BJ in Israel
Old City at The Sunset. Photo: Noam Chen
Brunch in the Galilee. Photo: Itamar Grinberg
Cheese Boutique in Galilee. Photo: Itamar Grinberg
Negev - Ramon Crater. Photo: Dafna Tal
Rosh Hanikra. Photo: Itamar Grinberg
Viewing the Negev. Photo: Dafna Tal
The Knesset Complex. Photo: Noam Chen
View of Acre. Photo: Itamar Grinberg
Yarmulkas. Photo: Noam Chen
Welcome to BJ in Israel Blog!
Reflections from Israel: Highlights of BJ Conference Call with Orli Moss and Dr. Moti Zeira on July 16.
Dr. Moti Zeira, CEO of HaMidrasha (one of BJ’s partners in Israel), is an expert on Jewish and Israeli identity. A close friend of many members of our community, Dr. Zeira joined us by phone yesterday to provide insight into how Israelis are coping during this challenging time, and share his experiences supporting communities near the conflict zone.
Tell us what the atmosphere is like in Israel.
Israelis have a lot of confusion about this deeply profound situation. Yet there is also a very strong feeling of solidarity in Israel, and there are many grassroots initiatives to help the communities that are under immediate threat near Gaza.
There are no clear or easy answers as to the “right” path of action. We struggle with our feelings of compassion as human beings, and the feelings of hatred that are also part of the human soul. It was traumatic to discover that Jews can commit such an act of violence as the murder of Muhammed Abu Khdir.
Please share with us your personal experience. How are you? How is your family?
Israelis are continuing to go about their daily routine, despite the challenging times. My son serves in the IDF, and my two nephews have been called up. I go to work every day. This is a prism into the wider community in Israel.
Is the Jewish renewal scene introducing a new voice in how Israel is dealing with the situation?
The Jewish renaissance movement is working from a place of Jewish values, and their actions reflect that in practical terms—not in a “classroom” or theoretic setting. We are looking for ways to connect Jews and Arabs. For example, Jews and Arabs studying together and fasting together during the Fast of Tammuz and the Fast of Ramadan.
As Americans, what can we do?
Be in touch with your Israeli friends and family. The personal connection is so meaningful. Also, as members of BJ, please take every available opportunity to visit Israel and be part of the Israeli community.
Passover was rapidly approaching and many of our friends and family were leaving for vacation. I suggested to my husband that we, too, travel. To Israel, perhaps? After all, we wanted to meet our future son-in-law’s Jerusalem-based family. Besides, what better place for Passover? My husband agreed and, luckily, we found reasonably priced tickets. Even luckier: our daughter and future son-in-law decided to join us. Luckier, still: our future son-in-law’s family invited us to stay with them and to attend their seder. We accepted one invitation (the seder) and declined the other. We also decided that, besides being an opportunity to meet machatunim, this trip would piggyback on our recent visit to Rome.
In Israel, as we in Italy, we would visit Roman ruins. And, in Israel as in Italy, we would try to find (or make) friends. But unlike many American Jews, we had no Israeli family (although we’ll soon have Israeli machatunim). Searching for friends, I contacted fellow children’s writers and friends-of-friends in Israel. As we planned our trip, I studied the map. I noticed several ancient sites (e.g., Beit She’an, Zippori, Megiddo and Be’it She’arim) in Israel’s north. So, too, was BJ’s sister community, Nigun Halev. I contacted Orli Moss (firstname.lastname@example.org, 212-787-7600 x229), BJ’s Director of Israel Engagement and Rabbi Felicia Sol. They put me in contact with Nigun Halev’s Rabbi Chen Ben-Or Tsfoni. whom I had previously met at BJ and at the Women’s Retreat two years ago. The door to friendship – and prayer – in Israel, which had been open from the start, now opened even wider.
On Friday afternoon, following a fascinating visit to Beit She’an – an ancient Roman city with ruins on par with the Roman Forum, Bob and I prepared for Shabbat. We left the B&B at Kibbutz Mizra where we were staying and drove ten minutes to the charming village of Nahalal. At the synagogue door, waiting outside to welcome us, stood Rabbi Chen Ben-Or Tsfoni, She was radiant, warm and welcoming…we felt instantly at home.
Rabbi Chen introduced us to several congregants and to the lovely family she’d found to host us for Shabbat dinner. And as we helped ourselves to tea and (Passover) cookies, I saw familiar faces…one, two, three women who had attended BJ’s Women’s Retreat two years ago. Then, much to my surprise, another warm and familiar face – Shoshi Rosenbaum, BJ’s Student Hazzan. We took our seats. The singing began. It was warm, joyous, spiritual and beautiful. Like BJ. Like home.
After services, new friends from Nigun Halev welcomed us into their home. We shared a delicious dinner and stimulating conversation about what it means to be Jewish in America … and in Israel. It felt like, well, family. It was a wonderful, memorable Shabbat – a delightful ending to a beautiful trip to Israel…where we met new family, visited ancient historical sites, made new friends and where we now feel welcome and at home.
