Moving Forward

Like everyone else, I was shocked and horrified this morning to hear of the murders of some newspaper staff by terrorists. The event was outrageous and terrifying, and one of many, many recent signs that this world is not so modern and sophisticated as we would like to think we are.

The shooters believed strongly in their ideas, so strongly that they thought others processing their own ideas through their own art deserved to die, because that art happened to contain thoughts that showed the shooters’ beliefs in a different light.

This should not have happened. People in a civilized society do not go on rampages against writers and artists who use their basic right of freedom of speech to comment on whatever they see as deserving of a comment. We are individuals, we are allowed, and should be encouraged, to process, to express ourselves, to create. This is what makes us human. We make sense of the world however we can. Doing this should not cause us to fear shooters bursting in to our place of work and killing us.

But, I have to say this: one way of that making sense of the world, that processing, expressing ourselves and creating that is so vital to our humanity is religion. And I am deeply saddened that one of the results of this and other recent tragedies is a backlash against religion in general. You hate that religious extremism caused these and so many other senseless deaths. So do I, believe me. I’ll be the first to admit how much destruction religion has caused throughout history. But when people say that all religion is as awful as what happened this morning, they are thinking in a similar vein as those extremists, who maintain that everyone who does not believe the way that they do is wrong.

We need to practice the open-mindedness that we wish existed everywhere. Muslims didn’t cause the events of this morning, ignorant, intolerant, awful people did. And sadly, those kinds of people will never go away. That’s also part of being human. We will never be able to fix these terrible issues, or solve all of the world’s problems, but in this big, beautiful world, so full of potential, we can strive to be the best versions of ourselves and not let tragic events transform us into the ones who hate. We can’t bring those people back by placing blame, so let’s honor their memories by appreciating our own abilities to process, express ourselves and create, and those of everyone else, however they wish to do so.

Till We Reach That Day

Below is a sermon about this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, that I wrote as part of my final for Professional Development class. 


An article in the Jewish Daily Forward on Friday, December 05, 2014 tells of four Rabbis being arrested for marching peacefully and saying Mourner’s Kaddish. They were attending a rally organized by a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, protesting the fact that, a few days earlier, a police officer who was caught on camera choking a man to death was not indicted. These Rabbis did nothing wrong, in fact, they were doing their duty as Jews to step up and speak out for those who do not have a voice, or, in this case, someone whose voice was strangled out of him in a moment of extreme helplessness. The Rabbis were striving for justice, but justice escaped them.

We see something similar happen in this week’s parashah, Vayeshev. Potiphar’s wife continually tries to get Joseph to lie with her, and he does the right thing and refuses. On a day when no one else is inside, she coaxes him again, and he still does not give in, but “ya’azov beegdo b’yadah va’yanos va’yetzei hachutzah” he left his coat in her hand and got away and fled outside. Yet when Potiphar returns home, his wife accuses Joseph of lying with her, “va’yikach Adonay Yosef otoh va’yitnehu el beit ha sohar”, and Joseph’s master had him put in prison. Joseph flees from a potential sin, but justice escapes him too.

Justice seems to be an elusive thing in our country these days. There have been a rash of legal proceedings that have ended controversially, and social media shows that many are frustrated, disillusioned with and disheartened by our supposed justice system. It is almost 2015, yet legal decisions are happening based on skin color, not content of character. In the musical Ragtime, based on the EL Doctorow novel about the turn of the 20th century, a group of firefighters trash Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s brand new car because he is black, and then no one wants to advocate on his behalf, because he is black. In a moment of desperation, his fiancée Sarah, who is also black, goes to plead with the Vice President, and as she is screaming and crying for help, policemen see her as a threat and shoot her. Sound familiar? Her friends and family mourn her with these words: “There’s a day of peace, a day of pride, a day of justice we have been denied…it will happen again…why does nobody care? We have voices and souls. What is wrong with this country?” Acting on pure emotion, Coalhouse becomes aggressive, goes on a killing spree and ultimately gets killed himself because of his violent actions.

In this week’s parashah, Joseph reacts to his injustice in the opposite extreme, and does not violently protest his fate. After Joseph gets thrown in jail, the Torah tells us that he did well, because God was with him. God shows kindness to Joseph and inclines others to behave favorably towards him. But Michael Brown and Eric Garner did not have a God watching over their every move, and their lives ended tragically too soon. In a modern world in which we shape our own fates, how can we raise our voices to combat injustice? Can our country heal from its internal wounds and move forward progressively, so that we disprove the lyrics of the song, and these things won’t happen again?

In his Dvar Torah on this parashah, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner quotes the Sefat Emet, which he says is one of the greatest texts about Jewish spirituality ever composed. The Sefat Emet comments that the language used in the Torah throughout Joseph’s ordeal does not change. The Torah continues to use the word “vay’hi”, meaning “and he was” to describe Joseph’s state, and we should take this as a symbol of Joseph’s inner strength. Rabbi Kushner quotes the Sefat Emet as saying, “Joseph did not change who he was in any of the many and radically different places in which he wound up. No matter where his astonishing journey took him, Joseph remained the same Joseph.”

Our first step in pursuing justice is not to change ourselves in reaction to the injustice around us. While we might want to act on our passions, letting raw anger overwhelm our emotions, such as Coalhouse did in the story, we need to act like Joseph and maintain our own inner strength. Many protestors in Ferguson became violent mobs when the officer was not indicted, and their reckless actions caused permanent damage to innocent people who happened to have their cars parked nearby, or owned stores on surrounding streets. Those people did nothing wrong, and there was no reason to spread the injustice to them. We do not want to become perpetrators of violence just because there is violence around us.

In an article for Ten Minutes of Torah, Rabbi Jacob Segal writes that our Torah “comes to teach us a lesson about responding to violence in the world without compromising our own humanity…Jewish tradition imposes limits on our use of force…it invites us to consider how to fight evil without becoming evil.” In this way, we play a key role. We need to respond to the injustice we see in the world with dignity, not evil, otherwise we will never be able to break out of that cycle of anger and hostility and move forward.

At the same time, we cannot just sit back. We need to remember that as Jews and as American citizens, we have voices and souls, and unlike Sarah’s friends in Ragtime, we are not helpless. We can use our voices and souls to make a difference, seeing the actions of the Rabbis who were unfairly arrested as an example. The Huffington Post writes that, after being held at the police station overnight, Rabbi Jill Jacobs commented that the protest was crucial to her as “a religious act” to highlight the “dignity of every single human being…Rabbis and all Jews need to stand up and say that every single person is a creation in the divine image — that black lives matter,” Jacobs said. “We put our bodies on the line to show how crucial it is that the systems meant to protect us do protect all of us.”

We may not be directly involved in the injustice occurring in our country, but it is happening all around us, and we have the ability to be allies. It is important to read the news and be informed, and also for us to use our voices when we can, as a reminder that we are all human beings, and we all deserve respect. Each one of us- black or white, gay, straight, Jewish, Christian, Muslim- was made in the image of God, and as American citizens, each one of us has unalienable rights. When those rights are not honored, and when people are not respected based on who they are, it impacts all of us.

On one of the occasions in which Potiphar’s wife is trying to get Joseph to lie with her, there is a special trope mark, a shalshelet, above the word “va’ymaen”, “he refused.” This mark only appears a total of four times in the entire Torah, so each time it is present is significant. As our country continues to struggle with what justice means and how to execute it, this shalshelet seems to be to be a call to action. Just like Joseph, we have the power to refuse sin, even when we are in the most vulnerable positions. Just like Joseph, we can refuse to compromise our actions even throughout changing circumstances. Just like Joseph, we have the inner strength to maintain our identities, and act on our good impulses, refusing to give in to the evil in our world and refusing to let it overwhelm our humanity.

In painful circumstances, it is easy to be like Coalhouse and let our emotions get the best of us, compelling us to kill and to destroy. But if we are going to contribute to a better future, to that day of peace, pride and justice that, so far, we have been denied, we need to refuse to yield to those impulses to fight back violently. We need to act with the dignity we expect from our government and from our legal system, honoring the sparks of the divine within our own selves as much as the ones within others. We need to remain “vay’hi”, strong and steadfast, throughout changing circumstances, and be inspired by those Rabbis who peacefully prayed for the victims of injustice. We need to refuse to move backward.

Sarah’s friends’ song of grief for her unjust death ends with these words: “Let the new day dawn, oh Lord, I pray. We’ll never get to heaven till we reach that day.” May we be inspired by these words, and the actions of our role models, from our ancestor Joseph to the four Rabbis arrested last week. May we refuse to let injustice win by remembering the sparks of God in each of us. May we work towards that new day with dignity, peace and pride. Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may these words be worthy of coming true.

So Many Questions: The End of the Beginning Part Two

I was resisting writing a “final” (because while my physical time in Israel is over, the journey is still going on) entry about my first year of graduate school, but this past week I had the opportunity to speak at Shabbat services at my Temple, which gave me the motivation to write something about my year.  The words I gave are below:


Imagine a place where the street signs are in the same language as your prayer book.  Where the words you hear on the street sound like what your people have been reciting for thousands of years.

Imagine a place where the busses wish you happy holidays on Purim, where you can eat everything in restaurants on Passover and where the streets are so empty on Yom Kippur that you can lie down in them.

Imagine a place where people don’t consider you a Jew. Where people make nasty comments to you for practicing your religion the way you want to.

Imagine a place that evicts certain people from their homes and redraws borders. Where everyone eats challah on Friday nights around the table together. Where Orthodox men and sometimes women thrive, where the hummus is so good that you can never eat it anywhere else again.

Well, you may have guessed by now that all of these places are the same: Israel, where I studied for the past year, my first year of Rabbinical School at HUC. I think the Israel year is essential for future American Jewish leaders; it helped me to gain some firsthand insight into the multifaceted, controversial country that is so important to our people. 

I was so fortunate to study there during a time of relative peace, in which we did not have any threats of rockets and the army reserves weren’t being called up en masse. I know that this newest surge of violence is on everyone’s mind, but tonight I would like to focus on my experiences over the course of my time there.

This week’s Torah portion is “Mattot”, tribes. Living in Israel really prompted me to ponder this idea. On one hand, I felt closer to the tribe of the Jewish people since everyone and everything around me was Jewish. It was a miraculous feeling to be the majority in Israel, to live in a place that runs by the Jewish calendar, and especially to not have to listen to Christmas carols for six weeks in the winter.

On the other hand, the tribes within contemporary Judaism are very clearly delineated, and I didn’t necessarily fit in. In Israel, you are either “secular”, which means that you don’t really observe Judaism on a day-to-day basis, yet still have Shabbat every week with your family, or you are “religious”, which means that you are Orthodox. Our tribe, Reform, does not really have a place in modern Israel, a disturbing fact that prompted most of us HUC students to feel alienated from our homeland. The struggle to open Israelis eyes to Progressive Judaism, in which people can be authentically Jewish without being Orthodox is a slow, uphill battle within Israeli society, but it is continuing to make small strides.

Throughout the year there was much discussion about Israel’s Judaism. Did we, as future Reform Jewish professionals, truly belong to Israel’s tribe? Will Progressive Jews ever fully be a part of Israeli society? Is that all irrelevant, because we are lucky to have a Jewish state at all?

My questioning of my tribe began even earlier in the year, when I went on a trip to Bethlehem, sponsored by J Street, a non-profit that works towards a two-state solution. I heard firsthand from multiple Palestinians about Israel’s unfair actions towards them, how Israel did such things as put them through daily humiliation at the border when they tried to get to work, or re-zoned their village so that their home did not belong.

This happens this week in the Torah, too, when God instructs Moses to lead an attack against Midian. Why would members of our tribe, whose inhabitants know plenty of suffering, put other tribes through such terrible ordeals? How do we justify our actions when there is not an audible voice of God telling our leaders what to do? 

Throughout my learning, I explored these difficult questions and many others with classmates and teachers.  We were told to absorb as much of Israel as possible, but many of us came away with uncertainty about our relationship with it. As American Reform Jewish leaders, what is our place in the tribe of Israel? Can we ever feel truly accepted there? And how do we internalize what we learned and bring it back to share with other American Jews without presenting a biased perspective?

In one section of this week’s parashah, the descendants of Reuben and Gad actively choose not to enter the land of Israel. Moses asks them, “Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here? Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which the Lord has given them?” This section hits home for us Diaspora Jews, especially now. Israel is incredibly important to our tribe, but how do we, a segment of the tribe that has chosen not to enter the Holy Land, fit in?

I don’t have any answers to all of my questions, but I am grateful for my time in Israel, which gave me the knowledge to ask them. For now, I say to pay attention. Read about Israel, visit if you can, and be conscious of what is happening there. That controversial section of desert in the Middle East seems far away at times, but we have a strong connection to it. Where else in the entire world can you imagine busses saying Chag Sameach at holiday time?

When I think of Israel, I imagine an incredibly important place for my tribe. I imagine a place I love, even when I disagree with its actions, a place I have a gut instinct to protect and defend. The actions of my tribe are not perfect, and I have chosen not to permanently enter the Holy Land. But, I hope to remain connected with it, and continue to explore the way our smaller tribe fits into the whole, as I pray for peace for all tribes, each imperfect in its own way. Shabbat Shalom.

Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek: The End of the Beginning, Part One (HUC)

Yesterday morning, we prayed together for the last time as a class. Since we had services built into our schedule 3-4 times a week, it was a really odd sensation to think about saying these words with this group of people for the last time. Yesterday was also very special because it was just us- no staff members, no guests, which has never happened before. Our classmates who lead services did a beautiful job of using the end of the different books of the Torah as a theme to tie the service together. It was incredibly poignant that we finished a book of the Torah in its yearly cycle, and together chanted the words, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek”, “be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened”. 

The beautiful thing about the Torah is that it never ends. We read through it each year, constantly use its text as inspiration, and even have volumes of text provided by the Rabbis that analyze its every word. While this is the end of one very significant chapter for me, and for all of us, it is part of a grand journey, and I know that the knowledge I gained this year will resurface over and over, along with the memories of this country and of the incredible community I was privileged to be a part of.

While I am very excited to go back to New York, my family, my friends, and the comfort of what I’ve known for my whole life, I know that something will be lacking. Being part of a tight-knit community of 40 people who see each other every day, pray together, study together, have programming and free time together was certainly challenging and frustrating and sure there were times when I wanted to get out of the “bubble”. But it was also incredibly powerful to share this bond with my classmates and colleagues: all of us were brought out of our familiar environments to spend this year together, with our shared passions for Judaism and drive to contribute to the Reform Movement. I remember the first time I sat around a Shabbat dinner table with everyone; I was in complete awe because everyone wanted to celebrate Shabbat and we were all reciting the blessings together and singing songs I had grown up with in Religious School. I never went to Jewish camp or did Hillel, so this was really the first time that I was surrounded by a large group of peers who wanted to be Jewish through their own volition, belting out Debbie Friedman songs with huge smiles on their faces. I was, and still am, so happy to be a part of it.

I thought I knew a lot about Judaism before this year, but my mind has been opened to many more parts and layers that enhance my previous knowledge, and I know that this growth will absolutely continue throughout the next four years and beyond. I was so glad to develop my Modern Hebrew, delve into Biblical Grammar, be able to read and analyze the stories of the Bible, and explore the wacky Aramaic-infused Hebrew of Rabbinic Texts. I studied Zionist and Second Temple History in the places they occurred, and examined contemporary Jewry outside of the US and Israel. I learned so much about prayer and worship through Liturgy class and also through doing afternoon and weekday morning services regularly for the first time (sometimes I even forgot the Shabbat morning melodies, even though they were the ones I grew up with!) I heard words of Torah each week from my classmates, and was inspired by their words and actions. I memorized Torah and Haftarah tropes, so that now I can chant any passage. I spent one day a week putting Israel under a microscope, pulling apart its many facets and trying to understand them. This year feels like it’s been happening forever, but at the same time I can’t believe I’m getting on an airplane home tonight.

Last night, we had a closing ceremony, followed by Havdallah. It’s so appropriate that Havdallah was the last thing we did together as a community. Not only is it my favorite Jewish ritual (I think), but it marks separation. Usually, that separation is from Shabbat to the rest of the week, from the holy to everything else. When we first got here, we had a beautiful Havdallah ceremony that marked the transition from Orientation to classes, which was a very nice parallel to last night as we marked the transition from this very special and defining year to the rest of our studies as separate communities in the US, and indeed, to the rest of our lives. To me, that’s all holy.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.

Israeli High Holidays

It’s hard to believe that I will be back in NY in less than two weeks! But what better way to procrastinate from finals than by writing a blog post?

Over the past ten days or so, it has been a very interesting time in Israel, due to the observance of what people call the “Israeli High Holidays”. Just the name itself is thought-provoking; do these days have as much significance to our people as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? If you think about it, religion does evolve over time and respond to different events that occur in the lives of its people, but it is definitely interesting to think about, especially the lines between religion and civil religion in a religious state. This period also comes between Passover and Shavuot, during the counting of the Omer, another interesting choice- do new observances take away from or enhance the older ones?

The period starts with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was incredibly powerful to be here on that day, especially having just returned from Eastern Europe. There was an air of solemnity and solidarity everywhere. Our class got tickets to the National Ceremony at Yad VaShem, and it was really meaningful to be there; government officials spoke, there was music, and six survivors told their stories and lit torches. Its sad to think about how soon there will not be any survivors left to do that. At the end of the ceremony, thousands of people stood and sung HaTikvah, which was incredible. I found as the days went on that each ceremony during these holidays that I attended ended with HaTikvah.

The next day, we had services at school, followed by a memorial ceremony. Having our regular morning services on that day brought up an interesting question- how can we thank and praise God as we do in our usual prayers when we are spending time remembering the events of the Holocaust? It was a weird experience; my friends Dan and Tamara lead services that morning and really did a nice job of balancing everything and making it meaningful, which I’m sure was not easy. There was even an Israeli flag with a black ribbon on it hanging at the front of the sanctuary to remind us. The memorial ceremony was held in our courtyard, which was decorated with Israeli flags (much of the country has flags flying all over it during this period). It was a combination of songs and readings having to do with the Holocaust (I sang a song in Yiddish that was written at a mass murder site we visited in Lithuania) and people read names of those they were related to or knew killed in the Holocaust. 

A week later was Yom HaZikaron, a remembrance day for all of the people in the Israeli army who fell serving their country, and also for victims of terrorist attacks. While Yom HaShoah was very universally Jewish, and the grief encompassed everyone, Yom HaZikaron is very uniquely Israeli. Sadly, pretty much everyone in this country knows someone or is related to someone who died in battle. It was fascinating to be a spectator to this day. It was also very mournful, but I could not relate to it in the same way as I related to Yom HaShoah. The night the holiday started, some friends and I attended a ceremony put on by Israeli scouts. It consisted of songs, readings, and the listing aloud of names of people killed, and in which battle they died. There were also some torches lit (as Jade pointed out, scouts love fire). The next day, our class again had morning services and then we attended a ceremony at a local high school. Before the ceremony, we visited the Memorial Room of the school, which contained photos and information about each person killed in the army or by terrorists who attended or worked at the school. It was really great to be able to have this insight into Jewish culture, especially a part of it that is so different from anything I’ve seen before. My friend Ben pointed out after we visited the room that in America we don’t have anything like this at our schools; maybe we’d have a tree planted in the yard or a plaque up dedicated to someone who died in an accident, but this kind of thing is so foreign to us. The ceremony was very similar to the one the night before, with reading of names and poems, and some singing.

That night, the country made the incredible transition from mourning to celebration; as the sun set and Yom HaZikaron ended, Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, began. Some of us watched the National Ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, on our classmates’ TV. It started off mournfully, and then transition to pure joy and celebration with dancing, cheering, marching bands and the lighting of twelve torches to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The ceremony again ended with HaTikvah, and as we heard loud noises outside we ran to the balcony and were able to see the fireworks from Mount Herzl! Afterwards, we went to the streets to party. I have never seen Jerusalem, or even New York really, anywhere near like that. The streets were full of people dressed in blue and white, draped in Israeli flags or with blue and white inflatable hammers and axes (no joke), children spraying silly string at each other and sometimes passers-by, live bands on every street, and everyone ecstatically celebrating Israel. It was absolutely incredible. We walked around for a bit and then were able to be right underneath fireworks displayed over our local park, which was amazing. Our director of Student Services told us that you’re not Israeli unless you have a barbeque on Independance Day, so the next day in between studying for finals some classmates brought some grills up to their roof and we had another party. It was really fantastic to have this be one of our last occasions in Israel; we discussed how we were able to appreciate it more because of all the things we’ve learned and seen here this year. I was so glad to be able to observe and be a part of the Israeli High Holidays, especially now as we are studying for finals and starting to pack up suitcases and boxes. It was a nice reminder of how unique this place is, and how special it is to our people.


Belarus, April 13-18, 2014

When 7 of my classmates and I stepped off the plane in the Minsk airport after a mere 40 minute flight from Vilnius, it felt like we had stepped into a time warp (maybe that was surprisingly fitting as the last season of Mad Men premiered that night). It was pretty much exactly what you’d expect: old, and Soviet. We had already gotten our mandatory visas which we needed to enter the country, and in the airport purchased compulsory health insurance, and received papers that we needed to carry around with us, which were stamped by each of the hotels we visited so our location could be tracked at all times.

The city of Minsk itself, though, was pretty modern. Prices were relatively expensive, people had impeccable taste in clothing, and there were efficient bus and Metro systems. There was again a juxtaposition: we were in the last remaining Soviet country, where certain freedoms are still limited, yet it seemed as though the city could have fit right in anywhere in Europe.

Our first outing was a Jewish tour of Minsk with the Rabbi of the Belarus Union of Progressive Judaism. Though he is based in Minsk, we were informed that he serves all of the Progressive Jewish communities in the country, many of which have only known him as Rabbi, and the only other professional Jewish leaders they’ve experienced have been HUC students like us. We saw a powerful Holocaust memorial in the middle of the city, which kind of ironically served as a meeting place for Jewish singles when they came to stand around for protests or speeches. That evening, we attended an “afta-Purim” party sponsored by the Israeli government, complete with propaganda videos proclaiming Israel’s beauty, Belorussian teens in their costume finest, and a battle of the bands which even included some Jewish tunes played with electric guitars.

The next day, after being briefed on our itineraries and having some time to plan for Seders, we attended a seder in the Center for Progressive Judaism geared towards a community called “Sheket (Quiet)”, composed of deaf and hard of hearing people. The Seder ended up being a combination of Russian, English, Hebrew and sign language, which was fascinating. The Rabbi lead most of it, but each of us had a little bit to do. Afterwards, a professional musician who spoke English came up to us and made conversation, which resulted in an impromptu Hebrew song session with a few of the other attendees. I experienced my first sensation that, difficult as it is to communicate with people of another generation who speak a completely different language, Hebrew was a common factor, and we could all sing the same songs, even though we came from different places and times.

The next day, we split into smaller groups to break off and travel to various communities for more Seders. I was with my classmates Julie and Sam. We rode a van, similar to an Israeli sheirut, to Lida, a little over two hours away. We managed to find a place for lunch with something we could eat, and then were treated to a “tour” of Lida by a member of the Jewish community, which consisted of her showing us pictures of former Jewish institutions in our hotel room, and then walking around the streets of town for about 15 minutes before she departed us because she was close to home. Lida is a small and quiet town, where, our interpreter informed us, everything closes around 5pm. We then headed to the Cultural Center, where the Jewish community is based, because they do not have their own building. We attended a concert by a state-funded Klezmer band, which consisted of the Chair of the Jewish community incredibly playing violin, another person playing clarinet, a singer and a recorded track to supplement them. After about an hour and a half of speeches and alternating Yiddish, Hebrew and instrumental songs, we moved to the Seder. There were about 40-50 people there, of all ages. Although the Rabbi from Belarus was attending the seder, it was mainly up to Julie, Sam and I to lead it. Figuring out what to do at Seders was challenging for a number of reasons: the most basic was that they were in a different language. We used a Russian-Hebrew haggadah, and everything we said had to be translated for the group by our incredible interpreter. There were also three of us coming from different backgrounds and traditions, so we had to figure out a way to combine all of our knowledge into a cohesive Seder. Also, we did not know too much about the communities, and had to judge both beforehand and in the spur of the moment how to reach everyone, including kids, senior citizens, people who had never been to a Seder before and people who know everything backwards and forwards. We had to make the Seder familiar and engaging, continuing the consistent traditions they were used to while also hopefully teaching them some new things.

It was really difficult not to be able to communicate with the guests at the Seder, especially in Lida where pretty much no one spoke English. We had to communicate through food, which they kept passing to me and gesturing for me to put on my plate. There was chicken and potatoes, matzah sandwiches with chicken and turkey, mushrooms, chopped liver, vegetables and layered matzah dessert cake, which seems to be a thing in Belarus. The kids at the Seder were adorable and sung the Four Questions and Dayenu in a little chorus. It was really a beautiful and inspirational thing to see these tiny communities gathering together and renewing themselves through the holiday, especially after touring through devastating, empty Jewish sites for the past week.

After the Seder, we found the one thing that was open in town: a bowling alley! Julie and our interpreter and I decided to play a couple of games. Our interpreter, Anna, came with us everywhere we went, since basically no one speaks English. She was so nice and knowledgeable, and it was a pleasure traveling with her.

The next day, we headed to Baranovichy on a commuter train. Baranovichy was a little more modern and felt bigger than Lida. We again found a place to eat lunch and then were given a tour by a member of the Jewish community; this time the four of us were crammed into the back of a car where the space was meant for three people. Luckily, we had many chances to get out and walk. We saw the Holocaust memorial, which included some plaques and a tall bell that rings when its windy. We also saw a Soviet war memorial and the prison, a Jewish graveyard, and where the former Jewish ghetto used to be. The Seder that night was a little smaller than the previous nights, and was held in their homy Jewish center. There were three distinct tables; some older people, some people about our age, and of course, a kids’ table. We again had the challenge of engaging everyone, and this community was incredibly knowledgeable. Many of them, especially the younger ones, spoke English, so we got to talk with them a little bit after the Seder. It was again so awesome to see this tiny community come together for the holiday, and share their passion for Judaism with us.

The next day, we headed back to Minsk. We had lunch with the Jewish educator of the Union, and then she took us to a kindergarten. We visited the two Jewish classes, and got to participate in their art (we made happy matzahs with construction paper) and music lessons (we danced in a circle to Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian songs). The Educator explained to us that the school runs from 7am-7pm, so kids practically live there; they have all their meals there, take naps, and do all their schooling. The teachers switch off and each work 6 hour shifts. I was awed both by the way the school functions and also by the abundant presence of Judaism. There were Passover decorations all around, Jewish books on the shelves, and ritual items scattered throughout the rooms. The kids enthusiastically discussed the story of Passover with their teacher and seemed to be really engaged with it. It was incredible.

After that, we walked around Minsk a lot with Anna and went shopping. Then Julie and I got a couple of hours of sleep and were off to the airport! As we attempted to check into our flight, which had a layover in Moscow, at 4:30am, we were told that because we did not have Russian visas, we could not take our flight. After a few moments of confusion and panic, we managed to both cancel our flights and get refund papers for the travel agent, and find the one out of three airlines in the building that could get us back to Tel Aviv that day. We had a very nice experience on Lufthansa, got to have Starbucks in the Frankfurt Airport, and landed back in Israel only two hours after we were originally scheduled to! Always an adventure.

This was an incredible and powerful experience, and I am really glad to have gone. It was interesting to spend a holiday of freedom in a Soviet country where freedoms we take for granted are limited. It felt like I was putting myself back in a narrow place, going somewhere where it was much more difficult to observe Passover than America or Israel (we ate a lot of potatoes) and somewhere where I was completely helpless to do anything by myself since I did not know the language. This trip widened my perspective about Jewish people, showing me how even in the middle of nowhere, Belarus, there are still people singing Dayenu and telling our peoples stories. I feel lucky that I got to share my Judaism with them and that they shared theirs with me.

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 of the trip (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 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 bodies 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.