Friday, December 13, 2013

Nurturing the Core: Putting Jewish Learning Front and Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Vital Center: Thoughts on the USCJ Centennial Shabbaton

Baltmore, Maryland, Motzei Shabbat, Parashat Lekh Lekha:

In a post on my personal blog, I wrote with a touch of sadness that I would not be in Israel for Shabbat Lekh Lekha.  Because the Torah portion begins with the command to Abram to leave his homeland and go to what will ultimately be known as the land of Israel, this is a Shabbat that celebrates Aliyah and new Olim.  As an Israeli citizen for almost two months, I looked forward to being with my family in Talpiyot, Jerusalem to celebrate our arrival in Israel.
While I certainly miss my family and Israel, as I look back on this weekend, I am happy I spent Shabbat in Baltimore, with six hundred others, starting a different odyssey: a journey to the new future of Conservative Judaism.   From energy to options, from kavvanah* to customer service, the weekend exceeded all expectations.  The way the Shabbaton was structured I felt as though I could easily have been in Israel:

 ·      On both Friday Night and Saturday morning, I could shul-hop, with no less than five different options at every service.  There was something for every taste and flavor of Conservative Judaism.

 ·      I enjoyed Shabbat meals with old friends while, at the same time, making new friends. 

·      My spirits were lifted high by energetic zemirot* sessions led by one hundred USYers, over twenty-five Bogrei Nativ, and emerging adults from Marom Olami. 

·      My soul and intellect were enriched and challenged by a vast, rich menu of shiurim – classes – led by superstars of the Jewish world, from Clive Lawson, founder of Limmud, to Vanessa Hidary, the Hebrew Mamita, to my mentor, teacher and friend, Rabbi Bradley Artson, all teaching at levels where every person could walk away having learned something.

Perhaps the greatest difference between this Shabbat in Jerusalem and Baltimore is the quality, the depth and the optimism I heard in conversations about the future of Conservative Judaism.  Before, during and after sessions, the corridors were filled not only with conversations about how fantastic the presenters or the shlihei tzibbur* were but about what the messages were about the future of our approach to Judaism.  People argued passionately, and respectfully, about the implications of the lessons and take-aways.  A few examples: 

In a world where people have multiple identities, how do people identify with and strengthen their commitment to their identification with the values of Conservative Judaism.  Clive Lawson brought the difference between identity and identification to the forefront.  

The Hebrew Mamita, Vanessa Hidary, raised our sensitivity not only to our own self-perceptions but how we perceive Jews from whom we are different.

Rabbi Artson presented an integrated theological approach, weaving our experiencing of the world with discoveries in a variety of fields of science as well as with the layers of ideas contained within our rich tradition.  What are the implications of an integrated theological system on our behaviors, on our relation to Mitzvot and commandedness? And how do we engage members of Conservative Kehillot in this kind of conversation. 

Just to name a few. 

In its variety and quality, this weekend was the demonstration of reaching an understanding that in a world where one can choose not only from five hundred cable channels but can opt out of the regular/cable television system entirely and stream shows from sites like Netflix and Hulu, the one size-fits all kehilla approach needs to and is changing. 

Shabbat ended with a summer camp-style Havdalah.  Our cup overflowed with exceptionally positive energy.  USYers and eighty year olds danced and sang together.  The power of over six hundred voices shouting “Amen” was testimony to the different feeling about our future.

On Tuesday, I will return back home to Israel.  Much of my work there is to help strengthen the lives of North American Jews and Kehillot via intensive learning and experiential programs.  The Shabbaton and Conversation of the Century send me home with a renewed energy and optimism that the Jewish world needs a vital and vibrant center, that we are positioned to be that center in the future in new and exciting ways just as we were in the past, and that there is much exciting work and opportunity ahead. 

To all those who made the Shabbaton and Centennial happen, thank you.

Now go and do! 
Shavua Tov.

This post originally appeared this past sunday on the USCJ Centennial Site,

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lekh Lekha - And You Will Go Forth!