Linda is a writer of children’s books. Her latest book, The Passover Lamb (Random House, 2013), was recognized as a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Children. www.lindamarshall.com
Our Rabbi, Felicia Sol said to me when we said goodbye before leaving for the airport to return home, don’t worry, this is not the end, it is only the beginning. This is a gift that keeps on giving. I knew she was right but still unsure how it would play out and feel once we arrived home. For days, we walked around a little disoriented. Julia was very sad to leave Israel and speaks of our experiences often. This trip was not just a trip; it was a life enhancing experience for all of us. So, how does this gift keep giving? How is this just the beginning? I am still not sure, but I can say that we look forward to participating in any BJ event that has occurred since our return. We are thrilled when we see fellow members who we shared this trip with. Our daughter feels connected to other children in our community that she didn’t know before. So those or some ways I see our return as a beginning.
Daniel and I had the opportunity to see David Broza at our synagogue a few weeks after our arrival home. As he spoke about his desire to build connections between East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, it helped to remind us of the good feelings we had on our trip. The feeling we had when we spent time in Ramla. Again, those feelings of sitting in that room and singing Salaam, watching our children play with one another. This night with David Broza was another opportunity to hope, to revel in the excitement of peace and the children who are fortunate enough to participate in change and anticipation that they will move the world with their music, thoughts, learning, their friendship…
As we were driving in the bus toward Ramla, something about how they described the town, sounded familiar to me. I was not sure. I had been to Israel before as a teen and a young adult. Something tugged at me. I asked the UJA representative, Ilan Halpern if this was the same town I had visited over 20 years before. I had come to Israel as part of a UJA mission in College.
At the time, it was project renewal that we visited. UJA was re-building this town that was in economic distress. The goal was to improve the quality of life for all those who lived there. I remember as a young adult interacting with the children on the street. He mentioned that project was finished. Finished, how is that possible? I never imagined such hard work and transformation can be completed and yet in fact we were driving through the streets of beautiful homes and foliage and community that was built through the help of project renewal.
I was here to bear witness to the change that took so many years, so many people and hard work to make happen. We were here, however, on this day for a very different purpose. We were here to share in the work of the co-existence project for school children. Another project of change, the improvement of the quality of life for all the children who participate, their families and the hope of co-existence in peace for generations to come.
From the moment we walked along the sidewalk, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. The children and staff were so happy to greet us and proud to share with us their school. Amongst the memorable morning, a few moments stick out for me.
We were greeted by Arab and Israeli children singing Salaam. This song is not new for our community but hearing these children sing and play instruments with each other and we, the American guests all singing the same song was something that was emotional on the visceral level. I turned to a fellow member of B’nai Jeshrun. We shared a moment, the look, the connection was enough. The three cultures, backgrounds language in one room sharing a musical moment around the word peace, layered with the history, complex feelings and experiences that each bring into the room was more than I could have ever imagined. It is still hard to put into words how this moment changed me.
The playground, basketball, jump rope, monkey bars……….All called to the children. ALL the children played as one. Language barriers didn’t seem to matter…. Just children playing together. It gives hope to the future. The idea of co-existence, peace.
The children then participated in a group project.
The American, Arab and Israeli children all sitting together at work stations, with the assignment to collectively draw, write, and create a poster that represents what peace among all people would look like. The result – a sharing of names and words in different languages, pictures, colors, etc….all with the same purpose – the hope and faith that peace will prevail one day. These children hold the key… I just felt it. It was beyond inspiring.
Contemplating an international vacation with young children takes effort, a lot of planning and a good amount of faith: faith in what you’ve packed, the weather and your own parenting skills. And if it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a community to make a touring trip fun, interesting and possible for a family with young kids.
When BJ announced that it was taking families on a trip to Israel this year my husband and I jumped at the chance. Our sons would be 6 and 9 and we felt that they would be able to handle a good amount of walking and taking in sights. However, the proverbial “wall” that a 6 year old hits at 3:30 pm cannot be handled by your own family every time.
Over the course of 10 days the children on the BJ family trip, ages 6 to 16, helped my sons rally and push through the times they were feeling tired, restless and ready to be back in their comfort zones. His fellow young travelers came to my younger son Ben’s aid when he was feeling whiny and beat.
Our older son Billy made friends quickly with his peers on the trip, even though they had only met once before- there were long hallways to run down together at the hotel in Jerusalem and fascinating places to explore together. The morning we were going to hike Masada our younger son got sick and everyone in the group cheered for him when he made it to the top (even if only by cable car).
Many of the boys on the trip bought hats together at the Mahane Yeuhda market and wanted a photo together to remember the experience by. They played for hours on Shabbat during our stay on Lake Kinerret, enjoying the open space and fresh air together with the Israeli children from Nigun Halev.
