Friday, February 27, 2009

Erev Shabbat, Friday, February 27

An early Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!

Today we headed to the Israel Convention Center for what turned out to be a highlight of the trip: A morning of dialogue and study with Reform/ Liberal Israeli teachers of Adult (and teenage) Torah Study classes and Hebrew Bible studies. With honesty, a mix of broken hebrew by some and broken english by others, we began in groups of four, two rabbis from the U.S., and two Israeli counterparts. My group focused on the tensions between Jews living within the State of Israel, and those who choose to live outside the Jewish state. The Israelis, on the whole, believe that they are the center stage of the Jewish experience: The acknowledge, but cannot fully comprehend, how it is possible to live a Jewish life OUTSIDE the state of Israel. This despite the fact that the people whom they teach know VERY little about Jewish tradition.

We spoke about the craving now evolving among secular Israelis for learning about their past, but learnig "freed" from the shackles of the Orthodox (the Israelis words, not mine). We discussed the similarities between our "Torah study" groups...including the renewed desire to connect to a treasure that most Jews cherish but also know relatiely little about. And...of course, the Israelis all would love to visit Tennessee (They ALL ask about Elvis and Country-Vestern)!

The Reform Movement's efforts have been widely covered in the Israeli Press, including a protest of "Women at the Wall" by approximately 100 of our female colleagues.

On a minor note, you'll be suprised to learn that tortillas, fajitas, sushi and tapas are now all the rage in Jerusalem. They now compete with felafels and other loyal guarantors of overseas indegestion!

Again, I am amazed, touched by, and so incredibly inspired by the buoyancy and the optimism of the Israeli people. They despair over the economy, the recent elections which have left no one satisfied, and the situation with their neighbors; yet they are so confident within their own skin...and it can be so readily felt...and it is well beyond skin deep.

Tonight, I have the rare opportunity to join my colleagues as a worshipper, at one of my favorite synagogues in the world, Kol HaNeshama, here in Jerusalem. Our conference will have rabbis in virtually every reform synagogue in the State of Israel tonight...joining in solidarity with our fellow Reform Jews. Tomorrow, we gather together as one gaggle of rabbis at the Hebrew Union College for services.

Shabbat Shalom Y'all. See you all soon.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday in Tel Aviv

Today was an extraordinary day. We left on buses by designated groups to spend the day in Tel Aviv. If Jerusalem can be described as the ancient city of the Jewish people, then Tel Aviv can be aptly described as the modern city of people who just happen as well, to be Jews.
It is a modern, as diverse, and as cutting edge as any international city...yet made up of a strong Jewish majority.

Our day began there by being further divided into smaller groups of six, each of whom spent the morning with our professional counterparts who serve the Reform movement in Israel. My group met with the program director and the organizational consultant to the congregation at Kibbutz Gezer (one of the stops on our 2005 Temple trip). Over lattes on the beach (I know...and I'm sorry I have to tell you about the beach !!!) we spent two hours discussing God, pluralism, and the tensions Israelis feel between a revulsion towards organized religion (i.e. orthodoxy) and the strong desire to find something of its essence to offer their children.

We then walked along the harbor/port to the BRAND NEW AND UNBELIEVABLY STUNNING headquarters of the Reform Movement in Tel Aviv. The congregation in that building had 40,000 visitors in its first year of operation ! Again, in small groups, we learned of the efforts being made to offer a Reform Jewish curriculum in the city's school system. We are making incredible progress in Tel Aviv because, unlike Jerusalem, the city's more secular vision has allowed for the advancement of Reform Judaism.

Our day concluded with a very compelling play performed by actors who were either blind, deaf, or both. And here one remembers that...despite the constant threat of war...and the constant depiction of Israelis as a nation of warriors...that the arts are flourishing, including those which not only highlight the plight of the disabled, but create a forum for their artistic expression as well.

One other note:There is much discussion on the buses about the economic impact on individual congregants, on congregations, and on the Movement as a whole. Many congregations are trying to figure out how to curtail expenses ...on the one hand, while continuing to offer the services that bring comfort and stability during trying times...on the other.

Tomorrow we prepare for shabbat in Jerusalem...and beyond. More tomorrow.
Looking forward to the wheels touching down in Nashville Sunday night.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Culture and Construction

Wednesday February 25

Today is devoted to Israel's cultural institutions and their growth, expansion and rebirth. I chose the option of the Israel Museum, which is undergoing a major renovation and expansion. From the hillside of the sculpture garden, I am ever mindful of the knowledge that at some point, some of our ancestors (in one way or another--whether by birth or by choice) had the same view of the Judean hills...some brought offerings on their pilgrimages to the Temple...while others returned home from the exile.

There is construction everywhere...beautiful new architectural marvels, as well as the traditional Israeli less-than-architectural- masterpieces. Still, it points to an optimistic spirit, despite the uncertainty of the current "matzav"--the current situation--as the conflict with " our cousins" is called.

I am struck by two groups of visitors: the first, a gathering of twenty elderly women of Bucharan descent, who have come to see the exhibit of Israel's 60th birthday; the second, a similar sized group of teenage girls/ young women, new inductees, all in their Israeli army fatigues, all with their rifles slung over their soldiers. And between these two groups, lies the history and the future of the Jewish state.

The exhibit moves me deeply. The actual documents--the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, the formal request of the newly formed Israeli government to the Jewish community of Vienna asking for the remains of Theodore Herzl to be flown home at last to Jerusalem (his final wish), the peace accord signed by Menachem Begin with Egypt--they are all on display.

My conversational hebrew has come back in full, and the citizens of Jerusalem seem beyond eager to converse with visitors, who are somehow family as well. They are no doubt craving company at a very lonely time.

Tonight we are guests at Cinamateque, Israel's equivalent of the Belcourt's vision, albeit in Green Hills 16 clothing. We are to see a couple of new Israeli films, to be prefaced and followed by remarks from the directors.

Tomorrow we all go for a day in Tel Aviv: My group will spend the day studying the Educational system there, and its innovative model for teaching a pluralistic understanding of Judaism. ( A window on the distance still to go in this regard: Yesterday, as we returned to our bus in Beersheva, a security guard stopped me to ask me where all the rabbis were; he was looking for forty old men with white beards !!!)

The day ends at the new port tourist area.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

shalom from jerusalem we go...a new technological miracle (I hope), handicapped only by a rabbi who still types with only two fingers:

As we approach the Mediterranean on Continental flight 88, we are asked to be in our seats for the final hour before landing, at the request of the Israel military, as the pilot informs us.
A new security precaution since my last trip, no doubt linked to the heigthened tensions in the region.

Israel is more green, more fertile in its appearance than I have ever seen it, the result of a rare several-days-ina-row of heavy rainfall. At the King David hotel, near my hotel, prime-minister designate Binyamin Netanyahu met with Ehud Barak of the Labor party, as he tries to form a coalition government. Today (Tuesday) the 18th (and newest) term of the Knesset began as well.

Today's travels led our group of rabbis to Sderot, the site of eight years and eight thousand rockets from the Gaza strip. Though many have left the town for good, many have remained steadfast and determined. One resident told us to share the message with our friends at home, not to forget the courage of their Jewish brothers and sisters...and not to forget the damage inflicted by those who purposefully choose civilian targets. From a hilltop, we gazed across the border into Gaza.

We travelled as well to Ashkelon, where we met with a group of beautiful teenage Israelis of Eithiopian descent. They spoke with us about their fear during the missle strikes of the war in Gaza, and about the racism they feel from white Israelis. They asked us if we were at all familiar with Barack Obama, which brought a smile and a laugh to our faces. He is a huge hero for them.

And despite all of the conflict, construction is booming...and I am in awe, once again, of a people that not only clings to life, but that cherishes and celebrates it at every turn....
More tomorrow from Jerusalem...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009