Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sh'Asani Israel - Davinning in Airports


Okay, I’m back.  I just finished davening shacharit at the airport. The sunrise contains the most beautiful hues of oranges and pinks ranging from the deepest deep to the palest of pale. What an amazing sight to see as one says Baruch She’amar… and wonders at the work of creation!

But it was also a bit strange, okay, very strange, saying this shacharit. Here I am, a woman, in a turquoise silk tallit, beaded red/gold kippah, and tefillin, saying her prayers in one of the most public and to me, foreign, spaces I’ve ever prayed in. The words and customs took on new meanings the standing and sitting, the bowing here and there, the occasional beating of the breast. To say I felt self conscious would be an understatement. I couldn’t lose myself in the prayers or in the beauty of the sunrise because of my surroundings – lots of people who are not praying, most aren’t Jewish, not an orthodox person in sight (am I actually missing the dati’im in Jerusalem! Oy va voi!) and of the course the background music that for some reason is alternating between Christmas and some sort of country-western music.

So here are some of the prayers/words that jumped out at me:
She’asyani Israel – who created me a Jew
Shelo Asayin goy – okay, these words aren’t in the Sim Shalom conservative siddur I was using but they were screaming in my head anyway, wanting to be heard.
Jump to the Amidah with – oh just about all of it… and I felt thankful that I automatically add “v’kol yoshvei tevel” (and all who reside in the world)  at the end of my oseh shalom these days.
And then the big finish – Aleinu -  talking about those other nations, idol worship, all eventually uniting with the One Gd… at least there weren’t any teens dancing a box step to Aleinu with me but still…

So what does this say about me? I prayed with tallit and tefilin in an airport, something I’ve never done before. Sure, I’ve davenned misc services when waiting in an (almost) all Jewish space to go to Israel but there were other people davenning then too. And I’d hadn’t worn tefillin at those times – was usually ma’ariv. I prayed but was uncomfortable. But it felt like the right thing to do.

I’m glad I davenned – it fulfilled my need to continue my spiritual practice of daily davenning that I’d lost when I entered rabbinical school and reacquired during my tenure in Israel. I’ve been trying to figure out if the whole keva/kavanna discussion works here but I’m not sure – I am davening out of a sense of obligation and responsibility, but not sure if I am doing it out of a sense of commandness or because it feels like the right thing to do at this time of my life. So much to think about… to blog about… aren’t you all so lucky?

The sunrise at the airport; picture doesn't do it justice but you get the point:

I'm back in the USA!!!

1:32 pm Jerusalem time…. 6:32 am Philadelphia airport time (I am truly in the Twilight Zone)

I’m back in the states.  Didn’t truly realize it until I surfaced from my fog and heard the song Santa Baby being piped through the airport. This was followed by a particularly lively rendition of Jingles Bells and now an intense and melodical version of Avé Maria is playing.  I almost made it through an entire Christmas season without hearing ANY Christmas music – except for when I tried to sing Adon Olam to the Little Drummer Boy… but nothing that one does at an early morning minyan (except daven, that is) counts, as it is usually too early to think properly anyway.

I had been reading an engrossing novel in Hebrew  גאווה ודעה קדומה מהסופרת ג’יין אוסטן  also known as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It helps that I know the novel by heart so I’m not too tripped up by the strange Hebrew renditions of archaic English forms. The story is funny in any language. And they’ve done a lovely job of keeping to the true spirit of the novel in the Hebrew translation. Anyway, I had been reading the novel when I realized that it might be time for shacharit – I looked up to search for Netz Hachama – the first sightings of sunrise to make sure I wasn’t too early (though some – the Vatikim in particular - would argue that I was too late by that time… but that’s for another day) – when I heard “Santa Baby.” All I have to say is “ugh” and welcome home, Arlene.

Oh, and there is snow here at the airport. Just 3 days ago I was walking on the beach with my long lost adopted big sister Ohella in Ashkelon and I was shvitzing (read: sweating a lot).  Jerusalem was even warm – in the upper 60s and low 70s. And here it is COLD – and I don’t have a coat. Okay – kvetching is done, just had to get it out of my system.

Will write more later when I am in a place with wifi. The airport charges $8 (nearly 32 NIS!) for 24 hours worth of internet access. Not worth it for one hour while I await my plane to Baltimore and home….

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last post from Israel

Can't believe 6 months has flown by! I came to Israel kicking and screaming - didn't want to be separated from Husband and Children for so long. But the experience has been so much more enriching, rewarding - באמת -transforming, than I ever thought possible. I'll blog on that from home as the days go on and I deconstruct my experience; it's very important for a reconstructionist to know how to deconstruct, btw.

Thought I'd share some of the pictures I've been snapping during my last week in Jerusalem. They are in no particular order... just things that struck my fancy.  Enjoy!

Friday, December 25, 2009

2 Important places: Kibbutz Hannaton and Beit Midrash Nava Tehilla

So many things I want to write about before I leave Israel next week, while they are still fresh on my mind.
The first: Kibbutz Hannaton. Kibbutz Hannaton is very difficult to find on the web - hopefully they will change that soon (right Yoav?) - but here are a couple of links: 
and Hannaton Educational Center, ( a good mini movie with pictures), 
and lastly there is a link through the Masorti movement .

Kibbutz Hannaton was founded in 1983-4 by members of the Conservative movement. It has undergone many ups and downs since then and today is on an upswing. Hannaton is growing with new members joining all the time,  land is soon to be prepared for new houses to be built, a second gan was recently opened for the kibbutz and neighboring children and there is a wonderful mikveh on the property (more about that in a minute). In this new renaissance, it is becoming an educational center with an inviting guesthouse, good food and welcoming kibbutz members.

Here is a description written by James and Debbie Maisels about the vision of the educational center: 
Kibbutz Hannaton is a renewed community and educational center, in a beautiful setting in the Galilee, where diverse, committed young Jews are working to claim Israel's future by living and teaching the ideals of Pluralism, Spirituality, Social Justice, Environmentalism, and Peace and Reconciliation, all in the context of rigorous text study. Our programs will include full time beit midrash study, spiritual retreats, seminars, and internships which engage our core values. Along with a group of passionate rabbis and educators from multiple denominations, our goal is to engage contemporary Jews with a meaningful, open, ethical and transformative Judaism.

I first heard about Hannaton in the early 80s when it first started but it didn't enter my consciousness again until this September when I participated in a retreat for the month of Elul on Teshuva and Transformation. It truly was transforming for me on many different levels. I engaged in deep and exciting learning on the teshuva process with wonderful teachers such as Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels (teaches at Pardes), Debbie Jacobson-Maisels (man, can this woman sing!),  Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan of Nava Tehilla (my honored Hassidut teacher), and Rabbi Haviva Ner David (my honored teacher of women's halachic issues) among others. I found a place in Israel that I feel I could live in if I were ever to move to Israel and I met two women who would become very important teachers for me - Rabbi Ruth and Rabbi Haviva. 

In meeting Rabbi Ruth I learned about the Nava Tehilla Beit Midrash - a weekly learning session from 3pm - 10pm on Tuesday evenings in Jerusalem. Here I studied Kabbala with the awesome and inspiring Avraham Leader (see my post on Words from a few weeks ago) and Hassidut and the prayer Ana B'Koach with Ruth.  Although I have been traveling for the past several years in a more liberal and spiritual Jewish world, I have leaned toward the more pragmatic sides of Judaism (for example - even with his drawbacks, I really dig Maimonides!) - but the learning that I've done at Nava Tehilla has enabled me to open myself to many new experiences. I even liked some of them! One result - I meditate now more than I ever did - there is a great one for before bed where it's like you are flying - too cool...

In meeting Rabbi Haviva Ner David I found someone who could not only satisfy my desire to learn the halachic underpinnings of Niddah and Mikveh (various issues of the Family Purity laws) but could also help me transvalue them to become meaningful in the post halachic world I live in. I will always be grateful for that. In addition, Haviva runs the Mikveh at Hannaton which is a place where nonOrthodox people can go and experience mikveh in ways other than just for family purity.  Haviva is willing to talk to people about mikveh and help develop ceremonies for lifecycle and other life shaping events. Most importantly to me, she has become my friend and for that I will always be grateful.

While this is not the best-written blog entry I've ever written I do hope you see my points. I haven't been sleeping much lately, so much to do and experience and celebrate and mourn in my last weeks (now days!) in Israel. I'll be posting more soon.

Shabbat Shalom - Arlene

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tahara - being part of community

I participated in my first Tahara about a year or so ago.  As a Jew and Rabbit, I feel strongly that to be a member of a community means taking part in all aspects of community - that includes simchas and sadnesses, births and deaths.  I haven't participated in a Tahara since I've been in Israel but my soul friend Chava just wrote about one that she participated in on her blog Lightwavejourney and it reminded me that I've been wanting to post this for a while.  

Tahara fact: did you know that the prayer Ana B'Koach is part of the Tahara ritual? It is a prayer that helps the soul ascend to new levels. Just as it helps our souls ascend to new heights when we sing Ana B'koach during morning services or during kabbalat shabbat so too does it help our souls ascend to shamayim after we die.

Here is my piece on Tahara from 2008:

“Source of kindness and compassion, whose ways are ways of mercy and truth, You have commanded us to act with loving kindness and righteousness towards the dead, and to engage in their proper burial. Grant us the courage and strength to perform this work properly: this holy task of cleaning and washing the body, dressing the dead in shrouds, and burying the deceased. … Help us to see Your face in the face of the deceased, even as we see you in the faces of those who share this task with us. Source of life and death be with us now and always.”
From the prayer recited before coming into the presence of the Metah (the deceased).  

            Today I took part in my first Tahara, the ritual physical and spiritual preparation of the Metah (the deceased).  There was such holiness to be found in that sterile room located on the bottom level of the funeral home. Five women gathered with a sense of profound obligation and respect to prepare a member of our synagogue for the final ceremony that she will take part in as a member of the Jewish community.
            With prayer, verses of text and no talk save that which related directly to the awesome task at hand, we carefully bathed and wrapped the Metah in her burial shroud. The white shroud stood in contrast to and in harmony with the red of the earth of Eretz Israel that was ritually sprinkled on and around her in the casket. The white of holiness, purity, and possibility alongside the red of life, passion, connection to our earth combined to tell the outline of a person’s life.
            There is such symmetry in our lifecycle rituals –  
We lovingly and joyfully rush to bathe and swaddle a newborn child; we slowly and deliberately wash and wrap our Metah.

We drape our children as they come of age with a tallit, our young adults as they marry with a tallit or kittel (ritual white robe); we cover our Metah with kittel and/or tallit as their final garment.

We prepare ourselves for life affirming immersion in the mayim chayim (living waters) of the mikvah with the same thoroughness with which we prepare the body of the Metah for her final immersion in the earth’s womb. 
            I stand in awe of our tradition. I am grateful for the rituals that usher us, body and neshama (soul), into this world and through our life and I am grateful for the rituals that guide us, body and neshama, to the place beyond. Source of life and death be with us now and always. Amen.

Arlene Berger

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thoughts on the Wall and the Walk

I have many thoughts about that walk of a couple of weeks ago. However, a friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto, wrote a beautiful description on her blog "Jerusalem of Gold(stein)" so instead of re-creating a less eloquent wheel, I thought I would publish part of her post here. BTW, Rabbi Elyse is the Kolel: the Adult Center for Liberal Jewish Learning. Check it out!

She writes:

"So my family and I took part in a quickly-organized protest rally convened by a consortium of groups under the banner “Free Jerusalem” on the last Saturday night of November in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem press reported that a few hundred “secular Jerusalemites” marched. In truth it was close to 2500 people of all ages, with many, many kipot and tzitzit, skirts and hair-covering scarves. The Conservative and Reform movements were there in full form. Secular? If by that you mean those who do not wear or live in black-and-white. The speeches emphasized the willingness of the protesters to dialogue with the haredim, and their desire for a peaceful and united city, but their unwillingness to let Jerusalem devolve into a fundamentalist city with its own brand of morality police, run by those who do not recognize the rights of all citizens of that city. Speakers from the Knesset held kowtowing politicians responsible for placating and turning a blind eye to violent, disruptive, and even illegal haredi acts and the growing haredi coercion in all levels of local and national politics. Frenkel spoke eloquently of her simple desire to “serve The Creator in joy” as a woman. We sang “Jerusalem of Gold” and then, most powerfully, we were asked to sing Hatikva— ‘lihiyot am chofshi- to be a free people in our own land, in Eretz Yisrael and in Jerusalem’— to reaffirm that our protest was a Zionist act of love for the Jewish State of Israel. People openly wept, and I felt within the crowd a fierce dedication to both Israel and to its heart, Jerusalem. The Israeli who had marched next to me saying “I’ve had it, I’m moving to Tel Aviv” turned to me at the end and said, “Now I know I can’t leave but have to become active in the movement for a free Jerusalem. I want my Jerusalem back.” "

"After the peaceful protest ended, 2500 people went up the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street, looking for felafel and making their way home. We were met by three dancing Hasidic men with huge yellow flags that said “Mashiach” on them; they had been trying valiantly to drown out the protest by singing to a recording of “Mashiach, Mashiach” as loud as possible into hand-held microphones. We tried to talk with them; they sang louder. We formed a circle and started dancing to the music; they turned off the music and moved away. I kept thinking of all the Jews who have pretty much abandoned Judaism while sending money to haredim so “they will be Jewish for us.” I kept thinking of the approaching festival of Hanukkah and its insistence on “dispelling the darkness.” In Jerusalem, a thriving new generation is trying to rekindle the light, by redefining who they will be in the years ahead. I wish them success— for Jerusalem’s sake."

Rabbi Elyse's post captures the serious, hopeful and surreal atmosphere of that Jerusalem night. It was heartening to see so many of my fellow Rabbinical students from all denominations of US Jewry (and Israeli as well!) out protesting for something that we all can believe in. Denominational differences aside, we are all Jews with a common heritage. The Western Wall, this City - they belong to all of us. It saddens me that the Wall has turned into an ultra orthodox synagogue, that there are modesty police around accosting anyone that doesn't fit in with whatever model of perfect Judaism is being represented by their leaders.

Do I sound bitter? I am a bit, but mainly I am sad. Once, many many years ago, I could go to the Wall and pray, I could be awed by the thousands of years of history that had been enacted at that spot, I could touch something material that so many women like myself (or maybe not like me...) have touched... I could feel something mystical inside of me. I can't anymore. The Wall as it was doesn't exist like that anymore - not for me nor for many others who feel disenfranchised or just alienated by the atmosphere there. I don't know what else to say, so I'll stop here. I'll just end by saying that I am happy to have had the opportunity to participate in the beginning of something - something that will hopefully bring about needed change - in a peaceful manner.

On that note: Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.  (That means - Happy Chanukah!! - our Festival of Freedom. More on Chanukah next week.)

Pictures of Take back the city!

Just a few of the 2000 people showing their support for pluralism and religious freedom in Jerusalem on Saturday night, November 28, 2009.  A walk from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem.

Pic: #1:  The Crowd on the Way to Zion Square. 
Pic #2:   Me and Alanna wearing tee shirts printed by the Masorti Movement. They say "HaKotel l'Kulam/lan" meaning the Western Wall is for everyone (male and/or female). Great shirts - Great message.
Pic #3:   Walking past the Great Synagogue on King George V Street.

Pic #4:   Lots of signs
Pic #5:   Students from Conservative Yeshiva and Jewish Theological Seminary/Machon Schechter show their support.

Pictures 1, 3, and 4 taken by Adrian Schell. Thanks Adi!