Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reflections on the WRN

The question doesn't come up as often or as loudly as it once did. When it does come up, its tone isn't hostile as much as it is curious: "Why is there (still) a need for the Women's Rabbinic Network?" We can point to visible signs of our success. We don't need to fight for our voices to be heard within the CCAR. We don't need to fight for women to be hired on the HUC faculty. Our new CCAR president is a woman; our Israel campus has appointed its first female dean. Women rabbis are integrated into every level of the Conference and sit on every committee. Why, then, is there still a need for the WRN?
The WRN wasn't conceived as a way of achieving such lofty and concrete goals. It was born of necessity. Some would say it grew out of desperation No one was sure what to do with us (female rabbis) at the beginning and we didn't yet know how to make a place for ourselves. We were strangers in an institution whose maleness confronted us wherever we looked, from the lack of women's presence in ancient text to the absence of women on the faculty to the scarcity of women's bathrooms.
This was nobody's fault. It was just the way it happened. Once we realized that no one was charting a path for us, we chose to take charge of what was within our control. What we couldn't solve individually we hoped we might solve collectively. Looking back now, it seems we reflected the waves of the larger feminist movement. In the first wave, we found strength simply in being with each other, in sharing our stories, hopes, dreams and fears. In the second wave, we directed our energies toward more concrete goals of inclusion and integration into our institutions And in the third wave we began to look at our liturgy and our history through feminist eyes.
We found that our presence and our professional and personal choices began to impact our movement in ways we never could have imagined at first. And yet for all these successes, we still find as much meaning in being together today as we did at the start. The quality of despair is gone, but that old intimacy allows us now to ask deeper questions about our evolution over ten or twenty or thirty years of the rabbinate. We women rabbis are still experiencing the full cycle of the rabbinate for the first time. We have discovered that we are not done charting that path we began years ago. And we stand in solidarity with our female Israeli colleagues who face challenges uniquely their own yet somewhat reminiscent of our own experience. We learn from their experience as they learn from ours.
It is no failure of the CCAR that we continue to exist The WRN continues to exist because it meets a profound need that we can't always put into words. Should the time come when that need disappears, the WRN might well cease to exist. But it is also possible that new reasons will arise for the WRN's continuation, reasons that we can't now anticipate. It has happened before. If and until that time should come, we continue to cherish this community that was forged in desperation but that continues in friendship and love.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Reform Rabbis' Prayer Works: Rain in Israel after Months of Drought!

Ultra-orthodox pray for weeks for rain. No rain.

Three hundred and fifty Reform Rabbis from around the world gather in Jerusalem for prayer and study, inserting the prayer for rain in our prayers, and voila, rain comes.

Do I really believe that theology? No. But they do.

So I suppose, our prayer works...

Read more here.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

JPost Covers National Pluralistic Beit Midrash

The Jerusalem Post covered the National Pluralistic Beit Midrash (study day):

National Beit Midrash unites Israelis, North American Reform rabbis
Mar. 1, 2009

The conference hall was crowded with groups of four as far as the eye could see; the discussions impassioned, the excitement palpable. Hundreds of Jews - American and Israeli, men and women, religious and secular, new immigrants and sabras, right wing and left wing, sat with one another, intensely engaged in the sacred texts before them - studying, challenging and questioning one another and themselves.

The Batei Midrash Network, a group of pluralistic organizations dedicated to Jewish learning throughout Israel, hosted this landmark day of learning at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on Friday, the fourth day of the weeklong Central Conference of American Rabbis Jerusalem 2009 Convention.

The event brought together Israeli Batei Midrash members and a delegation of the American rabbis for a day of hevruta learning, the traditional mode of Jewish study dating back to talmudic times, involving textual analysis and discussion in small groups.

Friday's hevruta groups, each with two Israelis and two Americans, studied Shabbat, tradition, renewal and Israel-Diaspora relations. With more than 600 participants, this was the largest assemblage of its kind in the history of the young Beit Midrash movement in Israel.

For the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Beit Midrash was symbolic of the growth and success of the Progressive (Reform) Movement, and of Jewish pluralism as a whole in Israel. "People from all over Israel have come to Jerusalem to study with Reform rabbis," said Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the Central Conference.

Against the backdrop of the state's refusal to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, the event demonstrated the solidarity of the worldwide Reform movement, said Rabbi Miri Gold, who is currently embroiled in a fight with the government for recognition as rabbi of Congregation Birkat Shalom in Kibbutz Gezer.

"We have a long way to go," said Gold, citing the Boston Tea Party's slogan of "no taxation without representation," "but the existence of the Beit Midrash shows the strong presence of pluralistic Judaism in Israel, a presence that needs to be recognized."

"There has been longstanding, unfortunate discrimination, but we're being proactive, working on advocacy against it," said Rabbi Yoel Oseran, vice president of international development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

He said there was "clear evidence" of the movement's success in its newfound visibility: the large number of wedding ceremonies performed, the Progressive synagogues now in every major city in Israel despite lack of government funding, and the strong growth in their kindergarten programs. "Certainly the Beit Midrash is reflective of the direction of Reform Judaism and its growing embrace of Jewish scholarship," Oseran said.

"The goal of this convention is to engage experientially, in a meaningful way, Israel and Israelis. Today we created the largest national Beit Midrash, and with Torah and love of the Jewish people in common, we hope to forge meaningful personal connections," said Rabbi Donald Rosoff, chairman of the Central Conference convention committee.

The Reform American rabbis from the Central Conference studied alongside their Israeli hevruta partners, united by a dedication to Jewish learning and a belief in its relevance to contemporary concerns.

In hevrutot, "we find ways to integrate modern life and ancient text, bringing the wisdom, humor, philosophy, and halachot of the texts alive in our lives now," said Roni Yavin, the conference's Israel chairwoman. "We are maintaining the tradition of Jewish learning from talmudic times and bringing new life to the text at the same time. Israelis want to touch the Talmud themselves."

The rise of such Beit Midrash-style learning lies at the heart of Israel's growing Jewish Renewal (Hithadsut Yehudit) movement (no connection to the Jewish Renewal movement that began in North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s), in which people seek to "take more active responsibility for their Judaism," Yavin said.

From cities to kibbutzim and moshavim, Israel has seen a rise in Jewish Renewal activities: pluralistic study of Jewish texts in batei midrash, communal holiday celebrations and Kabalat Shabbat activities, not associated with specific streams of Judaism.

The Beit Midrash's planners hoped it would initiate a wider dialogue between the North American and Israeli Jews. "We hope this serves as a big bridge between our communities," said Yavin. "This process will enable many Israelis to create meaningful personal relationships with our deep and rich Jewish culture. It can enlighten and help us grapple with the existential questions and current challenges facing the individual and the general Jewish public in Israel and abroad."

"In the past, Israelis thought that Americans would come here to learn from them. It's been my experience that Israelis now understand the mifgash [encounter] is two ways, and that's really inspiring. Lilmod ulelamed [to learn and to teach] each other," said Michael Weinberg, the Central Conference's chairman of the Beit Midrash.

A number of conference participants attributed the rise of the Jewish Renewal movement to a perceived void and spiritual yearning among secular Israelis. The uptick in mainstream hevruta study and similar activities "symbolizes an evolving Israel," said Rabbi Mary Zamore of Westfield, New Jersey. "Those who are secular recognize something is missing from their lives. They are yearning for text, yahadut [Judaism], and realize they can do that and still be modern and educated at the same time."

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto, who runs Kolel, one of the few such batei midrash in North America, sees a parallel lack there, and hopes to spur the transplantation of similar institutions overseas.

"As much as Israelis realize they need an outlet for spirituality, American Jews are feeling the same way and saying, 'You know what, I don't know that much about Judaism, and I'm not willing to go to a place where there's only one point of view presented.'"

The Batei Midrash Network, which was established in 2003 by five batei midrash, now includes 21 of Israel's 30 Beit Midrash organizations. More than 3,000 Israelis take part in Batei Midrash Network's yearlong programs, and 10,000 participate in its short-term programs.

It is primarily supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Avi Chai Foundation, and the Metro-West Federation of New Jersey.

Hebrew is Palpitating My Heart

There’s another aspect of being in Israel that palpitates my heart. Hebrew. Danny Siegel, poet and tzedakah (charitable giving) champion, once wrote the poem, Hebrew:

I’ll tell you how much I love Hebrew:
Read me anything Genesis,
or an ad in an Israeli paper, and watch my face.
I will make half sounds of ecstasy,
and my smile will be so enormously sweet
you would think some angels were singing Psalms
or God alone was reciting to me.
I am crazy for her Holiness
and each restaurant’s menu in Yerushalayim or Bialik poem
gives me peace no Dante or Milton or Goethe could give.
I have heard Iliads of poetry, Omar Khayyam in Farsi,
and Virgil sung as if the poet himself were coaching the reader.
And they move me
But not like the train schedule from Haifa to Tel Aviv
or a choppy unsyntaxed note from a student
who got half the grammar I taught him all wrong
but remembered to write with Alefs and Zayins and Shins.
That’s the way I am.
I’d rather hear the weather report on Kol Yisrael
than all the rhythms and music of Shakespeare.

This poem captures one scrumptious aspect of my trip to Israel. Being immersed in Hebrew. Having spent two full years in Israel (post-High School gap year, and first year of Rabbinic School), I learned enough Hebrew to be semi-fluent (at least as far as conversations about eating, politics, religion and day-to-day living). But I was self-conscious enough to let my Hebrew slide. Then, a year ago, I hired a Hebrew tutor to meet me once weekly at a local coffee shop, so that I could talk and hear Hebrew. We graduated to some reading of newspapers and stories. Then she brought me a book in simple Hebrew (Shlosha Yamim Vayeled – Three Days and a Boy) and I surprised myself by plowing through it very quickly. Now as I journey around Jerusalem and the rest of the country, I relish opportunities to speak, read and immerse myself in the Holy Tongue. (I recently wrote about my Love Affair with the Holy Tongue here).

It is important to me, as a Jew and a Rabbi, to be able to communicate in our people’s language. So I traded family histories with the taxi driver in Hebrew. I spent a morning studying with Israelis in the Pluralistic Beit Midrash (study session) all in Hebrew. I am tantalized by the Hebrew in the signs for auto parts or housewares. I find myself eavesdropping on the conversations in the Beit CafĂ© (coffee shop), because the Israelis’ Hebrew is finally becoming intelligible. The news on the radio, in Hebrew (speaking still a bit too quickly for me), challenges me to deepen my command of the language. Though most Israelis want to speak with me in English, I respond to them in Hebrew. I can pretty much get along solely in Hebrew. Very cool.

While English was the main language of the CCAR convention, but true to our commitment to the Holy Tongue, our program committee raised up the offerings in Hebrew. Our CCAR convention offered a plethora of opportunities to study texts in Hebrew, to interact with Israelis in Hebrew, and to pray only in Hebrew. In short, so many American Reform Rabbis are fluent in Hebrew – thanks to our mandatory first year of study in Jerusalem. Because we recognize that the Hebrew language connects Jews everywhere as one people.
By the way, the picture is of me and Rabbi Rick Winer (who blogs at Divrei Derech). I'm the good looking one (on the right).

The final day - Israel today and tomorrow

The day began with more rain and even a little snow. Jerusalem and snow is gorgeous and exciting - maybe only for those of us who love snow.

Israelis, such as David Horowitz, said that the Reform rabbis must have brought the rain and since in the past two days we have had 1/25 of the rain they need, we need to stay until April.

The group divided into a number of different groups to discuss issues in Israel life. I joined the group dealing with Israel and Iran. Truly an intriguing program that will help produce a few sermons.

We then made our way to a new moshav outside of Jerusalem. We were told they chose this place because of the amazing view, but we arrived and the facility was still in the low clouds. However, throughout lunch the clouds lifted and there was an ah-hah moment of an incredible view.

Lunch included speeches by MK Pines from the Labor party and editor from the Jerusalem Post, David Horwitz. He spent his time sharing with us his views regarding Gaza, the elections, and Iran.

Ach-reeyut-tyeeyut - the closest word in Hebrew that there is for "accountability" yet it means "responsibility-ness." This we learn in regard to the Israel government.

For 61 years Israel has survived and thrived. There may not be huge amounts of natural resources, but there are many human resources that make this country strong. And with our partnership we can continue to ensure the strength of Israel.

-- Post From My iPhone in Israel

Reflections at the closing lunch by Joel Abraham

Fifteen years ago, I lived here in Jerusalem with my classmates, many of whom are here. I was here for the last convention in 2002. I have attended each convention since my ordination and enjoyed each one - the learning, the chevrutah, meeting and interacting with different colleagues. However, this convention has been different. There has been a shared experience and a camaraderie that goes beyond any previous CCAR. Kol hakavod to Naamah and to Don and the whole convention committee.

Joel N. Abraham

-- Post From Heidi's iPhone in Israel

Final day begins

Here we begin our final day of the CCAR conference. This will be a day to discuss politics here in Israel and our neighbors. But before we begin, Joe has asked to be on the blog. So Joe, this is for you.

-- Post From My iPhone in Israel

Saturday, February 28, 2009

What a Shabbat!

This has been an amazing Shabbat!

The drive to Haifa finally brought us to our destination of both congregations, Or Hadash and Ohel Avraham. I, along with three others, were dropped off at Ohel Avraham at the Leo Baeck school in Haifa.

The congregation was very warm and welcomed the four rabbis from America with open arms. The rabbi is a student from HUC in Jerusalem and a former Orthodox rabbi who served in the Israel army and decided to go the Reform movement route. He was amazingly warm and connected with all of his congregants on so many levels. And this was one interactive congregation. They participated in all the singing and would not let the congregational president get through announcements without commenting on each one. A very relaxed and happy-to-be-together congregation.

So much so that there were more families that wanted to host the four of us that they decided to have a pot luck Shabbat dinner at the center. This was wonderful in that it allowed us to interact with many more members and get a true flavor of the community.

I broke out the chocolate I brought for our hosts and the adults suggested that the youth might be interested in some. I took it down to them in the other area of the lounge and saw that they were on the computer. What were they doing? Facebook, what else. I now have new friends from Haifa!

The ride back to Jerusalem was half as long and comfortable enough for a little shluffy.

Shabbat morning services were breathtaking. Not only the services themselves as we welcomed Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus as the next CCAR President, but also with where the services were held. Here we sat at Beit Shmuel on the HUC campus. Let's hear it for those in our movement who had the foresight and courage to buy land directly across from the snipers on the walls of the old city for $100! We now have the best piece of real estate with an incredible view of the old city. Rabbi Janet Marder gave an amazing interpretation to the Haftarah for the week, with a description of Solomon building the temple and one could really imagine the walls and temple being constructed over a seven year period. The clouds above the city walls were magnificent and majestic. Mi Chamocha baeleem Adonai, Mi Camocha neder bakodesh!

We concluded with a Shabbat lunch and my favorite part - roll call! I love to see each class cheer as their graduation year is called and to see how far back our rabbis reach. This year we were blessed with two rabbis from 1945!

As soon as Shabbat comes to an end, the streets are alive again with cars and people. They are heading out to restaurants and cafes for an evening with family and friends - and the CCAR participants were no exception.

It was a wonderful evening of dinner and great conversations about how we can take all that we have experienced back to our congregations and communities. How do we teach about the importance of Israel, not only from the perspective of the sand and stones, but Israel today? How do we share with the next generation why Israel is so important to us as American Reform Jews and that we should care about this land that is home to half of the Jewish population in the world? How do we share what we feel here with everyone when we return home? This is our mission (as Shaul Feinberg reminded a group of us - that being a rabbi is not a job, it's a mission) and we take this mission seriously and with pride.

Tomorrow, one final morning of learning and gathering, and then to our congregational families we return. We have been blessed to be here this week and I would like to say thank you to my congregational family for always supporting me in finding opportunities for spiritual and professional growth. Now, may I bring it back to share with all of you.

Shavua Tov from Jerusalem,

From Rabbi Ellen Lewis - Being Part of Women at the Wall

My first visit to the Western Wall was in 1974. It was jarring. Those idealized photos of the Wall, the ones so familiar to me from the walls of suburban New Jersey homes when I was growing up, hadn't included a mechitza.

And so I hadn't anticipated how conflicted I would feel the first time I stood on the women's side of the mechitza. The men's side seemed to reverberate with song and Torah chant; the women's side was filled with muffled praying and quiet sobbing. The men's side grabbed strangers and pulled them into minyanim; the women's side left each woman alone with her private longings and celebrations.

I tried a few more times to find in the Wall what others seemed to find but the only relationship I was able to achieve was some kind of an uncomfortable truce.

About ten years later, I returned to Israel on a UJA rabbinic mission. The custom then (unknown to me at the time) was to visit the Wall late at night for a final emotional bonding experience before departing for a night flight home from Ben Gurion.

The bus dropped us off at the Wall. The male rabbis headed straight for the Wall and immediately began davening together; the two or three of us women just stood there and looked at each other, wondering what to do. If the goal of that mission was to reinforce a sense of "We are One," then the mission had failed in its aim, at least for the three of us.

I never quite got over that feeling of conflict the Wall inspired in me. I wanted to love it but couldn't. Then today,something changed. We left the hotel at 6:45 a.m. to join with the Women of the Wall in celebrating their 20th anniversary. We - men and women - filled two buses.

At the Wall, the women entered the women's side and stood toward the rear. After warning us that her voice wasn't loud, the shalichat tzibur began to pray. Our participation was quiet until we reached the Hallel. Our prayer leader told us to stop and take a breath. Then we began to sing the psalms together, tentatively at first, then louder and stronger. Suddenly people approached us and began to yell at us. "Aten gevarim!" was only one of the insults I heard. "Assur!" was another.

But we were more determined to ignore their voices and continue in prayer than we were to respond or fight back. Our prayers were our armor and our strength. We persisted, joyously and collectively, until we completed Hallel and heaved a communal sigh of relief. Then we moved to another area of the Wall excavation and finished the service.

I have always loved the Hallel but today its words took on an added meaning. I finally felt like I was a part of something at the Wall. And close behind us and next to us behind the mechitza stood our male colleagues, joining their voices with ours in prayer and supporting us in our attempt to make the Wall our place, too.

Mishenichnas Adar, marbim b'simcha. Today our happiness was that much the greater.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Shabbat Bliss in Ra'anana

Tonight we divided up among numerous Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) synagogues across the country for Shabbat services and dinner. I didn't have a particular connection to any synagogue and wanted to go somewhere suburban like my own synagogue. So I ended up in R'anana, an affluent north Tel Aviv suburb. The beautiful synagogue is led by Rabbi Tamar Kolberg.
Services were lively and bright. Naturally, all in Hebrew, the songs and prayers and melodies were almost all very familiar and it was delightful to join in such an energized community. I did note we started 20 minutes late and most of the people didn't arrive until 20 minutes after that, but it was a great place to pray. The synagogue is fast growing - they do 150 b'nai mitzvah a year, for example. That brings in thousands of Israelis as guests to experience and learn more about Reform Judaism.
After services, we went in groups of 2 and 3 to members' homes for dinner. I went to Ruth and Francis Wood. They are a British couple who made Aliyah in the 1980s. All 3o of their children were home for Sabbath dinner. The eldest (24) was there with her fiance (who is from Ukraine) and is currently in University. The second (22) has continued her army service and is an officer on intelligence work. The youngest (18) has been in the army for just two months and he was on a rare opportunity to come home.
With all 5 family members native to English (the kids could equally slip in their perfect Hebrew), we had a chance to explore all sorts of issues one never gets to ask about directly from Army service to politics (US and Israel) to being the children of immigrants to much more. The close quarters and intimacy were tremendous and the family was generous with their thoughts and sharing.
I did get an answer to a small question I have always wondered. The 3 children have British accents in their English - although they say their British family doesn't think so at all. I asked when they spoke English to their Israeli friends, did they speak with that accent. They told me that they intentionally put on an Israeli accent to talk in English because their Israeli friends have trouble understanding the British-accented English. While the BBC and specific teaching programs once dominated the accents of English speakers in Israelis, the dominance of American television and movies means most every Israeli learning English has more of an English accent - but one's parents also make a tremendous difference.
We gave up the grandeur of a big Friday service and dinner. We'll get that tomorrow with services and lunch together. Instead we continued this trip's excellent process of getting us to meet and learn from Israelis in small groups and we are the better for it.

Shabbat Shalom!