From Israel: A long post

The PJC Israel trip ended a week ago. Everyone returned to the States or continued along their journey. Tali, the kids and I spent Shabbat with Avinoam and Havi Segal (our cantors for the Yamim Noraim). On Sunday we drove south and have been staying with Tali’s sister and her family in Lehavim. Below is an account of our trip and a reflection on being here now.

The PJC Trip To Israel

The PJC Israel trip was terrific. We discovered our roots, explored questions about the future of the Jewish people and our place in it, and we became more deeply connected to one another. We sang through 2700 year old water tunnels; under the magnificent desert stars in which Abraham saw each one of us 4000 years ago we rediscovered a silence drowned out by the chaos of our lives in America; we searched for the best falafel, shwarma, sabich, and hummus in Israel. And we learned. We experienced traditional Druze and Bedouin meals and hospitality. We learned about the Palestinian Israeli conflict from the perspective of a human rights activist as well as an army commander who lives in the West Bank. We learned about Jewish mysticism from a kabbalistic artist in Tzfat (it’s radical, man). We learned about the challenges of religious pluralism from a rabbi working to “build the soul of Israel.” And of course, we had loads of fun.

All the while, the constant hum of increasing tension and conflict was in the background. We arrived with the hope that Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali (זיכרונם לברכה), the three boys who were kidnapped by Hamas operatives, would be found alive and returned to their families. This hope was laid to rest on our second evening when their murdered bodies were discovered. We were with Avinoam and Havi when we got the news. We cried a bit, and then sang appropriately sad songs as a form of comfort. Two days later, the body of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir (ז״ל) was found murdered in revenge by Jewish extremists, and Arab communities within Israel exploded with riots and protests. Hamas began shooting rockets into Israeli cities and Israel eventually responded with an aerial campaign to weaken Hamas and stop the rocket fire. All the while, we were trying to tour the country.

Everything happened so fast. We found ourselves in the middle of the worst conflict Israel has seen in many years, and this made it very difficult to focus on exploring Israel and reconnecting with our heritage and roots.

Touring Through the Conflict

On the second Tuesday night, we had a long conversation with our tour guide Daniel about the security situation and his personal perspective on the conflict. Though I suspect a good number of people disagreed with his politics (he is on the right), it was sobering to hear about his experience. He is a major in an elite combat unit in charge of 90 soldiers, and he shared a bit about his work, the challenges of geography and maps, and his sense of what was currently happening in Israel (that night, over 100 rockets had been fired into Israeli cities).

The next evening, a few of us were sitting by the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) drinking wine and playing cards, as if we were in the most peaceful place in the universe. Yet our conversation was about the events of the past week. The most ironic part of the conversation was when someone asked me if it was safe to go to Tel-Aviv the next afternoon. Without a moment of hesitation or doubt, I replied that it was probably the safest place in Israel. In the past, hitting Tel Aviv was understood to be an escalation of tremendous significance. I was confident that we would be safe there.

On our first day, a few hours after our arrival, a group of us were leaving the hotel pool to return to our rooms, and while in the lobby, a rocket was fired at Tel Aviv. We were ushered into a bomb shelter and there was a lot of confusion about precisely what was going on. Luckily, the Iron Dome intercepted the rocket and we were safe.

After people returned to their rooms, I met with the head of security in order to find out what to do if that were to happen again. I then went room to room and showed everyone from our group where their shelter was and what to do if a siren went off. Folks from the shul were impressively calm about everything. I went out to buy candy for our kids so that with each siren, we could have a little sugar party in the shelter and it would be less scary for them. Outside of the hotel, I bumped into families from the synagogue going out to dinner. We were responsible about our choices, and we did not panic. This, I think, we learned from the Israelis around us.

We ended up canceling a visit to the Ayalon Factory for safety reasons, but otherwise, we continued our trip as planned. We had a farewell dinner, hugged in the airport, and then everyone went on their journey home. Some went via Turkey, others went straight home, and Tali and I brought our kids south to be with family. But the trip ended with a pressing need to continue processing our time here. It was a difficult time to be in Israel, but it did provide insight into the challenges of living in this country.

Personal Reflection

I want to share a few personal observations and feelings. Some will be political, which I generally do my best to keep private, but there are times that call for an openness to such questions, and now feels like one of them.

There was a moment that was awkward and humorous, but I think, revealed a very serious aspect of life here. On our last day of touring, our guide Daniel was discussing the situation with us as we pulled out of our hotel. He tried to end his update on a positive note. He spoke about the importance of faith and the belief that God will protect us (he is religious). He then asked me to affirm this. In jest, I said that I was more comfortable in my faith in the Iron Dome, which led to a good laugh and a riff on the famous joke (God: "But Avrumi, I did save you. I sent you the technology to build the Iron Dome....").

But part of that laughter was born out of relief, relief at the technological advances here. Without the Iron Dome, we would have been living in shelters all day and night, without any protection from missiles intended to kill us. Every day I have been thankful for this innovation (and I stopped complaining about weak Wifi in the land of hi-tech). Within 3 seconds after a missile is fired from any launcher in Gaza, the Iron Dome can calculate which city it will hit and an alarm sounds throughout the city. Residents have time to run to a shelter or for cover, and if the missile will hit a populated area, the Iron Dome will explode it in mid-air. The further one is from Gaza, the more time one has to find cover. So in Sderot, they have 15 seconds once a siren blares. In Tel Aviv, we had 90 seconds. Here in Lehavim, we have 45 seconds. But these 45 seconds mean everything, and we plan our life around those seconds, knowing the danger of being further than 45 seconds from ample shelter.

The Grind

I have read a lot of posts by Americans living here right now, and there is a great deal of self-congratulatory bravado that is sprinkled throughout them. Some visiting Americans write as if they are risking their lives to "stand with Israel." To me, it seems that these folks may have lost perspective on what it means to be in mortal danger. They are not flying missions over Gaza, preparing to enter Gaza for a ground invasion, or living in Sderot or Gaza. It is important to me not to diminish the situation of people on both sides of the border whose lives actually are at risk by claiming a heroic courage for merely being here. Our presence may be an important political statement, but we are not risking our lives to make it.

So what is it actually like right now from the perspective of one American?

It is incredibly stressful and psychologically challenging. It is terrifying to run to a bomb shelter. The realization that people are purposely trying to kill me and my family shakes me to my core. But if I stay away from places without bomb shelters and minimize unnecessary driving, I am pretty safe. I am not risking my life by being here, but life as we know it has been radically altered. The notion that life simply goes on in the same way is not true. Life goes on, but the texture of daily life is totally different. We are more likely to fight with one another. Everything we do must be assessed based on adequate shelter from rockets. We don't drive much (one is most exposed and vulnerable when a rocket is shot while driving). Life is lived amidst a background of endless rockets and constant sirens and running to bomb shelters and minimizing trauma to our children. All of this engenders anger and impatience. We are generally anxious and scared. Good sleep is elusive. Over time this grinds a person down; it is emotionally exhausting. But as someone trying to describe what life is like here to folks in the States, it seems important to reduce the hyperbolic dispatches and be very clear that if one is responsible about his/her choices, our lives are not at risk.

All this being said, there is no other place that I would rather be right now, not because my presence gives strength to Israelis (many wonder why we are still here), and not because I am somehow making a difference in the conflict, but because my family is here. My people are here. And in trying times, we want to be with our people, our family.

Hamas, Politics and the West Bank

There are some who have argued that if Israel would lift its blockade of Gaza, then Hamas would not attack Israel. The idea of Hamas enjoying a port into which they could openly smuggle far more effective missiles, launchers, and weapons is as terrifying as the naiveté of those who suggest such a thing. There are others who explain this conflict with Hamas through the lens of the occupation of the West Bank. This too is naive. Hamas is not committed to ending the occupation of the West Bank or the freedom to control Gaza's borders. It is committed to destroying the State of Israel, period. If you have any questions about this, please read their charter. This is just one quote from the end of Article Seven:

...Hamas has been looking forward to implement Allah’s promise whatever time it might take. The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).

A few days ago, this section of the charter popped into my head while I crouched down with my children in a bomb shelter, hiding beneath reinforced concrete. They are actually trying to kill ME! They are trying to kill my 11 year old and my 8 1/2 year old and my 2 1/2 year old. Until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!  This conflict with Hamas is not about the occupation. This conflict with Hamas is not about the control of the borders and port of Gaza. It is about dissolving the Jewish State, and the murder of Jews is a vehicle for doing so. It is not as if I did not know this before. I surely did. But the experience of protecting myself from rockets aimed at my family brought this reality home in a visceral way. It is terribly important for people to distinguish between Hamas and Fatah, between the occupation and Gaza. When we conflate them we become unsophisticated in assessing the political, military, and moral questions of the conflict.

Moral Responsibility and the Tragedy of Civilian Death

Even if Hamas builds their operational centers in residential buildings...

Even if Hamas demands, even threatens, that civilians must risk their lives as human shields...

Even if Hamas stockpiles weapons in hospitals, mosques, and schools...

Even if Hamas launches rockets at Israeli cities from civilian population centers...

Even if Israel has developed technology to "knock on roofs," to warn residents to flee a building that will soon be destroyed...

Even if Israel drops flyers, sends text messages, and makes phone calls to residents urging them to flee the area because of the bombing soon to come...

Even if Israel aborts missions when civilians are present while Hamas targets civilians....

Even if Hamas is morally culpable for the death and abuse of its own civilians...

Israel has still been put in the position where it is accidentally killing innocent people. It may be working tirelessly to minimize these deaths and injuries, but it is impossible to prevent such deaths in war, and each one of them is a tragedy. We defend ourselves from confronting this by immediately jumping into the question of moral responsibility. As soon as we argue that the moral responsibility for the deaths of innocent Gazans is on Hamas, we protect ourselves from reflecting on the tremendous loss and destruction wreaked by the bombs that we must drop, even if Israel is justified in dropping them.

It is essential to formulate and share the moral argument for Israel's mission. I have no doubt that this operation is morally justified. At the same time, we ought to acknowledge that many innocent Gazans are being killed, and in the end, that they are the most profound victims of Hamas. The misery in Gaza is utterly devastating and this suffering touches the lives of thousands of people. I think that Israelis and those of us who love and care about Israel ought to integrate this suffering into our own consciousness, and I am deeply inspired by the many Israelis on the right and the left who do. I know that in the midst of war this is asking a lot. But I think we ought to assimilate their stories into our sense of Israel's history and future. We ought to know who the innocent victims of this war are. We ought to know who has been orphaned and widowed. This burden is partly ours to carry, and yes, I think that we ought to do this even though Hamas bears all of the moral responsibility for their deaths and suffering. I know that many will feel uncomfortable with this, but this is the ethos of Judaism at its best.

The Mysterious "Other Way"

Some are unconvinced by the moral case for Israel's current operation and they vehemently argue that what Israel is doing is wrong. They keep saying that there must be some "other way." Somehow, the definition of this "other way" remains mysterious.

If one argues that Israel should not be engaging in this campaign then the onus is on him to outline, at least in broad strokes, what Israel ought to do instead. If one argues that Israel should not bomb Hamas infrastructure because of the civilian casualties, then one must present an alternative option. Without offering an alternative, what one is saying, in effect, is that it is okay for Israelis to live with a constant barrage of rockets being fired at their civilians. I can't imagine that any thoughtful or reasonable person would suggest such a thing. If Israel should not be attacking Hamas' infrastructure, then how should they respond to this rocket fire? This is an essential question. Not providing a reasonable answer to this question is a very loud answer in and of itself implying that Israelis ought to live with rockets raining on down on their cities.

Life is Hard; Life Hardens

I just returned from a local cafe during the humanitarian cease fire requested by the UN and agreed to by all sides. A short time into this reprieve, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, an apt metaphor indeed. It's terribly difficult to cultivate trust here.

Life is hard here, and I am the first to admit how quickly I forget that when I am in America. As I sat in the cafe, I watched a group of reservists sip coffee on their way down to Gaza. I tried to think about what is going through their minds. Since I have friends who were called up, I have an idea. What follows is their current situation painted in broad strokes.

If there is a ground invasion, these guys are going to enter an impossibly horrific situation. They will find Hamas terrorists dressed in civilian clothing who lure soldiers into booby-trapped situations and use civilians as human shields. They do this as an exploitation of IDF training which requires soldiers to increase their own risk in order to decrease the risk to innocent civilians. These reservists (who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, bankers, etc) have dropped everything, left their wives and children, and are waiting to go into a battle in which they know many of them will be killed or injured. They are aware that they will have split seconds to make decisions about who is an enemy and who is innocent, and they know that they may potentially make the wrong decision. They will have to live with that ghastly consequence for the rest of their lives. And here they sit, sipping coffee, hoping to have the opportunity to put an end to the madness created by Hamas while at the same time, fearing the endless horrible scenarios in which they may soon find themselves.

Living under fire hardens a person. Living under constant threat makes it difficult to remain open and trusting. If we want to understand the cultural and political trends in Israel we have to reflect on the psychological impact of living in this environment. It is easy to scoff at this hardening from America. It is easy to imagine that Israelis enjoy the privileges of life in America or Europe. But when humanitarian cease fires are opportunities for terrorists to fire rockets on you, when you run over and over to take shelter from rockets meant to kill you, when your spouse risks his life to go to war and families are torn apart by violence, it hardens a person. I have learned something important from my friends here who are working to build bridges and cultivate trust again: we can't simply condemn Israelis for being less tolerant and more skeptical. We have to understand the reasons for this shift and the sociological factors that lead to this hardening. If we want to reverse these trends, then we must start by acknowledging that this hardening didn't occur in a vacuum; there are significant factors that explain this shift. If we don't do this, we will be dismissed as naive, and rightfully so.

Fear and Intimacy

I want to conclude this dispatch by sharing a moment from our trip. Before we entered the ancient synagogue of Katzrin (it's one of the first synagogues in the history of synagogues!), we sat at the entrance to the ruins and studied a sugya from the Talmud. Rabbi Yosi enters one of the ruins of Jerusalem after the Temple was destroyed (it could have been the Temple itself) and he prays. When he is finished, Elijah the Prophet is standing at the entrance to the ruins and he reprimands Rabbi Yosi. He tells him that he should not have prayed in the ruins. When Rabbi Yosi asks why, Elijah asks him what he heard when he was praying. He responds, "I heard a divine voice, cooing like a dove, and saying: Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!" When we pray, Elijah suggests, we stimulate God's attention. If we do this while standing in the ruins of a synagogue, we remind God of its destruction and the exile of His people. This causes God pain, Elijah teaches, so we should refrain from doing so.

I learned an interpretation of this sugya from Mo Martin, who suggests that this is really about the complex interrelationship between fear and intimacy. Rabbi Yosi enters a place that represents tremendous suffering, violence, and and destruction, and he is warned by a great prophet that this makes it an inappropriate context for prayer. But on the other hand, it's a place of profound intimacy. After all, he meets Elijah and hears the divine Voice. The Voice also conveys the tremendous sadness that is often a part of intimacy. We can't have intimacy without fear. We can't have intimacy that doesn't plant the seeds for moments of sadness and pain. These emotions are inextricably bound to one another. In order to experience the privileges that grow out of intimacy, we have to develop the skills to manage its shadow side: feelings of fear and sadness. It's a package deal.

After discussing this sugya, we entered the ruins of one of the earliest synagogues and we prayed mincha. We took a risk. We entered a place that once held the yearnings and dreams of some of the first Jews who risked expressing them to God, and we added our own. If God paid attention that day, I imagine that even if He cooed like a dove as He relived the violence of Katzrin's destruction, He also must have been proud to see us, His children, return to that synagogue during a time in which our Exile came to an end, not because of His doing, but because his children were courageous enough to return home and rebuild.

Fear. Intimacy.

Part of the story of this return, like all stories of intimacy, is a story that contains sadness as well. The sadness of violence. The pain of a new exile for another people. The despair of renewed conflict. We are living that sadness and pain right now, and without the courage to find ways to create intimacy between our two peoples, we will find ourselves deeper and deeper in this ever widening conflict. Trying to connect with the "other" and build relationships is scary, but not so long ago, Israelis and Palestinians knew one another; they had interactions that were beyond surface exchanges. This conflict will not be solved by politicians, diplomats, or military men, but rather, by regular people overcoming their fear of "the other" in order to plant the seeds for intimacy. Perhaps in a moment of war, when people are hunkered down in bomb shelters and innocent people are being killed, this is too much to ask. Or, maybe this is precisely the time when it is most important. It has been deeply moving to see the way in which the Shaar, Frenkel, and Yifrach families have reached out to support the Khdeirs. They share the unbearable pain of having children murdered for political reasons, and despite the fears between the two nations, there may be few people who more intimately understand their pain than one another.

Returning Home

I return to the States tonight with a heavy heart. I made a commitment many months ago to attend a retreat that begins on Sunday. The intention of the retreat is to help clergy cultivate a spiritual practice through mindfulness meditation, prayer, silence, and study. Right now, this is the very last thing that I want to do. My head and soul are in an entirely different place, but maybe the best time for me to tend to my inner life is when it feels so broken.

I worry about the emotional and physical well being of my family who is staying for another two weeks. I worry about my dear friends who have been called up for a likely ground invasion. I worry about the future of the State of Israel. I pray for a cease fire and an end to the madness. I pray for healing on both sides of all borders.

I take solace in one thing: there are good people here who are tirelessly working to build the soul of this country even as its body is constantly threatened. It is they who give me hope as I pack my bags during this lull in the fighting, however temporary it may be.

A Heavy Heart

The following is a letter that I sent out to my community.

Dear Friends,

I am heartbroken over the horrific news in Israel. As I am sure that you know by now, Eyal Yifrach (19), Naftali Frankel (16) and Gilad Shaar (16) were kidnapped on their way home for shabbat. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Hamas is behind the kidnappings.

On July 12, 2006, after Gilad Shalit had already been abducted, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted in an ambush by Hezbollah on the Israeli border with Lebanon. At the time, I wrote the following words in a letter to you:

Now there are two more missing soldiers, and Israelis will spend their days agonizing over the paralyzing scenario of exchanging terrorists for these soldiers.  It may bring them home (though not necessarily alive and well), but in the recesses of their minds, they know that it may encourage more kidnappings.  This is the power of the type of psychological warfare that seems to be taking hold of Israel.

Here we are, eight years later, plunged directly back into the national trauma of continued brutality.

The IDF’s response has been swift, and we are all desperate that they will be able to bring these boys back to their families. In the midst of all of this, politicians, pundits and the general public seem unable to resist exploiting the situation to make a political point. Perhaps this is the modern state of affairs- we can’t help but interpret all events through a political lens. But something fundamentally human gets lost when we do.

Three boys- children, frankly- are now being held against their will in a strange place. They must be terrified by the viciousness inflicted upon them. All the while, the specter of Gilad Shalit likely hangs in the forefront of their minds. They know that his kidnapping ordeal lasted for many years, and this alone must torment them. Of course I don’t know any of this, but it seems probable that such psychological torment textures their waking hours. All of this supposes that they are still alive, an assumption that we must continue to make in order to retain some hope.

The families of these three boys have been irreparably damaged. As a parent, I cannot imagine trying to close my eyes at night without being terrorized by the endless “what ifs.” A parent's "what ifs" are generally about crossing busy roads or driving safely. The Shaars, Yifrachs, and Frankels must lie awake anxious about permanent psychological trauma and physical brutality. The conjuring of their "what ifs" makes me feel ill.

Our world and the people in it can be ruthless, and with instant communication, it somehow feels more vicious than ever before. Yes, children are abused, exploited, and brutalized all over the world, every day. But for us this is different, not because the nature of the cruelty is unique, but because Gilad, Eyal and Naftali are our boys. They are family. And there is no brutality more agonizing than when it strikes a member of one’s family.

We are helpless right now. A hashtag campaign is underway, which is meant to raise awareness and express solidarity. For some folks this feels effective, as they believe battles are won and lost through public opinion which is constructed through social media. For others, the most appropriate response is prayer. During times like this we recite Psalms, not because we think that doing so will magically force a divine intervention, but because praying expresses our yearning for a more just world and expresses our refusal to give in to cynicism and despair. It is too easy to become despondent. To pray in the midst of trauma is an act of courage, a declaration that we believe that the forces of goodness and tenderness can overcome evil. I encourage you to take some time out of your day to recite some Psalms, in particular, Psalms 41, 121, 130, 142 and 143 (you can find them in English here).

In a week and a half, a group of folks from the PJC will be going to Israel to explore our connection to our homeland. If you would like us to bring your own prayers with us, feel free to share them with me over the next week.

Below is a prayer written specifically for Ya'akov Naftali ben Rahel (Frenkel), Gil-ad Micha'el ben Bat-Galim (Shaar), and Eyal ben Iris Teshura (Yifrach), composed by Raba Tamar Elad Appelbaum. May they be returned to their families alive, and may the suffering of those who know them be moderated by the concern and love of the entire Jewish people.

God of Israel,
Beneficent sovereign of all Creation,
enable us now
to have true faith
and to pray and to call out to You with plea after plea,
so that our cry might rise
to the very Gates of Mercy,
to Mercy itself.
And all reality shall be turned around so that relief, rescue, and life may be the lot of those young men,
Ya'akov Naftali ben Rahel (Frenkel),
Gil-ad Micha'el ben Bat-Galim (Shaar)
and Eyal ben Iris Teshura (Yifrach).
Act on their behalf, Lord,
take up their cause without delay, and may You grant them life and blessing forevermore.
So may it be Your will, and let us say: Amen. 
 אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל
מֶלֶךְ שֶרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָֹיו
תֵּן בָּנוּ בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת
                                             שתהיה בָנוּ מִדַּת אֱמוּנָה
וְנִתְפַּלֵּל וְנִתְחַנֵּן אַחֲרֶיךָ
,תְּחִנָּה אַחַר תְּחִנָּה
כְּדֵי שֶתַּעֲלֶה שַוְעָתֵנוּ
וְתָבֹא עַד מְקוֹם שַעַר הַחֶסֶד
.עַד נְקֻדַּת הַחֶסֶד
וּתְהַפֵּך אֶת הַכֹּל לְמַעַן יָבֹאוּ
רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה וְחַיִּים לַנְּעַרִים
(יַעֲקֹב נַפְתָּלִי בֶּן רָחֵל (פְרֶנְקֶל
(גִּיל-עַד מִיכָאֵל בֶּן בַּת גַּלִים (שעַאר
.(אֶיָל בֶּן אִירִיס תֹּשוּרָה (יִפְרָח
עֲשֵֹה לְמַעַנָם אֱלֹהֵינוּ
עֲשֵֹה וְאַל תְאַחֵר
וְהוֹשִיעֵם אֱלֹהֵי יִֹשְעֵנוּ
.וְאַתָּה תַּנְחִילֵם חַיִּים וּבְרָכָה עַד הָעוֹלָם
.וְכֵן יְהִי רָצוֹן וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

...יש-תקווה לאחריתך 
ושבו בנים לגבולם

There is hope for your future...Your boys shall return to their country. (Jeremiah 31)

REFLECTIONS ON POVERTY AND SERVICE- GUEST POST BY JULIA GLICKMAN


THIS PAST SHABBAT, JULIA GLICKMAN, A PJC HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT, DELIVERED THE D'VAR TORAH IN SYNAGOGUE. SHE SPOKE ABOUT OUR RECENT SERVICE LEARNING TRIP TO THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. MANY PEOPLE WERE MOVED AND INSPIRED BY THE DEPTH AND MATURITY OF HER WORDS, SO I DECIDED TO POST THEM HERE.

Shabbat Shalom.

This weeks action packed Parsha Behar discusses in detail the many rules and regulations about how to handle and trade land.  One rule that the parsha states is that every fiftieth year, the jubilee year, all plots of land are returned to the family that originally owned them.  The word Achikha, which means your brother appears several times in the Parsha.  Verse 25 says “If thy brother be waxen poor, and sell some of his possession, then shall his kinsman that is next unto him come, and shall redeem that which his brother hath sold.” The concept of the jubilee year and the obligation to help your brother taken together are essentially the torah’s way of preventing cyclic poverty.  The torah is creating an ideal world in which no family can stay impoverished for more than a few generations, and   everyone must help one another get back on their feet if they are in dire straights .  Although this world is ideal, it is not a modern reality.  There is no way of preventing cyclic poverty and it a very real issue in much of the world. I experienced this issue first hand.   

A few months ago I returned from the Dominican Republic on a service trip with the Pelham Jewish Center. It was a life changing experience, and today I would like to share some words about it.  We traveled to the dominican republic in a group of 12 teenagers and 4 adults.  We spent about a week in an impoverished village called Derumbardero.  In Derumbardero we did work to benefit the community. We dug the foundation for a community center that will, when it is completed, provide toys for the children of derumbardero to play with, books, and computers.  As a group, we also spent a lot of time thinking about the colossal problem of poverty, and our obligation to fight it.  Poverty is a very difficult thing to think about because it plagues so much of the world, and we can feel powerless to have an impact.  Before I left on the trip, everyone told me that it was going to be a transformative experience, but  I couldn’t fully understand why or how that would be.  I knew that poverty existed, as I’m sure just about everyone in this room does.  I had seen shocking statistics about starvation and disease in the developing world, but the truth is that none of these numbers can have a true effect on us.  We witness poverty pretty regularly.  Every time you walk past a homeless person on the street in manhattan, you are witnessing poverty.  For most of us, witnessing this type of poverty may make us feel sad for a second, but doesn’t have a lasting effect on us.  We are able to see poverty without having to truly face the meaning and depth of the issue of poverty.  

This trip to the Dominican Republic changed the way that I look at poverty.  We were intensely surrounded by poverty for an extended period of time, and we were forced to think deeply about it.  It also gave rural systemic poverty a face and a personality.  We truly got to know the people of derumbardero.  We got to know them as equals.  We worked and played side by side with the people of Derumbardero, and I think that contributed immensely to the value of the trip.  This humanized the issue of poverty and gave it more meaning.  I think that I can speak for the whole group when I say that we became attached to the community.  I cannot possibly convey in words the biggest thing I learned while in Derumbardero.  This sounds very dramatic, but it really did change how I look at the world.  It was an overwhelming thing to witness.  One of the first nights in derumbardero, the rabbi was trying to get us all to write in our journals.  I was being difficult and not doing it (I’m not really into journal writer) and I said I didn’t have anything to write about (which was a lie)  to which the rabbi begged to differ and said I must have feelings about what I was experiencing.  The reason I resisted writing was because what I was witnessing was so great, it took time for it to sink in.  We live such extravagant lives compared to the vast majority of people in the world .  The biggest way in which the trip impacted me is that I am now much more appreciative of the world that I live in.  I am appreciative of so much more thats around me.  One day on the trip derumbardero ran out of water, because they only get water every other day.  I have running water at any time, at any temperature.  I can rely on these things to be there for me, and I have learned not to take this for granted.  Don’t get me wrong, you can ask my parents and I have still been known to complain and act bratty at times, but I swear I am truly more appreciative of the things around me.  Not only do I appreciate physical things that I have, but more importantly I appreciate the opportunities and freedoms that I have.  

The reason that systematic rural poverty is a cycle is that young people do not have the means to improve their own lives.  Although there is public school in the Dominican Republic and in most countries where a large percentage of the population is enslaved by poverty, the schools are not very good.  The Dominican Republic has a notably poor education system, and for most kids college is not even a possibility.  In the United States in general, there is a good public school system.  Although there is still a huge and growing income gap in the United States, people have much more of an opportunity to build their own success.  No matter how much I complain about school, or how stressful it is, It provides me with endless opportunities.   
I have been raised to believe that I can do whatever I want with my life, but it is not like that in many parts of the world.  Most of the kids who we met in Derumbarderro will live in Derumbarderro for their entire lives, continuing to live in poverty.  So what obligation do we have to these people who are stuck in the cycle of poverty?  It is easy to say that we are going to do all we can to help this issue by giving all the money we can to various charity organizations, but I don’t think it is that simple.  Giving to charities is great, but you don’t know where your money is going, or what the best organization is to give to.  Your donation may buy ten desks, but there are still many millions of young boys and girls who need your help.  It can feel overwhelming to know that there is nothing any one of us can do that will fix poverty entirely, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing.  We all are obligated to those less fortunate than us.  By viewing people who need our help as equals, we are doing our part in fighting poverty.  With this outlook,we are in a position to work with people to improve their situation instead of trying to work for them, and I think this is a good position on social action.  

Of course, Judaism provides us with many guidelines on social action. Social action, and charitable giving is a central idea to judaism.  An overarching concept for social action in judaism is the word Achikha which, as I mentioned earlier, means my brother and was prominently featured in this parsha.  This idea is very similar to what I was just talking about. The torah tells us that the ideal form of social action happens when we view the less fortunate as equals to ourselves.  The torah emphasized that we are all human and therefore all equal, and we shouldn’t view ourselves as greater than those less fortunate than us.  I think that this means the goal of our social action is not for us to personally help others but to cooperatively make the world a better place.  It suggests that we are not doing social action just for those living in poverty, but we are doing it because our own lives are somehow diminished by the fact that there are others living in poverty.  When the parsha is talking about this, it is talking about people in your own community.  You do not need to fly to the Dominican Republic or any other country to help people in need.  There is plenty of poverty close by.  A lasting effect of my trip to the Dominican Republic for me is it gave me a sense of obligation towards people in poverty.  I’m still trying to figure out the form that my social action is going to take, because I want to commit to something that is long term and meaningful to me.  For me, it took travel to make me feel this sense of obligation, but it doesn’t have to be that way for you.  There are opportunities for social action all around us, and it is up to us to take advantage of them.  Shabbat Shalom

The Rabbinical Assembly's Response to the Attack on the Jewish Community in Overland Park, KS

In response to the shooting at the JCC and Village Shalom in Overland Park, KS, Rabbi Gerry Skolnik, President and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, issued the following statement:

Jews around the world join hearts and minds tonight as we mourn the tragic deaths of three innocent victims in Overland Park, Kansas on the eve of the festive Passover holiday. Passover is a time when the Jewish People around the world will gather together in joy and song to tell the sacred story of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom by God’s own outstretched arm. Two rituals performed at every seder around the world will be excruciatingly poignant tomorrow night. We will do as our tradition requires, and as our people have done for centuries. Every seder participant will dip a new spring vegetable in salt water to remember the tears of slavery and will remove ten drops of wine from our their cups in commemoration of the suffering of the Egyptians through the ten plagues. Our tradition teaches infinite compassion for every human being and the infinite value of every life. This year, we fill our bowls with our own tears and pour out our wine cups in mourning the senseless murders of the innocent. But we wll do it together as one worldwide Jewish people, steadfast in our resolve. Though our joy may be marred this year with sadness, we are resolute in our commitment to carry forth God’s covenant with the Jewish people to bring justice and goodness into the world and to honor the infinite value of every human being many times each day through our actions. 

May we strengthen our commitment to eliminating the scourges of gun violence and hatred in our society so that no holy day in any faith or any day in the life of any person, shall ever be marred by this sorrow again. May we earn the merit to honor the memory of the dead by keeping alive the highest values that the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom embody. May God comfort the families of the victims with the all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Are You Hungry for Shabbat?


It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.

-Brother David Steindl-Rast
We want to believe that gratitude develops quite naturally. We imagine that when things are good we will instinctively feel grateful. When we are prosperous, healthy, and connected, we presume gratitude will emerge from these blessings.

Except that’s not how gratitude works.

Do you remember the last time that you actually tasted the food that placed in your mouth? Do you recall the last time that you were aware of how a simple touch may have felt to your child, partner, or friend? Day in and day out we are assaulted by so many sensory experiences that it takes tremendous effort to become aware of them. As a result, we experience daily loss. We miss opportunities to appreciate the simple blessings of our lives and world.

In the same way that we must focus our attention in order to notice the splendor of a bare tree whose branches wear casts of pure white snow, we must direct our hearts to notice the blessings in our lives for which we are grateful. Like anything else in our lives that is important to us, we must work at doing this. Noticing our gratitude is not automatic.

The rabbis teach us that Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. They imagine that life can be defined by an appreciation of how we live, not what we toil to produce and acquire. In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity (Heschel's The Sabbath).

We reclaim our dignity by realizing that we are more than our successes and acquisitions. We are also more than our problems and worries. We are living, breathing, soul filled beings with the capacity to live in harmony with humanity and our world. No matter what we have or lack, we will always “be thus.” When we pay attention to this, we begin to reveal a deep gratitude that has been buried under layers of muck. This is what we do on Shabbat. We make time to reclaim our dignity, to realize how grateful we already are, and we chew on this slowly, tasting the world-to-come.

Make time for this tonight. Come to synagogue and sing and reflect with us. An hour is all that it takes. Scoop up your kids. Take the hand of your loved one. Or come by yourself, because here in our sanctuary, you are never alone. I hope to be with you on our island of stillness this evening.

Shabbat Shalom.


David

Enough with Thanksgivingukkah! 8 MEANINGFUL Conversations to Have with Your Kids on Hanukkah

It’s almost time to break out the dreidels and light the hanukkiah, and if you are anything like me, you are already tired of Hanukkah. We haven’t even lit one candle or gorged ourselves on latkes (oh, the sour cream), but I am ready to move on to the next holiday. The culprit for my Hanukkah exhaustion is the darling of social and traditional media sites alike: Thanksgivingukkah.

Ugh. Not again. I can’t stomach one more recipe for sweet potato and brisket latkes with cranberry sauce. Please, just give it a rest.

I am on a mission to refocus my attention on something meaningful that I can bring to these eight nights despite our bizarre interest in this holiday mashup. I have a feeling that there may be a few other parents out there who would be happy to leave the Manishewitz-brined turkey recipes aside and try to recapture something significant with our children as we prepare for the Festival of Lights.

Hanukkah is a wonderful opportunity for parents to have some important conversations with their children. As every parent knows, some of our most challenging work is finding the right time to have a meaningful conversation with our kids. If your children are anything like mine, these conversations have to be snuck into car rides, nighttime tuck in, and in the bread aisle while shopping. That’s okay. The important thing is that we have an opportunity to talk to our kids about things that really matter to our relationship, show them that we want to listen to what they think and feel, and help them connect to a heritage that we hope will make them proud as they get older.

The following are eight conversation starters that we can have with our children to make this holiday something more than dreidels, candles, and presents. Pick a few and to discuss them with your children (*adjust and tailor them to the age of your kids-think of these as sparks for conversation*).

1. Hanukkah is a story about a small group of people finding tremendous spiritual and physical strength. We live in a culture that celebrates big things (big cars, big homes, more “stuff”). Talk to your kids about the importance of small acts. What are the small things in your life that are deeply important to you? What are the small things that your kids do that make you tremendously proud of them?

2. Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates a group of Jews who were unwilling to give up their heritage despite tremendous pressure to do so. Ask your kids what they love most about being Jewish or Judaism, share your own answer to that question, and ask them what other things are worth fighting for in their lives.

3. The rabbis of the Talmud tell the famous story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one. Do you believe in miracles? Is a miracle a phenomenon of the past or do miracles still happen today? Discuss the miracles of your lives. If you don’t believe in miracles, discuss the things in your life that make you feel overwhelmed with joy when you experience them.

4. Hanukkah takes place during a time when the days are short because it gets dark early. We light candles to remind ourselves that despite the darkness, we have the power to bring light into the world. What are the things that you do to help people in need? Help your children understand that they have the power to help other people not just by giving tzedakah (charitable donations) and participating in social justice projects, but by being kind to other children. Make a commitment with your kids to participate as a family in a social action project as a Hanukkah gift to others.

5. Hanukkah is a story about people with power (the Greek Assyrians) tormenting a seemingly weaker group (the Jews). Talk to your children about bullying and about the power that they have as individuals to stand up to bullies. Teach your kids about the responsibility that they have to make sure that kids who are “different” feel included.  

6. Hanukkah is a celebration of Jews maintaining their own unique culture and religious tradition when it would have been easy to let it go and become more like the larger society. As someone who is Jewish living in a Christian country, what are the things that are challenging for you about being different than the majority of people in America? What are the things about being Jewish that feel special because they make you different than other people? Can you imagine visiting Israel, a place where Jews make up the majority of people?

7. [For Interfaith Families] This is a time of year in which many interfaith families feel pulled in lots of different directions. Use these holidays as an opportunity to speak to your kids about what has been enriching about being a family with roots in different traditions, and discuss some of the challenges that this may pose. Talk to your kids about how you make the decision to celebrate in the way that you do, and for parents who feel uneasy about how they are building their family’s religious life, this may be a good opportunity to seek some support and guidance to help navigate these larger issues.

8. Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are holidays that celebrate the significance of fighting for religious freedom. What are the freedoms that ought to be fought for and how can we as American Jews ensure that all Americans are afforded these freedoms? Do we have a responsibility to fight for these freedoms for people in other countries who do not have them? If so, how can we do that, and if not, why doesn’t this responsibility extend beyond our borders? 

If you can manage to discuss these questions as the Hanukkah lights flicker by the window and you eat jelly donuts next to the fireplace with your dog curled up at your feet, that’s wonderful. But if your life is less like a Norman Rockwell painting and more like controlled (on a good day) chaos, then take advantage of any time that you have for these conversations. It would be a shame to squander them because you are waiting for the perfect time.

Perhaps the most challenging part of these conversations with our children is that we often feel some ambiguity in our own feelings about Judaism. That’s okay. In fact, it is quite possible that through these conversations with our children they may teach us a thing or two about faith, courage, and pride. Now that would be nothing short of a miracle.

Wishing you a חג אורים שמח- a wonderful Hanukkah!



Reflections after the Tornado in Oklahoma


A time is set for every experience under heaven. A time for uprooting, a time for tearing down....

As I finish teaching my class on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at the Pelham Jewish Center, I have been thinking a great deal about one essential aspect of his message: Horrible events that are beyond our control strike our world and we must face this fact of life head on, even if it terrifies us.

A time for wailing...

Our hearts are broken as we allow ourselves to reflect on the gruesome loss of so many lives, killed by the ravages of nature. We shed tears and feel a creeping despair.

A time for seeking, a time for peace...

But Ecclesiastes simultaneously insists that we remember (perhaps as an act of pastoral presence or simple observation) that there will be a time for the inverse experience as well. In the face of horror, we grasp onto the belief that we will again know beauty and inner calm.

A time for planting, a time for gathering stones, a time for building up...

Sometimes we force a season to begin by sheer will. This is one of those times. We search for remnants of life within the disaster, and we support the sacred efforts of those who dedicate their lives to the grueling work of responding to families in crisis. We focus our efforts on rebuilding, one home, one life, at a time.

A time for healing, a time for being born...