During our closing circle each of the 12 families shared our most special memories of our time together in Israel as the BJ community. Many spoke of the connections they felt they had made, others the sense of complexity of our Jewish history. What I shared was that our son Ben had become somewhat of the group mascot. But you have to be a team to have a mascot and the BJ team and community was what made our family trip to Israel such a memorable experience.
Our Weekend in Kibbutz Ginosar and the Nahalal Community.
Spending time with Israeli families and each other – a shared experience of loving the land and the people – will be with us always. It was so easy to connect with the Israeli families for whom we shared Shabbat with. What was even more remarkable was watching our 10 year old daughter who is often shy, open up and play, dance and create art with the children with whom she shared limited language. The art projects that she created during the morning service – which was such a new experience for her – she displays proudly in our home, having carried it ever so carefully home to New York.
The next evening was a more intimate experience, one again which we will never forget. We were invited to the home of Dorit, Alec and their 12 year old daughter Alona. They come from a very different family background than ours. He manages a farm in his backyard, and raises turkeys, chickens and cows. We live in NYC and do not know a thing about what it means to manage a farm. That didn’t much matter. We talked about family, our children, how they got to Israel and life in general. We had many shared ideas about life and family.
Dorit’s home was lovely and we were treated like family. It was clear that they really wanted us to feel at home. She made a delicious meal sharing the flavors of her country as well as a dose of matzo ball soup to make us feel at home. The time flew by. We had to rush back to the bus. I don’t think any of us wanted the evening to end. They invited us to stay the night and hoped we’d return. The children played as if they had known each other forever. Julia, our daughter brought rainbow loom, a popular crafting item from the states as a present. She taught Alona how to create bracelets, and in a few moments, even with the language barriers they were having a blast. We ended our night with the girls sharing some of their original dance moves – both hip hop and gymnastic ballet. Music also united the group. Though we captured much of this experience in pictures and videos, we know that what has been seared in our minds and hearts will outlive any picture of video.
We had a beautiful Shabbat experience with Nigun Halev in Ginosaur, like nothing I had expected.
We met the Nigun Halev group right before Shabbat began with a little get to know you game and some Israel and American chocolate passed around to everyone! People started out a little shy but within a few minutes we were talking and introducing ourselves. We headed in to the Kabbalat Shabbat, still feeling like two distinct groups which would not last long. The service began and right away you could hear and feel something amazing unfolding: the Israelis, in their beautiful, strong singing voices and confident Hebrew, were singing prayers we knew from BJ, with some of our distinct melodies. It was strangely comforting to sing and pray together with these people that we had just met and feel so connected through our melodies and spirit–there was some major ruach!! Rabbi Chen was so warm and welcoming that I felt that I had known her for years. There were wonderful, extremely sensitive musicians as well, adding to the seriously spirited singing filling the room!
At Shabbat dinner we sat with the family that we will be visiting on Sunday night at their home for dinner. They were there with their three daughters, all of whom had many questions for us over dinner. The parents were curious about where we lived in New York, how we came to BJ, what BJ is like, and what the people are like in terms of their personal Jewish observances. We shared stories and felt quickly at home, talking way past dinner, enjoying tea and desserts with BJ and Nigun Halev families until we were too tired to talk any more!
The BJ and Israeli kids were running around outside in the courtyard together, climbing trees, hanging out in the hammocks, playing tag and talking together which they would do all of Shabbat afternoon as well, a beautiful thing to see.
The Shabbat morning service was both very similar and a bit different from the regular BJ service. There were two special prayers added for rain, which is so crucial to life here in Israel. There was also a special prayer for families with children in the Israeli army which we all sang together. I was surprised to see the Torah that was read by two teenagers, one from Israel and one from our group, at the service. On one side of the Torah cover it says Nigun Halev, and on the other it says that it is a gift from B’nai Jeshurun. It truly felt like a link between our communities, that we had brought this Torah to Nigun Halev seven years ago. There was a great deal of joy as we moved through the service, with some familiar and some unfamiliar but exquisitely beautiful melodies. When we got to the beginning of the Torah service with it’s very familiar and recognizable tune, my son, Gabriel (9 years old) said “now this is the part I really know!” How amazing to be in Israel so far from home and feel like I am right at home. The room full of relaxed and fulfilled people of all ages from different parts of the world, all blending together as one community.
We spent lunch in rich conversation about life in Israel with our new friends, and then went on a walking tour of the kibbutz. We then gathered outside on the lawn for a discussion amongst the two groups about what brought us to BJ or to Nigun Halev, and what are our longings or yearnings. Beautiful, quite personal thoughts were shared, which were often similar between us. Many Israelis said that they are looking for a way to fill a void in their secular life, that is Jewish just by definition of being a Jew in Israel. There was discussion of finding a Judaism that is relevant, and alot of discussion about finding a community to be a real part of, something that they did not have in this way before finding Nigun Halev. It seems amazing to me that this does not exist in more places in Israel, as everyone seems so connected and enthusiastic about being part of Nigun Halev.
