American Israelis and America

January 31, 2017

My fellow American-Israelis,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think it can’t happen?

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

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

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


Parashat Shmot – The dialogue of leadership

January 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Israelis see the American Presidential Election

December 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Back at the Western Wall – And the Bigger Picture

November 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Intimate Connection Between Social Responsibility and Spirituality

October 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chodesh Av – Jerusalem, Prayer, and Love

August 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Short-term rental in the Germany Colony in Jerusalem

May 2, 2016

We have a newly renovated basement apartment (10 steps down) which is perfect for short-term stay in Jerusalem.  It is locate on Emek Refaim, the heart of the German Colony, one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods.

You cannot beat the location!  You can reach the Old City walking 40 minutes, bus/walking or by bike 20 minutes, or by taxi 10 minutes.  Easy access to downtown – We are next to the bus stop with direct buses to Hebrew University Mount Scopus, Talpiot shopping area, the Central Bus Station, downtown/Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, the Jerusalem stadium, and Ammunition Hill,  Other buses in the neighborhood go to the Israel Museum, Malcha Mall/ train station, and Mount Herzl/Yad VaShem.

Behind the house is the bike path/Railway park which runs from downtown to the Biblical zoo (you can rent bicycles at the First Station nearby)

The apartment is a few steps away from cafes, restaurants, boutiques, a public swimming pool,  drug store, a variety of synagogues, delicatessens, bakeries, health food stores, laundromat/dry cleaners, parks and playgrounds.  A cinema and theaters are also close by, including the Jerusalem Theater with plays, dance, the symphony, and more.

There is urban noise, but the apartment is in the back, faces a spacious garden/yard and gets the light of the morning sun (faces East).

It is a fully-furnished one-and-a-half room apartment – a bedroom (no door) with a queen-size bed.  The salon has an American pull-out couch.  It is ideal for a single person, couple, or couple with 1-2 small children (travel baby crib available).  It has a kitchenette with microwave, office fridge, two-burner hot plate, electric kettle, and basic kitchen utensils.  We live upstairs and it is directly across from a large minimarket that is open 24/6.

The non-smoking apartment has free WiFi (no TV),  a table that seats up to four, air condition/heater unit.

The cost is 250 shekels/night for a single person.  50 shekels/night for each additional person.  Stays of 5 nights or more are 15% discount.

You are welcome to contact me!  972-54-2487476.

What visitors have said:

“This is a great apartment to stay at! It is private, comfortable and has everything an individual or small family needs. The area is great: lots of restaurants, grocery stores less than a block away, walking distance to the Old City and a bus right outside the door.”

“The apartment is great!  It is homey and comfortable.  Thanks for your hospitality.”


Pre-Pesach in Jerusalem (where does the bus bomb fit in?)

April 19, 2016

There was a bus bomb yesterday in Jerusalem.  Albeit, it happened on an empty bus and the parshanut that I read in Haaretz this morning noted that it was a relatively small blast and doesn’t seem to be connected to any organized terror organization.

I heard about the bomb when I was paying for my groceries after standing in line for half an hour at the checkout, together with, as we say, Kol Am Yisrael (with the whole Jewish people), everyone with their shopping carts filled to the brim in anticipation of the Pesach seder  this Friday evening.  The checkout guy said, “What?  Line #12?  That goes right by my house” and immediately got on the phone to call family.  We all paused for a moment, I am quiet, but I don’t want my kids to hear about it.  Then we all keep going, smile, wish each other Chag Sameach!

On Facebook in the evening, I see many Jerusalem friends sending general messages “We’re OK”, messages of hopes for the end to violence, links to articles that tell about what happened.  And an outpouring of messages from people (many rabbinic colleagues) in the US sending support and prayers.

And the news is terrible – 20 wounded, some very seriously.  Full body burns.  My daughter’s friend is a resident doctor – she received some of the wounded at Shaarei Tzedek hospital.  Each personal story is heartbreaking.

I think to myself, should I write a post also that says that I am OK?  I had already talked to my mom in Cleveland that evening and she hadn’t even brought it up, so probably she didn’t hear about it.  Do I need to write that I am OK?  If I wasn’t OK, then people would probably be know.  If I was dead, it would have been publicized.  Is this something that I should add to my routine?

