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Social Justice Jews: Standing Up for anyone but themselves

I believe in social justice. One of the most-quoted verses of the Torah: Zedek Zedek Tirdof – Justice, justice, you shall pursue – is one of the key life values in Judaism. 

I was raised on the values of Tzedek, Tzekaah and Tikkon Olam and social justice, and all those wonderful things, in my Jewish upbringing, including my involvement in United Synagogue Youth. In its leadership structure, there is even a position – Social Action Tikkun Olam – set aside to fundraise for various social causes, Jewish and non-Jewish

Social action meant collecting food and school supplies.

It also meant making phone calls and marching for our Soviet Jewry bretheren to be free to emigrate to the U.S. or Israel.

It also meant learning about and speaking out for Ethiopian Jewry.

It also meant studying the formation of the modern State of Israel and marching for her proudly in the Israeli Day Parade.

Being a Jew who believes in social justice for others does not mean that I believe in ideological or existential suicide.

I also believe in Jewish self-preservation. In the belief that Jews have a right to live freely and more than survive but thrive in their own ancient homeland and from there be a light unto the nations.

That is Zionism.

I do not believe in appeasing one’s enemies in the name of justice. That is simply suicidal.

The Jewish Voice for Peace Convention is underway right now in Chicago. Its key speakers are two Palestinian women who led the Women’s March on Washington, Rasmea Odeh is a convicted Palestinian Terrorist who murdered two college students in 1969 and the other, Linda Sarsour, recently was interviewed stating that Zionism and feminism are incompatible.    In my latest

 In my latest piece in the Detroit Jewish News covering where Jewish Millenials are in their own Jewish journey, three out of the four young, bright women I spoke to have actively been involved in Jewish Voice for Peace.

One is a rabbi. One is a lesbian. Which I completely do not get, because homosexuality is not a human right that is preserved too much under the magnanimous terrorist organization Hamas which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2005. 

Overall, in my opinion, which I can express here in my blog but not in my reporting, I think the work they do, fueled by Jewish values, is fantastic. 

It is fantastic that they fight for housing rights for the poor in New Orleans. Or the rights for the LGBTQ community in New York. These are all strongly tied to Jewish values. 

But Ahavat Yisrael – a love of Israel, and standing up for Israel and therefore the Jewish people and therefore themselves, is a value that you seemingly can no longer carry out in the name of all other leftist values. 

It troubled me that when it comes to Israel, these young people become involved not with AIPAC or Stand With Us, but Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that does not question the meaning of the term “occupation” because if they did they would have to admit that it is the occupation of 1948, not 1967, that the oppressed that they so willingly and lovingly support are talking about. 

It troubles me that if they truly cared about Palestinian genocide, they would be calling out governments such as Lebanon and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been murdered. 

I could not write about this in my article. And I was so congratulated today by a reader that was “so glad” that the left is being covered in a Jewish newspaper. 

I am hoping that other readers read between the lines and see that this is a generation that has lost its moral compass and has little to no understanding of Jewish history. 

Avodah’s work toward social change attracts many Detroiters

Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer

Perhaps it is because they grew up just outside a city that has seen its share of poverty and segregation or maybe it’s their strong desire to find meaningful ways to express their Jewish values through pursuing social justice causes.

No matter the case, many Detroit millennials have taken the directive “Justice, justice you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20) to heart by spending a year participating in New York-based Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps. They said Avodah shaped not only their career paths in standing up against poverty and discrimination, but also forged a new and inclusive Jewish identity for them.

For nearly 20 years, Avodah has worked on social change and anti-poverty issues in New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Chicago. More than 1,000 have participated in its Jewish Service Corps program. In the last four years alone, at least 15 of the organization’s alumni hail from Detroit, says Steve Bocknek, the organization’s senior director of external affairs, who is also a native Detroiter. Executive Director Cheryl Cook also is from Detroit.

Rabbi Alana Alpert of Reconstructionist Congregation T’chiyah participated in Avodah in 2006. The program inspired her to become a rabbi. In rabbinical school, she continued to organize communities for change on a range of causes, including prison reform, Palestinian rights issues in Hebron and in the LGBTQ community.

“I can’t imagine my career happening without Avodah,” said Alpert, also co-founder of Detroit Jews for Justice, a group that strives to make social change central to the life of Congregation T’chiyah and then spread these efforts into the entire Jewish community of Metro Detroit.