We had a beautiful Havdalah together, at this point truly as one community, all interspersed and arms around each other for the blessings. After Shavuah Tov the exuberant dancing began! Children and adults danced and danced, not wanting the day to end as we truly extended the energy of Shabbat as long as we could! I am excited to see our host family tomorrow night at their home, and have to say that this was a most meaningful and different Shabbat experience shared with what I now really understand as our Israeli partners, Nigun Halev.
Today we woke up first (obviously) and it was already time for breakfast. Services started at 10:30. Once we walked in we saw pipe cleaners and tons of clay. It was a fun addition having a kid friendly thing to do during the service and it was nice doing it together with the Israeli kids from Nigun Halev. The cantor called up all the kids to lead a couple of prayers which was really unexpected and cool!!!. We ate lunch really quickly so a lot of the kids went outside to play games. We first played tag which was really fun because we could run all over the property. We spent a while doing that until we all decided go play American games with the Israeli kids. We played games like: tag, sardines, hide and seek, steal the (Kosher) bacon and card games. We had so much fun that we didn’t even realize that the grown ups were having a little talk/service/learning. We kept on playing for a while until it was time for havdalah. The service was really short and it was cool how the lights were off for a long time after Havdalah. We sang and danced with the Israelis we then said good-bye.
It was nice having the Israelis around but it was hard to communicate with them. I spoke a little Hebrew and we used hand motions. It was fun. After the Havdalah service we had a short period of time to get ready for dinner so we all went back to our rooms to freshen up. We all got ready and changed and met up on the lobby to drive to Tiberius. We got in the bus and drove for about 10 minutes until we arrived at a place to eat. They had made pasta and pizza and so many different small dishes. Dinner was really good and for dessert they brought delicious ice cream!!! Yum! We walked around for a little after dinner to go to the kineret to a thing indicating how much water the kineret has in it. We walked back to the bus and headed back to Nof Ginosar to go to sleep because we were all super tired!!!
Today we woke up to our last day in Jerusalem. We opened the day with an informative and enlightening discussion with Jeremy Leigh about the complicated relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. We traveled to Mt. Scopus with a view point overlooking the city of Jerusalem where we had an opening circle. The Silver family gave us our Kavana for the day, and we each shared a thought about the time we had spent in Jerusalem.
We then boarded the bus for a much welcomed long drive to the North allowing us some time to rest and process our Jerusalem experience of the last few days. After lunch we arrived at Hatzar Kineret (Kineret yard). This was a site for pioneers to first come to learn how to work the land in the early 19th century during the second Aliya. What was particularly striking was learning about the female Chalutzot and their role in shaping the Pre-state years and their efforts to create gender equality in their new society.
An emotional and inspiring day. Morning bus ride to Mt. Herzl filled with a thought provoking discussion led by Jeremy (looking forward to tomorrow’s). A poignant moment I will not soon forget was the sight of a sixth grade boy in our group holding and comforting his father after our tear filled emotional walk through the Children’s Memorial. I also appreciated the moving candle lighting memorial ceremony lead by Rabbi Felicia Sol afterwards. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to share this special trip with Max, and experience the miracle that is Israel together, in all it’s magnificent complexity. Special mention: Amazing guides throughout – Moti from the Kotel tunnels and Mindy from Yad Vashem; incredible!
Today we went to Mount Herzl. Named after Theodor Herzl, who was a Zionist and the visionary of the State of Israel. We split up into two groups. My group went to see Herzl’s grave. We learnt that Herzl wanted the national language of the State to be German. We sang the song “Anu nosim lapidim.” literally “we carry torches.” In the song it says no miracle happened. Then our group went into the Herzl museum and we saw an animated tour of Herzl’s life. Some of it was familiar because I took a JJP class where we learned about him and some was new to me. It was interesting because it was about an actor who was learning how to act out Herzl and it was funny and had good jokes.
From Mt. Herzl we continued to Yad Vashem. We split into two groups once again. One group went into the museum and my group went to see trees that were planted in honor of the righteous among nations who saved Jews during the holocaust. We saw the special design of the museum and heard about the significance of the design. Then we went into the Valley of Communities which was like a maze. It was fun. We saw the names of countries and communities which lost their Jewish population. I felt a little sad because of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. It’s different seeing the memorial in a place that is physically closer to Europe. In the US I feel very far from it. After that we met up with the whole group and had short ceremony.
After that we went to the ‘shuk’ (market). I had the Jerusalem mix which was yummy. I have never eaten something like that before. The shuk was crowded and exciting. I liked that we saw a shop called Halva King, which was really cool. There were a lot of candy shops. We bought sweets for my brothers back home. It was a fun day.
