Tuesday, November 25, 2014

We Are Souls

(cross-posted from the Ruderman Family Foundation blog)

recently reconnected with a young woman who changed my life in a profound way, forever expanding my understanding of the meaning of kehilla (congregation) and what it means to be created in the image of God.
In 1992, while serving as the youth director for Congregation Beth Kodesh, just outside of Los Angeles, I met Dina Springer. Dina was a bright and determined teen with CP (cerebral palsy). As a result, even the most rudimentary motor tasks posed significant logistical challenges for her. Though always surrounded in synagogue by her supportive family – whose care for her was regarded as the most natural task in the world – it was impossible to miss the multiple obstacles that someone like Dina overcame just to be part of the kehilla on a Shabbat, holiday or special occasion.
For those of us who are able-bodied, one of the most important consciousness raising experiences is to encounter the innumerable challenges posed by the physical space of the synagogue by looking through the eyes of someone who has a disability. From the very act of sitting and standing, to ascending the bima(podium in center of synagogue), to praying out loud to holding a prayer book to making one’s voice heard, the multiple motor requirements are daunting to anyone who is limited in their mobility.
Add to the physical challenges the social barriers one must overcome as a teen – disabled or not — and you can begin to understand what Dina faced.
As a young rabbinical student, something about Dina touched and inspired me. Looking back, I think it was a combination of her determination, intelligence and preternatural wisdom and willingness to put herself out there. Though limited by her body, Dina so wanted to be a regular teenager; she so wished to be just one of the kids, heedless, happy, no different from the others.
Anyone who was a teenager can relate to this yearning.
Yet Dina was different and it was the undeniable aspect of her otherness that touched me deeply. I empathized deeply with her spunk and her willingness to risk. And I decided to do something to change the landscape in my small community of Congregation Beth Kodesh.
As youth director, I undertook the daunting task of dedicating the regional USY conference we were hosting that year to the concept of diversity, starting by introducing Dina to the 200-plus kids who would be assembling at our kehilla.
Though Dina and her family embraced this idea, there was no way of guaranteeing that it was sound, and I went into the convention hounded with uncertainty. Certainly, the concept was right, relevant, and central to Judaism’s notion of Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish nation) but teens are a tricky audience. Their need to be accepted socially often trumps sensitivity. Personal insecurity often turns kids callous, not kind.
The dignity of a young woman was in my hands. What if my idea backfired and Dina felt ridiculed or diminished by the exposure? She was the lynchpin of our entire event. The convention planning was focused on her as an individual and also a representative of the world of the disabled.
Inclusive Congregation
Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, NJ, which started a Shabbat L’Khulam service that supports the full inclusion of all people, regardless of abilities.
Danielle Sass is featured in the picture touching a kid-level mezuzah the temple affixed.
Many years have passed. Recently, I reached out to Dina. She is now Dina Springer Garcia. Married and the mother of a child, she and I communicated by Facebook and then phone about the personal impact of that USY convention, which was a mega-success – indeed, an important milestone in the life of Congregation Beth Kodesh. Dina recalled how proud she felt that together, we had helped so many of her peers – and the kehilla at large – to open their eyes.
Dina shared with me that prior to that convention she often felt invisible to her peers. The USY convention reversed that reality. The convention was not just successful on a programmatic level; it provided her with a voice. It proved a turning point in her life.
Empowered by the experience, Dina went on to teach people with disabilities how to advocate for themselves and now belongs to a kehilla where the obstacles that exist in most conventional synagogues are absent.
Dina’s advice to me was this: Education. Education. Education.
This prescription might sound simple but it involves thoughtful planning as well as persistent, up-close and personal work to raise the awareness that embracing people with different abilities and disabilities goes far beyond providing a ramp for wheelchair accessibility. It begins with hearing the individual stories of the struggles to stand side-by-side with other members of the community. It involves small matters that are often overlooked.
But perhaps first it begins with a radical gesture: the proactive gesture of synagogue leadership towards people like Dina, the commitment to include everyone along the spectrum of ability; it entails curiosity about their unique stories and situations; it is built upon the breaking of boundaries between those who are able and those who are differentiated so that our kehilla is strengthened by true diversity.
Choosing inclusivity as an ethic is not just a matter of accommodating the other. It is not just being nice or kind or doing the right thing.
Adopting inclusivity involves a radical reimagining of kehilla as the place where all of us define and redefine what it means to be created in the image of God.
Though we are just at the beginning of the Genesis narrative cycle, my mind moves forward to the book of Exodus to contemplate the character of Moses. Plagued by self-doubt, incredulous to find himself appointed by God as the leader of the Jewish People, Moses is described in the text as being “kvad peh u’kvad lashon,” literally, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”
Though many Midrashists muse about what Moses’ affliction was, the fact remains: Moses, chosen to meet God face to face, struggled with a form of disability, likely related to speech. Supported by his siblings, surrounded by family, given prophetic voice, he was able to rise to greatness.
I will never forget the example set by the Springer family, who brought their young daughter to synagogue regularly, who lifted her onto the bima, who removed obstacles with their own hands, who made sure she was a full member of the kehilla.
As United Synagogue goes forward in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation to make inclusivity the rule (as opposed to the exception) of every kehilla, I know that Dina is right: it all begins with education. And for the first lesson, I would choose this teaching from the “Yigdal” prayer, recited daily in the morning. Speaking of God, the poet says, “Ein lo d’mut ha-guf, v’eino guf – God does not have the image of a body, nor does God have a body.”
We are more than our bodies. That is one of the great teachings of the Torah when it says we are made in the image of God. And that is one of the great teachings of Jewish leaders like Dina Springer Garcia who inspire us to see each other as souls – eternal, connected, shining brightly.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Panoramic View of Israel Through the Lens of Yom Kippur



The approach to Yom Kippur in the age of Facebook reveals a fascinating reality: from across the broad spectrum of Jewish life, the Day of Atonement is taken very seriously. Meditations, insights, essays, photos, quotes, videos, articles and personal reflections are posted, forming a virtual Wailing Wall, with posts posing as modern-day kvittels, the handwritten requests that supplicants have secreted between the great stones of the Kotel for centuries.

Facebook functions as a pre-Yom Kippur cheat sheet where we might find one-stop shopping-style inspiration. Over the past week, the plethora of great sermons that have been posted alone have turned this social medium into an anthology or concordance of sorts.

Delivering a Sefer Torah to Masorti shul in Ashkelon.
In my world, the only other topic to ignite as much impassioned online conversation is Israel.  Regarding Israel – in times of relative peace as well as the difficult days of war this past summer witnessed – there is an outpouring of commentary on Facebook from every possible point of view, displaying emotions ranging from love to pain to vitriolic hatred.

Contemplating these two seemingly separate topics, I realized that Israel consciousness is integral to the observance of Yom Kippur and that among the topics we ought to be thinking – and talking about – Israel occupies a high rung.

But I am not talking about a narrow conversation focused on political matters.

What I am calling for this Yom Kippur and for those in the future is an honest, ongoing holistic conversation about the perfectly imperfect state of Israel, her texture, her poetic significance, her social woes, her achievements and the place she occupies in the heart, mind and soul of the Jewish People in the here and now.

All too often, we reduce conversations about Israel to the narrowly political and by so doing we shortchange ourselves, as well as Israel for there are valuable lessons to be learned from a wide-lens perspective.

So, I’ll offer my own insights to get the conversation rolling: When I think about what Israel means to me it is resiliency. This awareness struck me again and again over the course of my four trips this past summer. I saw it in synagogues and shelters. I saw resiliency in schools and home and on the streets.

The spirit of Israel, even after a horrendous death toll this summer, even after the threat of rockets and the horror of terrorist tunnels and worldwide condemnation, is resiliency.

That, and the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.

I’ve written previously about some of my experiences visiting Israel in the midst of war. The existence of the State of Israel within the narrative of Jewish experience is a testimony to that resiliency. It is about survival against the backdrop of uncertainty. It is about acknowledging the fragility of one’s existence. And when one enters into the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the piyyutim reflect that consciousness. By reading and reciting these prayers as a community, we perform a remarkable existential act; we engage in a collective rehearsal for the inevitable, the day of our death.

Undergirding the inevitable is the belief that we are not passive but active partners in our destiny. The entire notion is that whatever the calamity may be – whether personal or communal – teshuva (repentance) tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (charitable acts) aver the evil decree.

To understand the true meaning of this concept, visit or live in Israel during wartime. The repentance, prayer and innumerable charitable acts of lovingkindness are a model for how to live a meaningful life.

So much is right and so much is wrong in Israel but there is always the possibility of repenting, praying and fixing what is broken, what is not yet right. As a Conservative Jewish leader, I have been deeply involved in efforts to create a permanent place at Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, now with the active participation of the government; indeed, recently facilitated by Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

I engage with this effort fueled by my belief in the resiliency of Israel and the Jewish People and I engage in other efforts as well, as do so many of us. I find this particular project so meaningful is because in that very place, Jewish belief, resiliency and history come together with powerful resonance.

Thinking about the resiliency and meaning of Israel through the lens of Yom Kippur, I am reminded that Theodor Herzl said that Zionism is a return to Judaism even before it is a return of the Jewish people to their land.

So let’s liberate our conversations of Israel from being only about the land. In the spirit of the Jubilee year, now upon us, let’s free ourselves from this mental enslavement.

Lately, I have been thinking about the power of co-creation. This is a 21st Century buzzword and a potent, timely idea. Israel provides us with the ultimate opportunity in co-creation. That is a very Jewish enterprise, requiring resilience, the capacity for forgiveness and the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.

For this special Yom Kippur, which falls also on Shabbat, I am calling for a deep engagement with the concept of Israel as well as the complex reality. I am daring us to dive into the heart of the Zionist dream; I am imploring my brothers and sisters to build bridges across oceans and continents so that we may be engaged deeply with Israel.

I am asking for the acknowledgement that Israel is miraculous and that miracles are sometimes messy.

At the end of the Neilah service, which concludes Yom Kippur with a bracing blast of the Shofar, we read about the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem, about kibbutz galuyot, the in-gathering of the exiles.

Let us end our intellectual and existential exile from Israel by seeing her in the fullness of her present day reality. Let us absorb her resilience and beauty. On Yom Kippur, let us see our own deeds as linked together with the global fellowship of the Jewish People. Let us pray and meditate and converse together. Let us co-create the next chapter of Jewish history.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Thoughts Going into Shabbat in Jerusalem

The Mitzvah of Rejoicing in all that is Good
Through Heartbreak and Hopelessness

When contemplating the weekly parasha, sometimes it takes an acrobatic intellectual leap to craft a connection between the wisdom of the Torah and current events while other times, the weekly reading seems handpicked for a particular moment in time.

The latter is true of this week’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy – Ki Tavo.

Familiar to many readers as containing the “Aramean” section of the Passover Hagaddah, Ki Tavo begins with Moses relaying God’s instruction to the Children of Israel, saying, "When you dwell in the promised land, take a selection of the first fruits and bring them to the place God chooses for God's Name."

The text goes on to explain that an offering shall be brought with the mindfulness that the supplicants were once slaves in Egypt and God brought them to freedom "with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with signs and miracles." The commandment to express gratitude for this act of redemption is self-explanatory and then the text takes a turn, telling us something puzzling.

"You shall cast yourself down before the Presence of God and you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and your household."

In Hebrew, the verse is: "v'samachta b'kol hatov."

What is the purpose of a commandment that mandates celebration? Naturally we rejoice when things are going well! Why must we be commanded to be happy? Doesn’t that seem unnecessary? It is, after all, when life is not going well that we must remember to praise the Creator of Life.

Prior to this previous summer, a midrash on this verse was that “v’samachta b’kol ha tov” is not just commandment but an insight into the nature of life and our need for perspective. “V’samachta b’kol ha tov” is a reminder that we constantly live at the nexus of joy and sadness and we must celebrate joy…so we don’t take the goodness of life for granted

This commandment, which is more properly a teaching, is also a vital ingredient for resiliency. Shore up your appreciation for all that is good so that when the dark days come, you believe in the ultimate goodness of life and God’s love for humankind and have the strength to endure and transcend.

Yet, as I prepare for Shabbat on this, the fourth mission of Conservative Jews to Israel within four months, I have a brand-new insight into this verse in Ki Tavo; indeed, I feel as if the Torah is speaking directly to me, to the people of Israel and to the global fellowship of Klal Yisrael at this very complicated moment in our history.

This past summer witnessed the toughest and most sustained war Israel has endured since her inception. Scores of families have lost loved ones; Israel is still reeling from the trauma that she suffered at home and globally as the tide of world opinion went from tov to ra – from favorable to negative – with anti-Zionism becoming the newest, most fashionable ideology worldwide, alongside its twin tendency, anti-Semitism.

With the discovery of the horror of the network of Hamas’s terror tunnels and the plot against Israeli civilians that has been brewing, quite literally below the radar screen, with the incessant sirens and dashes to shelters, with interrupted weddings and summer plans, with the funerals and fear, we as a people need to hold fast to the ultimate truth stated in Ki Tavo – that God took us from the slavery of a stateless existence, a world where there was no safe haven for Jews in the Diaspora – and brought us to this land.

And then, a sad insight: the first fruits we are commanded to bring as a sacrifice are our indeed our finest for they are our sons and daughters.

This is the price of the blessing.

And throughout this sacrifice, we must still rejoice in all that is good. The families who have sacrificed their finest fruits must still strive, after this difficult summer and through all the previous hard times and those yet to come, to believe in that truth which seems a cruel lie for their hearts have been broken and their dreams shattered.

On my previous visit to Israel, just three weeks ago, the war was in full force. Among the many Israelis I met with, a father named Nir stands out. He told us about trying to comfort his kids and provide them with safety and normalcy and how the resources at the local Masorti synagogue helped them to do that. In the midst of the chaos, he was able to celebrate the good. And he was hardly alone. Everywhere we went, the warmth and gratitude for our presence was expressed over and over.
This celebration of the good humbled me, an American Jew. This gratitude for the resources of a local synagogue made me realize how often we take our own blessings for granted.


But the sense of celebration was not limited to my previous visit. Just this past Tuesday I was back with a delegation of the leadership of United Synagogue, dedicating a sefer Torah in Ashkelon.  Together with the local kehilla we danced with the sefer Torah I had brought with me from the United States.  Together, we celebrated.  In the course of our visit, we learned of the journey of this unique community to Masorti Judaism and how they found resiliency therein, how the relationships of meaning that were formed through their affiliation with their Beit Knesset enabled their ability to see the ultimate good, even after such a difficult summer.

As Shabbat nears on this, my final trip to Israel during this summer of supreme sacrifice, I know that Ki Tavo was written for this very moment in Jewish history.

Ki tavo el ha-aretz: when you come to the land.

We have come. Israel is both eretz zavat chalav u’dvash -- a land of milk and honey – and eretz ochelet yoshveha – a land that consumes its inhabitants, as Ada Hos-Peles, the grieving mother of Roy Peles, noted, following his death in Gaza.

Poised between the honey and the heartbreak we dwell with God’s blessing. Our task is to give praise for all that is good so that we may have strength and resilience.

May God spread the canopy of peace over Israel and the entire world.


Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Blessings and Curses

“Thank you for coming.” 

Those were the first words we heard from everyone we met during three days in Israel this week. We 
heard it from shopkeepers and waiters, from politicians and military leaders, and from people on the right, 
left, and center of the political spectrum: “Thank you for coming,” they said. “It means a lot that you’re here.” 

This was my second solidarity mission to Israel this summer. It was a 72-hour visit sponsored by the 
Masorti Movement, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. There 
were 50 of us, including rabbis, cantors, synagogue presidents, executive directors, and concerned Jews 
from across North America. 

If I had any qualms about dropping what I was doing and heading back to Israel just a few weeks after 
a previous trip, they were eradicated when we spoke to Israelis and heard their gratitude. Don’t get 
me wrong: Israelis are coping with this latest onslaught with their usual determination and resilience. 

Still, they have seen the world’s reaction to the conflict – the anti-Semitism that’s been unleashed, the 
protesters comparing them to Nazis, the usual United Nations condemnations and more. And they feel 
isolated. 

One of my colleagues said the reaction to our visit recalled the story in the Torah of the Israelites facing
off against the Amalekites. As the battle rages, Moses watches from a hilltop with his arms raised high. 

Strangely, all goes well in the fighting until Moses becomes fatigued and lowers his arms. The Israelites 
start losing. But Moses is not alone: Aaron, his brother, and Hur, his brother-in-law, hold up his arms for
the duration of the battle, and the Israelites are victorious. 




And that’s what we were doing for Israelis – lifting up their arms, standing with them when they’re mentally and physically fatigued. That's the definition of solidarity.

One of the people I met was a young father named Nir. Nir lives in Ashkelon, and his summer has been 
tough. He and his wife have had a hard time getting to work because the camp their daughters were to attend closed due to rocket fire. Worse, however, is how the two little girls have reacted to the violence. 

When it’s time for a bath, they tell their parents not to take more than 30 seconds. Why? That’s how long they’ll need to get to shelter if there’s a rocket siren. When their mother or father is in the bathroom, they sit outside, knocking on the door and asking when they’ll get out. Think about it: two little girls learning that people want to kill them.

What has given the family a modicum of normalcy this summer is the day center being run at the local 
Masorti synagogue, Kehillat Netzach Israel, which fortified its bomb shelter during the last Gaza conflict. The center, open to children from the entire Ashkelon community, lets Nir and his wife go to work knowing that people are taking care of their girls’ physical and emotional well-being. Every Masorti synagogue we visited had similar programs, caring for children, the elderly, and others who need respite, who need hizuk (strengthening) – physically and spiritually – people to lift up their arms. And I was reminded: here and in Israel, that’s what sacred communities do. 

We heard from a range of military leaders, politicians, and thinkers, from across the political spectrum. They, like Israelis generally, were convinced that the country was engaged in a war of necessity, not choice, and that the military must do it all it could to protect the country from Hamas. (Yes, say Israelis, we live in a lousy neighborhood. But ein lanu eretz acheret – “we don’t have another country.”)

Several talked about the civilian casualties in Gaza. All were troubled by them, perhaps most of all the military and security leaders faced with agonizing moral calculations around every potential target. The message: Israel feels it must show Hamas leaders they will pay a heavy price for rocket attacks while trying hard to limit the cost in civilian lives. We heard tremendous concern about the rise of radical Islam and the resulting unlikely shift in regional alliances, with countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority as concerned as Israel about Hamas and what’s happening in Iraq and Syria. 

During the trip, I heard a beautiful drash from Arie Hasit on parshat Re'eh, which we read this Shabbat. The parshah opens with God telling the Israelites: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” These words are typically understood to mean that we have a choice, that our actions, right or wrong, will determine which we’ll reap, blessings or curses. Arie, a rabbinical student and the spiritual leader of NOAM, Israel’s Masorti youth movement, says no, there is no choice – life is always both a blessing and a curse. Our job is to live with that tension, to reap joy from the blessings even as we know they won’t last and not to forget that even within the darkest times there remains the possibility for healing, for beauty, and for change. 

This is the tension Israelis live with. At this moment of darkness, our visit with them was a blessing. We pray that there will be more. And from the darkness will come opportunity for a brighter tomorrow.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Seeking Balance in a Time of Disequilibrium

Last week, in the middle of meetings and conference calls and tense conversations about the suddenly serious situation in Israel, which seems to have uncorked the genie of anti-Semitism from a bottle buried deep before the surface of the Earth, I found myself thinking, inexplicably, of a movie I had seen just last year: 42 -- The Jackie Robinson Story.

What does Jackie Robinson have to do with the world stage right now? Well, more than might be immediately apparent but there was one scene, one piece of dialogue from this fine film that has been repeating in a loop in my mind.

It took place between Branch Rickey, the MLB executive who broke the color barrier by signing Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black, prior to their Cleveland game in 1942.  Face to face with hatred, the quote-worthy Rickey (he also famously said, "It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind” and “Luck is the residue of design”) turned to Reese to state:

“The world’s not so simple now. I guess it never was. We ignored it. Now we can’t.”

Almost overnight, our secure lives have been utterly upended by the bracing realization that the world we deemed simple (that is, safe and sane) is no longer either. With the blink of an eye, we note our prior blindness to warning signs we had ignored.

And like Branch Rickey, we realize that it is too late to go back to our previous state of blissful ignorance.

We have been blissful indeed, those of us lucky enough to have been born Jews in the second half of the 20th Century in North America. We have walked the streets of our big cities and small towns without a shred of fear, without shame, without self-consciousness, draping ourselves in our distinctiveness, proudly Jewish.

We have built edifices to our enduring presence – schools, synagogues, community centers, non-profit organizations and more, many of them bearing overtly Jewish names, others bearing stars of David, Hebrew lettering, markers of our heritage.

New York Stands With Israel -
rally outside the UN on July 28, 2014
We have danced in the streets with Torahs and rallied outside of the United Nations with signs and placards. We have made demands of our elected officials from a particularly Jewish platform. We have felt emboldened and entitled.

In a Europe chastened by the Shoah, we have had permission to rebuild Jewish communities, seeing the seeds of seventy years of replanting now. Around the world, we marvel at the variety of Jewish communities in places both expected and off the beaten track.

And we have stood tall because of the might and strategy and moral grandeur of the IDF. Seeing our “boys” and “girls” in uniform on buses in Israel, we felt a swelling of pride within our breast. We have had iconic generals and presidents and prime ministers. We have legitimate modern day heroes. As a result, we are the lucky inheritors of the blessing of security. We have Israel now. We can plan a Jewish future uninterrupted by the predictable cycle of Golden Age-Persecution-Destruction that has characterized the Diaspora since its very beginning.

We have felt exceptional, we who were the Greatest Generation of North American Jews.

We have even had the happy chutzpah to question the necessity of Tisha B’Av in recent years. Many an Eicha service has featured a communal conversation on how we deal with the lamentation of destruction when our beloved Jerusalem has been returned to us, whole and unthreatened, when we are living the dream of the return to Zion, the miracle of being a free nation in a free land.

Not a century after the flames of the crematoria have died down, we are witnessing the rekindling of an age-old hatred. Sparked by Israel’s defensive campaign against the homicidal/suicidal terrorist organization, Hamas, it is suddenly open season on Jews.

Despite assertions that anti-Zionism is a political learning, hardly synonymous with anti-Semitism, we are seeing abundant proof to the contrary.

I hardly have to repeat the litany of shocking rallies, attacks and incidents of violence – in deeds and words – over the past few weeks. Every day brings with it a new feeling of devastation and betrayal. Swastikas are all the rage now, adorning signs. Salutes to Hitler, Nazi ideology and Jewish genocide have come out of the ground -- reanimated, the undead -- creatures from a science fiction horror film.

Fear and panic have replaced our carefree summer sensibilities. We fear for Israel, we fear for ourselves, dispersed in comfortable communities throughout the world.

For those of us who have considered ourselves liberals, humanitarian, promoters of coexistence, citizens of the world and universalists, the creeping realization that the right has been right all along has entered our consciousness.

It seems a terrible thought. Everything we had scoffed at previously appears downright prophetic. All those rabid talking heads on particular networks suddenly appear to us like friends we desperately need.

For those of us who occupy the middle path, we try on the mantle of that new way of thinking and it hurts our heads and hearts.

So we resist that rightward swing, knowing that while the diagnosis might be correct – yes, Israel and the Jews are being isolated by the world, alone, singled out, held to a double standard, vilified, targeted -- the prescription offered by that worldview does not fit. The world simply cannot be as polarized as those on the right portray it. Proactive action is required. An alarm must be sounded. Partners must be found. Collaborations between people of conscience must be forged.

The religious heart seeks change, repentance growth. The religious heart is open, not closed. When your heart hardens, you become a Pharaoh.

Protecting ourselves from extremist hatred, we cannot capitulate to an extremism of another sort.

"Good deeds are such that are equal-balanced, maintaining the mean between equally bad extremes," states Maimonides in his treatise, Concerning the Cure of the Disease of the Soul.

Never in my lifetime has the approach of Tisha B’Av felt more appropriate, more necessary. Never before have I envisioned the devastation depicted in the Book of Lamentations as vividly for we have just entered history. We feel fear for the very first time in our happy, heedless lives; we see that we are not that different from previous generations of Jews, after all.

Yet never before have we needed balance more. Let us resist the extremism of people who feel threatened; let us believe in coexistence, collaboration and bridge building, but not in an ignorant and simple way.  Let us talk. Let us tell our stories and our truth. Let us learn from history. Let us defend ourselves but also, let us hope and dream.


As we approach the Nine Days that culminate in the traditional day of mourning for our shattered Temple in Jerusalem so many centuries ago, may we recall the necessity of understanding the complexity of the world, the folly of extremism and the eternal, enduring power of the Jewish People.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Teen Spirit

Today was inspiring. That’s because I visited with hundreds of Conservative young people gathered in Jerusalem as part of Ramah Seminar and USY Israel Pilgrimage. I’ve done this for the last few summers, but being with the teens today, imbibing their remarkable energy and high spirits, was truly infectious.

Our USY groups are among the roughly 40 trips for young people now in Israel.  As I said today on my conference call with kehilla leaders and USY parents, the safety of our students is our highest priority. We are in contact every day with Israeli security agencies, going over itineraries and re-arranging schedules to make sure our teens are safe. Our staff is well-trained and our kids have been briefed repeatedly on how to respond if there is a siren.

USY Israel Pilgrimage staff
And I can say unequivocally that our teens are safe and that they’re behaving in a way we can all be proud of. They’ve shown amazing maturity, and they are clearly having an incredible time. Our goals for these trips are to strengthen our students’ Jewish identity, enrich their knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history, and promote their social development. All of these goals continue to be met.  And though we would never have planned it this way, our kids are also gaining first-hand insight into the political reality of modern Israel.

I’ve been asked recently: when would you send them home? And the answer is, if the security situation deteriorated to a point where our teens were spending more time indoors watching movies than out having a meaningful experience, then yes, it would be time to come home. So far, we are not even close to that.

USCJ Family Israel Experience participants
at De Karina Chocolate Factory
And it’s not only our kids who are here. Across Israel, Conservative Jews – rabbis, families, congregations – are traveling, studying, and having fun. USCJ’s own family trip recently ended after a remarkable tour, and our Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem is filled with summer students of all ages, including a large new contingent of Jews from France.

Iron Dome is doing its job. Hard as it can be to envision from far away, life in Israel goes on; the abnormal sense of normalcy continues.

Because USCJ sits on the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized this mission, we have had tremendous access to military and government officials. We’ve heard them speak about the moral dilemma they face in fighting an enemy which hides its weapons and fighters in homes, schools, and mosques. They struggle with the imperative to defend themselves while trying to avoid civilian casualties. They know that when they warn civilians in Gaza about an imminent airstrike they are also giving Hamas commanders a chance to flee.  They know this, but they are willing to pay that price if they can prevent civilian deaths.

Now Israel must decide what comes next. The leaders we spoke with, including Ami Dror, the country’s former National Security Advisor, said there are only a few options; each of course comes with a price. Allow a cease-fire to end the attacks, but then Israel could face the prospect of a barrage of Hamas rockets every few years. Perhaps Iron Dome works well enough that this is acceptable. Or go into Gaza in a limited way, and take out more rockets and bases, along with the offensive tunnels built to let Hamas operatives get into Israel and cause trouble. Or finally, re-take Gaza, end the rocket attacks, but face a high cost militarily, economically, and diplomatically. (As I send this, I just heard the news that Israel has entered Gaza.)

Israeli leaders will make that decision themselves. What can we do? Donate to the Stop the Sirens campaign, which is helping support Israelis in the line of fire. Take a moment to thank your political leaders in the U.S. for funding Iron Dome. If you’re Canadian, thank Prime Minister Harper for speaking out about Israel’s right to defend itself. Israelis told us repeated how grateful they are to both the U.S. and Canada for their support.

They are grateful to us, as well, for coming here and standing with them, letting them know they’re not alone.

Oseh shalom bi-m’romav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael – v’al kol yoshvei tevel – v’imru amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Fast Day

Today is the 17th of Tammuz.  It's what is called a minor fast in our tradition.  Minor because like Ramadan it is a day fast and not a full 25 hour fast like Yom Kippur or Tisha B'av.  According to tradition, it was on the 17th of Tammuz that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army, leading to the destruction of the First Temple and first exile of the Jewish people.

This year, along with the 45 teens on our Eastern European Israel Pilgrimage, I saw the Ishtar Gate at the Pergomon Museum in Berlin. This is the gate the exiles were marched through so many years ago.  And now, I sit in Jerusalem, on the deck of my hotel, on a beautiful day, on a solidarity mission to Israel as it is under fire from its modern day enemy.

With regard to this fast I tend to follow the ruling of the Geonim, the middle age decisors of Halakhah, that when Israel is at peace, one may choose not to fast. For them "at peace" meant Israel reestablished and the coming of Mashiah. For me, it means Israel reestablished and not in a shooting war. So this year, as during the Second Lebanon War, I fast.

The day began with a little bit of hope. The Egyptians offered a cease fire. Israel accepted it. Hamas did not and continued to fire on Israel. The government waited six hours for quiet before returning fire around 3 pm. 

At 7pm I got my first experience of what a typical Israeli goes through in this war. On our bus to Tel Aviv the siren sounded. We found shelter under a bridge, bent over and covered the back of our heads with our hands and waited. The sound of the Iron Dome deploying (the same one we visited yesterday) was audible. Its interception of the rocket was a loud boom. Then we waited two full minutes to allow any debris to settle. And went on our way. It was a fast experience.

It was a surreal experience. My mind knew what it meant. My spirit is still trying to figure it out. Thank God for the Iron Dome. Had the missile been able to hit a target, many would have been killed or injured.  

Ten minutes after the sirens, at the beach
And then, as yesterday, Israelis went about their business. Back to the beach, back to work, back to the playground, back to the abnormal normalcy of Israel under fire.

Today our group met with a number of policy experts and politicians.

President-elect Ruby Rivlin thanked us for coming and shared with us a glimpse of his vision of the presidency as someone who enables the critical dialogue of Israeli and Jewish society to occur.

President Peres greeted us at the president's residence and was his typical optimistic self. I was moved by his reflections on why he remains an optimist.  He reminisced about the early days of the State when Israel had so little: no water, no weapons, no friends, no agriculture, less than 700,000 people. How Ben Gurion invited him to work with him in the Hagannah in 1947 and they had no desk for him. So he sat at the desk of the chief of staff and found a letter from someone who was invited to be the chief of staff but, understanding Israel's situation, declined. Why? Because at that time Israel had only six million cartridges of bullets. In war at that time one would use one million a day. This person didn't want to be the chief of staff of the Hagannah for only six days!  Of course, Peres was so modest and didn't mention that it was his job to procure weapons and weapon systems for the fledgling army and state.  (And he did that, founding Israel's military industries.)

Peres is an optimist because 66 years later Israel has eight million people, a strong economy, a strong military, friends like the U.S. and most importantly, a strong people. As he is fond of reminding us, it is the people who innovate and make the land, not the other way around.  It is always a privilege to be in his presence. More so today, as he is one week away from ending his term.

We also met with the chair of the Knesset's security committee, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Minister Naftali Bennet, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF Spokepersons Bureau and former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (left) and  me with Lt. Col. Peter Lerner

From Lt. Col. Lerner we learned the extent to which the IDF goes to protect and reduce civilian casualties. It's a three-pronged approach.  

First the IDF calls the residents and drops leaflets for those who live in the vicinity of a target, telling them that they should leave.

Then they "knock on the building" by deploying a lightweight device on the roof.

Then they choose the type of ordnance needed to destroy their target, and only their target, and deploy it.  

As a result, the IDF knows that the enemy will likely also get the message and leave the vicinity, as well. They are prepared to take that risk and destroy his operational capacity by destroying the facility. They do this, because they value every human life.

Lerner shared with us video of how the chosen ordnance destroys its target and we were able to see what happens when there is a secondary explosion, much larger than Israel's action. The secondary explosion is caused by Hamas munitions in the target area. It's this explosion which causes more damage and is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.  

By storing munitions in homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals, and because they continue to attack Israel, Hamas is clearly responsible for Palestinian losses.

The challenge the IDF has in all of this is that the reporters only see the aftermath and destruction. And with news cycles being what they are today, the story is skewed. Though thus far, Lerner feels the press has been fairly balanced in its reporting. That could change, and probably will as the operation continues and enemy losses mount.

But with more than 1,000 rockets fired on Israel what alternatives does it have? And the numbers game is a perversion of morality. Read a piece on this concept by my colleague Rabbi Eric Yoffe, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Finally, Yaakov Amidror, who only 4 months ago was the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, gave a sobering analysis of the choices Israel has. Basically there are only two.

It can have a limited engagement to destroy current stockpiles and create a period of calm that might last two, three, maybe even five years, knowing it will have to fight this fight again.

Or it can re-conquer Gaza and stop the rockets for good.

Both come at a price. The only relevant decision is which price is the wise one? Which price is Israel willing to pay for quiet?

I am reminded of the wisdom of Golda Meir who said: “There will be peace when the Palestinians learn to love their children more than they hate ours.” And “I can forgive the Palestinians for killing us. I can't forgive them for causing us to kill them.”

The view from my hotel balcony
And yet, life goes on. An abnormal normalcy. Right now it's quiet. I'm sitting on the balcony of my hotel overlooking the New Train Station in Jerusalem.  It's a beautiful day. The beginning of day three.