Monday, May 17, 2010

Standing Again at Sinai: Reflections 2010

This year, the Rosh Hodesh group at Congregation B'nai Israel was inspired by Merle Feld's spiritual memoir and poetry collection, 'A Spiritual Life.'  We dipped in to read many of the prose narratives and poems, adding our own personal stories to hers.  Inspired by her writing, we sought out and found the spiritual in everyday life, and found how our own everyday lives were enriched by the cycle of the Jewish year and ritual practices.  Last month, we read one of her most well-known poems, We all Stood Together.  Another author, Chava Weissler, wrote a response to this poem a number of years ago, which you can read here.  Taking these two sources as our text, the women in the group described their own 'Standing at Sinai' moment.  On the day before Shavuot, when we stand again at Sinai to remember and receive Revelation, I share some of these creative pieces with you.

I'm standing at Sinai.  I feel isolated and left out.  I'm supposed to feel something that everyone else is feeling. I don't.  Is there something wrong with me?  I fake it, so I don't stand out.  I'm 12.  I feel little.  Maybe some day, when I grow up, I'll fit in better.

A young woman, I danced with Miriam at the shores of the Red Sea.  And I look up to Miriam as a friend and mentor.  And now I follow her to the foot of Mt. Sinai with curiosity and eagerness.  I find the trembling of the earth and noise overwhelming.  It's awesome.  I feel that the God that Miriam spoke about is present.  I am excited and afraid at the same time.  

I am a 50 year old woman and I am taking my place up front, not only for myself, but for the other women and those on the margins in order to witness God's message.  I feel, though, not totally a part of the community.  I am only observing, contemplating the happenings; communing with God.

My children cling to me, and I am afraid they will be lost in the crowd.  I keep them close as we women proceed slowly, surrounded by our children, always worried - do they need food or drink? Will they stay close?  The oldest may stray.  I remind her to watch her little brother.  Maybe I will hear the message too.

I'm standing next to a friend.  But we're not talking.  We're comforted by the security of knowing the other is standing there next to us.  I'm trying really hard to understand - to comprehend the moment.  But I'm confused.  The sounds and sights are disorienting, and I can't figure out what the essence of this Revelation is. Should I close my eyes and let the sounds wash over me?  Will I find enlightenment in the stillness in the midst of the chaos? Or have I misunderstood? Perhaps the essence of Revelation is about what we're all doing here together - perhaps its all about this mass of people.  Perhaps I should open my eyes and take in who we all are - is it the connections that invisibly bind us all together that is the true essence of Revelation?  Eyes open or eyes closed? Sight or sound? Inside or in-between?  I'm hear the sights and seeing the sounds.  Perhaps it is all ECHAD - ONE.

The skeptic:  What is going on here? What's with the pushing and the shoving?  We've been shlepping around for years and nothing happens and today we're supposed to Get the Message? Yeah, right.  I'll get the news second-hand.  Why ruin my shoes?

The mother with two absent boys is thinking of others - while the business executive wants the mother to fully experience and the mother with three little children says she is too busy and can't fully benefit.  While I am deeply emotional and hope to have the answers for the rest of my life.

I am hiking.  I stop.  Here.  This is the place.  Picking up a stone, I stare at it.  Everything is here.  Holy, holy, holy.

I am afraid of the unknown.  We are foreigners in someone else's land.  The immenseness of the place is overwhelming. I'm a stranger in a strange land.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

I am Jewish: Eighth Graders reflect, 2010

I teach Eighth Grade at Congregation B'nai Israel; something that I have come to enjoy immensely as I watch teens who are just post-bar and bat mitzvah grapple with expressing themselves and their own sense of Jewish identity.  We spend the year on personal theology and making ritual meaningful, ethics and values applied to our lives and our world and, with the help of a 19 year old emissary from Israel, an exploration of life and culture in Israel in a way that our teens can relate.  In the midst of it all we have a weekend retreat with a theme that focuses on a multitude of ways to live Jewishly and express Jewish values.

At the end of every year, our closing circle ritual consists of reading a few short excerpts from the wonderful book written in memory of murdered journalist, Daniel Pearl, 'I am Jewish.'.  Most of the excerpts we read are written by other teenagers or young adults from all over the world, illustrating the diversity of ways to express Jewish living.  Then each student takes a few minutes to write their own reflection based on what Jewish means to them at this point in their lives.  What is warming and wonderful is to see how they are all able to offer a genuine reflection.  They feel it, and they mean it.  Here are a selection of the reflections from this year's closing circle:

I am Jewish because I was born a Jew.  My parents are Jewish, and so were my mom's ancestors.  Being Jewish is who I am.  I was born Jewish, but it was my choice to be a true Jew.

I am proud to be Jewish.  I love the fact of how I am different from my friends.  I have different holidays and different food, but being Jewish makes me who I am and it will always be a part of me.

I am Jewish - this means that I am a minority which is quite different from everybody else.  This makes me feel special inside.

I am Jewish and I am proud of being Jewish.  The stereotypes may bring one down, but a true Jew will be proud and not let the mean thoughts strip them of their Judaism.

I am a Jew - means that I belong to a community that comes together through hardships and times of happiness and holidays.

I am Jewish.  That means that you follow what you believe and that will bring you to God.  Although this God is the same for everyone, each and every person must find their way through the Torah and find God.

For me, being Jewish means thinking about my Jewishness in everything I do, whether it is writing a paper about religion in school or talking about a famous Jew with my friends.  I love being a Jew and I am proud of my Jewish heritage.

I am Jewish because I go to Hebrew School and Temple.  I am also Jewish because I read from the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah.

To me, being Jewish means that I belong to something.  Not only do I belong to a temple but I also belong to a group of people.

To me, being Jewish is being lucky.  I get to be a part of a people that I share beliefs with, that I go to Temple with, that I want to connect with.  Being Jewish is who I am.

As a Jew, I feel that the religion is not something that is to be used in a way that is stressful.  To me, services should be an enjoyable atmosphere.  I enjoy every aspect of Judaism, such as the freedom to make decisions, and the feelings.  I think that it is crucial that we are able to survive, and be respected.  I follow a Jewish way of thinking every day and that is why Judaism is most important to me.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Engaging with Israel: A Free Speech issue in San Francisco?

I wanted to share the following with you, not so much to offer my own opinion on the matter, but because I think it is interesting, important, and raises questions that are worthy of considered discussion.  Click the link to read a full article in Tablet Magazine that provides background to the story and current details.  

In summary, there was a very critical response by some in the San Fransisco Jewish community to the showing of a documentary last year at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival about Rachel Corrie.  Rachel was a peace protester who was tragically killed in 2003 while blocking the way of a bulldozer being operated by a soldier of the Israeli Defense Forces who were carrying out duties to demolish a Palestinian home.  The exact circumstances are still debated.  Rachel's mother, now an activist for Palestinian rights, came and spoke at the Film Festival when the documentary was screened.  In response to the voices that protested the showing of the documentary, the San Francisco Federation, after months of deliberating, issued guidelines that would dictate its funding, indicating that they would not provide financial support to 'programs with groups that do support divestment or that otherwise “undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” Within this boundary, though, the guidelines are fairly open-ended. Acceptable, for instance, are “presentations by organizations or individuals that are critical of particular Israeli government policies but are supportive of Israel’s right to exist as a secure independent Jewish democratic state."'

So, what is the story here?  It does not seem entirely unreasonable for a Jewish Federation to withhold funding from programs that seek to boycott Israel or who deny Israel's right to exist.  Or, in fact, for an appointed board of any Federation to create its own policies that determine how it spreads its grant money - surely they have a right to do that?  Of course, a Federation looks to the entire Jewish community to donate to a common pool out of which many organizations and programs are funded.  So they do have some responsibility to represent the entirety of that Jewish community if they wish to continue to receive their support.  

One concern  is that the guidelines will stifle free speech and openness to express opinion within the Jewish community on certain matters.  For example, if an organization wants to present a lecture that focuses on sharing Jerusalem in a final peace settlement, some might believe that to propose such an option is 'to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.'  Likewise, if a Jewish group or speaker talks about 'the occupied territories', rather than 'Judea and Samaria', might this also be interpreted by some as 'undermining the legitimacy of the State of Israel'?  This, after all, is a matter where Israel and the United Nations do not see eye-to-eye.  Is a plurality of opinion on this topic permissible among Jews who would like to run programs about Israel? (Clearly the answer is 'yes'.  The question is whether the lack of available funding to some voices from within the community from the Federation is a matter of concern.)

The community most upset by these guidelines is the Academic community in San Francisco (the fuller article in Tablet, linked above, helps to explain why).  They have expressed their concerns in an advert taken out in the Forward - you can read it below.

So... what do you think?  Is the San Francisco Federation acting responsibly?  Is it squeezing out legitimate Jewish voices who want to see Israel safe and successful but have a care and concern for Palestinian human rights too?  Does a pronouncement about funding have a silencing effect, leading to Jewish groups self-censoring what they will discuss in public forums?  Or are we treading precariously at a time when Israel doesn't need the American Jewish community adding fuel to fires?
Forward Ad: Prominent Bay Area Jews Warn About SF Jewish Federation Guidelines 4/10I said that I was more interested in raising the questions and hearing responses from others (either via the comments on this blog, or via facebook, or in person at the congregation), but I will offer one thought.  I believe that this is not just a black and white issue where the Federation is either right or wrong.  Perhaps the Federation realized that too and thought they were trying to find a compromise position.  I'm not sure they got it quite right, but I think the complexities of this story are such that knee-jerk responses are not particularly helpful.  There is much to pause and consider here.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz