Mourning and Justice – 11.2.18

At the beginning of this week, while our community joined with CBY and others from our interfaith community for a vigil to mourn the 11 innocent souls at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, I was in the Dominican Republic, joined by Gary Cohn, one of the leaders of our social action initiatives at Shaaray Tefila, and Kathy DiBiasi, our friend and Educator at the Bedford Presbyterian Church.

We joined in with many others “virtually” to be part of the memorial, knowing that the pain, the anger, and the mourning we have all experienced this past week are needed and necessary to hold one another, as we move through another barbaric and senseless terror attack.

While we are jolted by this tragedy, I keep thinking: what does it now mean for us as we walk into our familiar place of assembly, the place where we are gathered this evening – our synagogue, where we assemble to create sacred moments; where we laugh and cry together; where we seek comfort and counsel; where we learn, pray, and act.

The declaration that “all Jews must die” was the response to our Jewish community’s efforts to help immigrants and to care for those who are in need. Those inside the Tree of Life Synagogue, blamed for the good deeds of other Jews, and inside a place of worship – were murdered in sanctifying God’s name and God’s ultimate wish for us – to “choose life”.

This is not just an attack on Jews alone. This hate and pain-filled shooter expressed his hatred for Muslims, for immigrants – coming on the heels of pipe bombs being sent to a number of prominent political leaders (as I spoke about last Shabbat). All of this, coming only a day after another hate crime, against the black community in Kentucky, leaving 2 dead in a supermarket, when the shooter could not get into a black church.

After four little girls were murdered in the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham, Dr. King said: “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”

Dr. King was right then. And that message is as powerful, urgent and true today. There are systemic issues, which have created an environment in which hate can grow.

Anti-Semitism is the oldest, and most adaptive hatred in history. But we know that where there is a tolerance for anti-Semitism, there is a tolerance for hatred of all kinds. I know…this is not the America I know we have the capacity to be….the one that many of us strive to build and want to leave our children.

Today, we are in mourning, but after this time, our tradition calls us to rise and re-enter the world with purpose. We are called to address these acts of hate….from the rise of anti-Semitism, to the demonization of immigrants and refugees, to the lack of sensible gun regulation, to the intolerance of hateful speech and incitement.

Perhaps our “assembly place”, this place, offers us the knowledge and the constant reminder that we can “choose life” even if we cannot choose what happens to us, and that we remain resilient in the pursuit of that which is both good and just in the world.

The day after this senseless tragedy, I recall the faces and concerns of so many of you, as we reflected, prayed, and processed through the weekend’s horrific events. Not even 24 hours later, Gary, Kathy, and I found ourselves in the Dominican Republic, hosted by an NGO making transformative change in the world….in support of the vulnerable.

We were there briefly to build on our 15 years of service learning in Nicaragua and envision what our teens and adults will get to share in February there – countering hateful acts with our hands and hearts, bringing dignity to our global neighbors, who are very much in need of our love and support.

As our Shaaray Tefila community has and continues to demonstrate… our resilience knows no bounds. Whether in Israel, Nicaragua, the DR, Puerto Rico, Haiti or Northern Westchester, our tradition charges us with being the change we wish to see in the world…and here, we take that literally! Many of you here this evening have and continue to serve as our angels of repair.

But, even as we struggle to hold the enormity of this tragedy, even as we grieve –right now, we need ALL OF YOU to stand up and say, Hineni – I am here, ready, and present – to roll up my sleeves and get to work!

I know…this is not the America we have the capacity to be. Standing up and saying “Hineni” calls us to our highest selves, by putting aside the blame, and to make sure love wins – that goodness and solidarity – wins.

Hineni means being clearheaded and unequivocal in naming and condemning the disease of hatred that has permeated the culture of this nation, and the fanatical obsession with guns that has transformed it from a contentious debate to a near daily deadly reality.

Hineni means: standing up to the bigotry and prejudice we know we will hear, not just from our enemies, but sometimes from the words of those we are close to.

Hineni means: finding the courage to build alliances across lines of difference, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Hineni means: not losing hope; to bring some light into the darkness; to not give into the doubt or pain of this moment.

We send much love, resilience, and strength to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh—our family. Zichronam livracha— may the memories of those who perished reverberate in this world as a blessing, and may the outpouring of support from around the world bring comfort and consolation to those whose hearts have been shattered.

And those who try, again and again, to break our resolve and “replace us”: we’re not going anywhere! Our values and ideals, which bring much light and hope to this world, will forever transcend the baseless hatred that you attempt to spread.

In memory of those souls innocently lost this past Shabbat, let us pray with our feet. Just as we have filled this sanctuary on this worldwide Solidarity Shabbat, our “assembly place”, may we all long for something else, work for something more, and lean into what is yet to be. Our communities, our country, and our faith traditions demand this. And our very humanity depends on it. Shabbat Shalom.



Ode to Mister Rogers – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

When I was a child, I was fortunate to spend much of my time in my grandparent’s apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. George and Sylvia’s love and care for me were foundational to my Jewish identity and truly unsurpassed…and grandma’s famous grilled cheeses…renown! Even more savory was sitting in front of their new “color” TV.

Many days, I watched….grilled cheese in hand…as on the tube, a man appeared, lanky and unassuming, coming through a door, slipping off his work shoes and blazer as he settled into sneakers and a colorful cardigan.

PBS’s Channel 13, home of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was a warm and familiar world I entered regularly. In fact, it was one of the few television shows Grandma Sylvia even allowed at her house.

The Neighborhood was filled with people and puppets that many of us came to know and love. Each had a distinctive personality and unique ways in which they contributed to the community.

Perhaps we think nostalgically of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as a relic of a simpler time, but in truth it first aired just a few months after the Cuban missile crisis. 1968 was far from a time of peace and harmony; it was a time when the world was seemingly on edge. Sound familiar? The notion of a worldwide neighborhood in which everyone belonged was hard to imagine. In some ways, I first learned about division at an early age from Mr. Rogers show. Do any of you remember when King Friday, the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, attempted to build a wall around his kingdom to protect it from change?

While many years have passed since those days at Grandma and Grandpa’s, I was given an opportunity to briefly visit the Neighborhood this summer when Nicole and I went to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”. Glimpsing into his world, now as an adult, I was grateful and moved to reflect on the radical faith that Fred Rogers brought to his audience.

We were pleasantly reminded that the hip-to-be-square icon didn’t change all that much in the 35 years between the premiere of the show in 1968 and his death in 2003. He was an ordained minister – a man defined by his faith, who illuminated a singular message, as each show responded to the issues of the time. In his own words, the message is simple “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love, or the lack of it.”[1]

In this context, I am reminded of the familiar story from Rabbinic literature, often referred to as the golden rule. The ancient fable reflects the critical mandate I first learned from Fred Rogers as a young kid.

A non-Jew, wishing to convert to Judaism nearly 2000 years ago, went to the home of Rabbi Hillel, one of our greatest Rabbinic sages. He said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Hillel responded. “Simple! The Torah teaches: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else is commentary. Now, if ‘you’re really interested, go and study.”[2]

The visitor was so impressed with Hillel’s response that he took Hillel up on his instructions, and began to study and ultimately became one of the tribe! Mr. Rogers translated that Torah mandate in every episode for his viewers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The stories in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe portrayed common children’s concerns and explored the range of emotions that we all experience. Even the puppets had identifiable personalities, and they, like all of us, demonstrated the capacity for self-reflection and growth. They illustrated how people can work together and support one another, even in the face of adversity, anger and fear.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I am mindful, now more than ever, that we come together tonight in synagogue communities around the globe to commemorate the creation of the human race, to which we all belong. We observe by focusing on soul examination and heshbon hanefesh, personal inventory.

And we do so in the hopes that some space for a clear-head and heart might offer us the opportunity to identify our individual [and collective] wounds. From there, we can begin to do the work of healing those wounds, but we cannot heal what we cannot see.

These prolific words of our Leviticus text, “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah,” are referred to time and again throughout all Judeo-Christian traditions. It literally translates as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Over the ages, the Hillel fable, this text and others like it, have been interpreted as a commandment to be kind to others, selfless even.

But if we look more deeply at the text, the message assumes that we love ourselves. So what is this message we may have never considered? Perhaps a radical idea for us to embrace – We must first love ourselves in order to love our neighbor.

But what do we even mean when we speak of love? Look it up in the dictionary and the varied “meanings” are vague and all directly attached to the feeling toward an object or a person. The implication is that love is external, we bestow it on those outside of ourselves.

It is also a word that we use constantly and often in mundane contexts. How many of us “love” ice cream, tennis, our cars, that particular movie or book? For me, love cannot be experienced in the mind. Real love is an intention of the heart, truly of the soul and so for me, to love means to have regard for one’s happiness and well-being, and this includes ourselves.