Along with you, I pray that the families scarred by the devastating loss of a loved one, especially a child, will discover that despite the darkness of our world, it contains within it a mysterious possibility for rebirth and healing. Healing is rarely an end moment in time, but rather, a process that requires tremendous patience and love from friends, family, community, and our country.

May our brothers and sisters in Oklahoma find themselves on a path toward healing, and may we all take seriously our responsibility to help in the rebuilding of their communities.

For those looking to donate to the relief effort, you may do so through the Oklahoma Tornado Relief Fund of the UJA Federation of NY. 100% of the funds will be allocated to support local communities in the disaster area.

Wishing you comfort during this challenging time.

David


Below is a prayer written as a response to this disaster by Abby Jacobson, Emanuel Synagogue, Oklahoma City, OK

Lord our God, we stood before You just a week ago to receive the Ten Statements of Your Torah. We stood, as though with our ancestors, and listened to the Torah reader chant descriptions of the smoking mountain, the thunderous rumbling, and the long-awaited voice of God.

This afternoon, the people of central Oklahoma did not stand to hear the voice of God. We sat, we paced, and we huddled. We listened to the voice of the meteorologists and watched as dark clouds swirled together over a cone of destruction. The rain fell upward, not down, and the thunderous roar of the swirling winds carried, and we saw the awesome power of God. This was not Shavuot—the Feast of Weeks that marked our days of freedom. This was minutes that seemed like years and trapped us into watching the same images of destruction.

Merciful God, a great and powerful windstorm has passed, and it has torn apart the buildings and shattered the rocks before You. You told Elijah, the prophet, that You were not in the windstorm. Please, then, be in the still, small voices of the children crying out to be found. Be in the voices of the rescuers calling out for survivors. Be in the cries of those who are lost and of those who have lost.

May it be Your will that those who are missing be found alive and be cared for well, and may the people of central Oklahoma find strength in You and in one another as we rebuild what we can.

Our Hearts are In Boston


Photo Credit: From BostInno
When Tali and I lived in Israel during the second intifada of 2001-2002, Jerusalem was ablaze with suicide bombings. Buses, restaurants, cafes, and the market suddenly became places of terrible danger. It was a very challenging year, but in some ways, the uncertainty of how to react after a terror attack was almost as emotionally difficult as the fear of an attack.

It was not uncommon during that year to hear the explosion of the bomb and the wailing sirens that immediately followed. People would turn on the radio, make a few phone calls, and then continue with their day. There were fifty-three suicide attacks in 2002. There was not another feasible option. Life had to continue.

I had a terribly difficult time reacting to such horrific events by continuing my normal routine. In the immediate wake of each new bombing an intense emotional desire to stop, light candles, sit with friends, and watch the news commenced within me. My instinct to put life on hold was incredibly strong. I could not understand how Israelis continued living their lives without stopping everything. Over time, however, I learned not to confuse this behavior with a callousness to the suffering of fellow humans. I learned that it was the only wise way to deal with tragedy.

This week, we wake up in the morning and go about our business, but not as usual. We continue to live our normal lives but with an abnormal emotional tenor. We allow for a heaviness in the pauses throughout our days: a sadness while we sit on the subway; a pulse of grief in between emails; a surprising anger as we wrap our tefillin. We follow the news, we pray for justice, and we desperately hope that families whose lives have been shattered find comforting arms to hold them up. But we do all of this while waking up in the morning and living our lives as we did last week. The routine remains the same. It is the emotional tone of our days that is different; it is in the pauses that we light candles.

In my daily pauses, I have been thinking about the individuals who have been maimed. I have been thinking about the families who lost someone dear to them. I have been thinking about the first responders, medical professionals, and compassionate human beings who care/d for the wounded. I have been thinking about the law enforcement officials who are working around the clock to discover the cowards who inflicted such terror on innocent people. And I have been thinking about you, hoping that you find outlets for your grief and fellowship for comfort.

I leave you with a prayer for this moment written by Rabbi Naomi Levy. I hope that it will bring you a measure of solace during the difficult pauses in your days.


A Prayer of Hope After the Boston Marathon Bombing by Rabbi Naomi Levy

God of peace, God of healing
God of the grief-stricken,
We call You, we invoke You
We pray to You:
Oh my God, we called out to You
as a day of celebration
Turned to mourning.
Oh my God
The shock
The senselessness
Innocent lives cut short
Wounded victims
Heartbreaking cries of panic and grief.
But through the darkness came
The light
The hope
The heroes
The selfless caring of first responders
Arms extended in comfort and love,
Your messengers on earth.
God, send comfort to grieving families,
Send healing to the wounded,
Send wisdom and strength to doctors and nurses
Send calm to hearts filled with panic.
Bless us with peace, God,
Show us that we will rebuild
In the face of tragedy.
Grant us the power and wisdom
To bring justice to those who harm us.
Teach us that we will triumph over terror.          
We will not let this tragedy twist our spirits
We choose hope over fear.
We are resilient, we are strong
We are one nation under God
We will come together, hand in hand
We will rebuild.
Amen.

From Freedom to "Not Being a Slave"


ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך עולם שלא עשני עבד

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a slave.

In 1945, the Conservative Movement changed the nusach of this blessing (and a few others that we recite each morning) to the positive form: Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made me a free person. This was the only version that I ever recited until I met children who were rescued from slavery  while I was on an American Jewish World Service service learning trip to Ghana.

I spent an afternoon at a compound that houses children immediately after they are rescued from their slave masters. It was built by the NGO Challenging Heights and hidden away in the jungle. Though we met with the social workers and house mothers who work with the children at the very beginning of their rehabilitation process, I don't remember a word that they said. I don't remember what they looked like or the amount of time that we met with them. The only thing that I can remember (and with amazing clarity) is the way that the gorgeous faces of the children belied the torture that their bodies and souls had sustained. As we shook hands and shared smiles and broken greetings, the open sores on the backs of their heads and their damaged spines conveyed the horror through which they lived. Though the despondency in their eyes was heartbreaking, there was an energy among the kids that to a clueless outsider, felt like a confusing mix of anger, restlessness, and hope. Until that moment, for me, slavery was an abstraction, a closed historical chapter. I felt a deep shame for that luxury.

As imaginations tend to do, mine conjured up the scenarios of their lives, even though I knew I could not envision anything nearly as grotesque as the reality. I could not hold my tears back as I watched the tiny, calloused fingers of the six year old boy gently rub the white skin of my arms, clearly astounded by its incongruity with our surroundings. He just sat with me, rubbing my arms and staring at me, never once returning my teary smile. I could feel the soft fingers of my own sons reflexively playing with my hair and my arms as we talked or cuddled in bed. I never wanted to hold my children so tightly; I needed them to save me from an unbearable sadness. I was so relieved when a twelve year old yelled, "Futball! America against Ghana."

On a different day, I went down to the port to see the fishing boats. The bustling market meets the seashore in an explosion of the senses. Look left and you gaze into the magnificent sea. You are overwhelmed by the fishing boats bathed in striking colors. Look right and there are women smoking freshly caught fish, street vendors peddling their wares, hawkers balancing baskets of candy and chips as they weave in between people, and all around you, people are engaged in friendly banter. The sounds are frenzied as they drown out the lullaby of the sea. At a certain point, I walked onto the sand and looked into the sea, and everything around me seemed to stop. The sight of so many boats full of children scurrying about while working the day's catch was enough to silence the noise around me. Right in front of the bustle of thousands, in broad daylight, each and every day, are child slaves, working against their will, beaten and tortured as their ten year old bodies give in to fourteen hour days. Only days before the kids dribbled the soccer ball around us like we were statues that day in the jungle, they were trapped on such boats. It was impossible to imagine.

One morning during my time in Ghana, I woke up and it was difficult to see colors. My soul felt hollow, as if it had been completely emptied like a balloon shrinking from a tiny puncture. As I began my morning prayers, I found myself saying the original version of the blessing for the first time in my life: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who did not make me a slave. This I could say because I understood that it was true: I was not a slave. I could not, however, thank God for making me free because I suddenly realized that I was not. Is one free when thousands upon thousands of children greet each morning as slaves? Is one really free when young girls are drugged and sold and trafficked again as sex workers?

We eat the bread of affliction not as a celebration of our freedom but as an act of solidarity with those still longing for their own, shackled by the terror fomented by slave-masters who still corrupt our lands. We eat the bread of affliction because we must ingest an antidote to the indifference that blossoms when we are deluded into thinking that we are free.

Let us not wait for God to rescue those living in darkness. This Passover may we reaffirm our commitment to hearing their cries and support the institutions working tirelessly to save them.

Israel and Jewish Pluralism


In my thinking, the nature of what it means to be Israeli will be determined by the degree to which Jewish pluralism will take hold. As of now, Israeli society is defined by distinct communities separated by fixed religious lines: one is either secular or religious, period. Within each of these groups there are surely subgroups (ultra-Orthodox, Religious Zionist, Religious Sephardi, secular, secular yet traditional, etc). But for the most part, Israeli social networks are essentially homogeneous. Children attend a religious or a secular school, a religious or secular youth group, and so on.

The result is that Judaism is perceived by most Israelis as being “owned” by the religiously observant. Secular and religious Jews perceive Jewish ritual, observance, and texts to be the domain of the religious (read: Orthodox). Even though secular Israelis  speak Hebrew and live according to the Jewish calendar, they are largely cut off from their own traditions. We had an Israeli au pair live with us for six months. On her first Shabbat here we invited her to Shabbat dinner. She was excited because it was the first time in her life that she heard the Friday night kiddush. She was twenty-one years old.

The only way that this will change is if secular and religious Israelis see that finding meaning in our heritage does not require full halachic (legal) observance. This is slowly beginning to happen. Ruth Calderon, a new member of Knesset from the Yesh Atid party, gave a stunning speech on the Knesset floor a few weeks ago. In it, Calderon (a secular Israeli with a PhD in Talmud) taught a story from the Talmud to the entire Knesset. Without a doubt, this was the first time many (if not most!) of the members of Knesset heard a woman teach Talmud. There was a wonderful moment during her speech in which MK Vaknin from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party interrupted her (interruptions are not uncommon for the Knesset). Calderon was teaching that in the story, the name of the rabbi is connected to the word “rechem,” which means womb. This is when Vaknin interrupted her:

Vaknin: Rechem also [has a numerologically significant] value of 248 (the number of positive mitzvot).

Calderon: Thank you. Yasher Koach. Thank you for participating.

Vaknin: I think the idea that she is saying is wonderful …

Calderon: I am happy about this participation in the words of Torah.

It doesn't translate perfectly, but essentially, this man who has never heard a (secular!) woman teach Talmud jumped in and participated with her. She welcomed this as a deepening of Torah. All of this took place on the Knesset floor.

Remarkably, one reaction to her speech was the suggestion that it was an assault on Judaism. The editorial of Kikar Hashabbat, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) news site, wrote, “…we are watching on live broadcast the new Enlightenment, the new powers that have risen and want to destroy the Haredi society as it is today...Rabbi Shai Peron, Rabbi Dov Lipman, and the "Rabbanit" [sic] Ruth Calderon are using our weapons- the Talmud, the Gemarrah, and the Poskim- against us, while simultaneously using it as a fig leaf. ” This exposes the sickest element of this dynamic: the notion that secular and liberal Jews are hijacking Judaism by finding it meaningful, and that this in turn, is an attack on Haredi Judaism. 

If it were only the haredim who believed this. Alas, this sentiment is shared by many secular Israelis who also think that we should leave all Jewish religious expressions to the haredim, as anything else is disingenuous.

This is where we come in. We American Jews can model an energetic Jewish life that transcends the labels of secular or religious. Israelis have a great deal to learn about the vibrancy of a pluralistic Jewish life from us, a model in which we should take pride. For too long the relationship between Diaspora and Israeli Jews has been one sided, with Americans "sitting at the feet" of our Israeli brethren for a dose of pride in our heritage and Jewish identity. It is time for us to balance out the relationship. It is our responsibility to help Israelis see that a rich and diverse Jewish life strengthens the Jewish people. We can teach and model this. We must.

We have been doing this beautifully every summer as hundreds of Israelis spend time at our Jewish camps. In them, they discover a Jewish life that is somewhat foreign. They expect that seeing women reading Torah, leading tefillot, and wearing tefillin will translate into an odd expression that resembles Judaism but isn't quite right. As they adjust, many of them discover a Judaism that explodes in its love of Torah, God, and mitzvot, and does so in authentic and moving ways. For many of the Israeli women, both secular and religious, it is the first time they feel that they can live a fully Jewish life in ways that were inaccessible to them. And then they return home to Israel and begin a search for a similar community, which of course, is difficult to find.

Things are changing in Israel, albeit very slowly. Jews who have seen Judaism as the domain of the Orthodox are now enjoying music that grew out of our tradition, studying Talmud alongside Nietzsche and Freud in secular, co-ed batei midrash (houses of study), attending synagogues of the Reform and Conservative Movements, and so on. But these changes require our encouragement and support. One way to invest in the future of the State of Israel is by supporting institutions working to build a society that reflects the diversity of Jewish life that we know can exist.