Stories, Truths, Shortcomings, Achievements – Shira Weissman

My mother was born in Israel to Polish parents who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. For her family, Israel was a savior and she grew up wandering the streets of Tel Aviv with her sisters. Everyone was poor and shared with one another. After she left Israel in her 20’s, moving to Berkeley during the 1960’s hippie revolution of the 1960’s, she never moved back to her homeland of milk and honey, kibbutzim and orange groves, though we visited as a family every year. Her Israel was young and idealistic and could do no wrong and she strongly imprinted her vision of Israel on me as I was growing up.

I loved the warmth of the country and the familiarity of the smells and language. I attended summer camps in Israel with my many cousins and distant relatives, alongside other Israeli American children, whose parents longed for them to experience “real” Israel and not become completely American. But in the end, we always left. I was an American child, with television and Christmas and friends named Elizabeth and Stacy.

When I was 20 years old, my relationship with Israel changed. I studied in Tel Aviv during my junior year of college, which happened to coincide with the beginning of the Second Intifada. Two weeks after a wild night dancing with friends at the Club Dolphinarium on the Tayelet, a suicide bomber killed and maimed over 100 young Israelis waiting outside the club. It was an abrupt end to my perfect vision of Israel. Yet, Israelis continued to frequent the coffee shops and nightclubs, almost in defiance of the collective anguish of the country. I saw real perseverance and bravery.

I continue to go back to Israel for short trips, as often as I can. On one trip, I visited Hebron and toured the Jewish settlement located in the heart of the old city, where 800 Jews live in the middle of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. It was uncomfortable to witness a handful of zealous Jewish settlers create such hostilities with their Palestinian neighbors. Israel might be brave, but it was often wrong.

Most recently, I learned and studied for two weeks in Israel with the Wexner fellowship program, which opened my eyes to Arab-Israel relations, Israel’s relationship to Gaza and the West Bank, the ultraorthodox challenges to Israel’s democracy and Israel’s accomplishments in water conservation. I toured the desalination plant located in Askelon, and witnessed how 90% of Israel’s domestic fresh water is produced. I saw the incredible innovations Israel has made in water irrigation at Netafim, which in typical Israeli fashion is a multi-million dollar corporation located in a modest Moshav in the desert.
Israel’s constraints, both ecological and geographical, are what fosters the country’s innovation. I am constantly in awe of the young country – with its vibrant art scene, growing tech sector, breakthroughs in flight and aerospace technologies and its discoveries in medicine.

Israel remains my beloved home away from home, embracing me with open arms and falafel. Israel has many stories and truths. I acknowledge the shortcomings and achievements of Israel, and my relationship with Israel is not without challenges. Yet, it is a relationship I believe every Jew must have.

Our generation has never faced a world without Israel. I don’t know or understand the implications of such a world and I don’t take it for granted. Every young Jew must take the time to learn and develop a relationship, however complicated, with Israel.

 

Shira Weissman is General Counsel at Rabin Worldwide, where she negotiates transactions involving industrial equipment and real estate, and handles the legal and business affairs of the company. Prior to her long awaited return to her hometown, Shira practiced law at Baker & McKenzie in Chicago and taught second grade with Teach for America in the South Bronx.

Shira recently completed the two-year Wexner Heritage Program, where she revitalized her excitement for the vibrant Jewish life around her. When not closing a deal, Shira loves running on Mt. Tamalpais, skiing anything anywhere, and cooking Shabbat dinners with her family.

 

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Taking Israel Off of Her Pedestal – Liora Alban

Note from the editor: In preparation to present my blog project at this week’s iCenter iFellows Masters Concentration in Israel Education Seminar (say that 5x fast), I asked a few folks I know have been following along to share the ways in which they have used the blog. A couple of people responded in such well-stated ways that I asked if they would be willing to have me share their words with you all. Here is the first of two responses.

I started reading the blog, 50 Days of Israel: Thinking About Israel from Slavery to Sinai after Dusty posted it on her facebook. Being a Jew, a future rabbinical student, and a person who struggles with her relationship to Israel, I was intrigued.

After living in Israel for a year, I returned with more questions than answers about this beautiful homeland. Although Israel has always felt like home, certain challenges and experiences in my last year made me take Israel off of its pedestal. I realized that the warm and utopian Israel which had been presented to me through Jewish education and youth trips is not the entire picture. Most noticeably, being a Progressive Jewish woman was difficult inside of traditional Jerusalem. I yearned to to sing, dance, pray, and ultimately, be, freely.

50 Days of Israel cements the fact that I am not the only committed Jew with these frustrations. The blog includes voices of friends and future colleagues whom I respect and whom allow me to sit comfortably with my own criticisms of Israel. They make me realize that with a love of Israel comes a wanting to improve it, and that this is okay. Further, the writers oftentimes present opinions on Israel that are new or different from mine. Sometimes I know the writers and sometimes I do not. Each writer answers the blog’s questions in his or her own way, encouraging me to ask myself those same questions. With each answer by a different writer, I am presented with something new to consider and a new contribution to my own answer. It is helping to carry me therefore along my own journey from slavery to revelation, from confusion about Israel to an understanding and acceptance of the beautiful complexities that shape this Jewish homeland.

 

Liora Alban  earned her B.A. in Religious Studies with a concentration in Judaism from The University of California, Berkeley in December 2013. She also studied religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Fall 2012 and Spring 2013. Although Liora grew up in Los Angeles and enjoyed exploring Berkeley, she cannot wait to make the move to Jerusalem in July 2014 as she begin pursuing her rabbinical ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Redemption – Matt Drisco

Unlike many of the people posting to this blog, I had no reason to go to Israel. I was poor, out of college, and, most importantly, followed a girl to Israel for several months. I didn’t have any Jewish roots of which to speak, nor did I have a particularly strong connection to the monuments. Israel, for me, was a country of political and religious discord, a country of news stories. So you seek, so shall you find. I saw a Jerusalem as a city of contradictions, from Me’a Shearim to Ein Kerem, orthodox to liberal, a city in which people existed in a threadbare peace. Strife existed not only between religions, but within them as well.

I found many things wrong with Israel. I was shortsighted.

After living there for 5 months, I traveled to even cheaper pastures. I took the bus to Cairo to live two squalid months right after the revolution. I thought I had seen strife, or mistakes, or hypocrisy, but I had not understood the miracle of Israeli development.

Many people who have not travelled the Middle East do not understand this simple fact: Israelis redeemed the land. I am not speaking in a spiritual sense, but in a physical one. They delivered the land from the autocracy and poverty and corruption and desert. I look at the other lands that broke from Ottoman rule and I am amazed. The land of Israel is not a miracle. It is a story of work, of redemption, and of struggle, as the name means. God struggles. Israel struggles. The people struggle. There is no other way to redemption.

 

Matt Drisco lived for five months in Israel, including an ill-fated bike ride around the country. He also lived in Cairo for two months. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he studies business.

 

An Island in Time – Leah Citrin

Shabbat is an island in time. It is a chance to pause, reflect, and differentiate between the holy and the mundane. And although it exists in every city, in every country, every week, something special happens on Shabbat in Israel.

Friday afternoons in Jerusalem are an experience in and of themselves: the hustle and bustle of a city preparing to shut down for 24 hours. The rush of people at the shuk, the cooking and cleaning, the dinner planning, the frantic pace right up until the sounding of the siren, signaling that Shabbat has begun.

And then the peace and quiet sets in. There is time.

Time for relaxing, conversation, and casual strolls. Time to listen. The sounds of singing emanate from the shuls. The sounds of children laughing can be heard in the parks.

Shabbat is an island in time. Ahad Ha’Am once said, “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” Nowhere have I experienced this sentiment more than in Israel.

Yet I no longer live in Israel. Leading services or Torah study, I often work on Shabbat. A conscious effort is required to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. It doesn’t come as naturally right now.

So too does my relationship to Israel require this effort. It has been two years since I have visited. I no longer open Israeli news sites regularly. I have far fewer conversations in Hebrew. Yet I know that a return visit is all it will take to reignite the passion, the emotion, the connection. A taste of Shabbat, a foot on Israeli soil, is all that is required to remember how precious it is.

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!

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 jayasherlevine.com.

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.”

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?

 

 

 

Chanukah in Egypt, Chanukah in Israel – Sam Spector

I have a confession.

While studying in Israel, I violated a commandment in the Torah.

Deuteronomy 17:18 states that God commanded, “Do not return that way (towards Egypt) anymore.” However, wanting an escape from my studies and lured by my worship for the false idol that was the beaches of the Sinai Peninsula, I decided to take my chances during Chanukah and return to the land of bondage.

I made sure when I packed my backpack that I included a pack of Chanukah candles, just because I was violating one commandment, heaven forbid I would not light the candles! In the desert, a few classmates and I found an isolated place. We nervously looked around, sang the blessings and kindled the festival lights. We hurried off before anyone could spot us, worried that our Jewish identity would put us in danger, and watched from a distance as the flames danced in the sand. I thought not only of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt 3000+ years ago and how they had crossed this desert to freedom, but also of the 80,000 Jews who populated this country a mere 80 years prior.

Today, the Jewish population of the largest Arab country is approximately 100.

Upon my return to Israel, my Egged bus passed massive hanukkiot with their billowing flames, and finally, after 7 hours of travel, I arrived back in Jerusalem. As the bus neared the station, I wiped away the fog on the window and gasped. Before me stood a high-rise apartment building, and in every single window was a lit hanukkiah, hundreds of them!

Though Israel is a place that is far from perfect, my Revelation came not at Sinai but upon my return to Jerusalem; this country is my home. For the Jews from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, Spain, Poland, Russia, Germany, France, and Egypt, among dozens more countries from around the world, who had previously been scared of the ramifications of expressing their Judaism, Israel is now a place for them to do so with pride rather than fear.

On that cold night, the lights of the hanukkiah and the freedom of my people warmed my heart and I fell in love with Israel.

 

Sam Spector was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, and studied at the University of California, San Diego, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Cum Laude with a B.A. in Judaic Studies. He is entering his final (5th) year of rabbinical school in the fall at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Sam is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Naval Reserves and the rabbinic intern of Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA.