Shedding our Skin, Acting on our Memories – Aki Yonekawa

The period of the Omer represents our growing distance from bondage and our proximity toward autonomy.

During this liminal wandering space, we shed the skin of our slavery while maintaining the memory of our narrow existence in Egypt.

Even as we shed that slave mentality, it is impressed upon us that we must hold dear the memory that we were once strangers in a strange land.

What is the application of this memory?
How do we put into practice?

One of the lessons that our long sojourn in Egypt teaches us is that we must be kind to the stranger. We express our empathy to the oppressed minority because we have walked in their shoes. However, there is another side to this coin. As we move from bondage to autonomy, the Promised Land represents our future of being a free people, an autonomous nation. This comes at a price.

The Israelites learn in the desert the laws and systems that they will use to govern, they fight battles to conquer the land. The modern state of Israel can be seen to represent the same symbol of autonomy for a people that existed for so long as strangers in strange lands. We were strangers in Spain, Morocco, Germany and Poland. We were strangers in Russia and in France. We lived always with the knowledge that we were living on borrowed time, that the powerful majority could push us out when we became to numerous, too powerful, too noisome.

For some, this memory leads to a deep empathy with those who are pushed out of their lands. For others, it leads to a fierce protection of the land that provides the answer to this reality. For many of those protectors, in order for Jews to exist in the world as an autonomous people, Israel must remain Jewish. Are these reactions to the same memory in conflict with one another?

The success of the State of Israel has brought refugees into its borders – people who have been pushed out of their own lands by war, violence, conflict and poverty. How we approach these refugees serves as a measure of what our own memory of being strangers means to us.

Do we express our empathy, embrace them as we wish we were embraced when we were orphaned?

Or, do we bind together, protecting our borders for the sake of our own continued autonomy and our right to live in a land where we are not Other?

In this period of reflection, let us think about how our memories drive our actions – what we want to shed and what we want to hold dear as we make our ascent toward freedom.



Aki Yonekawa has the pleasure of living and working at the beautiful Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University where she runs educational programming for field trips, retreats and conferences. She came to Brandeis-Bardin in 2001 to work at Camp Alonim for a summer and has remained working at the campus in some capacity ever since. When she is not in Brandeis, CA, she teaches religious school, volunteers for LimmudLA, leads Birthright trips, and is working with a group of teenagers in the San Fernando Valley to develop a conference for local teens focusing on Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Aki is currently a candidate for an MBA in Non-Profit Management and an MA in Education at American Jewish University.


We Are Family – Dr. Richard Sarason

What one story do you think every American kid should learn about Israel?

In true Jewish contrarian fashion, I am going to dispute the premise here! Simplifying, or reducing everything to “one story” is precisely what we should NOT be doing. Israel is a very complex reality, both as a dynamic society comprised of Jews from all over the world, and as a political entity. It is this complexity to which we should be exposing our children—and ourselves. All of the distortions about Israel in public discourse are, at base, about reducing this complexity to some single rhetorical trope, slogan, or position. But the reality is much more complicated, much more interesting, and much more engaging.

If I were, however, to choose a single mantra with which to begin this exposure, it would be “We are family”—because that, for Jews, is what this is and must be all about. Israelis are our relatives, in some cases directly and in some, indirectly. Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, our tradition teaches us: All Jews are related to, connected to, responsible for, each other.

What Americans—children and adults—need to learn about Israel is its reality: it is a real country with real people, not just an idea or an ideal. The best way to learn about Israel is to get to know Israelis, be they camp counselors, exchange students, youth leaders, or community shelichim (Israeli cultural ambassadors). And to spend time there, whether on a youth movement trip, a Birthright trip, or a semester abroad. Passionate commitment is based in intimate experience and concrete engagement.


Rabbi Dr. Richard Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH, where he has been a faculty member since 1979.  Prior to that time, he was Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1977.  He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, in 1974.  He received his A.B. in Economics from Brandeis University in 1969, and was a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1970 to 1972, while attending HUC-JIR. (more here)

Israel: A Work in Progress – Rabbi Naamah Kelman

When the Israelites left Egypt they were destined for a land that they would rule. In fact much of the Torah and especially Sinai was meant to be a “manual” for settling in the Land of Israel. The “Promise” of Promised Land is in the possibility that we might be able to build a society that lives by the highest ethical standards spelled out at Sinai and for much of what comes after. Israel and the Jewish people for that matter are and have always been a work in progress; perhaps it begins with that never ending ancient journey.

So the question for Israelis today is how do we leave slavery and get closer to the best possible free selves we can be?

The modern state of Israel was founded on many of these principles but like every society we fall short, and we argue about it louder. As a Reform rabbi in a place where we struggle for recognition and acceptance, my journey is defined by leaving the “slavery” of sexism, racism, and fear of others, extremism to a place of inclusion, democracy, and more equality and justice. Slavery is fear and hopelessness, revelation is hope, compassion, and fairness. We continue to go back and forth, wherever we are, releasing ourselves from slaveries (old and new) and reaching for the essence of Sinai, where everyone sees the image of God in the other.


Rabbi Naamah Kelman was Ordained by HUC-JIR in Israel in 1992 and has devoted her career to strengthening the Reform Movement’s outreach, community organizing, and Jewish education. She has been intensely involved in the emerging education system of the IMPJ and was among the founders of the first Progressive Day School, where she has overseen the development of curricular materials, teacher training programs, and family education. At HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, she has strengthened the Year-In-Israel Program for North American first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students, advanced professional development for the Israeli Rabbinical Program, and has been a catalyst for new and innovative programs in the areas of pluralistic Jewish education and pastoral counseling. (biography pulled from here)

An Unfathomable Price for an Inestimable Prize – Dusty Klass

Jedwabne. A small town in Poland. On July 10th 1941, Jedwabne’s Jews were brutally murdered; beaten, beheaded, drowned, with the remaining forced into a barn that was set on fire. Until 2001, the mass murder was chalked up as one more notch in the belt of Nazi atrocity. But then historian and scholar Jan Gross published The Neighbors, revealing the truth: these acts were not perpetrated by Nazis at all – the Jews of Jedwabne were murdered by their Polish neighbors.

Today, on the eve of Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, I am struck, left reeling by the incredible deeds human beings are capable of. What is evil? How to comprehend such evil? What kind of person is able to do such evil?

This morning I walked the streets of Los Angeles as part of Jewish World Watch’s 10th Walk to End Genocide. It’s the tenth because genocide hasn’t ended. But it’s also the tenth because each year the money raised by the walk keeps more people safe, and because when a bunch of folks in bright blue shirts walk down 3rd Street in Los Angeles on Sunday at noon, people pay attention.


Tonight, I remember the murder of millions and millions of Europe’s Jews, and Roma, and mentally and physically disabled, and GLBT populations. And as I remember, I try also not to forget – that every person is a person, and that our collective humanity calls upon us to do better, to be better.

Israel’s narrative is tied inextricably to the Shoah, as past and current March of the Living participants can surely tell you. Each year on this day, thousands of Jewish teens from all over the world march at Auschwitz. It is a march of those who live, in memory of those who cannot. A week later, these teens join the Israeli community in commemoration of Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, and then, 24 hours later, dance through the streets of Jerusalem in celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.

We would have no fallen soldiers to memorialize and no independence to celebrate were it not for the acts of horror and heroism that came before them.

What an unfathomable price for an inestimable prize.

Zichronam L’vracha – may their lives and deaths be remembered, and be for blessing.


Dusty Klass is still not satisfied with this blog post, and her brain and heart are all tied up in knots. She thanks Rabbi Dr. Jan Katzew, without whose editing this entry would be a complete disaster.

Becoming a Part of Something – Gina Rozner

Standing in between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, a shot of Tel Aviv from across the sea.
I was surprised by how developed and similar to the United States many parts of Israel were. I had been expecting mostly barren desert and lots of fighting. Instead I saw fully built cities full of people enjoying themselves.
A friend on the shoulders of another friend putting a note into the Kotel.
I have never had a real tie to Israel. Friends and family have always talked of Israel as a place they feel most at home, but with only cultural history as a tie, I always found it difficult to relate. Also, I am not a spiritual person; I have a very difficult time connecting to the idea of a God or a higher power.
Both these truths were tested upon walking through the Old City and then up to the Kotel for the first time: it was magical!
I felt like I belonged to something bigger than myself. I could feel the energy of everyone around me; all in the same place for the same reason. I became a part of something I had only seen pictures of or read about.
In this place, I was able to feel a presence: if something was going to answer my prayers and wishes, it would be those that I share here.
An Israeli soldier and an American man in an embrace, in the Old City.
I think of Israel as a very traditional and conservative country. Knowing the implications of how some would respond to this moment as it was being captured in the US, I was pleasantly surprised that these two males could walk through Jerusalem safely and comfortably. The acceptance I experienced while in Israel helped me to see Israel through a new, progressive lens.


Gina Rozner is a public school teacher and religious educator. She writes: I grew up with a “conserva-dox” Jewish family, attending secular school and religious school as an extracurricular activity. Through adolescence I explored where and how those worlds intersected when who I was and how I thought did not always match traditional Halacha. Through my own exploration over the last couple of years, I have found a comfortable Jewish identity to hold. I just recently visited Israel for the first time with Taglit Birthright on an LGBTQ trip and was marveled as my experience difference completely from any expectations I held.

Zeitchem l’shalom – Jeremy Gimbel


This sign, which sits at the exit of Jerusalem sums up Israel for me. The story of Israel that every American kid should learn is the story of being cognizant of time and space. Israel is a complex place, but what has stuck with me is that it is a place that recognizes, and celebrates, Jewish time and space. When you enter Jerusalem, there’s a welcome sign. As you leave, there’s this sign: tzeitchem l’shalom. Not, “L’hitraot – see you soon,” but “go to peace.” The language also comes from the Shabbat song, Shalom Aleichem, which is addressing the ministering angels of peace. In a nutshell, the sign is telling us that we have a higher purpose; not just to go towards our destination, but to go towards peace AS ministering angels of peace.

I am also continually on that journey, moving from the slavery of egotism and self-centeredness to working as a messenger of peace and goodness. Israel helps remind me that this journey continues, no matter where you reside – even in the holiest cities – we must be constantly reminded of this most sacred duty.
Jeremy Gimbel is an avid enthusiast. He is also part of the incoming iCenter cohort.


Israel: The Untold Story – Daniel Alter


Daniel Alter is finishing up his third year in the Masters in Jewish Education program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA.  He is excited to continue his time at HUC, entering into the rabbinical program in the fall.  As an iCenter fellow, Daniel has enjoyed gaining new perspectives on Israel education from an array of brilliant thinkers and fellow students from multiple institutions.  Currently, Daniel serves as the madrikhim coordinator and sixth grade teacher at Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA.  This summer, he will be interning at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, CA.

Teaching the sounds of a broken blossoming homeland – Allie Klein

I believe that every American child should learn many stories about Israel.

If we offer children just one window into Israel’s deeply complicated and beautiful existence, we do a great disservice in helping each child formulate a well-rounded, thoughtful opinion about Israel. The more stories we can share with our children, the more perspectives we can offer them of the myriad ways people connect to our broken, blossoming homeland.

Children who learn about a multi-vocal Israel will grow up to truly love Israel, knowing that their true love means saying “I love you and I want to help you be better,” not “I love you so you’re perfect the way you are, no matter what.”

If I could only teach American kids one story about Israel, I would teach them about the way Israel sounds – the opus of rapid-fire Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, French, and English; the walls of the Old City resounding with the Muslim call to prayer, the ringing of church bells, and the prayerful murmur coming through the windows of the synagogue.

I want to teach American kids what a beautiful symphony these sounds make when they join together, and show them how to listen to these sounds more carefully, more critically, and more lovingly.


Allie Klein is the student Rabbi of Beth Sholom Temple of Fredericksburg, Virginia. She is a fourth year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Allie grew up in Montclair, NJ, and attended Haverford College and graduated with a BA in Psychology in 2007. After college, she worked in Needham, MA, at Temple Beth Shalom overseeing the 6th-12th grade youth programs and spending summers working at URJ Camp Harlam, her alma mater. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her fiance Adam, who is a third grade teacher in Manhattan. 

The Need for Nuance – Miriam Farber Wajnberg

Too often, when we try to nuance Israel for our students, we resort to further generalizations and over-simplifications. “Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, and all Jews, worldwide, are welcome there,” becomes “Liberal Jews are not welcome in Israel, in Jerusalem in particular.” This attempt to show students the “real” Israel continues to oversimplify a country that is vibrant and struggling with its challenges and national identity. These photographs, which I took during the 2009-2010 academic year while studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, show different sides of Jerusalem’s diverse religious life. Although each photograph is only a small slice of the story, when taken together, they begin to tell a more complete and complex story of what it is to be part of the progressive Jewish community in Jerusalem.


The above photograph shows Nofrat Frenkel, a member of Nashot HaKotel – Women of the Wall, leaving the police station in Jerusalem’s Old City after being detained in November 2009 for wearing a tallit on the women’s side of the Kotel. Outside the police station, a group of dozens of women and allies waited for Nofrat, singing and praying with joy and hope.


The above photograph is from a “Free Jerusalem” parade on a Saturday night a few weeks after Nofrat’s arrest at the Kotel. The poster reads “There is more than one way to be Jewish.” In a blog post I wrote about participating in this protest, I wrote, “I am a liberal Jew, a Reform Jew, and for the past few weeks had felt incredibly lonely and disconnected from that in this city. Saturday’s night march shifted that for me…That Saturday night, I no longer felt alone. It’s unclear (highly doubtful) that the protest will have any impact whatsoever on the power dynamics in Jerusalem, but it had a huge internal effect on me, reminding me that there are Jews of all varieties who share a vision of a Jerusalem that is truly a city for all Jews, secular, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and everything else in between.” The diverse community of Jerusalem residents who share this vision are just as much a part of Israel’s story as those who fight to enact legislation preventing the vision from becoming reality.

This photograph is also from Women of the Wall. Rather than showing the pain and challenge of Nashot haKotel’s monthly prayer service, these women are celebrating Purim with joy, silliness, and megillah readings. The joy, silliness, and irreverence of Purim are a crucial part of engaging with Israel!
Miriam Farber Wajnberg is a rabbinical-education student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. She lived in Israel for two years, studying at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies and HUC’s Year in Israel program.

Sharing A Bit of the Ugliness – Gavi Ruit

Like many things in life, the State of Israel is a multifaceted and complicated place. It can be beautiful and inviting, but, depending on who you are, it can also be ugly and terrifying. One of the ugliest aspects, in my opinion, is the deep-seated and pervasive racism found there.

One experience that stands out in my mind – and burns my soul – happened on a trip down to Tel Aviv. I took a sherut (small bus) down from Jerusalem one Friday afternoon. The sherut was packed and there was an Arab Israeli family sitting in front of me. The family included a mother wearing a headscarf, a six year old girl, and a boy who was about 14. As the sherut approached the security checkpoint, I saw the boy begin to frantically check all his pockets. He said something to his mother and she became distraught – visibly shaking and on the verge of tears. The boy couldn’t find his ID papers. At the checkpoint, a guard looked in the bus window and then boarded carrying a huge military rifle. He pointed the rifle at the family and told them to get off the bus. There were then interrogated for 30 minutes while the rest of us waited. When they got back on the bus, the mother was crying and they all carried a sense of shame.

That family LIVED in that country; I was a tourist. And yet, I never once had to carry MY papers while traveling in Israel.


Gavi Ruit is a 4th year rabbinical student at HUC-LA. Previously, she worked as a developmental specialist with children and adolescents suffering from a range of mental and developmental disorders.