Author Archives: Greg Weisman

About Greg Weisman

Rabbinical Student at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Kol Ami Teaching Assistant at the University of Southern California Husband, son, brother, dog owner, sports fan

What I learned at HUC

Four and a half years of study at the Hebrew Union College has taught me to ask questions. What does the text that we are studying say? What did the author or authors mean when they wrote it? Is there anything that I am missing? Can you help me with this? The rabbis of the Talmud were always asking questions, and HUC has taught me the value of doing to in today’s world as well.

Reading “Disunion” by Adam Chandler, published by Tablet Magazine, raised a serious question in my mind: How can an academic institution best foster an environment that is open and pluralistic, while at the same time allowing and encouraging each student to form and express his or own opinions and views?

It is not an easy question to answer, and becomes even more difficult if an overwhelming majority of a student body leans in a similar direction. Using anecdotes from students and observers, Chandler characterizes HUC as experiencing a “troubling trend that directly contradicts” its vision of openness and plurality. It is a difficult balance to create, and is especially difficult in a situation where a minority of students may be as small as just a handful. However, the suggestions raised and implied in Chandler’s article are misguided and they muddle the issue of openness and freedom to express one’s opinion within the halls and classrooms of HUC’s four campuses.

He opens with the story of a donor who offered to endow a chair for a politically conservative professor. It frames the tenor of his article, as his account implies that HUC’s administration refused the gift on the basis of that conservative charge. But dismissed in his analysis is the possibility that the gift was refused not because of the conservative charge of the chair, but because HUC didn’t want to have politically charged chairs at all. I ask the question, does reserving a place on the faculty for a conservative or liberal thinker foster an environment that is open and pluralistic? Not necessarily. Does creating such a chair ensure that students who share his or her views will feel empowered to speak amongst the student body? Not necessarily. Is political belief a good criterion for evaluating a potential faculty member? I would hope that among the top criteria for judging any potential faculty member would not be her political beliefs, but rather her expertise in her field and her skills as a teacher to her students.

The situation of Prof. Martin Sherman is an example of this. He was brought to HUC for a variety of reasons, one of which was to share his “hawkish” views with students in LA. Chandler laments the lack of interest in his courses, noting that only four students took his course in fall and “virtually no students” enrolled in the spring, prompting the College to cancel the course. That he is identified as a hawkish professor, brought to the College to express hawkish views, prompts many, including to Chandler, to determine that the lack of interest was caused by nothing other than the student body’s overwhelming opposition to hawkish ideas. I have no idea why students chose to take or not to take his course (at the time I was a third-year student, still making my way through the College’s core curriculum, and thus ineligible to take the elective courses that he was teaching). But, Chandler uses Sherman’s ideology as a canard, leading us to assume that the lack of interest in his courses was due to his ideology. Creating a chair for a conservatively minded professor would only increase the risk that others make that misleading assumption.

As a side note, I feel prompted to mention that four or fewer students in a class is not an uncommon occurrence, at least on the LA campus. I recently studied with Rabbi Richard N. Levy, generally considered to be a leading thinker of the Reform movement, in a class with a total of three students. It was a wonderful, intimate learning environment and something that, during the dark days of 2009, the College administration fought to protect in its decision to keep all three US campuses open. It would be wrong to assume that very small class enrollment is a statement about the students’ interest in or respect for a certain professor, and I fear that Chandler led his readers to do so.

On the Los Angeles campus, members of the faculty are evaluated by the students on a variety of criteria, including how well he or she maintains a learning environment that is open to a diversity of ideas. A good professor, regardless of their own beliefs, should encourage his or her students to speak their minds, to challenge assumptions, and to engage in civil argument with their peers.

Chandler’s analysis of the decision ignores this. It assumes that a left-leaning professor cannot tolerate the ideas of a right-leaning student, or vice versa. A good professor, a professor worthy of being hired by America’s oldest Jewish institution of higher learning, should be above this. What’s worse, he concludes that the dismissal by HUC of the idea of a conservative professor is a dismissal of the merit of conservative ideas. The suggestion of creating a chair for a conservative professor put HUC in a catch-22: create the position, and the open environment might be adversely affected. Don’t create the chair, and some might suggest that the school is trying to protect a liberal ideology. It would be foolish to accept this premise. One might also suggest that by choosing not to hire a professor based on political leaning, the College may have been striving to avoid questions of politics altogether, and instead desires to base its faculty hires on merit alone.

Chandler’s suggestions might have had more merit if they were accompanied by other actions of the College that suggest a hostility towards conservative ideas. The stories that Chandler chronicles do not offer reasons to suggest that the College is trying do anything of the sort. They are first hand accounts of students who have felt uncomfortable in expressing unpopular and, as they see them, conservative views on HUC’s campuses.

The true issue that the students’ mentioned in Mr. Chandler’s article have is not with HUC, its faculty, or administration, but rather with their fellow students.

I agree with my friend, classmate, and colleague Hannah Goldstein’s observation that a vast majority of HUC’s students are politically left leaning and that the faculty may be more diverse than the student body. For those students who are in the minority, she wisely notes that there is a difference between being lonely and being made to feel like an outsider, suggesting that while there may be students who feel alone in their views, the environment on campus nonetheless is open and welcoming to the expression of those views.

However, is not the role of the College to dictate to students what to say or to think. It is the role of the College, among other things, to teach its students to form their own opinions based on serious study, to express those opinions in a meaningful and respectful way, and to listen to those with whom you might disagree. The rabbis of the Talmud model this for us, and it is the responsibility of the faculty to foster an environment that allows for it. But it is up to the individual student to speak up when they feel moved to do so.

Does that mean that HUC should strive to create an environment in which students should be free to express their opinions without fear of repercussions from the College? Absolutely. Why then, should we take seriously the statements of Josh Herman, who suggested that the school should take punitive action against students who make “anti-Zionist statements,” including refusing to ordain them? Wouldn’t that inhibit the free flow of ideas with which he and Chandler seem so concerned? Our job is to engage with those ideas with which we disagree, to retort and respond to them, to refute them, not to silence them.

I am proud to say that I love Israel, and I am saddened when hear anyone, rabbinical student or otherwise, say that they do not wish to visit Israel. But I am even more saddened and deeply troubled to know that I have classmates who, in the name of openness and plurality, believe that HUC should put limitations on what a rabbinical student could say. That “anti-Zionist” student has just as much of a right to express his opinion as Herman has to reject and refute it. Herman is wrong to suggest otherwise, and the College should be proud of its decision not to take Herman’s suggestions seriously.

It is our responsibility as students to contribute to the open and pluralistic environment that the College strives to maintain by offering our ideas and by listening to those around us. Samantha Kahn, Josh Herman, and Josh Beraha each noted that they felt that their voice was part of a small minority on campus. That may be true, as Hannah Goldstein noted. They said they grew weary of being one voice in eight or part of two in nine, unable to engender more support from their classmates. While that may be frustrating, it is not a fault of the HUC faculty, administration, or the institution as a whole. Sometimes we find ourselves in the minority, a situation not uncommon in the Jewish experience. And that experience has taught us to speak our minds when we feel moved to do so. Rabbi Shirley Idelson proved to be a model for that when she took to the streets to express her personal views. She should be commended for that, not criticized. Sometimes, standing up for your beliefs is an uncomfortable, difficult, and potentially threatening enterprise (N.B. Rosa Parks, Émile Zola, and Abraham Joshua Heschel). But, the Jewish tradition teaches to stand up in the face of opposition if you have the courage of your convictions.

Which raises questions another comment of Josh Herman, who not only suggested that a fellow student should be punished for speaking his mind, but continued by saying that he felt that as Jews and as rabbis, we should be resisting the urge to speak about political issues. The responsibility to speak about issues concerning the society, whether as part of a majority or as the minority is something enshrined within the Prophetic tradition that is part of Reform Judaism’s core. Prophets like Amos and Hosea continued to speak although their ideas were unpopular and rejected. In the most recent Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ, wrote:

“In truth, Judaism does not endorse any specific political organization, party, or program.

“This does not mean that politics is to be avoided; it means that partisan politics is to be avoided. If you say that Judaism makes you a Democratic or a Republican, you are mistaken; but if you say that Judaism has something to contribute to a political matter, you are likely right. Judaism, after all, is about the application of ethical teachings to the moral dilemmas of our world. Judaism responds to the misuse of power, oppression of the weak, and everyday injustices in society.”

We ought to speak up. As Jews in general and as rabbis/rabbinical students in particular, especially in environments where we think our views may not be well received.

Chandler gave these three students a forum to express their own views and experiences; allow me to share mine. Over the past four and a half years, I have found HUC to be a place that is open to a diversity of ideas. I have felt challenged by my professors to think seriously before coming to a conclusion and encouraged to speak my mind once I have. I have also been taught not to stop listening once I have spoken, but to consider all ideas as they are presented. This does not exclude discussions to pertaining to Israel. I love Israel, and share that view with others. I have excitedly have returned to Israel multiples times since my year studying at HUC in Jerusalem. My wife, who I met during that year, is an alumna of HUC and a former employee of AIPAC. I do not share the same observations about the tenor of the campus conversation with the three students in Chandler’s article. There have been times when mine has been the least popular idea in the classroom. I credit my teachers for creating an environment where I felt comfortable expressing them, and as my classmates can attest, I often do so. In four and a half years, I have yet to be approached by someone from the College who has told me not to share those ideas, nor have I felt that my contributions are unwelcomed by my students.

But more importantly, I am concerned with the suggestions that the faculty and administration are or ought to be deliberately influencing the types of ideas that are expressed on the campuses. School should be a place where all ideas are welcome, and where the responsibility is upon everyone to consider ideas as they raised and to express pleasure or disagreement with them. As Jews, we have discussed and disputed the meaning of our tradition for thousands of years. Our job is to continue that conversation, and my job as a future rabbi is to foster it, not inhibit it.

Why? Because that is what the Jewish tradition tells to do, as I learned at HUC.


As Our Travels Come to an End

I’m writing this on my BlackBerry
while sitting on an intercity bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, so I apologize for typoos.

We have had an extremely busy week. A day after decompressing from our trip to the Gush we headed out on a 3 night trip to the North and Tel Aviv. We spent two nights in Akko (Acre) and a night in Tel Aviv. Where did we go?

To a kibbutz, Eshbal, whose business is education. Unlike most kibbutzim that manufacture or grow a product, they just develop and distribute educational expertise, focusing on schools with intercultural populations and non-traditional educational approaches.

To visit with an Arab Israeli woman who teaches English in her local school in Majd-al-Kurum, near Karmiel. We heard her story and her hopes, concerns, and feelings about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel and with Israel’s neighbors.

To a school in Eshchar that is trying to mix secular and religious students together, and be “just Jewish.” Not an easy task when the curricula of the secular and religious school systems are so different.

To an evening walking tour of Old Akko with an Arab Orthodox Christian, to hear some folktales of the community…with a special treat of a total lunar eclipse.

To a “circus” class for Arab and Jewish youth. Apparently circus means. tumbling, juggling, balance tricks, and other similar things, but it is a successful cooperative and mixed-living experience.

To Yemin Orde, a community and high school for youth at risk (some orphans, some lone immigrants, some just were unable to succeed in more traditional communities) that suffered some damage during the Karmel fires last summer.

To Kehillat HaLev, a new Reform congregation in the middle of Tel Aviv, lead by a student at HUC Jerusalem’s Israeli Rabbinic Program.

To Beit Daniel, the big Reform congregation in Tel Aviv (Kehillat HaLev is a “franchise” of Beit Daniel). To the beach in Tel Aviv, and a swim in the Med…glorious.

The overall message of this trip was two-fold. First, that the Galil is an example of intergroup (Jewish-Arab, religious-secular, Israel-Diaspora) cooperation. No just co-existence, but true integration. Second, that the definition of Israeli-ness as an expression of Judaism is not so simple. Interesting, that definition was complicated from a few directions. When we met with Iman, the Arab Israeli English teacher, she explained that she loves living in Israel, wouldn’t want to love in any of the neighboring countries or in a yet-to-be-established Palestinian state, but she hopes that in the future that Israeli culture and identity would include parts of her Arab culture. In a sense, that Israel would become the melting pot that America once thought it was. Others with whom we spoke- Arab and Jew- agreed. For me, that problematizes the definition of Israel as the Jewish State. I would be the first to say that Israel mistreats its Arab citizens (not Palestinians in the West Bank, but citizens of the State of Israel, with Israeli ID cards, passports, etc.) by subjecting them to second class status when it comes to health care, education, infrastructure, community development, and other areas. Because Jews and Arabs live in separate communities, it’s easy to do this; Israel doesn’t invest in those areas at the local level in Arab communities. But the solution, in my eyes, is not an amalgamated identity. It’s somewhere closer to what other progressive nations with official religions (think the UK) do with their religious minorities. They allow for separation when necessary, but do not discriminate against that minority in the process. And those minorities are able to retain their unique identities. But, admittedly, it’s not easy.

Second, towards the later part of the trip and our trip to Bina, the secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, we heard from people who are really concerned that secular Israeli’s have lost all connection to Judaism. They participate in civil life in Israel which does follow the Jewish cycle, but they have little understanding of the tradition and the origins of Jewish life as they see it in Israel. Why is this problematic? One, as a Jewish educator, it’s difficult to see Jews who don’t know their heritage, don’t understand the basics of what it has meant to be Jewish for thousands of years, and not really care about it. But more importantly, it jeopardizes the connection that Israelis have with Jews everywhere else. Their entire identity is based on the Zionist narrative that Diaspora Jewry didn’t live. If we don’t share the narrtive of Exodus from Egypt, Revelation of Torah, and rabbinic Judaism, what connects us? Are we one People without that connection?

Fortunately, there are many non-religious Jews in Israel that are interested, learned, and actively engaged in Jewish life. And, as we saw, there are people and organizations dedicated to redeveloping a commitment to Jewish learning on the part of secular Jews. Time will tell what that will mean for their Jewish identity.

Another interesting approach to this concern is the idea of bringing Israelis to the Diaspora to experience non-Israeli Jewish life. This “reverse birthright” model is based on the notion that Jewish identity and Peoplehood is fed by personal connections, both to the land of Israel and to similar Jews living Jewishly. Birthright brings Jews to the land, this model would bring Israelis, firmly connected to land, in contact with peers living Jewish lives elsewhere. The experienece of Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries) to Jewish camps and communities has shown how this can be successful. But more of a focus was put on Israelis learning about Diaspora Jewry, and not just teaching Diaspora Jews about Israel, a stronger connection might be created.

We are in Jerusalem now for the rest of the trip, including a visit to the Ron Shulamit Music Conservatory for ultra-Orthodox girls and our final presentations of our personal stances on Peoplehood. Shabbat together, and then I fly home.

Two Great Things to Come Out of Israel and A Knot to Untangle

This is really two posts, but I didn’t want the length of one to bury the other.

Two Great Things to Come Out of Israel

Over the weekend I had a chance to see two things that are new and from Israel.

The first is my nephew. My step-sister and her husband, who live in Netanya, had a baby boy earlier this year. I got to spend the end of Shabbat with them and my step-brother in their home, and meet the new little guy. Isn’t he adorable?

The other great thing I saw was a new Israeli film, הערת שוליים, Footnote. It recently won Best Screenplay at Cannes. The Israeli film industry has really come into its own of late, with films like Beaufort, The Band’s Visit, and Waltz with Bashir, each with Oscar consideration. Footnote is directed by Joseph Cedar, who directed Beaufort, and in my opinion, is Oscar worthy. Unlike those three films, it is not the typical incredibly depressing Israeli film. It’s not a happy film, but fortunately war, armies, subjected people, and death are not part of the story line. It is a brilliant story of a father and son who are Talmud scholars who don’t much like or respect each other…sort of. Keep your eyes out for it.

A Knot to Untangle

After many, many visits to Israel over the past several years, I had a “first time” experience here that I had both been greatly anticipating and felt nervous about. Today we went to Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz in the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion, the Etzion “Bloc” in English. It was my first time in the West Bank.

Why did we go? First and foremost to visit Yeshivat Mekor Hayim, a residential boys’ religious high school. There, Religious Zionist boys in grades 9-12 study a curriculum that is common to most religious high schools: predominantly study of Talmud, but also General Studies, which consists of math, history, Bible (yes, that’s “General,” non-religious), music, and other topics. Their formal school day starts at 7 am and goes until about 9 or 9:30 pm every day. That time includes davening (worship), breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a break in the afternoon. But the majority of the time, broken into two multi-hour blocks, is spent learning Talmud. They learn some from lessons taught by their teachers, but most of their learning is done in the Beit Midrash (House of Study- think library with talking),where they read and discuss the texts in chevruta, two-person groups, or sometimes larger groups. Why do they learn this way? Because for them, knowledge of Torah and Talmud is essential to understanding one’s self and how we fit in the world around us. After they graduate, almost all of these boys go on to military service, some in the typical three-year commitment, and others in what’s called hesder. In the hesder model, young men alternate between periods of active duty and full-time yeshiva study. This typically is a five-year commitment, and is considered a full commitment to the IDF.

What distinguishes Mekor Hayim from other yeshiva high schools is their approach to learning. For a yeshiva high school, there are many things that make it very open minded. As one of the boys explained, unlike other schools, they truly feel that they could learn or read any work they wanted; other schools might censure or punish students for reading “subversive” texts. Also, as we learned from the Rosh Yeshiva (principal), they are not focused on making boys who practice their Judaism in strict adherence to the faculty’s interpretation. Rather, they are striving to instill within the boys a sense of self-responsibility, of self-awareness, and of recognizing the need to relate to others in their life with respect and open-mindedness. In a morning visit, it is hard to prove whether or not they actually achieve this. But I can offer this observation as a piece of evidence: when we introduced ourselves (4 women and 3 men) as all studying to be rabbis, they didn’t bat an eye. Now, the yeshiva knew who we were when we made the arrangements, and in previous years the fellows also visited Mekor Hayim. But, there are many yeshivot who would refuse to meet with us for ideological reasons; because we are Reform, because there are women in the group, and many others. We also got the sense that the leadership of the yeshiva also wanted the boys to hear from us, to learn from meeting this us. Part of their ideology is a notion that their students are always and constantly learning. When the boys are hanging out in the dorms at night, they know that the conversations they have are just as important as the discussion around the volume of Talmud.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we headed to a community center in Kfar Etzion to start our encounter with the greater Gush Etzion community. And for the rest of the day, we had to have our discerning minds in high gear. Gush, as a West Bank settlement, is incredibly controversial. And we were hearing the story of Gush from residents and the “museum,” which is really just an advertisement for that story.

Anyone who has been following the Israeli-Palestinian story recently has heard the phrase “’67 Borders with mutually agreed swaps.” As I wrote a while back, that notion is somewhat flawed, because the “border” was nothing more than an armistice line, the place where the soldiers were standing when Israel and Jordan agreed to stop shooting at each other in 1949 (it wasn’t until 1994 that Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement). But, the reality is that Gush Etzion and many other settlements are located on the other side of that line. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel started creating little settlements, towns, and eventually cities in that area. As many in Israeli society, many in the global Jewish community, and the various accords and agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians indicate, eventually, much of the area to the east of the Green Line (the ’49 Armistice Line) will be handed over to the Palestinians to create their State (I’m excluding Gaza not because it has no bearing on that process but because that’s not the part of the process I’m talking about and I don’t want to get into it). But, since 1967, as Israel has exerted military authority in the West Bank, an untenable and morally problematic situation has arisen: millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli rule. If the lack of self-governance wasn’t bad enough, in response to threats and acts of terrorism by certain Palestinian groups, Israel has often acted against the Palestinians as a whole, subjected them to a virtual police state, restricted their movement from town to town and to and from Jerusalem and Israel “proper.” Without being to detailed, my own opinion on the matter is that Israel has been wronging the Palestinians for decades. That’s not to say Israel didn’t have its reasons. The security threat from terrorists has proven itself to be real (i.e., the Second Intifada), and Israel has a right to defend itself. And we, the global population, have yet to figure out a way to give Israel the security it requires and the Palestinians the freedom they deserve. To make it more complicated, Israel, almost immediately, started building the settlements, essentially infusing Jews into what was previously an entirely Palestinian (or Jordanian) area. That increased both the demand on the Israeli military to protect those settlements and thus act even more strongly against the Palestinians. Thus, as “everyone” agrees, Israel needs to get out of the West Bank and make room for a Palestinian State.

But it’s not that simple. Some of these settlements are large cities with thousands and tens of thousands of Jewish residents. As Israel learned during the disengagement from Gaza, relocating them into Israel proper is not that easy. Thus the notion of “mutually agreed swaps,” where some of the largest settlements would remain part of Israel in exchange for some land that was on the Israeli side of the Green Line but is mostly Arab/Palestinian in its demography. Sound simple? It’s not, because the areas are so intertwined it would be next to impossible to draw a line that included all of the Jewish areas and none of the Palestinian, and vice versa. Then would come the question of how to divide Jerusalem. And the question of how to guarantee Israel the security it needs.

What bothers me and many others on the left is the reality that it was only because Israel decided to start building the settlements in 1967 that we find ourselves in this position. Many people who hope for peace blame the Arab/Palestinians for rejecting the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have created a Palestinian State much bigger than what might happen now, because they wanted to reject the establishment of a Jewish State alongside it. Now, many cast the same blame on Israel for creating this demographic, logistical, political, religious, and other adjectives nightmare by inserting themselves into that area.

But, and this is reflective of what I saw and thought today, it’s not that simple. I used to think that all settlements were the same, that all settlers were ideologues who were concerned more with their own theological beliefs than the future security and morality of Israel. I still believe that there are some settlers and settlements like that. But Gush Etzion isn’t one of them. Gush is only about a 20 minute drive from Jerusalem. Many of its residents work in Jerusalem; its somewhat of a bedroom community. People moved there both for ideological reasons and because it offers the comforts of suburban life: larger homes, lawns, quiet, community. None of which justifies having a settlement that jeopardizes the future of Israel. But the story of Gush is different that most of the other settlements. It is not a place that Jews returned to in the late ’60s or early ’70s for the first time since the Biblical period. In the 1920’s, as Jews were moving to the Land of Israel, which at the time was governed by the British Mandate, the went to the hills south of Jerusalem to create an agricultural community where one did not exist. This, of course, was happening all over the land; in Tel Aviv, in the Negev, in the north. And as was happening all over the area, conflict arose between the Jewish residents of the “Yishuv,” (Settlement) the name for the Jewish community in the Land of Israel before the founding of the state, and the Arabs who lived there. These conflicts escalated over the decades, coming to a head with the war in 1948 after Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel. The community on the land that is now Gush Etzion was destroyed in 1929 and 1937, the result of armed conflict with the Arabs in the area. In 1943, a third attempt at settling that area began. In five years they turned the desolate hillside into a working community. But, as Israel was getting closer and closer to independence, the fighting with the Arabs got fiercer and fiercer. Eventually, all the mothers and children in the area were evacuated to Jerusalem. Supplies were hard to get, as many convoys were attacked on the way from Jerusalem. Finally, on May 13, 1948, the kibbutz was unable to defend itself anymore. It fell to the Arabs. Although those who had stayed and fought to the bitter end surrendered, they were taken captive and all killed. Historians disagree about how many there were, but it was somewhere between 70 and 250 people. Their wives and children were in Jerusalem. The next day, the State of Israel was founded. As a sign in the community center says, “אל תשכח את תש”ה,” “Dont Forget 5708,” the Jewish year coinciding with 1948.

Why do I mention this? If the battle for Gush Etzion had gone differently, if some of those caravans of supplies had been able to get through, if reinforcements had been available, its possible that Gush Etzion would have been part of Israel in 1949, it would have been on the Israeli side of the Green Line. That cannot be said for most of the settlements today. Gush is unique in that respect. In 1967, after the Six Day War, after the wives and children of those who died in ’48 had spent years standing on a hill just a few miles away looking at the Lone Oak Tree that remained standing, they moved back. They rebuilt the ruined community that they had once inhabited and remained uninhabited in the interim. They did it with the permission of the government and the JNF. That it remained uninhabited is important. They did not come in in ’67 and kick out Arab residents. The only reason the land was even livable was because of the work that had been done in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s by Jews in the Yishuv. So, although they did move into an area that is generally viewed as not part of Israel, one could make a convincing argument that Gush is an exception to that general view.

To argue that the Jewish presence in that area from the 20’s to the 40’s is not enough to justify Jewish presence now would potentially negate the right of the State of Israel to exist now; Israel proper is the result of the Jewish settlement of that land during that same period. It’s just that Gush was lost during the ’48 war, then reclaimed in the ’67 war. This was not just an ideological move to move into a place that had been Jewish (or perhaps more accurately, Israelite) 2000 years ago. It is a place that just 20 years before had been the physical home of some of the first settlers. True, the Partition Plan of ’47 would have put Gush in Palestine, but Be’er Sheva, the Capital of the Negev, would have as been well.

That does not negate the fact that there were many who assisted in the rebuilding, both on the ground and through governmental support, that chose to settle Gush for ideological reasons, as a way to start a general annexation of the entire West Bank. But what Gush has that many other settlements do not is a modern Israeli story. And its proximity to Jerusalem and the Green Line. As I stood next to the community center in Alon Shevut (the Tree of Return, named for the Lone Tree), another kibbutz in Gush, I could see Jerusalem. On a clear day, from that spot (or perhaps from the rooftops above), one could see both the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea. In the image below, the closer ring of white buildings is Beitar Illit, a Haredi settlement, even closer to the Green Line than Gush. And in the background just below the horizon, is Jerusalem. And in between is an Arab town, Husan.

So, even if we wanted to draw a line that included Gush and Beitar Illit into Israel, which is what many would expect a final peace agreement to do, what about Husan? Draw the line around it? How? The Jewish and Arab communities in the West Bank are knotted together, and may not be able to be pulled apart without some serious sacrifices. Even if both sides wanted to work together to make it happen (which right now they are nowhere close to being), it’s an almost impossible task. The settler movement made that the reality. Maybe Beitar Illit, Husan, and Gush is solvable puzzle. But the rest of the area will be much harder. Yes, Israel should get out of most of the area. Yes, a few major settlements will need to remain. Yes, there ought to be an independent Palestinian State. Yes, the Palestinians have to recognize that Israel is going to exist, and fighting that principle is going to prolong the status quo, which is untenable and unbearable. No, I have no idea how that is going to happen.

The Time of the Giving of the Torah

We had two Shabbatot this week. One will be starting in just a few ours (at exactly 7:06 pm). But, on Tuesday night and Wednesday, we celebrated Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. Falling seven seven’s, seven weeks after Pesach, we celebrate both the wheat harvest and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. As I have read countless times over the past few weeks, Shavuot is a holiday really devoid of special rituals or activities. There is not seder like Pesach. We don’t light special candles like on Chanukah. There is, however, a Shavuot activity that has become more and more popular over the past few years: Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

The Zohar describes the giving of the Torah like a wedding. Wedding and marriage is a common metaphor in Judaism; God is often describe as the groom to the Jewish people, the Jewish people as a groom to Torah, Shabbat as a bride. In a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Jews stay up all night on Shavuot studying, usually Torah but in the modern world a much more diverse array of topics. Some just stay up later than they ordinarily would, but many make it all the way until sunrise, they recite the morning prayers for Shavuot, and then head to bed. Tikkun Leil Shavuot has become popular in the non-Orthodox community in Israel, and many, many community and educational organizations hosted Tikkunei Leil Shavuot. Fortunately for me, many in Jerusalem also offered teachings in English. I had the chance to hear both Rabbis David and Donniel Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute, as well as attend a session at Beit Avi Chai. The learning was very interesting, but just as interesting was the intersection of so many sectors of society in Jerusalem. Men, women, adults, children, religious, secular, and everything in between. At HUC there was a tikkun in Hebrew, and at 2 am the place was filled with secular Israelis. The city was hopping late into the night.

Today, I remembered how much I love walking around a city. I loved it in Boston. I did it a little in Jackson. All over Jerusalem. Even though its in the 90s here, I had a great day of walking around. Walking to get shwarma. Walked to Pomerantz bookstore too see what was new there. Walked to the Kippa Man on Ben Yehuda, who may be the only business in Israel that understands customer service. I told him what size I was looking for, and he pulled out stack after stack of kippot, grabbing this or that one for me too see. When I narrowed my selection down to six (I wanted two), he threw two out, saying they were no good. Pretty honest for a guy peddling his product. I left with three, and paid what I thought two would cost me. I walked up to the shuk to get some dessert for tomorrow, stopped by Gans, Tami’s and my favorite Judaica shop, to see what was new there, and walked back to the hotel. All in all, about three hours of walking around in the midday sun. Couldn’t have felt better.

As an aside, I am writing this from the Aroma Espresso Bar in Mamilla. It is very hot today in Jerusalem, and the place is packed with people looking for an iced coffee and a bit of air conditioning. I was lucky enough to get a table in the corner, and just after I sat down, a lovely woman asked if she in her daughters could join us. We exchanged pleasantries, where we came from (them from outside Haifa, me from LA), and they wanted to know all about the Jewish community in the US. Are there are lot of Jews in LA? Where is the biggest Jewish community? Where did you study Hebrew? What are you doing here. It was a great chance to do some hasbara (public relations) for the US Jewish community, and Reform Judaism. They seemed pleasantly surprised to learn or have confirmed that yes, women can be rabbis, that yes, gays and lesbians can be rabbis. They were surprised that I wanted to be rabbi, even thought I didn’t come from an Orthodox home. Then, once the younger daughter started complaining that she was getting cold (It’s probably 78 degrees in the shop), off they went. Another Jewish Peoplehood connection made.

שבת שלום לכולם – Shabbat Shalom everyone.

The New Yerucham

Yesterday, we met with several people in Yerucham who were talking up how far Yerucham has come in the past few years. Where it only recently was a hole in the middle of the desert, now it is a financially stable town with parks, community centers, and a sense of civic pride.

But, there is still work to be done. Today, we had the opportunity for two meetings with people and organizations that are working to build upon the success of stabilization in Yerucham and really make the city shine. To do this, we had to go to two places that would be at the bottom of the list of places that one would think would be beacons of progress and visionary thinking: an unrecognized Bedouin village and a school for Orthodox girls.

The Bedouin have been part of Israeli society from before the founding of the State. Some Bedouin helped fight in the War of Independence. Over the years many, many Bedouin have served in the Israeli Army, most of them in special tracker units which capitalized on a skill that is developed through their semi-nomadic, shepherding culture. Yet, Bedouin have not fully integrated into Israeli society in ways that other minority groups, like the Druze of the north, have. This is especially true for the Bedouin of the South; in the North, they are more involved in Israeli society.

Of the just under 300,000 Bedouin in Israel, about 100,000 live in one of the seven Bedouin towns, 100,000 live in recognized Bedouin villages, and 80-90,000 live in unrecognized villages. Both types of villages look similarly- tents made of wood, tin roofs, and canvas sides, separate from other communities, spread out in a relatively large geographic area for the population. But, while the recognized communities are on the electricity grid, water and sewage system, and have paved and maintained roads into and out of the communities, the unrecognized communities have none of this.

We left Yerucham for Rachma, an unrecognized Bedouin village just outside of town (both get their name from Be’er Rachma, Well of Mercy, the well located nearby that, according to tradition, was the site where Hagar despaired as Ishmael was dying of thirst, until an angel showed her the well). There, we met with Salima, a wife and mother of six who told us that she could be giving birth to her seventh child at any moment. Salima has been studying Hebrew and general studies over the past four years, hoping to get her GED and go to university. Why did we meet with her? Because she is a trailblazer in her community. Most girls do not go to school past the age of 12 or 13. Most boys don’t last much longer. The Bedouin are a very patriarchal society. When she decided to go back to school, she had to deal with her father and brothers, essentially requiring their approval (interestingly, her husband’s approval was not as important; in traditional Bedouin culture, the “honor” lies with the father and brother. If the husband felt that she got “out of hand,” he could just send her back to the father and brothers, and that would bring shame upon them). But, Salima overcame this, and has been studying for herself, teaching her sons and daughters, and remains committed to education in the Bedouin community. Ironically, while her husband is supportive of her teaching their daughters, her sons are not. As she explained, the youth in the Bedouin community are feeling a stronger and stronger influence of Islamisicm, which reinforces the patriarchal nature of the community. Additionally, living in an unrecognized village severely inhibits the job and life prospect of these young men. They become disenchanted with education, get into drugs, alcohol, Islamicism (although probably not together).

It was both sad and inspiring to meet with Salima. Sad to hear her say that her boys have asked her to cover her face when they ride in a car with her, because they fear her having a reputation as a woman who is trying to better herself through education. But inspiring because despite all of that, she is still commited to education for herself and for her daughters.

A side story to our meeting with Salima. When she received us in her family’s guest tent, she had tea ready for us, which is customary. The pot was there, with small glasses arranged on a tray. She poured a bit into the first glass. Then she poured that bit into the next glass. Then the next and the next and the next, until that first pour of tea had been in each glass. I was curious about this, and kept thinking of reasons she might have done that. My “every tradition must have a really cool explanation” mind was circling around something like leaving a bit of the first pour of tea in everyone’s glass, underscoring the shared experience of the tea. While I didn’t get a chance to ask her about it, I was able to ask Yoram, our representative from Yerucham who facilitated our meeting. He smiled and told me that pouring hot tea into a cold glass might shatter the glass. By pouring that small first pour into each glass, it warmed them a bit so they could hold the hot tea and not break. I guess in this case, form follows function.

After lunch in the park, we had an unexpected detour: the Indian synagogue in Yerucham. Indians were one of the larger groups (after Romanians and Moroccans) that were located to Yerucham in the 60s and 70s. This synagogue was the first Indian synagogue in the State of Israel. It wasn’t that large, but it was beautifully furnished and decorated. Yonatan, who is a lay leader of the community, told us a bit about the history of the community and the building. He showed us the various Torah scrolls they have. But, what was most intersting was that they have their haftarot, the readings from the Prophets that are read on Shabbatot and holidays, on scrolls as well. Most communities read those readings out of bound books, not from scrolls like the Torah. He gleamed with pride as he described his community, pride that is well deserved.

This afternoon we went to Midreshet Be’er. It is a gap-year school for Orthodox girls who have just graduated high school, before they do their army or national service. But, the school is more than just learning; the girls spend half their time doing community outreach and service in Yerucham. There are only a handful of schools like this in Israel, schools where girls who are committed to studying and learning Torah and to serving their community can do that, all while preparing them to serve their country. While army service is required for all Israelis, there are some groups who do not serve in high numbers. Israeli Arabs are exempt, and very few opt to do national service, which is a non-military alternative in which people work in civil or national offices, communal service providers, etc., in lieu of serving in the military. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews do not serve; there is an arragement that if they are learning full-time, they are exempt from service. Yet, there are small numbers of ultra-Orthodox who do choose to serve in the army. Modern Orthodox or National Religious men serve in the military. Most National Religious women choose to do national service. And that is what makes Midreshet Be’er interesting; most of their graduates, who generally are National Religious, choose to serve in the military, usually in their educational units. So, not only are these students choosing to further their education for another year of study, commit to serving a community, Yerucham, that many of them have no organic connection to, they then often opt to serve in the army. These are inspiring young women with a sense of commitment to making their lives, their communities, their nation, and their world a better place.

We sat in on their weekly Bible class. Today’s topic: Haggai and Zachariah. It was taught in Hebrew, and although our faculty did translate when they could, I was able to follow most of the lesson. I had a harder time following the questions the students asked, but then again, most 18 and 19 year olds are hard to understand. But I was impressed that a) their conversation about the Bible was so similar to what our classes at HUC might have sounded like, and b) at one point, their gifted teacher Elkanan described what it might look like if today’s Jewish community were to return to the Temple. He said you would have Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews all milling around, trying to figure out what do to. Why was I impressed? I would not have expected an Israeli of his background (long beard, tzitzit hanging out from his shirt) to have such a varied description of the Jewish community. Many Israelis, Orthodox in particular, do not consider Reform and Conservative Judaism forms of Judaism at all; they would not have put them on the Temple Mount in this hypothetical return. Especially not while teaching 19 year old Orthodox girls.

After a fabulous dinner at the home of a local resident from Tunisia, who often opens her home to groups like ours to share Yeruchami culture, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we are meeting with the mayor of Yerucham, then heading back to Jerusalem to prepare for Shavuot.

Southern Trip – Part I

During the first decades of the State of Israel, Jews from all over the world made aliyah to Israel. Hoping to live their eternal dream of settling in their homeland, they expected to move to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the other metro areas in Israel’s center. But, in order to maintain secure borders, Israel needed to settle the periphery, areas in the far north and throughout the Negev Desert. So, these new immigrants, who loaded onto buses upon arrival, were driven to these towns. They often arrived in the dark of the night, slept with glee on their first night in their new home, only to wake up, look around, and realize they were in the middle of nowhere.

The Israeli film סוף העולם שמולה, “Turn Left at the End of the World” depicts this very well, as the new immigrant families from India are dropped off in Yerucham and have to deal with their new situation and their Moroccan neighbors.


Yerucham is a real city, and still serves the role of a development town, maintaining a population presence in the remote areas of Israel and providing housing to new immigrants. But Yerucham has also reinvented itself. After a financial meltdown in the early 2000’s it has become a model of economic and social progress. Not without its challenges, the city has focused on creating unity and cooperation between its various ethnic groups (there are 27 synagogues in this town of 9400) and on developing among its young adult population a desire to stay in and/or return to Yerucham after their military service and education to pick up where today’s leaders will leave off and do the next generation’s work of maintaining and thriving the city.

It is an inspiring story of vision, cooperation, and the Zionist mentality of getting one’s hands dirty with the business of building a home.

What is the Mission of the Jewish People – One Person’s Response

Before our first Shabbat, we had the chance to meet with Steve Israel. Steve is originally from the UK, but has been living in Jerusalem for 30 years. We met with him to talk about Jewish Peoplehood, why it is important, and what we can do to support and enhance what we do as Jews and as a People.

He started in a place with which we were all familiar- the idea of Jewish continuity. Many Jews are concerned with this and they form their ideas based on the notion that our first concern should be ensuring future generations of Jews. But, as I, many of my contemporaries, and Steve feel, that position begs the question: Why does it matter if the Jewish People continue? Put a better way, What is it about Judaism, the Jewish tradition, or Jewish people that we want to continue. What do Jews do- for themselves, for each other, for the w0rld- that we know we want to have and continue to have generations from now?

Which is part of a question that my fellow Fellows and I have been struggling with throughout this week. As we have been hearing and learning about Jewish Peoplehood, its historical genesis, and different ways to understand if, we have been returning to the same question many times: What is the purpose of Jewish Peoplehood. Framing it in the language of our previous seminars, What is the Mission of the Jewish People?

To help answers that question, we looked at a few texts (as Jews are want to do). Of particular note were a text from a Labor Zionist A.D. Gordon and a text about Jewish nationalism by Martin Buber. Gordon, recognizing that the Bible describes all people as having been created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. The Jewish tradition understands this to mean that we should try to emulate the characteristics of God- mercy, compassion, being slow to anger, just and righteous, etc. Gordon takes this one step further, and describes the Jewish people as an Am b’tzelem Elohim, a People in the image of God. Thus, we as a People ought to emulate and personify those characteristics as well.

One point that we addressed and I feel compelled to note is that none of this means that other people are not b’tzelem Elohim or that other groups cannot consider themselves as a people in the image of God. They are and they could. But, as Jews, we do make that communal statement, that we have a purpose: to do the work that we believe God wants us to do, to make the world the place we think God tried (and for those process theologians out there) and tries to create. Our job is to help, to add, to fix, and to strive to perfect (some of you might see where this is going…I’ll give you a clue, its initials are T.O. or ת.ע.)

Buber adds a bit of humility to the conversation. He reminds us that as concerned as we might be for ourselves and for our people, the work of our people must always remain our focus. So, in 1921 as the Jewish community was expressing its nationalist drive and working to create the State of Israel, he reminded us that the creation of the State is not an end in itself. They end us the fulfillment of the purpose of the Jewish people, the reflection and expression of being an Am b’tzelem Elohim.

For inspiration, we look to those in our tradition who have held this concern close to their hearts and spoken out about it. The Prophets had this at their center. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, et al., were concerned about the world in their lifetime (Isaiah wanted an end to war, Amos to social and economic oppression, as two examples). The Rabbis shared this concern. Hillel is a great example, when asked us in the same statement “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” For him and the other Rabbis, they wrote to describe the world that they believed God wanted for us, God wanted us to try to preserve, and what positive impacts God expected of us. In other words, our job is to fix the world, to make it better, to do Tikkun Olam. It’s not optional, it’s obligatory. It’s why we are here, what our reason for existing is. We cannot escape it, it is ingrained in our culture. By saying we are Jews, we are saying that we see ourselves obligated in this way.

That, according to Steve, is the purpose of the Jewish People. To recognize that that is our purpose and act upon it. Which I find incredibly compelling, even though I had some serious concerns.

My first was about Jewish prayer, practice, ritual, etc. If our purpose it to enhance the world, how does lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tallit and tefllin, or sitting in a sukkah help? Steve explained that we cannot do Shabbat well without knowing our greater purpose, without recognizing these values that are inherent to our people. And I think that is half of it. That answers the question of how understanding our mission can help enhance ritual. But the question of why do ritual at all is something that didn’t address directly. My thought? Throughout our texts, we are told to do things as reminders. We wear tallit because the fringes remind us of the mitzvot. When we say kiddush we are told to member our Exodus from Egypt. Our holidays are reminders. Lisa Grant also noted that the holidays and rituals bind us together as a people; they are fun, meaningful activities that create community. So, they do that, and they serve as constant reminders of what our purpose is. In other words, if you “do” Judaism, whenever you do it, it serves to remind and reinforce the notion that we need to make this world a better place.

That was big for me. The idea of tikkun olam and Jewish ritual were in my mind two separate but very important aspects of the tradition. But now, with this understanding, they are inextricably linked. Powerful stuff.

The other big question that we all had was about obligation. Obligation is not something that many liberal Jews are comfortable with or compelled by. The popular understanding of Reform Judaism is that we are not obligated by anything beyond our own understanding of the tradition (choice through knowledge). And Steve’s argument is not that we are obligated to pray three times times a day, fast on Yom Kippur, or light Shabbat candles. Doing them just help to remind and reinforce what it is we are obligated to do: to work to make the world a better place and share the values of Judaism (which we believe are God’s values) with the world.

Dan Nichols’ song “L’takein” is a blessing to God, thankful that we have the opportunity to do tikkun olam. We used is as our theme song at Mishpacha this past year, since our focus was on Jewish values and tikkun olam. But I’m wondering, in light of all this, whether that is something we should be saying. It’s not just an opportunity to do tikkun olam. Opportunities are something that we can choose to pass up. Opportunities are things that are good for us and good to do, but we can opt out. If we see the purpose of the Jewish people is to be an Am b’tzelem Elohim, then it is more than an opportunity. It is an obligation, something inescapable and eternal. It is something we have always done and should continue to do.

At the end of the Torah service, we pray to God to חדש ימינו כקדם, to renew our days as in the past. Perhaps that means that we are asking God to help us remember that this is our eternal purpose, and that we pray that in the future we will be able to do what we have always known we ought to be doing.