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A Mother’s Love. Too many Questions, no Answers.

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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.

Last Friday night, our family of five had our last Shabbat dinner together before we headed to the separate destinations of camp and Israel. And New York. And Italy.

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.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

Detroit: The New Jerusalem? “Shul” shopping and Tish B’Av

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view of Downtown Detroit from the Eastern Market

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?

Hardly.

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.

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The Smithereens vs. Shabbat

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smithereens

a band with a great garage sound, the Smithereens started out in New Brunswick, my college town. They played a free show last Friday night at the Rochester Lilac Festival. 

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.

Friday night.

7 p.m.

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? 

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If you have a child approaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah age, some Inspiration from Space

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The astronauts from the ill-fated Columbia Space Shuttle. 10 years ago, Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli in space, and he had to take this Torah scroll with him.

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:

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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.

A Confession, For the Sin of Being Distracted

Please, for your sake and mine and the WORLD, don't text behind the wheel.

This is the solemn 10 days of Awe, days of reflection that start at the Jewish New Year and end at the last blast of the Shofar at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur Fast.

Over and over, Jews on Yom Kippur in synagogues and gatherings throughout the world stand together and recite a litany of transgressions – in Hebrew alphabetical order –   as they softly pat their heart with a fist. A sample of them go like this:

For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.

For the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently.

And for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.

For the sin which we have committed before You with immorality.

And for the sin which we have committed before You openly or secretly.

For the sin which we have committed before You with knowledge and with deceit.

And for the sin which we have committed before You through speech.

For the sin which we have committed before You by deceiving a fellowman.

Perhaps the biggest transgression of our modern age is the sin of being distracted by a screen.

Even now, as I type this, I’m staring at a screen. I should be kissing my youngest good night. Or tending to another child’s homework.

Perhaps the biggest transgression of digital distraction is texting behind the wheel.

According to a recent article in Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle, Rochestarians are some of the most distracted while driving bunch of people in the nation.

If I can confess: No, I don’t have a bluetooth. Yes, I make non-hands free calls when driving.

But only if I have a number programmed into my contacts.

And only if I have to call my husband during harried after school pick up times.

And even then, I place the phone on my dashboard or on my lap and use the speaker feature.

And sometimes, if I hear an old “new wave” song on the radio from the 1980′s, I click the info button, and just for a split second, peek and see who the artist was. Oh yes, OMD, I thought it was OMD.

OMG, I’m sorry I have been distracted.

But never, never will I answer a call when I’m driving, nor will I ever make or read a text.

NEVER.

You see it all the time. The distraction of couples looking at screens instead of looking at each other in the evening at the dinner table.

The distraction of a cell phone going off or someone texting even in houses of worship.

The other day I was walking home and saw a car lingering for a very long time at a stop sign.

Now, I was crossing the street and I needed to know what this driver would so so I could safely cross.

After about two minutes, when this driver was still at the stop sign, I crossed and peeked into the driver’s seat. There she was, oblivious to the world, texting on her smart phone.

I stared at her and she STILL didn’t notice me.

So oblivious this woman was behind the wheel, she didn’t even notice me creeping up behind her to snap this photo on my phone:

Please, for your sake and mine and the WORLD, don’t text behind the wheel.

On this eve of Yom Kippur, I pledge to do this one change in myself, to be less distracted from my family.

In a nod to D&C Columnist Pam Sherman, I too recently lost my iThing. I just can’t find it. At first I felt lost without it. But, now, I feel liberated. Maybe I’ll find it someday. Or get a new one after saving up. But for now, I’m dealing with the sin of being forgetful and scatterbrained and repenting by trying to live a more mindful, in the moment life.

For those of you who are fasting, I hope you make it a meaningful one.

It’s Heritage Day at my Son’s School. What are we, anyway?

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A note came home in my son’s backpack to state that today, this Friday, the school would be celebrating “International Heritage Day.” Third through fifth grade in my town is a time when students study the cultures of many countries. My child this year studied the cultures of Egypt, Japan, Australia. In successive years they will study about China and ancient civilizations from Greece to Rome to the Inca and Mayan Indians in social studies.

As a culmination and celebration of all this international study, third graders in my son’s school were asked to wear a hat that represents the culture of their immigrant ancestry.

Like most self-respecting Ashkenazi Jews, my family has roots in Russia and Poland. And, if you want to find some real exotic roots in my family, I believe my paternal grandmother was from Vienna, Austria.

