After centuries of assimilation and isolation from the rest of the Children of Israel, pockets of Jews in China, India, Spain, Portugal, South America, and far-flung regions of the former Soviet Union are rediscovering their Jewish heritage. Thank you to Laura Ben-David of Shavei Israel agency for the photos and your visit to Detroit to teach us all about the amazing work you do. Here is my story from the December 17 issue of the Detroit Jewish News.
Reclaiming Judaism Shavei Israel agency helps “lost” Jews find their heritage.
By Stacy Gittleman
Whether the people it helps live in China, India or Brazil, an Israeli agency called Shavei Israel (Israel Returns) is helping “hidden” or “lost” populations of Jews reclaim their Judaism.
Times of Israel blogger and Shavei Israel employee Laura Ben David made a Detroit stop Nov. 14 at Young Israel of Southfield during a multi-city North American tour to promote awareness and explain the “incredible phenomenon” of Jews previously thought to be lost to the rest of mainstream Judaism returning to their Jewish heritage.
Shavei Israel works with pockets of those claiming Jewish ancestry in nine countries and counting. It is comprised of a team of academics, educators, and rabbinical figures and has the support of rabbinical authorities in Israel and the United States.
“We find it humbling that, in spite of all the problems the Jewish people face, there are emerging hidden people who identify themselves as Jewish and who want to throw their fate in with the rest of us,” Ben David said to a group of 30 at Young Israel in Southfield.
She spent her childhood summers visiting her grandparents and extended family in Detroit. Her grandmother, who is 100, lives at Fleischman Residence in West Bloomfield. Now living in Israel, Ben David describes her job as her “life’s work of reconnecting people to Israel and their Jewish heritage.”
“We find no matter where in the globe we go, there are people who feel very strongly a connection and a love for Israel,” she said. “The very least Shavei Israel can do is help them find their way either by strengthening their Jewish connections while they live in their current countries or helping them make aliyah.”
Ben David focused her talk on the Jews of India or the Bnei Menashe. It is the largest group of “lost” Jews who claim to be direct descendants of the Lost Tribe of Menashe. In recent years, Shavei Israel has brought 3,000 Bnei Menashe to Israel. Another 7,000 remain in India waiting to make aliyah.
The transition to life in Israel and acceptance of their Judaism is a challenge. Although the Israeli rabbinate visited Indian Jewish population centers to verify their authenticity, Ben David explained the Bnei Menashe still must go through a brief yet intensive course of study for conversion. However, because of India’s anti-proselytization laws, they must first move to Israel and undergo conversion there to become full Israeli citizens.
Shavei Israel works with pockets of those claiming Jewish ancestry in nine countries and counting. It is comprised of a team of academics, educators, and rabbinical figures and has the support of rabbinical authorities in Israel and the United States.
Regardless of red tape, Ben David said groups of students greet the arriving Bnei Menashe with open arms. The Bnei Menashe spend three months in a resettlement community in Jerusalem where they learn Hebrew and enroll in a rigorous Judaic study to prepare them for the Beit Din, or the Court of Rabbis, for conversion.
Eventually, they go on to live in “carefully selected” towns throughout Israel where they receive training and education that will lead to sustainable employment. Though they retain “the flavor and culture” of their home country, they become full Israeli citizens and eventually their children will serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
“Our social workers stay in touch with our new olim [immigrants] and we are constantly revising our program to meet their needs,” Ben David said.
“We give them as much support as possible with a goal to facilitate their economic independence.” Young Israel’s Rabbi Yechiel Morris said the talk was eye-opening because it is “fascinating for Ashkenazi Jews like us to know there are other pocket populations of Jews in the world we are only starting to discover. “We are truly a scattered people who are only now starting to make our way home from all the corners of the Earth,” he said.
All over the country this summer, you could hear a plea of GenXer parents to their Millennial children that sounded something like this:
“Get off your screen. Stop playing Angry Birds. Go outside and look at some real birds.”
Screen addiction is as real as that YouTube video of a person walking into a fountain in a shopping mall because they had their head down in their smart phone. Jane Brody, health blogger for the New York Times dedicates many posts to overuse of mobile devices. In July, PBS aired the documentary Web Junkie, which followed Chinese families taking the draconian step of sending their gaming-obsessed teens to a rehabilitation center not unlike a center for drug addiction.
In 2010, a Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded “the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Excessive screen time is bad for a child’s physical health and mental wellbeing. Childhood risks include obesity, a rise in blood sugar, poor posture and the inability to develop proper socialization skills. GenXers, who are the last generation to talk to their friends through a telephone lassoed to the kitchen wall with a corkscrew cord, find a chasm between themselves and their Digital Age native children wider and deeper than any other in history.
Do we let our teens Skype in their bedroom with members of the opposite sex with the door closed? How do we trust our children to independently stay on task and complete their homework on their tablets, now a mainstay school supply, when distractions are only a click away?
WEANING AWAY FROM THE SCREEN
The methods of curbing screen time vary for each family. Some have short-term experiments like kicking the habit for a solid week. Others find that observing Shabbat provides a weekly refuge from every ping and tweet from their mobile devices.
Whether they spent it in day camps or overnight camp, hiking out West or splashing in a neighborhood pool, summertime is the perfect time to rein in a child’s screen habits and think about ways to continue minimizing screen time into the fall.
Brandon Solomon, 15, of West Bloomfield says he uses technology “a lot.” The rising Bloomfield Hills High School sophomore plays video games with his friends up to four hours daily, either hanging out in person or over the Internet. During the school year, he keeps track of homework assignments on his smart phone. Calling Facebook a “bit old school,” he prefers texting and using social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to stay in touch with friends.
The day before a 35-day Tamarack Camps Western travel program that would take him and more than two dozen area Jewish teens to hike, raft and camp out in national parks like Bryce, Zion and Yellowstone, his phone broke.
“It was just as well because we weren’t allowed to take them along anyway.” Between their treks out in the wild, the teens traveled for long stretches at a time by bus. Without their phones, instead of texting to friends far away, they were better able to get to know the kids around them through old-fashioned conversation.
When they weren’t chatting, they read, looked out at the passing landscape or just slept. Now that he is back in civilization, Solomon said he learned a lot about what life can be like away from a screen.
“I realize now that playing video games is not a very productive hobby, and I’m going to try very hard to cut back on that,” Solomon said. “This coming school year, I will try to be more in touch with my friends by getting out, taking a walk and riding bikes. It would also help to be more in touch and on top of my homework.”
TOO MUCH TEXTING?
A few weeks into the trip, the teen tour stopped in St. Louis, Mo. Solomon noticed a group of local teens who texted and stared down at their smart phones screens as they shuffled down the street.
“They looked like a bunch of zombies!” Solomon said. “It made me realize: That is how I look most of the year when I have my phone.”
Indeed, teens prefer texting over talking on the phone or in person. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, half of children aged 12-17 send or receive 60 or more texts a day on average, and researchers at the JFK Medical Center in New York found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts from bed. Does all this texting and the abbreviations that go along with it signal the downfall of the written English language?
Kim Lifton, president of Wow Writing Workshop LLC, says not so. Lifton teaches college-bound students how to be reflective as they approach their college essay and application.
She said with training, teens have no problems creatively expressing their thoughts in their writing. Abbreviations commonly used in texting do not find their way to the essays she edits. However, if you are her student, do not text that essay to Lifton to edit. She embraces texting, but she has her limits.
As far as texting, this GenXer sees it as a communication tool just as her generation used the phone to keep in touch with her United Synagogue Youth pals in various cities across the Midwest when she was in high school.
“I remember my mom scolding me that I would never develop good communication skills because I spent so much time talking on the phone,” Lifton said. “Today, I keep up with these same USY friends on Facebook. It is the evolution of communication, but these tools must be used in moderation.”
What concerns Lifton and other professionals who work with teens is not their grammar but interacting with people in real-time. Some local therapists say that when both teens and adults are overly reliant on texting, they are just venting their feelings and frustrations and are not necessarily having a quality two-way conversation. In seeking immediacy in responses from others, teens are also having difficulty with working things out on their own.
Abby Segal, LCSW, does not always have her cell phone with her. When she sees patients — often teens coming to see her to work through anxieties associated with overuse of technology — her phone is off. According to Segal, the digital age is causing us not only to lose our ability to be present with others without distraction; we are also losing the comfort of solitude. Many of her young clients fear they feel excluded from their friends if they do not immediately answer their texts. Several have been so sleep-deprived from late-night texting or video game sessions that they overslept through their appointments.
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more,” Segal said. “Getting out in the neighborhood on a walk with a friend — that is the kind of communicating kids need the most.”
A NOVEL EXPERIMENT
Jen Lovy of West Bloomfield made national news on Good Morning America this summer when the show learned how in March of 2014 she and her family decided to avoid screens for an entire week. Lovy was “fed up” with the amount of time her three sons, then ages 8, 9, and 11, spent with their technology. So, they kicked the habit for a week. Doing homework, however, on a computer was OK. During the experiment, there was a snow day, plus one of her children caught a late-winter bug that left him home sick for a few days. Still, they
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more.” — Social worker Abby Segal
managed by building with Legos, reading and working on some crafts projects.
“One important lesson my kids learned is that they did not die of boredom,” Lovy said. “And we actually got outside to enjoy the snow.”
The unplugged week showed the Lovys just how much they normally used their screens. After the week, the kids went back to plugging in, although Lovy said she tries her best to limit nonhomework screen time to an hour.
Miriam Svidler, LLMSW of Southfi eld, who works as a counselor at the Cruz Clinic in Livonia, said it is no wonder that kids have a hard time being pried away from their games. According to Svidler, games are designed to make the brain feel good, and this is why children and teens display great irritability when they are asked to stop playing. Noting the extremely addicting nature of computer games and the constant updates on one’s social media newsfeed, Svidler advises no more than two hours a day of screen time if that screen is used for things other than homework.
“Game programmers know exactly how to design a game to make our brains feel good when we use them and bad when we are abruptly torn away from them,” Svidler said. “You need to tell the child that restricting screen time is not a punishment but a motivation to find other pursuits or to spend time with other people face to face.” Svidler advises that sometimes getting that last text from a friend can be reassuring before bedtime. But teens should not rely on texting as a main form of communication with friends.
“It is always best for a teen to have open communication with their parents,” Svidler said. “But if that one text from a good friend can help them get through the night before bedtime, that is OK, too.”
Like many Jews who have become observant, Svidler knows that Shabbat, a 25-hour rest, can be the best weekly break from technology. “For 25 hours, I am able to be present and in the moment, which I have learned is hardest thing for teenagers to do,” said Svidler, who gradually became Shabbat observant through her adulthood. “Before Shabbat, if I want to be with my friends, we make a plan, pick a place, and they just have to trust that I am going to be there.”
When it comes to teaching and learning prayer, Melissa Ser, director of education at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, said there are a multitude of apps and technology to help students young and old. But trying to fi nd that meaningful moment during religious services, she added, becomes increasingly more challenging. Too much screen time is only partly the reason.
“We do not know how to slow down,” said Ser, who takes full advantage of the time Shabbat gives her and husband, Sam, to enjoy a day of unplugged time with their three children. “The world has picked up pace so much in the last few decades, and one no longer has to search and research to fi nd answers. The art of prayer asks a person to dig down into various layers of thinking, and this is something we are not accustomed to doing anymore.”
The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”
When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”
Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region.
This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.
Motor City USY wins honor for second year running
| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.
Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.
The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.
The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”
Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.
In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.
Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.
“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”
Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent
a different coming of age.
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
A group of students sits immersed in Torah study on a recent Wednesday at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Their teacher, Rabbi Rachel Shere, guides the lesson based on carefully selected texts that delve into the theme of coming of age. In preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, the students listen intently and offer their insights about what it means to become a full-fledged member of a community.
No one squirms, asks to go to the bathroom or raises their hand to take a break for a drink of water. Some sip coffee. Others have a tinge of gray in their hair or beards.
Decades older than their teen counter-parts, there is a sizeable population of Jews in the Detroit Metropolitan Area as well as around the nation who are choosing to have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life. While learning Hebrew and the complexities of chanting Torah may be a bit more challeng-ing, older b’nai mitzvah students can bring a wealth of perspective and life experiences and a deeper appreciation for Jewish study than their younger counterparts.
Nationwide, there has been some discus-sion in Jewish circles as to whether or not the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is outdated. Many teens and families see the ceremony as the final day of involvement with Jewish education, rather than as an entry point of a fully participating adult in Jewish communal life.
Additionally, the status of becoming a Jewish adult and taking on the mitzvot of Judaism is recognized with or without a ceremony and all its extra fanfare. The first “belated” b’nai mitzvah ceremo-nies were held at Brandeis University in the 1970s, according to MyJewishLearning.com. Recently, Reboot, a New York City-based organization doing outreach to unaffiliated Jewish millennials, launched an initiative called reBar that asks this age group to re-examine their Jewish identities and their own Jewish coming-of-age ceremony — if they had one at all. If it did not have much meaning the first time around, would they give it another try, along Jewish learning and living, now that they are at an age when they may be thinking about starting families?
Though reBar is active in several U.S. cities, the initiative does not have any activity in Detroit yet. Whether they never had a bar or bat mitzvah, as in the case of women of older generations, Jewish converts or those looking to recharge their Jewish identities, Jewish adults in Detroit are dedicating themselves to study, finding community and being recognized on the bimah in a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
For those seeking adult b’nai mitzvah instruction in Detroit, Adat Shalom and Temple Israel of West Bloomfield have established two-year courses. The clergy take turns teaching weekly courses in a group setting. Subjects include basic Judaism, laws, customs and holidays, and Jewish ethics as well as Hebrew literacy and reading the Hebrew of the selected Torah portion and learning Torah trope in the final six months. Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park is planning an adult b’nai mitzvah program in late 2015 or early 2016.
Adat Shalom’s current class is preparing for a ceremony May 24 in time for Shavuot. The next group of students will start classes in January 2016; new students are welcome. Hazzan Dan Gross teaches with his fellow clergy at Adat Shalom. He said having an adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony timed to Shavuot is symbolic for a group of adults publicly demonstrating their commitment to their Jewish identity and their role in synagogue life as well as their efforts to learn an ancient tradition and carry it into the future. Adults come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Gross said he is very appreciative of the effort students put into learning Hebrew and chanting Torah.
“Everyone comes to class with different lev-els of reading Hebrew,” he said. “As teachers, we have to be cognizant that everyone is at a different pace and sensitive to the fact that, as an adult, it may be harder to memorize the musical motifs of the trope. But what makes learning with adults enjoyable is that they truly form a chavruta, a community of learn-ers who support one another.” Continued Commitment A few of the course’s graduates have gone on to become regular leaders of daily services or regular Torah readers.
Allison Lee, 54, of Walled Lake, a graduate of the 2013 Adat Shalom class, takes pride in her newly acquired skill of chanting the Ten Commandments. Growing up, Lee had a minimal Jewish education and rarely attend-ed synagogue with her family. Several years into marriage, her husband, son of a Lutheran minister, strongly urged that she delve into the teachings and traditions of Judaism. The desire to raise their daughter, Lydia, as a Jew also accelerated the rate at which she learned.
“Through the years, it was my husband who encouraged me to explore my religion, and little by little we would take on traditions, like lighting Shabbat candles, having holiday meals and keeping a kosher home.”
Lee and Lydia became fast study partners. Both mother and daughter celebrated their bat mitzvot within the last two years. “I feel such pride when I chant Torah,” Lee said. “I think, ‘Wow, I get to read the voice of God.’”
She offers this advice to adults on the fence about having an adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremony:
“If you have the slightest modicum of curiosity, go for it. You will be swept away by the amount of knowledge and a feeling of identity and community you will gain.”
The adult bar/bat mitzvah preparations at Temple Israel involve weekly two-hour classes with concentrations on Jewish study, celebrating Jewish holidays as a class and improving Hebrew literacy. The second year focuses on the Torah service, learning its prayers and preparing a Torah service, according to Rabbi Arianna Gordon. Approximately 21 students are involved in each learning cycle.
The current group of students will have a service to celebrate their emergence into Jewish adult-hood in October 2016.
“We have learners at all levels, including some who have recently converted to Judaism, and then some Hebrew school dropouts who are circling back to Judaism later in life,” Gordon said. “A lot of the classes involve personal reflective writing on their relation-ship with God and what about this journey to Jewish adulthood is important to them.”
Gordon said the most important aspect she wants her adult students to gain is a creation of their own smaller Jewish community within the larger scope of Temple Israel.
Jim Rawlinson, 75, of West Bloomfield was very excited to get a new tallit from his life partner, Paula Weberman, when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2014. Jim, raised as a Protestant in Vicksburgh, Mich., said he never met a Jewish person until his sophomore year of college. Though he regularly attended church as an adult, he disagreed with much of its teachings.
With little exposure to Jews or Judaism, reading Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi had an enormous impact on him as a high school student.
“It made me so curious to find out who were these people the Nazis wanted to eliminate,” Rawlinson said. “Later on, in my 20s, the Six-Day War broke out and it made me very upset that so many Arab nations wanted to attack the Jews.”
He spent his professional life as a photographer and learned more about Jewish life-cycle events after he moved to Metro Detroit and documented Jewish weddings and b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
“I noticed at these occasions, there was a stronger pull to family and community, a greater warmth than I had ever encountered in the non-Jewish community,” he said.
In 2009, Rawlinson began to attend services at Temple Israel when he decided this would become his spiritual “home.” As he explored the possibility of converting, he took introductory classes in Judaism and Hebrew. “At a certain point, I realized I wanted to explore Judaism from the inside instead of being an outsider.”
He enrolled in the class, where he felt accepted by his classmates. Alone at night, he studied Hebrew and his Torah reading for hours every night. And come this year’s High Holiday season, he will chant Torah on Yom Kippur morning.
“Becoming a bar mitzvah at this stage of my life has been fabulous,” he said. “I consider Temple Israel my home and could not ever imagine living in a community where I would have to travel a long way to get to a temple.”
Women Role Models
Doreen Millman, 81, of West Bloomfield was one of the first women to become a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in the 1980s. Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., when girls received a minimal Jewish education and only boys were called to the Torah, she credits the memory of conversations with her grandfather as an inspiration for picking up her Jewish studies later in life and becoming a bat mitzvah.
“He was born in a shtetl, yet he was a very forward-thinking person who believed girls as well as boys should have a Jewish education,” Millman said. “I thought I was crazy for doing it — I was up to my elbows raising my children — but I had a lot of encouragement to take on this challenge.” Milman said she enjoyed studying Jewish history and learning how to read Torah. Since her bat mitzvah, she has read Torah at Temple Israel on other occasions, including on Yom Kippur.
“I feel much more comfortable in services now,” said Millman, who attends a weekly Torah study group at Temple Israel. “When I go to services on a Shabbat morning, I can comfortably fol-low along with the Torah reading.” Other women also expressed pride in ownership of their Jewish learning and becoming a bat mitzvah to serve as a role model, and a study resource, for their own daughters.
Shari Stein of West Bloomfield grew up at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, also at a time when girls were not called to the Torah. It was only well into adulthood, and a few years shy of her own daughters beginning their bat mitzvah studies, that she decided to become a bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41. She said she did it not only to deepen her connection to her own spirituality, but also to serve as a feminist role model of “breaking barriers” for her children. “[A bat mitzvah] can be much more meaningful as an adult,” said Stein, who admits her years of Jewish education at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills equipped her with the skills to quickly learn and chant from the Torah and glean insights into the sacred texts.
Stein said that 10 years later, the significance of being publicly welcomed into the Jewish community has much meaning and carries through in her spiritual and professional life. A partner at a Birmingham design firm, she has given her talents to many charitable projects, including Yad Ezra.
“Judaism is a constant process of learning and growth, a practice of tikkun olam and of asking yourself what, as a Jew, can I do for my community?” ■
This summer, my husband and I celebrated our 20th year of marriage with our first European vacation. In the cold clutches of the polar vortex, we asked ourselves, what is the one European city known to be one of the world’s most romantic destinations?
Why, Paris, of course!
Gleefully, we dreamt of a Paris vacation. In the evenings, we played a Paris Jazz Café station on Spotify. Without a single semester of French between the two of us, we spoke sweet nothings to each other in fake Parisian accents.
I dug out my college art history textbooks and plotted my visit to the Louvre.
Then we checked in with the news coming out of France, and our dreams crumbled like a stale baguette.
Anti-Semitism in France has been on a steady incline in recent years, even before Hamas’ most recent war with Israel. In 2012, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that 40 percent of approximately 1,200 French Jews said they avoided wearing Jewish identifiers such as kippot or Jewish stars. For me, all it took was one YouTube video filmed on Jan. 26 with throngs of protesters repeatedly shouting “Jews Out” through the streets of Paris, to rethink our plans.
So, forget Paris. We instead spent 10 memorable days in Italy touring Tuscany,
eating fresh pasta
Italy was far from a consolation prize to France.
However, all that wine did not cloud my awareness that war was still raging in Israel (my daughter spent the summer in Israel), and anti-Semitism was all around us in Europe. Still, I refused to be afraid to be outwardly Jewish. In the Jewish ghetto of Venice, I purchased a star of David made of Murano glass and wore it for the duration of my trip.
In Italy, an appreciation for Judaism’s contributions to humanity on the surface outweighed any animosity towards the Jews. An orchestra in Venice’s St. Mark’s square played Klezmer music.
I still don’t understand where all the Israel bashing comes from. Ignorance? Brainwashing? Plain old Jew hatred?
Against all odds, Israelis, especially those living in the south just kilometers from the Gaza Strip, refuse to become vengeful or embittered by terrorism.
Within days of the flood that besieged many Detroit residents, Israeli NGO IsrAID came to town to help. Taking the skills in teamwork and collaboration that come with years of serving in the IDF, IsrAID volunteers have been on the ground all over the globe where there has been natural disasters: Japan. Haiti. Indonesia. And the United States.
Here is a brief story I wrote about them in this week’s issue of the Detroit Jewish News.
Lending a hand to the cleanup efforts of last month’s flood, eight Israeli volunteers with disaster relief agency IsrAID left their own war-ravaged country and set their eyes, hearts, and hard work on healing flooded neighborhoods in Metropolitan Detroit. Some got on a plane here just days after finishing their military service and will be cleaning out basements and restoring stability to the lives of flood victims for the next two weeks.
Beth Shalom in Oak Park has become the temporary home for the volunteers, where over half the congregants there have had damage to their homes due to flooding, said Rabbi Robert Gamer. The volunteers sleep and eat at the synagogue on air mattresses, linens, towels and toiletries donated by community members. The synagogue men’s club, the Jewish Community Center, the Salvation Army and other charitable agencies prepare their meals.
“These floods have become big news around the world and Detroit has many connections in Israel,” said Rabbi Gamer, who hosted the volunteers for a Shabbat dinner at his home. “My congregation is thrilled that they are here to help those in need. We often think about us helping Israel but here Israel is helping us.”
Nevonel Glick, 27, of Tel Aviv, IsrAID program director and the lead volunteer coordinator in Detroit, said the volunteers, highly trained in the art of efficiency, coordination and teamwork after their service in the Israel Defense Forces, help break the downward spiral of depression and hardship commonly experienced after a natural disaster by helping flood victim. Glick has been with IsrAID for over six years guiding relief projects in Japan, Haiti, the Philippines, Kenya and several places in the United States, including New York City after super storm Sandy.
Unlike some of the poorer countries he has, Glick said IsrAID understands that relief work in the United States does not need Israel’s doctors or search and rescue teams. What victims of natural disasters here need is a path back to financial and emotional stability.
“After a disaster hits, the victim can be stuck in this downward spiral of depression.” Glick said. “All your possessions from many generations may have been lost. Your house is damaged and you don’t know where to start. IsrAID volunteers understand this and we are here to remove that load off your back, both physically and emotionally, moving the victim from utter chaos to a clean house, a clean slate.”
IsrAID helped Shelly Legg, 61, of Oak Park, a woman out of work on medical disability who found herself with not only a flooded basement and a loss of personal possessions, but now without a car, nor the means to purchase a new one. Last week, the volunteer crew helped her sort her possessions between what could and could not be salvaged, tore up and disposed of the basement flooring and wood paneling and drywall which black mold had already started to grow. Next, they thoroughly disinfect and dry the basement for future renovations.
According to Glick, this work saves such a homeowner between $3 to $7K. He expects the team to be able to clean approximately 1-4 homes per day depending on the size of the home and the extent of the damage.
Glick said that his work aligns his Jewish, Israeli and global identities because the work is something he is proud to stand behind. Speaking for some of his volunteers who live in southern Israel, which has endured the brunt of the rocket attacks, the work lets them “channel their anger and frustrations into something good and healing.”
“Disasters foster a lot of unity and resilience and coming together,” said Glick. “It puts things into perspective in my own personal life. Every place we go, we get back more than we give.”
Summer in our house means that the kids in my family get a break from their usual surroundings and, though we will miss them, we the parents take a short break from parenting.
I know that sounds bad to some, that we need a break from parenting so we ship them off to camp. But a wise woman, a mother of five boys, once told me when my children were very young, that one day I will understand: summer is a good time for everyone in the family to have some time on their own in a different place.
I lit three more Shabbat candles than usual and said an extra prayer.
Eyal, Naftali, Gilad, where are you? Who is watching over you? Who is feeding you? Who is clothing you? Gd in Heaven please give them strength and keep them safe until they are rescued. Please.
My husband and I held hands with our three children and sang the blessings. We blessed our children. I now have to rise up on my toes to kiss the top of my fifteen-year-old son’s forehead. He has to bend down to put his head on my shoulder when he hugs me. I can feel his shoulders getting broader. Looking down, I wonder how those feet which were once so tiny got to be the size of a mans, with no signs that they have stopped growing.
As much of a man he is turning out to be, I still dote on, and nudge my teen-aged son. A son who can’t seem to eat enough though he remains thin as a bean pole. A son who plays guitar, has formed a band, and has introduced me to a lot of cool music
The kids that night ate heartily. They enjoyed the last homemade challah they would have until the end of August.
We are not Shabbat observant. After dinner, Broadway show tunes played on the Sonos. My children sang and danced loudly together around the family room.
I tried to soak it all in and be joyful, but having the knowledge that across the sea, there were empty places at the Shabbat tables of three families in Israel, my joy was tinged.
We are going on the third Shabbat in which these families will not have their sons home. Kidnapped by terrorists on their way home from school, Gilad, Naftali and Eyal have not been heard or seen since in spite of a vigorous search and investigation from the Israel Defense Forces.
I don’t know what is sustaining these families. Think about when you lose sight of your kid in a shopping mall or at a carnival. Those few moments are agony. For two weeks, every moment for these families has been agony. Every night their beds are empty must be agony.
I have so many questions.
Where are they being held?
Why is there NO coverage of the kidnapping of these boys in the US media, even though one of the boys has dual US-Israel citizenship?
Why has our President been so silent in this matter?
How could the United Nations be so cruel as to mock the pain of the three mothers, who went to Geneva to testify and plead on behalf of their sons, only to get a response from the UN that there is no evidence of an abduction, that perhaps these “settlers” went on holiday and didn’t tell their parents?
Where are they?
Where are they?
And, what can I do?
What else can I do?
I follow every bit of news coming out of Israel on my Facebook feed, sites like the Times of Israel and Israel365
I say special Psalms
Ribbons tied to my tree for the boys? Check.
Create a sign with the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys? Check.
There is one woman I know who is doing more to help the boys more than anyone else I know.
Remember the woman with the five boys? Almost a decade ago, she and her husband and five boys made aliyah. Now, she works as an educational psychologist and is on the ground in the very town from where the boys families live and is helping schoolchildren there cope with this crisis that has taken away their friends or their siblings. You can listen to her being interviewed on a local Israeli radio show.
Therein lies the difference between one side and the other.
We as Jews when it comes down to it, we really care for each other and will support each other because we are responsible for each other. All of Israel is responsible for each other. In the end, it is something we must stand by to know that it will be all right in the end because we care for each other, and we place the value of life of any living human in the highest regard.
It is sad to say that on the other side, that is clearly not the case.
To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.
Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.
This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.
A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”
My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul. It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.
Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.
We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?
The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us. The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here. As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.
The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us. An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”
We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.
My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.
The third synagogue I went to alone. It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.
I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.
I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.
And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.
An ancient, outdated story?
As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.
But then, in the last chapter, hope.
In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young. These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.
In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.
A very long time ago, in a New Jersey city far far away, a young girl dressed in all black stood pressed against a mob of other darkly clad classmates waiting for the Smithereens to take the stage. In one hand was a pen. In the other a skinny reporter’s notebook. She was covering the concert for the daily student newspaper for Rutgers University. Her very first concert review. She wondered: could writing for Rolling Stone be far off?
She didn’t have to pay because she had a student media pass. She felt so COOL!
Her date, well, he had to pay.
Fast forward, em, several decades later.
She can’t even remember who her date was that evening or who ditched who.
That student reporter jumping up and down in the Rutgers Student Center while covering that great local New Brunswick band? The band she loved so much she played a tape recording (yep, tape recording) of their album Especially for You in her dorm room until it broke?
That would be me.
I’m all grown up. But I still love the Smithereens – the honey smooth baritone voice of lead singer Pat DiNizio. The timeless garage band sound.
So when I learned the Smithereens were playing the Rochester Lilac Festival for free, I thought:
“I’ve GOT to go!”
Then I checked on the date.
Hmmm. Being Jewish, practicing Judaism makes you make some tough choices.
I really wanted to have my eardrums blown away by this band who got their start in my college town. But you see, it was Friday night. And the grown-up me — the wife and mom with three kids — has a rule. Friday night is Shabbat. Friday night is family night.
And for nine years now, my family has spent every other Friday night celebrating Shabbat with a chavurah, pretty much a circle of friends who has served as our extended family in a city where we have no family. And with the move coming, we really only have three more gatherings like this left.
Now, our communal Shabbat celebrations start at 7. And, the host’s home was a hop skip and a jump through the lilacs from the stage where the Smithereens would play. And on such a beautiful Rochester night. And who knows if or when I would ever get a chance like this?
I’m a grownup, right? I can make my own decisions, I could have just walked over to listen to one of my fave bands to take me back to my college days, right?
But I made my decision. To set an example for my kids, who have sacrificed many a social outing to be together to celebrate Shabbat.
And, to see my teen kids leading our prayer services with the other teens in the group….
To hear them sing the prayers for years I had begged, prodded and NUDGED for them to follow along?
As I sat and listened to my kids lead the adults in prayer, I knew I made the right choice.
To Pat and the rest of the Smithereens, I’ll have to catch you another time. And in the meantime, I promise to buy your latest stuff.
This time, I’ll just download it.
Have you ever had to make a choice because of the religion you practice?
My latest student sat before me sullen. Sad even. Completely disengaged. The chid complained of a headache, even a stomachache and could NOT find the strength to sing.
The child had not a chance to review the sentences given to it to study months ago. The child’s iPod had also mysteriously stopped working, so he/she could not listen to the melodies of the chanting either.
I get it.
To many emerging young Jewish adults, studying for one’s B’nei Mitzvah may not be your thing. You’ve got a life, for gosh’s sake! That life is full with homework and friends and sports and has nothing to do with chanting a strange language in a building you hardly go to!
And what does all this Hebrew mean that I can barely read and hardly understand?
And how am I going to find the time to study?
When it comes to hunkering down and preparing for one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, many obstacles can get in the way. In a recent post on the Jewish culture blog Kveller, a rabbinical student even honestly put it out there: why put your kid through the motions of having this Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony if it is devoid of meaning, when a small percentage of Jewish adults even volunteer to read from the Torah after they reach that milestone day.
Here is why.
Like it or not, kid, you are the next link in this 5,000 year chain that cannot be broken.
Last night, after my student left and after dinner and dishes, I watched a PBS special: Space Shuttle Columbia: A mission of Hope, about the 10th anniversary of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. What made it all the more tragic was it was the first time an Israeli, Ilan Ramon, son of Holocaust survivors, took a trip to space.
And on this unique mission to space that bonded this unique multicultural team of astronauts was
a tiny Torah.
A Torah that survived the Holocaust.
A Torah that had been used to prepare a boy for his Bar Mitzvah in the hell of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A boy that survived and grew to be an old man living in Israel still in possession of this tiny scroll.
A Torah that, when Ilan Ramon heard of its story, he knew it had to accompany him in space.
For all of the Jewish people.
I’m not going to retell the story here. I won’t do it justice. But if you can, watch with your family Mission of Hope, and you will understand the Big Picture of why joining the Jewish community as a fully participating adult is an incredibly precious honor.
If that’s not inspiration enough, then look at this photo below:
this is a recent picture of men, Holocaust survivors, who never got to be Bar Mitzvah boys. Until today.
Now, stop kvetching, stop whining, and go study.