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  • The New Middle East: A view from Jerusalem

    Posted on March 28th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    The famed Arab street is buzzing all across the Middle East and North Africa. The Jewish street has been visited by J-street and terrorists. From where she sits on King David Street, HU C-JIR Jerusalem Dean Naamah Kelman has a particular perspective. This week, she share what she sees both on campus and around the country.

    Naamah Kelman

    I was not in Jerusalem for the first ever full marathon last Friday. I was up in Haifa participating in the first ever “Tikkun Carmel”, Jewish Studies and cultural festival, initiated by our Progressive Synagogue in Haifa (Ohel Avraham), in cooperation with the local Masorati (Conservative) synagogue. I had spent the previous day in Kibbutz Yahel and Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava, at a meeting of the Board of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Our Progressive Kibbutzim are thriving these days. Yahel is about to build a nature and commercial park and way-station; Lotan, has found their calling as an international center for perma-culture and sustainability. Both Kibbutzim , served as our gracious hosts and both shared their newfound satisfaction with u, a HUC Israeli rabbinic graduate who has moved himself and family to the Arava to be the regional rabbi.

    Reports from Jerusalem, 2 days after the terrible terrorist attack, told of the thousands running in the streets. Despite annoying traffic delays, schools closed in order to make way for what is clearly what mayor Nir Barkat does best: keep Jerusalem open to all sectors and best through mass events and major cultural festivals.  I share these thoughts as a reminder that Israel continues to be a vibrant, creative, energized society; while at the same time struggling with external and internal conflict, violence, and political corruption. The week began with the sentencing of former President Katzav to seven years in prison. He continues to deny his guilt as a convicted rapist.

    This week, Israelis were still reeling from the horrific murder of the Fogel family from the West Bank settlement of Itamar; Israelis were united in their horror and sadness; while the political debates continued.  No one seemed to pay too much attention to Knesset discussion on J-Street, nor was there any mention in any of the Hebrew papers of the selection to Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the President –designate of the Union for Reform Judaism.

    For Kabbalat Shabbat, I joined our Year in Israel students who were participating in a program called “Parallel Lives.”  IDF soldiers from an elite unit are selected to be part of a year-long ongoing exchange with some of our students, around 12 of them and 16 of ours. This program was founded and funded by Israelis who completed their graduate studies in Alabama years ago. Then, throughout the 1980′s they discovered the American Jewish community, and returned to Israel committed to keeping a real and mutual bond alive. When a beloved nephew was killed in an IDF action, they created this program, to honor him, and invest in the crucial dialogue between Israelis and Jews from North American programs. We are now in our 4th year of this unique program. It is quite successful and yet, too often it lives up to its name: parallel lives!

    Over the years the biggest challenge is to find the right setting and structure for Tefillah over the 2 Shabbat experiences they share.  When our students lead Kabbalat Shabbat, which is usually what has happened, the Israelis sit politely but disconnected to the words of our Siddur. If we sing a modern Hebrew song, that is also somewhat liturgical (like Lu Ye’hi or Oseh Shalom) some sing along. This past Friday, the soldiers planned the Kabbalat Shabbat. Sometimes they come straight from their bases so there is no time to prepare  or coordinate. One soldier volunteered to prepare a Kabbalat Shabbat song sheet and each song was put on an Ipod, that served as our “shaliach tzibbur.”  So there we were, sitting in a nice circle, facing the decorations of a typical Israeli elementary school, and we sang, accompanied by real playback.  These songs were both modern Israeli songs and some tefillah that have been made popular by Israeli musicians. Now our students understood what our Israeli counterparts often experience when they join our Services. There is something both familiar and alien in the joint experience. Our HUC students tried hard to sing along because they intuitively sing and pray in diverse settings.

    These soldiers have hosted our entire Year in Israel at their base for our Israel Seminar. They told the group about their experiences and dilemmas. They insisted that they strive to be as moral an Army as possible. These conversations are complicated. Our students hold the IDF and the Israeli government to high standards. The Israelis face complex situations. The Parallel Lives program struggles mightily to become that bridge of understanding and mutual respect.

    The great story of this generation is that 2 strong and confident communities are evolving on parallel tracks. We are two generations away from the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. As Israelis create a modern Hebrew Jewish culture and society, the gap with the Diaspora grows; although we no longer reject the Diaspora as did the early Zionists. Meanwhile, North American (and I want to recognize our Leo Baeck Rabbinic students and Abraham Geiger Kolleg cantorial students this year) young adults are forging their Jewish identities reflective of their needs and dreams.

    Many of our students eagerly join Women at the Wall. For many secular Israelis this is a foreign experience. They would rather run in a marathon through the Old City than stop to pray anywhere. Many of our students are bewildered by the religious coercion in Israel; too many Israelis reject the coercion but also reject Judaism in the process.  And often reject our form of Judaism too.  Yet thousands attended Reform Purim events throughout Israel. Thirty of our Year in Israel students joined the Progressive Congregation in Modiin where hundreds attended Megillah reading, with many of our students reading! Increasingly, Israelis are finding their way to our Congregations and educational institutions. When terror strikes, all our fears return.  At the same time, we remain steadfast and fearless to get on with our lives.

    The life of Israelis and Diaspora Jews will remain 2 parallel tracks for sure. It is our responsibility to build bridges, connect, exchange, argue, and keep the bonds between us alive and updated. As Reform Jews , we might be able to model a Judaism that lives in and with democracy.  Israelis face issues of sovereignty and governance that are still very new for this emerging modern state.

    When one of our students Nathan Farb, offered words of Torah to the IDF officers and his fellow students, he was able to list what it means to serve the Jewish people today. He included the work of future rabbis, cantors and educators right along with the defending of Jewish state. He was not smug, nor anxious, he embraced the spectrum, he offered a Birkat Haderech….To experience our students and these soldiers “praying” together, singing together, learning torah together, at this modest Kabbalat Shabbat; it was indeed a taste of the Gan Eden and a glimpse of the future….lu yihee!



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