Ever hear of Heifer International? No? Until recently, I’d never heard of it either. I was talking to my grandsons, ages 7 and 3, via the webcam perched atop my computer screen. The boys were telling me about their Shabbat observances. They wear kippahs, they have a special dinner with challah and wine, Mommy lights candles and Daddy says brachas. And their job is to put money into the tzedakah boxes, the pushkes, they made at Hebrew school. They held the boxes up to the screen so I could see them.
“What do you do with the money when the boxes are filled?” I asked.
“We give it to people who don’t have as much food or money as we have,” the older boy said.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“We send it to this place called Heifer International.”
Intrigued, I looked it up. To my surprise, it’s actually a well-known charity started by a Midwestern farmer named Dan West who was ladling out rations of milk to hungry kids during the Spanish Civil War. He realized that simply doling out food does not solve the problem of hunger.
“These children don’t need a cup; they need a cow,” he said.
He formed Heifers for Relief, dedicated to ending hunger by providing livestock and training, as well. The first shipment of 17 heifers left Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico in 1944. Why heifers? Because they are cows who have not yet given birth. These young cows would supply milk and would also be a continuous source of more cows. Families receiving a heifer agreed to donate female offspring to another family, thus continuing the process.
Today, donors to this organization get to choose which animal they would like to donate: a cow, a goat, chickens, rabbits or geese. In concept, this way of using what my grandmother called “pushke money” is far beyond the pushke concept of her time. The website’s online visual association makes the process more real and less abstract for the kids.
The globalization of the 21st century influences our thinking in many ways, including the choices we can make for charitable contributions. We can think not only of local charities or Israel, but also of the victims of earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes and wars around the world. We are aware of the needs of children, refugees, the hungry and the sick in every country. This is as it should be.
However, charity is more than just giving a donation to a faceless organization. It really involves the feelings of the recipients, too.
Many years ago, I wrote a children’s story that was published in Young Judean magazine. Two boys, Jason and Marty, liked to go together for ice cream every Sunday until Jason stopped going for lack of money. For a while, Marty treats him, but Jason feels uncomfortable with this on a permanent basis. When Jason stops going for ice cream, Marty’s grandfather refers Marty to Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity in an effort to get Marty to figure out a solution. Marty does. He gets Jason a job walking a dog so that Jason can buy ice cream with his own money, thus allowing him to maintain his dignity.
Here is the Ladder of Charity conceived by Maimonides. The levels are ranked in order of preference, from the lowest to the highest.
1. Giving sadly and begrudgingly.
2. Giving less than is fitting but with good cheer.
3. Giving only after having been asked.
4. Giving before being asked.
5. Giving to a recipient whose identity the giver does not know.
6. Giving so that the recipient of the tzedakah does not know the identity of the giver.
7. Giving so that neither the giver nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.
8. In place of giving money, taking the sort of action that will help people to no longer be poor.
An example of level eight would be helping a poor person find a job, or lending money to finance an education for someone in poverty. For example, friends of mine wanted to help a married child who was in financial trouble. They gave the couple a car instead of cash, thus enabling them to have access to jobs in their rural area that did not have public transportation.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It is interesting to note how close in concept this proverb is to level eight of Maimonides’ ladder. You can see that the highest level of charity helps a person become independent and self-reliant, and human dignity is also taken into full account.
We might all do well to assess what we do with our pushke money and other donations. My little grandsons are already learning that there are those less fortunate than themselves. I am proud of my son and daughter-in-law for teaching this to their children at so young an age. I have faith that these boys will grow up to be caring citizens of the world.
Toby Rosenstrauchis an award-winning columnist and a resident of Florida. Her first novel, Knifepoint, was recently published.
Last month marked my 15th wedding anniversary. Every year has felt significant, but 15 has a somewhat mystical overlay. The Hebrew equivalent for 15 would normally contain two of the four letters of the tetragram spelling God’s name (yud and heh), so there is a different customary formulation: “tet vav” or tu, for short. Sprinkle in some multilingual word play, tu being “you” in French, and “to” in English connoting a mutual connection, and 15 is rife with meaning.
This anniversary has also prompted me to consider what goes into a lasting marriage. I began my mental search by polling those of my Facebook friends who’ve surpassed the 15-year mark. Trust. Communication. Acceptance. Humor. Generosity. Patience. Commitment. Common values. Mutual respect for one another’s journey through life. One friend offered the idea of love, as measured by actually enjoying listening to what the other person has to say. Curiously, no one mentioned sex.
There is an inherent catch here, of course. How can we know which of these many laudable qualities are signs of a healthy marriage, and which are prescriptions? In other words, can a troubled marriage be saved by adopting these practices, or do these practices simply flow, automatically, from a solid union?
Some friends did offer some potential advice. Date nights, even if it involves watching a movie on the sofa with take-out after the kids are in bed, one friend said. Another emphasized how important it is not to “keep score.” Where sometimes partners fall into the trap of believing that “reciprocity has to be quantitatively balanced over a short period of time,” she said, it’s better to think of the “partnership as rooted in generosity and mutual caring.” She added that it’s important for the couple to shed external expectations, whether they come from televised images, societal norms or embedded ideals with which one was raised. That imaginary third party’s judgmental voice can intrude on a couple’s relationship in unhealthy ways. At a dinner party I attended, one woman emphasized kindness. Her husband said it’s important to park one’s ego.
And what do the experts say?
A recent article in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith profiled a team of researchers who study lasting partnerships. Noting how partners engage in moment-to-moment “bids” for attention, the research team – led by John Gottman – stressed that how the partner responds to these bids is key to the marriage’s success. As Smith describes it, “People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t – those who turned away – would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper.”
This “turn toward” philosophy can also fall into the causality trap. Is “turning toward” a function of a healthy marriage, or a prescription for one? The answer is probably both. But that doesn’t mean that a virtual cycle can’t be consciously created. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been practising “turn toward” and discussing it with whoever will listen, my husband included. My husband and I are now in the habit of “turning toward” more than we sometimes have been in the past.
We even joke about it as we’re doing it, a subtle way of reinforcing the mental links between intention and action.
As for our anniversary, we did something we never get to do anymore: catch a film after work. We saw Boyhood, the tour de force of Richard Linklater, who spent 12 years filming using the same actors. Over the course of two and a half hours, we witnessed the on-screen children developing into adults, and parents struggling to find their way. On the subject of marriage, the film was more bitter than sweet, but we enjoyed it, admiring the director’s fortitude and creativity, and privately reflecting. When we returned home, we discussed the film over a glass of wine, and concluded the evening by “turning toward” one another as one shared with the other some newly discovered National Public Radio podcasts, episodes devoted to love, loss and longing.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.
Some of the violence in the Middle East has inflamed tensions closer to home. Online, there is a recent interview conducted by the University of British Columbia with its resident expert Prof. Robert Daum, who offered his thoughts on navigating these frictions. Daum is a faculty associate with the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, a faculty member of Green College, project lead in UBC Transcultural Leaders, a Reconciliation ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and a dialogue associate at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue.
UBC: How do conflicts afar, like the Israel-Gaza situation, spark local tensions?
RD: Sadly, some conflicts push people into rigid positions rooted in insufficiently rigorous, self-critical and nuanced analysis. Simplistic narratives about historical and contemporary events resulting in loss of life raise tensions. Inadequate media coverage heightens tensions, and people tend to gather in narrowly circumscribed assemblies of like-minded thinkers. Conflicts such as these are teachable moments, but learning and teaching require an attitude of openness to authentic inquiry on the part of everyone.
Imagine what we can do in addressing any number of complex conflicts and challenges if we can cultivate a culture of evidence-based, authentic inquiry and dialogue. I have seen this approach in action in my work with UBC’s Transcultural Leaders 2014 Conversation Series, SFU’s Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation Canada.
UBC: Have you been surprised by the tensions arising locally and across Canada?
RD: No. In the context of genuine human suffering, we encounter hateful slogans, racist images, one-sided narratives, vicious social media comments and self-righteous oversimplifications. This does not honor the dead. Inflammatory rhetoric gets most of the headlines. Research shows that anxiety and clear thinking tend not to be compatible. Our discourse has to be as levelheaded, sober and reasonable as possible. People need to feel that they can learn in an environment of safety, civility and mutual respect. I consider myself to be a principled pragmatist. It is precisely when we feel angriest about world events that we need to take a deep breath. Imagine if the Supreme Court had to reach decisions under fire. If we cannot learn how to share narrative space – that is, how to reconcile competing, deeply held, national narratives, in a way that does not require the annihilation or complete negation of the other’s position – then how can we expect geographical space to be shared at one of the most fraught intersections of regional and global politics?
I have participated in forums on antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, the Indian residential schools and many other issues. Two years ago, I co-sponsored with the Vancity Office of Community Engagement a three-hour public forum downtown on Islamophobia, featuring a critical media analyst, three Muslim speakers from very diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and three equally diverse non-Muslim speakers, including myself. A mixed audience of more than 250 listened to stories of prejudice experienced and prejudice confronted. It was a thoughtful, nuanced and multi-layered conversation over the course of three hours. And we were just getting started.
UBC: What are some healthy ways in which people can deal with tensions that may arise between themselves and others?
RD: Seek to engage in a dialogue, rather than a debate. Ask genuine questions: “What did you mean by that? What are you trying to say? Have you considered different perspectives on this? Have you tried to understand why others hold positions different than yours? On what can we agree? Is there another way to understand the phenomenon, whereby our positions might be reconciled, even partially?” Try building on ideas and making connections between ideas. Don’t reduce multi-faceted conflicts to a single variable such as religion or oil, for example.
Politics, history and ethics are not reducible to simple equations. Complex questions can rarely be reduced to the logic of black and white, right and wrong. I may see the world very differently than you, but that does not necessarily make you (or me) wrong. Of course, moral assessment matters, and I believe that some behaviors, like the intentional murder of civilian non-combatants as prohibited in the Geneva Conventions, are abhorrent. But, as any first-year law student knows, such an assertion is the beginning, not the end of the inquiry. If such matters were simple enough to be reduced to trial by megaphone, we would not need faculties of law or courts, let alone courses in ethics, history, politics, religion, gender, media or much else.
I’m home when my phone buzzes with a text from my son. Playing for the school basketball team in a city an hour away, his five words carry disappointment, sadness. “I’m just a benchwarmer, mom.”
