Blog #9: Reflections from the City of Gold
Me coloring with Palestinian students
Hashannah hazot birushalyim - This year in Jerusalem.
So many events and experiences during my year in Israel deepened and enriched my understanding of and relationship to the Jewish State, and a few opportunities at the end of the year have started to help me put some things into perspective.
Only few days before my scheduled departure was Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. Commemorating the end of the Six-Day War, Yom Yerushalayim is the last of the series of civil holidays that also includes Memorial Day for Holocaust and Heroism, Memorial Day for the Soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, and Israeli Independence Day. The night before Yom Yerushalayim (which coincides with Student Day as well), there was a huge all-night concert across the street from our apartment. It was difficult to get any sleep, and one was forced to ask, "What's all the ruckus about?"
The next day provided an unambiguous answer: Yom Yerushalayim is a festive commemoration of the reunification of Jerusalem. To celebrate, thousands of youth movement participants gathered right outside our apartment to chant, sing, and dance for Jerusalem. As Jessica and I walked among the ecstatic crowds, we were struck by the sea of blue and white tee shirts, the forest of Israeli flags, and the thunder of rejoicing youth. We learned that following an afternoon of music and dance here on King George St., the entire mass of youth would march to the Western Wall, which fell under Israeli jurisdiction at the end of the Six-Day War.
Cantor Evan Cohen accepting offerings as the High Priest
To many of these youth, the Six-Day War is an essential part of God's plan. Jewish presence in this land is divinely sanctioned and defended and should therefore naturally be celebrated. For the first time in a very long time, the Jewish people have a homeland wherein they can care for their own, a place where one need never fear to celebrate his Jewish identity. The reunification of Jerusalem is a sign of the reunification of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland, a reunification that can never be severed.
However, there is, of course, another side of the story. Just as many Palestinians mourn on what Israelis refer to as Independence Day, so can commemorating the Six-Day War dredge up painful memories and current hardships. In light of this, I can't help but wonder: Is it just to celebrate Jerusalem so boisterously when the defeated party continues to live (and in some cases suffer) under Israeli rule? And at the same time, does the current political reality have a right to dilute the ancient Jewish appreciation for its holiest city? Two recent experiences help exemplify this dilemma.
Girls' youth group singing songs about Jeusalem
My girlfriend Jessica and I, along with several other HUC students as well as a number of other developing Jewish leaders from the Diaspora, visited Bethlehem with the group Encounter. The purpose of Encounter is to foster in Diaspora Jewish leadership an appreciation for the daily life of many Palestinians in Bethlehem; so often, the "Israeli side of the story" is the only one heard, and Encounter works to broaden the conversation.
With Encounter, I had the opportunity to meet and hear from a number of Palestinians, some nursing the wounds of old injustices, some aching daily for peace, and some carrying out their daily lives as any other person might be expected to. We discussed the political situation, various perspectives on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the day-to-day existence of the inhabitants of Bethlehem. We spent the night at the homes of host families, toured the separation barrier, and walked through a checkpoint on our way out of the West Bank. The stories of those people we met are bound up in Israeli history and society; ignoring them is sure to perpetuate the state of conflict and unease in the region.
Our street, Hama'alot, was at the very center of the festivities
Clearly, this land is important to these Palestinians. The Christians living in Bethlehem live in a holy city, and many families have histories that extend back generations in the land. Jerusalem and Bethlehem have historically been linked in many ways and are today separated by design. Where is there room for this story in the celebration of Yom Yerushalayim?
On the other hand, the powerful longing, devotion, and commitment to Jerusalem in Jewish history, religion, and philosophy is simply overpowering at times. The love for Israel displayed by the celebrants on Yom Yerushalayim is exhibited a thousand times a day in small but profound ways.
Rabbi Ada Zavidov directing traffic
For example, for Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the first day of the new Hebrew month, Jessica and I went to the special activities planned by Congregation Har El's preschool, where Jessica volunteers twice a week. Combining Rosh Chodesh with the festival of Shavuot, the preschoolers were given the opportunity to bring their first-fruit offerings to the "Temple Mount" as is described in the Torah. They put on fine white clothing, walked into the sanctuary, and presented the cantor (dressed as the High Priest) with a basket of fruit. Then, the children learned about the new month, heard the shofar sound, and sang and danced to mark the holiday.
As I was watching these events, I couldn't help but notice that these Hebrew-speaking children don't realize it yet, but they are practically unique among all of the children in Jewish history in their ability to walk to the real Temple Mount whenever they please. They can read the ancient words proscribed for the delivering of the first-fruits and understand them in their original language. In short, they are living in Jerusalem. In many ways, their very existence is a miracle, and to ignore that is sure to prolong the achievement of the Jewish peace that has been sought for so many generations.
Taxis waiting to drive home Palestinians as they cross back into Bethlehem after work
Of course, it's impossible to make these two experiences the paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian conversation, but they do represent aspects of the complex realities of life in and around Jerusalem. I suspect that as the weeks, months, and years following my time in Israel pass, I will gain further insight about the significance of the experiences I had here.
I was blessed to have been able to explore so much during my first year at HUC, and it has been a pleasure sharing those experiences on this blog. As I conclude this project, I offer the yearning words of the seder, spoken with a subtle mixture of literalism and metaphor: Bashanah haba'ah Birushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem ... a Jerusalem of light, a Jerusalem of spirit, and a Jerusalem of peace.
Welcoming in the new Hebrew month
Posted by Daniel at 9:59 AM
Blog #8: The FSU Pesach Project
The Russia Teams and our translators (Jordan Helfman, David Levin, Daniel Crane, Emma Brodetskaya, Anna Stepanova, Jessica Kirzner)
Aviv higia, Pesach ba - Spring arrives, Pesach comes!
Every year, HUC sends a delegations of students to countries in the Former Soviet Union to help facilitate progressive Jewish communities' Passover celebrations and to learn about Jewish life in the FSU. This year, my girlfriend Jessica and I-with the support of almost 70 contributors-were blessed with the opportunity to travel to Russia to participate in this unforgettable program. For six very full days we visited sites and communities in Moscow and Lipetsk, and the experience we gained in that short week will stay with us for many Passovers to come.
As soon as we arrived in Moscow on Tuesady, Jessica and I met Emma, our translator who would be with us for the rest of our trip. Not only is she a talented translator, but she's also an incredibly knowledgeable guide. We honestly could not have gotten on without her.
Jessica and I with members of the Lipetsk youth group
After checking into our hotel, Jessica and I had an opportunity to offer two lessons at the Machon, a Jewish education program that students attend half-time for one or two years in order to be trained as para-rabbinic Jewish leaders in their communities. The students we met were between the ages of 18 and 30, and a number of them came from fine arts backgrounds. After our lessons, we were fascinated to be asked questions like, "How do American Jews relate to the Holocaust?" and "Is there anti-Semitism in the United States?" We learned almost as much about Russian perspectives on American Judaism as they learned about us.
After attending an English-speaking Ex-pats seder on Wednesday night, we departed for Lipetsk, a city described to us as "just outside Moscow." We boarded the train, stored our luggage, and settled in to sleep on our ten-hour ride. The train cabin was tiny, but the ride was pleasant. We were able to spend the afternoon resting and touring, and then we made our way to The Cave, the restaurant that Chesed Yonah, the progressive Jewish community Lipetsk, rents out four times a year for its major Jewish celebrations.
Jessica dancing at the seder
The community members that we met were extremely welcoming and friendly. They were excited to see us, and the youth group was particularly eager to spend time with us. The seder was very well-received, and Emma's translation enabled us to connect with the Russian-speaking crowd. We tried to shake things up in the interest of keeping people engaged: We washed our hands without water, we encouraged each table to ask a fifth question of what had changed in their lives since last year, and we asked the community to act out the Exodus story. This last part was very fun, as almost every one of the forty or so guests participated enthusiastically. After the meal, we didn't proceed with the rest of the seder as we had expected. The local custom seems to expect all of the "seder" to take place before the meal - the period after the meal is reserved for music and dancing! So, for the first time in our lives, Jessica and I partied on Passover as if we were at a Bat Mitzvah or wedding reception. This was a tremendous opportunity to really fit in to the community across the language barrier and was certainly one of the highlights of the trip for us.
On Friday afternoon, we met again with five members of the Chesed Yonah youth group. Three of them had found out only in the past few years that they were Jewish; many parents feel it's best for their children not to inform them of their heritage. Only one 17-year-old had been actively involved in Judaism since her childhood, and she told us that she didn't even know if she was "really" Jewish (re-emphasizing to Jessica and me the strongly ethnic definition of Jewishness in Russia). Each of their stories amazed us, and we were impressed by their dedication to Israel as well as their home Jewish community.
Jessica and I singing at Shabbat dinner
After leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service, we joined about twenty adult members of the community for Shabbat dinner. We talked about our Shabbat observance and theirs, the tense relationship with Chabad, Yiddish, and music. We sang some songs, including one written by a community member, and I was asked a couple rabbinical questions. I was taken off guard when a woman told me that her grandfather was killed in the Holocaust-she doesn't know when-and wanted to know when she should commemorate his Yarzeit. Should she pick a date or say Kaddish every week? I told her that she could do either but that formally remembering his death every week might be too painful. I also told her she could also commemorate his death on Yom Hashoah. I learned when I returned to Israel that there's a traditional day in the Jewish calendar for just this occasion, but I don't know how meaningful following that tradition would have been for this woman, anyway. I was also asked about preparations for a brit milah ceremony, about which I know next to nothing, and I tried to answer to the best of my ability. Now I understand what Dean Marmur told us about rabbis sometimes having to appear to know more than they actually do!
