Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Days Two and Three in Israel

I’m having a harder time than usual putting into words the past two days. I think it is a combination of being here for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day and in contrast watching our group get to know each other and begin to bond.

Yom Hazikaron looms large over Israel and me. We began yesterday 2 kilometers from the Syrian border listening to Nir Atir who, at that very spot, with three tanks and 27 fellow Israeli soldiers delayed dozens of Syrian tanks and hundreds of troops until reserve forces could arrive during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He told part of his story in the bunker where he and the other wounded survivors waited with the bodies of their dead comrades spent hours waiting to be captured or killed. Hearing his story while in that bunker touched each and every one of our souls. 

Part of the story was of the soldier who volunteered to leave the bunker waiving his white tee shirt and lead the surrender to the Syrians. After he left the bunker, shots were fired and they assumed he was dead and the Syrians would kill them too rather than take them prisoner. After the Israeli reserves arrived and pushed back the Syrians, the wounded were taken to hospitals. A year later, Nir went to visit the parents of his friend who tried to surrender. After knocking on the door, his friend answered. He had been taken prisoner after all and survived. We were uplifted and our eyes brimming as we heard his tale.

From the Golan we drove to Tel Dan, one of the oldest cities excavated in Israel and now an incredible nature reserve. The city dates from the 8th Century B.C.E.. It was built on that spot because it was near the Dan River, part of the head waters of the Jordan River. It was at Tel Dan that the oldest mention of King David was discovered.

The fortifications of this 3000 year old city are amazing but pale in comparison to the power of the river itself. Watching the river flow, bringing life to the land served as the symbol of life we needed as Yom Hazikaron was approaching. Sitting by the water, our wonderful guide Frances read to us from Psalms connecting our deep past with our vibrant present.

From Tel Dan we headed toward Magdala to see the excavation of a Second Temple synagogue. A woman named Miriam is the most famous person from Magdala. Better known as Mary the Magdalen, this would have been the synagogue she attended. 

Returning to Tzvat we visited the synagogue of Isaac Luria. Notice that every light fixture is dedicated to someone’s deceased relative. Donating lights to the synagogue morphed into the tradition of lighting a candle at home on a relative’s yahrzeit.

A “quick” walk through the shops of Tzvat brought us back to the hotel to prepare for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Our First Day In Israel

It is hard to believe that it has been nine years since we were last in Israel. Being here in anticipation of Yom Ha’atzmaut - Israel Independence Day, Israel’s 70th birthday, is invigorating.

After the normal endless flight to arrive in “Ha’aretz” (The Land), we met up with our group in Herzliya. The last time I had spent time in Herzliya was in the late 1970’s. Then it was Israel’s Beverly Hills. Luxury condos  and homes. Israel’s first golf courses. The home of wealthy Israeli’s and long term visitors. Today Herzliya is a hub in “Start-Up Israel.” Computer companies abound. The streets are full of commuters. Change comes even to the enclaves.

After dinner and a good night’s sleep, at least for me, we headed up the coast and a bit inland to Pardes Chana.

At Shabbat services Friday night in Albuquerque, we began by singing Eli Eli. While the music was written by the iconic Israeli singer, Naomi Shemer, the words were by the poet and hero, Chana Senesh. Senesh lived in Israel during WWII and the Shoah. She, along with other members of the the Haganah, parachuted behind Nazi lines to try and rescue at least some of Europe’s Jews. She was captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis. Not only does she live on through her poetry but, through this village named in her memory and the incredible organization there, Nevei Michael.

Nevei Michael is a home, school, and crisis center for Israeli children, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, from the most severely broken homes. Some were victims of abuse. Others, had mothers who were murdered by their fathers or fathers murdered by their mothers with the murderer now in jail. Nevei Michael provides them not only the basics, food, clothing, and shelter, but life skills, self-esteem, parenting models to break the cycle of violence , and most importantly, love. Outside of the school building is this sign:

My translation goes like this: “We believe that every child has the power, to learn to be self-aware (open) and to go be strong. We work to identify and cultivate the strengths and skills unique to every child. Thus, at the conclusion of his/her studies, s/he will graduate with values and be well grounded, and will see him/herself in the best possible way.”

Hava and her daughter Rachel have worked for decades and have seen the success of their children. Some have become professionals, others laborers, but each has become a mensch.

Of course, they treated us with the same kindness they show the children in their care. From their limited budget they set out food and drink for us.

Leaving Pardes Chana we continued north to two places of Jewish resistance, Zichron Yaakov and Atlit. Zichron was the home of the Aaronson family who established a spy ring in WWI to help the British oust the Ottoman Empire from Palestine. Ironically, at Atlit the British established a detention camp to imprison Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi and post-Nazi Europe. 

Finally, we arrived at our hotel in the mystical city of Tzvat in time for a beautiful view of the holy mountain Meron and a pre-dinner nap.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Oman, Dubai, Back To Abu Dhabi, Chanukah, and Home

The ship docked in Oman for a short day so we booked a three hour dolphin watch, half an hour each way and two hours on the boat. Our bus guide lived in a small town about 90 miles away and commuted into Oman five days a week. Twenty-five, single and he claimed he never had a girlfriend. One day he hopes to have one, who of course will be the woman he is about to marry. Other than that, he pointed out a few sights along the way and gave some brief commentary about Oman.

We were on a 20-passenger boat. It took us about 15 – 20 minutes to get to the dolphin area. The viewing was incredible. There were hundreds of dolphins in groups of three – five, swimming, jumping, playing and hunting all around us. We thought that our last whale watching trip off of Maui was incredible as we saw a half dozen or so active whales. If that whale watch was a ten, this dolphin watch was a 30.

We arrived in Dubai for an overnight stay. We purchased a “Big Bus” hop on, hop off 24-hour pass but got a late start because there were torrential rains that morning. Roads were flooded and traffic a nightmare. The shuttle took us from the ship to the Dubai Mall to pick up the bus. But first, we had to see the mall with its indoor skating rink. The skaters looked like they were having a great time. As I was trying to guess who was local and who was a tourist, it was clear that the locals were the best skaters.

It seemed there were 100+ jewelry stores in this mall. Each window had a display containing hundreds of karats of diamonds. To say it was dazzling would certainly be an understatement. (Of course, being the shopper/window shopper that I am, I was done after the first two stores. Someone else saw way more than I did.)

We found our way to the food court for a quick lunch and happily found a Tim Horton’s! No turkey sandwiches to be found. Instead it was falafel and shawarma. If you click here and go to my Facebook page you can see the pictures. Yes, a taste of Buffalo and Canada in the United Arab Emirates. Put the skating rink together with the Tim Horton’s and I think the Buffalo Sabres have found their new development league.

Finally, we hopped on the bus and began our tour. That day we did the whole city route. In addition to the regular recorded tour we had a live tour guide. I finally switched to the recording when I got tired of hearing how everything in Dubai was the biggest, largest… or was when it was first built. They do seem to have a size fetish.

Back on the ship that evening, someone asked me to describe Dubai. It was easy. Dubai is the Epcot or Las Vegas of the middle east. Except for the world’s tallest building and perhaps one or two others, most all the architecture was describe by both the live guide and the recording as replicas of buildings in other countries. There was Big Ben (without the clock), a hotel from Singapore, skyscrapers from Europe, the Far East and of course, a boathouse which was a replica of the Sydney Opera House.

The second day we were back on the bus (this time no live guide) and took the beachside route which began at the Mall of the Emirates. No skating rink here. Just an indoor ski slope and luge run.

In both malls, we were struck by the way people were dressed. The majority were dressed in western garb. Some men wore the traditional white or brown robes. Some women wore head to toe traditional robes but most in non-western dress just wore a hijab. However, in both malls were high end fashion stores that sold fancy women’s robes with elaborate embroidery, gold filigree and other decoration. I didn’t see anyone actually dressed in one but the stores were filled with shoppers.

We decided to go for high tea at a nice hotel on Palm Island. While there, I realized that most of the workers we had met in Dubai, including at the hotel were not native to the UAE. After tea, we met the front desk manager, an American, and asked her if there were any workers native to the UAE in the hotel. She pointed to the security guard. “Just him?” I asked. She replied: “No, the night security man as well.”

Before I write about that day in Abu Dhabi and the flight home, I need to talk about leading Chanukah and Shabbat on the ship. I have been the chaplain on several cruises and gone to Shabbat services on many others. However, this was a totally different experience for me. The ship was incredible. They provided 4 dozen latkes and 4 dozen donuts for every service, not to mention for challot for Shabbat. The staff of Celebrity bent over backwards to make sure everything was perfect. That’s not the unusual part.

