Death Healing Israel

Letter from Jerusalem: Love must win 

Thursday, July 30 was planned as a day of celebration of tolerance and acceptance, a day to embrace difference, a day to lift up diversity and cooperation in Israel’s capital as the municipality hosted Jerusalem’s gay pride parade. I arrived in Jerusalem and was delighted to see rainbow flags lining some of the main streets. Near the American Embassy a huge banner declared, in English letters, “LOVE WINS!” The message was repeated in languages from the region and from across the world.

When evening fell and the heat of the day dissipated, we learned of the twin acts of terror that crushed the hopes with which the day began. Eighteen month old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death in his Duma home by ultra religious Jewish terrorists. One hour away, Shira Banki, walking with friends and classmates in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, was stabbed by a man who had been released weeks earlier after serving ten years in prison for a similar attack on the 2005 Jerusalem parade. Shira died three days later. Ali’s father, Sa’ad died ten days later. Ali’s mother and 4 year old brother are being treated for major burns, and five other marchers are recovering from stab wounds.

The handwritten sign on the Banki’s door announced shiva from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. On Thursday, August 6th, we were the first to enter the shiva house. At first, we did not realize that we had been welcomed by Mika, Shira’s mother, because she seemed so young herself. “We are private people,” she said. “We asked that there be no press at the funeral, and none at the shiva, and they have been very respectful.” We leaned in to hear her as others joined us in the garden, a gracious outdoor space shared by the residents of the apartment building. “We recently celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah here. As we sat here, we realized it is a lovely space for a wedding. Perhaps, one day, Shira’s wedding. Here we are, with guests and tables filled with food, but this is not a wedding…”

We came with a gift, a book of 1720 signatures and notes of condolence from across the world, collected by the Israel Religious Action Center. Anat Hoffman, the Center’s director, had written Shira’s name on a stone that Shira’s mom held in her hand as she spoke. “The shiva is allowing me an additional week of not comprehending what has happened. Shira is the eldest of our four children. Our house is always open, always filled with our children and their friends. We raised our children to be open, to find their own voice, to walk their own path.”

We sat with Mika, we, four women who have also raised children, three of us now grandmothers. We came as representatives of thousands of others like ourselves who are stunned by the violence that, in one day, shattered the life of many families.

I have visited many shiva houses In the last fifty plus years. I have sat with many who have lost beloveds, both those who have suffered a sudden loss, and those who have sat for days and months at the bedsides of dear ones and watched helplessly as their lives slipped away.

As we sat in the Banki’s garden, we felt Shira’s absence and her presence. The photos of Shira introduced us to a smiling, engaged young woman, who would have celebrated her sixteenth birthday in three months.

This will be the third Shabbat since these twin attacks. When Shabbat ends, Jews across the world will welcome the month of Elul. Our tradition teaches the power of this last month of the year in which we prepare for Rosh HaShanah. Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, the four letters of the Hebrew name of the month, echo the words of the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs: Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li: I am My Beloved and my Beloved is mine.

How can we love in the shadow of hate? Each new year we are challenged to Choose Life. Our tradition invites us to acknowledge our own fears of death when we sit with the bereaved. This is how we choose life.

Our Judaism urges us, even in the presence of senseless hatred, to affirm love. Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.We inscribe these words of love on wedding rings and sing them as we celebrate love and commitment. These words direct this month of reviewing our days, reconsidering our choices, reaffirming our commitments.

We choose life when we weave these words into the oft-quoted words attributed to the ancient sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

When love wins, we see that If I am not for myself, I cannot be present for another. When love wins, we understand that when we are only for ourselves, we cannot see even the beloved who is before me. When love wins, we grasp that the time is now. Now is the time to choose life, and love.

Our humanity is absolutely bound up with the humanity of others. There is no room for hate in our fragile, interdependent world. We can transform fear of the other into curiosity, and build respect in the place of ignorance.  There is only one people, one fate, one earth, one destiny. The perpetuation of a fiction of essential otherness is a recipe for annhilation.

Just as Eve and Adam left Eden, we took our leave of the Banki family in their garden. When shiva ended, they, too, left their garden. We must honor the memory of Shira Banki and the memories of Ali and Sa’ad Dawabsheh by choosing life, and love. Love must win.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. She is also the editor of The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002).

This blog was originally posted in Washington Jewish Week.

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This Mini-War: In Israel, On the Road Between Jerusalem and Tzur Hadassah

My week.

Monday evening sitting in someone’s home in Tzur Hadassah, around 10 p.m. Talking about some great ideas. Suddenly, without warning, the alarm siren goes off. We are sitting in his protected room. He and his wife hesitated to bring their kids until they heard the booms (the booms, as I learned later, can be heard from pretty far away, as my husband in Jerusalem about 20 kilometers away, who had grabbed our three sleeping children and brought them downstairs in our building to the most protected area, heard them too).

I was shaken up. I called Tamir, my native Israeli husband, and asked what should I do? Sleep over? He said, “Mah pit’om…what suddenly?…Come home.” So, after chatting a bit more to calm my nerves, I drove home, keeping my brother in Columbus, Ohio, on the line as I made the 25 minute ride. This week, by the way, I have not taken the “tunnels road” that crosses the green line for 10 minutes going by Beitar Ilit and Hussan. And I have found that the most veteran Tzur Hadassah residents are doing the same.

Tamir’s words to me when I came home were: This is what you do: When there is a siren, you go immediately to the protected space. When it’s over, you carry on as usual. These are the orders of the home command.

So, when my friend asked if I thought she should still have her daughter’s birthday party at a park on Thursday afternoon, I said yes – carry on as usual. We’re sitting in the park, the kids are in the mini pool. We’re eating hotdogs, talking about the situation. And, yup, here comes Jerusalem alarm siren #2. We go to the nearest building, huddling in the hallway, until a local says, “Come down to the bomb shelter.” There we go, all set up. My son, almost 7, who is enthralled with his newly acquired reading skills, had to be torn away from his book to go into the building. The second he entered the bomb shelter, he found a chair, sat down, and continued reading. My daughter, when I shouted at her to come, stared at my dumbfounded. Eventually, she came. All the moms tried to play off their nerves once we got to the bomb shelter, saying to their kids, “Isn’t this fun? What a great room!” The birthday mom took a photo – a birthday party to remember! She reminded of my words “carry on”. I stood by them. After the few minutes passed and we heard the booms, we returned to the birthday party.

Carrying on.

I left Tamir with the kids at the party to continue on to a wedding that I was officiating at. The wedding was supposed to be at a moshav where the couple lives, near Tzur Hadassah. The bride called me Tuesday. “Stacey, are you still officiating at our wedding on the moshav, with the situation?” Me: “Are you still getting married?” Yes. “So, of course I’m coming.” The bride called me Wednesday. They decided to move the wedding and found a place in Jerusalem, very accessible to a protected area, unlike the space on the moshav. The alarm had gone off two hours before we stood underneath their huppah, everyone there determined to celebrate with them. (And it was a beautiful wedding).

I went to my congregation in Tzur Hadassah for kabbalat Shabbat services last night. Not too many people were there. (Everyone the night before had cancelled coming to our Torah study – just after the alarm siren). The prayers took on a different meaning. They asked to recite birkat hagomel, the blessing for someone who had gone through a life-threatening experience. We all recited the blessing. And we all recited the response. Certain prayers stood out to me Hashkivenu Adonai Eloheinu L’shalom…. Oh Adonai, our God, lie us down in peace, and rise us up, our Sovereign, to life….We read selections about peace, hope, and faith, which the Reform Movement had sent us. We prayed for peace for all peoples.

Tonight at 7 p.m. was alarm siren #3 in Jerusalem. My son jumped to attention immediately and walked calmly downstairs. My daughter again hesitated. When we are down there, my daughter (age 4) asks, “Why are we here?” My son (age 7) answers, “So we won’t die.” I again, am shaken by the experience. My husband says, “You haven’t gotten used to it, huh?” I ask my son, “Were you scared?” He says, “No.” I believe him. I was about to leave for Tzur Hadassah for an event we have been planning for many weeks now with an artist who arrived from the North. Should we cancel? No, was everyone’s response. We carry on as usual. I sent out the text message – “There’s wine, there’s art, and there’s a safe room – come to the kehilah!”

In the middle of the evening – which really was very lovely – we heard booms without any alarm. People whipped out their phones. There was a hit but not exactly in our area to warrant the alarm. A few people jumped up and left. Everyone else wanted to stay, but you could see that people were having a harder time focusing. We continued on, but not for too much longer.

What to think being here? What message do I want to send my family and friends abroad? I feel I must respond. On the one hand, I am not afraid. I am in awe of my country Israel, which goes to such great lengths to protect its citizens – the Iron Dome is amazing. Of the thousands of recruits who are being called up to serve and go willingly. Of the people in my communities who offer help and who seek my and my congregation’s help to get through this. It’s really a test of nerves. That what the terrorists want – to get on our nerves. Of the daily life that continues here. I think of the Palestinians getting killed, both guilty and innocent. I think that there are hundreds of armed conflicts going on around the world. I reflect: Why? How could a person think this is preferred over living in peace?

What is this thing called humanity? For this we were created? These images of God who are set on killing and terrorizing? Here is nothing compared to other places in the world. A bar mitzvah parent just wrote me – oh yes, remember when we had that sniper running around the D.C. area? Now that was scary!

I suggest to everyone to do what your conscience leads you toward – come here/be here, if you are prepared for more uncertainty than usual, still witness to a thriving moving society where everything is open and happening. Or donate money to causes that helping those who are really caught in the thick of things in the settlements close to Gaza. Petition the leadership, all leadership and every leadership, to give full gas to bring PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

And, as my congregants and I determined last night, never lose hope or faith.

This blog originally appeared on

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I Am The Egg (Wo)Man: Reflections on Rosh Chodesh Av with Women of the Wall

“Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she is become a mockery. All who admired her despise her, for they have seen her disgraced;and she can only sigh and shrink back.”

–Eicha (Lamentations) 1:8

The first 9 days of Av are seen in traditional Judaism as days of, if not mourning, then solemnity. We do not feast, we do not celebrate; we are once again living through the days leading up to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, as many have already noted, one of the most significant statements the rabbis make about that destruction is that the blame cannot be placed on Roman shoulders. Why, they ask, was the Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam–baseless hatred. And so Monday morning, as I looked at the faces of the Haredim crowding the Kotel plaza, as I looked at the faces of these men and women who are supposed to be my kinsmen (and women), I felt not anger and not hatred, but deep, deep sadness.

It seems that the same cannot be said from the other side. It is not sadness that compels one Jew–one human being!–to call another Jew a Nazi. It is not sadness that sent a hard-boiled egg flying through the air as a projectile, landing solidly (and not comfortably) on my neck. And it is not sadness that raised male voices to drown ours out.

Talking with a mentor last night, I asked. I asked about the deep anger, and hatred. I said: I just can’t understand. Why? Why such deep anger and hatred? And she, who comes from a far more traditional world than I do, said two things. First, the part I know but hate to acknowledge. There are people–and I refuse to paint the entire Haredi world with one brush, just as I wish they would not paint all liberal Jews with one–in that world who truly believe, to the depths of their soul, that I come to Jerusalem, I come to the Wall, I come to the world, to destroy Judaism.

But, she said something else that, rather than enrage me, gave me some hope. She said that their anger came from a place of fear. That these men and women are looking around and seeing a changing world. They are seeing a world that is increasingly adapt or die, and they choose–time and again–not to adapt. And so I thought back over the faces I saw in that space. And I thought to myself–maybe there is one girl, or one boy, there who looked at us and saw not rodfim, those who seek to do harm to Judaism and the Jewish people, but who saw something new. Maybe there was one boy–or one girl–who looked up and saw in my face, or the face of someone standing next to me, something familiar. Maybe there was one girl–or one boy–who heard in my prayers something exciting. Maybe someone there looked up and saw new possibilities, a different way to live, a living and breathing Judaism.

I happened to be standing next to one of my mentors during the tefillot, and she later shared with me the conversation she had with a little girl standing near her–a rabbi’s daughter. This little girl asked the simplest–and of course most difficult–question to answer. Why, she, asked, were the men on the other side of the barricade trying to drown out our prayers? “The women sing so beautifully,” she said. “Why would they do that?”

IMG_2645The men on the other side of the barricades alternated between screaming and blowing whistles to disrupt us, or simply trying to pray louder. I preferred the latter. Because there was a moment, maybe just before the egg jolted me back to reality, where I was able to live in a different reality–a vision of a Jerusalem that is truly ha-banuyah (rebuilt). In that moment, the voices of women were raised in prayer and song, and the voices of the men were raised as well. And I imagined–just for those moments–that together the voices of Israel, the voices of the Jewish people, reached straight up to heaven.

There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the erasure of women’s voices and women’s bodies from the public sphere in Israel, over what seems to be a campaign by the Haredi community to silence women. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the role of the Haredi community and the rabbanut in controlling religious life in Israel. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, that even despite a clear court ruling, we were barred from the Kotel itself for the first time in 25 years. Others have and will say it better than I can. Because on Monday, for me, anger was not the predominant emotion coursing through my veins. Hatred was not the overriding feeling of the day. Sadness was.

But, that being said, I have to point out the feeling is NOT mutual. Only one side has interest in listening to the other, only one side speaks of shared space, and only one side uses vehement hate speech and physical violence to stake its claim. And the government, despite the progress in court, continues to cater to only the one side, the loudest side. And with all of my idealism, all of my hope–I simply don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know where that can go.

As a Reform Jew, I have long struggled with the meaning and ritual of Tisha B’Av. I have learned and studied over the years; this week at the Hartman Institute, we wrestled with the notions of and texts on communal mourning. I do not wish to see the Temple rebuilt speedily in my day, and so what do I do with this holiday?

Yesterday might have given me an answer. I mourn not for what was, but for what could be and isn’t. I mourn for the fact that I, by virtue of biology, am denied full access to the Kotel. I mourn for the fact that this land that I love, this place whose vision was to be a home for the Jewish people, cannot get itself past a single definition of Judaism–even as its people define themselves in all shades of grey. And I mourn, perhaps most of all, for those voices, male and female, that could be rising up to heaven (or wherever I believe the Divine resides) together, indistinguishable by gender or religious definition, simply united in hope and in comfort, in petition and in praise, in sadness and in joy.

The next Rosh Chodesh we will usher in will be Elul, the month of penitence and preparation for the High Holy Days. I will be back in the United States, though my prayers and heart will be with Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall. And as they–and we–pray the words of Psalm 27:

Only this do I ask of God,

Only this do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s  Temple.

I will be praying that that house, that beauty, is wide and rich and imaginative enough to hold all of us—male, female, Haredi, Reform, and everywhere in between–in one room, with one voice and one vision.

For the sake of Jerusalem I will not, I cannot, I must not be silent.

rabbi_sari_laufer_headshotRabbi Sari Laufer serves Rodeph Sholom Congregation in New York City.

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New Walls, Old Walls: Your Thoughts on Next Steps?

Rosh Hodesh Sivan in Madison Square Park in NYC, in solidarity with Women of the Wall
Rosh Hodesh Sivan in Madison Square Park in NYC, in solidarity with Women of the Wall

“My daughter was at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, witnessed the violence against Women of the Wall and is now afraid to return again.”

This troubling comment was shared last week by one of the participants at the most recent meeting of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America during which we engaged in another conversation with Natan Sharansky.  At the meeting, Mr. Sharanksy once again updated us and sought feedback about his proposal for the Kotel and next steps towards implementation. I was privileged to attend this meeting representing the Reform Movement, together with CCAR President Rick Block and Immediate Past President Jonathan Stein, URJ President Rick Jacobs, and Bennett Miller, the Chair of ARZA.

When I asked Mr. Sharansky for his opinion about the likelihood of success in the implementation of his plan, especially with so many prior disappointments on this issue, he emphasized Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recognition of the importance of Diaspora Jewry, as well as the active voices of the North American leadership especially in the Reform Movement. Also, of course, he acknowledged that the publicity associated with the arrests of Women of the Wall has contributed not just to public pressure in North America but also a growing awareness of this issue in Israel too.  We will hopefully also continue the conversation not just about the Wall itself but also about the reorganization of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

The organizations of the Reform Movement who were in the room with Mr. Sharansky have decried the violence of last Rosh Hodesh at the Wall, and on any occasion for that matter.  That violence was in sharp contrast to Rosh Hodesh Sivan in Madison Square Park in NYC where several hundred of us gathered for a lovely, sunny solidarity service held with the Women of the Wall who gathered that day in Jerusalem.  CCAR members Rabbi Jackie Ellenson welcomed the group, Rabbi Sari Laufer led the t’filah and Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman read Torah. ACC Cantor Benjy Shiller also led the t’filah.  The Reform Movement was front and center in its support of this event, with Rabbi Steve Fox (CCAR Chief Executive), Rabbi Alan Henkin (CCAR’s Director of Rabbinical Placement), and me all in attendance.

The CCAR has been on record since 1990 in support of the work of the Women of the Wall.  At that time the Conference declared support for Women of the Wall and:

a. Bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall–something now forbidden;

b. Women having the option of joining prayer groups at the Wall;

c. Women holding and reading a Sefer Torah;

d. The impropriety of Jews barring other Jews from praying at this holy place in peace and dignity”

We should all applaud the work of our CCAR colleagues, Stuart Weinblatt, Chair and Gerald Weider, Director, of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Federation. Their efforts have been amazing in moving these conversations forward in a civil and respectful manner among Jewish leadership from all walks of life.

What would you consider to be the next steps in this process of bringing freedom of religion to the Kotel?

Rabbi Deborah Prinz is Director of Program and Member Services & Director of the Joint Commission on Rabbinic Mentoring at the CCAR. 

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Obama’s Trip to Israel: A Rabbi’s Perspective

obama speechI’ve had a running dialogue with a friend in my congregation over the past four plus years.  I know I’m not the only one to have experienced this exchange (or something akin to it.)  My friend, let’s call him “Sam,” will approach me – at the Oneg Shabbat, at other congregational events, when we meet elsewhere in the community, and quite often during our recent congregational trip to Israel (in late December) when Sam joined the group for his first-ever trip to Israel.  The conversation often starts with something like, “So Eric,  “Is Obama good for Israel?”  Sometimes it’s “Don’t you realize that Obama is no friend of Israel?”  Once in a while it’s been, “Don’t you think that deep-down Obama is not only really anti-Israel but perhaps a bit anti-Semitic?”  Recently – every week in the past month plus, it’s been, “So what do you think about Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel?”

Some of you are smiling because you, too, have either been asked, or have yourselves asked some of these questions.  My reply to that last one over the past weeks, not uniquely my own, has been “there are those who’ve been angry with the President for not visiting Israel during his first term in office.  Now they’re angry that he’s going.”

Let me admit, I, too wish our President had visited Israel, as President of the United States during his first term in office.  I don’t know if it would have changed much on the ground – and we’ll never know. But I also remind myself, this was not Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  It was President Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  We can’t change the past.  “Should have,” “would have,” “wish he would have” don’t help us going forward.  And now, our President has visited Israel.  In fact, he’s only just left on Air Force One for the next stop on his trip.

Like many, I followed the news of the President’s visit to Israel.  I’ve read the various commentaries.  Courtesy of YouTube early this morning I listened to the President’s address at IMG_4022
Binyanei Ha-uma
– the Convention Center in Jerusalem.  It would have taken less time to read the transcript, but I wanted to hear his voice, see his face and hear his interaction with those seated in that hall where I myself have sat at many a performance and conference over the years. I sat down, imagined myself in the audience – both within the hall and beyond – and listened to the President of the United States address those assembled “around me” and those listening in from around the world.  Thus far, I’ve tried to steer clear of the commentary on his speech.  I wanted first to reflect on my own kishkes, my own gut and how I am feeling about what I heard.

I am proud of my President for the message he delivered yesterday in Jerusalem.  Do I agree with 100% of what he said?  Not quite.  But I found his message powerful, honest (and I do believe that he honestly spoke what is in his kishkes).  I also found his message to be respectful of our Jewish heritage, our Jewish past, of Israel’s history, her leaders in generations gone by, and her peoples’ existential realities.  I also found his message to be clear and forthright when it comes to the need for Israel – and others – to not “give up” on peace, no matter how hard the road to peace may be.  I found his call for justice to be consonant with what I believe is at the heart of our Jewish tradition’s value system.  I found his clear-throated call for “two states for two peoples,” and his acknowledgement that this is about the young people, the children and their future to be spot on.

I would like to believe him when he identifies Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as Israel’s true partners for peace.  I would.  But my kishkes are in a knot on that question.  President Obama’s clear denunciation of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Assad and his acknowledgment of the challenges of Israel’s difficult neighborhood and the events of the past two years in that neighborhood are realistic, not starry-eyed.

I applaud President Obama for his repeated reprise of the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States. I believe he means it.  But I also applaud him for acknowledging that the easy road would be unqualified and uncritical support for whatever Israel’s leaders and people do.  Again and again, he noted that ultimately it is for Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their differences and to choose their paths. At the same time, he called for sanity and responsibility as he called for justice and the pursuit of peace – not with blindness, but with open eyes, and a sense of reality to what actions create obstacles that prevent any progress towards what most Israelis and most Palestinians ultimately want – to live their lives.

148591_455673200821_6598853_nDuring our congregational trip to Israel in December we visited a school in the Arab Israeli village of Nahaf, near Carmiel in the Galilee.  We met with Rabbi Mark Rosenstein, who lives in the nearby community of Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980’s by a group of young American immigrants. Mark has worked as director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence.   After speaking to our group about the challenges between Israeli Jews and Israel Arabs, he introduced us to a group of Israeli Arab high school students from the village who sat with us, first in small groups, and then in one larger circle to talk about their lives, their hopes and their dreams.  I will never forget “Sam’s” words to me as we boarded the bus after our time with the students which went something like this: “These are wonderful kids.  They deserve a wonderful future. I hope that we can make that happen.”  So today I say to Sam: “How do I feel about President’s visit to Israel?  I feel very good about it.  He called Israel – and the Palestinians — to work towards the same future you spoke of as we boarded our bus that day in December.”

These past few days have been about words, photos, symbolism and yes, politics.  President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday was also about the affirmation of the enduring and unbreakable bond between our two nations, about the acknowledgment of the enduring thirst for security and freedom which we Jews will celebrate and study in the coming days of Pesach. They were also an straight-forward call to pursue justice and peace that we needed to hear. Bechol dor vador—“in each and every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim – from Egypt.  May these past few days, and the reflection both here and in Israel, upon what we both have seen and heard be part of our reflection of what it means to us in this Pesach celebration to go forth from our MItzrayim.  Some read Mitzrayim as the “narrow places.” We all have our “Egypt” from which we want to move towards greater freedom and security.  May these days – their images, the words spoken, the symbols – inspire and infiltrate our recounting of the ancient tale as we find our generation place in the “obligation to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim.”

Mr. President – perhaps we’ll see you yet again – “Next Year in Jerusalem” – in a city moving closer to that dream we all hold – Ir Shalom – a city of peace. A big dream?  You bet.  But when have we Jews not been dreamers at the same time as we are realists?

(Now I’ll go see what all the talking heads are thinking!)

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom of Newton, Massachusetts

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From South to North – Days 3 & 4 of CCAR Israel Trip

The last two days have been border-filled, nothing surprising of course when traveling in Israel.  After a short tiyul in Jerusalem yesterday morning, starting at the City of David excavations and ending up at the Robinson’s Arch area and the Southern Wall excavations, we got on the bus and headed south, to the area near the Gaza border.

Rabbi Jonathan Stein, weeding at Moshav Netiv HaAsarah.

Our first stop was at Moshav Netiv HaAsarah, where we met with Raz.  He is a second generation moshavnik who grows tomatoes and works in genetic engineering of vegetables – in his free time he is also a guide with ARZA/Da’at.  We toured the moshav, which is right up against the Gaza border near the Erez Checkpoint.  We stood on a hill overlooking the border and looked into Gaza.  Raz spoke of the hardships the moshav has suffered in the long drawn-out “situation” that so many of the communities in the south have faced, in which they never know when a missile is going to come down from the sky.  He showed us how they have reinforced the roofs and walls of the preschool, and pointed out the many bomb shelters and safe rooms that dot the otherwise pastoral landscape.

He spoke of growing up knowing people in Gaza, and spending time there, explaining that when he was a child, it was the nearest big city, a place that they often went for a meal or to go to the sea.  We ended our visit there by helping him weed in one of his greenhouses – because of the barrage of missiles over the last weeks, he and his workers have not been able to go into the greenhouses and are very behind schedule with their work.  So there we were, a group of CCAR rabbis, on our knees picking weeds among the rows of tomato vines.

From there we traveled to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, also on the border, where we met with  Chen, a second generation kibbutz member who works in the IMPJ in The border with GazaJerusalem.  We toured the kibbutz as Chen spoke about the emotional and psychological toll of living in that area with the constant trauma of missiles, especially on the children.  She described a life for children in which getting to play outside is too often a rare event, because of the fear of missiles.  She spoke too about living a split existence, in which most of the country goes about their normal daily lives while on the kibbutz they live with constant fear, running in and out of the bomb shelters.  Yet she ended the conversation speaking about hope for a better future some day.

After that we went to Shaar HaNegev Regional High School to meet with Shem and Nati, two members of the newly formed Reform congregation that meets in the school there, where Shem is a teacher.  They spoke about their connection to Reform Judaism – Shem encountered it first while living for several years in Sydney, Australia, where his son became bar mitzvah, and Nati encountered it in her native Argentina, from which she made aliyah 14 years ago.  They are working hard to establish a Reform presence in that area and have great enthusiasm if not tremendous resources.  They spoke of their need for a rabbi even as they try to grow their community and do outreach in the area.  They also spoke about living under constant siege, and how the school in which we were sitting was designed to give the students a sense of emotional safety and security, as well as of course building for physical safety and security, including a bus drop off area which is part communal bomb shelter, should missiles come down as children are getting off the bus on their way to school.  It was, as he explained, “the safest school in the world.”

It was a very long day, but for most of the group it was the first time that we’d really engaged with the communities in the south that have been on the front lines of rocketfire from Gaza.  It was profoundly moving and enabled us to put a human face and real-life experiences to the newspaper headlines.

We began today with a meeting with Anat Hoffman of the IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center.  She described their current court battles and all the ways that they use the legal system in Israel to fight religious and ethnic discrimination for Reform and Conservative Jews, women, converts, and Arabs, to mention only some of their important work.  She also spoke about her work with Women of the Wall.  In Anat’s own words, “Our mandate is to kick ass in our movement.”

Next we joined HUC students for t’filah, which was a special treat as the students from the Israeli program and the American program were praying together.  We saw some old friends and many of our future leaders.

At Rahel's grave, Kinneret Cemetery We took off after that, leaving Jerusalem and driving along the Jordanian border as we made our way toward the Golan.   Along the way we stop to visit the poet Rahel’s grave at the Kinneret cemetery, and discussed the struggles and aspirations of the early Zionist settlers.  As we continued to climb north, we learned more about the history of the wars in 1967 and 1973, stopping at several key lookout points toward Syria and having a bumpy but exhilarating jeep ride through Golan cattle country.  We ended the day at Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Galilee, where we had a provocative conversation with Dubi, a member of the kibbutz, about the enormous changes that are transforming the kibbutz movement.

Most of the group is exhausted but excited about our learning and experiences, trying to take it all in as we write blogs, tweet, facebook and email to friends, family and congregations back home.  There is something truly unique and powerful about experiencing Israel with colleagues.  Time for sleep, as tomorrow is another day of learning….

For another perspective, see Rabbi Danny Burkeman’s blog post about the trip:

CCAR on the Road Israel News

Shabbat in Jerusalem with the CCAR

Israel Museum
At the entrance to the Israel Museum

A great day of learning and being in Jerusalem.  The weather here is glorious – sunny and warm.  After a slow morning of t’filah adventures and lunch on our own, we set off together for the Israel Museum which is conveniently open on Shabbat.  Most of us had not been there since it was redone.  We had a fascinating walk through select sections, including the Israeli art wing and a permanent exhibit devoted to Jewish life.  We had some stimulating conversations along the way about Jewish identity, Israeli identity, the purpose and design of museums, just to name a few of the ideas discussed.  Since one of the goals of this trip is to teach rabbis how to lead groups in Israel, many good ideas were presented about how to take different kinds of groups through the museum.  Coincidentally, as we entered the museum, we coincidentally ran into our colleague from Mevasseret, Rabbi Maya Leibovich.

From there we went to a beautiful site near the Tayelet, overlooking Jerusalem.  Instead of the regular tourist discussion of what’s where, we focused on the security wall barrier, visible from where we stood, and discussed the geopolitics of Jerusalem specifically and Israel in general.  Our guide was a great model of how to lead a sophisticated, nuanced conversation about these issues, in all their complexity, with our groups.

Overlooking Jerusalem

Next we went back to the hotel for an interesting program led by David Leichman, from ARZA, in which he modeled the kind of mifgashim he leads for groups.  Along the way he made us do some thinking about identity and other issues related to Israel.  That was followed by Havdalah, led by Rabbi Miri Gold.  As Rabbi Leah Berkowitz tweeted earlier this evening, Rabbi Gold was the third of the first generation of Israeli women rabbis we’d met over the course of 24 hours.

Our final program for the evening was a meeting with Tali Levanon, from the Israel Trauma Coalition.  She gave a disturbing but powerful presentation about trauma in Israeli society, focusing on what has been happening in the S’derot and other southern areas but also talking about the impact of terror and war in general on the population.  It was interesting to learn that in addition to the important work she and her colleagues are doing within Israel in terms of educating the government,  the medical system, and the education system about treating the needs of those who experience trauma, they also take their knowledge abroad and share it in other crises. She spoke of traveling to Haiti after the earthquake, Japan after the recent events there, and most recently to New York after Hurricane Sandy to help train first responders and community leaders about how to respond to trauma.

It was hard to transition after that presentation, but we know we will speaking much more about this tomorrow as we head down south.  With a great deal of new information and questions to think about, we set off to experience Motzei Shabbat in a reawakening Jerusalem.  Lilah tov!