Friday, November 27, 2009

"Take back the city, by walking!"

Am going on a walk this Motzei Shabbat. It's called "Take back the city, by walking!" The city is Jerusalem - the exact place is the Kotel.  Perhaps you heard about the woman who was arrested at the Kotel for wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah. I'll have more on that in a later post - my housemate Amy was there and wrote a piece on it that I will share. But first I wanted to tell you about the Walk on Saturday night.  Here is some of the PR material:
“Taking back the city, by walking!”
Secular, religious and masorti Jews:
say put an end to attempts of haredi coercion
and unite to restore sanity, freedom
and mutual respect to the city!

Nofrat Frenkel, a NOAM graduate, member of Kehillat Hod Vehadar and a fourth-year medical student at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, was arrested last week after daring to put on a tallit at the main Kotel plaza. This incident joins a series of events that have practically expropriated the Kotel Hamaaravi from the hands of of Am Yisrael. For example, until very recently, groups of students or tourists would spontaneously break out in song and dance in the public plaza (Am Yisrael Hai, Kol Haolam Kulo). Now, however, if there is singing and dancing, they are immediately and brutally halted by the Modesty Guard of the Kotel rabbi; the public plaza itself has recently been divided in a way that allows the rapid erection of a mechitza between men and women; even the entrance from the parking area has been separated between the sexes; emotional ceremonies in which olim chadashim receive their teudot zehut have been cancelled after the Kotel rabbi insisted that the families adhere to separation between men and women; sign have been placed around the plaza cautioning people to maintain modesty; and the rabbi has many other ideas. The Kotel, a symbol that united Israeli and Diaspora Jews, is today, in effect, placed in the hands of the haredim. This is a hostile takeover by a small, fundamentalist group in the history of Am Yisrael (the haredim) – and the methodical exclusion of all those who do not adopt its code of behavior. We must liberate the Kotel, a second time.

After examining various options and ideas for a fitting response to this Kotel incident, we decided to join the forum of organizations for a free Jerusalem, which protests against the expropriation of the Kotel and against the haredi radicalization in Jerusalem in general – the haredi violence in the Intel and Karta car park incidents.

This coming Motzaei Shabbat (28/11), together with the forum, we will hold a large public march, for the members of the organizations, for the general public and for members of the Movement from around the country. The march will begin at 19:00, in Kikar Paris, and will culminate in a rally, at 20:00, in Kikar Zion. (there may be a change to the route, in accordance with police dictates). A Masorti rabbi will speak at the rally, as will Nofrat Frenkel.

The forum of organizations for a free Jerusalem includes: Hitorerut, Vaad Kiriat Yovel, Ruach Hadasha, Meretz, Tzeirei Haavoda, Tzeirei Halikud, Mifleget Or, the Greens-Meimad, Marom (Masorti Movement), Neemanei Torah Vaavoda, Forum Hatzeirim and Telem Students.

I"ll let you know how it turns out. 

Shabbat Shalom -

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Chanukah: Aps and Beer

Ever read J It covers the Jewish news of the San Francisco area. I originally started reading it because a friend of mine, Rachel Freedenberg (and former babysitter for my children!), is a writer for the site. And I've kept reading even though I don't, in my itinerancy (is that even a word?), get anywhere near SF. It just has good articles in it. Case in point. This week there are at least two articles that caught my interest immediately.

The first is by Rachel and is called  "Eight nights of apps: iPhone programs put Chanukah in the palm of your hand." The description is:
Lighting the menorah, playing dreidel and other Chanukah traditions have gone virtual. A slew of Chanukah-themed programs for the iPhone and iPod Touch have popped up in Apple's iTunes App Store, all of which have a unique take on the ancient holiday. Rachel Freedenberg talks to two app developers who put their own spin on the Festival of Lights. "  (NOTE: I LOVE ipod aps!)

The second is called "Eight gifts for the beer-lover on your list." The description is:
Got a "beerie" on your Chanukah list? You can stop agonizing over what to get them. San Francisco author and beer expert Brian Yaeger has eight fabulous gift ideas that will delight any Jewish hops aficionado, from He'Brew to 8 Malty Nights.

How could you not love something with that name? Especially if your family has a long relationship with beer as mine does. In fact, I remember asking my grandfather why I never saw him drink water - he only drank beer or coffee (and the occasional scotch). His answer? "Water rusts my pipes."

I know I should be wishing people a Happy Thanksgiving today but I just don't seem to feel it here in Israel. So, let's get ready for Chanukah!
Kol Tuv, Arlene

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dvar Torah - Zohar: Spirit of Words and Letters

This is a Dvar Torah that I gave this past Shabbat Toldot (11/21/09) at the Jerusalem Reconstructionist Minyan.  It in I share my wonder at the power of words.


Baruch She'emar V'ha'ya ha'olam -
Blessed is the one who spoke and the world WAS.
We chant these words each morning - but do we truly comprehend - in our sleepy shacharit selves - what these words really mean?

Blessed is the one who spoke and the world WAS.

What Power there is in the ability to create with words! We acknowledge daily that our Creator has that power - but do we realize that we have it too?

We, human beings, are created b'Tzelem Elokim, in Gd's image.  As Jews we spend our lives trying to emulate Gd's attributes - mercy, justice, forgiveness, loving kindness.  Just as Gd rested on the Shabbat after a week of work and creativity, so too do we rest. And Just as Gd created the world with a word, so too do we create with words.  Granted, we don't create on such a grand scale as an entire world - but we certainly have the ability, the power, to impact those around us, to change our reality.

We have the ability to nurture and create - AND we have the ability to wound and destroy.

There are several stories in our tradition about how the world was created. One of my favorites is from the Zohar, a 13th century book of mysticism that is one of the central texts in Kabbalah. It's a story about how Gd created the world with letters, the building blocks of these words that we've been discussing.

But first, a quote from Sefer Yetzirah - the Book of Foundation- another Kabbalistic text. You'll pardon my loose translation.
ספר יצירה פרק ב' משנה ב

עֶשְׂרִים וּשְׁתַּים אווֹתִיויּוֹת חָקְקָן חָצְבָן צָרְפָן שָׁקְלָן וְהֵמִירָן וְצָר בָּהֶם אֶת כָּל הַיְּצוּר וְאֶת כָּל הֶעָתִיד לָצוּר׃

“With 22 letters Gd embossed, chiseled, weighed, changed, refined, and shaped. AND with them formed/created all beings which are in existence and all those which will be formed in all time to come. “

So not only do words have power, but these much smaller units, these letters, have the power to create as well! They are extremely active. Look what they can do! They are expert artisans! With them we can become expert artisans - shaping and crafting our thoughts and utterances in order to have the truest form, to have the most impact.

In Bereshit Rabba there is a midrash that the Torah was created 2000 years before the world. During that 2000 years, apparently Gd was hanging out, contemplating and playing with the letters of the alphabet. Let us now, together, imagine the story of the creation of the Torah and therefore of the world. We are at the moment when Gd was ready to create the world….

Just as a reminder, The torah begins with the words Beresheit Bara Elohim Et...
What letter does the Torah being with?  (Answer: Beit ב)
What letter do we normally think of as the first letter? (Answer: Aleph א)
So why does the torah begin with the second letter Beit ב?
Let me tell you the story from the beginning of the Zohar.

It begins as follows:

Rav Hanmuna Sava said: "Before creation began, the alphabetical letters were in reversed order; thus, the two first words in the Book of Genesis, berashith, bara, begin with Bet; the next two, Alohim, ath, with Aleph. Why did it not commence with A, the first letter? The reason of this inversion is as follows: For two thousand years before the creation of the world the letters were concealed and hidden, being objects of divine pleasure and delight.

"When the Divine Being, however, willed to create the world, all the letters appeared before Him, from last to first.

The Zohar goes on to detail how each letter appeared before the Kaddosh Baruch Hu and said "Create the world with me because...." And until Gd reached the predetermined letter, Gd would give them a reason that the world was NOT to be built with them and send them away.

These reasons were in 3 main categories:

The first category of rejection is composed of letters that make up words with negative connotations. 

-The last letter of the aleph bet went first - the TAV - and although it anchors the word EMET, truth,  it was rejected because it also anchor the word  MAVET  - death.

-The  ש,  ר, ק  are rejected because together they make up the word שקר and Gd did not want the world to be built on lies. And the Lies that are especially dangerous are the ones that contain a grain of truth in them.

The next category of rejection was due to how the letter physically appeared.

-So although the letter פ stands for the word Purkena which earns the redemption it was not chosen  because it "signifies hidden transgression, like a serpent striking, then tucking its head back into its body. Just so, one who sins bows his head, stretching out his hands."

-The letter ט had a similar problem. Although the Gd is called in Psalms "Tov V'Yashar - good and upright" Gd responds that the letter ט will not be used in the creation of the world, because the goodness is hidden within it and concealed from sight as it is written " How abundant is Your goodness that you have hidden it away for those in awe of You. (Psalms 31:20) 

The final category of rejection was because the letter already had an important purpose and could not be spared from that role without dire consequences to the universe.
-For example, the letter Samech stands for SMICHA or support. It is needed to support the letter NUN which stands for NOFLIM which means fallen. As in the expression Somech Hashem  (Gd supports all who fall, Psalms 145: 14)

-The Dalet and Gimel have a similar story. Dalet stands for DELET which means poverty and Gimel for GOMEL as in help or the benefactor. So together they sustain each other.

After reviewing nearly all the letters, the Bet comes before Gd.

Then came B and said: "Create the world by me, because I am the initial letter of beracha (blessing) and through me all will bless you, both in the world above as in the world below." "Indeed by you I will create the world." said the Holy One, "You will be the beginning of creation."

What's interesting here is that the Aleph is still remaining, as this Alphabet Parade began with the letter TAV and went backwards. But after the Bet left, the Aleph did not appear before Gd until Gd called out to it and asked it why it hadn't appeared like all the other letters? The Aleph's reply - basically what was the point? It was obvious from BET's face that it had received the prize, and it wouldn't become the "monarch of the universe" to take it back and give it to another. So why bother showing up.  At this Gd reminded Aleph that it shall be the first of all the letters, and that Gd's unity - ACHDUT- is symbolized by it. "With you all counting begins and every deed in the world. No union is actualized except by the Aleph."

Gd made high, large letters and low small letters - from last to first. So we find "BET BET - BERESHIT BARA and ALEPH ALEPH - ALOHIM AET." The letters above and below representing the upper world -  the heavens and the lower world - earth. I see this repetition of letters as a representation of our relationship and partnership with Gd. Bereshit is Gd’s blessing, Gd’s beginning of creating the world – Bara is our blessing and our ability to continue in that creation.  Alohim is Gd’s name, the name that stresses the attributes of Justice, Might, and Creativity – At (et) is a preposition – that’s us! – there are so many possibilities that can arise after a preposition!

I first chose this story, well, because I’ve been studying Kabbalah with some amazing teachers and wanted to share some of the Torah that I’ve learned. But also, I knew there was a connection between this story and Parashat Toldot, but I just couldn’t figure out what to say at first. There is so much going on in it - especially around the birthright - and most of my thoughts felt rather trite.

But we see in this week's parashah the power of words. We see the blessings that can be bestowed with them and the problems that can be created with them. We see the impact of rash vows, of promises, of schemes, of simple speech.

There are modern implications to this birthright story as well. I spent the last two days in Bethlehem with the group Encounter - meeting Palestinians and learning about the issues at hand.  We KNOW that violence will not solve the problems that face Israel and the Palestinians. We also KNOW that words can have an impact - words can make a difference if people are just willing to meet, to talk and most importantly to listen.
The world, our world, was created through these amazingly powerful, active letters, the building blocks of the words that make up our daily lives.

My prayer for all of us is that we learn to choose our words carefully, down to each and every letter, so that they can be received in the positive way that we intend and that their final result and is peace and a better world.

-De Manhar, Nurho, trans.: Zohar: Bereshith to Lekh Lekha, ed. by John Hare (HTML at
-Leader, Avraham. Beit Midrash Nava Tehilla, Fall 2009 (Thank you Avraham for teaching me the text in Aramaic and English with only the occasional English word thrown in.)
-Matt, Daniel C. (Translator). The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 1
-Rothberg, Shaiya.  Conservative Yeshiva, Fall 2009

To learn more about Encounter go to:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pluralism and Kippot

I have participated in and am participating in several groups that go in for pluralism and religious diversity within the Jewish spectrum. As the Itinerant Rabbit that I am, I am a wanderer amongst the many fields of Judaism. I grew up in a mainly secular home - very culturally Jewish and Zionist - but pretty much non-practicing. Went to Orthodox Day School - davenned at a Conservative shul with the grandparents, a shtetl like Orthodox shul with the great-grands, a Modern Orthodox shul of which my NCSY advisor was the Rav and my yeshiva/day school. I was searching for stability, for something to give balance to my life and help me understand the bigger picture. I found it in traditional Jewish practice.   Have been a ba'alat teshuva (born again Jew - sort of), fairly observant Conservative Jew and now am going to be ordained a Reconstructionist Rabbi. These days I feel comfortable almost anywhere and also no where. My practice is fluid at the moment - not sure where it will finally end up.

I try to be accepting of others and of differences. In our house we have our philosophy of choice - I choose to celebrate my Judaism this way, you choose to celebrate your Judaism that way. Just as I do not want to be judged, I will not judge; just as I want to be respect, I will respect.

It was only recently that I realized how truly post-denominational (whatever that is) that I am - I really try not to judge others in their religious practice or lack thereof. I feel my rabbinate calls me to help others connect, in whatever way works for them, with Judaism. I am blessed that I can find open windows and doors to let people in - and if I can help them move more deeply into Jewish practice/thought/culture once they are in, then all the better. If not, then I hope they can feel satisfied and connected where they are.

I do feel that while Jews are Jews - there are some that will always be "other" to me at some point - for the good or the bad. That's just the way it is. Doesn't mean it will always be that way though. I have difficulty when I am confronted with people who do not have respect for people who do not practice the way they do - whether they are more or less observant, I don't care - I still see the value judgement as plain wrong and destructive to our collective peoplehood.

So, I was wallowing in these kinds of thoughts on my way home tonight at about 10pm. I got out of the cab and began to cross the street to my building. In the middle of the road a guy in the 20s or 30s stopped me and asked if he could ask me a question. I knew it would be about my kippah, as I was wearing it openly instead of the usual frummie head scarf or jaunty beret that I have taken to wearing in Israel. Interestingly, the question was about my kippah, just not in the way I expected. He didn't ask about me as a woman wearing a kippah - he just didn't get the whole kippah thing at all. "Why does anyone wear a kippah?" he asked.

In a mix of English and Hebrew that gradually switched to all Hebrew when I realized he was Israeli and he realized I could speak Hebrew, I told him the history of the kippah. But mainly I told him why I wear one - for Yir'at Shamayim (awe/respect of the Creator) and Anava (humility). It reminds me that I am not the be-all and end-all of the universe. If I get too pumped up or proud of myself or lost in my own Arlene-ian world, all I have to do is remember this kippah on my head and what it stands for and I am firmly grounded once again. He thanked me, said he finally gets it, and we talked a bit more. We then introduced ourselves, wished each other an "erev tov" (a good night) and headed our separate ways.

And I was smiling again. Baruch Hashem.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Off to Bethlehem

Am off to Bethlehem for about 36 hours - Thursday 8 am-ish til 3pm - exactly 1 hour before Shabbat begins. Will be meeting Palestinians - adults and kids - and learning about their lives. Will receive home hospitality as well. Am bringing two different kinds of cookies from an amazing local French bakery as a hospitality gift. Is there any better way to create commonalities or breach differences than with food?

The group I am traveling with is called Encounter. It's goal: Encounter is an educational organization dedicated to providing Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the religious and political spectrum with exposure to Palestinian life. 

 Check it out; it's worthwhile.

Shabbat Shalom!

PS: Don't tell my Mom! Am waiting until after I get back. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Conservative Yeshiva

The Fuchsberg Center at the corner of Agron and King George streets in the center of Jerusalem.
The Conservative Yeshiva (CY) building is part of a complex that contains a beit midrash (two actually, an old one oand a newer one) and a guest house. Classes are offered year round both in person and on line.

This past summer I participated in the second summer session of learning. For three weeks I studied Talmud, Halacha, Psalms and misc other "stuff" with people of all ages from all over the world. My Talmud chevruta was from Oslo, Norway. Lynn was a wonderful chevruta. She is also studying to be a rabbi but through the Aleph program. We both desired to study the text slowly and systematically so that we could later teach what we learned. Our different skill sets were complementary. Between studying with Lynn and learning in class from Reb Mordecai I learned an incredible amount of Talmud in 3 weeks.

The laws regarding head covering from women occupied another portion of each day. In Advanced Halacha with Reb Shlomo we learned the halacha of "kisui rosh" in a chronological fashion. We began by looking at the verses from which the Rabbis derived the law in Bamidbar, the book of Numbers and worked our up to more modern times. Someday I will write about these particular studies and how I ultimately chose to cover my head with something other than my customary kippah while in Israel. However, as the laws are derived from the portion of the Torah that deals with the Sotah, the suspected adulterous wife, I am choosing not to discuss it at the moment. I get very angry/annoyed when I think about it. Enough of that for now.

My final regular course this summer was Psalms with Rabbi Gail Diamond (an RRC grad and Assistant Director of CY),  an excellent class that looks at Psalms as sacred text, prayer, praise and literature all at the same time. This class was also interesting because the students encompassed a wide spectrum of levels of comfort/fluency with Hebrew and text. The summer also included a variety of co-curricular programs and lots of informal schmoozing. As  a recipient of a Legacy Heritage scholarship. I also participated in a additional get togethers that focussed on the needs and skill sets of Jewish communal leaders. It was helpful getting to know others that were as committed to their communities as I am to mine and to have the opportunity to share ideas and programs.

I am currently in the last 6 weeks or so of my studies in Israel. I've mentioned in other posts about the craziness of my schedule and the variety of institutions in which I study (CY, Machon Schechter, Nava Tehilla, Melitz...). I spend the majority of my time at CY and am grateful for having a base of operations where I feel so comfortable and the people are so warm and caring. I'll close with some pictures of CY experiences - some were taken from the CY summer website.
Shabbat Shalom.

Tisha B'Av at the "egal" part of the Wall  (pic courtesy of CY)
A Tu B'Av Kumsitz lead by the incomparable Mark Novak (pic courtesy of CY)
The view outside the Beit Midrash at CY