Saturday, October 17, 2015

Solidarity Shabbat

I got a surprising Facebook message from a camp friend who lives in Northern Utah this week, asking my advice. She wrote to me that her son was given an assignment to write about his religion, so they could study the impact of various religions on culture and world events. Looking at a classmate's paper, he noticed that she had written that the Jews had killed Jesus. He asked his teacher for help correcting her, because as the only Jewish family in their public school, he didn't want to be bullied or teased for calling her out. The teacher told him that he needed to check his facts because the Jews did kill Jesus.

Oh, wait. It gets worse.

On my advice, my friend took her son to meet with the teacher and the principal, and the principal told them that there were two sides to the history. She confirmed the teachers outdated notion about the Jews killing Jesus, and scolded them for hurting the teacher's feelings when they called his words anti-Semitic.

When our conversation left off, she was making an appointment with the Superintendent.

As educated people, we tend to shake our head at the ignorance of people in the world. We might even brush it off as the ignorance of small town Northern Utah with only one family to represent all Jews. It helps to think of it as small town mentality--a rarity, infrequent in modern America. After all, we have access to a universe of multi-cultural information at our fingertips. We can surf the web and learn about the past from multiple points of view, evaluate the data, and form our own rich and informed opinions on a variety of topics, including religion.

Sadly, this is not the case. In our hyper-connected, 24-hour-news-watching, Google-searching, blog-reading world, we form our opinions without checking the veracity of what we find. We tend to believe what we first read. Part of the problem is that we believe whoever has a microphone.

When speaking with confidence, a charismatic leader can get a crowd nodding and agreeing with whatever they say. Take, for example, the most recent Republican and Democratic debates. cites a list of 17 topics combined between the two debates that are considered misleading or false claims. This does not mean they were lying. Assuming the best of these candidates, it just means they were wrong. 

Now there is nothing wrong with being wrong. People are wrong all the time. I'm wrong all the time. Just ask Natalie. The problem comes when we speak or write in the public forum as an expert, and then refuse to admit that we can be wrong.

A recent study was done about this, when a group of college students was given two articles about immunizing children. One article in favor, and one against, both citing data and drawing confident conclusions. When the students were brought together to discuss immunization, they were found to be highly polarized, even though they all read both articles. The typical writing style of confident presentation of opinion as fact creates a polarized society who refuses to believe any opposing argument, and that dismisses disagreement as ignorance.

This is what happened to my friend in Utah, and this is what is happening in the media with regard to Israel this week. 

In case you missed it, this has been a difficult couple of weeks in Israel. Violence has escalated, and the new method of attack seems to be stabbings. A Palestinian teenager stabbed two Israelis to death in the Old City and wounded two others. Hours later, another knife-wielder was shot and killed by Israeli police after slashing a 15-year-old in the chest and back. Another attack happened at a bus stop, where an Arab-Israeli ran over a 19-year-old girl, then got out of the car, stabbed her, and then attacked two men and a 14-year-old. But don't worry, the suicide bombings and attempted suicide bombings have still been happening.

What makes it worse is the way these attacks have been represented in some of the media. There were articles titled, "Two Palestinian Teenagers Shot by Israeli Police," "Israeli Retaliatory Strike in Gaza Kills Woman and Child, Palestinians Say," or, "Palestinian Killed as Violence Continues." And that last one happens to be false. The wounded Palestinian boy was picked up and treated at an Israeli hospital! How did he get his wounds? By attacking another 13-year-old Israeli boy who fought back. Israeli police broke up the fight, subduing the teens. While it is true that the boy was injured by the police, the way the facts are presented skews the data in a way that presents as being just as anti-Semitic as that teacher in Utah. Even the attacks that are not reported have a feel of anti-Semitism, as if by their silence they imply that these lives are not worth reporting on, or that they somehow deserved it.

Just last week in our Torah we read about the creation of the world. We read that humans were created b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God. As such, we acknowledge the Divine in every human being, no matter what their beliefs, and no matter how vehemently we may disagree with them. We do not pray for the harm of others because in acknowledging that all humans are created in the Divine image, we know that any harm that comes to a human is, at its core, harming God. This week we read in Parashat Noach that God wants to destroy all humanity, ki-malah ha'aretz chamas mip'neichem, "because the earth is filled with violence through them." The word for violence here is chamas, and if I were to leave it at that, I could let you draw your own conclusions about the very nature of the organization that brings such violence to Israel. However, that would be misleading of me, because the ancient Hebrew word has absolutely no connection to the Arabic word which is actually an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic. With only part of the information, it is too easy for me to mislead you, especially when you probably already have opinions about Hamas.

The word I would rather point out is mip'neichem, translated as "through them." The world is filled with violence through them. Through the humans that God created, the earth was filled with violence--with people ignoring the godliness implanted within others, refusing to settle their differences through peaceful means. Another translation of mip'neichem is "before them," meaning right in front of them. The double meaning helps us see that God does not destroy the world out of vengeance or spite, but because they refused to acknowledge what was right in front of them: other people. They took what they wanted with no regard for anyone's needs but their own.

This is what happens when we refuse to pay attention to the arguments of those who are before us. We force our own agenda forward, heeding only the truths presented to us by those whose goal it is to manipulate our own thoughts and feelings. When we focus on only how sure we are about any issue, we lose.

Here is what I am sure will solve the problems between Israelis and Palestinians.

That's right, nothing. I am sure about nothing. I have no idea how to stop the violence and the territorial disputes and the claim of both sides that the land is given to them by God. I just don't know. But I do know one thing: neither does anybody else. Anyone who claims to have the solution may not be intentionally lying, but they are wrong. We will not be able to come to any sort of peace until both sides acknowledge the humanity within the other, and are willing to see what is right before them: God's presence. And we will never move forward until we acknowledge the Divine presence in everyone at the table. Even if they do not acknowledge it within us.

This Shabbat has been declared Solidarity Shabbat. Jews all over the country, of every denomination are standing together to declare that we stand with Israel. No matter how clueless we are about the situation, we support Israel's right to exist. We stand with Israel, and we stand against all forms of hatred and anti-Semitism, and all ignorance in reporting. We stand with Israel in acknowledgment of the presence of God in all people, and the hope that we will soon know peace.

I want to close with Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman's prayer for peace:
Adon hashalom, melech shel hashalom shelo,
sim shalom l'amcha Yisrael
Master of peace, make peace for your people Israel
Let that peace spread to all of your creatures.
Let there be an end to hatred, jealousy, and competition between people,
Let there be love and peace among all of us,
Let everyone be aware of their neighbor's love
until we can all gather together and speak to one another.
Help us to learn the truth from the oterh.
O God, you are peace, and peace comes from you.
Adon hashalom, barcheinu bashslaom,
Source of Peace, bless us with peace.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Israel from Four Perspectives (Yom Kippur Sermon 5776)

Five Jews are sitting on a park bench. “Oy,” says the first. “Oy vey,” says the second. “Oy vey iz mir,” says the third. “Oy gevalt,” says the fourth. The fifth says, “Can we just this once stop talking about Israel?”

In an essay called, “Israel-The Ever-Dying People,” by Simon Rawidowicz, written when Israel as a country was a new reality, he begins with this sentence:
The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of being consistently on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.

He sets out a view that Israel's strength is in the "Oy's" and "Oy vey's" uttered by Jews both there and in the diaspora. The worry that we create, he claims, brings the support and strength that we needed in the 1950's when this essay was written.

In his review of Rawidowicz’s essay in the Jerusalem Post some 60 years later, Daniel Gourdis claims that we must resist this lachrymose, Chicken-Little view of Israel. Gourdis instead refers to us as the never-dying people. He critiques that we should not cling to worry as we have in the past, but to wisdom.

Israel is alive and vibrant. It is a leader in science and technology on the world stage. It is a beautiful, breathtaking land with so much diversity that one person’s opinion cannot cover it.

So today I want to look at Israel from four perspectives. All four of these come from people who traveled to Israel this summer. First we will hear from Shari Einstein, who went with her sister Michelle. It was her second trip to Israel, but a new perspective from the Birthright bus. Next will be Marcia McReynolds, who joined us on our congregational trip. Marcia travels to Tel Aviv regularly on business, is learning Hebrew, and had never taken a formal tour of the entire country. Then David Duner will tell us about his experience on the congregational trip, which was his first trip to Israel. The fourth perspective will be mine.

Big thanks to Rabbi Young for inviting me to speak today about my recent experiences in Israel.
I returned from a Birthright trip last month.  I traveled with about 40 other 22-27 year olds from across the US and with 10 Israelis for a whirlwind, 10 day trip.  Even though the entire country is about the size of New Jersey, 10 days didn’t even scratch the surface!

After taking a moment to digest my trip, I’m finding my biggest takeaway from the entire trip is how “normal” the experiences felt.

-Meeting up with Israeli friends in Tel Aviv for Mexican food.
-Conversations about new careers, dating, politics, TV - similar to any Friday night hanging out with friends.
-Surprised to find the place filled with hipsters.
-Worth noting, Mexican food in Israel is pretty good!
-Comforting know all of these are universal

-Normal to spend Shabbat at the Western Wall.
-Sang, danced, and prayed with the group and were joined by Israelis and other Birthright  groups from around the world.
-Although melodies differed, the prayers were the same as what I learned in Sunday School.
-Felt a transpersonal experience - a sense of identity that extended beyond myself and  encompassed a connection to my Jewish heritage, past, present and future.
-Somehow, this felt normal because it is a common experience for all there.

-Normal to spend time in a foreign country halfway around the world.
-Israel looks like So Cal to me.
-Food fantastic
-People so welcoming and open to conversation

-Normal how it easy it was to be visiting Israel, a country we have fought and prayed for for millennia.
-Extra special be traveling with my sister.  Spent an afternoon at Yad Vashem,      Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum.  Felt connection
-Soldiers we were traveling with.  Our own age.

One of the best trips of my life.  Can’t wait to go back!

Last June, I had the good fortune to be able to tour Israel with Rabbi Young and members of our CBT congregation. I want to share with you some observations and my perspective on Israel.  
But since this is Yom Kippur, I have a confession to make first. Before my first trip to Israel 5 years ago, I didn't really have any desire to visit Israel. It wasn't on my bucket list.  But then my company bought a small startup company in Israel. And I was assigned to support them. So, I traveled to Israel on business. And just being there in Israel changed my whole perspective.
Israel was no longer just another country to visit. Now, I finally felt the connection that everyone else talked about. So when I heard that Rabbi Young was organizing a trip, I jumped at the chance. I was able to combine it with a business trip, so I had a full two weeks there.
Israel is a place that contains the origins and memories of our Jewish history.  Past and present intertwine. And, since Judaism is the majority religion, Jewish holidays and celebrations are forefront. Walking around Jaffa on one of the first nights we were there, I came across a beautiful Jewish wedding ceremony taking place on the rooftop of a nearby building.  Jewish melodies filled the air. And when we were in Jerusalem, there were B'nai Mitzvah celebrations in the streets. People singing and dancing.   My very first trip to Israel was just before Rosh Hashanah.  Over all the streets in Tel Aviv were huge banners wishing everyone "Shana Tovah".    

In the Israel office one day, I heard a big commotion in the conference room, with voices heatedly debating something.   With me, they speak in English, but among themselves they speak Hebrew.  Even though I am learning Hebrew, I couldn't tell what was going on.  I thought maybe they were discussing something about my project, so I peeked in to find out.   I discovered that they were arguing over the existence of God.   They continued, in English now, so I could participate too.   My co-workers there are all Jewish.  And it is very natural for them to break up their work day with religious discussions (even heated arguments like the one I overheard).  Then they quietly go back to work, with no hard feelings.  They continue to respect and work together well.  
I mentioned that Israel is a place where Judaism's past and present intertwine.   This was highlighted many times on our CBT trip.  
Our guide, Muki, who was an historian and archeologist, would describe what we were seeing and connect it both to what happened there in the past, and what was going on in the present.  He often brought out a bible and quoted passages related to the places we were visiting.    
One day, he pointed out the opening to a cave where the dead sea scrolls were found.  
Another day, we were traveling through a valley on the way to an amazing archeological dig, and he pointed out that this was where David fought Goliath.  
The archeological dig was at the Beit Guvrin Caves.  We actually dug up pieces of pottery that were 2300 years old, dating from the time of the Maccabees.  
In  the Upper Galilee, we stayed in a hotel that was very near the Jordan river. One morning, I got up early and walked along the river.  It was really pretty and very peaceful.  Every so often, there were plaques set in the ground with passages from the Torah. I recognized the word "Yarden" in each of them, and realized these were all references to the Jordan river.  That was a really special place for me.  I took pictures of the beautiful scenery and all the plaques, thinking that some day, I will transfer the pictures to fabric and design them into one of my quilts.
We took a camel ride to a re-enactment of Abraham's tent, to experience his "biblical hospitality".  Now, some may have thought that it was a bit hokey.   But I had an amazing experience there.   They had situated the tent  such that if you stood a bit in front,  you got a view of the desert hills and valleys that could easily have been the same actual view that Abraham saw looking out from his tent.    
I stood in that spot, blocking out all the people and activity around me, and just took in the view.  Abraham's view.   
As the Rabbi mentioned, I am learning to speak Hebrew.   And it was a pleasure to find that Holly Gordon also shared that interest.    We had fun practicing with various people we met.  A word of advice:  If you aren't very fluent, it is best to start by saying "Ani lomedet evrit" (which means "I am learning Hebrew"). Otherwise, they speak way too fast.    
I continue to study Hebrew, and use it more frequently as I interact with my co-workers in Tel Aviv.  The next time I get a chance to go to Israel, I'll be ready.    
Good Yontif (sic)
I am positive that I can speak for all of us and say that we had a really great time.
There is something very special about going to Israel with a group from our temple. Some of us might only have been acquaintances but now we have something important in common.  We all grew closer to each other.  Now we have a special connection and every time we see each other on Friday night we hug and remember the special bond that we have. We have a shared memory that effected each of us very deeply.
The reason is because going to Israel is much more than a vacation, it is a combination of extreme emotional experiences.  One that in some moments brings tears of happiness.
Imagine the first time seeing the Western Wall, considered the holiest of Jewish sites because it is the only remnant of the wall that enclosed the second temple.  Today it is an open air synagogue.  Imagine being able to place a prayer written on a little piece of paper into the cracks of the wall and saying a prayer for your loved ones.
Imagine the first time seeing the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem from afar.  It was even emotional simply landing at Ben Gurion Airport.  I get choked up thinking about it.
In Israel, I had a strong sense of belonging.  You are not in the minority.  It’s a good feeling.  It is kind of similar to the feeling we get every time we walk into our temple.  The difference is that in Israel, you have that feeling all of the time, everywhere you go.  It’s a feeling where you say to yourself, I belong here, I feel comfortable here, this is my home.
I didn’t expect these feelings to happen.  Nobody explained this to me.  The only thing I thought about was to make sure that I visited all of the important places, and that I visited my daughter Natalie who currently lives in Tel Aviv.
I remember my brother in law telling me how amazing the breakfast’s buffets were.  He was right.  Every hotel, in the grand ball room, had a wall to wall buffet.  I expected a giant Katella Deli.  But it was more Mediterranean style with plenty of different types of herring.
At the end of our trip, Rabbi Young asked us to write down our thoughts about our experience.  This is what I wrote.  Every day I kept saying that each day was more interesting and fun than the previous one.
[One day we] went into the Western Wall Tunnels. It turns out that the existence of the Western Wall continued underground and archeologists were able to dig under the buildings to discover much more. We received an excellent explanation by our tour guide about how the temple mount and the second temple was built by Herod. It was interesting to note that a gate was discovered that lead into the temple court yard but was decided that it should remain shut and unopened forever.
After lunch we went to Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust museum. I knew this was going to be difficult. We were very fortunate to have the absolute best tour guide for our entire trip, Mookie, but his guided tour of Yad Vashem was extraordinary. I could see our entire group faces on the brink of breakdown. My favorite part of his presentation was the story of a Jewish man that fortunately survived after his entire family was lost. Yet today he is alive and has received a sense of vengeance by creating a very large family of children, grand-children and great grand-children.
The next day we went to Beit Guvrin archaeological site and caves. We actually had the opportunity to dig for ancient artifacts. Mostly we uncovered pieces of pottery that were 2300 years old. This was an area where the terrane was similar to the rolling hills of Orange County. We were told that this was the area where David slew Goliath. Our digging took place in underground in caves. This was actually hard work and we got dirty doing it. But it was a worthwhile experience. After we finished our manual labor we climbed through long and deep tunnels that were lit with candles. This was actually very
difficult. I enjoyed making sure that Mira Adler made it through safely.
It was Friday afternoon and after we cleaned up from our archaeological dig we went to Kehillat Kol Haneshema synagogue. This was a reform temple where we enjoyed a Shabbat service. I will always remember that was the day when the US Supreme Court decided that Gay marriage will be legal in every state in our country. Rabbi Young announced it and the congregation erupted in joy.
There actually were more amazing experiences that I wish I had time to tell you about.  I could see myself wanting to live there, primarily because of that special feeling I had while I was there.  That’s not practical, but at least I do realize that the same welcoming feeling is available every time I’m with my friends from CBT and every time I step into our synagogue.
If you can, make “next year in Jerusalem” come true
L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu – may us all have a good year ahead.

Thank you, all three of you. Your words are beautiful and inspiring. You make me want to go back to Israel right now instead of waiting until 2018!

Until then, I want to share some of my thoughts about our congregational trip this past June.

This was my fifth trip to Israel, and one of those trips lasted an entire year. Israel for me has always felt like home. Like David mentioned, it is a place of total comfort. I remember during my year in Israel I was coming home from a late night “study” session at a local cafe (bar). I stood on a street corner waiting for a light to change, and a tall man with a gun walked up next to me to wait for the same light. If I were anywhere in America, I would have seen my life flash before my eyes. But on that dark street corner in Jerusalem, I knew he was an IDF soldier, possibly heading home on a pass or coming back from miluim, army reserve duty. In Israel, standing next to an armed man, I felt safe.

This trip, I was excited to show my new CBT family, and some of my actual family, my Israel, my home. I was a little nervous to see how this diverse group of people, ranging in age from 18 to 80, would get along. I worried about the varying degrees of physical capabilities, about the mundane travel problems we could have faced like lost luggage, and about what my mother might say about my childhood while I was trying to be a rabbi. More than anything, though, I was looking forward to going back home.

I want to talk about two particular moments that stand out in my mind about this particular trip. The first was up north in the Golan Heights. We stood together at an outlook post overlooking Syria with our guide Muki. We had heard the stories that day of Israeli routing out Syrian troops with the help of the spy Eli Cohen. We learned about the Yom Kippur War, of the difficulties of being surrounded by enemies, and of the war that began one day after Israel declared her independence and has not stopped since.

As we stood on the battlements and prayed for peace between Israel and her neighbors, a cloud of smoke puffed up over the horizon, and moments later we heard the distant boom of the explosion. At first we oohed and aahed at the pyrotechnics before us. Then Muki reminded us that we were witnessing something horrible. “That’s the civil war,” he reproached “Someone just died in that smoke, and people are dying over there every day.” We made our way silently to the bus that afternoon--our ride to the hotel that evening just a little quieter and more somber than usual. We felt a moment of Al chet shechatanu lefanecha.... As Jews we pray for the peace of all nations, even those who would be our enemies. We do not rejoice at others' defeat. We pray instead that the day will soon come when all nations are at peace with us and with one another.

Like Daniel Gourdis suggests, I want to conclude with celebration. When we made our way up to Jerusalem on our 6th day of travel, we stopped at Mount Scopus to admire the view of the other Holy City, Jerusalem. This is a stop that every trip to Israel makes. Every time you come close to Jerusalem, you stop and look from Mount Scopus. Having spent a summer on Mount Scopus at Hebrew University, I had been to this vista many times. But this time was different. As we stood looking over Jerusalem, we made kiddush and sang Shehecheyanu and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. I started reading a translation of Hatikvah and paused for a minute, unable to speak.

I often explain to my kids that when someone is so full of emotion--happiness, sadness, anger, joy, whatever--it can leak out of our eyes, and that’s why we cry. Standing there, looking over Jerusalem with my wife, my mother, and my congregation, I was overflowing. There had been so much preparation to get us to that point. We talked, planned, taught, discussed, paid, and planned some more. We had learned so much from Muki in our first week. We had grown closer together as a group, and we knew that standing there we represented CBT, America, and Jews everywhere. I was happy beyond words, proud to be a rabbi for this amazing community, and so excited to be home.

There are so many more stories to tell, so many more perspectives to learn. We will be back. We will travel together again in 2018, and I have been told that some people who went this summer are already saving to go back. I can’t wait.

Until then, we continue to support Israel from afar. We will keep learning about Israel and supporting Israel, and we will advocate for Israel until peace reigns in her borders.

Am Yisrael Chai!