Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thank you!

I wanted to thank everyone for following my trip to Israel. It will remain one of my most cherished experiences in my graduate student career. As promised from my blog, I am keeping up with news in Israel and the work of iRAC, making sure that even if I wouldn't ever want to live there or work full time for an Israel cause, it is important for me to know what is going on there as a Jewish Communal Professional.

That being said, I've negated my promise to blog more, so I'm trying again. I'm going to start with some political comics that I like, they are also posted on my Facebook page but this is a good platform too. Next, I've put it on my calendar for every Friday- we'll see how it goes! For me, it's easier to break a bad habit than to start a good new one :)

Friday, December 28, 2012

*sigh* and then there was one

I'm sitting in Cafe Hillel on Jaffa street about to get a goat cheese sandwich. Our program has ended and although not everyone has left for the airport I had some gifts to get and broke off on my own. As I observe the people around me, I could be in any city, the US or otherwise.  The main difference is that everyone around me is presumably Jewish, this is the draw of Isreal, the land where Jews rule, where we are the majority- finally! But what if I don't want to be the majority? What if I like having non-Jews around me, like feeling special, more responsible for being a good person.

We visited the Israel museum yesterday and one of the things I took away was that the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses, ink on parchment scroll, the tree of life, was the same- no matter where in the world, no matter what time period- from the first moment these stories had been written down, they have continued, word for word, letter by letter. This is the heart of Judaism that beats inside every Jew, religious or not. What changes is what it looks like on the outside, the physical case, the Synagogue, the geographical place, the time period, the culture of the non-Jewish neighbors, the thoughts and feelings of the Jews who read from it, and Israel is but one expression of what Judaism looks like as expressed as a nation for the last 60+ years. As I have previously stated, if there is nothing else that connects me to another Jew, I can appreciate that our Jewish essence is the same.

From this, my thoughts as our trip came to a close (having not read through my previous posts) was that my connection to Israel is not to the societal norms, the politics, the religious, or the land but to the people I've met who have shown me my place in the Israeli Jewish community. I know people here now, I could call up someone and stay at their place (thanks Chase!), I could navigate the streets, and bargain in the shuk. I would assume, however, that I would have the same feelings if I were to spend two immersive weeks with say the Brazilian Jewish community.

I'm walking away from this experince a different person than when I arrived disheveled and sleep-deprived last Monday morning. I am able to view Israel with more informed, knowledgable, and rightfully critical eyes. I do not yet know how this will manifest itself when I actually do return home and begin classes- knee deep in my thesis research, finance and budgeting, issues in philanthropy, program evaluation, inter-sectorial leadership, and my internship. How I will feel after I've re-read my blogs, in essence re-living my experience from the view point of the end.

What I do know is that this has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and that I look forward to returning to Isreal on an organized trip with family to learn more about myself and the Jewish people. I would also be quite interested in visiting other Jewish communities to see how Judaism is expressed in South America, Afria, China, or Europe. I also feel very blessed and appreciative of being Jewish (thanks Mom!) and having a wonderful world-wide Jewish community that I can connect to simply because I am Jewish.

Not everyone has that, but I do, and for that I am forever grateful! :)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Coming to the end

Quick recap of the last two days (maybe not so quick)-

Yesterday we did a quick processing session in the morning then headed to Tel Aviv to meet with Jeremy Fisher from the Reut Institute about an idea they have called '21st Century Tikkun Olam' to get 14 million people (presumably Jews in the world and Israelis) to participate in Tikkun Olam projects around the world to effect a 1/4 billion people. In essence a type of Israel Jewish World Service- similar to the American Jewish World Service that exists today. They have spent 2 years developing the project and have gotten as far as a PowerPoint. So nice idea but a long way from reality. 

We took a nice hike after that and then heard from a very passionate elderly man named Ginid Shimoni who presented his ideas of what Jewish Peoplehood meant. His conclusion, which he had clearly been working on for quite some time and was convinced was absolute truth, was that the Jews were an ethnicity. This is what I was able to gather of his definition - Jews are an ethnic group, a social entity possessing of a myth of common origin and cultural characteristics, which are mainly but not solely attached to the Jewish religion and the land of Israel. Interesting stuff but the man clearly did not know how to have a discussion. 

Today we began with a wonderful meeting with the Masters in Management of Nonprofit and Community Organizations at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Fascinating! First, I sat next to a girl who was from Ohio, who wasn't Jewish, who wanted to live in Israel, I was interested by her connection but could understand her interest in Jewish life. We briefly discussed as a group what educational program we were focusing on, our internships, the SJNM Israel seminar, and the differences in the two programs. 

One of the main points of discussion was the fact that we were the "Jewish" School of Nonprofit Management and that the word "Jewish" was not included in their title. The main conclusion from that was that their program is in Israel so it is implied that it is Jewish and/or has Jewish components. It was wonderful to meet those students who had come from all over (Germany, South Korea, Canada, the US, Russia, Greece, Switzerland, and more) to study what we were studying but in the context of Israel. 

Our next visit was to the Jewish Agency to meet with Alan Hoffman. I asked the question "what would you say to someone who told you they had no connection to Israel?" He had a wonderful answer about engaging in conversation with that person and attempting to understand where there might be gaps that a connection to Israel might fill, then help them find a way to connect that makes sense for them. He added that Israel is an add-on to being Jewish, not the core. I greatly appreciated his answer and his presentation!

Back at the hotel we had a panel discussion with Jeremy Leigh from Jewish Journeys, Noa Golin from the ROI Community, and Micha Odenheimer from Tevel B'Tzedek. It began with a wonderful activity on identity by Noa and then a thought provoking presentation by Jeremy about the power of travel, which really resonated with me in regards to the fact that we are currently traveling! It was another wonderful discssion about Jewish connection and identity. 

We ended our evening at the home of Terry Cohen Hendin, a graduate of the SJNM program when it was the School of Jewish Communal Service in 1975. We got to meet other alum, hear about their journeys to making aliyah, and what they are doing now. I was also lucky to spend time with Ted and Sarah who are currently studying in Israel for a year before they join our program this coming summer. 

Now here I am back in my hotel room listening to the 25th anniversary sound track to Les Miserable as I write this (I must say I'm quite excited to see the movie when I get back to the states). These last few days have been really helpful in being able to see myself in Israel. Not in the moving here sense but in the way that it relates to my identity. Over the last couple of days I've seen myself in the people we've met, I've been able to identify with them as Jews living in Israel. Our trip had previously perpetuated my disconnectedness, this very separate secular and religious populations whom I did not see myself in. 

Above all else, I'm Jewish, that is my number 1 identity in the long list of who I am. I can connect with any other person who is Jewish, if not on anything else, on that. That spark that happens in the states when I learn that a new person I've met is Jewish and instatnly begin to play Jewish geography, can happen here in Israel, that I can feel connected if only on that very basic level. 

This trip has been a whirlwind. I'd be lying if I were to say I was not excited to go back to the states but I am so very grateful for this experience. I also know that it will take re-reading my blogs and some post-trip processing to come to more general conclusions about my connection to Israel. At the moment, I feel much better about the way I view Israel, the people who live here, the politics, and the culture, mostly because I see that things are changing to better reflect what I believe a Jewish state should be- a light onto the nations. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

A place like home

If there was somewhere I would live in Israel, it would be Haifa. It's a beautiful bay with hills around me that remind me of home. Moreover, I've found my brand of Judaism, well as close as one could come in Israel, at our visit to Leo Beack Education Center. This K-12 school/ Synagogue/ JCC (without the J), is the best expression I've seen of Reform (or as they call it here 'Progressive' Judaism). I greatly enjoyed hearing about the programs they offer and their view of Progressive Judaism in Israel. 

One point I thought was exceptionally interesting was when the speaker said that more Jews like us need to move to the land of Isreal in order to help change the social tides and the hold the Hardai community has over Israeli society. When you actually examine the trends of those who make Aliyah (move to Israel), they tend to move back home within 5 years (or so was mentioned at the presentation). 

What this reminded me of was a presentation I heard earlier this year by David Cygelman the founder of Moshe House, a house based Jewish community for young adults where 4-5 young adults move into a house and put on 5-7 Jewish programs a month for other young Jewish adults. The model is quite successful and Dave spoke about his travels to each of the Moshe houses, 19 international houses and 34 houses in the US. One thing he found extremely different between the US houses and the international houses was their Israel programing. In the states, the programs was centered around culture- food, dance, music, language, etc. For the international houses it was much more centered around political affairs, current events, economic issues, for the purpose of knowing that one day they might have to move to Israel if their community decides they no longer want Jews in their country. This is not the fear of Jews in the US, this is why we are not moving here in large numbers. 

This was my initial point when I began my blog- why Israel, when life in LA as a Jew is so great and that will not change in the foreseeable future? This also goes back to the point my classmate made about the view of her mother that Jews are not safe anywhere and at any moment they might have to flee to Israel. I don't share that sentiment and maybe it is naive.

The other places we visited was the Yemin Orde Youth Village for up to 500 children who are either recent immigrants or troubled youth. The goal of the village is a cultural transformation for these children and a place for them to come to terms with their troubled past in order to mix with other ethnicities and gain the tools to be a productive member of Israeli society. This model was also used in creating the Agahoza Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda where many of my friends have spent a year with the orphans and refugee children who live there. The idea of the model is that it can be translated across nations providing the same success they have achieved with their residence. It is a lovely organizaiton doing really great work!

The other place we visited was an organization called Kayan who works with Arab women to help them organize for change in their communities. Their greatest success has been getting public transportation to Arab villages. It helped me better understand the Arab population and their struggles in Israel. 

On our drive to Haifa, I was able to listen to some of my favorite radio (podcast) shows, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!, This American Life, and Slate's Political Gabfest. I've also been able to keep up with Rachel Maddow as I download her shows when I have wifi. This is a welcome treat for me as these shows are part of my regular life at home. Many of my classmates do not have this connection (as I've stated earlier), I believe making it easier for them to connect to Israel. Before going to bed last night I read iRAC's newsletter and for better or worse, felt nothing. I feel as if I'm trying to fit into a mold in which I do not fit. I'm an American Jew and (maybe as a result of my news loving non-Jewish father, sorry dad) care far more about what happens in the US, my home, than I do about the struggles of the people in Israel. 

This is there home, not mine, I'm thrilled to know that they are fighting, that democracy can work even if it is created out of rubble by a society of people who have never known democracy or liberal ideas and if anything it solidifies my belief in democracy, the power of the many over the few. I keep coming back to the question, why should I care? 

Today we discuss this more as a group, meet with Jeremy Fisher of the Reut Institute, and hear from Prof Gindi Shimoni. Maybe my question can be answered. What I do know is that I am greatly enjoying learning about Israel from different perspectives, absorbing the culture, and struggling with these issues. Clarity will come, whether is it to solidify my previous sentiments or to create new ones is yet to be seen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

As the dust settles

Today has been quite mellow for me. I heard from Mike Prashka about the importance of shared citizenship identity among the diverse population in Israel, then we heard about the social investment projects going on, then from Rabbi Michael Marmir from HUC about the role of the Reform movement in Israel, and lastly about the tech industry and the role of business in Israel. In my mind I kept the question, why should I care. When I asked Rabbi Michael Marmur this question his basic answer is that he did not understand how one could say they care about Jews except for the Jews in Israel, that we are one people.

Although I can not identify with the million plus ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, I can on some level identify with the remainder of Israeli citizens. But how much more time should I devote in my life to Israel in the same way that I devote a portion of my life to the Jews in NY or the Jews in Amsterdam? I feel so critical, why can't I just love Israel and want it to be a part of my life? Why is this such a struggle?

I didn't get a chance to ask Rabbi Michael Marmur about his feeling regarding the Haradi community and the fact we are not considered Jewish but something along the lines of 'love they neighbor as thyself', even if they hate you, it is your Jewish responsibility to love them.

Israel is a young country made up of immigrants whom a majority came from non-democratic and non-liberal countries. As difficult as it is for me to wrap my mind around what I am experiencing, I'm sure it's just as difficult for people in Israel to wrap their minds around my brand of Judaism or the US political system in which I enjoy.

The director of my program, Richard Siegel, pointed out that previous seminars (these seminars happen every two years) focused much more on the Palestinian conflict and our seminar will not even touch upon that topic at all. This is the case because the areas we are exploring are becoming more relevant in Israeli society. Things are changing, democracy is taking hold and the people are getting involved with helping mold Israel into the country it should be.

So if it is my responsibility to be involved, how would that look for me? How do I take my American Jewish values and help them be expressed in Israel because this is supposed to be my land too? Of all the speakers we've heard, the one that resonated most with my values is Anat Hoffman from iRAC, Israel Religious Action Center. I've signed up for their e-mail newsletter and will try to bring it home with me.

There are still a few days left in this trip and a few weeks after I return home before classes begin again, to process and digest, to figure out how I will internalize Israel and how it will look in my personal and professional life. Today I'm less sad, less angry, just trying to keep my mind open and absorb all that I can.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Problems beyond my control

I am filled with intense sadness. How did Israel get like this? Thousands of years in exile, we finally have a land of our own and this is how we choose to run it. As I listened to Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and Women of the Wall, talk about her fight to end female male segregated public buses, radio stations who do not allow women to speak, the 49 racist rabbis who call for the murder of Arabs, Orthodox only marriages, divorces only able to be given by the man, and to allow women to pray with talitot on, to pray aloud or to have a Torah at the Kotel (Western Wall), my previous feelings of detachment solidify. Israel is stuck in the 1960s, the feminist movement has yet to begun and religious extremist rule the land, and not many Israelis seem to care. 

I went walking with some friends this morning to the old city and although I do not remember the context of the conversation, I said to my friend 'remember, I am not Jewish'. In the eyes of those who dictate Israeli law, I am not Jewish. My heart is broken. How did it get like this? How did Israel become a country with an intense divide between the secular and the ultra-religious? We went to the Kotel, I touched it, I said the Shema, I tried to feel but felt nothing but emptiness. 

Last night we had services with the HUC students who are currently studying in Israel, about 50 of them. I have not been to a Friday night service is quite some time because there is nowhere in Los Angeles like what I experienced last night. Singing, praying, clapping, smiling, feeling, with fellow young adults who have dedicated their life to being professional Jews, this is my Judaism! 

So why should I care about what goes on in Israel? One of the comments made to me was 'look at all then hope! Things might seem bleak but they are getting better, little by little'. But why should I spend my money, time, and energy helping to make another country better? Another country that is just as backward as its neighbors, that turns its back on Jewish values, clear Torah based Jewish values, for the interest of the few religious extremist. I say let them have it, let the Haradi continue to take over Israel and then when there are no other people to support them, let them figure out what to do. How dare they ask to be supported from cradle to grave by people they consider heretics, unclean, non-Jews. Lets start this Jewish experiment somewhere else becuase this is not working. 

One thing that I've noticed which might help Israel get on the right track is the underlining purpose for our visit, the civil sector. For so long being a part of government was not something regular citizens thought about and in that vacume religious extremism grew and hijacked the state. Secular Israelis are now waking up and they are pissed. There is hope but its not my hope to have. 

I have a somewhat unique perspective. Many of my classmates have much stronger ties to Israel- family, friends, significant time sent here, well versed in Hebrew, and therefore have the perspective that yes Israel has its problems but so does America and we should love Israel and work for its preservation despite its flaws, as you can tell, I do not agree. In addition, not many of my classmates immerse themselves in American politics and news the way I do and personally I would rather spend my energy fighting for the rights of people who live in America.

Another aspect of this that frustrates me is that yesterday we heard from a gentlemen who explained the Israeli political system to us. Complicated and very different than the US's, I was left with the prevailing question, who is Israel for? I raised the question to my classmates, that if this is a Jewish state, how come not every Jew has a vote in Israeli politics? The common response I received is that we do not live here and would not feel the consequences of our votes but there are many other ways to be involved with organizations who do have influence in Israeli politics. Well that makes a lot of sense... instead of being formally involved in the land that is supposed to be for all Jews, just maneuver around and be involved informally. This simply makes no sense to me- a Jewish state for the Jewish people should invovle every and all Jewish persons, period.

In the interest of respecting your time I will end here. As our trip continues, we will be exploring this idea of peoplehood and why Jews in the diaspora should care about Israel. Maybe in the next week someone can convince me of such. For now my disconnectedness to this land remains strong and my commitment to my community in Los Angeles, living and being an example to others of true Jewish values, to being the Jewish voice for issues in America, to ensuring that the greatest democracy in the world can be even greater, remains my passion and drive. 

Shavua tov :)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What is the underlining purpose here?

In comparing these last two days, I struggle. I struggle between defining Israel as a state in which Judaism is to be preserved and a state in which Jewish values are at the utmost expression. All my life I believed the later, as I study I believe the former.

The ultra-Orthodox, those who observe the laws of the Torah to the letter and devote their lives to study, are called Haradi in Israel- a term I only recently became familiar with. This population in Israel is about 1 million people (1/6th the population) and because of the laws in Israel they are 'taken care of' for their entire lives. As I've come to understand it, this was originally set up for a few hundred Jews with the notion that they are preserving Judaism in its truest form given the atrocities the Jewish people faced. This population has exploded and is now a growing social issue in Israel.

55% of Haradi men are unemployed and regardless of the number of years they receive in religious education, it is equivalent to 0-4 years of public education when translated to the job market. This leads to intense re-distribution of wealth in order to support this growing population. Our last stop yesterday was to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, an economic think tank mostly funded by the Joint Distribution Center. This is where these numbers became very real.

Our morning had begun at the Kiryat Ono College where there is a push to educate Haradi students in secular subjects so that they might have the tools to enter the work force and provide for themselves. This is a difficult task as the Hardai see themselves as purposely separate from modern society, as it is morally corrupt and their purpose is of a higher caliber in the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people. This college also educates Ethiopian Jewish students and integrates them into studies with the rest of the Israeli student population. As with other nonprofits doing good work, it was great to hear from the college and their view point on educating Israel's population.

Yesterday's visits coupled with the previous days activities led me to the place I am now as expressed at the begining of my post. Although it is clear to many of my other classmates why the Haradi community is the way that it is, I do not have the in-depth institutional knowledge on the issue. What I do know is that a large percentage of the Israeli population does not have to work while there is a population of immigrants and refugees who want nothing more than to work and be a productive member of Israeli society.

This is my struggle. Is Israel here to preserve Judaism, in-turn supporting a population devoted to the study of Judaism, even to the detriment of the rest of Israeli society or is it a state in which living Jewish values for all inhabitants, regardless of race or religion (or religious sect for that matter), is of the utmost importance?

Thoughts? Which should it be? This is clearly a loaded question as I am writing it from my perspective, not a necessarily un-biased appropriate survey question, but the question I will keep with me as we continue to study.

On a lighter note, we also visited a modern day Kibbutz named Tammuz. The inhabitants do not work on this Kubbutz, they have non-agricultural jobs outside, they do however live together, celebrate together, deal with finances together, and make decisions together. The one defining element of the presentation was the emphasis on discussion, study, and dialogue. They have no formal rules or constitution or written foundational values, every decision (although ultimately a personal one) is a discussion among the collective. Our presenter did not like our hypothetical questions as the community is quite rational and together come up with solutions to problems as they arise.

They are compised of 14 families and was founded 25 years ago. To put it in a different context, imagine you belong to a small Synagogue but everyone else who belongs to it lives around the Synagogue or imagine permenant camp with families. In essence, this is socailism on a small scale. I think it's great! :)

I imagine for my life a similar situation when Barak moves to Los Angeles and we are able to find a small community of Jewish young adults whom we will meet regularly, celebrate holidays and life cycle events, study Judaism, and discuss the ups and downs of our lives together. I am also very blessed to have this currently in a group of friends whose company I do not get to enjoy as often as I would like but I envision as my life becomes more stable that this will be a constant in my life.

What I liked most, and what most don't like about socialism, is the financial aspect. This is the biggest difference between this Kibbutz and the havarah I currently enjoy or will enjoy in the future. Everyone's pay checks go into the same account and each family (depending on the number of children) gets a specific amount for their personal budget. The remainder is saved or used for communal purposes, i.e. food, electric bills, health bills, rent, etc. There is also an open account where community members can be reimbursed for various work or necessity expenses.

Ah, what a life where I do not have to worry about taxes!! A life where I work and am given just the net amount left after all other expenses are taken care of- for me, this is a dream, a very relaxing one. He spoke about a member losing his job and the fact that he did not have to rush to find any position to be able to support his family, that the collective was able to support him until he was able to find a job which ended up being better than the one he was fired from.

Lucky for me, I have a wonderful boyfriend who will take care of all those things for me, right Barak?? Nah, I really have no problem dealing with my finances and the rosy picture painted I'm sure has underlining issues. Would I actually ever live inthe Kibbutz like this, probably not, will I seek out a communal way of life, however that looks in the states, absolutely!

On an ending note there have been a few things here in Israel I'd like to take with me. For one, I have eaten more pickles in the last four days than I think I have ever in my entire life, they are soooooooo good :) There are also phrases I use on an hourly basis I'd like to keep in my vernacular- Toda and Toda Raba (thank you and thank you very much), Shlecha (sorry or excuse me), and Betzeder (my favorite- it's ok or it's alright). Lastly, their toilets are awesome, two flushing options, not a lot of water wasted and they have solar water heaters on every roof (come on SoCal this is a no brainer!).

Today we focus on politics but only till 1:00pm because it is Shabbat! Yeah!! This means I get to see friends who are studying at the HUC in Jerusalem, go shopping, and enjoy a wonderful Shabbat service, I am quite excited :) Today and tomorrow comprise of far more down time than we've enjoyed these past few days and I feel very blessed to not only be able to spend it in Israel but with my wonderful, intelligent, insightfully, interesting, another i word I can't think of, classmates and teachers.

Shabbat Shalom :)