Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Lost Voice

I lost my voice.

I am not sure where it went or why it went but I am certain I lost it months ago. It came back periodically and then disappeared as quickly as it returned. It made a brief appearance after my trip to Poland and Hungary. And then disappeared again. I looked everywhere: In rooms, on planes, in classes, and in cars, but I did not find it. I looked in keyboards, journals, and fountain pens, but I did not find it in them either. My voice was lost. I started fearing that it would not return.

I did not stop looking for it. Sometimes I would just stop searching for it actively and wait for its return. Other times, I would actively search for it - sitting in front of the blank screen or the blank page - trying to will the words out individually, hoping to form coherent sentences and ideas. In the end, though, I would produce only half thoughts and partial sentences. I would put the pen down or push the keyboard away and wait some more. I was looking in places, many, many places, but in none of them did I find my voice.

I stopped seeking my voice outside, in places and things. Instead, I looked inside, in my soul, and it was there that I rediscovered my voice. It is finally coming back. I don't know why it left me or why I let it go but now that I have found it again, the words are flowing as are the ideas - complete thoughts and sentences. They are burning brighter than they have in a long, long time. They will begin shining outward soon.

In the darkness of this heavy winter, the winter of the soul, a small flame burns, igniting words, ideas, spirits and energy. Tonight, I will join with my family in lighting the external representation of that Miracle of light, a light kindled when we as a people were embattled, one that burned bright with hope: hope for the future, for our families, for our people and for ourselves. As I remember the Miracle our ancestors experienced, I too will mark the Miracle of the voice, the one the Divine gives us. It does, at times, disappear but now I feel it making a miraculous return.

With Praise to God who Created the first Light, Who Commands us to kindle these Lights of Miracles, I use my recovered voice to wish you all a Joyous, Bright, and Inspiring Hanukkah.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chayyei Sarah

The beginning of our Parashah, Chayyei Sarah, announces the death of Sarah by describing her life according to the number of her years. I could, and probably should, write a more source driven dvar Torah this week, but I am taken by the very opening phrase as today I too take account of my years. Today I turn 42. I do so in Jerusalem with Amalya at my side. It could only be better if Becca, Elan and Mira were here with me. I have a lot for which to be thankful. I live a truly blessed life.

So today, I say thank you to all those who have had an impact on me. They are far too many to count, far more than I deserve. Listing you would invariably leave one of you out so a very general, very deep and sincere group thanks will have to suffice. Somehow, I have been apprenticed to great masters and mentored by people with a depth of wisdom that I cannot describe.

I am blessed with a wonderful, glorious family, a magnificent wife (I often tell people that I married far above my own life status and I really mean it), and fantastic children. They are truly a blessing. Even when I have to give them their brachot over the phone from Israel, the birkat yeladim - blessing the children - is really a way of letting them know that they are incredible brachot in my life.

I am fortunate that in 42 short years, I have been included in several life changing ventures. Before “Independent Minyanim” were popular, I got to help execute the vision of two wonderful rabbis, Michael Seigel and David Soloff, in building a dues free Shabbat morning minyan in Chicago, a project that far outlasted my involvement and flourishes today.

I was blessed to help build a camp that still touches thousands of lives every summer. The web of people in whose lives I am involved and who impact me is wide and complex...and it pops up at the oddest moments. Take today for example. I was sitting with Amalya and her friend Hallel at Bagel Bite on the corner of Derekh Bet Lechem and Yehudah when a former camper, Nathan Pankowsky, walked by. He was talking to a woman who was a shlicha at Camp Ramah in Canada. While talking to Nathan, I caught somebody out of the corner of my eye (15 years in camp leadership helps you develop incredible peripheral vision). I stopped mid-sentence and shouted across the intersection “Marc!” There was Marc Silberstein, a madrich and rosh aidah for several years at Ramah Darom. And inside the restaurant was Arnee Winshall - an incredible leader in Jewish Camping and in Jewish education.

In talking with Arnee and her friends, I had another chance to mention Camp Yofi and the importance of reaching out to the entire family in a unit where there are children with Autism. The blessing of the years of involvement with these families always reminds me of how important this program is, how it needs to be expanded, and how the Jewish community needs to live the ethos of the values of the prophets in making space for the incredible families.

And in the morning, I was walking downtown when I ran into Michal Kabatznik and her mother, Barbara. And it is here where it all comes together. Michal was a camper, staff member, and department head at Ramah Darom. Her mother is the site director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Boca Raton. Michal made Aliyah this year. I now work with her mother. All incredible blessings.

While I sometimes find Facebook a little terrifying, I am reconnecting with people who were blessings in my life long ago. In short, I have so much to say thank you for. So many blessings in my life, and these blessings are just in the first 42 years. I can only imagine what lies ahead in the next 42.

This morning, I walked in the shuk Mahane Yehudah, the bustling outdoor market in Jerusalem. I love it. I love the smells, the tastes, the sounds, even the pushing and shoving. As I wandered the alleyways, my eyes welled up in sadness, the sadness that comes with knowing that on Monday night, I will once again fly away, back to the US. And with each trip, I feel like I leave another small piece of my soul here, waiting to be collected back - a deposit on acquiring an achuza - a possession - in the land of Israel. And with each deposit, it gets harder and harder to leave. Our parashah talks about acquiring an achuzat kaver - a possession of a burial ground - as the beginning of the fulfillment of part of the Divine Promise, a land. Of all the berachot that I hope for in the next 42 years, an achuzat Chaim - a living possession in this land, is the one I hope for most.

With thanks to God for these incredible 42 years of blessing and with an excited eye toward the next 42 years and what blessings they will bring, I wish you all a

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Vayera 2008

I write with great thanks today as I watch the sun descend and Shabbat ascend here in Jerusalem.

Yesterday evening, after sleeping for several hours, we go to my favorite part of any flight to Israel. The dark tube of a plane begins to shine inside as the window shades are raised. And at just the right moment, I see the coast and the lights of Tel Aviv. My heart soars and my eyes well up. This trip, I get to share that feeling with my youngest daughter, Amalya. I tell her about how I feel and she smiles. She smiles. She will get to see all of her friends, her school, her neighborhood and she will feel at home, as do I.

Vayera doesn’t speak of the Covenant of the Land directly. It focuses on the promise of a child, an inheritor, the continuation of the family line that is embodied in Isaac. While much of the action of the parashah happens in the context of wandering the land, most attention is paid to the family that will transmit the blessing. There are powerful, difficult texts in this parashah and we struggle with them every year. I am sure that I will experience the textual struggle tomorrow in shul - which I am so excited to be at - as I listen to the reading of the Torah.

For today, however, there is no struggle, there is only joy. There is wandering the streets of Yerushalayim, visiting with our friends from the fruit stand on Bet Lehem and Esther HaMalka streets, from the dry cleaner and her brand new four month old baby just down the street, and with Miki and Sima, where I get my hair cut. And I get to wander with one of my three wonderful promises. If only the other two and my soulmate were here with me. Life is good.

There is much to write but the sun is setting, Shabbat arrives in about 5 minutes and I have to get dressed to get to shul and dinner.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 7, 2008

"Bubba"


I visited an old friend this week in Mobile, Alabama, several old friends actually. I was there for a dedication. Sadly, my oldest friend - mentor and confidant - actually the hero of the day, was not present. To visit him, we needed to make a stop before the dedication and even at that stop, he was only present in spirit, for we were visiting his grave. Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell, one of the founders of Ramah Darom, a giant leader of the American Jewish community, and a courageous civic and national leader, died just over a year ago. Monday marked the grand opening of one of his grandest dreams: The Mitchell Cancer Institute of the University of South Alabama, a world-class cancer treatment center and research institute for the citizens of South Alabama, as well as those of Northern Florida and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I am sure that the list of those who miss Bubba is long and esteemed. In fact, I am certain that were he still alive, he would have had to pull himself away from the unending phone calls from politicians seeking advice up to the last minute before the voting started on tuesday, in order to attend the dedication. I might even go so far as to say that the entire election season, and perhaps the outcome itself, would have been different if those same politicians would have been able to hear Bubba’s sage wisdom. At the dedication, the Governor, US Senators and Representatives, state and local politicians, all spoke with great warmth of the man we all knew as Bubba. His impact and his absence were powerfully felt.

