Shabbos Blessing- Week 7

“Hi. I’d like to buy beans,” I told the barista, letting my coffee-snob self out of the box. In accented but clearly fluent English he chatted with me for several minutes about acidity levels, brewing methods, and sourcing. I decided to try out relatively small amounts of two kinds of beans. He ground them for me (slightly courser than espresso but finer than drip, if you’re curious), and I paid with a credit card. Then I walked with a classmate of mine to sit on a bench alongside a pedestrian highway. People walked, jogged, biked, and roller-skated on by as we chatted. IMG_7577.jpgIf the coffee was cheaper (I paid over $20 for less than a pound. Oy.), this could have been anytown America. Instead, it was the German Colony in Jerusalem, about a 20 minute walk from where I live.

That was Wednesday. On Tuesday, I walked with some classmates about 30 minutes from where I live and ended up… well, a picture’s worth a thousand words, right?

3 faiths.jpeg

If you are of one of the three Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), there is within this tiny city at least one immensely holy site.

If you’re Jewish (or probably also if you’re not), this is bound to look familiar:

IMG_8001.jpg We visited the Western Wall plaza, although none of us felt the need at the time to go up to the Wall itself. That’s a pretty crazy thing about living here. The Wall isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime (or once-every-time-one-visits-Jerusalem) event. I could go right now if I wanted. One fun thing about going the other day was seeing the plaza’s sukkah, which, I gotta say, has some serious wall art bling going on.


Check out that silvery bling.

Among the reasons we walked to the Kotel that day was that we had already been to another faith’s holy site, and one of my classmates pointed out that it felt weird to visit that one without also dropping in on one of our own. I suppose she had a point.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is absolutely a sacred space, even if it’s not my sacred space. When we entered the church, pilgrims were prostrated, their heads against a long flat stone where they believe the body of Christ to have been prepared for burial. We climbed the steep stairs to Calvary chapel, built on the site where Christ is said to have been crucified. Back on the ground floor, a long line of people waited patiently to visit Christ’s (vacated) tomb in the Church’s center. I felt soaked in devotion and awe– not because I hold the same beliefs as Christians, but because there were so many Christians experiencing so much in a relatively small space. I felt glad for them and honored to be there with them.

Exploring the Christian Quarter of the Old City in general was very cool, as I’ve really only spent time poking around the Jewish Quarter (y’know, the one they take you to on Birthright).  I look forward to more adventures there, and in other parts of the Old City. IMG_7974.jpg

Back in the modern city, I went to a street fair which reminded me very much of American street fairs in a lot of ways except that I don’t know of many street fairs in the states where you could find fresh-pressed pomegranate juice. IMG_8019.jpg

The next night, only a few blocks from my apartment, I came across a huge peace protest outside of the Prime Minister’s residence. Israelis, Palestinians, and international supporters of many political persuasions had marched to Jerusalem together, and this rally was the culmination. There was power in the crowd in the same way as there had been in the church. I couldn’t understand everything that was said, in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic, but the feeling of hope and need for change was real. I got choked up as the mixed multitude cheered and sang. I felt lucky to be a part of it.


I’ll admit that my plan for this week was to travel. I wasn’t even sure if I’d be in Jerusalem for shabbat, much less all week. It’s sukkot–the only substantial break (aside from my unauthorized trip to Prague next month) that I’ll get until January. I knew that this would be a great time to poke around other parts of the country. But, well, I didn’t. At first I felt kinda bad, like I was squandering away my time. Then I realized that, while I have had a lot of downtime this week, I’ve also done a lot of exploring within this city, and that’s worthwhile. I’ve walked in the Old City and around the new. I’ve been on plenty of streets and in plenty of neighborhoods that I had not yet visited. I connected and reconnected with classmates from different rabbinical schools. I do intend to travel throughout this year as I can, and as I can find buddies to accompany me, but in spending my break here I had experiences that were simple and significant. The blessing for this week fits right in with that. This comes from a classmate at RRC who has already studied in Israel. She says:

Sending blessings for safe, wonderful, growth-full time!

I’d like to think that I’m cradling that balance point between growth and safety. I’d like to think that I am acquiring some wonderful memories. I think that I am. I think that this is still just the beginning.


Rugelach at the shuk

Tonight I’ll bring dessert (babka from Marzipan, if you must know) to a shabbat dinner in the sukkah at my Yeshiva. I’ll spend the evening eating and enjoying the company of people whom I’d not met seven shabbats ago but who are likely to be my rabbinic colleagues in a few years. I’ll walk to dinner along a road that was completely foreign to me in September and that now feels like the center of my neighborhood. There’s growth. It’s good. Shabbat Shalom.

A Jew in the Pew

You know what I’ve learned over the past two days? It can be awfully nice to experience Rosh Hashanah as a civilian.

When I started rabbinical school, I immediately started working on high holidays, which meant that I was lucky to get a single holiday meal that wasn’t dominated by anxiety around upcoming service leading. During this Rosh Hashanah, I went to three holiday meals: a delightful dinner after services on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and two lovely (late) lunches after morning services on both days. By late lunches I mean starting around 2 and ending around 5. I mean, get there and have a seat and eat some dips and some mains and some dessert and drink some wine while you’re at it, because you have nowhere that you need to be. I mean, stroll back on home along with all of the other lunch-goers about the city and have a relaxing evening, because you don’t, in fact, need to review the nusakh for the next day or go over your d’var one more time. I mean, this is kinda awesome, isn’t it?


Awesome like these flowers in my neighborhood.

At the same time, it’s probably a good thing I’m becoming a rabbi, because as happy as I was to be a civilian, I sort of missed leading services. When the hazzanim (cantors) sang the parts of the liturgy that only the service leaders typically sing, I found myself wanting to join in. I wanted to carry the Torah around. I wanted to blow shofar. And, y’know, it feels pretty great to simultaneously love this time of non-leading and look forward to getting back in the saddle next year.

I don’t have pictures from Rosh Hashanah, but I wish that I did. The three places where I attended services (because I was a civilian who got to pick where to go!) were different and wonderful in their own ways, and I wish that I could show you each of them. Instead, I’ll just tell those of y’all who are interested about them.

At Kol Haneshama, a reform congregation, I enjoyed a short and simple Erev Rosh Hashanah service. The rabbi was an American man who spoke largely in Hebrew but also threw out some translations from time to time for us English-speaking folk. We started out with a Joey Weisenberg niggun that brought me right back to the two unbelievably awesome classes that I took with him at RRC. The man is a master of melody, and hearing a tune of his that I knew so well in a place that was brand new made me feel an instant happiness and a deep sense of connectivity. Walking home, I folded in with all manner of Jewish folk traveling from their various shuls to their various dinners. While I didn’t get lost walking to and from Kol Haneshama, I did get lost walking everywhere else I went during Rosh Hashanah, and for the most part I enjoined the ensuing wanderings.


For First Day, I went to Tzion, a  very egalitarian Conservative community that does this amazing blend of ashkenazi and sefardi melodies and has a very nice flow of leadership shared amongst the (female) rabbi, the (male) hazzan, and congregants. Services were held in a basement of a community center, and they were long. I got there at 10, about an hour after they started, and was just in time for barchu. I took a break at 1, when they started musaf. For comparison, the synagogue across the way finished around 1. I don’t think that having long services is a good or bad thing, as different folks like different length services, and I imagine I’ll be back for a shabbat sometime soon.

This morning, I went to Nava Tehila, and, well, it was pretty much perfect for me. Nava Tehila isn’t a permanent institution, so they hold prayer in different locations. Today was in the yard of the Natural History museum, which meant that our “synagogue” comprised a collection of chairs under a canopy of colored cloths. The instrumentalists sat in the middle, with the congregation fanning out. For me, it was a perfect mix of traditional prayer and contemporary song. The prayers included feminist language that I so love and that is often left out here in Jerusalem. The shifting of leadership was beautiful and fairly seamless. The Torah service was especially moving. For one thing, my view of the Torah was partially blocked…by a tree. One eitz hayyim (Tree of Life) connected to another. When the hazzanit paraded the Torah around the congregation, the sun glinted off of it with incredible beauty, and, nature girl that I am, I felt completely whole.

Then came the group aliyot. Since coming to Israel, I’ve written a lot about being here, in this place. The first aliyah today was for everybody who wanted to echo Abraham’s saying to God “הנני– Hineni- Here I am.” I’m often shy about going up for aliyot, but I went up for this one without hesitating. It fit so perfectly into what I want for this year. A number of others came up with me, and since many did not have their own talitot, my tallis was hoisted up to cover several heads so that we could all bless together. I thought of the stains that I still need to try and remove and how, at that moment, they truly didn’t matter– that the tallis was still whole and so was I.

During the shofar service, I felt a similar wholeness. I’ve always found the shofar to be powerful, but during this morning’s service, sounding the shofar outside under the trees, there was something transcendent. I got chills as I thought about the history of the instrument, of how ancient the tradition that we were enacting, of how soul-piercing it remains. I looked around at the congregation– people of all ages, some with eyes shut, some staring rapt, some just contentedly. Even the dogs (yes, there were dogs davening with us) perked up. I was filled with immense gratitude that the shofar hasn’t been lost to time, that it is something I will be able to pass along to my future communities.

We finished the service with Nava Tehila’s rendition of oseh shalom, which is one of my favorites. Everybody sang openly. Smiles were real. It was amazing. I was so very happy. My New Year was sweet as honey. I hope yours was too.



Shabbos Blessing- Week 2

This week’s blessing (see the link for an explanation if you’re new!)  comes from a dear coworker-turned-friend. He claimed that “blessings weren’t really [his] thing,” but I think he deserves more credit.

May you have the knowledge that you are not alone. Even in moments of loneliness. May you have the ability to recognize and appreciate each moment for what it is and what it offers and be able to live in the moment. May you have fulfilling and enriching studies, both in and out of the classroom. And last but not least, may you have smiles and laughter in your life.

When I asked for these blessings, I said I would love both ones that affirm and ones that challenge. This does both. It is hard to remember that I am not alone when I feel lonely. It is hard to live in the moment when the moment is sweaty, or embarrassing, or stressful. It is hard to engage in studies in and out of the classroom when those studies are likely to involve situations that are sweaty, or embarrassing, or stressful, or all of the above.

Yet, these are all beautiful affirmations. I am not alone. I don’t have a huge network of known friends and family here with me, but I have a few folks from RRC on this journey in Jerusalem, and I am deepening connections every day with new teachers and with new classmates who will one day be my rabbinic colleagues. Although most of the journeyers in this ark with me are still near strangers, the quarters are tight enough that that’s bound to change. I am grateful that we all smell less than the elephants and skunks Noah had to deal with.

Each moment has value and is worth living.  I can value the fact that, for now, my life here is itself a study in every moment. I have only been here for 10 days, the length of a Birthright trip. I went on Birthright almost 5 years ago. Prior to last week it was my first and only time in Israel. I am so eager to learn so much more than I possibly could in any 10-day venture. 


(Emily and Casper Cohen the Camel, January 2012. Everybody knows that unless you have a picture of yourself with a camel, your Birthright trip absolutely did not happen.)

Finally, it’s worth remembering that I can smile at any number of circumstances, and I can laugh at myself when I feel my heart race unnecessarily. One way I’m going to be smiling and laughing more is through a project I’ve taken on– a spoof of sorts of “Humans of New York.”  See, there are so so so so SO many stray cats here in Jerusalem. And some non-strays as well, of course. I see them every day and they make me happy and sad at once. I really want to adopt one, but, with that not being particularly feasible, I’m going to content myself with taking their pictures and making up hopefully hilarious commentary. I call it “Cats of Jerusalem” (#COJ). If you’re not following me on instagram (em.cohen), and you like cats or #HONY or both, you might want to change that.


Shabbat shalom. See ya Sunday.