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

Israel Day 9 (Cont.) Renewal and the Geopolitical Reality of Modern Israel

Our day continued with lunch at the Yad Vashem cafeteria.  And then we, as all Museums end, we spent time in the gift shop.  It was somehow strangely refreshing that amidst all the horror, one can go up and buy a magen david (a Star of David), and wear it proudly.  Before it was a symbol of Jewish suffering and oppression, and now it is a symbol once again of Jewish defiance and strength.

Our tour continued on into the Judean hills where we planted trees in a Jewish National Fund Forest.  Israel is the only modern country where there are now more trees than when the country was founded.  Hundreds of millions have been planted.  The trees for decades prior had been mostly pine trees, but now they recognize the need for ecological diversity, and they now plant a variety of them. 

It was a nice contrast to be able to leave the horrors of the Holocaust and know that we could use our hands to help bring about new life in our people’s homeland.

The tree I planted in honor of my family.  May its roots grow to nourish it, and may it grow tall and strong 

Overlooking the JNF Forest
Our trip then continued on to the outskirts of Jerusalem.  From there we looked out onto Bethlehem and discussed the realities of the “Security Fence,” and its ramifications for Israel and the Palestinians. 

Without going into too much detail, for most Israelis, the fence is not at question.  Ever since its construction, there have been almost no suicide bombings.  There have been almost no significant acts of terror.  The only question really is how the fence is set up.  Most of the fence is not a wall, but instead it is a series of fences with a security road. 

The IDF initially was not very deliberate in how it built the fence often times separating community from community and communities from their olive groves and other means of income.  Following a significant court case, whereby several miles of very expensive fence had to be relocated, the IDF and Israeli government are now more deliberate about where they set the fence up.

I firmly believe that Israel’s first role is to protect its citizens, and there are those who may disagree with me, but I found it helpful to look out and see the reality of the fence.

Maybe one day the fence will no longer be necessary.  But until that day…

The 'Security Fence'

Israel Day 9 - Yad Vashem

It is impossible to describe the overwhelming emotional nature of Yad Vashem.  The phrase Yad Vashem  comes for a biblical passage of Isaiah 56:5, "And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (Yad Vashem) that shall never be cut off."

Yad Vashem is Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Museum, and research center.  But it is so much more than that, it is the lasting embodiment of the horrors of evil as well as the dedicated legacy to remember all those 6 million Jews who were annihilated simply because they were Jewish.

There is a new Historical Museum, which was constructed since I was last at Yad Vashem.  Since my last visit to Yad Vashem I have also visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles as well as the United States National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  Each one of these museums have powerful stories to tell.  But I have not been this affected by them in a long long time.

We were guided through by Mike, whose knowledge of all of Israel and of the Holocaust narrative is simply astounding.  One element he emphasized that particularly impacted me was that unlike all other genocides, which are equally horrific, its that this is the only one set out to completely annihilate one people, everywhere, not just in the borders of any one particular country.  

There is no making sense of the Holocaust.  There is no understanding.  All we can do is provide context to be able to see in ourselves the broader narrative that made such events possible.  And all we can do is cherish those whose lives were cut short, many of whom we do not even know there names.  

As of today, approximately 4.5 million victims have been identified.  This effort was greatly aided with the fall of the former Soviet Union and access to its records.

Of course the most powerful and moving part of the memorial is the Children's Memorial.  Approximately 1.5 million victims of the Holocaust were children.  It is a silent memorial where a small number of candles are reflected towards infinity to create a sense of all of the lights that were extinguished.

They say the 11th Commandment is to never forget!  The Holocaust is the most well documented event in all of human history.  As we say with a sense of irony, "at least the Germans were excellent at record keeping."  

To those who would deny the Holocaust, may their names always burn in places where the most evil suffer.  Yes I know we Jews do not believe in the classic sense of Hell.  But these voices were forever silenced, and only we are left to testify.

I believe that many deniers really don't care about the Holocaust at all, but instead in some perverse way believe that by denying it, they can delegitimize the State of Israel.  Which they mistakenly believe was the impetus for the founding of Israel.  That somehow the world felt guilty.  The truth is, Israel was going to exist regardless of the Holocaust.  And if only it had existed at the time, then perhaps Yad Vashem would not need to stand today.  

I almost never cry.  But on this day I did.

We said Kaddish together as a group.  Because what else can you do?  

Israel Day 9 - The Chagall Windows of Hadassah Hospital

Our day started off with a visit to Hadassah Hospital.  Originally Hadassah Hospital was located on Mt. Scopus, but following the War for Independence, it was cut off from the rest of Jerusalem.  So after a period of wandering in the wilderness, they built a whole new premier campus elsewhere in Jerusalem. To commemorate this campus, the hospital approached famous artist Marc Chagall to create a series of stained glass windows for a synagogue located inside the hospital.

Typically when one comes back to a place after a long time, everything seems smaller.  In this case, I remember the windows being much smaller than they actually are, which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

Chagall offered to do the windows for free, minus the cost of supplies.  When several of the windows were later destroyed in 67, he replaced them, but left a hole in each of the restored windows as a reminder of the shrapnel.  However when the windows were sent off for cleaning, the repairmen actually fixed all of the holes unintentionally.  So now only one of these reminders remain.

The windows represent the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel).  And they are based on Genesis 49, where Jacob 'blesses' his twelve sons.  My favorite is of course Benjamin, but there symbols that abound in all of the windows.

These windows also represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the forerunners of our people.  However Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, never actually became one of the twelve tribes.  Instead Jacob 'adopted' Joseph's two sons Menasseh and Ephraim, two sort of half tribes.  But no matter the Biblical History, the windows are absolutely stunning.

And one interesting side note: Chagall signed his name in every window in English, except the tribe of Judah, which he signed his name in Hebrew.  Judah is the tribe from which the name Jew is derived, and from which most Jews can trace their ancestry back to.

However photography is strongly discouraged as it is a house of worship, so instead, I am attaching photos from the web.  However these pictures don't do justice to the actual windows.  So I highly recommend stopping by, if ever you find yourself in Jerusalem.

Hadassah Hospital is one of the premier hospitals in the region.  Plus, as we noted on our way in and out, it has a mall inside its walls that make it worth visiting, even if it is only for the shopping and baked goods.  Something I wouldn't mind seeing in other hospitals.

Day 8 - Dead Sea Mud

There is also a tradition of covering oneself in mud from the Dead Sea.  One can often pay a small fortune in cosmetic stores to acquire this mineral rich sublime material.  But at the Dead Sea it is readily available. (Note: some pictures have been edited to protect the 'innocent').

Stewart Sachs, President of Har Sinai Congregation

Now it is time for a shower!