Baka, Jerusalem: October 27, 1990 – Sitting in the basement of The Efrata School on Gad Street, I listened intently to the d’var Torah.  The woman stood, speaking haltingly in Hebrew with a heavy American accent:

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
“Go out from your country and from your homeland and from the house of your family to the land that I will show you.” Genesis 12:1
An Olah Hadasha, a new citizen of Israel, spoke of her choice to leave the comforts of America to make a home in Israel, the motivations for her choice and the adventures she experienced over the course of the year.  
By this time, I was in Israel for a total of two weeks.  Listening to the refrain of Lekh Lekha, “Go Forth!”, I knew I would never give such a d’var Torah.  I felt a tremendous sense that there was something I was supposed to do in the US. In addition to my personal sense of purpose, the idea of serving in the IDF was simply beyond my comprehension. For these and other reasons, I returned to the US after an incredible year filled with exceptional Torah, a few weeks of life in a sealed-room during the first Gulf War, memories of helping participants in the second Aliyah from Ethiopia and a lot of very good friends in Israel.
It seems my choice to return to The US was correct.  I met Becca, we built a family and have three truly magnificent children! I was privileged to be the founding director Ramah Darom, a family and home that created numerous Jewish leaders and continues to inspire thousands to be more involved in Jewish living, learning and community. Working with a few very good friends, I got to create Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism. I feel confident that I can honestly say, “Mission Accomplished.”
The Midrash asks why God, while directing Abram to leave Ur for Canaan, uses multiple words to describe the place from which Abram will depart.  Abram does not want to go and for each word God uses, Abram has a retort.  The give-and-take continues until Abram overcomes fear and begins his journey to “the place I will show you.”
Let’s be clear: I am no Abram.  But, like all people, I have internal dialogues filled with voices of fear and of strength.  When confronting choices or challenges, I hear encouraging voices pushing me to take risks and try to change worlds just as I hear my own voices of criticism, lack of confidence, fear. Do you hear those voices? Are they purely human or are they partially the Divine within us?  I don’t know.  But in 1991, I heard voices of mission and vision driving me back to America just as I cowered in fear of the implications of making different choices.
When Rebecca and I made the final decision to make Aliyah, I remembered that Shabbat morning at Kehillat Yedidya in 1991, to the woman with her heavy American accented Hebrew, and to my internal voice telling me I would never stand in that spot. I laughed. How right and how wrong I was! The years of fulfilling North American missions were completed.  There would always be voices telling me why it was not the right time to make Aliyah, that I would not succeed, that it was not right for so many reasons.  The voices of confidence, of desire to live in Eretz Avoteinu v’Imoteinu, The Land of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs, the constant pull of the air of Israel, the desire to contribute to the Jewish State  won out over the voices of fear.  On August 20, we landed at Ben Gurion Airport and our Aliyah adventure started.
As fate would have it, I am not in Israel for my first Shabbat Lekh Lekha as a new Israeli citizen.  I am in Baltimore, on the waterfront, at the United Synagogue Centennial.  We will discuss the future. There will be impassioned voices for a variety of strategic directions.  It will be lively and invigorating.  There will be great Torah.  I will meet new people and reconnect with mentors and friends.  And all the while, the words of Yehuda HaLevi, will ring in my ears:

לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב

My heart is in the East and I am in the distant West…

Unlike all my previous trips back from  Israel, when I felt what Yehuda HaLevi expressed, this time I know that on Tuesday evening, I will board Delta Flight 268 from JFK back to Tel Aviv.  My body and being will be reunited in Israel with the heart I left behind as a deposit.

And I know I am blessed:  I continue my life work of creating communities where we strengthen  the committed core of Jews seeking more Torah, more knowledge, more spirit, more connection and commitment to Jewish living.  Now, however,  I get to do it where my heart truly is, BaMizrah, in the East, in the State and the Land of Israel, living with the People of Israel and with Torah Yisrael.

Finally, for those of you who are thinking about making Aliyah, I hope and pray that you too  will reach the point where the voices of confidence, of support, of action overcome the voices of fear and the perceived and sometimes real barriers to Aliyah.  I hope you will choose to start your own Lekh Lekha journey and join us in living in and contributing to The Jewish State, The State of Israel. 

Who knows? Maybe next year, you will be giving the Shabbat Lekh Lekha Drasha in Israel!

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"When You Go Out..." Thoughts on our last day in America

While yesterday’s portion opened with instructions regarding taking captives during wartime, the first two words of the parashah,  “Ki Tetze” or “When you go out…” captured my attention for most of Shabbat. After a year of commuting, of temporary housing in a lovely apartment hotel in Jerusalem, of having my “southern office” at the corner table at Grand Café on Derekh Bet Lekhem and Reuven, we finally celebrated our last Shabbat in the Lakeview Neighborhood.   We were on the cusp of a different kind of going out: leaving our home in America to make a new home in Israel. 

Sitting on the plane on our way to New York, I think about all the wonderful blessings I received during these forty-six years of life in the US, about the people who influenced me up to this point in my journeys, about the values I acquired growing up here and being an adult here.  There are those who move to a new country because they are running away from something. That is not our case.  I lived a life of nearly limitless blessing in suburban Chicago, New York, Atlanta and then in the City of Chicago.  The debts of gratitude I owe to so many are too great to list here. 

Among the many things I learned in America, I was introduced to…

The value of Democracy and of the First Amendment;

My faith, in the free environment that results from separating Church and State;

The importance of and passion for learning; as well as,

The centrality and challenge of equality and pluralism;

…just to name a few.

I was privileged to learn these values from so many incredible teachers, from Miss Habecost, my first grade teacher at The Willowbrook School, to my teachers at Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary. To try and list all those who helped me along my Jewish journey would be virtually impossible.  To all of you, thank you.

These chapters of life, making a living in the United States, now come to a close.

For us, Aliyah is about running to something: The State, the People and the Land of Israel, the greatest experiment in the modern history of the Jewish People.  Making Aliyah comes as the result of years of experiences and multitudes of people influencing us.  So this morning, as we get ready to board the plane.  We are going out, out to a new chapter, a new adventure in Israel. 

Thanks to our families for supporting our decision.

L’hitraot to our friends in North America – come visit us soon. 

And to all our friends in Israel, from the shlichim we were so blessed to work with and learn from to the friends we have made during our longer stays – I simply say,

See you in about 14 hours!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

When will comfort come? A Reflection on The Ninth of Av

אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם
יומא ט ע”ב

But why was the second Temple destroyed when people were busy with Torah study, Mitzvot and Acts of Lovingkindness? Because there was needless hatred.        
Babylonian Talmud Yoma 9b

“Nazi Atah!” – “You are a Nazi!” screamed the little boy.
No older than eight or nine, the boy yelled with the hostility of one who lived a full life of persecution.  His eyes burned hot with anger, his face flush with hatred.  Long black curls, payot, trembled with animosity as he continued shouting at the man on the other side of the gate.  This was not a scene from the shtetl in Europe during World War II.  He was not yelling at a German Soldier.  This was last week at the Western Wall, the Kotel, and this child was yelling at another Jew.  What provoked the little boy to yell “Nazi” at another Jew? Here is the story…
I got to the Kotel late for services on Rosh Hodesh Menachem Av, the arrival of the new month of Av.  As is regularly the case, Women of the Wall (WoW) gathered for services.  This time, thousands of young yeshiva girls came out to fill the Kotel Plaza, as they were instructed to do by their rebbeim,  so the group was forced to meet far from the Kotel, behind police barricades.
Arriving at the bottom of the steps leading to the plaza, I stood next to a group of Haredi teenagers to put on my tallit and tefillin.  I was minding my own business when a guy came from out of the “corrall,” got in the face of the Haredim, yelled something unintelligible, and pushed one of the black hat and black-suit clad youths.  A melee ensued around me with ten Haredim pounding on this guy and young kids screaming at him.  To their credit, the police rushed in and broke up the fight, taking away the WoW participant and the Haredi who hit him the most.
As they were led away, I noticed that the guy from WoW dropped his tallis bag.  I picked it up and followed the group to the police holding area.  I approached the gate and asked if the tallis bag belonged to him.  All around me, Haredi teens and children were screaming in Hebrew and Yiddish:
“Reformi – You’re not Jewish!”
“You are a blasphemer!”
“You are a Nazi!”
The last slur drew my attention away from the WoW participant behind the fence and toward the gang behind me.  There, I saw the angry, raging little boy gesticulating wildly at the WoW guy and screaming “Nazi! Nazi Atah!”  All around me, shouts of “Reformi,” “Lo Yehudi” and “Nazi” rose to a crescendo.
I looked at the little kid with the flying black curls and calmly, in my Hebrew Jewish educator voice, asked:
“Who taught you to say such horrible things?”
He stopped shouting and just stared at me, a mixture of curiosity and surprise.
“Really, who taught you to call another Jew something so horrible?”
“Hu lo Yehudi!” – He is not Jewish!” The boy retorted.
“And how do you know that?  Did you check? I said.
“If he prays like that, he is Reformi, not Jewish!” He screamed.
Devastated, I wondered what kind of “religious” parent, educator, rebbe would teach a child to label another Jew a Nazi.  What kind of fear led people to inculcate their children with such hatred, labeling another Jew a “Jew-Killer?”  There is no circumstance that could ever justify the gross negligence of parents, of rabbis, of educators who teach children that any Jew who disagrees with them is equal to those who tried to destroy our people. I was even more devastated by the fact that we were celebrating the arrival of the Hebrew month of Av.
We call this month “Menachem Av,”  menachem meaning comfort.  According to tradition, The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed twice  on the 9th of Av(first in 586 b.c.e. and again in 70 c.e.).  During the month,  we pray for a future when the pain of the destruction, the pain of exile, the pain of wandering will be comforted, will be healed.  And why was The Temple destroyed?  The Talmud teaches that destruction came because of “Sinat Hinam,” senseless hatred. Now, at the base of our holiest site, the foot of The Temple Mount, The Place, where the Jewish People and God interacted in the most direct way, here I see for the first time what real Sinat Hinam, real senseless hatred looks like:  A little boy, screaming in full fury, “Jew Killer” at another Jew.

“When will the redemption come?” I ask myself.

Not when every Jew observes a few Shabbatot.  

Not when we all check our Mezuzot or our Tefillin to be sure that the parchments are “kasher.”

Not when we all behave according to one opinion.

Redemption will come when Jewish educators, parents and rabbis teach their children to live a life of Ahavat Hinam, of generous love toward the entirety of the Jewish People.

Salvation will come when the Jewish tradition of Makhloket, of arguing positions, is done for the Sake of Heaven, with Love and respect and generosity.

Comfort will come when one group of Jews watches another group of Jews pray and sees in that different way one of the seventy faces of Torah.

Deliverance will come when every Jew, child and adult, invests more energy in Ahavat Yisrael, in loving all of the Jewish People, than they invest in being “right.”

Achieving redemption is a big, hairy, audacious goal.

For now, maybe we should begin with the most modest of goals: teaching kids not to scream “Nazi” at those who are different from them.  

With unending hope that we see Redemption, Salvation, Comfort, and Deliverance soon and in our day, I wish us all a meaningful fast, a day of reflection and self-assessment, and a day for renewing commitment to achieving complete repair of our world.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Last Jerusalem Shabbat - Parashat Devarim

שמחו את-ירושלים וגילו בה, כל-אוהביה; שישו איתה משוש, כל-המתאבלים עליה

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all that love her; rejoice for joy with her, all that mourn for her.                                                                                                           Isaiah 66:10

A Last Shabbat in Jerusalem, not ”The” last but “A” last…
as a visitor, as a foreigner.
A last Shabbat in Israel with a temporary address, a temporary home.
Anticipation grows as:
A last Shabbat siren draws near, a last Friday sunset, a last Kabbalat Shabbat.
My last Shabbat before Aliyah, before fulfilling the Mitvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz (settling the land), before ceasing to be a stranger, a wanderer.
The last Shabbat without a teudat oleh or a teudat Zehut.

A last Jerusalem Shabbat brings time to thank so many for the blessings of the year:
To the staff of The Tamar Suites, my home away from home, for making me feel comfortable and part of the family this year.
To the Grand Café, owners and employees, for welcoming me so warmly and for delivering great food and customer service
To my friends at Gehtz Li, where I get my laundry done,
To the fruit guys on the corner of Bet Lechem and Esther HaMalka, and
To the great folks at Bet Lehem for wonderful conversation plus cheese and bread recommendations,
Thank you to the staff and teachers of The Fuchsberg Center and our Youth Hostel.  You all do exceptional work and it is a pleasure and privilege to join you.
To every cab driver who gave me a “Kol HaKavod” upon hearing our Aliyah intentions, and who engaged me in honest conversation about co-existence and friendship.
To all who hosted me for a Shabbat meal, a meal during the week, or a cup of coffee.  I look forward to inciting you to our new home on Qorei HaDorot.
To our long-term, dear friends and to the new friends I discovered this year for everything.
To thirty-five years of Shlichim for contributing to the inspiration leading to our Aliyah, from
The shaliah I only met once who, after a talk I gave at kibbutz Shefaim, stopped me and said, “Rabbi Sykes, you are such a Zionist.  Why don’t you live here yet?!” to...
Shlichim who started out as employees at camp and became dear friends and mentors.
To my wife, Becca, who took the brunt of the stresses this year in the US, who handled most of the logistics leading to our Aliyah; And
To Elan, Mira and Amalya who are making this journey, each in their own way.
To The One who promised this land to our ancestors and grants people the strength to return home.