I think how does it look, this scene in Jerusalem?  Because if someone were to call me up and ask me right this moment, how are things in Jerusalem?  I would answer, everything is fine.  There’s the atmosphere of chag (the holiday). Everyone is doing their shopping, wishing each other “happy cleaning” and Chag Sameach (happy holiday).  All of our older kids are now on tiyulim (hiking trips) with their youth movements, mainly up north in the Galilee.  The weather is absolutely gorgeous right now.  The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing.  Our neighbors got a puppy.

I then think about the existence of violence in the world.  The world is full of violence.  I grew up on the suburbs of Cleveland, one of the quietest and safest places to grow up, in my opinion.  A fifteen minute drive from my parents’ house is the city where violence is an almost daily reality.  For us, it might as well have been another time zone.  If I got on a plane, I could be in Cairo in half an hour.  I can go up to the Golan Heights and see the smoke rising from the destruction in Damascus of the Syrian civil war which has become also the breeding ground or the over-the-top violent Islamic State.  My point being – that people can say that I live in a violent place.  Or people can say that they’re afraid to visit Jerusalem or Israel because of the violence that they hear about or see on the TV or the internet.  And then they come to visit, and they feel quite safe, and they understand quite distinctly the difference between the media and reality. Could I possibly dare to suggest that  the situation in Jerusalem is a bit like the situation in Cleveland?!

But I cannot ignore the fact that there is indeed violence in the 60 km radius from where I live in the heart of Jerusalem (and if I lived in Cleveland, I imagine that I would get involved with the issues there).  There are lots of people propagating violence.  On the one hand, there is a giant will to live here – among peaceful Jews and Arabs.  On the other hand, I am afraid that we are dulled to the pain of violence, the pain of the Other alongside the pain of our Brother.  (I just noticed that Brother has the “other” in it)

Violence is ever present in the human condition.  A survival instinct?  A genetic mutation?  G-d’s test of humanity?  Or perhaps G-d’s joke? Or, heaven forbid, G-d’s failing?

I have always said, and I will continue to say: How blessed I am to live in Jerusalem.  How blessed are we to live in a time when people can visit freely in Jerusalem.  The city of my ancient past and the city in which I am building a beautiful future.  A city full of culture and intellectual ambrosia.

Jerusalem = Yerushalayim.  It has the word shalom in it.  It has the word yerusha, heritage.  The aspiration of Jerusalem is to be a heritage of peace.  Peace is not for one person or another.  Peace is universal.  Three major religions made Jerusalem a sacred place for themselves.  The reason must be connected to the peace that we must make here.  That is the hope for peace in the world.

And now, having written all of this, I ask myself again – Am I OK?

Purim, Purim and More Purim

March 27, 2016

We have just finished the holiday of Purim in Israel.

Did I write holiday?  I meant month-long festivities..

For me, it started on Rosh Chodesh Adar – the first day of the month in which  Purim takes place.  This is a leap year for the Jewish calendar so it was actually Adar II.  So songs like  “mi’she, mi’she mi’she, mi’she, mi’she mi’she, mi’she nichnas Adar…marbim b’simcha!” (When Adar begins, we increase our joy!) had already been playing for a little while.  I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling particularly joyful this year at the beginning of Adar.  However, I was at a store when I overheard a young guy telling his co-workers that when he got on the bus that morning, the driver was wearing a clown hat.  As people got on the bus, he explained “It’s  Adar!  We’ve got to be happy!”  I smiled overhearing the conversation.  I even thought of Rebbe Nachman who said that the best antidote for feeling unhappy is simply to start feeling happy.  So, I did.  

In my children’s school, for the week preceding Purim, there was pajama day, funny hat day, kids teach the teachers day, longer recess than class day.  And the pinnacle of it all – two days before the actual holiday, all the kids come in their real costumes, exchange mishloach manot (lately the trend is each family gives 10 shekels and every child receives the same thing – so there won’t be competition or hurt feelings), there is a school-wide assembly with games and prizes.  In fact, most Israeli think this is actually the holiday of Purim, the three days following are simply vacation from school.

In my congregation in Tzur Hadassah, we had much pre-Purim activity also in the direction of community caring.  First of all, with the visit of a few rabbis earlier in the month, we received from our partner congregations Temple Sholom of Vancouver and Temple Beth El in Madison, suitcases full of costumes which we donated to local after-school programs for children from challenged families.  (Along with art supplies, clothes, and games donated by visitors from Temple Isaiah of Los Angeles)

We offered congregants to buy packages for mishloach manot from Or Shalom, an organization that helps at-risk children, and a few wonderful congregants made home delivery of mishloach manot to every member of the congregation and also brought to the pre-school that we are helping to support.  

I baked hamantaschen with the participants in our mother-daughter bat mitzvah group. (they couldn’t believe I had found a good parve recipe!)  They, together, with our youth group members of Noar Telem and some of our pre=school families, delivered mishloach manot to over 20 elderly/lonely people who live in our area.  Each family/group received a name and phone number and the delivery included a visit, exchange of stories, lots of smiles and even some requests for a return visit soon..  

The Big Event was erev Purim, the megilah reading in our congregation.  Our tradition notes the connection between the names Purim and Yom HaKipurim (Also known as Yom Kippur). In Israel you really feel the connection between the two holidays.  They are the two days a year that the an incredible amount of secular Israelis come to synagogue – the most  solemn day and the silliest.  Over 100 people of all ages filled our hall.  I have to say that I invested quite a lot of energy in the production!  Our theme was based on a recent TV show “The Next Rising Star – to Eurovision”, a musical contest show with judges and home audience participation picking the best talent.  Our teens decorated the entire hall with stars and scenes of Shushan.  They put together short videos poking loving fun at our readers/”contestants”.  People got really into it and made their reading (which was the traditional text) come alive in hysterical ways.  I gave my kids dominion over a basket of prizes and candy which we distributed as freely as possible in Purim song contests, recruiting judges after each chapter, and for every kid who got up in front of everyone and showed his/her costume.  Accompanied by a wonderful musician Boaz Dorot on keyboard.  And a congregant even served as barman.

The next day, I was on Masada officiating at a bar and bat mitzvah ceremony of families from North America.  Our cable car operator had teddy bear ears.  I brought all kinds of hats, wigs, animal , ears, etc., for a mini megila summary reading.  In my taxi the way back, the driver (wearing a crazy pink hat from his daughter’s costume) had left me a chocoate bar on the seat.  That night, we were celebrating at a Purim party in Tzur Hadassah.  My costume had started to wilt – whereas Wednesday night I was a star, that night I was a falling star.  

The next day was Shushan Purim, the day Purim is celebrated in Jerusalem as it is a walled city.  My kids were not interested – I think they were Purim’d out!  I put on a green clown wig and headed out for coffee with my sister-in-law visiting from Haifa.  She was full of enthusiasm  as people passed by in fabulous costumes – “Jerusalem is so much better than Haifa!  Here the adults dress up and everyone’s into it!”  We met the beggars who knew it was their day and freely distributed matanot la’evyonim (the mitzvah of giving gifts to the poor on Purim).

And that’s not to mention parades that took place in cities around Israel “Adloyada” (after the Talmudic command to drink alcohol on Purim “until one doesn’t know” the difference between Haman and Mordecai), and the Purimon purim carnivals in the Scouts and in synagogues and other neighborhood gatherings, the stages of children’s entertainment.  

I invited a pre-school parent to a congregation meeting that we had Saturday night (not connected to Purim)  The next day I got a text apology – “I was ready to come, I put my kids to bed and I fell asleep with them.  This Purim has exhausted me!”

And lest I believe that it is all over…I just got the invitation to a Purim “after-party for parents” next week!  At least it’s a fundraiser for the new school yard of our kids school….

Though I’ve already gotten some frantic phone calls about Pesach…do you know where you’re having seder yet??

Me, You and the Kotel

February 8, 2016

Last week, the Netanyahu cabinet voted to officially create a third section at the Kotel (Western Wall) in addition to the existing men’s and women’s sections.  This new section is designated for egalitarian prayer with the option of creating temporary mechitzot for occasional Orthodox prayer, such of that of Women of the Wall.

In actuality, there is already a section of the Kotel that is designated for such prayer.  It is called Ezrat Yisrael (The Israel section) where the Western Wall meets the Southern Wall.  It has a separate entrance from the other sections but it is open and available for prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  However, it is not equal in size and facilities to the other sections.  According to the new plan, there will be access to the egalitarian section through the official entrance to the Kotel so that those who come to the Kotel will see automatically that there are three sections from which to choose, the egalitarian Kotel will be a size comparable to the Orthodox sections including access to the wall itself, and it will be administered by a council consisting of representatives of the Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, and perhaps others.

