The Truth about the Truth

October 9, 2019

Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur 5780 in Kehilat Shir Chadash in Tzur Hadassah

One of my favorite ice-breaker games to place is Two Truths and a Lie. You go around the group and each person tells three statements about himself and the rest of the group has to guess which statements were true and which statement was a lie.  Of course, you learn the most unexpected things about people!

Unfortunately, so often in life we are unable to distinguish between truth and lies. We live in an age of “over-information”. On WordPress alone, 70 million blog posts are published every month…and today 3.2 billion images are shared each day.[1]  A study has shown that the average person checks their phone 200 times in a day.[2]  About 7700 books are published each year in Israel alone.[3]

Researchers say that people have developed a new cognitive mechanism to deal with the excessive information – “consent” – the attempt to synthesize between past knowledge and incoming information which creates a bias in the perception of reality creating the phenomenon of “self-fulfilling prophecy”.[4]  Meaning, we try to take all the information coming at us and tie it into a tidy package even at the expense of the truth.

We also live in the era of  “fake news”, fake Facebook accounts (250 million per year).   It is easier now more than ever to publish any item without anyone checking the facts and cause millions of people to spend their time guessing if it is true or not.  When I open a newspaper, turn on the news, or read posts on social media, I honestly don’t know what is the truth.  Are politicians honorable or are they corrupt?  Is global warming really a thing?

The truth is that Truth is complex.  That is actually what attracted me to Judaism as an adult – the understanding that truth has complexity. Our halachic literature takes for granted that multiple perspectives exist.  We can take for an example the ongoing disagreement of Hillel and Shamai through which they stayed friends throughout.  As it is taught: Abba said in the name of Shmuel: Three years the House of Shamai and the House of Hillel disagreed.  These said the law was according them, and those said that law was according to them.  A Voice went out and said: These and those are the words of the Living G-d….”[5]  In the Halacha (Jewish law), it is always possible to find support for an opinion and for its opposite.

The practicality of the mitzvot is a matter of discussion and adaptations, but Jewish tradition takes truth very seriously.

One of my favorite lines in the Psalms reads: “Loving-kindness and Truth met, Righteousness and Peace kissed.  Truth from the land will sprout and Righteousness from the sky looks down.”  Truth and Loving-Kindness are defined by the relationship between them.  Truth represents “judgment” while Loving-Kindness represents compassion. Truth is an unbending, absolute value.  Loving-Kindness is flexible.  According to the Malbim, the Truth is one side of a triangle with Righteousness, and Loving-Kindness which serves as a model for every law or ruling – which creates a strong basis for a society’s existence.

On the basis of these verses, a midrash is told in which it seems that Truth has a more central role than the other values of Righteousness and Loving-Kindness.  The rabbis tell in a midrash: Rabbi Simon said: When The Holy One Blessed Be He came to create the first human, the ministering angels got together.  Some said – Create the human.  Others said – Don’t create the human…..Loving-Kindness said – Create the human that he will performs deeds of loving-kindness.  Truth said – Don’t create him because he is only lies.  Righteousness said – Create him so that he will do righteous acts.  Peace said – Don’t create him because he is all conflict.  What did the Holy One Blessed Be He do?  He took Truth and threw it down to the land.  The ministering angels said before the Holy One Blessed Be He, “Master of the Universe!  Why are you degrading your chief minister?  Pick Truth up from the land, as it is written ‘Truth will sprout from the land.’” (Psalms 85:12)….While the ministering angels were discussing with one another, so busy with themselves, the Holy One Blessed Be He created him.  He said to them:  What are you carrying on about – the human has already been created.[6]

If Truth is such an important value, why does G-d create humanity against Truth’s advice?  We can understand that G-d created humanity knowing from the beginning that we would make mistakes and, in many cases, behave quite immorally.  But why does G-d cast Truth down into the ground?  Does He do it out of anger? I believe that G-d’s intention in the midrash actually is exalted – He sends Truth to earth to help humanity. But Truth resists -he is also very difficult and stubborn – he doesn’t want to be around humanity because he knows that humanity will not stick to him. So G-d’s throwing Truth to the ground plants it – like a seed.  It germinates and then it is to grow, like it says in the Psalm, and develop alongside humanity.

It is written elsewhere in Proverbs (11:18), … he that sows righteousness has a reward of truth.”  Here, not only G-d but also the human’s actions can bring Truth.  We learn from this that while Tzedakah is an action, Truth is a concept, an intellectual state of being, consciousness.

Further, we see that people indeed can be exemplars of Truth.  When the Israelites leave Egypt, Moses’s father-in-law Yitro, a Midianite priest, comes to meet them.  He proclaims the greatness of G-d and he advises Moses to appoint “men of valor who fear G-d, are men of truth, haters of unjust gain” to assist with the ruling of the people.  Rashi explains that “men of truth” are those “who keep their promises, upon whose words one may rely, and thereby, their commands will be obeyed.”  In other words, good leaders are men who do not lie and what they say they will do, they actually do.

If we understand Truth as an absolute value – something either is or is not true – and we say that it is indeed possible for people to embody Truth, then how do I navigate the world today in which truth seems relativistic and utterly impossible to discern?

I believe that we have to understand Truth as a way of life, a prism through which we act. Is it true that the world is warming at a pace dangerous for the continued existence of the human race?  I am not sure.  But I believe that truth lies in the value and my obligation “to serve the land and to preserve it.  I have received the instruction to not waste the world’s resources.  The understanding that water and trees are precious commodities upon which my existence depends.  That we are not allowed to cut down fruit-bearing trees.

Are political leaders telling the truth when they say that they do not use their offices for personal gain?  I don’t know.  But I am sure that I have an obligation to help those who have less than me, to not steal or lie, to not take advantage of others, to give people reasonable wages, to not put a stumbling block before the blind, to treat all people fairly regardless of wealth or position, and to treat others as I would want to be treated.[7]=

I must live the Truths related to mitzvot of how we treat one another.

What about mitzvot between myself and G-d?  Where is the Truth here?  Relationship with G-d is based on belief – which there is no way to prove it empirically.  And I am sure that my conception of G-d is very different from yours, and yours is different from the person sitting next to you.  And our conceptions today are different from previous generations.

A story is told of a brother and sister who live in a small, isolated village. They are full of curiosity about the world and what is right and what is wrong, what is Truth.  So many questions that their parents and local villagers cannot answer. An old man tells them about a wise woman on a faraway mountain, and the children set out to find him. They walk for many days. They find a rare pink flower that only blooms every twenty-five years, which the children take as a good omen that gives them strength as they struggle through difficult winds and cold up the harsh mountain. Reaching the top they see a small hut. An old woman comes out. She is dressed in a white robe. She welcomes them into the shack and warms them with drinks and food they have never seen before. They sleep on warm rocks. In the morning, after they thank hier, the old woman, tells them that she can answer only one question. The children have so many burning questions! Finally, they ask her, What is Truth? The sage smiles, “When I eat, I eat; when I sleep, I sleep….” When they look back, the shack has vanished. [8]

What is Truth?  According to the story, a person can name only things which he can be 100% sure of them.  My experience is my Truth.

My obligation is to seek an authentic relationship with G-d.  To act to synthesize the wisdom of the previous generations with the reality of our world today. To write the next chapter in the Book of Life.  To ask the questions:  What is this world for me?  What is G-d for me?  And to talk about it with others.  To look into the prayerbook during our time here together – Is G-d that who created the world?  Is G-d love?  Is G-d a redeemer?  Is G-d a king?  Is G-d a father?

The letters in Truth represent the beginning, middle and end of the alphabet –There are Truths that are timeless and unchanging – the “everlasting rock”.  (Isaiah 26:4)  They are the universal values also know as “doing the right thing” which take no heed to which direction the wind blows.  But there is also space between the aleph and the mem and between the mem and the taf – this is the place of each person to find the Truth of your own existence.

Life is full of truths and lies.  Like the game, we are often forced to make an educated guess. I only ask that we do not despair from searching for the Truth.  Even if it is not completed revealed to us, it stands before us, it sprouts from the earth, and it fills the air around us.  In the words of King Hezekiah to the prophet Isaiah, “Please, YHWH, Remember how I have walked before You in Truth and with a whole heart, and have done that which is good in Your sight.”

[1] https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/amazing-social-media-statistics-and-facts/

[2] https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4876418,00.html?fbclid=IwAR0GuhS3S_MdBl_asTMoCYqg0g-Xisdr9fP42uGgUNh1zrwdWYnhJn2_EZg

[3] https://www.mako.co.il/news-israel/local-q2_2018/Article-a58d609036dc361004.htm

[4] https://www.hamichlol.org.il/%D7%94%D7%99%D7%A6%D7%A3_%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%93%D7%A2

[5] עירובין יג ע”ב

[6] עיבוד בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת בראשית פרשה ח

[7] Based on Leviticus 19

[8] Adaptation of Seeking Wisdom Nadia Grosser Nagarajan, Pomegranate Seeds: Latin American Jewish Tales. Chile . Sharon Barcan Elswit. The Jewish Story Finder: A Guide to 668 Tales Listing Subjects and Sources, 2d ed. (Kindle Locations 1967-1973). Kindle Edition.

 

Vacation in the Black Sea Coast of Bulgaria

August 23, 2019

We just came back from 13 days family vacation in Bulgaria on the Black Sea coast.  We had a wonderful vacation and enjoyed so many things about Bulgaria.  We are a family of 5 – a boy aged 12, a girl aged 9 and a boy aged 6.  This trip was a little more challenging to plan because it was hard to find information.  So, I’m going to tell about our trip and perhaps it can help other people!

*Pictures are at the bottom*

We traveled in the middle of August which is the holiday time in Israel.   We stayed in Nessabar and flew to Varna (2 hour drive).  In retrospect, we should have flew to Burgas which was only 40 minutes away.

We rented a car for the entire time.  In retrospect, perhaps this wasn’t necessary.  The roads are not developed and the towns have rental car places which you could get a car for a day if you want to go somewhere.  Also, there are organized trips through agents or hotels for some of the things we would want to do with buses.  That being said, having the car gave us freedom and the ability to be spontaneous and not to think about it.  If you plan to go on excursions, the best is a car that does well on dirt/rocky roads.  I got the car through booking.com.

In general, people speak very limited English.  They are nice and reasonably friendly and try to be helpful.  It was very helpful to learn the Cyrillic alphabet to decipher signs and your receipt at the restaurant.  I have some experience with Slavic languages so that was helpful in making things out sometimes.  Though most menus and important instructions are in English.

In our area, most of the tourists were Russian, a few Polish and a few German.

Most places take credit cards but not all.  There are money changers everywhere in town and they all have the same rate.

Compared to Israel, everything is very cheap!  Especially the food.  The supermarkets are basic (as opposed to Western Europe where for us, the visit to the supermarket was a tourist experience in and of itself)

The Apartment

We rented a holiday apartment in the Apollon Apartment complex in Nessabar.  I found it through expedia.com.  Actually, it was on the border with the next town, Ravda.  The apartment was perfect for us.  It had two bedrooms and two full bathrooms and a living area and porch overlooking the pool.  It had a kitchenette with a microwave, nice-sized refrigerator and two burners.  Also the washing machine was a plus.  The only minus was that it was very barely furnished with kitchen tools.  Also important to me was that it has wireless and that the showers are modern.  The building was pretty new.

The complex of 9 buildings has 5 or 6 swimming pools.  We tried a few but ended up always at the biggest one where the kids could stand, was more heated, and was next to a bar.  We also picked this place because it has a tennis court.  The tennis court is in poor condition but we managed to play there every other day and it was fine for hitting with the kids.  It technically costs money but the managers were very laid back about it.  Other complexes also have tennis courts so if it’s important to you to play on a good court, pick another place.

The Location

We loved Nessabar.  The town was perfect for us.  Right next to the complex was a supermarket, a produce stand (everything is local and amazing) and a bakery with great local pastries and a coffee machine.  There are stores with all of your beach and vacation needs.  The beach was two blocks away and beautiful.  You can go to a free part and park yourself or you can pay 20 levs for an umbrella and two comfy lounge chairs.  We rented pedalboats one day (20 lev for an hour) and there is a watersports place close by – their big thing is windsurfing. There is a boardwalk that goes pretty much the entire coast – one restaurant after another, all with great views of the beach and sea.  This was the perfect pace for us – there were people but not crazy.  If you want more action, stay at Sunny Beach.  Or if you want a big city, stay in Burgas.  More about Nessabar in the daily description.

Restaurants

Most restaurants have exactly the same food.  They have huge menus – something for everyone.  The kids ate pizza, hamburgers, breaded chicken fingers, and pizza almost everyday.  And the Cappy juices.  We had salad everyday – the shopska salad is the basic.  We enjoyed different things: small fried fish, local grilled fish, risottos, chicken on the skewer on the grill, chicken in mushroom sauce, wings in barbecue sauce.  A glass of wine (the red is also served cold) or local beer (pretty light).  If you are daring, try the rakia – 40% alcohol brandy.   For me, it was not tasty.  I drank it with a lot of ice and added juice. They also have local ouzo and I tried a local mint liquor.  Our dinners ranged 50-70 levs for the five of us – and they were full meals!  We often took leftovers home which was good for lunch the next day.

One of my children is allergic to milk.  We learned the word “milk” and “allergy” and people understood and it was not really an issue.

A favorite dessert was pancake with chocolate spread – a big crepe.  They sell them at stands everywhere.

Day 1

We landed in Varna, got the car, and drove off.  We stopped in a nondescript town where we saw a restaurant on the way.  Dinner for 5 – 30 levs!  The complex left us a key and we let ourselves in.

Day 2

We spent the day at the pool.  In the afternoon/evening we walked along the beach toward Nessabar – out to a pier and along the boardwalk.  Places start to fill up around 8 p.m. and it’s harder to find a table.

Day 3 – Nessabar

We got up early to play tennis and then some pool time.  We drove to the Old City of Nessabar (possible by taxi or bus).  It’s an island connected to the mainland by a bridge.  This was our day to explore history/culture and it was perfect – not too much.  We toured the Archaeology Museum at the entrance – helpful to have the audio explanation. You can buy a combined ticket to a bunch of sites. We wandered the alleys of the town – beautiful old buildings, all the tourist shops.  Good place to buy souvenirs.  We bought a tablecloth and a ceramic teapot – found a store that had unique designs by local artists.  I also bought little pretty purse-pockets for a lev each for presents.  We ate our sandwiches at a lookout place.  Then we wandered and got to the Ethnographic Museum – a few rooms with little explanations and some pictures and costumes.  We didn’t buy tickets to tour the churches – you could see them from the outside – unique buildings.  We stopped for coffee/hot cocoa at a place – each drink about a lev or two.  We had dinner in the Old City.  Then we got ice cream at a  place next to the Archaeological Museum – they make the ice cream there and had many vegan flavors for our allergic child.  A little more expensive.

Day 4 – Water park

We went to Aqua Paradise – the biggest water park in Bulgaria.  You can order cheaper tickets online – but we weren’t sure if you need to print them out.  We bought from our apartment complex so that we wouldn’t have to stand in line to buy.  If you drive, arrive early and park in the closest lot to the entrance.  The farther lot costs 5 lev.  We could have walked from our apartment.  There are also shuttles from town.  They are very strict on height!  Our daughter is 128 centimeters and we couldn’t get her in for 130 cm which is the requirement for the bigger rides.  In any case, our kids aren’t big thrill-seekers and they were afraid of the bigger slides anyway.  We still had a great day from 10 until almost 5.  We did a bunch of slides, loved the wave pool, lazy river, massage pool, the little kids area for the little ones with little slides and fountains.  We saw two shows which were in English.  You have to buy food there.  Kids loved it – really fun day.

Day 5 – Traditional Bulgarian Village Experience

I found on the internet a web site advertising a visit in a traditional Bulgarian home in Solnik, an hour drive.  I called and they offered to us to come for 50 euros.  It sounded like a lot but we said ok.  Our drive through the hills/forest – terrible roads!  We get to the nondescript village and see a man and ask about the visit.  He says that he also hosts visits and has a bus coming soon that we can join for 50 levs for all of us.  We walk around his garden and see his animals.  He sends us to the edge of the village to hike to the waterfall.  We leave the car at one point because the “road” is terrible.  But we found lots of raspberries along the way!  We hiked for a little while until finding the sign but we already wanted to go back.  My husband went ahead and saw that the streams are all dried up in the summer anyway.  It was a nice little walk.

The hospitality was fun – the villagers dress up in traditional costumes and greet us with a big bread and salt and the local bagpipes.  We sit for a full meal – salad, soup, main course, all the wine or rakia that you want.  They did a little dance and then dressed anyone who wanted up in traditional clothes and had a “wedding” (we were the bride and groom!) and then took us around the block on a horse and wagon.  They had a professional photographer taking pictures and selling for 5 lev.

Advice – do this tour with an organized bus unless you get lucky like us.

Day 6 – Burgas Sea Garden and Salt Spa Lake

We drove to Burgas.  On the way, we saw a sign for “ancient Thracian tomb”.  We pulled over.  Paid 3 lev for each adult.  It’s a mound on the outside and inside it is a very interesting construction.  Worth the stop.  Very little explanations.

We continued and found a parking lot near the Sea Garden.  It is a beautiful park next to the sea with cafes.  We played air hockey.  The kids played games among the trees.  We went to the Sand Sculpture exhibit – cute.  We had lunch on the boardwalk.  They advertise city bikes in Burgas – but they are only for adults.  We drove to Lake Atanasovsko – the salt spa.  You put in the GPS “Burgas Salt Parking”.  We parked next to the beach and walked along the bike path to the salt lake area.  Now it’s more organized and you pay a few lev now per person from age 7.  We dipped in the pink lye lake – you float like in the Dead Sea. Then we went to another area and covered ourselves in mud.  We walked back to the beach – giving time for the mud to dry, and then rinsed off in the sea.  It’s like the Dead Sea but lighter – not as stinging or heavy on the salt.  You can hang out at the beach and play in the sand/water – it’s a beautiful black beach.  No lifeguard.

Next to it is a shoe outlet – but beware.  The prices are not really special deals.

Day 7 – At the beach

We spent the day at the beach in Nessabar 2 blocks from our apartment.  We rented a lounge and sun umbrella for 14 lev.  I took the 2 older kids pedalboating – 20 lev for an hour.  The little one played in the sand.  The water is great – not too salty, nothing scary in it, just a lot of seaweed.

Day 8 – Ferry to Saint Anastasia Island

You need to call/email a day in advance to reserve a place on the boat.

https://www.gotoburgas.com/en/news/view/37/1941

I think it was like 50 lev for all of us.

Put in the GPS “Magazia 1” to get there – there is metered parking next to the port so bring coins.  We took the 10 a.m. boat.  They say to get there at 9:30 but you just have to make the boat by 10.  It’s a nice ride out – either inside the boat or on top open-air.  Two hours is more than enough – the entire island is a hectare.  We walked around and saw the view from a few spots and got something to drink in the cute coffee shop.  Played games with the kids.  We saw another boat come with a pirate theme – so that might be an option to make it more fun.

There is a fun little playground at the Magazia, good for a short stop.

Another nice little stop was by the Burgas Airport – the Airplane Museum.  To climb into the cockpit of old MIG fighter planes, also to see the inside of old planes, a flight simulator, and a simulator for training for a fighter plane.

https://www.facebook.com/avioburgas/

Day 9 – Bike rental

We spent the morning in the pool.  Then we rented bicycles from a great shop.

http://bikespirachka.bg/

You can find it on Google map – MarTobike.

We decided to take the bikes for 2 ½ hours.  We really should have rented for the entire day.  He suggested to ride to Sveti Vlas – about 17 km.  We got stuck on the way in Sunny Beach.  We rode the promenade because we had kids and no helmets.  It slows you down.  We got to see this area – crowded boardwalks, wide huge beaches, casinos, luna park, water sports.  We stopped for awhile to play a nice little mini golf course.  If we had taken the bikes the entire day, we could have made it to Sveti Vlas and also stopped for attractions and food along the way without any stress of getting back.

Day 10  – Pool day

 Day 11 – Hike to Cape Emine

Our quest to find a doable and reliable (i.e. marked trail) hike within a reasonable distance.  We drove to Emona – an hour because of the dirt/rocky road starting from Banya.  You park at a large billboard-like wooden sculpture of a wolf.  We were not alone on this trail.  It’s about 2-2 ½ km on the road to the cape (there’s a lighthouse but you can’t go to it).  We saw one trail marker.  True to the descriptions, we saw the pack of wild horses. This was cool.  At the end, you go down a ravine and then back up and – hop! – you’re on the edge of a very steep cliff! (no guardrail).  Gorgeous view!   Hang on to the kids and to your hat! There is no shade but nice breezes.  We found a spot to eat our sandwiches.  Then made a circle of the hike by going back through the village – pretty empty and small.

This was a good-length and difficulty hike for the kids.

We drove to Irakli next door but it was not worth a stop.  Another beautiful beach, a little more exclusive, and the restaurant was full and the menu not so kid-friendly.  So we headed back to our beach.

Day 12 – Pool and beach

Kids wanted pool.  I went to beach.

Gifts/Souvenirs

Huge tourist shop right near the apartment with the cheapest prices I saw anywhere. I bought rose infused bars of soap and rose-infused hand creams (3 lev each).  My daughter bought a little box covered with shells (4 lev).  My son bought a magnet.

In the supermarket, I bought rose jelly, rose syrup, and pine syrup.  I also bought some herbal teas –  mixes of Melissa, st. John’s wort, pine, wild thyme, mint, etc.

I bought a few bathing suits – great selection.   39-44 lev each.

What we didn’t do – Kamchia Biosphere Reserve

Also an hour distance was the Kamchia Biosphere Reserve.  I found some organized kayaking tours on Travel Advisor. You need to order at least some days in advance during August. I would have done it, but the family was toured-out.

 

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Apollon Apartment Complex

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Old City Nessabar

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Old City Nessabar

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Beach in Nessabar

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Aqua Paradise

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Hike near Solnik

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berries on the hike

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Village hospitality in Solnik

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Village hospitality in Solnik

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Dancing in Solnik

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Dressed as a Bulgarian bride

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Sea Garden in Burgos

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Sand exhibit at the Sea Garden in Burgas

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Salt baths in Burgas

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lye salt pools

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Washing off the mud in Burgas on the black beach

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Ferry to Saint Anastasia Island

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Saint Anastasia Island

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Saint Anastasia Island

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Airplane Museum at Burgas Airport

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Airplane Museum at Burgas Airport

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Hike at Emona to Cape Emine

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wild horses

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Cape Emine view off the cliff

 

 

 

What American and Israeli Jews Need

March 13, 2019

I am returning from a 10-day speaking tour in Reform congregations in New York City and Westchester (a synagogue on every corner) and in Maine (a small, spread out but active Jewish community).  I spoke in eight synagogues before hundreds of people and spoke one-on-one with tens of people about Israel, Judaism, and the future.

I spoke about things which I knew were on the minds of my American Reform Jewish listeners – I explained the Israeli political system (to the best of my abilities!) and shared my view on the upcoming Israeli election; I explained the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it stands today from both a historical-political perspective and also on the everyday, interpersonal level.  And I shared with them the issues which are at the forefront of my mind day in and day out – issues of religion and state and the continued dispersion of the ideals of Reform Judaism in Israel.  In any case, for me, all of these issues are interconnected.

Perhaps I will share in other essays about each of these subjects.  However, I came away with a powerful feeling from this visit.  I spent a long time thinking about what is my main message to both the urban and rural American Jews I will be meeting.

In the end, my message in all of my drashot / speeches / lectures / conversations was this:

We don’t know enough about each other.

American Jews do not know enough about Israel and Israelis.  We Israelis also have much to learn from the American Jewish community.  Even I who grew up in a large Reform Jewish community in America continue to learn new things when I visit.  And though I have spent most of my adult life in Israel, I am always fascinated to discover a new place, a new way of thinking.

After I finished my explanations and stories, I saw all of the audience nodding their heads in agreement with me.  They felt, too, after hearing my speech, asking questions, and engaging in dialogue with me, how much they don’t know about Israel.  And they understood that coming to meet me in person was much more effective than any video and certainly any news program cannot compare to this interpersonal contact.

These encounters emphasized – just as when Reform leaders and communities come to visit us in Israel – that the North American Jewish community and the Israeli liberal communities have mutual interests and we have the ability to help each other.

Our shared values

We share a vision of Judaism that places at the forefront the ethical values of Judaism (without ignoring the ritual traditions of Judaism) and a desire to fuse Jewish tradition with modernity.  We include in our prayers for peace the entire world and believe our mission is to work for the good of all humanity.  We believe in inclusion.  We understand that everything is a matter of interpretation.

What American Jews have to learn from Israel

For Jews around the world, it is an incredible fact that visiting Israel strengthens Jewish identity. Something almost impossible to express in words.  Israeli society also has a vibrancy, energy, and entrepreneurial drive.  This has contributed to a creative, public Jewish culture – Purim parades, public megila readings, traffic jams on seder night.  When people visit, in opposition to what they feel when watching the news, they feel incredibly safe, dare I say safer than anywhere else in the world.

What Israelis have to learn from North America

The North American Jewish community provides a model for the normalcy of liberal Judaism. Israelis that visit – as students, professionals, or as emissaries of the Jewish Agency – often connect with Judaism in the North American Reform and Conservative communities.  They return to Israel with a desire to continue that connection. The spiritual, emotional and financial support of North American Reform Jews is a tremendous help to continuing the vision of the founding generation of the State of Israel – an economically stable country which is both Jewish and democratic, a tolerant, pluralistic society that not only accepts but celebrates diversity, and provides a model for social justice and caring for “the orphan, the widow, and the stranger”.

I enjoy very much these visits.  However, I believe that anyone can be successful in these visits.  My community members throughout the year hosts guests from abroad for dinner in their homes.  These meals are always the highlight of the visit in Israel.  Everyone has their story – of growing up in Israel, of moving to Israel, of their daily life.  Or what drew them to the organized Jewish community.  What they do in their life.  What their hopes and dreams are for their children.  We all have compelling stories.  And the fact of the matter is:

We need to know each other better.

 

We Must Change

September 22, 2018

*Delivered in Kehilat Shir Chadash in Tzur Hadassah, Kol Nidre 5779

I knew it was time for me to get a new smart phone when I was trying to get out of Tel Aviv and I could not get the GPS to work.  For me, Tel Aviv is a confusing city to drive and the mishap added a full half hour extra to my trip.  This was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I bought a new smart phone.  I was very excited to finally update – for the same price that I paid three years ago, I got a bigger phone with exponentially more memory, a talking command feature, and a better camera.  My euphoria lasted just a few minutes.  When I sat down with the phone, I found that the calendar worked completely differently, I kept swiping the wrong way, I couldn’t find the calculator, and the camera features were totally different.  My frustration mounted, and I understood quickly that this “better” phone which was supposed to improve my quality of life was going to make it temporarily more difficult as I tried to figure it out.  (Yes, first world problems.)

Technological developments present us with the opportunities of progress and also the dangers and difficulties.  The telephone becomes our mobile office and expands our flexibility.  But, on the other hand, it ensures that we never fully disconnect from work.  Robots make our lives easier and yet frighten us with futuristic stories of robots taking over the world.  Facebook brings me closer to friends around the world with minimal effort, but “Big Brother” knows almost everything about me by following my “likes.”

Change is both the most sought after commodity and the most feared.

Change is necessary – if we aren’t changing, we need to worry.

When politicians run for office what is often their campaign promise?  “I will be bring change!”  The assumption is always that things need to be changed.

There are those that quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) as the one who said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”  Change is not only inevitable and eternal, it is reality itself, the substance of life.

Sometimes change is refreshing – like to go on a trip somewhere in nature or to another country.   Sometimes change is challenging – children adjusting to a new teacher.  Dealing with new schedules with the new school year. Our town is dealing with the change of many new residents. (Welcome all!)

Our tradition encourages change.  It does not expect us to stay the same.

Sometimes change begins up high and trickles down.  It is told in the Talmud (Chagigah 3a) tells about Rabbi Yochanan  Ben Baroka and Rabbi El’azar Ben Chasma that went to greet Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in.  (Rabbi Yehoshua) said to them, “What new interpretation was there today in the House of Study?”  They answered him, “We are your students and we drink (only) from your waters.” (that is to say that we learn new things only from you)  He chided them, “Nonetheless, it is impossible to go to the House of Study and not come out with a new interpretation!”

The students did not want to tell their teacher the new idea they received from someone else because they thought it would be disrespectful. When actually the teacher requests that they bring new teachings.

Sometimes the change is bottom – up.

It is told about the Chassidic rabbis of our day that forbid their followers to own a smart phone that has access to the Internet – with all of its temptations to be exposed to the secular world.  But what happened?  Many members of their public simply disobeyed the instruction.[1]  One Chassid explained that he needed his Iphone to which he was connected every minute for his business.

Throughout the generations, there have been incremental changes that seem to us have always been a part of the tradition.  For example, the obligation to wear a kippah.  It is recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) that “Rav Huna said: I will receive good between I never went even four cubits (four feet) with my head exposed.  It took around 1300 years until it was recorded in the Shulchan Aruch this instruction for all: “(A person) should not go four cubits with his head exposed.”

Not only that, the tradition praises extreme changes, even revolutionary changes.  It is told that when Moses died, G-d said to him that there is a man whose name is Akiva son of Joseph, that he will interpret every dash and dot of Torah.  (Moses) said before Him, “Master of the World, Show him to me.” So G-d sent Moses to sit in Rabbi Akiva’s class, in the back.  But he didn’t understand anything, so he was quite in despair.  When Akiva began to teach on a certain matter, one of the students said (to Akiva), “Rabbi, from where do we know this?”  He answered him, “This is a law that Moses received at Sinai.”  When hearing this, Moses felt relief.

It did not matter to Moses that later generations interpreted the Torah in such a way that was far from Moses’s understanding of G-d’s word. He was happy about progress because he knew that thus tradition was preserved – a thread of remembrance to connect the past with the present.

The Zionist philosopher Ahad HaAm emphasized this very point in his essay “Anticipations and Survivals”.  In 1870, he wrote:  “…We who see ‘the love of Zion’ in its new form, full of life and youthful hope, to treat with disrespect the aged survival of past generations.  It is not for us to forget what the new spirit owes to this neglected and forgotten survival, which our ancestors hid away in a dim, narrow  chamber of their hearts, to live its death-in-life until the present day.  For, but for this survival, the new spirit would not have found straightway a suitable body with which to clothe itself; and then, perhaps, it might have gone as it came, and passed away without leaving any abiding trace in history.”[2]

Ahad HaAm says: Respect the past. Give thanks to past generations.  And go forward unapologetically to make something new.

We read on Yom Kippur the story of Jonah. G-d calls Jonah to be an agent of change in Nineveh but Jonah resists.  He goes on a boat and when the storm begins he descends into the depths of the boat and goes to sleep – perhaps a metaphor for stagnation and maintaining the status quo.

From Jonah’s perspective, the people of Nineveh change too easily, not really based on real conviction but rather only because of their fear of imminent destruction.  Jonah seeks true “justice”.

Jonah’s conviction apparently has an influence on G-d.  We see this in a very subtle difference in each of G-d’s calls to Jonah. In the first calling, G-d said (2:1): “Get yourself up and go to the big city of Nineveh and cry out “against” (עליו) it that its evil is running rampant.”

In the second calling, however, G-d said (3:2): Get yourself up and go to the big city of Nineveh and cry out “to”  it (אליו) this cry that I will speak to you.

It is a very small change. In the beginning, G-d demands of Jonah to take out his wrath on Nineveh, and later on, G-d demands from Jonah to approach Nineveh with compassion.  This shows us that the tiniest change can open up a world of possibility.

Our job as a religious community is to be responsive to what is happening in the world, including facilitating change.

What is the role of our community whose “Reform” Judaism raises the banner of renewal and integrating progressive and liberal values with the tradition?

In today’s era of Jewish sovereignty, it is alright to read the Talmud tractate “Idol Worship”, which was redacted in exile, about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, but it is also critical to integrate much interpretative creativity to be appropriate for the reality of our lives today taking into consideration all the residents of the land and a global economy.

In the era of “Me Too”, we also need the voice of Judaism – the early sources about kavod ha’adam (respect for one another)  and forbidden sexual relationships as well as contemporary sources about the right to personal security and to free of harm.

In our Reform community we embrace diverse expressions of Judaism offering a variety activities in the field of education, culture, charity, and social justice.  I think that we are quite successful with the very limited financial resources in our possession.  But I think that we sometimes also stick to some things because we are afraid to go too far and to cross over some imaginary boundary in the eyes of the public.  For example, the Reform Movement is now working on a new prayerbook, and the discussions surrounding the content are lively.  One of the discussions was about feminine imagery of G-d and prayer expressed in the feminine – such as “We bend and bow (in the female plural – as Hebrew is a gendered  language).  In our congregation, we have established a tradition to hold a prayer service which is completely in the feminine over the Shabbat before Purim which is usually close to the International Women’s Day (a very special experience for women and men alike!).   In the discussion, many expressed hesitation from adding female language to the prayer – ok here and there but not too much.  So, then I asked, “Has anyone here ever expressed feminine language in prayer?”  Silence.  The time has come to bring equality also to our prayer.

Yom Kippur calls us to change – to change our habits, to change our thought patterns, to renew ourselves.  Our existence in the Land of Israel in the State of Israel demands openness, creativity, and innovations.  Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, himself a halachically observant Orthodox Jew, said, “The Zionist program is possible only through new halachic decisions in every area of public life…These decisions require a marked deviation from that religious custom and way of life which the generations sanctified themselves and thus were formed in the absence of political independence and civil responsibility.”[3]

So, it seems that there is a consensus on the need for change.  Of course, the great argument is how much to change and how fast.  We have examples of this and that – slow, incremental change and revolutionary dramatic change.  In my eyes, this is part of our strength – a dynamic movement on a continuum between the edges.

Our Sages said, “Love the work and hate the Rabbinate.” (Pirke Avot 1:10).  I said: Be wary of the establishment of this idea or another and from the “pleasant sleep” of the status quo.  Our job on Yom Kippur – and every day – is to do the work of renewal, to be in constant dialogue with the past, the present, and the future.  It is exhilarating.  It is frustrating.  And it ensures that I and you (masculine) and you (feminine) – we will change the world.[4]

[1] https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/.premium-1.2856169

[2] Ahad HaAm “Anticipations and Survivals”, p. 29 מוקדם ומאוחר בחיים ע’ קלו

[3] [3]ע’ 90, יהדות, עם יהודי ומדינת ישראל

[4] Play on words of the Arik Einstein song “You and I will Change the World” אני ואתה נשנה את העולם

Rosh HaShanah 5779: Entering the Gates of Questions

September 10, 2018

Rosh HaShanah – everyone comes with their own memories and expectations for the High Holidays.

For example, my daughter waits for one thing: to dip the challah/apple (anything, really) in honey for the course of the next (almost) month.

How does a year renew itself?

To be certain, we add a number in the counting of the years of the Hebrew calendar – we’ve moved on up to 5779.

But actually though we speak of a “new year”, generally I experience the High Holidays as a time when people most seek the familiar tradition that is preserved in their memories of the past.

What, then, is the connection between Rosh HaShanah and renewal?

Does renewal/innovation occur like a revolution – to change everything all at once?

Or does renewal occur bit by bit – adding and changing things in small increments that are barely felt?

In my view, Erev Rosh HaShanah is not the time to provide answers.  Rosh HaShanah is an opening – the opening of the Gates of Questions. In the Torah, the holiday is known as “Yom Teruah – The day of the shofar blast”.  The shofar’s blast, said our Sages, is supposed to awaken us – “Get up and call out!” according to the piyut (religious poem) by Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Bal’am.  There are those who jump out of bed.  But there are also those – like me – that it takes them a bit more time.

An upbeat image can be found in the Psalm, “A song of ascents as YHWH brings back the return to Zion – we were as if in a dream.”  Our feet were going to Jerusalem, but our minds were a few steps behind.

The shofar calls us throughout the month of Elul.  But we were on vacation.  We began a new school year.  And we arrived to Rosh HaShanah, and yet the soul is not quite ready.  Notwithstanding, we enter the High Holidays, and now we are very much on the threshold, in another moment we will be between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  When we come to the synagogue, we find ourselves between the abundance of words of generations past and the need for personal introspection.  We are between being with close friends and with occasional friends and new faces.  We are between meals overflowing with food and companionship and prayers that call us to disconnect from the material world.

These are vacation days for us but we are called to do a different type of work as it is written “to serve Him with all of your hearts.” (Deuteronomy 13:11)

How to open the gates? How to invite our soul to participate in this process – which is perhaps the greatest gift of the High Holidays?

Perhaps we are familiar with the four stages of repentance of the Rambam in the Mishnah Torah:

  1. One stops committing the sin.
  2. He expresses regret over having committed the sin.
  3. He confesses the sin before G-d
  4. When facing the sin again in the future, one consciously chooses not to commit it.

He notes that “despite that repentance and crying out are always nice, on the Ten Days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is the best time.”

So here we are.  I think that the Rambam’s stages need to be translated to today’s language and to help us to do the “work” of Rosh HaShanah and the ten days until Yom Kippur.  In any case, repenting is a sort of act of renewal.  Actually, at this time, we can really only carry out the first two stages – and we understand that renewal is a process that is spread out over the entire year that we don’t rush through.  Renewal demands that we set aside time – as time is our most important commodity.

The first stage: to leave off committing the sin.  Today, I call this letting go, releasing what was in the past year – undesirable patterns of behavior, our misses.  To remove from myself the load –  it is impossible to bring our entire past into the future.  We don’t have room in our brains.  There aren’t more than 24 hours in a day (And yes, we need to sleep for at least a few hours!)  Sometimes, we want to disengage from traumatic experiences.  But it is also possible to disengage from positive experiences of the past – to say that this experience happened and will be stored in our memories.

The second stage: (expressing regret) I would call this today: taking time to feel and to speak.  We are a society that almost always is in motion.  Our tradition teaches us that the proper order of things is “We will do and we will listen” – that is to say that first we do, and then afterwards we can think about its meaning and possible interpretations. But we generally never get to the contemplation part because of all of our doing.  At the end of the day we are so tired from our doing that we don’t have the energy for this work – the only thing we can manage to do is to vegetate in front of a screen.

Prayers and the commentaries of the machzor are suggestions of words and an invitation to be a part of a common language.  The prayers of the machzor connect us to important themes, but also extremely important are the soul-searching conversations: Between me and myself – which can be in writing or as a recording. Mostly importantly, One simply sits and thinks.  What was the last time that you sat for even five or ten minutes and dedicated all of that time just for sinking deep into thought?

Also, interpersonal conversations are so important.  According to a survey that I read, when people were asked why they don’t like their job, 62% reported that it was because of problems of communication.   Let’s talk about this!  Face to face.  Not on Whatsapp.  Not on Skype.  And preferably even not on the telephone.  Ibn Bal’am’s piyut calls us to “pour out a conversation.”  In Judaism, speaking always precedes an action.

That’s it for now.  I think it’s enough.

We learn from the Talmud (Megilah 31b) that one says on Rosh HaShanah “That this year should end and its curses.  I think that this statement is not exact.  Our lives are dynamic and complicated.  It is much more accurate to say: “A year has ended as well as its curses and blessings.”  We’ll say now good-bye to the curses and the blessings of 5778.  As we sit in moments of collective prayer and I do hope we will find time of individual contemplation, we embrace them, we feel them, and we name them.

Someone asked what I think about Gaza and the US Embassy move to Jerusalem

May 15, 2018

I am far from a political analyst or expert on such matters.  But if you are looking for the Reform-rabbi-on-the street thought about the major events in Israel yesterday, here it is:

I am appalled by the unnatural loss of life in any corner of the world.  I am saddened that Israel has to exist in a state of war from the day of its establishment until today, 70 years later.  From what I understand in following the media and speaking with liberal, humanitarian people who  understand this situation much better than I, there is violence on the Palestinian side of the border between Gaza and Israel.  There are “fire kites” being sent over.  There is a multitude pressing to burst through the border and enter Israel.  The acts of the soldiers of the IDF are defense.  It doesn’t make the loss of life less sad.  Hamas, the ruling party of Gaza, is not a potential negotiating partner for peace.  Hamas is a self-declared enemy of Israel.  The IDF is defending a border with an enemy. I feel very sad for the suffering people in Gaza.  And I would urge the person-on-the-street to work to choose another way to assert their cry for freedom.

The opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem – I believe this is not very significant in terms of the current prospects for peace with the Palestinians. I believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.  I don’t agree that my children are registered on their American birth certificate as being born in Jerusalem without the signifier “Israel” following it.  I believe that the nations of the world ought to have recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 1948.  I hope they will follow and move their embassies to Jerusalem. Perhaps this can also help to encourage a more moderate atmosphere which Jerusalem so desperately needs – Jerusalem needs not to be a city of religious extremism or any other extremism.  Diplomatic presence might help.  Don’t worry guys, the beach is only an hour drive away.

Regarding the religious overtones of the ceremony:  I’m not sure how this is different from other major ceremonies in the US which also have Christian pastors. As much as people boast the US has “separation of church and state”, we all know that isn’t the total reality – the Judeo-Christian ethos, etc.  I actually thought that the religious leaders spoke well.  Every single one, as well as the political leaders, quoted  Psalm 122 “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, May those who love you be secure.  May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.  For the sake of my family and friends I will say Peace be within you.”

The current Israeli government has not, as far as can be seen from my place, made any serious overtures to advance a peace process with the Palestinian Authority.  Negotiations are done between governing parties.   Maybe the US can be a broker of a peace agreement, maybe not. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the Israeli government and the Palestinian government to make an agreement.  The current Israeli government ideologically believes that Judea and Samaria ought to be part of the State of Israel and are not willing to give it up – or have not found an incentive great enough to be willing to give up things and make peace.

From a practical person-on-the-street view, whether there is a Palestinian country next to Israel or not, Jews and Palestinians are still going to be neighbors and live in close proximity to one another.  I want there to be a State of Israel – I want to tell my Palestinian neighbors that we don’t have plans to go away.  And I want Israelis and my government to recognize that there is a people that lived here when our ancestors came.  Their presence was and continues to be a challenge to the existence of  Jewish state, but that doesn’t make their lives worthless or their humanity worth less than ours. I have always said that we have the right to a State here only if we live by the utmost of human and Jewish values and we have a clear obligation outlined in our tradition – much clearer than many other obligations – to treat the resident/stranger/non-Jew in the land with equal rights and to care for him/her just as our brother.  If we treat the Palestinians as sub-human, we are not deserving of sovereignty.

Israelis have a nickname when they want to speak about Arabs.  They call them “b’nai dodim” – the cousins.   This phrase, which perhaps on the face of things has a derogatory connotation, is actually the recognition that we are family. We are all the children of Abraham.

When I lead a prayer service at the Western Wall, we finish the Amidah prayer (the prayer of supplication) with  the prayer for peace.  A Jew always concludes his/her prayerful requests with the request for peace.  At this time, I speak about Jerusalem.  Yerushalayim. The name has in it the root of the word shalom, peace. Also, the beginning sounds like the word yerusha, inheritance/legacy.   I believe that Jerusalem is meant to be an inheritance of peace.  Why is the Dome of the Rock, holy to Muslims, found on the same site as where stood the Holy Temple, holy to Jews?  And very close by is the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, holy to Christians?  Perhaps because we were given a mission to make peace.  It is a most difficult mission.  But if we can make peace here, there is hope for peace everywhere.

We are all a part of that peace.  We as Jews need to work to increase the peace among ourselves and our multiple approaches and understandings of our heritage and our mission.  We as people of different faiths need to work to increase the peace among ourselves and remember that we are all part of one family of humanity.  Every single person needs to be a part of it, wherever he or she is. It is not easy, but we must work.  Or as is written in the tractate Avot of the MIshna, “You are not obligated to finish the work, nor are you free to abstain from it.”

A week in Jerusalem April 2018

April 28, 2018

Recently in Jerusalem:

On Monday, I came to Ezrat Israel, the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, to officiate at a bar mitzvah ceremony of a family.  I arrived at 7:30 a.m. – the city was still waking up and just getting going for the day.  There was a group of ultra-Orthodox students, probably around 14 years old, and their teachers who brought them in to look at the archaeology remains of the Second Temple. They spoke Hebrew among themselves.  The boys asked one another, “What is this place?”  Others answered, “It’s the Reform.”  Another question: “What is Reform?”  Answer: “Not Judaism.”

But as they had their tour, I stood not too far away, I put on my talit, and we began our service.

The guards were a bit anxious until they left.  But, ironically, I felt OK.  These ultra-Orthodox boys had no clue, were clearly repeating what their rabbis had said to them without any knowledge or experience themselves, and they were curious.  They saw, perhaps for the first time in their lives, liberal Jews praying at the Western Wall.  They know there is a place and there are people who pray there.  They have repeated their rabbis’ words but you can also see them thinking to themselves.

*                       *                       *                       *

A production company was looking for a Reform rabbi to give a sort of “Kabbalat Shabbat” for a group of entrepreneurs from India and their spouses who are on a VIP tour of Israel.  They arrived two hours late to the dinner. Those two hours ended up being more fascinating than the ten minutes I spoke before the group.

We sat waiting – I the rabbi, the two klezmer musicians from Ashdod who spoke Russian with each other, the Israeli dancing leaders who were supposed to lead dancing after dinner.  First of all, to see a trendy restaurant in Jerusalem operating on a Friday night – a whole bunch of young people on staff who would only answer to the producer, the fashionable maitre d’ who offered us generous glasses of wine.  All kinds of fashionable people tried to come to the restaurant, disappointed it was closed for a private party.

I chatted with the klezmer guys who have played for a number of Reform congregations on different occasions.  The producer from Herzliya showed me pictures from her phone of her son’s bar mitzvah last week which she held in her house and at which officiated a Reform rabbi.  She was proud of her son who specifically asked for a Reform ceremony, having seen American cousins have their egalitarian ceremonies, so he could have his entire family together.

The musicians played while we waited.  The female dancer and I started to dance.  She asked the musicians if they are Jewish as they played all kinds of Jewish songs.  They laughed, “We’ve only lived here for 30 years!”

Finally the group arrived – gorgeous women all dressed in white or pale colors.  Snazzy, confident men who all obediently put on a white kippah that they were offered.  Everyone walked in and asked immediately for vodka.  (The head producer said, “Explain to them about what it means that you are a woman rabbi.”  I asked, “Do they know what a rabbi is?”  He said, “Sure.”  So, when I explained, I just said, “I am Rabbi Stacey Blank.  Well, in Israel, we also have female rabbis.”  How else can I explain it?) The klezmers were great, I did my part explaining how Shabbat descends upon Jerusalem, the experience of Shabbat, and the meaning of the candles, the wine, and the challah.

As I left, I overheard true, predictable Israeli service as the production workers tried to convince the Israeli dancing guys to stay even though it was very late, by saying, “I’m up since 5 a.m. – I’m still going, so can you!” (The correct thing to say being, of course, “I apologize.  This was totally unforeseen.  We will so much appreciate you staying – let us provide you with dinner and extra compensation.”)

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

There is a new chain of parks around Jerusalem called Jerusalem Park.  Today we headed with friends to the southern park near the Emek Refaim Stream, just past the Jerusalem zoo.  I rode my bike there on the bike path.  We passed the new aquarium, and the renovated Ein Lavan, a well-known watering hole.  We walked the path following new signs to Ein Haniya where there are remains of buildings from Second Temple and Byzantine times.  It didn’t look quite open – the springs weren’t flowing properly.  But other people were there, and there were access points to enter the spring, so, being the Israelis that we are, we went over there and set up our picnic.  After awhile, soldiers of the border patrol told us we had to leave.  As we left, we saw an organized group being led by a guide from the Nature Authority. How is this place advertised by the Jerusalem municipality on their web site and then being told to leave by the Border Police? We imagined that there was a lapse in communication between the different authorities – the city wants to show there is this entire park.  The army is hesitant about allowing people to come here – this land crosses the green line and is directly under a Palestinian village.  It’s always complicated.

*                       *                       *                       *

Israel is celebrating 70 years of Independence.  It is a great milestone.  My feeling is that everyone thought this whole year, “We’ve got to do something great, something special to celebrate the 70th year.”  But then the time came around to actually plan something, and we weren’t exactly sure what to do, or there were just so many other pressing matters.  That we’ve decided to celebrate just like we do every year and that’s OK – an evening party with music stages and fireworks, and picnics during the day, some visiting army bases, some watching the air force fly-overs and the navy boats. I am not a militaristic person, but I must say that I got choked up and my heart swelled with pride when I saw the fighter jets, refeuler jets, acrobatic planes, submarines, tankers, and others going past.  The Jewish people has its own country, we can defend ourselves, and we are responsible for our destiny.

*                       *                       *                       *

In summary:

We’re here.  We’ve got a thriving country.  We are a true salad of Jews from all over the world.  We have a beautiful, fascinating country.  We’ve got a lot of problems to deal with – our security remains threatened as always and we don’t always treat each other with respect.  We live with uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring, so we try to live as much as possible today.  And we love our families and our friends more than anything.

Does Judaism need buildings?

February 18, 2018

(Delivered Shabbat Terumah 5778 / February 16, 2018 in Kehilat Tzur Hadassah with guests from Temple Sinai of Roslyn, NY)

The meeting of our congregations this evening is an opportunity to get to know people who live on different sides of the world, see what we have in common and also what we have to learn from each other.  One such example is visiting a Reform synagogue in Israel versus a Reform synagogue in America.  The vast majority of American Reform congregations have a substantial building – a sanctuary that seats a few hundred, a wing of classrooms, an office for a few staff members and a meeting room.  A reception hall and a entry way.  In Israel, more than half of the Reform communities do not have a building of their own.  And of those that have a building, most are very modest , as you can see here.

In America, Jewish communities must fund themselves and are the sole providers of Jewish culture, religious services, and Jewish education.  The community as a whole is relatively affluent vis-a-vis the general society.  In Israel, Jews are found in every economic stratum.  Jewish identity is formed everywhere – Bible studies in public schools, Hebrew in the streets, city-wide cultural festivals for holidays.  Israelis are experts at creating ceremonies.

How, then, I constantly ask myself, should a synagogue building in Israel be used?  Ought this building to be a museum/art gallery or a multipurpose community center?  Ought it to be solely a house of traditional prayer and study or also a preschool?  Ought it only to be utilized a few hours a week or filled from morning to night with different activities?  Add to that the cozy atmosphere of people’s living rooms or the wonderful tradition of going out together on a Shabbat morning for a tiyul, excursion in nature.

For what do we need a building?  That is one of the central questions surrounding this week’s Torah portion “Teruma”, which means “contribution.”  G-d commands Moses to tell the people to bring contributions to build a Tabernacle, a structure to facilitate the worship of G-d, with the stated purpose, וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם: “Make me a Tabernacle and I will dwell among them. (Exodus 25:10)  The Tabernacle was a tangible structure to help the people see and feel G-d’s presence, as it appears to have been difficult so far for the people to grasp the concept of an incorporeal G-d. In general it fulfilled a wholly human need.

At the height of the ancient state of Israel, King Solomon undertakes to build the Temple.  It is based on the plans of the Tabernacle, but it is quite different – now a permanent building and the proportions were larger (traditional sources claim it was twice the size as the Tabernacle). His authority to change the instructions so carefully delineated in the Torah is mentioned in Chronicles I (28:19) that King David passed the building instructions on to his son, having received them from G-d himself. Clearly, also, the plans were changed to reflect the new reality – a symbol of the glory of an empire and a centralized authority in Jerusalem, the capital.  After the destruction of the Temples, the main buildings are called Beit Kenesset (House of Meeting), Beit Midrash (House of Study), and Beit Tefila (House of Prayer), ranging from small structures to large institutions in major centers, such as the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbadita in Babylon (~500-1000 CE).

A building is important.  It is a symbol – its appearance as well as its content tell a story about the values of the particular community or society, which is important for us internally and also to explain to newcomers and visitors.  I can take as an example the ancient synagogue in Ein Gedi from the 3rd century which I recently visited.  I learn from the mosaics on the floor the values of that particular community.  The names of the generations  of humanity as known from the Bible signify the connection to history.  The signs of the zodiac signify a community that interacted with and synthesized the dominant Greek culture.  The inscription warning people not to share the secrets of the community which were the source of their wealth signify the sense of communal responsibility one for the other.

I think we have to be in constant dialogue with our building, to check how it aesthetically reflects our values and how the activities take place within our space are an expression of our values.   When I look around our space, where do I see the elements of our community’s vision statement: egalitarianism, pluralism, social justice, Zionism, innovation, tradition, religion, culture, education, adults, youth, children, relationship with local authorities and Jews from all over the world?

Also, we must each of us think of our synagogue like our second home  and take care of it as if it were our personal home.  If I see a garbage, I should feel responsible to take the extra five minutes before rushing out, and throw it away.  If I want to feel that this is a sacred space, I need to contribute to my ideas and my funds/fundraising efforts.  Even if the way we give and what we give shifts with time, our time to give never ends.

Tonight, our building is a true House of Gathering (Beit Kenesset).  I pray that it offers us shelter so that we can meet safely and peacefully.  I pray that within it we find connection with our Creator and with G-d’s Creations; inspiration for living meaningful lives enriched by Jewish tradition; and a sense of commitment to social justice for our people and for all humanity.

Lech-Lecha – It’s OK to change

October 28, 2017

Almost everyone I know owns a car and spends a good amount of time driving that car.  I am one of those people.  And I hate driving.  One of the reasons I hate driving is that I always have to be looking at the road in front of me, concentrating on the mundane task of following the traffic.  I much prefer to be a passenger — at least I can look out of the window to the sides and look at what we are passing.  I most like walking because this way, I can stop whenever I want to more closely examine my surroundings and I am able to notice things in much greater detail than from the distant, speeding car.

What I do value, in either case, is my mobility – freedom of movement to go where I want to go.  I’m not sure if it is something that we appreciate as much as we should.  I would say that all of us here have the possibility not only to get up and go locally, but with our passports and our hard-earned money, we can get on a plane and go virtually anywhere in the world, if we wish.  Our closest neighbors, the residents in the Palestinian villages, for example, for the most part do not have this freedom.  The Reform Movement in Israel represented recently people who do not have access to cars in an appeal to the Supreme Court to allow more public transportation on Shabbat to improve their mobility.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, G-d calls to Avram in those most memorable lines:

לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

“Take yourself and go from your country and from your native land and from your father’s house to a country that I will show you.”  When we read about this call, and Abraham’s ensuing journey, our focus is often the destination – the promise of a land for Abraham’s descendents.  But I think what is so powerful about this call is also that it gives permission to change.  G-d, I believe, is saying in essence to Abraham, “Just because you were born in one place and into a certain family and certain way of life, it does not mean that you have to stay there and be in the same situation always.”  G-d encourages mobility and change.

Abraham gets up and goes, inviting others along for the journey and takes all of his stuff. Notice the active language:

(ד) וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אַבְרָ֗ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ ה֔’…(ה) וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂ֣וּ בְחָרָ֑ן וַיֵּצְא֗וּ לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן: (ו) וַיַּעֲבֹ֤ר אַבְרָם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ עַ֚ד מְק֣וֹם שְׁכֶ֔ם עַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה… (ח) וַיַּעְתֵּ֨ק מִשָּׁ֜ם הָהָ֗רָה מִקֶּ֛דֶם לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל… (ט) וַיִּסַּ֣ע אַבְרָ֔ם הָל֥וֹךְ וְנָס֖וֹעַ הַנֶּֽגְבָּה: פ

And Avram went as YHWH spoke to him…And Avram took his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and all of their property and all of the souls they had made in Haran and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.  And Avram passed in the land until the place of Shechem until Alon Moreh….And he removed from there to the mountain east of Beit El…And Avram journeyed back and forth to the Negev/south.

Afterwards, because of a famine, he decides to go down to Egypt, which we could understand as a mistake.  But, as we know, everyone makes mistakes.

At some point, we learn of Avram’s nickname – he is Avram HaIvri, Avram the Hebrew or literally, Avram, the one who passes/moves.

Abraham’s call is truly significant – and required reading especially in secular schools – as this is the text that justifies the Jewish right to autonomy in this land – G-d promised it to our ancestor.  However, just as significant is G-d’s call to get up and move around.

A talmudic teaching which is a popular expression today, says “Change your place, change your luck” (Rosh HaShanah 16b).  A physical move, seeing a new sight, gives us new perspective.  When we are stuck, it helps to get out of our box and also perhaps helps to see how others live.

Judaism is very much a mind-body approach.  We do not negate the material world, but rather we harness it to empower our spiritual consciousness.  Kipah, talit, mezuzah – the intent of these objects is to remind us of our spiritual imperatives.  This world was given to us as a gift – everything we see helps us.  The trees teach us that we can be righteous (צדיק כתמר יפרח), the sky teaches us appreciation (השמים מספרים כבוד אל), and meeting other peoples and cultures gives us new ideas or helps us to refine our already held ideals and certainly helps us remember that there is more than one way to live in this world.

The journey itself has, of course, spiritual significance.  What are we looking for when we wander?  Wisdom, of course; the right way to live our lives.  The act of going back and forth in the land, according to the sage Rabbeinu Bachya, signifies a sort of “shaking” of the intellect, an act of engaging in an ongoing dialogue of inquiry.  When G-d says, “I will give it (the land) to you,” this is as if G-d is saying, “I will give you knowledge and wisdom to know the quality of the things/people you will encounter here.”  We can go through a place and miss a lot – like the expression, “To not see the forest for the trees.”  It’s not enough to set out on a journey, we must also tune our consciousness to receive and integrate the experiences so we can develop and grow and, ideally, become better people.

And noting that sometimes being a wanderer has a price.  Avram HaIvri and his family/camp lived apart and also stood alone in their belief in YHWH as their only G-d.[1]  This requires a certain degree of self-confidence and a strong faith in your way.

May it be G-d’s will that we shun complacency, gird ourselves with courage and curiosity to set out on journeys of discovery with open minds and open hearts, and that through these new experiences deepen our wisdom and our commitment to the world and all of its creatures.

 

 

 

Yom Kippur 5778 – Time to reclaim our Jewish Identity

September 29, 2017

When I was a teenager, I was given a ring by my grandmother.  It was simple – a small moonstone with a teeny-tiny diamond chip one on each side.  It was the engagement ring my grandfather had given her.  He was too poor to buy her a proper diamond, as was customary then, but he wanted to make her a promise.  They went out to live 60 happy, hard-working years together.  I wore the ring all the time.  Ten years later, I went one day to the gym and put the ring in my bag so it wouldn’t bother me.  Later, I discovered a hole in the bag.  The ring was gone, lost forever.  I cried and I cried.  Not over the monetary worth of the ring, of course, but over what it meant to me.  It took me a long time, but eventually I was able to let it go.  I released it and hoped it found a happy finger to wear it.  I essentially declared the ring hefker.

Hefker is a halachic term for abdication of ownership over an object or property.  Generally, a person can take an object in their possession and make a declaration that it is hefker, meaning anyone who wants it can take it. When something is known to be hefker, then another person can acquire it – whether it is by paying a sum of money, receiving the object to his hand, or even some might say be just looking at it.

 

The tradition, of course, is speaking about physical objects and land.  Today we have the concept of intellectual property which is a work that is the result of a person’s creativity such as music, inventions, and art. And if there is such a thing, then we can also say that there is intellectual hefker – a person’s creation that he has no intention to profit from it nor care of continued use of it – such as Facebook posts.

Today, identity is also a kind of asset – the qualities and believes that differentiate one person from another – identity theft is when a person poses to be another person in order to take his money in order to gain use of the other’s possessions, advantages, and benefits.[1]  I worry that that we also have a sort of identity hefker – we have abdicated our Jewish identity and leave it to others who seek to determine the Jewish character of our society which slowly becomes the exclusive purview of a very small group who have a very narrow and coercive Jewish practice which often has very little connection to most of our everyday reality.  For anyone who has gotten married in Israel or participated in a funeral, you know what I mean.

 

This concerns me.  We live in a society in which we have access to every kind of information possible, is on the cutting edge of technology, has a booming tourist industry, yet we turn a blind eye to the abuses that occur in our society in the name of Judaism.  We learn from our tradition that the favored halacha in ancient times was the leniency of Beit Hillel over the stringency of Beit Shamai (who despite their disagreements, married their children together as a sign of friendship) yet our society allows women to be chained in abusive marriages because rabbinic courts won’t choose the lenient halacha to override a man’s vindictive or psychotic refusal to divorce.

I fear that if we leave othersמפקירים  to determine the Jewish character of Israel we will not live in a Jewish state that we can feel is ours or reflects our Jewish values.

Perhaps you have heard in the news this summer about the breaking of the agreement by the government to implement a third official section of the Western Wall.  The current Ezrat Israel is 20 meters long and set back from the Wall, is hidden from the site of the public unless you are really looking for it, and has almost no public resources to administer it.  The agreement was arrived at in January 2016 between the Israeli and North American Reform and Conservative Movements, the Women of the Wall, and the Jewish Federations of America and the government, including representatives of the Ultra-Orthodox parties, to create a third section next to the men and women’s section that is equal in size to the Orthodox side of the Kotel, is equally visible, and has equal resources for management.  The government delayed its implementation until this past June when it cancelled it.

I know many people who say, Who cares? – I have more important things to worry about/fight for.  For them, the Kotel is certainly hefker.  We can leave it to the Ultra-Orthodox who currently run it.  Except for the occasional bar mitzvah ceremony or class trip in 5th grade, who goes there anyway?

OK, so maybe not the Kotel  But what about these facts:  The State spends on religious services approximately NIS 13 billion per year – including the budget for the Ministry of Religion, the Rabbinate, and the Rabbinical Courts and services like Kashrut supervisors, synagogues, rabbi salaries, building and maintenance of ritual baths, and local religious councils..[2]  And, while not a large expense in the budget, approximately 17% of Israeli children study in an Ultra-Orthodox school, meaning they do not learn basic subjects like math, science,  computers and English, closing any door of contributing to the work force .[3]

But that issue also doesn’t seem to be at the top of people’s agendas.

So, what is important to Israelis?  In last year’s survey by the Central Statistic Bureau of Israel, it was found that the top three issues of importance to Israelis are (in order): Bringing down the price of housing, improving the education system, and ensuring good work conditions.[4]  This makes sense.  I agree that these are extremely important issues.

I would like to claim that they are connected part and parcel to our relationship with our Judaism.

 

Yom Kippur is our time of cheshbon nefesh. of personal and collective reckoning and reaffirmation of our shared values.

Living in the Jewish State has its privileges.

Ashreinu! (Our happiness)  We are living the ingathering of Jews from all over the world to our ancestral land.

Ashreinu!  We speak the language of the Torah every day.

Ashreinu!  Centuries of Jewish discussion and disagreement inform our judicial system.

Ashreinu!  Our holidays actually reflect what is happening around us in nature.

Ashreinu! We can discover in every corner of this land our ancient heritage.

 

And being citizens of Israel has its responsibilities.

 

We must protect our State and people sometimes with great sacrifice.  We are stewards of the land – we must protect it and its wildlife and keep it clean. We must judge fairly and without prejudice and take care of the weaker elements of society (the widow, the orphan and the stranger).  We must be mindful that ancient texts have myriad interpretations and we must be vigilant in our distinguishing between interpretations for the sake of tikkun olam and those which are destructive.  (For example, the imperative to see every human as the image of G-d versus Torat HaMelech which brings halachic evidence of situations in which a Jew may kill a goy).

Al cheit shechatanu (For the sins we have committed) when we shirk our responsibilities.

When we give up מפקירים את our Judaism, this also affects the things which we say are most important to us – our home, our children’s education, and work conditions.

 

Home: Many have shared with me stories from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh of the bullying you experienced when Ultra-Orthodox started moving into your neighborhood.  Only a few years ago, residents in Tzur Hadassah acted to shut down an illegal Kollel that was set up in a private home. Women go around the streets here with Shabbat candles and seeking to do keruv.  Because of this, our members are careful not to look like “missionaries.”  We strive to create an atmosphere that is welcoming and stimulating, but we believe everyone should live according to their own conscience.

Education: Secular schools receive less funding and less hours of study than religious schools.  One school principal shared with me her concerns that more and more teachers in her secular school are Orthodox, and even Ultra-Orthodox. A growing number of citizens are concerned about hadata, religionization, in secular schools.  The number of examples of hadata are growing – A science text book that says that prayer is a step in farming; the Hebrew text book that assumes that every child goes to synagogue and asks forgiveness from G-d on Yom Kippur; and the budgeting of hundreds of thousands of shekels by the Ministry of Education to Ultra-Orthodox organizations to give child-rearing guidance to secular parents  (including statements like “The nature of women is to be emotional and they ought to focus on their home.”)

I welcome the establishment of the Secular Forum and to strengthening the awareness of these occurrences.  Our congregation answered the request of parents who want pluralistic egalitarian Jewish education – with knowledgeable teachers who receive sufficient training in Jewish subjects.  We support the Tali pre-school in Tzur Hadassah already three years.  This year, Gan Tiltan is a full class of three-year-olds.  I hope – and I am very sure – that we will continue to grow and in a few years we will even be able to open a first grade class of a Tali school.

Work: Regarding the economic viability of Israel, only 45% of male Ultra-Orthodox aged 25-64 work.  This is a loss of NIS 8.45 billion per year for the Israeli economy.[5]  The projection is that by 2065, 32% of the population will be Ultra-Orthodox which will, if this trend of non-working continues, will lead to a collapse of the Israeli economy.[6]  Jewish sources throughout the ages assert the need for people to first be economically sufficient and then study Torah and that the community should support fully only those exceptional Torah scholars. Government funding of yeshiva study by far exceeds these parameters.

 

I don’t say this to stir the pot of hatred and strife toward Ultra-Orthodox or even Orthodox Jews.  I believe that people have the right to follow their own beliefs as long as they are not hurting others.

But I’m thinking about my ring that I lost.  Years went by after I lost that ring  – I did survive without it but I never forgot it.  Then it happened that the mother of a bar mitzvah family that I worked with was a jeweler and she made really beautiful things.  I asked for her help: Could she reconstruct my grandmother’s ring?  I drew her sketches.  I picked out the moonstone from her collection.  I knew that it would not be exactly the same, but from the moment that I put the new ring on my finger, I again felt a connection, a sort of  hashavat aveidim, return of something that had been lost.  I wear this ring almost every day and it still makes me feel connected to my beloved grandparents.

I believe we all have a Jewish identity.  We have different names we can call ourselves – Reform, traditional, secular, atheist, searching, JewBu.  Each one’s identity is authentic, legitimate and worth preserving.  Each identity deserves a place in the State of Israel.  I prefer a Judaism that is pervasive because it is persuasive – not through coercion and not in a way that creates strife. A Judaism that includes, not excludes.

By the way, the number of people who identify as Ultra-Orthodox make up around 8% of the Jewish Israeli population.  Approximately the same amount of Israeli Jews identify with the Reform or Conservative Movements – around 480,000 Jews, both of Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Mizrachi backgrounds. (This fact was checked twice and still found to be true)

Back to the Kotel.

In June, when the agreement was canceled, there was a demonstration in front of the Prime Minister’s  residence.  I was really happy to see there so many people from our community. We understood that this was different.  We understood that when we create an egalitarian “family style” prayer space with equal access and equal resources at the Kotel, this will set the tone for a society which recognizes as legitimate multiple Jewish voices and that the agenda of the government – which is funded by our tax money – reflects the needs and aspirations of our greater society.  Not only that, but also the future of our country hangs on adopting a pluralistic approach with equal share of the burden.

We can do it.  We can all do it.   Moses reminds the Israelites before he dies, “It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up to the heaven and take it for us?’…The word/thing is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”[7]  Whenever there was a group that held on too tightly to power, it did not last too long at the top.  In the time of the Second Temple, the pharisees grew as a protest against the elitism of the Tzadokim and thus produced the first rabbis.  In the beginning, the rabbinate was a democratization of Judaism.  As opposed to the priesthood which passes from father to son, any person who is willing to study and work hard could receive the title “Rabbi.”

When the leadership of Eastern European Jewry became extreme in their intellectual and financial demands, a young man named Israel ben Eliezer, later known as the Baal Shem Tov, established the Chassidic Movement and said that every person regardless of education or wealth, could be a good Jew.

The pioneers of the aliyot waves also felt Judaism to be a part of the return to the land, emphasizing its humanistic qualities.  In the words of A.D. Gordon: “Judaism…is an expression of the aspirations of Am Israel to discover its supreme identity….Everything – all of the ethics, the religion, the entire human world – stands on the idea of the image of G-d that is in the human…..It must be clear to us that Judaism is the question of our lives and only through the pursuit of Life can we find in it at all what there is to find.[8]

Judaism is our identity, it is our intellectual property.  It is within us and it will be with us wherever we go and whatever we believe in.  In every generation, they preserved tradition and at the same time they updated it.  But what is true always is that they did not leave their Judaism to others to decide for them.  Every one has to sketch his own Judaism in his head, then share it with others, and then act to make it exist in reality.  It seems to me that if we do this, we, and our offspring, will live for many, many more generations in the State of Israel.

 

 

 

 

[1] https://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%92%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%91%D7%AA_%D7%96%D7%94%D7%95%D7%AA

[2] The information bank of the Knesset (source: Rabbi Noa Sattat, IRAC)

[3] http://main.knesset.gov.il/Activity/Info/MMMSummaries19/Education_3.pdf

[4] (https://www.calcalist.co.il/local/articles/0,7340,L-3683698,00.htm)

 

[5] https://www.calcalist.co.il/local/articles/0,7340,L-3577777,00.html

[6] Report of the Central Statistics Bureau, according to Rabbi Noa Sattat of IRAC

[7] Deuteronomy 30:12,14

[8] לבירור ההבדל בין היהדות והנצרות‘ ‘ א”ד גורדון

http://benyehuda.org/gordon_ad/natzrut.html#_ftn1  My translation