Changing the Question – Scott Frankel

Hark! Change is in the air! A little more than halfway through the Omer, it seemed it might be nice to throw a third question into the mix – a question prompted by fellow iFellow Scott Frankel:

Scott’s passion for Jewish media and education brought him to Israel for a year after graduating from college. He worked at a film & TV production company in Tel Aviv, where he directed a documentary about global Jewish life called From The Diaspora. This project lead Scott to become a Chicago PresenTense Fellow in 2012, and he now works at the iCenter.


Out of a Land of Static Bonds – Jay LeVine

As we move from Passover to Shavuot, we relive the mythic story of movement from slavery to the freedom necessary to experience revelation. Egypt is often equated with slaveryin the first commandment, God tells Israel “I have taken you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage (avadim).”

The Hebrew word avadim could also mean idol-worship, and understanding the Exodus as freedom from idolatry intrigues me. What is the significance of idol-worship for today? Idolatry seems so….biblical. No one really worships little stone figures anymore, right? And anyway, isn’t religious intolerance a major contributing factor to many of the ills in the world?

For many years, I assumed the term “idolatry” was more or less retired from active duty on the theological dream team. However, I came across an understanding of idolatry that has now convinced me that my appreciation of the state of Israel hinges precisely on an ongoing struggle against idolatry.

Erich Fromm defines idolatry as alienation from self. When we give up our power and locate it outside of ourselves – by placing athletes and stars on pedestals, by blaming others for our circumstances, etc. – we are practicing idolatry. Idolatry means giving up the freedom of choice; idolatry means quieting our creativity until we are static and powerless.

The modern state of Israel is in my humble opinion a magnificent case study on this understanding of idolatry. On the one hand, Israel represents the best of the struggle against idolatry: It was founded on a premise of locating power within the Jewish people, instead of in external governments. In so many ways Israel has required and inspired tremendous creativity, in the arts, literature, technology, and more. Yet there are ways in which choice is constricted, where religious creativity is seen as illegitimate, when power becomes its own excuse and thus enslaves those who think they wield it.

For me, Israel represents the ongoing journey out of Egypt – out of a land of static bonds that hold back the creative free spirit.


Jay LeVine recently earned his Masters of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, where he will be continuing for his fourth year of rabbinical school in the fall. He grew up in southeastern Arizona and graduated from the University of Arizona with bachelor’s degrees in Finance and Judaic Studies. Among his passions are Hebrew poetry, indie music, and Jewish books. Check out his blog at

Israel and I: A Story in Three Parts – Nicole Berne

My Egypt was ignorance and apathy. I hated the expectation that a place to which I’d never been was supposed to mean something to me. I didn’t understand why the modern state of Israel was supposed to matter to me, when my family likely hadn’t lived in the land for a millennium or more. History and archaeology, sure, but politics today seemed pretty far removed from any historic connection I may have, plus my schooling had me thoroughly convinced that religion and government should never mix. Surrounded by people with personal connections to Israel, I felt like a stranger, disconnected and distanced from the connections felt by those around me. Their expectations for my Zionism was a heavy burden for me to carry. Moreover, my ignorance made me afraid. I didn’t want to ask questions for fear of sounding stupid, didn’t know what questions to ask, and felt overwhelmed with all there was to learn. I also feared, once I had more knowledge and understanding, that others would view me poorly for my views – and that I would judge people I cared about for their own views. I was paralyzed, frozen in place, hoping that my silence would keep others’ attention off me.

My revelation at Sinai, therefore, consisted of moments when I felt both informed and invested in Israel – moments when Israel was mine too, when I could analyze a political situation or ask insightful questions. Sinai was also in moments of intense self-identity with other Israelis. When the sirens went off one Friday afternoon, and my friends and I huddled in the stairwell with our neighbors, listening intently to the radio and straining to hear the sounds of a far-off explosion. In these moments, Israel was mine – but they were fast and fleeting. Just as Sinai was never the ultimate destination in the children of Israel’s journey, so too my life went on.
So now, I’m wandering in the wilderness. I have memories of slavery and revelation. Neither was comfortable, and, unlike the wanderers in the desert, I don’t know what my promised land looks like. “Flowing with milk and honey” – what does that even mean for life today? Let my promised land flow with the curiosity and critical evaluation of the people who love it. Let the honey be the sweetness of open-mindedness and honest discussion. May my promised land be one of continuous revelation.
Nicole Berne is a third-year MAJE student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, CA. She graduated from Indiana University in 2011, majoring in English and history, and spent her first year of graduate school living and learning in Jerusalem. Looking ahead, Nicole is excited to explore opportunities for pursuing social justice through Jewish education both in classwork and through hands-on community engagement.


One Story Everyone Should Know? Entebbe. – Ashley Berns

  Ashley Berns is currently pursuing Rabbinic Ordination as well as an MA in Jewish Education from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. This summer, Ashley worked as the Counselor-In-Training (CIT) Director at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, CA. Following her summer position at camp, Ashley continued her work with Wilshire Boulevard Temple as their Rabbinic and Education Intern. Ashley was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and received her BS in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention with a minor in Judaic Studies from the University of Southern California. Prior to attending HUC, Ashley lived in Tel Aviv for six months volunteering with the Israeli non-profit, “Save A Child’s Heart.”

Take TWO Trips to Israel – Paul Kipnes

What can you see in Israel in just 5 days? Plenty. 5 days were just enough to travel north, south, east and west (yama v’kedma, tzafona v’negba) in search of significant new projects in which to involve my synagogue, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA). Moreover, these 5 short days provided me with unique insight into the tapestry we call Israel.

So often we see Israel through the eyes of the tourist, visiting Jewish historical sites as well as those marking the rebirth of our Jewish State. Too often, we miss the day-to-day reality of Israel.

This five day trip afforded me the opportunity experience Israel anew by:

Dining with a young Jerusalem family who are trying to build a new future by sending their children to Hand-in-Hand, a mixed Jewish, Muslim, Christian school;

Meandering through vibrant, secular Tel Aviv, enjoying its Shuk HaKarmel (open air market) and partaking in the night life in the cafés and along the Port

Exploring a shmata (clothing) factory in a northern Galilean Druze village which is providing employment and revenue for the struggling village

Visiting an innovative program, teaching Jerusalem Arab youth how to conceive of and open their own small businesses

Meeting in the Kiryah, Israel’s Pentagon, with Ultra-orthodox soldiers who are bucking the trend to enter the Air Force to ensure a viable future for themselves and their families

These poignant experiences were brilliantly arranged by Gideon Herscher, an energetic, visionary Israeli leader in the Joint Distribution Committee. He arranged intense conversations with a passionate Israeli Arab lawyer, a newly freed and self-sufficient woman who had been sex trafficked from Romania, the ever thoughtful author of Start Up Nation Saul Singer, and former Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg. We also enjoyed a private briefing at the Taub Center that opened our eyes to important demographic, education and economic trends in Israel today.

I came away with a renewed sense that Israel – in addition to being a spiritually-exciting, Jewishly-significant, geopolitically-central Promised Land – is also a normal, energetic, multi-cultural modern state.

Everyone should take a minimum of two trips to Israel: the first that tastes all the tourist sights that highlight Israel as the Holy Land, and a second which illuminates the multicultural, exciting, abnormally normal country that underlies and transcends the Holy Land.


Paul Kipnes is the Rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California. He teaches Pastoral Counseling at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, sits on the Clinical Faculty of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, and serves as Rabbinic Dean of URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. Follow his blog here.

From the Desert to Jerusalem and Back Again – Lily Gottlieb

Many Jews I know who have participated in an organized trip to Israel have recounted that the trip, though fun and unlike any other travel experience, did not feel particularly meaningful until the group reached Jerusalem.

While my inaugural trip to the old city did have a great impact on my thoughts and feelings about Israel and Judaism, my experience in southern Israel had a similar role in fostering my personal connection to the state, its land and its people.


The desert is the complicated site of the historical wandering and settling of many nomadic peoples, representing a great deal of possibility atop mountains of buried struggle.  The energy of the desert resembles that of the city of Jerusalem where three major religions are layered in strata of coexistence and conflict. On my most recent trip to Israel, I sought to examine the connection between the desert and the Old City though photography.

Using a high-speed black and white film in my “old school” medium format analog camera, I shot both sites, looking to capture the mysticism and socio-political significance that each represents for me and my experience of the land and its conflict.  I organized the resulting images into a small book entitled “Dust,” emphasizing the importance of time and the uncovering of the past in understanding and dealing with the realities of the modern state of Israel. 

Jerusalem 2


Lily Gottlieb is a photographer graduating from the California Institute of the Arts this May. She is also an active member of the Los Angeles Jewish community, mostly working with Jewish youth. She will be traveling to Israel as a madricha on a NFTY in Israel trip this summer. 

Revisiting the Pesach-to-Independence Day Narrative – Dave Mendelsson

During the first decade of Israel’s statehood, the Knesset passed a series of laws establishing new holidays—days of commemoration or celebration—which were added to the national calendar: Holocaust Day (Yom Hashoah), Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron), when fallen soldiers are remembered, and Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut).

These newly-consecrated days were placed in a deliberate sequence between Pesach and Shavuot, with the intent of undermining the traditional Jewish calendar. Instead of emphasizing, as the Passover Haggadah does, God’s “strong hand, and outstretched arm” (Ps. 136:12), and God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai, celebrated on Shavuot, a new narrative was created. This alternative narrative focused on the end of slavery and the fight for freedom, on the transition, accomplished by dint of human effort, from exile to independence.

The essence of the narrative was that no divine miracle had been carried out on our behalf, but we ourselves had struggled, taken action, and created a new society.

This narrative resonates deeply with me, and I identify with its central theme of the Jewish people’s taking responsibility for altering the course of its history. Slavery did indeed teach us to value and seek freedom, despite the heavy price–the great loss of life–this entailed. But I think the notion that the traditional narrative has nothing to teach us should be revisited.

Having put an end to the years of victimhood, we must remember the dangers of unbridled power. Perhaps a return to the timeline that culminates in Shavuot will revitalize our awareness of the ethical imperatives at the heart of the Jewish tradition, even if we believe that they were not given by God at Sinai, but rather formulated by humans, by prophets and sages who sought to inculcate the message that the power arising from nationhood must always be guided by moral purpose.


Dave Mendelsson is Director of the Year in Israel Program at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, Israel. Click here for a more extensive biography.

Yom HaZikaron in Israel – Leah Citrin

Exactly one week after Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel commemorates Yom HaZikaron—Memorial Day. Rather than a three-day full of barbeques and retail sales, Israel’s Memorial Day is a stark reminder that not a single citizen in the country of Israel is untouched by the ultimate sacrifice of life that is exchanged for Israel’s existence.

Four years ago, I was in Jerusalem for Yom HaZikaron and had the opportunity to experience multiple ceremonies and services that marked the day. Each changed my relationship with Israel in ways I certainly did not expect.

Yom HaZikaron begins with a sunset ceremony at the Kotel, attended by important political figures as well as families of recently deceased soldiers or terror victims. The evening begins with a 60 second siren, during which the entire country comes to a stop in silent memorial to all those who have died fighting for the State of Israel. Though I might not have understood the words of many of the speeches, I could not possibly have avoided the tone or the atmosphere; the sense of collective mourning and remembrance, the acknowledgement that no one escapes unscathed.

The following day, I headed over to Gymnasium Rehavia to attend their tekes along with more than 60 fellow HUC students and faculty  We walked through their Hall of Remembrance, memorializing the people from their 100+ year old who gave their lives in the ongoing battle for Israel’s freedom. We listened as the name of each soldier or terror victim who had graduated from this school was read, and paused for a second memorial siren. Everyone was dressed in white and stood silently at attention as the siren sounded.

Later that afternoon, I went with a friend to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem. We watched the swarms of people around the newest graves—some less than a month old. We also noticed the much more lonely graves of soldiers who died decades ago—perhaps with no one left to come visit them. Yet on each and every grave lay at least one bouquet of flowers, laid there carefully by an Israeli scout. Everyone was to be remembered. Unexpectedly, I began to cry.

For maybe the first time, I felt connected to the country on a deeper level. The fallen soldiers, many who were two, three or four years my junior, whose graves I stood before, died fighting for a country that I too felt a part of. They gave their lives for me to be able to stand there; study there; live there.

Yom HaZikaron in Israel has a different feel than commemorating the day anywhere else. But the ikar, or most important thing, about this day, is to remember that we can create a feeling of solidarity and a feeling of connection to it—and to Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, both in the country of Israel and beyond.


A version of this was previously published in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Ten Minutes of Torah.

Leah Citrin, originally from Rye Brook, New York, is a rising 5th year student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati. After serving pulpits in New Iberia, Louisiana, and Kokomo, Indiana, Leah will begin her second year as the rabbinic intern at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati in the fall. An avid Yankees and Reds fan, Leah also enjoys playing tennis, softball, and running half-marathons. Additionally, Leah is excited to begin her iCenter fellowship in a few weeks!

Sidenote: Israel in the News

About a week ago, JStreet and something called “The Conference” was all over the Jewish American news. “The Conference” referred to The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and JStreet’s tagline reads: “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”.

In short, Jstreet made a bid to join the Conference and, after a secret vote, was not admitted.

I do not wish to state any personal opinion of my own – in fact, I am not sure I have one, knowing as little as I do about the various organizations involved.

However, I thought it would be remiss of this blog to ignore the kerfuffle, and so I am including here a few (not largely representative, just informative and/or opinionated) articles on the topic for perusal.

Jerusalem Post:
1. Conference of Presidents votes against J Street inclusion
2. J Street disappointed by Conference of Presidents rejection

Forward – JJ Goldberg
Blackballing J Street: Who Voted How

Tablet – Liel Leibovitz
Forget J Street; Should We Accept the Conference of Presidents?




How do you see Israel, pt. 2

On Friday night, I introduced a few ways in which my HUC classmates see Israel. Here is pt. 2 of that post:

Israel and home:

I see Israel as a homeland for no one; a place that is said to be a homeland for many but makes many feel not at home.

I see Israel as a possible home and a place I can go and know I will feel a sense of belonging.

Israel and the multiple “hats” she wears:

I see Israel through a variety of filters – Cultured Israel, Liberal Israel, Media Israel, etc. but I rarely come across images that seem “filterless”.

The un-categorizables:

I see Israel as an essential life-place of the Jewish people in which Jews and our allies can work together to bring to life the ancient ideals of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Rabbis.

Israel. Love it, amazing experience there that totally changed my (formerly disinterested) views on it…it hurts my heart that I feel as a female Reform rabbi my life would be too much of a struggle to make it even a vague possibility. Other things hurting my heart: the rabanut’s stranglehold on all manner of things, the discounting/silencing of women, racism.

I see Israel as a place that inspires and worries me, and when I am there I feel like I am enacting my own link in the chain of the Jewish people.