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.