Monday, September 22, 2008

A week in the life...

...שבוע בחיים

So, it's been such a long time since I've posted, but in a way that's a really good thing because it means that I've been pleasantly busy.

Last Monday, Jessica and I went on a self-guided tour of a nearby part of Jerusalem. She owns a book called Jerusalem Walks, which details several walks one can take around the city and provides ample historical context for the areas. We walked around Rachov Rav Kook, saw the Ticho house, and almost got locked into the Ethiopian Church. Unfortunately, it became too dark to read our tour book, so to spend the time that remained to us before a birthday party we were to attend, we decided to wander around for a bit. We ended up in the shuk, where merchants were trying to close down by selling their goods at reduced prices -- especially breads. We got some ruggelach for our friend and picked up some cheap pita and a mango. The party was pleasant - it was at one of the very few Irish pubs in Jerusalem. Definite character!

The next morning I went with HUC on a three-day trip to the northern part of Israel, the Galilee and Golan regions. I listed most of the places we visited under the "Things We've Seen in Israel" list, so I won't go into them here. One thing I will expand upon is our exposure to the debate about whether the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria.

The history behind Israel's acquisition of the Golan from Syria is long and complex, and I won't go into it here. The issue we explored was a contemporary one: Given that the border along the Golan is the quietest in Israel, does it make sense to consider returning the plateau to Syria in exchange for peace accords?

We met with a political activist who campaigns for the retention of the Golan in Israel. Currently, she and her organization are working to try to get a law passed that mandates a referendum before relinquishing the Golan. She says that most Israelis are against giving up the Golan in exchange for peace and that the Golan doesn't just belong to the 21,000 Druze and 20,000 Israelis (including her) but rather to all Israelis. She argues that we're not really at war with Syria, so giving them land for "peace" doesn't make any sense.

On the other hand, Syria is known/suspected of conducting activities against Israel through third parties, and a potential cessation of that support would be beneficial to Israel. Although many Israelis say they don't to give up the Golan, there's also a large measure of uncertainty with regard to the question. That is, many Israelis, logically, want to know the terms of the deal before determining whether they support it or not. Before learning what, exactly, Syria wants in exchange for the Golan, they can't come down in support or against a hypothetical agreement.

For the most part, that's how I feel as well. I can't take a stand without a platform, especially considering how very basic my knowledge is. That having been said, however, in principle, peace is my highest priority, and if exchanging the Golan Heights would, in fact achieve some measures of peace, I believe I would be in favor.

On the bus ride back to Jerusalem on Thursday, I had the privilege of having a 1.5-hour conversation with one of our professors. I very much appreciated the opportunity to get to know him better and to learn from him in a more intimate setting. Overall, I've found the faculty here very approachable and knowledgeable.

This was reflected also the day after I returned from the trip. Jessica and I (and the rest of HUC) went to one of the Reform congregations in Jerusalem, Kol Haneshama, for Shabbat services. Afterward, those who wished were invited back to homes of congregants to enjoy a Shabbat dinner there. Jessica and I, along with three other students, were hosted by two delightful congregants who have been living in Israel for three years, one of whom teaches liturgy at HUC. The food was excellent, and so was the conversation. We were there for several hours, and we had a great time. I'm really pleased that HUC encourages such informal opportunities to learn from and get to know HUC faculty and community members.

Our Shabbat was delightful. We went to services at Har El, welcomed two of Jessica's friends from ulpan for lunch, and watched a movie. At the end of this Shabbat is the (Ashkenazic) traditional time when late-night S'lichot services are held. For a reason that eluded me and other students, HUC wanted us to travel as a class to the Great Synagogue, where Jessica and I attended Shabbat services a couple weeks ago. The Great Synagogue is an enormous Orthodox synagogue that inspires one to compare it to the Temple. It hosts a choir on major events, and S'lichot definitely qualifies.

We started the evening by meeting at HUC. There, two of our teachers prepared us for what we would see at the synagogue. We went through the liturgy and some music of classical Ashkenazic S'lichot services, and then we headed to the synagogue. We separated men from women and had a seat around 10:15.

S'lichot in the prayerbook we were using is 21 pages long.

We left at 12:30 am.

The service was interminable, the music (to me) was boring (I almost fell asleep a number of times), it was difficult to follow, and I didn't find anything meaningful about the service. On the one hand, I appreciate having had the opportunity to have this experience, but on the other, I'm really really not Orthodox, and that setting is definitely not for me. I'm sure I'll continue to explore different synagogues (most of them in some form of orthodoxy) in Jerusalem, but I know it will be hard for me to pray (rather than watch) there.

On the other hand, our hour-long preparatory session was very helpful. Without it, I would have been entirely lost, and I surely would have left early. What does this mean? It means that through effective training, I can learn to be more comfortable with Jewish prayer. Already, I've found prayer experiences and liturgy classes helpful in getting a handle of the rhythm of Jewish prayer, and I feel that it's important to be able to dance to that rhythm - if not all the time then at least when appropriate. Early in the year, Michael Marmur challenged us to consider whether we could be truly effective rabbis if we didn't appreciate and understand Jewish prayer. I took what he said seriously, and I've been trying to become more familiar and welcoming of structured prayer in my personal life. I'm making progress, and one of my goals for the year is to have significantly improved my comfort with prayer.

The last update I want to include is Jessica's and my experience at the Interfaith Encounter Association potluck last night. Jessica has written here about her contact with Yehuda Stolov, and I'd emailed with someone about possibly joining a group. Despite those contacts, though, neither of us had any idea what to expect.

We found the Swedish Theological Institute after a little searching and rang a bell. A few moments later, Yehuda let us in through the iron door and welcomed us into what looked like a large, well-kept house. We dropped our food off in the dining area, met someone who has recently started working at the institute and made our way to a living room area. Others were talking amongst themselves, and we didn't want to just sit in the corner and wait to see what happened, so we moved close to people and tried to engage in conversation.

What followed was a wonderful night of meeting Jews, Muslims, and a Christian who had come together on a poorly publicized official Day of Peace in Israel to celebrate IEA's task of building peaceful relations between people. Over the night we met Diane, a Sister of Zion living in the Old City of Jerusalem; Miri, a grad student at Bar Ilan University; Natan-el, an American who made aliyah 35 years ago and who makes practical Judaica in Jerusalem; an Israeli woman who works for an Arabic radio station; and several participants in different encounter groups.

We started the evening with a meal to break the Ramadan fast. Food included different kinds of bread, some delicious hummuses, rice, vegetables, cous cous, etc. It was delicious. There were some incredible dates, and several desserts, including a new food that I'm in love with: qatayef. During dinner, Natan-el gave a presentation about Rosh Hashannah as well as the history of the shofar (complete with demonstration!). A Muslim woman talked about Ramadan, and another translated her Arabic into Hebrew. (Because not everyone speaks Hebrew or Arabic, the lingua franca of the evening was English, though Jessica and I had plenty of opportunities to speak Hebrew.) Finally, a young Jewish man named Baruch talked about Yom Kippur.

In thinking about our wonderful evening, it's sadly ironic that only a few hours later, there was an attack near the Old City; a man drove a car into a group of Israeli soldiers. He didn't kill anyone, but within seconds of the attack, he had been shot dead. Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, is pushing for a release of the current legal restraints on bulldozing the houses of terrorists' families. In my opinion, such action only furthers to cycle of violence, and given that the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that such retribution doesn't deter terrorism, I sincerely hope that Barak does not get his wish.

The participants in the IEA, of which I hope to be one, are trying to build bridges that will make such violence only a piece of history. While I pray that more "influential" individuals will gain similar perspectives soon, I will continue to work to do what I can to build a more peaceful world. Hopefully by working together, we'll be able to make some progress.

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