Israel Journal - January 13, 2009
Even as the war in Gaza and southern Israel continues, and the tension and preoccupation of Israeli society with the war is ever-present, this entry will begin with some vignettes from my family’s relatively carefree and very stimulating life this past week. My wife and daughters are immersed in intensive Hebrew studies, and that is the focus of our energies, along with learning our way around, exploring Jerusalem and stocking our kitchen. I’ll address the larger political situation further on.
One Degree of Separation
Rabbi Miriam contacted me just before I left the States to invite me to join her in a performance/presentation at a major educational conference in which she was participating. She could even offer to pay me! The conference was entitled “Multiple Identities in Jewish Education”, and the participants were from all over the US and Israel. Rabbi Miriam and one of the other Mandel Fellows, Amichai Lau-Lavie, were collaborating on a program that would show how to teach Torah through drama, music and group improvisation, and they needed some musical support. Rabbi Miriam said that the educational conference was happening somewhere up north. I guessed that it was at Oranim Teacher’s College, and I explained to Rabbi Miriam that my sister-in-law Roberta, who runs a program at Oranim College, was on the steering committee of this conference. And so it goes.
By the way, Amichal Lau-Lavie is the talented creator of Storahtelling, an innovative and wonderful approach to Torah interpretation. Amichai, who is no longer Orthodox, is the nephew of the former Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Lau, next to whom I stood last summer when he officiated at my nephew’s wedding. Amichai and his uncle live in separate worlds now, but, as I have said, in Israel all these worlds intersect somehow, sometimes gracefully, sometimes colliding.
The performance was quite moving and thought provoking and received very enthusiastic feedback. Rabbi Miriam was terrific, as usual.
Oranim College is a very interesting place. It is perched precipitously on a side of a hill in the little town of Tivon, looking out at a dramatic view of the Carmel mountain ridge. I believe that Roberta told me that 40% of the students at Oranim are Israeli Arabs, and the rest Israeli Jews, all studying to become educators. It is a fully integrated campus, as Muslim women with head coverings take classes with every other Israeli population group: Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and native-born Israelis of all backgrounds. It is certainly striking that this level of integration in higher education can be maintained in Israel while hatred and resentment are running so high due to the war in Gaza. I consider places like Oranim to be among the finest expressions of Israel’s (however flawed) functioning liberal democracy.
The International Community Center for Youth (ICCY)
We have the good fortune of living next door to a wonderful community center that just reopened after major renovations funded by the Jewish community of Canada. The breadth of activities in the ICCY is stunning. In the space of several days I attended four very different events there:
-Shira Chadasha, a unique modern orthodox congregation that I will describe below, meets there every Shabbat.
-In that same assembly hall I peeked in on the bi-weekly “Boogie BaMoshava”, the no-alcohol dance party where Jerusalem’s young alternative crowd gathers. There was an incredible percussionist accompanied by a guy on the didgeridoo. I plan to go dancing next time, even if I am the oldest person there!
-Another night was the monthly community sing, a glorious combination of Israeli Golden Oldies that I knew, newer Hebrew pop songs that everyone else knew, and a healthy dose of the Beatles. Everyone sat on the floor and sang, raising money for children in Ashkelon, one of the Israeli cities that is being shelled by Hamas. There is clearly a sense of Israelis pulling together during wartime. War certainly has that particular power to unite a people, at least for a period of time.
-On Friday mornings the Community Center hosts a crafts fair/flea market, and my family and I wandered over there and went on a happy shopping spree for clothing we had neglected to bring with us. (We didn’t bring enough warm clothes for the Jerusalem winter. Although it is balmy here compared to Woodstock, it’s still chilly!)
Shabbat in Jerusalem
There are many synagogues to choose from within walking distance of our apartment. On Friday evening I attended a fairly new and, for Israel, radical minyan called Navah Tehillah. Their service is filled with meditation, chanting and singing, guitars and cello, and dancing to Lecha Dodi. Most of the men wear yarmulkes of some sort, but there are some men without head covering. I know this doesn’t sound unusual to the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, but in Israel it is still unheard of. And the rabbi is an Israeli woman, Ruth Gan-Kagan, who came to the States for some years to study with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and was ordained by him. Rabbi Gan-Kagan represents the vanguard of an emerging trend in Israel: the search by secular Israelis for spiritual Jewish expression that is not Orthodox. 20 years ago when I would describe my style of religious leadership to Israelis I would typically get a response ranging from puzzlement to condemnation: “That’s not Judaism!” Today I will just as likely be met with genuine curiosity. As you may know, the Orthodox have a near-monopoly in Israel on Jewish religious expression. The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have made some modest but real inroads, but they themselves are very conventional in their approach. Meanwhile an entire generation of Israeli seekers has traveled the world, especially India, searching for spiritual expression in their lives. When they return to Israel, they are ripe to learn that un-Orthodox approaches to Judaism really do exist. Rabbi Gan-Kagan is reaching out to these Jews. My kids got bored as the service went very long, but I was fascinated.
On Saturday morning I went to the ICCY (mentioned above - a two minute walk from our apartment!) to a very different congregational experiment, radical in its own right. Kehillat Shira Chadasha is a modern orthodox congregation that is stretching the bounds of women’s participation to the limits that Jewish Orthodoxy will allow. While a mechitza (a curtain) extends the length of the room, separating the men and the women, the Torah reading table straddles the divide, and women lead large portions of the service. When it is time for the D’var Torah, the curtain is pulled aside and everyone listens together. The place was packed and the singing was magnificent. Even though I find the mechitza unnecessary, I still felt comfortable and happy to be there, uplifted by the energy emanating from both sides of the curtain.
Both of these synagogue experiments – orthodox and un-orthodox - are the result of American Jewish influence. It is ironic, but Jews have more freedom of religious expression in the US than in Israel, and Jews bring that innovative style from the United States to Israel. It is an important contribution that we American Jews can make here.
Our first Shabbat here, my family took a beautiful walk to the Israel Museum, the national museum. On the way we passed the Monastery of the Cross, a church compound dating back to the 5th century reputed to be the location of the tree that was felled that became Jesus’ cross. Next to the monastery was a very large Israeli Scouts compound, with many loud children playing cooperation games and preparing campfires. Up at the top of the hill, the museum was undergoing massive renovations and the galleries were closed, but we did visit the Shrine of the Book, which houses some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we explored an amazing scale model of Jerusalem in the time of the Second Temple (1st century C.E.). When Shabbat ended Jerusalem came back to life, and Timna, Ellen and Rabbi Miriam went to the Jerusalem Mall (of course there’s a mall!) to see some formulaic Hollywood comedy. Nomi and I watched “Wall-E” at home.
This past Shabbat we went to the Jerusalem Zoo, a truly world-class affair built (based on all the plaques posted around the grounds) by very generous donations from the American Jewish Community. If you come to Israel with kids, visit this zoo.
We also had Shabbat dinner with our friend Melila Hellner and her husband Dror. Some of you may remember Melila because she was our guest scholar at the WJC a couple of years ago. Melila is a gifted scholar of Jewish mysticism and an activist whose primary activism work these days is bringing young Jews and Palestinians together for deep encounters. Her husband Dror is a fanciful and fabulous sculptor.
I mention this dinner because it gave us a glimpse of some of the conversations Israelis are having with each other right now. Almost every conversation is about the war, and as one might expect, these conversations can be heated. Melila and Dror had invited a good friend named Shmulik to dinner as well. Shmulik is secular, a vegan, and a leftist. He teaches at the social work school in Sderot, the Israeli town near the Gaza strip that has been the most frequent target of Hamas missiles over the past several years. The day before Shmulik had participated in a rally against the war in Tel Aviv. I would have expected Melila and Dror, bohemian peacenik types, to support Shmulik in his public protest. But to my surprise they weren’t so sure: a major peace rally in Israel might send the message to Hamas that Israel’s collective resolve was wavering. As much as Melila and Dror are ambivalent about the war and genuinely anguished about the innocent dead in Gaza, they also feel at a loss for an alternative in dealing with Hamas. This is a sentiment I have heard from other Israeli friends. (Of course, it is also not difficult to find other Israelis who feel no sympathy for the Gazans.) In a word, it is a complicated and tragic mess, but most Israelis see no other option. The conversation around the dinner table was passionate; in Israel the personal is always political, the mundane always laced with existential tension. Yet there was much laughter and pleasure in each other’s company as well.
[NOTE: I just read an article by Ethan Bronner in today’s New York Times that I think accurately describes the mood in Israel, and reflects my own perceptions exactly. You can read the article at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/world/middleeast/13israel.html?hp ]
The Current War
I could write pages of my thoughts, feelings and opinions about the war in Gaza: the larger geo-political ramifications, the moral considerations, the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the nature of Hamas, the tragedy of this war and nonetheless perhaps its necessity as well. Maybe I will pour out my thoughts at some point. At present I will say that I am hopeful that a cease-fire might be in the offing soon: Hamas is severely weakened, international pressure is rising every day, the hands-off policy of the Bush administration will be over in a week, and the Israeli public may be ready for a cease-fire. I hope the conflict will die down leaving Hamas in tatters, and Israelis and Gazans free from the threat of bombs. I hope a message will have been sent to Iran making it clear that they endanger themselves when they threaten Israel. I hope an agreement can be reached that allows and supports the residents of the Gaza strip to rebuild their lives and homes and to enjoy a free flow of goods and services. My hopes are modest; I wish I could dream of peace across the Middle East, but for many years now I have only been able to hope for more talk and less killing, no final peace agreement but merely relative quiet, in which ordinary people can live their lives. May it come to pass.