני תיקון העולם – for the “better ordering of society.”  Meaning, sometimes we do things just because they are the right thing, not connected to the Torah itself.

According to Isaac Luria, (the Kabbalist) in Tzfat in the 16th century, Tikkun Olam is an inherent part of creation.  He tells that G-d created the world by retracting the light that filled the universe into one point in the middle.  The light spilled into vessels he called the Sefirot.  The bottom sefirot, closest to humanity, could not contain the light and they exploded (a la Big Bang?), mixing up “good” and “evil”.  Thus was created the task of humanity to do Tikkun Olam, by doing good we bring good to the world.

Action is shaped by consciousness.  I find the balance in the principle of (Pirke Avot 1:2), “The world stands on three things – Torah, worship, and loving kindness.”  I quote this text all the time.

“Torah” is study and ongoing discussion of texts and tradition – in the widest sense of the words – alone and with others.  The Talmud teaches that G-d’s presence of the Shechina rests even on two people who are engaged in Torah study together.  Thinking ignites the sparks of the synapses in the brain.  I leave every study session energized.

” Worship” is contemplative communing – sometimes guided by the themes of the prayerbook, sometimes uplifted by melodies and music, sometimes lost in thought.  The moments of thanks and petition, and mainly the opportunity to consider this entire miraculous and challenging existence. Or just to sit quietly and breathe.  Prayer was not meant to be a yoke or a burden!  Let us reclaim it for ourselves and return to the essence of prayer.

“Loving kindness” is the result and the action, caring for my fellow creatures and creation.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel said as he marched with Martin Luther King for civil rights of Black Americans, “I pray with my feet.”  As the Jewish-French philosopher Emanuel Levinas claims, Our existence is wholly to feel my responsibility for the other and to do so with a positive approach.  (Levinas, p. 95)

Therefore, today on this time that we aspire to renewal and self-improvement, I humbly suggest that: Every day, we try to learn something new.  Every day, we try to find a moment of contemplation.  Every day, we find a way to give to others – whether it is for our neighbors, for our people and our land, or if it for the rest of humanity and our world.  I, for my part, will also try to identify opportunities, suggest thoughts, and support your initiatives.

Maybe you noticed this shell necklace that I am wearing.  I collected the shells last week before we performed Tashlich at the beach.  I made this necklace with my daughter. I find that I can’t get  myself to take it off.  Wearing it, I retain the feeling of being near the sea, which connects to the spirit of these ten days of repentance –  the vastness of nature over which humans cannot triumph.  The waves which also lap shores of other lands and wash over other people I do not know.  The waves who are influenced by the gravitational pull of the moon.

Elie Wiesel, one of the illustrious souls who left us this year, Holocaust survivor, international lecturer and outspoken humanitarian, including his repeated cries to the world to help make a solution Syria, said, “Indifference creates evil. My humanity derives from my efforts with others.”

In conclusion, not an answer but rather a question.  As Hillel put it best: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, who am I?  And if not now, when?

Chodesh Av – Jerusalem, Prayer, and Love

August 10, 2016

I think often about prayer.  What is the purpose of prayer?  What is the purpose of set prayers?  What is the difference between praying in a group or on one’s own?  How often should one pray?  Does it matter really?  Why do so many people (or at least Jews) have a strong aversion to prayer?  Why is prayer the definition of religiosity?  Most people I know (at least in Israel) say that prayer is a religious act.  For example, in my children’s secular elementary school, they learn texts from the Bible and from rabbinic literature.  However, the principle said that there will never be prayer in the school.   I find  that many secular Jews in Israel run away as fast as they can from any event that sounds like it will have prayer.

However, I also find that what the majority of Jews, including secular, do feel very strongly about is lifecycle events.  For four times in a person’s life, he can tolerate a prayer experience – birth ceremony, bar mitzvah, wedding, and funeral.

I live in Jerusalem  – which means that here, we have any kind of Jew that you could imagine existed.  Here, all Jewish roads meet, intersect, and inevitably clash.  While Jerusalem is the hot spot and the conflicts of the Jewish world are felt most poignantly here, what happens in Jerusalem has a ripple effect to the entire world.  And let us not be mistaken, what happens in the world also affects what happens in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, we have – as in other places in Israel and some parts of the Diaspora – a large concentration of Ultra-Orthodox.  Prayer, among other things, is  a central act for them in their lives.  And prayer, as for other things, in their opinion must be done in a certain way.  Only led by men, separated between men and women, and a very lengthy text that is not amenable to change.  I know Ultra-Orthodox people personally who are kind, gentle people.  However, I have seen in my opinion too many situations of violence instigated and carried out by Ultra-Orthodox men and women.  And there are too many incidents of incitement to violence by Ultra-Orthodox, as well as “religious Zionist” rabbis in Israel.  In contrast, I can’t think of one incident of a call to violence or act of violence in the name of Reform Judaism (readers are welcome to correct me).