“I was empowered to do serious work at my placement right out of college,” she said. “I gained skills for leadership and self-care that sustain my work, and I joined a Jewish community that continues to nourish and support me.”

Just as she does with other Jewish holidays, Alpert engaged millennial Jews this Purim with a spiel that sits at the intersection of tradition and current events. Last year’s theme centered around the poisoning of the water in Flint. This year’s Haman was portrayed by Secretary of Education Besty DeVos threatening the schoolchildren of Detroit.

According to Alpert, this project is led by Jews in their 20s and 30s. They do not see synagogue membership as a mechanism to their Jewish identity, she says, but are making Judaism relevant to them. They want to immerse themselves in social justice causes, and this is the language and framework to which they respond.

Alpert said within Detroit’s younger generations of Jews there is a great desire to heal the rift that occurred between urban and suburban populations during the ’60s and ’70s. She says Jews for Justice wants to help heal Detroit. However, she cautions that alleviating the short-term symptoms of poverty — like collecting food and school supplies — may feel good to the volunteer, but real change will only come by influencing policy change at the city, county and state levels. She is looking to inspire a Jewish generation that is into social change and justice for the long haul.

While Avodah attracted transplants like Alpert, a California native, to make a go in Detroit, it also led others elsewhere.

Native Detroiter Elizabeth “Lizzy” Lovinger, 28, participated in Avodah in 2010 and now lives in Brooklyn. A longtime activist in the LGBTQ community, her work through Avodah with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis led to her current position in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

She said moving to a new city when you are young and single can be very lonely, and she is thankful for her year with Avodah and the professional and social support it provided.

“I lived with other Avodah participants that year,” Lovinger said. “After a hard day at work, I came home to supportive Jewish housemates. We cooked dinner together and talked about the challenges of our work and shared advice.”

Now, she enjoys the inclusiveness of the Park Slope Jewish Center, in addition to hosting Shabbat dinners where topics of conversation range from building communities for Jews of color to fighting racism.

She also is an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a Jewish American organization that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and works toward a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

Avodah’s Bocknek says there is no relationship between Avodah and JVP.

Elizabeth Lovinger

Lovinger said her involvement with JVP, which developed independently from her involvement with Avodah, along with her activism in Brooklyn-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and at her synagogue, are central parts to her Jewish life in Brooklyn.

“I’ve long been opposed to the occupation, and I wanted to find a Jewish community that contained a wide variety of opinions and experiences about Israel and Palestine,” she said.

“This was actually something I was looking for when I started in Avodah, and something that is just as important to me as my community’s commitment to racial justice, economic justice, LGBTQ justice and ending other forms of oppression. By defining Judaism on my terms, I have truly found my Jewish community.”

Work In New Orleans

AvodahNewOrleans.jpgSeveral Avodah participants who grew up in Detroit headed south and worked for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) to fight against housing discrimination issues.

At an early age, Lisa Tencer, 28, became aware of Detroit’s “extreme segregation issues” and decided anti-poverty work, through a Jewish lens, would become her life’s calling. Upon her 2015 graduation from the University of Michigan, she enrolled in Avodah’s program in the Crescent City.

Tencer continues to work at GNOFHAC and is now a testing coordinator monitoring trends in housing discrimination. She maintains her Jewish connections in her new city by living in the local Moishe House and being an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

“My childhood neighborhood in Huntington Woods was just a few miles away from neighborhoods vastly different than mine,” Tencer says. “When I moved to New Orleans with Avodah, I saw many of those same painful similarities. It helped me redefine my Jewish identity. Just because I do not attend a synagogue does not mean I do not have a deep connection to Judaism. I choose to identify through social action.”

Miriam Liebman

Another Detroiter who spent her Avodah year fighting for fair housing at GNOFHAC is fifth-year Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student Miriam Liebman, 30, of Farmington Hills.

During her Avodah year in 2009-2010, she helped GNOFHAC in its lawsuit that overturned a discriminatory “blood relative” ordinance in St. Bernard Parish that violated the Fair Housing Act. The ordinance prohibited property owners from renting to non-blood relatives. At the time, 93 percent of the population in the parish was white.

“What I saw and did in New Orleans through Avodah strengthened my resolve to someday return to my native Detroit,” said Liebman, who grew up going to Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills and had a day school education through the 10th grade.

“I know the reality of the job market for young rabbis, but someday I hope to be back to work and live in Detroit. To me, this is what it means to be grounded, to come home to a place where my family roots are.”

Liebman said her Avodah experience reinforced her knowledge of justice being a core pillar of Judaism.

“Justice affects how we see and look at other individuals and makes us realize they, too, are created in the image of God,” she says. “The question is: How can we mobilize communally in how we see and change the world around us?”

2015-2016 New Orleans Corps member graduation, with Corps members and alumni. Lisa Tencer of Huntington Woods is seated, third from left

The Power Of Singing

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At Beth El Shabbaton, Joey Weisenberg will empower guests to unlock their musical and spiritual potential.

(originally published in the Detroit Jewish News)

To harness the community-building power of singing, Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Township welcomes the young and the young at heart to lend voices both harmonious and imperfect to a Shabbaton featuring renowned musician Joey Weisenberg. The uplifting event will be Feb. 26-27 at the Bethel Community Transformation Center (BCTC), 8801 Woodward Ave., the former home of Temple Beth El in Detroit.

Weisenberg, 34, the creative director of the New York-based Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music and author of Building Singing Communities, will introduce melodies and methods of singing that blend Old World Chassidic niggunim with old-time American flair.

Working in the context of Renewal Judaism, Weisenberg has worked for the past decade to empower communities around the world to unlock their musical and spiritual potential, and to make music a lasting and joy-filled force in shul and in Jewish life. Now residing in Philadelphia with his wife and four young children, Weisenberg grew up in Milwaukee in a family with Midwestern roots that trace back to before the Civil War.

His parents were both trained musicians, and he grew up listening to classical piano from his mother as well as classical flamenco guitar from his father. Raised in a multi-generational traditional Jewish home, he remembers going to Shabbat services with his grandfather in nine different synagogues that spanned the spectrum of Jewish observance.

“My grandfather taught me there is something to be taken and learned from every denomination of Judaism,” said Weisenberg, who ditched a pre-med program at Columbia University to pursue the life of a professional musician, composer and teacher. “Above all, people connect to music because it does not speak in dogma but instead speaks in the language of the soul. [Singing] is the way we all become a collective heart, and we all become strings of David’s Harp in harmony.”

 

 

BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER

Weisenberg’s musical career started with playing guitar as a studio recording session artist and then touring the country and parts of the globe with musicians playing Brazilian samba, American blues and Klezmer.

After a while, he wanted to see what would happen if he moved the singing and playing music offstage to be where the people are, and to bring the audience into joining in with song. As he travels around the country teaching Jewish communities how to energize prayer through singing, including pockets of Jews in Alaska, Weisenberg wants to dislodge the notion that music and singing is just for kids.

“Some of the best teachers I have learned music with are two and three generations older than me,” Weisenberg said.

Rachel Rudman, 28, Temple Beth El program director, says the Shabbaton, the first of its kind in Detroit, is a way to “create bridges between suburban synagogues and younger, urban Jews.”

She said hosting the Shabbaton in the historic Beth El building enables TBE to reach out to millennial Jews seeking a neutral space to practice a highly spirited form of Jewish prayer. Weisenberg can deliver just the thing, she said.

“I have had several opportunities in my life to learn from and sing with Joey,” said Rudman, who recently returned to her native Detroit in 2014 after living in New York.

“When services are conducted in a tight circle and everyone is looking at each other and investing their voice in the prayer, you feel the energy coming from the people next to you. It really becomes a spiritual experience.”

The Shabbaton will begin with Kabbalat Shabbat services at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and finish with Havdalah, plus an extended song session on Saturday evening. Participants are welcome to bring sleeping bags and air mattresses to spend the evening. Services on Friday and Saturday will be a cappella style, but Havdalah and beyond will include drumming and strumming of guitars so participants are welcome to bring their instruments as well as their voices.

Cost is $36 for the entire Shabbaton or $20 per day and includes homecooked vegan meals and lodging at BCTC. For more information, contact Rachel Rudman at rrudman@tbeonline. org or (248) 325-9706. *

 

 

Never Too Late

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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.DSCN2211

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.

Exploring Judaism

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?”  ■

Identity. In Italy.

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,

DSCN0634 Venice,

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and Florence

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eating fresh pasta

DSCN0435DSCN1242and  gelato and drinking wine.

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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.

DSCN0620In Florence, tourists wait on line for hours to see Michelangelo’s David, the boy would be king of ancient Israel.

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I know he is made of stone, but I can’t help having a crush on David.

Read More…

France Can Take A Lesson in Religious Tolerance from Detroit’s Interfaith Council

On these snowy days I admit I have done way too much trolling on my Facebook news feed. One alarming video clip that came across my newsfeed was a very disturbing video of Fascists in France waving a red swastika flag, shouting Jews Out! Jews Out!

Do they have the right to march peacefully and express their views in a democratic society? Maybe. Have these French citizens forgotten the history of WWII when the Nazis themselves goose-stepped through the streets of Paris shouting the same hatred? Absolutely. 

Today’s Germany would not stand for such hate marches, free speech or not. In fact, it is illegal to fly the Nazi Flag anywhere in Germany or have a Nazi rally. 

I wonder, in this country which proposes to ban the wearing of any religious symbol or clothing, what they teach their children about religious tolerance. 

A few weeks back, I had the honor of attending and covering a “Face to Faith” Journey to Judaism sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Greater Detroit. Sitting in the massive sanctuary of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield with 150 seventh graders, I felt right at home. And you know something, so did the kids. Even if they never set foot in a Jewish house of worship. Even if they never had a Jewish friend. 

Cynics might wonder if such interfaith explorations organized by Detroit’s Interfaith Council really teach tolerance. But, after you watch the disturbing and disgusting video of Fascists marching down a street of what is supposed to be the world’s most civilized city shouting “Jews Out!” consider the alternatives.

Here is the article which ran in the Detroit Jewish News

What does a rabbi look like?  To the uninitiated, a rabbi wears a long black coat, grows a long beard, and therefore must always be a man.

Temple Israel rabbis, teachers, and other volunteers at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield helped to dispel this and many other misconceptions about Judaism as they guided a diverse group of 150 seventh graders from six school districts through a “Jewish Religious Diversity Journey.” The trip was part of a series of explorations into different religions created by the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

According to the council’s administrator Meredith Skowronski, Religious Diversity Journeys for the past 11 years has taken young leaders  – 25 handpicked students from each school district – on six trips to a different house of worship to foster understanding and a celebration of cultural differences.  Participating school districts include Berkeley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Clarkston, West Bloomfield, and Walled Lake.

Gail Katz, a retired Berkeley teacher and the director of Religious Diversity Journeys, explained that the program fits in perfectly with the World Religions unit of the seventh Grade curriculum.

“The Journey only extends what they are learning beyond the textbook and the classroom,” said Katz as she mingled with the students during a morning icebreaker. “We strive to increase respect and understanding among all students.”

Rabbi Josh Bennett – who is clean-shaven and does not wear a long black coat –  kicked off the formal component of the day of learning in the temple’s large sanctuary. Students, impressed by the large golden ark on the bimah, learned about the three different branches of Judaism and the belief in one God, learning Torah and the connection to Israel, which unites Jews across every level of observance

Later in the morning, groups of students took turns touring the building and listening to Rabbi Ariana Gordon explain the cycle of Jewish holidays, the complexity of having a Hebrew calendar that is both lunar and solar, and the odd phenomena this year that was “Thanksgivingkah.”

The students also visited the building’s mikvah and viewed an open Torah Scroll with Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny.

“These trips are an invaluable lesson where kids get a hands-on learning experience and are made to feel welcome in different houses of worship,” said Kaluzny after teaching a group about how a Torah scroll is made and written.

Over a Mediterranean vegetarian lunch prepared by Mezza of West Bloomfield and sponsored by Temple Israel, students expressed their appreciation for the program, which allows them to explore other traditions and pose questions that would seem inappropriate or uncomfortable in a classroom setting.

Ben Johnston of West Hills Middle School came away from the program with a better understanding of the different branches of Judaism and the customs and holidays his Jewish friends celebrate.

“This program is important to me because we have a diverse society,” Johnston said. “We go to school with different kinds of kids, and as we get older, these are the people we’ll go to college and work with. We must have the knowledge of their backgrounds so we can be more tolerant and understanding.”

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Ben Johnston, a student at West Hills Middle school, learns about the role of a mikvah in Jewish life during a Religious Diversity Journey.

Ashley Liles and Maddy Merritt, both of Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston, do not go to school with many Jewish kids.  The program allowed them to peer into a Siddur and not feel embarrassed to ask why it opens up backwards or why the letters look different than English.

templeisrael 008Maddy Merritt left, and Ashley Liles, right, seventh graders from Clarkston’s Sashabaw Middle school, examine Hebrew letters in the sanctuary at Temple Israel at during a Religious Diversity Journey.

The “journey” gave them a better perspective of the history and origins of the Jewish people.  Not only did it widen their understanding of Jewish holidays beyond Chanukkah, but the lesson with Rabbi Gordon also gave them a broader understanding of a holiday they would otherwise only know as a “Jewish Christmas.”

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Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, displays a Torah scroll to seventh graders on a Religious Diversity Journey with the help of parent volunteer Janet Cummins of Birmingham.

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

downtown

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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Finding Light and Gratitude from a Very Dark Place

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: Doctor Rosanna Tro...

 

Saturday night, the night my parents went to a double wake for two Staten Islanders who drowned in their basement when the ocean came in, my faith was totally shaken.

I’m normally a person pretty strong in my faith, pretty sure that God has a plan and we can’t understand it. I pride myself in holding strong to my Jewish heritage and encourage my students to do the same.

But the other night, if just for a few hours, I gave up.

I went to bed in a dark place, filled with the images of helpless cold people from the neighborhoods of my childhood. I went to bed angry, completely pissed off at God. God, I thought, didn’t you promise to Noah never to destroy the earth again by flood? What was that about? Why do we humans have to see floods over and over again? How am I supposed to get up and teach my students tomorrow about your blessings, for blessing us with everything we need like food and shelter when there are people like my parents who are still without power and warmth in their own homes? When there is a wife who has lost a twin son and her husband AND her home in one single wave?

Lesson learned: when you go do bed angry at God, you don’t receive the blessing of sleep.

The next morning was Sunday. The sun shone brightly. Even when you can’t see it, there is the sun.

In New York City, it was Marathon Sunday. Fortunately, Mayor Bloomberg came to his senses and cancelled the marathon, but not before thousands of marathoners traveled just to be stuck and cold in the big apple. For me, it was off to teach  Hebrew school, which opens each week with me helping to lead a tefilah,or prayer service, for students 7th grade and up.

Before going to bed, I expressed my very dark thoughts about prayer and God very honestly to my boss.I wasn’t feeling very thankful to God after days of looking at the destruction, and learning how close death hit to home.

Thankfully, she sent me some reinforcement.  The rabbi of the temple Sunday morning addressed the kids so thoughtfully and patiently.  She told us, yes, we can still feel blessed by God for God’s daily miracles: for giving us the ability to stand, to see, for giving us food and clothing. We do not despair or feel guilty for the blessings we have but instead use tefilah, to inspire us to help others in crisis.  Just being together in a room of people joining together makes you realize you are not alone in sadness, and praying together can lead to hopefulness and action.

That afternoon I got a call from mom. She was overwhelmed with gratitude. She said Angels came to Staten Island that day. Would-be marathon runners took the ferry and ran around the island.

A group of marathoners who helped out my parents. A million thanks are not enough.

Thousands of them took to the streets, knocked on doors and started helping out and cleaning out. Several of them descended at my parents house and emptied the contents of my parent’s waterlogged basement.

Back here, in Rochester, many fundraising and relief efforts are underway including the Sea Breeze Fire Association collecting and then driving down a truck load of supplies to Staten Island and Long Island.

Brighton and Pittsford kids next week are organizing a bagel breakfast for pick up or delivery to benefit the New York Mayor‘s Fund for sandy relief, aptly named Sand-Aid.

These are indeed dark days and it will take a lot of fundraisers like this in the weeks and months to come, even after the media finds another story to cover. But with relief efforts like this, there will be light again.

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What to do when you are the “not-quite-Out-of-Town guests?”

semi-finals at a Bat Mitzvah Hula Hoop Contest. How long can she spin 12 hoops at once?

To anyone reading this who lives in a BIG metro area like Los Angeles, New York City, Toronto…. let me ask you this:

If you are invited to a wedding/Bar Mitzvah/christening/fill-in-the-blank life occasion across town with a religious service in the morning and party at night,do you get a hotel room for the weekend?

I didn’t think so.

If you are the planner of a big life event occasion and invite many out-of-town guests, do you pull out all the stops in providing them with extra special treatment: (reserve a block of hotel rooms, extra dinners and brunches, goodie bags in their hotel rooms)?

Of course you do, they are the out-of-towners!

This past weekend, my whole family was invited to the Bat Mitzvah of a friend my son made in Camp Ramah. My daughter is friends with the girl’s sister, and our two families have developed this great Camp Ramah connection over the years. We were very honored to be invited to this happy occasion as a family. There are too many sad occasions in life that we juggle our lives to attend,so why not do a little schlepping for the happy ones?

As a kid growing up in Staten Island, I remember going to weddings and bar mitzvahs,  and later on youth group dances “out on the Island” – in this case Long Island. My dad had a special name for this stretch of suburbia that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t matter where your destination was on the Island. Any trip from SI to LI was  to a place called “all the way out” on the Island.

I remember the traffic as we traveled and my dads angry muttering at the wheel. There was traffic on the Belt. The BQE. The LIE. And the GCP. (If you don’t know what these stand for, you are not from NYC.) It would take what seemed hours to get anywhere. And still does.

In reality, the distance in miles was only 40 miles or so, but it was the traffic that made the journey take hours.  But never did my parents  think about getting a hotel room or consider staying overnight. Because LI was still considered “in town.”  I remember drowsy drives back to the other island, Staten Island, when my brother and I would fall asleep in the back in our party clothes, my parents singing doo-wop oldies tunes to their heart’s content in the front seat.

Drive over an hour in the New York Metro Area, you are still in the New York Metro area.

Drive over an hour in Rochester, you are in Buffalo

So, at the beginning of the weekend, when we parted with friends at a Friday night dinner and announced to our Rochester friends we were headed to Buffalo for a Bat Mitzvah, they actually said to us “Have a nice trip!”

When you are transplantednorth, traveling an hour to go for a visit is nothing. Staying at a hotel overnight was out of the question.But the question remained, how were we going to pull this day off?

The day came with logistical challenges. We left our house very early Saturday morning to get to the synagogue in Buffalo**. We had to pack two extra sets of clothes for each family member, one casual outfit for hanging around the hotel, and then more formal attire for the evening party. Plus bathing suits because the kids were invited to swim in the hotel pool, so that meant toiletries too, but where to shower?

When we got to Buffalo, we sat through a very nice warm service and at the luncheon reception, known as the kiddush, we made fast friends with several couples who all were from out-of-town to bring their children, also campers, to celebrate their friends’ Bat Mitzvah. I told them we were “from” Rochester, but as conversations went on, our native accents revealed themselves.

As we relaxed that afternoon in the hotel lobby, one of the dads spoke up and asked my husband and I: “You didn’t grow  up in Rochester, did you?  Where are you really from?”

That night, after eating and dancing to the sounds provided by a DJ company called the Bar Mitzvah Boys – who are from Rochester – we didn’t get home until 1 a.m. For my husband and I, it was now our turn to stay awake and sing while the kids slept in the back all the way home.

**Yes, we drive on Shabbat. Conservative Judaism has a decree that allows one to drive if it is to worship at a synagogue. There was some irony to all this, because once we arrived in Buffalo, we had nowhere to go and nothing to do but  read and chat with some real “out-of-town” guests who invited us to spend the afternoon at their hotel. So, we did drive, but in the end had a very relaxing Shabbat.

Strike a Pose Just Like A Prayer: Will you Pray this Superbowl Sunday?

Madonna the singer who asked us to “strike a pose” in Vogue, the one who claims to study Kabbalah, will perform the halftime show for Superbowl Sunday.

The other day in my mid-week afternoon Hebrew school class, one boy, after feeling triumphant for correctly reading and translating some Hebrew vocabulary on the whiteboard, struck a kneeling pose ala Denver Broncos Quarterback Tim Tebow.

It seems like spirituality and sports are teaming up more and more. Which I find ironic, because inside houses of worship, my synagogue included, worshippers are becoming more sparse with each passing year. One main reason?  Attending religious services on a Saturday or Sunday morning is going head-to-head with scheduled team sports.

I know Tebowing is all the rage these days.  Blogger Keith Brown had a recent post showing people Tebowing around the world.  Tebowing at the Wall of China. And at the Vatican. And the Western Wall in Jerusalem! Getting down on one knee is hardly striking a Jewish pose of prayer. For one to really strike a pose of piety in Judaism, one needs to look like this:

Yes, it takes a bit longer to put on Tefilin than kneel on one knee.

So, is it okay to pray for one’s team? Does God really care who wins?

In today’s article in New York Blueprint, a website that chronicles events and happenings in the New York Jewish community, rabbis sounded off on the issue of praying for a sports team. While some said that any prayer is important if it is for something you believe in, other rabbis said prayer should be saved for something that has a real consequence.

Many churches and synagogues will open their doors this weekend not only for services, but for people to gather and watch the game. Perhaps, any draw that brings people into a house of worship may ease the way for that sports fan to renew their involvement with their congregation.

Aside from praying for one’s team to win, let’s pick some real reasons to pray:

Let’s pray that no players sustain concussions, broken bones, or life-threatening injuries on the field.

Let’s pray that everyone coming home from a Superbowl Party drives home sober.

For me, my world will keep spinning no matter which team wins. Instead, I will pray for several of my friends, all moms of young children, who are battling cancer.

I will also pray for the safety, and mere existence, of Israel.

I had a troubled sleep last night after watching the news that, fearing for its own existence, Israel is gearing up for a military strike against Iran this spring. They fear it might be too late to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

Israel, staring down into the abyss of another Holocaust,  is tired of waiting for sanctions to work. Israel cannot wait for the world to act.

So, I will be praying that somehow, a peaceful intervention will put an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions for good; and that no nation will have the capacity – or the will – to wish to wipe another country “off the map.”

Would you Give up Your Seat? The New Segregation of Sexes

In advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, I bought my eight-year-old son As Good as Anybody, by Richard Michaelson, a beautiful picture book tracing the fight  for justice fought by two incredible men: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The story opened with an angry young Martin growing up in the 1930’s segregated South who was not allowed to swim in a pool or drink from a water fountain or even use  a public bathroom because he was black.

This was paralleled with a scared young Jewish rabbi in 1930’s Nazi-occupied Poland who could not find a job, use  regular transportation, or attend university because he was a Jew.

As we cuddled on the couch and read,  my son found it most troubling that a person would be asked to give up a seat on a bus because of the color of their skin.

I told him about Rosa Parks, the courageous woman who would not give up her seat to white man, and how her refusal started the year-long African-American bus boycott that eventually ended bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.

All my life, I have held this lesson that Rosa Parks gave America in the highest regard. But on a plane ride home from Israel, I forgot her lesson.  I did not stand my ground.

A new kind of segregation is taking hold in certain Israeli towns where small but fanatical groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews are looking to bend and warp Halacha (Jewish law) to their benefit in order to separate Jewish women from public life. All in the name of modesty.

I’m ashamed to say that three years ago on that Continental flight bound to the U.S., I gave into the demands of one such fanatical Jew.

The plane was full and it took some time for all the passengers to go through the final security check before we finally boarded.  It was a midnight flight and, after 10 days of participating in a rigorous Jewish educator program in Israel, I was tired. All I wanted was to settle into my seat (an aisle seat next to a secular man), and sleep for the better part of the 12 hour flight. My husband and kids were waiting for me on the other side.

Then, a steward came by. Standing next to him was a man dressed in 18th Century garb: white shirt, black coat, black knickers. The man sternly looked at me and let the steward do his asking.  Outside of asking me for this favor, or money for tzedakah (charity),  he would not regard me as a fellow Jew.

“Ma’am, I’m asking  if you could  give up your seat for this man for religious reasons.”

The religious reason is that this man was following this perversion of modesty codes that are stretching beyond houses of worship and are impacting every aspect of public life in parts of Israel.  Women are beginning to be segregated on sidewalks. At funerals. On busses. And yes, they even want to extend their restrictions onto airplanes. Heaven forbid a man should sit next to a fully dressed woman and accidentally rub elbows.

I was told in advance by our group leader not to give in to these demands. But, in the heat of the moment, I caved.

I said, “I’m sorry, why is this my problem? It is he who has put so many restrictions upon himself.”

And  the steward’s reply: “This is your problem, ma’am. If you don’t give up your seat, the plane will not take off.”

So I moved. I wound up sitting in a middle seat. In the row right in front of the bathroom so my seat wouldn’t recline all the way. Because a man wanted my seat so he could sit next to another man.

At the end of the flight, sheepishly, the man thanked me for giving up my seat.

At that point, I took a lesson from Dr. King, and Rabbi Heschel.

I told him, if he wants to practice what he learns in the Torah, he had to live in the world.

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