Today we started out going to Masada which is a fortress built by King Herod. Some of us walked up and some took the cable car. We all took the cable down. I walked up the snake path, it was really hot walking, it got harder as we got further up, I started feeling like I was going to fall off. It was fun, and I was happy to get to the top. The cable car down was packed like a subway car during rush hour!
Then we all went and got snacks and lunch and ate them on the bus.
We then drove 30 minutes to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea wasn’t what I expected at all. It wasn’t just like any beach. Everyone was floating and there were rocks and mud everywhere. I put on my swimsuit and I plunged right in (I forgot you weren’t supposed to swim!).
It was kind of warm but when I got out it was cold. I floated, and it was very freaky. I was floating around with my parents and Alex Sherman with her moms. When we got out we put disgusting mud all over our body. It was black and I had it on all over. 2 minutes later I went back in the water and rubbed it off. The Dead Sea was cool but it had its ups and downs. Up was floating and down was how cold it was when I got out.
Next was camel riding. I went on a camel with my mom. When you get on the camel he is sitting down, and it is really scary when the camel gets up and down. It was fun to ride the camel; unfortunately it didn’t last for long enough.
It was a good day, looking forward to tomorrow.
Hi from Israel! As I write this we just finished the first full day together as a group and it was wonderful.
We started early to beat the crowds of this time of year. The day was chilly but beautifully bright and sunny. After last week’s snow (of which there are still plenty of remnants), we were mostly prepared for the cold with layers of clothing and even hats and gloves in the shade. The bus brought us from our hotel to the Dung Gate so that we could enter the Western Wall plaza. We gathered in a circle for a shared kavannah and Melanie Sherman shared a lovely poem by Neil Gaiman about how learning happens best when we are open to new experiences and make mistakes. With that spirit, we split into 2 groups to tour the western wall tunnels. Here we learned of the history of the building, destruction, and repeated rebuilding of the Temple Mount. We walked below ground along recently excavated parts of the Western Wall of the Second Temple and got to see, touch and feel the layers of history. While about half our group has been to Jerusalem before, for most of us this was a new experience and very interesting. From there we spent some private moments and did some picture taking at the Kotel.
Our next adventure was a scavenger hunt in the Jewish quarter of the old city. Our 12 families were divided into 6 groups on a 90 minute search across the Jewish quarter learning more about the Cardo, Medeba map, long standing yeshivas and synagogues. Our group started out enthusiastically with assigned roles for navigator, teacher, photographer, reporter and support team. We found our stops, took our required pictures and answered lots of questions about these historical sites, but our energy was flagging and our assigned roles broke down but we came through it together. At the end, we were all declared winners and were rewarded with a treasure chest of chocolate gelt!
Time for lunch when many of us enjoyed fresh Jerusalem falafel – yum! yum!
With some new energy, we were off again and our wonderful guide Zvi took us on a rooftop tour with magnificent views of the 4 quarters in the old city and provided a unique perspective on how the 3 main religions and different groups of people share this special place.
We ended our day with a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a quick walk through the shuk in the Muslim quarter to meet our bus at the Jaffa gate for a short ride back to the hotel. A few of our heartiest families traveled on to the Israel Museum while the rest of us happily enjoyed some relaxing time after a full day of exploration. After all, tomorrow we start early again for a trip to Masada, the Dead Sea and camel rides. Stay tuned for more about this from another blogger tomorrow.
Everyone was too tired to write, but here are some pics to give a flavor of the first day’s activities. More anon.
Led by Rabbi Felicia Sol, Ivy Schreiber and Orli Moss,12 families will be in Israel from December 23 until January 1. The group will spend time traveling, learning, listening, tasting and engaging with Israel. One of the highlights of the trip is spending Shabbat with families from our partner community, Nigun Halev in Nahalal, who will join us at the Nof Ginosar Hotel on the shores of the Kineret and host us in their homes on Sunday evening. We will also climb Masada, do a scavenger hunt in the Old City of Jerusalem, and learn about graffiti in Tel Aviv. This trip is made possible thanks to a generous grant from The Doree and Chuck Greenberg Synagogue Family Mission Scholarships to Israel through UJA-Federation of New York. Please follow our thoughts and experiences online.
During this week of spiritual exploration in Jerusalem, there are many possible doors to walk through.
- Attuning to our most authentic selves
- Opening up to the other
Tears well and we wipe them away.
This is in an intimate setting.
Yet, we are a big group and many of us are strangers – to the others, maybe even to ourselves..
What then of tears? A friend of mine from Tel Aviv is shamed by her tears. She is a secular woman raised by pioneer parents who idealized stoicism. But she breaks down when she parts from her daughter for what will be a long time. I tell her the tale of tears I just heard from Chani, this morning’s teacher: Once we spill forth all our tears, we have a blessed pool through which we can swim with singular joy. My secular Israeli friend is so relieved that she has been granted permission to feel. I think of how simple it is to offer a more complete human experience to Israelis brought up without this dimension; I wonder if that is why we are here, to help them draw their next deep breath.
Each of us is here for our own self. But as the Sage Hillel reminds us, we are presumably not here only for ourselves. We take time out for ourselves to refine and enliven a new sensibility we might share with Am Israel.
Sometimes it seems so clear. Sometimes it feels quixotic.
Self-help for the secular Israelis, American style? Saving souls through Jewish outreach? Finding a new way to share the experience of being a Jew in our time?
In every moment it is very important to be honest.
Shabbat, we are told, is welcomed in music and dance, happening-style, in the public spaces of summer-time Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A woman asks: might this not be a form of evangelism? Although ordinary Israelis are flocking to the gatherings, this is not about personal salvation. The men and women who come to teach us this week are passionate about a new Jewish Spirituality in Israel. But they cannot do this alone. They reach out to others in the public space. They reach out to us so that we will return across the sea, hearts and minds infused with this possibility.
We are building a new, old, new land. They bring us not only sayings of the rabbis but also of Herzl, Bialik and Gordon, visionaries who while freeing themselves from tradition, wrote of a world much like the one we are co-creating.
When do we feel we most belong?
When do we feel like the Other?
Ruth is seen by Boaz in all her Otherness. “To really be seen, in your uniqueness, to drop pretense and keep your identity, this is redemption.” says Dr. Melilah, our Thursday morning teacher. I see Roly and many others nod and remember the first time he saw me. He asked me to teach on Leil Shavuot, based on something that I had written about the Book of Ruth. In the story of Ruth we confront total emptiness. The emptiness is filled and what begins in incest (the origins of Ruth’s tribe of Mo’av) leads to the birth of a messiah. Ruth is a transformative field.
Am I willing to be a transformative field?
And what if the messiah turns out to be a woman? Would Rabbi Dov with the long white beard from the orthodox yeshiva who came the day before join in the celebratory dance alongside me?
This is a country that makes your head spin always. One night, at The Wall, we hear shouts. We think it is the haredi in belligerent prayer. But it is fifty young soldiers going through their military drills being commanded by two women officers. In the background is the temple wall where haredi men cannot bear the sight of a woman wrapped in a tallit.
For those of us who find profundity in paradox, the messiah is already here.
In order to get across how powerful the week was, I wanted the last post on the blog to be heard. Through hearing people’s voices you can try and connect better to the experience they have been through. I invite you to listen to five short audio files from participants who were on the trip. Enjoy.
Our journey began when we prepared for our Israel trip: buying our tickets, packing, going to the airport, and flying to Israel. The portion of the week was Vayetze (ויצא). Jacob going on his journey not knowing what he would find, but culminating in an epiphany. We were on our personal journey to explore prayer both personally and as a community. What would we encounter? Would we change? Would we resolve the tensions that arise from the exploration? What would our spiritual journey find that resonates? What new path would we have in our spiritual growth? These and many other questions were confronted just as Jacob didn’t know what his future would bring. We too were seekers and explorers of the spiritual world.
Jacob’s experience serves as a metaphor for our community. Bj is our connection to community just as the rock connected him to his reality. I feel that our individual journey is finding the next rung on the spiritual ladder and learning how to climb upwards. Sometimes, we may have difficulty reaching the next rung or we may even find that we must descend to ascend, but being seekers, we continue to stretch and reach for the next rung. I found that music whether song or nigun transports me to new possibilities, but I’ve learned that isn’t enough. Greater understanding of the process of prayer and the four internal steps that are rooted in the prayers serves as my map. My internal struggle is synthesizing Keva (permanent) with Kavanah (meaning). It has progressed to a better understanding of Keva as a map for achieving a greater love of prayer and its role in my life.
How will we apply these teachings and incorporate them into our spiritual life at BJ? How can we infuse and incorporate the spirit of seeking as Jacob experienced into our lives? There are even more questions and challenges today after finding my new rung on Jacob’s ladder.
We saw a concert on November 7 at the Oud Festival with Peretz Eliyahu tar, composition, musical management | Mark Eliyahu kamanja, saz | Yaniv Raba oud | Yair Harel percussion | Lubna Salameh vocals | Rabbi David Menahem vocals. When Mark Eliyahu walked on the stage, it was not just another musician. We saw the best in the world. I could hardly believe my eyes..seeing the man who had left me an ear worm that had been attacking me for the last two years after having seen him in this concert.
Here is their concert from last summer in Moscow for your enjoyment.
Here is how the concert was described by the festival: “Eliyahu’s work has always combined intimate inner worlds aspiring to depth and the sublime. The current project focuses upon two new works that he composed during a stay in the village of Abu Ghosh during the past two years. In this performance these works will be premiered. One is the Hijaz Fantasy, which conveys Eliyahu’s interpretation of the possibilities for musical arrangement and simplification of this popular maqam, upon which Eliyahu has focused these past two years. The other work is an adaptation of poetic texts of Haviva Pedaya, with vocals by Lubna Salameh. Alongside these two works will be new arrangements of local Arab musical works, Arab folklore and works from the Caucasus, where Eliyahu was born.”