A last Shabbat in Jerusalem, before a First Shabbat here…
As a citizen, a contributor, a participant in the greatest endeavor in Jewish, democratic sovereignty, in over 2,000 years.
Thank you Jerusalem and Israel.  

See you again, as an Oleh Hadash, on August 20.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A New Community in Baka, Jerusalem: Zion: Kehilla Eretz Yisraeli

I experienced something amazing last Erev Shabbat.  I got to be part of another start-up, not a high-tech start-up, but a Jewish start-up: The first Friday night davvening of Zion, a new congregation/kehilla in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem.  Zion is the initiative of my friend and colleague, Rabbah Tamar Elad Applebaum, who saw the need for a different kind of community in the neighborhood - "musical, egalitiarian, traditional and innovative"; a community incorporating both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi customs, ritual poetry from across the generations, and the tunes of the land of Israel."  Baka, a neighborhood filled with synagogues large and small, minyanim of every flavor and custom, hardly seems to be the place needing yet another minyan.  Yet, Zion brings something different.

The setting was so familiar.  When I was younger, The Nativ Program met here.  The campus is now home to Young Judaea's Year Course, as well as the historic home of Ulpan Etzion.  Sitting in the Bet Knesset, I immediately felt the specialness of this first tefillah.  I was one of the few anglo saxons in the room.  Most of the participants were native born Israelis, Ashkenazim and Sefaradim, married couples with children as well as singles.  While many of the new initiatives in the area of tefillah here are based around North Americans, Zion is focused on Israelis. Innovations that include what is called Nusah Sefarad, the Sefardic custom, may be taking place in other areas but this is the first one about which I have heard.

The evening started an hour before Shabbat's arrival.  We started singing the poems of Bialik, Alterman and Goldberg, religious poetry of the modern era now included in our tefillah.  By starting so early, the service could include a group of musicians playing a variety of instruments native to the Middle East.  I have never been a big fan of musical accompaniment during tefillot, be they weekday or Shabbat services.  My past experiences included those where the tunes were in the style of rock, and those where the tunes sounded more like one would hear in a French cafe.  Last Shabbat, however, the music was Middle Eastern, it was ancient, its ebbs and flows followed the words and enhanced the tefillah.

The dominant tune for Kabbalat Shabbat was native to Morrocan Jewry.  As an Ashkenazi Jew, my only exposure to this particular melody comes from the little shul directly across from my apartment here in Jerusalem. Yet, I never felt out of place.  As I sang along, out loud, every word of the Psalms leading up to L'kha Dodi, my Sefaradi side started to emerge and I picked it up quickly.  I was not the only one for whom this was not the regular practice and I saw others picked it up and also felt at home quickly.  Praying according to a different nusah makes me even more sensitive to and aware of the words.  I just have to pay closer attention.  The accompaniment helped me find my key, my place, my comfort.

Before L'kha Dodi, two young women came dancing into the synagogue.  They were wearing adorable head bands.  They announced themselves as the Malkot Shabbat, the Queens of Shabbat and invited all the younger children outside for kid's activities.  I watched as all the happy children ran to them and went out to the grass to play, to learn, and to enjoy.  At the end of services, they returned to show us, with great enthusiasm, what they worked on during their activity.  They smiled from cheek to cheek, as did their parents.

After a beautiful d'var Torah, the instruments were put away as Shabbat officially arrived, and we turned to Ma'ariv.  For this service, the tunes were mostly Carlebach and other, older Ashkenazi tunes.  Just as in Kabbalat Shabbat, there were those who were less familiar with the tunes and those who were more familiar.  Everyone joined together. The spirit, the kavvanah, the intention, was powerful.  I truly felt up-lifted.  I felt part of a community.  I felt part of Am Yisrael, of Eretz Yisrael and of Medinat Yisrael - of the People, The Land, and the State of Israel.

What Rabbah Tamar and those involved in the design of Zion accomplished in one evening was incredible.  A new kind of minhag, or custom, an ancient and new nusah Eretz Yisraeli.  It was a privilege to be part of the first tefillah and I look forward to being part of this growing and important new community in Baka - one that is native Israeli in its custom, welcoming to all, egalitarian, Hebrew, ancient and new.  Are you going to be in Israel this summer?  Come and see what can happen when customs are respected and combined; what can happen when the ancient meets the new; and what can happen when people see a need, act on it, and build something new that touches souls in the deepest ways.  Come visit Zion: Kehilla Eretz Yisraeli, an innovation created by a Rabbah, a graduate of the Schechter Institute, and a member of the Masorti community.

Shabbat approaches. I am rushing out the door to get to the next Friday night at Zion.  I hope to see you there in the future.

Shabbat Shalom.

עַל הַחֵרוּת הַזֹּאת:
לִרְאוֹת, לָחוּשׁ, לִנְשֹׁם

ולקבל פני שבת, יחד
בתפילה שתביא לידי ביטוי את עצמנו,
יהודים בארץ ישראל שנושאים קולות קדומים
אבל גם קולות מיוחדים לעצמם ולזמנם.

וכל הטוב שהתקבץ לכאן,
נוסחי ספרד ואשכנז, פיוטים ממסורות שונות,
ניגוני ארץ ישראל ושירתה.

קבלת שבת מוסיקלית. שוויונית. מסורתית ומתחדשת.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shavuot and the Rule of Law

In the morning, we will meet at Sinai...again.  Annually, at sunrise on Shavuot morning, we gather around the world and read the narrative of the giving of The Ten Commandments, the moment of God's Revelation to Israel.  We see the thunder and the lightning.  Sound becomes visible.  Gathered  in our own minyanim and kehillot, it is possible to feel the collective power generated by the reading.  And when it is over, we tell one another we will meet again next year at Sinai, just as we met there the very first time so many thousands of years ago.

Beyond the power of the collective gathering, Shavuot is about the power of the rule of law.  As much as we are the People of The Book, we are The People of the Rule of Law.    In the ancient world, before the exile at the hands of the Romans, we were a sovereign nation.  Not only did we have ritual laws for The Temple and for daily life; we had civil law to cover everything from property disputes to supporting the needy. In exile, we lived according to both our own law and the law of the land.  Now, we are once again a sovereign nation, a free people in our own land, The State of Israel.  And once again, we toil with the challenges of being a Jewish civil society based on the rule of law.  Who decides the law?  Which interpretation is authoritative?  When Divine and Civil law conflict, how do we decide which framework and law takes precedence.

This past week, we saw the power of the rule of law in a democratic society in all its glory.  On Rosh Hodesh, this past Friday, Women of the Wall gathered as they always do to celebrate the arrival of the new month, with a service on the women's side of the mehitza.  In the past, women wearing tallitot was against the law, against the "commonly accepted" practice.  Until this Rosh Hodesh, the police enforced the law and Women of the Wall broke the law. The police arrested them. Forget for a moment that these women were simply coming to pray, to sing the Divine Name aloud, at the Western Wall, the Kotel, the symbol of the return of the Jewish People to sovereignty.  Their goal was not important.  There was a law.  Women of the Wall violated that law and bore the consequences:  Interrogation and arrest. This time, however, the situation was flipped.  Why?  Because of the rule of law.

After the last gathering on Rosh Hodesh, the police went a step further than they usually do. They took the arrested women to court, fully expecting to win.  After all, Women of the Wall violated the law as clarified by The Israeli Supreme Court.  To their surprise and to the surprise of everyone, the outcome was different.  Judge Sobel ruled that the women were not in violation of the law, that there acts were not provocative, and there was no reason for their arrest.  Moreover, Judge Sobel ruled that it was the Ultra-Orthodox who created conditions that led to violence.  The law changed, plain and simple.  Instantaneously, Women of the Wall, tallitot and all, were no longer scofflaws.  They were to be protected by the police against those who would do them violence.  The aggressor, previously viewed as the victim, could no longer claim that the women deserved to be harassed.

The rule of law meant that this time, this Rosh Hodesh, the police protected the Women of the Wall, fought of throngs of Ultra-Orthodox males hurling insults at the women. There were arrests, police cordons to protect the group, as it was surrounded by Haredi males screaming and young Haredi girls clogging the women's section so Women of the Wall could not gain access to the Kotel itself.  But, the rule of law, the cornerstone of a democratic society, held.  The women were now within the bounds of the law and the police protected them.  After years and years of tension between WoW and the police, the situation changed in an instant.

Tomorrow, we will celebrate the Revelation, the Covenantal relationship between Israel and God, and we will celebrate the rule of law.  For thousands of years, we prayed for our return to Israel, to sovereignty, to control over our destiny. And last week proved the power of being a free, civil, democratic society in our own land, in Israel.  The rule of law prevailed.  May it do so again, and again, and again.

Hag Sameach.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Jewish Pluralism: Alive and Well in Jerusalem.

With all the negativity about pluralism in Israel these days, it is easy to develop a picture that is wholly pessimistic.  There is no question that on the governmental level, restrictions on Jewish choice exist here.  Yet, as one sided-as the governmental religious establishment is in Israel, so too is the exclusively negative picture of Israel we are most often presented with by the press on this subject.

Take this past Tuesday, for example.  In just a few hours, I visited a Bet Midrash for young Masorti Jews in Jerusalem, attended a concert devoted to the subject of supporting a modern, Democratic Israel and met a group of Taiwanese Christians here on the second half of their March of the Living Trip. I also spent time at a meeting of the Tnuat Yerushalmim - The Jerusalem Movement - devoted to strengthening and preserving Jerusalem as the capital for all Jews.  Incredibly,  all five groups were meeting at the same place at the same time.  Pluralism is alive and well here on the non-governmental level!

The concert, titled "Sacred Rights, Sacred Song" and created by my friend Fran Gordon, took place at Moreshet Yisrael, the Conservative Synagogue in downtown Jerusalem. Fran, and those who worked with her, created the piece out of a desire to support Israel's democracy by calling to the forefront the importance of maintaining Israel in general and Jerusalem specifically as the homeland and capital city of all Jews.  The affiliation of the synagogue did not prevent both Orthodox and Secular Jews from attending.  The material, challenging much of the status quo on religious issues, did not prevent Secular or Orthodox Jews from attending. The fact that councilwoman  Rachel Azaria's Yerushalmim Movement was meeting on the campus at the same time did not prevent people who might disagree with the party's platform from attending the concert.

In the bet midrash, a large group twenty-something Israelis, joined together for a weekly learning session.  They came to study with Tomer Persico, an expert on the study of New Age Religion, Neo-Hasidism and other Jewish, New Age variations.  I was only able to stay for a few minutes before running to the concert but I could feel the great energy and anticipation in the room.

The dining room at The Fuchsberg Center was full.  Members of a group of Israeli educators spending the day on professional development dined among a group of Taiwanese Christians in Israel for the second half of March of the Living, having learned about the Shoah while in Poland the previous week.  They were joined by a group of young German Christians, also here on a mission of some sort.  One room, three groups. Jews and non-Jews dining together in the heart of Jerusalem in the Jewish State.  Wow! What's next?  Lions lying down next to lambs?!

After the concert ended, I joined Yerushalmim: For a Vibrant, Pluralistic Jerusalem.  According to their website, Yerushalmim focuses on two main issues and is unique because:

"The struggle against religious extremism and gender segregation and promoting the status of young families in Jerusalem...We are the only organization uniting secular, Conservative, Reform and Orthodox volunteers who share a passion for diversity and pluralism in Jerusalem and...have developed strong friendships and working relationships with both the city council and the Jerusalem mayor’s office, and are thus better able to turn our ideas into urban reality."

Again, wow!  Just Wow!

I went to the group discussing our new home neighborhood, Baka. Sitting in a circle, ten of us discussed everything from parking and traffic problems in the neighborhood to whether or not the Israeli equivalent of a neighborhood JCC, called a Matnas Kehillati, should be open for family activities on Shabbat, to insuring that improvements to Jewish sections of neighborhoods extend to the Arab sections as well.  As the meetings broke up, I looked around and saw men with large kippot, crocheted kippot and no kippot. I saw women wearing traditional Orthodox head coverings, no head coverings and wearing skirts and women wearing the latest in secular fashion.  And, rather than sticking with their own, they were all talking with one another. I left the Center exhausted and reassured that the Zionist ethos of a State for ALL Jews is alive and well among the citizens of Israel.

Look beyond the focus on the negative in the media, on the hegemony of the Ultra-Orthodox over all things governmentally religious, on the discord, and you will find incredible partnerships developing in Jerusalem between Secular and Religious, denominations and independents.

You will see a beautiful Jerusalem tapestry of varying perspectives meeting, learning together and valuing one another.

