Sunday, November 18, 2012

Israel and Gaza

I have been asked by numerous people about my thoughts on Israel and Gaza. So to begin, I believe in no uncertain terms, Israel's absolute right to defend herself from attack. And let's be clear, Israel did not start this fight. Weeks before Israel retaliated; missiles were being launched into Israel from Gaza by Hamas.

Sederot has spent years under attack, but what is even more worrisome is that Hamas now has missiles (supplied from countries like Iran) that can now reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel's economic heart and capital. This is simply unacceptable.

But the question I have been wrestling with is why now?

In the past I have compared Hamas to a petulant child, that when it doesn't get enough attention from the world, it attacks Israel. And there is perhaps part of that still going on.

But Hamas also has been dealing with its own internal problems. As the democratically elected government in Gaza (and by the way just because it was democratically elected, does not make it a democracy), has been unable to live up to its promises to the citizens. It was and is facing increasing unpopularity amongst Palestinians living in Gaza. So what is the answer? Attack Israel. Of course this demonstrates once again that Hamas does not care about its citizens in the least when it invites counter attacks and destruction of its own country for their own political purposes.

However there is still more going on. Hamas also feels emboldened by the "Arab Spring." It feels more support from Tunisia and especially Egypt, than it ever has in the past, which is also playing into the actions by Hamas.

And also, I suspect, that Hamas bought into the narrative that President Obama's support of Israel was not as strong as previous presidents. That assumption is turning out to be a complete fallacy.  Of course, since these attacks have begun, the United States has been unwavering in her support of Israel.

Israel under Prime Minister Netanyahu is poised to engage in a ground assault, whose primary mission is to destroy the missiles and underground tunnels supplying Gaza. This will lead to the deaths of many Palestinians and significant destruction of Gaza, similar to Operation Cast Lead. This in turn may actually raise Hamas' profile in the world, but will also undermine it with their own people in Gaza.

And yet, I am not sure what other options Israel has. When attacked, Israel has to defend her citizens. Tel Aviv sounded air raid sirens for the first time since the first Gulf War in 1991. If our cities in the United States were under similar attack, we would respond swiftly and forcefully. Should Israel do no less?

The only way to ultimately end this situation is with a full and lasting peace.  However, until Hamas is willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist and stop attacking her, this prospect is at best, unlikely.      And yet, we will continue to pray for peace and for an end to the suffering caused by this latest round of attacks. 

In the meantime, be wary of any news agency that makes it look like Israel is the aggressor.  There was little if any reporting to the attacks until Israel responded.  It is like how the player flagged in an NFL game is the always the one who responds, not the one who instigates.  And there are any number of ways you can donate money to help those in need who are in harm’s way from the missiles.

Israel Terror Relief Fund

Friday, August 24, 2012

Blogging Elul - Cycling through Teshuvah

It was recently announced that Lance Armstrong has given up his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in its claims that Mr. Armstrong used illegal performance enhancing methods to win a record seven Tour de France titles.
Mr. Armstrong has argued that he has never failed a drug test and that the USADA is engaging in a “witch-hunt” against him.  While the USADA has argued that it has both enough evidence and eye-witness testimony to be able to convincingly prove that Mr. Armstrong cheated.  Some commentators have even argued that Mr. Armstrong gave up his fight so that the evidence will not come to light.  The end result is that he will be stripped of, among other things, his seven titles. 

Now one can argue the effectiveness or even meaningfulness of retroactive punishments.  But I see some interesting connections with this story and the month of Elul.

The majority of the American public either doesn’t seem to really care that Mr. Armstrong cheated or they argue that he did not cheat at all.  And most stand beside him because they like him for the good he has done especially with the ‘Live Strong’ anti-cancer campaign that has brought in millions and awareness to this ongoing fight.
And yet two major league baseball players were recently banned for 50 games each, and they are being damned by the majority of the American public, except maybe by those local fans who root for their teams.  It would seem to be that athletes like tennis players, golfers, and cyclists we give more of a pass to as a whole because we can all root for them.  Heck if it wasn’t for Mr. Armstrong, the majority of Americans would most likely still not have any idea that there is a preeminent race in cycling and that the race takes place in France.  But in team sports, it is easier to condemn someone because they play for the opposition.  Barry Bonds is still popular in San Francisco.  Roger Clemens is still popular in my home city of Houston.

