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  • Sitting on a Seesaw, Finding Answers in Israel

    Posted on February 26th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    The ascension of the Member of Knneset Ruth Calderon got me thinking about children’s songs.

    The early Zionists, busy with politics, originally overlooked the genre of children’s songs. It was easy for the great poet Haim Nachman Bialik to rush in to fill the void. But he did much more than whip off a few ditties in the modern language of Hebrew. Worried that without new songs the minds of children would be filled with old ideas, he packed with re-interpretations of classic Jewish texts.

    Take for example, his poem about a see-saw,

     

    נדנדה

    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    מה למעלה? מה למטה?
    רק אני, אני ואתה.

    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    שנינו שקולים במאזניים
    בין הארץ לשמיים.

    Seesaw seesaw
    Go down, go up

    What is up above, what is down below
    Only me, me and you

    Go down, go up
    The two of us are balance on the scale
    Between heaven and earth

    Below the surface of this simple poem lies the genius of secular Zionism. What appears to be the regular gobedly gook of children’s rhymes (I sang it to my kids for years while they played in the yard) is actually a critique of Mishna Haggigah 2:1 and the existence of God.

    מסכת חגיגה פרק ב
    א פרק ב הלכה א משנה
    אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם מבין מדעתו וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלן ומה למטן מה לפנים ומה לאחור כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם:

    Anyone who meditates upon four things, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after.

    And anyone who has no regard for the honor of their Creator, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world.

    Whereas the mishna makes clear that questioning the existence of God is a heretical, Bialik uses the language of the mishna not only to question the existence of what is above and below but to provide an answer –NOTHING. Using the simplest poetic form, Bialik engaged with tradition and turned it on its head. He used the words of the tradition to help express a new vision of Jewish reality.

    This ability to engage with but also question and transform traditional text is one of the greatest and most creative elements of Zionism. As successful as it was in the realm of children’s songs, this approach to text remained largely outside the realm of secular parliamentary politics. Until last week that is.

    Many have seen Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon’s speech to the assembly. Like all new MKs, Calderon was given the opportunity to address her colleagues. Instead of spelling out her policy goals, she chose to teach a section of Talmud. If you missed it, you can watch in the video below or read it here in English. Many have commented on the speech. Much has been made of her ability to engage with ultra-Orthodox MKs. Some have lauded her as the only hope for breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism. Writing in the Daily Beast Zachary Braiterman critiqued Calderon for lacking policy and for setting a dangerous precedent mixing religion and politics.

    I have great admiration for Calderon. She earned a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University. She played a key role in creating the secular yeshivah movement in Israel and in promoting secular prayer for Shabbat and holidays.  Zachary Braiterman is correct, Calderon is not a veteran politician, she does not come into the Knesset with a step by step solution and a plan. However, I do see her mixing of politics and tradition as hopeful not as dangerous. One of her first acts in office was to set up a regular time for text study. She has reclaimed the project of the early Zionists and by doing so suggested a new vision for how we might go forward as we search for the proper path towards the future.

    Like the children in Bialik’s song, members of Knesset are searching for the definitive answers to life’s problems. Contrary to the mishna, far from being a heretical act it is a necessary one. The answers are not in the sky, or down below. They come from the dialogue that emerges from the back and forth that happens on the seesaw, the give and take of weight, of idea and positions. Anyone can make a policy speech but it takes creativity and vision to see that answers will come from and balancing between text and reality, between the ground and the sky.

     

     

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  • Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic Sources

    Posted on October 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments
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    I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.”  I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term.  I expected to find a long list of sources.  I found three hits.  I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.”  So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations.  No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature.  And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement.  So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:

    Anat Hoffman of Women at the Wall Being Arrested

    If one gazes at the little finger of a woman is it as if he gazed at her secret place!?  No, it means in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema.

    Rav Hisda:  A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers (Isaiah 47:2)” and it says afterwards, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:3).”

    Shmuel said:  A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14).”

    Rav Sheshet said:  A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats (Song of Songs 4:1).” (B. Berachot 24a//B. Kiddushin 70a//Y. Hallah 2:1; Shmuel’s saying)

    This passage talks about things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema.  I think reasonable minds would agree that a man might be distracted by seeing his wife naked before him while he was attempting to recite the Shema.  But what comes next is, in essence, a list of what different sages find most enticing about women…a sort of sidebar to the main conversation.  Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him.

    Author: Rabbi Judith Abrams

    When I realized this, I contacted one of my mentors and asked, “Is this really the entire basis for not allowing women’s voices to be heard?”  He told me it was.  I must admit, I was flabbergasted.  We had been hung out to dry on the flimsiest of pretexts.  I asked a fellow teacher what he thought of this and he said, “Well, when I was 15 I’d have been distracted by a woman’s voice.”  To which I replied, “Why should I have to shut up for the rest of my life because you used to be 15?”

    The prohibition is all the more surprising because Scripture and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly.  Of course, Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).  Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).

    In Mishnah, it is assumed that women sing professionally, publicly and liturgically:

    Women may raise a wail during the festival [week] but not clap [their hands in grief]; R. Ishmael says, those that are close to the bier clap [their hands in grief].  On the days of the New Moon, of Hannukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief].  Neither on the former (i.e., the festival week) nor on the latter occasions do they chant a dirge.  After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief].  What is meant by “raising a wail”?  When all sing in unison.  What is meant by a dirge?  When one leads and all respond after her.  As it is said:  And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19).  But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says:  “He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.  (Isaiah 25:8)” (M. Moed Katan 3:9//B. Moed Katan 28b)

    So, weighing our evidence, we have Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic testimony that women sing publicly and liturgically as opposed to a single statement by one sage which does not, in context, ban women’s voices at all.  I believe there is far more textual support affirming the right of women to sing in public and at services than there is for banning it.  “May the the sounds of joy and salvation be hear in the tents of the righteous (Psalm 118:15)!”

     

    This week’s author, Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD.,  is the director of Maqom an online center for adult Talmud study.

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  • Gilad Shalit vs. Pessimism

    Posted on September 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I find this time of year hard, really hard –as I feel I should. Returning year on year to the same list of sins and faults, taking account of what I have done and more likely not done in the last year, and wondering about my own mortality weighs heavily on my heart. They are powerful and potent, not entered into lightly. Last year I was able to get behind the idea of real change, seeing possibilities and renewal. This year, less so. My communities have been struck by too much cancer, too much financial hardship, too many broken relationships for me to truly believe as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

    This pessimistic view lingered through the rabbi’s sermons –which were both hopeful, and through the family time, and the joyful communal meals into the first days of the New Year. I was not happy with this state of affairs but no amount of meditation, prayer or spiritual conversation was bringing about a change.

    But one never knows from where strength will come.

    Gilad Shalit

    Gilad Shalit

    On Wednesday, I chanced on a tweet by Reuven Werber, recommending Gilad Shalit’s message for the New Year. Like so many who followed Shalit’s ordeal and reveled in his release, I was curious to know what Shalit would share. He describes this past year, one which has been truly one of renewal. He writes about the exceptional moments like being a guest at the NBA and the mundane moments walking the streets and being recognized or even occasionally anonymously. His optimism is profound.

     

    “During the past year and the previous years in I have learned to look at things from a different perspective. In general, I try to see the glass as half full, and this is also what I wish for the people and the State of Israel. People can suddenly find themselves in extreme situations or unexpected crises. I believe people should prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that such situations may arise. Even if they are not certain what they are preparing for, they should be aware that things can change dramatically at any given moment. This awareness helps people cope with such changes.

    If and when such an extreme situation arises, you must deal with it as calmly as possible and avoid doing things you will regret later. You must overcome.”

    The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this as naïveté, but the reality of Shalit’s survival and his strength suggest something significantly more profound. If the liturgy is remote and abstract Shalit’s words are embodied in the particular and the clearly horrific. The context and experience that frames these words gives them exceptional meaning and power. Shalit’s words resonate with the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s research that suggests that optimism is essential for longevity and the ability to flourish in life. Shalit’s words resonate with the wisdom of Rabbi Nachman.

    But Nachman battled to find the joy and meaning in life, it did not always come readily to him. It is easy to be an optimist when times are good, the economy strong, the sun shining, our bodies healthy, our communities strong. Much harder to achieve is the ability to hope in face of difficulty, to see possibilities even when the world seems closed off.

    But Shalit’s optimism is no blind vision. As he explains, “Faith can help of course, but it must be accompanied by an awareness of reality.”

    As I enter into Yom Kippur I will bring with me Shalit’s words. They are my prayer for myself, for all of us, that we may remain optimistic in face of our realities that may not be changeable in discernable ways, for that is the place from which renewal is possible.

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  • A Modest Proposal for the Olympics

    Posted on July 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Israeli Olympic team 2012

    I’m a sucker for the Olympics. True, it is a whole lot of expense that might be better spent, but even as a die hard non-sports fan, I find the pomp and ceremony, the exertion and accomplishment exciting. And the part I love best, without question, is the is the parade of countries. The costumes, the flags and the excitement of each country draws me in as I think about how hard each of these people worked to get to this day. As a Canadian who lives in the US, I root for my two “home” teams (okay I will always be biased towards Canada) And as a Jew, I am always particularly proud of the Israeli team.

    But like many, I’m feeling more than a bit ambivalent about celebrating this year.

    This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic games and the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, which saw the cold blooded murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists. On the 5th of September 1972, Palestinian terrorist broke into the poorly guarded Olympic village immediately killing two and taking 9 hostages. Attempts to rescue the hostages failed and all those taken were all murdered.

    The Olympic games have come to represent the ability of the world to come together. They are a rare moment of peaceful competition rather than the wars that we are used to. The Munich Massacre is clearly the something that the International Olympic Committee would like us to forget. They have reject all appeals to remember the athletes and coaches who were murdered on their watch 40 years ago.  Each of the murdered Israeli men came to the Olympics with the highest hopes and with the ideals of the Olympic committee. Not only were they betrayed by the very organization for which they labored hard at the time, but their memories are being erased by the lack of memorial.

    Israeli Olympic Team 1972

    Each of these men did not live to see their Olympic dreams fulfilled, to embrace the message of peace and brotherhood. They died before Jodoka Yael Arad was able to win Israel’s first medal and surfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s first gold. On a personal level they did not live to see their families flourish, to know old age. They will not among those who are cheering as the Israeli delegation enter London’s Olympic stadium. And most who are there, marching, watching or watching at home will not even know the story of these men.

    So next week, as you watch the Olympics and all the pageantry of opening, (live or taped after Shabbat) I hope you will join me, in turning off your television for two minutes when the leaders of the International Olympic Committee and the London organizers take the stage, and instead turn your attention to the memory of those who died 40 years ago.

     

    Those who died:

     

     

    Moshe Weinberg

    Yossef Ramano

    Ze’ev Friedman

    David Berger

    Yakov Springer

    Eliezer Halfin

    Yossef Gutfreund

    Kehat Shorr

    Mark Slavin

    Andre Spitzer

    Amitzur Shapira

     

    May their memories be for a blessing.

     

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  • Proud to be Out and Jewish: Celebrating Pride Month

    Posted on June 12th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Gay Pride in Jerusalem 2003

    This week we hear from Rabbi Ruth Adar who reminds us why we should all be proud this June. -ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder

    .

     

    Author, Rabbi Ruth Adar

    It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.

    Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mother. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
    1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome.  An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.

    1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977.  I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.

    Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot from Ben Gurion and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really?  How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.

    I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, first of its kind in the Jewish world.  There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.

    I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.

    To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories.  And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.

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  • Israel in Six Words: What We Love about the Jewish State -Happy Birthday

    Posted on April 20th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 38 comments
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    Volumes have been written about the State of Israel. But in honor of Israel Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut, this week we are looking for just six words about what you love about Israel, what makes it special, extraordinary!

    Add your own thoughts by replying in the comments section. The more the merrier. Send in more than one! Encourage your friends to share their own.

    Here is some of what we have so far:  - Click on comments to read more!

     

    Bowls of humous with warm pita – Josh Weinberg

     

    Feel more at home than anywhere -Lori Sagarin

     

     

    Cool water, warm people, hot neighborhood -Lori Sagarin

     

    Too important to leave to Israelis -Lisa Levenberg


    Nearly Zero emissions on Yom Kippur - Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem

     

    Like family. Not perfect, but loved. - Lisa Koppel


    My son lives in Tel Aviv. Mindy Portnoy

     

    להיות עם חופשי בארצינו ארץ ציון – Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem


    The Dry Bones live in Israel – Reuven Werber

     

    Three faiths in one holy city – Ruth Abusch-Magder


    Hebrew alive, Torah real, people real-er -Paul Kipness

     

    I love Israel’s flaws and aspirations – Jeremy Burton


    Israel my second home. Libi bamisrach – David Young



    Jews in every size shape color -Kari Hofmaister Tuling

     

    Lo yisa goy el goy herev – Laura Novak Winer

     

    Walking in Israel I found myself -Anonymous


    National Liberation Of The Jewish People – Mark Hurvitz


    Land, peoples, histories, emotions, hopes - Amy Greenbaum

     

    ההרים,החול,הירק והים במקום אחד -Lori Sagarin

     

    Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash. Oooh Ah. -Jason Miller

     

    Gave my grandparents renewed life post-war -Yonah Kliger

    SEE COMMENTS FOR MORE WONDERFUL SIX WORD ENTRIES!

    (Keep it short, keep it simple. We are serious that missives of more than six words will not be included. And as it is a day for celebration we are focusing on the positive. We reserve the right not to post all entries.)

     

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  • Music In Modern Israel

    Posted on April 10th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Music always offers a wonderful way to connect to Israel and the diversity of Jewish life. As we look toward the marking of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, we offer this tour of ancient and modern music as seen through the eyes of Cantor David Berger of Congregation Tikvat Joseph of Manhattan Beach CA.

     

    This year I have the unique privilege of spending nine months in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University and teaching at the Hebrew Union College. Within a few blocks of my apartment in Jerusalem there are more synagogues than you can imagine.

    Situated right between the old alleyways and courtyards of Nachla’ot, and the bustling shopping of Ben Yehudah, my temporary home is just about a block away from the first Reform synagogue in Israel, Kehilat Har-El, on Shmuel Hanagid street. Bouncing between all these different types of Jewish communities gathered together in such close proximity, I am continuously reminded that the sounds of Judaism are so much more diverse than any one community can ever contain.

    Author: David Berger

    Some of these places preserve melodies that have been sung for hundreds of years, accompanying the community through different historical eras and geographical locations. Other places experiment with new types of musical expression, reaching out to the “secular” Israeli population by following the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – “May the old be renewed and may the new be holy.” I wish that I could personally take you with me on a tour of the exciting Jewish sounds all around my Jerusalem apartment, but instead, I’ll share some of those sounds and sites with you using Youtube.

    We’ll start at the “Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community.” This stunningly beautiful building in Nachla’ot is the center of the Syrian Jewish cantorial tradition. Every Saturday night, from Sukkot until Pesach, members of the community gather at 3:00 AM and sing piyutim (liturgical poems) and psalms for four hours in a ritual called “Bakashot.” After a whole night of singing, the community starts their Shabbat morning service at 7:00. It is quite the undertaking to visit, but the spirit and joy of the community makes it all worth it. Check out this video to get a sample of this Bakashot ceremony (filmed in 1976, but things haven’t really changed much).
    http://youtu.be/9BsIW4yGljM

    Moving from Nachla’ot to my favorite music store on Ben Yehuda Street, Hatav Hash’mini (The Eighth Note), I would love to share some of the newest Israeli popular music that takes Jewish texts and melodies once limited to the synagogue and gets them on the radio.

    Sagiv Cohen has combined traditional Yemenite melodies with contemporary pop arrangements on his new album Hal’lu. Listen for his Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew on this recording of the 150th psalm.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEyskYGQbR4&feature=related

    The New Jerusalem Orchestra released a live recording of their inaugural concert, lead by the incomparable Rabbi Haim Louk, the leader of the Moroccan cantorial world. This unique ensemble brought together Jazz, Arabic music, Classical music and modern Israeli music – something that has never really been done before. Listen to their recording of “Ya’alah Ya’alah,” a classic Moroccan festive song.

    Etti Ankari has been a major figure on the Israeli popular scene for 20 years. After six albums of beautiful, secular songs, she went through a religious transformation, and recently came out with an album of original melodies to religious poetry by Rabbi Yehudah Halevy (1075-1141). On this extraordinary album is a touching setting of Psalm 23 – watch her in a live performance here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZk46Npki80&feature=related

    Going back up Ben Yehuda Street, there is a new major Jewish institution on King George Boulevard, right next to the Jewish Agency building. Beit Avi Chai (bac.org.il) is a center that offers an unbelievable array of concerts, classes, programs and exhibits around issues of Israeli culture, Jewish tradition, food, music, theater… It is impossible to keep up with everything that goes on there. Check out this small sampling of exciting videos on their Youtube channel.

    Guy Zuaretz (an Israeli TV star) singing “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” in a concert of Ladino music:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOgd_0UChhA&list=UUjazC-ZG_ob-cRR16ZljaxQ&index=9&feature=plcp

    Here is a group performing the text “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” from Psalm 23 to an Arabic melody:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOFSMeyiwRQ&feature=relmfu

    Here is a jazz ensemble performing a classic, nostalgic song made popular by North African Jewish singers about the city of Barcelona:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUiav2qKCFg&list=UUjazC-ZG_ob-cRR16ZljaxQ&index=28&feature=plcp

    Look around their Youtube channel – it is a tremendous treasury of the newest and coolest Jewish culture coming out of Israel today.
    For one more synagogue visit – I want to take you to an exciting new place called Nava Tehila

    This relatively new community meets once a month for Friday night services and offers continuing classes on Jewish spirituality and kabbalah. Mostly using their own melodies, this community reaches out to Israelis in a musical and spiritual language that feels natively Israeli. They post videos of their musicians performing many of their new melodies so that people can come to synagogue prepared to sing. Check out this melody for Psalm 98, part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (and then look around the rest of the site)
    http://navatehila.org/35897/Psalm-98

    I wish that I could bring you into more places – but for now this taste will have to suffice. Jerusalem is alive with Jewish music and Jewish prayer that never ceases to amaze. Just when I think I’ve heard it all – I wander into another place and find myself enthralled with something I’ve never even imagined. As I enter my last few months of time here in Jerusalem, I wonder how I will be able to bring this music back to my synagogue in California. As Reform Jews, we are committed to an ever-expanding vision of Judaism. This year at your Passover seder, when you recite the words “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” – “Next year in Jerusalem” – and you think about the sounds and sites of the holy city, may you be inspired with a vision of Judaism and Jewish music that celebrates all the diversity and excitement Jerusalem can bring.

    This piece originally appeared on the American Conference of Cantors blog and was reprinted with permission.

     

     

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  • Freedom Rides: From Atlanta to Jerusalem

    Posted on March 15th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Freedom Ride -taken with hidden camera from the IRAC

    This week we have the honor of Rabbi Leigh Lerner’s experience riding the buses for civil rights in Israel. Rabbi Lerner is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth-Shalom in Montreal. He is on sabbatical in Jerusalem and volunteering time with the IRAC on their Freedom Ride project.

    “Git to the front of the bus, bwah, or else!”  That was the end of my first freedom ride, but I was only 13, just a kid boarding the bus from downtown Atlanta to Buckhead.  Segregation reigned in 1958 Atlanta, and having arrived from the integrated north, I just knew it was wrong and wanted to make a statement, so I sat in the “colored” section on that Peachtree St. trolley.  The driver would have none of it and threatened to throw me bodily off the vehicle.

    Author Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Author- Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Now flash to Jerusalem, 2012 – 5772, and a different kind of freedom ride.  Come aboard an Egged bus in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox section dotted with yeshivot and a perfect copy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s home in Brooklyn.  Buses in this area of Jerusalem and in many other areas of Israel had, over the last 12 years, become segregated: women in the back and bidden to enter by the back door, and men in the front.  “Mehadrin” bus lines grew to 50 in number, despite the ill-feeling they engendered.

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, brought the law suit that re-integrated Israel’s buses, but on January 12, Anat, James Cherney, a URJ board member from Chicago, and I took a short ride to make sure the law was being obeyed and to open the front of the bus to Haredi women.Anat sat in one of 4 seats facing each other in the front of the bus.  Except for three women, every female either boarded from the back and remained there, or boarded from the front and went to the back.  Both ends of the bus became quite full, but not a single Haredi man would occupy any of the 3 seats in the vicinity of Anat Hoffman.
    One woman boarded the bus and sat by Anat, who exchanged a hello with her.  She stayed in that seat for one precious minute, then went to the back.  Why?  Did she sit there to make a statement momentarily?  Or did she lose courage and resign herself to the back, as all the men around her expected her to do?
    Another woman rode but three stops.  She stayed near the back door, which is just before the women’s section, then left with her heavy case.  A third woman boarded with a stroller and stood in a space at the back of the “men’s” section, where Egged provides extra space.  It was a double stroller, and she needed the room.
    When Anat, Jim Cherney and I left the bus, the area where Anat had been seated filled quickly with black hatted men.
    Segregation exists in Jerusalem.  Until IRAC won its case, it existed with the assent of the government, the very government that subsidizes the bus companies.  Now it is sustained by social pressure.  Still, many Haredi women bless IRAC for opening the front of the bus to them again.  Only by sitting where we please will Jerusalemites and other Israelis keep their buses integrated.  Separate can never be equal.
    Be a freedom rider yourself.  When you visit Jerusalem, take 2 hours of a morning to hear IRAC’s story and ride a Jerusalem bus as an observer.  Your eyes will open not only to parts of Jerusalem the tour buses never go, but to people, issues, and struggles that too often remain hidden from our view of the Jewish State of Israel.

     

    Postscript: For those interested in support the IRAC effort, Rabbi Lerner adds the following note -Commitment is really just for the time period — takes about 2 hours to 2.5 hours, which involves prep talk, getting to bus stop in one of the outer ring Haredi neighborhoods, riding the bus into the city, taking a cab back to IRAC, meeting for 30 minutes to debrief and get further legal background.  Cost is 6.30 shekels, about $1.50, for the bus ride, and usually IRAC takes care of everything, including cab back. It is very safe.  If there’s a problem on the bus, the IRAC person will handle it, and problems do not involve actual physical threats, but sometimes shaking of seats, being told to go to back of bus, several individuals standing over a woman and glaring at her.  Of course they don’t sit near her themselves.  These things do happen, but not that often, and IRAC personnel know what to do.  We’re hoping that people will talk/write about their experience in their congregational blogs or bulletins, etc., and tell what IRAC is doing to keep buses integrated and make sure that “unser yidn,” liberal Jews, secular Israelis, etc. can sit wherever they please in public transport and at public meetings.

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  • Friday, the Rabbi was Outed!

    Posted on January 3rd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Often experience we have as students training for Jewish professional lives can leave strong impressions and mold our vision of our professional selves for years to come. This week, guest Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb a community rabbi based in Boulder, CO and working tikkun olam and tikkun atzmi writes about how a student internship shifted her perspective.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder

     

    It was unexpected and I was unprepared.   At Friday night services in front of a room of hundreds of congregants, I was “outed.”  Yes, outed!*

    I remember my heart beating fast and being afraid. I thought, “Why did this have to happen?  What does my sexual orientation have to do with this job? Will these folks still like me? Will they still welcome me into their community? Will they now think of me as other?”  I had hoped to pass (really) thinking that then I would be fully accepted and function more easily.

    It was the beginning of my third year of rabbinical school and a rabbi at my internship at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest GLBT synagogue, introduced me to the community and “outed” me as a heterosexual!

    Author, Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb

    Upon reflection some 7 years later, this moment was one of the most profound experiences of my year as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. I “approached” and more fully empathized with the experience that many of my CBST congregants (and GLBTQ Jews for that matter) live(d) through at home, school, synagogue and work. To my unexpected relief, the CBST community welcomed me with open arms and celebrated my rabbinic efforts. In many ways, the congregation was my rabbinic midwife. Unfortunately, not all GLBTQ Jews are fully welcomed or accepted for who they are as God created them.

    And so, it was with eagerness, enthusiasm and excitement, I accepted the invitation to participate in a post chaggim retreat of the rabbinic interns who had served at CBST over the past 15 years.  I looked forward to connecting with fellow travelers and rabbis (straight as well as GLBT) who courageously served and were transformed by this GLBT congregation and in turn have sought to transform the Jewish world, little by little. The world has changed dramatically in the past 15 – 20 years, in bold ways that I would neither anticipate nor imagine.

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

    The history books will tell the big picture story of how the United States moved from exclusion and silence to more mainstream acceptance of GLBT right. But each of us interns had our own personal stories to share and on the retreat we did. For me awareness real began, in 1987, the year I graduated Harvard College, a small group of students shly organized Harvard’s first Gay and Lesbian meal table in a residential college dining hall. While it seemed odd to me at the time, I now see it as the start my understanding. Returning to college to work as a rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at the University of Chicago, I was aware of how much had changed. I spoke at the GLBT interfaith spirituality group, counseled queer Jewish students on applying to rabbinical school, and worked with reform, conservative and orthodox Jewish students –of all sexual orientations – to show Paper Dolls, a film about transgendered individuals who live and work in Israel.

    Upon reflection, I realize that some of the lessons I learned at CBST are particular to GLBTQ communities, but many more apply broadly to the Jewish community and inform my rabbinate.  I learned these lessons viscerally and not just intellectually.

    Creating a truly welcoming community takes a lot of work. A “welcoming” community looks into itself to better understand its prejudices, assumptions and fears. And then, a welcoming community reaches out to, makes visible, intentionally plans for and hopefully celebrates the uniqueness of its members.  I’ve made and continue to make lots of mistakes along the way. I try to learn from the experts— unique Jews themselves- be they gay, straight, single, married, parents, childless, adoptive/adopted, working class, affluent, ethnically and racially diverse, blended, or interfaith. To quote the Grammy winning band Coldplay, “No one said it was easy, but no one said it would ever be this hard!” Well, that’s the leadership task I and we’ve accepted for ourselves. It is hard work & holy work!

    *Outing = The act of disclosing one’s true sexual orientation without a person’s consent.

    Note: HUC-JIR alumni in attendance at the interns retreat in addition to Ruth Gelfarb were Rabbi Melissa Simon and Cantor Jason Kaufman.

     

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  • What Not To Say About Israel This Year

    Posted on September 6th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    There is a great deal in the news this season about Israel. Most of the alumni of HUC-JIR feel close to Israel but live at a physical remove.  Spanning two continents, the College-Institute is aware of how that divide can feel.  And so they are reaching out from our Jerusalem campus to help us think about what we hear and choose to say about current events. This guest post features reflections by Dr. Michael Marmur, Vice President for Academic Affairs.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Dr. Michael Marmur

    It happens every year about this time. Colleagues gearing up for their High Holyday sermons turn to me and other Israeli colleagues in the hope that we might give them some ideas. After all, a number of our Rabbinical colleagues still leave one slot open for the stirring Israel sermon, and it seems that in recent years congregants emerge from an encounter with the Israel shaken, not stirred.

    The month of Elul and the High Holydays to follow are a time of honesty, so let’s face up to the facts: many Jews on the liberal end of the spectrum feel increasingly distanced from Israel. I would hazard the guess that most HUC-JIR alumni in North America will not be teaching and preaching about Israel this year. There are a variety of reasons for this palpable distancing, ranging from ideological disapproval to despair, passing every station from disinterest to confusion to the rise of new interests and issues: spirituality, the tea party, Irene, you name it.

    I have lots of advice to give you, but I urge you to ignore it. There is a wide range of topics to fill an Israel agenda – unprecedented social protest and the struggle for greater social equality, the forthcoming declaration of a Palestinian state, the changing face of the Middle East, the rise of chauvinism and racism in Israel, the standoff with Turkey, the face and soul of contemporary Israel, and more.

    You should ignore my advice, because the only way you will stir the people you serve is to be stirred yourself. If Israel is an “ought”, brought in to the discussion like an aging relative who has to be mentioned to avoid a tantrum, nothing good can come of the encounter. So I want to encourage each of you to find the intersection between your own passions and the debates which rage here in Israel every day.

    Take my advice and don’t take my advice. Instead, find friends and partners here in Israel and tell them what is on your mind, what matters to you. Then, take a deep breath and listen to their response. If you come away from that encounter unsettled, dismayed, challenged, energized, even occasionally inspired, that is what you may bring to those who look to you for guidance.

    There are over 60 alumni of HUC-JIR’s Israel program, and now some 25 graduates of our specialization in pluralistic Jewish education. There are graduates of a program on pastoral care and spiritual guidance. In our congregations, there are professors and proctologists and plumbers, members of many professional cohorts. Outside our movement there are seven million people to speak to. If you are engaged in community dialogue across ethnic divides, find people doing similar work here. If you are an economic conservative, seek out your kindred spirits. If you own a Che Guevara beret, look for the other one in the matching set. If you are a surfer, come to the beach, and if you surf the web, find a blog buddy.

    I am not telling you to agree with everything your Israeli counterpart says – that’s not the way we do it around here. I am suggesting that guilt-tripping is the worst form of tourism, and that an ounce of real engagement is better than a ton of platitudes.

    I believe that what is playing out in this little country matters a great deal to just about anyone with a sense of Jewish identity and historical perspective. The fact that more and more are tuning out is not because Israel stopped being a crazy and extraordinary place. It may have something to do with the fact that wagging our fingers and telling our Jews what they ought to care about doesn’t work. If it matters to you, jump in and show it. If it doesn’t – you probably didn’t get this far in my article.

    If you want the College-Institute to help you find a shidduch here in Israel to share your angst with, we’re keen to be involved. To face up to the folks you serve this year and talk about Israel, the prerequisite is not that you can drop names of generals and government ministers. That can be quite boring. The prerequisite is that you find a way in to deep engagement with Israel, and that you model it to those around you.

    But that’s just my view, and I already told you how you should relate to my advice!

    Shanah Tovah

     

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