Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reflections on the J Street Conference, Part II.

Three sessions in particular focused on the actual process of dialogue, offering thoughtful presentations on how to ensure that we have open, engaging and inclusive dialogue about Israel in our home communities. 

One, which I missed, by which was recorded in one of Rachel Barenblat’s blog reports, here, reflected on how delicately many rabbis feel they need to tread when speaking about Israel in their congregations and communities, and offered models for creating safe space and open dialogue that can help everyone feel more connected to Israel by not shutting down and shutting out voices that we may disagree with. The session began with Rabbi David Cooper who, among other things, talked about Project Reconnections. He referred to a metaphor that he uses often when talking about the work of this intra-communal dialogue project – that many Jews, when talking about Israel, tend to fall into one of two camps – either ‘prophets’ or ‘guardians’. Prophets are those who ask "if we are only for ourselves, who are we," and guardians ask "if we are not for ourselves, who will be?" (Both of these questions come from Hillel.) "If we rabbis are going to take a role in trying to harmonize the prophetic side of our congregations and the guardian side of our congregations, it's going to be up to us to do it, and I recommend that we do that first, before we begin to share our own individual positions about Israel/Palestine." Once we've created space for dialogue, then we also have a space to speak, as long as we do so with humility. And if we rabbis will not promote a culture of dialogue, who will; "and of course, if not now, then when?" 

I find this metaphor very useful, because I am especially interested in ways of thinking about having dialogue in our communities, and creating safe, open dialogue both within Jewish communities, and with other faith communities. It is important that we not be afraid to hold different opinions, and to share multiple perspectives gathered from many places. For most of us who are not experts, how else do we remain truly informed so that we can make informed choices about what kinds of initiatives to support? Aside from my own personal leanings on the issue of peace in the Middle East, I went to J Street to listen and learn. And, from that experience I can share and teach, and wish to help create safe space for open, respectful community dialogue about Israel and the Peace process. 

To that end, Rachel Barenblat’s report on a session entitled ‘How do we stop talking to ourselves’, which I attended,  was one that I found particularly helpful for articulating what we can be doing to broaden the conversation within our communities and across different communities. Three young women, working in different kinds of dialogue projects, both in the USA and facilitating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, offered hope through the sharing of their grassroots experiences. Such projects may not offer the political strategies and motivations that are needed to advance the peace process at an international level, but every grassroots project that helps to shape and shift the culture and perceptions held of ‘the other’ by each side of the conflict can only benefit the larger goals. 

Another excellent review of a session where the emphasis was on building relations with others so that we can have genuinely open conversation across different communities that is respectful and safe focused on dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I attended this excellent session, which is also recorded in detail by Rachel Barenblat here.  This session focused on interfaith dialogue in the USA that does not shy away from discussing the Middle East, but does so in a way that builds bridges and understanding between people. 

Time and time again, the message was clear. We must build meaningful connections and relationships with those who see the world differently to us. In so doing, we see each other as fully human, and begin to genuinely care about each other. This creates a safe space into which we can express our beliefs, hopes, fears, and ideas, and remain open to listening to others. We may not convince or persuade others to adopt our positions, but perhaps the path to peace, beyond the political level, between two peoples who one day wish to live side by side, can only come when we are open to hearing each other’s truths.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reflections on the J Street Conference, Part I.

Today, somewhat of a detour from the usual content of this blog, to offer a summary of perspectives and thoughts on the J Street Conference in Washington D.C.  J Street, in the lead-up to this conference, was the subject of intense commentary and debate, from those who were skeptical and critical of how supportive of Israel it truly was (the question we so often ask… ‘Is it good for the Jews?’) to those who were excited and energized by the opportunity to come together to hear a multiplicity of voices of those who care deeply about Israel and also care deeply about peace, human rights, and justice.

I wrote about J Street, and my decision to attend the conference, in my congregational bulletin article this month, which you can read here:

This is a longer than usual posting. I want to emphasize several things about the nature of my report, and my focus and interest in J Street. As I had stated in my bulletin article, I had gone to listen and learn. I want to try and offer a summary of what I heard, considered, and the questions that remain. While I do have my own leanings on the issue of how to proceed in the Peace Process, I offer thoughts and information, in keeping with my role as a Rabbi – a teacher, but I wish to model open discussion and dialogue, and not present a bully pulpit for a particular point of view.

I have very vivid memories of my first year as an undergraduate at University College London, attending a Jewish student meeting about Israel where a student who tried to express a critique of a particular policy of Israel was shouted down by others who challenged the young man’s Jewish and Zionist credentials. It was made quite clear that thoughtful consideration and debate about Israel was not welcome there, and I was so thoroughly put off that I never attend a Jewish student society event again in the 7 years I attended UCL (3 years of undergrad, and 4 years for my PhD). And so, when the J Street conference opened by inviting us to turn to those at our table (as it did on several other occasions during the conference) and encouraged us to share our backgrounds, our questions, our concerns, I felt that I had come to a place where real dialogue, openness, and a willingness to hear perspectives different to our own were truly welcomed. Not that all perspectives would ultimately be represented by J Street, the organization, but that the conference itself was much more than just a platform for advocating a very specific agenda; at this first gathering, there was an attempt to set a new tone and foster and encourage a culture of dialogue that could be taken back to our home communities.

The fact that, to a large extent, this culture of dialogue was modeled at the conference is so important especially, it became clear, for engaging young adults and college students on Israel. We heard that too many of them today feel as I did nearly 20 years ago when I attended that Jewish Student Society meeting – feeling hopeless, unsure of their support for some of Israel’s actions, ambivalent about their own personal relationship with Israel, and disenfranchised from the possibility of meaningful dialogue. While some have debated whether young American Jews have a ‘right’ to feel as they do (see Daniel Gordis’ recent posting here, for example), I am simply concerned that they feel this way and want to do whatever we can to bring the next generation back into the conversation. For that reason alone I applaud J Street and would, without question, attend again for an opportunity to continue to learn and think deeply about the strategic, political and moral choices facing Israel and the Palestinian people as we continue to strive to make peace.

There were a number of sessions that explicitly focused on the work of developing a culture of dialogue and openness to debate with regard to Israel and the peace process, which I’ll say more about in a second posting. But first, having spent several hours reading many blogs, online magazine and news articles, and followed many tweets on the conference, I offer my own, selective, distilling of some good places to watch video, read detailed reports on specific sessions, and dip into a broad array of articles that I have tried, in keeping with my belief in broad and open dialogue, to represent voices from the left, center and right.

You can watch full recordings of some of the most important sessions here:

Both major English-language versions of Israeli newspapers offer thoughtful overviews of the conference, here at Ha’aretz, and here at The Jerusalem Post. In particular, I read the Jerusalem Post piece as accurately portraying J Street as a centrist organization that is Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace, in favor of a two-state solution, but rightly also raises the issue of the presence of some who were further to the left at the conference, and recognizes the challenges facing J Street in trying to be too much of a broad tent while remaining effective in Washington.

For a truly wonderful service to the community, I thank Rachel Barenblat, who blogs as The Velveteen Rabbi, who wrote very complete reports on many of the sessions, without adding any additional commentary – outside of the vimeo videos posted by Isaac Luria, at the link already mentioned, her reports are the best way to hear almost first-hand what was said in these sessions.

There were many different voices present among the participants at J Street, including Muslim and Palestinian voices, primarily there because they were hopeful that they had found a partner for peace. As an illustration of how our willingness to listen to the voices that are never usually a part of a ‘Pro-Israel’ dialogue, I was particularly touched by this report from a Jewish participant’s encounter with a young Palestinian man from Gaza in the hallway during a break:

And, in the interest of balance so that we can hear the voice of concern for J Street’s position, this article from Ynet news makes some powerful arguments:

The Jewish Week (NYC Jewish newspaper) also provide an excellent summary of the spread of perspectives in view at the conference, the great successes of the conference, and the questions and challenges ahead.

Of particular interest to Reform Jews will be the dialogue plenary between Jeremy Ben-Ami, Director of J Street, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. On all of the substantive and strategic questions, the two seemed largely in agreement. They differed on some details – such as the appropriate response to the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. These differences are not irrelevant but, in terms of the larger, strategic goal of a two-state solution, positions on the settlements, and the status of Jerusalem, there was substantial agreement.

Finally, one of the main topics of debate in the plenary sessions was dialogue about what it meant to be ‘Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace’. I would agree with a number of commentators who felt that, among the participants, some who were present might have been ‘Pro Peace’ but may well have fallen outside of any parameter that we could really call ‘Pro Israel’. I believe that they were in the minority, and I believe that the excellent speakers on the panels and the representatives of J Street themselves did a very good job of explaining why the particular policies that they support truly are both ‘Pro Peace’ and ‘Pro Israel’ – that these things can co-exist.

What I heard presented by several analysts, Israelis who have been engaged in high level diplomacy, and members of the Knesset, was that there are only a limited number of options to consider. The best solution for both Israel and the Palestinian people is a two-state solution, with two peoples living in peace side by side. The ynet article referenced above gives good voice to the security concerns that Israel has about trusting that path forward. I understand those fears, and I do share them. However, what many of the expert voices expressed at the J Street conference was a clear understanding of the alternative. While some might think it is possible to maintain the status quo indefinitely, with military power, borders and fences, continuing to expand settlements in the absence of a final proposal for peaceful resolution, the reality is that this approach is unsustainable. Many at the conference expressed its undesirability from a human rights perspective and, while I don’t debate the validity of many of their concerns, I am persuaded even by those who offer only a pragmatic analysis of the situation.

There is deep concern that, in the absence of renewed progress toward a two state solution, that there will be growing Arab and international support for a one-state solution; simply to allow the situation to continue until it becomes clear that there is an Arab, Palestinian majority when Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank are considered together. At that point, if Israel is to remain a democratic state that gives equality to all, it cannot sustain itself as a Jewish state. The alternative is for a minority to rule over a majority, and Israel risks losing the support of the international community in a way that could seriously jeopardize its viability were that to be the case.

This is why we must not delay in continuing to push both sides to engage in an ongoing peace process. Shlomo Ben Ami, Former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and Public Security, in a panel that looked at the need for a regional approach to making peace, believes that the political infrastructure does not exist in either Israel or the Palestinian territories for these two parties to do this alone; ongoing engagement from the US government and Arab nations who have offered the normalization of relations with Israel as an important end-goal too, is absolutely necessary. I believe he is right, and this is why J Street’s contribution to seeking peace in the Middle East has the potential to be of such ongoing importance.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

3 Cheshvan. Entering the world of the spirit through Jewish mindfulness

As we move forward from Tishrei, filled with Jewish holidays bringing renewal and beginning again, into the month of Cheshvan, empty of Jewish festival dates, I've been working on a number of new activities that point to the potential of emptiness and simplicity as the doorway into deeper spiritual awareness in our everyday lives.  I've been teaching mindfulness meditation to a group of teenagers at our cross-communal Jewish high school program, Merkaz, and I've also been bringing a brief introduction to meditative practices to our 5th and 6th graders before we pray our abridged evening service together at Religious School.  Next month I am launching a new meditation and chanting hour at a local holistic healing center, the Soma Center for Well-Being, with a member of our congregation, Andrea Rudolph.  And this Shabbat, a group of 21 women from the congregation are joining me for our 2nd one day retreat, this year on the theme of Interactive meditation - how mindfulness practices impact on our everyday activities and interactions with others and the world around us.

There are many venues for practicing meditation, and they do not necessarily have to sit within a religious or spiritual framework.  However, different frameworks emphasize different dimensions of the practice and, for me, the spiritual connection is an extremely important and powerful aspect of mindfulness.

Many people are drawn to mindfulness meditation as a relaxation technique - a way of creating space and silence, to just breathe, and take a break from the stress and hectic nature of the rest of their lives.  There is no question that meditation practice can be deeply relaxing.  In fact, it is not unusual for some people to fall asleep during a meditation practice, so calming can it be to tune in to the rhythm of your breathing, or chant a mantra over and over.  But, from a spiritual perspective, meditation is not about tuning out and falling asleep... its about waking up!  Mindfulness is about becoming aware of this moment.  You might think that you are always present in this moment... where else would you be?  But when we sit quietly and do something as 'simple' as just noticing our breath coming in and going out, most of us soon notice how hard it is to stay focused on that one thing.  And when we begin to notice what our mind is doing, we notice that we spend a great deal of time in the past or in the future, but very little time actually being fully present to right now.

I'd like to share some insights and practices from a Jewish approach to mindfulness meditation in coming posts because, in addition to the awareness and growth that can come to each of us as individuals when we engage in mindfulness meditation practices, there are mindfulness practices and teachings that come from our Jewish wisdom traditions that show us that it is through our presence - to this moment, to our deepest selves, to our planet, and to each other - that we can access an experience of The Presence.  Bringing this awareness into our lives not only helps us to walk through our lives being more awake, but can infuse the rituals and practices that have been handed down to us through Jewish communities and families with a power that can reawaken our passion for meaningful engagement with Jewish living and celebration.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, October 9, 2009

21 Tishrei. Slow me, slow me down

Earlier this week, Arianna Huffington announced a 'HuffPost Book Club' at  She explains that she wants to share interesting,thought-provoking books, and not necessarily just selected from the latest releases.  Her first selection is called 'In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed', by Carl Honore, which was published in 2004.  Arianna's review certainly tempts me to take a look, and as I glance at the chapter headings, available, along with substantial excerpts, here, it is apparent that Jewish wisdom and practice has the perfect antidote to the 'cult of speed'... Shabbat.  Honore reflects on how we eat, where we live, how we care for our bodies, how we make love, how we work and rest, and how we raise our children.

Another wonderful writer that gives us a gorgeous Jewish take 'in praise of slowness', currently putting the finishing touches to a new album, is Jewish singer and composer, Beth Schafer.  Check out these words from an earlier album, 'The Quest and the Question'

Slow Me Down
© 2005
Words & Music by Beth A. Schafer
Hebrew text: Genesis

Friday afternoon the day comes skidding to a halt on my tired face
Arms are full, tank is low, did I place or even show in this week’s race?
Then the sun warms up my arm hanging out my window.
Another mile and a deep breath brings me ‘round.

Slow me, slow me down
Slow me, slow me down
I need rejuvenation to find the heartbeat of creation
Where my soul’s unbound
Got to slow me down

I’ve got piles on my piles and lists of lists unfinished so what else is new
Colors whizzing by me too much busy too much, “Why me?” in this crazy zoo
Then the strains of old songs written long ago tug my ear again
Another couple hours and I’ll be wrapped in those sweets sounds


Ki sheshet yamim asa Adonai et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz
U’vayom hashvi’i Shabbat vayinafash, Shabbat vayinafash
Trans. For in six days God created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day,
God rested.

This weekend we celebrate Simchat Torah.  Two power ends of our holy text, both with lessons that inspire us to reflect on the speed of life, and the importance of slowing things down enough so that we can live in the moment, appreciate our blessings, and nurture authentic connections - with our family, friends, community, and with God.  At the end of D'varim, Moses dies.  When we reflect on the life of a loved one, now deceased, we are flooded with the memories of presence; with the experience of being.  We realize the preciousness of that existence, and perhaps it reminds us to slow down and try to be more present to life, and to each other, in each moment that we have.

And then we return to B'reishit - Beginning.  For in six days God created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day, God rested.  So important is Shabbat that, in among all of the amazing creations of the material world, we are given a holy clue as to what we must do to truly live in and appreciate this world.
Choose one way this Shabbat to consciously slow down, take a breath, notice, bless, appreciate, connect.

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, October 1, 2009

14 Tishrei. High Holyday Sermons available online

If you would like to read, review, or forward this year's High Holyday sermons, delivered by Rabbi Jim Prosnit and Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz at Congregation B'nai Israel, they are now available here.  This year, a wide range of themes were covered, from civility in society, to end of life decisions, to finding sources of spiritual consolation in our tradition in these challenging times, to reflections on why faith, and communities of faith, matter.

Our Ba'al Tekiah, Stuart Edelstein, also delivered a wonderful sermon on the Shofar, and the spiritual signficance of the Shofar notes, reflecting on his twentieth year as Ba'al Tekiah at Congregation B'nai Israel.  You can read his text here.

We certainly welcome your comments and reflections, and invite you to share these High Holyday messages with others who you think may be nourished by them.

14 Tishrei. Harvesting life and nourishing our prayers

May all the foliage of the field, 
All grasses, trees and plants, 
Awaken at my coming, this I pray, 
And send their life into my words of prayer 
So that my speech, my thoughts and my prayers will be made whole, 
And through the spirit of all growing things. 
And we know that everything is one, 
Because we know that everything is You. 
(excerpt from a prayer by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav; lyric interpretation by Debbie Friedman). 

Sukkot, like so many of our Jewish Festivals, is multilayered with significance and meaning. I sometimes love the ‘archeological’ exploration of our Holy days. Like uncovering the strata of time, seeing multiple generations of civilization down through the centuries as we dig at a historical site, so we find historical layers to the Festivals. Often, as with Sukkot, agricultural roots, then the historical narrative of association with the Exodus from Egypt, then the stories of the Temple rituals associated with the holiday in Jerusalem, then the metaphorical layers added to the symbolism of shaking the lulav and the etrog, and then some of the contemporary connections spurring us to social action, such as the focus on homelessness.

All of these layers are drenched with potential for us to draw close to the ritual forms and practices of the holiday, and find something that resonates deeply within us. This year, I am focusing on the historical origins of the holiday, the earliest layers – the celebration of the end of the Fall harvest, and the focus on rain for the land. For Jewish farmers, this layer of meaning is directly experienced and deeply lived. But most of us are not Jewish farmers. How do we tap into a deeply felt experience of land, produce, and water?

I would like to suggest a practice that could just as easily be a personal, silent contemplative meditation, or a group sharing and discussion. Some of us buy our vegetables from a CSA; some from local farm stands; some have grown our own fruits and vegetables this year in our gardens; some have or will take our families to go apple or pumpkin picking. Thinking about those experiences more deeply, we can bring to mind or verbalize our response to the miracle of growing things, the colors, the textures, the tastes, the feeling of harvesting the fruits of our labors, or having met the people who grew and harvested our food. We can share stories about having been traveling somewhere and seeing a field full of something growing – perhaps something we hadn’t seen before (my first experience of seeing date palms in Israel, and orange groves in Florida, with the incredible smell that fills the air, will remain with me forever). Or perhaps our attention is turned to the miracle of water – seeing a particularly gorgeous or spectacular body of water, seeing the miracle of drip irrigation systems literally turning parts of the desert green in Israel, the incredible innovation of the aqueduct and the transportation of water, the time when we were caught in the fiercest of torrential downpours, being made aware of the incredible power of water…

Taking time to think about these experiences – the ones that we have lived, the things that are part of the flow of our everyday lives, and then picking up the lulav and etrog to say the blessings, or then reciting the blessing for sitting in the sukkah – we, like the words of Rabbi Nachman’s prayer, send the life of the earth into our words of prayer. No longer the perfunctory performance of ancient rituals and words, they now become ripe with the experiences of our own lives. We energize our daily experiences with spiritual consciousness, and we energize the rituals of Jewish living by attaching them to meaningful life experience.

Chag Sameach
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz