Friday, December 28, 2012

Rock, Pluralism, Blessings and Jerusalem!

There is no question that the picture painted about Israel in the press today is not pretty.  Nurses went on strike to force the government to increase what are embarrassingly low wages.  Only a last minute action by the Knesset prevented the shutting down of Channel 10, a noteworthy critic of the current Prime Minister.  The man slotted for the number two spot on the "Likud - Yisrael Beiteinu" list was indicted by the attorney general for breach of communal trust.  The neighborhood, also known as the Middle East, gets nastier and more unstable every day.  And let's not forget about the daily announcements of the Chief Rabbinate trying to impose the opinions of the very few on the entire country.  It all sounds so bleak.

Yet, this is not the full picture of today's Israel.  It leaves out important discoveries in the fields of medicine and technology.  It fails to include the rich cultural events that are woven into the daily life of jerusalem.  It neglects the wide variety of social entrepreneurial ventures popping up on a constant basis, the beautification projects making Jerusalem a more livable and lovely place and the sounds of multiple religious traditions co-existing in the most sacred of cities.  Finally, the journalistic approach of publishing only the darkest narratives neglects the incredible projects related to  התחדשות היהדות - the reinvigoration of Judaism - taking place all over Jerusalem and Israel.  Here is an example of what I am talking about.

I spent Sunday night at The Yellow Submarine, a music club in the Talpiyot Shopping District, to listen to a group of rock bands.  Surprised?  Rabbi Sykes went to a what?A rock concert? After all, rock is not my musical genre. I am not one to frequent concerts or rock clubs. I am definitely not the "clubbing" type. This, however, was not an ordinary battle of the bands.  The musicians were all teenagers and the bands were a mix of religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sefaradi, socially comfortable and socially akward teens.  They were participants in  "Meko-Rock Jerusalem" - a project of Bet Midrash Elul, the pluralistic bet midrash in Jerusalem and the founders of Merko-Rock, a project started in a place called Emek Chefer, by David Levy.

Meko-rock is a play on the Hebrew word, Mekorot or sources.  The concept is simple and beautiful.  Meko-Rock brings together teens of different backgrounds on a weekly basis, for three to four months, to study Jewish sources.  These teen musicians create study groups that become bands.  They choose sources from the Bible, Rabbinic literature and other Jewish texts which become the inspiration for writing rock music.  Just as the teens have excellent facilitators to help guide them through exploration of Jewish texts, they also work with top notch musicians who help take their source-based inspiration and create inspired rock music.  I am not talking about taking "Oseh Shalom biMromav" and writing a new tune to replace the one we know; rather, by learning about different faces of Peace, participants may look at their lives, their angst and where they lack Peace.  Their exploration becomes lyrics and music and performance techniques.

I was blown away by the music, by the depth of learning and the depth of the material created.  It was exceptional.  The bands were fun to watch, the participants were all very talented and were totally into it!  The audience, made up of parents and friends, supporters and funders, was equalling inspired.  Roni Yavin, the power house professional leader of Bet Midrash Elul, understood the potential of this program to touch the lives of all points on the religious spectrum.  For teens on the "religious" end of the spectrum, the project allows for the re-examination of familiar texts, for the extraction of different life lessons, for exposure to perspectives different than their own and for the expression of identity through music.  For the more "secular" participants, Meko-Rock creates the space to encounter a part of Jewish heritage often denied them by secular educational institution and increasingly Haredi off-putting.  Perhaps most important of all, teenagers progress through this encounter together, breaking down barriers between the different sectors of Israeli society.

Meko-Rock is but one of many similar examples of efforts to bridge the gap between "religious" and "secular" Jews of every age and stage.  The התחדשות movement is a reaction to the trend toward התחרדות or Haredization of Jerusalem and the government.  Meko-Rock, Bet Midrash Elul, The Jerusalem Movement, The Masorti Movement and other organizations - religious, pluralist, denominational and not - are working together, bridging gaps, and insuring that Jerusalem remains the creative, religious capital of the entire Jewish people.

The pluralist, open approach to Judaism being taken by the above mentioned groups is the embodiment of the blessings given in VaYechi, the final portion of the book of Genesis.  The children of Jacob are not given just one collective blessing; rather, they are given an individual blessing.  They are a family and are blessed and they are recognized as individual components of the family and blessed.  The התחדשות or reinvigoration approach to Jewish Jerusalem acknowledges that Jerusalem is both collectively and individually ours. That is something to celebrate!

Thank you to Roni Yavin for introducing me to Bet Midrash Elul and to Meck-Rock and thank you for the work that you do on behalf of the Jewish People.  Your work is definitely avodat kodesh - sacred work - and it brings to life the sentence we will all shout at the end of the Torah reading this week:

חזק חזק ונתחזק!

Be Strong! Be Strong! And together, we will be strengthened!

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Partners in Adding Light in the Winter

My flight from JFK to Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv was fascinating.  As usual, the plane was packed. Half the plane was filled with Birthright participants while the rest of the 747 was filled by a mix of secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Israelis and Americans, as well as a number of Christian pilgrims.  I settled into my seat expecting to fall asleep when the person next to me struck up a conversation.  This was her first trip to Israel and she was SO excited. She had traveled to much of the world but this was the trip she was most excited about.  A Christian pilgrim, she was traveling with a group of widows and widowers to The Holy Land to play the harp at the gates of Jerusalem and to meet their counterparts, Jewish Israeli widows and widowers.  While keeping me up with conversation during the flight would normally annoy me, the energy of this group was so delightful that I wasn't bothered.

Listening their excitement about coming to Israel for the first time, their hope to bring love and joy to Israel, without any intention of proselytizing or changing anyone, of bringing light to those who often live in darkness got me thinking about others who do the same at this season of the year.  Reviewing my e-mail, I came across a note from just such a person.  Beth Steinberg, a friend we made during our sabbatical in Israel, is one of the bright lights in the Israeli winter.  After not finding programs that met the needs of her son with special needs, Beth, together with Maya Avraham, created Shutaf, partner in Hebrew, to provide after school inclusion programs for her son and others like him.  Since starting the program in 2007, Shutaf now includes summer camps, winter camps and leadership programs, touching hundred of lives.

According to their mission statement, Shutaf

for children and teens with special needs is committed to inclusion-based programming that answers the social, educational and vocational needs of our community. We believe in quality services for all, regardless of disability, financial limitations and religious differences. Our program creates new opportunities for children and teens – with and without disabilities – to come together and learn important Jewish values of acceptance and understanding.

To that end, the Shutaf summer camp and other programs intentionally seeks a mix of participants where 75% are children with special needs and at least 25% are "typical" kids.  Both those who are "typical" and those with "special needs" learn from experience the centrality of Jewish values of acceptance, understanding and inclusion.  For families with children with special needs, for the kids themselves, for the typical kids and their families as well, Shutaf shines a light on possibilities, possibilities for a more inclusive and supportive world.

Shabbat is a few hours away.  The Jerusalem skies alternate between sunshine and overcast.  Soon, the gray will turn to darkness, deep winter darkness, illuminated only by the streetlights, Shabbat candles and Channukiot.  And the light will  grow by the energy, joy, and goodness that Beth and Maya and others like them add to the world.

And who knows, maybe I will even hear some harp music in the distance...

Shabbat Shalom, Rosh Hodesh Sameach and Happy Hannukah.

For more information about Shutaf, visit their website at: