Sunday, October 14, 2012

Grand Canyon

Growing up our only family vacations were to visit relatives in New York and Philadelphia. We never went to "the beach". We lived a couple hours from one of the best amusement parks of the 1960's and we never even drove in that direction.

I did go to summer camp every summer starting when I was 9 and youth group events in Erie and Buffalo. But other than camp, and the Lake Erie coast, NY and Philly constituted my travels in America until I moved to Cincinnati for rabbinic school.

Now, I've been to 46 of 50 states, Israel, London, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico, Canada, Jordan, Italy, South Africa and most of the islands in the Caribbean, but until today I had never been to the Grand Canyon. I have seen  many of the great wonders of the world but the Grand Canyon overwhelmed me. The shapes and colors, the way the light reflected odd the rocks, the layers of rock on top of rock on top of rock, the emennsity and emptiness left me awed, inspired and overwhelmed. I felt creative and calm, inspired and peaceful (feelings that usually do not occur at the same time in me.) I could see myself sitting on the rim and writing taking breaks only to get up and find another sublime view.

What took me so long to get here?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Navajo/Jewish Dialog on Sacred Lands

While I was participating in the dialog, I felt the presence of my teacher and mentor Rabbi Joe Glazer z"l. He led some of the earliest Jewish/Native American Dialogs in the modern era. And my wife Michele was with me. She taught me most of what I know about relating to indigenous peoples.

Here's a link to the story:

Two tribes grapple with the sacredness of land. Jewish and Navajo spiritual leaders discuss physical, emotional and divine connections

Saturday, April 28, 2012

April 26th, 2012 Full schedules, early mornings and late nights have kept me from writing as much as I thought I would on this trip. Periodically things I wanted to write would come to me, of course, at the most inopportune times.  I could write pages and pages about this trip, everything we have seen, everyone we have met and what it feels like to be in this incredibly complex country called South Africa. I will include some of the what and the who but focus more on the feelings and impressions.  First - Life is fragile, at times dangerous, but mostly wondrous. This past week I was within 3 feet of the following animals: 3 leopards (2 of them eating an impala), uncounted cape buffalo, a musthy (look it up) elephant who charged us twice, 4 male lions (on 3 separate occasions), a lioness, a 12 foot long African python lunging at someone to ward them off and a charging black rhino who missed the back of our jeep by inches. Yet as unpredictable and scary as some of those encounters were I never felt at real risk. Watching a leopard or an eagle or a lion eat its prey reinforced the truth of the circle of life.  However, listening to the stories of real people who live in rural South Africa was a more poignant reminder of the dangers in this world and the fragility of life. So many villages do not have potable water or electricity. To get water people take buckets and cans to nearby rivers to bring home water that they boil hoping to kill all the germs and parasites before drinking it or bathing in it. The risks involved in this seeming simple task are easily solved but those with resources are unwilling to do so. Getting untreated water from a river brings not only the risk of disease (some people contract malaria up to 50 times in their lives) but also the risk of death from predators. Carnivores wander the countryside, reptiles wait in the grass to crush you and crocodiles make their home in the water waiting silently for you to become their next meal. But the greatest danger comes from the hippos. Hippos kill more people than any other African animal. Each day rural South Africans face these dangers just to get water.  Second - Reconciliation is possible in the short term but lasting changes in society take generations. Both our guide for the second safari and our driver to the airport from the safari were black. Both spoke about how reconciliation has worked to a point it has been limited. Both, however, feel that to move forward people need to stop seeing color altogether. Our guide spoke of the feelings his friends who are interracial couples feel in public. It is as if everyone, black and white and colored, are boring holes into them with their stares. As we were driving to the airport we passed through a village that was going on strike to protest not having access to clean water. They feel the government and even the ANC is corrupt and as focused on building their power and wealth as the apartheid governments, having abandoned Mandela’s dream.  Today’s issue of ”The Times” (April 25, 2012, contains an op-ed piece by Phillimon Mnisi in which he writes: ”Like pigs fighting for food at the expense of the country’s objectives, ANC members have ignored all the challenges in favour of power retention, access and control of resources. ”The moral fibre of the country has been betrayed at the altar of monetary wealth.” If both the guide and the driver, who are employed at good jobs and are from different tribes, hadn't expressed the same kinds of sentiments, I would have not paid such close attention to the op-ed piece even thought confirms my view of history that when a rebel group comes to power after overthrowing their oppressors, in most cases those who come to power continue the negative practices of those they replaced. Third - There is a poster at both the Johannesburg and Cape Town airports with the tag line: ”I came to South Africa looking for beautiful scenery and I found beautiful people” I have found that to be so true. Of course with an unemployment rate of 25%+ and an even higher under employment rate crime is a serious problem,to a person I have not met anyone who isn't at least outwardly friendly and willing to go out of their way to help you. Our new friends S and J who have spent considerable time here told us that was the case and we all have experienced it for ourselves. Some of our group have expressed that this is the trip of a lifetime. While I would agree that this trip has been wondrous, opening my eyes to sights, animals and experiences I could never have had anywhere else, it is but one of many trips and experiences I have been blessed to be a part of and I pray I am blessed to have many more.
April 19, 2012 Our first stay in Cape Town is over and we are heading to Kruger National Park for the 1st of our 2 safaris. There was so much to see and experience. Given it was only 5 days and we just scratched the surface I am overwhelmed by what we saw and how much we did. Two experiences stand out for me because of their contrast. Before we left there were 2 things that I absolutely wanted to do. Go to the Cape of Good Hope and visit Robben Island. The Cape of Good Hope will have to wait until we return to Cape Town next week. For those who don't know, Robben Island is the prison island and facillity that, in its last incarnation, held the anti-Apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned there for all but the last 2 years before he was released and peacefully led South Africans to equality and freedom. As one might imagine, Robben Island is a bleak place and yet after our tour we left with a sense of hope that chains can be riven and oppression can come to an end. Both our guides had been imprisoned on the Island and now they live and work there to preserve and teach the legacy and lessons. In many ways it reminded me of going to Yad VaShem in Israel. Their missions seem quite simmilar. On a personal level, being on Robben Island reinforced my commitment to ending oprression in my communities and whereever it still exists. Since we will be on Safari on Shabbat, 5 of the 6 of us decided to visit the Jewish Museum. The museum is in the old Orthodox synagogue plus a beautiful addition. While the exhibits depicting the history of the South African Jewish Community were interesting, there was a part of the exhibit that both inspired and depressed me. During the apartheid years I was always taught that the mid-20th Century Jewish community, for the most part, had sided with those fighting to end apartheid and the museum had a wonderful exhibit emphasizing that legacy. Central to the fight against apartheid was Helen Suzman (see: As a member of the South Aftrican Parlament she led a decades long fight for equality for all. There were many others as well but Ms. Suzman was the most prominent member of the Jewish community in the leadership of the struggle. When the new part of the museum was built Nelson Mandela came to participate in the dedication ceremonies. The Jewish community was so proud he attended that around the museum are quotes from his speech on that day. I cannot remember the exact quote they had up but the gist of it was: Jews were not as bad as other whites. The quote struck me as a chink in the armor of reconcilliation.

Flight To South Africa

April 14, 2012 I leave for South Africa with a lot of different feelings. I keep flashing back to I don't know how many years ago when the minsiter of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, Jerry Prevo travelled to South Africa with Jerry Falwell. They came back saying that apartheid either didn't exist or wasn't all that bad (it's hard to remember it's been so long.) It is clear things have changed but it will be interesting to see just how much. The flight to Johannesburg has been uneventful. The last night of Pesach (Passover) dilemma was solved with the time change. The airline timed dinner perfectly to be after sundown in Johannesburg. The piece of cake for desert didn't do much for me but the cookie M had brought from New York certainly did.  E and B met us at JFK and we boarded together. Same row opposite sides of the plane. We've caught USA little but we have weeks ahead of us to finish.  One of the patterns we learn from history is that it is normally the case that when there is a popular uprising against an oppressor and the oppressed take power, their rule is at least as oppressive as the previous rulers and often much, much worse. From reading before the trip and now being on the plane it seems as though South Africa, like the United States when it was formed in rebellion may be, to a degree an exception. Watching the crew interact with each other I am not perceiving any issues surrounding hierarchy. It appears to be all about cooperation. It will be interesting to compare this observation to what we actually find after we land and start touring. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Prayer and Drought

Please pardon the editing. I'm doing this from my iPad and can't figure out some of the formatting commands. In his weekly Ten Minutes of Torah on liturgy, my teacher Rabbi Richard Sarason, wrote about the changes that occur in the G'vurot prayer each summer and winter. () Below is part of what I wrote Him in response. _____________________________ The move to Albuquerque has been a wonderful move for us. Michele is retired after 33 years with the federal government and the congregation has warmly welcomed us. the only down side has been getting used to all the sunshine after 11 years in Buffalo.  I read your Ten Minutes of Torah this morning with great interest. When I got to Albuquerque late last June all people wanted to Talk about was the drought and how it had not rained since the previous October. So as we were approaching the G'vurot I turned to the Cantor and whispered "Let's do Tal AND Geshem". We took a non-traditional pause after Avot/Imahot where I briefly explained what we were going to do as well as what I could remember of the Talmudic practices for ending a drought. I explained we were going to read both phrases, Tal to maintain out connection to Israel and Geshem because even though I didn't think our prayer would actually bring rain, we needed to remember the lack of rain and the importance of water conservation. While I can't say it rained that week, I did find some drops of dusty water on my car a few days later July begins the "monsoon" season in New Mexico.  The congregation loved it and we continued the practice through the summer and started doing both again with the arrival of Pesach.  Chag Samei'ach -Happy Passover to All