One could write a doctorate about the course of events that brought us to this historic decision.  This decision entails the unexpected cooperation between unlikely partners, Reform Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the use of interesting strategies by all of the sides.  What began as the demand of a group of Orthodox women 25 years ago to conduct a women’s prayer service once a month in the women’s section of the Kotel became the cause célèbre of the Reform and Conservative Movements in North America.  However it started, this end result is a sweeping recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism as legitimate interpreters of Jewish tradition and partners in the Jewish public space in Israel.  For me, this is the most important news and a great advancement for the movement in whose principles I strongly believe.  I echo the aspirations of our leaders that this recognition is part of the groundswell of the embracing of Reform and Conservative Judaism throughout Israel and acts as a cornerstone to preserving the Jewish, democratic and pluralistic State of Israel.

But we came to talk about the Kotel, right?

(By the way – over the years, I have come to understand that most Israelis are not really interested in the Kotel aside from a very rare visit in Jerusalem perhaps for a bar mitzvah or in the framework of a school trip.)

Let’s think for a moment about the Western Wall and put it all into perspective.  It is one of the retaining walls of the First and Second Temple complex.  Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the closest one could get to the Temple was a small section on a narrow street edged in by houses.  I have a photograph from the 19th century which shows Jews in this place, no mechitza, men and women engaged in prayer.  In 1967, when Israel claimed sovereignty in the entire Old City and we “returned” to the Kotel after a disengagement of almost 20 years, the State of Israel tore down those houses and created a giant plaza in order to turn the area into a central place – in addition to enabling prayer, to also hold official State ceremonies.  At this time – as had been going on since the 19th Century – the archaeological work continued in the southern part of the Western Wall area (known as “Robinson’s Arch”) and of the Southern retaining Wall of the Temple.  There was discovered there the original Herodian Street from the time of the Second Temple, hundreds of mikvaot (ritual baths) that served the multitudes of pilgrims’ and also the remains of the original stairs and gates that led into the Temple complex itself.

I have written before about my “relationship” with the Kotel.  I will add here that, for me, it is a place where I connect with my history – I caress the stones polished by the caress of hundreds of thousands of hands over the generations.  I connect with my people and their faith throughout the ages.  I feel a buzz in this place, a special energy that I believe comes not from the rocks but from the intentions of the people around me that are praying and from the prayers that are being directed to where I am standing from all around the world.

I am moved by the historical statement that we were witnesses to this week.  I salute the ranks of our Reform Movement and the leaders of many Jewish organizations and our political leaders in Israel who dedicated themselves to arriving to a solution through negotiations and dialogue — participating in countless meetings, spending hours poring over wording and nuance, finding the inner strength to demand and also to yield for the good of the peace of the Jewish people.

I have always seen my place in this dialogue as being the advocate for egalitarian/family gatherings at the Kotel and taking part in them myself.  I have officiated at over 150 ceremonies (mainly bar/bat mitzvahs, but not only) at the section of the Kotel which is currently designated for egalitarian prayer.  I am part of the landscape of passersby – including our movement’s leadership — that shows a thriving, vibrant egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.

Certainly as far back as my rabbinic ordination nine years ago, there was the possibility to conduct ceremonies on the Herodian Street beneath Robinson’s Arch and on a small platform that was adjacent to about ten meters of the Kotel.  It was possible to reserve a Torah through the Conservative Movement which has about 3-5 Torah scrolls and to enter the site for free until 9:00 a.m., at which everyone must pay entrance to the Davidson Archaeological Park.  The Davidson Center also, over the years, received a Torah that is encased in a beautiful wood box in the Sephardic style that is possible to reserve.  The only way to hold a ceremony was by making a reservation.  In October 2014, a platform was built in this area that was set back from the Kotel, including the small platform next to the wall, and a separate entrance was created that is accessed from the place where people stand in line to go up to the Temple Mount.  It was named Ezrat Yisrael (the Israel section) with its own security guard open twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week for egalitarian prayer.  It has tables, sun umbrellas, and benches.  The guards are careful to make sure that tour guides are not simply entering and conducting tours there but that it is indeed used for prayer and contemplation purposes.  You can still make a reservation to borrow a Torah from the Conservative Movement and it helps to do so even if you don’t manage to get one of their Torah scrolls, in order to get an idea of how crowded it’s going to be during the busy season.  But you don’t have to – you can show up whenever you want and you can bring your own Torah and table.  (Anyone who wants more details about how it works is welcome to contact me)

I have also conducted tefilin ceremonies for my congregation’s bar mitzvah course and private Israeli ceremonies.  I have participated in prayers organized by the Conservative Movement  namely in the wee morning hours of Shavuot and the late evening of Tisha B’Av.  I have seen school groups hold ceremonies there and I have been a guest at the tefilin ceremony of “Modern Orthodox” Israeli families that want to hold a “family minyan” that everyone stands where it is comfortable for him or her as a completely Orthodox ceremony is conducted.  This past High Holiday season, I visited the Kotel after midnight for selichot.  I went only to Ezrat Yisrael – I was joined by mainly Orthodox people there – including an Ultra-Orthodox couple, a man and a woman, each one holding a prayerbook and praying quietly sitting side-by-side.

I don’t believe that the Kotel has any cosmic powers in and of itself  I believe that the Kotel has tremendous symbolism for Jews and for all peoples.  The Kotel offers us an opportunity to infuse our celebrations with additional meaning.  It is a place that designated for prayer.  But even if prayer is not your thing, it can be a place of meditation and introspection.  A moment of communing with the generations.  There is no part of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount – the western southern, eastern, or northern — that is “holier” than other parts in their physical manifestation.  I almost don’t want to share my little secret – I feel more holiness on the side of Ezrat Yisrael.  It is a place of peace and quiet.  There is no pushing and shoving.  No one is judging me or coercing me. There is mutual respect and acceptance.  People talk to each other and ask if they can come into a space or if they would like to share space, we decide together.  When I see the actually places where my ancient ancestors visited, it comes alive for me.

Our job — all of us — is to contribute to the kavod, the dignity, of the Kotel.  The existence of Ezrat Yisrael gives people access to the experience of this place — there is no modesty police, no judgment, and no coercion.  It is a place for all, as it says in Isaiah (56:7), “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  This includes all streams of Judaism, this includes all traditions and ethnic groups. 

Throughout the years, I have been witness also to disrespect for the place.  While the authorities forbid the use of musical instruments during prayer services at the men and women’s section as well as at Ezrat Yisrael,  the shofar blasts,  clarinets, drum beats by paid players fill the entire area and disturb that peace and tranquility that I wrote about above.  A life size blow-up toy of a stereotypical shtetl rabbi greets visitors in the entrance.  Men who visit the men’s section are harassed by Chabadniks who press tefilin in their face even if they are told “not interested.”  Women act as “modesty patrol” and chase after other women with outrageous demands. (I write all this from personal experience)

I can imagine this upgraded egalitarian section.  Do you want to lay tefilin?  We can help you with that.  Do you want some quiet time alone?  We know how to do that too.  Do you want to sing?  We want to sing with you.  Here, the State can conduct army ceremonies and the women soldiers can speak and be honored for the great responsibility they take on side-by-side with their male counterparts.  Here, the Jewish Agency can conduct welcome ceremonies for new immigrants just off the plane with both men and women’s voices as we know that both men and women will contribute equally together to the prosperity of our nation.  The egalitarian section is not the exclusive property of card-carrying “Reform” or “Conservative” Jews.  It will serve the entire Israeli society, the Jewish people who visit from around the world, and pilgrims of all nations.  You can count on that.

Now, more than ever, it is important that you come and visit in Ezrat Yisrael – to see where it is and what it is.  We have to organize more ceremonies and events there, to let everyone know that this place exists and it is a place for them.  I call on the leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel and abroad, and our partners in the Jewish Federations, to organize as many of these events as possible – when conferences are in Jerusalem, organize a group prayer.  Every congregational group should pray there once – during the week or on Shabbat.  When hundreds of rabbis visit Jerusalem this summer for study, when youth groups fill the streams of Israel, let us all gather together and make this achievement a reality.

In conclusion, perhaps the true celebration is the act of cooperation and compromise.  These are the spiritual tools for bringing about Peace.  And Peace is the highest value in Judaism. Netanyahu’s government arrived at its decision through the merit of the ability of the different parties involved to look each other in the eye, to recognize the humanity of each other, to understand the other at least a little bit better, to overcome fear of the other and to demonstrate acceptance.  This act proved the power of the unity of the Jewish people – Ultra-Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Israeli, American, men, women that succeeded in speaking with one another – demanding and conceding.   They reached a solution.  Halleluya!  Come, let’s all do it — let’s meet, let’s get to know one another, let’s argue and let’s learn together.  And that’s how we will realize the prayer which I hope is shared by us all:

עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם  בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵּבֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

May the One who makes peace in the high places make peace on us, and on all of Israel, and on the inhabitants of the world.  And let us say: Amen.