Lithuania, April 8-13 2014

“Why won’t my hands stop shaking, when all the earth is still? When ancient ghosts are waking…”

At the beginning of our study seminar to Lithuania, our teacher told us that Lithuania could be a terrific vacation destination: its a beautiful European country, the exchange rate is pretty decent (they use a currency called the Lita) and it’s fairly conveniently located. However, it is obviously not a place that tourists flock to. Walking around the streets of Vilna/Vilnius where we spent most of our time, I continually noticed this odd juxtaposition. The beautiful architecture reminded me of Prague, the food was good, and we stayed in very nice apartments in the middle of the city. But there is really no visible tourism industry to speak of. There are no shops selling postcards and magnets, no large groups with guides screaming in different languages leading them around, no tour busses. In fact, the entire place was pretty quiet and deserted, save for obvious locals. 

This feeling of slight discomfort and large lack of something only intensified as we spent a full and busy four days learning about Jewish life in Lithuania. Jewish life itself exists, although it is tucked away in small corners and you have to look hard for it. Lithuania is comprised of the Jewish past. According to Yad Vashem, before WW2 there were 168,000 Jews there before the War, and it lost 140,000-143,000 of them during the Holocaust. This was very evident; the streets are full of plaques marking institutions that were once there, statues and monuments commemorating tragic loss and empty buildings that at one point contained thriving Jewish life. We also heard that there are 220 mass burial sites throughout the country. Lithuania is full of Jewish absence. This is especially remarkable and meaningful when you realize that over half of our group has ancestors from there (including myself, on both sides of my family).

For three of the days we were in Vilna itself, and we had many incredible experiences lead by our Professor and a Lithuanian tour guide; among other things we walked through the Jewish quarter, saw the space where the huge great synagogue used to be, visited the University, met with the last remaining forest partizan fighter, Fonia Brantsovsky in the Yiddish library in which she works, went to the tiny state Holocaust museum, toured the Jewish ghetto, learned about the Jewish council that worked with the Nazis, met with the Executive Director of the Vilna Jewish community, attended Shabbat services at the Choral Synagogue (where we excitedly heard a familiar Lecha Dodi melody that many of us sing in America), met with a Yiddish scholar, and saw the Yiddish institute and former Rabbinic seminary. Two highlights (although it sounds weird to call them that) were seeing a tiny memorial on the grounds of a sports school that marked the site of the first killing of Jews in Vilna by Lithuanian citizens even before the Nazis had taken over, and visiting Ponar, a collection of pits where 70,000-100,000 people (most of them Jews) were shot and buried, and then later dug up by Jews on Nazi orders so they could attempt to hide the atrocities that they had committed.

We also visited the city of Kovno/Kaunas for a day. On the way there we stopped in Zhezmir and were able to do morning services in one of the last remaining wooden synagogues in the world (I had the honor of reading Torah) which was incredibly powerful. The current caretaker of the synagogue comes from a family that hid Jews in their cellar, and since then have been volunteering to take care of the site since there are no Jews left. In Kovno we saw the ghetto, including the intense experience of standing in the square where Jews were selected to be put on trains, saw the former Synagogue and Gymnasium, and a few memorial sites including a large field under which thousands of bodes were buried.

All of the sites we visited were accompanied by reading texts, mainly written by the historical figures and leaders of the time, and lots of context from our very knowledgeable teacher, both of which incredibly enhanced the experience and provided us with layered perspective on what we were seeing and standing near. They were also accompanied by the aforementioned absence of tourists, and for the most part, anyone at all, and the lack of people combined with the lack of the Jews who once inhabited those places really made it all the more chilling and emotional for me. Why don’t people know about these places? What prevents them from coming?

Something we discussed throughout the seminar was the idea of active or ethical tourism. By visiting these places, we were learning about them, and hopefully will be able to share our knowledge with others. We are hopefully ensuring that the memory of those thousands of people does not die as buildings disintegrate and grass grows over fields. I felt so connected with Lithuania when we visited, because of my family roots there and because of the tremendous loss of my people. Going there and learning about it has inspired me to learn more and teach it to American Jews, and empowered me to be even more proud of my Judaism and my freedom to practice my religion. I would love to carry on the legacy of study and knowledge that the Jews in Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” began decades ago. I truly hope that these tragedies will never be forgotten.


Judaism and Baseball

In honor of spring training beginning, here is a piece I wrote for a discussion group that we have. Enjoy!

Purpose: It has been asked ‘if the Jews disappeared from the world, apart from losing a thin streak of colour in the rainbow, would anyone notice’? In response to this, present a short submission  on the purpose of being Jewish, what is the purpose of the Jews and how to sharpen its edge.

Over the course of my life, I have noticed some very distinct similarities between being a Jew and being a fan of the New York Mets. Each group is a minority, operating in a world full of larger entities that sometimes threaten to overtake them. Each group has been beaten down throughout history by prejudice and negative stereotypes.  Each group runs on a yearly schedule; Opening Day comes around as consistently as Rosh Hashanah. Like the Jews, the kehilah of Mets fans seems to grow slightly smaller each year, as people decide its just not worth it to be a part of the group anymore; there are better things in which to invest their time, or participating is just not as meaningful as it used to be.  Some may ask, with the existence of the Yankees, and plenty of other New York sports in general, if the Mets disappeared from the world, apart from losing a thin streak of orange and royal blue and a stadium in Queens, would anyone notice?

As an avid Mets fan, I say yes! I would definitely notice. Every year as CitiField gets emptier and emptier, I notice. When Mets tickets are laughably cheap because no one wants them, I notice. During those times when people who don’t know anything about baseball mock my team t-shirt just because they know the Mets suck, I notice. Sure, there are other sports options to choose from, but the Mets are my team. I have a history with them, I grew up watching them, and I am invested in them so much that I can’t imagine them ever disappearing into oblivion. In the same way, I think that even those in the baseball world who couldn’t care less about the Mets would still notice if they were gone, because even though they only have two World Series wins and consistently low attendance, they are still a part of the baseball fabric. They have multiple Hall of Fame players, and take up a spot in the National League East. So if my team didn’t exist, something would change.

What is the purpose of being a Mets fan? Following a sport gives me something to connect with. It provides a specific kind of routine to my year, and links me to a larger community, most of whom I will never meet, despite seeing their faces in the stands each year. Being a Mets fan makes me more resilient. When people taunt my devotion, I hold my ground and remain proud of the select group to which I belong. Being a Mets fan makes me patient and forgiving. I’ve been to multiple games in which they gave up a game-long lead in the final innings, and a few in which they came from behind to win in the second half. Being a Mets fan makes me part of history. I rooted for them in 2001 when they reached the World Series. I was in attendance during their first and only no-hitter, and when the final ball left Johan Santana’s mitt the cheers and elation that filled the stadium can only be described as spiritual.

History, tradition, and community are incredibly powerful when one devotes one’s life to them. Resilience, patience and forgiveness are a few of many positive character traits that our ancestors have employed to pass them down to us. If a group that has such a vibrant past, such miraculous stories and such a great sense of Peoplehood were to disappear, it would be noticed. Those inside of it would suddenly lack a system of values with which to live their life, and a sense of stability and consistency. Those outside of it would feel a shift in the air caused by a small but mighty group that fit into the world, somewhat tumultuously at times, but in its own unique and valuable way.

So what is the Purpose of being Jewish, and maybe a Mets fan too? To embrace all of these things our past has given us as individuals, using them to enhance our lives, and carry them forward to the next generation. To be part of a group, that is stronger for not giving up in the face of the greatest adversities.  And to hope for a better future, more full of respect than negative stereotypes. A few more trips to the Playoffs wouldn’t hurt either…

Memorable Prayer Moments

Well I can say with certainty that I am the busiest that I have ever been in my life. I don’t have time to write another blog entry at the moment, but I do have something to share. We are assigned monthly prayer journals for Liturgy class, and this month’s topic was to write about a memorable prayer moment that we’ve experienced so far during the Year in Israel. My response to this prompt is below!

            When I think of a standout worship experience from this year so far, I don’t think of one service that I experienced. What comes to me is a series of unique, powerful and meaningful moments; flashes of seconds that I felt were incredibly special and that I will take with me throughout the rest of my education and my life.

            I remember the first time we prayed together as a class, how some words and melodies were unfamiliar but how transcendent and amazing it was to hear all of our voices united. I remember entering the Kotel Plaza holding my roommates’ hands and singing proudly with Women of the Wall. I remember praying at the port in Tel Aviv, watching the beautiful sunset over the water as we welcomed Shabbat. I remember when I helped lead summer Kabbalat Shabbat at a class-organized Shabbaton over the summer, which was the first time that I was in front of everyone. I remember Julie Silver leading us in song at a Thursday Shacharit. I remember the moment that everything clicked and I realized that not only did I know all the prayers and melodies well, but I could probably go through a basic Shacharit service without even using the siddur. I remember praying at Solomon’s columns after a long hike, and celebrating Shabbat in the desert on our South Tiyyul.  I remember leading my first Shacharit service; bringing my own perspective and vision to these words that I pray multiple times a week with my classmates.

            When I look back at these moments, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that this year provides. Much like prayer itself, these moments keep me grounded and remind me how special Judaism is. Especially now, in all the craziness of finals, I can look back and remember these special experiences and they can carry me through the rougher times. This is very similar to how, when I wasn’t part of a Jewish community every day, I could rely on Judaism to keep me grounded and remind me who I was, providing consistency in a chaotic world. These moments can be added to my collection of Jewish memories, except for the fact that they are now specifically related to my professional development and my future career.

            While trying to find common factors between all of these moments in order to see what I can learn for the future as a whole, I can see that most of them have to do with time and place. I obviously cannot bring every single congregant to the Negev for a weekend to lead them through Mincha and Shabbat services as I was fortunate to experience, or teach them Liturgy so that they can identify with each word on the page, which is unfortunate.  But I can see that something that makes prayer special is finding ways to make prayer experiences unique, to enhance the kavannah of the words that we regularly say.  As we’ve learned, our ancestors picked these words, for one reason or another, whether it was the Rabbis or the recent creators of Mishkan Tefilah. Someone thought they were important, and I can enhance their significance by making prayer circumstances special. I think that this is something that the Reform Movement is definitely acknowledging and working towards, in order to make Judaism accessible and engaging to everyone. I look forward to being a part of that effort!




Hanukkah in the Holy Land

The past eight days have flown by and been full of candles, way too many doughnuts, and lots of fried food, aka exactly what a perfect Hanukkah should be. It was great to justify eating terribly unhealthy food because of the holiday though! Now I just have finals stress to use as an excuse ;) We have two more weeks of class and then a week of finals (five in four days, plus papers and take-home exams) and then I will be going to New York for ten days, and my mom and brother will return to Israel with me! There is lots to look forward to, but for now I want to review my amazing Hanukkah.

There have been sufganiyot (holiday doughnuts) out at bakeries for about the past month (I guess the Israeli equivalent of preparing for Christmas) so I started my eating earlier than the first candle. There aren’t just the traditional jelly ones; there are frosted ones, filings, and different combinations of the two, plus flavors like caramel and oreo. Pretty intense stuff! 

On the first night of Hanukkah, we had a communal candelighting at school. There was a huge menorah in the lobby facing the street, and my class and their familes gathered to sing songs, light candles and of course eat doughnuts.

The next night was Thanksgiving, and we had a wonderful dinner at school. Everyone really came together as a community, which was wonderful. We enjoyed some great food and great company; I think Thanksgiving will be one of my favorite memories of this year! We were all definitely feeling homesick so it was nice to be surrounded by people who felt the same way and wanted to create a supportive community for each other.

On the third night, our a capella group got to sing at services at the congregation I’ve been involved with before. We opened their service with our version of Maoz Tsur (by composer Marcello, it’s really beautiful) and then did Oseh Shalom in the middle of the service, which was fun as usual.

The fourth night, Jenn and I went to our classmate Ben’s house to make latkes! His wife is visiting for a month and we had a lovely dinner with them, enjoying a pile of latkes and some homemade doughnuts.

For the rest of Hanukkah, I enjoyed lighting candles each night with my roommates and friends. It was a big difference from when I lived in the city and didn’t necessarily have people to light them with me for all the nights of Hanukkah. Tamara and I also were working up towards the Shacharit service which we lead yesterday! It was my first service of the year and her fourth (Rabbis are required to lead 2 throughout the year, while the Cantors lead 5-7). It was incredibly fun and exciting to do a morning service (I had never lead one before) and to be on the bimah in front of my classmates. Tamara and I work really well together, and our voices blend beautifully. We decided a while ago to use Mumford and Sons lyrics to direct and enhance the kavannah (intention) of the service and according to the feedback we received, it worked well! Since it was the end of Hanukkah we got to work on those holiday themes as well and do a part of the service called Hallel which is reserved for special days.

Throughout Hanukkah, I also raised all of the money needed to send me on the Passover trip to the Former Soviet Union that I am co-coordinating. Our group as a whole has done really well, raising 50% of our necessary total in about a week! Hanukkah is full of miracles! I am really grateful to everyone who gave me a donation and looking forward to the trip.

Spending holiday-time in Israel has been really nice. Instead of Christmas lights and music 24/7 immediately after Thanksgiving, there are huge electric menorahs all over the city, menorah lights on the main streets and channukiyot in many windows. A couple friends and I walked through the Old City on the last night of Hanukkah at early evening, and in most doorways people were lighting candles and saying blessings. It was really peaceful and beautiful. For me, it was another nice aspect of living in a state that bases its calendar around Judaism.

Time to start working on finals! I’ll do my best to write another post or two before break if my sanity still exists. Shabbat Shalom!

Can’t we all just get along?

Over the past few weeks in our Israel Seminar class, we’ve delved into different branches of Orthodox Judaism and how they play into Israeli society, from the beginnings of Zionism to the present. Israel Seminar is one of my favorite classes because the instructors work very hard to set up lessons and speakers for us that flow from one to the other and capture as many parts of this country as possible. Like pretty much everything else here, the more I learn about all the components of Israel, the more I see that there is so much more to learn.

As a Reform Jew, a woman, and a Reform woman studying to be a Rabbi, I am not quite sure how to personally view the “Dati” (religious) sects that can be found here. Just the fact that Israel is divided into merely “Religious” and “Secular” is a statement in itself, since those categories don’t really leave room for Progressive Judaism (but that’s for another blog post). It is fascinating to hear my teacher talk about them academically, and contemplate them in relation to Zionism. But when I am wearing my kippah on the street it is a different story. I mainly have somewhat of an internal crisis; our ancestors worked so hard to build a Jewish state, so why is it more difficult to wear my kippah here than in America? But then I think about if someone was doing something that I didn’t like or agree with and called it “Jewish”. Wouldn’t I be frustrated? Putting myself in their shoes is kind of uncomfortable, and I can imagine that some feel this discomfort when they look at me, such as the man who I have seen multiple times while walking to school, who calls HUC “oxymoronic” and taunts me by repeatedly saying, “what can they possibly be teaching you there?”

Still, the Dati are a significant part of modern Israel, so it is definitely important that we study them and try to learn as much as we can about their presence. A few weeks ago, about half the class visited a Belz Hasidic synagogue. Once ushered into the room in which we were sitting (divided by gender, of course), we heard insights into the Belz lifestyle by our tour guide. My teacher had not specifically told him who we were, but subtly placed “Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion” at the bottom of his emails so that he wasn’t entirely hiding the truth. I was pretty fascinated by the operations of the synagogue, which contains ongoing morning minyans in its multiple sanctuaries (the times of which pop up on schedule boards like flights at the airport, our guide explained), rooms for thousands of guests to stay overnight for times such as the High Holidays, and a synagogue that seats about 7,000 and houses the largest ark in the world at 23 tons with room for 70 Torahs. Our guide was open with us about his lifestyle, and expressed dissatisfaction at the way Hasidism is portrayed in the media and in wider society. Of course, I sympathized with him on that. By the end of the discussion, he had expressed that his Rebbe says that the Holocaust was caused by the fact that German Jews assimilated into German society; everyone else was fed up with Jews getting such high positions, and also God wanted to take revenge on them for assimilating. And guess what? The same thing is happening in America, so basically liberal American Jews are going to cause the next Holocaust. No one expected it then, and no one expects it now.

Later that day, we met with Rav Yehoshua Weinberger of the Karlin Hasidic sect in Mea Shearim, an extremely Orthodox neighborhood. This time, our speaker knew full well who we were, having met with HUC students in past years. He told us at the beginning of the Q and A that he was going to be very honest with us, and, despite the fact that he and his wife consistently professed to be open-minded and welcoming to all branches of Judaism, by the end of the session he told us that he sees no place for Progressive Judaism anywhere, because it is just a bridge between Orthodoxy and secularism.

I had been told that I am going to cause the next Holocaust and that there is no place for my Judaism in the world, so why was that my favorite day of Israel Seminar so far? 

Today all the women in my class met with a Religious Zionist (we were not permitted to go visit a Yeshiva with the men), who came to HUC, sat in our Social Hall with us, and told us big chunks of his life story. Some of us wore kippot. My teacher had explained earlier that it is more difficult to arrange the Modern Orthodoxy day of Seminar than the Haredi one, since the Haredim live completely within their own bubble while with the others it is not so black and white. I was surprised that this man, Matanya Mali, had met with us in our space, and pleasantly shocked at the openness with which he shared his experiences, answered our questions, and seemed to respect us. We didn’t really get into specifics about religion, though, and I wonder what would have happened if we did. Afterwards, we visited Ma’ale Film School, meeting with a student director who showed us his funny and profound piece about a first-year Yeshiva student who feels unhappy and out of place studying there, but (spoiler alert) by the end becomes absorbed in Yeshiva life. When asked by one of my classmates if he ever made movies about non-religious topics, the Director responded that his next idea was a vampire movie. About a Yeshiva boy who turns into a vampire.

All of these experiences have been constantly pushing me to be open-minded. My natural state is to contemplate the box that the Dati place me in, and think and act on that impulse. But I have to remind myself that one of the major differences between our movements is that we are willing to engage in dialogue with them, to devote time to studying their traditions and listening to speakers, and accept their denomination as a legitimate branch of the same religion that we are devoting our lives to. I need to treat them as I’d like to be treated, not shut them out or disrespect them.

This is difficult when I think about the people like (surprisingly) the woman in spandex on a bike, who asked me the other week why on earth I was wearing a kippah. I must be Reform, she said, and didn’t I know that it wasn’t a woman’s place to wear one? It makes me so sad when I think about how we’re all the same religion, yet there is so much strife between us. If we want to protect and preserve Judaism as we all profess that we so badly want to do, shouldn’t we be respecting and caring for each other? Can’t we all just get along? We will all be lighting menorahs and singing the same blessings to celebrate a holiday about strength, redemption and miracles for the next few days. So many people have fought hard so that we can all express ourselves and freely partake in our beloved traditions. It seems silly to make snide comments to strangers on the street when we could be rejoicing together in all of the different forms our shared religion takes, even if we don’t always agree with the choices of others.

You know who has it right? The Dati man who, wearing his hat and displaying his payot (sidelocks) visits my favorite Progressive congregation some Shabbat evenings. There is a woman Rabbi on the bimah and a male Cantor playing guitar, but this man has, multiple times, been found towards the end of services standing in the doorway with a big grin on his face, swaying to the music and wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom as they exit the sanctuary. I don’t know who he is or why he feels compelled to celebrate Shabbat in that place, but he is inspirational.

Tonight, the first night of Hanukkah, my roommate and I were greeted by a group of boys, probably about our age, who had just exited the Chabad house. They asked us if we had a menorah for the holiday, and we said no. As one of them handed one to my roommate, I wondered if they’d be so quick to offer if they could see the kippah on the back of my head. A couple more boys approached from the side, and I grew a little apprehensive. But the one closest to me just said, his grin never vanishing under his black hat, “you’re wearing a kippah!” I smiled and nodded, and we all wished each other a Chag Sameach (happy holiday) and went our separate ways.

I so badly wish that every Orthodox man who encounters me will react the way this young man did, that every Dati on the way home from their Friday evening services would pop into Progressive congregations and enjoy our Shabbat music as that visitor does, would welcome questions from female future clergy as our speaker did today. I also wish that secular and Progressive Jews would push themselves to be open-minded about Orthodoxy, and be willing to learn about the lifestyles and customs of the other, who has more in common with us than we’d like to admit, rather than marginalizing and stereotyping. Even in this season of light and miracles, it unfortunately still seems like too much to ask for. But hopefully I will continue to meet individuals who prove me wrong. 

More Fall Moments

Well, it’s November. But you’d never know that from the gorgeous weather here! I’ve barely had to wear a jacket at all so far, even at night. It’s currently in the low 70s and sunny, so I really can’t complain.

It’s been a pretty crazy week. Besides the fact that its midterms time and I’m giving my first Rabbinical School sermon next week (!!!), we’ve had many visitors and many evening events that are awesome but also take away homework time. Yay for learning how to balance a million different things (and how to deal when you can’t possibly get everything done perfectly).

The beginning of this week marked Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which means we started singing things to the tune of Maoz Tzur in services because it’s now the month of Hanukkah! Rosh Chodesh was also the 25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall, so there was a big delegation from the US that came to celebrate with them. I went to services at the Kotel Monday morning, which was great. We were finally allowed into the women’s section, and filled up most of it. It was my third time praying with them, and it was fantastic to have so many supporters present, as well as a huge group of men who stood behind the women’s section and prayed with us (and even a couple who looked over the wall and prayed from the mens’ section). An interesting moment in the service for me was standing next to a small group of Orthodox pre-teen girls during part of the service. They were praying from their own prayerbook and giving us all looks of disdain. At points they would purposefully talk and make noise to interrupt our service, and some people from our group shushed them. I heard them speaking in Hebrew about how it was sad that we were praying this way. I just thought it was interesting to be next to them during a moment of such liberation for a certain population of women, and I honestly wish I could have talked with them more because I’m curious as to exactly what they were thinking.

That night, the female students in my class were invited to a gala for Women of the Wall in the same beautiful room in which we had Yom Kippur services. We got all dressed up and mingled with everyone there, and enjoyed a nice dinner. The cantorial students got to sing with Julie Silver, which was great.

Also in town this week were the school’s Board of Governors, along with the outgoing president of the college Rabbi David Ellenson and the incoming president Rabbi Aaron Panken (who I’ve know for a few years…I’m really excited that he is coming into office and will be the one to ordain me!) The Board of Governors spent some time on our campus this week and we got a chance to have a Q and A with the Presidents. On Wednesday night there was an academic panel honoring Rabbi Ellenson and our student a capella group was invited to make our debut performance being the opening act! ( Last night was the ordination of the students in the Israeli Rabbinic Program. It was the last ordination ever for Rabbi Ellenson, and he was understandably emotional. After a long and packed week, seeing the four students get ordained was a really great reminder of the big picture. We were all so bogged down with all the little things this week, but then had the opportunity to be shown the direct results of all of our hard work, seeing personally what will make the whole thing worthwhile.

With the advent of Daylight Savings Time, it now gets dark much earlier, which means that Shabbat is earlier too. Now we have to get ready for services around 4pm! The rhythm of this country continually fascinates me.

Halloween was last week and we decided to have a class party anyway, even though Israel doesn’t celebrate whatsoever. Our Head of Student Life even told us to save some of our costume energy for Purim! A couple classmates put together a great party in our student center at school, complete with decorations, Halloween trivia, costume contests, and of course lots of candy! We’re now in the midst of planning our class Thanksgiving party…apparently cranberry and pumpkin are rare commodities and run out as soon as they hit the shelves so we’ve been warned to be very vigilant and get supplies ASAP!

My friend Karina came to visit with her dad for ten days, and I got to see her a few times amidst both of our busy schedules. It was really nice and slightly strange to have a piece of home here in Israel and for my two worlds to meet. 

I also went to see a production of Sondheim’s Company (in English) with a bunch of my classmates. I’ve missed theater! It clearly wasn’t Broadway but I think they did a nice job overall. It was hilarious hearing Sondheim’s very New York-based dialogue with Hebrew accents! 

Lastly, two weeks ago we had our first meeting of the second year of a “Mifgashim” program at school where ten of us from my class spend a couple hours a month with ten Israelis getting to know each other and doing text studies together. I’m really excited to continue to get to know these Israelis throughout the year and learn more about their Judaism and where they’re coming from in general. When I introduced myself, they all thought I was Israeli because of my name! 

I think those are all my main updates for now…at least I did a little better posting a bit sooner this time! Hopefully I’ll be able to get in another couple of posts before I go home for winter break at the end of December. I’m excited for my sermon next week and for leading my first Shacrit (morning) service at the beginning of December and I intend to update about those.

Shabbat Shalom :)

WAY Overdue Fall Semester Update Post

Well, I haven’t blogged in so long that WordPress had logged me out of my account, even though I’d clicked “Remember me”!! I guess Grad School keeps you busy or something. Anyways, better late than never! I’m going to try to make a list of some fun/important/educational things that have happened to me over the past 6-ish weeks. And then do my best to not let this long go by without blogging for the rest of the year.

-To kick off Fall Semester, we had a class tiyyul (overnight trip) to the north of Israel. We went to a few famous sites like Tel Hai and the poetess Rachel’s grave, spoke with one of the first kibbutz founders and had a beautiful morning service on the bank of the Kinneret. We were also next to the Lebanese border during an especially uncertain period at the end of August, so that was intense. The trip was part of our Israel Seminar class, a really awesome course we have that takes up one day a week. Every Wednesday, we either travel to a location and learn about it (so far we’ve been to Tel Aviv, Yad Vashem and Har Herzl, and explored my neighborhood, Rehavia), or have speakers come to school and talk to us about different issues (the first set of speakers is this coming Wednesday). It is so cool to explore and learn about all these places, perhaps to teach about them when we lead congregations to Israel in the future, or even just to broaden our own personal horizons. Our instructors are really awesome and it’s nice to have a day of the week where we do something a little different.

-This semester, I am taking Modern Hebrew (5 sessions a week), Biblical Grammar (taught in Hebrew), Rabbinic Texts (taught in Hebrew), History of the Zionist Movement, Liturgy (a lecture and a smaller lesson), Bible (two sessions a week, taught in Hebrew), and Second Temple History. Plus there are required Sunday afternoon, Tuesday morning and Thursday morning services, most of which are lead by classmates, and we have mandatory Shabbat morning services twice a month. It is a lot, but after the holidays I think I was really able to settle into a good routine and figure out how to budget my time and get my work done! A few friends and I have a weekly chevruta (study group) which has been really helpful. It is also really fun to be learning about stuff I’ve done my whole life, and expanding my Judaism, and to be surrounded by 39 others doing the same thing!

-The High Holidays here in Israel were really fascinating. I sung in the choir at school which turned out to be a great decision. Practicing the music in advance really prepared me for many aspects of a service which was different for me than my home congregation. It was my first time ever away from my parents (and first time since moving to NY away from my temple) and being able to concentrate on singing was a really helpful place to turn my energy. I also made an apple cinnamon cake (the same recipe my dad used to make me applesauce cupcakes to take to school on my elementary school birthdays) and it turned out to be hit! I ended up baking it for multiple occasions. We had Rosh Hashanah evening services at school, and then were left to our own devices for morning services on Days 1 and 2. I discovered that while Rosh Hashanah is one of my favorite holidays back in America, I didn’t really enjoy it in Israel. The services were LONG and full of straight chanting and reading Hebrew from the prayerbook. It seemed more Conservative style to me than Reform, and I unfortunately did not get much meaning out of it. 

-My birthday fell in-between the holidays this year and although it was weird to be away from home I had a nice day! I woke up to balloons all over my apartment and cards and goodies from my roommates, went to lunch with some friends and then had a dinner and drinks party that night, to which most of the class showed up! I also got my annual birthday bouquet of roses from my parents, even all the way across the world!

-If it is possible to have a good Yom Kippur, I did it. We had all of our services at school, and since a lot of people show up, HUC rents out another room, which happens to be all glass and overlooking the Old City. So basically, we were at the exact place that Jews all over the world were praying too, which was awesome. We had a nice pre-fast meal at a classmates, and then all took pictures in our tallitot in front of the Old City before services started. When we left, and for 24 hours after that, there were no cars on the road. It was crazy!! We all walked in the middle of usually busy streets, sat in major intersections, and even lay down in the road! People were catching up and singing in circles in the street after Kol Nidre, and I saw multiple people from different groups run into people they knew in the middle of the street! On Yom Kippur afternoon, Jade and I (and three other pairs of classmates) lead an afternoon study session. Ours was on the topic of Returning and Re-Cycling and it went well! The entire class plus guests gathered in our social hall for a break fast which was a little crazy, but I have never seen my class be so efficient and go through a meal so quickly.

-I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do for our Sukkot/Simchat Torah break, but last minute my friend/roommate Jenn and I ended up going on a trip to Jordan with our Israeli former class intern and it was amazing! We took an overnight bus to Eilat, napped on the beach and sunrise, and then got picked up and crossed the border into Jordan. We drove through the city of Aqaba and then spent a few hours in Petra. To get to the actual city ruins, you walk through this gorgeous canyon for a couple of miles, and then suddenly you’re through the narrow space and see the beautiful fossilized ancient structures. It was really cool, even though we almost got run over by people riding horses/donkeys/camels through the canyon. That night, we were driven out into the middle of nowhere in the desert and slept in a Bedouin tent with only a few other people at the camp with us. It was really one of the most spectacular nights of my life. It was not lost on us that the night we slept in the desert was the Shabbat of Sukkot, so we were really emulating our ancestors by sleeping out in the middle of nature in a temporary structure. We could see nothing but the desert and the stars, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t even get a semi-decent photo of the night because nothing can really capture it. The next day, a Bedouin took the three of us and our German friend we’d met in Petra on a private jeep tour through the desert. We climbed up to a narrow rock bridge, went into a canyon, met some Bedouins in their makeshift store in a tent and hiked up a mountain to a natural spring. I really pushed myself physically and emotionally on the trip, and I’m so glad it all worked out the way it did.

-Sukkot is so fun in Israel! Everywhere you go you can see the little huts. Most restaurants have them in front so people can fulfill the mitzvah of eating in there. It’s really fascinating to be in a country that completely revolves around the Jewish holidays, it’s a great time of year here.

-Over Simchat Torah, I read Parashat Beresheet (the very beginning of the Torah and my Bat Mitzvah portion) three times in four days! We went to Kibbutz Gezer, a Progressive establishment between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for Erev Simchat Torah and they needed someone to read there..since I had already learned it to chant it for the congregation here, I volunteered! The next morning I chanted all seven days of creation at Kehilat Har El, Israel’s first Reform congregation for Simchat Torah morning, and then that Saturday I did it all again at Har El for Shabbat! I got most of it on video, and it’s here:

-We are now in full swing for Fall Semester. I’m not leading my first service until December (Rabbinic Students only do two this year), but my D’var Torah (sermon) is in a few weeks so I’ve been working on that which is exciting! I’ll post it here once it’s finished.

-I am now wearing a kippah most of the time. I never grew up wearing one (my Rabbi doesn’t at all) and it never really had any appeal for me. For the first few months here, I wore one during services. We pray so much that it really helped set that special time apart from all the studying and other time spent in that same room with the same people. Lately, I’ve been wearing it more and more. I find meaning in and enjoy it; it serves as a physical reminder of why I am here, helping to keep me grounded. When I wear it, I think of the saying, “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me.” I know when I get back to the states, people will see me wearing it, and maybe even ask me about it. I want it to help me serve as a positive and open-minded representation of Judaism.

-My friends and I found the best schwarma place ever. It is amazing. I’d been doing well with not eating that stuff a lot but now I think that things are going to change!

-It is awesome reading the actual words of the Bible, translating the prayers I’ve been saying my entire life, learning the nitty-gritty of biblical grammer, and getting better and better with my Hebrew. Every time we get together in chevruta, translating gets a tiny bit easier. The more we fall into the groove of it, the more fun it becomes! We just read the beginning of the Joseph story for Bible class, and we’ve done things like Jacob and Esau and Saul finding David and choosing him to be King. When I look at prayers, I can get a very specific idea of what they mean, even if I can’t yet translate them word for word yet. I’m really looking forward to more years ahead of doing this! It is also great seeing my classmates on the bimah leading services. Each of them has definitely brought his or her own uniqueness to prayer.

I’m sure there is more to say that I’m forgetting, but I think this is enough of an update for now! I am going to the states for a few days on Wednesday night to celebrate my Grandpa’s 90th birthday (with a quick stop in NY to see my mom) and I’ll be back in Israel on Monday afternoon, so that should be awesome and crazy. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, and I promise I’ll update before another 6 weeks pass by!