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November 2010
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January 2011

Parenthood and prayer - at Zeek

I'm closing out my 2010 with an essay in Zeek on parenthood and prayer (written before my VR post Prayer life changes -- I think the two essays work well together to address different facets of parenthood and spiritual life.)

I interviewed my friend Yafa Chase for this essay, too. She'll be ordained a rabbi alongside me next Sunday, and her daughter is six, so between us we have a variety of experiences of mama spiritual life! Here's a taste of the essay:

For a while, I could only daven b’tzibbur (in community) if I wore Drew on my chest in a sling or if I were willing to leave the sanctuary to nurse, listening to the singing from the next room. And davening alone at home seemed implausible: the morning routine of waking, nursing the baby, changing the baby, pumping milk to keep my supply up, nursing the baby, sitting still while the baby napped on me, somehow finding a way to eat breakfast and to shower—it was all too overwhelming. I didn’t daven alone until Drew started daycare at six months.

The first time I donned tefillin again was when Drew was six months old...

Read the whole thing: Parenthood and prayer. Enjoy -- and a happy (secular) new year to all!

Yuletide treasures

A few years ago I made a post called What if we give it away? which explores the idea (riffing off of Lewis Hyde) that blogging, like poetry and like media fandom, is a gift economy. My friend Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries suggested in the comments to that post that what I was describing is actually more of a creative barter system than a system of pure gifts. Call it by either name; what I think is neat is that community can be created and strengthened through the open exchange of story and idea, written word and response.

I'm blessed to belong to a few different communities which operate on this model. One of them is the community which puts on the annual rare-fandoms story exchange officially named While We Tell of Yuletide Treasure, though most of us call it simply Yuletide. I've seen a few pieces about it (like the recent Yuletide: Stories About (Seriously) Everything), but they don't say quite what I want to say, so I figured I'd write my own.

The Yuletide story exchange began in 2003 with about 200 participants. Originally, Yuletide was a fanfiction exchange for rare fandoms -- which is to say, story universes which don't have many stories written in them -- and also for rare characters and pairings within non-rare fandoms. For instance: in the first year of the exchange, one could write Yuletide stories set in rare fandoms, or stories centering around secondary characters in big fandoms like Harry Potter. But that became too hard to manage, so in its second year, Yuletide became a story exchange centering around rare fandoms, period.

(If "fanfiction" is an unfamiliar term for you, here's a good definition. Fanfiction is very much like the Jewish communal art of midrash, telling stories which interpret, explore, and explain a shared source-text -- only instead of the source-text being Torah, it can be almost anything. For more on that, I've got an essay coming out in Religion & Literature in 2011; stay tuned!)

Continue reading "Yuletide treasures" »

Top Ten Poems of 2010

A few days ago I shared my Top Twelve (Prose) Posts of 2010. But much of what I've posted this year hasn't been prose -- it's been poetry. So I thought I'd share a list of my top ten poems (some of which are multi-part poems -- the Miriam cycle, the Akedah cycle) posted here during the secular year now ending. Thanks for reading! Here's to more poetry and more conversation in 2011.

Top Twelve Posts of 2010

Starting in 2005, I've had a practice of closing out my blogging year by selecting a list of my top ten posts to share here. (Here's last year's, which includes links to top ten posts from 2005-2009. The first two years I had this blog, I didn't yet have the top ten tradition.) This year I couldn't quite narrow it down to ten, so I'm sharing my Top Twelve instead! I'm also working on a list of my favorite poems from 2010, and will share those soon too. Thanks for reading along during 2010; here's to 2011!

  • The nursing mother tallit. "Living without sustained sleep has had a major impact on my spiritual life. As a result of the sleep deprivation (and some depression, related but also relevant on its own), I spent much of my first two months of motherhood largely unable to pray, except when I would lie down after putting Drew back in his crib and would silently beg God for at least an hour to recharge. Needless to say, this is not the maternal prayer life I had imagined."

  • On Jewishness, media, and intertextuality. "As I think on it, intertextuality is one of the things that makes a Jewish text feel Jewish to me. If a text contains references to Jewish texts -- whether Bible or midrash, Hasidic teaching or a snippet of liturgy -- then it's going to ping my Jewish radar. And the fact of intertextuality often feels Jewish to me even when the texts being referenced aren't Jewish ones."

  • Reb Nachman on holy disagreement. "When Torah scholars disagree with one another, a space is created between them, and in that space, the world of halakha comes into being. Like God, we too create worlds with our words."

  • On holy community. "When our son Drew was born, we entered a haze of sleep deprivation, joy, and overwhelm. Drew came into the world with a profound case of jetlag. For nine months, he’d been lulled to sleep by my movements during the day and had danced the fandango inside me at night. When he emerged from the womb, his circadian rhythms were backwards. Sleep debt isn’t the only reason we had a tough adjustment to parenthood, but it was a big one..."

  • Morning prayer, on retreat and after. Three vignettes from the Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman; meditations on davenen and parenthood.

  • 5 things about the Gaza flotilla. "So much depends on who's telling the story and which sources they choose to cite."

  • Six tastes of Ruach ha-Aretz. "It is the evening of the fourth of July and the sun is beginning to cast low long shafts of light across the grass. A friend calls my name and I veer off the path back to the room, heading instead to a circle of women in the middle of the great grassy oval in front of the main building at Pearlstone..."

  • A gesture of repair. "One thousand, one hundred and eighty dollars were donated by sixty-five people from across the United States; those who identified their locations mentioned places as far apart as Oregon, New York, and Oklahoma, and I myself live in a small town in western Massachusetts. We are people of many traditions; although Stu Mark and I are Jewish, and I know that at least two of the donors are rabbis (and many donors self-identified themselves as Jews), others self-identified as Christian (Catholic, Protestant, evangelical), Unitarian Universalist, Pagan, Buddhist, and Muslim."

  • The early history of Jews in Muslim lands. "At the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era, Jews were largely in diaspora, scattered from Spain to Persia and from central Europe to the Sahara..."

  • Ten moments from the Days of Awe. "The first tekiah gedolah, at the end of the shofar service on the first morning of the holiday, blown by a young man in our congregation who was one of my bar mitzvah students some years ago. The note went on so long it brought the room to laughter and beyond, and me to the verge of tears..."

  • We are family. "I disagree with the settlers in pretty much every way; I think what they're doing has disastrous repercussions not only for them but for my Israeli friends and family who are forced to protect them. But that doesn't give us on the pro-Israel pro-peace left the right to slam them as human beings. (Neither, for the record, does it give those on the "other side" the right to slam us.) Would we relate to each other differently if we had family on the other side, whatever that other side may be?"

  • Prayer life changes. "Maybe you're single now: if you become partnered, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice may shift. Maybe you're childless now: if you have a child, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice will definitely shift, especially if you are the primary caregiver, doubly so if you are nursing. Maybe you have kids at home: once they're in school, or once they head off to college, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice will shift. Maybe you're caring for an elder. Maybe you are an elder. Whoever you are, whatever your circumstance, it's going to change. Go into your prayer practice knowing that. Be prepared for your prayer life to shift: that's a natural part of having a prayer life. Don't make the mistake of developing a prayer practice and then assuming that once you've developed it, you're done."

(My) Psalm 151

The final assignment for our Torah as a mirror for spiritual direction class was to write a psalm to God which expresses what we have each learned and/or experienced in our own lives over the course of the semester, relating to God / Spirit / Truth, as it relates to our emerging roles as mashpi'im/mashpi'ot (spiritual directors.) Here is mine.

(My) Psalm 151


My God
it's not always easy
for me to talk with you
sometimes my stories snarl up like tangled yarn
and all I can be is mute

when I listen to someone else
I can feel Your presence
but when I open my mouth
and want Your words to come through
I still falter like a child learning to talk

Continue reading "(My) Psalm 151" »

The end of an era

In some ways, my journey toward ordination began in 1994 when my dear friend David gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus, a recounting of the true story of a dozen rabbis going to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama to offer him Jewish insights into surviving as a spiritual community in Diaspora. When I read the book, I was amazed by what I learned about Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: his deep Jewish roots, his broad Jewish wings, his ability to make connections between Judaism and other traditions, his passion for deep interfaith dialogue, his passion for God. I hadn't known one could be Jewish like that. I wanted to find teachers like him. Reading that book led me, eventually, to Elat Chayyim and my first encounter with Jewish Renewal. When I came home from that first retreat, I told Ethan, "I've found my teachers. I want to be a rabbi like they are rabbis, someday."

But in a more formal sense, my journey toward ordination began with my first rabbinic school class. In the spring of 2005 I spent Pesach at Elat Chayyim and met with Reb Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program, and had my interview. She suggested that I attend smicha students' week that summer as a prospective student, so I could get to know the program a bit better and the faculty and students could get to know me. So I returned to Elat Chayyim that summer and enrolled in one of the smicha classes. I chose one which featured readings primarily in English, one which seemed like a good starting-place for a prospective student, and one which would allow me to discern whether Reb Zalman's interest in interfaith work was shared within the Renewal community. The class was called Deep Ecumenism.

It was an amazing week-long retreat. The class was fantastic. So was the lunch session for prospective students. So was the experience of rooming with three other women in the program (one of whom is now a rabbi; one of whom will be ordained as a rabbinic pastor when I am ordained as a rabbi; and one of whom has, alas, fallen off the map.) That class continued into the following semester; about half of us who'd been in the class met via conference call weekly through the fall and into the winter, continuing to read and discuss and learn together. That was my first rabbinic school class.

This afternoon will be the final session of my last rabbinic school class: the final session of Torah as a Mirror for Spiritual Development, a class on working with the parashat ha-shavua (weekly Torah portion) as a lens through which to do hashpa'ah (spiritual direction). It's hard to wrap my mind around the reality that rabbinic school is almost over. The last 5 and a half years have been so full of learning, studying, new ideas and insights -- Hasidic texts, mishnaic Hebrew, dips into Talmud and Codes and halakha -- retreats with their intense connections (emotional, intellectual, spiritual) and, to balance them, time spent poring over books in my own home office, in hevruta with a buddy over Skype, plugged into my headset for conference calls -- classes and tutorials with teachers local to me, on subjects ranging from Islam to a history of Jewish messianism -- a summer in Jerusalem, studying Hebrew and living with one of my beloved classmates and her family (she will be ordained alongside me in a few short weeks)... it's been a truly incredible journey.

The learning, of course, isn't over. It will never be over. There will always be more learning to do, more insights to glean, more Torah to master. And even after I'm ordained, I'll have a few more courses ahead of me in order to complete the three-year training program in hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) in which I am taking part. But today I will attend my last conference call as an ALEPH rabbinic student, and then I will say a shehecheyanu, and then I will begin preparing myself spiritually as best I can for what's coming on January 9, just two weeks from Sunday! Holy wow. Rabbinic school is really and truly almost over. What a world. I'm not sure I could have imagined, when I began this journey, where I would be now: waking early in the winter dark to make Drew a bottle, then settling in to the rocker in his room with my tallit over my shoulders davening pearls of shacharit from memory as my son plays at my feet. Almost a rabbi at last.

The return of the sun

December sunrise, a few years ago.

It's the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere -- what we in Jewish tradition call tekufat Tevet. (For some beautiful Jewish teachings about this lunar month, I recommend Tel Shemesh's page on Tevet.)

There was a lunar eclipse last night, apparently, though I didn't wake up at 3am to see it; given that my son wakes and demands my presence at 5am, there was no way I was going to give up those precious minutes of sleep! I was blessed to witness one a few years ago. It was amazing, and sparked a poem. I hope to see another one someday. Just not this year.

Anyway, here in New England the day is cold and pale. The cloud-filtered light and damp air are beautiful, in a wintery kind of way. But the sun rose late and will set early, and (unlike in the photo above) neither of those is visible through the snowy clouds. On the bright side, this is the shortest day we're going to get: from here on out, we're headed back toward the return of the sun.

Happy solstice to all. May we all be blessed with light, on every level.

Happy book news

Some of you may remember that in the years before I wrote and posted a mother poem each week, I used to write and post a Torah poem each week. It was a wonderful discipline for me. It kept me engaged with Torah, reading and pondering and then responding to the assigned weekly reading with my own heart and mind. I wrote and posted weekly Torah poems in 2008 and 2009; those poems are linked, one by one, from my divrei Torah index page. Anyway: when I paused in my practice of writing Torah poems, I collected them into a manuscript, and spent a while polishing and editing the poems in that collection.

I'm elated to be able to announce that my collection of those Torah poems, which is titled 70 Faces, will be published early in 2011 by Phoenicia Publishing, an independent press in Montreal which focuses on "words and images that illuminate culture, spirit, and the human experience." Is that not fabulous news? Beth Adams, one of the founding editors of Qarrtsiluni and the blogger behind The Cassandra Pages (also author of Going to Heaven, the book about Bishop Gene Robinson which I reviewed some time ago), announced the news recently in her post Phoenicia sails into 2011. Phoenicia published the anthology Brilliant Coroners, which I co-edited (and which I wrote about here); I am endlessly thrilled to be working with them again.

The hope is for 70 Faces to be available starting on January 9 -- the date of my ordination as a rabbi -- and I'll post here to let y'all know how you can buy a copy as soon as it's actually in print. (I'm also planning a bit of a low-key book tour, with readings and conversations in a handful of locations across New England and South Texas; if you might be interested in hosting me for an event at your bookstore or house of worship, let me know!) For a preview of the book, and advance praise from some clergy and poets whose work I really admire, stay tuned -- I'll have more to say about it in early 2011. But for now, I just wanted to share my joy.

I'm totally thrilled that this first book-length collection of poems is coming into the world at this moment in my life. Many of y'all commented on the early versions of these poems which were published here on this blog; I hope you'll pick up a copy of the book in print, too, because I think the collection is more than the sum of its parts. Also, Phoenicia does really beautiful work. I own a few of their titles (Pamela Johnson Parker's A Walk Through the Memory Palace, Dave Bonta's Odes to Tools) and am looking forward to buying more.

The forest beyond the trees

photo by flickr user EveMBH; licensed under creative commons.

Every year at this season the subject rises up again. This year you can find it in Slate, where Mark Oppenheimer and Jessica Grose debate Should Jews Own Christmas Trees? Or Andi Rosenthal's essay Tree of Life, which asks "why one particular type of tree--you know, that one--causes us such anxiety." Or take this recent tweet from @InterfaithFam: Having a Christmas tree doesn't make you "less Jewish" - or does it? I offered a three-part response on twitter, but -- go figure -- I think I have more to say than can be expressed in 520 characters.

This isn't just about conifers. The tree is a stand-in for the bigger issue of how we as a religious minority relate to the dominant religious/cultural tradition around us. (My perspective on this is a Diaspora one, and a USian one at that -- readers from elsewhere, feel free to chime in too.) The notion of Jews trimming Christmas trees raises communal fear of assimilation and disppearance. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that fear and of how it shapes our response.

This also isn't new. R' Joshua Plaut's essay Jews and Christmas teaches that many Western European Jews had Christmas trees (my maternal grandmother, z"l, used to reminisce about having a tree in Prague in the 1930s; apparently Theodore Herzl had one too) and how in the US, too, many Jews adopted the custom of trimming a tree as a sign of American-ness. Jewish writer Anne Roiphe wrote an essay in 1978 about her Jewish family's Christmas celebrations (and in response to the ensuing wave of criticism wrote Generation Without Memory and vowed to seek a more engaged Jewish life.) 

But the the Jews I know who have Christmas trees have chosen that practice because someone in their intimate family is a non-Jew for whom the tree, and the celebration it represents, is important. The Jewish Outreach Institute offers statistics: "28% of the 2.6 million married Jews in the U.S. are married to non-Jews and the rate of intermarriage [in 1990] was 52% of all marriages involving at least one Jew." Many of us have Christians in our extended clans, if not our intimate nuclear families. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that, too.

Continue reading "The forest beyond the trees" »

This week's portion: the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe

There's a custom of blessing our children on Friday nights as we usher in Shabbat. I didn't grow up with this custom, but I've witnessed it many times, and have once or twice had the opportunity to participate in it myself.

The blessing has two parts. Traditionally, girls are blessed that they be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; boys are blessed that they be like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph who were born to him before his father and brothers moved to Egypt. Then we say the priestly blessing ("May God bless you and keep you...") to the children regardless of gender.

The blessing for boys, found at The blessing for girls can also be found there.

It's always baffled me a little bit that we bless our daughters to be like the matriarchs, but we don't bless our sons to be like the patriarchs. Why are we blessing our sons that they turn out like the two elder sons of Joseph, rather than blessing them to be like Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov themselves?

Continue reading "This week's portion: the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe" »

Prayer life changes

Here's what I wish I had been taught about prayer: prayer life always changes.

My teacher Reb Zalman teaches -- and I agree -- that it's important to have a daily connection with God. If the word "God" is uncomfortable for you, try: a daily connection with something deep within you, or something far above you; with your highest self and your highest aspirations; with the force of change in the universe; with love; with yourself; with your community; with your ancestors; with holiness immanent in creation; with holiness which transcends creation. (As far as I'm concerned, "God" is shorthand for all of those things and more.)

There are all kinds of ways to connect with God every day: meditation, singing, blessing practice -- and, of course, prayer. The Hebrew word which means "to pray," להתפלל, comes from the root meaning to judge oneself; in that sense, classical Jewish prayer is not only liturgical but also introspective. (I know that many of y'all who read this blog are not Jewish, but hey, I'm coming from where I'm coming from -- feel free to share your own traditions' perspectives in comments.)

Most liberal Jews are most familiar with Shabbat prayer, which is primarily a communal endeavor; we gather together to celebrate the blessing of rest. But in Jewish tradition, prayer doesn't just happen on Shabbat. Shabbat prayer and festival prayer are the jewels which stand out against the backdrop of daily prayer. Daily prayer allows us to say "thank you" (as we do on Shabbat) and also to say "please" and ask for what we need (which is more of a weekday endeavor.) Daily prayer allows us to remind ourselves to notice the miracles of each day: the miracle of waking, of having a body which works (to whatever extent that is true for each of us), of encountering wisdom teachings which come from beyond ourselves.

The siddur (prayerbook) collects some of the greatest hits of Jewish prayer from the last two thousand years or so. We're a tradition which loves words, and our prayerbooks grow by accretion. One generation's innovation becomes the next generation's familiar, classic text without which no service would be complete. (You may have experienced something like this on a small scale with the Passover haggadah. In our own generation we've seen all kinds of creative additions, prayers and poems and Miriam's Cups, become elements without which a seder wouldn't feel right. The siddur is like that, but even more so.)

If you're interested in immersing in the words of the siddur, kol hakavod ("all the dignity/honor" -- or, in modern parlance, "props") to you. I can recommend several. Reb Zalman's Sh'ma is a beautiful English-language siddur aimed at introducing the newbie to daily Jewish prayer. I myself use the Koren siddur most of the time, which is available in a bilingual edition though I use a pocket-sized all-Hebrew edition. I'm also a big fan of Kol HaNeshamah, the Reconstructionist siddur, which is visually quite lovely and also contains some excellent contemporary poetry. If you want to go really deep in learning about Jewish liturgy, Rabbi Larry Hoffman has written an excellent series called My People's Prayer Book -- the volumes aren't themselves prayerbooks, but they're great for learning about the liturgy. (If you want to go really deep, I recommend DLTI.)

But here's the big thing I want you to understand: whatever it may be, your prayer life is going to change.

Continue reading "Prayer life changes" »

Hereville and Cairo

I've read two awesome graphic novels lately. They are very different, and yet both completely wonderful. They are Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch and Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker (words and art respectively.)

A while back I read the Hereville webcomic, which is about an 11-year-old troll-fighting Orthodox Jewish girl. I fell in love with it, so when I heard that it was coming out in expanded form as an actual graphic novel, I put it on my Amazon wishlist post haste. (You can read a preview of Hereville if you're interested -- the preview contains the first 15 pages of the book.)

Mirka is the hero of Hereville, and she is awesome: smart and spunky and absolutely convinced that someday she's going to fight dragons, even though she doesn't yet have a sword. (Oh, and there haven't been any dragons anywhere near her village in living memory. But why should that stop her?)

Continue reading "Hereville and Cairo" »

RHR2010: links roundup

Over the course of the 2+ days of Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights, I blogged somewhere inthe neighborhood of 27,000 words. Here they are:

A logistical note on the material linked above: when there were plenary sessions, we were all together listening to one thing; when there were breakout sessions, there were typically four or five things happening at any given time. I chose the sessions which were most compelling to me. (Had I attended the other sessions, you would have gotten a different glimpse of the conversations happening at the conference.)

Throughout the conference, Joshua Bloom was recording videos of participants talking about why we are rabbis for human rights. I meant to go and speak briefly on camera about why I'm a rabbinic student for human rights, but I didn't manage to; the last session I attended ran long, and I had to leave before the very end in order to catch my train home. But here's what I would have liked to have said:

I'm becoming a rabbi because I want to serve God and because I want to serve my community. Torah teaches that we are all created b'tzelem Elohim, in the divine image; each of us is a facet of God, each of us contains a spark of divinity within us. I support the work of Rabbis for Human Rights because when anyone anywhere is denied their basic human rights, then that spark of divinity isn't able to shine.

I believe that my community is best served -- and that the community of the world is best served -- and that God is best served -- when each of us is able to live up to our own unique potential, freely and without discrimination. When there is oppression against any of God's children (those who are in "my tribe" and those who are following other paths to holiness), then there is work to be done. I'm grateful that Rabbis for Human Rights is living out Judaism's prophetic call.

I'm incredibly glad that this organization exists and that I'm able to be a part of it. Thanks for a great conference, y'all! See you in two years.

RHR2010: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead, Part 1

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The final session of the conference is a plenary session: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead. The session has two parts. In Part 1, our speakers are Peter Beinart, Author; Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, RHR-NA Co-Chair; and Jane Eisner, The Forward.

"It's a great honor to be here," says Peter Beinart. After his piece in the New York Review of Books (The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment) came out, someone asked "have there been a lot of angry words, ad hominem attacks, that kind of thing?" and his response was, "you mean, outside of my own family?" The room laughs.

He tells a story about watching a video of a Palestinian man being arrested for trying to connect his village with a water source at a nearby settlements. Settlements often have swimming pools and lush irrigation; studies show that water use among Palestinians is dangerously low, and many Palestinian villages are not connected to any water system. This man later told Ha'aretz that in his village there was not enough water for the Palestinian children to brush their teeth. In the video, women and children were screaming and crying; a boy was trying, through the thicket of adults, to reach his father who was being taken away. The boy was yelling to his father, "Baba, baba!" And that, it turns out, is the word that Beinart's own son uses for him, so it hit home.

Beinart was hanging out at that time with his four-year-old son, a budding Zionist who has an Israeli flag in his room and "has become very anti-Egyptian as a result of the Pesach story." When, Beinart, is it appropriate for him to share stories like this one with his son?

Evidently the IDF had been thinking too about how to explain the story of the man being taken away in chains; so they put out a story saying that the family of the man had put him up to it, and had put the son up to it, so that it would garner international attention. What that says, Beinart tells us, is "this person is not like you. Divorce yourself from the emotional power of this scene; you can't relate to these people in any way." That is what the American Jewish establishment has been trying to do with young American Jews for a while now. We have tried to desensitize our children to the realities of what Occupation means. And this effort, Beinart says, has failed -- not only because of our moral obligations to the Palestinians, but it has also failed to produce among young American Jews a strain of liberal Zionism.

The leaders of the American Jewish establishment feared that if they exposed young American Jews to the reality of the Occupation, it would extinguish the shimmers of Zionism emerging in their lives... but I think that [pretending the Occupasion isn't there] has failed to produce young Zionists. And it has failed at...teaching my son to celebrate the principles of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and...[i]t has failed to create people who are passionately committed to those principles.

Continue reading "RHR2010: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead, Part 1" »

RHR2010: The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel with Rabbi Paul (Shaul) Feinberg, RHR Israel.

"It's clear what's wrong," says Rabbi Shaul Feinberg; "I want to talk about what's right." He calls back to what Naomi Chazan said on the first night; the issue is the Occupation, of course, and he will have things to say about that. Reconciliation, he agrees with Chazan, is necessary.

The head of Israeli military intelligence in the 1970s and 80s (whose name I didn't catch) was the first to publish the Palestinian national covenant -- and we all remember some of the egregious parts of that document, Feinberg quips -- and yet even that man advocated for a Palestinian state! That man said, "I do not do that as a lover of Arabs -- I don't love Arabs -- I happen to be a Jew living in the land of Israel, and this is our vested interest."

Feinberg speaks out against the "egregious" crime against Naomi Chazan. (You can see the hateful advertisement in English here.) "She is president of the New Israel Fund; there was demonization of her with the worst kind of antisemitic canard, where she was pictured with horns -- and we know how words can lead to actions, even murderous ones, and not enough was done by the authorities; we should have learned a lesson with the assassination of Rabin!" But, he says, the papers do still hold contrary opinions (meaning, I think, that at least there is still some disagreement and the whole nation isn't in lockstep.) He hopes that his anecotal observations will be useful in carrying the conversation forward.

He speaks with us about using traditional texts to inspire Israeli children to tackle questions about water rights in the desert. He alludes to the trafficking in women, the abuse of foreign workers; these, he agrees, are crises. (We learned about these yesterday.) Atzum is fighting a campaign against the trafficking of women, and as a result, the government is more aware and alert and more is being done, says Feinberg. What's painful now is that women who made aliyah out of Ethiopia and Russia are still being oppressed in these ways -- "the crisis has not been eradicated; this is still a pressing crime."

"The picture," he says "is not all black and all white." There are now 300,000 Israelis living in Judea and Samaria. "Many of them arrived there with the support not only of Likkud governments but of Labor governments. Labor was responsible for settling in Hebron." This is a heartland, he says, and whatever the political and social aberrations of the people living there, particularly in relationship to their minority Arab community (Christians and Muslims), there are Jews living there, and this is their home. "If we talk about compromise... we will have to compromise not only with the Palesitnians, but with the Jewish men and women who are living in these areas, from those living on mountaintops to those living in larger cities." He does not anticipate a wholescale evacuation as happened in Gaza; no one has the political capital to do that. "Much will have to be given up, and this is part of our pressing human rights conversation."

Continue reading "RHR2010: The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel" »

RHR2010: From the Frontlines - Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Breakout session: From the Frontlines: Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank, featuring Rabbi Yehiel Greinimann, RHR Israel.

Rabbi Yehiel Greinimann begins with a word of Torah from Perek ha-Shalom, a text which tells us that the world stands on three things: on din (law/judgement), emet, truth, and shalom, peace. Another voice argues that justice, truth and peace -- they're all one thing. If justice is done, truth is done, then we have created peace. The prophet Zechariah adds, "in all places where there is justice, there is peace -- and wherever there is peace, there is justice."

Grienimann is the field director for RHR in Israel, and manages both American volunteers and Israelis who come from all walks of life. "We don't fool ourselves that we can end the Occupation or create change in a big way," he says. "In a big way the solution has to be political. But we're trying to educate by action, by engaging people in meeting Palestinians, in trying to redress wrongs, trying to affect the Israeli public." "The underlying assumption, which you hear from Palestinians all the time, is that if there's going to be peace, you have to have justice." Of course, figuring out what justice is -- that's the hard part.

The main work that Rabbis for Human Rights does in the West Bank is accompanying Palestinian farmers on their harvest and the legal stuff around access to land and dealing with settlers. (See A rabbi struggles to protect his Palestinian flock.) And we're going to talk about that. But first he wants to offer a few grounding remarks -- and then we're going to talk about a Bedouin project -- and then we'll get to the olive trees.

We always tell volunteers that we're non-confrontational and non-violent, he tells us. But he wants to be clear that "to me, human rights include the rights of the Jews as a people in addition to the rights of the Palestinians as a people....Human rights is inclusive, not exclusive." It's important not to dehumanize settlers, to dehumanize people on the right -- as well as not dehumanizing the Palestinians I'm meeting with, he says.

He talks about Gandhi's writings about ending the British Occupation of India -- the need to respond with love and compassion. Working in the field, it's easy to forget that.

But first, he wants to tell us about a project with the Bedouin. He shows us a slide of children standing under a corrugated-metal roof, labeled "Bedouin kids in Hal el Achmar summer camp, July 2010." A while back, kids came from Operation Groundswell and wanted to build something; Greinimann called the folks at ICAHD, and he learned that there was a desire in Han el Achmar to build a school.

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RHR2010: Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

I co-led shacharit this morning with Rabbi Oren Postrel (thanks, Oren!), so I arrived a bit breathless to the Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia. The session featured Rabbi Joy Levitt, The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan; Reverend Chloe Breyer, Interfaith Center of New York; Daisy Khan, American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Clergy Beyond Borders.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta begins by talking about the history of Jews in Cordoba (which I wrote about at some length a while ago) and reminds us that the right to gather and worship and think is not only a civil right but also a human right. He reads us excerpts from the international declaration of human rights and argues that those who are acting to prevent the Park 51 project are acting against article 30 in that declaration.

"When I came to America at the age of sixteen I landed in a Jewish neighborhood," says Daisy Khan. She lived there for seven years; she babysat neighborhood kids; she learned, she says, how to make tunafish the Jewish way and she knows a good rugelach from a bad one! (The room laughs.)

My worldview has been shaped by my childhood, where I grew up in Kashmir, India, where I was living a multireligious life. My teachers were Hindu, I was sent to Catholic school, I played with Sikh girls... and we were always told we were from the tenth lost tribe of Israel. So I am honored to have had that kind of worldview at a very young age, and this is why I am committed to interfaith dialogue and to the commonalities that all religions share.

Voices of moderation and tolerance, she tells us, have recently come under assault. "As the plans for the proposed community center sparked Islamophobia around the nation, we found ourselves squarely at the center of a heated debate," she says. "We hope that our message resonates with your own experience of struggling for justice." Many Jewish leaders have said to the Park 51 organizers, "this has happened to us; this has happened to Catholics; it is just a moment, and this too will pass." We can reclaim our vision from the detractors and help it come to fruition, she says; "we call on you, and all like-minded people, to help us to safeguard and preserve religious freedom, especially in this very precious country."

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Slavery, Trafficking and People of Faith: In Our Own Backyards and Beyond

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Plenary: Slavery, Trafficking and People of Faith: In Our Own Backyards and Beyond

This session features Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services; Ron Soodalter, Author, The Slave Next Door; Pamela Shifman, NoVo Foundation; and Nisha Varia, Human Rights Watch.

"If trafficking is about anything, it's about power," says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub. Trafficking is about people who lack power, being exploited by people who have power. "We sitting in this room are not powerless." (The panel begins with Ron Soodalter, which makes sense -- the panel needs to begin with an explanation of contemporary slavery before we can talk about why women are disproportionately exploited or about the uniquely awful situation many female domestic workers find themselves in -- but please, read all the way to the end of this post, because the conversation just gets more powerful.)

At the beginning of this plenary session, a handout is passed around the room which is titled "What You Can Do to End Slavery." It's from, and lists items under the headings of "increase awareness," "support abolition with your wallet," and "spread the conversation through social media." This handout was passed around on behalf of Ron Soodalter, who says that every time he speaks on this issue, he gets the question "what can I do?"

"Last year a man was arrested for both sex and labor trafficking. He allegedly kept two yong women prisoner in his home on threat of violence, forcing them to work without compensation and to perform sexual acts. He advertised for them on a legitimate site for au pairs, though he had no children. The police had had him on his radar for years. The man to whom I refer is not a pimp or trafficker from a dicey neighborhood; he is a 65-year-old writer from the Westchester neighborhood of Pound Ridge. His neighbors were stunned to discover that slavery exists...even in their own back yard."

"Certain things we know to be true: that the South kept slaves, an the North fought a righteous war of emancipation...that the United States has been slavery-free ever since. These are things we know, and they are not true. Meanwhile, most Americans do not know that...slavery is legal nowhere, and yet it is practiced everywhere," Soodalter says. There are roughly 27 million people in bondage worldwide -- that's twice the number who were taken in chains during the 350 years of the slave trade. "It's one of the most profitable businesses of our time," he says.

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RHR2010: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Breakout session: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?

This session was led by Rabbi Jill Jacobs; Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek; and Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek.

We begin the session sitting in a circle, with our three leaders inside the circle, each of them with her or his back to some part of the group. When someone protests about sitting in a circle where the presenter has her back to us, the presenters note that other presenters are facing her, and I realize that the setup is symbolic: we may feel as though we have to turn our backs on one issue in order to turn toward others, but as long as some of us are facing in each direction, then communally we can be turned in all directions at once.

"Our human rights activism, our social justice work -- in Micah it says, 'What dos God require of you? Only to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly before God,'" quotes Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg. The humility, she says, is key: to walk humbly before God, as communities of action, communities of conscience, we need to prioritize and figure out how we're going to divide our resources, our passion, and our commitments. We need to figure out who we serve, and we do that in humility because we have limitations.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs begins by explaining our topic for this afternoon: "the question of how we divide our responsibilities, how we think about our responsibilities to our community and to other commnities; to Israel, to America; to other places around the world." We grapple with these questions via studying texts. The traditional way of studying these texts is in hevruta -- paired study, or in this case study done by a trio. The three rabbis in the fishbowl in the middle of the room will have a conversation through their eyes and through the eyes of the text, and then they plan to open it up to the rest of the room so that all of us can be holy friends in learning together.

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RHR2010: The Crisis in East Jerusalem

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Break-out session: The Crisis in East Jerusalem

This session is led by Maya Wind, Columbia University; Ruth Carmi, New Israel Fund; and Wendy Zerin, Congregation Nevei Kodesh.

Maya Wind begins by showing us a map of Jerusalem, explaining the Green Line and the various definitions of East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. In 1967 came the unification of Jerusalem. She shows us the old city walls of Jerusalem; the Old City is east of the Green Line, which means that early on, the Israeli authorities were clear that they didn't want to leave the old city (with the Western Wall) under Palestinian control. The old city is only 1 square kilometer, but Israel wound up annexing 70 square km into the municipal border of Jerusalem.

"What happened to the Palestinians living there? Today there are 740,000 people in Jerusalem; 36% are Palestinians living in East Jerusalem." They have a special ID; they have a residency permit, a unique status only for East Jerusalem Palestinians. They can technically, by law, receive social services and benefits from the municipality, and can travel freely in Israel, which their counterparts in the West Bank cannot do. The map she's showing us also shows settlements; there are 200,000 settlers living in one area to which she points. There are also more disputed settlements, in an area the settlers call the "Holy Basin," a ring around the Old City. The settlers have targeted this area specifically because should Jerusalem be divided, they want to ensure that the Old City remains within Israel. This is where we find Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, etc.

Four main issues faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem, says Wind, are: 1) settlement expansion, in the Holy Basin and around East Jerusalem. The consequence of this expansion is displacement; settlements may be built atop the former houses of Palestinians. Also harassment. Some of the settlers are here for theological reasons, not economic ones, and they can be hostile and quite violent to Palestinians. 2) House demolitions. Much of this land is called "green land" in Israeli law; it's technically public land, which means it's difficult to get a building permit. The Israeli government has not granted zoning plans since 1967; with no zoning plan, there can be no legal house-building. So Palestinians have no ability to build legally. They build illegally without a permit, which means the Israeli municipality can demolish their homes and also fine them for the privilege. 22,000 houses in East Jerusalem are considered illegal, of which 6,000 have pending demolition orders.

The third issue faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem is budget discrimination. They pay land tax, arnona, to the city, but receive only 7.2 percent of the budget. This means that there's a severe lack of infrastructure, facilities, schools, clinics, etc. And the fourth issue faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem are arrests of children. There are many demonstrations going on, and "one of the results of the political unrest in the area is that Israeli forces are arresting people, including small children," Wind says, "which is against international law." This whirlwind tour we've been given is, she says, "East Jerusalem 101."

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