But the Polish and Russians never looked upon my ancestors as their fellow countrymen. We were just: Jews. Yids. Pretty much second class citizens. That’s why Jews from Poland and Russia came over in droves to the United States – for economic if not religious freedom.

In my house, we don’t have any connection to Russian or Polish culture. How we identify, ethnically, is through Jewish culture.

So, what hat to use? The Moroccans have the Fez. The Mexicans, the Sombrero and the French, the beret, the Italians have the Fedora (acually, my older son has taken up wearing the fedora because he is so very dapper).

So, this brings me back to the question: What country do we identify?

I should have just put a Yankee Doodle style hat on my son’s head. We are Americans. But are we something else as well?    Is Judaism a people? A religion? A Culture?

With what other country do we identify?

I could have chosen an Israeli Kibbutznik style hat, but that would be so … 1950′s.

So outdated. And, as much love as we have for our spiritual homeland, we are not Israeli.

So of course, to show off our heritage, we selected this one.

A kippah, in the Bukharan style, that we purchased this winter in Jerusalem as we made our way to the Western Wall.

This is the hat of our heritage.

Two great websites for a little Jewish learning each day

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From the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv

It’s been a month since the Hebrew school where I teach has let out and I guess you can say I’m going through a bit of teaching/classroom withdrawal. Yes, I love having my Sunday mornings to myself once again and don’t miss the late afternoon juggle of teaching and then rushing home to figure out dinner at 6:15 (I figured teaching at this hour will train me for the day when I actually do return to work full-time. Someday.)

But what I do miss is the discussions, watching and helping my students as they work through some Hebrew reading; watching them make their own discoveries as they decode a Hebrew sentence and have an “ahah!” moment about their emerging Jewish identities and the cool way the Hebrew language  itself is constructed. 

Sure, I see some of them in this post-Hebrew school twilight between the end of Hebrew school and the end of secular school. I see them at my kids’ track meets, on baseball fields and evening school concerts. We are happy to see each other, but I can’t exactly ask them a question on the week’s Torah portion in these secular settings. 

I’ve gotta teach SOME Jewish kids, so I turn to my own. Namely, my youngest. 

Each morning, before the school bus and after a bowl of cereal, we have been checking out this great website called Israel365. On it’s Facebook page, it states:

Israel365 promotes the beauty and religious significance of Israel. Featuring the stunning photographs of more than 30 award winning Israeli photographers alongside an inspiring Biblical verse, Israel365 connects you with Israel each day.

The photos are inspiring.And, each day there is a sentence from the Torah in English, Hebrew, and Hebrew transliteration. I scroll down the page with the transliteration part so my 8-year-old son has to read the Hebrew. 

“There!” I say to him, after he reads the sentence. “You’ve done a mitzvah of learning just a little bit of Torah today!” 

“I did?” 

“Yup!” I proudly reply, and I feel like I’ve validated myself as doing my job as a Jewish parent for the day. 

Check out the site with your kids and tell me what you’ve learned. 

Another site, this time dealing directly with the Hebrew language is My Hebrew Dictionary which can help you with Hebrew verbs, useful vocabulary and word pronunciation. It even breaks words into themes, like Food, Animals, and a Bar/Bat Mitzvah resource center. 

Over the past week, I referred this site to my cousin in Seattle, who is preparing to sing some Hebrew songs in an upcoming choral concert. If she takes the quality of her singing as seriously as she takes which syllables are accented and word pronunciation, this is bound to be a concert that is Metzuyan (excellent!)

Last night, I attended a great working gathering with about 80 other  20, 30 and 40something Jews in Rochester who are very concerned about carrying Jewish continuity here into future generations. This grassroots group, in its very infancy, calls itself ROC Echad (one Rochester) and I wish them all the success in the world in infusing energy back into our Jewish community. 

At this meeting, we learned the biggest issue that is keeping people up at night: Providing quality Jewish education in our community.

At the end of the meeting, I challenged those who were there to go out and seek for themselves in the next day some Jewish knowledge for themselves.

While there is no substitute for learning and doing Jewish in the company of others, these websites are a good start for some independent Jewish learning.

If you are reading this and decide to do some Jewish learning, tell me what you find out and I will share it on my blog so others can learn. Thanks! 

 

The Passover-Israel Connection

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It would be funny if it were not so tellingly sad.

After weeks of rehearsing Passover songs for  a school wide Seder and in anticipation of April break, I knew my students would be feeling a bit burned out. But still, there was so much left to teach about Passover, especially the idea of redemption and how for modern Jews, Israel is our redemption. However, as our generations get further away from knowing a time before there was the existence of the modern Jewish State, one can take Israel, and teaching for Israel for granted. In afternoon supplementary Hebrew schools, where hours are shaved for time’s sake, teachers must focus  most of their time just teaching Hebrew reading. There is little time to teach Israel.

So, in the final Hebrew school hours before Pesach, I wanted to part with my students with thinking about the Israel-Pesach Connection with a slide show. (if you want a copy of this slide show, please send me an email at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com and I’ll happily send it along.)

I put a picture up from my laptop projector of the following people. Can you name them?

Now, to give them credit, I said I was going to show students slide show presentation from photos that were mostly ones I took in Israel, and told them that most of the photos were mine, but others were those I found on the Internet.

I just didn’t tell them which were which.

So, when I put this picture up and asked if anyone knew who these folks might be, I got some pretty interesting answers:

“Umm…. they must  be  husband and wife.”

“Are they your parents?”

No. No, I corrected them. These people are two of Israel’s most influential leaders in the  formation of a Jewish state. Can you name them now?

Still no answers.

“Children, the man is David Ben Gurion, the first prime Minister of Israel and the woman is Gol-”

“Oh, now I know! Is that Golda Meir, the first woman Israeli prime minister?”

“Yes, that’s right!” Now we were getting somewhere.

The next hand flew up.

“Did you… meet them?”

So, in the final weeks of Hebrew school after Pesach, I realize I have my work cut out for me. I’m pretty sure I knew who David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir were by the end of the sixth grade.  And I knew that, like Moses, these pioneers of the modern state of Israel went to European leaders in the 1930′s asking to let their people go to emigrate to the British Palestine Mandate to escape Hitler’s mad plan for the Jews.

When I get back to class, even though there are only weeks to go, I will put up photos up of Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. And Moshe Dayan. And Menachem Begin. And Rabin and Sharon.

Because, just as we tell our children the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and just as we vow to never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, so must we tell our children the history of the formation of the modern State of Israel. We must somehow weave that right into our Seder narrative just as we sing Dayenu and Adir Hu.

One great resource that I found online this week is the  Israel 365 Hagaddah. It is 60 pages of the traditional hagaddah text combined with beautiful Israel photography plus specially marked “Israel moments” to highlight at your Seder. I hope that just some of this amazing Hagaddah makes it to your family’s Seder celebration.

Pesach Sameach. Happy Passover. And next year in Jerusalem.

The email in the Wall

I’ve been making final arrangements for my son to have his Bar Mitzvah at the “Masorti Kotel,” a part of the Kotel off to the side of the main Kotel Plaza that is known as Robinson’s Arch. This is the designated spot in the Kotel Plaza that allows for a mixed prayer group of men and women.

How do I know the final arrangements are official? The rabbi of whom I am in correspondence with in Jerusalem cc’ed his email to “hakotel.” Yes, the Holiest spot to Judaism in the world was kept in the loop that my son will be called to the Torah in Jerusalem. Now it’s really official.

There is no way of documenting in words what emotions my family will be experiencing when my son, his brother and sister, parents and both sets of grandparents along with friends and a few surprise guests will come to Robinson’s arch to pray in honor of Nathan’s Bar Mitzvah. We’ve been planning this moment since around his birth.

But this story goes back perhaps even farther, it’s a story of the power of prayer and placing a note in the Western Wall, and how Gd answers these notes in Gd’s own time.

Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met one summer  at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. They met through mutual friends on a cracked tennis court. The girl kept missing every shot, and the boy didn’t seem to mind chasing all these balls and retrieving them for her.

The boy really liked the girl. Loved the girl. But the girl just wanted to be friends.

That winter, the boy visited Israel with his family. They visited the Kotel, or the Western Wall. The holiest place in all of Judaism where Jews for centuries pour out their hearts in prayer for a united Jerusalem, for a rebuilt Jerusalem. The boy wrote a note to Gd asking that the girl would one day fall in love with him, his family would be blessed with health, and (a bit of a more material and earthly ask), that he would make it into the Engineering program at MIT.

Within a month of writing that note, the girl  (who would be me) turned him down when asked to prom. Within a month, the boy’s sister became seriously ill with meningitis and lapsed into a coma. And, the rejection letter from MIT showed up soon after that.

That boy felt like he was truly being punished by the Divine.

Not to worry. Gd answers prayers. Just not in the instant we would like them to be granted.

The sister of the boy recovered and thrived,  went to MIT and went on to finish an MBA at Columbia University, has a tri-athlete husband and four beautiful children, and a thriving cupcake business!

Nine years later the girl that turned down the boy for prom came around and they were married before 247 guests!

The boy in the story is my husband. Whenever we are having an argument, or whenever my husband is getting on my nerves like when he doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher, I think back to his note in the Kotel, realize that our  marriage is meant to be by Gd, so I let it slide.

Now, I’m going back to the Kotel again, the fourth time in my life. No two trips to Israel or the Kotel are ever the same. Each time you go there, you are a different person perhaps at a different phase in your life. So, I’m going not only with my family, but I will also be going as a messenger taking along the notes my students wrote to place in the Kotel.

Most of them.

As my students started their note writing, they had many questions: How will Gd know it’s me? What should I write? How long does it have to be? Can I ask for anything…. anything? Is this a wish, or is this a prayer? And, will it come true, what I ask? How do they keep all the notes from falling out of the cracks?” …. and so on.

I guess this is a lesson to myself that it is hard for a child to know exactly how to compose a prayer of one’s own to be placed in such a holy place when one has only an abstract concept of the place itself. These students have only the most fledgling connections with Israel, let alone an understanding of the emotional impact that a united Jerusalem, and access to Judaism’s holiest site, has on the Jewish psyche. But they did their best, and I answered their questions as best as I could.

A note in the Kotel can express thanks to Gd for the health of family and friends. A note to the Kotel can ask to heal broken friendships or relationships. A note  to the Kotel can ask to be provided for, and to never know hunger but one should not ask for “Lots of Money and an iPhone.” A note to the Kotel can ask for world peace and haters of peace, for their plans to be destroyed. But a note should never ask for the death of your enemies, let alone a family member. Gd is not your hitman. These notes will not be placed, nor do they deserve a place in such a holy place.

A lesson in hospitality

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write a blog post, perhaps because I’ve been a little pre-occupied. Hosting a Bar Mitzvah that includes many out of town guests becomes a four-day affair. My column, teaching and profile pieces also kept me spinning these last few weeks. So instead of my rantings, I’ll offer my son’s Bar Mitzvah speech (otherwise known as a d’var Torah – words of Torah) for this post.  I am thankful that he took direction from me during the writing process. After all, what are writing/blogging moms for?

Shabbat shalom,

It has been an honor reading from the torah today. Actually, I was kind of lucky
that my parasha is Vayera. Unlike other parts in the Torah that deal with leprosy, animal sacrifices, or the appropriate punishment for stealing an ox, Vayera offers a classic narrative of stories we all know: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham casting his handmaiden Hagar and their Child Ishmael into the wilderness;  and finally the long-awaited birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah after they showed hospitality to three visiting angels.

If anything, there was too much to write about in my parasha. But I would like to
focus on two central themes: bargaining with Gd and the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, or hospitality. These themes were repeatedly contrasted in this morning’s reading. Let’s start
withSodom and Gomorrah.

Gd calls out to Abraham on the news that He is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This
is one of several instances where Gd calls to Abraham, who then says: Heneini –
here I am.  The inhabitants of these two cities are said to be so evil that a kind act such as hospitality to strangers is decreed a crime. The rabbis capture just how bad
the Sodomites were with this Midrash:  The Sodomites refused to expend any of their
lavish wealth on strangers. In fact, Sodom provided only one bed for strangers;
if an unlucky traveler was too short to fit, he was stretched until he could;
if another was too tall, his legs were chopped off.

Even so, when informed of the news of the impending destruction, Abraham shows
courage and actually bargains with Gd: Finally, Abraham agreed with Gd about
the destruction when not even 10 good people could be found.  Gd was pleased that Abraham bargained for the sake of his fellow human beings, even though Gd knew there were not enough good people to save Sodom andGomorrah.

This part of the parsha taught me that one should work very hard to try finding the
good in any instance or that one can find the good in any person.

But this d’var Torah is not about the evil in the world, it’s about people doing
good for others. The main message I learned from Vayera that I can apply
throughout my life is the mitzvah of hospitality. The Talmud states that
hospitality is such a great mitzvah that it is more important to show
hospitality than it is to attend classes of study or to greet Gd in prayer.

In one point in today’s Torah reading, we find Abraham sick and old, yet he is
still waiting in front of his tent to receive guests.  In the distance, he sees three strangers
walking towards him. Suddenly, he moves into action. The text in the Torah
demonstrates how animated he became for the sake of greeting guests. He BOWS to
his guests, he RUNS into his house and SHOUTS to his wife Sarah,

“maheri shalosh s’eem kamah solet lushi, v’asi oogot.”

This translates into something along the lines of “Quick woman! We have guests, make
some cake!”

The words “run” and “quick” are repeated over and over as Abraham hurries to attend
to the strangers’ every need. He personally gets the whole family into the
catering business as they lavish their guests with an abundant feast.

This teaches me that although Abraham is weak and advanced in age, when he sees the
weary travelers, he suddenly finds energy in the mitzvah of welcoming guests
into his tent. Greeting guests to Abraham is more important than his own
comfort.

In another reference to hospitality, Lot, who is
living in the town of Sodom, is also greeted by angels. He also makes haste in preparing their meal.
However, he does not involve his family, and where Abraham serves his guests at
the doorway of his tent – in view of the public eye – Lot’s
hospitality is done secretly. Still, the Sodomites show their true nature and
look to punishingLot for his good deed.

Perhaps the reason why Abraham enjoyed having so many guests is because of the things
he learned from them.

Pirkei Avot  asks: “Who is wise? He who learns from many is wise.”

As long as I can remember, my family participates in a chavurah every other Friday
night for Erev Shabbat. Everyone in the chavurah takes turn hosting the other
families, and we all pitch in bringing different parts of the meal. When it is
my family’s turn to host, for us kids, it’s not easy. It’s the end of a long
school week and we are tired. But, we are expected to help get the house ready
for our guests. There’s no time to sit around and watch “That 70’s Show.” We
have to rid the kitchen of any papers or any evidence that three busy children
live in the house. After sterilizing the kitchen, we have to find white
tablecloths, sort the silverware, and set up the glasses for Kiddush. But after
our guests arrive, the beautiful singing of Kabbalat Shabbat, plus the usual
ice cream for dessert makes all that work totally worth it.

Inviting guests into your home makes them feel special and more connected to the
community. In turn, perhaps the hospitality they were shown will inspire them
to extend hospitality to someone else.

Sometimes, guests can be close friends and family. Other times, guests can be complete
strangers.

I’ve learned a lot about Israelis by having teachers from Modi’in stay with us. This past Sukkot, we
opened our sukkah not only to our guest Inbar, but the other teachers who were
visiting plus their hosts. The house was full of energy and about 30 people had
a chance to eat in our Sukkah before the rain started.

Another form of hospitality is letting someone into a group. A good example of this is when you
are in school and your math teacher asks you to split up into groups of two to
work on a project.  Kids, don’t wait for that fellow student that didn’t get put in a group to go through the humiliation of sitting alone in class. Go over and invite him or her into your group.

Another example of being shown hospitality by being included in a group I learned from my mitzvah
project. Over the past few months, I helped train dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The tricky thing is, I don’t have a dog.

YET!

But one puppy raiser named
Becky showed me hospitality by letting me “borrow” her dog Ben during the
class. If it wasn’t for her, I would not have gotten anything out of my mitzvah
project. She and Ben wouldn’t have progressed at a more rapid pace if I wasn’t tagging
along saying things like like “how do you hold the leash?” or “Ooops, I dropped
all the treats on the floor again.”

Guiding Eyes is an all-volunteer run foundation for people who take dogs into their homes, train
them and prepare the dogs for one day serving as a companion to a blind or
disabled person.  It has been very inspiring to see how much Ben has improved in paying attention in the weeks I have worked with him.

Now that I am a Bar Mitzvah, I am honored that the entire Jewish
community is showing hospitality to me, welcoming me in as a fully participating Jewish adult.  Now, if I’m home, or in Hebrew school one afternoon and there is no minyan for mincha/ma’ariv, I can be called upon to help. This will really make me feel important and part of the community.

Vayera concludes with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  It’s hard to argue that Abraham was being
very hospitable when he obeyed Gd’s command and brought his son Isaac to Mount
Moriah to be sacrificed.

I find that strange, this is a man who bargains and  with Gd to save two cities full of strangers who
are really bad people but doesn’t open his mouth in defense of his son.

I think about my own life, and situations that might happen that might somehow
relate to this, for instance: if my father ever asks me to hike up a mountain
for no apparent reason, I might buy it, but that will change when I notice a saddled donkey in the driveway.

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