Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: When the music brings you home

Kol Nidre... the anthem with which we begin Yom Kippur. We take the Torah scrolls out of the ark and they bear witness, as if a Jewish court of law - a Beit Din - while we hear these ancient Aramaic words chanted.  What, precisely, do they say? Essentially, that we regret any vows or commitments that we have made, we repent for having made them, and we asked that they be discarded, forgiven, and undone; that they no longer be regarded as valid and binding.

Why would we begin this Holiest of days with such a declaration? Is this one of these Jewish legal loopholes, by which we figured it was easier to just nullify promises we made than deal with the consequences of having made them and failing to live up to them? While that's not why these words feature in our liturgy, what is clear is that the power of Kol Nidre in our communities today has very little to do with the words themselves. But first, a quick history of this prayer.

"For all of Kol Nidre’s significance and power, its origins are shrouded in mystery. There are two “histories” regarding the prayer, one popular and the other scholarly. The popular version connects the wording of the prayer with the religious dilemma facing medieval Spanish Jews. In 15th-century Spain, at the hight of the infamous Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a determined hunt to seek out and punish all non-practicing Christians. In response to extreme anti-Semitism earlier that century, a sizable number of upper-class Jews chose to convert to Christianity in order to, at the very least, avoid social disdain. For a small number, their religious conversion was genuine; but for the majority, their “conversion” was in name only as they still found creative ways to practice Judaism in the privacy of their own dwellings. These Jews came to be known as “marranos” and became one of the foci of the Church’s inquistory offensive. The Kol Nidre prayer, according to this theory, was created in response to these Jews’ desire to nullify their vows of conversion...
        Scholars do not wholly refute this understanding of Kol Nidre, but they do contend that Kol Nidre has much earlier roots and probably pre-dated the marranos. According to their research, it is unclear exactly when or where the Kol Nidre legal formula was created. The wording seems to mimic other legalistic contracts of the Babylonian Jewish community of the 6th and 7th centuries. The first undoubtable citation appears in an early comprehensive siddur edited by Rav Amram in the 8th century. Over the next few centuries, the prayer became more widespread and a soulful melody became associated with it. Notably, there were some rabbis who disparaged the prayer as a superstitious attempt by Jewish mystics to nullify vows made by evil forces in the universe intent on hurting the Jewish people. These criticisms were muted by the majority of the people who cleaved to the prayer and aided its spread to other communities."
 (Rabbi Eric Solomon, 2000, 'Examining the Mystery of Kol Nidre')

By the late Nineteenth Century, as the Jews of Europe and the USA sought greater integration into the societies in which they lived, some felt self-conscious and embarrassed by the words of Kol Nidre. They were concerned that non-Jews might regard them as a people who could not be trusted because they would not keep their word.  In Germany, some early Reform Rabbis sought to remove Kol Nidre from the liturgy. But when a machzor (High Holy Day Prayer book) was published without it, congregations rebelled. They insisted that it be sung anyway. Already, for centuries, Kol Nidre was chanted to a haunting tune. Max Bruch, a non-Jewish composer, set it to the melody (in 1880) that we associate this prayer with today, and it is this that congregations across the world today listen for to announce the opening of Yom Kippur. Many congregations, my own included, begin with the sounds of Bruch's arrangement, played on cello or adapted for some other soulful sounding instrument.

I think there are few other liturgical moments or melodies in our tradition that is as emblematic and central to us as Kol Nidre. In Mishkan HaNefesh, this introduction conveys something of its power:
Rabbi Leizer survived the death camps and returned to his hometown, Czenstochow, Poland. For years following the Shoah, he roamed the streets playing a hand organ. At regular intervals, amid the numerous tunes he played, he would intentionally play Kol Nidre. As he did so, he would look into the eyes of the children who walked by, looking for a hint of recognition. In this way, he was able to bring many children back in contact with their people.
For us, too, Kol Nidre is a moment of recognition -
a sound that brings us back to our people. (copyright CCAR, 2015, Yom Kippur, p.15)

What other melodies are so part of your sense of identity that they bring you back home in a profoundly spiritual way? What melodies connect you to a sense of your people? When you hear the reverberations of Kol Nidre, what thoughts and feelings are aroused within?

Welcome Home.
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, 1927. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: Yizkor and Forgiveness

Photo by Roger Glenn
Why do we have a Yizkor (memorial) service on Yom Kippur? It is clearly a ritual that has great meaning to many people. In most congregations it is one of the services of the holiest of days with the largest attendance. There's an historical answer to the question, if we want to learn more about the original connection between remembrance and atonement. Certainly, some of us attend Yizkor because its just what you do, and it is what those before us did. But, like most things in Judaism, especially in progressive communities, rituals and times of gathering don't continue to be widely observed unless they have a contemporary meaning and value that is experienced by those who engage in them.

Yom Kippur is sometimes described as like a rehearsal for death. The Vidui (confession) that we pronounce several times over the High Holy Days is a ritual that is also meant for one who has the opportunity to say it if they are aware that they are close to death. There is also a nightly vidui ritual, precisely because most of us can never know when our last day will come. So there is something powerful, as we reflect on our own mortality, about turning our thoughts to those who have already died. They have shaped our lives, and we often see things in ourselves that we inherited from them. There are things that we do, and ways we behave that we are aware that we do because of them, or sometimes in spite of them.

Yizkor may be a time for appreciation. It may be a time for us to be inspired by our memories of others to seek to live each of our days so that others will have cherished memories of us at some time in the future. It may be a time to find a spiritual path forward to deal with unfinished business, pain or hurt.

As with each and every step of the High Holy ritual, our new machzor provides prayers, reflective readings, and insights that can help us with all of the above. Here is a piece written by Cantor Linda Hirschhorn entitled Forgiveness and the Afterlife (copyright CCAR, 2015, Yom Kippur machzor, p.581).
I do have an ongoing relationship with the dead, and I do think about the afterlife - my afterlife, that is - after someone I know dies: what happens to me afterwards, in my life.
Some deaths come too soon; some deaths are unexpected; some deaths we think we are prepared for, but really we are rarely ready: we don't usually know when a conversation is the last conversation, with so much that may be left unsaid, unresolved.
So in this afterlife of mine I am still in relationship with people who have died. I miss them, I talk to them in my mind, I ask them questions about our relationship that I wasn't ready to ask them when they were still alive. I show off my accomplishments, and wish they could witness them; and yes, I still have some of the same old arguments, still trying to prove my point of view. What helps me go forward? How do I resolve these lingering feelings?
Here is what makes the Yom Kippur Yizkor so special - this forgiveness prayer devoted exclusively to those no longer with us, that comes late in the afternoon when we are tired, hungry, vulnerable, and open. During this Yizkor I am given the opportunity to forgive myself for cutting off that last phone conversation with my father - I was always in a hurry; he always wanted to chat longer; and then he died. It's during this Yizkor that I have the opportunity to forgive my mother for her harsh ways; to let go of being angry - for my sake in this world, if not for her sake in the world-to-come.
For this Yizkor to feel honest and meaningful, I don't want to sentimentalize those relationships. I don't just want to remember the ideals and gifts they may or may not have passed down. I want to remember those relationships exactly as they were, and then be able to forgive myself and them for our failings, for what we never got a chance to repair or finish.

May our memories bring the light of loved ones into our hearts. May our prayers help us forgive and receive forgiveness. With remembrance, may healing come our way.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

#BlogElul 2 5775: Hineni - Here I am

At the opening of the High Holy Day prayer services there is a traditional prayer leader's confession, Hineni which, in essence, is the prayer leader proclaiming their unworthiness to lead the congregation in prayer and asking God not to hold the community responsible for the leader's shortcomings. I understand its original intent, but it has never been something that I have felt comfortable saying. I think it was meant as an ego check-in - certainly an important thing to do. But, over the years, it has become a moment that has sometimes been accompanied with great cantorial flourish - a performative moment that I have felt expresses the opposite.

I usually begin each of the holy days with an invitation to the congregation to travel through the prayer service in any way that enables them to make it a meaningful experience - to not feel obligated to read along with everything that I am doing; to choose readings to sit with longer, to close their eyes and meditate, to go for a walk and return. Even though my soloists and I have woven together liturgy and music with intention and the hope of creating a vessel for meaningful prayer, I have to create something that I believe will touch upon things that many different kinds of people appreciate and, therefore, is likely to lack something for everyone too. And so we all have to be responsible for our own prayer experience, and for our own shortcomings and sins.

Until now I have struggled with what to do with the Hineni prayer. Perhaps my feelings about it have been colored by the old joke:

During one service in a wealthy synagogue, the rabbi got carried away. Falling on hands and knees, forehead to floor, he said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.”The Cantor, not to be outdone, also got down, forehead to wood and said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing." Seeing this, Levy, a tailor in the fourth row, left his seat, fell to his knees, forehead to floor and he too, said "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.” With this, the Cantor elbowed the rabbi and sniffed: "Look who thinks he's nothing!"
On the High Holy Days we are all meant to enter into this time of deep introspection and communal reflection as equals. There is no difference between one congregant and another, or between clergy and congregant. This year I have a Hineni that I feel able to read, and one that I will be able to invite each and every person in my congregation to read - each of us quietly to ourselves, as we prepare to enter into the ritual vessel that we are creating together with mindfulness:

Here I am,
one soul within this prayer community
Like those around me, I bring my own concerns and yearnings to this place,
hoping they will find expression in the time-hallowed words of my people and in the traditions cherished by generations before me.
May I bring the best of my energies to these Holy Days,
approaching this spiritual work with open heart and mind, sincerity, and sustained focus on the deep questions of this season:
Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed?
This night I take up the challenge of the Days of Awe:
cheshbon hanefesh - a searching examination of my life,
a moral inventory of my deeds, words, and thoughts.
During the next ten days,
let me face the truth about myself and listen to Your still, small voice.
Taking comfort in your promise that I am always free to change,
released from staleness and routine,
let me know the joy of beginning again.
May I gain strength as I share this task with those around me, united by our common purpose;
tikkun midot (improving our characters) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
I now prepare myself to pray - one soul amidst this holy congregation.
(copyright CCAR, 2015; Rosh Hashanah Evening Service, p. 16)

It is another of those moments that the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh have provided alternative ways to encounter (the traditional Hineni is still there too). I am grateful for a text that better reflects how I would like to begin. And, of course, the core questions asked in the text above do not need to wait for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. This month of Elul is the time to begin to ask ourselves: Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed? Our inventories of deeds, words, and thoughts are likely to be long. We can take the time we need to review and begin the job of return.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: Let's get real

Speaking with a colleague the other night, I was hearing how it is not uncommon to hear from those training for the rabbinate that they struggle with liturgical prayer. While this does not surprise me, it may be something that surprises, and perhaps troubles our congregants.

I can only speak personally, but I've traveled my own path to making prayer work for me. It has taken time - years, in fact. I suspect that most people don't have the patience, but it seemed rather important to me, given my desire to serve as a rabbi to the Jewish community.  I've learned to love the 'back stories' (known and theorized) behind why our liturgical prayers came into being. Context and history provide one way in. But getting beyond the literal, and even getting beyond what might have been the original intended meaning, theology, and message, to recast liturgy to speak to us today, has helped me find moments of deep, thoughtful, prayerful experience in the midst of Jewish worship.  Music helps a lot too.

Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, the High Holy Day liturgy can be particularly challenging. In the Reform movement this year, several hundred congregations will be praying out of a brand new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul).  I am so excited by the potential that lies within the pages of this new prayer book. Perhaps, more than any other single thing I can highlight about what makes it so special, is the opportunity to get real.

What do I mean, by 'let's get real'? I think the best way to illustrate what has been missing for me in some of the liturgy (especially the english language readings) of our previous high Holy Day machzor and what is now available to us in our new book is to share one of the new texts with you. Here is a new text that introduces the Vidui (Confession) on Yom Kippur morning.

Because I was angry
Because I didn't think
Because I was exhausted and on edge
Because I'd been drinking
Because I can be mean
Because I was reckless and selfish
Because I was worried about money
Because my marriage was dead
Because other people were doing it
Because I thought I could get away with it

I did something wrong.

Because I'm in pain
Because I wish I could undo it
Because I hurt him
Because I lost her trust
Because I let them down
Because I was self-destructive
Because I was foolish
Because I'm ashamed
Because that's not who I am
Because that's not who I want to be

I want to be forgiven.

bring down my walls of defensiveness and self-righteousness.
Help me to stay in humility.
Please - 
give me the strength to do what's right.
copyright CCAR, 2015 (p. 293, Yom Kippur morning service)

I can't read this and remain on automatic pilot. I can't read this and coast through the ritual of reading words out loud in a room full of others, disconnected with the purpose of this holy day. I can't read this without being pulled out of my lethargy and denial and acknowledging that I have been so many of the things listed above. They ring true for me, and speak in a contemporary language that resonates with my experience in a way that some of the traditional words do not. There are other words that are part of the traditional vidui that are much easier for me to read as being about somebody else.  But Yom Kippur is not about somebody else. It is about me, what I have done, who I am and who I want to be. And for the ritual of spending designated time in extended communal gatherings and prayer at the High Holy Days to be useful and meaningful, I need tools and texts that will take me to the places that I need to go if I am to emerge at the end feeling like anything has changed (even knowing that I'll need another 're-set' next year).

This year my #BlogElul posts will all feature new texts or new translations from Mishkan HaNefesh. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of moments within the prayer journey we take over these Holy Days, to familiarize ourselves with the gifts provided by new texts, and to begin to do the work of Soul refinement that can help us enter the New Year with greater intention.  I invite you to join me, and share your own reflections to add to the conversation in the comments section. Together, let's make it real this month of Elul.

Monday, April 27, 2015

After death... Holiness - Reflections on the Parsha at the end of our CBS Israel Tour

Acharei mot - kedoshim - D'var Torah by Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz shared at Kehilat HaLev, Tel Aviv
Note: the parshiot in Israel are not currently aligned with those in the Diaspora because Diaspora Jews who observed 8 days of Pesach had a Passover Torah reading on the last day of Pesach when Israel had already returned to the Shabbat parsha. Israel and the Diaspora will realign again in a few weeks. This D'var Torah was based on the parsha being read last Shabbat in Israel.

This week has been an incredible week for our group in so many ways. We have experienced so much together and have been given glimpses of so many sides of Israel. To end here, this Shabbat, with you, experiencing new life in Reform Judaism here in Israel is very special.

This week is a double-Parsha: acharei mot-kedoshim.  after death, holiness.

This week we have been challenged to grapple with this juxtaposition in so many ways. After the Holocaust, the birth of the modern state of Israel. After Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha'atzmaut. For one of our group, after the death of her mother in recent months, an act of great beauty to memorialize her here while we were traveling together. Yesterday, when we visited Derech Ben, we saw the beautiful community garden built by the parents and community of Ben in a moshav in Misgav, in memory of their son who died at age 24 in the second Lebanon war. Again, after the tragedy of death, holiness - an act of great beauty, remembrance and a place of connection for a whole community (and now also for us, with whom Ben's mother shared his story).

Our guide, Noam, asked us to think about and talk about the challenge of moving straight from Yom HaZikaron to Yom ha'atzmaut. It is clearly a very powerful transition but how is it for those who sit with the sorrow of a loved one who has died protecting Israel? Is it not jarring to move straight into celebration? Does it not feel forced? I suspect the answer to that question is as varied as the number of Israelis that you ask. Ben's mother felt that it was important for the country to have the two days together, even though she personally cannot shift into celebration on erev Yom Ha'atzmaut.

In our Parsha, Aaron remains silent. He is not given the time to mourn as the loss of two of his sons comes in the midst of the inaugural ritual performance of the priests and must continue.

I think of the tradition we have in Judaism that sorrow and joy are not to be mixed, leading to situations when a burial is delayed or shiva is not sat. I struggle with this too for the same reasons as Noam raised for those mourning on Yom HaZikaron. There is no logic to me in asking a family to abstain from mourning rituals because we are in designated 'happy times'. And yet I also understand why the community as a whole needs to embrace the joy to make those festivals meaningful.

Perhaps what we have here is the tension between the individual and communal need. Aaron needs to mourn but is not given time because he is in the midst of a communal moment. Yom HaZikaron shifts to Yom Ha'atzmaut because as a nation Israel must hold up the joy and blessing of its existence and successes, even while recognizing the losses and work that still needs to be done. Perhaps to live in Israel is to all the time feel that tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the nation as a whole.

This does not negate the pain of the individual and their loss but, at a national level, the two days side by side ask us to accept a narrative where hope, rebirth and new possibilities follow from pain and loss. This is a very ancient Jewish narrative. And it is a very Israeli narrative.

Take, for example, the fast day of Tisha B'Av. Remembering the destruction of the temples and all the tragedies that followed for the Jewish people, there is a tradition that says that the Messiah will be born on the afternoon of Tisha B'v. As the day draws to a close, hope and faith in the future transform a history of loss into something constructive and forward-looking.

So, after death, hope and maybe joy. But what about kedoshim? Where does holiness fit in this narrative? The root meaning of this word is not really captured by the translation 'holiness'. Kadosh is about setting something apart for a special purpose. Shabbat is Kadosh because it is a day set apart. Kiddushin means set apart because it is the ceremony of marriage where we declare 'at mkudeshet li' meaning that this relationship is set apart as distinct and unique from all others in my life.

Acharei mot - kedoshim teaches us that all of the complexity that we struggle with - the sadness and loss, and the celebration of the State of Israel is because of the special relationship that we all have with it. Israel holds a place in the hearts of all Jews everywhere because we have set it apart as unique and special. Our guides have ensured that during this week we have experienced connection and relationship with many people through many experiences. Tonight we are grateful to have this opportunity to form a new and special relationship with a sister Reform congregation here in Israel.
Kedoshim holds for us the primary statement of this value - Love your neighbor as yourself - we move from loss and sadness as individuals, to connection with others in community through relationship. It is those relationships with the larger community and that sense of greater purpose that enables us to look to the future with hope. And this is why, I believe, that kedoshim follows acharei mot and Yom Ha'atzmaut follows Yom HaZikaron.

Israel Experience 6: Back to Tel Aviv

I got a little behind on describing our Israel experience, so this final travel review covers the last couple of days of the trip. We begin up in the Galilee with a couple of stops on our way to Tel Aviv. Our first stop of the day brought us to a very moving presentation and a beautiful place that encapsulated so much of the juxtaposition of pain and hope that we had borne witness to during our travels. We were brought to 'Ben's Way' in a local Moshav - a garden, nature trail and community resource built by the parents of Ben Kornit, who died at the age of 24 in the 2nd Lebanon War.

Ben's mother told the story of her son; how he had completed his army service and then traveled, including a ride across Mongolia on a horse. Upon returning to Israel, he found himself called up again to serve when the 2nd Lebanon War began. She explained how he came to be one of several soldiers killed when a house they were taking cover in was blown up.  Ben's parents decided to memorialize him by building a community nature path and garden that would keep his story and his values alive. Nature and ecology were important to him. So was community connection. So the path took us to places for community cook-outs, a place for gatherings and concerts, and a trail into woods where they discovered a heart-shaped boulder hidden in its midst.
We learned about members of the community who had helped with the project, including the children from the school on the Moshav, and a local Israeli Arab who had felt a sense of connection with Ben's story and values and had built part of the cook-out area to contribute to the project.

While we had shifted in time to Yom Ha'atzmaut, this experience was very much tied to the experience of Yom HaZikaron, and we asked Ben's mother how she coped with the transition from one day to the next. She felt that it was important for the nation to have the two days side by side even though she, personally, could not shift into parties and celebrations immediately at the end of Yom HaZikaron.

From this powerful start to the day we shifted to something quite different as we arrived at Kibbutz Harduf.  This is a remarkable community, bringing together many projects in one, integrated location.  They house a school for at-risk children who need to be taken out of their homes, and they work with adults with mental illness (bi-polar, schizophrenia etc.), helping them live healthy lives with work on their organic form or in their workshops making pottery or jewelry for sale while living as part of an integrated community.  After a short presentation about the community we were whisked off to the farm. There, we picked lettuce and herbs straight from the fields and gathered eggs that could not be any fresher - we literally pulled them out from under the chickens who had laid them!

