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.

 

 

 

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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

 

Blessing for the monks at Beit Jamal

September 25, 2017

On Erev Rosh HaShanah, vandals broke into the Saint Stephen’s church at Beit Jamal, the site of an Italian monastery and French nunnery, in the pastoral hills of Mateh Yehudah.  This is the third attack in four years.  

I joined a delegation of Jews through Tag Meir to show support for the victims.  We brought flowers.  Here is the letter that I attached to my flowers:

To the people of Beit Jamal Monastery,

Please accept this humble tribute of friendship as a small reparation for the damage that has been done to you – physical, emotional and spiritual damage.

According to the Bible, all human beings are the descendents of Adam – meaning, we are all one family. I believe, based on a rabbinic teaching, that when we harm another human being, we are harming all humanity.

I believe, we all worship the same G-d though we address G-d differently.

I believe that it is our imperative to learn from the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

I believe in the words of Isaiah (56:7) “for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” that our imperative is to bring about this vision.

I remember the words of Zechariah (14:16) who dreams of a time when all nations will celebrate together in the spirit of Sukkot – the festival of abundance. I pray that we can understand that there is abundance in the world and there is more than enough to go around for all people if we choose to do so.

I am ready to be your partners in a peaceful co-existence in this land and in this world.

Rabbi Stacey Blank
Tzur Hadassah Congregation
Mateh Yehud

 

 

Opening the High Holidays: Truth

September 20, 2017

In the past twenty years, I have spent the High Holidays in nine different congregations and Shabbat and holiday services in synagogues of every denomination on five continents.  Part of the experience of being a Wandering Jew is embracing the familiar – knowing texts and tunes – and learning from the foreign – different customs and nusachim.  You learn what connects you spiritually and what shuts you down.  For example, as a student in Los Angeles, on assignment from a professor to visit in synagogues that we would not normally attend, I visited a Conservative Synagogue on Shabbat morning.  The service was so long.  I saw people walking in and out, spending half the time chatting in the hall. My professor, who was a regular at that minyan, explained that prayer was something to walk in and out of, to join and to leave.  I  just thought of the poor rabbi of the congregation who couldn’t go out in the middle like everyone else but who had to sit through everything.

 

I have visited on numerous occasions in Orthodox synagogues that often – not always – the tefila is shorter but it is mumbled so fast that it is hard to keep up or to join in the middle.  I wonder, how people even have time to consider what they are saying?

These experiences, while fulfilling for some, often confirm what I felt to be the Reform idea of prayer.  When we set aside a time for the stated purpose of prayer, we actually do it.  Our prayers are shorter to enable people to feel they can sit through the whole thing – according to  the old adage that sometimes less is more.  This way, we read or sing most everything together at a pace that allows us to hear and understand the words.  We aspire to pray words that we can really mean – we have altered certain traditional prayers to reflect Reform values of egalitarianism and universality.

The melodies are important, especially on the High Holidays, evoking in us childhood memories.  Also important is a shared canon for all the Jewish people.  Tradition continuing thousands of years is important.  Among regular pray-ers, there are those who sing enthusiastically, and there are those who sit quietly following the text. Among the occasional pray-ers, I notice that every single bar/bat mitzvah, it has always been essential to the family that everyone arrives before beginning the prayer.  I believe that this due in great part to our approach to prayer – In slowing things down, people can actually think about the words.

In the words of guidance in the siddur and from the service leader, they are helped to understand what these prayers are about, and how these ancient words can be relevant to today.

I personally strive to create a space in which prayer is meaningful and in which prayer created interpersonal and intrapersonal connection.  I believe that prayer is meant to encapsulate the human pursuit of Truth.

Truth has been one of the elusive qualities of the human experience, and the main aspiration of the philosophers throughout the ages.

For Plato, Truth is the natural way of being that exists beyond the scope of human senses.

For Descartes, truth is something beyond the human which is undisputable – such as the idea that one exists.

Neitzche said there is no truth, only perspectives.

In many ways, in Judaism, G-d is associated with truth, as, according to the Talmud חתימתו של הקב”ה היא “אמת”  (Talmud 65a), Truth is the seal of the Holy One Blessed Be He.  In the rabbinic literature, Truth is one of the ministering angels embodying a quality that exists in the world, equal to others such as Tzedek, Shalom, and Chesed.  Rabbi Simone tells the story (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5) that when G-d created Adam, and said “Let us create Adam in our image,” that G-d was speaking with the ministering angels who began to argue about whether G-d should create people or not.  Kindness says to create Adam and Truth says not to.  Righteousness says to create Adam and Peace says not to.  In the end, G-d through Truth down to the earth.  The other angels chastise G- d for throwing Truth away  and tell Him to pick up Truth right away.  In a quite farcical style, the angels kept arguing and  G-d created Adam.

I actually believe that Rabbi Simone teaches something else, maybe without realizing it.  I believe that the throwing of Truth to the ground was intentional and central in the creation of Adam.  It says beautifully in the Psalms, “Truth from the land will sprout and Righteousness will reflect in the heavens.”  G-d throws down the Truth in order to use it as a “seed” for growing the human being.  Truth is something greater than human existence but our existence is a direct result of its power.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said in Pirke Avot (1:18), “The world stands on three things – on the judgment, on the truth, and on the peace….”  Ibn Ezra describes the Truth as the secret (סתר) and the Judgment as the revealed (גלוי).  Judgment is clear-cut.  Truth is elusive.

These are the beautiful, deep insights in the intellectual discussion about the nature of Truth.  Our tradition has so much wisdom.

What, then, is there between Truth and prayer?

Prayer offers yet another path on the pursuit of Truth.  When we study, we talk about Truth.  When we prayer, we actively participate in attempting to verbalize/speak Truth.  We enter a conversation – a reflective conversation with myself, a conversation as a kahal, and a conversation directed toward G-d which doesn’t respond as a human would (if at all).

Let’s pause a moment. Envision what you see as the Truth of this world and of existence. (wait a few moments)  How would you describe it?  (pause)  How would you address it? (pause)

Judaism is about seeking.  The siddur/machzor is a consensus of what we,  as Jews, believe in terms of our relationship to G-d and tradition.  It compiles the kavanah of previous generations that continue to ring true  even today.

I believe that an authentic prayer experience connects us with some aspect of the Truth about G-d, physical existence, and spiritual understanding.

Does the siddur/machzor do this?

I imagine that the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.  In some places yes, in some places no.  We are, after all, limited and finite human beings.

This is the time of year that we plan to be here in the prayer position more than any other time of year. I hope that we will experience community and an emotional connection with tradition.  But I also want to encourage each of us to spend some extra time pursuing Truth.  I  want to make some suggestions for our time that we will spend here, in this beit tefila, over the coming holidays.

  1. Certainly, be here when you can. It doesn’t have to be for the whole time. Some people can only sit for 45 minutes.  It’s OK.
  2. When you are here, really be here: Engage. Be present.  Focus.  It is an ancient Rabbinic custom to pause before entering a synagogue and say a prayer that one will be able to pray with a pure heart.
  3. Don’t feel like you have to say all the words all the time. Sometimes, you can just read the words and think about them as you go.  Sometimes, go slower and read over carefully the words.  Sometimes, even just focus on a word or two.  Stay with it for awhile.  Sometimes, leave the words completely to make room for personal words.
  4. Feel free to mentally edit. Make changes to make the text authentic for you.  Take out words or add words.  Change the gender of G-d and of our plural “we” from time to time.  “Blessed are you Queen of the world”, “Spirit of the world”,  One rabbinic opinion was even that one is forbidden to say a tefila that he does not mean.

“Seventy faces to Torah” is a mainstream idea in Judaism.  Our central motif is dynamism – that our world, we as human beings, and our experience are constantly changing.  Our experience is that of a constant ping pong between continuity and change. between solidarity and diversity, between belief and doubt. Prayer is not supposed to paralyze us but rather to provide us with movement and intellectual development.

Perhaps there – in the movement that occurs between this and that – can be found the Truth.

 

The Missing Commandment: Thou Shalt Take Vacation

September 7, 2017

It is two weeks since we returned from our latest family vacation. We spent 12 days in the quieter Costa Tropical and inland Granada province of Spain with our three kids aged 10, 7, and 4.  (Traveling with kids is a given for most Israelis) This is the first vacation that we had no real guide book, just some recommendations and some web surfing. It is the longest vacation that we have taken – twelve days.  And it is the first vacation that my husband didn’t have some kind of “emergency” back at the office that kept him on the phone and computer for long stretches of the day.

My husband and I work hard.  We like working, feel fulfilled in our jobs, and hope that we are also making the world a better place in them.  We are very hands-on parents and I do think we spend a good amount of time with our kids on a regular basis.  But we’re also busy – they are too with school/camp and friends and activities.  I will admit – I can get screen obsessed, and the ongoing ping of whatsapp messages sets off this knee-jerk reaction in me that I must check it.

I believe that it is critical to take a vacation at least once a year.  A true vacation.  If possible, leave your house.  With your family, with your spouse, or alone – whatever will make the experience a true vacation.  I find it crucial for us as a family, though my husband and I make sure that each gets some time alone. (For the record: A vacation in Europe, including the airfare, costs the same or even a little less as a vacation in Israel in August for comparable lodging and activities in Israel, and half of what would only be the cost of plane tickets to the US)

I returned with three general guidelines for vacation that I hope that I will continue to observe on future vacations:

  1. Disconnect and relax

Disconnect –  As little telephone, email, and news as possible.  This is easier when I go abroad.  I don’t get a phone plan.  I can check in when the wireless kicks in back at our lodging in the evening.  I can sit at a meal and be fully present.  I can just sit and be – look out the window, think about different things.  I can read books.

Relax – When I’m relaxed, I realize that I’m a nicer person to my family and to strangers.  I’m more open to people and things. I make decisions better.

2. Get to know better – myself, my spouse, and my children. This includes the conversations, the activities, the silly moments, and also the silences of just being together. The first things are understood, but why is silence important? In our world of constant stimulation, we forget that being quiet is also active listening. In a world of words, we forget that non-verbal communication is also a critical part of connection. It is a muscle that needs to be worked in order to be strong.  Silence demonstrates a comfortable relationship – a good relationship is one of being, not just doing.

Myself – I read books.  I discover the things that I love to do.  I can explore different facets of my persona.  I have time and the physical and emotional availability to think about my life and who I am.

My spouse – We talk about random things and about ideas and not just the daily routine things. We have fun together.  We enjoy the fruits of our hard work.  We give each other space.

My kids – This amount of time with my kids allows me to really see how they think, play, communicate, deal with frustration. I listened to the conversations my kids had with each other and how they entertained each other. We played mindless games, had silly moments, and deep philosophical conversations (at least the oldest)  This time with them helps me to be a better parent the rest of the year.

3. Widen my horizons

The majority of my daily life takes place within a few square kilometers surrounding my house and in my place of work.  For me, it is critical to have the opportunity to leave my bubble, even for a brief time.  Spain is similar to Israel in its Mediterranean climate, but is different in so many ways from any of the cultures that I have lived in.  People start and end their day late.  They take a siesta from four to eight – stores and restaurants are closed.  Kids are going strong at midnight (not ours – to my surprise!).  Beer and wine and juice and water all cost the same at restaurants.  I was the only person on the beach or at the pool (the only person!) wearing a protective shirt in the tropical sun.

At the beach, in the middle of the day, music started to blast and people jumped on a stage to lead zumba on the beach.  The Spanish – men, women, and children – flocked to the area, danced their hearts out, shouted funny things, sprayed each other with water, and just had a great time!

We toured the Alhambra, the palace of the Moors (Arabs) who ruled in the Middle Ages.  Every little town has ruins of the Moor castle on the top of a hill.  We visited the church and tomb of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  The date 1492 is traumatic for the Jewish people in Spain.  To see history from the official Spanish perspective was fascinating, even if it was uncomfortable.  On a very surface level, to see how a country suppresses the difficulties of the past and does not talk about them (I also read that this is true regarding the Spanish civil war and dictatorship of Franco).  And though we were far from Barcelona and Cambril, it was unsettling to be in Spain and witness the terrorist attacks and ponder the connection btween  history and the present.

In any case, it is an important reminder: In different places in the world people live differently than me and they live just as well.  There is no one right way to live in the world.

 Finally, after all, it is good to return home and back to the routine that perhaps is now upgraded with renewed energy, perspective, and the expectation to continue on this great adventure of daily life.

*Note: Is there a Jewish source for vacation?  One could say that Shabbat is the ultimate vacation – one day a week for complete rest.  But the Rabbinic tradition also views Shabbat as a day of work – devoted in great part to extended worship of G-d according to proscribed formulas and ceremonies.  Perhaps one could see an element of the idea of the modern vacation in G-d’s command to Abraham “קום והתהלך בארץ – Get up and walk around the land.”  And also sending him to other lands in the South and down to Egypt.  Here, there is the imperative to explore new places, make contact with people from different cultures, be respectful of their customs, and be enriched by them.

Tisha B’Av is Political

August 1, 2017

On Erev Tisha B’Av, we hosted in our Reform congregation in Tzur Hadassah Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of the Reform Center for Religion and State (IRAC).  We heard a review of the important work of the Center and about the challenges that stand before the State of Israel in the coming years.  Topics such as integrating Ultra-Orthodox in the army and the workplace, the exclusion of women from public space, and the causes of violence and racism. (Oh yes – and the Kotel)

How could a religious community deal with such topics?  And on a day of national mourning?  Heaven forbid that we mix politics with religious sentiments!

Yes, we spoke of politics during a religious observance.  But let’s begin with the source of the observance.  The destruction of the first and second Temples.  On the one hand, there is a tradition of belief that the Temple was destroyed because of the sins of the Jews.  On the other hand, one could understand the destruction of the Temple as a political process – the conquering of Jerusalem by a foreign empire.  Especially in the case of the destruction of the Second Temple – there were factions that advocated to capitulate to the Romans and to make a deal with them – Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai did just that and thus established the house of study at Yavne under Roman rule.  The zealots advocated to fight and thus enforced a siege on Jerusalem in order to coerce the other Jews there to continue to fight, leading to mass death.

What have we learned from these tragedies?  That the decisions of leaders (that is to say: politics) have an influence on the fate of the entire nation.

My religion requires of me to remember the tragedies of the Jewish people that occurred on this day in history: the failure of the mission of the spies Moses sent to scout the Land of Israel, the defeat at Beitar at the hands of the Romans, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and more.  It is, again, possible to see these events as Divine punishment for Jewish sins.  And it is also possible to see these events through the prism of politics.

On Tisha B’Av we are supposed to be sad.  Sad about the disasters that befell the Jews in almost every generation.  Perhaps this also requires us to take a look at the disasters of today?  Or the potential disasters of the future?  The message of the Talmudic rabbis is that these tragedies are our fault – the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews.  That is to say, open expressions of hatred among Jews.  This is not a politic matter?

What is politics?  According to the dictionary – “Managing public matters; policy”.

I hope that what I am saying is not news  that Judaism is political in the State of Israel (and I would argue also anywhere else in the world).  Judaism is a public matter that requires policy-making.

In Israel, it is taken from granted that there is no separation between synagogue and State – laws concerning Shabbat, official vacations set according to the Jewish calendar, a government Ministry of Religious Services that sponsors salaries for (certain) rabbis, building and operating (certain) synagogues and the exclusive authority over marriages and conversions.  If the Sate is allowed to engage in matters of religion, how could we in Israel conduct a discussion about religion without dealing with the political reality?

Let us take an example from Rabbi Sattath’s fascinating lecture.  Shmuel Ben Eliyahu receives a nice salary from the government as the rabbi of the city of Tzfat.  The money that pays this salary comes from our pockets.  He interprets Jewish law that Jews can kill Arabs. He calls residents and threatens them so they will not rent their apartments to Arabs.  This man claims to be religious and he propagates hatred. This is not a topic for Tisha B’Av?

In synagogues throughout the land people sit and cry over the Temple which was destroyed  two thousand years ago.  In our  commemoration in Tzur Hadassah, we identified with the difficult feelings as we read the book of Lamentations with images of destruction and suffering. We sang traditional dirges of longing and loss.  But is Judaism only a religion of the past?  Not at all. Judaism implores us all the time “And you shall teach them to your children.”  Tisha B’Av is not only about the past but also brings us a lesson for the present and the future. The State of Israel presents us with blessings and with challenges.  I don’t want that there will be another destruction here, and it is important that we should talk about it precisely on Tisha B’Av.

If I haven’t convinced my fellow Israelis, I would be happy to invite Rabbi Noa Sattath to return and to speak with us again on a different occasion about matters of religion and state.  And then – would you come?

Who Seeks Jerusalem’s Peace?

May 24, 2017

Jerusalem Day.

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

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

What are we marking?  Here are some possibilities:

Fifty years of the reunification of Jerusalem.

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

Fifty years marking the Six Day War.

Fifty years of the occupation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

On Being

May 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did it.

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

And they did it.

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

The seven-year-old:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be.

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

April 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rain has passed

Come and Go out, my sister bride

Great joy – spring has arrived and Pesach is coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 16, 2017

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

So this is what happened after I had some thoughts –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rabbi-brian-leikin-6

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

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

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

Rabbi Brian and Steve left me with these words:

“This has been a life-changing day.”

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

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