Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – September, 2014

My apologies – I forgot to post this at the beginning of September!

“Is it hard to be Jewish in Grand Rapids?” was one of the questions that one of our Israeli Scout guests asked as we were eating breakfast. Yes, it can be difficult. Acquiring kosher food can be a challenge, especially meat. One or two days, 2.5 – 4.5 hours, a week of Jewish education for children is barely enough to scratch the surface, much less teach serious Hebrew and the richness of Jewish literature, calendar, prayer, and other daily practice. There is a growing disconnect between the American Jewish community and Israel, as supporters of Israel find themselves having to work hard to overcome apathy at best, and to justify even the existence of the State of Israel at worst.

On the other hand, for those who want to support and/or participate in a serious Jewish community, Jewish behavior is as natural as breathing. Rarely do I feel that it is an effort or a burden to be Jewish – celebrating Shabbat in the Ahavas Israel community, being aware of how I give my Tzedakah dollars and what food I put into my body, helping staff our Family Promise shelter dates, and learning and teaching Torah, this is what sustains me.

As we approach the fall of the year and our High Holidays once again, I encourage you to use the time of teshuvah to consider how you might enliven your Jewish souls. Our Scholar in Residence weekend this month, featuring Dr. Yael Aronoff of MSU, will answer many of your questions (or the questions your friends or co-workers might throw at you) on Israel. Let the return of our religious school students to class be a reminder that Judaism is not (just) for children – you, too, can find ways to learn Torah and Rabbinic literature both locally and online. You can find my weekly reflections on Psalms at embodiedtorah.wordpress.com – read Psalms along with me and add your own reflections in the comments.

May your new year be sweet and give you many opportunities to nourish your soul.

Remarks at the Grand Rapids Solidarity for Israel Rally

Friends, this rally is about peace and I am standing before you to offer a prayer for peace. Peace has a price. Peace means compromise. Peace means that neither side gets all that they want, but they agree to live and let live, to prosper and marry and raise children side by side in safety.

Peace means that the State of Israel is here to stay; otherwise, there is no peace, only devastation.

For over 3000 years, Judaism and Israel have been intertwined. For 2000 years, the heart of the Jewish community yearned to be a free people in its own land once again. For 66 years, we have lived in our homeland and created a proud, moral State that has fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of being an or goyim, “A light among the nations.”

I am here today to say to the anti-Israel protestors, chanting “End the occupation,” chanting “Free Palestine,” that we can talk, peace is within our grasp, as long as you accept reality — Israel exists, and we will not apologize for the fact that Israel is here to stay!

I am here today to say to the terrorist Hamas regime who says that the missiles will stop when the occupation – of 1948 – is over, I say that is not peace. That is a threat against my family, and my family does not take threats lightly.

Here’s the simple recipe for peace, in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.”

I dream of a day when Lo Yisa Goy el Goy Herev, lo Yil’medu od Milhama, nation will not take up arms against nation, when they will no long experience war; when they will no longer teach hatred to their children, when they will no longer send their children strapped with explosives to murder themselves and others, when they will no longer dig tunnels, marvels of engineering, in order to kidnap and kill our citizens. On that day, there will be peace, and for this we pray:

May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease,
When a great peace will embrace the whole world.
Then nation will not threaten nation,
And [humanity] will not again know war.
For all who live on earth shall realize
We have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being
To praise, to labor, and to love.
Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations
With the power of compassion.
Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture:
I will bring peace to the Land,
And you shall lie down, and no one shall terrify you.
I will rid the Land of vicious beasts
And it shall not be ravaged by war.
Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.
Let peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.
And let us say: Amen.

Sending a 17 Year-Old Child to Israel

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My 17 year old son Solomon arrived in Israel today, about 4 hours before Israeli soldiers found the murdered bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel in a field less than 12 miles from the place from which they had been kidnapped 18 days ago. They had apparently been shot soon after being taken captive. Solomon is participating in the Ramah Israel Seminar, and I should have no worries about his safety in Israel – Ramah is fanatical about the safety of participants on their programs. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel a twinge of worry. Israel is going to respond, and the response has to punish not only the two Hamas members responsible, but also others involved in covering up their actions and hiding them. I am distressed that Solomon’s Israel experience will be scarred not only by tremendous sadness, but also by the military response that is bound to occur.

This is not the blog post I had intended to write today. I had intended to write about the experience of sending a blind son on an Israel program, with lavish praise for the Ramah Israel Seminar and the director, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, for making it happen. That post will have to come later. Today’s emotions are distress, disappointment, anger, and despair.

I am deeply disappointed that despite the horrific nature of the crime (and the fact that one of the boys is American as well as Israeli), it took President Obama nearly 7 hours to make a statement; and while he “strongly condemned” the murders, he also called upon the Israeli government to refrain from taking “steps that could further destabilize the situation.” What steps should be taken against people who kidnapped and tied up three boys, shot them, and left them half-buried under some rocks in a remote Wadi? Is there any way to take even the justified step of finding and arresting the suspects without “further destabilizing the situation?” The President offers US help in finding the perpetrators of this crime (although I wonder how US forces can be more effective than Israeli forces), and says that Israel has the full support and friendship of the US government, but doesn’t want Israel to take steps that might destabilize a situation that cannot reasonably be described as anything resembling stable.

To my Presbyterian friends – do you realize that while your national organization was passing a resolution of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, shortly after the Palestinian Authority was creating a unity partnership government with Hamas, three teenage boys were being murdered? When will we see you call for sanctions again those who perpetrate and support such a crime? Are you as angry as I am at the ineptitude of your leadership’s moral judgement?

Finally, as a person who still wants to believe that it will be possible to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians in my lifetime, I begin to despair that I will ever see Israeli and the Palestinian areas coexisting in security and prosperity.

May the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach be comforted among the mourners of Zion, and may their memories be for a blessing.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – December, 2012

Every study of Jewish identity demonstrates that immersive Jewish experiences, such as Jewish camps and Israel programs, are linked to increases in positive Jewish behaviors, such as giving to Jewish causes, lighting Shabbat candles, holding a Passover Seder, and fasting on Yom Kippur.

The key word is immersive. Most of our days and weeks are spent interacting with a very secular American or Christian world. Watching television, listening to the radio or to the music on our iPods, conversations with out co-workers or clients or customers or supervisors, all of these things take place outside of Jewish time and space, and with rare exceptions, do not call attention to specifically Jewish values or concerns. This is, of course, a very broad statement that does not apply to everyone. Some of us have Jewish playlists or podcasts on our iPods, or subscribe to RSS feeds from Jewish media sources or stock out netflix queue with Jewish themed or Israeli movies. Nonetheless, when living and working in North America (and even more so in West Michigan), our interpersonal contacts, at the supermarket, the bank, the pharmacy, the bakery, the restaurant, on the phone with DTE, Comcast, AT&T, or the City of Grand Rapids, will rarely end with a “Shabbat Shalom” or a “Hag Sameah!” In our day to day lives, we are decidedly not immersed in the language of Judaism.

An immersive Jewish experience is one which is structured to present us with Jewish opportunities throughout the day. A Jewish camp invites us to wake up surrounded by Jews, engage in prayer, eat breakfast with Jews, go swimming at a waterfront, do art projects, engage in sports or learning activities that explicitly incorporate Hebrew, Jewish texts, Jewish language, and Jewish values into the activity. In an Israel experience, we are surrounded by Hebrew as a living language, and to wish Shabbat Shalom to the bus driver, the bank teller, and the tech support person on the phone is part of the common discourse. The sign on the bus reminding young people to give up their seats to their elders quotes Leviticus 19:32, “You shall rise before the aged.” Such use of Hebrew doesn’t feel like in-your-face Bible thumping, it’s just street language.

In an immersive Jewish experience, in Israel or in a serious Jewish camp program, Jewish identity does not require an active effort … one can relax and simply be Jewish, letting the little bits of a Jewish life flow past as naturally as a scrap of wood sweeping down the Mississippi river.

Ahavas Israel is blessed with a generous scholarship program. We have the Berkowitz Fund and the Ahavas Israel scholarship fund for children, and the Shapiro fund for adults. Their intent is to fund educational camp and Israel program and (for adults) retreats and classes and seminars that provide an immersive Jewish experience. You can find information about the scholarship program elsewhere in the Voice as well as on the AhavasIsrael.org website. I urge you to consider how you might take advantage of it, for your children or for yourself.

An open letter to the Jewish Federations of North America

I am sending the following letter to the leadership of my local Federation. I invite you to do the same.

In the past year, we have seen the tension in Israel between Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews and everybody else go from bad to worse. We have seen Hareidi campaigns to force women to sit at the back of the bus, signs in some neighborhoods restricting women to sidewalks on one side of the street, a campaign to remove images of women from public spaces, male IDF cadets walking out during ceremonies in which female soldiers were singing, and an eight year old girl from a religious family being harassed and spit upon while walking to school, because some Hareidi Jews didn’t think she was dressed modestly enough.

The non-Orthodox movements still do not receive support from the state, because the ministry of religion is controlled entirely by the Orthodox chief rabbinate. The government of Israel spends at least $450 million a year on Orthodox programs and institutions. There are 3000 Orthodox rabbis on the government payroll. Masorti gets, by comparison, less than $50,000 and no Masorti or Reform rabbi gets government funding. No Masorti or Reform rabbi serves as a rabbi in the IDF, though some have served in combat positions.

It is clear to the leadership of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel that the best thing for Israel and for Judaism would be a separation of religion and State, but the Reform and Masorti (and modern Orthodox) movements simply do not have enough power to move Israel in that direction. There were Masorti services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 64 locations this year, and there is a network of 30 Reform congregations. It is clear there is an openness and interest in non-Orthodox Judaism, but they are limited by a severe lack of funding.

Money alone will not solve this problem, but an infusion of funds into the non-Orthodox movements will help them grow and will fund their campaigns for greater freedom of religion in Israel. I call upon the Federations of North America to take 5% of the money that they would send to National Federation and send it directly to the Masorti and the Reform movement in Israel, with the goal of strengthening freedom of religion in Israel.