21 August 2009

To Zion, In Mercy

Yesterday afternoon I met with a Jewish couple who live in Brooklyn, each on their second marriage, and they were looking for a rabbi to lead a small ceremony. We talked about their lives--their backgrounds, their past and present, their professions--and I noticed a fair amount of Jewish ambivalence in one. With permission, we opened up the conversation more to hear about personal grievances with the synagogue of their childhood; imposing parents; inconsistencies between Jewish values and the more materialistic values of this particular suburban synagogue in this particular period of time in this particular geographic region of the United States. As my methodology often is in these situations, I listen alot, provide sympathy for those who've had "bad" Jewish experiences, and with the other hand, extend a welcome and "defend" the synagogue as an idea that always holds out the promise of redemption. Jews are the wandering people, we like to say; and how often it can seem, sometimes, that they place they are purposely wandering from is the synagogue! Hebrew language, Hebrew culture, Jewish learning, art, history, contemporary Israel--there are so many ways for you to be a Jew, I said: don't let a set of bad experiences push you away. I get that institutions do that; but it doesn't mean we have to assume that it goes with the territory. We can and should be ever mindful of how are own actions, daily, set the tone for our best communal aspirations--welcome, wholeness, peace.

This morning in my prayers, while adding in the blessing for the new moon of Elul, I recited the following words from the prayerbook:

"Our God and God our ancestors, may the remembrance of us, our ancestors, of the Messiah son of David, of Jerusalem your holy city, and of all the people of the House of Israel, ascend and come and be accepted before you for deliverance and happiness, grace, kindness, mercy, for life and peace on this day of the New Moon. Remember us this day, Eternal our God, for happiness; be mindful of us for blessing; save us to enjoy life. With a promise of salvation and mercy, spare us and be gracious to us; have pity on us and save us for we look to you, for you are a gracious and merciful God and Ruler."

And then immediately following the additional prayer for the New Month, the usual prayers resume with the words, "May our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion. Blessed are you, Eternal One, who restores your divine presence to Zion."

I looked up from my bow (required as part of prayer choreography) and saw the מזרח, the small piece of art we keep on an eastern wall in our house to focus attention toward Jerusalem. I always think of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem at this point but this morning I thought of that other exile, when we in the Jewish community don't get it right. When through our own arrogance we turn people away. When our systems for conveying Torah values get subverted by other goals, less lofty, and as a result, we harm the very principles we're called upon to uphold.

We've all made those mistakes. Owning up to them is just a regular part of keeping our hearts and souls open to the values we are meant to represent.

Walking down 7th Avenue toward Shul this morning, I ran into another refuge, whose upbringing in a shul far from ours "turned him off" for a long, long time. It never ceases to amaze me how challenging it can be to enact prayerful words like "grace, mercy, happiness, blessing, and peace." It should be so easy! Words like that are supposed to roll of the tongue. But they get caught up in the machine, sent into exile as well, until we bring them back, put them in order, humble ourselves in their recitation, and restore them, along with the Source, to Zion, in mercy.

20 August 2009

Let's Get It Together, People!

Nathaniel Popper's coverage of the PR situation with birthright can be found HERE at the Forward.

It was also picked up by Ha'aretz and you can find that HERE.

Why did I get involved?

1. I believe in birthright and why mess it up?
2. I think the surest way to success with young Jews today is making a compelling case for what Judaism has to say about making the world a better place, a greener place, a more peaceful place, a more tolerant place, an affordably healthier place! When "selling it" at any cost puts you into bed with people who don't share those values, you shoot yourself in the foot. Seems unnecessary to me. And more is at stake than selling something we already know all about. The challenge now is inspiring participants to "give back" to the world by continuing their involvement and putting their newly inspired Jewish values into practice.

As for reaching birthright participants on our own, the Brooklyn Jews High Holy Day services, which is targeted toward that holy grail of a demographic, is half-subscribed already; contributions are being made via paypal; and returning 20-30 somethings are really excited about their participation.

In Yachad, our Hebrew school, the average age of our FULL-TIME faculty is well under 30 and they are transforming synagogue supplementary education as we speak.

From my perspective, it's simply frustrating to see the "organized" Jewish community get bogged down in spending money on public relations when there is an enormous talent pool at our finger tips, already engaged or waiting to be engaged by those of us in the field who are not waiting around for the big ideas to come from above.

Selling beer and rap music just isn't the same as building links in the chain of tradition. That's how a lot of us feel and so that's why we agitated for this story to be written.

Let's get it together, people! We have mouths to feed, homeless to shelter, peace to make! That's our true birthright--at least according to the Torah that I've been taught.

19 August 2009


Psalm 27

Of David.

The Eternal is my light and my help;
whom shall I fear?
The Eternal is the stronghold of my life,
whom shall I dread?
When evil men assail me to devour my flesh
it is they, my foes and my enemies
who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me,
my heart would have no fear,
should war beset me,
still would I be confident.

One thing I ask of the Eternal,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Eternal
all the days of my life
to gaze upon the beauty of the Eternal
to frequent his Temple.
God will shelter me in God's Sukkah
on an evil day
grant me the protection of God's tent,
raise me high upon a rock.
Now is my head high
over my enemies roundabout
I sacrifice in God's tent with shouts of joy,
singing and chanting a hymn to the Eternal.

Hear, O Eternal, when I cry aloud,
have mercy on me, answer me.
In Your behalf my heart says
"Seek my face!"
O Eternal I seek your face.
Do not hide from me;
do not thrust aside your servant in anger;
You have always been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me,
O God my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will take me in.
Show me Your way, O Eternal,
and lead me on a level path
because of my watchful foes.
Do not subject me to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses and unjust accusers
have appeared against me.
Had I not the assurance
that I would enjoy the goodness of the Eternal
in the land of the living

Look to the Eternal. (Hope in the Eternal.)
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Eternal!

I've waited all summer for this Psalm, traditionally read in our daily prayers during the Hebrew month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew calendar, which officially begins at sundown on Thursday night. Associations with this Psalm exist for people during Slichot services (at CBE we commemorate Slichot on Saturday night September 12); as part of the High Holy Days liturgy; and, as I said, during the entire month of Elul. I will often encourage of making it a spiritual practice to read this psalm every day for a month because the simple discipline of the same poem, read mindfully every day, for thirty days, can have a range of unanticipated effects that is worth trying. It can't hurt, I promise.

Great poetry of any form has texture. It is, to a degree, a kind of verbal terrain that is worth "hiking" if you will and seeing where it leads you and how you come out of the experience as a result of "heading down the path." People in AA have mantras. People in yoga have set moves. People who go to the gym or head to the park for a walk, run or ride all have a set of rituals that they employ in order to *be* in a rhythm that can create moments of sublime connection. Obviously, given my own spiritual proclivities, I believe similarly interesting things can happen with the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew language when actually practiced like a *discipline*.

Give it a try.

I have two very strong associations with this Psalm--one from 8 years ago, after 9-11, with the smoke and death of the destruction very much hanging in the air of lower Manhattan during Rosh Hashanah that year; and recently, at a Shiva Minyan for a new friend, who, too soon after our really getting to know one another, died after her own long fight with cancer.

On the Rosh Hashanah after 9-11, in the Chapel at HUC, I led the NYU service during my work as Hillel director on campus. There were people who showed up in the service on Rosh Hashanah eve who had spent the better part of the prior week on the bucket brigades, searching for survivors, recovering body parts, and obviously deeply scarred by the traumas of their own selfless service to the sanctity of human life. The surrender in this psalm, the pleading calls for tranquility and transcendence, moved me so greatly that night that I promised to always return to this psalm in a whole new way as a result. To never mock perfect faith but honor it, value it as a level of service that in my skeptical imperfections I can only remain, at best, humble with inadequacy. There at NYU we read the psalm, in Hebrew and then in English, standing, as a kind of anthem in the face of death and terror.

"One thing I ask of the Eternal,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Eternal
all the days of my life
to gaze upon the beauty of the Eternal
to frequent his Temple.
God will shelter me in God's Sukkah
on an evil day
grant me the protection of God's tent,
raise me high upon a rock."

We all wanted that. Reading news today of this insane wave of suicide bombings in Baghdad, traumas are re-opened. Faith is laid low. One strives for transcendence, if only for a fleeting moment.

The other time I heard the psalm in a new way was at Shiva. The family was half-American and half-Israeli and quite secular but deeply rooted in Jewishness, Israel, and language. One person at the Shiva announced that the deceased loved singing Psalm 27 at family celebrations and it would be perfect to add to the service and so those in the family who knew it's melody for the words, "One thing I ask of the Eternal, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the Eternal all the days of my life to gaze upon the beauty of the Eternal to frequent his Temple." And then we all caught on to the melody and sang it over and over, not just that night but all nights at the shivas.

What was that sanctuary the family wanted? The presence of their beloved, gone but never to return? The hope for a future, distant reunion? Memory? Here words, language, melody, conspired together and made a perfect shelter, expelling, if momentarily, the bitterness of death.

Perhaps it's not popular to say but fear of death should be on our minds as we approach the High Holy Days. Asking ourselves what are lives amounted to in the last year, how we matched up to our expectations, to those of others, to those of God, ought to weigh heavily upon us in this awe-inspiring and introspective days.

There is so much to do to make our world truly just, truly habitable, truly good. And despite our best efforts, we often fail. The humbling recognition of that is inherent in the message of these days. "How awesome and full of dread."

Great hatreds, like toxic waves, wash over our land. We often don't measure up. But we should. We must. And sometimes, in the refuge of our own need for taking stock, for creating the sanctuary from which our hopes can rise into a reality of blessing and goodness and decency, we are more than our own worst failures and fears.

"Look to the Eternal. (Hope in the Eternal.)
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Eternal!"

More Strange News from the Health Care Wars

My favorite line from our Israeli friend, decrying that in the United States Memorial Day is celebrated by putting mattresses on sale!

And here is an outrageous exchange someone had with Barney Frank:

And Barney Frank, also using humor in the face of Nazi charges, comparing a conversation with his interlocutor with that of talking to a dining room table. The laughs from the crowd support the good Representative from Massachusetts.

Each worth a look. A few examples out there now about how insane the political process has become and why Town Hall forums bring out the best and worst in this country. The price we pay for free speech but God willing, those in the middle will see that the lunatic fringe must remain where it belongs--on the fringe.

18 August 2009

Arrest the Gun Rebels!

Now it's personal.

In 1939, my grandfather, whom I never met, deprived my mother of a father from the age of 6 years old because of a deranged man with a gun who walked into his office, demanding his job back and when he didn't get it, he killed my grandfather before turning the weapon on himself. As a kid I could tell when the yahrzeit came because my mom would stand at the kitchen sink, around dinner time, and the loss would hit her hard. We said nothing, were more absorbed into the absence, its own memorial.

The moral of the story for us was that guns of any kind were banned from our house. Squirt guns, cap guns, bb guns--whatever your pleasure. They weren't allowed. It was a red line rule which we occasionally tried to break with squirt guns and you always knew it was in violation. Over the years, my mom's trauma turned from quiet sadness to disgust and in this later stage of her life, anger.

We were talking Sunday about this current insanity: American citizens showing up armed with weapons at rallies where the President of the United States and Members of Congress are exercising their democratically elected obligation of talking to citizens about policy changes for Health Care Reform. Showing up with guns and in the case with Arizona the other day NOT BEING ARRESTED!

The desire to fulminate about this outrageous, anarchistic rebellion against law and order is great. I can barely restrain my disgust with a segment of our republic--however small or large--that believes this is their right. It's not. And I'd like to see our President order his Secret Service and whatever security services he has at his disposal jail these amoral thugs immediately. That our leadership in either party cannot resoundingly condemn this is arguably one of the greatest signs we have of an impending leadership collapse in our country.

Our prisons are more crowded than most developed nations. We have a higher murder and violence rate than most developed countries. We also have an erroneously perceived "God given right" to carry weapons, the most delusional reading of the U.S. Constitution which at this point is openly threatening the Office of the President and Congress. How much more clear can the threat be before leadership acts and sends a clear message: in a democratically elected republic, the citizens who elected its leaders don't have the threaten violence?

I'll be the first person to admit that President Obama inherited a government in disorder and a nation drunk on war and violence and television and entertainment and the internet and any other distraction you can think of. I'll be the first to admit that the President has inherited a "bi-partisan" system that doesn't work and instead goes running to the cable networks and bloggers so that each office holder can position him or herself for his or her own self-aggrandizement and so therefore can't get it all done right away. I'll be the first person to admit that as the nation's first African American President he can't move too aggressively, act too angrily, or push too hard in one direction or another because the country is polarized enough as it is.

But let me ask this: Which side of America do you stand on when you live in a land where people show up with weapons at events with the President and Members of Congress?

Forget Blue States and Red States. These people have spinning lies for over a year about the President of the United States. He's not a Muslim. He was born in America. He's not a Socialist. But told over and over and over again, they're now backing up their lies with the threat of violence.

