31 July 2009

My Heart is in the East

Beginning to think about my return to Brooklyn during this, my last Shabbat in Jerusalem for the summer, I am convinced more than ever of what America lacks that Israel has: a sense of purpose. Say what you will about the insanity of many of the political sectors; disagree vehemently (as you should) with policy, depending on your point of view; but one of the characteristics of life here that I mourn each time I leave is the remarkable sense of purpose of Israeli society. In its disunity, it is one. The "idea" of Israel, on some levels realized and on another so far from being truly realized, plays a great role in this.

Fridays are a good example to use. Like lots of people here, I buy a few papers on Fridays, and then put myself down somewhere--a cafe, my couch in the apartment--to read broadly about the week's events and immerse myself in the debate about the country's future. When I went for a walk to pick up a few things before Shabbat, cafes and restaurants were full with people reading, writing, talking--animated by the issues that animated them: the Netanyahu-Obama relationship; Rahm Emanuel's Jewish identity; the fate of African refugee children who came to Israel with their families seeking asylum; whether Israel should sell public land to private developers; Iran's nuclear ambitions; Fatah; Hamas; the debate over the ethical and moral dimensions in the Gaza War; Syria; Lebanon. The list is endless.

But it's not just that the list is endless--it's that the society on the whole is engaged in a way as a collectivethat we continue to lack in the United States.

We felt it briefly as a nation in the run up to the November election and basked in the glow of Obama's victory, feeling "as a people" that we had accomplished something great as a country--which we had.

But how soon as it all devolved into the insistent individuality and rampant, ugly partisanship over everything from health care to the environment to the bailout for banks and the auto companies and now, to the ridiculous public "concern" with Professor Gates and Officer Crowley. Reading my papers in Aroma on Emek Refaim yesterday, I looked up at a couple of "good-looking" people on Fox News, "analyzing" President Obama's first six months in office. America: six months presiding over a neglected nation and our attention-deficit starved populace needs an update!

I think Obama should give the nation his six-month update of us. What have we done as a nation to truly advance affordable health-care? What have we done to answer the call to service? What have we done to let our elected officials know that things need to be different? That business as usual in our massive nation can no longer continue? Congress has dug in its heels and asserting its opposition because--big surprise--those elected officials new and old are interested first and foremost in protecting their jobs. The news channels fan flames of meaningless controversy because--big surprise--it sells ads. And the people--the people!--shopped like crazy at Memorial Day sales and July 4th specials because it's what we're best at--turning collective narratives of sacrifice and independence into commerce, selfish pursuit, and profit.

The 12th century Spanish Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi once famously wrote, "My heart is in the East, and I am in the West. How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?" And I take this line with me each time I prepare to leave Israel. The power of its geography, the force of the collective narratives that guide its inhabitants; the intimacy and urgency of the issues draw its inhabitants into the project of its present and future; these are all among the most powerful forces one can encounter in life. It's certainly true for me, which is why I keep coming back.

This summer has me more convinced than ever that while it's true that our American president must continue to push hard for concessions on both sides of the political spectrum for peace, and that this, arguably, can be one of America's greatest contributions to Israel's future, the collective consciousness of a society deeply engaged in its future has much to teach us in America.

30 July 2009

I Love My Life

Tisha B'Av. Jerusalem. 5769.

When I was hear as a rabbinic student in 1989, I met a young Palestinian kid from an East Jerusalem neighborhood who was a kind of pied piper for other Palestinian youth to get involved in peace and dialogue projects. As a result, he met several Americans, wound up in the U.S. for high school and college and graduate school and is now back in Jerusalem, working as a social worker for the prison system and kids at risk. He's one of the most warm-hearted and generous human beings I've ever met in my life and as a religious person, I find him so humbling. I offer my prayers and study of text and teaching; he, not much interested in faith, is keeping kids off the street, helping criminals rehabilitate their lives, and all the while dreaming of a better life for himself and his family.

We met today, on Tisha B'Av, which seemed appropriate. Last night at the Tayelet to hear Lamentations, an early rise for services and more prayer, but since I actually don't fast on this day, I figured it was a chance to catch a quick meal with him--we haven't seen each other in a long time. He was quick to invite me to his favorite hummus restaurant in East Jerusalem off Saladin Street, in the midst of a busy and friendly section of the city that, sadly, is virtually off limits to most Israelis. As we walked the streets, having met at Damascus Gate, people said hello, his cell phone rang incessantly (one prisoner has been transferred from prison to prison for fighting with everyone in each place and my friend said, "Well, as I told his father, 'I can't help your son until he decides to help himself!'")and a side of Jerusalem I rarely visit was waking up, not unlike the side of Jerusalem I came from.

Here there was talk of a pedestrian mall; there, across the way, talk of an apartment complex that would become a modern shopping center. In the window of one bookstore was Walter Lacquer's "History of Zionism." We talked about Sheikh Jarra, Ras al Amud, A-Tur, neighborhoods much in the news for American Jewish right-wing investment as the last acts of attempted hegemony over all of Jerusalem. My friend laughed in frustrated disbelief that this was necessary at all.

The hummus was delicious. The pita fresh. I wasn't ambivalent about eating on Tisha B'Av and somehow felt that breaking bread with a friend on the other side of the city we both love and claim as home was restorative to a torn history among us. He invited me for coffee in his office after, overlooking the Mount of Olives, Mount Scopus, and Wadi al Joz, speaking about the archaeological sifting project we took part in earlier in the summer, shedding light on material from the Second Temple period that had been removed to garbage heaps by the Muslim authorities on the Temple Mount in order to attempt to erase any history of Jewish presence in ancient Jerusalem. More frustrated laughter. "Why are we erasing history exactly?" he asked. "The stories we tell of our past give us our life!"

Over coffee I met the other social workers--Jerusalem municipality civil servants, over-worked and underpaid like all civil servants. And I compiled a list of organizations to help and support. Battered women's shelters; at-risk kids; AIDS education. The list goes on and on in both sides of Jerusalem. The needs are great everywhere. Past lamentations mingling in the hot sun with present day cries of pain for a better life. "I have to fill out paperwork soon, Andy, to report on my clients' progress, but let me first tell you about my house."

Far from Jerusalem, a drive into the West Bank, my friend has built a weekend home, after saving for years to buy a piece of land. "I am learning to plant," he said. And went on to describe, with his paperwork calling, the three kinds of lemon trees, three kinds of orange trees, mango, melon, mint and parsley that grows now, in the desert, with the drip irrigation he installed. We made plans for me to bring Rachel and the girls next summer.

"You can stand on the roof and scream whatever you want and no one will hear you," he said, laughing.

What do you scream? I asked.

"Oh, that's easy," he said, eyes smiling. "I love my life."

29 July 2009

Maybe, Peace

Erev Tisha B'Av. Jerusalem. 5769.2009

Aluf Benn's article in this week's New York Times, "Why Won't Obama Talk to Israel?" raises some good points. If the President is willing to go to Cairo to address the Arab and Muslim world, doesn't Israel deserve a visit, too? It's an emotional appeal the reaches deep into the hearts of Israelis, and Benn points out well that for all the years of Clinton and Bush, Israelis felt that they received special treatment, which of course infuriated the Arab and Muslim world.

He wrote:

"First, in the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention. Memories of State Department “Arabists” leading American policy in the Middle East were erased. The White House coordinated its policy with Jerusalem, and stayed out of the way when Israel embarked on controversial military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza. This approach infuriated America’s Arab and European allies, which blamed Washington for one-sidedness — something they were willing to forgive of Bill Clinton but not of George W. Bush."

The President's attempts now are to set another tone, to prove to the Arab and Muslim world that he can be an honest broker, to attempt to balance the relationship in order to gain the trust of Palestinian leadership and the Arab and Muslim world in order to move peace prospects to a new level.

I think from the President's perspective, this is a transparent negotiating tool that is wise to use right now because gaining the trust of as many parties as possible for a regional peace is essential; and, yes, soon the President should visit Israel. But consider the other potential pitfalls of a "too-soon" visit to Jerusalem.

