Thursday, December 26, 2013

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ethiopia's Falash Mura: The Ongoing Struggle for a Jewish Home

Zera Israel community, Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo by Vanessa

For most communities, this Rosh Hashanah, like every Jewish New Year, was a time of celebration. The beginning of 5774 was a time for recognizing the opportunities for change, for rebuking old ways and for seeking enrichment. It was a time for sweetness, and appreciating the better qualities of our fellow Jews.

But in one sizable community this year, that certainly wasn’t the meaning of Rosh Hashanah. The past won’t be something to shirk or to overcome, but something embrace, and possibly, to fear.

Most of us can’t imagine what the Ethiopian Jewish community of Beta Israel ( who are often referred to by the pejorative name Falash Mura but are properly called the Beta Israel, and their descendants, the Zera Israel) has gone through for the last 36 years, since the first airlift of refugees were taken to Israel in the 1970s. I, myself, find it difficult to comprehend what it must have been like to flee persecution in Ethiopia and moved en mass to a foreign city, only to wait a whole lifetime for a rescue that never came; to watch my children and grandchildren grow up in unexpected poverty, waiting for “fellow Jews” to return and rescue them; to be nurtured with expectation, classes, a synagogue and all the furnishings of a proper Jewish community so that when I and my children and my children’s children finally arrived in the Promised Land, we would know how to “properly” live as Jews.

A new immigrant (2009) The Jewish Agency
This last month, the Jewish Agency of Israel, acting under the auspices of the Israeli government, began closing down the community facilities that it had been operating in Gondar, Ethiopia for the last few decades. It didn’t just take away several thousand Ethiopian Jews and cancel the airlifts to Israel.

It closed the school, gave it away to a foreign secular agency and took away the synagogue that had served as religious and cultural lifeline for another 7,000 Zera Israel community members. By the end of the High Holy Days, the Jewish Agency will no longer be providing a synagogue.*

Those that remain Israel says, don’t need the school or the synagogue, much less any community support, because they are not Jewish.

Let’s be clear about this: Those remaining families have been worthy of fostering hope for the last 36 years. They received schooling in Jewish culture because they were part of the Beta Israel Jewish community and presumably had links that suggested their ancestors had at one time, practiced as Jews.  As a result, these 7,000 were taught how to pray as Jews and encouraged to abandon any other affiliation they had been raised with. They were encouraged to live as Jews, to cook as Jews, and to practice as Jews. Many of them endured persecution and discrimination as Jews just like those who were airlifted to Israel.

But because they cannot show Jewish lineage or demonstrate a familial link with someone in Israel (and there are millions of Jews throughout the world who know what that is like due to the Shoah), they aren’t considered eligible to be rescued and to join their community.

A synagogue in Ethiopia. Marc Baronnet
For the better part of 40 years, they endured in a dessert of hope, just like Moses did. Only so far, there has been no respite.

Arrivals, 1991. Govt Press Office, Israel
Israel has offered many reasons for this decision. Funding, limited resources, lack of information affirming Jewish lineage, unexpectedly difficult acculturation experiences for Israel’s current refugee population.

But when have human and financial limitations ever stopped Jews from living up to the moral imperative that they started?

And when did we become so sure of ourselves as a people that we could define not only who is Jewish, but who, after generations of living as Jews, have the right to continue to pray as Jews?

In a recent Tablet Magazine article, one dejected community member asked how they will continue to pray without a synagogue – and what the purpose is of being Jewish, if there is no synagogue.

“There will be no Jews living here if there is no synagogue,” he said. “When there are no more Jews living and praying together, Shabbat is nonsense.”

I found myself wondering how a community that had existed for thousands of years without outside affirmation could now have that point of view. Didn’t they remember that it was the minyan, not the structure that gave one the ability to pray?

An Ethiopian gentleman in Israel - Israel Assoc. for Ethiopian Jews 
For years, Beta Israel had prayed within mud or makeshift walls, undeterred by discrimination, war, attacks or persecution. They had lived as a community of Jewish congregants because they had the human will to pray as Jews, not because they had a Jewish house of prayer, or even a rabbi.

They had the confidence to know that history lives on despite what other human beings might do to them. Jews didn’t stop praying because someone tore down their synagogue or barred the door. They simply taught the next generation to carry on.

What changed?

That’s the question that Israel, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, need to ask themselves. How could a self-realized Jewish people be allowed to lose their hope in being Jews after thousands of years? Whether someone else recognized them as Jewish, the thing that allowed Israel to find and rescue the Beta Israel Jews, is that they never lost faith in their belief in Judaism.

A Israeli reuniting with his daughters during 2009 airlift. Jewish Agency

* As of the first week in September, the synagogue was taken over by Hatikvah, a community organization appointed by the Zera Israel community members to oversee the continuation of services and access to the synagogue. Services are continuing, particularly through the holidays. 

Meketa, a relief organization that has been working with the community, says that the Jewish Agency has ceased its work in Gondar. Support, Meketa says "is even more vital now that the Jewish Agency has ceased its operations."

Next post: The relief agencies assisting the remaining Zera Israel, and what others can do to assist.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Jerusalem's Threatened Soul

Photo: David Majewski

This blog has, since its start, been focused on highlighting the multicultural nature of the Jewish people, an aspect of our history that I think is often overlooked. While some may see the diversity of Jewish customs in Israel and the Diaspora as a controversial issue and a basis for conflict, I see it as a motivator for dialogue, an inspiration for defining the commonality that links us all. After all, diversity speaks to the richness and wisdom of a culture as much as it does to the unexplained and often minor differences of opinion.

Kessim (Ethiopian Jews) praying. Photo: Benny Voodoo
Multiculturalism means that we have been around and survived long enough to find beauty and adaptability in other cultures, as well as our own. It means that despite thousands of years of dialogue with other religions and cultures, we have continued to find our own distinct voice.

But this week I find it difficult to offer a story from which to draw motivation and promise. Not because there aren’t many still to be explored. North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and of course the Middle East all offer tales of the prevailing Jewish experience.

This week, like many Jews across the globe, I find my attention drawn to another, much sadder incongruity. 

Last Monday the Chief rabbis of Israel, and the administrator of the Kotel received letters threatening them with bodily harm “if the Women of the Wall are not allowed to pray in accordance with (their) customs.”  The letter contained the image of a handgun, along with the words, “your end is near.”

Equally disturbing was the fact that the letter was penned in the name of Women of the Wall. For their part, the organization immediately issued a press release condemning the letters and disavowing any knowledge or responsibility for the act.

Like everyone else, I of course want to know who the author is of this unsettling letter. After all, it’s human nature to want to get to the “bottom” of something disturbing, if only to reassure ourselves that it is “under control.”

But while Israel’s security personnel will no doubt be investigating that question with speed, it seems to me that the real issue at hand isn’t who did it, but how.  How a Jew – any Jew – could possibly see this as a viable path to our self preservation as a religious people.

Many, like I, doubt its purported source. A few writers have ventured down the path of accusations, suggesting either outright or in veiled language that an organization that has spent the better part of 25 years fighting in the courts for the right to peacefully pray in public could, on the dawn of their accomplishments, throw it all away for one vindictive letter. It’s an argument that makes no sense.

Photo: Michal Patelle
Those who have followed WOW’s journey over the past 25 years know that a defining characteristic of their efforts has been their commitment to pluralism and to peaceful unity of the Jewish people, particularly at the Kotel. These are virtues that even in the midst of conflict defy an act like this.

Even when pelted by rocks, disrupted by the clamor of chairs being thrown at them, attacked and accosted with slurs while they prayed, they have never campaigned for anything but peace and tolerance, particularly at the Kotel.

Even on the rosh chodesh Sivan, when they were threatened by angry crowds that were more than ten times the size of their gathering, there was no effort to fight back or to return the threats they received. They entered peacefully and the departed just as they had arrived: ringed by security, no doubt frightened and wary for their safety, but resolved in their belief that Judaism’s many movements and beliefs can indeed share space and share unity.

Since that time, rabbis and cantors across the world, some who share the movement’s goals, and others that are still wary of a non-Orthodox tradition, have spoken out to condemn the threats. Many have defended WOW as an organization that eschews violence and is dedicated to pluralistic thought.

So have journalists. Even conservative-leaning Israeli publications like the Jewish Press were willing to ask whether someone could be “framing” Women of the Wall, something that its writer Tzvi ben Gedalyahu admits could be the case, despite his criticism of WOW’s liberal values. 

But again, the question seems to be not “who” but “how”: How could we have arrived at this point?

As Jewish history has unfortunately already proven, in the end religious conflict is never a matter of one against the other, or who wins and who loses. History may appear to keep count, but loss is always inestimable, always profound.  

A pluralistic society can’t succeed if only some of us want it. It also can’t grow if we hold grudges against those who fear its message. Pluralism speaks not just to who we are or who we want others to be, but who we become when faced with the disappointing reality that we still have farther to go in being accepted for our views. As Rabbis for the Women of the Wall*so eloquently demonstrated in their June 4 letter of support to the Chief Rabbis in Israel:  

“It is deeply disturbing that at this point, when negotiations about freedom to worship at the Kotel are taking a new turn, such a threat should be issued. May the Chief Rabbis of Israel be sheltered beneath the wings of Shechinah, along with those who seek to pray in peace. May they have the courage to model open-mindedness and love of all their people.” 1

“May those who sincerely support religious pluralism be blessed, so that bim'heirah, b'yameinu (soon in our day), Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, and non-Orthodox Jews may be able to pray in safety and dignity. Ken y'hi ratzon. (So may it be.)” 2

* Also known as Rabbis Support Pluralism
1Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, The Association of Rabbis and Cantors and International Vice Chair of Rabbis for the Women of the Wall.

2Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of the Reconstructionist, Renewal Congregation P’nai Tikvah in Las Vegas Nevada, and International Vice Chair to Rabbis for the Women of the Wall.

Photo: Julien Menichin

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Kotel: Carrying Forth the Prayer

Women of the Wall during a previous Rosh Chodesh - Photo by Tanya Hoffman

Like many Jews all across the world, I spent my hours last Thursday night anxiously waiting for the sun to rise in Jerusalem some 6,000 miles away. As I was preparing for bed in the Western Hemisphere, a crowd of women were gathering at the southwest corner of the Kotel. Because of the size and emotion of the crowds that day, each one would have to enter plaza gates alone and thread her way through the masses of angry faces, jeers and taunts. Each woman would be carrying – or wearing – the telltale sign of her conviction: a tallit.

And each one would know that on Friday, May 10, 2013 more than any day in the past 25 years, her presence and her courage would be needed at the Kotel. Whether she was afraid didn’t matter. What mattered was her presence and her prayer.

The Kotel circa 1942 - courtesy of Podnox
The Jews are a people defined by prayer. There are many who would disagree and who would mistake prayer for religiousness, or for something they don’t embrace. But in the end, it’s how we carry and exhibit that prayer inside that says the most about who we are as a people.

The idea that crowds of people could actually be angry with a group of Jewish women for praying at the Western Wall seemed amazing to many who watched the events unfold on their computer screens that night. Jews – both women and men – have been coming to the Kotel to pray, to seek refuge and to reaffirm heritage for thousands of years. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal Jews have davened at the Kotel for decades, if not centuries, just as have an equally diverse spectrum of Orthodox and Haredi Jews.

Photo by Andy Ratton
Aloud or in silence, each has prayed their own way, and in their own voice. And none can be said with any certainty to not have reached God’s ears.

But what seemed incomprehensible to me was not that there had been feelings of betrayal and scorn toward the court decision to let women don tallisim at the Kotel, but that on a day that Jews everywhere attached to spiritual expression, there was anything but joy being expressed at the foot of the Kotel.

“Rosh Chodesh,” explains Chabad on its website,  “means the “head of the new (moon),” and indeed it is a day—or two—of celebration marking the start of a new lunar month.”

Photo by Shoshanah
 The ones fulfilling this mitzvah that morning strove not to discredit or subtract from others’ prayers, but to add their voices to it and strengthen it. However unorthodox their exaltations sounded to the conventional ear, their prayers voiced what sages have been saying for millennium: that it is only in unity as a diverse and disparate people that our voice can really be measured, and can really be heard.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Multicultural Jew: Women of the Wall: Latest Developments

The Multicultural Jew: Women of the Wall: Latest Developments:  - And further updates.

Women of the Wall: Latest Developments

Please be sure to read the latest update that came out just after this posting. 

The air has been a bit lighter for supporters of the Jerusalem-based  Women of the Wall. Last month Israeli courts ruled that women who attend services at the women’s section of the Kotel are not breaking the law, and that those who were arrested by Jerusalem police on April 11 for wearing tallisim should never have been detained.

One couldn’t help pick up the sense of optimism and excitement in the organization’s this last Sunday's press release, either, noting that support is gathering for a women's Rosh Chodesh service, May 10, with transportation plans for attendees already in the works.  

It will be interesting to see how many turn out and what kind of reception the group receives at the wall now that they are permitted to wear their tallisim.

In an interview earlier this month, board member Cheryl Birkner Mack noted that complaints and interruptions of Women of the Wall services only seem to occur when their attendance has been previously announced. She said that when the women’s group has turned up without announcing it on their website or in a press release they have been able to pray together without police or bystander interference.

"The real proof I have … is that we have on occasion, including about three months ago, gone unannounced (to pray at the Kotel) on a day that was not Rosh Chodesh and encountered no opposition, no problem, no police, no security, nobody at all coming over and saying what you’re doing is forbidden," said Birkner Mack, who suggested that those who seemed bothered by the service know that they could easily adjust their arrival time to miss the hour or hour-and-a-half prayer services.

But now that the group has the law on their side so to speak, have things changed?

Torah service, 1980s. Women of the Wall
Well, maybe. Even though the attorney general announced Monday that he would not appeal the court's decision, there may still be efforts by members of the government to limit women's ability to pray at the Kotel with Torah and tallisim. Today (May 6) Israel's Minister of Religious Affairs, Naftali Bennet said that he plans to propose new regulations that would restrict etiquette at the Kotel.*

A new women’s organization has also stepped up to the plate to announce its objection to the 25-year-old organization’s presence at the Wall. Women FOR the Wall (better known as W4W), says it wants to ensure that “the experience (of praying at the Wall remains) profoundly meaningful” for all women. It’s unclear whether this means that women who wish to hold an integral service of their own and don tallisim are not welcome in the women’s section.

Multicultural Jew will be following these developments this week, and will follow up with our new interview with WOW on Sunday May 13 Pacific Time.

Please share your own thoughts on this matter. Is Women of the Wall speaking for you? Are they speaking against what you believe?

Photo courtesy of Michal Patelle

* Shortly after posting, Women of the Wall released a statement on its FaceBook page concerning earlier announcements by the attorney general and minster of religious affairs. It would seem that WOW's confidence that its major battles were over was premature. 

It is indeed a troubling time in the Jewish homeland.

Share your thoughts; Israel's unity thrives through dialogue. What do you think will inspire consensus?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Jews of Argentina: Templo Libertad, Buenos Aires

Photo by Active Steve
It’s often been said that if you want to understand the Jewish spirit, look to Israel. But it seems to me, that if you want to understand the history of global Jewish migration, and the heart that drives it, it’s Argentina that holds those secrets.

Just off one of Buenos Aires busier streets, flanked by shaded trees and a carefully obscured Jewish museum stands the city’s first synagogue. Its tall stone walls and impressive front speak of auspicious years when immigrants from all over the world flooded into Argentina’s burgeoning streets.

In fact, the Congregación Israelita de la Republica Argentina, or Templo Libertad (Temple Freedom – which gets its name from the street it is on, Calle Libertad) as the synagogue is more affectionately called by its members, began long before most of those stone walls were constructed, in a time when the permanence of a synagogue, like the assurance of a minyan of worshipers was still a hopeful goal.

“The history of Argentinean Jewry begins with a legend,” notes the website for Templo Libertad, “the story tells that by the end of 1862, on the occasion of the High Holidays, the first minyan in Buenos Aires was gathered.”

To this day, all of the names of the synagogue’s first minyan are shrouded in mystery. Yet their actions, however idealistic and bold, set the groundwork for a community that would eventually reach into the hundreds of thousands.

Palacio Miró, demolished 1927
In 1876, the government of Argentina granted permission for Jewish rabbinate to practice in Argentina. According to the author of the website Infinita Buenos Ayres however, the location of Buenos Aires’ first shul was yet to be decided. Its founding rabbi, Joseph Henry, had bought rural property in Junín (162 miles/260 km  northwest of Buenos Aires), where he had hoped with the help of the new congregation to establish the area’s first synagogue.

“But the collected funds were not enough,” says the website’s author, Victoria, “and they decided to sell the property and purchase this site, which in those days was located across from the Palacio Miró.” The foundation stone was placed in 1897, and Buenos Aires first synagogue was born.

Buenos Aires in the 1920s, looking toward Templo Libertad
Soon it became too small for the city’s growing Jewish community. El Once neighborhood, near where the synagogue resided, had become the bustling center of Jewish life in Buenos Aires. Immigrants from all over Europe had settled on its streets, bringing with them the Germanic traditions of an old but prosperous Jewish culture.  The stature of Buenos Aires’ first small synagogue was significant.

“That’s why (it was) named Congregación Israelita de la Republica Argentina (The Israelite Congregation of the Argentine Republic), says Rabbi Daniel Kripper, who recently served as an interim rabbi at Templo Libertad and is now the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, Aruba. “At one time, the most important people of the (Argentinean Jewish community) used to belong to that temple.”

Realizing the community would need a larger synagogue, the members began to plan for its expansion. They turned toward the images of their homelands: the influences of Romantic and Byzantine architecture that at one time flourished throughout Europe. They hired the best architects for the task and seemingly spared no expense. The old synagogue was reconstructed with an eye toward the grandeur of its surroundings, the Miró Palace, across from the temple, and the world renowned Colón Theatre, just down the street.

Photo by Robert Cutts
The imagery and symbolism they chose for the entrance of the grand synagogue was no less bold. The prominent Magen David above its doors and the images of the Ten Commandments make it clear that the Jews who first arrived to Argentina were confident that Buenos Aires would, as the name of the street and the synagogue suggested, provide the freedom to live their lives as observant Jews.

Today, approximately 80 percent of Argentina’s Jewish residents are Ashkenazi - an unusual characteristic in Latin America, where many communities have retained the Sephardic customs of their family’s Spanish ancestry. But the Buenos Aires’ Jewish community has also experienced dramatic changes over the years.

As time went on, El Once’s predominantly Orthodox neighborhood began to shrink. Families left the neighborhood – and the shul – for other regions of Buenos Aires. New communities in areas like Belgrano and Palermo, north of the temple, began to spring up.

“(Thousands) and thousands of Jews moved to those areas and established their houses there, their new synagogues and Jewish life, both Conservative and Orthodox,” Kripper says. “It was, I would say, a revival of Jewish life, particularly among young people.”

The Orthodox traditions fell away – temporarily.

Nearby Buenos Aires - Today - Stanley Wood
“In my time, let’s say 30 or 40 years ago, this community was totally secularized. Religion was very weak.”

But support for Israel, says Kripper, stayed strong, becoming a vital link to Jewish culture. A community that was once devoutly traditional and insular, gradually became “secular, Zionist oriented in terms of Jewish education, Jewish life, and very linked to the state Israel.”

In the last 30 or so years, however, Buenos Aires has gone through another change. The introduction of a Conservative seminary in 1962 helped to plant the seed for a religious revival – a revival that would eventually reach even as far as Buenos Aires’ grand synagogue Templo Libertad.

Today, Templo Libertad offers two different prayer times for two different memberships. During the week and on Shabbat, it offers a small traditional minyan in the chapel, patterned after the old Germanic service, what Kripper refers to as a more “solemn” service. In years past, says Kripper, the service was accompanied by a mix choir and was held in the main sanctuary. These days the accompaniment is smaller, although no less moving. The services are held in the chapel, and the music is sung by the chazzan (cantor), who is complemented by a keyboard. The services are led by Rabbi  Simon Moguilevsky, who has been leading services at Templo Libertad for the last 50 years.

“The traditional service … serves the needs and expectations of the older generations,” Kripper says, “the people who used to go to the main sanctuary, and were used to the big religious show by the cantors,” complete with an electric keyboard. “But their style of davening, of praying … is still along the lines of the old school of German Jewry.”

The temple’s main cathedral-style sanctuary is now home to a larger, more liberal service on Shabbat that Kripper says is led by graduates of Argentina’s Conservative seminary, the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer, based in Buenos Aires. Its services meet the needs of Buenos Aires’ up and coming younger population, the products of the city’s newer outlying neighborhoods.

Commemorating the mourned* - Pablo D Flores
Life for Argentina’s Jewish community has not always been easy. But I wonder as I look at pictures of Buenos Aires’ grand temple rebuilt more than 80 years ago with its tall, sweeping arches and its boldly Jewish imagery, whether part of the secret to preserving one’s Jewish legacy lies in the faith in its continuum – and the refusal to be deterred by fear. Buenos Aires’ 19th century pioneers had every reason to lose hope and faith when they fled Europe because of antisemitism in the early 1800s, and very little reason to believe in the promises of a new nation recently freed from the Inquisition. But they built nonetheless.

And even during the community’s most cataclysmic changes, it never lost sight of its heritage or the value of believing in something larger than what it had left behind. Perhaps it is because of that overly optimistic Jewish value that even amid tragedies and continuing changes in how we define ourselves, our sense of Jewish identity never leaves.

Photo by Robert Cutts

* The banner commemorates those who were killed in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 attack on the Jewish Community Center, both in Buenos Aires. The banner signifies the 22 killed in the embassy bombing and 85 lost at the Jewish community center. The six million is a reference to those who are mourned from the Shoah (Holocaust). The photo was taken in Rosario, Argentina. 

Gratitude is expressed to Rabbi Daniel Kripper for his willingness to be interviewed for this series of posts on Argentina's Jewish Communities.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Women of the Wall and Diversity at the Kotel

Women's Section at Kotel - Photo by Silversteinb

For many Jews in the Western Hemisphere, the beginning of a new month on the Hebrew calendar occurs with little fanfare. We may learn of its passage at synagogue as we’re participating in Jewish prayers, or we may notice the incidental change of date at the top of our favorite Jewish newspaper. But for many North American Jews, the celebratory beginning of the Hebrew month has little effect on their daily rituals of work, family life, or how they spend our coveted hours of rest.

So it is often difficult to understand in these modern times, how the change of a single date could, with one chosen action, get someone arrested.

Photo by Michal Patelle
But every 30 days or so, at the beginning of the new moon, a group of women gather at the center of Jerusalem where Jewish faith and culture have intersected for thousands of years, and acknowledge the beginning of the new Hebrew month. As they arrive at their spot at the Kotel, the Western Wall, they pull out their sidurim, don their tallisim and with a little luck and a whole lot of guts, unveil their Torah scroll.
Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall

Their efforts to celebrate the beginning of the month with songs and prayers are usually concluded with arrests for contravening the stated minhag hamakom (the local customs determined to be relevant to davening at Kotel). It doesn’t matter that they are not within the bounds of an Orthodox synagogue and that they are not attempting to address an Orthodox congregation.

Photo by Michal Patelle
The right of these "Women of the Wall" to gather and to worship united as Jews at the Kotel is not allowed if it goes against minhag, which in short, does not include the practice of women being heard or visibly participating in Jewish prayer.

And rabbinical and legal limitations are not the only obstacles they face when they turn up. There are threats, condemnations and outward attacks from their critics.

There are attempted burnings of their materials by enraged bystanders (as occurred last week). And most recently, there are restrictions to their ability to perform Kaddish in public, one of the most sacred prayers of Judaism (although according to Cheryl Birkner Mack, a spokesperson for the group, it is not their custom to say the prayer at the Kotel at this time).

"Riot" - Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall
What lies at the center of all this controversy is not really an Israeli law, or a part of Jewish halacha, but the complex and confusing definition of customary traditions, of minhag hamokom. What makes up this concept of order, and how do we define it, particularly when it relates to a public landmark? What parameters, statistics, or historical relevance does one use for figuring out what is local custom?

Majority rule? In Jerusalem, or in Israel as a whole?

Affiliation and religious practice have always been difficult issues to quantify in Israel, particularly since Conservative and Reform Jews are generally not counted as such in Israeli census, and because of the historic debate over the appropriateness of taking an accurate census of the Jewish people. So there is a fair amount of variation in results depending on whose figures you use.

But according to a 2009 survey (page 30) published by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 7 percent of those surveyed throughout Israel identified themselves as Haredi (up from 5 percent in 1999). The number who claimed to be Orthodox were barely more than twice that – 15 percent (11 percent in 1991). Jews who defined themselves as “traditional” numbered more than twice the Orthodox (32 percent/33 respectively). For the purpose of the IDI survey, the religious affiliations of those who maintained “traditional” customs were not defined.

Photo by Naamanus
The greatest percentage came from those who claimed to be secular. A whopping 46/43 percent identified themselves as secular but “not anti-religious.” The smallest group said that they were secular and “anti-religious” (6/3).

Haredi affiliation is substantially greater inside Jerusalem than in Israel as a whole. According to the City of Jerusalem’s 2009 figure, 21.3 percent, or 165,000 of the total municipal population (772,982) identified themselves as Haredi, while 497,036 identified themselves as Jewish in general. The city points out in footnote that the accepted statistic that is generally applied to Haredi residents within the city of Jerusalem is 30 percent.

But try as they might, statistics often don’t tell the whole story about a people, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Israel’s complex understanding of minhag. So what about history? Can Jerusalem’s significant Jewish history help define what should be considered local custom?

Several writers have posed this question, including Bonna Devora Haberman, one of the group's organizers following its start in 1988. Tradition at the Kotel, Dr. Haberman says in her book, Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism, isn’t as much a custom of place, than a coexistence of conventions:

Photo by Leif Knutsen
“The practices at the Western Wall reflect the diversity of Israeli society; there is no liturgy common to all Jews, no fixed protocol. At any moment on the men’s side of the partition at the Western Wall, there are coexisting assemblies of prayer communities, each following its particular customs.”

The website and nonprofit group, Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) echoes this statement in its introductory description, The History of Jewish Diversity.

“Today, Israel is one of the most racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse countries in the world, with immigrants from over 70 countries.” The author goes further to point out that “the story of the Jewish people is filled with interracial and intercultural mixing.”
Photo courtesy of Israel Defense Forces

So how can there be one definitive minhag at Israel’s holiest prayer site?

Haberman notes that “Until Israeli sovereignty, there had been no separation between men and women at the Western Wall.” She goes on to explain the events that unfolded in 1968, a year after the Kotel had been reclaimed by Israeli forces, that brought about the changes to minhag at the Western Wall.

Photo by Saga Olsén
It did not herald a complete separation of men and women at the Wall until much later. I remember standing amid both men and women near the center of the wall during several visits in 1974. Some of those around me had came to daven. Others had come to photograph. Many others had come to touch the wall, and still others to add their written prayers to the Kotel. While there was a mechitza that cordoned off a small part of the wall (which during one visit was in the center, between two open areas, not at the north end), there were no stringent prohibitions against men and women gathering together, and no restrictions against women being at the Kotel while men were davening.

So how can there be a minhag that supposedly defines historical practice at the Kotel?

Art work by Ephraim Moses Lilian
Compromise and the acceptance of cultural diversity have always been a part of Jewish ethos. The Talmud exemplifies this attitude, as does the Shulchan; their treatises on Jewish customs are the product of thousands of years of debate and discussion amongst scholars living in distinct communities. Many times the end product resulted in compromise between diverse perspectives; other times the outcome was the inevitable recognition that there is more than one way to address an issue (as the Shulchan Aruch demonstrates with its acceptance of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs).

The very fact that minhag and halacha can coexist in Jewish thought and practice suggests that diversity has a place in Jewish tradition, as does compromise.

Photo by Beggs
A ten minute walk from the Kotel takes one to another historic landmark, where the passage of time seems just as irrelevant to the traditions and customs of the day. But here, the preservation of spiritual traditions isn’t defined by a single culture, but by a egalitarian consensus between five distinct Christian denominations that has been in effect for more than a thousand years. At least three different Easter services are held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as each denomination takes their rightful turn at the altar to conduct their Palm Sunday service. The use of Jerusalem’s holiest Christian landmark is a shared compromise with a finely balanced timetable that allows all denominations to observe their holiest day in their own way.

But realistically, it will likely take many years before such a concession could become part of the minhag hamakom at the Kotel. And while the “new” women’s section that has been proposed with the help of Natan Sharansky may offer an option, one must ask whether this idea - which will take years to implement - is a compromise for both sides or a palliative measure that excuses one from recognizing the rights and human needs of another.

As Daniel Atwood, a writer for Yeshiva University’s publication The Commentator expressed in his March 10, 2013 editorial, “Ironically, it is baseless hatred of other Jews that the Gemara faults as being the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple,” which the writer points out once stood footsteps from the portion of the Kotel that remains today. “Hopefully a solution will come about that recognizes the diversity of Jews who pray at the Kotel,” and, he points out, without making those who are more conservative in their beliefs feel uneasy in their place of worship.

“Hopefully each side will be willing to accept such a compromise.”

Update: On April 25, 2013 the courts ruled in favor of the Women of the Wall's right to pray at the Kotel, by supporting the Magistrate's Court decision of Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly that the five women who were arrested on April 11, 2013 for praying out loud and for wearing prayer shawls should not have been detained, and that they had not disturbed public order. Judge Moshe Sobel, who had reviewed the case in response to a police appeal, also found that:
  • the earlier recommendation that the Women of the Wall pray at the Robinson's Arch did not mean they could not pray in the women's section of the Kotel;
  • their choice to pray in the women's section does not imply they have committed a criminal act;
  • they are not violating a law concerning "minhag hamakom (local customs). "(Legal) proceedings of Women of the Wall establish that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs (per Women of the Wall press release);
  • if they were to be found disturbing public order it doesn't mean they endangered public peace.
The police's appeal to have the five women restricted in their access to the Kotel or a possible exile to the Robinson's Arch was therefore rejected by the courts.
Please see next week's posting (May 5) for follow-up information on the Women of the Wall. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Passover: The Finding Consistency in a World of Diversity

I love Passover. I probably wouldn’t be alone in saying that it remains my favorite Jewish holiday. It has richness, it has beauty and it has heart-wrenching depth.

But that isn’t really why it’s my favorite celebration. It’s because of the amazing diversity of its traditions and its ever changing capacity for expression.

Modern day Ashkenazi seder plate - Eden Hensley Silverstein
Diversity, you say? If anything, Jewish traditions are rooted in consistency, not diversity. Each year we tell the same story, we eat pretty much the same foods, we symbolize the story of the Jews’ exodus with the same items on the seder plate, we break and hide the matzah the same way.

True, within our individual communities we generally do. And don’t get me wrong: that consistency is what gives value and depth to the Passover holiday. By adopting the traditions that our great-great-grandparents followed, we give them meaning and purpose. We keep them alive, and they in turn, keep our Jewishness alive.

But I still can’t help but be fascinated by the breadth of changes our simple Passover meal has gone through over the years. As Jews have travelled throughout the world, they have tweaked the customs to fit the abundance and limitations of their new homelands. In some cases, they had no choice: in their migration from one culture to another, one climate to the next, the availability of ingredients changed, and so did the recipes and the traditions. Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition are known to have settled as far away as Mexico (and to have added to the recipe a tropical flavor), Italy (with its interesting addition of citrus and dates), Greece (with pine nuts and sans apple) and parts of Eastern Europe (what is often considered the conventional Ashkenazi charoset, with apples and often missing the citrus of some Sephardic recipes).

Ashkenazi charoset - by Wonderyort
Today, this discovery and transformation continues. Each year, as I sweep out the last crumbs of chometz from my cupboards and plan the menu for our seders, I put aside time to log onto the Internet and take a tour around the Jewish universe. I learn about Jewish cultures I’ll probably never visit, I try to imagine what their beginnings were like. I travel to Cuba, where charoset has for years been a humble mixture of matzah, wine and honey – a charoset of the oppressed. What was it like before apples became too expensive to use? Was it something richer, more decadent? And 100 years from now, will that simple mixture of matzah, honey and wine with its own concoction of spices take on a richer, bolder significance and resist change, or will it be transformed by history once again?

Israeli seder for Ethiopian Jews - Jewish Agency for Israel
I find myself wondering how the last remaining Ethiopian Jews in Gondar will celebrate the holiday this year, knowing that most, if not all, will be in Israel next year. How will their understanding of Jewish customs change, or will some of them remain steadfast, and manage to hold on to their traditions of thousands of years?

And what new communities will emerge next year? This Passover, on the small Portuguese island of Madeira, what is believed to be the first public seder in several hundred years will be taking place. Shavei Israel and a gracious couple from Israel, Danby and Marvin Meital, will be hosting the seder in its well-known resort. Even though the original community no longer exists (there are rumored to be two or three Jewish families living on the island), its ancient Jewish history makes Madeira a fitting place to hold the Passover celebration. In attendance will be people representing many different backgrounds, and possibly, many different Jewish customs. Once again Jews will have a chance to preserve a part of Jewish history by enriching it with their own unique and vibrant understandings of what it means to live and to celebrate the Jewish experience.
Jewish Quarter, Lisbon, Portugal - Carnaval King 08

 Video of Bnei Menashe singing V'hi she'amda at Pesach courtesy of Shavei Israel.

Friday, December 14, 2012

In Defiance and Faith: Lighting the Hanukkah Candles in Public

For thousands of years, Jews have been lighting their Hanukkah menorah outside or in front of their windows for the rest of the world to see. Jews take great pride in this public ritual, which sometimes garners criticism from those who are uncomfortable with the public display of an age-old religious tradition. But Hanukkah as a holiday is unique: lighting the menorah in public is a mitzvah. Whereas we bless the candles of most other holidays at dinner table and in the secluded privacy of our homes*, we are specifically directed to publicize the celebration of Hanukkah where others can see.

Hanukkah and Anti-Semitism
Even when there has been evidence of anti-Semitism in the community, Jews have fulfilled this mitzvah. Nor has the ritual changed much over the years. According to Professor Moshe Benovitz, during the Talmudic period the candles were traditionally lit outside one’s home.

Benovitz notes in his paper (to be found in Menachem Mendel's blog post of the same name), Hanukkah: Holiday of Hearth and Home that over the years the tradition was largely moved indoors, particularly in Ashkenazi communities. Benovitz offers several historical theories for this change, including persecution from non-Jewish neighbors. But it is interesting that even after the Shoah (the Holocaust) and the forced relocation of Jews throughout the Diaspora on numerous occasions, Jewish communities have continued to light the chanukiah where the public can witness this testament of faith.

Procedures for Lighting the Hanukkah Candles
The Orach Chaim, a section of the Shulkhan Arukh, which was compiled in its final form by Rabbi Yosef Karo, serves as an authoritative reference for halachot (laws) concerning Jewish holidays. It provides an exception for public lighting of the candles in times of public distress or difficulty.

“One should place the Chanukah lights at the entrance which is next to the public area, on the outside of the entrance,” says the Orach Chayim. It goes on to explain other options depending upon where the resident lives, including placing the menorah in a window if a public area for lighting is not available.

“However, “(when) in times of danger,” the Orach Chayim notes “… he should place the Hanukkah lights on the table and that is sufficient.”

Lighting the Candles in Times of Danger
So what constitutes “times of danger?” The Orach Chayim qualifies it as living where “there are evil rulers who do not allow one to fulfill the mitzvah.” Does the evidence of unlawful attacks from anti-Semitic groups (e.g. those not sanctioned by any presiding government) constitute times of danger? Should fear of persecution be a guiding principle in such instances? It is worth noting that even in cases in which Jews are being ordered not to celebrate Hanukkah, according to the Orach Chayim, the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles still takes precedence.

Does the fact that one lives in a democratically ruled country with laws against hate crimes mean that one should never alter this mitzvah?

Here in North America, there is little written on the topic by rabbinic sources - at least as they relate to the lighting of Hanukkah candles in public places. Is that because there are no threats or concerns that warrant precaution when demonstrating one’s Jewish traditions in the front window of one’s house?

Or is it because Hanukkah is a way of demonstrating the Jewish community’s resistance toward persecution: a form of defiance as well as a form of public worship?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report on hate crimes (for 2009) states that 72 percent of all hate crimes in the United States were due to the "offender's anti-Jewish bias." ** Yet U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities have developed around the concept that living in a democracy does not require the drastic measures of hiding one’s traditions. More: that their public demonstration helps to educate other communities and promote multiculturalism.

The Hanukkah Menorah and Multiculturalism

Interfaith groups, and Jewish organizations directed toward narrowing the gap between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews have endorsed this view. So has the Hassidic rap artist Matsyahu, who incorporates Jewish symbols, beliefs and traditions into his songs. Being proud of one’s Jewishness can help to reverse stigmatizing, and being willing to share one’s holiday traditions can break down barriers to communication.

As this writer has found, Hanukkah can serve as a powerful bridge between two cultures. Yet the appropriate medium sometimes depends upon the circumstances. In one small town in western Colorado, my family elected to light the candles in a window that did not face the main street because of a history of anti-Semitic behavior by some members of the community. We fulfilled the mitzvah, although cautiously, preserving its view for those who were not threatened by our celebration.

Had it not been for a more fulfilling community experience some years before, our tradition of lighting the candles in front of a public thoroughfare might have been affected by this event. But we had already learned that the Hanukkah menorah carried an important message of support, not only for Jews, but for others as well.

The Festival of Lights
Shortly after my husband’s graduation from university, we moved to a small town in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. Each Hanukkah we placed the lit menorah in the front window of our house. The first year brought carloads of curious neighbors past our front steps. The town in which we lived was primarily First Nations, and many had never seen the chanukiah, much less heard its ancient story. To many, our Jewish tradition reaffirmed our bond with our neighbors, whose ancestors had also endured decades of cultural discrimination and for many years had been prevented from practicing their own traditions, or even speaking their native language. Our new friends were amazed to find that Jews had experienced the same fate many years ago, and were now able to share their holiday traditions in most areas of the world without fear of persecution.

My family and I lit the Hanukkah menorah that year as Jews. By the end of those eight days however, we had come away with an even greater understanding of our connection with those around us.

The ancient rabbis were well versed in the dangers of anti-Semitism, and therefore left an “out” for Jewish families at Hanukkah during times of conflict. But as many Jews have found throughout the years, sharing the defining elements that make one a Jew can also open doors to the common histories that make us human.

*At Succot we light the Shabbat candles outside in a succah, or booth, but still with the walls and the assigned setting of a private (though temporary) domicile.

** These numbers were down to 1,080 incidents in 2011, reflecting a drop of 495 incidents, and according to the Anti-Defamation League, the lowest drop in two decades (Anti-semitic incidents decline in the U.S. in 2011 …  Huffington Post 11-03-12)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Multicultural Jew: Finding the True Meaning of Hanukkah

The Multicultural Jew: Finding the True Meaning of Hanukkah: Hanukkah seems like an odd time to contemplate the fate of the Jewish people, yet each year at this time I find myself caught up in questions about our true role in the world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Women, Tefillin and Jewish Prayer

I’ve been thinking about kavanah (כונה) recently. It’s probably not an odd word to mull over, given we’ve just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, observed Yom Kippur and have just received the Torah for 5773 CE.

Still, I am struck by how many different ways that people seek, define and establish kavanah – that elusive, ever-Jewish state of mind and heart that allows us to pray. Often summarily explained in English as the intent or “direction of the heart” it has an equally varied association with the Hebrew language.

According to the Ben-Yehuda Hebrew/English dictionary, kavanah translates as intent, purpose, devotion or meaning. It hales from the same Hebrew root as kohnen (כּוֹנֵן), which means to build or to establish; nachonut (נְכוֹנוּת) , preparedness or readiness; and al nachon (אל נָכוֹן) , to the right. Anyone who has lived in Israel knows the expression, Nachon? (נָכוֹן) True?!

The concept of kavanah has been explored by talmudists and kabbalists for centuries. The 12th century scholar Maimonides considered it one of five essential aspects of prayer. It’s as elemental to our spiritual connection as Jews as it is to our cultural definition. A cantor can sing with kavanah, just as one can pray with kavanah. Its lexicon is evidence that spirituality is still at the root of Jewish culture and identity.

Photo by nagillum

Yet the path to connecting with our spirituality as Jews is anything but direct or singular – especially these days. As 21st century Jews, we have the liberty to choose how we best relate to Judaism. Women can, and do attend Shabbat services much more frequently and openly than they did 200 years ago and depending upon the synagogue they decide to attend, they can wear a tallits or tefillin. Men can choose not to attend synagogue, or pick a different shul that is more in keeping with their spiritual views. Our understanding of kavanah may still be guided by ancient rabbinical teachings, but we are much more at liberty to interpret their application.

A friend once told me that he felt closest to God high on the pristine, mountainous trails of North America that were far from the infrastructure, people and shuls of modern city life. There he felt free to concentrate, to pray with intention. There have been others that have espoused this preference, as antithetical as it may seem to the precepts of traditional Judaism.

Photo by שיע.ק

And yet there are others who are inspired by the closeness of synagogue life.

As I watched a friend lay tefillin just before Shacharit (morning) minyan one day, I was struck with the intricacy and beauty of the ritual.  There was something meditative in the steps that she followed as she circled her left arm seven times with the resuot (straps), moving fluidly down across her hand to form the shin and dalet. As one who has never worn tefillin, it seemed to me that kavanah should be easier to attain with such a contemplative and personal custom. How simplified the inexperienced view!

Later as we spoke, however, I realized that while there was nothing easy about choosing to wear tefillin, my observation wasn’t entirely wrong.

“I feel that they are kind of a physical symbol of being tied to God,” explained Debby Fenson, who serves as the ba’alat tefillah for Congregation Beth Israel in Vancouver, BC Canada and regularly teaches young bar- and bat-mitzvah how to pray with tefillin.  “You can’t really connect yourself to God in a physical way, but they are symbolically connecting us to God.”

She admitted donning tefillin was not an easy choice, particularly for a woman who had few female role models to follow.

“(I) wear tefillin because I would like to make it less unusual for women to (don them) .... I think it is a really hard one, though. I mean, there are so many women who wear tallit and kipah when they are davening and very few women who wear tefillin … so it is a big learning curve.”

I later came across a blog that expanded on Debby’s comments, but with a different tack:

The blogger on Barefoot Jewess notes that for her, “Tefillin are a spiritual transformer … They help one directly and intensely connect with G-d; they magnify and sanctify prayer and connection. At the very least, they can provide focus; that is their service.”

 And having that symbolic physical connection, says Debby, is hard to do without once you’ve worn tefillin.

“You get used to it. It feels like it is part of your prayer, and then without it you feel like (you are) missing it, or you feel bereft of it, or something doesn’t feel quite right,” Debby said.

“I can’t imagine my life without them,” Barefoot Jewess admitted. “I can still connect with something greater than myself.”

Stories abound of women throughout history who have donned tefillin during prayer. Most of the examples, such as the daughters of Rashi and of King Saul are quickly discounted by critics for lack of historical proof. Yet the fact that a woman’s right to pray with phylacteries has been a subject of vigorous Talmudic debate since at least the 16th century suggests that women throughout history may have taken steps to assume this mitzvah.

And recent discussions like those above suggest that tefillin is playing more of a role, not less, in women’s prayer today. Further, that women seek to fulfill that experience that the Rambam describes as kavanah: the ability to “remove all distracting thoughts and consider that (she) stands in front of the Shechinah.”

Events like the Tefillin Barbie classes and the World Wrap have helped to dispel stigmas about women wearing phylacteries. But so have those individuals who have courageously stepped forward to talk about the real topic: what it meant to them; how it transformed their lives and their sense of “intentional prayer.”

By talking about the experience and relating it to their own spiritual growth, they help demonstrate that the spiritual practice of prayer is personally fulfilling – as well as an ancient Jewish custom. As we have already seen with the use of tallits by women in some Modern Orthodox congregations, open discussions like this have the potential not only to change minds, hearts and opinions, but to bridge ideologies, a concept of peace that lies at the heart of kavanah.

 © Photos and text by Jan Lee unless otherwise noted.