22 December 2009

Standing Together

Kol hakavod to the women and men of our congregation who gathered last Shabbat to stand in solidarity with the Women of the Wall in reaction to the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel last month. (See this article from the New York Times on the IRAC site for the details of this month's gathering at the wall in Jerusalem.)

11 December 2009

NOT Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Larry Berman, our bookkeeper, Religious School administrator, and beloved sixth grade teacher brought David Brook's Op-Ed article from today's New York Times to my attention.


I have often reflected on the irony of celebrating Chanukah in a Reform setting, as the FIRST people that the Maccabees fought were the Hellenizing "Reform" Jews of their day. (The other irony is that a holiday commemorating a battle for religious identity and freedom has risen to prominence because of popular pressure to have a Jewish counterbalance for Christmas.)

In a group dedicated to starting a Human Relations Council (or somesuch organization to deal straightforwardly with the problems of prejudice in our towns), I brought this up on Wednesday. I think I shocked the non-Jews, a little, when I compared the Maccabees to the Taliban. David Brooks does the same - almost. And, in a publication which is searchable on the web, I am somewhat hesitant myself. However, I am encouraged by Brooks' contextual framing - Chanukah is a story for adults, about all the complexities of being committed religious individuals in a liberal and progressive society.

After all, it would do well to remember that the TRUE story of Chanukah scared the Talmudic Rabbis so much that they created the miracle of the oil as a substitute. They refused to canonize (make a part of the Holy Scripture) any of the four books of the Maccabees - and we owe the Catholics for their preservation.

Chanukah - it's a lot more than gambling, frying, and getting presents.

30 November 2009

Is a Picture Hipper than 1,000 Words?

Back to the Forward (really the in-print gathering place for the current Jewish zeitgeist) - their edgy cartoonist Eli Valley skewers Jewish leadership and self-pretension every week. Quite honestly, I often think he goes too far and (many) others accuse him of self-hatred. However this week's strip asks the ironic question, "What if Kafka's contemporaries conceived of the ironic, post-denominational Judaism of Heeb?"

A Reform Ba'al Teshuvah?

I call your attention to an article in the current Forward by Jacob Neusner. In it, he makes the case for his return to the Reform movement, after an adult lifetime as a Conservative Jew. His reasoning is interesting, and the comments after do a pretty good job of laying out where American Jews are at this moment early in the 21st century.

Neusner divides Jewish formal affiliation into two camps: "self-segregationist" and "integrationist". Acknowledging that there are aspects of each in all the movements, he aligns himself with the integrationists. He calls for Reform Judaism to return to the spirit of our 1885 Pittsburgh Platform in three ways:

These three commitments of Reform Judaism — reason and criticism, the secular dimension of the culture and the autonomy of the individual — secure the freedom of modern Jews. And they amount to a Judaism that has profound support in our tradition.

In the end, Neusner states that if Reform Judaism did not exist, we, as American integrationist Jews would be forced to invent it.

Enjoy the article, see if it resonates with you, and let me know what you think.

02 October 2009

The Struggle for Jewish Identity as Seen on Film

A. O. Scott (the New York Times film reviewer) has the beginnings of an interesting article which will appear on Sunday, but came in the electronic movie reviews today. Beginnings, because I am not sure that he gets anywhere. Contemplating his own Jewish heritage, he looks at recent movies with explicit, implicit, or referential Jewish themes - Inglorious Basterds, Funny People, and A Serious Man. All he seems to come up with is that it is ok to make fun of Jewish identity. I would love to hear where he, self-described as a the son of Jewish socialist, finds himself and how he sees or does not see himself in this struggle.

(On a related note, if anyone has seen A Serious Man - supposedly a retelling of the Job story with three Rabbis in the role of the ineffective comforters - I would love to hear about it. Please comment here.)

25 September 2009

A (Reform) Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

A college student whom I greatly admire, often disagree with, but am proud to say that I got to know at Kutz - the Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, has posted about the Reform movement's lack of resource commitment to our college membership on his blog: The Reform Shuckle. It is worth the read - and even more worth our support as Reform Jews and members of the URJ.

Yes, Jews Believe That Too

As it often does for its Friday Jewish World subject, the URJ's Ten Minutes of Torah picked up an editorial from the New Jersey Jewish News (this time the editorial, rather than Andrew Silow-Carroll's piece). The editor makes a point that we have been making here at the Temple for quite some time - modern Judaism encompasses many different theologies: skeptics and strict atheists are also welcome. I would add what I often say - it's ok to doubt God, but it's not Jewish to ignore the concept. In Rabbi Arthur Waskow's words, we are Godwrestlers. You can't sit this one out - either because you are comfortable with the God-concept that you had in third grade, or you rejected any God concept in high school.

22 September 2009

Why Are Jews Liberals? Because They Are Jews.

Several congregants called my attention to the September 10th Op-Ed piece by Norman Podhoretz in the Wall Street Journal. In short, Podhoretz - a noted Conservative with a capital "C" politically - decries the fact that American Jews so firmly identify (and vote) with the Democratic party. His postulate is that American Jews have replaced Judaism with Liberalism as their religion. His hope is that disillusionment with the Obama administration's Israel policies will bring America's Jews where they rightfully belong - to political conservatism and the Republican Party.

Notwithstanding my own political beliefs, I have three criticisms of Podhoretz' reasoning:

1) The Fallacy that Orthodox Judaism is "Torah True" - One of his points is that the group that is most "true" to Judaism are the Orthodox whom one tends to find, certainly on the spectrum of social issues, farther to the right. The myth is that Orthodox Judaism represents a constant in Jewish history, rather than an attempt to freeze Judaism at the moment just before Jews were emancipated and freed from the ghettos of Europe. It is the Reform (and around the world Progressive) belief that Judaism has and always will change and progress. The Torah demands animal sacrifice, the stoning of witches, and a tithing of all produce - neither we nor the Orthodox are this "Torah True".

2) The Fallacy that Jewish Values are Particularistic - One of the principal places in which differences can be found between liberal Jews (both religiously and politically) and conservative (politically; religiously most often Orthodox) is the understanding of which mitzvot are particularistic - meant for Jews alone; and which are universal. Put simply, when "Love your neighbor as yourself" applies not just to the people of your particular community - be it Syrian, Williamsburg, or Bobover, you might feel more inclined to support public education and less to want to siphon public money into private religious schools. Podhoretz takes this to the nth degree when he equates Jewish values with who "our true friends" are. "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt" does not mean be paranoid that everyone is out to get you, rather it is the very reason that Jews (as Podhoretz laments) earn like the wealthiest of Americans and vote like the poorest.

3) The Fallacy that Liberals Hate the US Constitution - It is a straw man argument to say that because liberals, in Podhoretz's words ,"mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind" that they are committed to the overthrow of the American way of life. Rather, liberals feel that we need to continually hold up our society to the mirror of the Constitution - to make sure that we are maintaining the ideals upon which our Republic stands. After all, the most recently proposed changes to that document (outlawing flag burning, defining when life begins, limiting marriage) were not from the liberal side.

I can only hope that Podhoretz is wrong and that American Jews will continue to heed the prophetic voice of our tradition. As we will read from Isaiah on Monday morning for the Yom Kippur morning haftarah:

Is this the fast that I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58)

24 August 2009

Kol haKavod to a congregant - and a challenge to you

I received this e-mail from a congregant last week. A mazal tov to him for his social justice actions and passed on to you as an encouragement to use your voice...

Dear friends,

Today I visited my congressman's local office, for the first time
ever. I went to personally discuss my reasons for supporting major
health-care reform. Rep. Lance is a Republican, but so far he is not
a hard-liner. I thought it was worth a few minutes of my time to make
a personal appeal.

I had a ten-minute discussion with a staffer, in which I laid out my
key reasons for supporting reform, and in particular a public option.
The staffer listened well, and told me something about NJ law which I
didn't know. (See below if you are interested.) He also told me the
congressman opposed the public option, because he thought that would
hurt the private insurers and eventually could lead to a single-payer
system. I told him I understood that reasoning, but disagreed with
the assumption that a single-payer system is undesirable.

I also left a sheet I got from following the link below. It contains
some boilerplate, but also has a box for personal comments, which I
filled up.


I encourage you to represent your views, whatever they may be, to your
representative. Take your kids!

31 July 2009

Life Partners (in crime?)

Members of the congregation have requested to see the article in the July 17, 2009 Courier-News that featured Michelle and I. (Click on the "Courier-News" above to link to the article)

30 July 2009

“You must reprove your kin, lest you bear their sin yourself.” – Leviticus 19:17

I sent the following as an Op-Ed submission to the Courier-News and Star Ledger this week. It was printed as a letter in the Courier.

It is always awkward – and sometimes painful – to see a member of one’s own identity group splashed all over the headlines. A natural first reaction is to bury the head deep in the sand and hope that it will all go away. Yet, when a member of another group does flagrant wrong or speaks words of hate, we are often the first to ask members of that group to repudiate and disavow – not only the hateful words or wrongful actions, but the individual as well.

I can do no less, as a Rabbi and member of the Jewish community, than to do that which I would expect of others. The ancient sage Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.” We are commanded, as Jews, time after time in our Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Is our neighbor only the person who lives next door? Who dresses, acts, and speaks in the same manner? No, we modern and progressive Jews, who have accepted the benefit of the Enlightenment - to live among those of different creeds and heritage – extend the name of neighbor to each and every member of the human race.

Last Friday night, at our Shabbat service, I took the opportunity of our weekly Torah discussion to lay out this case before my congregation. As modern Reform Jews, we have explicitly rejected the insular communities that care only for their own welfare, in favor of living in the world, not outside of it. In Nedarim 28a, The Talmud, the basic text of Rabbinic Judaism, states the concept of dina demalkhuta dina – the law of the land is the law. This means that when Jews live in a country they are obliged to live by its laws. We take this further to mean that we are obliged to be active, intelligent and informed citizens. Problems with the government are dealt with by the ballot box, the legislatures, and the courts, not by back room deals and bribery. I say again, Judaism does not in any way condone bribery or corruption in a free and democratic society with legitimate redresses for grievances. Further, by the words from Leviticus above – that we are commanded to reprove our community members when they do wrong - we are compelled to speak out publicly and say, should these rabbis and community members so recently in the news be guilty of such acts, they are not acting in accord with Jewish law or custom. In fact, they act directly contrary to dina demalkhuta dina when they break the laws of the communities they have chosen to live in.

Lest we bear that sin upon ourselves as well, we all must speak out against it – and repudiate and disavow those who would break the law and take refuge in their Judaism.

23 July 2009

On the other hand...

Our Temple has been privileged to host three teen-age members of our sister congregation in Budapest, Szim Salom, for the past week. The three had just finished participating in the Reform movement's national leadership academy at Kutz Camp. We gave them a chance to rest, recoup, clean their laundry, and visit the heck out of New York City.

I took the three girls out to lunch today (for some real American pizza) before they left us to return to Budapest. During our conversation, they told me that anti-semitism is a growing problem in Hungary and on the rise in Europe. Each of them said their parents' story resonated with what I have heard from many Hungarian Jews - that their parents, survivors of the Holocaust, did not tell them that they were Jews until they were much older. These students, members of a Progressive congregation who gave up part of their summer to learn about Judaism in the United States, are being raised by those parents in a much more consciously Jewish manner. The repercussion? They are facing anti-semitism in their schools and in their society. The word "Jew" is a not particularly flattering descriptor and incidents of political uses of anti-semitism are on the rise.

These are strong, confident Jewish young adults and I wish for them a life where they can be proud Hungarians and proud Jews. I hope that Hungary realizes what they have in this generation and works to protect and nurture them.

20 July 2009

A Re-emergence of Judaism in Poland?

There is an interesting article on the Jewish Telegraph Agency today about Poles finding out about their Jewish roots. In my observation, Poles are in the place that many Germans were 10 - 20 years ago. When I was in graduate school, I studied with a non-Jewish German student who was the grandchild of a Nazi-era politician but was studying Jewish history. She was one of a number of her generation who wanted to study Judaism seriously. Now, she is a noted professor of the Holocaust in Germany. I also studied with a Pole who had emigrated to the US after fleeing Communist Poland. He and his friends would go into old Jewish cemeteries and clean them up.

The article has an interesting quote from former Polish President Kwasniewski which indicates how Poles are opening up to the idea that Jews and Judaism are a part of Polish culture. It reminds me of when the Confirmation class used to travel through Lublin and we found a small museum of the Old City of Lublin. The museum consisted mainly of pictures of the Jewish ghetto taken before the war with the sounds of what it might have been like played in the background. All the signs were in Polish and museum curators were always surprised when we came in. They said that this was a museum not for tourists, but for Poles, to remind them what Lublin (and Poland) used to be - where two nations lived together - the Poles and the Jews.

It is nice to see the beginning of an understanding that the Jews might have been Poles as well (and vice versa).

Krakow - we still go there every year on the Confirmation trip. It is a lovely city - but there is no current Jewish life, despite the fact that a huge Jewish cultural festival (referenced in the article) is held there every year. Warsaw - we haven't been to in a number of years, but there is a revival of Jewish culture there now, including a Progressive congregation with an American Rabbi. We may be heading back some year soon.

04 June 2009

Children of Abraham

Apropos of President Obama's speech in Cairo this morning, I just finished reading my former professor, Dr. Reuven Firestone's book, An Introduction to Islam for Jews. (You may remember the article his wife, Rabbi Ruth Sohn, wrote for Reform Judaism magazine about his sabbatical in Cairo.) I recommended the book to my Tuesday morning class soon after I received it, but now I had a chance to read it and can fill in a few more details.

In 2003, Dr. Firestone participated with a noted Islamic scholar, Khalid Duran on the Ktav series, Children of Abraham, which created two books - An Introduction to Islam for Jews by Khalid and An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims by Firestone. The idea was that members of each community would reach across to explain their community to the other - the Jewish Rabbi for the Muslim community; the Muslim scholar for the Jews. I read Duran's book, for our class on the Koran and found it interesting, but a little dense. It also lost a bit in translation - that is from Islam to Judaism and vice versa. This new book (picture above) takes the opposite tack (a Jew explains Islam for Jews) and along the way fills an interesting gap - somewhere between Jewish Lights' How to Be a Perfect Stranger (a basic guide for someone wishing to visit the house of worship or religious ceremony of another faith - I highly recommend it) and an academic tome on Islamic history or the theology of Islam or a political science treatise on the Middle East.

Dr. Firestone's conceit is to humanize Muslims through Jewish language and concepts - giving a basic outline of the history and development of Islam and its current practices and practioners, while comparing commonalities - for example, the pillar of Islam known as zakat - the mandated giving of charity and the Jewish custom of tzedakah. In truth, he may be in danger of being called an apologist by those who are not ready to hear that there are extremists and extreme texts both in Judaism and the Tanach and in Islam and the Koran. But, as a non-Muslim, he also runs the danger of his explanations being disputed and dismissed (as he was for his lecture in Cairo in 2007 - for more see my sermon on the subject) by the community on the other side. Balancing on this tightrope, Dr. Firestone is carried through by his passion to convey the love that he has for Islam, for Islamic culture and history, and for the friends that he has made throughout the Islamic world. For those who know little about Islam and would like a basic history as well as background, the book is an easy read. For those who know a little bit, perhaps have looked at the Koran in translation, it is also a useful summation of different areas. If you do read it, please let me know what you think.

11 May 2009

The Return of the Golem

There was a fascinating feature piece in the New York Times this morning about the return of the famous Golem of Prague. The Golem, of course, has a long history with Temple Sholom - the story goes that in the middle of the night, Rabbi Goldman would take the Confirmation class (and even the adult Confirmation class, when they went) to the cemetery in Prague and tell them the story of the Golem. For the three or four years that I took the Confirmation class went to Prague, we would also tell them this story. Invariably, a number of the members of the class would ask if they could climb up the ladder (pictured in the photo to the left, behond the Confirmation class of 2006) to the attic of the Altneuschul, where the Golem is rumored to be stored. Since they all survived, you can guess that we didn't let them. Although I love the Golem story (which many claim is the origin of the idea of robots, via Capek's classic story RUR), my favorite story about the Golem's creator, Rabbi Judah Loew (known in Jewish circles by the acronym the Maharal) is related to his statue near the town hall, where a bearded and wise old Rabbi studying his texts has a naked woman with a rose clinging to him. Supposedly, the woman is the angel of death in diguise, seeking to distract the Maharal from his study, so he will be vulnerable to death. Not many places you can see a statue of a Rabbi in a world capital.

There is also an article from JTA about Rabbi Loew's 400th anniversary and the Golem. In it they quote one of the leaders of Prague's Progressive Jewish community, Peter Gyori, who was in school at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles at the same time as Michelle and I.

10 April 2009

Pesach Chatter on Facebook

Just two notes from the wonderful world of Facebook and kitniyot:

A colleague wrote about a congregant posting on Facebook that s/he was making peanut butter and jelly on matzah. I made a suggestion to my colleague and shared this with Michelle who said the same debate was happening on one of our congregant's Facebook pages. One friend had said that matzah with peanut butter was very tasty. Another friend replied that peanut butter was "technically chametz". Luckily, your Rabbi is Facebook savvy and was able to swing into action. For the curious, my answer about peanut butter and "kitniyot" is detailed below:

Just to clarify - peanut butter is not "technically chametz" it is of a second category "kitniot". Kitniot - according to the Orthodox - are ok to own during Pesach, but not to eat. "Kitniot" are those beans and legumes (such as peanuts) that, supposedly, expand - usually when cooked. Because they expand - which is similar to rising, to make a fence around the law, some Jews (notably Ashkenazic) banned them during Pesach. Modern Jews, including the Conservative movement in Israel, have come out against the kitniot ban, as they feel it distracts from the actual prohibitions of Pesach.

26 March 2009

A Little Orange Zest for a Zissen Pesach...

The Jewish Forward carried an interesting opinion piece on two recent feminist additions to the Seder table - the orange on the seder plate and the Miriam's cup or (as we prefer at our table) the Miriam's pitcher. I encourage you to take a look at the article and consider ALL the symbols present on your seder table. They are there on purpose - to provoke questions that demand answers and discussion.

27 February 2009

Friday - Into Every Life a Little Rain Must Fall..

Good job on the prayers. As you may have noticed, we (along with Mishkan T'filah) have recently added in the line to the g'vurot that says - mashiv haruach u'morid hagashem - God who returns the wind and brings down the rain. Now, in the rainy season in Israel, it is raining, and windy, and hailing (occasionally). Preparing for Shabbat, we visited the machane yehudah - the Jewish open air market. In some ways, it is the same place that we shopped every Friday fifteen years ago. In an important way, it is not. Our weekly stop, a restaurant in the shuk that we called Kebab Elvis for the tile picture on the wall, has been gone for almost a decade. Alas, we miss our waiter Sami and hope he is doing well. As Shabbat is about to begin in this holy city, we will be travelling to Tel Aviv - specifically Rishon Letzion - to be the guests of a Reform congregation there.

Shabbat Shalom from ir hakodesh - the Holy City.

26 February 2009

Thursday - The Hundredth Anniversary of the CIty of Rebirth

Today I learned that the name of the city of Tel Aviv does not come from some nearby spring (which would be ma'ayan, anyway) but is a Hebrew imagination of the title of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl's book, Alteneuland. In German, the title means "OldNewLand" - reflecting the irony of creating a new country which is also the revival of a nation formed 3,000 years before. in Hebrew Tel does not only mean "hill", but is the type of hill that archeologists call a "mound" - an agglomeration of historical strata one on top of the other. Aviv means "Spring" the season, and not the water source. Therefore, this city , founded one hundred years ago, quite consciously as the first Hebrew city in thousands of years, was named Tel Aviv - a new Spring flowering in the place of ancient history. This year - 2009 - Tel Aviv celebrates its first hundred years, and our convention had an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the city we did not live in for our year in Israel.

When Michelle and I were living in Israel - fifteen years ago - for our first year of Hebrew Union College, we lived in Jerusalem. We travelled around the country - mostly to sites of historic and Reform Jewish interest. Tel Aviv did not seem to be one of these. Instead, Tel Aviv was the place that we went when we needed a break from Israel and wanted a taste of the U.S. We would hop on a bus and head for the Hard Rock Cafe - for a cheeseburgand onion rings that tasted like home.

We started at Mishkenot Ruth Daniel - the community center in the south of Tel Aviv created by Rabbi Meir Azari - one of the foremost among the incredibly creative, dynamic, and indefatiguable Rabbis building the Reform movement in Israel. Along with Beit Daniel, the center in the north of the city, Rabbi Azari has reached out to the mainly secular Tel Aviv Jews and created a place where they can discover and engage in a new form (to them) of Judaism. Mishkenot Ruth (a short walk from the Mediterranean) is also a youth hostel and will definitely be a stop on the eventual Temple Sholom Israel trip. After a short lunch and introduction by Rabbi Azari (including singing), the mayor of Tel Aviv Ron Huldai welcomed us and then spoke about his and his city's relationship to Reform Judaism in Israel. Then, it was off to become more familiar with the city. Michelle and I took a trip through the different markets of Tel Aviv - from the furniture market near where the Saloniki Jews built the port of Tel Aviv, to the Levinsky market with the freshest spices, dried fruits and cheeses, to the Carmel open air market which had everything from Hebrew Coca-Cola t-shirts through flowers and gummy worms - but most impressively, the reddest and sweetist looking strawberries you have ever seen.

In the evening, we learned about the cultural life of Israel, getting a sneak preview of the original Israeli version of the HBO-optioned A Touch Away and then watching Not by Bread Alone - a play created and performed by deaf and blind actors at Nalaga'at Center. We ended the evening with a (too early for the night life) dinner at the hottest spot in Tel Aviv, the up-scale Tel Aviv Port.

25 February 2009

Wednesday - Tzedek Tzedek Tirdafnu

The morning began on an (early and) incredible note. It so happened that the CCAR conference coincided with Rosh Chodesh Adar (the first day of the month of Adar) and the 20th anniversary of Women at the Wall (Nashim baKotel). Women at the Wall is a group of courageous Israeli women of all religious stripes who are non-violently demanding their right to pray at what has been considered the holiest site in Judaism – the Western Wall. The site – by government decree – is presided over by an ultra-Orthodox group that demands anyone approaching the wall be dressed modestly (covered up to arms and legs), wear a kippah if a man, and separated by a mechitzah. The men have the larger, well appointed side – with two Arks, and the women have the tinier side. Once each Hebrew month, for the past 20 years, this informal group has been meeting to pray at the Wall. Since the Orthodox consider women praying a disgrace, their voices a sin and distraction to male prayer, and their reading of Torah a desecration of God’s name, this act is quite bold. In the past Women at the Wall have not only been cursed and shouted at, but angry ultra-Orthodox men have thrown chairs and even excrement over the mechitzah at them. The dispute has gone to the Supreme Court which demanded that the government find equal access for the women. They have been given access to the southern section of the Western Wall – which is a newly excavated archeological site, hidden from the rest of the Wall by a ramp to the Temple Mount. Still, separate but equal is not equal, and the women begin their prayer in the back of the women’s section and then move to read Torah at the other site. This morning, over 100 women were joined by three or four dozen men – standing behind the mechitzah – as they welcomed the new month. I was proud to be there in support. Standing behind the mechitzah, watching the women pray through a grate, I imagined what it was like for Orthodox women on the other side. I was filled with anger at the Orthodox man who shouted at them to be quiet when their singing rose above a whisper, furious at the yeshivah boys who laughed and leaned over the mechitzah to take pictures with their cellphones, sorry for the female shoteret (guard) who also yelled at them to be quiet, and proud of my colleagues and their friends as they continued to pray and take joy in the beginning of Adar.

After a brief business meeting – electing a new Board, and hearing the grim news from URJ president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, we divided up into several groups to learn about social justice issues in Israel. Michelle and I went with Keren b’Kavod (Funds with Respect), a hands-on social justice group created by the Israeli Religious Action Center. (The IRAC does somewhat in Israel what the RAC does in Washington, except the IRAC does a lot more suing all the way up the Supreme Court. They not only fight for the rights of Progressive Jews, but for new immigrants, secular Jews, even Jews of other religious stripes. Think of them as the ACLU of Israel, with a Reform bent.) Keren b’Kavod goes to S’derot and patronizes the local shops when everyone else in Israel is scared away by the bombs from Gaza. They then donate the food purchased to local shelters. Keren b’Kavod ?. Keren b’Kavod also partners with Mesila in Tel Aviv to help the foreign workers and their families and those awaiting refugee status. Mesila was created by the Tel Aviv municipality to deal with the 30,000 foreign workers within its boundaries. The story is simple – after the Palestinians living in the territories were no longer allowed to cross the border to work (after the first and second intifadas), Israel still needed workers. With the huge influx of Russian immigrants after the Soviet Union, they were needed quickly to build housing and support structures. After this crisis, most of the male foreign workers were sent home. Many of the women stayed, especially those with children. Now, they work twelve hour days and have to leave their children with “babysitters” who house two to three dozen children in as many playpens, where they can’t move, don’t receive any human contact, and wait all day for their mothers to return. Mesila tries to create better kindergartens, help the mothers take better care of their children, and supports internal community support systems. After touring the Mesila offices, we were brought to a formerly upscale shoe shopping area in Tel Aviv by the old bus station. Now, hundreds of foreign workers sit in their own groups without work. Similar numbers of refugees, awaiting formal status declaration by the UN, sit in a park. We met with a man who had walked from Darfur in the Sudan to Israel and had created a group called B’nei Darfur to shelter homeless refugees, advocate for their rights, and educate the adults and children to become a part of Israeli society. None of these workers or refugees are Jewish, and so they fall into a gap in the limited Israeli immigration law.

In the evening, many of the members of my class which started in Israel together in 1993 and were ordained in 1998 got together for dinner. We shared the experiences of the day. One classmate had met with students on a Reform mechinah – a “gap” program for students between high school and army service. A few had traveled with Rabbis for Human Rights. Some had learned about women’s issues in Israel. All of us had done things beyond a normal Israel tour and learned more depth about the real Israel.

The day ended with a special screening of Zrubavel at the Cinamatheque. Sort of Israel’s Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cinamatheque sits just across the Ben Hinnom valley from the Old City. The film was written and directed by a 33 year-old Ethiopian immigrant. The story – both funny and tragic – was a cross between the dilemmas that Tevye wrestled with in Fiddler on the Roof, the immigrant issues of West Side Story, and the real life of the urban city dweller of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. To many of us, it seemed a scathing indictment of what Israeli society had both done and failed to do for the Ethiopian olim (immigrants). But, as the writer/director said to us after the showing, he was trying to show the commonality of all immigrant experiences – whether the Russians or Moroccans to Israel, Arabs to Europe, or Irish to America. His point was that we have all been through this process – and it is something that ties us together.

24 February 2009

Tuesday – Travelling with the CCAR Board (in process)

Much of Tuesday is classified. We met with MK (Knesset member) Colette Avital. A longtime Labor party stalwart, she gave us her take on the current Israeli political situation and what may happen. In her view, Israel is transfixed with the security issues. Other pressing problems – the economy, the educational system, the long-planned Constitution – were all ignored by the press and the voters. Labor tried to bring out their agenda during the election, but was given short shrift. With everyone focused on Hamas, it was an easy win for the right. Her fear – a new Israeli generation is growing up hating and mistrusting the Arabs, replacing what had been only anger and fear.

After our meeting, we were transferred to the Israeli Foreign Ministry (In Hebrew, the literal translation is the Exterior Ministry.) We were ushered to the crisis center – below the building, beyond a bomb blast door, to a room with clocks set at different times around the world. Everything was off the record, but suffice it to say that Israel takes very seriously the threat of a nuclear Iran and is desperate for consistent help from the West in reigning Iran in.

Lunch was

23 February 2009

Monday - Going Up to Jerusalem

After a full day and night of travel, arrival is often exhausting. Less so when you are energized by where you are going – or returning to. I had been back to Israel once, since I lived there for my first year at Hebrew Union College. Michelle and I had not been back together since then – the year that we met. After fifteen years, every city changes – and Jerusalem is on the fast track. Barely had we dropped off our luggage at the hotel, when we turned around to hit the Midrachov (read “pedestrian mall”). In Jerusalem, when you say “midrachrov”, it means the shopping area around Ben Yehudah street where, it is said, you will meet everyone you know. We found our way quite easily (although distances had expanded and hills gotten steeper) to Moshiko, my favorite shwarma place and perennial first stop. Shwarma is the Middle-Eastern version of the Greek Gyro (or the Turkish Doner Kebab). Slices of meat, usually lamb, but sometimes mixed with beef are stacked up in a big column with a spit through the middle and rotated around a heater coil. Sometimes an onion sits on top. The fat and spices drip down and flavor the meat. Using a long flat knife, the server cuts off thin strips of the meat from top to bottom which are placed on a pita – either regular sized or huge. Inside, you can also have chips (French fries to us), humus, Israeli salad (cucumbers and tomatoes), onions, lettuce, pickled cabbage, red or green hot sauce, Israeli pickles – and much more. I went with the yellow curry sauce (which has been renamed mango something – go figure), the hot sauce, onions and the shwarma. One bite and I was back in Israel – which was convenient. While enjoying dinner, several people I knew strolled by. Just like going back to your parents’ house with Mom’s cooking on the table and all your friends outside – going up to Jerusalem is like coming home.