I’m not one of those parents who cheers on sports games from the sidelines. Perhaps I’m still scarred from high school athletics, when my best friend and I were consistently the last members picked for any team during PE classes, a painful memory to this day. It sounds callous but, for me, sports has never held even a glimmer of interest, not even when my own children are playing.
But something changed when I learned my son had spent most of that game on the bench, watching instead of playing. What upset me was the injustice of his exclusion. He’d attended practices dutifully and loved being part of the team – until that game. “I’m not a bad player,” he insisted. “I don’t know why they didn’t give me a turn.”
The indignation of having been left out hung around the house like a damp cloud for a few days. I felt hurt on his behalf, compelled to try and make things right. So, I did what most writer-parents would do – I penned a letter to the principal. It wasn’t fair, I declared. I was under the impression that in team sports everyone gets a turn. How could the coach exclude certain players and justify that exclusion by the team’s victory? Wasn’t the victory hollow when only the best players had performed?
We don’t guarantee that every player will get to play, the principal responded. Sure, they can get a place on the team, but it’s the coach’s decision about who plays the games – and we play to win.
A friend explained it in a gentler way to me a few days later. In elementary school, the games are all about playing fair, giving everyone a turn and learning to be a good sport. Not so in high school, where the emphasis shifts to winning. “The weaker players sit on the bench so the team can have its best shot at victory,” she said. “That’s just the way it is, regardless which sport we’re talking about.”
I was astonished, but enlightened, too. As parents, we want desperately to defend our kids from insult, bruised egos and perceived injustice. Their hurt becomes our hurt, and we feel compelled, angered even, to speak out on their behalf.
But sitting on the bench might offer some important life lessons. The humility to admit you’re not the strongest player. The insight that you need to work harder to be chosen for the next game. The understanding that, as unifying as the word “team” appears to be, it’s composed of members who are not equally competent: you either shine, or are outshone.
It’s going to be the same scenario at every job interview a few years down the line. The strongest candidates will be selected while the rest will warm the bench on the sidelines until they improve their game.
So, maybe warming a bench a few times is a crucial part of the game, in that it deftly illustrates the distance between where you are and where you want to be. It’s what you do with that knowledge that makes all the difference, on the basketball court and off.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Gaza, July 28, 2014: An Israel Defence Forces soldier examines a newly revealed tunnel in the Gaza strip. (photo by IDF via Ashernet)
It’s been awhile since I’ve written. There’s a story I’ve been meaning to share but, unfortunately, circumstances have led me to write a different story entirely, about “the matzav.”
“The matzav” means, literally, “the situation,” but it’s used to refer euphemistically to a current bad security situation in Israel. You say it in a half whisper, the way our parents used to say, “cancer.”
“How’s business going now, with – the matzav?”
“We’re going up north for a few days because of – the matzav.”
“My mother-in-law has been with us for two weeks, thanks to – the matzav.”
It’s definitely not an easy time to be in Israel, though now, more than ever, there is no place I would rather be.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly Zionist household. Most of what I know about Judaism and Israel I learned in college. People used to say to me that being in Israel is like being with family, and making aliyah is like coming home. My family never shoved in front of me to get on buses or overcharged me for souvenirs, so I guess I just couldn’t relate.
I got a little taste of the family thing when I was visiting Israel 12 years ago on a mission during the Second Intifada, when tourism was at an all-time low. I went to the falafel stand in the Old City by the Cardo with my 10-month-old son. There were no other tourists to be found. The owner, who was usually just interested in taking orders and keeping the line moving, insisted on holding the baby while I ate. This was like my family – not always warm and fuzzy, but there for you in hard times.
These are hard times. There’s been a constant barrage of rockets in southern Israel for weeks, keeping the population within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter. As I wrote these words, four people were killed by a rocket fired from a playground in Gaza. This morning, a man on the radio was saying that he’s terrified to shower or even go to the bathroom for fear a siren will go off.
Another woman was asleep and didn’t hear a siren. She only heard the rocket hit her house. She is being treated in the hospital for wounds to the head, legs and knees, but no treatment will cure the fear you can hear in her voice, unable to speak in full sentences.
On the other side of the border, the suffering in indescribable and the media images haunting. I feel torn apart by my pain for the Palestinian losses on the one hand and the need for us to defend ourselves on the other. Then there’s the sadness for the soldiers who are trained to minimize civilian casualties, but who find themselves hurting innocent civilians, behind whom the cowardly terrorists hide.
Our “adopted” lone soldier Danna tells us stories of what her friends see who are serving in Gaza – hospitals and UN schools hiding weapons and terrorists; gunmen literally hiding behind families; terrorists shooting with a gun in one hand and a baby in the other.
As Golda Meir said to Anwar Sadat just before the peace talks with Egypt, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”
Before the war started, I got a call one Friday afternoon.
“Hi, Emily. We’re thinking of cancelling the partnership minyan this week, but I just want to check with you, because I know you worked hard on your speech.”
“Oh, well, sure … but why?”
“We just thought it would be better for the whole community to pray together tonight because of, you know – the matzav.” (Pause) “Did you not here what happened?”
That’s how I heard about the three kidnapped soldiers.
