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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Home for the Holidays

For 25 years, I served as a professional Hazzan on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for a variety of fascinating Jewish communities.

My first “gig” was with students at the University of Rhode Island Hillel. Then, I spent 3 years as Cantor/Rabbi for a congregation of the fading remnants of the Jewish farming families in south central New Jersey, I filled-in one year as hazzan at the renewed Orthodox synagogue in Calgary and for 2 years served as the chazzan of a dying Conservative congregation in Brooklyn.

For almost 20 years, I served as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hazzan (and sometimes Rabbi) of the Orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue on the Netherland Antilles island Curacao in the Caribbean.

When we still lived in New York , Batya and I would spend the hagim together in Curacao getting to know the people and history this fascinating Jewish community. Until we came on Aliyah we would make our annual pilgrimage (eventually together with the kids: Rafi, Ari and Nili) to the island. It was a grand adventure, complete with resort hotels, swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, horseback riding and other adventures. (I hope to write a fuller account of my experiences in Curacao at another time). Eventually though, the cost of bringing the whole family from Israel and the educational price of taking the kids out of school for 2 weeks became too high, so I started traveling and spending the Hagim alone in Curacao.

This is the third year that I am at home here in Israel in my own community for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur…and I love it! I get to be in shul with my family and community…and I am not on “display” as clergy.

I was worried about how it would be for me, becoming “just one of the congregation” after 25 years of leading almost all of the tefilot and often blowing the shofar, reading the Torah and giving the sermons. Would I be bored? Would I miss being in the spotlight and in charge? Would it be hard for me to get used to other people’s melodies? (After years of focused work, I had finally gotten the good folks in Curacao singing all the “right” melodies!) Would it be torture for me listening to someone else “krechts” through the davening?

For most of the past 3 decades I have been leading services for congregants who by and large do not understand Hebrew, are not regular synagogue attendees and who have a hard time connecting to the prayers. My role was often to use nusach and song to convey the mood and intent of the prayers (One of the nicest compliments that I have ever gotten was from a congregant who said to me: Cantor – I don’t understand Hebrew…but when you lead the prayers I feel that I do understand). Mostly though, it was me singing and chanting, being joined by the congregation from time to time for the more familiar parts. It was a desperate race against time to get the congregation through hours and hours of what was often for them a long boring service being conducted in a language that most of them did not understand.

In my youth, I watched my father , the great Hazzan Rabbi Cantor Moshe Ehrlich z”l deal with similar issues in the large Orthodox synagogue where I grew up on Long Island, where overall the Rosh HaShanah & Yom Kippur atmosphere at times felt more like a fashion show and a very long, very boring gala. I dreaded going to shul on RH and YK when I was a kid. And I know that many of my friends - especially in the USA - still dread going to shul. They report that the holiday atmosphere at their American synagogues is artificial and stilted, long and drawn out with only occasional inspiring moments…almost as if designed to suppress any sense of spirituality or inspiration.

So yes – I was apprehensive.

Since I am an active prayer leader and regular hazzan all through the year, when I announced at my synagogue three years ago that I would be staying home for the holidays from now on, I was warmly welcomed into the ranks of the yomtov hazzan rotation. Is there anything special that I should know I asked? No was the answer – we know that you know what you are doing so just do what you usually do. Bad advice.

Boy was I in for a surprise. Instead of the hazzan carrying most of the weight of the service on his shoulders, most of the service is sung together by the entire community – and they mostly understand the words, are familiar with the prayers and feel very much at home in the synagogue. As I embarked on my usual race to get through the repetition of the amidah without losing most of the congregation to stupefying boredom, I was brought to a screeching halt at almost every other paragraph as the community burst into inspiring and uplifting singing.

Nothing in my childhood experiences or in my decades as Hazzan had prepared me for this. I was in shock – first at suddenly feeling like a neophyte in shul, and secondly - wow – I had no idea that it could be like this. The pace and the communal energy is incredible and serves as a support and buttress to intensifying my own individual prayer.

So now three years later I love going to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! (I really never thought that would happen). It is inspiring and uplifting with very little down time. I generally lead one of two of the services and that is just enough for me. I get to feel that I am sharing my traditions and hopefully inspiring, while enjoying and being inspired by others. And there is almost no “krechtzing”.

We are especially excited to be all together at home for this Rosh Hashanah; we thought that it would be just me, Batya and Nili. But at the last minute Rafi was allowed to come home from the army and Ari’s pre-army mechinah decided to have all the boys go home for Rosh Hashanah and come back for Yom Kippur.

And me? I am still so excited to just be “home for the holidays” after all of these years.

Shanah Tovah to all. A happy and healthy year.
Ketivah VaHatimah Tovah.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Christians Standing Up for Israel in Oklahoma

Two Became Twenty
by Margy Pezdirtz

It was a quiet Friday, one in which I wanted to study and prepare for the coming Shabbat, when my phone rang. Renee said, "Did you get the flyer? The one about the CAIR anti-Israel rally this afternoon at 4:30? I thought you might want to do something about it."

"No, I didn’t get the flyer. What’s happening." And that began the end of a quiet afternoon. CAIR - Council on American-Islamic Relations - was sponsoring a rally from 4:30 to 6:00 to "to decry Israel’s attack on humanitarian aid ship share."

Probably the last thing in the world I wanted to do on this very hot June afternoon was to stand on a street corner and protest the protestors. I thought about it for a moment. Could I, in all honesty and integrity, sit back in my comfortable, air conditioned home and do nothing? And what about my ten-year-old granddaughter who was with me until her parents got off work. Should I take her to a rally like this that could conceivably turn dangerous?
I thought about it for a moment and knew I had to act. If not me, then who? If not now, then when? I quickly forwarded the article on to my email list asking anyone and everyone that could to join me at 4:00 at the intersection. I called people whom I knew wouldn’t receive the email prior to getting home and told them of our intentions and asked them to call as many people as they could and to please join us.

My sister was across town with her daughter who is due to have a baby any day now. I called her and said, "Is the baby coming?" "No," she responded. "Then I have something more important for you to do." I gave her instructions and was happy when she said, "OK." I wasn’t sure I would leave my daughter in that situation, but she is as committed to Israel as I am and she knew I wouldn’t be calling if it wasn’t significant.

I grabbed a box of Israeli window flags from my garage and threw them in the car along with a generous supply of ice water. An hour and a half in the sun could be a very long time and water would be necessary, not only for myself but for others who might show up. I donned white pants and my blue tee that showed crossed Israeli and America flags and said, "United We Stand...Divided We Fall" and backed out of the driveway. My heart and head were racing, and I wondered if I was walking into trouble. My granddaughter and I prayed as we drove towards the site of the rally where my son would pick her up. Rushing toward the freeway, I explained words to her like ‘flotilla’, ‘humanitarian’ and once again, "God’s love for the land and people of Israel."

In the beginning Renee and I were the only ones at the intersection where the rally was supposed to be held. We took our stand across the street from the anti-Israel bunch and began waving Israeli flags at passers by. At her suggestion, I called the local talk radio show, a conservative station, and told host Lee Matthews what we were doing. He put it on the air and soon, cars were passing by and honking in agreement with the two of us. I had told the Lee that I had Israeli flags I would give out to anyone who pulled over and asked for one.

A man in a white pickup truck was stopped at the traffic light, going in the opposite direction. He sat watching us as he waited on the light and I hollered, "Would you like a flag?" He nodded yes and I ran one across two traffic lanes to him. He took the flag and said, "I’m going to park and come help you." His name was David.

Every fifteen minutes, the radio station called for a report on what was happening. I was delighted to tell them people were listening and responding to us. He wanted to know how many there were at the CAIR site and I told him I could see seven, which later turned to eleven. As we talked on the radio, I continued to wave flags and smile at people.
Others came and joined us. One couple, Mike and Betty, said they were sitting on their porch in El Reno - a town approximately thirty miles away, when they heard on the radio about the anti-anti-Israel rally. Mike looked at his wife and said, "We better get down there."

Another couple heard about it on the radio as they were driving home from work and they detoured to our location to join us.

A beautifully dressed young woman who lives in Northwest Oklahoma City heard about it on the radio, pulled into the Walgreen’s parking lot across the street and waited for the very long light to change so she could literally run across the street to join us. She grabbed a flag and began standing watch with us.

And they continued to come. They were individuals. They were couples. Some were on their way home from work. Some were just driving by. Others heard about it on the radio and were moved to action. They were Christians and they knew this was late on a Friday afternoon when Jews were preparing for Shabbat and most likely wouldn’t be able to come join in the rally, so they responded to the invitation and stood on the hot corner, waving flags and shouting "support Israel." My spirits were lifted. I was thrilled to see the response and to hear the conversations of the people who joined us. They cheerfully pulled flags out of the bag and started waving them and giving them out and when we ran out, I ran back to the car and brought all I had.

We had a sign that said, "Honk for Israel" and people put the flags on their car windows and drove around the block two, three and four times honking for Israel. When the anti-Israel CAIR bunch mimicked our sign with one that said, "honk for Islam," people on our side of the street honked even louder and longer.

Our group had grown considerably. There were suddenly twelve and then twenty and more came as some left. One woman, riding on a large motorbike flying an American flag pulled into the intersection, parked the bike and said, "I came to join you." I laughed and said, "Welcome Biker Babe" and we continued to wave flags, hold up signs supporting Israel. I couldn’t help but give praise to God that the response from those joining us and those passing by with honking horns, were so supportive.

The CAIR group watched us and even sent someone over, dressed in intimidating black, with an camera to take our pictures from all angles. I made sure he got excellent pictures of us – what his rationale was didn’t matter. What mattered was that they – the CAIR – people saw not everyone bought their story of Israel’s unfairness to so-called humanitarian ships.
The hour and a half passed quickly and our spirits continued in spite of the hot sun. We were tired and thirsty but we shouted with the greatest of joy when one of Oklahoma City’s beautiful, large fire engines drove by and tapped out a tune of support to us on their air horn. We heard it loud and clear and I’m sure the CAIR people did as well, but there was no doubt whom the firefighters were supporting.

The rally was supposed to be over at 6:00 p.m. The hour came and went and the CAIR people stayed on. We were determined that we would win this demonstration by sheer will power, if nothing else, and we continued to stand on the corner, waving flags, shouting for Israel and laughing. Finally, at 6:30, the CAIR crowd had diminished to one person against our dozen or so remaining. We waited and watched as they packed up their last person, their signs and flags into a vehicle and drove off. Only then, did we call an end to our rally. One person in our group was determined to stay on the corner until he had given out his last flag and we left him there waving his flag and showing determination to all, reaffirming his – and our – solidarity with Israel.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Becoming a Chayal - Rafi's IDF Swearing in Ceremony

Over the years, I have been to a number of IDF swearing in ceremonies, mostly with groups of tourists. At each ceremony, I have been moved to tears of pride, even when I did not know any of the soldiers there. (OK – I also cried when I saw the movie “Born Free” as a kid…).

But yesterday was different. Yesterday, Batya, Ari, Nili and I were at Latrun to be with our oldest son Rafi as he solemnly pledged allegiance to people, state and army of Israel. It was a moving ceremony marking the end of the initial stage of basic training, and I found myself choked up numerous times. I could barely sing the “Hatikvah” at the end as my voice kept cracking.

The soldiers arrived at Latrun early in the morning for a series and exercises, practice drills etc. We arrived at 3 PM. Under a blazing hot sun we staked out seats in the outdoor amphitheater nearest to where Rafi and his unit would be stationed for the ceremony. We were joined by my Mom (Savta Reva), 2 other Efrat families whose sons are in the same unit, a whole gaggle of friends of Rafi, Ari and Nili, and our close friends the Peretz and the Schwartz families who have watched Rafi grow up. We had coordinated together to bring food and drink for the boys and their friends & guests so we lay out a spread of fruit, schnitzel, foccacias, sandwiches, cookies and cake, drinks etc. Rafi and the other soldiers soon joined us and soon everyone was busy eating, drinking, laughing, hugging, talking, posing for pictures etc. This scene was repeating itself all over Latrun as families and friends gathered in a festive atmosphere to celebrate this milestone in the lives of our sons and families.

By 4:45 the ceremony was ready to begin. Rafi and his pals quickly joined the over 600 soldiers being sworn into the Armored Corp marching on to the stage and arranging themselves by units and companies. The ceremony began with the soldiers at attention and the crowd standing for the recitation of “Yizkor” remembering those who have fallen in defense of Israel. There were various presentations and speeches and then the moments that we were all waiting for. In response to the pledge of allegiance to the people, state and army of Israel, each company roared its affirmative response. Then, each soldier came forward to receive his Tanach (Bible) and gun from their company commanders.

While this ceremony is the “swearing in” where they go from being recruits to being soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (complete with M-16 rifles), interestingly not everyone swears. Jewish tradition takes swearing very seriously and as such discourages the use of oaths and swearing except when absolutely necessary. Therefore soldiers are given the option of replying Ani Nishbah (I swear) or Ani Matzhir (I affirm) in response to the pledge. Many religiously observant soldiers (including Rafi) choose to affirm rather than to swear. Since each company responds in unison (at the top of their lungs) and since roughly half or more of the soldiers are identifiably religious, the response came out sounding something like Ani Nishtzir in a wonderful cacophony of personal autonomy within the broader group cohesion and conformity. This was another moment that moved me to tears as I watched Rafi’s face closely as he responded Ani Matzhir with such intensity and strength, affirming his pride as a soldier of Israel and his pride and identity as an observant and proud Jew.

The short speeches focused on the hard work that the boys have gone through already and the hard road ahead. The commanders who spoke were full of praise for their dedication and spirit. There was a strong emphasis on our desire for peace and security. Not once was there a glorification of war and battle. Is there another army in the world quite like this?

We were thrilled to have Savta Reva and our close friends and close friends of our kids with us and to be joined together with other families from Efrat. As olim, we and our kids have become used to celebrating life cycle events with a relatively small circle of friends since so many of our relatives still live overseas. But yesterday we were probable one of the largest groupings there – when Rafi stepped forward, a huge cheer went up from our section accompanied by large hand held signs, clapping and singing.

All in all, it was a celebratory occasion. Of course, darker thoughts intruded uninvited at times but they were pushed aside by the pride and energy of the soldiers and the thousands of friends and relatives sharing the moment and celebrating together.

For us it was a moment of intense pride and fulfillment. We have after all come home to Israel as part of the age old Jewish and modern Zionist dream. We have brought up our children to be dedicated to the people and traditions of Israel. We are so proud that Rafi understands that freedom does not come for free and that he sees it as his privilege and obligation as a Jew to fight to maintain our hard earned freedom – no one else will do it for us.

I have been to Latrun and seen the banner “Welcome to the Armored Corp Family Circle” many times. For the first time I knew that that banner included me - we are now a part of that proud family…Shehechiyanu VeKiyamanu VeHigiyanu LaZman Hazeh.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Snowstorm That Wasn’t

This was a week of snow hysteria here in Israel.

All day Wednesday, the news and weather forecasts were broadcasting loud and clear – SNOW is on the way. Snow was predicted for the mountains of the Golan, Galil, Shomron, Jerusalem, Yehudah and the Negev from Wednesday night through Thursday afternoon. Here in Efrat they were predicting 6 – 7 inches.

Now I know for a lot of people around the world it is hard to imagine getting excited about a few inches of snow. But since it doesn’t snow that much here, we are not really well equipped for snow removal. When it does snow, the country grinds to a standstill and celebrates as if it were a national holiday.

So this week, the country went on high alert – municipalities lined up bulldozers to serve as snow plows, schools sent out notices about possible school cancellations, shoppers mobbed the supermarkets and gas stations, meetings were re-scheduled and kids of all ages looked forward to their first real “snow day” in years.

And then it started. The temperatures plummeted to just about freezing, the sky turned dark with clouds and it began to… rain. And it rained, and rained and rained. Oh, there were some flurries and some hail and some freezing rain – but the promised snow storm did not materialize, except for in part of the Golan Heights and on Mt. Hermon. (Good news for the skiers). The weather forecasters explained that temperatures remained just a degree or two too warm to produce real snow.

There were a lot of disappointed kids and adults who had to head to work and school on Thursday after all.

Winter weather is big news in Israel – we desperately need the winter rains and snow to replenish our water supply. As a result of the last few years of winter droughts, the mountain and coastal aquifers are dangerously depleted, and the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) which is our main water reservoir, began the winter more 15 feet lower than it should be. Since each foot of water in the Kineret represents about 50 million cubic meters of water, that’s a lot of missing water!

Bu the good news is that it is raining! The Kineret has already risen by about 3 feet this winter, the rivers and streams of the north are flowing into the Kineret, there is snow on the Hermon which will eventually melt into the Kineret - so all in all, we are having a pretty good rain year. Of course we need to have a spectacular rain year to make up our water deficit, but we are off to a good start.

As I sit here in Efrat writing on Friday morning, it is raining again. It is a foggy, rainy day - the community of Neveh Daniel on the next hill keeps disappearing from view in the fog – and the temperature is about 37 degrees. The forecast for Shabbat – tonight and into tomorrow- is for the precipitation to continue and for temperatures to fall below freezing, producing… you guessed it – SNOW. But of course after the snow storm that didn’t happen earlier in the week, noone actually believes the new forecast.

In any event, we are grateful for the rain and hope and pray that it will continue. And who knows - maybe it will snow this time.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was just marked in the USA, I though that it would be timely to remember his words about anti-semitism

". . . You declare, my friend, that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely 'anti-Zionist.' And I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountain tops, let it echo through the valleys of God's green earth: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews--this is God's own truth.
"Antisemitism, the hatred of the Jewish people, has been and remains a blot on the soul of mankind. In this we are in full agreement. So know also this: anti-Zionist is inherently antisemitic, and ever will be so.

"Why is this? You know that Zionism is nothing less than the dream and ideal of the Jewish people returning to live in their own land. The Jewish people, the Scriptures tell us, once enjoyed a flourishing Commonwealth in the Holy Land. From this they were expelled by the Roman tyrant, the same Romans who cruelly murdered Our Lord. Driven from their homeland, their nation in ashes, forced to wander the globe, the Jewish people time and again suffered the lash of whichever tyrant happened to rule over them.

"The Negro people, my friend, know what it is to suffer the torment of tyranny under rulers not of our choosing. Our brothers in Africa have begged, pleaded, requested--DEMANDED the recognition and realization of our inborn right to live in peace under our own sovereignty in our own country.

"How easy it should be, for anyone who holds dear this inalienable right of all mankind, to understand and support the right of the Jewish People to live in their ancient Land of Israel. All men of good will exult in the fulfilment of God's promise, that his People should return in joy to rebuild their plundered land.

This is Zionism, nothing more, nothing less.

"And what is anti-Zionist? It is the denial to the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord all other nations of the Globe. It is discrimination against Jews, my friend, because they are Jews. In short, it is antisemitism.

"The antisemite rejoices at any opportunity to vent his malice. The times have made it unpopular, in the West, to proclaim openly a hatred of the Jews. This being the case, the antisemite must constantly seek new forms and forums for his poison. How he must revel in the new masquerade! He does not hate the Jews, he is just 'anti-Zionist'!

"My friend, I do not accuse you of deliberate antisemitism. I know you feel, as I do, a deep love of truth and justice and a revulsion for racism, prejudice, and discrimination. But I know you have been misled--as others have been--into thinking you can be 'anti-Zionist' and yet remain true to these heartfelt principles that you and I share.

Let my words echo in the depths of your soul: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews--make no mistake about it."

From M.L. King Jr., "Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend," Saturday Review_XLVII (Aug. 1967), p. 76.
Reprinted in M.L. King Jr., "This I Believe: Selections from the Writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Germans, Jews and the Shoa - A Strange Night in Efrat

Last night I met with a group of German Pastors who were staying at the Efrat guest house. They are here in Israel to show support and to learn more about Israel – and to lay the groundwork for bringing church groups from Germany to visit Israel.

Since my dimly remembered college level German limits me to being able to wish people a good evening and asking them to open and close the window, and since only some of the pastors speak English, we communicated through an interpreter.

They were eager to learn and to better understand our connection and commitment to living in Israel. They were interested in the role that faith in God plays in our lives, whether we feel secure in Israel in general and in Efrat in particular, what motivated us to make Aliyah and more. We spoke about the Tanach, about Zionism and Judaism and about the right of the Jewish people to freedom and independence.

I think that when most contemporary Jews meet Germans, there is at least part of our brain that is wondering about Nazi connections. (What did you or your father or grandfather do during the war? etc). Given the language barrier and the short time that we had together, we did not have a chance to speak about the Shoah and explore the role that it plays in Jewish – German and in Jewish - Christian relationships. Yet that consciousness is always there on some level.

It was a strange evening for me, full of juxtapositions and contradictions. I spent about 45 minutes with the pastors and then drove around the corner to our son Ari’s high school for a very different kind of gathering. Back in September, Ari traveled to Poland with his school to learn about and remember the life – and the murder – of the Jews of Poland at the hands of the Germans and their allies during the Shoa (Holocaust). In many Israeli schools, this is a rite of passage for 11th and 12th graders. (Our oldest son Rafi went 2 years ago).

The students have been working for the past few months to summarize and express their feelings about their pilgrimage to Poland. Last night they invited all of us parents to share with them. It was a multi media program including singing, film, music and readings which touched our hearts and minds. Joining with over a hundred other parents in watching the faces of Ari, his school mates and teachers, listening to their words, singing and weeping together with them, was a powerful experience.

There are many legitimate questions and objections that can be raised about the wisdom and propriety of taking groups to Poland and using the memory of the Shoa as a Jewish identity builder. But there is no question in my mind that these trips are incredibly effective. Seeing first hand the ruins and pitiful remnants of what had been the most significant and vibrant Jewish community in the world until the Germans invaded and murdered over 90% of the Jews of Poland between 1939 – 1945 engenders in our kids feelings of pride, anger, determination, sadness, frustration, inspiration etc.

Sometimes our kids, growing up here in Israel, take our freedom for granted and forget why it is so important to have an independent Jewish state. The Poland experience reminds them of the consequences of Jewish powerlessness. It reminds them of what it means to be at the mercy of others. It reminds them of the horrible price of being a people without a land. It strengthens their determination to fight for the rights of the Jewish people in our land.

As I was sitting at the Shoa memorial program at the school, I couldn’t help but think of the German pastors just around the corner. Part of me wished that they could have accompanied me and experienced this with me. Part of me struggled not to hate or resent them. But mostly I had a sense of wonder and amazement that 65 years after the Shoa, there are Germans who are amongst Israel’s strongest supporters. That 65 years after the Shoah Germans and Jews can sit together in dialogue and find common ground. And that 65 years after the Shoah some of our strongest allies in the fight against the new anti-Semitism are Christians….and Germans.

What a strange world….

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Just Another Day in Israel?

Our middle son Ari is a senior in high school. The senior year in Israel focuses on studying for bagruyot (matriculation exams) and preparing for the Israel Defense Forces. This week is one of the periods set aside for students to explore various pre-Army prep and yeshiva programs.

Today though, Ari needed to report to the Draft Board in Jerusalem for the first stage of tests for acceptance to the Israeli Air Force. (He is not actually specifically interested in the airforce, but when the army says “show up”, you show up – and on time!).

Since I was heading into Jerusalem, we planned for me to drive Ari to near my office from where he would take a bus. But he wasn’t ready in time. I waited for him but he did not get to do everything that he needed to do before we left…like saying his Shacharit (morning) prayers.

While saying the morning prayers, we adult Jewish men (and some women) adorn ourselves with Tefilin (phylacteries) which for those who do not know, are Biblical verses enclosed in black leather boxes attached to our arm and head with black leather straps (Bind them as a sign on your arm and…between your eyes – Deuteronomy 6).

So there we were this morning, driving from Efrat to the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, through the checkpoint and the tunnels, over the bridge and on the main roads, with Ari sitting beside me praying with his tefilin on. If we got any strange looks, I did not notice them. Jewish religious symbols are part of the landscape here, and while it is not usual to wear Tefilin while a passenger in a moving car, it is not really so strange either. Somehow I think that even in New York we would have felt uncomfortable (never mind in St. Louis, Denver, Oklahoma or California).

Anyway, I went to work and Ari spent most of the day at the Draft Board and performed well enough so that the airforce is calling him back for round two. From there, he got on a bus heading south to spend the next 2 days checking out a Mechinah pre-army leadership program.

The mechinot are army prep programs where high school graduates spend 1- 2 years strengthening themselves spiritually and physically before army service. The programs generally involve intense Torah study, leadership training, physical fitness and army guidance. The army has learned that the mechinot produce soldiers who are more mature, focused and motivated and often officer material. Our oldest Rafi is at the mechinah at Maaleh Efrayim and his draft date is just a few weeks away in March.

So today was just another day here in Israel, yet somehow, from start to finish it served to remind me of the significance and responsibilities of living here in the Jewish state.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fighting for Jewish Rights on US College Campuses

I spent the last two weeks as Israel Tour Educator for a group of pro-Israel student activists from across the USA who came to Israel as part of a ZOA Israel leadership seminar. We met with Israeli political leaders and analysts, journalists and community leader. We were in Jerusalem and Sederot, Tel Aviv and the Shomron, Hevron, Efrat, the Galil and Golan.

Most of the students have been to Israel a number of times before, more than a few hope to make Aliyah, and the group included two non-Jewish Israel campus activists. They came from a variety of religious, geographic and educational backgrounds – what unites them is their commitment to representing and defending Israel (and the Jewish people) on US college campuses from the hate that confronts them.

That the anti-Israel crowd easily slips into anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery unfortunately comes as no surprise. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it so clearly years ago “You declare my friend that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely anti Zionist. And I say...when people criticize Zionism the mean Jews...anti-Zionist is inherently anti Semitic and will ever be so".

I get quite frustrated with American and Canadian Jewish students who tell me "There is a lot of anti-Israel and anti Jewish activity on my campus…I just stay out of it." as if this is a positive reaction! (Of course our history of the last 2,000 years or so might have something to do with our level of insecurity and fear). Sometimes we "the people of the book" become so focused on words that we forget that actions are also vital. As one of my grad school professors Dr. Elspeth Couch put it " We Jews sometimes forget that we have bodies" .

But most of these ZOA student activists are different – they do get involved, they put themselves on the line for Israel and the Jewish people. They organize, they publicize, they debate, they march, they protest, they publish etc. Often the reaction is not so friendly from their “fellow Americans”. One student related that a swastika was painted on the door of her dorm room. Others tell of verbal abuse and physical intimidation. Another related:

Quite depressing was this last semester when I was dealing with the situation with the event calling for an academic boycott against Israel. I seemed to be the lone voice calling out in the desert. Though I did have some support from several professors and students, most in the Jewish Studies department, and other local “Jewish organizations” were too afraid to speak out.

It is outrageous that in 2010 on American college campuses, Jewish students and their friends, in addition to doing the usual – studying, partying etc - need to defend themselves and the Jewish people against Jew hatred and Israel hatred. It is also outrageous that the Jewish world has somehow accepted this as the “normal” and expected state of affairs.

As a long time Aliyah activist it certainly makes sense to me that Jews in the Diaspora (even in America) will feel insecure and threatened. After all it is only here in Israel that for the first time in centuries we Jews have the ability to forge our own destiny (at least partially) and not be at the mercy of others. That is certainly a big part of the message and inspiration that they take back with them from here. But at the same time, these students fill me with hope for the future. We need courage, faith, confidence and leadership. We need to believe in ourselves…and trust in God. And in many of these student activists, I saw exactly that.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fundemental Issues - Biblical Zionism 101

Last Shabbat we finished reading the book of Genesis which ends with the Children of Israel trapped in exile - in Egypt - ut with the hope and the promise that God will remember them and return them to the land promised to Abraham and his heirs.

Who are the heirs of Abraham? Abraham, as he is getting older (100 years old!) suggests to God that perhaps Ishmael could be his heir (Gen 17; 18-22) - What does God answer? "Sara...shall bear you a son and you shall call him Isaac , and I will establish my covenant with him AS AN EVERLASTING COVENANT TO HIS DESCENDANTS AFTER HIM. As for Ishmael... I will bless him...But my covenant I will establish with Isaac..."

The Bible later tells us that Abraham, after making provisions for the sons of his other wives, sends them away and leaves all that he has to his son Isaac (Gen 22; 5).

God re-affirms his promise over and over - for example to Isaac - "...dwell in this land (Israel) and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and will give your descendants all these lands...." (Gen 26; 2-6).

Later, he re-affirms to Jacob (Israel): "I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land upon which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth and you will spread west, east, north and south and all the families of earth will be blessed via you and your descendants... I am with you and will keep you safe wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land..." (Gen 28;13-15)

The Bible makes it clear over and over again, that God has established his everlasting covenant (brit) with the people of Israel - Everlasting - Forever -Never to be cancelled! The Bible is crystal clear about this and repeats over and over again that the covenant and the commandments apply to the People of Israel for all their generations.

The covenant of the Jewish People with God is nearly 4,000 years old. Our prophets and kings lived their lives by the words of the Torah, and we continue to do so today.

One of the nice things about Biblical Zionism is that it also resonates with many Christians - especially from the Evangelical community - allowing them to connect to and support the people and State of Israel. Like the Jewish Religious Zionist community, they find God's promises to the People of Israel still relevant and compelling.

The prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah for example) spoke about the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. And return we have. We, the exiles who have returned - have been gathered back to the land as promised. And of course, Judea and Samaria are at the heart of the Land of Israel – the Mountains of Israel – about whom the prophets said: "And you, son of man prophesy to the mountains of Israel …because the enemy has said Aha, even (your) ancient high places belong to us….O mountains of Israel you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people Israel , for they will soon be coming…and you shall be tilled and sown, and I will multiply men upon you- all the house of Israel…and the cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt…(" Ezekiel 36)

It is exciting to be living here in Israel- in Efrat – in daily fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and Jewish destiny. We are here by right - this is our historic home. Yes, our enemies say this land is theirs. (They have even given Judea & Samaria a new name – the “West Bank”.) Yes, they have managed to convince most of the world that the Jewish communities here are “illegal settlements” on “occupied territory”. We will continue to stand firm, to rebuild the ruined cities and hills (despite the "freeze") and to build a vibrant future.