Monday, March 29, 2010

The journey toward freedom - a Passover Message

The following was published last week as the Editorial by the Hersam-Acorn consortium of weekly, local newspapers.  I share it here with those who haven't seen one of those local papers, and those who live outside the Fairfield County area.  In addition to occasional, festival-related editorials, I also have a monthly column that appears in several of the consortium's papers in the second week of each month, called 'Raise it Up'. (Past articles can be found by searching under 'Gurevitz' here).
Wishing you all a very Happy Pesach!

Passover and the journey to freedom

Freedom is a concept; often expressed as a goal to which we all aspire and to which we dedicate efforts to helping others achieve, too. But the biblical freedom story is a little more complicated. The Hebrews had been enslaved for 400 years — the journey toward freedom only began when they cried out.
We cannot be free until we notice the ways in which we are enslaved. A sudden act can dramatically change our circumstances, just as the splitting of the Sea of Reeds in the biblical story. We think we are free in that moment, haven shaken ourselves from our old ways and the things that we thought were holding us back.
But the biblical freedom story doesn’t end when the Hebrews escape Pharaoh’s army, singing and dancing in celebration on the other side of the shore. In fact, they spend another 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Furthermore, in Jewish communities, where the biblical books from Genesis through to Deuteronomy are read from start to finish in an annual cycle, Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses, but the people are still in the wilderness.
Why so much time spent on the 40 years of wanderings in the wilderness? Does this not seem a rather anti-climatic end to this ancient freedom story that has inspired freedom movements for centuries since?
It seems that what we have here is some ancient wisdom that each of us, in any generation and in any moment, can draw upon to guide us in our own lives. Wandering in the wilderness is a pretty good metaphor for how life can seem to many of us, particularly at certain moments in our lives. The story teaches us that freedom is not something achieved in a moment.
Perhaps physical freedom can be achieved this way — emerging from behind bars, or getting the ‘all clear’ at a medical check-up, for example. But spiritual freedom, emotional freedom, and psychological freedom are a journey. There are times when we stop and encamp at a nourishing oasis, and life unfolds in a way that is trouble-free. But there are times when we are trudging through desert sands, wondering exactly where we are headed.
The biblical Exodus story and the message of Passover coming, as it does, just as the new buds and spring flowers are emerging from the winter, reminds us that freedom is a journey rather than a destination.
There are times when the winds blow, the rains and snow falls, and we feel battered by all the elements of life. But the sun will shine again, and even when we’re not sure where we are headed, taking each next step with an awareness of what we want to leave behind and what we want to embrace more of in our lives, means that we can claim the freedom journey as our own.
Happy Passover.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Experiences in Israel: Public/Private Transportation

The following is cross-posted from Dr. Lisa Grant's blog, 'Israel Stories'.  Lisa is Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College and is currently on sabbatical in Israel.  She is a member of our congregation.  In her blog she shares reflections on some of her experiences.  In this, her latest posting, Lisa reflects on the experience of using public transportation in Israel, and brings attention to the gender-segregated public bus routes that run through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that have literally put women at the back of the bus.  The Israel Religious Action Center and other Israeli human rights organizations are fighting this very troubling turn to religious extremism in the public sphere in Israel.

One of the simple pleasures of being on sabbatical in Jerusalem is that my main mode of transportation is my feet. I also take the bus a lot, especially since the trip to school is uphill from my apartment and I’m usually carrying books and my computer. When I stay in town, my circuit is pretty small, probably not much more than one and a half square miles or so. In that space, I can find all of my local friends, school, shuls, theatres and other cultural venues, the gym (of course!) and any shopping I want or need to do. For someone who spends an awful lot of time commuting back and forth to New York City during my “normal” life, this is a lovely respite that adds lots of extra hours to my week for other pursuits.

There are times, of course, when this narrow orbit feels a bit constrained and then I head to Tel Aviv, usually by sherut, a 10-passenger shared taxi that goes from downtown Jerusalem to the central bus station in Tel Aviv which makes the Port Authority bus station in New York look like a luxury spa. From there, I then take another interesting conveyance, a shared mini-bus that drops you off anywhere you’d like along a specified route.

Occasionally, I get rides from friends who take me home after an evening visit, or even if they see me standing at a bus stop. It’s those rides that make me think about how different it is seeing Jerusalem and the rest of Israel from inside a private car as compared to from one or another mode of public transportation.

The buses and shared taxis are windows into the rich and complex social fabric of this not altogether Jewish state. On any given bus trip, you are likely to see a wide range of skin colors and hear a polyglot of languages including Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and who knows what else. The passengers are schoolchildren, the elderly, commuters, tourists, soldiers, foreign workers, certainly rabbis and even a few priests. It’s one of the few places where a Jew might sit next to an Arab, not that they’d actually speak to one another.

Now, if I really lived here and wasn’t just a part-time sojourner, I know I’d have a car and that would change a lot. I got a taste of that this past weekend when I rented a car and was able to visit four different friends who live in suburbs of Tel Aviv and Netanya and in the lower Galilee. It felt great to be in a peppy little car where I could set my route and schedule, going wherever and whenever I wanted. But, it also made me realize that being in a private car creates a buffer to the outside world. The only link is the radio that gives regular traffic bulletins and news on the hour that reports the usual murder and mayhem but of quite a different ilk from what you’d hear on a typical American FM station – rockets fired from Gaza to a field outside of Ashkelon, IDF soldiers killing two Palestinian teenagers in Nablus who attacked them with a pitchfork, a Supreme court ruling overturning a Jewish town’s attempt to block a Bedouin family from moving in. But all of this is just background noise when you are zipping along the super highway and mainly concerned that the drivers around you won’t do anything crazy or stupid.

The car radio is a disembodied voice; in contrast, the bus is a live performance. Phone etiquette is pretty much non-existent and at times, it seems as if everyone is talking on the phone. If they aren’t talking, they’re eating, and if they aren’t eating, they might be davening tehilim (psalms) or studying a daf gemara (page of Talmud).

Private transportation is personal and liberating. It’s also protected. It’s up to you where to go and when to stop. Public transportation demands more direct engagement with the world. You have to accommodate more to the route & schedule. Of course you can plug into your IPod and tune out but if you pay attention, you see things you might otherwise ignore, the throngs who converge at the central bus station, and constant reminders of the persistence of poverty among Israel’s underclass – Ethiopians, Arabs, foreign workers, African refugees, and many many more.

Public transportation is also supposed to be fully and equally accessible to all members of society and that what I normally see when I climb onto a bus or sherut. But, sadly, even this basic right is at risk here. Last Saturday night I went to a demonstration with an estimated 2000 other people to protest the increasing number of gender segregated bus lines. The impetus for this comes from the Ultra-Orthodox community whose male members find it objectionable to have any kind of social contact with women so they have been relegated to the back of the bus, literally and truly. There are currently between 58 and 63 such gender-segregated inner and intra-city routes. In some cases, the only option for travelers is to sit in a gender segregated section regardless of who their travel companions might be. Despite condemnation by the Supreme Court , the Transportation minister and the quasi- public bus company continue the practice. 

Though the abuse that Women at the Wall receive on a monthly basis from Ultra-Orthodox men when they gather to pray on Rosh Chodesh is getting a lot more press (at least in blogs and Facebook), these segregated bus lines are a far more insidious erosion of democratic values and respect for human rights that effect people daily not just for an hour or once a month. The demonstration was a hopeful sign that people are waking up to the reality that segregated bus lines are not just an issue for those who can’t afford a car. The gathering was a wonderful mix of Orthodox, Secular, Conservative, and Reform Jerusalemites. It was organized by a broad-based coalition of human rights organizations including a new forum of young adults who are active in building bridges across different social and religious sectors and working together to make Jerusalem a more tolerant and pluralistic city.

There were all kinds of signs and placards at the demonstration and the requisite number of speeches from activists and politicians. Perhaps the most compelling sign was a small, hand-made one that said something like “Segregated bus lines is an issue for the entire country, not just Jerusalem.” Indeed, even for those who never step up onto a bus, this issue gets to the bedrock of what it means to live in a civil society where everyone has equal rights. As such, it seems that it's high time for everyone to get out from behind the protection of their private cars and join the cacophony of the daily show of life on the public routes and buses of Israel.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women who inspire: in honor of Rosh Hodesh Nisan

I grew up in a modern Orthodox synagogue in NW London.  The Jewish world that I was exposed to there was not one that I could continue to live in.  While I made my spiritual home in the progressive Jewish community, I am a firm believer in a pluralist Jewish community where a diversity of paths are followed.  Even while recognizing that we all place some boundaries around our concepts of Judaism, in most cases there is little to be gained when one path seeks to infringe on the religious expressions of another, or seeks to deny their validity within Klal Yisrael (the community of the Jewish people).

As I was re-entering Jewish life as a young adult, within the context of a progressive Jewish community, I did spend some time with Jewish women who remained affiliated with modern Orthodox communities who were intent on making change happen from within - seeking to have monthly women-only prayer services where women would be able to read from Torah, seeking an answer to the problem of agunot (women denied a religious divorce from their husbands which prevents them from remarrying), and seeking opportunities for serious Jewish study for women.  I admired their patience and determination, even as I was challenging the halachic foundations upon which limits were imposed on their ability to make change.

Today is Rosh Hodesh Nisan and we are less than two weeks away from Pesach - our festival of liberation and freedom.  The Exodus story begins with brave women who worked within the system to transform it - Yocheved, mother of Moses, and his sister, Miriam, and Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh's command to kill all the Jewish baby boys.  In their honor and memory, I share two youtube videos below that highlight the wisdom, determination, and bravery of women who today are helping to transform modern Orthodox Judaism from within.

First, a follow-up on the series of blogs we posted in December, in solidarity with Women of the Wall.  Over 100 women and 50 men were at their Rosh Hodesh morning service at the Western Wall this morning.  More and more Israelis are joining them each month.  This month they sang, and even danced in the women's section before, as is necessary under the current Israeli Supreme Court ruling, they moved on to Robinson's Arch for their Torah service.  Ultra-Orthodox men continue to shout abuse from the men's side of the mechitza, and this time chairs were thrown, as evidenced in this clip.  Thankfully, no-one was hurt, and police did intervene to remove the men responsible for the violence.

Second, Sara Hurwitz speaks at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Conference (JOFA) in New York City.  Sara has been the focus of much ire in the Orthodox community, along with Rabbi Avi Weiss of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY, when he gave her the title 'Rabba' to replace the previous title, 'Maharat', which had been an indication of Sara's completion of the same course of study undertaken by Rabbis, and her position as a member of the clergy team at the Hebrew Institute.  Due to an inordinate amount of pressure and protest from some Orthodox bodies, the 'Rabba' title has been retracted.  But Sara Hurwitz remains on the clergy team and, as you will see from this edited video of her presentation at the conference, she continues to inspire and present herself with great dignity, and continued optimism for the future of women's learning and leadership within the Orthodox Jewish community.
Yasher Kochech! - May you have strength!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, March 12, 2010

Who is a Jew? Urgent call to action on the Rotem Bill

An important request for action from ARZA President,
Rabbi Bob Orkand

We have learned that the Knesset may vote as soon as Tuesday on legislation that would make important changes to the Law of Return, which sets forth who can claim Israeli citizenship.  This particular legislation would target converts to Judaism.
The various arms of our Movement are asking that urgent messages of protest be sent to Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
We cannot permit the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel to push through legislation without regard to the millions of Diaspora Jews who are active, dedicated and devoted members of the Jewish people who identify themselves with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
The bill sponsored by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beitenu, deals with both the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and matters of Conversion. The Rotem Bill does three things:
1.     It grants legal authority to the Chief Rabbinate for conversions. While until now there has been de facto recognition, this legislation gives legal recognition to the role of the Chief Rabbinate in this area. The result would be that it would become much more difficult for conversions to be performed by Reform, Conservative and more open-minded Orthodox rabbis.
2.     It provides for the ability of local rabbis in Israel to establish conversion courts. This is a part of the bill of which we can support because it will potentially permit the establishment of more forward looking conversion courts. However, if the first part of the bill passes, the Chief Rabbinate may declare these courts null and void, which would obviate any reason for our support.
3.     Section 3 of this bill is the most highly problematic. This section states that anyone that who entered Israel as a non-Jew and then converted to Judaism--either in Israel or the Diaspora--would not be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. This is precisely the case that is now before the Supreme Court, which asks that conversions in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis be recognized and that citizenship rights be granted to our converts. This is an attempt to go around the Supreme Court. Further, the wording is so vague that it could mean that if such a person had visited Israel at any time, no matter when, that person’s conversion would not be recognized for citizenship in the future. Thirdly this would be the first time that Israel is officially making a distinction between one who is born a Jew and a righteous convert, something that we find insulting.
4.       In the last 48 hours, there have been negotiations between MK David Rotem, the sponsor of this legislation, and the ultra-Orthodox parties. The Israeli media reports that these negotiations might lead to adding provisions which would block Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel. In response, Reform Movement leaders around the world are in contact with Israeli government officials in an effort to block this legislation.
The Honorable Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Office of the Prime Minister
Jerusalem, Israel
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,
We write to request your immediate intervention to prevent passage of the legislation being brought forward by MK David Rotem.
Passage of this bill in its present form, especially section 3, will have the effect of altering the Law of Return or, at the least, cause undue hardship to anyone in Israel who has come from Diaspora communities and seeks conversion in Israel.
While the Reform movement is supportive of efforts to create greater accessibility to conversion courts in Israel and have done all we can to aid in this effort, the overall impact of the Rotem Bill will set back these efforts. Should this bill be enacted, it will exacerbate a widening gap between Diaspora and Israel communities, which we are all working very hard to avoid. 
Therefore, we believe it is imperative that you, Israel’s leader, who cares so deeply about the well-being of our people, intervene and urge withdrawal of this bill. 
The email for Prime Minister Netanyahu is:
For Ambassador Oren’s office:
The Following was Sent as a Press Release from the Reform Movement
Reform Jewish Movement Calls on Knesset to Reject Conversion Legislation
For 2,000 years, Judaism has treated Jews-by-choice the same as Jews-by-birth.  We are taught “as soon as a convert emerges from the mikvah (ritual bath) she or he is Jewish for all purposes.”  (Talmud, Yevamot 47b)
For 62 years, since its founding, the State of Israel, through the “law of return,” has welcomed Jews from around the world as citizens in the world’s only Jewish state.
Today, legislation before the Knesset – a bill sponsored by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beitenu that addresses both the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and matters of Conversion – threatens both of those sacred principles.
This legislation will certainly reopen one of the most divisive battles in the Jewish community. The proposed legislation will lead to a situation in which Jews–by-Choice would be treated differently and denied recognition as Jews under the Law of Return, in direct contradiction of Israeli Supreme Court rulings.  Additionally, it will lead to the delegitimization of non-orthodox conversions performed outside of the State of Israel. 
Our concern is neither partisan nor denominational, but emanates from true love of Medinat Yisrael and Klal Yisrael (the State and people of Israel).  With the unity of the Jewish People foremost in our thoughts and prayers, we urge the Government and the Knesset to affirm core principles of that unity when enacting any legislation.  We call upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to withstand the pressures of a small segment of the political spectrum and to do what is best for all the Jewish people everywhere.
The Reform Movement calls upon the State of Israel to treat all religious streams of Judaism fairly and equally, a cause that is far from realization.  We call upon the Knesset to reject this partisan attack on the majority of American Jews. Finally, we call upon the Israeli people to join with us in an effort to help Israel live up to its promise as a Jewish and democratic State.