This was clearly a cruise that did not have a lot of Jews on it. I only met 8 Jews on the ship. Even assuming that those 8 Jews were 5% of the Jews on the ship, there would only be 160 Jews out of 2000+ passengers. That is not the norm. Actually, the 8 of us were probably 10% of the Jews on the ship. At most nights of Chanukah there were as many non-Jews as Jews in attendance. On Shabbat, we had more non-Jews than Jews. I assume this is not a cruise itinerary that is popular with Jewish passengers. Given my hesitations, I certainly understand. Given my experiences, Jews should feel comfortable traveling this itinerary.

The next day we were back in Abu Dhabi. Before we left on the trip we had pre-bought tickets to the Louvre - Abu Dhabi. Yes, they have a Louvre which is a partnership with the Louvre in Paris. Again, you can see some of the pictures on my Facebook page. The architecture is marvelous and totally different than the original. The artwork was well chosen and presented and the exhibits contained works from pre-historic times to the present. There were only three mentions of Jews that I noticed, all in the world religions gallery. One was on the introductory sign. Second was in the exhibit of tombstones. A Jewish tombstone stood with a Muslim stone and a Christian one. The third was a book bound, illuminated manuscript of the Torah. While there was no mention of Israel, I felt that from a religious standpoint there was no animus in the exhibit toward Jews or Christians.

We had a wonderful last dinner of the trip and were up at 4 am to go to the airport to catch our flight. The flight home was long, uneventful, long, and boring. Did I mention long? This coming spring I am co-leading a trip to Israel although because of B’nei Mtizvah, I am flying separately from the rest of the group. Again, I’ll be on Royal Jordanian, through Amman to Tel Aviv. As we were boarding in Amman to come back to the states, there were a few dozen people who had flown into Amman from Israel on their way back home. They were speaking openly of their time in Israel and no one gave them a second look.

So, even though I had no initial desire and several reservations about going on the trip, I am glad I did. It shattered many of my negative expectations. Helped me expand my horizons, and added three more countries to the list of places I’ve been.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Abu Dhabi to Mumbai and the Bene Israel

From the initial decision to take this trip it has certainly been one of the most emotionally interesting of our travels. The motivation for signing up was to get back on the list for cruise chaplains so I took what was available. Abu Dhabi to Goa, India, to Mumbai, to Oman, to Dubai, back to Abu Dhabi. Not a single place I ever wanted to visit and several where I was sure we wouldn’t be welcome. In fact, my first thought was, “If I have to bring a חנוכיה, a Chanukah menorah, how would I get it into Abu Dhabi?”

Then there was deciding how to get to Abu Dhabi. Royal Jordanian Air was the best choice. I was much more comfortable thinking about flying Royal Jordanian through Amman than some of the other choices I had.

I never wanted to visit India but have had and interest in the Bene Israel since I went to their synagogue in Lod for Tisha B’Av in 1971. Of course there is the history of Ghandi. Even so, it was never on my list of places to visit.

But, after booking the airfare, fighting the website for a visa for India and making all the other arrangements, we were on our way. Albuquerque to Chicago, 4 hour layover, Chicago to Amman, 4 hour layover, Amman to Abu Dhabi, to the hotel and finally at 3:00 AM local time, bed.

We planned an extra day in Abu Dhabi on both ends to help with the stress of travel. We arrived in Abu Dhabi in the middle of the night and had picked a hotel near the airport. From landing in the airport, the sight of traditional dress and modern dress all blended together. During lunch at the hotel we watched 2 women in full burkas “bubbling” (smoking from a water pipe) while people lounged around the pool in barely there swim wear. I was surprised that there were Christmas decorations everywhere. On the way home we will do some touring including the new Louvre. I’ll be interested in seeing if being in the heart of the city is the same as being by the beach.

After boarding and sailing 3 days we arrived in Goa, India. Of course we had the wrong kind of visa and our ship, using the Mr. Scott method of timing (Scotty we need power now. Captain it’ll take 10 hours. Captain we got it done now!) getting the correct Visa was pretty easy.

We had booked a non-ship tour of Goa. Only 10 of us on the bus made the day very nice. Lots of good conversation and sharing about what we saw. My impression of Goa: it was nice. Lots of vacationers from around India, narrow roads, a huge contrast between middle class housing and shanties, and the richness of nature left a wonderful, colorful, and complex image.

The next day we landed in Mumbai. Again, we had booked a non-ship tour. This time a tour of Jewish Mumbai with city highlights. It was just the two of us and nothing like I expected. Our tour guide Hannah Shapurkar was incredible (contact me directly if you need a tour guide in Mumbai or around the country for her contact information.) A member of the Bene Israel community, married to another member of the community, provided us with a depth of understanding of the inner workings of the community and its history.

The Bene Israel arrived in India in 132 B.C.E.. They were fleeing from the oppression of the Seleucid Empire. Their boat was wrecked and only 7 families survived. Those seven families created a community that has lasted for over 2100 years. In the 19th Century the Baghdadi Jews arrived from Persia, Iraq, and what are now the Gulf States. Led by the Sassoon family, they built their own community and helped the Bene Israel with theirs. Many of the Baghdadi Jews left with the British but their legacy remains through their buildings and foundations they left behind.

We visited the 2 Bene Israel synagogues in Mumbai. In the first, the oldest dating from the 1700’s, I found myself infused with the soul of a 2100 year old community. Now, Sephardic in worship, their commitment to maintain their community is palpable. Here is a Shabbat message video I took in the synagogue. I apologize for the sound. I had to speak quietly.

We also visited the Sassoon synagogue and day school. A more elaborate building it too had its uniqueness. The school was built as what we would call a Jewish Day School. Now, there are only 12 Jewish students. The majority of the rest are Muslim and the balance are Hindu. The sight of Muslim mothers in full burkas waiting to pick up their children from a Jewish school instilled me with a hope for the future. I have felt that hope missing in recent months.

While I did not care if I ever visited Mumbai, I am glad beyond words that I did.

Returning to the ship I led the lighting of the first Chanukah candle, a symbol of hope and blessing. The perfect end to a perfect day.

We are sailing for Oman. Two days at sea before we arrive.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Erev Yom Kippur 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Congregation Albert

Albuquerque, NM

Art Garfunkel just published a new memoir. So of course I have been thinking about my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs. There was a time in my life when my favorite song was “The Boxer.” Its depth and meaning suffused my soul with young adult angst. And then, there was the mystery of the missing verse.

Yes, that illusive verse, that rumor held, was the final straw that led to the demise of the greatest duo of all time. On the original single and album versions there is that haunting flute solo, (pause for flute). But with the Concert In Central Park, the veil lifted and revealed some of the truest, most depressing words ever written:

Now the years are rolling by me
They are rocking evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I'll be
But that's not unusual
No, it isn't strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are
More or less the same

(Invite everyone to sing La La La...)

If changes upon changes leave us more or less the same why do we come here each Yom Kippur, year after year, hoping, praying, dreaming to be better. To be different. Why is it that people, including every one of us, never seem to change?

Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar in Jerusalem posits four ways of thinking about this question. Why people do not change?

First - That’s just who I am. - I hate myself when I use this to explain my behavior. I was born this way (the nature argument) or, my upbringing made me this way (the nurture argument). In the 12th Century, the RaMBaM, Moses Maimonides wrote his code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah. The first two laws in the laws of repentance tackle the issue of nature versus nurture:

With regard to all the traits: a person has some from the beginning of his conception, in accordance with his bodily nature. Some are appropriate to a person's nature and will [therefore] be acquired more easily than other traits. Some traits he does not have from birth. He may have learned them from others, or turned to them on his own. This may have come as a result of his own thoughts, or because he heard that this was a proper trait for him, which he ought to attain. [Therefore,] he accustomed himself to it until it became a part of himself.”

This sounds as depressing as Paul Simon’s lyrics. We are born with or learn or take on negative characteristics. It is easy to say: “That’s just who I am.” But, what responsibility do we have if these things are embedded within us?

The television show E.R. answered this question for me. George Clooney’s character, Dr. Doug Ross, blames his father for all his negative traits. The womanizing, the difficulty forming lasting relationships, lack of impulse control. Clooney lays into his father on a bridge overlooking the Chicago river. At the end of the tirade establishing his father as the cause for all his issues, his father looks at him and says (and I paraphrase): Your first 18 years were my responsibility. Since then it is on you. You do not like who you are, be a grown up and find the strength to change.

Ah - were it only that easy. Our habits are deeply engrained in our being. Even if the will to change is strong, we may need help and support. Maybe that is why we gather as a community on Yom Kippur; to find that support.

Second - We are fixed and immutable. Here I am going to stick closely to Rabbi Held’s teaching. He refers to the verse in Deuteronomy when Moses says to the Israelites: “I was standing between you and God at Sinai that day.” The Hebrew used for the word “I” is - אנכי,(Anochi) not the simpler and more common אני. In fact, אנכי usually occurs when God speaks in the 1st person as in the 10 commandments! אנכי I am Adonai your God.

Rabbi Held points out that Chassidic tradition teaches that from his ego Moses’ uses the word אנכי as if to say: “I am on par with God.” From this perspective, in order to leave behind our negatives, we have to be willing to let go of who we think we are and let go of the stories we think define us.

Rabbi Held teaches that the Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi of Berdychiv would have the same conversation with himself each night. “Tomorrow I am going to behave differently, better.” One of his students overheard Reb Levi repeat this each night. Finally he approached the Rebbi: “Master, you said that last night.” the Berdychiver replied: “Yes, but tonight I mean it.” We want to change. Usually we do not. But we can. We are capable of change.

Third: We see freedom as a right. - When it comes to Liberty and Justice For All, freedom is a right. When it comes to our personal behavior we do not have the right to act anyway we please. For most of our history, Judaism extolled the blessing of free will. Judaism also taught that with free will comes responsibility for our choices and accepting the consequences that result.

The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught: “Free will should implant in man [sic]... a continuous awareness of maximal responsibility… without even a moment’s inattentiveness!... It is a positive commandment to be conscious of the existence of free choice which makes man [sic] responsible for his actions... One is forbidden to take one’s mind off the principle of free choice, for it was not given to man [sic] only from without or by tradition; it is also something in the nature of self-discovery and must always remain part of the self—the knowledge that man [sic] can create worlds and destroy them.”

How to cultivate responsibility? Start slowly. Look at the ice-cream case. Decide what you would like and walk away. Ice-cream does not do it for you? Pick something that does and work your way up from there.

Fourth and finally, We are reluctant to delve deeply into ourselves. - we know that everybody recites each of the על חייט (Al Cheit) confessions even if we did not commit that sin, just in case we did, and it is certain someone in our community did. “The ways we have wronged You by hardening our hearts...through gossip and rumor...through violence and abuse, through dishonesty in losing self control”

Conducting business honestly may be easier than not losing self control, but both represent deeper parts of ourselves that need repair, that need healing. 

If you have a crack in the foundation of your house, you can seal it. It is not hard. Even I can do it! But, chances are that another crack will open if you do not find the cause of the crack. Sealing the crack is like changing a behavior. Preventing other negative behaviors from replacing it requires a deeper inquiry into who you are. Fixing the manifestations only allows other manifestations to surface. We need to go deeper into ourselves to find what is broken and mend it.

Another example: We talk about people who quit smoking eating more. This is based in reality. The presenting addiction, smoking, is replaced by a seemingly more benign addiction, eating. But, as most recovering addicts will tell you, they are still addicts.

Making deep and lasting changes requires courage. Looking into our own abyss is scary and we risk getting lost. We know that courage does not equal being fearless. Courage is about how one deals with the fear. Again, perhaps we join together on Yom Kippur to support each other in facing our fears. When asked how do two people find their way out of a forest, the Kotsker, Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk answered, “Join hands and find the way together.” 

Looking into ourselves, we ask “Who am I?” If you know the answer, your ego, your אנכי is getting in the way. The proper answer, the liberating answer, to “Who am I?” - “I’m not sure.” Uncertainty, combined with curiosity and a desire to be better drives us deeper to really change. And then, once you repair that level of depth, the curiosity and desire to be better drive you deeper to a new place of “I’m not sure.” and you find something else needing change.

Another time the Kotsker was asked: “What does it mean to really take awe of God seriously.” He replied: “Working on myself. It is a great sin to see yourself as a finished product.”

When a student asked: “Who is a good Jew?” He answered: “Anyone who wants to be.” The student asked: “Who would not like to be a good Jew?” The Kotsker answered: “Someone who thinks he already is.”

This Yom Kippur may we face ourselves. May we go deep. Let us hold each others’ hands as we find our way together. May we be blessed that after changes upon changes we are no longer more or less the same.