Friday, October 23, 2015

Never Hide!

The streets of Jerusalem were quiet at 3 am.  I walked with my two daughters to our friend’s home to watch our beloved Chicago Cubs lose game one of the NLCS.  I felt completely comfortable at this hour, in a way I never felt safe walking to the 7-Eleven nearest Wrigley Field to get ginger ale for a sick child.  Walking the streets late at night felt normal, even during this wave of attacks.
The game ended, we walked home and started our day.  I dropped my youngest daughter off at school and went to the gym near the Old City.  Afterwards, I had a strong feeling inside that I needed to walk around.  Strolling felt necessary.  
First stop: Roladin in the Mamilla Mall to get a large café hafuch.  While there were people walking, window-shopping and sitting in the restaurants, the mall was far from full.  It seemed there were as many police officers and soldiers as there were customers and it felt safe.
Second stop: The plaza outside the Jaffa Gate.  I met a group of Armenian Christian tourists from Australia finishing their tour.  At the same time, another group, from the Philippines, was just setting off on their Old City adventure. Standing across from the outer walls of ancient Jerusalem, I saw that the tourists looked happy and comfortable, not  nervous or frightened.  
Third stop: The Old City.  I talked with Zaki who sells Middle Eastern bagels and breads. We exchanged pleasantries and he complained that all he wanted was  “to be able to feed his family and for us to live in peace.”  I agreed.  Zaki then asked, “But tell me, Why do you people want to go to Al Aqsa?  It is not your place.  Why do you provoke?”  The “Jews want to take over and destroy Al Aqsa” is a total fabrication, a lie spread by Fatah and Hamas to provoke Palestinians that has no basis in truth. But I knew I would not be able to convince  Zaki of the truth. Instead, I asked him which of the yellow bagels was more authentic, the chocolate or the date-filled, purchased the date-filled one, and continued my walk.
Fourth Stop: Jaffa Street.   Like Mamilla Mall, there were people going about their regular errands – shopping, eating, talking and working – and plenty of soldiers keeping watch, keeping us all safe.  Like the Arab shopkeepers at the Jaffa Gate, there were plenty of storeowners complaining about the lack of business. During these conversations, I started to get a hint of why this walk was so important.

Fifth Stop– Ben Yehuda Street.  I moved down Jaffa Street toward Ben Yehuda Street. I found the answer to my question, my need to walk around town, in a Simon & Garfunkel-esque way, almost straight out of The Sounds of Silence.  The words of the prophet were not written on subway walls – we don’t have subways in Jerusalem – or tenement halls; rather, it came in the form of an advertisement for Ray Ban Sunglasses. In big, bold letter, above a group of  athletes were two words:
“Never hide.”  It is so simple.
I needed to walk around downtown Jerusalem because I could not hide.  

Hiding means the terrorists win, they cause me, they cause us, to change our lives. They dictate where we go and what we do or don’t do.  They breed fear, hatred and, unfortunately, more violence.  I won’t hide because this is my home, my country, my city.
“Never hide” doesn’t mean take needless and careless risks.  Like any major city in the US, there are certain areas here I don’t go to because the “crime” statistics are too high to make it worth the risk. At the same time,  “Never Hide” also means not to avoid your gym or your regular coffee place or wherever you like to sit and work.
“Never hide” means not conceding our Jewish values.  It means being like the children of Aaron:  pursuing peace.  It means remembering that redress is in the hands of God, not people; that we demand safety but won’t execute vengeance. It means that even in a war on terror, we trust the IDF and Police to protect us and to do so in an ethical way.  At the same time, “Never Hide” does not imply or permit violence, vigilantism, chants of “Death to Arabs.” That is simply not our way.  “Never Hide” demands that we call out our own who act counter to our tradition, who murder, beat and berate in the name of vengeance; it means we don’t let them hide from justice.
Unlike in the past, we no longer need to hide. We are a “Free people in our own land.”  We can and must be publicly proud, both in Israel and across the world.  We cannot sit alone in our darkened rooms, letting life pass us by, conceding victory to the terrorists.
In fact, I believe that the more we are out and about, the greater the sense of individual and collective security we will feel. I write this secure in the knowledge that things will ultimately quiet down and return to normal.  One day, there may even be Peace here.  Let’s hope and pray it arrives before my Cubs make it to, let alone win, the World Series. While we wait for and work toward it, we can say, as Cub fans do every year, “There’s always next year.”  And there is always the next cafe hafuch, the next moment of pride and the next possibility for Peace.

Until  that time, the words of the Ray Ban prophet will continue ringing in my ears:

“Never Hide.”

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Funeral in Israel

For me, it was the gunshots - three rounds, seven shots per round – piercing the heavy silence that brought home the finality of the moment: the burial of Staff Sargeant Liel Gidoni. He grew up and lived in a neighborhood I know well.  Nonetheless, I never met Liel, or his family, prior to Sunday afternoon on Mt. Herzl.  The entire neighborhood came to bury Liel.  I joined hundreds of others who did not know Liel and, nonetheless, came to pay last respects, to honor his service to and ultimate sacrifice for the State of Israel.

Liel was killed last Friday when he and two other comrades, Major Benaya Sarel and Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, were preparing to destroy a tunnel in or near Rafah in the Gaza strip.  Three hours into a cease-fire, during which Israel indicated it would continue destroying tunnels, terrorists burst onto the scene and murdered the three Israeli soldiers, one more cease fire ignored or broken by Hamas.  A tunnel is not a human being. It sounds so obvious that it may be better not to even say it. In the eyes of the attackers, however, a destroyed tunnel seemed to be equal to a human life.  During what was to be a period of quiet, Hamas could not help itself.  They attacked, broke the cease-fire and killed another three Israeli soldiers.

While I attended one military funeral in the past in Fitzgerald, Georgia, this was completely different.  In Fitzgerald, we buried an 82-year-old, Jewish WW II war hero.  I knew the family and almost everyone at the funeral very well.  He had a wonderful wife, children, and grandchildren.  He lived a full life.  On Mt. Herzl, however, we were burying a twenty-year old, killed in the line of duty.  We were burying a teenager, someone with an entire lifetime to live.  I knew nobody at the funeral, not parents or siblings, grandparents or friends. My connections to Liel were distant at best: 1) I heard about his death while on the plane on Friday, two hours before we landed at Ben Gurion and 2) He was defending my and our collective home.  Yet, I felt as if I was burying a member of my own family.

Each of the eulogies for Liel was more heart-rending than the one before it. Representatives of Givati, where Liel served, as well as the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, spoke in personal, yet official roles.  Neither knew Liel personally yet managed to capture the importance of his service and sacrifice.  Principals, teachers, classmates, best friends and relatives painted a picture of Liel for those of us who didn’t know him personally.  Liel was always smiling an infectious smile, striving to be the best.  He came back to school even after he was drafted to volunteer.  Whenever he could, he came back to help out, joining the Yom HaZikaron ceremony the school put together annually.  His cousin and played a song in his memory.  The gathered mourners tried as best as possible to pick up the chorus and join in.  The memorial prayer, El Maleh Rachamim, wailed forth, echoing across Mt. Herzl.  If there were any dry eyes left by this point, the power contained in the sadness of the shaking voice brought out the tears they were meant to evoke. 

And then there were the gunshots of the twenty-one-gun salute. 

A final farewell. 

Once the funeral ended, a throng of people went to visit the Liel’s grave.  There it was, among five other freshly dug graves.  Liel joined ten other Jerusalem residents killed in Operation Tzuk Eitan, now resting rest in peace on Mt. Herzl.  I paid my last respects to this wonderful soul I never had a chance to meet, stood quietly praying several Psalms. I moved out of the way to make space for others.

 Staring at his grave, I pondered the meaning of Liel’s name.  The first syllable, Li, means “me.” El is one of the names of God.  There are so many hidden meanings: the combination of the human and the Divine; the personal and the transcendent; the true meaning of faith, recognizing God within us.  Seeing the Godly in each of us, in every human being, honoring the Godliness residing in every person, describes Liel. I can only imagine what he would have accomplished if he had not been killed last Friday.

Today, I think about the news of Liel’s death last week and his funeral on Sunday.  I think about where we were and where we are going, both of which lead me to…

Send prayers of comfort to Liel’s family as they mourn his death.

Hope there will be an extension of the cease-fire today.

Pray the cease-fire will continue through Erev Shabbat, becoming a long-term cease-fire.

Dream that, someday, there will be peace in Israel and the region.

And I pray that the quiet is not broken by more gunshots - those of war or those of military funerals – ever again.

May the memory of Liel, his sixty-three other IDF compatriots killed in battle, and the civilians killed, be blessings for all of us.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Praying During Difficult Times

Today, like so many other days, missiles are launched at many areas in Israel.  Fortunately, Iron Dome is doing the job for which it was created, something truly miraculous, and there have been virtually no injuries.  Even the damage has been incredibly limited.  

Here in Jerusalem, we have had a total of four red alerts: One false alarm, one alarm where missiles fell in Hebron, located in Palestinian territory, and not in Jerusalem, and two cases where missiles were shot down by Iron Dome. Life continues as normal.  People are eating out, going to work, taking children to gan.  Business as usual.

In the South, however,  the red alerts are almost non-stop. Even in the Gush Dan region, the center of the country along the coast where most of the population lives, while the red alerts are increasing in frequency, they still pale in comparison to what those in the South experience.

Many of us are praying for the end of this.  We don't want innocent civilians injured, killed or displaced on either side of the conflict.  We don't want our precious soldiers put in harms way.  At the same time, we don't want our country to continue to operate under the continuous threat of missiles, rockets and mortars. No other country in the world would tolerate this kind of attack on their population centers, their capital, their country.  We will not, we cannot tolerate this either. This is our ancestral homeland, our nation-state, the land where the Zionist dream, utopian as Herzl was in certain ways, will be fulfilled.

We search for words to pray.  Will our prayers serve as a direct link to God, that will be answered positively and immediately?  Will my prayers be answered because I eat kosher food, observe Shabbat, etc? Because I give tzedakah or help others? Many people believe in the direct impact of prayer on the Divine and their personal ability to see the answer in this world and on a daily basis. 

Personally, I don't believe in the efficacy of prayer as a way to get God to act in a certain way.  I do not believe that I can identify God acting in this world.  That does not mean I deny the possibility; rather, I just don't believe that even if my prayers do have that power, that I can identify the finger of God acting in this world, in answer to my prayers.  I do, however,  believe that God gives human beings free will to choose to do good, evil and all that lies between.   

Prayer gives words to the deepest feelings in my soul, to emotions  I may have difficulty articulating.  Prayer causes me to be reflective about what is important, what is frightening, what brings hope and what causes sadness.  It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that the Hebrew word for prayer, L'Hitpalel, is conjugated in the reflexive, to look inside. So, in these challenging times in Israel, what words are there to help me feel strength, confidence, and blessing?  What prayers can give flight to my emotions of concern and determination, helplessness (as I do not serve in the IDF) and  confidence that as a Jew living in the Jewish State, I am no longer powerless?

The Rabbinical Assembly circulated the following prayer, composed by Rabbi Simcha Roth z"l, for times like this.  The words speak to and for me.  

Perhaps they will for you as well.

As I write this, my phone beeps with red alert warnings for so many communities in the South, near the Gaza Strip.  So I pray...

I pray for the day when the children of Sderot, Nahal Oz, Yad Mordechai, Sa'ad and other communities can go outside without needing to know where the nearest bomb shelter or protected area is located.  

I pray for the day when Hamas ceases to hold its own people hostage, when they seek Peace and Co-Existence rather than death and destruction.

I pray for the day when we never see a group of Jewish teens kidnapped and killed for any reason and for the day when we cease needing to add names of Israelis to the list of those killed in battle or from in acts of terror

I pray for the day when we uproot racism and hatred from our own communities.

I pray for the day we do the cheshbon nefesh (soul searching) demanded by recent events like the racist march through  the streets of our capital, and the cold blooded murder of a 16 year old Arab teen.

Finally, I pray for the day we see Peace for Israel, for the Jewish People, for the Land and for all who live in this region:

מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב, וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ שָׂרָה רִבְקָה לֵאָה וְרָחֵל, הוּא יְבָרֵךְ אֶת תּוֹשְׁבֵי מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל הַחַיִּים תַּחַת הָאִיּוּם הַמַּתְמִיד שֶׁל טִילֵי הַהֶרֶס. הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יְחַזֵּק אֶת לִבָּם וְאֶת כֹּשֶׁר עֲמִידָתָם בְּעֵת מַשְׁבֵּר, עַד יַעֲבֹר זַעַם.יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלִּפְנֵי יוֹשֵׁב בַּמְּרוֹמִים שֶׁיִּתֵּן עֵצָה טוֹבָה בְּלֵב כָּל קְבַרְנִיטֵי הַמְּדִינָה, שֶׁיֵּדְעוּ לְנַהֵל אֶת מִלְחֶמֶת הָעָם בְּתוּשִׁיָּה, בַּהֲבָנָה וּבְחָכְמָה.יהוה צְבָאוֹת, מֶלֶךְ שֶׁהַשָּׁלוֹם שֶׁלּוֹ, שְׁמֹר נָא עַל חַיָּלֵי צְבָא הַהֲגָנָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל הָעוֹמְדִים בַּמַּעֲרָכָה בַּיַּבָּשָׁה,בָּאֲוִיר וּבַיָּם, בַּחֲזִית וּבָעֹרֶף, וְעַל כָּל כֹּחוֹת הַבִּטָּחוֹן וְהַהַצָּלָה. הַצִּילֵם אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִכָּל צָרָה וְצוּקָה וּמִכָּל פֶּגַע רַע, וּשְׁלַח בְּרָכָה וְהַצְלָחָה בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יְדֵיהֶם: צֵאתָם לְשָׁלוֹם וְשׁוּבָם לְבָתֵּיהֶם לְחַיִּים וּלְשָׁלוֹם.אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, שִׂים שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם לְכָל יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ, וִיקֻיַּם בָּנוּ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ מִקְרָא שֶׁכָּתוּב: "וְיָשְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחַת גַּפְנוֹ וְתַחַת תְּאֵנָתוֹ וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד,כִּי פִי יהוה צְבָאוֹת דִּבֵּר", וּפְרֹשׂ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ עַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵּבֵל אַרְצֶךָ. 

וְכֵן יְהִי רָצוֹן

,ונֹאמַר אָמֵן.
May the One who blessed our patriarchs -  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and our matriarchs - Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah -, bless the residents of the State of Israel who live under the constant threat of destructive missiles.  May the Holy One Blessed One strengthen their hearts and their staying power at this moment of crisis, until the danger has passed.

May it be the will of the Almighty, that God imbues wisdom in the hearts of all the members of the State’s Cabinet, that they will know to direct this national war with wisdom, insight and understanding.  God of Hosts, Sovereign of Peace, please protect the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces serving in this campaign on land, in the air and at sea, on the front and in the rear – and all the forces of defense and rescue.  Save them, God, from all trouble, distress and malady, and give them blessing and success in all their endeavors.  May they go out in peace and return to their homes for life and peace.

Our Father in Heaven, bring peace to the land and eternal peace to all its residents, and establish amongst us, speedily in our days, what is says in our Tanakh:  “And each person shall sit under his vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, because the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:4)”  And spread a shelter of Your Peace on all the residents of your land.  

And so it shall be.  

And let us all say, Amen.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reaction to Calls for Vengeance and Another Murder

Written just after the announcement of the discovery, in the forests of Jerusalem, of the body of murdered 16 year old Muhammad Abu Khdeir from Shuafat, 

At this time, we do not know the perpetrators or reasons for the killing of a 16 year old Arab boy, discovered in the early hours of this morning in the Jerusalem Forest. 

And you know what?

It doesn't matter. 

The pain we feel here for the murder of the three kidnapped teens, for Eyyal, Gilaad and Naftali,  CANNOT be channeled into acts of "Nekama" or vengeance. 

Last night, I wandered through downtown.  I saw a procession of far right extremists chanting "Death to Arabs," looking for Arabs to harass and harm.

This is not the Jewish way.

We cannot stand idly by. 

We must demand quick action from our Government to protect all citizens.

It does NOT matter if, in the end, the Arab teen was murdered by other arabs due to internal family tensions or by Jews. 

If this was a family problem, we are still left with "ours" walking through downtown Jerusalem, chanting hatred and looking for innocents to harm.

If this was done by "ours," we have serious cheshbon nefesh, soul searching,  to do.  When we are done with out accounting,  we must then  act as a nation to uproot this hatred. Punishment for "our" perpetrators, when found and tried, must be ma'asar olam - life sentences - and sealing of homes. Homes here can't be destroyed because almost all live in multi-family apartments. But families can be locked out permanently

Those who know me know I am a pragmatist, a realist, and center just slightly right on security issues. They also know that I am center, slightly left, when it comes to questions of civil rights.

But this is not an issue of left or right, religious or secular. 

This is a matter of the soul of our country.  

Nothing less. 

Praying this is a quiet Shabbat, one of comfort for the families of Eyyal, Gilaad and Naftali and for the family of Muhammad.

Praying there is quiet in Sderot and the communities in range of the Hamas missiles.

Praying we witness Peace, Shalom, soon and in our day.

העשה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל עם ישראל

May the One who makes Peace in the Heavens make Peace for all Israel...

ועל כל יושבי תבל

And for all humanity.


Monday, June 30, 2014

What we need to do now: Thinking of Eyyal, Gilad and Naftali, zichronam livracha

Watching the news, listening to the politicians and the analysts, reading the status messages on Facebook and Twitter, the following is clear to me:

Now is the time for one thing and one thing only: 


To feel the deep, penetrating sadness. 

To send messages of support and embrace to the families.

That is all.

Now is NOT the time to argue about the strength of a response.

Now is NOT the time to talk about either showing military restraint or building new communities in whatever name you use to refer to the land to the East, between the "Green Line" of armistice and the "Blue Line" of the Jordan River.

Now is NOT the time to dehumanize the "Smolanim," the leftists  or those Israeli citizens who live in Gush Etzion (often referred to as "Mitnachalim," Settlers).

There will be time to debate what is cause and what is effect. 

There will be time for all of the above.

But there is only now to feel the immediacy of the pain, of the loss, of the sadness.

Now is the time to focus on what binds us together as a family, as a people, as a nation.

We owe it to the three beautiful souls snatched from this world, to their families and last, and in this case least,

to ourselves. 

Let the memory of Eyyal, Gilad and Naftali forever be for a blessing.

May their parents be comforted along with all the mourners of Zion and Israel.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bring Them Home Alive!

ויש תקווה לאחריתך, נאום-יהוה; 
ושבו בנים, לגבולם

And there is hope for your future, declares The Lord; 
Your children shall return to their country.
Jeremiah 31:16

Walking around Jerusalem, you might think everything is “business as usual.”  Traffic in the morning is as bad as ever and people honk their horns within a nanosecond of the light turning green.  As always, the woman who hands out newspapers at the corner of Keren HaYesod and Agron Streets is there today.  People still say hello and smile.  

The reality, however, is different.  The tension in the air, the concern, the hope and the fear are all palpable.  Three teenagers, Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frankel, kidnapped on Thursday night, are still missing. Their safety and well-being is in the forefront of our minds. Talking with others, I hear the same thing over and over again.  It is hard to concentrate.  It is hard to focus.  Little problems that under other circumstances elicit disproportionate, frustrated reactions are swept aside as if they are nothing. The return, alive, of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali is all that matters.

Right now, we are stuck between the compelling desire to want to do something and the grating frustration that there is little we can do.  We send words of support to the family, we share messages on social media and we look for any shred of good news.  The tradition of praying from the Book of Psalms helps us act and articulate, privately and communally, our  thoughts and feelings.  The Psalms are aspirational.  They express our hope for a certain outcome, a positive outcome: the return of our boys to their families. They are not a guarantee.  While the IDF forces search for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, we send them and their families strength through our prayers.

I ask that you, my friends of all faiths, join me and others throughout the world in praying the words of Psalms 121 and 142 several times each day, keeping in mind our three kidnapped boys in the hope that they will return alive into the warm embrace of their parents and their families very soon.


תהילים קכ״א

 שִׁיר, לַמַּעֲלוֹת:
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי, אֶל-הֶהָרִים--    מֵאַיִן, יָבֹא עֶזְרִי.
ב  עֶזְרִי, מֵעִם ה׳--    עֹשֵׂה, שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.
ג  אַל-יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ;    אַל-יָנוּם, שֹׁמְרֶךָ.
ד  הִנֵּה לֹא-יָנוּם, וְלֹא יִישָׁן--    שׁוֹמֵר, יִשְׂרָאֵל.
ה  ה׳ שֹׁמְרֶךָ;    ה׳ צִלְּךָ, עַל-יַד יְמִינֶךָ.
ו  יוֹמָם, הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לֹא-יַכֶּכָּה;    וְיָרֵחַ בַּלָּיְלָה.
ז  ה׳, יִשְׁמָרְךָ מִכָּל-רָע:    יִשְׁמֹר, אֶת-נַפְשֶׁךָ.
ח  ה׳, יִשְׁמָר-צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ--    מֵעַתָּה, וְעַד-עוֹלָם

A song for ascents.

I turn my eyes to the mountains; 
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
Maker of heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot give way;
Your guardian will not slumber;
See, the Guardian of Israel 
Neither slumbers nor sleeps!
The Lord is your guardian, 
The Lord is your protection at your right hand.
By day the sun will not strike you, 
Nor the moon by night.
The Lord will guard you from all harm; 
Adonai will guard your life.
The Lord will guard your going and 
Coming now and forever.

תהילים קמ״ב

א  מַשְׂכִּיל לְדָוִד;
בִּהְיוֹתוֹ בַמְּעָרָה    תְפִלָּה.
ב  קוֹלִי, אֶל-ה׳ אֶזְעָק;    קוֹלִי, אֶל-ה׳ אֶתְחַנָּן.
ג  אֶשְׁפֹּךְ לְפָנָיו שִׂיחִי;    צָרָתִי, לְפָנָיו אַגִּיד.
ד  בְּהִתְעַטֵּף עָלַי, רוּחִי--    וְאַתָּה, יָדַעְתָּ נְתִיבָתִי:
בְּאֹרַח-זוּ אֲהַלֵּךְ--    טָמְנוּ פַח לִי.
ה  הַבֵּיט יָמִין, וּרְאֵה--    וְאֵין-לִי מַכִּיר:
אָבַד מָנוֹס מִמֶּנִּי;    אֵין דּוֹרֵשׁ לְנַפְשִׁי.
ו  זָעַקְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ,    ה׳:
אָמַרְתִּי, אַתָּה מַחְסִי;    חֶלְקִי, בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים.
ז  הַקְשִׁיבָה, אֶל-רִנָּתִי--    כִּי-דַלּוֹתִי-מְאֹד:
הַצִּילֵנִי מֵרֹדְפַי--    כִּי אָמְצוּ מִמֶּנִּי.
ח  הוֹצִיאָה מִמַּסְגֵּר, נַפְשִׁי--    לְהוֹדוֹת אֶת-שְׁמֶךָ:
בִּי, יַכְתִּרוּ צַדִּיקִים--    כִּי תִגְמֹל עָלָי.

A Maskil of David, while he was in the cave. 
A prayer:

I pray aloud to the Lord; 
I appeal to the Lord loudly for mercy.
I pour out my complaint before God;
I lay my trouble before Adonai 
When my spirit fails me.
You know my course;
They have laid a trap in the path I walk.
Look at my right and see-I have no friend;
There is nowhere I can flee, 
No one cares about me.
So I cry to You, O Lord; I say,
”You are my refuge and 
All I have in the land of the living.”
Listen to my cry
For I have been brought very low;
Save me from my pursuers, 
for they are too strong for me.
Free me from prison, 
that I may praise Your name.
The righteous shall glory in me for
Your gracious dealings with me.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nurturing the Core: Putting Jewish Learning Front and Center

In a recent editor’s column in the New Jersey Jewish News, “The way we do the things we do”  (November 20, 2013), Andrew Silow-Carroll presents a succinct and accurate portrait of current and future challenges faced by Conservative Judaism in North America.  Unlike those who just bemoan the current state of affairs or proclaim our death, Mr. Silow-Carroll presents both challenges and areas of focus that, if addressed in a serious fashion, can serve as the building blocks for a bright future for the movement.  His analysis and suggestions merit further reflection.

The author describes himself in the same way many affiliated Conservative Jews do.  They go to synagogue regularly even if they feel services are too long.  They continue attending because they are at home in terms of ideology, practice and community.  Describing himself as a rarity, Silow-Carroll writes:

            Although I struggle with “obligation,” I like to surround myself with folks who can access Jewish tradition on a deep level, who make Judaism part of their lives well beyond the three hours on a Saturday morning, and who at some level are unable to reconcile the tension between modernity and tradition. We want that old-time religion alongside the new stuff – but constantly worry that one will hurt the other.”

Based on personal conversations and experiences, I believe he is less a rarity than he perceives himself to be. Like Silow-Carroll, many core Conservative Jews are people who want to be in places where they are not the most knowledgeable, most observant people.  They seek to do more and learn more Jewishly. They want to be part of a community, a kehilla, with multiple levels of learning and experience, abundant in role models beyond the clergy to whom they can aspire to emulate and rich in relationships with others with whom they can share Shabbat and other Jewish traditions.  Sadly, because they represent a minority of the whole, they are not studied in-depth and, as a category, are too often marginalized in studies, op-ed articles and strategic efforts.  We must pay more attention to this group. 

As a way to address the future, Silow-Carroll suggests three crucial areas of focus for “scrutinizing the face” Conservative Judaism presents to the world.  He recommends:
  • Invigorating the Shabbat experience;
  • Putting learning front and center; and
  • Exploiting new media.

Embedded in these areas is a deeper message beyond repairing  “the face we show to the public.” Namely, having regular, high-quality, immersive Jewish living and learning experiences together with being part of a powerful, meaning and action driven community are keys to our future and success.  This is neither new nor earth shattering.  It is, however, time for us to pay greater attention to the voices of people like Silow-Carroll and others.  Sitting in Jerusalem, I will leave the question of how to invigorate the Shabbat experience to others.   I do, however, want to address Silow-Carroll’s other two suggestions.

The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and our Conservative Yeshiva serve as a home for Jews struggling “to reconcile the tension between modernity and tradition,” seeking to experience intensive exploration of Jewish text in an intellectual-spiritual and inclusive-egalitarian-pluralist framework.  This is our raison d’etre.  From online learning opportunities to programs in Jerusalem, The Conservative Yeshiva is the place for people to do Torah Lishmah, to learn for learning’s sake. 

Our summer programs, three to six weeks in length, welcome nearly two hundred participants.  The program offers a range of options from full-day learning to half-day study/ half-day volunteering through our partner, Skilled Volunteers for Israel.  Participants range in age from nineteen to ninety-one and come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and abilities: some know no Hebrew while others are fluent; some are affiliated, others are not.  They are united by a desire to learn for their own growth and increased commitment.

This winter, we are launching a pilot program for college juniors and seniors seeking a Jewish learning alternative winter break program in Jerusalem.  For the first time, those who want to delve deeper into their Jewish soul will be able to do so with us instead of other kiruv oriented programs.  Twenty young Jews from across North America will join us for twelve days of immersive learning, exploration of this great city, and soulful experience of the myriad of Shabbat communities in Jerusalem.  In the next few years, we hope to welcome over one hundred students each winter.

Our year-long program is filled both with immediate college graduates and those in their fifties and sixties, learning and experiencing a wide-variety of answers and approaches to Jewish questions of ideology, thought and practice. Our Yeshiva is known for helping individuals take the next steps on their Jewish journeys, not dictating specific paths or outcomes.  In the future, we will offer shorter programs, from one week, theme-based open programs and programs for specific professions to drop in programs for those who want to invest one day of an Israel trip to Jewish learning.

Programming in Israel, however, is not sufficient to impact the lives of Jews in North America and the world.  To that end, the Conservative Yeshiva offers a growing number of online learning opportunities.  From e-shiurim, single unit lessons, source sheets included, on a particular issue delivered via e-mail to semester-long online courses, people are able to learn at their own pace, in their own home with teachers in Jerusalem.  This year, we piloted Daf Shevui, a program where two pages of Talmud are broken up into six digestible units also delivered to your inbox daily (  You can also study one Mishnah each day with the Conservative Yeshiva.  Over 3,000 Jews in North America participated in Mishna Yomit ( .  As we secure additional resources, we will produce more learning opportunities on a diverse range of topics.

For too long, The Conservative Yeshiva, a program of The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, has been among the best kept secrets for Jews in North America like Andrew Silow-Caroll and those he represents.  If putting learning at the forefront and using new media to reach more Jews are key to building a stronger future for the vital center of Judaism, we are answering the call.   To retain the Andrew Silow-Carrol’s and the myriad others like him, immersive, relationship-based learning and community will be key.  We would do well to listen to them.  Here, at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and our Conservative Yeshiva, we already are.