We are more likely to forgive those we like.  It is part of our human nature.  This is why we are willing to forgive Mr. Armstrong while many more are unwilling to forgive someone like Mr. Bonds or Mr. Clemens.
But according to Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, we must ask of oneself, “’What have I done? ‘ (Jer. 8:6) What have I become?”
Simply acknowledging that one has done wrong, which neither Mr. Armstrong nor Mr. Bonds have done, does not remove the misdeeds.  But it is a step forward.  Yes Mr. Armstrong has done a lot of great things for a lot of people. 

But as we know all too well, each of us is imperfect. Each of us have done things we wish we had not done.  Be it for personal glory, success, or for a myriad of other reasons.  So to admit fault is the first step in what can be and should be an amazing journey of transformation. 

It does not erase the misdeeds of the past, but what it can do is help us begin to overcome the inclination that led us to engage in those misdeeds in the first place.  Without acknowledgment, there can be no healing. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Blogging Elul - A Marathon

My good friend and colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer sets up a challenge to blog the month of Elul.  I have taken this challenge and each month I write several before ultimately giving up well short of my goal.  This is usually a result of needing to prepare for the High Holy Days and the stress of starting a new year in the synagogue.  Not to mention the kids starting a new year of school.

Yet something has always gnawed at me whenever I set this goal and fail to achieve it.  I mention this because I am also trying to get myself back into shape.  Even though I exercise regularly, the weight has been creeping back on for the past year and a half.  And each time the scale is unhappy with me, I find myself feeling the same way as when I fail to blog each day of Elul.

Finally today it dawned on me that blogging Elul every day, losing weight, and preparing for the High Holy Days have something deeply profound in common: the need to set realistic expectations of oneself. 

Each year during the Yamim Noraiim, the High Holy Days, we are challenged to right the wrongs of the past and set a new course, a new direction for our lives.  It is more than simply making New Year’s Resolutions; it is really about reorienting our very souls.

And yet, many of us set up unrealistic expectations both of ourselves and others during this period.  How many of us expect others to finally step up and apologize for that slight, only to be bitterly disappointed when they do not?  Or how many of us are saddened when a genuine apology given is not well received?

How many of us expect to show up at services twice a year and to find deeply profound meaning, only to find ourselves lost and uninspired? 

This year, for the first time in my life, I have signed up to run a half-marathon.  I have never run more than six miles in my life, and now I have committed to running a little over thirteen.  But in order to do it, I began training this past June.  I am now up to 8 miles, with more to go.  It has not been easy and there are certainly days I do not wish to run.  My knees are sore.  My ankles are sore.  And yet, I feel empowered and emboldened each day I get out there no matter the distance I run.

The month of Elul in many ways is the warm up.  It is a chance to begin to set the stage, to get ourselves ready for a challenging time.  Whether it is running a half-marathon or going to shul for the High Holy Days.  Both require preparation, commitment, and time.  For if it is worth doing, it is worth investing of oneself in the process in order to achieve and in order to find meaning.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Aurora, Munich, and Devarim

Below is my sermon from this past Shabbat.  I apologize in advance for its length, but it is a topic I do feel passionately about

This past Wednesday evening, my wife Joy and I headed down to Columbia Mall to watch the Dark Knight Rises on their IMAX screen.  We don’t often go out to movies since we have had kids, but when we do, we like to see them on the really big screen.  The Dark Knight Rises, which I am sure most of you are aware of because of recent events, is the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, starring among others Christian Bale. 

            It is a dark movie.  And it is a long movie.  I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as the Dark Knight starring the late great Heath Ledger. 

            I mentioned to one friend that we were going to see the movie, and he said he was boycotting all Batman films unless they starred Adam West.

            And then we told my mother-in-law that we were going, and all she could say was, “Oy! Oy! Oy!”

            Of course her reaction was based on the senseless shooting and massacre that took place in Aurora Colorado just a week ago by a horrid and evil monster.

            There have been many reactions to this shooting.  Some were expected like the City of Aurora prayer vigil in which one of my colleagues Rabbi Joe Black participated.  Other reactions included national politicians removing their attack ads, at least for a short while from television screens in Colorado.  And there were some preliminary discussions about gun control.

            There have also been unexpected reactions to the shooting from the bizarre like AMC banning all people from showing up in costumes to movie screenings.  To the disappointing, like most in the political arena who say now is not the time to talk about guns and violence in our society.  To the simply stunned, like those who would say how upset they are that a place of sanctuary like a movie theater could be filled with such violence.

            In terms of a movie theater being a sanctuary, it is an intriguing idea, because for Israelis, there is no sanctuary.  At Israeli movie theaters, you will often find armed guards knowing the temptation a docile crowd can represent to a potential terrorist. 

            Of course they have learned this lesson all too often over and over again.  The first act of terrorism was certainly not at the Munich Olympics in 1972, but it had a devastating effect.  Israelis are always targets even at such aspirational peaceful gatherings like the Olympics.

            We were reminded of this on July 18, when a terrorist killed six people including five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, where their only crime was being tourists.  Which our media quickly forgot about especially in light of Aurora.

            The notion of a sanctuary from violence is more of a mindset than a reality.  Something we as Jews know all too well from events both recent and past.

            I will admit, I am still somewhat in a state of shock, not only by this shooting, but also by what transpired in Tucson on January 8, 2011 where nineteen were shot including Gabby Giffords, and where six died.

            I think I am still in shock because I had shopped at that Safeway on more than one occasion.  And I had the pleasure of meeting and even sharing a Shabbat Service with Gabby on more than one occasion.

            You factor in such attacks like the Virginia Tech massacre where thirty-two people were killed to even my alma mater where a gunman, from the top of the University of Texas tower shot and killed fourteen people in 1966, a prelude of more to come, and it would seem like we have an epidemic on our hands. 

            To quote from Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice written by Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, “It has already been said, ‘With all the violence and the murders and the killings we have in the United States … we must keep firearms from people who have no business with guns.’ Yet we do not heed the words despite the dramatic fact that they were spoken by Robert F. Kennedy five days before his assassination.”[1]

            And yet, shortly after the shooting in Aurora, pictures and statements were already circulating on Facebook that one well-armed civilian could have stopped the attacks.  Never mind that the lunatic, whose name I will not mention was wearing Kevlar body armor, and was firing into a crowd while setting off smoke bombs, as a distraction. Yet we as a society are generally infatuated with what I call the “Dirty Harry Syndrome.”  Namely that if we are armed; we can and will stop evil without harming ourselves or other innocent bystanders.

            According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa committee, which states in the case of a robber, “When someone threatens to kill you, you may prevent being killed by slaying the person before harm befalls you.  This applies even if there is no certainty that the intruder means to kill you.  For, coming at night and knowing that you will defend your property, the robber is likely armed and therefore must be considered dangerous.”[2]

            So our tradition does agree that we do have a right to arm ourselves for self-defense.  That is not the question here I believe.  The real question is to what degree do we have the obligation to be responsible gun owners? Or as comedian Jon Stewart pointed out, just because it is legal to own a gun, doesn’t mean it is legal for us to own a tank? 

            Others have pointed out the interesting juxtaposition that you have to present ID and be subject to a background check in order to buy Sudafed.  You have to take off your shoes, well some of us do, in order to board an airplane.  And we have to be trained and licensed to drive a car.  And yet, we should not be discussing how such an individual easily and legally obtained over 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the internet!

            I think we all agree, or many of us agree that gun legislation will not prevent such an attack in the future.  But it could make it much harder for lunatics to acquire semi-automatic weapons that no citizen really should have in the first place.

            As Vorspan and Saperstein go on to argue, “No one claims that gun control legislation is the neat and total solution to violence and crime.  But the fact is that it does cut down both the incidence of crimes in which guns are involved and the general rate of violent crimes.”[3]

            This is not to say that I am against guns.  I grew up in Texas where guns rank up there in the public consciousness right below God and football.  I have even shot an Uzi, a WWI German Mauser, and a .357 Magnum.  I have friends, colleagues, and even family who own guns. 

            But I do think it is reasonable and part of our tradition to ask, to what degree does the right to bear arms mean one has easy and open access to arms?  If we can’t entrust the general public to purchase Sudafed without some legal structures, perhaps it is time to reopen and reexamine this issue once again, no matter what the politicians and pundits might say.

            But we know, at least the cynics among us know, one does not discuss guns during an election year.  What a sad commentary indeed, for what better time to discuss such an important issue than during an election year.  For I believe it is possible for rational minds to come up with sensible solutions to this problem without taking away guns from responsible and legal gun owners.  And we should be reaching out to our elected officials, demanding that this is not a closed issue.  Not by a long shot, pardon the pun.

            But in lieu of actual substantive political discourse, what else can we do?  There are now several organizations including the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado you can donate to.  As was mentioned on the news last night, Aurora represents the convergence of two issues our society is wrestling with, gun violence and healthcare.  In this case, many of the victims are either uninsured or underinsured, and facing thousands if not millions in healthcare costs.  I’m sure any help would be greatly appreciated. 