The next step was making lunch. After having been treated to freshly made, healthy food, produced on site by Nir and his crew as we had traveled throughout Israel, now it was our turn to become the chefs. It was all hands on deck as we chopped, sliced, cooked and mixed, and in no time at all we had an incredible feast ready to share. There is no more immediate experience of 'farm to table' than the one we had at Kibbutz Harduf!

From the Kibbutz we continued on our way to Tel Aviv. We had to bypass one item on our itinerary - a visit to an IDF base - because traffic in and out of the base had come to an almost standstill and we decided that it was better to use the time experiencing as much as we could fit in to the limited time we had remaining on our trip. One of the wonderful things that we experienced about Puzzle Israel was their ability to be nimble in this way and to adapt and change to meet the realities on the ground. The result of this change led to an incredible experience that we added to our trip - a visit to the Joseph Bau museum in Tel Aviv.

Some of you may recognize Joseph Bau's art work. His posters and the modern Israeli fonts that he developed are instantly recognizable and very famous.

Today, his daughters tell his story and present his work. If you've seen the movie, Schindler's List, Joseph Bau is the groom in the scene where a marriage takes place (although it didn't happen exactly as depicted in the movie, we were told!). He and his wife were saved by Schindler. In addition to his public work that became well-known in Israel and beyond, Bau also had a secret life, producing all the forged documentation that was needed for the Mossad. In fact, he produced the necessary identity documents for Eli Cohen, the spy that our guide, Noam, had told us about who had brought such valuable intelligence to Israel from Syria.  Today, the museum is at risk as the owner of the building wants to turn the rooms into new apartments. You can learn more about the museum here, and there is currently an exhibit in New York where you can see his work a little closer to home.

We had a free first evening in Tel Aviv - a chance to walk through the streets and see the bustling cafe life. At the end of Yom Ha'atzmaut everything was packed and we saw the city so full of life.  The following day we started at the Rabin Museum. This wonderful exhibition which only opened a few years ago combines a telling of the life of Yitzhak Rabin with a social history of Israel during his lifetime, and the evolution of the peace process leading to the Oslo Accords. From there we made a short stop at Rabin Square and saw the memorial for him there.

We then had time to wander the Tel Aviv markets. Carmel market is for food and cheap clothing. Nachalat Binyamin market is a local crafts market that is open just two days a week that has the most wonderful array of crafts for the home, jewelry, and the like. This was the most shopping we got to do in a day!

Before returning to the hotel, we had one of those moments that seem to happen all the time in Israel - bumping into someone you know! I knew that the Alper family from CBS were in Israel the same time as our trip (for a family bar mitzvah of a relative). In the midst of the crowded streets of Tel Aviv on a Friday afternoon, we saw each other! And, it turned out that they had bumped into the other family whose picture we posted earlier in the week - the Feldmans. They had not previously met each other in Westborough and yet managed to figure out the connection in moments.

In the evening we had a wonderful Shabbat with Kehilat haLev. This is a young, Reform congregation, in the heart of Tel Aviv that has only been in existence for 5 years. Led by a 4th year rabbinic student, Efrat Rotem, their services are characterized by wonderful music and a growing community of all ages.  I was invited to share a d'var torah, which I will post separately after this final travel review.  After the service they hosted us for a lovely vegetarian dinner as we got to meet some of their community. We finished the night with a few songs together. The photo below is with Efrat and her partner, Ofira, along with two friends of my family, Ralph and Miryam, who have known me since I was two years old. They made aliyah to Israel (he from Scotland, she from Morocco), met and married on a Kibbutz, and moved to Tel Aviv over 30 years ago.  They epitomize yet another of the many stories that can be found in Israel.
Our last day in Israel began with a tour of Jaffa. Noam entertained us once again by taking on the costume of an Ottoman Turk to tell us the history and evolution of Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
While there, we witnessed two Christian wedding parties - one from Eritrea (and we're not sure where the second was from) -a reminder of yet another side of Israel that we barely had a chance to learn about on this trip - the immigration of many others from around the world, looking for economic opportunities or escaping from war and genocide. Israel has found this immigration challenging due to its small size and the balance between needing to help those in need while placing limits on what it can manage and its need to maintain a Jewish majority in this democratic state.

We had a fabulous lunch at 'The Old Man and the Sea' at the new port development, where plate after plate of small tasters of salads of all kinds filled the table. And there was one more dinner to come - a final meal with Nir and Guy, owners of Puzzle Israel, before our return to the airport and the long flight home.
This trip far exceeded my expectations as an organized tour of Israel. Puzzle Israel brings so much that is unique and unlike any other tour I've experienced. I was thrilled to learn and experience so much that I've never seen before, and felt that they provided the broad and multi-faceted narratives of Israel that I wanted any group that I was bringing to Israel to experience.  It is hard to sum up a trip that was so packed full of amazing opportunities. In the coming  days I hope to be posting reflections from members of our group as they have the opportunity to reflect on what this trip to Israel meant to them.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Israel Experience 5: Life in a Moshav

The paced eased a little yesterday as we stayed up north in the Galilee and took in another rich and diverse set of experiences. We began up on the Golan Heights at one of the northernmost points of Israel, looking down directly on Syria. Damascus was a mere 30 miles from where we stood. UN peace keeping observers are stationed up there to keep an international eye on the border. From this viewpoint, our guide Noam shared the amazing story of Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, who went deep undercover in Syria from 1963-5 and provided Israel with invaluable intelligence until he was caught, tried and hanged in Syria.  While up there the 11am morning siren rang out for Yom HaZikaron. From this position the experience was quite different to the night before. We could hear the sirens from other areas behind us but nothing in front of us as, looking at Syria, we had a viceral and stark reminder of what Israeli soldiers have fought and died for.

From there, we spent the afternoon visiting two moshavim. A Moshav is a small community that shares some characteristics with a kibbutz but from the outside was based on individual ownership of homes and separate incomes and livelihoods. This is what differentiates it from a kibbutz. At the first moshav, we visited a leather-making factory, where leather is shaped into bracelets, belts, bags and more. We all had a go at creating a plaited leather bracelet that we got to keep. Another delicious lunch was served, courtesy of Nir and his catering crew. From there we went on to a religious moshav that runs a dairy farm. We learned about their history, got to bring water for the newly born calves to drink (much cuteness ensued), and watched an incredible robotic machine milk cows. This machine feeds, bathes, and monitors the cows while milking them in a way that is comfortablel and precise. The extremely bright cows line up to enter the milking machine when they want to be milked - approx. 4 or 5 times a day. They have learned that they will be fed and cooled in the hot months. The young cows soon learn to follow once they see all the other cows going in and coming out.

On our way back to the wonderful accommodations at Vered HaGalil, we stopped for one more special act - we planted an olive tree in memory of Sandra Haley's mother who died earlier this year. It was a touching act that moved us all, and was indicative of the love and compassion that our tour guides have shown to us as they learn about us during this trip.

We had some rest time before dinner that some used to walk on the wonderful site we were staying at, with views over the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and some used to get a massage! The night ended with a delicious celebratory meal for Yom Ha'atzmaut at the steak house on site at our hotel.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Israel Experience 4: A Change of Landscape

Today began in the wilderness landscape of the Judean Desert and ended in the lush, green landscape of the Galilee. An incredible view of the Jezreel Valley, mentioned in the Tenach as the place where Elijah challenged the Priests of Baal to a sacrifice competition, provided our first sense of just how different this new landscape was.
We were treated to another lunch in situ, courtesy of Nir. Today was make-your-own wraps, with lafaa bread, goats chees, parsley, and zatar, which is Hyssop. Dessert was also wrapped up, but this time we were spreading Nutella and Halva onto the lafaa - yum!

From here we continued to experience the valley via another mode of transportation - ATV! Along the route we stopped at a naturally occuring watering hole - a popular kind of place found all over the northern hills around the Galilee where Israelis (Jews and Arabs) come to swim, eat, drink and hang out. In our short stop we saw a microcosm of the local society. Israeli arabs smoking a water pipe, an Israeli boy- and girlfriend picnicking togeter, and then a youth group of cyclists who came to take a break in their bike ride. Their leaders demonstrated how to leap into the pool and then gently encouraged all the children to have a go. So much fun!

We ended the afternoon, prior to an early dinner (where I had a brief reunion with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Shharone and Shlomo, who visited CBS and presented to our congregation lst year at Erev Sukkot), with some team games. I think we've discovered that our group likes games (and some of us are quite competitve!)

The day ended with a change of tone as we entered Yom HaZikaron with a very moving ceremony inthe region of Misagv, where our tour company owners, Nir and Guy, are from. They connected with friends and family and we bore witness to a very moving ceremony that brought out a very large % of the whole town. We stood together in silence while the sirens could be heard al around. This was followed by poetry, family  reflections, and music and the names of all those from Misgav who had died serving their country. As each name was read, along the date that they died, they were listed as 'father of so-and-so', 'brother of so-and-so' and more. This is how it is in Israel. Every soldier is someone's brother, sister, father, friend. And almost every single Israeli personally knows someone who died while serving. Memorial day is an emotional and heart-felt observance for all. We felt priveleged to stand witness to get some sense of what this day is all about from within.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Israel Experience 3: A day in the desert

3 a.m. That was the wake up call for most our group this morning. Those of us planning to hike up Masada in time for sunrise had to leave Jerusalem bright and early. A 20 min uphill hike up a flight of stairs paralleling the ramparts built by the Romans when they laid siege and eventually broke through the wall around Masada and we arrived at the top as the sun had just made its appearance and was slowly beginning to rise in the sky.

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, ma'asey bereshit - Blessed are You, Eternal our God Ruler of the Universe, Source of Creation. This is the traditional blessing to recite upon seeing the sun rise. This was how we began on top of Masada, followed by some morning blessings of gratitude for bodies that work, strength to rise and climb, and then added our own morning blessings of gratitude to the list.

 With photos snapped (views, sunrise, and a family of Ibex - a kind of deer - who had made their way to top of Masada too), our guide, Noam, then transformed himself into the Roman King Herod. He explained how Masada came to be built, what life was like there, how water was brought up, food was stored and more. And then, after the death of Herod and the later destruction of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem, we learned of the band of Jewish zealots who escaped to Masada and then survived an eight month siege before the Romans finally captured Masada, and found the Jews had martyred themselves rather than be taken.

 After much needed coffee, we made our way to Nahalat David - a short hike along a naturally occurring spring with small waterfalls along the way. We splashed and refreshed ourselves and then headed to the Ein Gedi Spa by the Dead Sea where we were treated to a truly delicious freshly grilled lunch by Nir, one of the co-owners of Puzzle Israel (our tour company) and owner of Margolis Catering.

 Due to changes in the ecosystem, the Dead Sea has been shrinking at an incredible rate in recent decades. Now a vehicle takes us down what must easily be a half mile journey from the Spa facility to the Dead Sea. The water itself is not particularly clean looking but we gamely waded in to float and get the photo op! Several added to that with the Dead Sea mud treatment too. Back at the top some tried the Sulphur pools which are warm and wonderful but smell of pungent bad eggs! I know, I'm making it sound so appealing! It is quite a unique experience, but a challenging one.

 A winding drive brought us to the Bedouin-style accommodations for tonight - charming, rustic cabins, more delicious food, and a camp fire with grilled pineapple and marshmallows.

 Oh... and 'the surprise' that was not on our itinerary - the camel caravan. A good proportion of our group braved the camel ride and it was quite a thrill. One of the big themes of today, but also somewhat of a continuation from the water tunnels yesterday, was shifting from our zone of conflict or panic to our zone of comfort. This was Noam's way of asking us to try things outside of our comfort zone and seeing if we could shift our perspective through our experience. For some, wading through narrow water tunnels was that experience. For some it was climbing Masada. For some (this Rabbi being one of them) it was getting up on a camel (and back down again!) Over our campfire we shared a few more examples of shifting through these zones by being willing to take on an uncomfortable experience. No doubt, there will be more to come. It is yet one more rewarding aspect of this trip experience we are having together.

Finally, a lovely photo shared by another Conbgregation B'nai Shalom family - the Feldmans are on a separate tour this week and  they were the host family for our emmisary, Ziv Zamir back in Worcester. They managed to fit in a great reunion in Israel!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jerusalem past and present

For our second report from Jerusalem we begin outside the walls of today's Old City at the archeological site believed to be the original city of David. While the possibilities of what is being discovered in the layers beneath the surface are exciting, arriving at this site we see that the archeological park abuts and cuts into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan where people living today are in communities upon that surface. Here again we are exposed to the multi-faceted and complex nature of every site in Jerusalem.

Up here is also the entrance to the ancient water tunnels that were dug to bring water into the walled city. For this part of today\s report we turn to Andrew, Ben and Lily Rosenfeld who wrote up this report on our morning adventure:
Our first adventure of the day was exploring Hezekiah’s tunnels. These tunnels were constructed almost 3000 years ago to transport spring water to the City of David. This was used as a military tactic to provide water even when the city was under siege. We walked down several flights of stairs as we headed towards the beginning of the tunnel, and as soon as we entered the tunnel the cold (but refreshing) water quickly got to almost 2 1/2 feet deep. This may not seem like much for most, but it was quite adventurous for our youngest, 7 year old explorer! We proceeded though the dark 1750 foot tunnel only able to see with the help of our headlamps and flashlights, wading through the narrow and twisting tunnel which at times was less than 5 feet high. We really enjoyed this adventure and found it amazing to think that this underground tunnel was built so long ago without the conveniences of modern day technology.

Some of our group opted for a drier route, but below are the brave souls who waded through, celebrating their victorious exit at the other end!
From here we made our way via the Dung Gate (so called because this was the means by which the Romans removed their sewage from the city) back to the Kotel plaza and into the tunnels that take us the length of the Western Wall underground, revealing the amazing scale of the supporting wall that Herod built to create the temple mount, along with remnants of that time such as a pavement, columns and additional water systems. 

We had two incredible guides today. Both were Orthodox women. The first shared that she had close to 40 grandchildren! She brought Jerusalem of 2000 years ago to life as we walked through the Kotel tunnels. Her passion was evident and this was yet another important voice for us to hear, even if we might dispute some of what we heard presented as history. This trip is all about taking in ALL of the narratives and encountering all of the people of Israel and this was an importnat voice for us to hear too. And there was no question that she left us with a feeing of pride and wonderment and deep sense of connection to our ancient past.

A short lunch break was enjoyed at Machaneh Yehudah - the Jerusalem outdoor food market. Blocks of Halva were aquired, borekas and rogelach enjoyed, spices smelt, and more. 

We ended the afternoon with a very powerful and emotional visit to Yad Vashem. One of our group, Jeff Govendo, saw the same of someone who shared the same last name in the very first exhibit we saw -- someone who occupied a place somewhere on his extended family tree. Our excellent guide emphasizd personal connectioons and individual stories throughout our tour. The museum was packed full - we saw members of St. Stephen's there too, as well as a large group of female IDF soldiers. We learned that it is a requirement for all IDF soldiers to visit Yad Vashem sometime during their service. What makes this Holocaust museum experience unique is the deep sense that is strongly communicated that Israel is the response to the Holocaust. It is the way that, as a Jewish people, we have the ability to make 
Never again mean that we will never again rely on others to provide safae haven to the Jews of the world when trouble strikes.  We ended our visit with a brief reflection circle, El Malei, Kaddish, and our gude, Noam, gave each of us a card with the name of someone who perished in the Holocaust whose name bore some resemblance to our own.

After a break back at the hotel, we had the enormous pleasure of spending a delicious meal wth Joe Federman. Joe grew up at CBS, the son of Toby and Mike who are founding members of the congregation. He is now Bureau Chief for the Associated Press covering Gaza, Israel and the Palestinian authority. We had a wonderful conversation, learning about the nature of the news business in this complex part of the world, post election analysis, the US-Israel relationshiip, the Red Sox, NE Patriots, and more!

Today's blog post has been written on the bus at 4 am as we make our way to Masada in time for sunrise. Forgive any blurry eyed typos!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Post Shabbat Update from Jerusalem

Our Congregation B'nai Shalom Israel trip is off to a great start. It is hard to believe that we have only been here since Friday evening - we have already seen and experienced so much!
We had very smooth and straightforward flights. Once we'd met our tour guides we were taken straight to Jerusalem. The first thing that we notice is that one truly ascends to Jerusalem - the bus began to climb the winding road about 2/3rds into our 1 hour ride to the capital city. Entering from the west of the city, we were taken to the Tayelet for our first amazing view. There we had our own brief Kabbalat Shabbat service as the afternoon began to transition to dusk.

After checking in to our hotel in the heart of downtown Jerusalem we had a short walk to a delicious, muti-course meal - an opportunity to taste some of the best that Jerusalem has to offer and a wonderful time for our group to really start to connect with each other.

Today - Shabbat - we started off the day after an incredible breakfast spread with another amazing view - this time from the Mount of Olives. This gave us an opportunity to drive through some of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. From our viewing point we could see the gravestones of all those buried on the sides of the Mount, and we learned about the location of the original City of David and how the current walled Old City came into being and slowly took shape.  Our wonderful lead guide, Noam, engages us all every step of the way with the help of Ben and Lily - the two youngest members of our tour - renacting a biblical scene between the Jebusite King and King David when David acquired the land to begin to build his city.

From there we entered the Old City via the Damascus Gate into the Muslim quarter and we immediately had all our senses bombarded with the sounds, smells and colors of the market. The city was bustling with energy - while the Jewish quarter remains quiet on Shabbat the rest of the city is open for business.  Traveling by foot from the Muslim quarter to the Jewish quarter our group began to get a true sense of the geography and what it truly means when people speak of dividing the city - a task that seems quite impossible as one narrow, winding street in one quarter leads directly in the narrow streets of the next.

We arrived at the Kotel - the Western Wall. We took a little time in the area of the wall divided for men and women and prayer notes were placed in the cracks. Then we walked over to the continuation of the wall in the excavated Robinson's arch area - an area now designated for egalitarian prayer services. We were there alone and took the opportunity to have a short morning service together. Both on Friday night and Shabbat morning, our melodies, poems and readings highlighted the Jerusalem we were experiencing right before us through our liturgy.

Lunch brought us back to the Muslim quarter for some of the best falafel and hummous that Jerusalem has to offer.  Then a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - by far the most crowded site we visited all day, reminding us Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land is an enormous source of tourism to Israel, far outscaling Jewish travel by dint of being such a large world population.

In the afternoon, some of us stayed with Noam to explore more of the old city and some of us headed over for some time at the Israel museum. Both groups had an amazing experience - some wonderful exhibits at the museum, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and findings from the Cairo Geniza.  In the old city we took in more views, and had a chance meeting and conversation with a Jewish Israeli of Yemenite descent and a Palestinian Arab from Haifa who were making a documentary about their friendship and the challenges of identity and who were gracious in sharing some of this with us. With this exchange, as with so much of what we saw today, the complexity and many faces of Israel were brought to us in very real and concrete ways. We also stopped in at a 200 year old functioning tehina factory - the smell of sesame for several hundred feet around was incredible!

Perhaps no clearer example of this was our closing program, which we shared with member of St Stephen's Church who are also traveling from Westborough. Two members of Seeds for Peace - a Jewish Israeli and an Arab Muslim from East Jerusalem - took us through a very intense experience of the challenges of truly listening to each others' narratives. They left us with a sense of great sadness at how few Israelis and Palestinians have these opportunities and how remarkable their friendship is. There is still much to debrief from this experience, not only for our group but also, I hope, with the church group back in Westborough. Pictured below is Father Jesse Abell of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and Micali Morin, who is in Israel for a High School Semester program with NFTY -it was wonderful to have her join us for the evening (and I had an opportunity for a catch-up over an early dinner before the program).

All this... just one day!  And as I finish typing this update, the downtown streets below my window are still buzzing with people who come out to eat, drink and socialize once Shabbat ends - and it is now 1 am!  Time to get some shut-eye before we launch into the next full day that lies ahead.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz