A week in Jerusalem April 2018

Recently in Jerusalem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In summary:

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

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