1. The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama doesn't seem like a very warm or trusting one. Calling David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel "self-hating Jews" as Netanyahu allegedly did, only fans the flames of a tense relationship. The President of the United States can't very well visit a foreign country only to be attacked days later by his host. As in internal Jewish fight, this is totally embarrassing for us. I'd guess that there is more to work out in their relationship before that visit can be made.

2. Settler outposts. Obama has made much of stopping construction of settler outposts, settler expansions, and building in East Jerusalem. Yesterday's papers reported that the police finally dismantled one such illegal outpost near Hebron yesterday, only to have the settler movement proudly declare it will turn around and rebuild it today. On the other hand, today's paper reports, that as the result of George Mitchell's visit, Netanyahu has agreed to freeze construction of 900 homes in East Jerusalem. The situation remains fluid and somewhat unstable and the President cannot and should not risk his credibility by arriving here without progress already on its way. That's what diplomats are for! And maybe is an indication that Obama's tough stance is beginning to get results. Jews do not need to live in A-Tur and Sheikh Jarra.

3. Palestinian leadership and infrastructural changes are really beginning to evolve. That seems to be the feeling here in Jerusalem and that should continue as well. Most agree that the biggest problem with Camp David in 2000 was that Arafat walked away from peace; the prevailing wisdom is that the Olmert government at Annapolis offered even more but he himself lacked the credibility to deliver to the Israeli public and the Palestinians were caught up in their own internal war between Fatah and Hamas, ongoing to this day. As Olmert asked recently in the Washington Post, "it would be worth exploring" why the Palestinians refused his offer. But what is finally happening is that roadblocks are being lifted, the Palestinian economy is attempting to come back, and good faith efforts are being made. Ironically, Netanyahu's idea of building peace "from the ground up," very much in line with Obama's community organizing philosophy, may be working! See Ari Shavit's take on it in today's Haaretz.

On the other hand, an Obama visit could have the potential to be galvanizing. Among those in the peace camp, they are lonely. They could use their leader (Obama that is) to visit Israel and make a speech, "work his magic" as people here say, and inspire people to move in the right direction. It is, after all, what he does so well. Last night when I came home from the Tayelet or Promenade overlooking Jerusalem where we heard the reading of the Book of Lamentations commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and 70 AD, I opened up the Times on line to see that the President went to North Carolina and then Virginia to sell his health care plan. It's important to remember to remind Israelis that President Obama does have a country to run--we have enormous problems in America, coming home to roost after decades of neglect--not unlike the Arab-Israeli conflict. And just as the President has hit the campaign trail again to sell Americans on the sacrifices we need to make to make our country better, so too do Israeli leaders need to do the same. Yet, how ironic that the man Aluf Benn is calling upon is not his own Prime Minister but the President of the United States!

An Obama speech in Jerusalem would be tremendous. No doubt about it. And at the right time it should happen. But my sense is that the President is waiting for Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate that they can get a handle on things before the President wades in directly. That is as it should be.

The Tayelet is in a border neighborhood of Talpiyot, next to Palestinian neighborhoods. As a public park which overlooks the entire city of Jerusalem, it is used by all its residents. So while hundreds of Jews gathered in circles small and large to read Lamentations, to remember historical tragedies while living as free people in their own land (thank God!) under their own rule (that's crucial to remember when commemorating Tisha B'Av), dozens of Palestinians shared the hill and barbecued their dinner. For those fasting, the smell of freshly cooked meat wasn't easy. But as the poetry of Lamentations was read, describing a destroyed Temple where sacrifices were no longer burned while the twin offerings of a Palestinian family's meal and Jewish prayers of longing and remembrance were uttered, there was something powerfully messianic about the moment--primarily due to the fact that it all went down peacefully.

As crazy as things are here, I have a sense that the exhaustion from all the killing these last several decades may have a chance to create an opening for another way of doing things--like guarded coexistence, and then, maybe, peace.

28 July 2009

Mekons in Brooklyn for Shabbos!