Me standing in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square
We had to leave Shabbat dinner in order to catch another overnight train back to Moscow, and I was sad to go. The community told Jessica and me that our visit was very special to them and that we had made an impact on their Jewish identities. The head of the community informed us that next time we visit, we won't be guests - we'll be family. And I think she meant it. I've never felt so warmly embraced by a community, and it was honestly difficult for me to leave them. They were an extraordinary group of people in circumstances so alien to my own experience, and I'm blessed to have met them.
After a restful Shabbat back in Moscow, we met members of the Moscow youth movement. We joined them for their monthly Havdalah celebration, learning about the Jewish Antifascist Committee and lighting the Havdalah candle in Freidrich Engels Park. Jessica and I learned a new custom of dipping your little fingers into the wine and touching them to your temples, lips, and heart for wisdom, bright speech, and love.
Havdalah with the Moscow Youth Movement
Sunday, our last full day in Moscow, was a busy day of touring, and it passed far, far too quickly. We visited some Jewish sights and (naturally) the Kremlin, and returned to our hotel after a final festive meal. When we departed on Monday, we were tired, of course, but fulfilled. We'd been welcomed into foreign Jewish communities simply because of our Jewish heritage and our commitment to its enriched future. We'd observed a Russian Passover, celebrated a Russian Shabbat, explored Russian Jewish history, and glimpsed its future. And, of course, we learned a tremendous amount of Russian history and culture and made a great new friend of our translator Emma. In the end, we believe that we gained so much more from our experience than we were able to give, and we feel lucky to have had this unique opportunity. Certainly, our future seders will remind us of the times we spent in Russia as we recall the story of the Festival of our Freedom ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z'man ha-zeh - in those days and in our own time.
Apparently, the translation is accurate
Posted by Daniel at 3:30 PM
Blog #7: Purim in a Walled City
Singing at Purim service-spiel
Purim sameach - happy Purim!
I've had fun on Purim before, but celebrating in Jerusalem has been an entirely different experience. The fact that most of the people I encounter are celebrating the same Jewish holiday I am has made commemorating this most recent holiday-like others before and to come-particularly acute and memorable.
The Purim spirit was in the air weeks before the holiday: hamentaschen (which here they call oznei Haman, Haman's ears) have been on sale since February, candies and gifts have been on sale for weeks, and even the liturgical calendar has been preparing us for the holiday with special Shabbatot. But what really made the Purim spirit sink in was seeing children walking to school in costume during the week of Purim - even several days before the holiday, I passed ballerinas, Spider-Men, princesses, etc. on their way to special school parties. Even an occasional adult would be wearing a funny hat ... though the real costumes were yet to come!
In Jerusalem, as in other ancient walled towns (which actually includes just a handful of cities in Israel), Purim is celebrated a day later than in the rest of the Jewish world. So, although "Shushan Purim" (as the delayed commemoration is known) began on Tuesday night, when I and my fellow volunteers traveled outside to Jerusalem to be with our families at the absorption center in Mivasseret Tzion, we entered into a Purim Zone and could therefore throw a special party for the kids of the neighborhood. We had sweets and art stations to make masks and noise-makers for everyone. We played music and sang Purim songs. This was also a great opportunity to meet and play with kids who aren't just in our families - we really had a chance to participate in a community event.
Haman and Mordechai on stilts
On Tuesday night, HUC had its own Purim celebration. I was one of the six primary planners and actors in our Purim service/play, and we had a terrific time. I got to stretch my creative muscles by writing several songs that included the themes of the evening service and that could also fit into our pop music-style version of the Purim story. My favorite was a rendition of Mi Chamocha sung to the tune of The Beach Boys' Kokomo. Here's a taste:
Samaria, Judea - ooo I wanna take ya
Through Moab, through Amon - come on, pretty mama.
Akko, Megido - Baby, why don't we go?
Ooo I wanna take you to the Promised Land.
We'll get there fast
Under our God's command.
With a mighty arm and an outstretched hand:
Straight to the Promised Land.
Everyone had a ton of fun, and we were also treated to a truly amazing megillah-reading. All the cantorial students as well as some rabbinical students participated in reading the entire Scroll of Esther (which is rare at HUC). Many of them read with strong expression and intent in order to convey the meaning behind the words. The chanting was beautiful and the text came alive fabulously.
After the service and megillah reading, we had dinner at HUC, followed by a beit cafe (the Israeli version of a talent show), during which the highlight was Shacharit the Musical. (I'll let you use your imaginations to envision a play about the weekday morning service!)
On the actual day of Purim, I went to the shuk (market) to do my usual grocery shopping; but unusually, many customers and shoptenders were in full costumes (or at least wearing funny hats). It was amazing to see so many adults going about their regular business dressed up, and seeing people smile wider and more readily than usual was a nice treat.