Finally, because of the ever growing number of individuals and organizations committed to realizing Ben Gurion's dream of a State for All the Jews, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, we will ultimately see and be part of a stronger, officially pluralistic Israel for all of us sooner and, I believe, in our day.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Zakhor - Remembering and Doing

One of the beauties of reading and rereading Torah is how our understanding of specific narratives, laws and even sentences or words can change annually.  Take this Shabbat, the one immediately preceding Purim, for example.  Known as Shabbat Zakhor, we read a special Maftir Aliyah, one that reminds of what the Amalekites did to our ancestors as they wandered in the desert.  They did not confront Israel from the front where, presumably, they were strongest.  According to Torah, Amalek came from behind, killing those who moved slowest, who were most vulnerable.  As a result, Amalek becomes the paradigmatic enemy of the Israelites and of Am Yisrael throughout history.  The end of the special maftir this Shabbat commands us to wipe out the memory of Amalek from beneath Heaven.  In wiping them out, we are also commanded to commit them to our eternal memory.  What does it mean to blot out the memory of Amalek?  To not forget?  How is it possible to wipe out all memory and to remember at the same time?

Rashi understands our maftir literally: We are to eliminate any and all evidence of the Amalekites existence: the humans, the property and even the animals.  Rashi’s reading is based on Samuel where King Saul ultimately loses his throne to David due to his failure to carry out God’s instruction.  Saul leaves the King of Amalek alive and the people to keep the animals, purportedly to make offerings to God.  There is something visceral both about the original text in Torah and in Rashi’s explanation.  Our modern mindset rejects the active, physical, complete nature of this understanding.

I have to admit: there were times when my own discomfort with literalness of the command to eliminate Amalek gave way to a desire to see the haters of Israel and the Jewish People disappear ,in a very real way.  Sitting in a “sealed” room during the First Gulf War, wearing my gas mask, knowing there were people around the world dancing on their rooftops in celebration of our being attacked, part of me wanted them to be blotted out, to be erased.  And, frankly, there is a part of me that always remembers that feeling.  Even though reason gives way, my modern sensibility prevails and my humanity returns, hatred breeds hatred and there is a little part of me that wonders what would have happened if Amalek really was completely wiped out long ago.

Ramban and the Pesikta Rabbati, however, can be interpreted to read the passage figuratively.  If the literal reading of the text is one of vengeance and murder, the figurative approach lets us consider what Amalek represents:   the impulse to hate, to take advantage of the weak, the forgotten, the easy target.  It also demands us to act in opposition to Amalek: To love Humanity, to sanctify God’s Name in this world, to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  Defeating hatred and evil required greater emphasis on love, on understanding, on communicating, on building.  Ramban argues that as long as Amalek is present in the world, God’s name and God’s Holy Seat remain incomplete.  Obviously, once Amalek disappears from the world, the unification of God’s Name and Seat in this world are completed.  That time is what we call The Messianic Era, the time of Eternal World Peace.  The question is:what are each of us doing to bring about this Era?

This week, I sat in Jerusalem with an exceptional Rabbi who suggested we start a Gemach, A Loving-Kindness Fund, together, one that will bring something real, something good, to individuals who need it.  On my next trip, we are going to choose an area not currently being taken care of, a population not being cared for, and start collecting so we can help.  One possibility, based on models of Gemachim in Israel that collect wedding dresses for brides who cannot afford them and projects in the US that collect prom dresses for girls who cannot afford them, is to collect bat mitzvah and bridesmaid dresses and make them available to those in need.  It is small but concrete and is the anti-Amalek: it supports those in need rather than taking advantage of them.  

This Shabbat, as we hear the words of the Maftir of Zakhor, we must take time to think, in very concrete terms, about what we are doing to be the antithesis of Amalek.  What are we doing to increase good in the world?  What are we doing to support those who fall through the cracks, who fall behind, who are attacked for no other reason than they are weak and forgotten?  And how can we do more?   

As soon as the focus of our Gemach is determined,  I hope you will join us in the effort.  I hope you will be inspired, as I was this week, by my friend, colleague and teacher, Rabbah Tamar Elad Applebaum, who suggested the idea of a joint-Gemach.  Similarly, I hope you will be inspired by my teacher, Danny Siegel, to find ways you can be the anti-Amalek and contribute to bringing about the completion of God’s Honored Throne in this world.  Finally, please share with me your own projects so I can spread the word and invite others to join you.  In so doing, we will all eliminate the memory of Amalek - of hatred, of suffering, of advantage-taking - and eternally remember the needs to bring more love and humanity into God’s Divine creation.

Shabbat Shalom.