I'll be in Jerusalem, but for goodness sakes, if you can make it to see the Mekons on Saturday night in Brooklyn at the Bell House, you should.

Here's the information: The Mekons at the Bell House [149 Seventh St. at Third Avenue in Gowanus, (718) 643-6510], Friday, July 31, 7 pm. Tickets, $15.

In the Hands of the Young

One could easily argue that the battle for the future of Israel is in the hands of young people--the vast majority of those pushing forward in the illegal construction of outpost settlements are teens, albeit those encouraged and supported by their elders; soldiers struggling with the ethical dilemmas of their service as we learned about Sunday during our meetings with those from "Breaking the Silence;"and future leaders from the United States who take informational tours into Bethelehem, led by "Encounter."

Yesterday afternoon, I took a walk to a spot near the Prime Minister's house where a rally was set to take off in protest of George Mitchell's visit to Israel, delivering a message from President Obama that illegal settlement construction had to cease as a good-faith effort from Israelis to Palestinians. The thousand people or so who showed up would hear no such thing, and in fact represent a movement of young Israelis, spurred on by their rabbis, to move the conflict to a confrontation that is likely to only get worse.

Army and police presence, poised to keep the peace, spread throughout the neighborhood, and seemed to constitute nearly 20% of those present, adding to the theater of it all. Secular and jaded Israeli journalists snapped pictures of the protesters ("Barak Hussein Obama: No you can't!" read one sign, mocked by a photographer as he took the picture. "Israel will not submit!" read another sign, held by a man in his seventies, khaki pants, polo shirt, cellphone on one side of his belt, revolver on the other. Not a retiring sort.)

Those present gave the impression of social misfits, a troubling minority that nonetheless in the their vocal displays and willingness to fight for what they believe in, are pushing their agenda aggressively. One had a sense that this sector of Israeli society is a distinct minority, very much on the losing side of history. The forces aligned trying to achieve a real, substantive peace are much stronger than they are; and the even greater forces are the thousands of people who are in the middle--they walked past, drove past, rode on buses and taxis past the rally on to their normal lives, simply wanting peace and quiet, not grand religious battles for the "soul" or "sanctity" of the land. Walking back from the rally, most Jerusalemites were in stores, in restaurants, heading home from work. Living out their sacred duty of living in the land and speaking the sacred language of Hebrew with as much honor and genuineness as those fighting for their own future in front of the Prime Minister's house.

Earlier in the day we visited the Belz Hasidim Headquarters, a massive structure that can hold ten thousand men for prayer and other sacred occasions, a Hasidic community virtually destroyed in the Holocaust and rebuilt and revitalized completely here in Jerusalem in the last 40 years. Politics figures in their lives only in so far as military exemptions for yeshiva students and other social service subsidies are continued. In the meantime, learning and acts of lovingkindness are the height of their social agenda. The Fellows asked some great questions. Roles of women, why don't you serve in the IDF, and my favorite: "Don't you think $70 million was a lot to spend on this building when you could have given it tzedakah?"

The answer we received was great. "We expect this building to be standing in 500 years, serving this community. In the long-run, a $70 million investment comes out to very little money per member per day." The confidence of the Belz spokesman's statement, the long-view of his community's thriving vision for a Jewish future were actually quite beautiful. And on a certain level, very hard to argue with, since prayer, learning, and acts of lovingkindness have been the pillars of Jewish life for two thousand years. The link into longevity and continuity was absolute.

The young learn Torah, the young build settlements, the young fight to make peace. The older generation makes decisions--but only so long as it takes for the young to start making decisions for themselves, decisively, with the power transferred to them. From where I sit, I consider it my sacred duty as a rabbi to empower the young--it's their present already that is quickly becoming their future and our past.

27 July 2009


We spent some time yesterday at MEET, an inspiring and innovative program for Israeli and Palestinian teens who work together on technology projects, developing a common language of process and programming, founded by the tireless Anat Binur. 15 Israelis and 15 Palestinians are chosen each year and then meet at a lab on the Hebrew University campus where they are taught by instructors from M.I.T., where Anat is working on her doctorate. The kids were focused, professional, and rather than focusing on solving a problem like the two-state solution--a problem not of their own making--they are creating innovative networks, developing collaborative relationships, and working together in a context that, without the program, never could have possibly existed.

It was very eye-opening and inspiring of hope to witness contexts where the divide between Arab and Jewish youth could be bridged without the rhetoric of the conflict, giving participants the space to advance education and careers and build relationships that, in the best of all possible worlds, will be relationships they can take advantage of as the next generation to be leaders in this land. When peace comes, they won't be meeting one another for the first time but will have years of connection between them.

Check out the website here.

Last Friday night at Kol Haneshama, the Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, the community prayed Psalm 121 in Hebrew and then Rabbi Levi Kelman introduced in Arabic 20 Sisters from the Rosary Sisters of Syria and Lebanon, a school in East Jerusalem, who then sang Psalm 121 in Arabic. It was one of the most powerful spiritual expressions I've ever witnessed. And at the MEET session yesterday, I met two kids from East Jerusalem who go to Rosary Sisters School and told them how inspiring the experience was.

"I lift my eyes to the mountains, what is the source of my help? My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of Heaven and Earth."

To pray in this in the language of "conflict" as an act of peace and reconciliation is among the greatest blessings I've encountered in nearly 25 years of visits to Jerusalem.

Don't believe for a minute that there is not among the young and old here a great hope for peace.

26 July 2009

The Complex Journey of Serving

That was a restful month (spent in Jerusalem, where I will be until August 5th.)

The time away has been good. Restorative. And I appreciate that.

I've added a new practice to my Jewish spiritual life--minchah and maariv prayer on a daily basis, which at first was challenging to find the time for but now I find myself running to it, the language serving as a brief meditative interlude in my day. An escape from myself and a humbling offering of my being to life beyond myself. It's good.

I struggle with that, to tell you the truth, because there is, especially in a city of such fervent spiritual aspirations, the quality of "escape" to one's practice, the quality of "transcendence" which is both the goal and the abyss--the place one may strive to arrive at while not wholly losing oneself. Not that I'm worried about that. My evil inclination is strong enough to keep myself on the spot and anyway, only the worst angels would invite me in to their own fortress of among the ephemerally divine.

In my younger days, I withheld my practice because I didn't want to be like "those" who did it--there was real terror in my experience of strong practice. I was talking to an orthodox friend about this and he shared with me a story of his own--that when he was a young man he was once in a Talmud class with an important scholar and was making cracks about the text when the teacher said to him, "You make your jokes to cover up how much you love to do this." And I knew exactly what he meant. And when I heard that story this summer, that's when I decided to simply let go and be myself--a terrifying and liberating act.

I don't know a lot of Reform rabbis who pray three times a day, much less Reform communities that offer a minyan three times daily (or even once a day). So there is the communal loneliness of taking this on alongside a deepening and decidedly less lonely relationship with God. Ironic. But to tell you the truth, I more and more see myself not as a "Reform" rabbi but as a rabbi who works in a Reform synagogue, who is guided by liberal theological values, who has his practice (a work in progress, as it should be, right? "Reform is a verb," they used to say, afterall) while teaching others in his community at the varieties of levels and expressions of Jewish life as people choose. The titles don't really matter. The integrity of the process does. To quote a favorite passage from a rabbinic commentary about Abraham sacrificing Isaac: "It's not where you're going, it's how you get there."

So in my month off, in Jerusalem, a place where I feel so at home, I take upon myself new obligations while resting from the hard work of another year's professional obligations, preparing for, yet again, the complex journey of serving, with love and devotion, my community.

I have a lot of thoughts to share from the past month. Observations about life here in Israel (Obama, the ultra-orthodox, the Iranians, the health care debate from a distance) thoughts about denominations in general, the importance of pluralism in building Jewish life today, the Hebrew language, and the ways in which Jewish citizenship here in Israel is defined in a completely different way from Jewish citizenship in America, and what that means for us as a community.

So reader: I'm back from summer vacation. Looking forward to talking and learning with you again.