As if that weren’t enough, when I mentioned Yair Harel to my friends, they couldn’t believe that the BJ group had worked with him, because, on the popular music scene, he is even more well known.
It is time to ready myself for Shabbat tefillah with Tamar. She met us our 1st day at Hartman and the week has flown by. Roly’s friends continue to welcome us, teach us, and guide us through this week of prayer. For me it is the experiential piece that seems to make the most impact. The experience of daily prayer is a discipline I lack at home. Here it is accessible and inspiring … I am taking the opportunity to develop a practice. Yair taught me the sounds of prayer during a remarkable afternoon in Ein Kerem, and I used this for myself in the morning tefillah today. Studying daily is also a practice and I am finding my way in hevruta, never easy for me. The difference between the actual words and what is underneath them. Chani is a remarkable teacher, her soul lives close to the surface and she shares it with all of us so willingly. Rani inspires me with his energy and passion which bubbles up and blends humor with depth in the learning practice. Rav Dov has the most understated way of teaching me. It seems his presence is almost enough to bring me into learning.
I am experiencing a lot of gratitude for this opportunity to get to know my fellow travelers. BJ members who I pray with weekly but whose names I do not know. Shabbat Shalom from the Holy Land.
Innovative ways to drive Jewish renewal in Jerusalem in a “non New Age-y way” was the topic of our Friday morning conversation with Dr. Elan Ezrachi. Elan chairs the Ginot Ha’ir community council, one of 30 such councils that play an interface role between municipal government and local neighborhoods. The Ginot Ha’ir council covers 50,000 people in an area rich in educational, intellectual and liberal and open-minded religious institutions that encompasses The German Colony, The Greek Colony, Rehavia, Talbiya, Katamon, Yemin Moshe, Naoit and Kiryat Shmuel or “the Upper West Side of Jerusalem.”
And like the UWS, Jerusalem has become “an incubator and a hot house for a Jewish renaissance in Jerusalem and in Israel.” Catalyzed by olim from North America, the Council has created a coalition of pluralistic groups, called “Yerushalem,” dedicated to finding ways to respect each others’ traditions and insert a range of Jewish practices in a highly politicized public sphere. The most visible sign of success was the 5 month long series of Kabbalat Shabbat celebrations held in the renovated Old Train Station (think mini South Street Seaport) from May through October, each of which attracted 500 or more people. The programs, scheduled at 5:00PM Friday afternoons, and performed by volunteers without any clergy, blended songs, prayers and niggunim from many Jewish traditions into a pastiche of public singing, clapping, dance and movement that attracted passers-by, tourists and regular repeat visitors.
For some this program was a prayer service. For others it was a free show. For some it was a sing-a-long or a tourist attraction. The Council put accessible elements of Judaism on display. The participants took away from it whatever they wanted or needed. “We packaged the program to suit the pallets and the needs of Israelis. “ Elan noted. “Many are seeking ways to connect with or express their Judaism. “ Participants were of all ages and affiliations. Held in an open space the program had no boundaries, expectations or requirements. Slated to be expanded in 2014, Elan observed, “This Kabbalat Shabbat belongs to residents and visitors and the diversity of the music subtlety reinforces the message of religious pluralism.”
After yesterday’s class with Yair Harel on improvising melodies for prayer, this morning’s shaharit service seemed to go deeper for our hevra than earlier in the week. I know mine did. I really enjoyed Melilah Hellner-Eshed’s teaching on “the other” based on the book of Ruth, which was our first morning activity. She talked about invisibility as the most dangerous aspect of “otherness” since it can lead to dehumanization. On the other hand, being seen for who we really are can be redemptive. After Melilah, we heard from Rachel Azaria, a member of the Jerusalem City Council. She talked about how Israeli society began as a melting pot and then moved to multiculturalism. Since then, however, the radicalization of individual groups has resulted in silos dividing neighborhoods and even cities. Her group has been winning against the ultra orthodox in the Supreme Court but the fighting has to stop somewhere. They’ve therefore created Brit Yisroelit to find a way to make it possible for the Israeli factions to live together in solidarity and mutual responsibility. It may mean redefining what Israel stands for.
In the afternoon we heard from Shai Zarchi from Nigun Halev. He shared two moving personal stories that led to his own journey to uncover what his grandparents, who arrived in Palestine as halutzim in 1922, left behind in order to build Israel. Songs, tears, laughter, sighs and silence are languages that come from the same place as prayer. At the end of the afternoon, there was a moving tribute to Steve Stulman by our Israeli partners, who acknowledged all of his efforts and generosity in making possible the movement that our partners in Israel represent.
In the morning we studied with Chani Kroizer who is head and founder of B’ruach By Spirit, an NGO which provides training to provide spiritual care for those who are ill. She had previously studied at the Elul Beit Midrash and felt “because of the great power of texts” she “must use the power of texts outside”. As a little girl, she had dreamed of becoming a nurse. Twelve years ago, she began to volunteer at a Jerusalem hospice and this led her to her current work.
The topic we studied was “Gates of Tears.” Through her work, Chani had become “aware of the tears that come out and those that don’t come out.” Crying and tears are intimately connected to the impulse to pray. She began with a passage from the Gemara: “From the day on which the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were locked, but the gates of tears were not locked.” We need to think of tears as a gate, she said. What do we do at this gate? We may feel a need to tell the bereft individual not to cry, but premature reassurance is often not helpful to those in deep pain. Why do we want to close the gate of tears? Why are we frightened when we face another in deep pain? The culture in Israel was long a tough culture. Better to ignore crying and tears it was thought. But our tradition teaches us another way.
We moved to hevruta study of the central text to be confronted that morning: the midrash Pirke of R. Eliezer. While it is traditionally considered to be an early midrash, academic study finds it be relatively late, that is, around the 7th century C.E. Eliezer is the son of Horkanos, a wealthy landowner. He is portrayed as lonely and alienated, an intellectual with spiritual yearnings, “ploughing a stony plot” while trapped in a world concerned primarily with social standing, and material success. There is no listening, no recognition, no acknowledgement in this well mannered but deeply complacent society. The story describes his heroic confrontation with his father and subsequently with the great sage Yohanan Ben Zakkai in which tears ultimately upend the established order. The father is portrayed as an overbearing and uncomprehending individual who is convinced that he knows what is best for his dreamy son. “Why do you weep?” the father asks. Eliezer replies, “I weep only because I want to study Torah.” The father dismisses the son’s plea. “You are 28 years old, get a job, find a wife, have children and they can study.” Eliezer responds with non-violent resistance. He sits, he weeps, and he fasts and is saved by Elijah who appears and listens Elijah advises, “If you want to study Torah, stand and travel to study with R. Yohanan.” When he meets the great rabbi, he weeps, to which the rabbi responds “Whose son are you?” Eliezer refuses to answer.
Chani explained, “Eliezer was going in his own way, a lonely way. This is a very tough way. The crying was a gate for his own way.” She continued, “Tears are a potent form of human expression. Before language even, tears express our deepest longings and hopes. “We need not fear to let tears flow,” she concluded, “as tears may open the gates to true liberation.”
Wednesday afternoon we moved from tears to joy, with Uri Kroizer. Happiness, joy, is a mitzvah in the Jewish tradition. In other words, it is more than merely a good; it’s a commandment. The proof text is Deuteronomy 16:13: “You shall rejoice in your festival…and you shall have nothing but joy.” Can happiness be commanded? Willed? We examined this puzzle through exploration of a teaching of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, the 19th century Hasidic master.
The principle is that a person needs to practice self-overcoming, overcoming with all his or her strength to be happy. The natural human tendency is to focus on the negative in ourselves and our world, to pull ourselves into the bitterness we sometimes feel because of the wounds of the effects of time. These wounds are real, and not to be denied or ignored. Still, sadness is the enemy of humankind, a devious and powerful enemy, which we must confront and overmaster.
Because every person is full of suffering, there is the potential for the world to be pulled down into the abyss. And so a person must force herself always to be joyful through any possible means, through any way one might imagine. A broken heart has value because it reminds us of what we need, what we lack, reminds us that we are not self-sufficient, and helps us open our consciousness to an awareness of God’s presence. We talk to God out of/through a broken heart, but one ought to move up from sadness, limit it in time and place, perhaps to one hour after day. It is important that the time of prayer be a time of great joy. We are more likely to trip of sadness, than to fail of joy.
“There is a parable, sometimes when people dance, they see a lonely person standing outside the dance, in a state of sadness. It is a great mitzvah to bring that person into the circle of dancers even against his will.” Roly then pointed out that Nahman did not simply propos a self-help technique. Nahman himself suffered from serious bouts of depression and died at age 38 of tuberculosis in 1810. His teachings, though, represent a form of spiritual discipline, a spiritual path, rather than a form of therapy.
I might add, that Nahman sounds like an exemplar of the twice-born personality so beautifully described by William James in his early 20th century classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience. (a work is conspicuous for its neglect of Jews and Judaism but a great treat for those who have not yet encountered it). The twice-born soul reaches joy only after passing through the depths of despair, in contrast to the once-born, “healthy-minded” personality. The once-born state has much to recommend it, and once born individuals are much more fun to be around, than quasi-depressives, like Nahman. But ultimately, the twice-born state, offers a much fuller representation of reality than the once born and puts us in a much better position to handle what-ever life may throw at us.
I’ll conclude here by referring interested readers to an interfaith exploration of the sadness/joy divide – a dialogue between Catholic spiritual thinker Richard Rohr and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller.