Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Relating to Prayer

Prayer is a topic that I feel constantly comes up at school, and I'm amazed at how many people say they truly struggle with it. I never thought that prayer was something religious people struggled with. You either do it and love it or don't feel connected to it at all and not do it. Obviously, those perspectives are completely wrong. There are so many thoughts involved in prayer - what I believe in, "whom" I'm praying to, "whom" I'm praying for, what I'm hoping to get out of it, and how I relate to the prayer itself.

What I Believe In & "Whom" I'm Praying To
I think that prayer is very much associated with our beliefs in Gd, especially in Jewish theology. Some people think that we pray because of our belief in Gd. If Gd exists, then the prayer to petition things to happen here on earth makes sense -that is, if you believe in an interventionist Gd. But what if you don't believe Gd exists or you don't believe in an interventionist Gd? Does that lessen the prayer experience? The question is, why should I pray, if I don't believe in the One I'm supposed to be praying to?
That brings me to my next point. "Who" am I praying to? Does it matter if I don't know who I'm praying to? Should that lessen my prayer experience? What if I haven't "felt" Gd or been able to "understand" Gd? Does that matter? Who is it, really, that I'm praying to?
All the words on the paper in my prayer book make it seem that I am praying to a Being, one that intervenes in our lives. But if I don't believe that, then what does it matter?

"Whom" I'm Praying For
I think that the question of whom I'm praying for is the next logical question. Is it for Gd or is it for me? Does it bring Gd closer to me or does it bring me closer to Gd? Does it bring me closer to myself? Does it help me center myself and recognize how I can't control every single thing in my life? Or does it help me recognize, every day, how special and amazing life is and how thankful I am to be alive?
I think we all have different answers to these questions, and it doesn't matter if we are all saying the same words. We relate differently to prayer and we relate differently to Gd and to ourselves. 

What I'm Hoping to Get Out of Prayer
I seek to feel closer to Gd when I pray. I seek to feel more human when I pray. I seek to feel whole when I pray. I also seek to improve my ability to read and understand Hebrew, which is a part of my identity as a Jewish person. I hope to feel grounded. Earlier this year, when I listened to Rabbi Levi Lauer speak, I took on his idea that following halacha is about training ourselves not to exploit others. Through the repetition of prayer, I remind myself that I am human, that I have flaws, and that I need to work every day to be a better person. I may not be identifying every thing I need to work on every day, but I am recognizing that when I pray, I am striving to remember these things.

How I Relate to the Prayer Itself
Since I was young, I didn't want to say anything that I didn't agree with. I felt that prayers were written for a different people at a different time, and I didn't understand how they were relevant today. As I learn more and more about each prayer, I realize that there is so much more to them than just the words. Yes, the words are important, but the meaning behind the words is more important. I have been able to see prayers in a completely new way and discover that these prayers that are 1000 years old (give or take 1000 years) are relevant to my life. And yet, there are some that I don't connect to or don't like or I want to change. And I think that's okay, too. When I can feel like a prayer is truly mine, whether by thinking about a few words or a phrase or by rewriting it different language, I can feel connected to our shared history as Jews.
I also know that there are some prayers I completely don't relate to, and even those I will say because it is part of my heritage. I know lots of people who don't relate to prayer as a way to be Jewish, but I think it is the religious aspect of being Jewish that is one of the major factors of our survival. And it is in the religious aspect of being Jewish that I wholeheartedly believe will be the factor of our continuation now.

Hence, prayer to me is personal and political. It's a practice of my heritage and it's a way I can connect to myself and Gd. It's a way I can remember that I am human and also that I am not alone - either because Jews all over the world say the same words or because there might be a Gd out there. Or just simply because I feel like praying. I don't always have good prayer experiences, like I've written about before. I don't always feel connected or grounded or elevated by what I'm reading/saying. And I don't pray all the time. And it works for me.

I am not encouraging everyone to pray, because like I said, we all relate differently to prayer, but I am saying that prayer for me is meaningful, and that's why I do it.

Friday, December 20, 2013


Can't believe it, but December is almost over! We just survived a big snow storm here in Jerusalem last week. You might have heard about it - Jerusalem shut down for a week, and we were stuck inside for a while. It did give Emet and I lots of time to work on the wedding planning, but I have to admit that we got cabin fever.

View out my window during the snow storm!
Our power went out Friday morning which was very sad, but it was a blessing that it happened Friday morning because we were prepared for Shabbat by keeping a burner on the stove on and lit candles for the bathroom and the main room. Luckily, the power came back on around 5pm on Friday, and we had heat and light for the rest of Shabbat. On Shabbat, we attempted to walk to the Tayelet, but the streets were not in good condition and my socks got wet inside my shoes. It was not fun. So we came back and decided to stay indoors the rest of the time. Schools were canceled Sunday through Wednesday, and Pardes was on a weird schedule the whole week until Thursday, when the streets were finally clear.

Getting back into our regular schedule has been a blessing but also really difficult. I know that Emet and I are ready to come home to the US. We have three more weeks of classes until January vacation. Between now and March, when we will be flying to the US, we hope to take our engagement photos. We've decided to keep studying until the end of February, and we'll start to tie up some loose ends here.

Though it's December and Christmas is next week, the only indication of it here was when I went to the Tel Aviv bus station the other day and saw a Christmas market! It's so pleasant without all the Christmas songs that I don't enjoy, though I know Emet and I both miss being home for the holidays. Bezrat Hashem, next year, we will have a fabulous holiday season as a newly married couple with our families!

Friday, November 8, 2013

25th anniversary of WoW at the Kotel

This Monday, Rosh Chodesh Kislev, I went to the Kotel to pray with Women of the Wall (WoW). This is the second time I've gone to pray with the group but I wasn't successful in finding them last time. This time, I went with Andrea, who is a WoW veteran, and Emet. In addition, another group from Pardes met us there.

I was not sure what to expect this Rosh Chodesh. In May, it was crazy. People were shouting angrily, and the entire plaza was filled with seminary girls who had been bussed in. This Monday, we showed up and there was already a group of police surrounding members and allies of WoW. While there were many orthodox women and girls praying already, they didn't seem to be attempting to prevent us from praying. There were many photographers on the men's side looking over the mechitza, and there were even a good amount of men allies listening for the service to start. At the same time, the Rosh Chodesh service for the men's side was blasting through the loud speaker and as soon as we started, I felt it was difficult to hear what was going on. A few women on chairs would yell out the page numbers based upon what the leader was calling out on earpieces. A few orthodox girls were standing in front of us, seemingly mocking us as we began, and one tugged at the tallit Andrea wore. Soon, though, the loud speaker was quiet at the conclusion of the service for the men's side, and a modern orthodox woman began speaking to the girls near us in Hebrew to calm them.
I had come that morning not sure if I was going to be able to pray in a calm environment, but I ended up having a really nice experience. 

I think back to what it was like in May, both the situation in the plaza and what it was like for me personally to pray. Six months ago, I read a lot in the English and didn't understand much of what it was that I was reading in the siddur or why it was important to me. I also didn't understand the Halacha around prayer and how that affected how I prayed. This Rosh Chodesh, I realized how far I have come in 6 months. I am still very slow at reading in the Hebrew, but I have advanced so much. I wasn't able to pray in Hebrew before. I have so much more knowledge of what I'm praying, why I pray, and how I feel when I have a good prayer experience. In fact, it was interesting to me to notice the women who came to pray and were very excited about being a part of the service but had no idea where we were in the service or what was going on. They were very interested in being there but I realized they didn't have a relationship to the prayer service.

I'm glad I went this Rosh Chodesh and had a good prayer experience. I think it's really important for is as the Jewish community to continue to support alternative prayer services at the Kotel, which is a symbol of our community. I have written about my difficult relationship to the Kotel in recent months, but I felt for the first time in a while comfortable praying at the Kotel. I can only imagine where I will be in another 6 months in my prayer. Rosh Chodesh tov!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sukkot 5774 Dvar Torah

You shall dwell in Sukkot seven days. All citizens of Israel will stay in Sukkot, so that your generations may know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

The Torah lets us know that Sukkot has great meaning. But it does not tell us exactly what meaning we are to glean from our ancestors’ experiences in the desert. We do not live in fragile booths today. We are lucky to have the stability of a land in which to live and permanent communities of which to be a part.

But I think that the idea of the Israelites together in the desert, living in sukkot that likely were whipped by the wind and rain, is important to us today. I can say that for the last few years, I have been seeking a community where I felt wholeheartedly comfortable in. From my theater and orchestra communities in high school, to my activist circles in college, to my community of social workers in grad school. In St. Louis, I was involved with the Jewish young adult community and felt at home for the first time in a long time. But of course, I left and came to Israel. Last year, while I lived in stable structure, my physical community in Gedera was not my own. I felt that it was temporary because it was, and while I tried to immerse myself in this new community, it didn't have everything I wanted, despite a host family and good friends. Again, I left Gedera and moved to Jerusalem. While I'm still trying to figure out what kind of community I want, and while in each community I live, I can find a support system and new friends, I know that they are all temporary until the time that I "settle" in a community for longer than a year.

In some way, I can completely understand how the Israelites in the desert felt - they just left a seemingly comfortable situation. Yes, they were slaves and had a difficult life, but how terrifying it must have been to be in the desert. Not knowing how to survive, except through the dependency on Moses and his connection to Gd! Don't you think some of the Israelites must have wanted to turn back around and say, I think I might prefer a permanent structure to the wind and rains and hunger in the desert?

Of course, the community moved together and they had each other. Many of us came to Israel with no support system in place. I knew absolutely no one before I decided to make a leap of faith and come to Israel last year. And I think it has been one of the best decisions I've ever made. While we dwell in this and every sukkah during this Sukkot, despite the rain or the wind, we should remember how difficult it was for the Israelites in the desert. Like the Israelites, we must recognize that we may be terrified, but it is up to us to make the best of our situations and constantly search for meaning. I think that the meaning we should glean from thinking about the Israelites in the desert is that we should constantly strive for the community we need, even if we have no idea how to find it. Only Gd knew the exact place that the Israelites should go, physically, spiritually, and ethically, but the Israelites followed Moses because of their faith. We have no idea where each of us will end up, but we must have faith in our own actions and in Gd to get to the physical and spiritual places we may not even know we need to go. Chag Sameach.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Forgiving Myself on this Yom Kippur

Here it is. Yom Kippur 2013/5774. This year's High Holidays sprung upon me somewhat quickly.

This is a tough Yom Kippur. It's been 10 years since my Aunt Rhona died on Yom Kippur in 2003. How has it been so long? This year, I think I have also been very hard on myself. I know I made a lot of mistakes this year. I struggled. I was challenged. I said and did the wrong things.

Yom Kippur is a time when we are supposed to ask forgiveness of others as a way to "wipe the slate clean." The idea is that should atone for any and all sins/transgressions/missteps/and times we missed the mark that are left on our conscious or subconscious before Yom Kippur, so that in the case (Gd forbid) that something happens before Yom Kippur, we will have been absolved of any wrongdoing. I don't abide by the superstitions so much, but I think this is a great time of year to reflect and ask forgiveness of others. It definitely is not an easy thing to do. In the Torah, we are told to "afflict" ourselves - hence, the no eating, drinking, sleeping, or washing. This year, I know I will be afflicting myself.

The most difficult thing I am dealing with for this Yom Kippur is forgiving myself. This isn't something we have spoken a lot about in class or among friends. But it is something on my mind as this Yom Kippur arrives.

How can I go about forgiving myself for my mistakes, my insensitivity, my ignorance, and my self-doubt? What about the self-hate, the gossip I've spilled, and the other bad things I've said? Also, what about the selfishness, the arrogance, and silencing of others and myself? Ignoring people I shouldn't have, not staying in communication with family and friends when I should have, not taking advice when I asked for it, and being false to myself and others? And then there's also the jealousy, indulgence, turning my back on things I should have paid attention to, (unintentionally) embarrassing others, being ungrateful (or not acknowledging when I was grateful of someone), and uncertainty. Among many more.

I think it is much harder to forgive myself this year than any other year. Maybe I'm being more introspective than before, or maybe since I've been learning how to recognize these things in myself, this is the first year I really can explain them. This Yom Kippur, as I daven in synagogue or at home, I will be thinking about Rhona and the 10 years that have passed since her death, and I will also be thinking about the ways I've wronged others and myself. I hope to learn to forgive myself this day and everyday.

לשנה טובה וגמר חתימה טובה

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The New Year in Israel

Last year, I spent Rosh Hashanah in Ra'anana with a family I hadn't known more than a month before the holiday. I didn't prepare much, and I was getting used to being in Israel. This year, I am surrounded by a new set of friends, an amazing partner, and a lot more knowledge about myself, Judaism, and Israel. I cannot be more lucky.

Each year for the last few years, I have taken advantage of a website called 10Q, which provides 10 questions, one each day, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in order to push you to think more deeply about the year that just happened and the year coming up. Last year, my answers focused on leaving St. Louis, coming to Israel, and beginning an intense journey of self-growth. I am still on that journey, and though I have learned so much about Judaism and Israel in the last year, I have much more to learn. With each year, I become more and more myself, and I experience and learn many new things.

This week, we have been learning about Rosh Hashanah in many of our classes. During one of the Rosh Hashanah holiday learning sessions, we went through 13 questions to help us prepare for the holiday by reflecting on the last year and thinking about the next year. In another class, we talked about the laws concerning a holiday, whether we can cook or shower, etc., and also the laws concerning the blowing of the shofar. In my Social Justice class, we discussed whether humans are the epitome of creation. Rosh Hashanah is supposedly the anniversary of when humans came into being. Reading Genesis 1 & 2, the two creation stories are slightly different. Are humans the epitome of creation or is Shabbat? In other words, was the world made for us to conquer and rule, which aligns with how humans are discussed in the first chapter, or are we here to "till and tend" the world, to work it and guard it, to serve it and preserve it? The meanings of the words used in the text can be translated and interpreted in many different ways. My worldview goes along with the second chapter. We are here to use the earth, but not conquer it. This is what holidays and Shabbat are all about for me. Six days of the week, I use the world in the way I need it to work for me. On Shabbat, I am a slave to the way the world works.

During the next three days, two of which are a holiday and one Shabbat, I hope to reflect upon the last year. I want to do some spiritual learning and of course spend the time enjoying being here in Israel with friends and my partner. I wish you all a happy and healthy new year!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Kotel

Yesterday morning, I went to the Kotel for the first time since May. The last time I went, I had the realization that the current system of gender segregated prayer disallows for people with gender-variance to pray comfortably on either side. This time, I wanted to go to Robinson's Arch, which is deemed an appropriate alternative where the Conservative Movement (Masorti) had been allowing anyone to come and pray. While it used to cost money to enter after 9:30am, I read that they changed it recently. Also, if you have followed the story of the controversy at the Kotel, there is now a new platform that is supposed to be okay. However, there is no actual access to the Kotel wall from the platform. I wanted to check it out and see what it is was like for myself.

I walked through the Jewish quarter, eventually arriving at the Kotel. The last few times I've gone, I haven't felt anything specially spiritual. I have become a bit frustrated at the whole situation, that is to say, there is only one type of prayer that is acceptable for men and women at the Kotel. Those who don't fit neatly into skirt-wearer or pants-wearer with the socially acceptable genitalia to accompany that clothing, can't really go to the Kotel and pray comfortably. I didn't think about this issue before, but now it's glaring at me.

When I arrived, I asked a girl if she knew how to get to Robinson's Arch. No, she had no idea and was one of the volunteers for the organization that gives shawls to women to cover their shoulders. I was a bit annoyed at that. Then, I sat in a chair in the shade and just looked at the other women praying. I wasn't in the mental space to be able to concentrate. There was a young girl, maybe 8 years old, to my right with a prayer book - standing and sitting and bowing and praying. Her mother was next to her holding a baby and also praying. There were older women in wheelchairs, and of course Greek tourists. There were many frum girls around praying. From the other side of the wall, I could hear the men chanting and singing the morning service, following by the call of the shofar. A few women were looking over to the other side of the separation wall and taking pictures.

I looked up at the Kotel. I often feel like this is just a wall. What's the point? I don't know how much I connect with the Kotel anymore. It's hard for me to feel something in this place. Even so, I come back again and again, hoping to feel something.

Maybe I need to rethink my relationship to the Kotel. Learn more about the history of it and what it means, and find out how I can connect to it in my own way, rather than in the way we are told to. I'm not sure how, but hopefully over these next few months, and as long as I live in Jerusalem, I can explore this further.

Today is the first day of Pardes. At the meet and greet last night, one of the teachers spoke about how coming to Israel and finding yourself (of course more eloquently than that), and I really felt moved by it. In my last year here, I have experienced so much and changed so much. I feel like I'm growing so much more than ever, and it might be because I'm putting myself in very new situations or because it is Israel and things happen here in a different way than in the States. Regardless, I'm excited to be learning and growing. May this coming year bring joy, challenge, and growth.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Back in Israel

After a few weeks away, I've returned to Israel! During July, I was lucky to able to see a lot of my family and generally hang out in the States. I experienced some reverse culture shock when I first arrived to New York City to see my sister, but after getting over jet lag, I was okay. I stopped in New York City first and spent a few days there as a tourist. We walked the Highline, ate some very good Thai food, saw cousins and I met new babies in the family, and saw "Annie" on Broadway with Jane Lynch. Then, we traveled to Baltimore and visited my family there. Again, I met a new baby in the family and spent time with my grandmother and aunt. From there, I took the train to DC and stayed with a friend of mine. I played tourist again, and I got to catch up with a few more friends who live in the area. Finally, I made it down to Atlanta, where I spent the last few weeks before returning to Israel. I ate lots of Mexican food, hung out with friends, and went shopping!

One of the things I noticed in NYC and DC was the number of people who were homeless and jobless. It was very depressing. People were trying whatever they could to get some cash or a job. I was really moved by what I saw, and I didn't know how to respond to it. When I interned in graduate school at an organization that provided services to the homeless, I learned that giving cash is not going to break the cycle, but at the same time, real change is much more difficult. It doesn't negate the immediate need, but I don't know what is best. We spoke about this topic during my year in Gedera when we discussed the Rambam's Eight Levels of Charity:
There are eight levels of charity, each greater than the next.
[1] The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others . . .
[2] A lesser level of charity than this is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received. For this is performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of Heaven. This is like the “anonymous fund” that was in the Holy Temple [in Jerusalem]. There the righteous gave in secret, and the good poor profited in secret. Giving to a charity fund is similar to this mode of charity, though one should not contribute to a charity fund unless one knows that the person appointed over the fund is trustworthy and wise and a proper administrator, like Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradyon.
[3] A lesser level of charity than this is when one knows to whom one gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins in the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this, if those who are responsible for distributing charity are not trustworthy.
[4] A lesser level of charity than this is when one does not know to whom one gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to tie coins into their robes and throw them behind their backs, and the poor would come up and pick the coins out of their robes, so that they would not be ashamed.
[5] A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person directly into his hand, but gives before being asked.
[6] A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person after being asked.
[7] A lesser level than this is when one gives inadequately, but gives gladly and with a smile.
[8] A lesser level than this is when one gives unwillingly.
Just because they are given levels, it doesn't mean that those at the bottom are not good. It just means that there are some types of charity that are better than others.

In a few weeks, I will begin to study Jewish texts more in depth and I will be able to analyze especially how social justice is discussed in Judaism. I look forward to learning and growing and eventually being able to utilize these ideas in my professional and personal lives.

This week, I will move to Jerusalem to an apartment just around the corner from Pardes, in a great area. I will be living with two women in a shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut apartment. I am starting to make a commitment to keep kosher and Shabbat. As this year goes on, I'm so excited to learn more! Keep reading my blog to follow my Jewish journey!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Last Week

Here we are in our final week of the Yahel Social Change Program. This year has been at times emotionally difficult and incredibly rewarding.

Our group project, Desta Fest, was an incredible success. I led the crafts booth, and I learned about traditional Ethiopian clay crafts, basket weaving, mancala, and card games. At my booth, the kids got to play with clay. While they didn't make the very intricate clay Kessim, like the ones below, they still got a bit dirty and had a great time. My booth was definitely popular! We had so many people come the fair, both young and old, from Shapira, and not from Shapira (even a Birthright group stopped by)! It was by far a success and in our debrief, I said that I felt pride about how well it turned out.

This last weekend, we went north to spend our final Shabbat together. At the beginning of the year, we spent our first Shabbat at Hof Dor, and this time, we also spent hours at the beach. We had so much great food, including a three course watermelon-themed Shabbat dinner on Friday night.

This week, we are finishing our placements and cleaning the house. I had my last day at school today, and I'll be saying goodbye to teenage girl I've been tutoring all year as well.

Like I mentioned in my last post, I am so grateful that I had this experience, and I'm so glad I'm coming back at the end of July. This year has been incredible, despite AND because of its ups and downs, and I wouldn't change it for the world. I don't feel finished with Israel yet. I have much more to learn, and I'm looking forward to learning at Pardes, living in Jerusalem, and finding a new community in which I can further grow and explore.

Don't worry! I'll still be blogging! There may be a gap until my next post, but rest assured, I won't forget to keep you updated on my life in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

1.5 Weeks to Go

As our program winds down, we've been talking a lot about saying goodbye and next steps, and have done quite a bit of reflecting on the year.

I'm so grateful I have had this opportunity to come to Gedera and be a part of the Yahel Social Change Program. I have spent these last 9 months growing professionally and personally, and I'm glad to say that it has been an incredibly educational yet rewarding experience. Obviously, nothing is perfectly stress-free, but I have highlighted the positives and figured out how I've changed in a good way during the course of living here.

We are putting on the Desta Fest tomorrow, a street festival that we have been planning and working on for the last 9 months - starting with a needs assessment and moving into implementation. I think it will be great, and we're expecting people both from our own community and from all over Israel, including MASA representatives.

I think as time passes after leaving Gedera, I will be more aware of how this experience has affected me and in what ways I have changed and grown.

After this program is over, I'm headed back to the US for a few weeks. Then I'm returning to Israel to move to Jerusalem and study at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. where I will continue to learn about Judaism and social justice. Looking forward to it!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

10 Best Things About Israel

1. People can be so warm and inviting. I can always have a place for Shabbat dinner if I need one.

2. Shabbat. It is an experience here unlike anywhere else. The beautiful quiet when no cars are around. You can walk in the street. You connect with people on a different level because there are no distractions.

3. I love using YALLA as a way to say, "Ok, I'm really leaving now," instead of the thousand goodbyes we have in the States.

4. I love the number of playgrounds. Double points for covers in the summer so you can stay in the shade and still enjoy being on a swing.

5. That you learn about Judaism without even trying.

6. Jerusalem. What else can I say? You have the religious and secular, history, culture, and politics all in one.

7. You can be at the beach and in the mountains in the same day. Everything is only a few hours' drive.

8. Making fun of Israeli fashion. I'm not sure who came up with the fashion here, but I have tons of fun trying to understand who decided that t-shirts tucked into leggings is a good fashion decision.

9. How small this country is. Everyone seems to know everyone. I'm sure if you are American, you've heard of the Six Degrees of Separation game. In Israel, it's more like 2. I'm not kidding. I met someone who knows someone who knows Director of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky (who I have also seen speak twice I think).

10. The music. You hear such a wide variety of music all the time. American music is about 10 years behind here, so I hear songs that I haven't heard in forever. You also get to hear a lot of Mizrachi music that doesn't bother me anymore. Also, in public places when the radio is playing, it is not uncommon to hear cuss words. I've learned about a couple of great Israeli musicians who blend a lot of types of music together, and it comes together very nicely!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Only in Israel

1. I'm always pleasantly surprised when I find toilet paper and soap in public bathrooms because many usually lack these things.

2. The buses are NEVER on time in this country. You can guarantee that if you come late for the bus, you've missed it, but if you arrive early, you have to wait an extra 10 minutes for the bus to come.

3. It's incredibly easy to point out the Americans here. It's even easier to spot the Taglit/Birthright groups.

4. You will receive someone's advice and opinions when you don't ask for any.

5. Everyone I meet tells me I should make aliyah. There's not an understanding of why Jews would want to live outside of Israel.

6. Offers to make a shidduch (match for marriage). When I first got here, every third person I met would offer to make a shidduch for me.

7. Reading English transliterated into Hebrew. It is incredibly difficult to read these words. Street signs in English are never standardized. On one corner, the street name is Eedelson and on the other corner, it is spelled Idelson. Also, misspelled English words in public places and on products are a frequent sight. I can point to a dozen examples. This is crazy, since there are so many English speakers. Here are a few examples:

8. Blunt racism. I think this happens because Israelis are more forward than Americans. I've heard some comments that make me incredibly uncomfortable, but there's only so much I can say as an American living here. If my kids at school say things, I address it (both racist and homophobic speech).

9. Lack of customer service. In restaurants. On the phone. In stores. Related is the rudeness. Israelis are sabras - a fruit that is soft on the inside but very prickly on the outside. You have to make an effort to try to get to know someone.

10. LGBT invisibility. It took me about 5 months to meet LGBT folks, and after that, I didn't meet or see any other LGBT folks until March.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I've spent about a week in Jerusalem since last Wednesday. We had our Jerusalem seminar and then I returned to Shavuot. This city is amazing, and I can't wait to live here!

Thursday morning, we got on a bus and drove to Katamon, where we met Inbal, our program coordinator, and Rabbi Levi Lauer, with whom we had learned a few months ago. He spoke about his organization, ATZUM, and the work they do on human trafficking in Israel. It was a powerful discussion. One thing at really stood out of the discussion was this question: not only how do I lead a meaningful life, but rather how do I lead others to do meaningful work? How can I work with others to make life meaningful? We talked about the intersection between Judaism and social justice and how we cannot separate the two. I felt that at the end of the discussion, if we are to identify as Jewish (religiously or not), we must be working on social justice.

We then took a tour of the Supreme Court and learned about how the judicial system works with halakhah (or not) and the contrast between the religious courts and the state courts. Afterwards, we met with two women who are active in social justice in different ways. The first worked for the Jewish Agency on their service learning programs and had been active for a while in two causes: socially responsible restaurants in Jerusalem and disability rights in Israel. We spoke about the differences between working for a small organization and for the "establishment," or a big organization like the Jewish Agency. The next woman we spoke to was in her early 20s, Modern Orthodox, and working for a political think tank. She spent time in Egypt and Morocco and is fluent in Arabic. She writes for Open Zion and travels often to the West Bank. She literally was amazing. I had read an article she wrote for Open Zion on the Daily Beast the day before about Orthodox women rabbis, not knowing that we were going to meet her.

On Friday, I went to the Kotel with Savyonne for Rosh Chodesh. Women of the Wall were there and we wanted to see what was happening. Last week, the Supreme Court gave a ruling that the women had the right to pray at the Kotel as they wish, to the dismay of many ultra-Orthodox. When we got there around 7am, we could not see anything. There were so many seminary girls and other ultra-Orthodox crowding. We saw someone get arrested, we think. We attempted to get to the front where the group usually meets, but it was just too chaotic. We left after about 30 minutes. Later in the morning, we met with an ultra-Orthodox guy who gave us a tour of a girls' school in Geula, a Haredi neighborhood near Mea Shearim, and he spoke briefly about Women of the Wall. He felt the Orthodox were going about it in the wrong way. If the Women of the Wall were doing this all for provocation, then the Orthodox should have just ignored them and let them attempt to pray. Without all the hubbub, they would have stopped. He asked if they pray everyday, and I said I don't know, but I'm sure many do. I asked what he thought would have happened if they continued to pray because this is the way they pray. I don't remember the answer, but I think that if the Orthodox had ignored it, then the women praying in the way they want would not be a big deal at all. They would be able to pray as they want without issue.

After this, we went to the shuk and had time to hang out there before we returned to get ready for Shabbat. Our Israeli friends joined us for Shabbat. We had a discussion about what Jerusalem means to us and where we hope it will be in the future. Then, we lit candles and some of us went to services at Shira Chadasha, a feminist, egalitarian Orthodox synagogue on Emek Refaim. I've been here before, and I love it. Some of the service is led by a woman and some by a man, and women sing loudly and beautifully. While there is a still a mechitza, the room is divided down the middle and there is plenty of space for everyone.

In the morning, we walked to the Tayelet, where we went for Sigd back in November. We had a mock panel, where each of us took on a different role regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, and we had a great time acting it out. We ate lunch and promptly returned to our apartment to take afternoon Shabbat naps! We then walked to the Old City and completed part of the Rampart's Walk, where you walk along the outer wall. At the end, we split and many went to the Kotel, while a few of us returned to the apartments to prepare for dinner and Havdalah. After Shabbat was over, we said goodbye to our Israeli friends who had to return home.

On Sunday, we had a discussion about Shavuot and read the Book of Ruth, a story I hadn't read in a long time. Then, we went to Nachlaot, where we met with two people who work for an organization that encourages Mizrachi Jews to learn about and embrace their heritage. In a way, this is similar to the work we do with the Ethiopian Jews, and it was cool to hear about other identity work happening in Israel. Finally, we had our check in and went home.

I came back yesterday for Shavuot, and what an experience it was! I stayed with a friend and we went to dinner in Nachlaot, then to hear rabbis speak at 1am and 2am at Mayanot. My favorite part was the singing around 3am. Then we walked to the Kotel and stayed there until after sunrise. There were so many people there, even more so maybe than when I went last week. It was so packed. After the sun rose, the morning services began, and while it wasn't how I imagined it would be, it was cool. On the way back home around 7am, I was thinking about what the man had said last week about Women of the Wall being there at times other than Rosh Chodesh, and I wondered how it would have been different if there were pluralistic services on Shavuot or everyday, for that matter. There were very few non-Orthodox women at the Kotel - I saw a few in pants, a few in more Modern Orthodox clothes, but not many. What if we had had a pluralistic service every morning or at least on other days than Rosh Chodesh? Would not that make an event stronger argument for the need to have space to do so? I would have loved to have a service to go to. As someone who isn't Orthodox and doesn't know all the prayers, I would have loved to be able to follow along with a service, but instead, all the women prayed silently to themselves while the men were loud and praying together.

I figured I would not have this opportunity again - to spend Shavuot in Jerusalem, staying up late, going to the Kotel for sunrise and walking the streets of Jerusalem along with everyone else in the middle of the night. Maybe only some of that is false. In fact, I have at least 6 months when I move to Jerusalem to be able to do some of this. Will I? We will see. Regardless, it was an amazing new experience!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Our Trip to the West Bank

Before coming to Israel, I did not like to engage on Israel issues. I never felt connected to the land, nor did I feel a connection to the people. Sure, I knew most Israelis were Jewish, but they were not necessarily a part of my own Jewish identity and Jewish community in the US. The mainstream media and Jewish community seemed to make me choose to be "with" Israel or "against" Israel, and truthfully, I didn't know anything about the Conflict (or Israel for that matter) other than the stories of suicide bus bombings and the Kotel.

Since coming to Israel, I've learned an incredible amount about Ethiopian Israelis, Druze Israelis, migrants and refugees, the climate, the food, the culture, the government, and the Jewish religion. Only now, after gaining some background on Israel, it is necessary to also discuss the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Last week, we spent the day traveling in the West Bank and spoke with four Palestinian activists, who talked about their experiences in grassroots social change. Throughout the last few weeks, we have been looking in depth at the Conflict here, which has proven to be an increasingly complicated situation.

During our day trip, we spoke with a man who works on water issues, helping to partner Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian communities with the shared goal of working on resource management. He showed us where the separation barrier would have been built in Battir and its effect on the water system. We also met with a man who works for the UN on Palestinian/Israeli issues. He guided us through a discussion of a map illustrating land usage of the West Bank, of which 60% is controlled by Israel.
We looked at a map more complete than this one. The West Bank is fragmented into Areas A, B, & C.

What I was most surprised about was the breakdown of the land and stubbornness on both sides in relation to the land. We visited the south Hebron Hills to look at a Bedouin village with one legal building and a number of tents. Literally next to the village was an Israeli settlement with all the amenities of modern living. The two groups do not communicate. We saw a kindergarten that serves this village and another village nearby consisting of members of the same Bedouin family who live in buildings rather than tents because they submitted a master plan for the community to the Israeli government.

Many Bedouin villages are on Area C land (Israeli-controlled), which means that they must receive approval before building. The process is long and the Israeli government often rejects requests. The Israelis regularly demolish illegally built homes. For example, the Israeli government demolished an attachment to the one legal building in the village we saw because the village had not received approval to build it. We saw another Bedouin village in Area C, located on land that the army has designated to be a fire zone. When the military uses the land, the residents are not allowed on the area, mostly affecting grazing animals. The military does not use the land frequently, and this strip of land was utilized maybe 3-5 times since 2003, yet it is still controlled by Israel.

After this, we drove back north to meet with two Palestinian women who also work on grassroots change. One woman is a student at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, studying Political Science. Though she received a full scholarship to a university in Germany, during her first year there, she experienced discrimination and decided to return to the West Bank to finish her studies. She is involved with Seeds of Peace, an international summer camp that brings together American, Israeli, and Palestinian children to open dialogue between the groups. Most, if not all, of the children who attend the camp have never spoken with members of the other groups. The group's philosophy supports creating dialogue and breaking down stereotypes of the Other in order to create social change. Many Palestinians feel that this form of normalization is wrong, so the organization is somewhat controversial.

The other woman we met runs the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans cooperative. She spoke about her experience as a Christian Palestinian and how she felt that outsiders try to create a division between Palestinian groups - Muslim, Christian, and Bedouin. Her organization helps to create opportunities for local artists, and as a free-trade organization, the profit from sales go back to the artists who can make a livelihood from their work.

The day brought up a lot of thoughts for me. It seemed to me that most of the speakers were pessimistic about macro change, but very positive about micro change. One did not see a solution at the macro level, whereas the others tended to support a two-state solution. It was encouraging to see how a few people were engaged in work at the grassroots level. At the same time, I recognize that we spoke with only four people and that there are many more people, both Israeli and Palestinian, who hold completely different views on what the solution should be. Even amongst the four speakers, they had varying views on how they want the Conflict solved.

At the end of the day, upon our return to Jerusalem and then Gedera, I thought about how easy it is to forget about the Conflict. We live in an almost completely Jewish community. We have our own lives and problems and social issues to deal with in Gedera. The only time most people I've spoken to in Gedera really think about the Conflict is when there are rockets coming from Gaza. Even so, I've spoken with a few social justice activists, my shabab, my host family, and friends, and I am hopeful that there will eventually be a solution and that great minds are working on the issue both at macro and micro levels.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Refugees in the Land of Milk and Honey

This week in our learning discussions, we focused on the status of refugees in Israel and visited South Tel Aviv, where we had the opportunity to speak with a man who worked for UNHCR in Israel for a number of years along with a leader of an organization that works with refugees, and we heard stories directly from two refugees living in Israel. I have been interested in refugee issues since college, when I interned at the International Rescue Committee. In fact, one of the reasons I came to Israel was because of my interest in migration. Ethiopian Israelis (and Jews in general) have a very different story from the African refugees coming here, but there are also a number of similarities.

About 60,000 African refugees have come to Israel since 2005, particularly from Sudan and Eritrea by way of Egypt. Even though Israel was one of the signers of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees along with the 1967 Protocol, there are no clear policies determining the status of refugees in Israel. In 2012, Israel passed the Anti-Infiltration Act, which allows the detainment of asylum seekers for three years without trial, or indefinitely if they come from “enemy” countries like Sudan. There was been a significant rise in racism, not only among citizens, but also government representatives, against African refugees.

Most of the refugees have arrived by foot - crossing the southern border from Egypt. Once in Israel, they are sent to a detainment center (read: jail) until their identity can be determined. When they are given the opportunity to leave the center, they are given a bus ticket to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, with no other instructions or assistance.

What has struck me the most about Israel's attitude toward refugees have been the contradictions. I understand the real feeling people have towards Israel being a Jewish state for the Jews to be free from persecution. I also understand that maintaining a Jewish majority is an important tenet of people's lives. However, if we are going to say Israel is a Jewish democratic state (although what this means is unclear), and if the state is going to follow some Jewish law and not others, then it has to be clear on this point.

Exodus 22:20
וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
"And do not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt."

Regardless of what you think of Torah, the commandment to not wrong or oppress a stranger is repeated multiple times. Our task as a Jewish state is defining the fine line between the need for a Jewish state and running the state with Jewish values. A state with Jewish values would treat refugees with dignity and work to protect them and provide a place in Israel to allow them to make a life. There are a number of organizations advocating for refugee rights, and hopefully, there will be some improvements in the coming years. At the very heart of the issue though it how Israel treats the non-Jewish minority. We are going to be exploring this issues in the next few weeks. Shavua tov!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah commemorates the 6 million Jews who died in the Shoah (or Holocaust) during World War II in Europe. In Israel, the day is called Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). "Shoah" literally means destruction, which is a better description than Holocaust, which refers to the animal sacrifice offered to a god in which the whole animal is completely burnt, in other words, the "burnt offering" (think about the political implications of that for a moment). Being in Israel on Yom HaShoah has been a powerful and intense experience.

Yom HaShoah began at sundown last night, like all Jewish observances. Stores closed early and events were held throughout the country. My housemates and I went to ceremony at the local high school, where Shoah survivors told their stories and lit candles. A rabbi spoke, the Kaddish prayer was said, and there were a few other short speeches. Then, a few students spoke and sang. The mayor got up and said a few words, and then the ceremony closed with Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. I thought about how few Ethiopian students were present (none participated in the performances) and the Yemenite and other groups of Jews who may not have had direct experience with the Shoah, but have grown up in a culture that highlights the Shoah as a major component of the narrative. I see it as different than our experience in the US, because, while we learn about the Shoah in school and in Hebrew school, I'm not sure how many of us are descendants of survivors or had family that died in the Shoah. I'm meeting more people here who know survivors or family members who died. Of my Jewish friends in the US, it seems, though, that many of our families came to the US before the Shoah.

Today, I was at the elementary school, and they held a ceremony in the morning, with more songs, some dances, skits, and poems. A grandfather of one of the students was a Shoah survivor, and his story was told before more candles were lit. Again, at the end of the ceremony, we sang Hatikvah. Then, at 10am, a siren sounded across Israel for 2 minutes. The siren was different from the usual siren - when rockets are nearby. This siren was one long monotone. Everyone stands and is still for that time. Apparently, if you are in a car, you pull over and get out to stand in respect.

I had many thoughts during the day about the Shoah and Israel. I wondered how many of my students had family members who survived or were killed (rather, I was interested in how they felt connected with the Shoah). As an American Jew, I feel distantly related to the Shoah - I don't know of any family for certain that died then. I don't feel numb to the stories, though. I empathize as part of the human race and understanding what people went through, how they were resilient, and how the trauma may have affected not only the individuals who survived, but also their children and now their great-grandchildren. I wondered today if the kids here become numb to the discussion of the Shoah because it is all around them. I felt that the siren was just as jarring as the rocket sirens for me. I thought about the meaning of the siren while it was happening. I thought about the reality of the Shoah - about the same number of Jews in Israel today died in the Shoah.

I also thought about current anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews throughout the world. It makes me sad to think that there are people who deny that the Shoah ever happened, but it makes me hopeful when I hear stories about people who are critical of Israel and dismiss Jews as a people go to a Holocaust Museum and realize the truth. There have been some great articles about Palestinians living in the West Bank who visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I don't think that we should continue to use the Shoah as a way for us to prove our victimhood, though. I think Jews have gained enough power in the world to realize how we can use that to our advantage and help make the world a better place.

May we never forget.
May we be resilient.
May we use our power gained for good.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Community and Peasch

As I go through my year in Yahel, one thing constantly on my mind is community. In the US, I felt connected to a number of communities at different times since leaving high school - the queer community, the feminist community, and the "young Jews" community. There were times when I didn't feel part of a community, when I couldn't find the community, or when the community wasn't giving me what I needed, and there were other times when there was no real community for me to tap into. Then there were times when I found a great community, and it was just a matter of me showing up to find people to connect with.

This year, I have recognized the real importance of community, especially when I'm 6000 miles away from my own families/communities. Passover is the time when you join with family and tell the story of our community, the Jewish people. However you define the Jewish community, I truly feel as part of a community at Passover. I was graciously invited to spend the חג (holiday) with my program director's family in Zichron Yaakov in the north. We attended the Seder at the house of their friends, and we used the ArtScroll Haggadah. I don't recall ever doing the Seder with the ArtScroll Haggadah, although I once did a Seder in Baltimore with my uncle's family and we did all the parts of the Seder.

At first, I was a little intimidated by the Haggadah, but it actually turned out to be a great Seder. I realized I don't know (almost) any of traditional Seder songs and I learned about halakhic portions of matzah that we are supposed to eat. Who knew that the rabbis discussed the exact amount of matzah you are supposed to eat at the Seder? It's great to think that Jews all over the world, from Los Angeles to NYC to Berlin to Jerusalem to Moscow to Shanghai all spend the evening doing the same thing - telling the story of our shared memory (and also the modern day struggles Jews and non-Jews alike have gone through). I feel part of the Jewish community, even when I feel I don't know much.

I feel like it's easy to feel a part of the Jewish community here in Israel, though I know it was not as easy in the States. Even so, I feel like there is a lot of knowledge that I don't have. I'm looking forward to learning at Pardes, the co-ed yeshiva in Jerusalem I will be studying at in the fall!

At the same time, I feel like I've lost the knowledge I had when I was deeply involved in the queer and feminist communities, communities I still feel a part of because of my identities, but which I don't have much connection to at the moment. Is it possible to feel connected to a community in isolation? Is that what the Jewish narrative is all about?

While I don't necessarily feel as part of the Gedera community, I do feel very close with people in the community, and I'm looking forward to moving to Jerusalem and finding a new community that I can immerse myself in. I'm hoping that there will be more communities in Jerusalem that I can tap into and that I will feel a part of.

I think being part of a community is more than just your identity and knowledge. It's also about shared memory, real connections, and a feeling of belonging. I may not always have all of those at every time, but I know I will still feel my identities and know that there will always be a community for me to find. I just need to know where to look.

חג פסח כשר ושמח!

Monday, March 18, 2013

MASA Leadership Summit

I had the amazing opportunity to attend the MASA Leadership Summit a few weeks ago. This 5 day conference was open to all MASA participants interested in strengthening their leadership skills for use in the Jewish community. Nearly 400 participants currently on a MASA program came together in Jerusalem to learn about leadership and discuss opportunities and challenges in the Jewish community today. While we were able to mingle with participants from other places throguhout the world, we primarily learned with a regional group. My group of 25 came from the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions in the US. This gave us an opportunity to network with people in our region, as the assumption is that we are all going to return to work in our Jewish communities where we grew up. While I don't know if I'm returning to Atlanta when I settle back in the States, it was helpful to hear about the DC area, as well.
One of the first things we did was talk about our own experiences and relationship to Judaism and Israel. Some people mentioned free food or camel rides on college campuses as a way to get them involved in Jewish life on campus. Most of us said that Birthright had a big effect. While I was not involved in Jewish life on my college campus, it was studying abroad in New Zealand, where there were no Jews that really made a difference in me. It was the first time that I didn't take my Jewish identity for granted. Returning to campus in the fall of 2008, I took a Jewish studies course and then went on Birthright in January of 2009. While going on Birthright made me want to get more involved Jewishly and religiously, I actually thought I was finished with Israel and didn't plan on returning. It wasn't until I had finished graduate school and spent a year in St. Louis immersed in the Jewish world, both professionally and religiously, that I became interested in working in the Jewish nonprofit world. I am passionate about social justice, and it was because of that passion (and a MASA scholarship) that helped me return to Israel as a Yahel Social Change Participant. My story is obviously different from many others on this program and others who are on a MASA program. However, because this program blended my interests of Judaism and social change, I knew that I was going to get a lot out of it. My engagement with Judaism and Israel has only grown as an effect of participating in this program.

Some of the main themes we discussed during the week were the opportunities and challenges in American Jewry today, specifically in terms of engagement and change. We focused on engagement of young Jews and their connection to Judaism and Israel. These are things I have talked about with my peers over the last two years, as I was involved with Next Dor STL and here in Israel. Why is it important to encourage young Jews to affiliate with Judaism? How can we change the current state of Jewish funding models in the US to be more innovative and more centered around the goals of the next generation? How do we see the Jewish community in the United States in 20 years? How do we see ourselves as a part of that change/process? I don’t think any of these have specific answers, or if they do, the answers will vary by person, but I don’t think that means that we should sky away from the issues. This is exactly the reason why there are so many Jewish start-ups founded by young Jews, and I think it’s great. We have plenty of people who care and have great ideas for the future. Social entrepreneurship was definitely highlighted and encouraged throughout the seminar. While I don't think I have any great ideas, it was nice to see that others did, and we all have our parts to play. I am skilled at planning and organizing, implementation and follow through. If someone else has an idea, I know how to make it work. AND THAT IS OKAY. It's important to me to figure out how my skills will work for me when I do eventually continue my career back in the States.

This week I was also reminded of what the American Jewish community is like and "the feel" of it. I think it was good to remind me of who I am, where I'm coming from, where I'm going, and how I relate to American Jewish life. I loved meeting new people from all over, and it was great to see a little diversity in Jewish practice and affiliation with Judaism among American Jews and among Jews from all over the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Negev

Thursday morning, we woke up early to drive to our first stop, Beer Sheva. We toured the Kalisher Absorption Center and the adjacent neighborhood garden run by Earth's Promise. The director of the absorption center explained the process of absorption for the current wave of Ethiopian Jews to us, and I was conflicted by her account. The most recent wave of Ethiopian Jews are Falash Mura, the term given to Jews whose families had converted to Christianity and are now returning to Judaism. This group falls under the law of return only if they agree to a process of conversion to Orthodox Judaism. They do this by living in the absorption center for 2 years, learning Hebrew and Judaism (and also how to live in a modernized society). At the end of the two years, they are given a test to determine if they are following kashrut, family purity laws, and Shabbat. Most of the immigrants are happy to do all of this, knowing that at the end, they have the privilege of living in Israel and raising their children here. At the same time, one might ask why they are given only one option of Judaism when if 50% of Israelis were given a similar test, they would not pass. Also, we wondered about Ethiopian and Ethiopian Jewish culture being preserved. How much of the process is to promote Judaism for a population not familiar with it versus understanding the diversity of Judaism among Israelis? I wondered about a disconnect between the absorption process and the post-absorption time, when people will live in Israeli society. There is still an assumption that everyone will "become Israeli" and that there is something specific that determines Israeli-ness. I think this is an idea that permeated throughout the entire seminar and that I often think about when we discuss Israeli society.
After the tour of the absorption center and the community garden, we ate lunch at a restaurant owned by a garin in Beer Sheva to provide job opportunities for young adults in the neighborhood. We heard a bit from a woman who started the garin and saw their community garden, second hand shop, and outdoor movie theater. Then we drove to meet a guy who works at NISPED, the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development. Our discussion about the Bedouin community in Israel began here. We hadn't discussed the Bedouins in depth yet, but we did watch two films prior to our seminar that talked about the Negev from different viewpoints. The first was about the Zionist settling of the Negev (a fabulous short from the 1950s) and the second dealt with the marginalization and destruction of the Bedouin community and towns. There are quite a few Bedouin villages in the Negev, of which only 7 are recognized (for more info, check out the Wikipedia page on the Negev Bedouins. The unrecognized Bedouin villages are subject to house demolitions, no running water, no sewage, no medical services, and no power. The few recognized villages still have many problems, and we were fortunate to stay at one on our final night. I will explain more about this at the end. After this, we went to Midreshet Ben-Gurion, where we spent the next few nights. We had a great checkin, where we each spoke about one thing we have been working on personally. I spoke about my relationship to Judaism which has grown stronger during the last few years. It is challenging and rewarding, and though I have an idea of how I want to express my relationship to Judaism, it is much easier said than done.

On Friday, we woke up to hike Nahal Havarim and Ein Ovdat. Here are a few pictures from that gorgeous hike!

Shabbat started and we had a great meditation session with David and Benson leading. That night, we stargazed. The desert is so beautiful and even more so on Shabbat when it is so quiet and calm. In the morning, a few of us woke up to watch the sunrise and see ibex roaming. The sunrise was just so amazing. I really have no words to explain it. Since it was Shabbat, I did not take any pictures. Instead, I just experienced the it. Later that day, we went for a short walk in the neighboring nature reserve. I kept thinking I was seeing a UFO, but we determined (later on the seminar) that I was actually seeing a blimp related to a nuclear research center in Dimona. What a way to remind us about reality in Israel. I forgot to mention that there was a siren test while we were in Beer Sheva. Every time I hear the siren, I get a little nervous, even though I know it was just a test. Before dinner that night, we had a lively discussion based upon Ishmael, a book that deals with "takers" and "leavers," the juxtaposition of modern capitalist society and indigenous cultures. It was a pretty difficult discussion, and I struggled through it. I felt that maybe I need to read the book to really grasp the concepts, but I also felt that the argument was highly simplified, which made it hard for me to understand completely. After dinner, we had a great time playing a game to get to know each other more. It is similar to the "Things" Game, where everyone writes something on a piece of paper in certain categories and others guess who wrote what, except that all the questions were personal - about our greatest fear or favorite ice cream flavor or movie quotes. We also made a typical Israeli dessert, Chocolate Truffles. We had a great time!

Sunday morning, we started our day early with a tour of Ben Gurion's home in Sde Boker. We learned a bit about his ideology of settling the Negev. We also had the chance to discuss certain issues - living in an area under constant threat of rockets, the relationship of Jews living in the Diaspora and Israelis, and some of Ben Gurion's decisions in terms of immigration and setting up a Jewish state. After lunch, we visited a lone farm, one in which a family is given a certain number of acres in the desert to settle on. The one we visited was adjacent to a family of Bedouins who were living there without a permit. Those that live on lone farms usually have a strong belief in settling the Negev, and we discussed briefly how politicized it is. We then drove to Dimona, where the nuclear research center is, and walked by a neighborhood where the Black Hebrews live. This is a group of African-Americans who believe they are descendants of lost Jewish tribes and have become Jewish. This group differs from Ethiopian Jews since they are from the US and have converted in a sense to Judaism. It took a long time for them to be recognized as Jews (and to have Israeli citizenship), since they tend to follow different laws and customs compared to other Jews. The group has received a bit of publicity lately because of the Israeli The Voice, where one of the contestants is a member of the Black Hebrews. I was really interested in the group. Many of the younger population have started to serve in the army, and they speak Hebrew rather than an English dialect.
Next, we visited Ayalim, a group of students who create an intentional community on the periphery, either in the north or in the Negev. While they have a certain number of hours they must volunteer in the community in which they are living, the focus is not on social justice but rather bringing together people who will settle in the periphery. It was a very Zionist idea.
At the end of the day, we settled into the recognized Bedouin village Qasr a-Sir and met with Raed, who works with Bustan, an amazing organization that supports Bedouin communities in the Negev. It was interesting to hear his story, especially when his family transitioned to living in a house as compared to his youth in a tent. He took some time to describe his experience in Alaska in the fall, working with an indigenous group on sexual assault issues, and how he came to work with his organization.

On Monday, we toured an unrecognized Bedouin village and spoke to a man who told his story about living in the village, especially concerning demolitions and the Israeli government's stance toward the Bedouins. The conversation, and actually much of the discussion around the Bedouin community, has been very difficult for me. How can a state so cognizant of social justice issues completely ignore and in fact find ways to marginalize the Bedouin community? While Bedouins have citizenship and pay taxes, their land is not recognized by the state. I understand the conundrum, though. If the Bedouins are deemed an indigenous group, then there would be real implications in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. At the same time, when the state is forcibly destroying homes to promote Jewish settlement in the Negev, I have hard time comprehending their actions. When we left the unrecognized village, we briefly visited a Bedouin women's weaving cooperative. It was a small cooperative that allowed women to work in their homes and receive some income. I supported them by buying a scarf, and then we headed back to Gedera.

Overall, it was an amazing seminar. I didn't know how amazing the desert could be, yet I struggled with the situation in which the Bedouins live. This year has been great in illustrating the complexity of Israeli society, and I anticipate hearing much, much more about all the different issues facing Israeli society today (like for example, did you know that Israel doesn't have a Constitution though their declaration of independence says there should be one?).

I have been thinking about my time left in Israel - that I am more than half-way through here, and how much I will miss and what I'm looking forward to in going back to the US. More to come on that! Have a good week everyone!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Privilege and Oppression

This morning, our learning session discussed privilege and oppression. We began by reading Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." I read this article first in college in my Women's Studies classes. The premise of the article is that just as we talk about the oppressed as lacking access to resources that allow you to pursue certain goals, we must acknowledge our own privilege, which is having access to those same resources. When I first read it in college, I was blown away. Back then, I was learning about my identity and understanding the ways in which I had or didn't have agency in society. Today, understanding the premise of privilege and having acknowledged my own privilege in the US, I saw privilege somewhat differently here in Israel.
We created the Circle of Oppression, which looks similar to the picture below.

We drew one first for North America and then one for Israel. The normative individual in the US is a white, Protestant, upper-middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual man (we didn't include Language or Appearance in our circle). The normative individual in Israel by comparison is an Ashkenazi/white, Jewish, middle/upper-middle class, able-bodied, 100% heterosexual, alpha male. We each have our own identities that give us advantages and disadvantages. Let's take Mitt Romney for example. Even though he has many of those characteristics, because he is Mormon, he lacks as much agency as someone else. At the same time, Anderson Cooper also has many of those characteristics, but because of his sexuality, he also lacks some agency. People may say, well we have a black President, so your description is wrong, or that we have more women in the world than men, so that is where the power lies. Despite those facts, the idea of the normative individual is stronger. There may be more women in the world, but power is not based upon the majority. It is based upon who can wield the power. How many women are in leadership positions in the US compared to men? How many African-Americans are in Congress compared to whites?
We looked at how the US differed from Israel, and there differences were mainly in religion and race/ethnicity. We debated about whether it is skin color or ethnicity/point of origin that really determines privilege. For example, though Russians are considered Ashkenazim, they are considered in a different position perhaps because of when they arrived in Israel. Ethiopians for sure are far from the normative individual (there are differences within groups, as well, between men and women for example who are Ethiopian), they are in a better position than Arab Israelis/Israeli Arabs.
We concluded that while we can talk all we want about our own privilege or oppression, it is even more important to recognize what we can do about our privilege or oppression. White guilt isn't useful, if we feel that. Instead, we must acknowledge our privileges and also learn how to use that knowledge for social change.

Friday, January 11, 2013

On Our Adventure to Tel Aviv in the Biggest Storm Ever

Savyonne and I signed up to attend a conference on Migration Studies at Tel Aviv University this week. One of my interests is migration and I thought that this conference would be a great opportunity to hear new perspectives on the topic.

Tuesday morning, we woke up at 6:15am to catch the sherut to the train station and we were on time, even in the rain. If you didn't know, Israel has been experiencing a huge storm since the weekend. Torrential downpours, flooding, snow in Jerusalem, highway and road closures, buses not running. Well Tuesday turned out the be the worst day. We were lucky that we left so early because the train service was disrupted sometime while we were en route, but it didn't affect us. The streets were flooded, traffic was awful, and there seemed to be a river in the causeway built to direct the flow of water. There was so much that we saw the water almost spilling over those.

Despite the fact that we made it to the Tel Aviv University stop, we then had to navigate to the building for the conference in pouring rain. Our shoes soaked through while we had to dip under a fence to make it to the building we needed to. Finally, we arrived, but apparently lots of other people hadn't due to the weather, and we had tea and rugalach until they started nearly 1.5 hours late.

The conference itself was hit or miss. There were a few sessions we thought were interesting, but the conclusions weren't anything groundbreaking. Working on the ground in communities, these are things you would know without needing to do peer-reviewed studies. Savyonne and I agreed that there was a disconnect between the academic world and what was actually happening. And it seemed to me that the policy implications of the research was an after thought. My question kept being, who cares and why is this relevant at all? There were a few topics that were unique, but overall, we both had a hard time feeling engaged. The conference definitely made me realize I don't want to be a sociologist (don't worry, Mom and Dad, that was never an actual goal of mine).

I think the biggest influence the conference had on me was the realization that being present and working on the ground is much more impactful and satisfying, and that the work we do as part of the Yahel program or in my future as a nonprofit professional must center around the people and the reality of how life works. Knowledge is great, but you have to know how and where to use it effectively.

We eventually made it back to Gedera, after spending the night with a previous Yahel participant (and hearing about her experience). The great thing about this storm has been the rainbows. I saw one last weekend and another again yesterday and they are absolutely gorgeous. Below is one from behind our apartment yesterday.

שבת שלום