The day was sunny, perfect actually. The new building gleamed, light and airy both inside and out, inspiring a sense of hope for the future for patients and researchers alike. Bubba’s wonderful wife, Arlene, his fantastic brother, Abe, his children and grandchildren brimmed with the pride and love they felt for Bubba and this major accomplishment, just as they mourned his very notable physical absence. After all the politicians and university representatives spoke, it was Arlene’s and then Abe’s turn to address the huge crowd. It requires incredible poise and grace to speak on such an uplifting and yet difficult occasion. Both sounded messages of hope that the Mitchell Cancer Institute would someday produce cures to this wretched disease. Abe taught the crowd a portion from the Talmud insuring that the central role that the Jewish People and Jewish Tradition plays in the life of the Mitchell family was shared with an audience the majority of which was not Jewish. It was an incredible moment. After the ribbon cutting, Rabbi Steve Silberman delivered a stirring benediction.

I miss Bubba too. At these difficult times, as I try to navigate the economic challenges that all Jewish organizations are facing, his wisdom would be reliable and forward- thinking. I miss his friendship and mentoring. When you sat with Bubba, he made you feel as important as any Senator or Representative that might call, even as he had to take that call from a person of such high political stature. In doing so, he reinforced the enduring sense that the work of Jewish education is important, that it is what we are all about, a value I fear is being challenged in these economic times when institutions will save so-called “financial profit centers” while sacrificing the core programs that justify their existence in the first place - the growth of and strengthening of Jewish identity, knowledge and commitment. He genuinely cared about and loved the Jewish people and felt it was his responsibility to work to support and protect them, be it those in his community or those half way across the world. We need more Bubba’s in this world and as I said before, I miss him very much.

Abraham is sent out into the world on a mission, to The Land, where he would be directed by the Hand of God. Along the way, he inspired others to join him. That sense of mission, of responsibility, of calling was shared by our friend, teacher and leader, Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell z”l. His legacies - a strong, committed family, a summer camp to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders, an Israel advocacy organization, AIPAC, he led in the early 1990’s and influenced until his death and whose headquarters in Washington DC bears his name, a Jewish presence in Mobile, a commitment to education at the University of South Alabama, and a Cancer Institute that will help heal South Alabamians and find cures to cancer - are each awe inspiring. And yet, his most important legacies are those whose lives he touched, who he inspired personally or institutionally. I feel very blessed to have been so touched.

Many thanks to the entire Mitchell family for allowing me to join them in Mobile this week and for sharing Bubba with all of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

I will be leaving for Israel on Wednesday night to attend the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities. If you are in Israel for the year or are attending the GA, please let me know. I would love to see you.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Pre-Vote, Post-Noah Thought

Last week, I was in New York for a conference sponsored by the Covenant Foundation and for work related to the Florence Melton Adult Mini School. On Thursday, I had a last minute change of schedule and found myself with an unexpected free hour. Normally, I would have tried to quickly cram another meeting in but I was outside and, despite the cold, decided to take a break and sit in Central Park. It was freezing cold and I could barely feel my fingers to write. But I sat and enjoyed the remarkable quiet of the park, the beauty of the trees - each one appearing hand painted by God, each leaf personally placed by the Divine Hand. New York is not a place to expect small acts of humanity but in the span of ten minutes, I witnessed two of them.

Walking in to the park, I stopped at a vendor to by some nuts, a small snack to tide me over until lunch. The bag cost two dollars. Inadvertently, I gave the man a dollar bill and a five. He could easily have just taken the money as extra profit but he looked at me and said, “Sir, I think you meant to give me another dollar bill” as he passed the five dollar bill back. He smiled. I was impressed by his honesty.

In the park, a young couple was standing in front of the lake trying to take a picture of themselves. Stretching an arm out to an almost uncomfortable length, the man was about to snap the picture when a passerby said, “Let me take that picture for you.” Again, in New York, he could just as easily have kept his head down and kept moving but he didn’t. He stopped and did a nice thing for someone else.

I was thinking about both of these incidents while listening to the Torah reading this past Shabbat. The generation of Noah was described as being completely corrupt, evil, thinking of doing wrong all the time. The midrash describes a time of narcissism, of corruption, of wickedness, big-time awful stuff. But I often find myself wondering if instead of the big acts of evil, what brought about the destruction of the world was the constant small wrongs of living that when added up brought the world at that time to a place where repair was no longer an option - wholesale re-creation was required.

Getting ready to go to the ballot box tomorrow morning, I find myself thinking about those two small acts of humanity in the park, completely minor, and the general lack of dignity of discourse that has characterized this election season. When I press the touch screen to vote tomorrow morning, I feel driven to vote for a return to dignity - dignity of humanity, of discourse, of the honor of what being an American is about. Who I will vote for is my own business, but I hope that we will all feel - regardless of how we vote - that we are voting for a country where the small acts of dignity, of humanity, of hope will far outweigh all the small - and not so small - indignities, acts of anger, of ill-will that are committed daily. That we will vote to step away from the generation of Noah and take a step toward the World to Come.

Good luck. Now, go vote.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A thought for this Hoshana Rabbah.

We are sent a mixed message during Sukkot for one the one hand, we are commanded to be exclusively happy and on the other hand, there is a constant undertone of darkness and constant calls for salvation, Hoshannah, as we say over and over again, in our prayers. So close to the end of Yom Kippur, could we really be in such trouble?

If my experience at the gym today is any indication, we really are in trouble! Hoshannah:

On the radio on the way to the gym, a new poll is discussed on the radio indicating that 80% of people think this country is headed in the wrong direction.

Hoshannah - Save Us.

Doing my cardio workout, the TV screen to the left has the Jerry Springer show, titled “Love Triangle Fights” and when I look up, a brief campaign to get Jerry an Emmy.

Hoshannah, Hoshannah.

The TV on the right has some show lead by a woman named Tyra interviewing couples with intimacy problems which they are evidently sharing with the audience and the TV viewing world.

Hoshannah, Hoshannah, Hoshannah.

The TV in front of me, CNN, has a running commentary on the elections, trading barbs and arguments, and lacking any content. Oy. Oy. Oy.

Hoshannah, Hoshannah, Hoshannah, Hoshannah.

Fortunately, being with the family is exclusively happy...

Best wishes for a Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah sameach. Let’s hope those willows we beat this morning bring about the Hoshannot we so desperately need.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Home

June 1, 2008
כ"ז אייר תשס"ח

A quick breakfast followed by a drive to the airport, we are finally leaving.

While we flew to Warsaw on LOT Polish Airlines, we fly home on El Al.

As soon as I get on the plane, I feel as though I am dipped in purifying waters. The flight goes without a hitch.

We land and de-plane.

I breathe in deeply and exhale entirely.

My shoulders drop.

The anger from the trip dissipates.

I feel better.

I am home.

Shabbat in Budapest

The following post was written late at night after Shabbat in Budapest came to an end.

May 31, 2008
כ"ו אייר תשס"ח

The sun rises early here in Central Europe and although I fall back asleep each morning, my initial wake up is at 5 am. Today, however, I sleep until 8 am and finally feel rested. Entering the small kosher restaurant for breakfast, I wish the mashgiah a “Shabbat Shalom.” Being the good Hasid that he is, he demonstratively responds with “A Gut Shabbes” as if to remind me that I am really in 17th Century Szatmar – Land. All goes well until one of our colleagues brings an unused plastic cup into the restaurant at which point the mashgiah blows a gasket. I respect stringent observance, in fact many people see me as very stringent in observance, but this is, well, ridiculous, as if, Heaven forbid, word might get out that a plastic cup violated the sanctity of this place. For God’s sake, it is precisely this kind of stupidity, along with things like the allegations of illegal and unethical conduct at Rubashkin’s that gives Kashrut a bad name.

Having already visited Dohanyi and Kuczinski, I decide to go for the trifecta and visit Habad. I was surprised to learn that there were two Habad shuls here in Budapest. One is in the Jewish Quarter where we are staying and the other is down the street from the Dohanyi. “In-town” Habad is well concealed and you need to know to look for the small bronze sign on the wall next to the door next to the travel agency with the British flag on it to know that this place exists. Getting past the security guard, however, requires a simple “Shabbat Shalom.”

Occupying an entire floor, Habad is bright and airy. The entrance stairs give way to a lobby with an enormous portrait of the Rebbe. Once again, I discover that there is not a single native Hungarian resident here. The shul caters mostly to Israelis, dati and secular, who are here as tourists or on business. I feel at home, as if I am in a little pocket of Israel, of life, in this dreadful place.

In the afternoon, we take a walking tour to the Danube. We stroll through the renewed downtown and square. It is beautiful. I am once again self-conscious, feeling as though the entire square stares at the back of my head and says, “Wait a minute! Didn’t we get rid of all of those guys?” I am certain that it is not really the case but after a week of visiting anti-Semitism and Shoah related sites, I am tired and angry, self-conscious and suspicious. The tour goes without a hitch until we get to the Danube.

Our destination: a new monument dedicated to the Hungarian Jews that were shot on the banks of the river and then cast into the Danube... And it is here that I draw a personal line. Shabbat needs to be a sacred time, differentiated from the rest of the week. I will not visit a monument today. I will bear witness by observing Shabbat. I will bear witness by standing on the banks of the Danube, but I cannot go to another monument. “V’Ka’rata l’Shabata Oneg “ – And you will call the Shabbat a delight – is meaningful to me, and takes on new meaning here.

As a distraction while others visit the monument, I watch the Budapest 5K – 10K passing by. We cheer for the runners when one guy calls out “Shabbat Shalom MiKol HaLev” or “Shabbat Shalom from all my heart!” It is chilling in a positive way: Jews standing at the Danube cheering on runners, finding one of our own. Victory!

Motzei Shabbat is spent with Eran, the representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel for Central Europe. He talks about his work here and the hope that it will bear fruit sometime in the future. “Where are all the Jews?” we ask. Initially, we were told that there were over 160,000 Jews living in Hungary. With a little prodding, the number dropped to 100,000. Our professor tells us that according to the demographer, Serge Della Pergolla, the numbers are closer to 60,000. Eran, the shaliach, tells us that his target population, realistically, is 20,000. How does he arrive at that number? Taking Della Pergolla and subtracting the very young and the old, he believes that his pool is 20,000 Jewish souls.

“Why does he do this work? Does he really think that there is a chance to make a huge impact here? Will Hungarian Jewry be rebuilt?” He replies that the works is long and boring and tedious, and he does not expect to see the fruits of his labor during his time in Hungary, as he will be here for no more than three years. He hopes and expects that those who follow him will benefit and that there will be some growth in the future.

The evening ends with a concert performed by the members of the youth group and other contestants from the Hungarian version of “Kochav Nolad” which is the Israeli version of “American Idol.” The event was held in conjunction with the 60th celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We walk home and I go to sleep.

Part of our group goes out for a while but I need sleep. I am done. Before our group returns, I am awakened by drunken yelling in the halls. I lock the door and go back to sleep. In the morning, I learn from my roommate, an Oleh from England, that he had an anti-Semitic encounter with one of the “chaps” in the lobby that night - as appropriate an end to our trip as I could ever have planned.

Friday, September 19, 2008

From Poland to Hungary

May 30, 2008
כ"ה אייר תשס"ח

Today is our fifteenth anniversary. As is often the case on our anniversary, Becca and I are not together. Sometimes we are at different weddings. In some years, Becca is at a Foundation for Jewish Camping program as a faculty member and I am already up at camp. This year, I was on an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest. Perhaps if we were together, riding the Orient Express, there would be some sense of the romance of train travel. Rest assured, however, that there is nothing even remotely romantic about a communist-era sleeper car, where you sleep three to a room on a triple bunk bed, and that takes ten hours, give or take, to get to Budapest. At least we were taking the train out of Poland, away from Auschwitz – Birkenau.

There is an old-world beauty to Budapest, even though much of that beauty has deteriorated. Gentrification is in the offing. We will not spend a lot of time visiting this city on the beautiful blue Danube. We rush off to see the two day schools in Budapest – the Schreiber Community Day School and the Lauder School. The Schreiber School looks like just about any other community day school I have visited anywhere. Smiling kids, nice art, and good feel. It is a nice place. Of the 400 students, it is unclear to me how many are actually Jewish. I am not talking about Halakhic status here. The Schreiber School is not only a community day school, it is a public school funded with public money, and a good one at that, so many non-Jewish families send their children here knowing that they will have to learn about Judaism – a sacrifice they are willing to make for a good, fine education. We visit a middle school Hebrew class. It looks and sounds like something I would see at most Jewish day schools: a few interested students, more uninterested, and a few disrupting. Nothing out of the ordinary except that we are in Budapest.

The kitchen at the school provides over 2,000 kosher meals every day to all of the Jewish institutions in town including the hospital. As a person with an eye for industrial-strength kitchens, I ask for a tour and am immediately reassured, over and over again, that everything is very kosher. I explain over and over again that I am sure that it is and that I used to deal with these kinds of kitchens and am just interested in seeing it. Spanning two stories, the kitchen is an enormous maze with separate areas for, well, everything, including a special room for eggs. I am surprised by the “egg room” and assume that it is some regional kashrut issue or that to prepare 2,000 meals a day requires so many eggs that have to be checked by hand for blood spots since there is no kosher pasteurized egg product here that they merit their own room. In fact, the Hungarian health department requires separate rooms for turkey, poultry, beef, dairy, vegetables, and eggs. It seems that the Hungarian health department is even stricter than we are. I am fascinated even though the tour is in Hungarian, a language I do not speak. Via random hand gestures and a few key kashrut terms, the mashgiah and I are able to somehow communicate.

We visit the Dohanyi Street Synagogue, about which I will write more later, and then visit our final Holocaust museum of the trip, the Holocaust Center of Budapest. Built around a restored synagogue, the center includes an educational wing, a museum, and a memorial wall. This museum gets it. The halls and galleries are dark, dim, and ominous. There is a balance between the telling of individual family stories and the broader context of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. There is absolutely no whitewashing here; the photos are stark and grotesque, the videos deeply disturbing. A ten minute film on anti-Semitism puts Hungary in context. While the Shoah came relatively late to this country, anti-Jewish laws were put into effect in the 1930’s. The museum is divided into seven thematic halls that explain the increasing levels of persecution of the Jews and the Roma – also known as Gypsies – in Hungary. And the museum, funded by the Hungarian government, is honest and direct about the role Hungarians played in the Shoah.

And here are the stunning facts of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry: 600,000 Jews killed in about six months at the end of WW II. Many, if not most of the synagogues and communal buildings remained largely because the deportation and death came so rapidly and so late in the war. Even more disturbing is the fact that Hungary was never invaded by Germany. They basically worked together with Nazi Germany. In fact, we were told that only a few thousand Nazis actually came to Hungary. Most of the anti-Semitism was local, developed as a policy for over a decade, and accelerated and intensified by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party. Thus, Hungary cannot even claim to be a bystander. By all reasonable measure, Hungary, and Hungarians, were perpetrators. They did it, carting off 600,000 Jews to die, some shot by their hand and cast into the Danube, most sent to Auschwitz – Birkenau to be gassed and cremated. The Center makes this horrifyingly clear.

There is an interesting conflict, intellectual and emotional and halakhic, about the question of the use of graphic photos and videos at Holocaust museums and in education. Some members of our group prefer the use of personal testimonies, where the speaker creates a mental picture for the listener, to the photos of starved, shriveled bodies. The images are too disturbing in their opinions. They have a valid, legitimate point. One colleague is bothered by the pervasive nudity of the images, nudes waiting to die and those already dead. He objects from a personal and halakhic point of view. In his opinion, the images are the antithesis of the ethics of tzniut – of modesty. After seeing a Nazi propaganda film used to convince the international community that Jews were being treated humanely, my colleague had enough. The film showed, separately, men and women entering the mikvah. That is the final image of many of these people and it is inhuman and it is wrong.

He is right: these are the final images of many if not all of these people. The images present dehumanization at its very worst: disturbing, horrifying, awful and unimaginable. All of which is precisely why they must be shone, why people must see these images. These awful photos and videos provide the only testimony that some of these people, starved, tortured and slaughtered, ever walked the face of this earth, that they ever lived. Moreover, they are the testimony to what evil, the amount of hatred, murder, and wrong, can be brought into the world by one person, and spread like an infection, an epidemic, from one person to another, one people to another, one village to another, one country to another. And it is these images that compel us, command us to fight against genocide and hatred throughout the world. These images give life to those who perished and voice and meaning to the Divine Command: You Shall Not Stand Idly by the Blood of Your Brother. I will have to study Jewish law on the subject but I have to believe that there will be those that prohibit and those that permit the use of these images.

Our visit to the museum ends in the reconstructed synagogue, perhaps the most powerful memorial of our visit. The old wooden pews, probably destroyed, were replaced with glass replicas. They give ghostliness to the white walls of the sanctuary. Most chilling of all, the top of each pew bears a photograph of a member of Hungarian Jewry, who could have once sat in this very spot, along with their story and their death. There they sit, in perpetuity, ghosts, sitting in ghostly pews, inhabiting a ghostly sanctuary in a land of Jewish ghosts.

After preparing for Shabbat, I visit two Friday night services. In so many ways, they could not be more different from one another and yet, they bore one very important similarity: they were virtually devoid of Hungarians. The Dohanyi Street Synagogue is spectacular in its beauty and lonely in its grandeur. Designed by a Christian architect who built grand cathedrals, the Dohanyi includes influences from both the Christians and the Moors. Friday night services take place here at 6:00 pm regardless of when Shabbat actually arrives, just like in Marietta, Georgia where services happen at 6:30 all year long. Sitting in this grand cathedral of Judaism, I am surrounded mostly by Israelis, along with a few tourists and the few Hungarians that sit on the bimah. There are, at most, sixty to eighty people in total in a shul that seats 3,000 on three levels. There is a grand chazzan, a choir made up of what I suspect are all non-Jews, and an organ player that we are told, explicitly, is a shabbes goy. The music is spectacular if you love choirs and organs and chazzanut. I once again have an uneasy feeling of familiarity. I am reminded of High Holiday services at Temple Menorah in West Rogers Park, Chicago. I felt oddly at home in my youth and unmoved in my middle age. They only real difference between the Dohanyi and Menorah is that the entire service here in Budapest is in Hebrew.

Following services, I walk back to the Jewish Quarter to the Kuczinski Street Shul. If the Dohanyi is like visiting Reform in Hebrew in 1975, Kuczinski is like visiting Szatmar in the seventeenth century. Here, the women sit behind an opaque mechitza, the Hebrew accents are hassidishe and none of those present, as far as I can tell, are actually from Hungary. The gentleman next to me is an Israeli engineer here on business. The rest of the room is filled with a group of very Orthodox looking guys from Melbourne, Australia. The entire experience is just totally odd. We emerge from 17th century Szatmar into the 21st century and walk back to the hotel. I toast my wife on the occasion of our 15th wedding anniversary, eat dinner, and call it a night.

I am exhausted from this trip, feeling suffocated and angry and overwhelmed. A quiet Shabbat will give me the respite I need and then, thank God, I will be back in Israel.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

Day 5 - Auschwitz

May 29, 2008
כ"ד אייר תשס"ח

Of all the days in our itinerary, this is the one that I dread the most: Auschwitz. I arrive not knowing what to expect of my emotions. What will I feel? Will I cry? Scream? Stand silently? And why the dread? Isn’t my visit a living testimony to the failure of Hitler, his accomplices, his “students,” and his bystanders?

The visit to Auschwitz is divided into four parts:

A tour of Auschwitz I – the forced labor camp initially used for political prisoners. This portion of the tour must be led by a Polish tour guide certified by the Auschwitz governing body.

Lunch.

A tour of Auschwitz II – Birkenau – the death camp where over 1,000,000 Jews were ruthlessly and methodically exterminated.

A Memorial Ceremony – put together by members of our group.

As our bus pulls up to the “Visitor’s Center,” I am stunned by the number of tour buses and cars that fill the lot. While it just sounds wrong, the fact is that Auschwitz is filled today. There are a few “tour” groups, a Jewish youth group from South America, and a lot of Catholic Poles. On this day, a prominent Catholic Cleric, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr, is being sainted. Kolbe was first brought to Auschwitz because he helped hide and clothe 2,000 Jews in his friary. When another man was selected to be shot, along with nine others, as reprisal for one man trying to escape, Father Kolbe volunteered himself in place of the man and was promptly murdered by the Nazis. As a Jew and as a Jewish educator, I struggled, and will continue to struggle with the question of the differing narratives of the Shoah. There were, I am told, many clerics within the Church who acted like Kolbe and many who hid and saved Jews. We don’t hear those narratives often enough. And yet, I cannot help but also ask about the narrative of the silence, complicity and in many cases the outright anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church during the Shoah.




Just outside the main entrance to the visitor’s center at Auschwitz I, there are several small “fast food” stands or huts. You can buy hamburgers, pizza, ice cream, and flowers. There are the equivalent of “souvenir stands” selling books and photos and God only knows what else. There are those in the world who accuse the Jews, us, of exploiting the Shoah, of creating a Holocaust Industry. I can tell you that there is a THRIVING Holocaust industry in Poland, but it is not the Jews that are involved.






From the women who gets her 60 zloty for “protecting” the Jewish cemetery, to the guy with the “Ghetto Souvenir” stand at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (I am not making this up and the photo that will be posted on the blog is entirely authentic) to our guide, “Tomasz,” who gets paid for what I have no idea, to the “fast food” stands, and the tour bus companies, and the hotels that host the March of the Living groups all the while Poles complain that we see only the Shoah sites and nothing else, to the hotels that proudly advertise “Auschwitz” tours, everyone is making a personal Zloty from the mass murder and attempted eradication of European Jewry.

I am bothered by the way life just goes on here in Poland. As Warsaw was rebuilt from its ashes, monuments, small and large, were erected to leave some historical record of the events surrounding the ghetto-ization, deportation, and destruction of Polish Jewry. And around these monuments, a city was rebuilt, buildings added, parks established. How long did it take, I wonder, for the citizens of Warsaw to become desensitized to everything, the plaques, the monuments, the memorials, enough that they would walk their dogs past and not notice, or sit and talk with friends, or picnic in Treblinka, or to nap in the grass next to one of the mass latrines at

Auschwitz – Birkenau, where the “lucky few “ who were not sent directly to extermination and cremation, were worked to death through forced labor, disease and starvation? How does such a thing happen? Is it callousness? Anti-Semitism? Hatred? Or the defense mechanism needed to get by when you choose to live in the traffic pattern or Auschwitz or Warsaw or Krakow or Kielce or Tykocin or…or…or…or?




Robert points out that there is something oddly disturbing about the speech pattern of our guide. It is clipped, precise, cold, and lacks any use of the work “the.” It sounds something like this: “Prisoners arrive, are taken to register, are given uniforms. Zey are zen taken to barrack. Zey sleep on floor, on straw, have five toilets for hundredz of people.” This is just a small sample. The Polish-English sounds frighteningly German. It is even more disconcerting when she deals with numbers. She is a somewhat sympathetic figure who shares with us her personal family story which included a family member, an uncle I believe, who was killed at Auschwitz I. As is often the case in our classes and on this trip there is too much to do and not enough time. We rush through Auschwitz I, through the barracks, the “medical ward,” to the death wall where the Polish clerics are just finishing celebrating their service.

Our next stop is personally the most difficult of all: the original, experimental Gas Chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz I. Our Polish guide invites us to enter. That’s right – she invites us to voluntarily enter the prototype Gas Chamber. My feet are suddenly leaden. I DO NOT want to enter. Seeing it from the outside is enough. The limitations of human understanding are such that I cannot comprehend the terror a person would surely have experienced at the moment they realized that rather than a shower, they were to be gassed to death. And since I know that I cannot comprehend that terror, standing inside will not add to my understanding. I will not feel what they felt. I want to make a small protest, to refrain from entering. But in the end, I am a good boy and I force myself to acquiesce to the request.

I am cold. Standing inside the Gas Chamber, our Polish Guide, with her clipped, German accented English, describes the process of what happened here, again never using the word “the.” From the cold room of the gassing we move to the reconstructed crematorium where we are once again given a precise description of how things worked. And with each passing moment, the inner cold is balanced by burning hot anger. I remind myself that each Jewish step I take here is witness to the Nazi failure. But all I really want is…out.



Fortunately, we finish our time at Auschwitz I. We walk past the “book store” and the “coffee shop” and out of the gates of the camp. Lunch Time. It is a little bizarre to move so quickly from forced labor and starvation to LUNCH but that is exactly what we do. There are lots of groups picnicking just outside the fences of Auschwitz I: Polish families with children about Amalya’s age (6), a Jewish youth group from Uruguay, where the boys, when they aren’t’ focusing on the girls, are running around with Israeli flags on their backs like capes, etc. Most members of our group choose to sit outside. I cannot. I go back to the bus…

The bus. It is hot inside and I shvitz up a storm, but I cannot picnic here. In my mind, I decide that the bus is like a mikvah – a ritual bath. It is a sealed space of purity in this place that is inherently impure. And I start to wonder: “If I am this angry now, how will I feel at Birkenau?” It doesn’t take long to find out as we quickly end lunch and drive the three kilometers from the “Political Prisoner Camp” of Auschwitz I to the Death Camp of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We pull up to the entrance, exactly as it stood some sixty years ago, right where the trains would pull in and the selection would happen. Once again, my body turns cold, freezing cold. Any happiness left in my body is gone. I wonder if J.K. Rowling visited here, experienced this feeling, and then create the Dementor characters, the guardians of Azkhaban prison, for this is a soul-less, joy-less place.

We walk through the gates and stand on the tracks that brought hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths and then quickly make our way to the few remaining dormitory shacks left standing. Barns really, they are, in and of themselves, terrifying places. As we walk, I hear a train in the distance. At first, I think I am imagining the sound, that perhaps my mind is just playing tricks on me. But it is not and my heart skips a beat. My eyes meet those of one of my classmates. Her look asks, “Am I really hearing trains?” And my look back says yes. Her eyes well up with tears. I give a reassuring look as if to say “Remember, we are still here. We won.”

It is simply impossible to grasp the enormity of the Death Camp that is Birkenau. Since at any given time there were 100,000 people kept alive to keep the camp running, there were huge numbers of these barn-like dormitories where, on both the men’s and women’s sides, there were triple bunk beds. The men’s buildings were board-and-batten construction while the women’s buildings were made of brick, which gave no more protection from the elements than did the board-and-batten. Here we see a group of smiling German tourists looking for someone to take a smiling photo and the guy in my photo, “Napping at Auschwitz”. Only a few of the male barns remain intact. Of all the rest of the buildings, only the chimney stacks remain, standing in silence, the last remnants of the huge machine that was the “living section” of Birkenau. We walk down the tracks from the “live” section to the area of the Gas Chambers and crematoria, where most arrivals were immediately sent. It is eerily silent. Only the ruins of the crematoria remain along with a massive memorial to the victims of Birkenau. We conclude our visit with stops at two euphemistically named areas: Canada and the Sauna.

Canada, as it was called, was the area where property looted from the Jews was kept and sorted. There is virtually nothing left of the storehouses. The Sauna, however, was entirely reconstructed. At this complex, these who were to live for at least a little while were registered, tattooed, de-loused, showered off and uniformed. One of our classmates notes that when we entered, we walked on a raised plexi-glass surface rather than on the concrete floor as if to say “You do not tread on the place where the victims walked.” It reinforced, as she noted, the fact that we could walk through the same Sauna, but we could never fully fathom the experience, which is the case, of course. We conduct our ceremony in the Sauna in front of a wall of photographs taken from the pockets of victims and then we make our way out of Birkenau.

Waiting to board the bus, I watch an old woman, ninety years old at minimum, ride by us, by Auschwitz II – Birkenau, on her bicycle either oblivious to the death camp to her right or simply desensitized to it. Many say we cannot judge people who lived in this area at this time, that we cannot understand what the war was like, and, thus, the choices they faced. And yet, I wondered what this woman did sixty plus years ago:

Did she go for a daily bike ride past the “Ir ha-Harega” - "The City of Death" as Bialik once wrote about Kishinev after the Pogrom – during the Shoah?

And if she did, did she notice the stench of death emanating from the typhus-filled mass latrines or the smell of roasting flesh coming from the crematoria?

Is it really possible that she could not have noticed?

And if she did notice, what did she think:

Better them than me?

Good bye and good riddance?

What a shame but what can I do?

I will never know, but the image of the oblivious old woman riding her bike past Birkenau will forever be seared into my memory as will the stark, standing chimneys, silent testimonials to evil incarnate, to negligent disregard for life, for humanity, to the silent bystander and to the Jewish worlds destroyed by Hitler, the Nazis, and their sympathizers.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Leaving

I am overwhelmed.

In just two hours, the van will be here to pick us up.

Very soon, I will be living the words of Yehuda Halevi:

אני במערב ולבי במזרח

I cannot describe the depth of joy I feel that we had this year here in Israel nor the depth of sadness, sorrow, I feel as we prepare to leave.

To be in this land, to feel the kedushah, to be the majority, to aspire to a life of kedushah in eretz kodshenu, to feel whole, integrated, Shalem, is life.

To all those who made this such an incredible year for Becca, Elan, Mira, Amalya and Me, all I can say is thank you.

We will miss you and look forward to returning very soon, והמבין יבין .

There is so much more to write but I cannot, not now. Maybe after the kids are at camp.



תם ולא לשלם!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Poland Journal - Day 4 - Krakow

My apologies for the long break in completing my Poland entries. I needed to be away from the material for a while as it was anger inducing. Thanks for your patience.

May 28, 2008
כ"ג אייר תשס"ח

We spend most of the day on the bus on the way to Krakow. There, we are to visit the old Jewish quarter and several old, restored synagogues. The Jewish community of Krakow today numbers some 200 souls. In the months before the Shoah, there were some 60,000 Jews in Krakow. There is nostalgia here for the Jews. It appears in the Hebrew and Yiddish signage all around the Kazmierz area – the historic Jewish section of town. In all honesty, it feels a bit like what the Jewish Quarter of the Poland exhibit at Epcot would feel like if it existed.

Prior to our arrival, we stop in Kielce. Kielce is famous for nothing Jewishly except for the fact that it is the one place where a pogrom took place AFTER the end of the Shoah and the end of World War II. That’s right – after virtually all of Polish Jewry was annihilated, while the world just started to grasp the enormity of the final solution, the residents of Kielce felt it necessary to murder forty or more Jews based on a classic anti-Semitic canard – the blood libel.

Before arriving in Krakow, we visit another Jewish cemetery desecrated by the Nazis and restored as a memorial monument. An old Polish woman, at least eighty years of age, wearing a crucifix, comes to meet us. The privilege of paying respects to desecrated Jews graves cost our group 60 zloty or about $30. The “fee” supposedly goes to maintain the site, but the way cash payment is made betrays any sense of “good” as it is palmed from our polish docent, “Tomasz” to the woman. Profiteering. I am nauseous.



















The old city of Krakow is beautiful and for a short time, I can imagine myself returning to this quaint but cosmopolitan place, until we reach the craft market. On the one hand, the market looks like just about any other fold art festival: wood carvings, jewelry, etc. There is, however, one particular art form specific to this region: the Jew Doll. Many stalls sell them: wood carved Hasidim, they look like they could have walked here from Anatevka. Some smile and some frown. There are mostly male figurines but there are also a few females. Some play the violin while others hold pitchforks and sport pointed ears designed to look like the devil. They all, however, share one feature in common: long, very long, prominent Jewish noses. But if the noses and the pitchforks aren’t disturbing enough, they pale in comparison to the unique feature of the most common Jew Dolls throughout the market: the ones that clutch large gold coins close to their hearts. Nostalgia for the old days or blatant anti-Semitism? You will have to decide for yourselves. As for me, well, any thoughts I might have harbored about returning to visit beautiful Krakow vaporize the minute I lay my eyes on my first Jew Doll with the large nose viciously protecting his heart made of a gold coin.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Poland Journal - Day III - Death Camps


May 27, 2008
כ"ב אייר תשס"ח

I have been dreading this day in particular: A day of dead cities, death forests, and death camps. Our first stop: the Umschlagplatz – the gathering point for the deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. It sits surrounded by green trees and office buildings. Like so many places of Holocaust significance, this one is in an urban area that is modern and banal. We quickly board the bus and travel back in time to a shtetl.

We arrive at Tykocin. A former shtetl, half the town is Polish Catholic, dominated by the Cathedral. The other half of the town was the Jewish shtetl dominated by the Tykocin Shul built in the mid-1600’s. The surrounding buildings sit virtually unchanged from the time of the establishment of the shul and just as they did in the 1930’s: whitewashed walls, terra cotta roofs, cobblestone streets. The television satellite dishes do betray the museum like feel of the shtetl. Their presence announces that all did not stop in Tykocin. In fact, there are new residents in these old buildings – none of them Jews.

We enter the cavernous synagogue of Tykocin. This was a shul built as a statement of importance, as if to say in 1652, “We made it!” Today, the shul is a museum. It is restored with funding from the Lauder Foundation and others and it is possible to sense what the grandeur of the place was. We look at the photos of the Jewish residents no longer among the living. The megillat Esther is open to Chapter 9 where Esther and Mordechai and the Jews of Persia fight back and specifically, to the portion where Haman and his ten sons are hanged from the gallows prepared for Mordechai. Haim, our leader, calls me up to the bimah, along with Ilyse, and our friends shower us with candy in honor of our respective sons’ bnai mitzvah. It is our “Am Yisrael Chai” moment: Look you bystanders! You failed! We are still here.”

We leave the shul and there are a few residents sitting on the stoops looking at us with looks of curiosity. Most of them are rather elderly – ninety if they are a day. They too suffered during World War II. I “should” feel some modicum of sympathy for them. But I do not. I cannot imagine their narrative and, frankly, I am not interested. I want to approach them and ask:

Did you know the Jews that lived here in 1939?

Were you friends with them?

How long did you wait to move into their homes after they disappeared?


A day?
A week?
A month?

Did you even wonder where they went or what happened to them?

Tykocin, you see, gives new meaning to the phrase “Here today. Gone Tomorrow.” Soon after the Nazis conquered Poland, they came to Tykocin. The 2,500 Jewish residence of the town were called to assemble in the evening, were marched 7 kilometers to the forest of Pochova, and murdered en mass, shot into mass graves. Imagine going to sleep one night with 2,500 Jewish neighbors and waking up the next day with half the town missing. So, what do you do, you 90 year old woman giving me the dirty looks? You move into a now formerly Jewish home…

We finish our visit to the shtetl. Time for lunch. By the waters of Tykocin we are to eat. “A beautiful spot,” we are told. One of our colleagues is uncomfortable: “Maybe they made the Jews march across the bridge on the way to their deaths. It freaks me out. Can we eat somewhere else?” So instead, we eat in the nicely manicured town square, right in front of the Big Church, where we are promptly told that all of the men of the town were gathered by the Nazis and put to work in forced labor groups until the Jews were separated out and sent to the slaughter. In places like this, I cannot imagine that there is any spot we can sit and eat that isn’t shaded by the shadow of the Angel of Death or poisoned by the tumat met – the impurity of the dead – that pervades this part of Europe. As we leave Tykocin, I start to notice a vague familiarity in the small towns we drive through. It bothers me but I don’t pay much attention.

We drive seven kilometers through winding roads into the middle of the Polish forest of Pochova. Tall, thin pines and a few birch trees line the road. I am more uncomfortable than ever here in this forest; the winding roads feel even more familiar. I feel like I know them like the back of my hand. We walk the last few meters to our destination: the final resting place of the Jews of Tykocin – three pits in the middle of the forest. I am frozen. Disbelief. Anger. I wonder if this is how incomprehensibility feels. We hold a brief memorial ceremony. Our candles join those of the Israeli Police and other groups that were here the day before holding their own memorial ceremonies and the wreaths of the March of the Living groups that preceded us by a few weeks. We walk back through the forest to our bus and proceed to our next stop: The Death Camp of Treblinka.

Notorious for its relatively short life and great success in exterminating Polish Jewry, Treblinka was essentially dismantled by the Nazis after its purpose was fulfilled. There is virtually nothing of the Death Camp left, except for the “Roasting Pits” where the hundreds of thousands of bodies were burned. Since none of the buildings remain, there is just an enormous field left, cut into the Pine and Birch forest. A gigantic Soviet Era – or at least Eastern European – style monument dominates the site. Throughout the area are 17,000 stones, many bearing the names of communities wiped out by the Nazis. Only one stone has the name of a person on it, that of Dr. Janusz Korczak, hero to Poles and Jews alike. Again, the familiarity of the place overwhelms me, as does the enormity of the number of Jews murdered here.

Danny, an art educator and installation artist, shares his opinion, his distaste actually, for the monument. In his opinion, the mysterious horror of the place would have been best preserved by leaving the parameters of the camp empty. And then, at that moment, all the stones, the monument, disappear for me and I can see the answer. It is a moment similar to that in “Searching for Bobby Fisher” when Ben Kingsley, in an attempt teach his protégé to see what is not yet there, slams all the chess pieces of the board. “Can you see it now?” he asks. Silence reigns until the boy sees it. And now I see it to and recognize the familiarity that is haunting me. The winding roads through pine and birch forests, the smell of the pine needles and the fallen leaves, the sounds of the birds, the winding road that opens to an enormous field: This could just as easily be Conover, Wisconsin, my summer home for twenty years, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, as it is the Pochova forest. This could just as easily be a summer camp, a place of life for Jewish children as it is a place of hatred, murder, collective annihilation.

I can see it: to the left is the perfect spot for a chadar ochel, a dining hall; to the right, a welcome center and business office. Over there, on the other side of the field, I spy the place where I would put a circle of boy’s cabins and a circle of girls cabins. There is a massive weeping willow just off the center of the main field. There, I would put benches for people to sit and talk, to enjoy the shade of the enormous tree – the gathering place for friends. I am sick to my stomach. Fury fills my every muscle, bone, and nerve. Can a place that looks like this really be used either for good or evil? Can the difference between a summer camp and a death camp be the intentionality of the leader and his followers? Leaving Treblinka does not relieve the anger, for driving through the little towns of rural Poland looks just like driving through the little towns of rural Northern Wisconsin: Wittenberg, Antigo, etc. The disconcerting nature of the similarity is just too much for me.

Like rural Wisconsin, there are rolling hills here, subdivided into farms. Often, the fields are separated by small patches of woods. The only difference is that in central Wisconsin, I don’t ask myself if Jews were rounded up and shot en-mass in these small wooden patches.

We return to Warsaw, where we will have a wonderful visit at the home of our classmate, Helise. On the way to her apartment, we walk through downtown and a man, somewhat drunk, calls us over. We stop. He pulls up his paunch, which hangs over his belt, and gestures at the belt where he proudly wears a Swastika. Seventy-two hours in Poland and I feel like someone is finally honest with us. He yells “Heil Hitler” and we just walk away.

Is there a renaissance of Jewish life in Poland or is it a patient taking its last breaths? I don’t know. What I do know, with great certainty, is that I don’t plan to stick around long enough to find out.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Poland Journal - Day 2- Warsaw

May 26, 2008
כ"א אייר תשס"ח

Monday: A day of anger; a day of contrasts. We visit the “active” Jewish sites: The Nozick synagogue (restored) where the March of the Living takes over when it comes to visit; the Lauder School which our friend Helise established; and the “Youth Lounge” for lack of a better term. These are the places that are “alive.”





And…


We visit the places that are dead…

The Warsaw Ghetto

A last remaining fragments of the Ghetto Wall

The Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw


A Monument to the Ghetto Uprising and The Holocaust Center


It is at the Holocaust Center that the anger, already brewing in anticipation of the trip, really bubbles to the surface. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is terrifying and disturbing and the Center tells the story in words, in still photos, and in archival film footage. Here is what the Shoah is or was. There is no whitewashing here.










In many, if not most educational settings today, we are afraid that pictures of the Shoah will frighten or disturb and so we do not show them. The turn to personal testimonies of survivors as the central way to teach the Shoah is crucial. They bear witness to this incomprehensible tragedy and murder and will do so long after those who suffered but survived are gone. The personal testimony captures the experience of the individual, of the one. To begin to grasp the enormity, the collective suffering, murder and death of six million Jews, one must, at the right age, see these pictures and films. They ARE grotesque. They ARE horrifying. And…They must be seen in order to try and conceive the inconceivable.

My blood boils. The feeling of impurity, the poison of the place, grows stronger and stronger.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Poland Day 1 - Arrival

May 25, 2008
כ אייר תשס"ח

I don’t want to be awake at this hour. In fact, I don’t want to be going to my destination at all. It is 1:45 am I am overtired and I don’t want to go. But I am going because that is what we do. Baruch and I stand on the corner waiting for our Nesher to pick us up. Our professor calls and says the driver doesn't see us. "Look for the two Jews standing on the corner at the stoplight with the suitcases," I reply...

I wake up with a start as the plane does not really touch down in Warsaw as much as pounds down on the tarmac at Frederick Chopin International Airport. Brand new, or very recently renovated, Chopin is not a warm place – it is grey and glass and cold – or perhaps that is just how I feel on this morning. Despite my reluctance, we are off to Warsaw.


I have not seen a park like this in a very long time. Everything is so green and lush, with a lot of old growth. Around a small, man-made lake, people sit politely, waiting for a concert of piano pieces by Chopin. Perhaps I would feel differently were I not wearing a kippah, but I feel so very out of place, as though the entire park is looking at the back of my head trying to figure out what in the world I am doing there…what we are doing there.

At some point, we check into our hotel and then go to dinner at a restaurant that defrosts the kosher food sent for us from Israel. Walking back through downtown Warsaw, I again feel very self-conscious. For years, I refrained from wearing my kippah in Europe. On this trip, however, I insist on wearing it sans baseball cap, proudly and openly. In any event, I look at the grim faces looking at us. I don’t feel so safe outside, but the kippah stays on. Some members of our group choose to go out to pubs. I just want to get back to the room. My pace gets faster as I walk through the pedestrian tunnel.

I enter the hotel and suddenly feel safe. The lobby is filled with police officers dressed in light blue shirts and dark blue pants like police officers from anywhere in the world. These police officers, however, speak Hebrew. They are mishteret Yisrael – the Israeli Police – here on a memorial mission just as we are. I am among my own. I am not powerless. I am safe.

Parashat Shlah Lekha 2008

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of our dear friend, Rabbi Aaron Alexander and his fiancé, Peninah Podwol. I also had the privilege of standing under the chuppah with Peninah’s father, also a rabbi, and mother, and participating in the ceremony. With friends and family beaming with joy, the couple made their way down the stairs of the outdoor patio at the American Jewish University just before the sun started its descent. If the spot where the Milken School sits were replaced with the Temple Mount, this could just as easily been the Maiersdorf Plaza at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

It is a rarity for me to co-officiate at a wedding and I usually only do so at the weddings of people that I know well. Under the chuppah, you are privy to the entire ritual, to the looks of the bride and groom, to have the opportunity to share thoughts, hopes, prayers, and advice at the very moment boyfriend and girlfriend, fiancée and affianced, become chattan and kallah – bride and groom. Since it was Sunday, I based my remarks on this week’s parashah, Shlah Lekha. Since I almost never write down my remarks at a wedding so I can spend the time looking directly into the eyes of the bride and groom, here is a summary, to the best of my recollection, of my words to Aaron and Peninah:

“You know that I like to think and speak in threes (chuckles from the Ramah Darom chevre present) and so I am going to focus on two words at the beginning of the parashah and then one paragraph at the end. Our parashah opens with the story of the m’raglim – the spies – that Moshe sends to check out the land of Israel. Aaron, we first met because while I thought I was on a recruitment mission to the University of Florida, I think your mother, Linda, had me sent on a spy mission to make sure that you were well. Peninah, when I met Aaron at the Swamp at UF, I knew immediately that he would be a fantastic madrich (counselor). I didn’t know that he would become a talmid (student), a chaver (a dear friend), a teacher, a confidant, and a brother.

Aaron, it is because of another word in the parashah that I know Peninah’s family. Moshe instructs the spies to go and check out the land. Do they live in wooded areas or barren lands? Do they reside in fortresses or in machanayim, which shares the same root as machaneh, which of course, as most of us know, means camp? In fact, fifteen years ago, one of my first recruitment trips for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin was to the South suburbs of Chicago, where I met Peninah’s father at the home of Sarah Graff. So in a sense, I know both of you because of the camps Ramah.

Peninah, Aaron, I want to turn to the end of our parashah because there is crucial advice for you as you begin your married life together. Here, we read the paragraph that tells us of the mitzvah of tzitzit, the command to place fringes on the corners of all four cornered garments. The purpose of tzitzit, we are taught, is to remind us, to remind us of the Commandments and to do them, to remember them, and to refrain from pursuing those things that draw our attention away from our fidelity to our covenanted relationship with God.

Today, Aaron and Peninah, you place rings on your fingers, wedding rings, which serve a similar purpose to tzitzit. They are the outward expression of an internal fidelity, a commitment to one another that you are more important, unique, kadosh, than any other human relationship in the world; that you make promises to one another, commitments. You will both be very successful in your careers. You will be pursued by others who want you to give just one more class, one more lecture, to attend just one more meeting for the good of the Jewish people. And because you are both so committed to the Avodat Kodesh – the Sacred Work – that you do, you too will want to give just one more class, one more lecture, touch one more set of lives. You will pursue those interests with gusto. These rings remind you that before you can be excellent servants of the community and the Kadosh Baruch Hu, you must be excellent partners to one another. Remember that whenever you look at the wedding rings on your fingers.

Aaron, Peninah, Rebecca and I wish you unlimited happiness in this ultimate relationship and look forward to decades of continued friendship. Mazal Tov!”

After reciting the Sheva Berachot, together with Matthew Alexander who has an incredible voice, the glass was broken, a cheer went up and the new husband and wife were escorted to a few minutes of privacy. When they emerged at the reception, the dancing went on for a very long time and it was wonderful to see so many people surrounding the chattan and kallah in joy and love.

Mazal Tov!

Shabbat Shalom!

Notes:

To those coming to Israel on Ramah Israel Seminar, I look forward to seeing you very soon. If you are coming from Poland, I will see you at the Hava and not at the airport. If you are coming the day after on the regular Seminar, I will see you at the group area at Ben Gurion! I can’t wait to welcome you to מדינת ישראל !

Mazal Tov to our friend Marc Silberstein on his recent engagement!

Mazal Tov to our friend Anna Stern on her recent engagement!

Mazal Tov to Vicki and Jason on their pending move to Chattanooga, TN (which is about 3 hours closer to us in Atlanta)!

Yasher Koah to my colleagues at the Melton Senior Educator Program on the completion of the Program.

Starting on Motzei Shabbat, I will be posting journal entries from my recent trip to Poland and Hungary both to the google group and to my blog at
www.hamirpesetsheli.blogspot.com . The blog site will include photos from the trip. Please note that this was an intense and difficult trip for me and the entries will communicate that very clearly.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Parashat Bekhukotai - Elan's Words

This week, read Bekhukotai which usually comes together with parashat Bahar, which we read last week. In that they USUALLY appear together, I am taking advantage of the split to share with you Elan's words of Torah from last week, his Bar Mitzvah:

Sometimes, I have something I call an “Israel Moment.” It is usually when I see or do something that doesn’t happen in Marietta, Georgia. Once, Mira, Amalya, my Dad and I were walking around downtown and a girl in front of us just walked up to a fig tree and climbed up into it. She started picking figs and eating them. When we walked by, she offered us figs and we happily accepted. Definitely not a Marietta, Georgia moment.

Another Israel moment – I was walking home one day and when I got to Derech Chevron there was a guy on a horse crossing the street, cutting off impatient pedestrians and drivers, who were yelling at the horse and rider. Not a “Roswell Road Moment” - an “Israel Moment.”
One of my favorite Israel moments was seeing Gan HaPa’amon on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, where people were staking out places for their evening barbecue very early in the afternoon. It was insane. People were trying to get the best spots. Just seeing so many people celebrating in a small place was definitely an Israel moment.

All year, I had great Israel moments and they make me feel much more connected to eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael.

The Tefillin I am wearing today are very special to me. I made them myself. A few years ago, my Dad was sitting with our friend, Noah Greenberg in Tsfat. My Dad saw some paper boxes on his desk and ask Noah what they were. Noah told him that one day, he had a question: How did Moshe make his tefillin, without today’s hydraulic presses and other such modern equipment? Noah came up with the idea to try and make tefillin out of klaf, parchment just like what we use to write a Torah or a mezuzah’s scrolls, that Moshe would have been able to use.

Noah started folding and shaping and eventually found a way to make tefillin. He went to his rabbi and asked if they were kosher tefillin. His rabbi said they were kosher. Noah thought that if kids made their own tefillin, they might use them regularly. So Noah came to camp to test out the idea. Several other campers and I got to test the project out first hand. We started by creasing and cutting the parchment. Then we had to paint it all completely black with paint pens. Once that was done, we started folding the batim, precisely as we were shown, so that they would for the right shape. When they were half folded, we had to take the scrolls, fold them, and tie them up with “gid” or sinew. We put the scrolls inside and then we finished by folding up the bottoms and sewing them shut. After that was done, we lacquered the Shin on the Shel Rosh to give it a shine. When that was done, all that was left to do was to tie the knots on the straps and, then, we had made our own tefillin!

While we were working on our tefillin, we would sometimes become distracted and start talking about other things. Each time, Noah would have us say that “Everything we do today is l’shem Kedushat Tefillin” and we would all refocus. After a day or two, some of the campers would remind the others about our purpose, l’shem kedushat tefillin, without being told by Noah to do it. Even though it meant not going to sports and swimming for a few days, I was amazed and excited to participate in this new project and am very proud to have made this pair of tefillin.

On Chol HaMoed Sukkot, my family came with the Schorsch – Moses family to Neot Qedumim. It was our first visit. Simcha Leibovic took us on a tour of all the different kinds of Sukkot mentioned in the Mishnah. It was amazing to see all the plants and the view, and it gave me an idea of what biblical Israel might have looked like. We saw etrogim the size of watermelons, an Archimedes screw, and other fascinating things. It really gave me an idea of why the Israelites wanted to here so badly and why we kept remembering this place for thousands of years.

These may seem like random things: Israel moments, a tefillin project, Neot Kedumim, and some special people but there is a connection between them and my bar mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah is about my relationship, and my obligations, to Elohei Yisrael, following the mitzvoth that are part of our brit with God. Bar Mitzvah is about our Torah and doing things like learning about tefillin, making tefillin, and now wearing tefillin. Bar Mitzvah is about having a relationship with people, the people of Israel, and it is about having a connection and responsibility to Eretz Yisrael, the land and the State of Israel, which is a lot of what Shemittah is about. Thank you all of coming to join me as I take on these obligations and to celebrate with me as I become Bar Mitzvah.

May we all go from strength to strength and may we all stand together this Shabbat and proclaim:

Be Strong, Be Strong and We Shall be Stengthened.
חזק חזק ונתחזק

Friday, May 16, 2008

Parashat Behar - Elan's Bar Mitzvah

It has been several weeks since I wrote last. The end of each week has been crazy and I have either not had time to write or have not had what to write. This week, however, is different and special. Somehow or another, Becca and I now have a son that is becoming Bar Mitzvah. Elan led tefillot this morning at Neot Kedumim. Tomorrow, he will read Torah and Haftarah at Shira Chadashah. If you are in Jerusalem, services start at 8:30 am and Torah reading is around 9:15 am and kiddush, well, you will just have to show up to find out. The following are the words of Torah I will share tomorrow with Elan and with the kehillah.

Shabbat Shalom,

We were not originally supposed to be here this Shabbat. For many years, we planned to have Elan’s bar mitzvah at Camp Ramah Darom, where I had the privilege of serving as the founding director for eleven years. Were we there, I would have spent the past few weeks trying to make some kind of connection between the specifics of the laws of shemittah, the year of release for the land, and Camp Ramah. Not a simple task. But we are not at camp. We are in Yerushalayim where we have been living this year. The fact that your bar mitzvah fell on Shabbat Behar which deals with Shabbaton, with the land of Israel, must have been a foreshadowing of our being in Israel. It was bashert.

The classic question about our parashah is asked in Torat Cohanim and repeated by several of the meforshim:

מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני. והלא כל המצות נאמרו מסיני?

In other words, what is it about shemittah, letting the land rest, that is so important that the Torah begins the parashah with:

וידבר יקוק אל משה בהר סיני לאמר:

“And The Lord spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai, saying,”

Why does it take us back all the way to Sinai?

Many of the commentators focus on the question from a temporal standpoint. That is, they are bothered that this appears at the end of theSefer Vayikra, Leviticus, after Matan Torah, the Giving of Torah, and after hakamat hamishkan, the construction of the portable Tabernacle. Others consider the severity of the punishment connected to failing to observe Shemittah. From Rashi, restating Torat Cohanim, we learn that the connection between shemittah and Sinai is here to teach us that while the general rules of shemittah were mentioned in Exodus, we should not think that what is taught here was taught at a later moment in history in a different place; rather, these mitzvoth were taught at Sinai in detail and are simply restated in their specifics here. Similarly, Ibn Ezra reminds us that there is no earlier or later in the Torah and that this parashah is taught prior to the beginning of Vayikra but appears here nonetheless.

אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. וזו הפרשה קודם ויקרא,

Implicit in the responses of the commentators is the understanding that there is something special, something unusual about this parashah.

In looking at the structure of our parashah, I see the following pattern:

Our parashah begins with God:

וידבר יקוק

“And God Spoke…”

And it ends with God:

אני יקוק

“I Am God.”

Our parashah begins with sacred land, space, where we encounter God:

ויקרא פרק כה

כי תבאו אל הארץ אשר אני נתן לכם

“When you come into the Land that I give to you…”

And it ends with sacred spaces where we encounter God:

ויקרא פרק כו

ומקדשי תיראו

“Revere My Sanctuaries...”

Our Parashah begins with Shabbat for the land, Shemittah:

ויקרא פרק כה

ושבתה הארץ שבת ליקוק

“…the land will observe a Sabbath of the Lord.”

And it ends with Shabbat for those who work it:

ויקרא פרק כו

את שבתתי תשמרו

“You shall keep My Sabbaths…”

The central sections of our parashah deal with how we relate to our fellow Jews, both in the ethics of our business conduct and at times that they are in trouble, in difficulty. Furthermore, it gives us difficult questions with which to deal, not just theoretical questions but real, everyday life questions like how we relate to the “Other.”

The parashah puts front and center

Elohei Yisrael – The God of Israel
Eretz Yisrael – The Land of Israel
Shabbat Yisrael – Sacred time to Meet God;
andAm Yisrael - The People of Israel

By referring us back to Sinai, the moment of Revelation, our parashah brings us full circle to

Torat Yisrael.

By taking us back to the powerful moment of Standing at Sinai, Parashat Bahar comes to teach us that even in a portion that deals with the micro-details of land transactions and agricultural practice we are able to find the central values of Jewish Peoplehood. In a parashah like Kedoshim, it is easy to see the values. The opening chapter deals with how we relate to God and how we relate to people. Behar comes to teach us that how we relate to the land is also important. That the way we relate to our inheritance demonstrates our sacred relationship with God and the sacred role we are commanded to play in the world.

Elan, I hope that as you grow, the values that we have tried to instill in you and that are so clearly present in your parashah:

Elohei Yisrael – a special relationship with The God of Israel;
Eretz Yisrael – a special, treasure connection to The Land of Israel;
Mitzvot Yisrael – living a meaningful life organized by the covenant between us and God;
Shabbat Yisrael – taking time weekly to break from mastering time to Meet God ;
Am Yisrael – a sense of collective responsibility to Jews in the world;
and to Torat Yisrael – to learning and living our Torah, in all of its broadest definitions

Serve as your guideposts, are the organizing principles of your life and of your menshlichkeit, as they are for ours.

Yesterday, we went to Neot Kedumim to begin celebrating your bar mitzvah. After tefillot and brunch, we went to the area dedicated to Shemittah. We planted acorns from Israeli oak trees in small cups. The staff will tend them as they become saplings and after the Shemittah year is over, they will plant them throughout the preserve.

As we were planting, afterwards as I was looking out over the beautiful vistas and fields of Neot Kedumim, and as I was smiling with great pride at what a mentsh you are, I couldn’t help but think a bit about today’s haftarah. Jeremiah is told that his cousin, Hanamel, will come and tell him to buy his field in Anatot. Jeremiah is commanded to keep an achuza, a possession in the land, even though he is soon to depart into exile. The command to acquire an achuza is an investment in a future return. We hope, Mom and me, that this year has been one of acquiring a possession, a love of the Land, the People, and the State of Israel, and one of gaining a sense of being part of a collective, to Clal Yisrael, for which you have a responsibility. We hope that you, as we also wish for ourselves, will return here soon, to reacquire that achuza, the possession, not temporarily but permanently.

We are so very proud of you and love you very much.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Parashat Tazria – Shabbat HaChodesh - Shabbat Mevarchim

Walking around Jerusalem, you can smell spring in the air. The trees, plants, bushes are all in bloom creating an intoxicating blend of aromas. The bees hover around the endless groups of rosemary bushes bathing in the pollen, ignoring people as they brush their hands over needles to enjoy the smell. The sun shines, washing over me with warmth. It is the season of birth and rebirth here in eretz hakodesh.

As Pesach approaches, we open our windows, throw out the winter and welcome in the New Year, with all of its possibilities and opportunities. Cleaning for Pesach, which here is a combination of kashering and spring cleaning, is winding into high gear. We use up our old chametz, and get rid of that which remains, clearing out the cabinets in preparation for the new, special foods, that will fill them in the week to come. And as we clear out our houses and cabinets, we clear out our hearts and souls, ridding them of the shmutz that gathers in the winter, opening the chambers of our hearts, and inhaling the new along with the smells of the season.

Even our parashah, Tazria, which focuses on states of ritual purity and impurity, opens with a focus on new life, on birth, on brit, and on the purity of the soul. In cases where sources of impurity would appear, we would turn to the Cohen, the priest, to recognize the nature of the impurity, to determine when it was gone, and to purify the setting. As we clear out our souls, it is now to us to recognize that which creates impurity – jealousy, hatred, anger – to remove it, creating space for goodness, hope, and joy.

Tomorrow, we focus on three new beginnings: the beginning of life in Tazria, the proclaiming of the new month, Nissan, which we will announce and bless, and the arrival of Pesach and the Exodus, when our family became a nation. As we listen, announce, and read, I pray that we all take time to insure that the windows of our soul are open wide, that we are clearing them out and making room for good at this, the springtime of our People.

Shabbat Shalom.