Madness is breaking out in the United States of America. These violent rebels should be jailed and never be allowed to carry weapons again. Are there any breaks on this train wreck? Can we expect real leadership from the President and our elected officials on this? Or do we brace ourselves for the next memorial, when some child weeps as evening falls, because we sat back and did nothing when someone shot mother or father for trying to serve the nation?

17 August 2009

Tightly Wound

Last night, after cooking dinner and watching Tiger Woods fall from ahead to lose the PGA, I lost myself in the meditation of mincha/maariv, combining the late afternoon and early evening prayers which, when taken together, amounts to something like a large, multi-vitamin of spiritual practice. I was alone in the apartment and it was a rare luxury that was worth every second. In such moments I feel a keenly strong connection to God, which I find in this neighborhood to be coin of disputable value. There are those who find such musings preposterous--so certain are they of the lack of God's existence; there are those who find those expressions distantly admirable, feeling a vague sense of "something greater than the self" but somehow unable to close the deal and move into the territory of engagement; and then, there are those--a distinct minority--who are locked in as well. We're so small as a group we might consider developing a secret handshake. Few would know.

It's hard to make a minyan in this neighborhood; most of the liberal shuls barely manage it and my attempt last year to do so at CBE failed, but I'll try again, if only because I believe one must keep trying. And fortuitously, today, late in the afternoon, a member popped his head into my office to ask when it was starting up again--he said he and his wife wanted to go into the new year looking to reconnect to that spiritual practice. I immediately began thinking of secret handshakes.

This morning, at dawn, in my zeal to find that space so sublimely realized yesterday, I put on my tallit singing, wound my way in and out of psalms and blessings, prayed fervently for those in the family and the community in need of healing, and the moved toward my closing blessings. As I moved to think, think, think about the day, reaching up to grab my head, I realized I had forgotten to put on my tefillin. I felt absent-mindedly for them atop my head; looked to the left arm and saw nothing but an arm; and then scrambled to put them on.

Blind faith, I thought. Blind faith. In my zeal to reach God, I had forgotten what I had agreed to be part of my obligatory relationship to God. And herein was an object lesson I had never before experienced: in the race to serve God, I had actually served myself. And I felt suddenly what the prophets were getting at when they railed against the people for their vain offerings.

Who was this morning all about? Me? Or "Beyond Me?"

Later in the day I had a conversation with someone in the neighborhood who's thinking about joining the synagogue. He said he was interested in joining in order to give his kid an education--but certainly not on Saturdays, because that's when his traveling baseball team met. "I didn't have much of a Jewish education rabbi and no offense but when I sit in synagogue I don't feel a thing. But I figure if my kid gets a bar mitzvah, he'll be able to figure it out for himself."

My mouth started moving. Statistics and facts came out. But inside my heart was racing. Calmly, like a good outreach rabbi, I talked about the importance of learning together, of trying to model that Judaism and Jewish culture are shared family traditions; that no child can go it alone. I set the bar really low. I think I mentioned cds. "The truth is, I'm not going to try. It means nothing to me. But maybe it will mean something to my kid."

"I know the secret handshake with God!" I felt myself say. But I heard myself say something really neutral, like, "See you around." Oh, you ambivalent liberal rabbi! You failed!

I think that my zeal, weird as it may seem, would have been better. Give 'em something to remember, you might say. Like a really firm handshake. Or marks on the arm left by tefillin, tightly wound.

16 August 2009

I've Got Mine

It's always around this time each summer that I recall a time in my childhood, coming home from basketball camp in New Hampshire, landing in the Milwaukee airport and feeling not exactly older but that my perspective on things had widened. Nashua, New Hampshire was home to the New England Aeronautical Institute (now Daniel Webster College) and that was where Wayne Embry, who was at the time the General Manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, ran his summer basketball camp. Technically, it was called the Wayne Embry Basketball School, which from my perspective, made it that much cooler than camp. Basketball school met there, I suppose, because it linked back to Wayne's playing days for the Boston Celtics, with whom he won an NBA championship after an All-Star career at Cincinnati and after Boston, Milwaukee. Anyway, great players came along with coaching legends from the Boston area and the week or two that I spent there with Wayne's son, Wayne Jr, were so expansive and reflective that they've always shaped how I perceive the month of August, thirty years later.

Each summer, when my plane would land, I'd be picked up at the airport by my dad, who was more of a statistician of the game than a player, so the vicariousness of the thrill was undeniable. I was aware, as I stepped off the plane, that I returned as a kind of ambassador to the strange and exotic land--just the way he wanted it, since his ambassadorship, which he never really valorized, was his four years of service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. I always imagined that he valued the achievement of "making it" in America to such an extent he sent his kid to "battle" at basketball school, not to jungles of the Philippines. (Like I said, "imagined." Realistically, the thought likely never crossed his mind.)

Anyway, what I know I remember is that once in the car, I'd start telling him all about camp--which NBA players showed up, which coaches, how I did, how the food tasted, and the various adventures Wayne Jr and I had with kids from the Boston area. It was great to recall, speeding along the freeway from the airport on the South side back to the North Shore suburbs where we lived. The nights in August were always warm and Dad had the top down on his 1972 red Chevrolet Impala convertible. It was good.

When I finished talking, then he would talk. And after a few brief updates on my mom and sisters and brother, he'd want to tell me about his golf game. My dad the statistician (who actually sold advertising for the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee) had perfect recall of plays and shots. So if he played 18 holes of golf that day--which it seemed he always did the days he picked me up from camp, the majority of the ride home was filled with his adventures on the golf course. "First hole, tee shot out about 180 yards, right in the middle of the fairway. Second shot with my new five wood, straight toward the hole but then over the green in the thick grass just beyond." And so it would go, hole after hole, all the way home. He played three days a week, for business and pleasure, for a long period of his life, and though he never fully mastered the ability to simply enjoy the sport (he was quite good at bending clubs that wouldn't bend to his will) what he did perfect was the story of the game. Shot by shot. The weather, the wind, the moisture of the grass and sand--you name it. He really drew a picture. And as we sped past buildings and factories, Milwaukee's small shouldered downtown, and then the mini-mall developments of the north side, I drifted into a kind of trance, watching my familiar life like a movie, narrated by my dad's golf shots.

The other area of his life where he could exercise perfect pitch of memory was with the music of his era--the 30s and 40s--and I was recalling for Rachel last night how Dad, after he and Mom split up, once took me to a restaurant with a vintage jukebox, challenged me to play any song, and he would recall the singer and the year of the song. We had a great time that night, eating, listening to music, and me of course, being taught that names and dates matter, and that music has a many-layered history that always needs to be considered, listened to, along with its melody and lyrics. As close as I can get to describing that experience, I recommend to you Danny Stiles show on WNYC each Saturday night from 8-10. It's a regular in our house, for the simple pleasure of the music but also because it's possible to connect with people in all sorts of interesting ways long after they're gone.

This week, when I head out to pick up my oldest kid from camp (Jewish, not basketball), there'll be no golf games to recall and it's just as well. I have a feeling I'll have alot of listening to do. After all, these are her memories that are now in formation.

I've got mine.

15 August 2009

Get To Work

Among the many challenges that Moses puts before the people in this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, an interesting juxtaposition between one's individual spiritual pursuits and the national spiritual pursuits are laid out for consideration.

Warning the people not to fall sway to 'false gods' once they enter the land, God makes very clear that God will be worshipped in a specific place, in a specific way, and that one isn't to just set up any old altar wherever one pleases. There is grave concern that once the preliminary victory of getting into the Holy Land is achieved, there is much more to accomplish. Crossing the river is just the beginning. One can see an eery parallel to what President Obama must feel, rallying a "movement" to get elected only to find that same movement tired and relatively unfocused in accomplishing together what everyone REALLY worked for. Today's Times has an interesting look at grassroots effort for health care reform in Iowa. Take a look.

I get that antsy feeling walking around lately--especially in this area of Brooklyn where everyone is, how can I put it, so satisfied. When in fact we should feel even more dissatisfied. It's one thing to elect someone--it's something else entirely to actually change the way things are. So as the hours, days, weeks and months slip past, we ought to be thinking of ways in which the clock is ticking on this Administration's chance to achieve all we hoped and dreamed it could achieve, realizing that the exhausting work of putting the President in place is just the beginning.

What we achieve as a group and what we care to achieve as individuals. With regard to our Torah portion, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says about God's insistence on the centrality of our worshipful focus that "the place that God will choose to bear him name must become the center which all of you will honor and which will unite all of you to a national union with God and his Torah."

Now don't worry--I'm not attributing Divine characteristics to political figures. God knows, each has a great variety of fallible qualities. But the singularity of focus truly intrigues me--the idea that the Torah proposes a national unity in law and worship that is critical if the people are to thrive in the land--all the while cognizant of how the pursuit of the individual can threaten that sense of unity.

I take it to mean, in our own corner of the planet, that as satisfied as we are with our food and our homes and progressive little enclave here in Brooklyn, a national project calls for our attention: our parks and roads; our schools and factories; our hospitals and court rooms and prisons and board rooms. All the country did in November of 2008 was cross a border. The work--and it's nothing if not work--will take generations to achieve the work which has at its core the loftiest of aspirations for building that better world.

14 August 2009

Two things worth a quick look this morning.

1. Jo-Ann Mort has a great article up at the Prospect about her recent trip to Ramallah and Gaza. Jo-Ann is longtime committed Zionist and journalist who has been covering Israel for years. She is also on the board of Americans for Peace Now and has been active for a long time in trying to reach a solution. Please take a look.

2. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has a new webpage dedicated to Health Care Reform. I signed up and if you believe in the cause, you should, too.

You can find it here, at Jews for Health Care Reform.

Given the total nuttiness of the debate at this point, which today's NYTimes finally begins to pick apart in an aggressive and meaningful way--with Paul Krugman's piece --"Republican Death Trip"-- as well solid reporting from Jim Ruttenberg and Jackie Calmes -- "False Death Panel Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots" --, it's vital that those who believe in the idea of health care reform and in totally delegitimating the vile hatred coming from all over the United States and definitely NOT being adequately addressed by leaders in Congress, it's time to mobilize and speak up.

A quick Google search reveals some incredibly grotesque imagery of President Obama as Hitler and leading a Nazi takeover of the United States. As Jews we have an obligation to declare this sort of stuff as pure garbage which has no place in a policy debate.

The RAC sit allows you to let Congress know how you feel. Speak up!

13 August 2009

A Step in the Right Direction

Yesterday we gathered in the Chapel so that I could talk to the Camp about what happened to the Torah scrolls as a result of some water hijinks. I had about ten minutes to speak and so chose to first contextualize what a synagogue was, what Beth Elohim does for the community of its members as well as the broader neighborhood. And then I talked about all the different holy books in all the different traditions so that I could put a Sefer Torah into a context, since I knew alot of kids would be hearing about a Torah Scroll for the first time.

That seemed to work pretty well. I then described what happened and put the accident into two contexts. One, that kids being kids, dumb things will happen without always thinking about consequences and that part of growing up is about recognizing that when we do things, sometimes without intent, bad stuff can happen. And though it's a hot summer and water is fun, overflowing a sink in an old building can bring about disastrous results that damage something very, very special to others. The room felt the heaviness of the message. (I was prepared with some fairly grim stories about Torah scrolls in concentration camps, torture during the Middle Ages, and Roman persecution during the first century but opted out of traumatizing the the little devils.)

I then also talked about our old buildings and how even the adults in the community need to be thinking responsibly of taking care of our holy objects in case pranks lead to unanticipated destruction--the lesson being that all of us are responsible for one another.

That seemed to be enough. I then pulled out another Torah Scroll, unrolled it, and invited all the kids in the camp to come see it and you know what? Each and every one of them did. It was a great moment. The genuineness to their intent; the devotion to what they were experiencing was inspiring to see. The Jewish kids proudly declared their Jewishness. Several kids made the point of telling me, "I'm half-Jewish, rabbi!" which I always answer with, "Wonderful! Which half?" That generally gets us talking about identity in a creative and positive way.

Anyway, I felt good about the encounter. Like kids really learned something, no one got shamed for the accident, and in the end, they came face to face with the Torah, an enriching experience in its own right.

Later in the afternoon I watched the camp-wide concert take place. A couple hundred kids from all walks of life--all colors, all faiths, singing songs that united them as a community. I thought of the power of this taking place in the synagogue, of our spiritual home being a place for those who seek community and felt that the source of inspiration was the very book which had laid itself down for the values to be lived. If some of those kids didn't know that before, now some did. And that's a step in the right direction. It doesn't reverse the damage. But it gets us back on the path.

וכל נתיבותיה שלום
And all its paths are peace

12 August 2009

But It's Not Too Late!

In Ben Katchor's monthly installment over at Metropolis Magazine, he takes on air-shafts and it's worth a look. As ever, his combination of drawing and the poetic written word raise our sights beyond the mere architecture and structure of buildings but take us to the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, as it were.

This month, Ben imagines an itinerant architect traveling the coast, persuading building owners to return light and air to those buildings that lack them. Johann Vantis is a man on a mission.

"But it's not too late! Renovations are possible. Commodious air shafts can be cut into the existing structure."

I can relate, as can many of those who see our buildings and believe we must do better in their care and protection. Staring at the picture last night while working with one of my children on her Hebrew (prompting the relevant question from the 9 year old, "Why do Hebrew schools teach you to read Hebrew but not speak it?") I suddenly realized that the air-shaft cut into the center of the Katchor's drawing bears a striking resemblance to a coffin!

Take a closer look.

I went to bed amused by this, wondering what it all meant and then this morning awoke to my books--these days I rise early and converse with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose commentary to Psalms brings me complete and unmitigated pleasure.

Psalm 20 opens with the words, "To the One Who grants victory, a psalm to David. The Eternal will answer you in the day of trouble; the Name of the God of Jacob will raise you on high."

Hirsch opens by citing the parable of the father and son who are traveling on a journey and the son is anxious to get home. The father says, "Remember it well my son, you will not see the city until you have first beheld the cemetery; only when you will see graves before your eyes will you be near the city." Hirsch elucidates by writing, "God will give you help once your distress becomes urgent."

Don't immediately conclude that this is an uncaring, distant God. Rather, consider this Psalm and Hirsch's commentary to it in the context of Ben Katchor's drawing. What might it mean that our buildings are made with the dedication and remembrance that they are sanctuaries during times of trouble as well as exaltation? Consider the paradoxical pairing of a glorious architectural achievement that also embraces the grave!

This awareness of our beginning and our end is, the Sages argued, our awareness of God. That we are a part of what precedes us and what will succeed us. "The recognition, awareness of and trust in God as revealed to Jacob in his trials and tribulations will give you the inner exaltation that you must have in order to persevere until help will come at last."

That's why I write about our buildings so much. Their state of disrepair is not any longer a source of shame but, ironically, an opportunity to see the grave and therefore rise up to a state of shared communal exaltation.

11 August 2009

We Need to Love Our Torahs More

You might recall that at one point some months back I told the story of a Torah scroll adopted by Altshul, the independent minyan that prays here a few times a month, and how in gratitude for the space they are given, the minyan raised money to restore the scroll. It remains one of my favorite stories, especially since talking heads in the Jewish world sometimes argue to strongly in favor of making things "free" for "young people" and the adoption of the Sefer Torah was an example of a free will offering from said population which ended up raising a few thousand dollars for the repair. Everyone benefits, most important, the Source of Life, whose words get read with pride from this sacred book by many different minyans across the generations here at CBE.

Other elements of the physical infrastructure are not always so easily repaired and a quick walk through our facilities reveals that fact. Most days we work around these challenges until we can raise the proper amount of money to take care of the buildings, bring them up to date to accommodate a 21st century synagogue and community center. And some days the challenges come raining down on us, literally.

Like last week, for example.

A child in our camping program pulled a prank by plugging up a sink on the second floor, which overflowed, and then subsequently leaked down into our small chapel in the Temple House. Though the roof and building envelope have been declared water-tight, the internal pipes are another matter. There are many surprises left waiting for us. Well, the rain came down into the chapel, on to the piano (which was undamaged) and after mopping up operations, all was well. That was Thursday night.

On Friday night while leading services, I approached the Ark to open it for Aleynu and noticed immediately that the door was stuck--it felt water logged and I immediately knew that what I was about to encounter was just not going to be good.

Sure enough, once opened, I noticed that both Torah covers were soaking wet. One had already begun to mildew, which had my mind on Leviticus and the various laws required for dealing with growing mold. Then I thought of the Macabees redeeming a defiled Temple. Then I thought of Samson, a Temple tumbling down up on him. Then I thought of any number of tragedies in Jewish history, Torah scrolls defiled, sacrificed in blood. It was quite an Aleynu--one I'll not soon forget.

I thought fast, remained calm, finished the prayers, led the Kaddish, made Kiddush, and then grabbed some leaders to head back in to the Chapel. There we assessed the damage. One scroll, already not kosher but certainly usable, was finished. The water had stained several pages and made letters run. The other scroll, the kosher one that had been restored, felt damp to the touch but didn't seem to sustain any damage. We unrolled them both, gently, lovingly, and I begged them each forgiveness. As the rabbi of the synagogue, I promised them that with the best of my ability I would never let something like this happen again. I recited Psalms to them in my heart and felt my chest weighed down with grief. We decided to leave the air conditioning on to keep the room dry and sure enough next morning the scrolls had dried.

Wrapping the damaged scroll in two tallitot, it looked like a body prepared for burial. I was alone in the chapel and it felt like the sacred moment of death, carrying out ritual purification for the deceased. I found a new, dry cover for the other Torah and then carried it across the street for use by Altshul, then went and got a third scroll for the Lay Led Minyan to use for their Shabbat worship as well. For a brief moment I sat alone in the chapel, surveying the situation.

And here's what I have to say.

We need to love our buildings more.
We need to love our Torahs more.
We need to love our community more, so that when we enter its space--both physical and metaphysical--we do so with the commitment to not do damage and not let damage happen. A parent's role is to protect a child, because in the child will we live. There actually is a sustaining self-interest in why we do the selfless things for our own.

So consider the Torah and the buildings that house them. They need our protection, continually, over and over again, because by the words of Torah will we live:

"Let us make the person in our image." (Genesis)

"The Eternal is my strength and might and deliverance." (Exodus)

"Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus)

"How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your houses O Israel." (Numbers)

"Hear O'Israel, the Eternal our God is One." (Deuteronomy)

Let's all pledge to never let this happen again by promising, in the year ahead, to do all we can in our power to make these buildings true sanctuaries of protection for all that we love.

09 August 2009

Keep It Simple

Here's a public relations problem, easily avoided if we just keep it simple:

Ronn Torassian, recently hired by birthright to do its PR, already does PR for some fairly unsavory ideas. His firm, 5W Public Relations, was caught up in defending Agriprocessors in the face of their own workplace and workers rights debacle; in addition, he's all mixed up with Irving Moskowitz's drive to establish Jewish homes in the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al Amud, the Silwan, and Sheikh Jarra, from Hawaiian Gardens profits, a real estate power grab that is about total control of Jerusalem (not really about security) and will only harm chances for peace. In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Torassian referred to President Obama as "a disaster." (There's no such thing as 'bad' PR, I guess.) We should mention the Rev John Hagee as well. (If 5WPR did Hagee's website on the other hand, kudos! That site is amazing.

Inexplicably, 5WPR also has represented the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Friends of Magen David Adom, and the Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Besides learning that he represents Evian Water, Budweiser Beer, AND birthright, you get to learn all sorts of interesting things about Torassian, like, with regard to the media ban in Gaza last winter, "No, I think it was very smart not to permit the press to enter Gaza. This isn't a war between two equals; it's a war between a civilized democratic nation and a group of murderers and terrorists. And the media have difficulty grasping that - though whether this is due to actual difficulty grasping it or whether it is purposeful is open to interpretation." Hey, I was in favor of the Gaza War as well--it's just that I'd prefer to have media and reporting to monitor behavior of all sides. When a military can operate without witnesses, human rights abuses always increase. Look at Iran most recently--there the press helps the revolution, no?

The issue here is the wrong-headed notion that birthright NEEDS PR. It does? Really? Why? Word of mouth alone make it a great idea that everyone already knows about. And it's FREE. That generally gets people's attention as well.

Look, everyone has a right to make a buck, I guess. And everyone has a right to get some good press, too. But what was so wrong with birthright's press ("Free Trip to Israel!" posters when I worked at NYU did the job each year) that one has to go into business with a guy who represents unethical religious people (Agriprocessors) Apocalyptic Evangelicals (Hagee) and overly politicized practitioners of real estate double standards (Jews can buy and build anywhere in Jerusalem, Arabs can't.) It seems to me that if you add those three things up, that's BAD PR for birthright, not good. And they're paying for it! And you don't think that smart, unaffiliated kid that you're going for, trying to turn on to Jewish identity and Jewish community, isn't going to be turned off by such media-savvy strategies to sell him a product? Why get into bed with these guys at all? Do we really need the headache?

It's a gamble not worth taking. But what do I know about gambling? Ask Irving Moskowitz for advice...

Here's Failed Messiah's post.

Here's Daniel Sieradski's Twitter petition.

The thing that motivates me is that I love what birthright does for people--why muck it up with overly complicated message makers.

Keep it simple. Stick to the idea that inspired the program and then focus on helping connect participants to vibrant Jewish communities after their trip to Israel. By the way, I just finished a great five weeks in Israel this summer with some amazing high school students and you know what? I'm in touch with all of them--by email. Free PR for Torah and staying connected to Jewish life!

06 August 2009

Get Us There

Very interesting developments, if you care about inside baseball and gossip--but Haaretz prints a rare, anonymous rebuke from within the Netanyahu government about the diplomatic damage caused by the row between Netanyahu and Obama. Worth a look.

Not surprisingly, a poll today has Tzipi Livni way ahead of Netanyahu on approval ratings, which means practically nothing, given that it's highly unlikely the government will fall. But it does underscore the terrible instability of the leadership structure in Israel, which is only good news if you compare it to how even more unstable the Palestinian leadership is.

I pulled Collins and Lapierre's O Jerusalem off the shelf this morning at 4 am, in a post-jetlag early morning reading session, and was reminded yet again how all the old issues are really truly old issues--dating back to the British Mandate period, the War of Independence, the Six Days War, you name it--for generations we have circled around the way to peace over and over and over again. The intimacy of the conflict is so apparent, reading this account of the 1948 war for Israel's independence. The solution to resolving it in front of everyone's nose, if there were only the will to make it happen, which, tragically, remains the same today.

In the long view, even though leading organizations in the American community (in this case, J Street and the ADL) disagree on the efficacy of Obama's strategy to push Israel--I am very pro-Obama on this--at least there is serious movement after seemingly virtually no movement during the Bush years. I want to re-emphasize to readers who are not following the reality on the ground too closely that beneath the headlines, one sees on the ground in Israel serious movement in a variety of interesting directions and one sees the potential for serious movement among Palestinians as well. The biggest problem, as is often the case, is with leadership. And it should not escape our grasp that Obama's overall strategy is to encourage a "ground-up" rejection of failed leadership in general in favor of a great push toward what other polls continually indicate--70% of each population wants peace.

We need the right leaders to help get us there.

05 August 2009

Pray for, Work for, More.

I thought of Barney Ross this morning, not just because earlier in the spring Charles Miller put Douglas Century's great biography of the fighter in my hand and said, "Rabbi, you have to read this," but in addition, because getting off the plane from Israel at JFK and going through security made me realize, as one often does returning from the Jewish state, that I'm now protected by an army and police force of people who are primarily not Jewish.

Even after the 12 hour flight--with a bit of turbulence over Greece--I had fresh in my mind the questioning by El Al security; not taking off my shoes at the metal detector; and being wished, in Hebrew, a נסיעה טובה or, a "good trip." Of course, in the U.S. one leaves and can be wished by security, "have a nice flight," so really it's the same thing. But oh, the mother tongue!

Anyway, leaving U.S. Customs at JFK, the power dynamic suddenly shifted. Gone was the feeling of collective mission when two security guards rather aggressively told a group of us to step back, not because of any suspicious activity but rather because loads of Jews who had just emptied a couple flights from Israel were crowding toward the door to burst free. Back at Ben Gurion, this crowded mess was annoying in its own right but it had the feisty familiarity of an overly large family reunion. Back in the universal, in the international port of the "United States of From the Many One," my personal narrative was instantly sublimated into another power narrative in which my voice is but one of many, yearning for attention, understanding, and, if you will, self and communal realization.

Who were these large, meaty figures in uniforms, gesticulating in our direction? I had just been watching the Hebrew Hammer for the past four weeks, the Barney Ross of the Middle East, and though troubled and contentious, deeply filled with conviction and like his namesake, addicted to things that hurt him, he has a heart of gold. My head spun in the multiplicities of the great American experiment.

Outside, an Israeli taxi driver approached me in Hebrew, offering me a ride back to Brooklyn for $45. I told him in Hebrew that I could do better in a Yellow Taxi; he disagreed; I told him in English, "Suit yourself then," channeling Marty Feldman in "Young Frankenstein." I enjoyed the reference. He looked confused and went on to his next potential customer. At the taxi dispatch I caught a cab toward Grand Army Plaza, driven by a gentlemanly Pakistani. We caught up on news in the early morning drive and when he pulled up in front of the apartment, the rate was $31.

I opened the paper to read the dramatic news of President Clinton earning the release of the two journalists from North Korea. It's amazing what good can come when we insist on talking to people as a nation. And so though it may seem from one set of perspectives in the press that Netanyahu and Obama are locked in a battle over pushing Israel for concessions on settlements, I can also say that countless Israelis are also hoping against hope that concessions will be made on all sides. As tense as things look from one set of perspectives, my own meager read of the situation is that, thank God, there is more positive diplomatic movement in the region than we have seen in years. And while Americans and Israelis have different approaches to security, we all want to get to the same place.

Clinton's success, coordinated with the Obama Administration, is a small but important beacon of hope for our perilous world.

Pray for, work for, more.

04 August 2009

Piece by Piece for Peace

I had lunch yesterday with some college students who are at various places on the spectrum of Jewish observance. One of them, politically left-wing, is religiously right and as an expression of her eclecticism has spent time this summer in Egypt and will spend next semester in Morocco before heading back to school. While dining over breakfast in a kosher restaurant (that has the Tav Chevrati)I found myself arguing--with humor but with intention--that this student should allow herself to break her personal kashrut in order to cross boundaries and eat the food of Morocco, especially since she'll be there during Ramadan and will most certainly be invited to any number of Ramadan Feasts.

"I can't do that," she said. "I can't cross that boundary."

And in the role of part teacher and part provocateur, I found myself prodding for a better answer. After a few minutes we both let it drop, me saying I appreciated her principles and she saying she appreciated having her assumptions challenged.

As I read through the headlines today--no leads on the finding the murderer at the LGBT Community Center in Tel Aviv; continued intransigence in negotiation positions between Palestinian and Israeli leaders; a frustrating stalemate between Netanyahu and Obama; the disturbing scenes in Sheikh Jarra; and the unresolved state of affairs of the several thousand Sudanese children, who await their fate in the next three months--to stay and make their life as immigrants to Israel or be sent back to a genocidal civil war (the remarkable amount of issues to tackle here on a daily basis is, well, remarkable)--I found myself thinking of "crossing boundaries" and how there really is not enough of it.

That in our increasingly horizontal world, where everyone is "connected," we have the illusion of boundaries being crossed but to some degree, these boundaries are only being crossed for our own growth, development and edification. We're not really crossing boundaries as much as we're picking and choosing from a variety of menus as we construct our own unique and highly individuated identities. We all have our limits, right? But what happens when are limits get in the way of the kind of border crossing that can really bring about more visceral changes?

I found myself saying to the student, "But you don't have to eat shrimp or lobster or pork! You should just try the lamb and try the chicken. And then, next Yom Kippur, ask God's forgiveness and simply say, 'I was crossing boundaries, breaking bread with Muslims, because sometimes the principle of peace is more important than the principle of kosher food.'" There were four of us at the table and we all sat there in silence for a brief moment, laughed it off, and then ordered our coffee.

The conversation, as a metaphor, hangs with me as I prepare to leave Israel until my next visit. Jerusalem, to some degree more beautiful and peaceful than I've seen it in a long time, is also horribly divided and those divisions are preventing peace in a most severe way. Especially when the divisions are so close. Sheikh Jarra, where Jews have an historic claim but don't need to live (after all, Police Headquarters sits on the hill above, protecting the area as well as Mount Scopus and Hebrew University nearby.) Same for Ras al Amud and Wadi al Joz. Here would be an example not of crossing borders and living among but rather pushing out and replacing, in order to assert ultimate control and hegemony.

Bu what if the discourse were shifted to respecting differences by the paradoxical gesture of accepting the invitation to break bread in your way in your house while inviting the other to break bread my way in my house? The integrity of our houses protected, we also commit an act of generosity in our openness to test our principles in the street, for the sake of peace.

It's an incomplete thought and so one I continue to struggle with--how far are each of us are obligated to go in order to demonstrate that we are ready for peace. You with me, and me with you. A war that has raged for so long, where each chapter raises another barrier, seems to be calling for a solution where barriers come down. And as long as the security fence stands, then let's start by breaking down bread, piece by piece, for peace.

03 August 2009

Let's Start the Bidding

Fantasy Number One
Move to Tzipori in the North of Israel. Tzipori, one of the original rabbinic communities established by the early rabbis in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple. Tzipori was rather "Greek" in its outlook and its synagogue mosaic floor is a clear indication of certain artistic syncretic tendencies among its worshipers. There is a heliocentric zodaic chart in the middle of the mosaic and motifs depicted that are also paralleled in other Temples and even some Byzantine churches that were contemporaneous with certain aspects of the post-Second Temple Jewish life in the North. Fascinating stuff. Only a small sliver of Tzipori is actually excavated and so in this fantasy, I run an archaeological dig that has the clear goal, over the course of the next twenty to thirty years, of uncovering most of ancient Tzipori. Its homes, its marketplace--anything else that may be seen--and re-creating an ancient city that will be a living laboratory of learning. Because of Tzipori's mixture of Greek and Jewish culture, it is an ideal place to build an international center of pluralistic learning. So in this fantasy, I also run a center for pluralistic learning, hosting Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of all faiths as well as non-believers to engage in digging, learning, and the enjoyment of Galilean retreat in all its beauty and splendor. A hotel and spa is part of the experience for those looking for a getaway with rest, fresh air and good food; and for others, there is ongoing excavation and reconstruction; while for still others there is learning, lectures, and intra/inter-faith dialogue always happening.

The retreat facilities are "green," employing the latest Israeli research in energy and architectural achievement and spawns its own community that lives nearby, called Givat HaGan (Park Slope, get it? More accurately "Park Hill" but you get the idea) and becomes a model pluralistic community that supports contemporary Israeli democracy in action. Initial investment will be several million dollars. Let's start the bidding.

Fantasy Number Two

Start smoking a pipe and imitate only the best characteristics of Yigal Yadin and Nelson Glueck. Don't imitate the bad characteristics. Raise millions of dollars to take over the excavation site of all the material destroyed and taken from beneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, dumped in garbage heaps by the Muslim Authorities in order to attempt to erase the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. In this fantasy, these foolish and arrogant leaders are apprehended and forced to read history books alongside holy books, including re-reading the Koran itself, which makes reference to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (Hello??!!) Take over this dig because right now that dig and the other digs similar to it (City of David, Western Wall Tunnels) are in the ideological hands of people who are attempting to eradicate any Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem. This is being done under our eyes, as we speak or in some cases, as we sleep and dream. For instance, early Sunday morning August 2, at 5 am, trucks supported by hundreds of policemen evicted two Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarra to make way for two Jewish families, who are being moved in with the good graces of the investment dollars of right wing American Jewish devlopers and casino owners like Ira Rennert and Irving Moscowitz, who are allowed, with millions of dollars of their own money, to help determine Israeli policy toward Arab residents of East Jerusalem. (I met with a friend today who said we should get the cell-phone numbers of every member of Netanyahu's cabinet and for the next two weeks call them at 2, 3, 4 and 5 am on the dot, every hour, every day, in order to wake THEM up in the middle of the night.) Now in Wisconsin, where I come from, the Potawatomi Tribe owns some casinos. So we need some Native American Indian cash and then we need to use that money to buy Irving Moscowitz's land and Ira Rennert's land (his, in Long Island, is Algonquin, I believe) and then remove them, preferably in their silk pajamas, in the middle of the night.

That's where I appear again, with my pipe (!) and yes, gloves and a riding crop. Think Groucho in "Duck Soup." Surrounded by Indian chiefs. Think Mel Brooks in "Blazing Saddles." As they scream outrage at this grave injustice (Irving whines about disrupting his "shluffy time") I add a degree of dignity to the proceedings by firmly and quickly slapping each of them in the face with the back of my glove. And then have them arrested for killing the silk worms that made their pajamas. They are sent north, to Givat Hagan, along with the Muslim authorities, to do time, learning and pluralistically tolerating each other.

With the profits from the Native American casinos (and any other contributions you'd like to send) I redevelop East Jerusalem as an historically sane place. Where Jews and Arabs can live together, but only if each side is treated fairly by the government in the quest for deeds, leases, and building permits. Millions flock from around the world in order to see and appreciate each other's historical sites. Meanwhile, the Muslim authorities who authorized the building of the garbage dump made from Second Temple artifacts, along with Moscowitz and Rennert, are sent on a kayak trip down the Jordan River, courtesy of Kibbutz Kfar Blum. They have a wonderful time, splashing in the water, laughing, getting to know each other. They barbecue under the Eucalyptus trees and watch the sunset, turning the Hermon Mountain into a marvelous array of colors, the likes of which have never been seen. The late night Boggle game breaks down due to language barriers but the men, much to everyone's surprise, recover. Tired from their adventures, the group retires to Givat HaGan for good wine from the Golan Heights and baklawa from Nazareth.

At midnight it's lights out, I say sternly, tapping my pipe on the mantel. "Irving! Ira! In your pjs! You too, Sheikh! We have a whole day of text study on pluralism, tolerance and understanding to tackle tomorrow and I want you guys at your best! Now, sweet dreams, good night and in the morning, apricots!"

Let's start the bidding.


02 August 2009

Food and Justice

We had a great presentation Sunday morning from a representative of Bema'aglei Tzedek, a social justice advocacy organization that is doing some really interesting and important work throughout Israel. Check out their website--there's Hebrew and English--to see what they're all about.

The main areas of focus for this dynamic young organization are eliminating poverty, creating greater access for those with disabilities and attempting to eliminate the sex trade here in Israel. Bema'aglei Tzedek has a great ability to reach thousands of high school students, who they are inspiring to service and activism in ways that we can imitate easily back in the States.

And one of the most interesting examples of that is the Tav Chevrati Certificate. Like a kosher certificate that hangs on prominent walls in restaurants so that those observing dietary laws can know if the restaurant is kosher or not, the Tav Chevrati Certificate indicates to customers that the workers are treated fairly, paid well, and that there is access to those with disabilities.

Here's a description from their site:

"The Tav Chevrati is a seal of approval granted free of charge to restaurants and other businesses that respect the legally-mandated rights of their employees and are accessible to people with disabilities.

This initiative encourages Israeli consumers to selectively patronize those businesses which have been awarded the Tav Chevrati, with the ultimate goal to encourage exponentially more businesses to uphold ethical and equitable business practices, while teaching consumers that they have the power to impact society.

The Tav Chevrati has already been awarded to 350 businesses throughout Israel and it is estimated that approximately 20,000 "unique visitors" have chosen to go to Tav Chevrati businesses in the last three months alone.

The Tav Chevrati, a pioneer in the field of Social Kashrut, is maintained by over 30 volunteer supervisors who perform monthly spot checks of Tav Chevrati certified establishments."

Last night I tested it out, having never really looked for the sign before and sure enough, where I chose to eat, right next to the basic kashrut sign was the Tav Chevrati. And I have to say, it was a different experience entirely eating in a restaurant where one has a sense that a certain ethical threshold had been met. There is in New York a similar movement afoot--Uri L'Tzedek--which offers a Tav HaYosher seal to businesses in New York that pass the ethical test as well.

It also be interesting to see about rallying high school students in New York, many of whom don't keep kosher, to develop a similar kind of program for restaurants in general. Imagine the most sought after commercial market of tweeners and high school kids demanding that where they put their dollars will be in places that treat their workers well?

The last line of Birkat Ha Mazon, the Grace After Meals, reads, "I was young and grew old and never saw a righteous person lacking bread." It offers a utopian vision of what kind of society, built on justice and compassion, one could sing about after a basic meal. An ideal not yet achieved, it offers a great level of living to strive for.

01 August 2009

Nava Tehila

The way Friday night on Bronfman Youth Fellows works is that the Fellows have four or five synagogue communities to choose from for their prayer experiences, giving them a diverse choice of how Jerusalem celebrates Shabbat. Fellows will often choose one experience on Friday, another on Saturday, and are encouraged to try something that is different from what they have grown up with and are used to. It's by design and the educational experiment in pluralism is, along with text study and great speakers, the programs greatest strength.

It's a cliche to talk about how special Jerusalem is on Shabbat but cliches do generally come from a place of truth, no?

One of the new scenes in Jerusalem on Shabbat is the "emerging prayer and study" community known as Nava Tehila, led by Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan. Musical, meditative, and totally open to varieties of Jewish spiritual expression in real time, Nava Tehila is a bit like an alternative universe here--musicians create an ambient feel, rooted in Middle Eastern and Indian spiritual mantras as well as their own contemporary Israeli musical tastes. Besides a Friday night service once a month, the group hosts a pre-Shabbat community sing-a-long which we took the Fellows to before they went off to their separate shuls on Friday.

Set in the garden of the Natural History Museum, this experience gathered a large selection of Jerusalem's secular crowd, along with a handful of curious observant Jews. All ages and backgrounds seemed represented and the singing was a combination of Shabbat songs, a song by Ehud Banai, and niggunim, or spiritual melodies. The setting, combined with the music, leveled the playing field for everyone and it was a classic example of how if you take everyone out of their normal place for a shared experience, an openness to trying something new can emerge. Once a month, Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem's main Reform synagogue, gives space to Nava Tehila--an important and generous act by its community and its leader, Rabbi Levi Kelman, to foster spiritual growth and innovation here in the city.

Anyway, from 5 pm til 6.30 pm we sat together and then split the group up into their various shul choices. Nine of the Fellows decided, spontaneously, to head back to the campus and create their own Friday night service, an idea prompted by two kids from observant backgrounds who had never prayed in a non-Orthodox minyan before. Given that the kids from Reform and Conservative backgrounds had been davenning in traditional shuls all summer, it was a welcome conclusion to our Shabbat experience.

It also made me realize that communities in the States have a great opportunity to build pluralistic, shared experiences like this ourselves and gave me some good ideas for the coming year in this regard.