Monday, December 19, 2011

Eight Lights for Chanukkah

Chanukkah is a time of blessing. At the coldest, darkest time of the year, this is a holiday that reminds us to gather around the warmth of the light. This year, we want to celebrate not only the eight literal lights that we kindle in the Chanukkah Menorah, but also eight Israeli organizations that are bringing light into the world.

1) Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel
Hand in Hand is a network of integrated, bilingual schools combining peace education and top academic standards. Their mission is to increase peace, coexistence and equality between the Jews and Arabs in Israel. With three campuses--in Jerusalem, the Galilee and Wadi Ara--Hand in Hand builds partnerships to provide as many Israeli children as possible the option of an integrated, top-quality public education.

2) Kibbutz Lotan Solar Field
Awarded the 2006 Award for Ecovillage Excellence by the Global Ecovillage Network, Kibbutz Lotan is home to Israel’s first solar field. The solar field reduces Israel’s use of fossil fuels, and will further the mitzah of creating a clean free atmosphere for all of us. Additionally, Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology is rooted in “Tikkun Olam”--the Jewish concept for repairing and transforming the world. The Center offers tours, workshops, and ecofriendly design and training programs. Lotan serves as a living classroom for sustainable systems.

3) The Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva
The Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva seeks to connect young Israelis who wish to maintain a culturally Jewish way of life to a heightened sense of social-justice and community solidarity. Unlike the religious yeshivot that many of their orthodox counterparts attend, students at the Secular Yeshiva spend their days in a pluralistic environment, studying contemporary Zionist thinkers, Jewish philosophy, the holiday and life cycles, and other traditional Jewish texts. The program combines study of Jewish texts and culture with social action and volunteer work in underserved neighborhoods.

4) Save a Child’s Heart
Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) is an Israeli-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centers of competence in these countries. SACH is dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child's nationality, religion, color, gender or financial situation. SACH is motivated by the age-old Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam--repairing the world. By mending the hearts of children, regardless of their origin, SACH is contributing to a better and more peaceful future for all of our children.

5) Kiryat Ono College
Committed to inclusive education, Kiryat Ono College prepares ultra orthodox men and women for the workforce. A large percentage of ultra-orthodox men in Israel dedicate their lives to studying the Torah and are supported by substantial government funding. This has lowered the community's capacity for self-sufficiency. There is a growing realization in the ultra-orthodox community that it must enter the business arena and lower its dependency on subsidies. The ultra-orthodox campus at Kiryat Ono College allows ultra orthodox men and women to study in an institution of higher learning without compromising their religious values.

6) Ma’ale Film School
Ma’ale is the only film school in the world devoted to exploring the intersection of Judaism and modern life. The school unabashedly holds a mirror up to the most pressing issues in the religious Zionist community, including homosexuality, marriage and gender equality, and settlement in the Territories. Ma'aleh films are screened regularly at film festivals world-wide and consistently win top awards.

7) Nava Tehila
Nava Tehila is an emerging prayer and study community in Jerusalem, welcoming people of diverse backgrounds who wish to experience various expressions of spiritual life with a Jewish flavor. The community offers classes and workshops in Jewish spirituality, meditation, Kabbalah and Chasidut. Prayer is egalitarian and inclusive, open to people of all religious and spiritual traditions. Nava Tehila is affiliated with the Jewish renewal spiritual movement.

8) Encounter
Encounter is an educational organization dedicated to providing global Diaspora Jewish leaders from across the religious and political spectrum with exposure to Palestinian life. Through trips to Palestinian territories in the West Bank, Encounter participants meet Palestinian civilians and leaders to engage in thoughtful conversation about the complexities of Israel and the conflict.


Hope your Chanukkah is filled with love and light,
Daniel and Leah

Have additions to this list? Feel free to comment and post them below!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Moving from Ambition to Compassion

This morning, I offered the following words of Torah at HUC. Text is below the video.

I’m thinking about writing a self-help book. You know, the kind that gives you detailed instructions on how to maximize your potential and change your life forever. By following my 5 easy steps, you can boost yourself into the national spotlight, influence top politicians, call the shots on Wall Street, and get your name in all the newspapers, while picking up a cool and easy million bucks along the way. I’m thinking of calling the book: How to be the Best at Everything… Ever.

I get the sense that there are more and more people like this in our world: people who don’t care what they have to do or how they have to do it, so long as they can get ahead; people who live to compete, and for whom losing is not an option; people with endless ambition and little compassion.

We see in Joseph exactly this type of ambition. Joseph dreams of being a great leader, and nothing will stop him. Everywhere he goes, he is successful. In whatever he does, “the Lord is with him.” He’s his father’s favorite. He’s made head of Potiphar’s household. Even in prison, the warden puts him in charge of his fellow inmates. And in all his responsibility, he looks great doing it!

But despite his skill and cleverness, Joseph exhibits no consideration for others. Although he is his father’s favorite, we have no evidence that he reciprocates his father’s love. He shamelessly reveals to his brothers his deep-seated superiority complex. And after his first dream enrages them, he goes ahead and reveals another one where the imagery is even more inflammatory—that that the sun, the moon, and stars bow down to him. As we read this morning, “Vayoseefu od s'no oto, al ha-chalomotav v'al d'varav / and his brothers continued to hate him more, on account of his dreams and on account of his words.” Throughout his journey in Egypt, we never once see him form a true friendship. His relationships are purely professional; even in prison, he befriends not common inmates, but high-ranking royal officials. And though he accurately interprets their dreams, he does so with a request: that when the cupbearer is free, he’ll remember Joseph and help free him too. He seems to operate under the code of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”

Elie Wiesel, in his book Messengers of God, describes Joseph thus: “His was a political awareness, not a poetic one. Shrewd rather than wise, he was a manipulator rather than a witness. ... While still a child, he behaved like a king. When he became king, he often behaved like a child.”

I get the sense that many of today’s leaders also aspire to be kings while behaving like children. They’re so obsessed with success that they’d do seemingly anything to get ahead. From Bernie Madoff to Rod Blagojevich, from the exploitative parenting on TV’s Toddlers in Tiaras to football coaches who hit their own players when they lose, somehow our culture has come to value success over all else.

As religious and spiritual leaders, we have a responsibility to help our communities see that ambition must be tempered by compassion, that the process is just as important as the goal, that winning isn’t the only thing that counts.

Joseph succeeds in all he does and certainly hurts a few people along the way. But his greatest success—the redemption of the children of Israel—comes only after he is able to make peace with his brothers. He discovers that all his ambition leads to nowhere but loneliness, that all his achievement can’t win him a friend. We see in him a real transformation, from Mr. Ambition to Mr. Compassion, from an arrogant brat who can’t hold back his ego to a loving brother who can’t hold back his tears. When he finally turns to compassion, only then does he truly earn the name “Yosef HaTzaddik / Joseph the Righteous”—not for his skill and cunning, not because he was the first of our people to “make it” in the gentile world, but because he learned that relationships are more important than being the best.

So maybe I’m writing the wrong self-help book. Maybe it’s not about being the best after all. Maybe the title should be How to Get Beyond Winning and Start Loving. Or better still, How to be Human.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Giving Thanks

This post is by Leah
Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I’ve always been enamored with the holiday that gives us space and encouragement to simply be thankful. Every year my family (grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles) gathered around the food-filled table and we would each share something that we were thankful for. I grew up around those tables and each year our “thanks” evolved with our ever-transforming lives. It is a tradition that I keep among my most cherished memories.

This year however, Thanksgiving is decidedly more complicated. Two months ago my father passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, my once favorite holiday is now tinged with sadness and mourning. There is certainly a part of me that would love nothing more than to skip Thanksgiving this year. To politely decline participating, “thank you for coming, unfortunately I am unable to celebrate.” But Thanksgiving will come whether I like it or not, and perhaps it’s coming just in the nick of time. Perhaps this year Thanksgiving will be a veiled gift, a reminder to give thanks especially when it is most difficult. Perhaps this year Thanksgiving is throwing down the gauntlet, “acknowledge the exquisite beauty that is surrounding you, I dare you. Give thanks.”


I am thankful.

I am thankful for the unfathomable outpouring of love, compassion, kindness, and sympathy over the past two months. I don’t think I will ever be able to find the words to express my true gratitude; it has been the most humbling experience of my life. The flood of emails, phone calls, visits to the house, text messages, facebook posts, and cards was truly overwhelming. This outpouring of support has been the most unbelievable affirmation of how truly good people can be. In the most difficult time, I have been repeatedly astounded by honest compassion and kindness. It has been a gift that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I am thankful that every morning I get to wake up next to my best friend. Daniel is truly the love of my life and I am profoundly grateful to have him.

I am thankful for my unwavering forever friends; they are the most loyal, generous, kind-hearted, compassionate, creative, loving people I have ever known. To say that I’m lucky to have them in my life is perhaps the greatest understatement of all. They have made this terrible tragedy bearable and I am forever a better person for having them in my life.

I am thankful for my brothers who set the standard for unconditional love. They teach me patience and remind me to never take myself too seriously.

I am thankful for my inspiring, unwavering, family. They redefine extraordinary.

I am thankful for my father who believed in me. I am thankful for the man who taught me right from wrong, who taught me to never give up, and who taught me how to love.

I am thankful for my mother who is the strongest person I have ever known. I am thankful for the woman who has no idea how beautiful, how resilient, how wise, and how powerful she is. She is my inspiration, my best friend, and my true love.

I am thankful that Thanksgiving didn’t take the year off. Remembering how much there is to be thankful for is reason enough to give thanks.

I am thankful.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sukkot: By the Seat of Our Pants

We just got back from a ten-day trip around the north of Israel (with a brief visit to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea in the south along the way). This album is called "Sukkot: By the Seat of Our Pants" because everything we did was planned on the day it happened (if not later). And yet, we still had a wonderful time! Below, check out our pictures.

Follow this link to view the pictures on Picasa.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gilad Shalit: It's Complicated

This post is by Daniel and Leah
When people ask us what it’s like to live in Israel, the answer is almost always the same: “It’s complicated.”

Over the past five years one of the most unifying issues in Israeli society has been the desired release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas in 2006 at the age of 19. On all sides of the political spectrum, the objective was clear—bring Gilad home. It was an issue that everyone could stand behind.

Tuesday morning, Gilad returned home. After five years of solitary confinement, no humanitarian aid or contact with the outside world, a gaunt and pale Shalit was returned to Israel and his family.

On a day which could have been marked by joyous celebration, the mood in Israel is decidedly heavy. Gilad’s return has come at quite a cost. In exchange for Shalit’s release, Israel agreed to return 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. It’s not the disproportionate 1-for-1,027 ratio that’s most troubling, but rather the résumés of the Palestinian prisoners who went free this morning. Among them are men and women convicted of terror attacks and murder. These people were not held in captivity for Israel’s diplomatic gain, but for committing serious crimes.

So how are we to feel on a day that is both joyous and somber?

On the one hand, we are overjoyed at the release of Gilad Shalit and his reunion with his family. The images of the boy being embraced by his father after five years of separation stir tremendous empathy. For Gilad, his family, and supporters around the world, this is the day they’ve been dreaming of.

On the other hand, how can one rejoice when murders and terrorists are being let free? After the deal was brokered, there were indeed many Israelis who protested the prisoner swap. Family members of terror victims petitioned the high court to stop the exchange. However, fearing that the window of opportunity to bring Gilad home wouldn’t stay open long, the court rejected the petitions and the exchange went forth as planned. For these people, whose lives have been ripped by terror, this is the day they’ve been dreading.

World leaders are hailing the exchange as a step in the right direction for the stalled peace process. Many are hopeful that this exchange will show that with hard work and negotiation, progress can be made. Indeed, both Israel and the Palestinians are hailing this day as a victory.

But one has to worry that “victory” may be too strong a word. In Gaza this morning, crowds lined the streets to celebrate the prisoners’ return. “The people want a new Gilad!” the crowd chanted, the implication being that if Hamas abducts more Israeli soldiers, Israel will be forced to release more convicted Palestinian prisoners. To the crowd, Shalit was not a human prisoner but a diplomatic bargaining chip.


So the question becomes not “How do we feel?” but rather “How do we reconcile these conflicting feelings?” We’re at once joyful and mournful, hopeful and skeptical. It is impossible to erase one emotion to simplify the day.

It seems that the new developments in the Gilad episode reinforce our recurring motto: “It’s complicated.” And there’s no simple solution. The best we can do is learn to be comfortable with our discomfort, and continue to work and hope for a day when Israel and its neighbors can live together in peace.

Recommended reading (articles we've found helpful):

Monday, September 12, 2011

Misguided Heroism

This post is by Daniel
Last weekend, our class took a study trip to the Galilee region to learn about Israel’s early pioneers. On the trip, we visited the historical settlement of Tel Hai, the site of the first major skirmish between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Tel Hai was established as a Jewish settlement in the early 20th century. At the end of World War I, the French and the British divided between themselves the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. Most Jewish settlements wound up in British territory, except for four sites, including Tel Hai. The surrounding Arab population was skeptical of the French, and thought Tel Hai might have been harboring French sympathizers. A group of Arabs was allowed to enter the settlement to look around. There was some miscommunication between the Jews and the Arabs and fighting broke out. Eight Jewish settlers were killed. Below, my response to the site.

I was struck by our visit to Tel Hai. Before all else, it strikes me as peculiar that the focus of this site is not on Jewish-Arab relations, but rather on Jewish heroism. I expected Tel Hai, as “the site of the first major skirmish between Jews and Arabs in Palestine,” to engender a discussion on Arab responses to the chalutzim. I could imagine here a sensitive conversation on the role of otherness in Israel, on pioneering compared to colonization, on the difference between critical history and collective memory. Rather, this site politicized as a symbol of military courage. Mine is not a critique of our trip leaders, but rather of how the site fits into the Israeli national narrative. It makes me wonder how Tel Hai fits into the Palestinian national narrative.

I see in Trumpeldor’s dying words—“It is good to die for one’s country”—a rejection of the Old World experience. In its circumstances, the incident at Tel Hai very much resembles a pogrom. The surrounding majority enters a Jewish settlement; violence erupts; people are injured and killed. A pogrom is a catastrophe, but Tel Hai is a victory. Trumpeldor is seen not as a victim but a hero. At least in Palestine, a Jew can be killed for his country.

I can’t accept that it is good to die for one’s country. Har Hertzl, Israel's national cemetery, is not a “good” place. It’s a place of mourning, of sadness, of tragedy. I easily see a connection between Tel Hai and the suicide at Masada. Indeed, suicide was disproportionately common during the 2nd and 3rd waves of olim. Suicide accounted for 12% of all deaths. That’s nearly 1 in 8! History has labeled the Masada suicide as committed by “zealots.” Suicides tear families apart. We at once praise Trumpeldor’s martyrdom and condemn suicide bombers. Both types of bravery are misguided.

We see at Tel Hai a shift in the Jewish psyche. For the first time in centuries, we see Jews refusing to apologize for circumstances beyond their control. There are classic stories from the Old Country that you might live in Poland, but one day wake up to discover that your village is suddenly a part of Prussia. When Tel Hai suddenly became French, its inhabitants refused to apologize. This attitude is bold but dangerous. Still today, Israel can’t apologize for fear of looking weak. Imagine if this were how an adult acted in marriage—the marriage would break apart from inflexibility.

I say all this to illustrate what role place should not play in Judaism. While I’m glad that the Jewish state is in Israel rather than Uganda, I’d like Israel to be more flexible in order to achieve peace. I’d like to see greater compromise. As world leaders encourage Israel to pursue a two-state solution, I hope the settlers in the West Bank can reimagine what Tel Hai might symbolize. With a little more flexibility, there might yet be hope for peace.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Turkish Delight

Just got back from an AMAZING 9-day vacation in Turkey. Below, check out our pictures from Istanbul, Efes, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia.

Follow this link to view the pictures on Picasa.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Beit Cafe

Last night we performed at the HUC Beit Cafe (coffee house/talent show). Check out our performance in the video below.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Destruction and Mourning

Last night, on erev Tisha B’Av, we went to the Western Wall and had a fascinating experience. Below, our conversation and the event that followed.

The Kotel on erev Tisha B'Av 
I have conflicted feelings about Tisha B’Av. Traditionally, the holiday commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. From my observation, mourning the loss of the Temple necessarily means hoping for a Third Temple. Indeed, just outside the Kotel Plaza, we saw miniature models of a rebuilt Third Temple. Are people suggesting that we destroy The Dome of the Rock? On other days in the Old City, we’ve seen dream-like paintings of the Jerusalem countryside with the Third Temple in its center, smoke from the sacrificial offering ascending to heaven. Is the ethical Judaism we practice today not sufficient?

What has sustained the Jews for thousands of years is adaptability to change. Jews have been their most successful in the Diaspora. The Middle Ages in Spain saw a blossoming of Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life. Jews in America today are the most prosperous Jewish community in history. The Purim story in Sushan, problematic as it is, stands as the first account of Jewish triumph in the Diaspora. Our intransigence has cultivated our creativity. And yet, life in the Diaspora has been hard for the Jewish people. In Spain and in Shushan, our golden ages eventually met a tragic end. Tisha B’Av reminds me of our frailty.

For 2000 years, our people have hoped to return to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem. Today we’re here. As a professor at HUC put it, we’ve already achieved a modern Third Temple—the State of Israel. I was moved on Tisha B’Av by the sight of an Israeli flag flying in the Kotel Plaza. This is a symbol of our triumph.

And yet, Israel itself is frail. Were the country ever to collapse or be destroyed, Jews worldwide would feel the effects. For all its complications, I love deeply what Israel symbolizes. I get physical anxiety thinking of the consequences of a destroyed Jewish state. It gives new resonance to Psalm 137, written after the Destruction of the First Temple: “By the rivers of Babylon we wept, remembering Zion.”

To me Tisha B’Av is a day to remember and acknowledge our scars—the scars of our people as well as our personal scars. When I said this to Daniel, he asked, “Then why do we gather here at the Kotel, at the ruins of the First and Second Temples?” After some thought I offered, “It’s like visiting the grave of a loved one that has passed. We don’t bring flowers and weep over a tombstone in hope that the deceased will come back to life. We go to remember, to mourn. To try to find closeness to that which has been lost.”

When we break a bone or tear open our skin, we are left with scars, some that we will see for the rest of our lives. Yet these scars are often far less painful than the unseen lacerations we carry within. We’ve all had destructions in our lives, things that have quite literally shattered us. Regardless of why and how we’ve been shattered, these destructions are a part of our history. To let them go unacknowledged diminishes the power of our resiliency. That is to say, I believe that we are stronger and more resilient for our tragedies than for our triumphs.

Suffering is not a concept that I often indulge in. I’ve always had a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of attitude, and not a sit-in-the-tunnel-and-throw-a-party-for-the-darkness kind of attitude. But this is a holiday that encourages us to stay in the darkness, to remember our destructions. As we sat on the stones that line the Kotel Plaza, my invisible scars came to light—images of heartbreak, loss, personal exile, and true devastation. As the tears fell down my face, I mourned. I grieved for the broken pieces of my past and faced the scars that they’ve left. Faced with these scars, I found tremendous faith, faith in the resiliency of the human spirit. With time and with love we heal. Our scars can serve as a poetic reminder of all that we’ve overcome.

On Tisha B’Av we come to the Kotel, a living wound of our broken past, and we mourn. On this day, acknowledging our scars is a way of owning them. We return to the destroyed temple to grieve our losses and hopefully to understand our resiliency, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.

The Talmud teaches that the theological reason for the destruction of the Temple was senseless hatred.

We were sitting in the Kotel Plaza having this emotional conversation about Tisha B’Av. Leah put her head on my shoulder, and I put my arm around her back. A few seconds later, an older man walked up to us with an angry look on his face. (It’s forbidden to engage in romance on Tisha B’Av.) He motioned at us, shooing us away from each other, telling us in Hebrew that we shouldn’t be hugging. “We’re comforting each other,” I said in English. He moved closer and continued to scold us. I tried to tell him to leave us alone, but he grew more enraged. Not wanting to make a scene, we got up, grabbed each other by the hand, and left the Plaza.

What if we had been two men or two women comforting each other? Would this have been forbidden?

We went to the Kotel seeking an honest and nuanced connection with this challenging holiday. We sat and discussed and grew and remembered. And then, with the simple flick of a hand, our connection was destroyed.

We came to the Kotel to mourn. We left with a new scar.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

How Do You Spell the Word "Yarmulke"?

This post is by Daniel

On the first day of rabbinical school, I started wearing a kippah. Having grown up at Jewish summer camp, the tradition of wearing a yarmulke always felt a bit formal. While working at Hillel, I would wear a kippah for Shabbat services, but would usually take it off for dinner. It just seemed like another article of clothing to have to straighten.

During HUC orientation, we listened to a talk from the VP of Academic Affairs, Dr. Michael Marmur. He spoke about his difficulty answering students when they ask: “Will we be expected to know (blank)? Will there be a test on (blank)?” As future leaders of the Jewish people, he says, we will be expected to know just about everything. We’re taking on the responsibility of bearing a 3,000-year-old heritage. It is important for us to realize, Dr. Marmur notes, that there is no way a five-year program could ever teach us the entirety of Jewish tradition. For exactly this reason, we can never take off our Judaism. That is to say, we can’t live a life divided between what we need to know and what we don’t.

HUC asks us to come to Shabbat services at the College a certain number of times throughout the year. That doesn’t mean that during the other weeks, we have Shabbat off. It isn’t as if the College has a certain quota of Shabbat services they expect us to fill. Rather, there’s a certain life they hope we’ll choose to live. Dr. Marmur wants each of us not to be a “bifurcated person”—a person who is divided. As Jewish leaders living Jewish lives, we must strive to be a whole person—to be as wholly ourselves as we can be in all situations.

It’s a natural tendency to for a person to act one way in certain groups and act another way in other groups. For example, when spending time with family, I have a tendency to revert to old behavior patterns, based on historical family roles. I become the youngest child again, the baby, quietly watching the action unfold around me, often irritable when I don’t get my way. When I act this way, I usually regret it and wish instead that I could at all times be “my best me.” I’m working hard on this balance.

For this reason, I really connected with Dr. Marmur’s words. I came home that afternoon and told Leah I was thinking about starting to wear a kippah full time. A couple days later, I was talking with a classmate who wears a kippah and mentioned I was thinking of starting. The next day, we passed each other on the way to class. He stopped me, reached in his pocket and pulled out a kippah. “I thought you might want to have this.” That was the start.

I have a dark-colored kippah for everyday use and a white one for Shabbat, holidays, and special occasions. I wear the dark one so as not to attract unwanted attention. In Israel, a kippah is often a religious or political statement. Various groups wear their kippot in different positions, colors, and sizes. (For more on this topic, see the film The Transparent Kippah.) In some neighborhoods and on some occasions, I choose not to wear one at all. I'm not wearing a kippah to make a statement. I'm wearing it for me.

I recognize what a growth opportunity this year in Israel and this rabbinical training represents. The way I see it, I can sit back, take everything in, and let the change happen to me. Or I can reach out and grab it, embrace the change.

Several folks have asked if I plan to keep wearing it when I get back to the States. As of now, I don’t know. Other folks have asked me how it’s going so far. It has its ups and downs. Unsurprisingly, putting on a kippah didn’t suddenly make me self-actualized. It does, however, serve as reminder to strive to be my best me, while at home and while away, when I lie down and when I rise up.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Shalom, Salaam

This post is by Leah

“It’s a slippery word, Jerusalem, it can be an idea as well as a place: a goal, an exaltation.”
–Salman Rushdie


A few days ago I visited the Temple Mount.

There are few places in the world as holy, or as wholly disputed, as the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition this is not only the land that held the First and Second Temples, but also the place where (as lore has it) God gathered the dust to create Adam and later where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac in a test of faith. For Jews, this is the holy of the holies. In Islamic tradition it is believed that it is from the Temple Mount that Mohammed led prophets in prayer and ascended to join Allah in heaven. The Muslim community has held control over the site since the Crusades and is home to the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The site is Islam’s third holiest place after Mecca and Medina.

I mention all of this because historical context has always helped me understand modern beliefs, bias, and feelings about a place.

I have found that my favorite places to visit when traveling are most often ancient sites with historical, religious, and/or spiritual relevance. Thus a visit to the Temple Mount was at the top of my “to-do list” in Jerusalem. I learned upon my arrival in Israel that the Temple Mount is a place that most Jewish institutions caution against visiting. However Lonely Planet, a backpacker’s bible, says that the site is “one of the required stops on any visit to the Old City.” A required stop. I was in.

I arrived at the Bab al-Maghariba (Gate of the Moors), the only gate non-Muslim tourists are allowed to enter from, in my floor length dress and sweater. I approached the first set of Israeli guards, “Shalom. Where are you from? Why do you want to visit the site? Why didn’t anyone come with you?” I carefully answered each question and moved past the first set of guards into an airport-style security screening room. “Where are you from?” “New York.” “Do you like Obama?” “I do, very much.” “You know he is a Muslim.” “No, he’s a Christian.” “No. His middle name is Hussein. He is Muslim.” There is a time and place to have these sorts of infuriating conversations. Arguing with an Israeli soldier who is armed with an automatic rifle while trying to get into a hotly disputed area… not the time. I walked out of the security room and approached the last set of Israeli guards; after three rounds of questioning and a security screening, I was finally allowed to walk up the covered wooden ramp that leads to the Temple Mount.

“Salaam!” Arab guards greeted me as I emerged from the shaded walkway and onto the sun drenched Temple Mount. I walked through a tree-lined courtyard where small groups of men were quietly studying the Qur’an. I found a shady nook, pulled out my Lonely Planet and read a detailed history of the site. I walked towards the al-Aqsa mosque and an elderly Arab man approached me, “Salaam. Do you have any questions?” “Salaam.” I replied, “I’m ok, Shukran.” (Shukran is thank you in Arabic) “Have a nice day,” The man offered in broken English. I moved towards the magnificent Dome of the Rock. “Salaam. Would you like a picture?” “Yes, please. Shukran.”

There are only a handful of buildings that have actually taken my breath away; the Dome of the Rock is one of those buildings. The iconic golden dome is certainly spectacular, but enough cannot be said about the intricate mosaics that cover the octagonal walls. In a city that is washed in a muted sand-colored palate, the vibrancy of the blue/green-dominated mosaic is near mirage-like. As I circumnavigated the building, another Arab man approached me to ask if I needed help or if I wanted him to take my camera inside of the building to take pictures. Non-Muslims are no longer allowed to enter the magnificent edifice. I politely declined; I’ve travelled enough to know that this seemingly kind offer would have come with a small fee.

I once again made my way towards the al-Aqsa mosque and spent a few minutes watching a group of Muslim women pray outside of the walls of the mosque. Jerusalem is a city that somehow finds a way to pose complicated questions at every turn. Another elderly Arab man approached to ask if I needed any help, I asked him the pronunciation of the mosque, al-Ak-sa. He continued to give me a basic history of the place and asked if he could answer any more questions. I politely declined and thanked him for his help. I took one more lap around the site, breathed in the clear sky and fresh air before making my way back through the crowed alleyways of the Old City.


As I began talking about my experience on the Temple Mount with people, both here and back home, the range and intensity of reactions shocked me. I got everything from fascination to anger, with the predominant response being, “really?!” I was entirely unprepared for the severity of the response. What most upset me was the, “I can’t believe you would do something so irresponsible! Do you know how dangerous that was, especially for a Jew?”

Now I’m certainly not an expert, but I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, with more than a bit of it in controversial places. I’d like to think that I am responsible traveler. I check travel advisories, I follow local news, I try to dress appropriately, I always learn how to say at least hello and thank you in the language, and above all I make a conscious effort to enter every place with an open mind and a touch of empathy. I have learned more about history, culture, humanity, and the resiliency of the human spirit from people I’ve met than I could ever learn from a book.

The fact of the matter is that it is not any more dangerous for a tourist to visit the Temple Mount than any other divisive place. It is true that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate placed a ban on Jewish access to the Temple Mount, but not because of security. “The chief rabbis were following Maimonides' view that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is still present at the spot of the Temple. Entry to it is forbidden and punishable with kareth (death by heavenly decree), given that Jews are in a state of ritual uncleanliness today in the absence of a red heifer, the ashes of which are required for the purifying process.” I am a Jew, but I am not abstaining from visiting anywhere because I don’t have the ashes of a red heifer with which to purify myself. Excuse the momentary sarcasm; my point is that, the only recommendation against Jews visiting the Temple Mount is from Orthodox Rabbis who don’t believe that the Jews, or any other people for that matter, are pure enough to enter the holy site.

Yet, there is a general consensus among most Jewish institutions that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount. So I have to ask, why? Is it a matter of security? There are Israeli guards, each equipped with an automatic riffle, stationed at every entrance/exit. I certainly never felt unsafe. Is it a matter of hostility? Every person I spoke with greeted me with a smile and “Salaam.” These were lovely, friendly people. Not only did I feel safe, I felt welcome. Is it a matter of religious sensitivities? I am proudly Jewish, but I’m not, especially in Jerusalem, obviously Jewish. It is entirely possible, perhaps probable, that my experience would have been different were I a man wearing a kippah and tzitzit. It is worth mentioning that there is currently a law in place that bans non-Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount. While the law is somewhat controversial, my personal feelings on the matter are that it is not only appropriate but essential to adhere to the religious customs of the place that you are in. To flaunt my Judaism here would be making a statement that I had no intention of making.


Jerusalem is a complicated city. A beautiful city, but a complicated one. It’s a city that forces you to confront your prejudices and convictions on a daily basis; a city that offers a myriad of difficult questions and very few answers; a city where prayers for peace are not enough; a city that requires inspired action.

I went to the Temple Mount because I wanted to experience first hand this “otherness” that has become so divisive. To my joy and relief, what I found was not at all other. Hindu pilgrims travel thousand of kilometers to bathe on the shores of the holy Ganges River; Catholics make their way to Rome for a glimpse of the Pope in his splendid Vatican City; Buddhist pilgrims walk over mountains to prostrate themselves before a temple in the heart of Tibet; Muslim pilgrims join processions of hundreds of thousands of people, who simultaneously unite in Mecca for the week of the Haj; and throughout the ages Jews worldwide have gathered at the Kotel to pray in their ancestral homeland.

We’re all climbing the same mountain; we’re just taking different paths. And depending on what path we take, the terrain looks wildly different. So we dress for our environment and we use the language of our people. At times our paths intersect and it is in these moments that we have a choice. In these moments it is possible to find common language, it is possible to carve a new path together. Because it doesn’t matter to whom you pray and in what language you do it, what matters is finding the courage to live and love well. The mountain is high and the paths are long, but they’re all leading to the same place and it’s impossible to get there alone.

Peace. Namaste. Shalom. Salaam.

Friday, July 15, 2011

God is a DJ

This post is by Daniel
During orientation, we were asked take a photograph of something in Jerusalem that inspired, motivated, or challenged us. Below, my response to some graffiti I found on Hillel Street.

"God is a DJ"
This image struck me for several reasons. First of all, it’s hilarious. I imagined Moses bumping to Eazy E, cruising in his 64, bass thumping, speakers tweaked out, spinners, the works!

Second, it reminds me that there’s more than one way to be a Jew. For some, the only commandment is: “Thou shalt get down with your bad self!” I’m reminded of popular musicians like Kobi Oz and Idan Raichel, who use liturgical texts in their music, or even The Soulico Crew and Jaffa Road, who make their listeners feel good. These are the new prophets.

Finally, it reminds me of Oral Torah—the notion that Torah is comprised not only of the words on the page, but also the meaning between the words. That Torah is not set in black ink, but rather is open for interpretation in every generation. As the world changes, Torah changes with it. Our tradition teaches that this is not only valid, but that in fact the Oral Torah comes directly from Sinai. Here in Jerusalem, a city at once ancient and changing, it seems appropriate that Oral Torah be blasted at 300 watts.

Friday, July 8, 2011

One Wall, Two Perspectives

Last Saturday night, we wandered around Jerusalem for five hours and found ourselves (quite accidentally) at the Western Wall. Below, our two reactions to one place.

When I visit the Kotel, I see major inequality. The men’s section, taking up two-thirds of the Wall, with ample space to get up close and pray, next to the women’s section, where women stand in a crowd three rows deep in order to try and touch it. The varied stones the Wall is built of, unequal in size, remind me of the inequality between the genders. Once a month on Sunday mornings, progressive men and women gather at the Wall for the women to wrap tefillin, wear tallises, and read Torah. The police watch from nearby and often make arrests.

I have trouble understanding the ultra-religious. I want so badly to feel like one family, but all I do is judge them. I know I need to work on this.

On another afternoon, we walk down the street from our apartment towards the park, and on the walk we see in the distance the Security Barrier, the fence that separates Israel from the West Bank. Since its construction in 2002, suicide attacks in Israel have decreased by a half every year. And yet, I can’t help but think of the videos I’ve seen of peaceful protestors on the other side of this wall being beaten bloody and having tear gas shot at them. The stories I’ve heard of old women trying to enter Israel through one of the checkpoints, where there is much crowding and waiting, and the guards push her back and beat her. How can this Wall and that other wall carry such different meaning?

And yet, here at the Western Wall, I’m reminded of a beautiful I experience I once had. I was a counselor for a group of high school students spending the summer in Israel. As is common on Jewish youth trips, we had designed colorful group t-shirts to wear on our final day. And there we were, this group of 120 Jewish Americans, dressed matching in neon green t-shirts. And around us were men in black hats and robes, as well as young Israelis dressed in everyday work clothes with knit yarmulkes, and folks with dreadlocks tucked underneath a head wrap, and families of tourists in sunglasses and khaki shorts with cameras around their necks. And I thought to myself, this is what it means to be the People of Israel—varied in shape and in color, and yet whole.

To be here with Leah, together for the first time (I’m sure of many), and to see her reaction to this place, softens me. My grandparents and great-grandparents could only dream of this place, and here we are, casually strolling on a Saturday evening. This afternoon, we had set out with no intention of coming here at all. In fact, we had planned not to come, to save it for later. And yet, our wandering has led us straight here. What a beautiful city—that can hold both the restaurants in the German colony and the Houses of Study in the Old City; that can hold both the modern stores on Jaffa street and the beautiful gardens in Yemin Moshe; where the old kisses the new.

When I pray at the Wall, I am reminded that the name Israel means to wrestle with God. So I close my eyes, I rock forward and back, and wrestle with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might.

The last time I was in Jerusalem was quite literally half a lifetime ago. The summer I turned 13 my family took a two-week Bat Mitzvah holiday through Israel. My memories of the trip are beautiful although slightly faded, as often happens over time. However, a small handful of memories were carefully wrapped and packed in a box in a corner of my mind, which when opened (13 years later) have reappeared as vividly as the day they were packed away.

The first moment we found ourselves in view of the Kotel, it was as if the memories began rattling in their carefully packaged box. I held Daniel tight as the tears came effortlessly running down my face. I was nothing short of shocked at the immediacy of this visceral reaction. I pulled myself together as we walked through the security gate and wrapped myself in shawls to cover my legs and shoulders. As Daniel took my hand the tears came flooding back. The dust was being blown off the box. We made our way towards the Wall and Daniel asked if I wanted to walk up to it. It was at that moment the lid of the box blew off and I was face to face with the memory that had prompted the free-fall of tears. I saw a 13-year-old me standing between my mother and grandmother, all holding hands, walking towards the wall. I saw myself standing between the two women who are the great loves of my life, placing our hands and heads on the wall and praying. In that moment, being Jewish meant something. Truly meant something. And in this present moment, standing in front of the Kotel, holding hands with the man I love, it meant something again.

It is no secret that I have had a tumultuous relationship with Judaism. I am a Jew. I have a strong sense of Jewish identity and the traditions of my history hold a deep, enduring importance in my life. But I’ve never really found a way to tap into my spirituality through my religion. Unable to connect with my spirituality through Judaism, I set out in search of meaning. I’ve traveled all over the world, experiencing foreign cultures, and studying eastern religion, philosophy, and art. I was taught Theravada Buddhist prayers in a fishing village in Thailand, I meditated with Buddhist monks in Tibet, I was taught Jainism by a priest in a marble temple, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah while trekking the Nepali Himalayas and I spent Yom Kippur meditating on an Ashram in India. It took traveling around the world for me to be able to look in and find spiritual fulfillment. However this spiritual growth was something entirely separate from my religion.

Somehow, standing in front of the Western Wall, a wall that is just a wall, I felt something. Something unexplainable. Something that felt, dare I say, spiritual.

Wrapped in the arms of the man I love, remembering a moment that happened half a lifetime ago, imagining what it might be like returning to this same place with my own daughter, her hands in mine and my mother’s… for me, this is what it means to be a Jew. Yes, the Kotel is just a wall, but for thousands of years it has stood as a symbol our history, of my history.

Most days I would look at the Western Wall with frustration. Frustration, at the separation of men and women. Frustration, that women are unable to wear tallit and pray aloud. Confusion, at some of the seemingly antiquated behavior. Worry, at the state of tolerance in Israel. A collection of conflicting feelings over this exalted wall.

But this night was different than other nights. On this night, the Kotel stood as a symbol of my history. On this night, this Wall was more than a wall. On this night I was more than a girlfriend, a daughter, a granddaughter… on this night I was a Jew. And for the first time in a very long time, that meant something.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Home, Sweet Home

Hi everybody! After two long flights, a couple of delays, many cups of coffee, and three NYTimes crossword puzzles, we arrived safe and delirious in Jerusalem. Since then, we've been hard at work cleaning our apartment and making it our own. This is just the start, but we wanted to share the beginnings of our new home. Happy browsing!

Leah and Daniel

Our Apartment

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Straight to Yerushalayim

Once upon a camel in a middle east land
The Jews built a city in the middle of the sand.
A home for their people was their one and only mission
The only thing they didn't build was central air condition
They almost named it Moses-ville
but that name had been taken
They almost named it Kosher-town
to keep out all the bacon

Yerushallassee wasn't classy.
It just didn't bounce...
Yerushahattan didn't happen.
Too hard to pronounce.

So they gathered all together and decided to vote
They needed a name, one that they could promote
If they want to make it big like Egypt or Rome
The name needs to scream, "Hey, Jews this is home!"
Monotheists all agree, the location was prime
They finally named it... Yerushalayim

We're going straight to Yerushalayim
Going straight to Jerusalem

So... the... centuries come, the millennia go
Jews are still in the desert, hey what do ya know?
Then a nice Jewish boy met a nice Jewish girl
And together they decide to move across the world.
Like their ancestors did, they needed a name
Something catchy for their blog, that would garner them fame.
He wanted to call it, "A Year of Milk and Honey."
But she said, "Babe, that just isn't so funny."
She wanted to call it, "Living Holy and Happy."
But he said, "Come on, just a little too sappy."

So they pined and they bickered, they just couldn't agree
They needed a name but what would it be?
At last they shook hands and they called it a truce
The blog would be named, "Our Year in Yerush"

We're going straight to Yerushalayim
Going straight to Jerusalem
We're going straight to Yerushalayim
Going straight to YERUSH!