Showing posts with label Lisa Grant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lisa Grant. Show all posts

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The State of our People's Disunion

So I sit here an hour after President Obama’s first State of the Union address, thinking. I should be thinking about America. About the president’s ideas and words. I found him as inspiring as ever, even if I don’t have a firm opinion on each and every proposal. And I am. But my wife has said for as long as she has known me that I see the world through schmaltz-colored glasses. I can’t watch Avatar at the theater and just be taken in by the wonderful storytelling and be blown away by the effects. No, in addition to all of the enjoyment, I find myself almost unconsciously identifying ways to use the film in my “All my Jewish Values Come From the Movies” class.* It’s just the way I am.

So I will leave the analysis of the speech and it’s possible impact on our country and world to wiser heads, or at least to limit those thoughts to other fora. This is a blog about Jewish Education. At the beginning of the speech he said:

“So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds, different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. A job that pays the bills. A chance to get ahead. Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.

You know what else they share? They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids; starting businesses and going back to school. They’re coaching little league and helping their neighbors. As one woman wrote me, 'We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.'

It is because of this spirit – this great decency and great strength – that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.

And tonight, I’d like to talk about how together, we can deliver on that promise.”

I cannot hear this call to civility for the common good without looking at how we Jews sometimes treat one another. And then we wonder why so many of the marginally connected keep walking the other way, hoping not to be noticed – at least not noticed as being with the rest of us.

I read about the
Women of the Wall and I want to scream. Audrey and I were at their second gathering. Women were asked to bring their men. They formed a prayer circle in the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section). We formed an outer ring facing outward in all directions. We were a barrier to the shouts, phlegm and steel chairs that were hurled at them. A Haredi man stood inches from my face shouting “BOOS! BOOS!” at the top of his lungs, spitting on my face. He had recently feasted on some kind of very garlicky sausage. We refused to fight back, merely serving to protect the women who were trying to praise the God we all shared with the words of the siddur and sefer Torah we all held sacred. Before they could finish, the police ordered everyone to disperse and then fired a tear gas cannon at us all. That was in 1988.

Two weeks ago, three teachers from my school (visiting Israel as part of Legacy Heritage: Israel Engagement Innovation Grant) and some HUC students were brought by Doctor Lisa Grant to visit with Anat Hoffman. Her fingers were still stained by the ink used to fingerprint her by the police when she was arrested for inciting women to wear a tallit next to a retaining wall that holds up the mount where the Temple once stood.

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The disputes between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”

– Pirkei Avot 5:17

And there is no shortage of intolerance of one another on all sides. Although none of the rhetoric or actions generally reach the outrageousness of what is happening in Jerusalem right now, it is hard to justify the way we speak to and about one another as being like the disputes of Hillel and Shammai. I am sad that our friend Lorna felt pressured to leave her home in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. She was the last secular Jew there, having cast the only vote in that precinct for Teddy Kolleck in his final election.

I am sometimes asked about the Steinsaltz Talmud in my office. I bought it with the money I received from friends and family as gifts when I graduated from HUC in 1991. I study as often as can (e.g. not enough), and Rabbi Jim Prosnit and I lead a Talmud group for lawyers every month. They ask because they don’t expect in the office of Reform Jewish educator. I am not even a rabbi – that, at least, they would understand. When asked, I explain that it is our Talmud too. This Shabbat, I will be taking 27 Kitah Vav (6th grade) students, their teachers, some madrikhim and my friend and song leader Shawn Fogel (of the LeeVees and Macaroons!) to Eisner camp for a retreat. We will have fun and explore what this whole Bar/Bat Mitzvah thing is all about – for them. Among other things, we will study Sanhedrin 68b from the Babylonian Talmud. That is where we learn about becoming a Jewish adult. They know it’s there Talmud too!

I want us to raise Obamas in the Jewish community – people that will remind us that we all stood at Mt. Sinai. I want my sons to become men who will teach us all that when the Tower of Babel was toppled and languages were babbled, we Jews all ended up speaking Hebrew! When I was a kid, the UJA campaign for years was build around the slogan “We Are One.” Not sure that would rally the troops right now.

So I take hope in the words of our president. And I take more hope in the words of my sons and all of our students. They will fix things. But like the president said, we can’t leave it to them. We have to show them we are read for them to lead, by leading ourselves.

I love the way he phrased the call for energy efficiency and green technology: “I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”

We don’t have to agree on whether the Torah was letter for letter given at Sinai to recognize that we are one people and to remember to act like it. We don’t have to settle every difference to agree that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. And the prayers of one group need not prevent the prayers of another from ascending to the Divine Presence.

I am blessed to be part of the
Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows of the Lookstein Institute at Bar Ilan University. Our small group covers most of the Jewish spectrum (not all, but most). And I am struck by the efforts we all make to respect one another’s religious needs. I pray that as we begin to bring others together into communities of practice, that considerate, thoughtful approach continues and spreads. Kein Yehi Ratzon – may it be God’s will.

And the president’s proposals? Gam Kein Yehi Ratzon.

* There were at least two – As Jake Sully becomes enculturated, falls in love and ultimately becomes a Na’vi is great study in interdating/marriage and conversion (and let’s not even get into the linguistically interesting name of the Pandoran natives, i.e. Na’vi = prophet in Hebrew); and the whole issue of two groups whose claim to the same land leads to inevitable conflict, particularly if one or both parties believes that sharing is not a desired outcome. This may be a difficult but possibly interesting way into a discussion if the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Living is learning: Israel Lessons at the Y

Dr. Lisa Grant Associate Professor of Jewish Education on the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a member of my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT is my guest blogger this week. This was originally posted on Tze L’umad, a blog for the continuing education for the alumni of HUC-JIR. The editor of that blog wrote: “Her reflections remind us that it is not just curriculum and content that shape education; experience is a critical element in our learning, solidifying and challenging the knowledge we acquire in more formal settings.”

Currently, I’m in Israel as part of the faculty for the culminating seminar of this year’s cohort of Mandel Fellows, a group of seven HUC rabbinic-education students from New York and Los Angeles. Since I’m here for almost all of June, I decided to join the pool at the YMCA for the month. Navigating these waters has been a lesson in cultural literacy.

First there are the hours. I swim first thing in the morning. On Monday and Shabbat (or more accurately in the Y world, Saturday) there is mixed swimming. On Tuesday through Friday, men and women alternate between the early shift (5:45-6:25 am) and late (6:25-7:05). I discovered this after arriving at 6:00 am on a Tuesday to find the door into the pool from the women’s locker room locked up tight.

In good Christian fashion in this Jewish state, the Y is closed on Sunday.
Then, there are the people. By far the friendliest face is that of the Arab man who sits at the desk. Then there’s a cast of regulars who come at these early hours, older women who are rather fixed in their ways. My first day in the pool, I was stared at but no one said a word. If there was a pattern to how these women swim, it was beyond me to figure out. It seemed where ever I swam I was in someone’s way. I basically wove my way through the lanes, trying to avoid the onslaught. This went on for a couple of days. Then I decided to hug the wall and take up as little space as possible. That worked for about 6 laps and then a woman arrived who immediately told me to move.

“I swim back stroke so I need this space,” she said.

“But I’m swimming here now,” I said.

“You are in my space,” she replied emphatically.

So I acquiesced and moved over. Not only did this woman take my lane, but her stroke was so wide that she spilled over into my lane as well, resulting in inevitable bumps and brushes as we swam past each other. After a few laps, she stopped me and started yelling in Hebrew.

“Don’t you see I’m swimming here! She said.

“But I am staying in my own lane. You come over into my space!” I replied.

“You keep hitting me. You must stop. This is unacceptable,” she said.

“But, you are hitting me as well,” I said.

“Just stop it!” she yelled.

“I’m trying, you try too” was my retort. And then I swam off.

The next day, I was waiting with three or four other women for the women-only time to begin.

“Are you from the hotel?” one asked.

“No, I’m here for a seminar.”

“Are you from the hotel?” another asked.

“No, I bought a membership for the month,” I replied.

“Are you at the hotel?” the first woman asked again.

“No.” I said, and thankfully the lifeguard unlocked the door and we could go to the pool.

On the morning of my seventh visit, the women greeted me more warmly. One said good morning; two made eye contact.

Two others whispered, “I thought she was from the hotel.”

My adversary wasn’t at the pool that morning. I swam against the wall, uninterrupted. It was a much better workout, no weaving among the lanes, no glares, no strife. Serene, contemplative, and ordinary.

My experiences in the pool could be seen as a parable about the Israeli street - the erratic traffic behavior, the vacillation between rudeness and kindness in interactions with strangers, and in a much more significant way, the self-righteous and intractable claims on space and territory that different peoples make on this land.

I could leave it at that. Indeed, it’s that Israel that we often encounter in the news and as tourists through our brief encounters with Israeli society. Far from serene, or ordinary, and far more heated and contentious than contemplative.

We have been privileged to delve deeply into a much more hopeful and inspiring side of Israel during this seminar. Throughout the year, this group of HUC Mandel Fellows has been studying issues of leadership, vision, and community building. For our Israel seminar, we added a fourth dimension, the question of Jewish peoplehood. We have been exploring various conceptions of peoplehood through text study and encounters with scholars and through a variety of site visits at innovative organizations that are working to address different tensions and imbalances in Israeli society.

We visited Bet Yisrael, an urban kibbutz, a group of young adults living together and volunteering in a low-income neighborhood in Gilo, a neighborhood in the southernmost part of Jerusalem. The primary “industry” of the kibbutz is a mechina, a gap year pre-army study program for high school graduates. This mechina includes both secular and religious Israelis, and also a few Americans who’ve come to study Jewish texts and volunteer for the year before college.

In Yerucham, a development town in the Negev, we visited Atid Bamidbar, a Beit Midrash that focuses on bringing together the residents of this isolated area through a variety of programs that attempt to bridge the social gaps between secular and religious, and Ashkenazim and Sephardim through study and song.

Debbie Golan, Director of Atid Bamidbar, and some of our HUC Mandel Fellows, and some of the students in one of the sessions we observed (learning and singing mizrachi piyuttim)!

In Tel Aviv, right across the street from the central bus station, we visited Binah, a secular Yeshiva, another study program for young adults either before or after the army. The goals of this institution are to link social action with Jewish study, exposing young Israelis who lack any substantive Jewish learning to the riches of the Jewish bookshelf. Along with study, they work in this difficult, run-down neighborhood that is home to poor Israelis, foreign workers and hundreds (if not thousands) of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea.

These institutions are examples of the many third sector (non-governmental) initiatives to bridge the divides in Israeli society - between rich and poor, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Arab and Jew. While each are situated in different contexts and have different missions, what they share in common is an active commitment to social change linked with Jewish learning.

In our seminar we’ve have many conversations about what makes us a Jewish people, what binds us, what divides us? We have struggled with definitions and with questions of obligation and commitment to the mixed multitude that makes up the Jewish people and that is so evident in Israeli society.

While ideas are still in formation, we have come to a strong consensus around at least one big idea. Jewish learning is something that all Jews share. Jewish study provides opportunities for rich encounters with our sources, with Jewish tradition and with others who may not share much else other than a willingness to engage with the text and those others sitting around the table. Through Jewish learning we have the opportunity to understand ourselves and others better, to join in a share enterprise and perhaps to discover or forge shared commitments.

Swimming in the sea of Torah together may start out like my swimming at YMCA pool, but once we really make eye contact and listen to our study partner, we break through those barriers of suspicion and tension, and find a way to calmer waters that can nourish us all.