You would think all three of them were from our kibbutz, the way people spoke of them and cried and prayed for them and organized around helping their families. The whole country was suddenly one big family. One big, sad family.
At school, the teachers held special meetings with their pupils to help them digest the news and share their feelings. They had a meeting in the evening to help parents with how to talk to their kids. All this despite the fact that the three boys were from a different part of the country and not at all connected to our school or our region, except that here everyone is connected. At these times, we’re all cousins, brothers, sons.
The news a few weeks later – that the boys were killed – hit hard. I was out for the day to Beit Shean with my son Abaye to get braces on his teeth. Abaye is very sensitive to “the matzav” and I try to keep him away from the news most of the time so we can share things with him in our own way, but there was no escape. The news was on in the dentist’s office, and staff and patients were openly crying. Afterwards, we went for ice cream and the ice cream shop was playing the tape over and over again. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen.
“You’re an ice cream shop!” I wanted to yell at them, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The whole country was in mourning.
Then the rockets started in the south. Everyone’s hearts turned to the families under fire. Our kibbutz Google group filled up with suggestions of where you could bring food and supplies, requests to run programs, and even invitations to drive down south into the fire to help entertain kids in bomb shelters. There were so many projects being run out of so many places that volunteers had to quickly set up a committee to manage them all.
Our area happens to be one of the safest parts of the country. We haven’t heard any sirens. We haven’t even unlocked our bomb shelters. So, everyone is opening their homes.
Several families have come to our kibbutz for a break, and our youth group organized a camp for a week with peers from a kibbutz in the south. I heard on the radio about a resort nearby that has opened its doors to another kibbutz (200 people!), feeding and housing them and running programs for the kids. And these are just a few tiny examples. Every community is doing something.
Then there are the troops fighting in Gaza.
Soldiers were sent to the border to defend our country from rocket attacks. Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to stave off a ground incursion, but the rockets kept falling and, it seems, there was work that could only be done on the ground.
When the army finally went in, they discovered a complex underground tunnel network that Hamas had built to infiltrate Israel. It seems they were planning a massive operation for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah – hundreds of terrorists were scheduled to appear from nowhere in kibbutzim and villages across the south, dressed in Israeli uniforms, for a mega terrorist attack. It’s chilling to think about what they might have done.
Several of the fatalities of this war, including the three kidnapped boys, have resulted from terrorists coming through these tunnels. They lead from private homes in Gaza right into Israeli neighborhoods, one ending directly beneath the dining hall of a kibbutz. It was reported that children on the kibbutz had been complaining they could hear someone digging under them, but adults hadn’t taken them seriously, because how could that possibly be?
So, now we are at war in Gaza until we get rid of the tunnels, of which 30 have been discovered so far, and many destroyed. Meanwhile, the number of fallen and wounded soldiers continues to rise, as well as, of course, the massive toll on both terrorist and innocent Gazans.
But I wanted to tell you about the efforts to support our troops.
Being the army of the Jewish people, the aid started with, of course, food. Fresh meals, cakes and treats – you name them. A renowned chef opened shop to provide gourmet cuisine for the soldiers.
At one point, we got the message that it’s enough food, and now could we please send personal hygiene products (soaps, deodorants, etc.) and “fresh towels with the scent of home”? In addition, children sent so many letters of love and support that the soldiers use them to wallpaper their tanks and living spaces. At the camp for Adin, my nine-year-old son, they changed the program this week so that every day was a different activity to support the soldiers – making gifts, preparing food and raising money.
And, of course, it’s difficult for soldiers to communicate with their families, so the radio has taken to running extra programs in which they can send personal messages.
“Hi Mom, Dad and, of course, my girlfriend Tal. I’m here to protect you and I’m fine, so you can sleep without worrying. I love you.”
And I’m sure Mom, Dad, Tal and half the country are crying with me.
Among the first losses of the war, we heard about the falling of two lone soldiers – people like our “adopted” daughter, who moved to Israel voluntarily to protect our country, who are here with no family. It made me sad to think these people would be buried alone, but what could anyone do? Their whole family is overseas.
A photo of one of these fallen boys, Sean Carmeli from Texas, appeared on the news in a Maccabee-Haifa soccer T-shirt. They were his favorite team. The team apparently shared my concern and made an appeal for people to attend his funeral. Twenty thousand people showed up!
You could call it a social media ploy, but I don’t think so. The next day, there was a funeral for the other lone soldier, Max Steinberg from California. I was afraid his funeral would pale in comparison to Sean’s, seeing as he wasn’t a major sports fan. But my fear was baseless. Thirty thousand people were in attendance. Those who were interviewed about why they came simply said that he made the ultimate sacrifice for them when he didn’t need to, and it was the least they could do.
Max’s family had never been to Israel before. I thought about my own mother, who did not want us to make aliyah, and who would never forgive me if, God forbid, anything happened to any of my kids. Max’s parents and siblings were overwhelmed by the turnout.
His mother Evie told the mourners, “We now know why Max fell in love with Israel. It was all because of its people. He was embraced with open arms and treated like family,” she said, “and, for that, we are eternally grateful.”
When his sister began, “We come from a very small family,” I held my breath expecting to hear her anger or sadness at having lost her brother. Instead, she continued, “But that seemed to quickly change after meeting people in Israel, who made it feel like one big family.”
This morning, I was out walking in the forest around the kibbutz when a new song came on the radio by Ariel Horowitz, son of one of Israel’s greatest singers, Naomi Shemer. The song is about the lone soldier Sean Carmeli. The writer had attended the funeral and was deeply moved. The chorus goes something like this:
20,000 people and you’re at the front. 20,00 people are behind you, Sean. Marching in silence with flowers, Two sisters and 20,000 brothers.
Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli and Sgt. Max Steinberg, and all our fallen soldiers will never be forgotten, because we don’t forget family.
Emily Singeris a teacher, social worker and freelance writer. Singer and her husband, Ross, were rebbetzin and rabbi of Vancouver’s Shaarey Tefilah congregation until 2004. The Singers spent two years in Jerusalem and then moved to Baltimore, Md., where Ross was rabbi at Congregation Beth Tfiloh and Emily taught Judaic studies at Beth Tfiloh High School, until they moved to Israel in 2010. They have four children, and live on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa.
I was 15 during the summer of 1962 when a visiting Lubavitcher rabbi named Zalman Schachter came to Camp Ramah. He sang his soft and expressive melody for the first blessing of the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals), which I remember to this day. It was the first time this yeshivah boy had experienced a different way of giving thanks for the gift of nourishing food, one that focused on the Source of the food. In a sense, I became his chassid that summer, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Six years later, while visiting a friend in Boston, we attended Shabbat services at Havurat Shalom and I moved closer to knowing that I was his chassid when I heard him sing “Eyl Adon,” the Shabbat poem in praise of the many realms of light, to the Yiddish folksong “Donna Donna.” And, four years after that, searching for a spiritual practice that affirmed the first 25 years of my life, and immersion in Jewish practice and study, I wrote him from the B.C. Interior and asked to learn with him, consciously becoming his chassid.
Reb Zalman always said that a chassid must have a rebbe and one becomes a rebbe only when one has a chassid. When he asked me if I would accept semichah (ordination) from him, we created new possibilities for others with what has become the movement for the spiritual renewal of Judaism and a current ordination program of 80 students. He offered me a semichah that I could accept and, as he put it, I gave him permission to begin a lineage which is both new and old.
On July, 3, 2014, I was teaching at our Semichah Week summer gathering at a retreat centre outside of Portland, when one of our students opened the door to my classroom. After waiting politely for a break in the conversation, he said that he had the sad duty of informing us that our beloved rebbe had peacefully passed into the next world that morning. Supported by my students and dear friends, together we affirmed Reb Zalman’s death with the traditional words, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet (Blessed be the True Judge).”
Memories and images passed before me, arising from the years of learning and friendship that we had shared. In the summer of 1971, my life partner, Hanna Tiferet, and I immigrated to British Columbia and settled in the Kootenays. It was a year of living in harmony with the earth and seeking spiritual meaning. Our first son, Noah, was born the following summer, after our house burned down. I had written Zalman for spiritual guidance. He was living in Winnipeg at the time and teaching at the University of Manitoba. He invited me to come to Winnipeg. After Hanna and Noah were settled, I hitchhiked 1,500 miles there and back to officially meet and begin my studies with my rebbe.
In 1976-77, Hanna and I lived in Philadelphia with Reb Zalman, learning how the rebbe “tied his shoelaces.” Mordecai and Hana Wosk visited him that year and they encouraged me to apply for both the University of British Columbia Hillel director position and to become Congregation Beth Tikvah’s first rabbi. This provided the opportunity for us to bring this new-old form of Judaism to a place we loved in a country where I, as the son of a Toronto-born Jewish pioneer, felt at home.
Inspired by the havurah movement and Reb Zalman’s mystical teachings, we slowly gathered people to form the Hillel Minyan, which became “The Minyan,” then Havurat Sim Shalom, which is now Or Shalom. I served the Vancouver Jewish community for 10 years and then went back to the United States to work as the rabbi at Dartmouth College. After another 10 years, we settled in Boston, where I became the director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and, eventually, a teacher in the rabbinic program. Reb Zalman’s teachings became my life’s work and I worked closely with him to translate and transcribe his thought in several books and manuals, including Credo of a Modern Kabbalist, The Kabbalah of Tikkun Olam, Renewal Is Judaism Now, and Integral Halachah.
Reb Zalman revealed to us a Judaism that is open and inclusive. He said that, once we were witness to the profound image of the earth from outer space, we could begin to comprehend the oneness of all life beyond the limitations of national borders. How could we then separate the fate of the Jewish people from that of all people, or the fate of humanity from the condition of all of life on this planet? He taught about deep ecumenism and showed us how to relate to Christians, Muslims, Hindus and First Nations people, embracing and respecting the holiness in each tradition. His mission was to maintain the integrity of Klal Yisrael while also embracing the shared truth in all the spiritual and ethical paths present in our world. Inspired by him, we opened spiritual leadership to women, created services that others could help lead as they developed their skills, designed tallitot that were colorful and beautiful, included gays and lesbians and then all the wonderful and various expressions of identity in our growing communities.
Reb Zalman, together with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, had a spiritual assignment to redeem the Jewish people after the Holocaust. These two shlichim (messengers) from Chabad revitalized Judaism and sparked the renewal of spirituality in every facet of Jewish life.
When I received and accepted semichah from Reb Zalman in 1974 in the Winnipeg home of Rabbi Neal and Carol Rose, I was the first and only member of this new lineage. Now, there are more than 100 ordained as a Renewal rabbi, chazzan or rabbinic pastor, and students keep arriving, though we don’t advertise or recruit. Meditation, retreats, ecstatic prayer, new music, poetry, art and movement are now available options everywhere that Jews gather to pray. So much of this results from the vision, intelligence and spiritual depth of this one man, whose life we celebrate and whose presence on this earth plane we will miss so deeply.
With gratitude for the blessing of his presence in my own life these past 52 years, I say my own Kaddish for my rebbe and spiritual father, Meshullam Zalman Chiyya ben Chayah Gittel v’Shlomo haKohen, z”l. May his memory be a blessing and awaken in us the deep desire to live in peace and harmony with all of creation.
I was caught completely off-guard by the question: “Don’t you sometimes long to run away from all this war and violence and madness and terrorism? You could always go back to Australia.”
This was when, like every other Israeli, and probably Jews around the world, I was listening to the news every hour, hoping that the three kidnapped boys would have been found, safe and unharmed. At that time, there was no news yet.
I looked at my friend, a tourist from my birthplace. I didn’t know how to answer her. Once I would have known. I would simply have said “yes,” and my eyes would have filled with tears of nostalgia for the comfortable lifestyle, the ordinariness of everyday living, of only bothering to listen to the news if I wanted a sporting result or the weather forecast; all the security – emotional, financial, physical – that I’d left behind when I made aliyah.
She was looking at me strangely and, I suppose, a lot of time must have passed since she asked me the question. To me, the answer had become extraordinarily complex. A simple “yes” or “no” would not suffice.
We were sitting on a park bench in Beit Hakerem, in Jerusalem, where I live. It was Sunday afternoon, and I’d looked at the scene before us hundreds of times without truly registering it. A little boy was walking his dog on a leash. A pretty girl was jogging, music from an electronic device giving her the beat and rhythm. A grandfather wheeled a baby carriage. A young couple sat near us sharing a falafel and looking into each other’s eyes. Nothing special. Nothing dramatic.
All the drama had been played out in the weeks and months and years before her visit. Down south in Gaza. Up north in Lebanon. Rockets from Syria. Weeks of needing to hear the news every hour. Years of watching funerals on TV of beautiful young soldiers and ordinary people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Making phone calls to ensure that grandsons in the army, involved in searching for the missing boys in Hebron, were safe.
How could you “run away” from all the things that had shaped your life for decades? Of course, you could leave, but you’d take all that caring and commitment with you. It would feel like an amputation, and you’d never be a whole person again.
Over the years, I’ve been back to Australia for holidays, but they were never successful visits for long. For a few days, I’d bask in the warmth of seeing family and friends, enjoying their attention and the luxury of their lives. But then, someone would make a thoughtless remark about Israel, and I would bristle at their lack of understanding and feel that I had to defend the country. I’d long to be back home in Jerusalem, where I could talk about, even criticize, the government and corrupt politicians, the lack of good manners and the insane Israeli drivers, because I’d be talking to people on the same wavelength. It was different, very different.
The familiar scene in the park suddenly became very dear to me. I didn’t know any of these people, but I loved them. They were my family. I hoped the young lovers would marry; that the grandfather would live to see the baby’s bar or bat mitzvah; that the little boy with the dog would never have to fight in a war.
Finally, I had my answer. “No, I don’t long to run away. It’s not easy, but we understand what all the sacrifice is about. And it’s home,” I added as an afterthought. And, after all, home is where the heart is.
Dvora Waysmanis the author of 13 books. She has lived in Jerusalem for 43 years.
I am an oncologist, and I am Jewish. Fortunately, at this moment, I am not terminally ill, nor do I bear an incurable disease. By virtue of my profession and my age, death, suffering and the indignity that can go with it are familiar to me.
That is my perspective. I lead with that declaration because, when it comes to the business of assisted suicide, context is everything.
The rationale for actively ending a life is always posited on the basis of ending suffering and, hence, preserving dignity. At face value, this appears both straightforward and without controversy. It is not. Whose suffering? What is dignity, and is it realistic to provide some idealized form of dignity in every instance, try as we may? Who is to judge? When to decide, and when to act? Who is to act, and on what authority?
Some years ago, at a palliative-care conference in Israel, I was riveted by a panel where Anglican, Catholic and Jewish physicians discussed suffering. The ordained Anglican, a highly respected surgeon, spoke of the purifying nature of suffering and its role in preparing people for the afterlife. For him, the total relief of pain was at cross-purposes with the spiritual transit of the end of life. For me, as a Jew, this was a striking perspective, certainly far from my understanding that pain of this sort had little redeeming value. Lesson No. 1: Cultural context is important.
More recently, I was asked to see a young man dying of cancer, whose pain seemed uncontrollable. He was desperate to go home. The complex logistics of pain management and support appeared to make this impossible. What to do? We talked, initially rather guardedly, then more openly. It turned out that, more than anything else, he wanted to see his dog. That was why he wanted to go home, for the absence tormented him. We arranged for the dog to make a hospital visit. The pain went away. My patient died quite comfortably in his hospital bed a few days later. Lesson No. 2: Understand the pain; you may be able to relieve it.
Almost 30 years ago, a small group of Winnipeg cancer physicians asked what was then a heretical question: Are we treating cancer, independent of the patient, or are we treating a patient who happens to have cancer? We created the “quality of life” concept, and objective measures of it. What happened to the tumor became less important than what happened to the person – physically, emotionally, socially and functionally. We broadened our understanding of our patients, and so were born the diverse range of interventions and supports we now routinely employ to more than keep people alive. We help our patients live lives. Lesson No. 3: It’s about the person, not the disease.
“Assisted suicide” is a euphemism for ending someone else’s life. Every civilized society holds life sacred. The idea of “Thou shalt not kill” echoes in every faith. The penalties for killing are severe, mitigated by an understanding of intent. Whenever we introduce a legal exception, we run into trouble. Similar arguments about relieving suffering were used by the Nazis to justify first exterminating the weakened and disabled, then the mentally ill, and then non-Aryans on the regime’s hell-bent descent into depravity. In order to execute the policy, a cohort of licensed killers was created. This, in a society once considered the world’s most sophisticated and cultured. Lesson No. 4: Assisted suicide is not a legal matter, it’s a moral one, and we can’t legislate morality.
So, where does this bring me in the consideration of assisted suicide? Full circle, to my ancient role as physician. Not as medical technician, nor as the master of prognostic statistics, derived from groups somehow extrapolated to an individual. I am a member of the one profession whose essential role invokes individual life and death decisions, and acts on risks that necessarily include adverse outcomes causing pain and suffering and death. I’m not doing my job unless I understand context, cause and possibility when it comes to suffering. That takes time, patience and experience. The responsibility is a great harbinger of humility.
Each dying patient has their own context and belief frame for their “suffering.” Each case has its own mix of causes, and things that make it worse or better. My contention is that when we fully understand what’s going on, it is rare that suffering can’t be greatly palliated. It then follows that the perceived need to end life to alleviate suffering is a very rare occurrence.
In this most intimate and delicate interaction between patient and physician, the physician also has context and values. I don’t think they can be legislated away.
For me, as a Jew and as a physician, I can give morphine to relieve pain, but not to end a life. I come down against legalizing assisted suicide as a product of my faith, culture, training and experience. Put as a dichotomy, I’m prepared that a few might suffer more than they can bear, rather than countenance in the name of some kind of generosity of spirit the active taking of a life. I know from history, and I have seen too much of the slippery slope of convenience, to find confidence in any permissive legislative process.
Harvey Schipperis a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
A 28-year-old struggling writer walks up to a checkout counter at Whole Foods. “Where is the Torah study?” he asks. “Oh, the class with the rabbi? That’s in the back, near the nuts.”
The clerk wasn’t being pejorative – the Torah study really is in the back, near the bulk bins of nuts and trail mix. I should know: I’m the nut teaching Torah in the store every Wednesday.
In my 20-plus years as a Jewish educator, I never dreamt I’d be teaching Torah in a supermarket. But, then again, I’m pretty sure the two dozen or so students who regularly participate in the class never thought they’d be studying Jewish text each week, let alone doing so surrounded by organic Swiss chard.
There is nothing new in all this. When the Israelites returned from Babylonian exile in 537 BCE and rebuilt the Temple, Ezra the Scribe noticed that the people were too busy with the pressures of the day to make time for Judaism. On Mondays and Thursdays – the two busiest market days – Ezra stood in the street and read Torah out loud to a people who had all but forgotten their own story. From this seminal moment sprang the practice of reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays that continues in synagogues to this day.
Millennia later, public space Judaism is again an emerging trend. I began my own work in this field as a congregational rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, Calif., inspired by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s teaching: “In a place where you can be Jewish anywhere, we should grasp the opportunity to be Jewish everywhere.”
Torah study at Whole Foods expanded to a host of Jewish events. On Sukkot, our youth group built a sukkah on Whole Foods’ outdoor patio, a banner explained the structure. We nurtured a mutually beneficial relationship with the store manager and staff, and the store sponsored food and activities at temple events. A year later, the relationship had solidified to the point that the store manager invited our congregation to lead a menorah lighting at Chanukah time. At that moment, I knew that we’d not only engaged Jews beyond our shul’s walls; we had changed the public face of Judaism in our community.
For Jewish communities like Vancouver that lack great Jewish population density, public space Judaism is a bit like online dating: if you want to meet someone, you need to let people know you’re looking.
Afterwards, the room was electric with everyone talking about how wonderful it was to connect with a larger Jewish community while on vacation and brainstorming how we might do this again.
How do we accomplish this? My colleague at Temple Sholom, Rabbi Carey Brown, teaches a Talmud class for millennials in a coffee shop once a month; I teach a text-based Jewish current events discussion at lunchtime in an office boardroom. Ringing in the 2014 year, we led a Shabbat service and Havdalah at Whistler Blackcomb. More than 60 people came to the dinner and service, about 45 to Havdalah. Afterwards, the room was electric with everyone talking about how wonderful it was to connect with a larger Jewish community while on vacation and brainstorming how we might do this again. A few local Jewish families asked if we could help educate their remote community. We now have plans to bring Hebrew school and family education to them.
When the rain and snow subside and the sun shines on Vancouver’s beaches, our congregation leads relaxing, open Shabbat services on the beach. We unfurl a banner and post signs welcoming all who wish to join us. And, like at Whole Foods, they come – Jews and “Jew curious.”
Howard Schultz, the man who developed Starbucks Coffee’s identity, famously explained his business model as trying to create a “third place” between work and home where people could gather and feel they belonged. For generations, the synagogue was that third place for Jews.
Like most rabbis, I have tried everything short of standing on my head to get people into my shul for prayer or study. While many come, some regularly, many others don’t or won’t. We can bring synagogue to them. We can meet in a third place of our own creation, filling it with meaning and a measure of Yiddishkeit.
One group in particular was easy to find but hard to reach: Jewish men. They were everywhere in our larger community, but not at synagogue. I asked a socially connected man in my Los Angeles congregation to host a Guys’ Night with the Rabbi in his home. I suggested he invite anyone he wanted and encourage guys to bring a friend.
To my surprise, 23 guys showed up. When we asked them why, they answered, “Because you asked.” Note that the “you” was not me, but the guy they respected and liked who had invited them to his home. Again, it was all about relationships.
We began that “Guys Night” with a simple but powerful exercise – introduce yourself without saying what you do for a living. Men so often define themselves by what they do, how they provide for their families. Our group would only work, we realized, if we could retrain ourselves to change this damaging, isolating pattern that is related to male competitiveness. We would have to see other men as brothers, each one with good things to give and to receive.
We established ground rules about confidentiality and cross talk. In the first months, we discussed Why Do We Work So Hard?; What Kind of Fathers We Had, What Kind of Fathers We Are; Being a Husband: How Has Your Partner Influenced the Way You Think?; Power and the Male Identity.
I always prepared a contemporary text and a Jewish text to help guide our talks, but soon we needed no more than a trigger to get started. The group of about 60 regulars has now met for eight years. Our annual retreat attracts more than 100 and there’s also an annual Community Men’s Seder, based on a Men of Reform Judaism model, that a core group of guys lead for friends and colleagues, which is growing every year. And many of the men who were once absent from synagogue life are now present.
Public space Judaism has taught me that, even in the congregational context, I need to reach out to members. If I wait for them to come to me, they might never come.
Public space Judaism has taught me that, even in the congregational context, I need to reach out to members. If I wait for them to come to me, they might never come. On my first day at Temple Sholom, for example, I was handed the Kaddish list for the coming Shabbat. I didn’t know any of the names, so I started calling members who were observing yahrzeits. Introducing myself, I explained that it would be my first time reading the name of their loved one. Could they tell me a little bit about the deceased, so I had a context for their memory as I read the name on Shabbat?
One by one, congregants told me their stories. They remembered things about their parents, spouses and siblings they hadn’t thought of in years. Tears flowed on both ends of the conversation. When the mourners came to synagogue that week to recite Kaddish, it was easier for them to walk into the place that had been made unfamiliar because of the change of rabbis, and easier for me to stand before them. We were no longer strangers.
Many of those talks also led to my visiting members’ homes or meeting them for coffee to hear their stories. Whenever possible, I set those meetings away from my office. Like Ezra the Scribe, I feel I need to engage the people in their space, not mine.
Yes, public space Judaism is a blind date, and that takes a bit of chutzpah. It begins with the sukkah, the phone call, the get-together at Whole Foods near the nut department. More often than we think, it leads to a relationship – a relationship with other Jews and with our Jewish selves that endures.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitzis senior rabbi at Temple Sholom and co-author of The MRJ Men’s Seder Haggadah (MRJ Press 2007). You can follow him on twitter @rabbidanmosk. A longer version of this article was originally published inReform Judaism Magazine.
Mira Sucharov’s debate with Max Blumenthal is on CPAC.
In a previous blog post on haaretz.com, I discussed what appears to be an increasing chill factor in our Jewish communities. By way of example, I mentioned a then upcoming debate on the topic of whether Israel is and can be a “Jewish and democratic state” between prominent anti-Zionist Max Blumenthal and me, a liberal Zionist. Given the event sponsors (Independent Jewish Voices), many in the audience were primed for Blumenthal’s points – a scenario that makes supporters of Israel uneasy. But, unlike a “hasbarah” activist or a right-winger or even a centrist, we liberal Zionists tend to be both emotionally connected to Israel and critical of Israeli policies. So, on the heels of that event, here are some reflections on what happens when a liberal Zionist debates an anti-Zionist.
When it comes to Israeli democracy, liberal Zionists focus on what is possible. From the government actions of the day, anti-Zionists infer absolute limits.
There were times in the debate where, after I had addressed the central question, namely whether Israel’s Jewish and democratic character are mutually exclusive, Blumenthal would imply that we need to move away from pie-in-the-sky ideals and toward how things actually are. But, as with any experiment in nation building, I see Israel’s democracy as a work in progress. The contradictions need to be seen for what they are: temporary challenges to democracy, and requiring key legal reforms that Israel’s supporters and concerned citizens must continue to push for. Which brings me to my next point: