Monday, May 5, 2008

Quite a Day

It's really more like quite a second half of a day! Following the Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) ceremony and activities as school I went with a friend to a town outside of Jerusalem called, Modi'in. It's a cute little town that has mostly Orthodox synagogues and one Reform community. Today they were celebrating a landmark occasion: the granting of land from the Israeli government for a synagogue and ultimately, recognition from the state.

The progressive community is in a real struggle with the state over recognition. Orthodox synagogues/Halachic institutions are given funding and land from the government to create synagogues and further their community. Unfortunately, until this moment progressive communities (Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist) have not been recognized by the state and as such have not been given land and funding. This extends to those who are a part of the progressive movement and are studying at a non-Orthodox/Halachic institution as well. For example, I who studies at a Reform institution, must pay for my student visa, while my friend who studies at Pardes receives a visa at no charge because she is studying at an institution recognized as Halachic by the government. That is just one example of the huge gap of opinions and openness sometimes founds in this society. It is also why today's event is so extremely monumental.

It was a beautiful ceremony that was packed by mostly Israelis and some American Olim (immigrants). Kids of the community sang, many different people spoke including two representatives of the International Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Rabbi of the congregation (a female Rabbi-who made this all happen) and the Mayor of the town. Each spoke of the changing of times and the long way the community and the progressive movement has come. The Mayor shocked me the most with his speech. He cited the statistic that 80% of American Jews identify with the Reform movement and that there should be more Reform shuls in his town and 50,000 more Reform Jews as well.

The synagogue has been struggling for many years to receive this location and recognition. It was truly incredible to be at this event, witnessing the work of this community and the joy of coming together.

The only negative part of the experience was when someone came from outside the community and began yelling at the crowd, asking them what they were doing here and what they thought they were doing. After restraining (and apparently punching) him, we learned that he was not an Orthodox protester but a person who lived in the neighborhood who was complaining about all the cars in the road blocking his driveway. Not so bad!

The second part of the day that fascinated me was my dinner location selection. There was a vegetarian Indian restaurant in the shuk (open air market) that had been pointed out to me and recommended. While waiting to meet some friends for a drink I decided to stop in and try it out. The food was decent and it was a bit pricey (for what it was) but the experience made it all worth it.

There was a tall table and stools outside facing the street and I decided to sit there next to the only other person in the restaurant-I wanted to people watch and nothing beats the shuk at the end of the day as it is closing. Through my conversations with this man, Yoni I learned that he was the owner of the restaurant, his wife (who is Indian) is the cook, this is his second marriage, his 4 year old daughter is the hospital currently having her tonsils removed, how he came to this business and this specific location, etc. I also got to see a picture of his family. This is classic Israel. This is why I love this country so much-sometimes you can create these amazing bridges with people that make you feel like family. Throughout the 45 minutes that I sat there having dinner I saw an entire community unfold: the butcher next door (Yisrael) came by to say hi and we got talking, the neighbors who live nearby came for dinner, etc. Yoni and I engaged in a conversation about the diaspora (Jewish communities outside of Israel), its importance, if it will last, our thoughts on the needs of the Jewish community overall, he told me about his experience in the states as a Shaliach (emissary). It was truly a wonderful experience and I think only one that I could have had with such depth because I was alone.

Throughout the dinner I felt very much invited into their family and neighborhood. It was an incredible experience.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Narratives

Last Tuesday Dan and I went to the Golan to stay with a friend of his from camp and his family. The family are ranchers in the Golan, on a Moshav that overlooks the Kinneret. The view, both during the day and at night, are outstanding. I was able to ride on horseback for the first time in my life (an exciting concept, I assure you). Although they are fluent in English, both Dan and I have had the opportunity to work on our Hebrew while we’ve been here.

At dinner tonight we had an interesting conversation. Dan asked his friend if it was possible to have an Israeli view of the Holocaust that was not wrapped up in Israel and vice versa. The issue that Dan has had is that in Israel, there is an emphasis that the Holocaust created and led to the state of Israel and that with the state of Israel something like the horrific tragedy that occurred could never happen again. At Yad VaShem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, the museum ends with the founding of the state of Israel. It leads a visitor to the conclusion that the state of Israel was created as a result of the Holocaust (which for me is highly problematic). The part that is ignored, of course, is the long and deep history of Jews in the Diaspora.

The answer given to Dan was the typical Israeli answer: we support those who fought back and did not “go like sheep to the slaughter.” He went on to describe everyone else with a head down and stooped while Israelis were the opposite. They were the new Jew: their chests were out, they were only proud and they fought for themselves. It was during this discussion that I saw a strong correlation to Egyptians.

On this holiday of Pesach, when we celebrate the leaving of Egypt and the freeing of our people from slavery, I cannot but ask the question: how are we so different from them? During a recent trip to Egypt, something became very apparent about the history of Egyptians: they do not consider the ancient Egyptians to be their family. There was no feeling of history and heritage while our guide showed us the unbelievably overloaded Egypt museum and the sites in Cairo. Since the start of Islam in the area, Egyptians have abandoned who they were to become something different. Their connections to those who built the pyramids are very minimal, if existent at all.

Does the average Israeli differ at all? When one looks at the Holocaust and its relation to Israel you see a people who, on average, negate the rich history of the Jews in Europe. The things that they created, their culture, their heritage is all something else. The “new Jew” has come to Israel and tried to negate his past. This new narrative is one in which a Jew has strength and the will to fight. Does this indicate that Israeli is a new religion, like Islam? Has Israel gone too far? Is it so far removed from the “old Jew” and if yes, is that bad or good? Is it possible to ignore the past and would we want to?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Community

Yesterday my class celebrated the brit milah of our newest community member. One of my fellow students and his wife had their first child a few weeks prior. The baby was born premature, so they were unable to hold the brit milah until yesterday. The experience for me was incredibly moving, but not because of the event, but the response from my class.

Everyone was there to celebrate and most everyone had contributed in some way to the festivities. We were all there together: crying together, laughing together (the moyhel was quite funny) and supporting one another. The amount of love and caring from this group that had only met a few months prior and would disburse in the new few months was heartwarming. This is really the first time I've ever lived in a community that supported their fellow community members this much. We are all individual, but we have managed to create a tight, beautiful bond.

The height of this came when I spoke with the new mother. They had no family at the Bris. When I asked her why that was, she said that her family could not arrive until Wednesday, but because of a class we have that day, they were not sure if we could attend on Wednesday. Therefore, they chose to celebrate with us as opposed to waiting for this family. That is a very strong statement that resonated quite clearly and strongly with me.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Negev Tiyul

I just came back to Jerusalem from our final HUC tiyul. We traveled from Wednesday until tonight in the Negev, the southern part of Israel. It was a wonderful trip. The tiyul (trip) began very early on Wednesday with a visit to Sde Boker, the kibbutz and final resting place of David Ben Gurion. From a lookout at this Kibbutz we had a gorgeous view of the surrounding desert. In my opinion every view of the desert, although seemingly bleak and dry, is breathtaking.

From there we went for lunch and a short hike to the Machtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater). We learned about the formation of this crater and that it is the largest of its kind in the world. The short hike brought us up one of the hills, where some of us climbed to the top to more amazing views, and then around.

The next stop was our last of the day to Kibbutz Yahel. This is a Reform Kibbutz outside of Eilat. One of their main products are Pamelo (a citrus fruit). We were brought to the orchard and the orchard director talked to us about the fruit, its importance to the kibbutz and how his pamelos helped to create peace in and good relations with their Jordanian neighbors (the far end of the orchard is the beginning of the barrier between Israel and Jordan). He had interesting stories and an opportunity for us to have some fruit. The rest of the evening was spent doing Karaoke. I even got up to sing (Midnight Train to Georgia) with some friends.

The next day was focused on hiking. We had the option of two different level hikes or a trip to Timna Park (where there are copper mines). I chose the harder of the two hikes (and I'm still sore). We hiked a path on Har Shlomo, outside of Eilat. The hardest part of the hike was when we went straight up the side of a mountain using the aid of metal rails that had been installed. This was challenging because of the steep nature of the climb, and a bit scary for those of us who have a fear of heights. However, the view from the top of the mountain made it all worth it! We could see Eilat on one side (with a view of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) and deep into Egypt on the other.

While we were at the top, our guide told us to sit facing the desert, next to each other, so that nothing would impede our view. We were then instructed to stay silent as a message was passed around the circle by way of tiny laminated cards. The silence that followed from a group of at least 20 people was indescribable. The desert has an introspective quality when one stops to allow the quiet to seep into your pores. It's easy to find clarity there and I understand why so many people seek refuge in the desert. The experience left me feeling calm and complete.

That night we experienced Bedouin hospitality. We were about to rest, relax, have some wonderful food, and spend time together. I was able to take in a wonderfully clear view of the night sky (with stars that could only be seen in the still of the desert) and an enchanting sunrise in the morning. The experience provided both beauty and solitude in a way that nothing else can.

The next day was a trip to another Reform Kibbutz, Kibbutz Lotan. They spoke to us about their many ecological projects, including solar energy, straw and mud housing, garbage recycling and reuse, and much more. This was followed by a few hours of snorkeling in Eilat (I didn't snorkel, but I did enjoy sitting and reading a book by the beach).

Shabbat was spent again at Kibbut Yahel. It was fun, relaxing and gave me an opportunity to get to know my fellow students better. I'm glad to be back to Jerusalem and back to my regular routine, but the trip was a wonderful way to experience a little more of Israel than I have. I look forward to more traveling coming up!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jerusalem Half Marathon

As most of you know, I am training for the Jerusalem half Marathon. This race is 13.1 miles that will begin and end at the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University on March 27, 2007. The running is going well. It's not easy, as Jerusalem is very hilly, but I figure that if I'm ever going to run one, why not do it in this gorgeous city!

I've started training on part of the race route. So far I've run to the Givat Ram campus, down through Gan Sacher, past the Knesset, past the Supreme court, and back. It's exhilarating to know that I can do this!

The best part of the half marathon has been the process. Thank you for your support throughout this training and the financial support to Hadassah Hospital's Center of Excellence for Individualized Medicine. All of your support will be invaluable to their research.

Sex Trafficking in Tel Aviv

The visit to Tel Aviv troubled me greatly. We went to meet with the director of Achoti (My Sister), which works to help combat the problem of sex trafficking in Tel Aviv. Apparently for many reasons, sex trafficking has been a large problem in Israel. Israel, the director told us, had been a high-ranking country for its vast amount of sex trafficking. This was shocking to me, but I’m sure it should be.

This year’s seminar has worked to help pull the wool from over my eyes. I’ve lived in Israel a number of times, but have always seen Israel through rose-colored glasses. It’s easy to look around and see all the wonderful thinks about this country, of which there are many. However, it’s much more difficult to open ones eyes to pain and the negative features of the country. This visit to Tel Aviv aided in doing just that.

I was disgusted by what I saw. At each place we stopped, our guide read us a testimonial of a woman who had been imprisoned there. Blessedly, the first few places we stopped had been closed. It was never made clear what happened to the women when they were “released” or if they even were set free, but the testimonials spoke volumes as to what they endured. However, not all the places we viewed were closed. The last few places we stopped were clearly open with men coming and going from its seedy doors.

How is this acceptable? How can a country that in many respects begs and pleads for its accepted existence allow this atrocity to occur? Our guide informed us that the locations that were closed had taken a lot of time and complaints to cause its final closing. Not only did the police turn a blind eye to this suffering, but also they were often clients of these “establishments.” (I put this word into quotations because this seems too kind and high of a term for these places.)

The part that I had the most difficulty with was how anyone could be a client at one of these locations. I can’t imagine that they would walk inside and not feel the tension and fear in the air from the women. It must be palpable? Many of these women, as was explained to us, were taken from their homes or lied to about what awaited them in Israel. They were then often locked up and forced to act according to what their captors wanted. One testimonial told of a women who tried to run away and as punishment her family’s house in the Ukraine was burned to the ground. Can these “clients” not sense this fear? What allows them to turn a blind eye and continue with their behavior? How can they not only let this continue but support this?

During the presentation one of my fellow students told of a friend who works with the government here in Jerusalem combating the sex trafficking that happens here. She spoke of a location in Mea She’arim (ultra Orthodox neighborhood). It’s hard for me to judge which of these is worse: a place in Tel Aviv or a place in Mea She’arim. Are the women seen as inhuman in both locations? I fear that this is definitely the case in Mea She’arim. These women are there for the use of the men simply because they are not Jewish. As my understanding goes, for the men who frequent these locations there is a respect for a Jewish woman that does not allow them to use them in this way. Does that mean that these other women are there because they are not respected? Does that make them animals and doing this to them acceptable? If yes, is this a better view than the women in Tel Aviv establishments? Do the secular customers also see these women as less than human? Is that a necessary factor in allowing oneself to be a patron at such a location?

The other question raised is what we can do to help this problem, as it clearly is a problem: both in Israel and in America. That for me is the “silver lining,” the thought that there is something I can do. My desire is to get involved with similar organizations while in New York and LA over the next few years. I refuse to sit back and allow this to be a problem that I perpetuate through my silence and inaction.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Perspective

Every Tuesday night I volunteer at a center which helps the "at risk" English speaking teen population in the city. I have been doing this since October and have found it to be a very rewarding experience. I am constantly amazed by the kids I see there. As it is a drop in center with the only paid staff being Social Workers, the kids choose whether or not to be there and from there can choose to take the steps to get help.

Tonight I had an amazing experience with one of the teens. This person and I had a conversation which lasted for about 25 minutes and changed my perspective. Through the conversation I was told about their past experiences: drug problems, leaving home young, being alone in Israel for the past few years, dropping out of school, and more. What amazed me about this person was their outlook. With all that they have been through their attitude remained positive. I was amazed at that and their continual drive to improve themselves. They are seeking their GED (a service that the center offers), working to help other people, and ultimately want to seek a career that allows them to help people. I was just amazed. With everything they have been through they still see the beauty and value in life and remain positive.

In less than a week I will begin my first final exam period in 5 years. I have been worrying and stressing about what will happen. I needed to hear this person's story. It was inspirational to hear them talk, whether they know it or not. We all have difficulties in our lives, but our outlook and ability to deal with those issues are what make us who we are.

Happy (secular) new year.