Jerusalem Day 2015 – The Neighborhood

May 16, 2015

As Jerusalem braces itself for the annual observance of Jerusalem Day, I want to share a story that could only happen in Jerusalem. It happened to me this past week.

The story is prefaced by a dinner party of people of my parents’ generation in their 60s. One woman, of North Africa descent (Jewish) spoke about the problem of Arabs moving into the neighborhood (not Jerusalem – a different Israeli city). She recalled it happening in her neighborhood many years back, “One family moves in, then they bring another. Then they bring their whole village…and they really bring down the whole neighborhood.” On the one hand, this comment makes me feel uncomfortable as it sounds racist. Imagine a white person describing black families moving to his neighborhood in the United States. On the other hand, I thought later, perhaps she really means something else. Perhaps what she meant was that here we are, working so hard to building a Jewish state, trying to create an environment that is conducive to a Jewish lifestyle and society, a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere in the world. When the neighborhood becomes mostly Arab, then I risk losing that identity and I lose my sense of community. I could more identify with a statement that says: Yes, Arabs live here. I demand that they be treated equally – educational and economical opportunities. But let them live amongst themselves and Jews will leave amongst ourselves. If all of my neighbors were Arab, then perhaps Shabbat wouldn’t feel as much like Shabbat, as they do not share the holiday.

The next day – Here, the story begins — my parents visiting from the United States and I decided to go to a tourist attraction off of the beaten path in Jerusalem : the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. My parents didn’t realize it was in East Jerusalem until we were well on our way in the taxi. The driver wanted me to make sure it was open. He advised, in Hebrew, “It is not safe for us in this part of town. They can throw rocks at us.” I demurred. He insisted that it happens a lot. He continued in English, for their benefit, “You should never go through Damascus Gate (to the Old City). It can be very dangerous if you go through the Flower Gate (to the Muslim Quarter).” I protested, saying that my husband had worked in East Jerusalem and was always fine. We had walked with our children through East Jerusalem and Damascus Gate. We’ve done the walk on the Old City Walls from Jaffa Gate over the Christian and Muslim Quarters ending at the Lion’s Gate, right next to the entrance for Muslims to the Dome of the Rock. All fine. The driver just shrugged.

Though we were skeptical at first, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit at the Museum. The history and the architecture of the building was interesting, and it houses some amazing artifacts that were found in Israel from different periods all the way back to the prehistoric time up to 200,000 years ago.

Back on the street, we had to get a taxi back. I couldn’t figure out how to work Get Taxi. Finally, at the big traffic circle, we flagged down a driver. He was a young Arab guy. Instead of following the wall of the Old City toward downtown, he drove in the direction of the heart of East Jerusalem. For those who haven’t been, East Jerusalem feels like another country from West Jerusalem – like you have entered an Arab Middle Eastern country. I asked how he was driving. He said furtively, “There is a lot of traffic along the Old City. This is better. Let me do my job in peace and quiet.” I mumbled something, and started to get a little nervous. I played it light. But also in this direction, we sat in heavy traffic. After awhile, I asked, “Can you please just help me to understand how we are going?” And he told me the route, which was familiar to me. He became impatient with the truck in front of us which apparently was causing the whole traffic jam. As he finally sped past it, he honked at it and made as if he was spitting on it. I started to get more nervous.

Then we crossed over the road and the traffic flowed. But then we got stopped at a traffic light. There weren’t any other cars coming from the other direction. He inched forward, and finally, shouting “Fucking Israeli traffic!” ran the red light. For all I knew, this was like saying “Allah Achbar!” and I told him that we wanted to get out now. He quite calmly pulled over, took our money, gave me a receipt, and even took a shekel less than the meter. I played it off to my parents, started talking about the Musrara neighborhood and the Russian Compound which we walked through on our way downtown.

As we walked past the downtown police station, a taxi pulled up slowly next to me. The driver called out to me (in Hebrew), “Excuse me!” It was our taxi. He called me over and said, “I really want to apologize for my behavior. I think I was quite agitated and it was not right. I am very sorry.” I was floored. I looked at him and said, “Really?”

He answered, “Yes, I had just gotten news that my mother is sick. I was very agitated. I am very sorry.”

I was still incredulous – I couldn’t believe this conversation was happening. I said, “I really appreciate that you wanted to tell me this.”

He said, “Yes, b’ezrat Hashem, she will be OK.”

I smiled and answered him, “Inshallah, she should only be healthy.”

He smiled, and sort of blew me a kiss (in an appreciative way, not offensive) and then drove off.

I do not support the reckless driving of any taxi driver. But people are people are people. The people who live in the city of Jerusalem – on the east and on the west – have families, celebrations and challenges. All I know is that a young Arab man cared enough about what I think about him to take responsibility for his actions and to explain himself.

Israel’s Independence Day 2015 – The Responsibility of Independence

April 23, 2015

The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 21b), “And (the king) writes himself a Torah scroll so as not to seek credit (for one written by others).” This text wants to teach us that the leader has to know the Torah himself without hitching a ride with others who take responsibility.

I think that every one of us have to ask ourselves the question “Why am I here in Israel?” at every opportunity – and not to allow others to proscribe the meaning of our existence here. The Bible reminds us over and over the conditions for living in the land: carrying out G-d’s rules and commandments which includes prescriptions for social and environmental responsibility (mitzvot between people and concerning the land) and a spiritual life (mitzvot between humans and G-d).

When the Temple was destroyed, the State of Israel and the people’s responsibility as citizens became once again a dream, a hope, and perhaps a fantasy.

And then along came Theodore Herzl who called to the Jews of Europe in 1896 in his book “The Jewish State”, writing:
“….Here it is, fellow Jews! Neither fable nor deception! Every man may test its reality for himself, for every man will carry over with him a portion of the Promised Land — one in his head, another in his arms, another in his acquired possessions.
…Prayers will be offered up for the success of our work in the synagogues…Therefore I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabees will rise again…”

There were around 600,000 Jews in Israel in 1948, a similar number to that which was said to have left Egypt more than 3000 years earlier. These Jews – with the help of Jews abroad – fought and won the independence. And there have arrived over two and a half million Jewish immigrants since then. But today, most Israelis are native to the land having been born and grown up in Israel. When a baby is born (especially a boy), the countdown begins to his army service, the ultimate assuming of responsibility.

But it doesn’t end with army service. Every one of us has to take responsibility everyday. I am still inspired today by Herzl’s vision –
–To be proud that we are a part of the Jewish people with a common history and common values
–To dedicate ourselves to each other, to our heritage, and to the future of our people in this land and in the world, everyone with his/her own talent and energy.

I feel that I have a special mission in this land and in the world. To be an advocate for the preservation of life. To seek out meaning in everything. To always act for the sake of peace — in my heart, in my family, on the streets and highways, behind closed doors and in public. “We did not come to this world for argument and strife” prayed Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. Our responsibility is to build a society whose strength lies in its ability to keep the peace – as it is written in Proverbs (20:3), “Honor goes to the man who keeps away from strife.”

What is true victory? According to the prophet Zecharia, “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit.”

True victory is not achieved by weapon or through force.

And that is how we will achieve the dream of Herzl and so many like him.

As he summarizes in his book:
“The time has come – We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”

A Modest Post-election Perspective

March 18, 2015

For what it’s worth. Here’s my take –
I have read with interest people’s reactions on Facebook today. There was a lot of emotion there. I had a meeting in Haifa today so I spent a good amount of time listening to the radio pundits and MKs recapping the election and making further prediction. There were a lot of intelligent commentary there that made me see things in many different ways.
My disclaimer: I am not a political animal. I am not afraid to express my political opinions but I also don’t feel the need to wear them as a badge. I feel myself on the forefront of many battles as a Reform Rabbi in Israel which is fine. But when it comes to elections, I like to make an informed decision but I will admit that I am not an active campaigner for any particular party. For me it’s too much sloganism and endless chatter and WORD games. I am a very tachlis (pragmatic) person by nature.
Two things which are important to know about Israeli politics: Here, politics is most certainly personal. The decisions of any given government most certainly do affect every single person’s life here. Whether it is entering into a mini-war with our closest terrorist neighbors. Or dividing the budget pie let’s say on education – my children now get free education from age three (7:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. six days a week) but the national religious public schools get a much bigger piece of the budget pie than my kids regular secular public schools.
Some takeaways from this election:
• Get to know the voters of Israel. Approximate percentages: 23% of the Israeli population voted for the Likud. The right wing national parties altogether got 34%. The Zionist Camp got 18%. The left wing altogether got 34%. The middle ground parties got 16%. The Ultra Orthodox parties got 11%. Our leaders are not the country. The people who vote for them are the country. Let’s get out there and understand who are the people who vote for Likud and who are the people who vote for Labor.
• There are different ways to vote in Israel. You can vote ideologically – vote with the party whose platform most fits your world view. You can also vote strategically — with the high number of parties, you are thinking how to most make your vote count by whom you choose.
• Likud went up from 20 seats to 30 seats. Labor/the Zionist Camp went up from 15 to 24 (or up from 21, if you count also the seats of Tzipi Livni’s The Movement. The losers it seems, are the middle-sized parties – Yesh Atid went down from 19 to 11. The Jewish Home went down from 12 to 8. Shas went down from 11 to 7. And everyone is trying to ignore the 13 seats that the Unified Arab ticket received. Each seat is about 26,000 voters.
• I understand it thus – Israelis still represent a wide political spectrum. There remains much to be seen in the coalition building which is to be done in the next few weeks, the deals that will be made, concessions, and I believe there are more surprises to come.
• I understand the fears that were played upon, especially in the home stretch of the campaigns. Many Israelis are existentially afraid. Remember – less than 75 years ago, 6 million of us were exterminated. Every year or so a chunk of the population spends a significant amount of time in bomb shelters. The reports from Europe are not promising. Many feel that the world is against Israel (not connected to the policy of any Israeli government). In a way, much of this is true. BUT, we are mistaken to let fear be our guide in making decisions that will decide the fate of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. I am saddened and disgusted by the use of fear that inflames racism and panic. Fear mongering is not leadership.
• The Israeli population is extremely diverse. Just within the Jewish population, there are a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, each with its own story and concerns. In a Jewish society there are rich Jews and poor Jews. There are natives and there are immigrants.
• In our tiny country, each and every vote counts. Each and every person counts. We all need to make noise. We need to reach out to each other. We need to understand each other. We need to talk together about how we are going to make this place better for ourselves and for our children. We must understand that disagreement is a part of life. For every winner there is a loser. We must ensure that our leaders are always sanctifying life. We must hold them responsible. They will do their job better if we do ours.

The Beautiful Educated Arab Women of Israel

March 10, 2015

My youngest son is one and a half and he goes to daycare at the “Peace Pre-school” at the YMCA in downtown Jerusalem. He is in the babies classroom, and the school goes up to kindergarten. It’s been a wonderful year – his caretakers are both Jewish and Arab and he is particularly close to Ola who comes from Abu Ghosh. All the families are very nice and the kids are very loved. Even though my son is too young to appreciate the uniqueness of this atmosphere, for me, especially during the troubling times in Jerusalem this year, it has felt like an oasis of sanity and a helpful daily reminder that most people in this city – both Jewish and Arab – are normal, loving people.

Alexandra, the director of the pre-school, invited my husband and I to join a fundraiser dinner yesterday evening at the YMCA, the keynote speaker being an Egyptian-born American man CPA-turned-marathon runner who runs marathons around the world holding the local flag on which is written “God is Love.” He was a bit of a character, but he seems like he has a big heart and an adventurous spirit.

The highlight for me, however, was talking with the people with whom we shared our table, a group of four Christian Arab 20-something women and one man. First of all, as we feel ourselves careening towards middle age, it was fun to be hanging out with a bunch of “young folk”! They were the family members of people who are on the board of the YMCA. My husband speaks Arabic, so there was some conversing in Arabic. But mainly the conversation was in English and Hebrew – I think partly because they felt considerate toward me and also because I think both languages are also pretty natural for them.

They are all well-educated beautiful girls. One (age 26) has a master’s degree from a London school in Art History and works in one of the two galleries in Jerusalem representing Arab/Palestinian art. One has completed studies in Biology and was just accepted to complete studies in Medicine at Hebrew University (age 23). One (age 28) has a master’s degree from Hebrew University in pharmaceuticals and manages a branch of a large drug store chain in Tel Aviv. When I said that I am a Reform rabbi, she talked about visiting New York many years ago and going to a Reform synagogue. All the people there thought she was Jewish because she could read the Hebrew in the prayerbook and they started trying to set her up with their sons!

We asked them about their social life – where do they go? The ones who live in Ramle go to Tel Aviv. The ones who live in Jerusalem go to a few places in Jerusalem but also to Ramallah. They admit that it is a problem to meet men (and goes to follow, to find a husband). As the 28-year-old explained, “In our culture, (as a woman) first of all if you have a bachelor’s degree that makes it difficult. On top of that, if you have a master’s degree, it makes it nearly impossible.” Meaning, being an educated woman is threatening for men in the Arab Israeli society.

In addition, it is important for these women and their families that they marry a Christian man. According to the Jerusalem Post, quoting the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2012 there were 126,400 Arab Christians in Israel which is 1.6% of the general population. Their dating pool is very small and oftentimes they feel like they already know each other. They joked, “Out of the five possibilities, this one is threatened by me, this one is ugly, this one is not nice, this one is not interested, and this one is boring!…Look at us, five girls here and only came here a boyfriend.” And they laugh.

As I think about the upcoming elections in Israel, as I think about the challenge of racism and of being a Jewish and democratic government, I think also about these women. These are the kind of people that I want in my society. I want to visit their art galleries, be their patient when I am sick, and have some good laughs with them over a girlfriend lunch. Are the leaders who are trying to marginalize Arabs thinking about these women and their families? What if our government empowered Arabs/Palestinians (the girls themselves used these labels interchangeably – as if they are not quite sure what they are themselves) – then we would have a society filled with educated Jews and Arabs working together to create comfortable lives and a modern, advanced society. We could do it together.

As we left the table, we said how lovely it was to sit with them. I said, “You are simply adorable!” I couldn’t help myself. In my heart, I said to myself that I do hope that I will see them again, perhaps we’ll run into each other around Jerusalem.

Leading the Way in Tzur Hadassah – Reform and Orthodox Partnership

February 13, 2015

About a year ago, the Partnership Together of the Mateh Yehuda region put out a call for projects in which different populations work together. A congregant called me right away and said, “We have to apply for this grant – and do a joint project with Congregation HaTzur VehaTzohar”. That is one of the Orthodox congregations in Tzur Hadassah. I cautiously said Yes. From the perspective of our Reform congregation, pluralism is a given, but not so much from an Orthodox perspective. She put out some feelers, as she is actually a member of both congregations, and found someone who was interested in representing the other congregation. We got some people together in someone’s living room and had a lively discussion. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what we would manage to do. But we put together the proposal and sent it in.

Lo and behold, in the summer we were invited to present the project. And in December, we got the final green light – we had funding and a project! Now the hard work of making it happen. Let us add the factors of our mainly middle-class community – mostly families in which both parents work, kids whose schedules are full of school and other activities, where most people commute at least half an hour for work and basic shopping.

We held another smaller meeting with a few activists from both of our congregations to plan the first events surrounding Tu B’shvat which led to renewed discussions of what this partnership must be about, what people really think, what do we think will interest people, what is the true nature of the holiday, etc. Very interesting, but not practical in planning events that were supposed to take place in a few weeks.

Finally, we made decisions, reserved a well-known Israeli artist and performers, convinced members of our community to help with advertising, recruited the local town council to join the partnership, spoke with the leaders of the youth movements, and went down from grandiose ideas of dialogue to moments of recognition of this historic gathering.

Enough chit-chat – here are the results:

A week of Tu B’shvat Programming for the entire Tzur Hadassah and “mazleg” settlements. I will preface by saying that all of these events and meetings of different groups is unprecedented in Tzur Hadassah and I am fairly confident that such meetings occurred for the first time in the history of the State of Israel:

Sunday:
— Thirty members of Tzofim (Scouts), B’nai Akiva (Orthodox) and Noar Telem (Reform) gathered for a workshop from the renowned caricaturist Hanoch Piven in the public-religious elementary school. I opened the gathering telling a story and quoting the Talmudic maxim “Do not be hard like a cedar but rather always be flexible like a reed”. Piven continued that line talking with the youth about developing creativity through flexible thinking, learning from mistakes, and experimentation and engaged them in a workshop in which each created a portrait using recycled objects.

–Around sixty adults gathered for a presentation by Piven in the town library. Rabbi Levi Cooper, the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue, opened with remarks about love of the Land of Israel and our need to live together in community and be accepting of all the people who are in our greater community. He then introduced me, addressing me as “Rabbi Stacey Blank.” I spoke about the the symbolism of the seven species of the Land of Israel, their strength being in their diversity. Piven’s talk only strengthened our statements in telling his life story, his love of Israeli society, and his view of creativity and creating.

Wednesday:
–Over 100 parents and children filled the hall of the Reform congregation Kehilat Tzur Hadassah to participate in a program of Tzlilim Yerukim (“Green Notes”). They built musical instruments made out of recycled materials and then used their instruments in a lively concert led by the amazing musicians. I opened speaking about the Psalm which instructs us that all the land needs to sing a new song. Thus, we are supposed to sing together and make sure that we treat the land appropriately so that it also wants to “sing” with us. A representative from the Reform congregation and a representative from the Orthodox congregation also shared a few thoughts about Tu B’shvat as part of the program.

Points of Pride:
In all of the programs, we noticed that the participation was evenly divided between members of the Reform congregation, the Orthodox congregation, and people who were not affiliated with either one. We had succeeded in bringing together a cross-section of the general community. This partnership showed how easy it is to get along, to do things together, and how many common values we share. A kind word, a nod of acceptance and partnership among the leaders of the different groups in the community can go a long way.

Thank you to the members of leadership of Congregation Tzur veHaTzohar and Congregation Tzur Hadassah. Thank you to the leadership and staff of the town of Tzur Hadassah and the youth movements. Thank you to the staff, leadership, and funders of Partnership Together of the Mateh Yehudah Region.

Our next partnership activities will be surrounding Purim. May we continue, in our own little way, to bring some happiness and joy to the Jewish people!

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

December 20, 2014

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

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

Why wear tefilin everyday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace in Jerusalem

November 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us live our teachings of peace.

Renewing Tefilin

October 22, 2014

Originally posted on RabbiStaceyBlank's Blog:

Tefilin.

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

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

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

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Renewing Tefilin

October 22, 2014

Tefilin.

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

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

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

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

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

And I do appreciate tefilin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about tefilin?

The war continues – Reflections from Jerusalem/Tzur Hadassah

July 26, 2014

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


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