Monthly Archives: May 2012

Jerusalem: the Present and Future

In my last post, I described my love for the city of Jerusalem. Obviously, I’m not alone and obviously those who live in the city have more of a say than I do but all of us who feel an emotional connection with Jerusalem and celebrate its meaning to our faith and to our people also have a stake in its future.

I have returned to Jerusalem 12 times since my year as a student. Each visit has strengthened my attachment to the city even as changes abound both for Jerusalem and for me. When I was a student in 1979-1980, the city had much more of a “small town” feel to it. The center of town was the only place to go to shop- and those options were limited- or to find entertainment. Now, different “trendy” neighborhoods have been developed, there is certainly more of a cultural scene  and shopping malls on the outskirts of town make the “let’s go to merkaz ha’ir (the center of the city) and walk down King George St for fun a thing of the past.

Those changes are significant. But, the clearest change that has affected life in Jerusalem for the visitor and the resident is the change in the demography relating to religious communities in Jerusalem. Much more of the city’s area is dominated by ultra-Orthodox, haredi, Jews. In and of itself, this isn’t an problem. People have a right to practice and live as they choose and certainly one would expect observant Jews to find meaning in living in the holy city. But the problem that results from this is that the influence of this approach to Judaism can be felt everywhere in the city and makes it difficult, to say the least, for non-Orthodox Jews to feel comfortable in the city’s holy sites and synagogues and sometimes on its streets as well.

Just this week, three female Conservative Rabbinical students were told that they could not wear a tallit at the Western Wall and were interviewed by the police and nearly arrested. Their actions were considered offensive by the authorities at the Wall. It is inconceivable to me that this could be happening but it is happening and happening every day.

It wasn’t always this way. Pictures of the Western Wall from generations past show men and women standing together. More recently, in 1984, I led a group from my synagogue in Lansdale, Pennsylvania to Israel and on Friday evening, we had an egalitarian service in the Western Wall plaza just outside the area which is separated between men and women. No one raised a fuss, no one seemed to care. Such an action would be impossible today and this is only one example of what happens in the holy places in Jerusalem.

We can profess and feel a love for Jerusalem as our city of hope and peace but until all Jews are treated equally at holy sites and respect is given to Jewish women and to those who wish to pray with them, we will not feel completely at home in Jerusalem.

And, it should be said that it goes beyond just prayer. You might have read of the incidents of defacing of advertisements and signs in the city which contain pictures of women. This trend towards extremism threatens to undermine the sense of holiness and beauty the city offers and makes it more and more difficult for first time visitors to the city to develop the lasting deep connections that many of us have found.

The other issue facing Jerusalem that is so important  is the question of the future of the city as a united city under Israel’s authority. This issue  has to be worked out by the parties involved but I think it is important for those of us who love the city and who find great spiritual meaning in it to express our opinions.

Our people have waited too long and our brothers and sisters have sacrificed too much to regain control of our holy sites such as the Western Wall for us to claim now that it is not important to us as a people. Control of these sites and access to them are too important for us as a people to walk away from. But, Jerusalem covers a large area with many neighborhoods that have remained Arab neighborhoods since before 1948 and it seems to me that ceding control over these neighborhoods and the holy sites of other faiths, particularly Islam, in exchange for a real, secure and lasting peace is certainly reasonable. Whether that can be accomplished of course is not clear and I would hope that Israelis and Palestinians would get back to the negotiating table and work on all of the issues that divide them, Jerusalem among them. In the meantime, I believe that it is essential for both pragmatic and ethical reasons, that Israel respect the connections that Arabs have with certain neighborhoods of the city and put an end to efforts, whether politically or religiously based, to increase a Jewish presence in these areas through evictions or other means. Of course Jews, as any people, should be able to live anywhere they choose but in this case care and caution and respect for the homes and neighborhoods of others should take precedence.

I was born and raised in Boston and when I go back to that city or when I think about it in my mind, I feel a tremendous sense of connection even though I haven’t lived there for more than 30 years. To me, there is a certain sense of holiness that comes from the sense of home when I think about the area I grew up in.

Our connection with Jerusalem stems from the same place but with a longer, more communal memory. Whether we have lived in the city or only visited or only dreamed of visiting, it is a place which beckons to us and connects with us on a very deep level. May we always have the privilege, one which so many of other ancestors did not, of being able to travel to and live in this city which means so much to our people. But may it always be a city of peace for Jews of all kinds and for all of those who call it home.


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Jerusalem Day

Yesterday, we observed Yom Yirushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the 45th anniversary of the reunification of the city of Jerusalem. To all of who love the city, it is a day of memories and a day of hope. It is also a day to think about the meaning of that word: “reunification” and the political struggles facing Jerusalem today and in the future. More of that later. For now, I will concentrate just on the love I,  like so many, feel for Jerusalem.

I arrived in Israel for the first time in early October, 1979, and spent the next 8 months there during my third year of Rabbinical School. Most of my classmates had been in Israel before but it was the first time for me and while I had my ups and downs during the year, the one aspect of my experience that stands out was getting to know the city of Jerusalem, walking endlessly through the alleys and streets, riding buses just for the sake of seeing new neighborhoods, studying the city’s history and celebrating the fact that I, unlike so many who had come before, was able to visit all parts of the city. It was the perfect time to be in the city and I took full advantage of the opportunities.

I have the letters that I wrote to my parents and friends during that first trip to Israel and what I wrote about Jerusalem was always glowing. In my first letter home (written on one of those old aerogrammes which no one uses anymore), I wrote: “Jerusalem, more than anything, is a city of smells- spices, flowers,- very pretty and very interesting and already I feel at home”. That was only a first impression. From there, I went on to describe in letters and in cassette tapes sent home, my love for this city- for the sunsets, the clouds, the views from so many different places. Each experience, even the mundane shopping trip, seemed to be so uplifting. I never tired of walking through the shuk in the Old City or Machaneh Yehudah, the market of West Jerusalem, trying new foods, striking up conversations with people. I loved to visit synagogues of all kinds, representing so many different ethnic groups.  And,  most importantly, I loved  those rare moments when the city seem to fulfill, like no other place could, the vision of people living together in peace. I spent many hours sitting on a bench near the Western Wall or on the walls of the city itself waiting for that magic moment when the sounds of davening at the kotel, the church bells in the Old City and the muezzin calling from the minaret would blend together in perfect harmony.

Since that trip in 1979, I have changed and Jerusalem has changed. That is the way of the world. More about that later.

But, what has never left me is the sense that this city is the most inspirational, most beautiful, most fascinating place I have ever been in my life.  And for now,  I want to leave it at this point- remembering the sense of holiness and meaning and spirit that I felt then and in my 12 subsequent visits to Jerusalem.

So many experiences, so many moments of joy and visions of peace, so many smells and tastes and sights that never leave you.

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, all who love her” said the prophet. It is impossible to do otherwise.


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Thank you Mr President

As a Rabbi, I am supposed to remain non-partisan when it comes to supporting individual candidates for office and I take that principle very seriously. But, that does not preclude me from expressing admiration for particular decisions made by those in political office.

Thank you President Obama for the courage you have shown in speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage. Many of us, myself included,  have found our views on this subject “evolving” over the past years.  But, at some point, the statement has to be made loudly and clearly and your decision to make that statement today will help to lead our nation to a better place, a place in which all will be able to live in dignity and equality.

Your statement reminds us how important it is to stand up for what we believe even though some may disagree.

It’s time to say the Shehecheyanu.



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When I’m 64

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and while trying to fall back to sleep, started thinking about a sermon for Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. I’m not a big fan of gematria, the system of using the numeric value of the Hebrew letters to arrive at some important teaching but I still tried to find something unique about the number 64 as this is Israel’s 64th birthday. Nothing came to mind but the Beatles’ song: When I’m 64. And, it suddenly dawned on me what a perfect text this was for the occasion.

The truth is that others seem to have the same idea as I found that several people, including Rabbis, came to the same conclusion even if their resulting thoughts were different than mine. It is perfectly appropriate that we ask the question about Israel- or assume Israel is asking the question about us- “Will you still need me, will you still feed me,when I’m 64”.

I’m planning on posting the sermon I gave on the subject on our website but, for now, I’ll summarize my points. First, to the question of whether we “need” Israel as Jews, I would give a resounding answer “Yes” for many different reasons beyond its critical role as home to many Jews and a haven for Jews in distress. Israel can be the concretization of the values and priorities we hold as Jews and as such it represents the potential for bringing into real life situations all that we, in the diaspora,  think of only in theory or only in the limited but crucial areas of our homes or synagogues.

But, the deepest relationships can not be characterized by simple answers. And, if you read Paul McCartney’s words, they are far from simple.

The man in the song singing to his wife, hoping she will love him despite the changes age brings, recognizes that they each have roles. His role is to mend a fuse. Her role is to sit by the fireside knitting a sweater. Similarly, regarding Israel, our relationship with the Jewish State must be based on each of us having roles. Israel’s role is clear and must take center stage. But, our role can not be just to sit by the fireside watching and nodding approvingly. Our role must be to be engaged to the greatest extent possible in asking Israel to stand up for what is important to us: pluralism in Jewish religious life instead of bending over backwards to satisfy ultra-Orthodox Jews, living by the values that we teach our children are the core of what it means to be a Jew, continuing to seek peace and pursue it. These and other issues need our voices and our passionate involvement.

But, there is one way in which the song diverges from the reality facing Israel. The man singing the song knows that, at 64, there is more of his life behind him than ahead. He can be forgiven at this age- more on this later- for not worrying about great and glorious dreams but being satisfied getting through the next day or the next month surviving and living on memories and hopes for his grandchildren’s future.

This is because human beings have a finite lifespan. Ideas do not. Nations do not. An idea, like Zionism and a nation, like Israel, can not stop dreaming, can not stop passionately hoping for a better future and be satisfied only with surviving another year or another century. What so many of us outside of Israel fear is that Israel has lost that sense of youth, that sense of passion to improve life for its people and to be a light unto the nations. No one would argue that survival isn’t the bottom line but, as we teach about our lives as human beings, survival is not enough- it is what we do with our lives which is crucial.

I think that had McCartney written that song today, he probably would have changed it to: When I’m 84, as our vision of 64 has changed. So, even if you  believe that the question of: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me” regarding Israel has an obvious answer now, look ahead 20 years and ask what our children and grandchildren will be thinking. If they feel that Israel doesn’t need them, doesn’t listen to their concerns, doesn’t represent them and doesn’t live by the values they have been taught as Jews, they will not send the birthday greetings or drink the l’chaims to Israel that we, who have grown up with the State, still do each and every year.

May the years to come see both Israel and Diaspora Jews reigniting the passion necessary to make this relationship work far, far into the future. It will be for our and for Israel’s benefit in the deepest sense of the word.

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