This brings me to my experience last week.  I officiated at a bat mitzvah ceremony of two sisters from abroad.  We were at the Western Wall, on the Herodian Street below Robinson’s Arch.  I, a Reform rabbi, led the gathering which was a mix of prayer, Torah reading, and beautiful readings, songs, and personal tributes to the women in their lives by the young women.  In the group was their rabbi from home who is Orthodox.  The rabbi’s wife’s  was explaining to her eight-year-old son that I was the rabbi of the ceremony.  She said to me, “It’s hard for him to understand.  He’s never met a woman rabbi before.”  I said, “I appreciate your openness and wanting to tell him.”

As I was waiting for the family, I brought out the Torah scroll we would use – a beautiful Sephardic style Torah – it is upright in a wooden case.  A small group of men and women which I would describe as Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox) passed and some stopped to touch their hand to the Torah and kiss their hand, as is a custom.  One of the women began berating me (in Hebrew) – “How can you give such disrespect to the Torah?  How can you be here alone with the Torah?  It is disgraceful!”  I have to admit, she pushed my buttons, and I quickly answered her (in Hebrew), “How can you judge?  You have no idea who I am, why this Torah is here.  Why would you begin a conversation with me in such a way?  Where is your human decency?  It would be better if you would say, ‘How lovely!  A Torah!  How are you?  What is your name?  What are you doing here?  I’m curious because it is different from what I am used to.  Perhaps there is a celebration, a happy reason for taking out a Torah scroll – Mazal tov!'”  I concluded,  “You ought to speak to me with respect.”  Obviously, the woman did not agree with my words.  However, one of her companions, a dark man with a long salt-and-pepper beard and a knit kippah on his head was smiling kindly the whole time I spoke – I want to believe that he agreed with me.

During the service, there were other small groups wandering around most of them different degrees of Orthodox, both touring the Davidson Center archaeological site, and visiting Ezrat Israel, a platform set back from the Wall designated for egalitarian prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I saw many gazing at our ceremony – I imagine what kind of sight it was for them of a woman in a talit standing next to a Torah scroll and then reading from it.   At one point, a small group of Ultra-Orthodox men appeared above us on the platform  What were they doing?  They stood around.  They looked down.  They looked at us, of course.  On the one hand, I felt frightened – would they make problems?  On the other hand, I felt happy that they could see facts on the ground.  I looked up a few times at them and gave them a big smile which I’m not sure if they noticed.  I almost waved at them.

The ceremony was, of course, lovely.  I especially remember the young ladies’ words about the love of sisters – as demonstrated by Leah and Rachel, also Miriam as a sister.  That evening we began the month of Av, marking the approach of Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, very close to where we were standing at that moment.  It brought to my lips the story of the two brothers who had a great love for each other and thus were extremely generous with each other.  Because of their ahavat chinam (baseless/unconditional love), that is the spot on which the Temple was chosen to be built.  And the tradition teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam (baseless hatred) among Jews.

When the ceremony was over, I got into a taxi (after a first taxi driver refused to put on the meter).  As we drove, I saw a text from my mom which brought a smile to my lips.  The driver asked what happened.  I began to explain that I had sent my father a bottle of wine for his birthday, how much he likes wine, how we visit wineries when he visits in Israel.  He tells me that he is also a tour guide and that in Har Hevron (in the West Bank/Judea-Samaria) there are wonderful wineries, how the grape grows differently there than in the Golan, how they use the grape leftovers afterwards to make all kinds of dishes which sound delicious.  I ask if the dishes are from the Jewish or Arab tradition.  He says, “Both.  You know, Jews have always lived in Har Hevron.”  We begin speaking about Jerusalem, I try to explain what I am and what I do.  He says, “The Ultra-Orthodox are dangerous, they are the biggest threat to our society.  They commit sin’at chinam (baseless hatred)”  Here he was echoing the words sin’at chinam that I had spoken earlier and felt their threat around me, while feeling the love of the people in our group so strongly.  I begin speaking about the complexity of religion and state, the dynamics of being a Jewish and democratic state.

He then got a phone call and began speaking in…Arabic.  I had been debating issues of religion and state with an Arab?  When he hung up, he apologized, “Somebody has passed away and there will be a funeral.”  I hesitated  and then asked, “Are you Christian?  Muslim?….” not quite sure if even either of those options was the answer.  He is Muslim.  So I asked about the Muslim Sabbath and how it works. And indeed,  I learned a lot of very interesting things from his answers, and other things he had to say.

Things are not always what they seem.  We will never agree on everything or even most things.  But we can always have ahavat chinam – unconditional love.  And unconditional love doesn’t cost a thing*.

 

 

*In Hebrew, chinam means “free” like saying something doesn’t cost anything.