Queen Esther with admirers
On the way home from the shuk, I stumbled upon a street fair on Hillel Street with performers, cotton candy, and live music. At Mamilla Mall (near the Old City), where there was an even larger street fair with children's games, actors on stilts, and more Israelis than I've ever seen at this Anglo-friendly shopping center. It was really terrific!
As I made my way back to the apartment, I was able to enjoy warm March weather, the music and dancing of celebrating Bratslavers, and the confused questions of a Yiddish-speaking visitor looking for his friends. The day was certainly as topsy-turvey as one could hope on Purim, and I hope this isn't the last chance I have to celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem!
Superman on Hillel Street
Posted by Daniel at 12:30 PM
Blog #6: The Power of Presence and the Presence of Power
Classmate Josh Knobel sharing his U.S. Army experiences
Shalom aleichem - Peace unto you. The second semester has started, summer applications are in, and the New York apartment hunt has begun. At this point of the Year in Israel, my fellow students and I are caught between being fully entrenched in Israeli life and tasting the return to the United States. This causes us to ask real questions about what this Year in Israel means to us and what our future relationship with Israel will be.
One thing is clear to me - our being in Israel has had a profound impact on my outlook of the Jewish State. Our simple presence in here has been a powerful experience, and I hope that we've had the ability to impact the Israeli society for our having been here. At the same time, we've been faced with new paradigms of power in Israeli society that motivate and challenge the modern Jewish community.
Flowering trees shortly after Tu B'Shevat.jpg
For example, we recently spent a day with a unit of army soldiers and witnessed a military exercise up close. The bus ride to the Judean desert (in the West Bank) was spotted with delays as we had to receive authorization to proceed at a number of junctions until we finally arrived in the middle of a dry, dusty nowhere. We trekked across a few rocky hilltops before arriving at a large army tent pitched to protect us from the hot February sun. There, we heard soldiers tell us about their army experience about combat in the Lebanon and Gaza wars, gender separation in the military, Jewish identity among soldiers, and the varied motivations of enlistees. At the end of the day, we found ourselves literally meters away from soldiers firing machine guns at cardboard enemies, practicing for an unlikely campaign in Jordan or Egypt (the only two neighboring regions similar to the Judean desert).
Being so close to so much firepower naturally had an effect on our class. The military conflicts of Israel's past became that much more present, and the enormous commitment that Israeli citizens make to their army was emphasized by the fact that virtually every soldier who addressed us was several years younger than even the youngest member of our class. Politics aside, these soldiers were prepared to fight for their country, and thoughts of protecting the Jewish people were never far from their minds.
Such a reality makes all the more beautiful the sublime Tu B'Shevat experience that our class had here in Jerusalem. On top of visiting beautiful Zichron Ya'akov to celebrate with a Reform congregation in that city, we had a Tu B'Shevat seder at school and celebrated the next morning with the preschool connected to HUC. These Reform celebrations in the heart of an increasingly Orthodox Jerusalem reflected our commitment to Reform Judaism as a vital and necessary component of Israeli society. The children we sang songs with are being educated with expressed values of universal equality and acceptance, and their leadership will be important to Israel's future.
Of course, it was impossible to miss the connection between the occurrence of Tu B'Shevat coinciding with the blossoming of some trees in Israel. I felt a pang of homesickness as I saw trees that remind me the dogwood trees of Virginia blooming seemingly much earlier in the year than I would expect. Once again, the agricultural cycle of Israel becomes tangible only when spending an entire year here. Celebrating Tu B'Shevat with flowering trees rather than snow on the ground reinforced the power of living a Jewish life in Israel, and I felt fortunate to call that experience my own.
Preschooler holding a poster that reads "The Tree of Gilad Shalit"
And yet, even as a vase of flowers thrives on my tabletop, all is far from rosy in Israel. During our Israel Seminar class' recent Coalition Exercise, we realized how complicated the Israeli political system is and how many Israelis feel disaffected toward their own government. The results of the recent election, in which no single party emerged with a clear victory and whose resulting government is predicted to fall within two years, reveal the internal struggle of a populace trying to understand their place in an increasingly complex world. Peace with the Palestinians always seems just out of reach, and domestic concerns (such as the environment, marriage status, and immigration) are constantly up for debate yet eternally stagnant. Our class spent an afternoon interviewing Israelis on the street and reported hearing numerous and varied opinions on all matters; yet resoundingly, Israelis expressed their opinions that politicians are liars and crooks who don't look out for the interests of the Israeli people. Israelis are by and large very political, but participation in their government is fraught with compromise and debate that often paralyzes progress and silences large groups of people.
Living among Israelis has shown me and my classmates the complex reality that this society has absorbed into itself. Israel has an extremely strong military that fights for the preservation of the Jewish people: Yet the definitions of "preservation," "Jewish," and "people" are all entirely unclear in this society. During our study tour to the ancient city of Tzippori, we discussed the extreme distrust and fear of Jewish sectarians (groups of non-Rabbinic Jews) by the Rabbis, who asserted that a single approach to Judaism was the only way to preserve the people. My experiences in Israel, and the perspective I'll be taking home with me when I leave, is that such a monolithic approach to Judaism was never possible and is certainly not achievable in today's Israeli society. This is a beautiful and enviable country, and it continues to strive to reach the highest pinnacle of ethical and communal excellence. I hope and believe that my time here will empower me to continue this struggle in my career in rabbinical school and beyond.
Standing in the midst of an army drill
Posted by Daniel at 3:05 PM
Blog #5: Volunteering at the Absorption Center
Tamasgen and me
Shanah tovah - happy new year!
Every Monday about a dozen HUC students hop into a van and drive to nearby Mivasseret Tzion, a small community which is home to an Ethiopian immigrant absorption center. Upon arrival, we check in with our volunteer coordinator and split into pairs. For the next two hours, we will be spending time with an Ethiopian family that has arrived in Israel within the past two years.
Over the past two months, my partner Jessica and I have been privileged to get to know our family. Allow me to describe a typical visit.
Our group piles out of the van in the parking lot of the Mivasseret Tzion community center, complete with full gym facilities. However, the residents of the absorption center don't have access to this building; their communal space is much more modest. Jessica and I walk down the darkening street past two-story houses which each contain four apartments. Although evening is settling over the neighborhood, the streets are full of people, mostly children. The only car that can be seen is a vehicle with a crowd of parents standing around the hatchback in the rear - the car's owner has brought spices and other foodstuffs for the families to bring back to their kitchens.
As we near the community playground (that never has any kids on it), we can smell the scents of freshly prepared Ethiopian meals permeating the air. Some of our classmates are offered spongy injara on a regular basis, but our family is more likely to offer an apple or a glass of orange juice. Of course, we didn't come here to eat, and the smells of the absorption center are enough to give us a taste of daily Ethiopian cuisine.
Approaching "our" house, I spot six-year-old Tamasgen, who's running up to me. Tamasgen is always excited to see us - once, when we came unexpectedly, he began shouting "Hem ba'u, hem ba'u!" (They came, they came!) He and I have been developing a special relationship, and I pick him up and carry him toward the house. We enter, and the mother of the house smiles. The father grins, offers his hand, and mutters one of the few Hebrew words he knows: "Shev." (Sit.) We do, and Jessica pulls out our art supplies. Tamasgen and I chat about something fun that happened to him over the past week, and before long, three of Tamasgen's sisters have arrived with one of their friends.
We start with some simple drawing. One of the girls is an excellent artist, and all of the children love to draw. Jessica and I have learned several Hebrew words from their pictures and especially from the eldest (of the children who play with us), who understands that we're American students who are only visiting Israel for a year. Tamasgen loves to draw pictures of a house surrounded by trees, and Bousna enjoys symbols (like the Israeli flag) and designs (especially hearts). Before long, one of them asks "Yesh lachem klafim?" (Do you have cards?) "Betach!" (Of course!) Jessica pulls out the deck of UNO cards, and we settle in for what will always promise to be an interesting game.
Tamasgen continues to draw and quietly sings the songs he learns in gan (kindergarten) until it's his turn. His sisters tell him what color/number he needs to play, and if he doesn't have any, his sister hands him a card without waiting for him to pick up his own. Tamasgen doesn't mind being helped through the game. He's much more interested in the act of playing than in the rules.
After several rounds of UNO, we decide that it's time to share our new activity for the week. We've written stories, folded paper fortune tellers, played dreidel, made yarn bracelets, etc. Last week, we had brought a few coloring pages with clowns on them that were so popular that we didn't have enough for everyone - so this week, we show the children that we've made many copies and everyone can design their own personal leitzan (clown).
"How do you say this in English?" one of the children will inevitably ask. We tell them "clown," and they all giggle. "What about 'how are you?'" When we say the English sentence, they laugh out loud and try to make the sounds on their own. They've learned a few English phrases in school ("thank you very much," some numbers, etc.), and they delight in hearing our mother tongue. One week, we even had an impromptu dance party with an English language music cassette one of them had, and we were asked to serve as translators for the singers. We often try to use their curiosity to teach new words in Hebrew (only a few in English), but mostly our two hours with them serves as a welcome break for all of us from school work.
Before Jessica and I realize it, two hours have gone by, and we have to say our good-byes. The children help clean up all the supplies, and we assure them that we'll be back next week. Nevertheless, they walk out the door with us and accompany us down the street toward our van. Only when we reach the community center parking lot do we finally depart, wishing one another a good week. The highlight of our week has passed as always, but it's only 166 hours until we see our Ethiopian family again!
Posted by Daniel at 11:05 AM
Blog #4: Shamor v'zachor - Observe and Remember
View from the Arbel
Chag urim sameach - happy Festival of Lights!
For the past two months, four classmates and I have been participating in Rav Siach, an interdenominational discussion group for rabbinical students through a pluralistic education center in Jerusalem. We meet every Tuesday night for two and a half hours, and we discuss and debate issues like commandedness, the role of the rabbi, and denominational distinctions. There are about a dozen participants with three facilitators, and participants come from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, "orthodox," and non-denominational backgrounds.
One of the most intense components of Rav Siach has been our recent Shabbaton, which began when we departed from Jerusalem at 7:15 am on Friday morning for the Arbel. The Arbel is a plateau overlooking Lake Kinneret, Sfat, Tiberias, and the coastal plain. From so high up, one can see for miles in any direction, and the views were simply stunning.
The wife of one of our facilitators is a tour guide in the Arbel, and she led us through paths down the side of the Arbel and around the face of the cliff. We rested in the abandoned caves that had been inhabited by the last remnants of the Hasmonean Dynasty that had gained control of the land of Israel following the events commemorated by Hanukkah, and we read the historical account of their eventual defeat in these very hills. Afterward, we climbed back up the cliff, gripping iron handholds and stealing final glimpses of the plains and hills laid out before us. When we reached the top, we ate our packed lunches and headed to the hostel/conference center where we'd be spending the night.
The actual hours of Shabbat were fascinating on many levels. First of all, there were a number of interesting lessons offered by our peers. Some of the topics included a comparison of the parsha with a selection from Homer's Odyssey, Reform Responsa (religious/legal decisions in the Reform movement), and the recent ruling in the Conservative movement to allow for the ordination of openly gay rabbis. We walked on Saturday afternoon to the Kinneret Cemetery, where several influential figures in early Israeli history, including the poet Rachel, the songwriter Naomi Shemer, and the Zionist labor leader Berl Katznelson are buried. And, of course, the food was plentiful and terrific!
Two particular events especially defined the scope and depth of the Shabbaton for me. The first occurred on Friday night, when we walked to our assigned room to pray together. Upon arrival, we discovered that the light was off, and to turn it on would be a violation of the rules of Shabbat in the eyes of our observant participants. As this value isn't part of my own Shabbat practice, I thought I could fix the situation by simply turning on the light in the room. I knew that it was unacceptable to ask someone to turn a light on for you, so I quickly walked to the room and flipped the switch on without saying a word. What followed was a wholly unique experience.
Immediately, the group had transformed. Everyone was in shock. What had I done? Although I didn't know this at the time, it's additionally not allowed for one who observes strict laws of Shabbat to make use of the result of a fellow Jew's breaking those laws. In other words, though I had tried to make the room suitable for our use, I had actually made it entirely unkosher.
I've come head-to-head with halacha before, but this was the first time that I had really affected people that I cared about. Words were exchanged, apologies were made, and discussion ensued. This certainly serves of an example of the principle that being told something doesn't make up for experiencing it firsthand. Never before had I felt so much access to the world of halacha as when I entered that world and shattered it for others. It was a painful lesson but an important one, and certainly the most important to me over the course of the Shabbaton.
On the other side of the spectrum, the spiritual high for me came on Shabbat morning. Our non-denominational rabbinical student led us in meditative morning blessings, and the combination of singing and silence launched me into a spiritual experience. While our voices had been in debate and discussion, not until this moment were they in harmony. I felt our small community coalesce into a praying body, and I was proud and delighted to be a part of it.
In my eyes, the Shabbaton was a terrific success and showed that pluralistic Shabbat experiences may not be easy but they can absolutely be transformative. Many of the Rav Siach participants felt a renewed interest in such programs, and I believe that we're all better equipped to lead and learn in such environments in the future. While I'm disappointed that our official group will be coming to a close in a few weeks, I look forward to continuing my relationship with these future colleagues and continuing to learn from them for years to come.
Rav Siach participants
Posted by Daniel at 10:05 AM
Blog #3: November Blog
Cantorial Student Yuval Porat at Masada
N'siah tovah - a good journey! That's how I like to think of my year here. I want to be comfortable enough not to feel that I'm on vacation, but I also want to maintain the freshness of seeing new places, meeting new people, and hearing new stories. HUC has done a wonderful job so far of facilitating that experience by leading us on several tiyulim (trips). Recently, we traveled to the Dead Sea to explore Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and Masada, where King Herod entertained guests and where the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE was finally quashed by the Romans.
Usually our tiyulim leave Jerusalem from the west, so riding through East Jerusalem was an interesting change of pace. As we emerged from a tunnel, the restaurants, apartments, and stores had all been replaced by stones, soil, and shrubs. Like any other city, traffic was backed up in the opposite direction; unlike most other cities, however, these cars were waiting to pass through a checkpoint before being allowed to enter Jerusalem. Driving past Bedouin encampments, Israeli settlement towns, and Palestinian cities provided perspective on the modern diversity of Israel and the real rifts within its population.
The complex diversity of Israel certainly isn't a new phenomenon, though. Qumran serves as a historical example of a community separated from mainstream Jewish society, pushed away by political and religious factors. Many tour groups visiting the Roman ruins at Qumran will be told of the Essenes, a sect of Judaism at the time of Roman rule that separated from the rest of society and lived here, without women, and composed apocalyptic missives about the end of days. Many Christian tour groups will be told of the relationship between this splinter group of Jewish theologians and the messianic prophecies of Jesus. While these perspectives are grounded in certain historical evidences, the reliability of those evidences is questionable.
Resting on our climb up Masada
I sincerely appreciate our teachers complicating the "common narrative" that often dominates tour groups in Israel. Rather than reciting to us the myth, our teachers explained the significant mysteries about Qumran. If it was populated by a small splinter group of Jewish radicals for a couple generations with an original community size of a couple hundred, why are there a thousand tombs nearby? If the Essenes sat here copying their texts, why have we found no scraps of parchment? Yet if the Essenes didn't live here, why were their sacred texts found in the nearby caves? And ultimately, who can verify that the texts found in the Qumran caves were actually written by the group that Josephus terms "Essenes?" A historical narrative is easy to weave with the pieces of evidence that exist, but our teachers showed us how to question that narrative and, more importantly, challenged us to consider what Qumran means to us. As Jewish professionals leading a tour in Israel, would we include Qumran as one of the sights? And if so, what would we say here?
A similar theme ran through our exploration of Masada. I and several other students climbed the Snake Path and were able to enjoy the stunning view from this historic plateau as we ascended. After lunch, we began a three-hour tour that far exceeded any standard tour that would normally be given. We explored the Masada of Herod, complete with two bath-houses, two palaces, and homes and store-houses for a permanent staff. We discussed the last stand of Sicarri resistance fighters against the Romans and surveyed the remains of the conquerors' camps. We marveled at still vibrant artwork and were amazed by the enormity of the artificial water basins that were created by Herod.
And again, we were asked to consider what we would do with a tour group here? Would we extol the virtues of the pure defenders of Judaism? Or would we excoriate the self-defeatists for committing suicide rather than submitting to the Romans? Would we focus on the Hellenizing influences of Herod or on the national aspirations of the Jewish resistance? A beautiful myth can be shared at Masada, but much more rich and complex are the intricacies of history and interpretation that make Masada a real landmark of Jewish introspection and identity.
Our trip to Qumran and Masada encouraged us to look critically at our history and to try to find connections to our modern experience. This theme has been reflected throughout our HUC tiyulim, and I certainly look forward to those that lie ahead!
Ruins at Qumran
Posted by Daniel at 2:45 PM
Blog #2: Holy Days in the Holy Land
No one drives on Yom Kippur
Chag sameach – happy holidays! It seems like the only thing on people's minds in Israel these days is the holidays. From the last week of September through the third week in October, most people I've seen in Jerusalem have been preparing for, engaging in, or recovering from Rosh Hashanah, the Fast of Gedaliah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. The closest analog I know is "Christmas season" in the U.S., which stretches from the end of Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. The difference is that Christmas is only one day while our festivals last for weeks!
My celebration of the High Holy Days in Jerusalem was the most meaningful I've ever experienced. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at HUC were conducted under the musical auspices of Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, and his evocative singing and chanting combined with the High Holiday Choir composed mostly of our cantorial students created a beautiful musical experience unlike any I've ever heard. Our entire liturgy was read in Hebrew, and I was able to recognize the liturgical compositions we discussed in class and to relate them to my own prayer. And perhaps most significant of all, the Old City served as a perfect backdrop from Beit Shmuel's Blaustein Hall, reminding me that our Reform Judaism stems from a long and proud history of Jewish prayer and carries that tradition forward in Israel and around the world.
Of course, there's more to the holidays than going to services. "Shanah tovah" and "g'mar chatima tovah" have been on everyone's lips, baskets of holiday candy have been on every street corner, and special sales and events have been standard fare. Shabbat seemed to sneak up on us, as stores and restaurants all closed down for two days in the middle of the week to commemorate Rosh Hashanah. But what really takes the honey cake is the atmosphere in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur.
HUC students decorate our sukkah
Even on Rosh Hashanah, as on Shabbat, some stores stay open, and some people find a reason to drive somewhere. However, on Yom Kippur, at least where I am, nothing is open, and the only vehicles are the rare police car and the lone motorcyclist - the traffic lights don't even function. Men and women walk to shul in their finest clothes wearing their crocs because of the custom not to wear leather shoes. And on Kol Nidre night, hundreds of people come to the Emek Refaim area not to eat, drink, and be merry but to connect with neighbors, seek forgiveness, and appreciate the uniqueness of the holy night.
As I and some other students walked down the street, we met new friends and encountered old ones that we didn't even know were in Israel. Children rode on bicycles, adults chatted in the middle of the road, and teenagers skirted around the edges of the crowd, no doubt dying for an open ice cream shop. The closest comparison I can think to make is that of a town fair where everyone comes out of doors to meet one another, but the absence of food, the difference in clothing, and the feeling in the air of a held breath waiting to be exhaled are incomparable to any experience I've had to date. Yom Kippur really is something special here, and everybody knows it.
But unlike in the U.S., the High Holy Days don't end with Yom Kippur. As I write this, Sukkot is starting, and there's just as much excitement in the air as there was for Rosh Hashanah. Restaurants have already put up booths outside for their patrons, exotic flowers and fruits are on sale on the sides of the roads, and an enormous tent has been pitched next to the shuk (market) where families can bargain for the highest quality etrogs and lulavs.
At HUC as well, we have a beautiful sukkah decorated by students and faculty, and HUC will be one of many hosts in Jerusalem for a Sukkot-themed day of study. I'm also very much looking forward to riding out to the progressive Kibbutz Gezer with some other HUC students to help facilitate a family Simchat Torah celebration. All in all, this holiday season has not only made Jerusalem a lovely and friendly place to live during these weeks but our HUC community has felt relaxed and excited about the festivals as well - and I'm sure that this break will serve as a terrific springboard into the rest of the semester!
Posted by Daniel at 1:05 PM
Blog #1: Lost in King David's Court
Song leaders practicing at HUC
Shalom uvruchim haba'im -- peace and welcome! My name is Daniel Crane, and I'm in my first year of Hebrew Union College's rabbinical program. For the next ten months, I'll be studying at HUC's campus in downtown Jerusalem with a curriculum including Tanach, liturgy, Israeli and Jewish history, and classical and modern Hebrew. I'm excited about sharing this experience with the readers of this blog, who I am sure include future Jewish communal leaders as well as their supporters.
Just prior to rabbinical school, I was working in Washington, DC for the national service organization City Year: Washington, DC, a member of the AmeriCorps network. In addition to planning and participating in small- and large-scale community service events, I taught a CDC-approved HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum to public high school students in the District of Columbia, which has the highest HIV rate of any city in the United States. I plan to continue my work against the spread of HIV while in Jerusalem by collaborating with the Jerusalem AIDS Project, and I sincerely hope to have updates on this front throughout the year.
Before my work with City Year, I attended the University of Virginia, where I was the president of our Hillel and a Religious Studies and Jewish Studies double major. I have a passion for theater, and I not only acted in a handful of plays at UVA but I also used theater as a model for interfaith dialogue in my senior thesis.
I'm originally from rural Roanoke, Virginia, the proud home of three current HUC students. Most of my Jewish identity was formed in Virginia, and as much as this can make me stand out when I'm around Jews from California, New Jersey, or Ohio, the most startling culture shocks by far have arisen here in Jerusalem.
HUC students at Western Wall
My experience so far of being a Reform Jew in Jerusalem has been interesting, exhilarating ... and extremely frustrating. On the one hand, I've been learning a tremendous amount about the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which has its headquarters in the same compound as HUC. We've had the opportunity to learn from IMPJ's executive director Iri Kassel and to hear firsthand about Reform Judaism in Israel. While in many ways, it's "easy" to be a Reform Jew in the U.S, deciding to identify as Reform here is an active, sometimes bold, choice.
Of course, I'm not surprised to find Israelis choosing to affiliate with Progressive congregations, for the Progressive communities I've visited have been energetic, family-focused, and entirely welcoming. Kehilat Har-El, which is literally around the corner from my apartment, hosts multiple Bnei Mitzvah ceremonies each week during the summer months and provides beautifully musical and meaningful prayer services as well as community events. When one of the rabbis of Kehilat Kol Haneshama led weekday services for our class, we were treated to a unique spiritual experience combining familiar Reform traditions, classical Hebrew liturgy, and an innovative spirit that can only be described as essentially "Israeli." Progressive Judaism, though still struggling for acceptance in Israel, is serving as an expressive spiritual outlet for Jews around the country, and I'm proud to be a part of it.
Of course, there have been many instances while here in Jerusalem when my Reform identity has clashed with the more orthodox atmosphere that pervades much of the city. Each time our class has gone to the Western Wall, for example, we have had to face significant discomfort, even anger, about the shameful separation of men and women. When I and some male colleagues went under the air-conditioned terrace in the men's section of the Wall while the women wilted in the tiny women's section, we could literally feel the enforcement of "traditional" gender inequality. I was uncomfortable with it at the Wall, I was uncomfortable with it last night at an orthodox synagogue's Kabbalat Shabbat services, and I expect to be uncomfortable with it for the rest of my time here. I hope that the theological and traditional gulf between me and the significant orthodox population of this city won't distract too much from my goal: To live and learn as a Reform Jew in the Jewish Homeland.
Of course, understanding and living that dream is going to be a long, sometimes arduous, journey. I'm ready to make the most of it, and I look forward to sharing my time here with you! If you have any questions along the way, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Posted by Daniel at 3:30 PM