            We can also donate blood.  Maryland in particular is facing a shortage, and if you are a potential donor, there are a host of upcoming opportunities.

            And on this one week anniversary of Aurora and on this fortieth anniversary of the convergence of terrorism and gun violence in our Jewish world we can also pray:

A Prayer for Peace – in the Aftermath of Terror
City of Aurora Prayer Vigil
Rabbi Joseph R. Black- Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
July 22, 2012

Our God and God of all People,

God of the rich and God of the poor.

God of the faceless and God of the famous.

God of the victims and God of all who cry out on their behalf.
God of those who have no God:
We have come together at this sacred and solemn hour to pray for peace.
These past days have been filled with horror.
We have seen the devastating effects of Violence on those killed and injured –on their loved ones – and on those who may have escaped physical violence but who bear painful wounds deep within their souls.
We have held tightly to our children and played out the scenarios of “what ifs” and “why nots” over and over again in our minds.

We are drained.

We are in pain.

And we are angry.

Tonight we pray: spread over us the shelter of Shalom – of peace – knowing full well that peace can seem out of reach in the aftermath of devastation.

Help us to see the potential for holiness that resides within each of us.

We have felt your healing presence in the outpouring of love and caring that binds this community together.

We have witnessed your love in moments of clarity that cut through the deafening sorrow that fills our hearts and our homes.

We have learned of selfless acts of courage that stir our souls and remind us of the inherent goodness you have implanted within us.

Guide us to see the good in the midst of evil.

Grant us peace – Your most precious gift – and help us to be partners with You in shining the light of peace in the darkest corners of Your creation.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav – Hu Ya-ahseh Shalom Ahleynu va’l Kol B’nai Adam – May the One who makes peace in the High Heavens –send peace to us and to all Creation.

And let us say: AMEN

[1] Vorspan, Albert and David Saperstein, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time, pg. 27.
[2] Plaut, W. Gunther and Mark Washofsky, Teshuvot for the Nineties, Reform Judaism’s Answers for Today’s Dilemmas, pg. 291.
[3] Vorspan and Saperstein, pg. 30.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Healthcare: A Jewish Response

Maimonides Oath for the Physician

The highest court of the land upheld the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.  Attached is an excerpt from my sermon dealing with the issue of Judaism’s views on healthcare.  “The central crux of this issue as I see it is the question of: does community have an obligation towards providing healthcare to its members? 

To begin to find our answer, we must once again return to the world of the Talmud.  The Talmud states there are ten specific items a community must provide for its members, “It has been taught a scholar should not reside in a city where any of the following ten are missing: (1) a court of justice … (2) a charity fund … (3) a synagogue; (4) public baths; (5) toilet facilities; (6) a moyel; (7) a surgeon; (8) a notary; (9) a shochet (ritual slaughterer); (10) a schoolmaster” (BT Sanhedrin 127b).

It is interesting to note how many of these have to do with public health and healthcare.  In this passage communities are required to have proper facilities with public baths and toilets as well as proper medical personnel such as surgeons and moyels, yes moyels are considered proper medical personnel. Thus we learn from this passage: the state of communal healthcare can and should be a vital concern of the Jewish community.

I would hope that we would all be in agreement that the healthcare system in our country is fundamentally flawed in many ways.  It is outrageously expensive.  Patients often have to wait long hours to receive treatment, and when they do, they are often charged ridiculous amounts for it.  Doctors, who spent years in training, now have to see more patients than ever just to pay their bills, because they receive less and less remuneration for their skills.  Almost no other place in our society are individuals not paid for what they charge.  While at the same time our society as a whole is becoming unhealthier in a lot of ways especially as a result of our expanding waist lines.  Our healthcare system is sick.  We are left wondering is our healthcare system in a terminal state?  Or is there a cure?

Advocates have argued that there appear to be only two solutions to this fundamental problem, which is really at the heart of our current debate.  The first is a nationalized system, which is often referred to as socialized medicine.  Those in favor describe how a system maintained by the government will cure most of our ills.  Those against describe a national healthcare system as being one step closer to communism at best or the French at worst.  It is a system of complete government oversight, which opponents argue will prevent innovation, instead resulting in long waits for important medical procedures. 

However, at least in theory, this sort of system should help keep costs down because it spreads the impact on the entire population.  More than that, it is also quite probable the amounts we pay in insurance premiums are still more than we would pay in taxes for such a system.

A purely capitalist system on the other hand, is focused primarily on profits first and then treatment second.  When a policy holder becomes unprofitable, either their procedures are denied, or they are dropped from the program due to that dreaded pre-existing condition.  You are left asking such foolish questions as how many stitches constitute a case of urgent care versus a true medical emergency.  If you guess wrong, your insurance is likely not to cover this procedure. This system does encourage innovation, but at what cost we often wonder.

So which system, as Jews, should we be supporting?  To find the answer I suggest we again turn back to tradition.  There is a ruling in the Shulchan Aruch which states, “If someone is taken captive and he has property but does not want to redeem himself, we redeem him “with the money his property will bring” against his will.  Even though this source is about redeeming the captive, for the rabbis the principle remains the same, we as individuals have a financial obligation to take care of ourselves. 

But at the same time our tradition also argues that each community is not only supposed to provide the proper medical personnel, but it also “must pay for the healthcare of those who cannot afford it as part of its provision for the poor” (Dorff, Elliot, Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, 1998, page 307).

Thus our tradition proposes setting up a system with both communal and personal elements to it.  Judaism argues it should be a system built both upon personal responsibility as well as communal obligation.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Spiritually Audacious

What of the challenges I have wrestled with both personally and professionally is the modern and popular concept of ‘spirituality.’  I wrestle with it in part because I am not entirely sure what it means when someone says, “I’m not religious.  I’m spiritual.”

The cynic in me has interpreted this to mean, “I’m religious, but I don’t believe in organized religion.”  My usual response is, “Don’t kid yourself, we’re not that organized.”

But to be cynical and flip does not help others or myself really understand what it means to be spiritual.  To this end, I have had the fortunate opportunity to study with Rabbi Avi Weiss, the Rabbi of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and the founder and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which is based on what he terms, “Open Orthodoxy.”

Open Orthodoxy is an important idea and movement worth exploring, but we will leave that for another blog.  But what Rabbi Weiss has taught about spirituality is that it is, “Being in the moment while feeling the presence of God in the moment.”  As an example he went on to say, “We sing songs about yesterday and tomorrow, but not songs of today.” 

Rabbi Weiss also spoke about how we are, “Always waiting for the next moment, so much so, we fail to live in the moment.  But we have to hold on to the moment with open arms.”  And the way to do this is to recognize, “Prayer as a love encounter.  It is a moment of deep and profound intimacy.”

So ultimately prayer and spirituality should be about connecting us with the Divine, the Holy, with God, with however we imagine that which is beyond us and within us.  But for it to be Jewish, we have to take it one step further which is to bring God’s system of ethics into the world.  In Rabbi Weiss’ view, spirituality is a means to bringing about the goal of ethical monotheism into the greater world.

But there is another step to meaningful spiritual encounters, and that is to be honest and real in our encounter.  As Rabbi David Aaron wrote in Seeing God, “If you want to encounter God’s essence, then you have to be willing to expose your own essence to God.  God can only reflect what you’re presenting… You have to be real to see the Real.”

I am learning that spirituality has less to do with the specific prayers, the specific melodies, even the specific gathering or gathering place, and has more to do with who is in that moment, and whether or not they are choosing to be in the moment and acknowledging God in the moment.

And the best we can do as shleichim tzibur (worship leaders) is to 1. Try our best to model being in the moment, and 2. Offer up worship experiences that have the potential to enable others to be in the moment.  And when I think about this, perhaps the most important concept is to be genuine and authentic. 

This is no easy task.  It requires exertion by both the service leader and those in the minyan.  For in order for it to work, we ascend while the Shechina descends.  And as Rabbi Weiss teaches it is in that intersection we create holistic prayer that “embraces the wider moment and brings it in,” and then enables us to draw it out. “Or as we learn from Psalms (109:4), ‘And I am prayer,’ to which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds one word to the translation, ‘And I am all prayer.’”

As Rabbi Weiss goes on to say, “The way I talk and walk and conduct myself in business; the way I eat and love and interact with others; the way I treat the forlorn, the hungry, the homeless – my very being, my very essence, my every endeavor its tefilla – holistic prayer.”

As Chevy Chase said in the greatest golf movie of all time, Caddyshack, “Be the ball.” So too it is with us.  To be spiritual means, “to be the prayer.”

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Game Changer in Israel

On our recent congregational trip, we had the pleasure of meeting and davening (praying) with Rabbi Miri Gold.  Rabbi Gold was dynamic and engaging, and we enjoyed our worship experience with her. We were later informed that Rabbi Gold was also fighting a very important battle on behalf of all liberal Jews in Israel for the right to be paid by the state to be able to serve her community as a rabbi.

To this end the Attorney General has just released a ruling allowing for Rabbi Miri Gold to serve as a community rabbi.

Now in the U.S. where church and state are supposed to be legally separate entities, the state does not directly subsidize clergy.  However in Israel, which is a Jewish state, clergy, albeit traditionally Orthodox rabbis only, have been paid by the state to serve a variety of communities.

So this is a huge step .  First of all, the state of Israel has acknowleged formally not only a woman rabbi, but a Reform woman rabbi.  Both of which are historic for the progressive movement not only in Israel, but also for us Reform and Conservative Jews in the U.S. and throughout the world.
So today we sound the shofar and celebrate this historic moment!

In response to this historic moment the Israeli Reform Action Center released the following statement:

Dear Partners,

We won! The attorney general has just released his consent to recognize Rabbi Miri Gold as the first Rabbi of a non-Orthodox congregation in the history of the Israel. Drink L'Chayim. Congratulate every Rabbi in our movement. Sound the shofar. Say She'hecheyanu. We won recognition for the first Reform Rabbi in Israel.

Over seven years you have played an invaluable part in this struggle. You stood with Miri every step of the way and we would not have reached this joyous day without your pressure from all corners of the Jewish world. The Israeli Attorney General accepted the request of the court and committed to equal pay for Rabbi Miri Gold for her work at Congregation Birkat Shalom. The State will give her the title "Rabbi".

The decision today paves the way for dozens of other Reform and Conservative Rabbis in Israel to receive a salary from the government for their holy work, in the same way that 4000 Orthodox rabbis do.

This historic victory is another step in leveling the playing field. This allows the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism to build on the success achieved so far by our congregational Rabbis, and deepen our work for the Israeli public.

Rabbi Gold said, “What joy! Finally there's more than one way to be a Rabbi in Israel!”

A few weeks ago, you sent over 5000 emails to Minister Margi telling him that stalling on this issue would fail. Your voice was heard. It is just as important to thank the government for doing the right thing as it is to pressure them when they are not. In that spirit, let’s write to Prime Minister Netanyahu and tell him that we are grateful that our Rabbi, Miri Gold, is finally able to perform her important work as an equal.

Haaretz Op-Ed 'A Huge Leap Forward - Maybe'

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Some Final Thoughts

Last Day 
As I am now home in the presence of my loving and wonderful family, my thoughts still are very much on my recent trip to Israel.  Israel is very much an ancient and modern land filled with dreams, hopes, aspirations, challenges, and contradictions.

It has undergone many significant changes since I was last there.  Some of the changes are for the better, while some unfortunately are not.  For example Israel now has one of the highest disparities. between those who have and those who don’t.  There were recent demonstrations due to the lack of affordable housing.  The Orthodox still have way too much control over Israel.  And there are now far too many cars on the road.  And the Arab shuck is now completely devoid of artisans.

On the flip side, there are now many more amazing restaurants and dining opportunities than ever before. There are more and more incredible and interesting historical sites to visit.  The number of foreign visitors is a site to behold in and of itself.  The artist quarter of Tzefat is thriving once again, and the quality and quantity of Judaica is simply a wonder to behold.

A few last random thoughts:

You won’t find Kahlua in kosher restaurants and hotels.  Just ask David, he tried everywhere.

Israeli beers are still not very good, but there are now microbrews that are making a better name and brew.  However they do now have at least one new fan.

Quality shopping can be found in the most unexpected of places

WiFi is not nearly as free as it should be

Everyone still has an opinion about everything, and every resident can do a better job of being Prime Minister.

Fox News is the favorite international news channel

And yes, even walking every day all day, with this food, one can and should gain weight.

And the game of punning is alive and well.  Between Mike and myself, we caused almost as much groaning as Pharaoh did to the Israelites 2500 years ago.

When I lived in Israel fourteen years ago, I was struggling through my life there.  I was trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to learn a new language.  I was wrestling with the meaning of being a rabbinic student.  I was navigating the realities of living life in modern Israel. 

Coming back, I have spent nearly a decade as a rabbi.  I have learned so much more about our people, heritage, and tradition because I have been living it and teaching it.  This time in Israel I was much better able to contextualize everything that I was seeing as I have studied it, taught it, or sermonized it at one time or another. 

And yet, I feel there is so much more to see and do.  For a land no bigger than New Jersey, there is a tremendous amount packed into every nook and cranny.  I can’t wait until I return again.

Thank you to David for coordinating the trip.  Thank you to Mike for leading.  To Yossi who can maneuver a bus in places that only a proctologist would dare.  And lastly, thank you to all of the members of the Har Sinai Congregation Israel 2012 trip.  L’shana Ha’ba’ah B’Yerushalayim, Next Year (or at least 2014) in Jerusalem!

All Good Things...

Our final day concluded with one last really good meal.  We had dinner at the Israel Museum.  Thankfully there was a little more falafel to be had, as I didn't have time to get one last falafel while I was in Jerusalem.

Melanie and Peggy at Dinner 
We toasted each other.  Thanked Mike one last time, and then ten of us were off on the bus to Ben Gurion Airport.

Typical of travel in Israel, it only took those of us flying El Al, two hours to get through the myriad of security challenges.  There is a reason why they are the safest airline in the world.  And yet, they still refused to believe that I was a rabbi.  Though truth be told, by this time, I had shaven off my goatee.

Thankfully I had wonderful company on the flight back because the seats were immensely uncomfortable and the food was much worse than the flight over.  Next time I think I am going to have to look into British Airways.

But in the meantime, I am writing this as I am now home.  I am exhausted, and doing laundry.  But all in all, it was a tremendously amazing trip.  The only regret, I forgot to pack my teva sandals and take them with me to Israel.  I can't wait to go back!

Israel Day 10 - The Israel Museum and Shrine of the Book

Our final day in Israel wrapped up with a tour of the Israel Museum.  Since I had last been in Israel, the Holy Land Hotel had been sold and demolished to make way for luxury high-rises.  This project led to the indictment of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  However that is a blog for another day.

But the Holy Land Hotel was famous for its large scale model of ancient Jerusalem.  Thankfully someone or several someones had enough wisdom to move the model to the Israel Museum, where it now proudly stands.  The model was the vision of Mr. Hans Kroch, the original owner of the Holy Land Hotel, which he created in memory of family members he lost in the Holocaust.  To build it, he entrusted Biblical and archeological expert Professor Avi Yonah.  Professor Yonah was working without access to much of archaeological Jerusalem at that time, and many finds have been discovered ever since.

And yet, much of the model is still believed to be fairly accurate, with only small changes having been made since it was moved to the Israel Museum.

We then continued on with a tour of the Shrine of the Book, which houses several of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered in Qumran, a small community located outside of Jerusalem.  It was sort of a monastery for its day with the inhabitants leading a very strict Jewish life.  They believed that the Jerusalem was facing destruction and by only living a pure Jewish life would they survived to rebuild.

The community lasted approximately 200 years.  Scholars sometimes refer to its inhabitants as the Essenes, a group first described by Josephus.  Their collection includes at least fragments of every book of the Hebrew Bible except the book of Esther, though no one is entirely sure why.  One theory is that the book of Esther does not contain the name of, nor mention of God.

This group, which some scholars speculate was made up of mostly priests, have provided us, if accidentally the oldest proof text of the Hebrew Bible dating back nearly a millennium before the previous oldest proof text.

The museum now also holds the Aleppo Codex, a tenth century medieval manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.  Both the story behind the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex would make for excellent movies in and of themselves.  Thankfully both now rest in the hands of this amazing museum where they can be studied by scholars for generations to come.

Just one last aside, I always thought of the architecture of the Shrine of the Book to be that of a Hershey's Kiss.  Alas that illusion has been dispelled.  It was designed to look like the tops of the containers in which the scrolls were found.

Now it looks more like something you might find in a restroom.  But I'll let you be the judge.

Israel Day 10 - The Western Wall Tunnel

One place I had not made it to when I was a student was the recently opened Western Wall Tunnel.  The Kotel (also known as the Western Wall or Wailing Wall) is only a small fraction of the much larger retaining wall upon which the Temple Mount currently stands.

Archeologists along with religious Jews have been digging a tunnel that runs the entirety of the Western Wall.  This wall was a matter of controversy, though much of the controversy actually was based on simple misunderstandings, which unfortunately happen all too often in the Middle East.

Part of this controversy is because the Temple Mount now houses two of Islam's most important holy sites the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.  A rumor started spreading that the tunnel was being created to undermine the foundations of these two sites.  Sadly far too many lives were lost before the correct information was disseminated and the public realized they had been misinformed about the nature of the tunnel.

There is a point in the tunnel that gets one as physically close to where the Holy of Holies once stood without standing on the Temple Mount.  One can find Orthodox Women praying there.  It is believed to be a particularly holy site.

I found it to be a fascinating tour:

Interactive Model of the Western Wall Tunnel

Pillars dating back to Roman times

Cistern at the end of the Tunnel

Israel Day 10 - First Stop: Yad LaKashish

Our last day in Israel started out with a visit to a unique place Yad LaKashish, also known as Lifeline for the Old.  Founded by Miriam Mendilow in 1962, Yad LaKashish was created of a growing neglect of the elderly.  Located in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, Yad LaKashish is now a place where an estimated 300 elderly men and women as well as those unable to fully work come and do embroidery, metal working, silk painting, wood work, paper mache, and so much more.  For their efforts, those working at Yad LaKashish, all of whom are at or below the poverty level, receive remuneration for their efforts.  But more than that, they also receive a sense of dignity, self respect, and are able to spend time outside of their apartments interacting with one in other.

Many of the artisans at Yad LaKashish are recent immigrants to Israel.  Many of them came from the Former Soviet Union and North African countries, and do not have any retirement to speak of, let alone to count on.  Many of them also came with minimal skills or with skills that they could not develop in Israel, so they are now developing a wide range of artistic skills.

We received an amazing tour of the facility, which though isn't much from the outside, is an amazing corridor of workshops.  But of course the best part was the gift shop.  Yad LaKashish receives at least twenty percent of its funding from sales from the gift shop.  And lest you think you are performing an act of tzedakah in buying something from it, the art work there is spectacular.  Among other things I bought a tallis that is simply divine.

They receive the rest of their funding from donations and grants.  As even though they help the elderly by not only providing them with at least one hot meal a day and bus passes, and a paycheck, they do not receive any funding from the government.

If you are in Jerusalem or planning a trip, make sure to stop off at Yad LaKashish.  And if you are in charge of making purchases for your gift shop, contact them.  They now have more artwork than they know what to do with, despite our best attempt to buy out the store.  For more information, you can click on the link below.

Special thanks to David for telling us about this amazing place

David with our guide
Yad LaKashish

Or you can read about it in Haaretz

Day 9 (Cont.) Israel and Progressive Judaism

One of the intriguing aspects of our time in Israel is this was my first time back as a rabbi.  Yet the majority of 'secular' Israelis we encountered could not believe that I was a rabbi.  Now granted I do not wear a black hat nor have a long beard (though I was working on a goatee), which means I do not fit the stereotypical version of what a rabbi in Israel is.

The reality is that progressive Jews and progressive Judaism has been in Israel since well before its founding.  And yet, far too many Israelis are only nominally aware of it.  There are both reform and conservative congregations scattered throughout Israel.  And there are more and more home grown rabbis, which also helps.  But there are still many challenges facing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

To combat these challenges has been and continues to be the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary.  The IRAC, which like its counter part in the States, the Religious Action Center, fights for rights based on Reform Jewish values. However, unlike the RAC, it also has a legal arm that will fight out many of these cases before the Israeli Supreme Court.

We learned a great deal about the efforts of IRAC from Paula Edelstein, the chair of the IRAC steering committee.  Paula has lived most of her adult life in Israel.  She has done any number of amazing things, and her work with IRAC is very significant.

We learned how IRAC is fighting to have Reform Rabbis recognized by the State and to have equal financial support given to them as is given to Orthodox Rabbis.  We learned how the IRAC is fighting against second class seating on buses for women.  For a nation that fought similar fights in the 60s in the US, it is simply astounding that we are now having the same fights in Israeli in the 2000s.  There are the issues of not recognizing weddings performed by Reform rabbis in Israel, and the lack of modern education for most yeshiva students.  Ms. Edelstein spoke about these challenges and many more with passion.

However she began her talk by stating that she loves Israel, and she wants the best for Israel.  I feel it is important for us as Reform Jews to continue to support the efforts of IRAC who are working to bring about a better Israel.  You can find out more at the link below

As an aside, we had dinner with Mr. Edelstein at a wonderful restaurant called Olive and Fish.  It was there that two of us were introduced to one of Israel's new micro-brews Shapiro.  Founded by six brothers, Shapiro beer is becoming a favorite amongst Jerusalemites.  One of our group members really liked the Pale Ale, where I thoroughly enjoyed the Stout.  It, like Guinness, is a meal in and of itself.  First wines, and now beers.  Israel really is becoming a food and drink 'mecca.'

Israel Religious Action Center

Article on Shapiro Beer