Tag Archives: Jerusalem

This Land is Your Land…

Some thoughts about Israel after our recent congregational trip, expressed in my Shabbat sermon from 7/1/17 –

Just back from Israel – the Beth El trip – and to travel to Israel today is to both step back into the past, and also to look forward into the future.   The past – both ancient and recent –  is everywhere in Israel.  In the north we stood in an excavated synagogue from the year 350 the CE, knowing that 1700 years ago Jews came together in that space to recite the words of the Shema, to listen to the reading of the Torah, to celebrate the festivals and Shabbat.  On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem we saw the remains of burnt out tanks and transport vehicles.  They have been rusting in the hot sun since the War of Independence in 1948, still pock marked with the bullet holes of Arab guns trying to prevent the Jews from bringing supplies to their brothers and sisters in Israel’s most sacred city.

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem we traveled back 4000 years as we looked at artifacts from the early Canaanite settlements in the land, and saw an Israelite altar that was in use 2000 years ago.  But we also saw the Ayalon bullet factory from the mid 40s, where young Jews from the early days of the Yishuv ingeniously hid an entire bullet factory underneath a laundry mat, less than a half a mile from a major British post.  These Jews – 19, 20, 21 years old – risked their lives every day to manufacture the ammunition that would enable the first Jewish soldiers in the modern era to defend their homeland.  The entrance to the underground factory is located underneath a movable laundry machine, and to climb down into it is to have an immediate sense of the unique blend of genius, courage, and hutzpah that defines Israel to this very day.

But Israel does not feel in any way like an ancient or outdated place.  In fact, just the opposite.  The vibrant energy of Tel Aviv, with its sky scrapers and beach front bars and cafes is palpable and feels entirely fresh and modern.  If you have any doubts they are put to rest as you drive north along the Mediterranean coast, and see the huge buildings with names like Intel and Microsoft on them.  This is Israel’s version of Silicon Valley, and inside those buildings Israeli scientists and engineers are creating and perfecting technology that will make the entire world a better place for all.  As we drove we saw the foundation of the new mag lev train track that is supposed to open in 2019.  It will enable people to travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 15 minutes time.  Imagine that!  You will literally be able to live in Tel Aviv and work in Jerusalem, or vice versa.

Imagine that!  From the shore of the Mediterranean to the hills of Jerusalem in 15 minutes.  For our ancestors in ancient times that would have been a trek of many days, possibly even weeks.  They would have made that journey multiple times a year, particularly for the 3 pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  After a long, hot, and difficult journey they would have arrived in Jerusalem with a deep sense of gratitude, hope, and faith.

Today the way we reach Jerusalem has entirely changed.  Whether on a maglev train, or a bus, or arriving from some foreign land on a great plane filled with people, we  can get from point A to point B in ways our ancestors never could have imagined.  But for all of our technology, for all of the wonders of the modern world, the human heart is still the same.  And I suspect the emotions we feel as modern travelers when we come around a bend and see the city of Jerusalem – the city of gold –  laid out before us – how that touches our soul, how that feels in our heart – is very much the same way it felt to our ancestors thousands of years ago.  The gratitude.  The sense of God’s presence.  The connection to the history of our people.  Those things have not changed for the pilgrim – they are as strong as they have ever been.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with the Israelites camped across the Jordon River, within sight of the ancient city of Jericho.  For the rest of the Torah, through the last chapters of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy, they will remain in that place, looking across the river – westward – toward the land they have been promised by God.  Jericho lies before them as both a challenge and an incentive – a challenge in that they know it must be conquered before the land is theirs, and an incentive because they see that great cities can be built in this new land they are about to enter.

It was just a little more than a week ago that we drove by Jericho, winding our way down through the hills that lead from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.  We were on our way to Masada, the legendary ancient fortress of Jewish heroism, in the south.  As we passed Jericho and turned to the right, the Jordon River was in front of us, and across it the very place where the Torah tells us Moses bade the Israelites make camp.

It is a strange thing to think about, but Moses never left that camp.  He stayed there, with the Israelites, until the very end of his life when God told him to ascend Mt Nebo, where he had one last view of a Promised Land he knew he would never enter.  He had spent his entire life working towards a goal that only others would realize.  The people would cross over, a Jewish homeland would be established, a Jewish monarchy would come into being, Jewish sovereignty would be lived and breathed for generations, but Moses saw none of it.

Or did he?  There is a well known midrashic legend that God gave Moses a parting gift, just before his death.  When God took him to the top of the mountain where he breathed his last God showed him not only the Promised Land, not only the physical space, the hills and mountains and vineyards and orchards and valleys, but also the future of that land.  The great triumphs, the building of the Temple, the establishment of an Israelite nation, as well as the tragedies, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the people.

Thinking about that legend, I wonder if Moses knew that one day I would be blessed to enter that land, that I would one hot day be riding in a bus, with a group of tired and yet excited and fulfilled Baltimoreans, many of them experiencing Israel for the very first time.  Did he know then that some 3500 years after he stood at the far side of the Jordon, looking towards this land, that the land of Israel would still be the heart and soul of the Jewish people?  Whether he knew or not, whether the legend is true or not, I don’t know.  But I do know this – if Moses, in his vision, saw today’s Israel, he would have been deeply grateful and proud.

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A Dancing Camel?

Like Ahab pursuing his mythic white whale, I’ve been on the lookout for Dancing Camel beer since my arrival in Israel now some 10 days ago.  I’ve been close a couple of times – once today, at the shuk (Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem), where I’ve found the Dancing Camel beer line before.  And before that a number of days ago when I was in Tel Aviv just a half a mile from the brewery/restaurant itself, only to discover that it opened later in the day, and my schedule would not permit waiting.  In both cases the Camel eluded my grasp, slipping away just as I thought I had it in my sights.

But full confession – my disappointment has been tempered by the craft beer scene here in Israel, which is exploding.  There are dozens of breweries, producing hundreds of beers, a number of them quite good.  From Dancing Camel in Tel Aviv to Shapiro Beer in Jerusalem, from Malka in the north to Herzl Brewing with its  ‘blibical beer,’ Israeli brewers are perfecting their craft and producing a variety of stouts, porters, IPAs, dubels, and wheat beers that are delicious and truly worthy of the ‘craft beer’ designation.

Just a few examples:

We emerged from our tour of Akko with its Crusader period ruins, through a gift shop (of course!) and out into a tiny alleyway that leads back to the main square.  Just a few steps down the alley and you’ll find a small Malka Beer ‘tied house.’  The tart and citrusy IPA was a perfect thirst quencher on a hot day of touring.

Or the shuk itself!  Mahane Yehuda can try the patience of a saint on a Friday afternoon, but these days it is filled with tiny bars and pubs where you can cool off, cool down, have a nosh, and of course drink Israeli craft beer.  I watched the undulating sea of shoppers jostling along the market’s narrow thoroughfares while sipping a fruity Pale Ale made by  Shapiro Brewing in Jerusalem.  With a palate scorched by the IPA/DIPA craze in the Sates, this pale ale was a welcome throwback to the nascent days of the American micro scene and beers like Geary’s Pale Ale and the original version of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  What better way to wash down felafel in pita?

Last but not least the Glen Whisk(e)y Bar, located in the heart of Jerusalem (Shlomtziyon HaMalka 18), just a short walk from the Mamilla Mall.  In a room the size of many American kitchens the owner of this classic bar has assembled one of the largest whisky collections in Israel.  But don’t forget about the beer!  15 taps, all pouring Israeli craft beers, the lines well maintained, the beer served to perfection, the pints filled to your heart’s content.  My only complaint?  Even there, at Jerusalem’s beer mecca, there was not a Dancing Camel to be found.

Just one more reason to come back to Israel soon!  Cheers, or should I say l’chayyim!


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Sharing Truth

There will be anger and outrage from certain segments of the community about the Israeli government’s decision to create a pluralistic area of the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. Israel’s government should not stand for only one stream of Judaism, and it should not enforce a single religious ideology. Israel is the “Jewish state,” and if so, all of Judaism’s expressions should feel welcome and respected. I look forward to being in that pluralistic area some day soon and experiencing the kind of Judaism I live every day, where women participate fully, where all types of Jews are welcome and all viewpoints respected. Can you imagine minyanim at the Kotel with men and women participating together and equally? With women reading from the Torah and leading the prayers without being heckled or attacked? With Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist groups visiting from the States and being able to enjoy their style of service without constantly looking over their shoulders? Can you imagine that? Soon you won’t have to, it will simply be reality.

In the meantime, when bitter arguments arise, let us remember that at the end of the day no one holds the sure truth in their hands. No one knows with absolute surety what God wants, how God wants us to act, who God prefers. It is all just a best guess, and often even less. And in guessing we should be humble, we should remember we might be wrong. Are there great issues at stake? Perhaps. But we should remember that even if that is the case the tradition is clear that God wants us to resolve these issues together. Didn’t Rabbi Joshua walk to Rabban Gamaliel’s home on the day he, Joshua, thought was Yom Kippur? (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, 2:8-9)

Yes it is easier to claim the truth and stand by that claim. To believe that what you do is what God wants, to think that with every action properly taken you are in some way fulfilling God’s will. But I choose to live in a more difficult space, where doubt often trumps surety. Where someone else might be right when I am wrong. Or perhaps better expressed, where someone else might be right while I am also right. The challenge is simply this: to look across the way and say: your truth is real, and valid, even if it is not mine. And then to maintain hope that one day another will look back and say the same to me.

You might ask, what kind of place is it where there are multiple truths, where two ideas that are different can be equally true and valid and meaningful expressions of God’s will? And I would say in response – that is God’s place.

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Our Spring Israel Trip

this a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (3/28) reflecting on our recent trip to Israel –

The image of an altar is at the center of this morning’s Torah portion.  The text is mostly a description of an ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons, preparing them for service to the Israelite community as priests.  The ritual is conducted around an altar, with three sacrifices offered, and the sprinkling of blood, both onto the altar itself and onto Aaron and his sons.  It is not surprising that the altar would be a central image – as an object, it was a crucial component of the ancient sacrificial system, that was practiced by our ancestors until the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed, some 2000 years ago.

The altar that our ancestors used for their worship is described in great detail in the Torah.  It was to be made of stone, un-hewed, to be of a certain size, and perhaps most interestingly to have four horns, one at each of its corners, emerging from the flat surface of the top.  Just a little over a week ago I was in Jerusalem with the 47 people who traveled on the Beth El trip that returned this week, and we had the opportunity to spend an hour and a half or so in the Israel Museum, one of the great museums in the world, and certainly containing one of the finest antiquities collections anywhere.  As I wandered around the museum I rounded a corner, and standing right in front of me was an altar, found at the excavations in the south of Israel, in Beer Sheva, constructed exactly as the Torah describes it – the stone construction, the dimensions, and most noticeably the four stone horns sticking up from the corners.

That altar in the museum is about 3,000 years old, and coming face to face with it, the very week when we began reading the book of Leviticus, with its focus on the sacrificial system, reminded me of the concrete reality of the Bible, the historical memory of the text, in a way that simply cannot happen here in the States.  Of course if you’ve been to Israel you know these experiences happen on an almost daily basis.  The apartment where Joseph Caro wrote the Shulhan Aruch is in Safed.  The stones of the Roman streets where Rabbi Akiva walked are still in Jerusalem.  The ancient synagogues, the villages from the talmudic period, the list could go on and on.  One does not read about Jewish history, or study Jewish history, in Israel – one lives it, walks on it, touches and feels it, lives and breathes it.  There is nothing else like it.

And if ancient Israel doesn’t overwhelm you, modern Israel certainly will.  I’ve been to Israel seven times in the last 10 years, and each time I arrive the skyline of Tel Aviv has changed, new sky scrapers emerging one after another after another.  The sleek light rail now runs noiselessly in Jerusalem.  A high speed train is being built so commuters can get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in about 25 minutes.  We visited an Israel tank unit that was stationed on the Lebanese border, and the young soldiers proudly told us their tanks were the most advanced in the world.   Google and Intel have strong presences in Israel, and all over the world people use apps – like Waze, for example, the popular traffic and direction app – that have been created by Israelis in Israel.

But in my mind the moments that stay with you, the moments that touch you in the deepest way, are the human moments, the interactions with people that remind you of the special spark and spirit in the people of Israel that have made all of what I described above possible.  Let me briefly share with you three such moments that we experienced.

The first was election day.  We were in Tel Aviv, and we took a walking tour through the city that day.  Election day is a holiday in Israel – most businesses and museums are closed.  There was a festive atmosphere in the air as we walked through the streets.  Polling stations were buzzing with activity, and as we walked by campaign workers handed us flyers praising one party or another.  Everyone was excited, invested in the election, talking about the parties and candidates, and in true Israeli style holding no punches.  Some wanted this candidate, some wanted that candidate.  Some were Bibi fans, others not so much.  What was striking about it to me was how different it felt than an American election day.  There was a sense of joy to it all, and in a way it felt like a celebration of the country itself, and an affirmation of its democratic character and values.  And maybe that is why close to %80 of Israelis voted that day.  This was Israel at its best, expressed through its people – vibrant, filled with energy and joy, with a palpable spirit of optimism and hope in the air.

Vignette number 2.  We visited the city of Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, and spent a morning at Netzach Yisrael, a Masorti, or Conservative synagogue there.  We were welcomed warmly, and sat watching the congregation’s rabbi and its teachers conduct a morning learning service with the pre-schoolers.  They prayed, they sang, they laughed.  The teachers put on a wonderful mini-play about Moses that completely captivated the children.  Few things bring joy to the heart like the singing voices of young children, and in this case, with their enthusiasm, and of course with everything in Hebrew, everyone in the group was touched.  Afterwards, we spent time with members of the congregation who generously shared their stories with us.  There was a woman in her 90s who made aliyah from New York now almost 40 years ago.  There was a young man from Cuba who made aliyah just a few weeks ago.  And we were treated to a wonderful surprise – Hannah Deoul, a young woman in her early 20s who grew up at Beth El and had her bat mitzvah here, came to meet us.  She made aliyah 6 months ago, lives in Ashkelon, and who was recently named coach of the under 19 Israeli women’s national lacrosse team.  She was beaming from ear to ear as she told us about how much she loved being in Israel, and as a rabbi who was at her bat mitzvah not so many years ago, I can tell you our entire congregation should be proud.

Last but not least I return to the Israeli tank unit we met in the north.  These young soldiers, 18 and 19 years old, flocked around us as we asked them questions about their jobs, their backgrounds, and their families.  They were gregarious, happy to talk, and probably glad to have a brief break in their daily routine.  They were in turn playful and serious, with the souls of boys, silly, jumping in front of one another when we took pictures.  But they have the responsibility of men, guarding their country at its northern border, a responsibility I can assure you they take seriously and perform with great distinction.

They invited us to climb on top of their tanks, which a number of us did, although  we were told to please not take pictures.  Dr. Bor took out his clarinet and played some Israeli music, and then the Cantor, who was standing on one of the tanks, spontaneously began to sing Hatikvah in his powerful voice.  Suddenly everyone joined in, our congregants, Jews from Baltimore in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s, and the young Israeli soldiers, singing together.  We knew in that instant that although we live in different places, and have had in many ways very different lives, we are truly connected as part of one people – Am Israel –  sharing a hope and dream for a future of peace for all people.  As you may imagine, there was not a dry eye.

So there you have it.  A brief snapshot of our trip, and perhaps of Israel as well.  May the hopes that we all have for her truly be fulfilled.  And one day soon, may she know a world where the hearts of all people are turned towards one another in peace.

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If I Forget You O Jerusalem…

I’ve never been a big fan of metrics, but sometimes the numbers are so significant that you must pay attention to them. My congregation has an active FB page, with over 700 ‘likes,’ and a common post will garner 2-350 hits. On Sunday morning I posted a text version of the sermon I delivered on Shabbat. It was about the current situation in Israel and the idea that the real threat to Israel is not physical, but rather spiritual and moral. So far, the post has been clicked on more than 2000 times. Something is going on here. The question is, what?
The obvious answer is that Jews are deeply concerned about Israel right now. The missiles continue to fall, Israelis are constantly scrambling for the nearest bomb shelter, and Israeli soldiers are losing their lives in Gaza. The Jewish community is worried, frustrated, scared, and angry, and any information about Israel, any column, any article, any – sermon – is being devoured with an unusual level of interest. Israel is on the radar screen. It is front and center in the mind of the average Jew. Add to that the fact that when the ‘matzav’ (situation) is as it is, people want to know what their rabbi thinks about it, and voila – 2,000 plus clicks!
But I think there is also an additional layer that is part of the dynamic, maybe for the first time, or at least the first time on a large scale. And that is that people feel conflicted. Publicly they staunchly support Israel, they go to pro-Israel rallies, they call their elected officials to make sure that Israel is being supported. But privately, in small conversations, in their own minds and hearts, in the office of their rabbi, they tell a different story: they are worried about Israel, but they are also disturbed by the loss of civilian life in Gaza.
I can hear already the cries of “blasphemer!” This is something that shouldn’t be said, let alone written! But it seems to me a person can be concerned about the civilians of Gaza and still support Israel’s right to defend itself. Is that easy? Perhaps not. But is it possible? Yes. And I would even argue it is necessary.
Why? Because that concern, at the end of the day, comes from the same place that our love for Israel comes from – a deeply Jewish place. A place of morality, of understanding intuitively that ALL human beings are created in the image of God, a place of concern for justice and a true, deep, and powerful yearning for peace.
Jerusalem we will never forget. Not now. Not ever. In knowing that perhaps we can realize that there is space to consider, and to remember, even more.

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Lego’s Place in Hebrew School

This past Sunday my congregation ran a fabulous program for our younger Hebrew school students.  Together with their parents and grandparents they gathered in our auditorium and spent the better part of 3 hours building a scale model of Jerusalem from Lego.  Yes, you read that correctly – the little multi-colored plastic building blocks that children love to play with.  Families worked in teams, building individual buildings, or the walls and gates of the Old City.  The project was oriented by a large map of the city as it looked in ancient times, with some modern touches added.  It was magical to watch Jerusalem come together before our very eyes as each building found its place on the map.  When the city was together the project leader gave a ‘tour’ of Jerusalem, with literally hundreds of parents, grandparents, and children surrounding the now three dimensional map.

The energy in the room was palpable.  Compliments were flying left and right.  What a terrific event!  What a fantastic program!  This is what a shul is all about!  And I have no doubt the students emerged from the experience with a deeper knowledge of and connection to Jerusalem.  This is not your father’s Hebrew school!  But it certainly does reflect a growing trend in after school Jewish education.  There is an increased focus on ‘experiential’ learning, and a deceased emphasis on traditional classroom learning.  Doing is in – building, cooking, hiking, rope climbing, canoeing, arts and crafts.  Sitting in a class room?  Not so much.

On the one hand, I get it.  We are in a competitive market place.  Mostly our competition is fun.  Soccer and lacrosse.  Dance.  Music lessons.  So we feel a need to keep up, and to put out a ‘product’ that fits in well with people’s expectations.  On the other hand, I confess I am a bit worried.  I still want the students in my congregation’s Hebrew School to know how to read Hebrew (at least fairly well), to be able to participate in a service, to know the fundamental stories from the Hebrew Bible, and to understand how the Jewish calendar works.  Experiential learning can help students with some of that, and maybe even all of it.  But at a certain point the old classroom model has to come in to play.  How will kids learn the language?  Acquire the davening skills?  Know the history of the Jewish people?

One of the great challenges for the Jewish community today is finding the right balance in the equation.  Make it fun, experiential, doing oriented, but don’t leave out the hard work of learning a language, of the study of sacred texts – as texts!  Or the  – dare I say it? – memorization of certain key prayers!    We need to give our young people more than just good feelings about Judaism and memories of fun activities with their friends.  We need to give them knowledge that they can use to live meaningful, engaged, and connected Jewish lives.  Some of that will come from the experiences we craft for them.  But some of it will come the old fashioned way.  After all, they call us the People of the Book, not the People of the iPad.

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The Bible’s Liberal Politics

Each year on Christmas Day the New York Times runs a short phrase at the top of its front page, in green lettering:  Its Christmas – Remember the Neediest.  This is a reflection of a traditional religious idea – on days that are set aside to remember and reflect, to be glad and grateful, to be sensitive to the blessings we have in life, we should remember those less fortunate, and in that remembering make sure to do something to help improve their lot in life.

In Judaism this value can be seen in the connection of holiday celebrations and the giving of charity (צדקה).  On Purim and Passover we are expected to give to the needy, and in modern times the High Holy Day period has become one connected to a variety of charitable appeals, from the synagogue’s annual to Israel Bonds and just about everything in between.

This impulse without question goes back to the Bible itself.  In the Hebrew Bible we are warned again and again to care for the marginalized – the orphan, widow, and stranger.  Those who cannot care for themselves, who need some extra help to live a proper and dignified life.  It is ironic that in today’s polarized political climate, with so many conservative groups so closely identifying with the Bible and their understanding of its values, the initial impulse of the text was both progressive and what we would call today ‘liberal.’

Consider the following biblical concepts:  there should be a sliding scale fee for poor people who need to access the sacrificial system in Jerusalem (Leviticus 5);  financial transactions should be legislated and regulated (in terms of charging interest (Exodus 22 and other places) and in terms of the full remission of debt every 50 years (Leviticus 25)); a persons of means is commanded to return an item a poor person gave them as a loan guarantee if the item is essential to that person’s dignity and comfort (Deuteronomy 24); and the list could go on and on.  On the macro level, it is clear that one of the Hebrew Bible’s overarching concerns is the prevention of a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.

As holidays come and go in our various faith traditions, we are reminded in our celebration of those days to not forget the needy.  The Bible would extend that message, for in its hundreds of laws as well as in its central values is a message – the needy should not only be remembered on sacred days, but on every day.

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