A Spoonful of Humus
Women of the Wall - Sisters and Brothers against Sisters and Brothers

Every Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month and a holiday for women, given to them for refusing to participate in the creation of the golden calf), women and men gather together at the Kotel to pray aloud, choosing to wear or not wear any or all of the prayer accoutrements of Jewish practice. (A yamikah/kippah, a circular head covering, or other or multiple head coverings; a talis, a prayer shawl that is traditionally mostly white; tzitzit, a garment worn under the clothes, which has specially tied fringe at the four corners to remind the wearer of God’s commandment; t’fillin, the leather straps wrapped around your left arm and head that contain the verse from the Torah requiring you to wear God’s sign upon your heart and head) However, the Kotel is controlled by the Orthodox, who forbid women from praying aloud because it will distract the men from prayer and who forbid women from wearing prayer accoutrements because they are not commanded to in the historical sources. 

This last Rosh Chodesh, I got up before dawn to walk through the sunrise to meet Women of the Wall and go together to pray and sing aloud, wearing our t’fillin and our talitot and our tzitzit. Most of my fellow HUC students were there also. For security reasons, we took a bus to and from the Kotel. Over the past few years, and especially over the past few months, Orthodox rabbis and leaders have mobilized their communities to protest Women of the Wall. In accordance with the customs of the Kotel, the police protected the Orthodox protestors and arrested the Women of the Wall. That all changed two months ago when a judge ruled that the arrested women had broken no laws, thereby negating that the customs of the Kotel were law and suggesting that other forms of Judaism were as valid as Orthodoxy. Now, the police support the Women of the Wall and arrest the protestors.

This Rosh Chodesh, Rosh Chodesh Av - the eleventh month in the hebrew calendar, a prominent Orthodox rabbi asked school girls to come to the Kotel and then bused them in. 5,000 - 6,000 women and teenage girls showed up, completely filling the women’s section. (At the Kotel, women and men are sent to different areas to pray, divided by a barrier called a mechitza, another Orthodox custom. This means that families can not pray or celebrate together at the wall.) Though some said that there was enough room in the back of the women’s section for the 300 of us, the police determined that, because of the numbers, they could not maintain our or others’ safety, and they would not let us enter. 

That did not stop us. Though we were not at the wall itself, we were within sight of it. In a cordoned off area, we raised our voices in song, welcoming the morning sun and the new month. I have never been so proud to be a Jew and a Jewish woman. Together, we drowned out the whistle blowing and the shouts of hate coming from beyond the police line. Though they threw insults and eggs at us, I and everyone else continued to pray from our very souls, sometimes hand in hand, but always heart to heart. The ruach (spirit) was palpable.

Though I was proud, I also felt sad that the protest was even happening. Its terrible that Judaism is so divided that we can not allow each other even the peace to pray without argument and violence. I pitied the protestors. To them, our presence, our audacity represented the destruction of Judaism. Empathy though did not and will not stop me from defending my right to pray in a manner than is spiritually meaningful to me. My voice, my prayers and my songs are as important as any man’s, as any other human’s. I believe that God does not see the world divided by a mechitza.

A one point, an amazingly brave 13-year-old girl got up on a chair and read from the Torah for the first time as a Bat Mitzvah. I began sobbing because that girl was the physical manifestation of everything that we were fighting for by praying at the wall that day: the chance to be heard and the chance to be recognized as spiritual equals.

I will never forget the emotions and strength that moved through me that morning. I will never forget how supported and loved and uplifted I felt while singing “Ozi v’zimrat yah, vaiyahi-li lishua - My Strength balanced with the Song of God will be my salvation.” For the first time in my life, I felt like God was actually with me, not around me but actually a part of me. I saw my own divine spark and knew that I am indeed b’tzelem elohim - made in the image of God. So, I sang even louder and even stronger, clutching the hand of the friend next to me. Because when I was fighting a battle over the right to pray against my own brothers and sisters, all I could do to make a difference in that moment was to sing and pray, and therefore bring a little light into the world. And in that moment, my voice was enough.

Shabbat Shalom on the Streets

Israel is like a mikveh. At Mayyim Hayyim, we always say that the waters themselves are not magic, but what you bring to the experience, your kavanah (intent), is. My first few weeks in Israel, I felt cheated and almost angry. For my whole life, I have been told by the reform movement and by other Jews that I would love Israel; that I would feel as if I had finally come home. I felt none of these things.

I like Israel so far. I love the sun and the sounds and the food. I love being back in a Mediterranean climate and love living its lifestyle. But Israel does not feel any more special to me than Athens did. In fact, I feel less of a connection to Jerusalem than I did to Athens. Athens excited me because I knew its history. I barely know anything about Jerusalem.

When I realized that I could not form a connection without knowing more, I realized that I was being too quick to judge Israel. I need time to learn and to experience so that I will actually have something to connect to. I need my own kavanah towards my experiences in Israel, not the experiences of others.

For now, all I know is that its pretty cool to be wished a “Shabbat Shalom” while walking down the quiet streets late on a Friday night. I’m still unsure of where I belong as a part of a majority population for the first time in my life, and my expression of my Jewish identity has been tentative so far, reflecting that uncertainty. I hope to get to the point where I too can offer a joyous “Shabbat Shalom” to the strangers walking down the streets.

Hebrew Union College Alumni Shabbat - A Pluralistic Approach to Teaching Jewish Commitment

Many Jews today are Jews by choice, and I don’t mean just converts. In our increasingly interconnected world, Jews do not have to be Jewish for reasons of safety or economy or ostracism. People are choosing to lead Jewish lives because they want to. Since if it is a choice and not a given, a large part of learning how to become a Jewish professional and leader concerns learning how to inspire the choice to live Jewishly.

This discussion is a fairly new one. Older Rabbis have expressed that words like autonomy and choice weren’t even in their lexicon in the 1960’s.

Two weekends ago, I spent an afternoon at the HUC alumni Shabbat discussing the precepts of and problems with pluralism. In the break-out session I attended, we looked at pluralistic approaches to education. We examined two texts. The first compared the Torah to a mountain hanging over the heads of the Israelites; if they did not accept the Torah, they would die. The second was a modern poem, which described a child’s relationship with his father, who was lovingly teaching him the ways of Torah. Surprisingly, the text about fear had a successful resolution (the Israelites took on the Torah), while the loving approach failed to inspire a sense of connection and responsibility in the child.

We debated: the carrot stick or the whip? What is the most effective way to inspire Jewish commitment? 

The correct answer is neither; both approaches have their merits and demerits. Love is a wonderful tool to inspire love and warm fuzzy feelings. But love is not always enough to inspire commitment. Conversely, many children are forced to attend religious school by their parents, who are effectively playing the part of the mountain. Forced association rarely inspires commitment. Instead, commitment comes when adults choose to live a Jewish life not only from a place of love but also from a place of education and experience. And that is why both love and forced education are both essential to the continuation of the Jewish people.

If I thus give to the other who confronts me his legitimate standing as a man with whom I am ready to enter into dialogue, then I may trust him and suppose him to be also ready to deal with me as a partner.
Martin Buber - My hopes for respectful discourse over the next five years.
God’s Guestbook: My First Visit to the Kotel (Western Wall)

What better place to visit on your first Shabbat in Israel than the Kotel, the Western Wall. The Kotel is all that remains of the second and last Jewish temple, the outer supporting wall. A quick history lesson: Judaism used to be a religion involving pilgrimage and animal sacrifice. After the loss of the temple and the expulsion of Jews from Israel, Judaism changed into the religion recognizable today and referred to as Rabbinic Judaism.

When Jews pray around the world, we bow towards the Kotel, because in the time of the temple, this is where the Ark of the Covenant rested; this is the place on earth in which God was most present and where heaven and earth are closest.

As I approached the wall, as it consumed my entire line of vision, I was entranced; all I could think, all I could feel, was “Wall.” I fell into the cool stones, as if seeking an embrace. My head rested upon the planes and my fingers caressed the contours. Tears slipped from my closed eyes. I did not know why I was crying.

And, I began to wonder: what do I affirm when I pray at the wall, bow towards the wall? Reform Judaism teaches that anyone can find God anywhere. This recognition of equitable inherent holiness is one of the tenets that I hold most dear. Yet, Temple Judaism included a spiritual caste system: women were allowed only in the outermost courtyard, men in the next and priests in the next. None but the High Priest could enter into the innermost sanctum where God resided. I would not want a return of that practice. 

Additionally, I believe that finding God is a highly subjective experience. Personally, I find God in the middle of a New England forest in summer, not in the glaring brightness of the desert sun.

So then, why was I crying? If I do not hope for a return of the temple and if I do not think that God is any more present at the Kotel than anywhere else, what does the Kotel symbolize to me?

I took a walking tour of the underground tunnels, which reveal the full height and breadth of the wall, and I was struck by the permanence of the structure. Here were stones that had stood for more than 2,000 years. I stood in awe of the passage of time and in awe of the strength of the human ingenuity and community that can transverse that time. For one brief moment, I touched eternity. I have had similar feelings at the Colosseum and the Acropolis. But though I will never forget the heady rush of a tangible history and future that occurred when stepping into the Colosseum or onto the Acropolis for the first time, I did not cry in either location. What made the Kotel different?

The Colosseum and the Acropolis are kept as pristine paragons of achievements past. The Kotel is a living testament to humanity and its capacity to hope. Wedged into every tiny crack and crevice of the Jerusalem stone above and limestone below rests the prayers of thousands of people across cultures and languages and generations. It is this human element that makes all the difference.

The Kotel is kind of like God’s guestbook. The pale smooth stones practically beg to be painted with the colors of life and hopes and dreams. I know that when I choose to leave a prayer or a wish behind, wedged into a crack, that wish will long outlive me, the ink, and the paper.

This is why I was crying. Because at the Kotel, I felt, more than anywhere else, my capacity to make a difference and my own impact on history. As long as I live my life in a way that honors my prayer, then I will always have left a piece of myself, my own glorious, unique, wonderful self, in the stones that will always stand in the Jerusalem sun.

I go through music obsessions. Every so often, I will fixate on one song that I find especially meaningful or catchy, and I will play it over and over, until I literally can not stand it anymore. Right now, that song is “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from Prince of Egypt. I had it on repeat for almost all five hours of the plane ride from London to Tel-Aviv.

This song speaks to me on so many levels. It addresses the uncertainty of life but the necessity of living. It highlights the inherent worthiness of all human beings and reminds me that I am not qualified to pass value judgements on others. It gives me hope that I will never know my own impact and that therefore, everything I do is important. It is my current inspiration, so I wanted to share it with you.

Hurrying to Greet an Old Friend: My Second Dip at Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh

There was a marked difference between my first dip and my second. 

Preparing for my first dip, I took my time. I wanted to make sure I did everything right. I was nervous; worried that, while in the water, I wouldn’t immerse my body completely, worried that I would do something wrong.

While preparing for my second dip, I found myself rushing through the process. I realized that this time around, I was eager to get into the water, like I was hurrying to meet an old friend. This feeling was reinforced when I finally opened the door to the mikveh and felt a thrill of recognition course through me. Here was a special place, a sacred place; a place in which I could be naked, body, mind, and soul, and be immediately supported and valued and accepted.

Physically, getting ready to move to another country for an entire year was difficult. Mentally, getting ready to become a rabbinical student was almost impossible. I had so many questions: Will the other students like me? Will I be able to handle the workload? Who am I to become a Rabbi? Whose brilliant idea was it to let me become a Rabbi? Am I ready? I had been looking forward to my immersion because I knew that it would give me the chance to mentally prepare myself and attain the inner calm that I was missing.

Before I got in the water, I sat by its edge, and wrote my own immersion, one that affirmed my strengths, acknowledged my weaknesses, and expressed my hopes. With each step down into the mikveh, I reminded myself that I was moving to Israel in two short days. With each step out, I thanked God for this amazing opportunity. I entered the water as a sometimes silly, always vivacious, recently graduated 20-something year old. I exited the water as a sometimes silly, always vivacious, confident and thoughtful rabbinical student. Finally, I felt ready.