This Wall is Mine, Too

In my first blog post of the year, I reflected on my inaugural Rosh Chodesh prayer experience with Women of the Wall and my hopes for identifying with their mission. Moved, proud, and excited, I wrote:

“The point is to make a space for US, not to try to change THEM. It was empowering to reclaim a space that hadn’t felt like mine for a long time, and to pray there the way I know how.” 

View of the Kotel during last month’s calmer Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh Davenning

This morning, I went back to Women of the Wall (my third time this year) and had a very different and disturbing experience:

I arrived at the Kotel (Western Wall) about 15 minutes late, so I went right in to the women’s section, put on my tallit (prayer shawl), and quickly caught up on the service. At least half of the women present were also wearing tallitot. Right as I had gathered my tzitzit (corner fringes) together in preparation for the Shema prayer, a police officer approached me (and a couple of others) asking us to change the way we were wearing our tallitot. Apparently, it is illegal for a woman to wear a tallit at the Kotel, and the way of getting around that is to wear them like scarves. I promptly pulled my tallit down so that it was draped on my body, rather than folded over my shoulders in the customary way. She asked me to further make it look scarf-like, and I, stumbling in Hebrew, told her that I would as soon as this prayer was over, but that with my tzitzit wrapped around my fingers, that would be challenging. Without waiting to hear the end of my explanation, she called over to her fellow officer who was holding a video camera, and said in Hebrew “She doesn’t want to. Film her.” The second I released my tzitzit at the end of the Shema, I pulled the bottom of my tallit up and wore it like a shawl (the way I saw most of the other women wearing theirs), and wore it that way for the duration of the service at the Kotel.

In the moment, I was pretty frustrated: frustrated that the officer had interrupted my davenning (praying) at a crucial moment in the service when I try to have the most focus and intention. Frustrated that I could not articulate myself well to her. Frustrated that in what I thought was a public space, I could not wear my beloved garment (that covered most of my body, by the way) the way that I wanted. Frustrated that my tallit was too big to wear as a scarf and was therefore uncomfortable on my body. Frustrated that the people whom I thought were present to protect our group made me feel like I was the threat.

I pushed through, though, and sang loudly for the rest of the service to help our group of women and allies hear each other over the loud celebratory service happening just on the other side of the mechitza (barrier separating the men’s and women’s sections). We gathered at the end of the Hallel service to head to the archaeological park  at Robinson’s Arch (and extension of the Western Wall), because women are not permitted to read Torah publicly in the Kotel plaza. As we headed through security on the way out, an officer pointed me out, along with fellow JTS student Sarit Horwitz and Ziegler rabbinical student Erica Miller and pulled us aside. We were asked for our passports (none of us had them so we gave our drivers’ licenses), and were asked for our contact information as well. We were then told that we would be contacted for further inquiry and possible legal recourse, though at no point were we told specifically what the problem was. (I found out later that the expectation was that we should never have worn our tallitot as we did. Though we all complied when approached, we were apparently past the warning stage.) Throughout this ordeal, we were surrounded by all of the women and allies present who never stopped singing songs, rubbing our backs, squeezing our shoulders, and letting us know that we were not alone.

I was overwhelmed with emotion. My initial reaction was that of fear. I had complied with the officer’s request, and was certain that my thirty-second delay to finish the Shema had done me in. My half-midwestern blood makes me avoid most confrontations, and I’ve always hated getting in trouble. (My most traumatic childhood memories are of those few times when I was disciplined by teachers.) Additionally, coming from the US, I’ve always seen police officers as people in a helper role. I trust them. Today, police officers made me feel intimidated and unsafe.

My multi-faceted frustration from earlier was magnified by the realization that the Kotel, a supposedly universal Jewish prayer space, did not belong to me. My only positive Kotel prayer experiences this year have been with Women of the Wall, and today, that too was taken away from me.

I was (and continue to be) sad that our Jewish community is so fragmented that there is no space for multiple forms of religious expression, especially in a space that has captured Jewish hearts across denominations as a powerful symbol of Jewish unity.

I was in disbelief that an act of devotion that I perform every morning (on other days made “even worse” by wearing tefillin) was suddenly considered a criminal act.

I was grateful for the love and support I felt and continue to feel, reminding me that my Judaism is legitimate, meaningful, and important.

Now, a few hours later, my fears have abated slightly, but my sadness, frustration, disbelief, and gratitude remain, and these have led me to feel yet another emotion: empowerment. While I regret that this incident had to happen in the first place, I do not regret that it happened to me. And despite my aversion to confrontation, I am now drawn into this fight. I want my voice and my story heard, because the religious welfare of the State of Israel is too important for me to remain silent.

I don’t know what will happen next. I may be called in for further questioning, but have no legal obligation to show up, and do not yet know what I will do. My rabbinical school year in Israel ends in just 2.5 weeks. I worry that this incident might leave a stain on my year, but am hopeful that I can transform it into an opportunity to leave a different kind of mark: a positive, lasting impression on this place that I’ve called my home for 8 months and my homeland for nearly 26 years.

Wish me luck.

For more coverage, check out the following:

Jerusalem Post article

WoW Facebook page (including a video interview with the three of us)

Standing at Attention

I’ve heard several sirens over the last few weeks, and each made me pause and think:

The first siren I heard was on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Taking a break from Halacha class, I stood at attention with my classmates, outdoors, but surrounded by the walls of the property. I could only imagine the rest of the country doing the same. As the sun hit my face, and the breeze whipped through me, I thought about the reason we stood there. Of the millions of Jews and other people deemed too “different” to remain in society whose time of enjoying the sun and spring breeze was cut far too short. Of the Jews for whom the dream of studying Talmud in Jerusalem was as foreign as the nightmares that they faced in the camps, ghettos, and in hiding. Of how lucky I was, simply to have been born where and when I was. Of my grave responsibility to make these silenced voices heard once again.

The second siren I heard was during the evening of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. I stood at attention in Rabin Square with tens of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds. We gathered because we needed to. We sang somber songs led by popular Israeli artists, heard the poetry of fallen soldiers, and watched video tributes to soldiers killed in battle that spanned decades of war and reflected the variety of religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds of IDF soldiers. There was an overwhelming feeling in the air of a desire for everyone to feel connected, to sit with each other in grief and solidarity. I truly felt like I was in community with each and every person around me that evening.

“Shirim Bakikar” at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv

There were thousands of people there.

The third siren I heard was the next morning. I stood at attention with the students and family members of the Keshet School in Jerusalem, accompanying a teacher of mine whose own children had studied there. The ceremony, or tekes, was planned and presented by the 12th grade students, kids who  did so with the awareness that in just a few months, they too will be soldiers, at risk for having their own stories told in future years. The students sang, danced, told stories, and read reflections with deep respect for the task at hand. I was in awe. That afternoon, I went to Har Herzl, the national military cemetery, and walked around, reading headstones and absorbing the stories of those who lay there. I reflected on Yom Hazikaron in Israel and how it differs from our own Memorial Day in the United States. Instead of barbecues, people gather and sing sad songs of war, loss, and love. Instead of parades, people gather for memorial ceremonies. Instead of shopping sales, people stand still at the graves of those they love and lost.*

At the memorial for victims of terror at Har Herzl

The fourth time I stood at attention, it was for the sounding of a shofar. I was at a Tekes Maavar, a transition ceremony, and this blast marked the moment of leaving behind (at least for now) the grief of remembering, and moving into the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day. Walking outside, I felt like someone had flipped a switch over Israel. All of a sudden, mobs of people crowded the streets, buying hot corn on the cob, cotton candy, and that annoying foam that kids like to spray at everyone. Techno beats pulsed from speakers set up on street corners. A singalong followed by Israeli folk dancing dominated Kikar Safra (Safra Square). There was a feeling of relief, of relaxation in the air, as if the Jewish population was saying: we made it through this tough day, now it’s time to celebrate and make the sacrifices of our loved ones worth it. This carefree feeling carried over into the next day- I spent some time in the park, and saw countless numbers of families and friends just sitting in the shade with a grill, enjoying the day, the weather, and each others’ company. I closed out Yom Haatzmaut with a really nice “al ha’esh” (literally, “on the fire,” how Israelis refer to barbecues) with some friends that evening.

The craziness that was Ben Yehuda Street on Yom Haatzmaut

People enjoying their picnics in the park

The blasts of the sirens serve the same purpose as that of the shofar, both at this time of year, and during the High Holidays. We are forced to pay attention, to stop what we are doing, be reminded of what is important that day, and know that no one is remembering alone.

This time of year is so saturated with sacred time, it’s as if we are in a constant state of acknowledging something special, punctuated with moments of normalcy. We celebrated Pesach, we count the Omer,  we remembered victims of the Holocaust, we celebrated a new month, we remembered fallen soldiers, we celebrated the anniversary of the rebirth of a nation. More recently, we knocked Lag Ba’omer off the list, and are starting to gear up for Shavuot in a couple of weeks. In between, even Shabbat is beginning to feel like a normal day.

Lag Ba’Omer: the day when small children play with large fires totally unsupervised

Now, with less than a month left here, I’m starting to think of each day as sacred in it’s own way, whether the calendar tells me I should or not. It’s been an incredibly rewarding practice, perhaps one that I’ll try to continue when I get home.

——————–

* Below is an additional report on Yom Hazikaron that I sent to Rabbi Nevins to share with my classmates back in New York:
So, I spent yesterday in Tel Aviv, where at least during the day, things seemed pretty normal. Around 6-7pm though, the city seemed to get quiet all of a sudden. Shops started closing, traffic was slowing, and streets were being closed off. I could definitely feel a different tone in the air. I went to Kikar Rabin for “Shirim Bakikar” with Sarit and my roommate Becky. We were there for the siren, standing in silence with tens of thousands of other people who came out to remember the fallen. The tekes involved popular Israeli artists performing many of the somber “radio” songs interspersed with poems and powerful video tributes to individual fallen soldiers. The words to songs were projected on a screen so people could sing along. I was amazed at how fast people seemed to transition: into Yom Hazikaron itself, silencing immediately for the siren, starting up conversation afterwards, and silencing again the second emcee Yair Lapid opened the tekes. There seemed to be an overwhelming feeling of people just wanting to be together, and communal singing facilitated that connectedness.
This morning I went to a school tekes with a teacher of mine from Hartman- it was planned by Kitah Yod Bet, the kids who will for the most part be entering the army next year. They put together a beautiful, poignant program filled with readings, tributes, songs, dance, and visual art. I had the chance to debrief with my teacher afterwards, which was especially meaningful, because this was the school that her kids had attended, so she herself felt very emotionally connected to the experience.
I spent the afternoon at Har Herzl, just reading names on graves and plaques and being a presence. I went to find Matt Eisenfeld’s name at the memorial for victims of terror, and wove through the years and wars, the graves and monuments. There was a definite change in energy as we entered the section of newer graves. It was especially painful to see a couple of graves that were barely a week old and at this point were just mounds of dirt with a sign stuck in them, covered with flowers. One was for Hila Bezaleli, the soldier who was killed last week at the accident on Har Herzl while rehearsing for tonight’s tekes.
Not sure what the transition is going to look like tonight, but I’m definitely feeling in tune with the rest of the country and am looking forward to celebrating and relaxing with everyone.

Pesach 2012: Feast of Freedom and Food for Thought

I last checked in after Purim as I began preparing for Pesach, or Passover. As soon as Purim ended, it seemed like the entire country transitioned at once to Pesach. Matzah and Kosher for Passover foods began appearing in stores, restaurants began cleaning, most of them closing the night before Pesach started to do an all-night switchover to K for P mode, posters began appearing advertising events and activities that were happening over Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days) Kashering stations were set up on the street (see below), and the weather became warm, breezy, and dry, a true sign that the rainy season of the winter had ended and that Pesach was on the way.

 

Huge vats of boiling water set up on the street to help people with kashering for Pesach.

We spent many hours discussing Pesach in various ways in my classes as well, which helped me immensely in mentally preparing for the holiday. In the States, I often feel like the holidays sneak up on me because I have so few external reminders. Here, the atmosphere of holiday prep is pervasive, constantly palpable. We studied the laws of preparing for Pesach in my Halacha class, we read the Mishnayot that outline the Seder in my Talmud class, and we studied the original Haggadah written by the American-born youth of Kibbutz Sasa in 1949 in my Hartman Seminar.

 

The week leading up to Pesach, Becky and I checked items off our list as we cleaned them: refrigerator, sink, counters, oven, stove, tables, floors, bathroom, and bedrooms, as well as kashering dishes, utensils, and appliances, and running to the shuk and supermarkets to pick up any food we needed. Thankfully, the teamwork made this part of the prep not at all stressful, and even fun. It helps that we put visitors to work as well.

 

Burning chametz (our final remaining leavened products) was a different story. It was quite a task. It looked so easy growing up when we had a few crumbs on a wooden spoon wrapped in paper towel and drenched with lighter fuel. This year, our chunks of challah (with the help of a little Scotch) just wouldn’t catch flame.

Our first, failed, but valiant attempt to burn our Chametz

 

Discouraged, we looked down below, and saw our neighbors with a large bonfire going, throwing bags upon bags of bread into the flames. We were inspired, and set off in search of better fire. And better fire we found.

 

Our second, more successful Chametz-burning.

 

After burning our chametz for real in an empty lot nearby, we stumbled upon the “official” chametz-burning dumpsters. I was impressed and excited by this public recognition of Pesach preparations, until I saw that people were throwing their plastic bags and containers in with the food. Then, I held my breath and backed away, determined to educate the residents of Jerusalem on safe disposal of plastic products.

 

The "official" chametz-burning dumpster. It says "biyur chametz" (burning chametz) on the side.

 

In the days leading up to Seder, I thought a lot about the burden of freedom. Different from the more apparent burdens of slavery which are born of a lack of choice and autonomy, the burdens of freedom are born out of having autonomy and control, and have much to do with shouldering responsibility for ourselves and those around us. This is a theme that has come up throughout the year as I and my peers have engaged with Israel, the decisions that its leaders have made over the years, and how the country relates to its various populations. With Israel’s independence came the burden of freedom and its many challenges. While at times I agree and at times I disagree with decisions made here, above all I sympathize with this burden.

 

In terms of my own Pesach preparations, the challenges of freedom came out in planning for the Seder (we only have one here!). This year, several friends and I got together to plan our own Seder, the kind of Seder that many of us have never had (and, many joked, we may never have again). As a group of rabbinical students, educators, and friends who are engaged deeply in Judaism, we figured it would be fun, meaningful, and inspiring to be able to learn from each other, and decided to divide up parts of the Seder, allowing everyone to sign up for what spoke to them. It became apparent, however, that some other forms of structure were necessary: how would we keep the Seder flowing? What kinds of time limits would we place on people to enable everyone to get some sleep? How could we keep things interesting, and make sure that we had a variety of teaching styles and media to reflect our own diversity of learning styles? How would we organize the food?

 

This freedom of choice became more stressful than any other part of Pesach planning. I was in awe of my parents, specifically my Eema, who prepare for and host both Seders every year- it’s a ton of work! Once Seder came around, though, and I saw how truly fun, meaningful, and inspiring it indeed was, I realized that the work that came out of the freedom of choice truly paid off. We really did need to work together to create structure but not constraint, suggestions but not limits, and of course, to make sure the delicious, vegetarian menu fit everyone’s dietary needs. I think we all felt truly free that night.

 

I won’t share all of the amazing, creative things that I learned at Seder- most of them are not mine to share- but below are two of the pieces of Seder that I prepared and had the honor of sharing with my peers:

The Four Children: This has long been a part of the Haggadah with which I connect, and I especially love different artistic renderings of these children in different Haggadot. I printed out many versions of these Four Children from over the centuries and cut them up so that I had a pile of different individuals. I spread them on the table and asked everyone to take a look and choose a combination of children (perhaps fewer or more than four) that spoke to them, thinking about the kinds of labels that we put on people, the kinds of questions we ourselves like to ask, how we ask them, and what kinds of learning styles speak to us. We then discussed our choices in pairs. I had a very meaningful conversation with my partner about the various qualities we need to be most open to learning, and how damaging it is at times to assign people to categories.
Elijah: While this piece isn’t directly part of the traditional Haggadah texts, most modern Haggadot include this tradition anyway, right after the request to God to pour out God’s wrath on the nations that seek to destroy us. We spoke about the challenges of both of these ideas, Elijah as a redeemer, and asking God to do the dirty work, as a way of removing our personal responsibility  for self-advocacy and for doing good in the world. I mentioned my discomfort with the idea of outsourcing our desires to something more powerful than ourselves, because I think it’s so easy to feel absolved of responsibility in fixing our problems (in addition to the fact that I have a hard time facing the idea of asking for bad things to happen to others). We played a game of Fortunately/Unfortunately, in which the group tells a story, each person beginning a line alternately with “Fortunately” or “Unfortunately” and examined our own roles in facilitating others’ successes. It’s so easy to say “unfortunately” instead of “fortunately,” and “but” instead of “and” or “yes,” therefore being an obstacle rather than a support to others in achieving their goals. Redemption can only come when we become agents of progress, of supporting each other in moving forward.

It was only officially Pesach for me when I had my first piece of Matzah Pizza!

After one day of Yom Tov, the country moved into Chol Hamoed, a time in which there remains a holiday atmosphere, but few of the religious restrictions that prevent mobility on other days. The week of Chol Hamoed was for me a celebration of springtime weather and the outdoors, and I was in good company. I spent the first two days in Tel Aviv at an Ultimate frisbee tournament. Technically the Israeli National Club Championships (though anyone can enter and there are no previous sectional or regional tournaments as there are in the states), I played with and against some of the most spirited, kind, fun, athletic people I have ever met. I joined up with the same team I had played with in December, the Basic Joy of Play, a team mostly of Americans and Israelis who are committed to good, clean, spirited, and above all, fun play. We ended up tying for third, and got to watch a talented team of kids from Raanana knock the dominant team in Israel out of the top spot for the first time. There were teams from all over the country: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Raanana, Sde Boker, Tamra, Haifa, and more. On the fields, I heard Hebrew, English, and Arabic. Games ended with high-fives, hugs, cheers for the opposing teams, and often fun camp-like games to pass the time. After each day of playing I had the chance to connect with friends who lived in the Tel Aviv area, so all in all, it was an incredible couple of days.
After a day off in which I pretty much sat in my apartment trying not to move, I took a bus up to Tiberias where I met a few friends who had arrived earlier in the day. Early the next morning we hopped on bikes to make the journey around the circumference of the Kinneret (though the ride was a bit longer, about 62km, because the roads often wove out from the shore). With stops along the way to snack, see some ancient churches and synagogues, and eat ice cream on the beach, we eventually made it back to Tiberias in about 10 hours.

Taking a break at Kibbutz Ginosar. Smile, Jimmy, you're in this pic too!

It seemed like the entire country was out, hiking, biking, swimming, enjoying the beaches, and just enjoying the Pesach vacation, and I loved being a part of it. It was an incredible, exhausting day, filled with gorgeous mountain views, challenging hills, bright flowers, and an excitingly high water level. We felt truly accomplished after that ride, but even more so that night after fending off dozens of Israelis trying to catch the last buses back to Jerusalem to secure some seats.

The high water level due to all of the winter rain as seen from Kibbutz Ginosar. The entire beach is pretty much covered!

The view of the hills and farmland from the road. It was so hard to stop myself from taking a break every other minute to take pictures!

I closed out Pesach with a couple of wonderful, relaxing days with friends, both visiting and residing here, and reluctantly returned to school, but not to total normalcy. We are currently in a time of year that is saturated with special days; some are celebratory, others somber and filled with mourning. Just as for previous holidays, there is a definite tone in the air that acknowledges that we are in a special time. I’ll check in next time with a report on some of these days.

A City (Momentarily) Transformed

A snapshot of an early Friday morning: A scantily clad police officer came towards me up the stairs, while a woman with bright purple hair and a matching shirt zoomed by on her bike. A man in a pirate hat passed me walking his dog, while an elderly gent dressed like robin hood told me that the sheriff look suited me. I returned the compliment.

No, this was not a bizarre dream that I had last night, but rather a snapshot of Purim in Jerusalem. It was incredible to see the city transformed for what amounted to over a week of celebrations (despite Purim itself only being observed for one day). Many people, myself included, took advantage of both regular Purim and Shushan Purim (which happens a day later in walled or formerly walled cities), traveling to Tel Aviv for one day and returning to Jerusalem for the other. In trying to describe the scene to a friend, I suggested that the feeling in the air was akin to the good cheer, friendliness, and generosity of the December holiday season in the US, combined with a less dark version of the Halloween goofiness and energy that is pervasive on the streets of NYC every year.

I spent much of Purim alternating between taking in the scene and enjoying the time with friends.Wednesday night (Purim for almost everyone outside of Jerusalem) I went to Tel Aviv to help out a friend; he was involved in a small Masorti community that was looking for people to come in and read the megillah. I went with a few friends and we had a great time- it felt like a true Israeli Purim experience. Many of the attendees would self-identify as secular or something close to it, but it seems like everyone dresses up and celebrates this holiday in full force.

The best Mishloach Manot ever from my family!

The next evening, I went to hear the megillah at a large synagogue with attendees of all ages and an impressive array of costumes, followed by a party hosted by friends who live at the corner of Esther HaMalka and Mordechai HaYehudi streets. (How can someone who lives at the intersection of the streets named after the two heroes of the Purim story not have a party??) Later that night, I took in the scene at Machaneh Yehuda shuk, which was transformed into a giant dance party, looking very different from the market where I had bought groceries earlier that day. The next day, after a fun, more intimate megillah reading with a community I frequent for Shabbat services, and a festive brunch with classmate and friend Mia, I ventured towards the neighborhood of Nachlaot for a seudah (festive meal) hosted by another friend. I was greeted by a a wave of color, music, and celebration. The “hippy” Jews of Jerusalem had taken to the streets, squeezing every last ounce of celebration out of the final few hours of the holiday. It was truly an incredible scene. Needless to say, the Shabbat that began that night was probably the quietest that Jerusalem has ever seen as everyone tried to recover.

Celebrating in Nachlaot on Shushan Purim day

Most of the costumes that I saw over Purim were simply fun and silly, but others certainly reflected current events and phenomena in the country. I saw a young woman dressed up as Purim story character Queen Vashti, and on her cape were bumper stickers that I’ve seen around protesting the silencing of women’s voices that is happening due to the influence of some sectors of the Haredi community. Another man was dressed up as “Tag Mechir” (Price tag), having spray painted himself with these words, reflecting the series of recent acts of vandalism by Jewish extremists in mosques, a monastery, a bilingual school, and other places representing different religious practices and experiences.

I for my part, was fresh out of ideas, but at the last minute found a cheap sheriff hat for sale in the shuk, and figured I could put together a western-themed costume. The result wasn’t half bad!

A pirate, a sheriff, and a genie walk into a Purim party... (with Mia and Sarit, special thanks to Sarit for the photo!)

Listen here, y'all, we roommates gotta stick together! (Thanks to Becky for the photo)

Unfortunately, when Purim ended, it was back to reality for me. I just started a new semester of school a few weeks ago, and am still settling into my classes. This semester’s lineup is shaping up to be about as good as last semester’s, perhaps even better. I am sticking with the same Talmud teacher, this time with harder material, though I’m learning Halacha (a strange assortment of the laws of Passover, Kashrut, and mourning) with a new teacher. I’m still taking Hebrew, and am finding it to be a great place to take linguistic risks without fear of making a mistake. I enjoyed my Midrash teacher so much that I’m learning with her again, this time in a course on how the rabbis engaged with dreams and dream interpretation in text. I’m taking a course on the development of faith and religion (from Israelite culture to Judaism) in the Bible, and a class on the history of Zionism and the State of Israel. My current schedule leaves me with many gaps during the day and nearly all of Tuesday free to get out and enjoy the beautiful Israeli springtime.

On the side, I’m still taking the Rabbinical Students Seminar through the Hartman Institute. Another, wonderful, extracurricular this semester is an Israeli literature class that I’m taking with the owner of cafe/bookstore Tmol Shilshom, a gathering place for many of the great minds of Israeli literature to sit, write, and share their work. It’s been pretty amazing to sit around tables in coffee shops discussing their short stories, memoirs, and poetry, especially with someone who himself is an insider in that world.

I have much more to report on, but perhaps I’ll save that for the next post. Next time, I’ll share what I’ve been doing with my no-class Tuesdays (affectionately known as “Tiyul [trip] Tuesdays”), what Passover preparation looks like, and anything else exciting that comes up.

Spring is here! Taken on a path I frequent in Emek HaMatsleva (The Valley of the Cross) near my apartment.

It’s a strange time of year for me right now. Purim to me always seems like that turning point in the year after which everything starts to fly by. It’s so easy to mark time: Passover is a month after Purim (I am already deeply entrenched in preparations), followed by seven weeks of counting the Omer to the holiday of Shavuot, and I’m leaving Israel a week later. It’s hard to feel like I just started my semester, yet to start preparing to go home as well. Throw in increasingly beautiful weather, and a carpe diem attitude, and I should have a very interesting/intense/eventful/exciting couple of months.

We’re Halfway There

It’s been a while since I’ve written, and a lot has happened. This post will be a quick play-by-play of the last several weeks, which will hopefully get me on track to discuss in greater depth the many exciting moments coming up over the next few months.

Here’s the rundown (I’ll go into more detail on some of these below):

I survived finals. I even did pretty well.

My friend Chris (a good friend from CPE last summer, and also a close friend of Becky’s- she was the source of our roommate shidduch) came to visit.

My Eema came to visit.

I went to Dublin.

I went to Hebron.

I went to Bethlehem twice- once with Chris and Becky and a couple of other friends for fun, and once with Encounter- this time as a facilitator.

I traveled around the Jerusalem area, taking my visitors to various holy and other notable sites.

I went up North (to Zichron Yaakov, Tzfat, and the Kinneret).

At the end of all of this, I started a new semester of school, and began to reconnect with the world that I’ve ignored for the past month.

Tired yet?

Many of these travel experiences happened when Chris came to visit. She arrived the day before I finished my finals so I scrambled to finish my papers (can’t say it was pretty, but as Becky told me, “done is better than good”) in order to join in the fun. We had a couple of days to explore Tel Aviv and Jerusalem before heading into a very relaxing, rewarding, and ridiculously fun Shabbat.

Saturday night the two of us left for Dublin. I had a real vacation! Chris had studied abroad in Ireland and has a lot of connections there so she had various friends who fed us, gave us a place to sleep, and provided excellent entertainment. We explored downtown Dublin, toured the Guinness Brewery, shopped til we dropped, went out on the town, drove into the country (between driving on the left and the standard car, there was no way I was driving in Ireland- Chris did a rockstar job), saw Newgrange (a 5000 year-old megalithic tomb), hung out in the town of Drogheda, and stopped by an Irish Dance competition where Chris’ mom happened to be.  I came back to Israel refreshed, relaxed, and motivated to keep on having fun.

From the rooftop bar of the Guinness Brewery

Newgrange from a distance

It was hard to not to notice that Chris and I were each hosting the other in our own religious/national/spiritual homelands. Not only did each of us get to see a new place, but we got to experience for ourselves why it was special to the other. This elevated the trip to a whole new level for me, and I was deeply grateful for the opportunity.

Chris and Me looking out on the Irish countryside from Newgrange

The tail-end of Chris’ visit involved a day in Hebron (important and intense, and not in the fun category), another great Shabbat, a touristy day in Bethlehem, and some more time exploring the beautiful and holy places in Jerusalem. The day she left was when Eema (my mother) came. We had an incredible visit, spending time in Tel Aviv, going up north for a few days, and just relaxing in my apartment. More importantly, I REALLY needed a dose of home and I got it. I made sure to get plenty of hugs, and I’m just now finishing up all of the Trader Joe’s chocolate she brought.

Formerly bustling marketplace in Hebron

With Eema at the beach in Tel Aviv!

Sadly, also over this break, my cousin Marty passed away. Known to the wider community as Rabbi Martin Menachem Gordon, Marty was an important fixture of the time I have spent in Jerusalem. I first spent time with him here over my free weekend on my 8th grade class trip to Israel in 2000, and have seen him on almost every trip since them. When I spent the year at Hebrew University, he (and his wife Bilha) lived less than a ten-minute walk from my dorm, so I visited them frequently. Unfortunately, Marty’s health over the last few months made visits challenging this year, and I wasn’t able to spend the time I would have like with him. He was a true champion of modern Jewish living (he was able to see his last book published in January on this subject), and deeply valued the challenge and intellectual effort required to adapt Judaism to contemporary times. I’ve deeply admired his hashkafa (way of viewing the world), and am dedicating the rest of my learning this year to honoring his memory. Eema and I were able to visit Marty’s family (our extended network of cousins here in Israel) during shiva, and I am grateful to have had that time.

The amazing, green, north. I guess all the rain was worth it.

At the end of my first week of school, I went on Encounter for the second time, this time from the perspective of a facilitator. It was incredibly powerful to experience something that is now familiar through an entirely different lens. I had heard some of the speakers before, yet somehow heard completely new things from them this time. The new speakers were, depending on who they were, moving, challenging, and provocative. The weather prevented us from doing much touring (it snowed in Jerusalem and Bethlehem!), but enabled us to spend  more time sitting and processing through our experiences. Through enabling intense conversation and facilitating processing in my small group, I ended up coming away from the trip with a deeper personal experience than I could have even hoped to expect. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this again in my time here, but I’ll be thinking about this trip for a long time.

So this is it, I’m officially well into the second half of the year. No more “I just got here” excuses. Time to take the rest of the year by the horns and leave nothing on the field. Okay, enough with the motivational cliches- I just really want to make the most of my remaining time here. Stay tuned for a report on Purim (starting Wednesday night for the world, and Thursday night for Jerusalem), and the transition into Passover. Time to stop writing now because I need to go figure out a Purim costume. Don’t worry, I’ll share photos.

A Student of Jerusalem

“There are places in Jerusalem that I recognize and know so well, but when I do chance upon one of them it’s as if I’d never seen the place before. While on the other hand there are places in Jerusalem that I’ve never been to in my entire life, but when I go to one of them, it’s as if I’m able to immediately recognize them and have always known them. The result, however, of these many meanderings of mine through the streets of Jerusalem both day and night has been that I never really found the time to learn a trade in life.  And what’s worse is that I neglected the study of Torah. When a Jew doesn’t engage in the study of Torah, his conscience constantly reproves him saying: So what will you answer on Judgment Day when they ask you “Did you occupy yourself in the study of Torah during your lifetime?” What indeed will I answer them?- I will proudly respond: “I was occupied with Jerusalem” and I’m sure they’ll commend me saying “Well done!” – Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, Within the City Walls, page 9.

We studied these words, American and Israeli rabbinical students, sitting right above the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza on one of our weekly class tours. While the duration of the conversation was devoted to ancient texts related to the destroyed Temple, the Kotel, and the Shekhina (the Godly presence) that is said to dwell there constantly, I was fixated on these modern words, written by one of Israel’s most famous and influential authors. I found so many truths in his statements- I too have walked the streets of Jerusalem, discovered something entirely new and nearly unrecognizable on a street I traverse daily, I have been to sites for the first time, certain that I must have spent significant time there in the past. Much of my experience here is occupying myself with Jerusalem: my home, my capital, my Beit Midrash (house of study), and a constant source of conflicting emotions, all underlied with love.My parents, teachers, and administrators will breathe a sigh of relief when I say that this preoccupation with Jerusalem has not prevented me from studying Torah- don’t worry, Gramma, I am doing my homework and studying for exams- but this Torah study would be incomplete if I valued the classrooms in the Mechon Schechter building above the limestone-dotted, hilly classroom that surrounds me constantly.

Thankfully, we’ve had many organized opportunities to learn about our surroundings. We have gone to a different holy site each week on our class on Jerusalem as Home to the Three Monotheistic Faiths. Through our experiential program we have met with Muslim students in nearby Abu Ghosh, various Christian leaders in the Old City, and other political, social, and religious leaders. By paying attention to posters and Facebook posts, I have encountered events protesting discrimination against women, Ethiopians, Arabs, and the list goes on. Jerusalem is in many ways a microcosm for the rest of Israel and the Jewish experience at large, and in many ways feels like another planet. It seems that every idea, cause, issue, and conflict that happens anywhere in the country comes to a head here. Or maybe, I just need to get out more- thank goodness we have semester break coming up next month!

Israeli singer Achinoam Nini at a concert to protest the silencing of women. The poster behind her reads "Sing for Equality: They Won't Silence Us"

Probably the most significant experiences I have had in the greater Jerusalem area over the last few weeks deal with a different sense of the word “occupation.” Just outside of Jerusalem (and most would argue within the city as well) is a vast area of land that represents many different things to many different people. I am of course talking about the West Bank (an area with many names according to each of these different people). I consider myself incredibly lucky to have participated in two trips to the West Bank on two consecutive Thursdays.

The first was a tour lead by a American Olah (immigrant) who is now a resident of the large settlement of Efrat. We started the day at Herodion, Herod’s man-made fortress which is now a fascinating archaeological park, and continued on to an illegal outpost to hear from a settler there, to a bakery in the largely Americanized settlement of Neve Daniel, to Kfar Etzion to learn about the massacre there in 1948, to the “pinah chamah” (literally “warm corner”) to deliver baked goods to soldiers relaxing off-duty, and finally to lunch and an overlook in Efrat.

View from Herodion of various Jewish and Palestinian homes

The second trip was run by Encounter, and involved two days of traveling in the Bethlehem area, meeting and hearing from Palestinians. We met peacemakers, businessmen, farmers, teachers, parents, and students and heard their stories. We walked along the separation barrier and all of the international graffiti messages drawn on it. We ate in a restaurant, met in hotels, and stayed over in people’s homes. My host family was a wonderful three-generation Palestinian Christian family in one multi-story house who opened up their beautiful home to four of us, providing tea, an excellent breakfast spread, and an openness to sharing their experiences and beliefs. At the end of the trip, on our way back into Jerusalem we walked through a checkpoint.

It took me several days to sort through all of the impressions, thoughts, and issues that these trips raised (and I’m still not done). It was fascinating to be in the same area twice and have it look so different on each trip. While I’m not sure I can definitively express my political views on what should happen in this region, especially as they shift slightly with each new story or piece of information that I hear or see, I can say that these two trips grounded the conflict here for me. I gained a sense of just how intense and deep the emotions are on all sides when it comes to this land, and the various peoples who feel inextricably tied to it. I feet despair and hopelessness that this conflict will never be resolved, and simultaneous joy and optimism at the incredible work that those committed to resolution and peace are doing. Even more, I returned from these trips with a renewed passion for and commitment to Israel as my homeland and as a place where I want to work to see dreams realized and potential actualized.

Artists from all over the world have come to try to beautify the walls of this conflict:

At the cement wall surrounding the "Pinah Chama"

The Separation Barrier surrounding Bethlehem

I now understand that saying “it’s complicated here” is more than just an excuse to avoid delving into deeper conversation- it’s simply the truth. As people on all sides work to strip away these layers of complexity (even while others try to add more), I’ll do my part and just keep sharing the stories:

Of Omar, a farmer in Al Walaje village, for whom the IDF is building a tunnel so that he can access the rest of his village that will soon be on the other side of the separation barrier.

Of the fighters of Kfar Etzion, who weathered massacres and ambushes as they defended the road into Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence.

Of  Ali Abu Awad, a former militant activist who was active in both Intifadas, and after losing his brother in this war and is now fighting for peace

Of the Jewish mothers who keep the “pina chama” fully stocked with fresh baked goods for soldiers to relax on duty, treating them as their own children.

Of the people on all sides who care deeply for their land and their fellow human beings, find justification for their their decisions through their faiths and traditions, and are just ready for  peace, in however many states it will take.

Omar's Tunnel

I’m grateful that I’ve heard all of these stories and more, and hope to add to my collection throughout the rest of this year. Stories are meant to be heard and stories and meant to be told and retold.

As you can tell, being occupied with Jerusalem and its environs can be exhausting, and I’m just a simple rabbinical student who can escape from it when I want. And escape I do. The last few weeks have been filled with many friends visiting from the states. Shout-outs to all of my friends from home, college, camp, JTS, and other facets of my life who came and had dinner, stayed with me, shared Shabbat with me, did laundry, and otherwise helped convert my apartment into a hostel. And a special shout-out to Becky for putting up with it.

The next few weeks will have a different, less-fun sort of escape- finals. Though I definitely do not look forward to the paper-writing and studying for exams, I do think it will be satisfying to reflect on what I’ve learned this year and how my Hebrew abilities have grown. Thankfully, we are allowed to write our papers in English. After exams, we have a few weeks off before beginning our Spring Semester at the end of February.

How Sarit and I "occupied" ourselves one day waiting for class to start

So it’s time to get back to studying: from books, from notes, from people, from landscapes, from maps, from the food I eat, and from the air I breathe. And once I am done occupying myself with passing my classes, I will go back to occupying myself with this fascinating city in this equally fascinating country.

A Day in the Life of a JTS Student

Hanukkah Sameah (Happy Hanukkah) from Jerusalem! We are in the midst of the holiday now, as well as that other holy time- winter break. We have the week of Hanukkah off from school, but even better, the rest of the world is on winter break, meaning that the country has swelled to capacity with visitors. I’ve already seen several friends and am looking forward to seeing many more over the next few weeks. Of course, the most significant visitors thus far were Rabbi Nevins who came to spend time with us for a week, and  Abba (my father), who came into town for a bar mitzvah and was able to extend his trip to spend a few days with me.

Abba and me keeping that true American tradition alive: Chinese food on Christmas!

It’s been a VERY eventful few weeks since I last wrote, starting with an extreme form of JTS class bonding in which most of us shared a nasty cold. Thankfully we are all healthy and back to feeling like ourselves. I’ll share bits and pieces of various events and experiences in coming posts, but for now I wanted to paint a picture of how I spend most of my time in my normal day-to-day routine.

Let’s start with my walk to school. Schechter is directly across from my apartment. In between lies a valley of sorts. So, to get to school I need to go down one hill, and around and up another. The fastest way would be by zipline, but we haven’t found the funding to have it installed yet. Every day, I go down 140+ steps and up another 88 (I would have said 90 but Sarit and I have counted at least 3 times and I wouldn’t want to misrepresent our findings). Of course, to get home, it’s the reverse. While at 7:15am or at the end of a long school day, this walk is not exactly how I want to spend my time, I am afforded a great view and several short workouts a day.

The view from my mirpeset (porch). Schechter is out there somewhere...

 

Those darn steps...

Let me digress for a moment with a short note about my apartment. I live on Tchernichovsky Street, a great location that easily connects to several neighborhoods and other parts of the city (every destination seems to be a 20 minute walk in any direction). I live in a 2 bedroom with one roommate, Becky, who is a Hebrew College rabbinical student from Boston. She is AWESOME (and I’m not just saying that because I know she will read this. We get along nicely, share many of the same values, and she has been a fantastic resource and friend thus far. We have “roommate shuk time” on Wednesday afternoons during which we stock up on our groceries for the week, and it is certainly one of the highlights of my routine.

Okay, back to school…

My course load is lighter than it was last year in NY. This is for several reasons: classes are spread over 5 days rather than 4 (I REALLY miss having Sundays off), I don’t have to rush off to any jobs after class (thanks to my A-1 student status), and overall, the classes require very little outside prep, largely because this Israel year was designed to be a time to enable more experiential and personal exploration. It’s been quite refreshing enlivening. As someone who often has trouble saying “no” to things (jobs, activities, etc), I’ve learned a lot by being in a situation in which I am forced to just “be.”

So, how am I filling my time? I am taking 5 classes at Schechter: Halacha (Jewish law, this semester focusing on prayer, Shabbat, and holidays), Talmud (tractate Moed Katan), Hebrew language, Midrash (reading the stories of the rabbis from a literary perspective, Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), and Jerusalem through the Lens of the Three Monotheistic Faiths (a different field trip each week to a holy site in the city). All classes are taught in Hebrew, which is certainly a challenge and a nice balance to the lighter course load. For the most part, I am really enjoying my classes (even Hebrew, despite the fact that I was bitter at the beginning of the year about having to take ANOTHER Hebrew language class. Ada, our teacher, is just that good). Our teachers are doing an incredible job of making sure that all of us Americans understand what is being taught, and that the Israeli students don’t intimidate us into not being able to contribute to class (let’s just say that Israeli classroom conduct is a little less “restrained” than American classroom decorum). We are even starting to befriend some of these classmates arrive at a mutual understanding of each others’ experiences.

 

The JTS crew with Rabbi Nevins on one of our class trips to Har Tziyon next to the old city. We miss you, Rabbi Nevins!

 

One other big component of our program is the our experiential learning programs. I mentioned our tiyul up north in my last post. To do our experiences justice, I’m saving that for a later post.

And in my copious free time?

I’m taking an incredible seminar at the Hartman Institute (http://www.hartman.org.il/) that brings together a few students from each of the major rabbinical schools that have year-long Israel programs in their curriculum (JTS, Ziegler at AJU, Hebrew Union College, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College) over homemade soup and fantastic learning each week. Some of Israel’s top educators and spiritual innovators have presented to us this year. Additionally, we spent a Shabbat together as a group in the desert to tighten our community. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to learn with and from such a diverse group of peers each week, especially with the knowledge that we will one day be rabbinic colleagues. Plus, the soup that people have been bringing every week has been delicious.

Another time-filler has been trying to learn how to play guitar. This has been on my lifetime to-do list for a while now, among many other things I would like to learn to do if I ever have the time (learn Spanish and Arabic, learn to crochet, hike the Israel trail, or take a road trip across the US, for example). Thankfully, classmate and friend Sarit also had this goal on her list, and we’ve been taking lessons weekly. Sadly, our teacher had to return to the States for an undetermined amount of time, so we are currently on our own. I think the sounds coming out of my guitar are actually starting to sound like music though, which is good. Still, it will probably be a while before you see me leading campfire singalongs.

The last piece to the puzzle is volunteering. We are all expected to find some sort of role in the community here but have the freedom to choose how we want to spend our time. I’m hoping to work with an organization called Ultimate Peace (http://www.ultimatepeace.org/), which combines two of my favorite activities: ultimate Frisbee and peace building. I need to finalize some details, and will hopefully be joining with them regularly soon. I’ll report back!

In my remaining time I’ve been reading books for fun more than ever before, and even socializing a bit with friends around the city. So THIS is what it’s like to be a person who isn’t married to her homework- I’m going to have to figure out how to bring this new-found lifestyle back to New York with me!

Hanukkah Sameach!