Mr. Rogers taught: “When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.”[3]

Acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, allowing myself humanness and error, giving to myself generously what I need and enjoy just because I am worthy and desire it and returning again and again to kindness toward myself. All these parallel exactly what we then are able to give to others. “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah, Love your neighbor as yourself”[4]… it is an internal job. This may seem like an impossible task in a culture so brutally focused on achievement and plagued by busy-ness.

In addition, there are powerful external forces we experience daily that create a labyrinth of potential obstacles in our culture: fear and divisiveness, technologically evolved ways of connecting, a more frenetic pace of life – to name a few. Our Jewish calendar affords us a real gift to have the space for a little distance to work on our own internal life. So, how do we get started?

Most of us define ourselves by the narrative we construct throughout our lives, weaving together experiences, relationships, skills, and labels in a way that makes us, make sense. I’m a good friend, I’m athletic, a procrastinator, I’m good with family, bad in relationships. Positive and negative and anywhere in between, all are part of my story! Even our traditional image of the annual we speak of at this time of year, can perpetuate the idea that the story is our essence. The “Book Of Life” many come to experience as one of judgement and decree.

While we may find power and meaning in this image, I think for most of us, it does not resonate entirely when we consider how to apply it on the ground in our day to day lives. Nor likely does a God on high who serves as the arbiter of an annual performance review. But the story is not our essence, the us that was created, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, as our tradition teaches.

So tonight, I offer a re-frame: What if that personal story of “self” fills the pages of the Book of Life during these High Holy Days, offering us a tool to study in order to learn how to love ourselves?

Our book has birthdays and setbacks, laughter and adventures, births and deaths, joy and pain, and it holds the moments we are at our best and those we’d like to forget.

The High Holy Days offer space and a request that we spend some time with the book of our life. That we look at our relationships and mistakes and our proudest achievements, our pain and fear and dreams yet unfulfilled.

As we do, the stories can serve as a window through which we can see the themes and patterns, uncover the wounds that need healing and then learn and grow from this “autobiography.”

Growth and healing come from action. All the meditating, therapy, yoga, “self-help” introspection in the world does not serve us until we integrate it into change, how we relate to ourselves and as a result, others.

I cannot tell you what your actions are but I can share with you ways that I cultivate self-love, compassion and kindness toward myself. Perhaps you will find a suggestion to try or perhaps nothing will resonate… but my hope is that it gives you a place to start.

I allow myself to close down the computer, while there are still a number of things to do, because I know that I am out of energy. I work, regularly, to let go of the negative voices that say “I’m not good enough or worthy” by actively responding to them with affirmations of kindness. I refocus from judgement of a final product to valuing the effort behind the task. I strive to practice true humility, which is to both own my strengths and weaknesses, my gifts and flaws with equity, as pieces of my whole self. I prioritize exercise, not to control my physical outcomes, but to feel healthy and strong in my body. I go to the movies by myself, at times. And I practice saying thank you after receiving a complement, without qualifications of denials.

This work is simple, so simple, but not at all easy and it will never be perfect, nor is there a graduation. Cultivating love in ourselves and then the world is the same as strengthening a muscle. We need to exercise it regularly. Sometimes we will consistently get to the love gym, and some days we won’t make it and all of it is ok – where we need to be. But we stay the course and I truly promise you, change happens. When we slow down, we reprioritize, the noise in our heads gets quieter and priorities shift. Doesn’t that sound like a much more likely place to be able to Love our Neighbor?

At this moment in our world, we all know, there are so many provocative topics that I could have taken on this evening. I could have united us in the fear and anger we feel around the state of our country or world. I could have made a much more direct call to social or political action. With all the noise that you and I encounter all day, every day – bringing all of that into this sacred space, as we first enter into this New Year, is contrary to everything offered up tonight. It is the quieting of that noise that I pray will allow us to do this work, and act accordingly. Rather, in this new year of 5779, my call to action is to…

Love your neighbor. Love that other person, because you struggle just like her. You love your family just like her. You make mistakes just like her.

Love your neighbor. Love that other person because you laugh just like him. You worry about your children just like him. You hurt just like him.

Love your neighbor: because like you, they need the basic stuff of nature to live – food, water, shelter and human connection.

Love that other person because, in the words of our Torah, you were both created in the image of God.

Every year we talk about the call of the Shofar as a wake up, that it’s role is to call us to action and activate us out of complacency. This year, I invite you to utilize those blasts to awaken to yourself, own all your parts out loud and celebrate your gifts, find honesty and then compassion for your flaws. It’s tough to be human, and some inward kindness can help us radiate it outward to others.

You don’t need a colorful cardigan or seminary ordination to become shofarot. Blast out the healing and light that comes to you from this holy work, and is so much needed in our world today. In 5779, may we start with ourselves. AMEN.


[2] BT Tractate Shabbos 31a


[4] Leviticus 19:18.

Now Is The Time: A Reflection on The Inauguration 2017

“Kol HaOlam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Me’od: All the world is a very narrow narrow-bridgebridge – the most important thing is not to be afraid.” These are the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Jewish leaders, throughout our civilization, have always found inspiration and insight in our textual tradition. And it is Rabbi Nachman’s words that seem appropriately fitting for me, and for us, in this moment of American [and more specifically, American Jewish] life.

The polarization and divisiveness that has plagued our political and social discourse has impacted ALL OF US in some way. Additionally, the intersection of Israel’s increasing alienation across the global community with the volatility of the U.S. presidential election generated a perfect storm of discord throughout the American Jewish landscape, even pitting loved ones against each other.

The narrow bridge, in which Rabbi Nachman speaks of, can challenge us. Yet, it can also serve as a motivator in which we cannot, and should not fear. exodus

So, on this inauguration day, as we usher in a new chapter of political leadership, I look to Torah as my inspiration and motivation. And perhaps, in some Divine way, we begin reading the chapters of the Exodus narrative this week: the story of an enslaved people, exiting the bonds of slavery, and journeying into the wilderness; embracing, and often, challenging the unknowns/unchartered waters.

Through the retelling of this journey, we should be encouraged by the words of Moses to Joshua toward the end of the journey: Chazak v’ematz – to be strong and of good courage; yet toward the beginning we are first reminded of “a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt.” (Ex. 1:8)

The new king’s ascension to the top office in the land did not in any way indicate a change in the very nature of that land. In fact, Egypt was still the same Egypt. The Egyptians did not need to let the fears and insecurities of their new leader influence them to change their thinking, priorities, and ideals, such that the worst of the human condition was put on display. Several times in the book of Genesis, Egypt had in fact welcomed the tired, poor, huddled masses of the children of Israel so that they could flee famine. THIS was the ideal Egypt. Yet, in one generation, in one verse of Torah, Egypt became a nation that would enslave the Israelites for 400 years, due to the unwarranted fears of its new leader.

In today’s inaugural speech, President Trump noted that a nation exists to serve its citizens and that we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.

I want to agree with these sentiments as well, but feel challenged today with our nation’s current reality. Recent weeks have brought difficult conversations and more to our family. And most recently, these past days, in our local school community as well. Swastikas were painted and carved into trees on two of our local school campuses; another at the seminary where I (and your other two rabbis) studied to be a rabbi.

My children may not yet be thinking actively about these incidents, or what’s in store for them and their futures – but I have no doubt, they have and continue to absorb the energy of the pains of our fractured world, and the questionable safety they now face as Jews in America.

On this Shabbat, as we reflect on today’s transfer of power, in concert with the ascension of a new pharaoh in this week’s portion, we must ask ourselves: how do we protect against allowing fear, our own and that of others to dominate our decision making? How do we fight anti-Semitism against us while simultaneously resisting our own inclinations to stereotype others? I believe, as Americans, and especially as a Jewish people, we must balance communal inclusivity with ideological integrity, balancing politics with the fearless hunger and timeless values of our tradition.

As an antidote to the fractures and narrow bridges we see and face, Nicole and I have noted at times around our dinner table, that our tradition commands: “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Indeed, each of us must do our part to protect the most vulnerable among us, and advance the progress in policies we wish to champion.

So tomorrow morning, our children will watch their mother and safta (along with countless others from our community) head down to march in the Women’s March on Washington,not in protest, but in solidarity – with those who identify as women, along with allies of all races, ethnicities, and religions –united in support of women’s equality in our coutry. I am so very proud of them for standing up for themselves and what they believe, and for refusing to shy away from the difficult task of moving forward in this new and challenging time.

On this inauguration day, I want my children to know enough about themselves, who they are and what THEY stand for; and unlike many of the Israelites at the beginning of their journey –feel free to be curious and not fearful of the differences or challenges that might lie ahead. They can, and should be part of the civil discourse, and in fact, our tradition mandates such.

As we move into this Shabbat, on the dawn of new political leadership, confronting the unknowns by walking the narrow bridge, what I have come to learn is that it was never about the new King who knew not Joseph. Rather, it was the fear that seemingly paralyzed the Egyptian Community. Today for me is about opportunity; it is about our personal and communal potential; it is about challenging ourselves to walk a path, no matter how narrow, that models the best within us, in order to champion our greatest love and potential as individuals who belong to something even greater.potential

Two of my colleagues, Rabbis Mona Alfi and Nancy Wechsler, created the following prayer, which beautifully expresses a prayer for a unifying vision based on the Declaration of Independence.


“Mi she’berach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu – May the One who blessed our founding fathers and mothers bless us as well, with comfort and inspiration as we begin this new year. We believe that some truths are self-evident, all people, in our many glorious manifestations, are created equal. We are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The burden upon our shoulders to remember the wisdom and courage of those who came before us, who dared to dream of a better future. Yet, to remember is not enough. In each generation we are called to take action, to preserve and protect the fragile dreams upon which our nation was founded.

In seasons of turbulence,

we pray for a steady hand to guide our ship.

As storms of anger rage, we pray for sanctuary.

As fists clench, we pray for open hearts.

When sharp words slash like swords,

we pray to transform them into plowshares

to sow seeds of understanding and respect.

Now is not the time to avert our gaze

from what troubles our hearts.

Now is the time to build friendships.

Now is the time to fiercely protect the earth that sustains us.

Now is the time to honor with our words, and with our actions,

the spark of holiness that resides in every human being.

And by so doing, we honor our country, our children and our



Biblical Change Agents

The following was a piece I wrote for the weekly URJ publication: 10 Minutes of Torah, published on July 6, 2015:


I join Rabbi Kushner in celebrating these nashot chayil, “women of valor.” They paved the way for future generations not only in gaining access to their inheritance, but also in bringing about amendments to the current legislation; amendments that provided greater access to relatives sharing in their clan’s inheritance. In our modern language, we might refer to them as “change agents.”

In her book, Midrashic Women, Judith Baskin describes the daughters of Zelophehad well. According to Baskin, they are “canny and competent women who trusted that divine mercy would transcend the mutable norms of a human society in which women were subordinate human beings . . . allowing them to shape their own destinies.”1

In addition to achieving a tremendous feat impacting land inheritance for women, today, they push us to rethink fate. They ask us to consider what is right, just, and relevant when faced with traditional approaches that may no longer serve a greater good. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah inspire us to do the footwork and push the boundaries, even if it brings us into uncomfortable places. They model the potential for us: to enter into the holy centers where we fight for what we believe is just.

From these heroic biblical change agents, we learn some important lessons:

  • Bringing about change takes a shared vision, even though there may be periods of time when one has to stand alone.
  • Resolving conflict includes a demonstration of evidence and facts coupled with a sensible attitude and approach to advance a positive and worthy outcome.
  • Emotion has great impact. The five daughters place their facts into meaningful context and deliver them with conviction and passion.

In reflection, take a moment to ask yourself the question: What cause(s) have I stood up for lately? Change can be challenging to enact, even when the need for such is increasingly urgent. But our tradition challenges us, each and every day, to not wait upon others for the changes we hope to see. As we change our ways, so too, the ways of the world. Be the change!

1. Judith Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (Hanover-London: Brandeis University Press, 2002)

From Intolerance to Simcha: Israel Sabbatical 2015 Post 1

It has been approximately one week since our arrival in Israel for my summer sabbatical, and over 3 weeks since my mother’s passing. I have entered this sacred land with mixed emotions…trying to find a balance between this mourning period and releasing from the tensions that have part of my life these past months. And yes, while the Jerusalem air, warm days and cool nights offers a sense of calm and shlemut (wholeness), truth told, it is a work in progress, and for today, I will label it: “dynamic tension”.   
I wanted to share an interesting encounter I had this past Shabbat while spending this time with our ultra orthodox cousins, who live in the city of Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh (for those who might not be familiar), is a sleeper community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These most recent years have found this community filled with tensions between secular and religious, religious and ultra religious, and the list goes on. Beit Shemesh, for me, has served as an incubator for such connections and subsequent tensions. 

For our first shabbat in Israel, we shared this experience with our cousins at their home in Beit Shemesh – a fully shomer shabbat, shome mitzvot experience – just what the doctor ordered! My cousin, an orthodox rabbi by smicha (ordination), but a computer programmer by day, knows my love for Carlebach music and prayer – so we headed to the Carlebach minyan. Shuls (synagogues) are a plenty in this community, and while the energy of this type of minyan was not his cup of tea, he was gracious in his offer to come with. 
The evneing started with such energy and beauty….singing and joyous momentum (on the men’s side) as we sang through the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat – no less than 4 times of men being pulled up to dance around the service leader. Truly joyous! Yet, given the happenings of the past few weeks and tensions between these Jewish religious sects, something miraculous was occuring before my eyes: hasidim, religious zionists, and modern Orthodox were davening (praying) together – singing, clapping, and dancing. 

The height of my observation (as an outsider to this community) was the interaction between some of the Chasidim and immediate former MK (member of Knesset) Dov Lipman. Dov spent the past few years as a member of the Yesh Atid party, heading a ferocious campaign to enforce cumpulsory military service for the ultra orthodox community (they are not currently obligated). One might think it would be a challenging place for him to enter. Rather, what I witnessed were pats on the back, smiles, and positive and supportive conversation for Dov’s presence in this sacred moment. I witnessed, first hand, the joy of welcoming Shabbat trumping the feelings and challenges that have been clouding this community for quite some time.

For me, the gift of Shabbat is to leave behind the everday challenges we are obligated to/responsible for. Rather, barriers are removed, and we are ignited with the 3 flames: 2 are those that help us to make that sacred distinction between everyday and holy; the third ignites the best within us so that we may actualize our greatest human potential: v’ahavta l’recha komocha – love your neighbor as yourself. 

Getting ready to put a note in the wall at the Kotel
Though I am just at the beginning of this incredible journey, so may lessons have already been learned. I look forward to sharing more about my incredible learning time at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem….stay tuned! 

A Call To Remember and Celebrate – Israel Adventure: Day 3

I write to you from Jerusalem during Israel’s most sensitive hours – the time in which we are called upon to reflect and remember on this Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), the 23,000 fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror, and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day. During this varying 48-hour experience it has been impossible to avoid the mood that has set in throughout the country, and to not be enveloped in the national discussion of what those thousands of individuals gave their lives for, and what we wish for Israel’s future on her birthday.

Since last night, as I turned on the TV in my hotel room, the faces and names of those who fell were broadcast on Israeli television to beautiful Israeli songs – songs which express a desire for peace. As today’s sirens wailed for a full two minutes, our group was in the midst of our visit to Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. I can’t think of a more appropriate and profound place to be. In addition to the cars, buses and trucks that came to a halt on the streets and highways, those inside stood in silence and at attention. At Yad Vashem, the media displays quieted, and the hundreds of Israelis and tourists (Jews and non-Jews), fell into a silent memorial to pay testimony and witness to those who gave of their lives. In that very moment, I was aware that disagreements or arguments were silenced, and we were brought together to pray that our lives will be fitting to those who have passed.

The sirens, much like the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah, call for us to be alert to messages we were receiving at that very moment – and to move through this experience with a quiet intention that would illuminate our inner flames to NEVER FORGET. 

Upon our closing reflection, we stopped to eat a quick lunch and continue our day of memorial at the impressive Ma’aleh Film School. There, we were invited to screeen two important short films that illuminated some of the contemporary issues and struggles in today’s Israeli society.

We headed from there to share some prayerful moments at the Kotel (Western Wall), to allow a few moments to reflect on the day’s powerful takeaways. 

After a brief stop at Mea Sha’arim (one of Jerusalem’s oldest and religiously observant communities), we headed back to the hotel in order to shift our mental and physcial gears as we soon approached the beginning of Israeli Independence Day. Throughout last night and today, we mourned. And tonight, we celebrated Israel’s 67th birthday. Just 24 hours prior, the entire country knelt down in mourning only to then rise up out of the depths in celebration of what we cannot take for granted: an Israel of phenomenal growth and achievement; an Israel with the dream of being an independent sovereign Jewish state is indeed a reality. Tonight we walked the bustling and crowded streets of the city center, where young and old are sing and dance, eat and rejoice. It was awe-inspiring scene, one that will be etched in our memories. 

Through the rollercoaster of the past two days, we have come to realize that here stands a powerful, magnificent Jewish state, and together we stand united remembering our heroes — sons and daughters who died in the long battle protecting our homeland. And as we do in our prayerful moments, we must remind ourselves of the words we ask of God:

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

May God who makes peace in high places, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, amen.