Shabbos Blessing- Week 36

This post is late again. I ended up traveling up until nearly the moment shabbat began, and yesterday I was thinking too hard to actually write. Here’s why:

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Friday began for me in downtown Bethlehem. It was my second time there, almost exactly 6 months after my first time visiting in December. Much of this trip was the same as my first. I was traveling with the same organization. I visited some of the same sites. I ate some of the same foods.

Yet, it had been 6 months. Not everything had remained constant.

Prickly thistles that were hidden beneath the earth in December were blooming. IMG_1972.jpg

Surrounding the Arab village of Kefar Zecharia, the fields were green instead of grey with cold. IMG_1985.jpg

Along a part of Bethlehem’s border, where 6 months ago had been just a road, was a shiny grey fence– one more piece of the ever-expanding Israeli security barrier. IMG_1974.jpg

My role in this visit was also different, as I shifted from being a participant to being a peer facilitator, preparing and guiding other Jewish-American participants through processing conversations as they encountered Palestinian narratives.

I paid the same amount of attention. I asked more questions. I took far fewer pictures (though, it being me, “far fewer” is relative, as this mule will attest).

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In the last 6 months, I also moved from West Jerusalem, where my environment was almost entirely Jewish, to Jaffa, where my environment is far more mixed. I hear the adhan– the Muslim call to prayer– 4 times a day (fortunately for me, the mosque doesn’t broadcast the 4 AM call), and I hear bells from the nearby churches more often. I volunteer in a preschool with Jewish and Palestinian children. I go to beaches frequented by women in hijab, men with peyes, and secular tourists in shorts. Certain elements of my life here remind me of Bethlehem, but Jaffa is certainly not the West Bank.

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In Bethlehem, I met a young Palestinian woman named Emilie. I have met so many Emilys and Emilies in my life, and here in Israel I have met countless Cohens. But I had never met an Israeli or a Palestinian who shared my first name. She was named for her grandmother. When I was a baby, before “Emily” surged in the US, people commented to my parents that “Emily” was a name from their grandmothers’ generation.

In nearly perfect English (“English doesn’t count,” Emilie said, when I complemented her language ability), she spoke about her experiences growing up in Bethlehem and her luck in getting a job “just because I speak French. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a job.”

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Bethlehem was not a city filled with hope 6 months ago, and it was not a city filled with hope on Friday; if anything, as the security barrier grew taller these last months, hope sank deeper beneath the earth.

Our Palestinian speakers spoke their truth, and their truth was vicious and their anger was righteous, and I felt their words carve a line through hope and shatter it to pieces, and I knew that I could not piece it all back together, and in that moment it felt like hope itself was a privilege that I had not merited.

But I also know that I can’t exist without hope. Their truth is vicious and their anger is righteous and the privilege that I merited was to hear it and to hold it and to share it.

This week’s Torah portion was Emor. 17 years ago to the day, in both the English and Hebrew calendars, I read a section of this portion for my Bat Mitzvah. The section I read was what might be called the “kid-freindly” part, in which the calendar of holidays is laid out in detail for the first time in the pentateuch. I read about when to mark Pesach and Rosh Hashanah and about leaving the corners of one’s fields for those in need. I did not read the section of the parsha about how Kohanim (priests) with “blemishes” could not serve in the Tabernacle. I did not read the section about the man born to an Israelite mother and Egyptian father who blasphemed God and was stoned to death as punishment (and trust me– I’ve got a lot more to say about that particular story).

No. When I read at my Bat Mitzvah, I was 12. I was celebrating the rite of becoming a Jewish woman. I chanted beautiful, inclusive words about our holiday practices. I engaged in ahavat yisrael: the love of  the people Israel and the traditions passed down through the generations from the Torah to the year 2000.

But it has been 17 years. I am nearly 30. Yesterday, I sat in my apartment and chanted the entire portion of Emor aloud, from the laws regarding Kohanic marriage to the laying out of the calendar to the stoning of the blasphemer according to God’s command. I let the justice and injustice in the holy words wash over me, and I let myself be angry, and in that anger I found the pieces of hope that had eluded me in Bethlehem.

I reminded myself that ahavat yisrael can be a foundation not for oppression but for grounded love as we work for a better world for all. I reminded myself that the holy words in our texts that ring of injustice today remind of us of our mandate to seek justice always.

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On Friday afternoon, I left Bethlehem. I got on a bus to Jerusalem, and I got into a shared taxi to Tel Aviv, and I walked the streets of this city where I live to Jaffa. I bought pita and vegetables at a corner store run by Palestinian-Israeli neighbors, and I came inside, and I heard the adhan ring out from the minaret, and I lit my own candles for shabbat.

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17 years ago, in the 3rd verse of Torah that I ever read, I chanted the words:

שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ מִקְרָא־קֹ֔דֶשׁ

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. (Leviticus 23:3) 

On this shabbat, I lit the candles, breathing into the weekly sacred occasion, letting myself rest, and that was blessing enough.

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 25

25 weeks. That’s a lot of weeks. While I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as being in the home stretch yet– I’m still less than a month into the semester– I’m definitely feeling the truth of being over half done with my time here.

Despite the large number of overall weeks I’ve been here, it’s only my third shabbat in Jaffa. I haven’t even been to a synagogue for services yet, although I plan to change that in a couple of hours.

I’ve tried to use today as a “reset” of sorts. Between my initial move up here, getting settled, getting sick, and getting better, I haven’t had a lot of time to exist normally. The sorts of fun-but-also-creative-and/or-productive-and/or-useful things I do when I have down time have kinda fallen off while I’ve gotten acclimated to everything. I haven’t even solidified my course schedule for the spring, but I’m at least getting closer to normal. It seemed time to get back to to-do lists.

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(These peacocks have nothing to do with To-Do Lists. But they’re pretty.) 

I like To-Do Lists. Even when I have no official work or homework, I like having a list of stuff that makes certain I don’t spend too many hours mesmerized by “Tasty” videos on Facebook (it’s happened) or sucked into news analysis of everything that’s gone wrong with the world in the last 10 minutes. To-Do Lists make sure that, at least sometimes, I do yoga or practice guitar or bake challah or write. Sometimes, rules can be good.

Sometimes, they can be awful.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24) – “Judgements,” or, more aptly in this case, “Rules.” It’s a moment of significant shift in the Torah. After a book and a half of narrative, telling the story of a family and then the story of a people, we move to straight up legislation. While there are many significant moments ahead for the mixed multitude of Israelites, their narrative takes a back seat from which it recovers only sporadically throughout the rest of the pentateuch (that’s a fancy word for the “Five Books of Moses”).

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When I taught 4th grade Hebrew School, we focused on a different Torah portion during every class. My students ate up Genesis and loved the exodus story. They wanted to hear about the family drama and about the many miracles. They argued over who got to play which part when we acted out sections of the text.

When I taught 4th grade Hebrew school and we reached the middle of Exodus, my job got harder. It’s easy enough to engage children around stories. It’s tougher to engage them around ancient legislation. So, we would play a game called “Guess the Rule.” Groups of kiddos would pick a rule from the parsha out of a hat and create a skit to get their classmates to guess what the rule was. Then, after determining the rule, the class had to decide whether or not the rule was a good one that we should still be following today.

As you might expect (or at least hope), all of the students were behind the idea that we shouldn’t be cruel to strangers because we were strangers once too. They liked the idea that, if you see your enemy’s ox wandering around, you have to bring it back to your enemy. The class did not like the rule that if you insult your parents (yes, Sam, that might just mean yelling at them) , you can be killed. Around other rules, they were split. Should it be “an eye for an eye?” Some said yes, because it was fair. Some said no, because it was mean.

These were 4th graders, and so we didn’t get into a lot of the details– the classism and the sexism, the uncomfortable particularism-or-shall-we-say-in-this-case-xenophobia of the Israelites towards their present and future neighbors–you know, the usual. Still, I was impressed by their ability to look at something thousands of years old and, just like the rabbis who came before them, weigh in. They didn’t throw the parsha out the window. They were willing to think about it. They were willing to try to take ownership of it, good rules and bad rules and all.

This week, like every week since the election really, has been a challenging one. Every time I think Washington has to settle, it continues to grow darker. I’m amazed by the efforts I see from people all across the country and world to make this situation theirs, to combat the hatred and fear and power that seek to make America the ninth plague. And, the United States continues to be dark. Yesterday, I saw a video on Facebook with a 13-year-old boy being physically and verbally threatened by a white man, who eventually pulled and fired a gun. Thank God the boy wasn’t hurt, but the situation is unacceptable. Yesterday, Trump kicked Obama’s federal regulations protecting transgender students back to the States, where undoubtedly children will be made to feel even more unsafe in schools and in malls and in their daily lives because they don’t have a place to use the bathroom. Yesterday, the Standing Rock camp went up in snow-banked flames as the last protestors were removed to make space for the DAPL.

Yesterday, I was prepared to put up the next “blessing” from the list I have from you wonderful folks. But yesterday, one of my facebook friends, a woman I went to college with, posted this incredible letter from Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I read it and let myself cry. I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t know the exact context for this letter. Perhaps I should have researched it before posting, but these words were exactly what I needed to see at a moment when I needed something to buoy me. Perhaps they will also be what you need.

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My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

 Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

 The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

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Shabbat shalom. I look forward to 15 more weeks on this great ship, this ark, with all of you.

 

 

Presidents’ Day

We sat on blankets in a park, the remains of shabbos lunch spread out amongst us. A lonely piece of sweet potato quiche, part of a pot of quinoa, endless containers of hummus and vegetable dips, a crust of challah, half a loaf of chocolate babka, a couple of cookies, the last few sips of a glass bottle of red wine and plastic bottles of tea and juice. We had eaten very well. Most of us had given up on sitting up and had flopped forward on bellies or back on backs to stare at the still-blue sky. We came from four American rabbinical schools. We were of different generations and aimed for different futures. Some of us had known each other for years. Others of us met in recent weeks. All of us carried privilege in our white faces and high education levels. All of us lacked it in being non-male and non-Christian. All of us were afraid.

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A shadowed rose- photographed November 9, 2016

It was the week after the election. Our lunch had been planned as much out of necessity as out of desire. We needed a space to process, to air our concerns, to celebrate whatever we could find to celebrate, and to hear the divrei torah (sermons) of rabbis in the states who would be speaking about the election results that shabbat. Israelis we knew, would have more distance from the election than we did. We needed to be as tucked into our American communities as we possibly could be. We passed around words of comfort, reading a few paragraphs each, some of us fighting tears, others letting them come. We had ideas of what the future might hold, but we couldn’t know.

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“I think we’re going to have to be more forward with our politics,” I told my classmate as we walked to class a few days later. “I feel like a lot of people while they’re in rabbinical school try to keep things quieter. I mean, you have people like Jill Jacobs but a lot of us try not to burn bridges. But with this, I don’t know, I think we’re all just going to have to be more forward.”

If all goes according to plan, I will become a rabbi in June of 2018. It will be 5 months before mid-term elections. I will be spending the year prior looking for work. I will want to appeal to synagogues and campuses and anywhere else that might seem like a good fit. My instinct, one that aligns with what I’ve been told by my teachers and mentors, is to be careful. Don’t post things that could be interpreted as inflammatory. Don’t get too political. Don’t put anything on Facebook or on Twitter that you wouldn’t write on a postcard. Get to know your communities before you push them. Listen and do not speak boldly until you have some notion of how people will respond.

All of that makes sense. It’s advice that I’ve generally tried to follow over the years, getting publicly political only when it’s necessary because what’s happening is so right or so wrong. But right now so much is so wrong, and I am not silent, and I am grateful that so many others are vocal and are taking action alongside me.

It’s February 21st. Inauguration was one month and one day ago. Yesterday was Presidents’ Day, and I finished this:

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I knitted it with yarn that I originally purchased to make hats for my sister’s boyfriend’s niece and nephew. I also ended up making two pairs of baby booties, another baby hat, and a hat for a toddler. I couldn’t help smiling when I thought of little children wearing the same yarn that’s now shouting out this message. They will grow up in a world where they will have to be taught to persist. Luckily, my people know how to persist. We teach our children words like these, diligently, passing them from generation to generation. We won’t stop now.

Until we have a new president, we will persist. Until we have a better justice system, we will persist. Until we all learn to look one another in the eye and see the image of God, we will persist. Each of us is a loop that matters for our collective future, and without a single one of us the resistance would be incomplete. We persisted. We persist. We will persist.

Sunset in Jaffa

In Jerusalem, I felt like I lived with Jews.

Sure, there were Palestinians around. I would see them walking and driving occasionally in my neighborhood and often when I went into the Old City. I came to know a few in my ulpan, which is known to be among the most diverse offered in Jerusalem. But they were not everywhere. They were not a majority. Most women I saw wearing head coverings were Orthodox Jews. Most men I saw wearing long, robe-like garments were Orthodox Jews. It got to the point, over the course of the semester, where I often stopped noticing who had on a kippah and who was wearing tzitzit, because both were so commonplace. I expected to hear Hebrew rather than Arabic almost everywhere I went. I expected to hear the siren announcing Shabbat every Friday night. The neighborhoods in Jerusalem where I might have developed different expectations were largely barred to me. img_9182

In Jaffa, I feel like I live with Palestinians– some Christian, others Muslim. There are Jews here too, of course, but in my neighborhood I haven’t seen many. Jaffa has always been a little more mixed than some other areas, and it has gotten more-so recently as hipster Jews have moved into town. (Case in point: my marvelous apartment here came with a record player and a nice collection of albums.) Some Palestinians are upset about that (the Jewish influx, not the record players), while others view it as a potential for positive relationship building between two often-fraught communities. I have mixed feelings about living here. On one hand, I’m glad to be in a more diverse (and beautiful) environment. On the other hand, I feel a little bit like a gentrifying yuppie.

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Three days ago, I got out of the cab and, with the help of a new neighbor, lugged my suitcases up the three-and-a-half floors to my new apartment. I started to unpack, and then, suddenly, heard two people begin chanting over loudspeakers.

I recognized the chant at once. It was the adhan- the Muslim Call to Prayer– emanating from the minaret straight ahead off of my balcony and from others nearby. “God is Greatest,” the muezzin sang. Allahhu akbar.

In the second blessing of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish daily services, we speak of Ha’El Ha’Gadol (האל הגדול)- God who is Great (and mighty and awesome etc…).

“I acknowledge that there is no God but Allah,” the muezzin sang. Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh.

In the sh’ma, the closest thing we as Jews have to a credo, we acknowledge that Adonai- God- is our God, and Adonai is one.

Not every line of the adhan tracks onto Jewish prayer and practice, and nor should it. But it is beautiful and it is a reminder, I think not only to the Muslim community, but to all of us who are nearby, to be present to something beyond ourselves. I am so sorry, that to some people, this beautiful sound evokes fear and distrust.

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Yesterday, as shabbat came to an end, I walked along the small streets from my home to the sea, perhaps 10 minutes away. I passed by Palestinian children– screaming, laughing, arguing, cooperating children– kicking a soccer ball in the alleyway right outside my apartment. I passed by hijab-wearing women having picnics and pushing their little ones on swings in the park next to the water. I passed by Palestinian couples holding hands as they walked. I passed by Palestinian elders sitting on benches and looking out as the sun descended into the luscious, vibrant waves. I passed by Palestinian fishermen trying to catch a last bite before darkness settled over the shore.

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I can’t help wondering how the newly-inaugurated American President would react to being in the neighborhood where I live. Could he see the beauty here, the normalcy, or would he only see fear and the potential for violence? I don’t pretend that there are no Palestinians who wish Israeli Jews, and perhaps Americans, harm. But they are not a majority.

In the US, the president is able to look at our Christian community and ignore the percentage that would act to harm others. He won’t do the same for our Muslim community. Thank God for lawyers and judges and for the tenacity of protesters.

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I walked along last night, watching Palestinians in restaurants, Palestinians complaining as they climbed long flights of stairs from the sea to the park above, Palestinians stopping at crosswalks so that Palestinians and Jews and anybody else could continue safely. And I heard the call once again as I looked out over the sea. And I thought, I wish I could share this peaceful moment with everyone who is afraid of Islam. I wish I could make the centering, settling nature of the adhan into a balm to rub onto their hearts. But, for now, I am glad to be able to keep listening.

(*Travel post/fuller moving to Jaffa post coming soon. But this was on my heart and I have 700+ pictures to sort through, so for now, there’s this.)

Shabbos Blessing- Week 20

I am halfway to 40. I am halfway to 40 and the primordial waters are swirling around us. I am halfway to 40 and today, of all days, I am no longer certain that the ark can float. I am halfway to 40 and I have no home in Jerusalem anymore and I have no home in Jaffa yet and I worry about everyone who has a home in the United States and about everyone whose home is impacted by the United States and that means that I worry about everyone. It is the stroke of midnight on the 20th week and it is January 20th and this week my blessing isn’t for me. It goes out to him.

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Dear President Obama,

I, like many Americans, first met you in the summer of 2004 on CSPAN. I was about to begin my senior year of high school. It was August. My parents, staunch democrats, were watching coverage of the DNC Convention, and I remember my Mom calling me downstairs to the TV. She sounded so excited. “You have to hear this guy,” she said.

I went downstairs, looked at the TV, and saw you. Barack Obama. State senator from Illinois. Talking about America.

“He’s gonna be president one day,” I thought. I was thinking of 2016, 2020 maybe. You were still just starting out, really. You weren’t known.

November 2004 came along, and on the day of the election I went to school wearing a tie-dye shirt plastered with “Kerry/Edwards” and “Anybody But Bush” stickers. It was so hard to be 17. I understood, at least as much as my 18-year-old classmates, the ramifications of the day. I wanted to take part, but I was 7 months and 18 days short of that magic number.

You know what happened next. The last four Bush years were rough for America. They weren’t so bad for me. I started college, got involved with local politics in St. Paul, and studied history. I pulled for you from the beginning of the 2008 electoral process. In June of 2008, I turned 21, and you were in the Twin Cities on the night that you got enough primary votes to declare yourself the presumed Democratic candidate. I stood in line for hours waiting for you and Michelle and stood on the floor of the Xcel Center, mere feet from you both, cheering myself hoarse.

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November 2008 came along, and on the day of the election I voted in a presidential race for the first time. I remember feeling lucky to be in a state with paper ballots. It was powerful to fill in the bubble next to your name instead of just pressing a button. My first presidential vote was for a black man. I felt like there was a possibility of progress.

That night, friends and I gathered. Stereotypical millennials that we were, we had the TV tuned to Jon Stewart, and it was from his mouth, quirked into a suppressed expression of glee, that we heard “And Barack Obama is going to be the next President of the United States.” California’s polls had just closed. It was settled. Still, we couldn’t believe it. We flipped channels frantically (this was before everyone had an iPhone), settling onto a more reputable news source. It was true. You had won.

We screamed and hugged and cried and laughed. It was cold in Minnesota (shocker), but we burst out of the house, shouting our delight, listening to others yelling back their own. People driving by honked and flashed their lights. We ran the few blocks back to campus, which was in a completely ecstatic state. Students swarmed the quad and held raves in laundry rooms.

The next day was Wednesday, which meant the possibility of class. I sat in the music building, staring at the front page of the local paper, which of course featured you and your family walking out to offer an acceptance speech. My classmates sat around me. Our middle-aged teacher showed up. He looked at the paper and then at us. “We’re not going to learn about Beethoven today.” His next words were couched in reverent, hopeful disbelief. “I still can’t believe it. These are the people who are going to the White House.”

You went to the White House. Congress fought you. State governments fought you. You got so much less done than you had imagined. Your hair went grey. Your daughters grew up. You never quit trying. You created jobs. You boosted fuel efficiency standards. You acknowledged institutionalized racism. You brought the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. You repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell.” You nominated Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, only the 3rd and 4th women ever to serve, for the Supreme Court. You passed the ACA. 

I was lucky. I turned 26 in 2013. I found temporary insurance for six months and was one of the millions of Americans to enroll through the Marketplace as soon as it was available. The website was awful, as you just might remember, but my eventual coverage was good. I am afraid that, very soon, insurance companies will be able to deny me coverage because I have seen a therapist. I am afraid that, even if I do acquire insurance, my premiums will be high because I am a woman of childbearing age. I am afraid that the disappearance of subsidies may mean that I cannot afford to be insured. I am afraid that my body, that vessel created בצלם אלהים– in God’s own image– may be placed under the jurisdiction of others. 

And that’s just for me. I am so scared for so many others for so many reasons. I am scared for people of color who are struggling against a system that is stacked against them in practice and in law and that may be strengthened in the four years to come.I am scared for LGBTQ people and their families and their ability to stay legally and safely as such. I am scared for children who will continue to grow in the next four years in a nation that may not prioritize educating them. I am scared for Jews and Muslims whose places of worship and community centers are being threatened with bombs and fires. I am scared for every one of us walking down our own streets in our own cities who will be at the mercy of anybody able to purchase a gun under laws that are already too lax and are likely to become more so. I am scared for our nation’s allies and neighbors. I am scared for our future.

I imagine that you’re scared too. I imagine that you’re afraid of what your successor will do to the America you have been working to make greater for your entire adult life.

And I imagine that you’re relieved to be stepping back a little, to let your grey hairs rest, to watch your children finish becoming adults without having to look away from your family and to the world every time anything comes up. I imagine that you’re eager to be able to speak your mind a little more. I imagine that on January 21st you will want to sleep in and will instead snap awake terribly early, only to remember that you aren’t president any longer. I imagine that you will watch the steam rise from your coffee and try to think of the good. And I imagine, seeing as we’ve never met, that I am wrong about some of these imaginings.

Today, I saw a video of you and Michelle at the shelter where you donated Malia and Sasha’s old swing set. I saw you do the presidential wave and smile, but I also saw you lean down to speak with a small child and to push her on the swings. There was press filming you, sure, but this wasn’t about re-election anymore. This was just you being a good guy, sending your legacy forward.

You’re a good guy, President Obama. You aren’t perfect. There were things that I wanted from you that you didn’t offer. There were things that I expected from you that you didn’t deliver. But I am still proud to call you my president. I am proud of what you did for America and of what you tried to do. I was a high school and college student under your predecessor, but you are the only president I have known as an adult. I will become a rabbi under your successor and instead of seeing a role model in the White House I will see an adversary, but I will hold up my community and it will hold me and we will continue to push for change we can believe in. 

I am grateful to you, Mr. President– grateful for your words and for your acts and, yes, for your hope. “Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.” We need that audacity today, and we will need it for the next four years. Thank you for teaching us how to find it.

Blessings, Peace, and Love,

Emily

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O Little Town of Bethlehem

On the side of the road, painted onto a crumbling cement wall, were three well-known images. A star with six points, a Magen David, was rendered in sloppy black spray point next to an equals sign. On the other side of that sign were two interconnected lines, a hooked cross, ripped from peaceful sanskrit origins to become a symbol of hate. Our bus passed by too quickly for me to pull my phone out and snap a picture, but in my mind I can still see the symbols quite clearly. Star of David=Swastika. Israel=Nazi Germany.

This idea was not entirely new to me. I’ve heard people compare Israel to the Nazi regime. I’ve heard people compare Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank to South African Apartheid. But it’s one thing to hear about it and another to see such symbols splashed before my eyes. My heart tightened. My eyes froze open. We kept driving.

Soon, we passed by a huge red sign with a message rendered in three languages. I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, and I couldn’t even read the Arabic, so I was grateful for the English. IMG_9045.jpg

This Road leads to Area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law.

As part of the Oslo Accords in 1995, The West Bank was divided into three official zones. In the simplest of terms, Area “A” was given directly to Palestinian control, Area “B” was designated for shared control between Israeli and Palestinian powers, and Area “C” retained Israeli control.

In 1995, I was just a kid. I knew that Israel was a country because people at my synagogue told me about it. I knew that it was a young country, which seemed strange to me because the Torah was so old and it talked about Israel all the time. I knew that there were people called Palestinians who had something to do with Israel, but I didn’t know anything about them except that sometimes they hurt Israel.

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The first Palestinian I remember meeting was during my sophomore year of high school. I had just moved from Virginia to New Jersey, and my new school was much larger and much more diverse than any I had attended in Richmond. Many of my classmates were either immigrants or the children of immigrants from all over the world. Sometime during that year, there was a “UN Day,” and students were encouraged to pin a map of their home country up in one of the main hallways.

I saw a girl I didn’t know hanging up a map of what looked like Israel, only, where I expected it to say “Israel,” it said “Palestine.” I looked at it and then at her, puzzled.

“Palestine isn’t a country,” I said.

She whipped around and looked right at me. “Palestine is a country,” she said. She turned back to the map, finished pinning it up, and walked on down the hallway. I noticed the Palestinian flag emblem pinned to her backpack. I didn’t follow. I didn’t ask any questions.

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The barrier wall between Area C (Rachel’s Tomb) and Area A (Bethlehem)

My first trip into the West Bank was to Susya back in September. I’ve crossed over the Green Line a few times since. Sometimes I couldn’t tell that I had crossed over anything of the sort. Sometimes the checkpoints, when our yellow-plated buses drove through them, felt like little more than toll plazas for a car with an EZPass.

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Earlier this month, in the city of Bethlehem, I got into a car with white plates and green writing for the first time. This car would not be permitted through the checkpoint we had breezed through earlier in the day. The Palestinian woman who owned it wasn’t allowed to pass through checkpoints in a car at all. She drove me and another rabbinical student to her home just outside of Bethlehem, where we would stay the night. Her apartment looked out over the Shepherd’s Field where, supposedly, shepherds watched their flocks by night and the angel Gabriel from heaven came (you see what I did there?).

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The Shepherd’s Field

Our Palestinian host was a Christian. In the early morning, the sounds of Eastern Orthodox priests chanting benedictions sounded from her TV. She laid out a breakfast for us of pita, hummus, a thick yogurt dip, olive oil, za’atar, jam, chopped tomatoes, and cheese. I’ve eaten the same in Jerusalem on countless mornings. It felt very normal. It felt safe.

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Two embroideries by our host. The Arabic one is The Lord’s Prayer.

The night before, sitting with my fellow rabbinical student and our 60-year-old host, I had a moment of feeling unsafe. She asked us about Trump. When we told her about some of the specific groups we were concerned for back home, she made a homophobic comment. Instantly, I was reminded of how much of a bubble I exist in much of the time. My classmate and I gently but firmly spoke with her about it, sharing experiences of our dear ones and their partners as a counter to her narrative of suspicion, hoping to open her up to understanding, knowing that it would likely not be possible to fully shift her views in the course of a single conversation. I asked her questions about her experiences with people who were not heterosexual. She didn’t have many. She asked us questions. She seemed curious. Perhaps she believed what we had to say, even if she couldn’t believe it about everyone who fit a particular label. It was a start. It wasn’t enough.

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“You see the wall under the road there?” our guide asked, pointing beneath what we had just learned to be a road for Israeli vehicles, mostly headed to the settlements in the hills around Bethlehem. “There’s a house there, and when they built the wall it cut through the property. The people that live there have their own gate so they can get to the Bethlehem side.”

On one side of the wall was downtown Bethlehem, the Palestinian City– Area “A”. On the other side were partially developed hills, olive trees dotting each ridge, settlements looking down from above. The trees, our guides said, had been cultivated by Palestinian farmers for generations, but Palestinians were no longer allowed to go there. Some of the trees had been chopped down. Others remained, surviving either from luck without tending or through the illegal efforts of their caretakers. img_9020

In the Palestinian village of Batir, a short drive from Bethlehem, farming is still a primary way of life. Eight families tend land with terraces that date back to Canaanite times. Generations are buried in caves.img_9023 Many young people leave Batir these days. They cannot legally build new homes without permits, which Israel will not grant. When they marry they either build illegally, risking demolition, or they move to Bethlehem. The family members who remain in Batir take turns watering their lands, each family getting one of eight days in the winter and sharing half a portion every four days in the summer, when fields are parched and water hard to come by.

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On our walking tour of the village, our facilitators reminded us that we were in public space. It would be unwise to show outward expressions of Judaism. Tzitzit and Star of David necklaces were tucked, kippot hidden beneath baseball caps, Hebrew writing on T-shirts and water bottles covered. We were welcome as Jews to those who knew who we were. We were not welcome as Jews by everyone in the city and villages. I thought about my curly hair. Should I have braided it so that it wasn’t as obvious? Did I look too Jewish? Was I safe?

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In a Bethlehem hotel, the curtains of our meeting room drawn so that those who wanted to wear a kippa or tzitzit could do so without concern, we listened to a panel of Palestinians discussing their lives and their takes on the conflict. One woman said that she wished an earthquake would come and destroy all of the holy sites in Israel. Then, she said, “we can rebuild together.” Then, she said, “nobody will care about Palestine anymore.”

Next to her, a man, shocking the facilitators of our visit, declared that he saw no difference between violent resistance and non-violent resistance. He spoke about the Holocaust, his conversational but far from perfect English carrying an unclear message that caused my eyes to prick with upset. What did he mean, we tried to ask. Was he really saying what it sounded like he was saying? When the panel ended, we still didn’t know.

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At our final session, just before our short bus ride back to Jerusalem, we listened to the narrative of a Palestinian-American man who moved from the midwest to Ramallah in the 1990s. At first, he was treated by Israel as an American, his passport allowing him an Israeli car and free access to Jerusalem and Ben Gurion airport. When he received a Palestinian identity card, that ended. To get to Bethlehem, instead of driving straight up from Ramallah, he had to take the circuitous route in areas that, as a Palestinian, he is permitted to. Outside of Israel, he is treated as an American, with all of the privileges and limitations that come with such a status. Within Israel and the West Bank, he is not.

Towards the end of his talk, a participant asked him what he thought American Jews could do about the conflict. He looked around the room and said: “What I’m asking for from Jews in the diaspora and Jews in general is just to be Jewish. What I understand is that social justice is a core pillar of your religion. I have to question that when those credentials are checked when you arrive at Ben Gurion. All I’m asking is that you apply the same frame of social justice to what is happening here.”

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A school/municipal building in a Palestinian village outside Bethlehem surrounded by settlements on all sides. The building has had a demolition order since its construction.

We got back onto the bus. We drove home, breezing through a checkpoint with our yellow plates. It was Friday afternoon, shabbat only an hour or so away. At services, I sang my heart out. I joined friends for dinner, sipping wine late into the evening. I walked home, to the apartment in Jerusalem that I was entitled to by virtue of being a student from America. I thought about my passport. I thought about my lineage and faith and their ability to get me citizenship to this country, if I want it. I thought about a life spent singing in choirs and the words of a song of this season:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Bethlehem every day. They are met in Jerusalem every day. Hope and fear are in every brick of this land, on both sides of the wall. Would that fear could crumble while hope holds us up for all the years to come.

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 11

(New to Shabbos Blessings? Learn more Shabbos Blessings)

I have a secret to tell: It’s Thursday. The magic of the internet is such that this will be posted sometime tomorrow afternoon, when it is Friday, but in fact it is Thursday night. Tomorrow (and I mean that in the most generous sense, because the shared taxi that everybody here seems to take to the airport will be picking me up at 1:45 AM), I will be in Prague and my computer will be enjoying a long weekend without me here in Jerusalem.

Why will I be in Prague? Well, because of a visa issue. Was it a visa problem that has since been resolved? Well, no. That is a long and annoying story that perhaps I will tell in full someday, but for now suffice it to say that bureaucracy is an slant-rhyme-of-and-antonym-for-the-colloquial-usage-of-cinch. I intend to come back to Jerusalem on Monday morning and continue my studies here. I certainly hope that airport immigration will be on board.

Anyway, this week has been hard. I don’t know when or if things will ever feel “normal” again. I don’t know how much of the day-to-day funk that I’m in is because of the election and how much is because of my grandpa and how much is because of the grayer weather and how much is because I’ve been here long enough to start getting homesick. I don’t know. I’ll be ok. I wish I felt better now.

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The kittens always make me feel a lil bit better

This week’s blessing comes from one of my oldest friends. We met in preschool and were definitely buddies by kindergarten or first grade. We also grew up at the same synagogue, so if you ever want to hear stories of Baby Rabbi(-to-be) Emily, she’s a good person to ask.

May this journey give you the chance for spiritual growth, learning, and connection. May you find a sense of peace inside the walls of this holy place. Each step you take on this journey, realize you are never alone.

When things get especially hard, spiritual growth and learning and connection get even more important. It’s difficult for me to feel at peace right now, but I feel best about everything when I can recognize my own growth and the ways in which I am connecting to the people in my community here and at home. The Clinton loss has, I guess, made me feel a little less alone as people from across my communities have stepped up to offer word and action. I think we’ll all need to rely on each other now more than ever.

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Super Moon+Old City

Today I was in a cab (the first one I’ve taken since getting here actually). The driver, after establishing that I was an American and that the Golden Gate Bridge was in San Francisco, not LA, asked me if I voted for Trump or Clinton. I told him. When I asked him who he liked he said that it wasn’t his government but that a lot of Israelis like Trump because his daughter married a Jew. I hesitated, then told him that Hillary Clinton’s daughter also married a Jew but that that wasn’t the point. I told him that Trump just hired a guy who is openly anti-semitic. And that Trump really doesn’t like a lot of people. The driver seemed to know that, and together we started making a list of all the groups of people Trump doesn’t like. It took a while.”So he’s crazy,” the driver finally concluded. The sooner we can all decide that anybody who dislikes most groups of people is crazy, the better off the world will be.

Anyway, this week has been hard. I don’t know when things will feel “normal” again. But, for now, I’m getting ready for a few days away. I hope it’s fun. I hope it offers me a breath before another nearly 2 months of classes before the January break. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.

 

 

 

 

 

We’re Still Here

“We’re still here,” I said to my best friend. We had been silent skyping. Video and audio were on, but there was nothing to say. The night was over. The race was called. We lost. My mind was everywhere at once. On my college roommate’s infant daughter, the one I met right before flying to Jerusalem, the one who I thought, with such joy, wouldn’t remember a time when a woman had never been president. On my mother, staying with her mother, who was born when women had only had the vote for 12 years. On my grandfather– a wonderful, liberal, social justice-seeking lawyer– who passed away last Saturday and whom I have been holding so close and missing so much and whom I knew would have been so happy to see Hillary elected. On a group of friends, camping together every memorial day weekend, and among them a neighbor whom I look to as a sign that, yes, there is such a thing as a politician in politics for the right reasons. On a group of rabbinical students, gathered in the wee hours of the morning, expecting a party and tears of joy, finding tears for different reasons as an unmarked map began to bleed. On an exquisite dawn with a crystal blue sky as the same rabbinical students stood in a golden courtyard and prayed, as I tried to work up the nerve to sing God’s praises at a time when I couldn’t imagine singing anything, as I said kaddish for my grandfather and for the sort of American progress he fought to forge. On what it meant to be so far away. On what was left. On where the fight was headed.

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“We’re still here.” My Grandpa Ken was born in 1927. He was white and privileged and brilliant. His father was a politician. His lineage in this land went back to the 1630s in New Hampshire, making my sisters and me 13th generation Americans. He could have fallen right into the false nostalgia that Trump champions. The “Good Ol’ Days” when people like my grandfather were openly afforded more respect and more opportunity and more allowance than anybody else. (Of course they still are today, but many people try to hide it now.) At age 17, my Grandpa Ken learned Japanese in less than a year and was sent to Gifu to listen for insurrection right after World War II ended. My Grandpa Ken went to Yale and to Harvard Law. The CIA wanted him, but he didn’t want them. He could have looked at Trump and thought back to his youth and said “It was easier then.” He didn’t. He could have taken the $10,000 dollars my great grandfather offered him not to marry my Portuguese (Azorian) grandmother. He didn’t. He could have been skittish around people of color in San Francisco after a childhood largely lived apart from them in New England. He wasn’t. He was a Democrat. He pursued justice. He wanted everybody in this country and in this world to have opportunity.

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My Grandpa Ken was diagnosed with terminal cancer less than two weeks ago. We expected him to have months to live. Instead he went in a matter of days, passing in his sleep in his own bed in his own home. It has been terribly difficult to be here, away from family as I cope with the shock and grief that I would have in any circumstance but that are amplified by being apart from my loved ones. I am so sad that he is gone. I am so grateful that he didn’t have to experience a long decline that he would have hated. I am so glad that he didn’t have to see what happened this morning. He would have been so excited for Hillary. I don’t know what he would have managed to say about Trump.

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“We’re still here.” I kept thinking it to myself as the map turned red, saying it to myself as I walked Jerusalem’s stone sidewalks, feeling the words cut through the pain and the rage and the pulsing fear for myself and for my communities and for the people who carry less privilege than I do and who have so much more to lose. And it is so hard to be here, away from family as I cope with the shock and grief that I would have in any circumstance but that are amplified by being apart from loved ones. And I am glad to be far from home, because here at least there is no celebration. Here there are not the questions with each set of eyes that I meet of “Did you vote for her? Did you vote for him? Did you sit this out?”

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Last Wednesday I woke early to fight for women to be treated as full people at the Western Wall. This Wednesday I woke early to witness a woman earn full equality in the White House. Last Wednesday my body was shoved about. My breath quickened with anxiety and purpose. This Wednesday my body was untouched but my heart tugged itself inward, crafting a shell from which to peer out into the world. How could the world be as it was? How could the hope and joy and excitement that had been building for months be turned to nothing? I wanted to close my eyes and open them to a new start. But there was no going back.

“We’re still here.” What do we do when it seems hopeless? We remember that our hearts can be safe in their shells but they will never be able to grow there. A heart can only grow if it is free, and anything that is free can be broken, and so we must place our hearts into one another’s care to risk and to thrive. And together, we must offer our hearts to our enemies until our eyes acknowledge mutual sparks of divinity. There is work to be done, and we need to fight, and our fights must be fed with love.

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“We’re still here.” On Tuesday morning, I put two notes inside the Kotel. One was for my Grandpa Ken, who wasn’t a fan of religion but was a fan of me. The other was for all of us:

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I don’t believe in a God that sways elections, but I believe in us. It is easy to feel that our votes did not count, that our voices were not heard, that our work was for nothing. But there is still work to do. This isn’t a time to bolt. It’s a time to buckle down to help those who can’t bolt. We have to hold each other up and we have to be there for those who will be hit hardest. This is not the time to give up. It’s the time to rise up.

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“We’re still here.” We can’t always have our sages with us. My grandfather is gone. His legacy is not. The election is over. The work is not. The sun rose this morning and it was beautiful. It will rise tomorrow. We are headed into the unknown wilderness with the wisdom of what has come before and the hope of what comes after. The Israelites wandered there for 40 years. Luckily for us, we only have 4. May we be the pillars of cloud and fire that show one another the way.

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Kol Haneshama T’halel Yah

כל הנשמה תהלל יה, הלליויה

Let all that has breath praise Yah, Halleluyah!

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Last Wednesday morning, I went to the Kotel.

When a Jewish man goes to the kotel he can go to the men’s section. He can wear a kippah, tallit, and tefillin if he chooses. If he does not have these things, other men will likely offer them to him for his time at the wall. He may pray on his own or he may pray in a minyan, a group of Jews. These minyanim pray aloud, with men leading different sections of the service, and read from Torah. There are approximately 300 Torah scrolls on the men’s side of the wall, which means that it’s pretty easy to snag one if you’re a man wanting to read Torah.

The women, who have much less space allocated than than the men do, have 0 Torah scrolls. Women are not permitted to pray loudly. They are not permitted to read Torah. They are not permitted to wear tallitot or tefillin. They are not even allowed to pray aloud in organized minyanim.

Last Wednesday morning, I went to the Kotel wearing my tallis. Last Wednesday morning was Rosh Hodesh. For over 25 years, the Women of the Wall have been fighting against Orthodox control of the Western Wall, asserting that all Jews have the right to pray at the Kotel. Once a month, on the first or second day of the Hebrew month, they hold a protest at the wall and try to have a service. Their members have been arrested countless times and subjected to intense counter protests.

Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, multiple Torah scrolls were brought into the women’s section. Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, I saw Jews attack a Torah. I saw men with black hats shove a man without one to the ground. He fell so that the holy book his Jewish brothers sought to rip from him was cushioned against his chest.

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Last Wednesday morning, I prayed over the sounds of small boys running around the women’s section with piercing whistles because their rabbis told them to. I prayed over the shouts of men and women who thought that what we were doing was wrong. I formed a barrier with my body to keep women who didn’t believe in the rights of other women from taking our Torahs away from us. I scolded a child who tried to rip my tallis away from me and tried to rip tefillin off of a female classmate. I bent to his level and calmly asked him to tell me what I was doing wrong. He screamed “מספיק נאצי!– enough, nazi!” in my face and ran off.

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Last Wednesday morning, I helped other women who won’t pray with a mechitza– a gender binary-based barrier– to form a mechitza so that women who couldn’t pray without one still felt safe, as male photographers and counter protestors came to the women’s side of the wall. Last Wednesday morning, I saw men standing on chairs on the men’s side of the wall, holding prayerbooks, lending their support through their own prayers.

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Last Wednesday morning, I used my body as a block, locking elbows with fellow rabbinical students to keep counter protestors from taking or defacing holy words. I felt immediate threat to my body as people were shoved into me and tried to shove through me, as they screamed at me for daring to pray. I felt my heart pound with life and with commitment to equal treatment. I felt my voice soar.

Last Wednesday morning, I heard the line “כל הנשמה תהלל יה, הלליויה- Kol Haneshama T’halel Yah!- Let everything that has breath praise God!” louder than I ever have. Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, I felt like a full person at the Kotel.

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(This Wednesday, I had damn well better find out that being a full person while female is still possible back home.)

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Messages at the Wall

Thwack! 

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I almost jumped. Caper berries, it turns out, can make quite a noise when they fall over a dozen feet and hit a single sheet of paper.

We were in the midst of selikhot, a set of penitential prayers that form part of the morning service just before Rosh Hashanah and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Within selikhot, we were in the midst of takhanun.

When I started rabbinical school, I couldn’t have told you what selikhot or takhanun were. Like many elements of traditional Judaism, they weren’t a part of the Reform tradition that I grew up in, and I never came to explore them as a (very) young adult. To be perfectly honest, I still wouldn’t call takhanun an integrated part of my Jewish experience, because it’s not part of the “typical” davenning at RRC. I’m becoming familiar with the words now as I’m becoming familiar with the way that folks at the Conservative Yeshiva daven in general, and I’m learning that takhanun strums a deep chord in the Jewish narrative. As we pray, our foreheads tucked onto our forearms, we admit exhaustion, and we more-or-less beg for God to remember us. I would call this part of the service less a supplication than a heartfelt plea born from centuries of often painful exile. There is a brutal humanity to the words, and although I don’t agree with all of them, I feel power in them.

Yesterday, when I davenned takhanun, I was quite tired. I had arrived home at 11:30 the night before after a choir rehearsal (conducted by a Hebrew-speaking Frenchman to a room of largely British and American Hebrew-speaking-except-for-me expats, where we sang in Latin and Italian). I had slept for a few hours and woken up at 4 to watch the first presidential debate.

Why, you might ask? Because I really wanted to see it live before all of the spin. Because I wanted to feel connected to home. Because I only had class the following day until noon and knew that I’d be able to relax and nap, if needed, after that. Because #imwithher, and if you’re not we should talk.

I finished watching and thought to myself: “I’m glad I get to pray soon.”

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At the Kotel, we davenned at the egalitarian section. It’s probably not what you think of when you think of the Western Wall, but right now it’s the only part of the wall where people of all genders can publicly pray together. The Conservative Yeshiva davens there one morning a week. As we davenned selikhot, I tried to think about a world full of communal transgressions and accountability and tried not to think about the (fill-in-the-blank-however-you-like) mansplainer who had filled my wee hours.

Thwack. 

The caper berry hit my sheet. I was startled from the words of prayer. A purple smudge marked the word צדיקים– tzadikim– righteous ones–pursuers of justice.

I don’t believe in an intervening God, at least not to the degree of a God who would drop a caper berry onto my selikhot supplement. But I do believe in a God that:

חונן לאדם דעת, ומלמד לאנוש בינה-  a God who “graces humans with knowledge and teaches humans wisdom,” as we say in the amidah. So, I guess you could say that although I don’t believe in a God who made the caper berry hit a word that reminded me to pursue justice, I do believe in a God who endowed an interconnected universe with the smarts to see a smudge as a symbol.

It’s going to be a tough season. Tzadikim are going to be important. Let’s chase justice together.

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