Sacred? And On Who’s Authority? Israel Sabbatical Post 3

The Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem has always been a place of “questionable” sacredness for me. The allure of our biblical narrative and journey has drawn me there time and again….taking many groups and individuals to experience a piece of US that still remains. Upon approach, its positioning is majestic – a reminder of a powerful symbol of inspiration for so many. Yet, even as I stand in awe of its physical greatness, place notes of prayer and healing in the wall, and recite words of Tehillim (Psalms), I, myself, struggle with its sacredness. 
Perhaps it’s because of my own inner struggles with its attachment to a sacrificial time that is not in practice today. Perhaps, moreover, in today’s world, the Kotel has become a politicized arena between Haredim and other – religious nationalists, IDF soldiers, progressive Jewish men and women (from Israel and broad), and non-Jews (many who are not even aware of the challenges).   
Today, the physical greatness I speak of is tempered by the smallness in its current form of welcome to anyone outside of the accepted fold. I offer you two incidents that happened to my family and I while here on my sabbatical: 


Site of the Shomrot HaSniut – modesty guards
  In this picture, you will see a women, standing near a table. These tables, new in the past few months, are placed in strategic locations, adjacent to each security entrance to the Plaza of the Kotel. They are manned by Shomrot HaSniut (guards/overseers of modesty). For as long as I could remember, women would lap the women’s section of the Wall to remind newcomers to cover their bare arms and legs. Yet, as time progresses, the overseer’s reach has expanded greatly – through the entirety of the Plaza. 

Our first incident occurred when we were taking a family picture on the plaza (far removed from the Kotel men’s and women’s sections). Two women approached my wife (who was wearing a sleeveless shirt) to ask her to cover. After a firm retort (in Hebrew) from both of us, they sheepishly retreated. Their goal: do not allow any woman they deem immodest to enter into their expanded holy space. 

The second occurred as we entered with a friend visiting from the states. On this day, we had no desire to approach the wall. Rather, we were making our way to a tour of the Western Wall tunnels (a must do on your next trip to Israel)! A young Haredi woman (not more than 25 y/o) approached our friend (in a tank top and skirt), and asked her to cover up). In my take of sniut (modesty), there was nothing immodest about her dress. Regardless, she was aware of the customs of the area and brought a shawl to place over her bare shoulders. As I tried to interact with the “modesty guard”, she kept focusing on our friend, making it clear she was speaking to her directly. I asked the woman if she was a “ba’ala hakotel” – the owner of the kotel? She wouldn’t answer. I asked her several more times. She finally noted that her role was to oversee modesty in this sacred place. As she threw some insults my way over my own rabbinate, our interaction continued to get heated over the next few minutes, as we were not giving in to her demand. The chief rabbi of the Kotel recently noted that the entirety of the plaza is now to be treated as a synagogue, hence their new and far more aggressive directive. 

As we moved away from her, the shomeret hasniut followed us into the entrance of the tunnels, continuing to harass us by telling the male guard that our friend should not be allowed anywhere near the walls in the tunnels until she “covers up”. Appearing as he now experiences this on a daily basis, he “yes’d” her and told her to leave. 

While the above experiences were not detrimental in any way for us as a family, my children (for the first time) experienced internal bias Jew to Jew. It brought up lots of questions for them, and furthered the wrestling they, and we, are continuing to do throughout this incredible summer in Israel.  

Some final thoughts about the current administrators of the Kotel and holy sites: 
1. The Kotel is NOT a synagogue. Rather, it is a national historic site, a place for prayer, for wonder, for holiness for ALL PEOPLES. 

2. It appears as though people are welcome to pray at the plaza so long as they adhere to the rules and don’t challenge the status quo. 
The leadership of the Kotel has the potential, the capacity to bring thousands of Jews and others back to the Kotel. In an open letter to the Women of the Wall the other day, the chief administrator of the Kotel said: “The Kotel is bigger than all of us.” I believe that wholeheartedly. So make the welcome match the grandeur of this site, without minimizing one’s own practice and identity. 


Writing notes to put in the Wall
Ethan placing a note at the Kotel
 Until my next post….


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! 

Feet Don’t Fail Me Now! Israel Adventure: Days 5 and 6 

The last of the spring rains seem to be behind us, and the crisp morning air served us well as we had an intense day of hiking and biking ahead of us. 
After our delicious breakfast, we headed to the far reaches of the north of Israel, into the Golan – overlooking the Syrian border, not two miles from where we stand. While the border closest to us was quiet on this Friday morning, several weeks ago, mortal shells were landing as ISIS insurgents battled in nearby Syria. The group had a profound awareness and appreciation for not only how close the borders are, but how important the security needs are in the region. 
Overlooking the Syrian border
Soon after, we began our morning hike along the Zavitan hiking trail. We traversed the volcanic and rocky landscape into beautiful waterfalls. Along the way, we saw ruins of old Syrian bunkers, strongholds for their military operation pre-1967. The hiking was intense and awe-inspiring, getting us more excited for what would be waiting for us on our bikes in the afternoon.
Hiking the Golan


After a quick falafel fill, we got on mountain bikes and spent much of the afternoon biking along the mighty Jordan River (but if you blink, you’ll miss it)! Along the way, we witnessed every day Israelis, with friends and family, enjoying their days off, picnic-ing, some escorted by their four-legged friends. You might think you were in Pound Ridge Reservation or another domestic nature preserve, as all were going about their day, seemingly unengaged of the daily unrest that lies beyond their borders, or the at-large anti-Semitic global rhetoric. But for them, it was another day of living life and finding gratitude and sharing it with their loved ones. 


After a fantastic and tough ride, we prepared to welcome Shabbat. Nir, our guide, crafted a wonderful beginning to our Shabbat experience. We were invited to a local Israeli home, where we shared in preparing dinner and engaging in rich conversation. Before eating, we had a festive Kabbalat Shabbat service (complete with travel guitar) and lots of singing, followed by an incredibly delicious Shabbat dinner, both in meal and in dialogue. A wonderful evening was had!
We had a leisurely wake-up this Shabbat morning, and stretched our mind, bodies, and souls with Shabbat Yoga. New to some, but enjoyed by all! 
After some down time, we enjoyed another bike ride through the Galilee. This time, the terrain was hilly and meandering, but worth it for the many images we were able to acquire! As usual, we stopped for tea along the way (Israeli style), and even were able to ride through a kibbutz dairy farm. It was surely a day for new sights and smells!
As Shabbat came to a close, we made Havdalah overlooking the Hula Valley, and at truly authentic Israeli dude ranch/steak house.
The news came this evening of the earthquake in Nepal. Our collective prayers and thoughts are with all those who were affected by this natural tragedy. 
Tomorrow, we head to the ancient city of Tzfat and begin to make our way to Tel Aviv.  More to come….  

From Highs to Lows…and Back Again- The Heights and Depths of Israel Independence Day! Israel Adventure: Day 4

On Yom Haatzmaut, we had the fortune of celebrating Israel’s Independence with a stop at the Dead Sea. It was the first time for more than half of our group, and the smiles were abound as we descended the Judean Hills and came upon the sprawling visual of the north end of the Sea. It was early so we had the fortunate blessings of being the only group there. The temperature was brisk, but it didn’t stop our adventure participants from floating on their backs and snapping photos. It was so windy there were actually waves off the water, so much so that some of our sandals parted ways with their owners. 



We dried up and started our journey north, continuing our Independence Day celebration with a trip to Degania Aleph, the first kibbutz ever in Israel.  Celebrations were abound as we toured this treasured historical place and learned about the early settlers (many of them Russian), and how hard life was as they were determined to live in community, despite significant disease and health challenges, along with Syrian insurgents trying to eliminate their very existence from the Galilee. 
We ate lunch at the kibbutz, and (most of us) made it out before the rains came (very unusual to be raining at this time of year)!
In keeping with our ongoing Israel adventure, we headed into the Golan Heights and met our new friend, Ro’i, who led us to his jeep, taking us through the rocky terrain (vast understatement) of the Golan Heights. On the way, we had a visual teaching on the in depth understanding of the 1948-67 strategic challenges faced by Israel. Along the way, we sighted gazelles and wild boar (maybe some of us). Many of us have a new-found appreciation for the brave pioneers who gave their hearts and souls to build this beautiful nation.


We settled in to our B and B in Rosh Pina, overlooking the Golan heights and snow-capped (yes, snow-capped) Mt. Hermon.  


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.



A Day Filled With Hills, Humor, and Honor- What A Day! Israel Adventure: Day 2

We began our day with a delicious breakfast, in order to fuel up for our inaugural Jerusalem bike tour. We didn’t know what to expect, but were excited to see this city of gold in a new and thrilling way! 

Jerusalem is now home to miles and miles of new bike paths that traverse the city from east to west and north to south. From the city center to Talpiyot, Neve Tzedek and beyond, we experienced the heights and depths of the Judean Hills, which gave us greater insight into the smaller cityscapes along the way. When was the last time you could say you were able to ride your bike through the Supreme Court and city hall? We learned that these spheres of justice are accessible to all- and they certainly were!

After our exciting morning, we headed to mahane yehuda (the Shuk/marketplace) for a festive lunch, and to enjoy the smells and tastes of Israel. And let’s not forget our dessert stop at Marzpan (world famous hot off of the oven rugeleach). We felt deserving given our intense morning ride!

We left for the old city, where we started our afternoon in the ancient City of David- an archaeological site recently uncovered adjacent to the city walls. Our adventure certainly wasn’t done- we headed a few hundred meters below ground and trekked (in darkness) through thigh-high water from the springs that served as the primary water supply for the Davidic Empire over 2000 years ago. 

Upon experiencing this 500 yard water system, we headed up the ancient sewers of the city, which gave new-found meaning to the Willy Wonka line: “Taste the wallpaper- the snozzberries taste like snozzberries”.  Needless to say, shoes were changed and cleaned later in the day!

The sewer concluded right under the old city walls and under Robinson’s Arch. We visited the southern wall excavation, had some exchanges with soldiers, and got close, but not up to the Kotel, as it is closed this afternoon and evening in preparation for a national Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) service. 

Dinner was another win win, and now we wait, in great anticipation, with the cold Jerusalem air to our backs, at city hall for a special Memorial Day commemoration. 

We were all in awe as the sirens wailed at 8pm, and everyone stood in silence and attention, to honor those who gave their lives for the State of Israel. It is an honor to be present for this most important and sacred commemoration. Until tomorrow….