Chanukah – Light the Flames of Hope, Freedom and Life

The lights of Chanukah will burn more brightly when we do something to bring light – the light of justice, the light of peace, the light of freedom – to those who live in darkness.

Tonight we celebrate the fourth night of Chanukah. This holiday was declared by Judah Maccabee (approximately 164 BCE) after the Jewish minority were victorious over the Greeks who had taken over the land of Israel and had imposed harsh restrictions on Jewish practice and observance.

The victory celebrates religious freedom, the freedom to live life on our own terms, without being subject to the harshness of life under duress.

For most, we were born into a life of freedom. Some members of our community however, truly know how precious this gift is: having emigrated to the Greater Boston Area from the then Communist regimes of the former Soviet Union or other Soviet bloc countries. They experienced first-hand the notion of “pidyon shvoo’im” – redeeming the captive, and they know what it means to truly celebrate a chanukat habayit – the dedication of their own home, where they can live freely as they choose, without fear, without censorship, with all the rights and responsibilities that freedom entails. This is what Chanukah is all about: the ability to live freely as one chooses, to celebrate religion as a free people. Freedom means having clothes to wear, food to eat, a bed in which to sleep, a welcoming and safe place to call “home.”

However, despite the fact that we have many freedoms, we are still living in dark times. We know all too well that there are many people for whom oppression and exile, war and famine have become the “norm.” Hatred and violence rage on. Injustices prevail.

The Jewish community here in MetroWest (the communities in the western suburbs of Boston) has opened our arms and hearts to those who suffer. We light our candles on Chanukah as a beacon of light and hope to all.

Last Friday evening, one of the Kurdish Syrian Refugee families whom we are sponsoring, the Hamzas, were part of our Shabbat evening service at the Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism conference in Boston. The Hamzas came to MetroWest after fleeing from war-torn Syria in 2014.

The Hamza Family and the Prayer Migzin Wrote

Mizgin Hamza, the mother, wrote the most beautiful prayer, which she read in Arabic with one of her daughters reading with her antiphonally, in English. This family, this beautiful prayer, inspired and moved all 6500 Reform Jews who gathered from North America, Israel and other parts of the world at the Reform Movements as we prepared to sing: “Mi Chamocha” – our Jewish prayer which we recite twice daily reminding us of our own liberation from bondage in Egypt. On this 5th night of Chanukah, I share Mizgin’s prayer with you now:

O God, Ruler of Rulers, who renders decisions and is capable of all,

I stand before You on this blessed Friday night to say a prayer for all our friends in this room

To fill their paths with light

To protect them from evil

To protect them from all danger.

O angels on high,

I ask you to come to this world and make it beautiful

And to extinguish its fires

And to open the doors of goodness and blessing and to bestow on them your mercy, oh God.

We are lacking and You are perfect, O God.

O God, You are the Knower of all.

O God, You are the way, now and always,

O God, please heed my prayer.

Let Mizgin’s prayer remind us that no matter what our religion, we are all God’s children, we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.” The lessons of our past and the lessons of the Torah remind us that it is not just our own who are created b’tzelem Elohim, it is every single human being. The lights of Chanukah teach us, that if we kindle one spark, that spark can ignite multiple flames and create a roaring fire that will light up even the darkest night – that is, if we save one life, it is as if we have saved an entire world.

The lights of Chanukah will burn more brightly when we do something to bring light to those who live in darkness.

The lights of Chanukah will cast a warmer glow, when we try to find an end to war and injustice, oppression and exile, racism, hunger and pain.

So as we watch our candles burn and glow this Chanukah, this Festival of Lights , let us make a promise to keep the flame alive: as a promise of hope, a promise of freedom, a promise of life.






Speak Up, Take Action. We Are All ONE Human Race.

These turbulent and difficult times in which we now live demand that we speak up and take action. We can be the change that we need to see.

Many of us have been in great discomfort and turmoil since the 2016 United States elections as “anti” everything sentiments have turned extreme:

  • anti-immigrant
  • anti-Muslim
  • anti-LGBTQ
  • anti-anything that doesn’t appear to be white, wealthy and predominantly male.

The perception that our current political administration supports these notions has made it possible for extremists to voice their hatred and vitriol in ways that did not seem possible in this day and age. Neo-Nazism and anti-semitism have come out of the “closet;” when it seemed as if we were making strides in the LGBTQ arena, we have gone backwards instead; and any people of color or look as if they are from a place of non-American origin do not feel safe on US soil – even if they were born here.

The events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA and our US president’s response have brought these issues to a boiling point.

Our United States Constitution begins with the words: “We the People of the United States…” This country is the country of the PEOPLE of America. And it is time that the PEOPLE of our country remember our roots, our origins, how we came to be living in this great country in the first place.

We are a nation of immigrants, very few of us are “native Americans” (with the exception of the Native Americans, of course).

Most of us are in the United States because either we or someone in our family background wanted a better life, a life of opportunity and the United States was able to provide that. When we took our oath of citizenship we recited the pledge of allegiance which states that our beautiful country provides “justice and liberty for ALL.” It is a time to make sure that our country does indeed provide “justice and liberty” for ALL its citizens.

This past Sunday, it was so heartening to see hundreds of thousands of good, kind, caring, passionate people gathering all over the United States at hastily arranged vigils in a response to the rally in Charlottesville.

We took to heart the words of Holocaust survivor, humanitarian and social activist Elie Wiesel who said:

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.

I was so proud of my congregation, who came out in large numbers with barely any notice. Many had never done anything like this before. However, we are living in unusual times and they felt compelled to act.

And these unusual times call us to action.

It is not enough to simply gather together. We need to become the change we want to see in our country.

The Torah teaches us: Justice justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20) This passage, along with the notion that God made all humans in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) is part of what forms my moral compass. These two biblical values should impel us to speak up, take action and involve ourselves in the work necessary to make our country be a place of safety, security and peace for all.

There are many ways to respond:

The Reform Movements Religious Action Center published a guideline for action: Six Ways to Respond

Join with other like-minded people in your own community.

Write, call, email your senators, representatives and the President.

I pray for the day that we will see the realization of the prophet Isaiah’s words:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb
The leopard lie down with the kid.
Nothing evil or vile shall be done;
For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Eternal.

Isaiah 11 6 & 9

Open the Door to ALL: The Real Meaning of “Matzah”

The Halachma Anya invites others to join in the Passover meal. This ritual is meaningless unless we truly open our doors throughout the year to end injustice, poverty, hatred, and war throughout our world.

Each year we begin our Passover Seder with an ancient Aramaic saying, as we break one of the three ritual matzot (plural of “matzah”) in half.

We hold up one-half of the middle pieces of matza and we clearly say:

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are needy, come and celebrate Passover with us. The hour has come, now we are here. Next year, may we be in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves. Next year, may we be truly free.

And then we open our front door and and invite in all who are in need of a place to celebrate Passover, all who need a place to eat, all who are alone, or lonely, lost or wandering.

Usually, we do this as a ritual act: we break the middle matzah, recite the ancient words by rote, and open the door. We peer into the darkness and then hastily close the door again and continue with the rest of the rituals.

But what does it truly mean to hold up our “bread of affliction” and to OPEN OUR DOOR to others?

I think now is the time to transform this symbolic ritual into reality, to take the lessons from our Passover tables and turn them into living reality, so that next year, when we say at the end of “Ha lachma anya…next year may we truly be free.” These words will be filled with deep meaning because we have worked hard to make them so.

I write this on the day of Erev Pesach, the week that Syria used poisonous gas killing so many innocent citizens, in a civil war that has been raging for years? Where are our “Open Doors” to those Syrian refugees who need to to be treated as humans, and not as pawns in some bizarre game of “not welcome through my door.”

Where are our Open Doors to those who are starving in parts of Africa because we lack the intelligence and have too much red tape to adequately distribute food and water in a just and equitable manner?

Where are our Open Doors to those who are suffering in silence from Mental Illness or other illness afraid of what our current administration in Washington is going to do to our Health Care system?

Where are our Open Doors to those who are aging and might not have enough resources to enable them to live long lives filled with dignity, honor and as full-functioning humans?

Where are the Open Doors to our educators and parents and students who have invested so much in our public school system, to our Nationally Funded Arts programs which give our country more than just culture, but breadth and depth?

Where are the Open Doors to Women who deserve and demand a right to make our own decisions about what happens with our bodies?

Where are the Open Doors to members of the LBGTQ+ community who are being violated and having their long-fought-for rights stripped as we speak?

We have so many doors that are either closed or being threatened with closing.

This Passover — this Pesach — our Ha Lachma Anya prayer takes on especially significant meaning.

I invite you to open your door. Open it wide! As you break the middle matzah, think about how you find ways to symbolically open other doors throughout the coming year, how we can break down barriers, open doors to peace and understanding, justice and freedom for all.

One of my favorite quotes this time of year is from Morris Joseph. He said: “Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.”

Let’s knock down the closed doors of injustice, hatred, racism, xenophobia, poverty, war, mistruths, and so much more.

This year, not all are free. Next year, may we open the doors so that all may join us in freedom at our Pesach tables, no matter where we celebrate

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Justice & Freedom for All: All Are Welcome

When we entered the USA as refugees, we were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, on whose base the poem by Emma Lazarus is inscribed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

I grew up in a house where my parents instilled within me and my siblings the values of tikkun olam – social justice and repairing our world. At early ages, they taught us the Jewish notion that, “If your eye has seen something, and your ear has heard something, you can no longer be uninvolved or unaffected. You are now a witness and you are obligated to act.”

My parents modeled this behavior by taking us to marches and rallies for Israel and Soviet Jewry in New York City. We marched against the war in Viet Nam. We were taught that marching and attending rallies were good, but not enough. We learned how to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. They taught us to discover what actions to pursue that would make a difference in the lives of others.

As a rabbi in the public realm, I walk a fine balance: I minister to those whose thoughts and feelings fall on all sides of the political and social spectrums. At times, I must keep my personal feelings and ideas to myself, in order to respond pastorally to our entire congregation or community. Yet, at times, I feel that moral imperative to speak out, to share the prophetic voices from our Jewish teachings, to heed the call of our Jewish tradition.

Now is not the time to remain silent. For if I remain silent, I am complicit with the injustices taking place in our society.

Now is the time to speak out. Now is the time to act. Now is the time for our community to come together and unite – no matter one’s political or social leanings. We must remember that in our Pledge of Allegiance, we take an oath that our country promises to be a place of “justice and freedom for all.”

I am alarmed at the events taking place in my country — my beloved United States of America, the “home of the free and the brave” — in recent days.

I am especially ashamed and horrified by the Executive Order enacted this past Friday, January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA for at least the next 90 days. The order is far-reaching: among its actions, it stops the admission of all refugees into the United States for at least four months – even those that have already gone through a rigorous two-year vetting process; Trump prioritizes Christian refugees over Muslim refugees in the EO; it bans Syrian refugees altogether as “detrimental to the interests of the United States” and so much more.

We all witnessed on the news that through this Executive Order, permanent residents of the United States with valid Green Cards, who have been living here, working here, raising their families here; students and faculty studying and teaching at our universities; people adding to our economy in the workforce and so many others were caught either in our airports on Friday, or turned back when trying to board planes to return to the United States. People who have added so much to our economy, to our culture to the great melting pot of our great nation have been told they are “detrimental to the interests” of our country and cannot enter the USA.

Refugees who no longer have homes in their countries of origin, who are fleeing from the atrocities and harshness of war, hatred, strife, xenophobia, discrimination, poverty and so much more have been told that they are not welcome here.

With the exception of Native Americans, most of us came to the United States as refugees. For centuries, people have come to the United States seeking a life of freedom, opportunity, and peace. Many of our ancestors either came here either seeking a better economic life for themselves or because they too were fleeing from harsh regimes where they could not live their lives in freedom and peace. Many North American Jews came to the United States because they fled from Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, or even years earlier from the Tzarist regime in Russia.

In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (great philosopher, scholar, moral thinker and the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) spoke out in a video message: “The Holocaust did not define what it is to be a Jew. The Holocaust defined what it is to be human.”

To be human is to recognize that we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God,” as we are taught in Genesis 1:27. It is to recognize that in the face of hatred, injustice, and intolerance, no matter what our politics, we cannot remain silent. It is to live out the biblical injunction “justice justice you shall pursue – tzedek tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The biblical imperative to “love your neighbor” knows no religious or national boundaries. Our common interest in security is only undermined when we allow fear to dismantle the very principles of our democracy.

As Elie Wiesel said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” He said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” To paraphrase, we must always speak out when we see a wrong. We must find a way to change the wrongs we see taking place in our society, to use our political process to our advantage to make the changes we need. We saw that notion in action with the protests at the airports this past Friday, and with the wonderful actions of the US Federal judges who issued orders preventing parts of the Executive Order from being enacted.

We need to reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters here in the United States, as well as to those of every ethnic background, every religion, every race – and say: “You are welcome here!” There is no one kind of “American people” – we are a beautiful potpourri, made up of peoples of every gender, every country, every religion every ethnic background, every sexual orientation.

Let us continue to raise our voices, speak out, join our hands together, work for a better tomorrow, a brighter future for all.

People of faith have a particular responsibility to speak out. The Koran teaches: “We have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” In our Jewish tradition, in our Reform Movement’s Friday Sabbath liturgy we read:

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land,
that the winding way to that promise
passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching
Mishkan T’filah (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), page 157

Our Feet Our Standing At Your Gates, O Jerusalem: Our Journey “Home”

Final reflections from Rabbi Sobel and group participants from Temple Isaiah’s Chanukah 2016 Israel trip: A Journey “Home.”

As clear as wine, the wind is flying
Among the dreamy pines
As evening light is slowly dying
And a lonely bell still chimes.
So many songs, so many stories
The stony hills recall…
Around her heart my city carries
A lonely ancient wall.

Yerushalayim all of gold,
Yerushalayim bronze and light
Within my heart I shall treasure
Your song and sight.

Jerusalem of Gold by Naomi Shemer

How does one capture the totality of a journey to one’s spiritual home? The walls have so many stories to tell, the wind carries sweet fragrances, the land cries of blood and sweat, of beauty and nature, of God and spirituality, of longing and hope, of war and peace. How does one encapsulate a journey with friends who become family, a journey where strangers become friends, a journey where “home” now derives new meaning.

We might live in the United States, but we know that we all have a “home” in Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel. 

Home is where we can be ourselves, live out our hopes and dreams with those whom we love and who share the same values and ideals. Yet, at times, home can be fraught with tension and anxiety. We know that we cannot always choose our family members, or choose our neighbors, and sometimes, “home” is not always a comfortable place to be.

We must figure out a way to make our home a place of refuge, a place of peace, a place of serenity and calm. So that all who live within its borders feel safe and secure, knowing we can “kick off our shoes” and live harmoniously with others in our own home. And what about the “neighbors?” How do we live in security in such a difficult neighborhood? There are no easy answers. But we cannot walk away, for this beautiful “home,” is the abode of our Jewish heart. To paraphrase medieval Jewish poet, Yehuda Halevi (c. 1141) “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

Yes, the walls have centuries of stories to tell. Every peak, every valley, every vista have seen wondrous events. The evening light is more beautiful than one can even describe. The food incredibly delicious. But it is the people – from all religions, all denominations and every walk of life, who add vibrancy, spirit, vitality and uniqueness to this special place.

Carole-Ann Gordon, one of our trip participants and her daughters, Michelle and Rachel Stolowicki, walked to the Old City of Jerusalem the last Friday of our trip. They happened upon a “larger than life” puppet show that exemplified the diversity of the family that lives in our Jewish homeland.

The Many Faces of Israel, Photo by Carole-Ann Gordon

It is our dream, our hope, our wish, that our “family members” can always be walking like this side-by-side, in harmony and understanding, peace and unity.
As the group prepared to depart on our flight home, I shared with them the Prayer for Jerusalem, based on Psalms 122 and 128:

Our feet are standing at your gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem built as a city bound firmly together, where tribes once went up to give thanks to the Eternal, where thrones of justice were once set, thrones of the House of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper who love her. May peace be in her walls, tranquility in her towers. May God bless us from Zion and let us see our children’s children and peace upon Israel.

Yes, we too, as North American Jews, feel our feet standing at Israel’s gates. We have one foot in our North American home, and one foot in our spiritual home, the land of Israel.

We pray that God “may bless us from Zion and let us see our children’s children and peace upon Israel” and all who dwell there.

A Few Final Reflections from Some of Our Participants Upon Returning Back to the USA

From Lori Stern, with input from Howard (first time travelers to Israel):

“Thanks so much again for this wonderful trip. Israel is a complicated but beautiful country, full of history, archaeology, culture and wonderful people. It was great to see the extremes in landscape, religion, weather, synagogues, etc.

I will never forget the delicious tomatoes and persimmons, salad for breakfast, hummus and of course, the very ‘interesting’ bathrooms (inside joke for our trip participants).

I especially loved the Palmach Museum, Rosh Hanikrah, the Tunnel Tour beneath the Western Wall, the Chagall Windows, the B’nai Mitzvah service, the Old City, Sarona Market, and the Ari Synagogue and shops in S’fat. Masada and the Dead Sea experience was truly inspiring! We had such a great time with so many wonderful temple members!”

From Ricki Budnick, with input from Larry and Steven (first time travelers to Israel):

“Words cannot express the deep emotions and gratitude I feel about sharing this journey to Israel. You made it a wonderful learning and spiritual experience for our family.

Today was the first time I looked at the blog and was so touched by the moment we shared together. Thank you for helping create a memory that we will treasure for the rest of our lives.

You have renewed our faith and reinforced our identity. Thank you again.”

From Michele and Joe Goonan: (first time travelers to Israel):

“Words can’t describe our experience! What a special group we had!

We learned so much about Israel and have a much better understanding about the challenges faced by the many people living there.

It was truly the trip of a lifetime and we feel blessed to been able to make the journey.”

From Ilene and Glenn Steinhauer (first time travelers to Israel):

“We can’t stop talking to everyone who will listen about our amazing experience in Israel.

As a first-timer, it was so hard to imagine what this would be like. It far exceeded our expectations! Thanks for all the hard work you did before and during the trip. We really appreciate it!”

L’hitra’ot Israel! We cannot wait to return “home” again!


Barriers, Borders, Boundaries, and Walls

Israel reflections, continued.

Israel is a Democratic Jewish state. It is a geographically tiny place, situated in an “undesirable” neighborhood, surrounded by those who wish to see her eradicated.

Israel has embraced within its borders, opened its arms and heart to so many who have had no other place to turn, refugees of all types: the earliest settlers from the late 1800’s, the second wave of settlers from WWII, Yemenite Jews, Moroccan Jews, Russian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Cambodian “boat people,” Vietnamese refugees, those from Darfur and the southern Sudan who fled from violent African regimes..and so many others. Borders and boundaries often meant nothing.

And now, Israel is once again trying to figure out how to offer safety and security to 60,000 Syrian refugees who are the victim of the civil war in Syria – a place that is now being referred to as “the country that used to be Syria.” Syria, a country that has no relations with Israel. And Israel is trying to find a way to be able to offer safe haven and refuge, despite borders and boundaries. They will do so in a way that addresses all security issues and in a way that addresses the humanitarian issues at stake.

To be a Jew is to recognize that we are all created “B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God” and thus, the Democratic Jewish state often goes out of its way to treat others, no matter their nationality, background or religion with a sense of that humanity, justice, and fairness.

We saw this same attitude at our visit to Hadassah hospital Ein Kerem. Hadassah treats all patients equally, and often treats patients from countries who do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel. But they find a way to come to Hadassah because Hadassah is known for its exemplary medical care, its cutting-edge and innovative technology and the fact that it’s medical team see no boundaries vis-a-vis race, ethnicity, citizenship or religion. Everyone is treated as if they are created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.

And yet, despite this, people are people. And as the old joke goes, if two Jews were stranded on a desert Island, they would build three synagogues: one for each of them, and one that neither would attend. Israel is no different.

Everywhere we went, we were witness to emotional, physical and other types of barriers, boundaries, borders and walls that cause tension and stress among different groups of Jews, that exacerbate relationships between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, and that fans the flame of anger that prevent dialogue toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is in these areas that we see the concept of “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God” falling to the wayside. Here, we witness the concept of fundamentalism: the notion of “only my way is correct, and your way is wrong, and therefore, you are evil.” No matter if the issue involves Jew vs Jew, or Jew vs Arab, when we treat someone like they are “other,” we forget that they too, are human.

In Israel, there is no such thing as religious pluralism. The Orthodox control all matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, conversion, burial). Orthodox synagogues are built by the government and Orthodox rabbis’ salaries are paid for by the government. Not so for any other Jewish denomination. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews need to fight for their land, fight to have their rabbis’ rights recognized, fight for everything they receive.

We spent time with three different Reform congregations (Congregation Yozma in Modi’in, Yedid Nefesh Congregation in Carmiel and Kol Haneshama Congregation in Jerusalem) praying together, eating together, studying together. We prayed at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and studied with Rabbi Michael Marmur, the Provost of HUC, and we spent time at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, learning about the Israel Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and some of the causes they address. We heard about the boundaries, borders and walls that the Reform Movement in Israel has to face daily.

Yet, they are constantly making progress and gaining strides. The Reform Movement has ordained over 100+ Israeli-born rabbis in its Israel rabbinical program. They celebrate the B’nai Mitzvah of over 800 students every year and hundreds of weddings. 1000’s of people attend Reform congregations for study and prayer during holiday times. The Legal Aid Center for New Immigrants has assisted hundreds of new immigrants gratis with legal aid. And Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is the leading voice of “Women of the Wall” pressing for egalitarian participation for all at one of Jerusalem’s holiest spots. Yes – there is more than one way to be “religious” – and the Israeli Reform Movement is living proof that liberal Judaism is a viable option.

While some of our group went to Masada and the Dead Sea, some of us visited Hebron, in the West Bank with the NGO “Breaking the Silence.”

Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by a group of former ID veterans, many of them coming from religious backgrounds. They felt that the Torah and Jewish values were diametrically opposed to what was taking place in Hebron. They felt the lack of people being treated “b’tzelem Elohim” called for action.

Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with a Jewish settlement in its center. And this settlement happens to be comprised of ideological settlers who believe that all of the West Bank should be “Arab-free.” These settlers will forcibly remove Arabs from their places of business and homes and take illegal possession of them. They defy the laws of the army and the police. They all carry weapons.

For years, the army has implemented a policy of separation and discrimination between the Israeli settlers and the Palestinian majority. The army is charged with protecting the settlers (and at times, the Palestinians who are often attacked by the settlers). The army severely restricts the movement of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents, which has led to the destruction of the main commerce area and to the mass abandonment of the area by the residents who could afford to flee. Hundreds of shops have closed, thousands of people have been left without a livelihood and many people have been forced to leave their homes. The city center has become a ghost town, where only Jews are allowed to move about freely (Palestinians are not allowed to drive on the streets, or be on the streets at certain times). Hunger and poverty are rampant. The UN is providing children with soup and buckets for soup at lunch-time, often the only meal that is available that day.

Hebron – Ghost Town
The fanatic Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Muslims during Ramadan many years ago while they were praying in the mosque at the Cave of Machpelah, was part of this group of settlers.

They promote an ideology of hatred based on a fundamental belief that walls, barriers and boundaries that push out and separate will be beneficial to them. They teach that the “other” is not human and is not worthy of being treated as such.

At the same time, there exist many good Israelis who are trying to teach about what is happening in Hebron and change the conversation. The goal is to change the policies of what happens in Hebron, and hopefully one day to end the occupation. People cannot live autonomously if they are living under occupation.

We also spent one afternoon just north of the West Bank, in Israel, with Sikkuy: For Civic Equality for Arab Israelis. Sikkuy has two main goals: The first goal is how to close the economic gaps that exist in the Arab Israeli neighborhoods. The Arab Israeli neighborhoods receive much less government support than the Jewish Israeli neighborhoods. This affects the public education system, water access, garbage pickup, electricity and all public works, roadways, public transportation, etc. The second goal is how to build a shared society. Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis have very little contact with each other, very little opportunity for dialogue and discussion.

There are 1.4 million Arab citizens in Israel (approximately 17% of Israeli citizens are Arab; less than 200,00 are Christians).

Due to the large economic gaps in the system, the Arab Israeli population is extremely disadvantaged. The only engine of growth over the next 20 years for the economy is the integration of the Arab Israeli citizens and the Haredim into society. The Haredim are ambivalent. The Arabs do want to participate but there are barriers.

Often, the Arabs are seen as a security threat, they often have a difficult time finding jobs – even with advanced university degrees.

We spent time with Asala Mahajna and her father, Kasam, originally from the largest Israeli Arab town of Um El Fahm. We heard and witnessed how the town’s growth was impeded by some of the economic issues. We heard about Asala’s hopes and dreams and concerns for the future.

We learned how Sikkuy, with it’s Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli co-directors work together with other organizations to break down barriers, tear down walls and build bridges that will lead to new avenues of openness and better living. Perhaps, one of the most exciting ventures we learned about was a set of seven schools called: “Hand in Hand.” Founded by Shuli Dichter (former Director of Sikkuy). Shuli is breaking down barriers and walls with these schools that provide education for both Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli school children. They bring together the parents for discussion and dialogue. “The old shall dream dreams, but the youth shall have visions.”

We spent time up on the Golan Heights at the Syrian border, getting a security briefing on what was happening with the “country formerly known as Syria” from (Retired) Col. Kobi Marom.

And we had a fascinating tour and lecture of the security wall around the West Bank with Prof. Paul Liptz.

We walked around the walls of the Old City, the walls that separated the Old City from the New, the walls that separated the Jewish Quarter from the Christian Quarter, from the Armenian Quarter from the Muslim Quarter.

We even saw a sign on a wall that said: “Americans go home. You’re not welcome here.”

Yes, Israel is a complex place.

We pray that one day, there will be no need for the walls, the barriers will come down and all people will remember to treat each other “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the Image of God.

Celebrating in Joy – The B’nai Mitzvah in Israel of Steven Budnick and Jill Weiss

Many people choose to celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Israel.

However, when Steven Budnick became Bar Mitzvah at Temple Isaiah this past July, he and his family chose to enhance this special year in Steven’s life by traveling to Israel with our Temple Isaiah group and having Steven read Torah again. Little did we all realize that this experience would be one of the most moving experiences for our entire group.

The Friday before our group departed New York for Israel, Jill Weiss sent me an email. Jill is 35. She was born with a disability that makes her speech difficult for others to understand. This speech impediment prevented her from celebrating Bat Mitzvah at the age of 13. Now, at the age of 35, on the eve of embarking on our Israel journey, she wanted to know if it was possible to celebrate Bat Mitzvah in Israel. I assured her that we would make it happen.

Before I discussed any details with her, I conferred with the Budnick family. I didn’t want to impinge on their celebration. I wanted to know how they would feel if we added the celebration of Jill’s Bat Mitzvah to the same morning that we were celebrating Steven’s re-dedication of his Bar Mitzvah. Before I could even get the words out of my mouth, they agreed.

The B’nai Mitzvah celebration took place on Thursday morning, December 29th, after our group had already been together in Israel for over one week. It gave the group time to bond, form friendships and develop close connections to each other.

Even though I am sharing the words that were spoken that day, they cannot truly convey the emotions that were felt by all who participated, by all who shared in the experience. Steven and Jill together created a common bond, bringing the group together in joy and gladness.

We had laughed together over the previous week, become sick together, shed tears together, explored together, ate together, prayed together and now we would rejoice and celebrate not only with one another – but we would celebrate EACH other, we would lift each other up.

We gathered together at 7:00 am for a short bus ride from our hotel in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate in the walls of the Old City. We were going to celebrate at Robinson’s Arch, in the egalitarian section of the southern side of the Western Wall.

The platform was covered in a thin layer of ice, which Ofer (our tour guide) had to sweep away so we wouldn’t all slide off. But the sun was shining and the air was clear and crisp.

It was quiet for awhile, until the rebel noise makers outside the wall above started blowing their shofarot and started banging their drums and playing their loud music. Their goal is to disrupt the egalitarian services which they know are taking place.

Down by the Western Wall itself, the divided side, the Women of the Wall were gathering to celebrate Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and read Torah in celebration of Chanukah (we had been invited to join them, but the B’nai Mitzvah celebration took priority). Our friend Oren was in charge of a battalion of 250 + soldiers who had been called upon to protect the Women of the Wall and keep things “orderly.” He offered us protection to – in case we needed it. We assured him we’d be fine.

I led a short morning service. And then both Steven and Jill carried the sefer Torah in the Hakafah.

Steven Budnick Shared His D’var Torah First

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for joining my family and me during this momentous event.

I chose to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah again in Israel because I feel a strong connection to my Jewish identity and the State of Israel. Israel is a nation rich in culture, language, history and diversity. My journey in Israel means so much to me because I will be reciting prayers at the place that is closest to God.

Since my arrival in Israel, I have felt a reinforced sense of Judaism. My studies at Temple Isaiah provided me with the background knowledge of many biblical stories. Within the past few days I have seen firsthand the actual sights where some of these events occurred. Before I began this journey, I was doubtful of the validity of these stories. Now, I feel that I am a witness to the power of God and God’s followers.

I can be Jewish in Israel without having to assimilate into Christian culture. Everywhere I look, I see Chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs) and mezzuzot on each door. There are men dancing on the street and women and children singing Chanukah songs. I don’t feel like I’m a minority but part of a larger majority. I feel proud to be Jewish in a place dominated by others just like myself.

In the United States, it is unusual to see Chanukah celebrated as such a popular and joyous holiday.

My visits to the two Reform congregations make me feel connected to the people of Israel and God. Their struggle to prosper and uphold their Jewish values is important to me as a Reform Jew. We share the same songs, traditions and values. Even though we are separated by oceans and land, we are the same people. Our Jewish values and belief in God makes us one.

The word “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It is especially symbolic that my Bar Mitzvah is during the holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees. I can identify with Judah Maccabee and his strong will and bravery to overcome obstacles presented in his path.

For me, I am dedicating myself to upholding the traditions and beliefs of my ancestors. I have continued my education at Temple Isaiah by attending Confirmation classes. I also am a youth group member of the Workman’s Circle. This organization’s goal is to work with individuals in the community who are in need of assistance.

The Torah portion for this morning is from the book of Numbers. It is the reading for the 5th day of Chanukah. I am chanting Numbers 7, verses 36-41.

After Steven chanted Torah, his parents, Ricki and Larry Budnick, shared these words of blessing with him

Larry and I are so excited to be sharing Steven’s second Bar Mitzvah with our new extended family. It has been our dream to visit Jerusalem for many years.

The last three years of our lives have been filled with many bumps and hurdles. It is during this time that we turned to prayer and reflection to deal with life challenges. We have renewed our faith in God and wanted our son to have the strongest connection to Judaism.

Being in Israel has helped us realize the importance of being a Reform Jew. When we return to East Setuaket, we will continue the customs and traditions of Judaism. we understand how important our religion is to us. We hope to introduce the lighting of Shabbat candles into our Friday evening activities. Our family will also continue to attend services and celebrate the holidays with an increased joy and love.

This trip has allowed us the opportunity to learn more about our culture and traditions. We truly feel we have come full circle to our homeland.

(Then I blessed Steven).

Jill Weiss shared some special words before her aliyah

At this time I am choosing to celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah because, not only is it a right of passage for a Jewish girl, I want to be able to celebrate that right of passage myself. It is a tradition that both my brother Brian and sister Lauren celebrated when they were 13, but I was not given that same opportunity.

I am choosing to do this in Israel because I am now more mature at the age of 35 and am more comfortable with myself. I saw this as an opportunity to make a commitment to my Jewish heritage. I am looking to feel more connected to my roots.

On this trip to Israel, I discovered that Israel has a great history to be learned. It started as a small country and then turned into a beautiful great country which has given the world wonderful contributions. I feel I now have a better understanding of the Jewish religion. I know I still have so much more to learn, as I continue on the path of Jewish knowledge and commitment.

Jill’s dear friend and traveling companion, Lissie Bubel, shared these words with Jill after Jill’s aliyah

Since I met Jill in 2001, she has always displayed passion, drive, and commitment for anything her heart desires.

So of course her idea of becoming Bat Mitzvah was no exception to those intangible qualities.

Although we are both Reform and don’t keep kosher in our apartment, Jill has shown me (and I hope you all see it too) that being Jewish is not always about how you practice, it but it is about who you are.

So naturally, because she did not have a Bat Mitzvah twenty or so years ago…she figured why not do it in Israel. Her love for the history, culture, and new experiences prove that she is proud to be Jewish. I am very proud of her and excited to be here with her to celebrate this special moment with her.

Wait I almost forgot to include these sentences from your whole family:

‘Hi Jillzie,

While we may not be with you “physically” on this most auspicious occasion, just know that we are with you in every other way possible – including spiritually, emotionally and LOVINGLY.

We are proud of you – in more ways than you know. What a great idea (YOUR idea) to ask Rabbi Sharon Sobel if she could do this for you while in Israel (you wanted something symbolic and meaningful and, in your words, didn’t need a “shebang”) on the trip of a lifetime. Our thanks to her and to the Budnick family celebrating Steven’s Bar Mitzvah at this time and the other members of your travel group for sharing this with you.

We literally could go on endlessly about how we all feel about you, how much we love you and how much we wish you nothing but happiness and good health for many, many years to come. No one deserves it more than you. You are amazing, bold, fearless and self-assured. A true modern woman. Enjoy this amazing experience…in the place where it all began.

All our love,

Mom, Dad, Brian, Aimee, Sawyer, Hardy, Lauren, Dave and Gabrielle’

(And then I blessed Jill).

The entire group held the Torah (or held onto someone who was holding the Torah as we recited our “Mi Sheberach” – our prayer for healing.

We concluded our service, returned to the hotel for a celebratory breakfast. Lori and Howard Stern presented Steven and Jill with gifts and cards on behalf of the whole group (kudos to Lori and Howard for finding out what each of them truly wanted, traipsing about in the wind and rain, procuring the gifts on behalf of the group, wrapping them, etc).

And then we continued on with the rest of our day’s activities. (That will be another blog post).

At the end of the day, both Steven, Jill, the group and Ofer (our tour guide) reflected on what the morning’s experience meant for each of them:

Jill and Steven receiving their certificate from our tour guide, Ofer Zemach.

Steven’s reflections

Today was an unbelievable day for me. I had the opportunity to have a second Bar Mitzvah in Israel.

After touring the country for over a week, I have such a strong connection to my Jewish roots.

When I stood by the Wall and chanted my Torah portion, I felt so proud to be a Jew. I was standing at the holiest place beside the Torah and the Wall. I could see, hear and feel the generations of history that occurred at this site. When Rabbi Sobel touched my shoulders and offered me her blessings, I felt as if God was around me.

The weather was sunny but cool. The sunshine and warmth of my Temple Isaiah friends made me feel so great. I especially thought it was fun to slide around [the ice on the ground when we first arrived in the morning] with the Torah by the Wall. There was no bima, seats or ark. Just the beautiful backdrop of the Wall. It was a spiritual and exciting experience today for me as a Bar Mitzvah.

The most important things that I take away from my Bar Mitzvah today is that I have an important role as a Reform Jew. it is my obligation to practice the customs and traditions of Judaism. I also need to continue my Jewish studies and learn more about Israeli politics and policies. Thank you.

Jill’s reflections:

I want to thank all of you for sharing with me the most amazing experience in my life today.

I feel grateful for having a second family to celebrate this momentous occason with me. To become “Bat Mitzvah” for me means feeling complete. I know when a Jewish girl turns 13, she automanticly becomes “Bat Mitzvah.” But I wanted to be able to say the prayers and carry the Torah and rejoice in sharing with people I can call friends.

I am the baby of my family and naturally I wanted to do and mirror what my siblings did when they turned 13. Growing up I’ve had difficulties as you can probably tell. My parents opted against me celebrating “Bat Mitzvah” publicly. I was disappointed but I understood.

When I heard I had this opportunity to come to Israel, my first thought was how great would it be to celebrate becoming “Bat Mitzvah” in Israel. I was thinking about this for awhile. I just didn’t know how to approach the idea with Rabbi Sobel. I was apprehensive but I finally got the nerve to ask her, only a week ago when I knew I was going to Israel for months. (I was nervous!)

To become Bat Mitzvah here at the Wall is so special. I feel so close to my Jewish roots now. I was scared of Israel before I arrived here and felt that I would not be safe. But once I got here and realized that Israel is so like NYC, I realized that it is a wonderful and special country. I feel very safe.

Again thank you all for sharing my special moment.

For those of us sharing the experience, it was particularly poignant and moving. Steven was turning 14 the next day and he is so articulate, committed to Judaism and has a deep and abiding faith in God. He sets a wonderful example for each one of us.

Jill’s delight in discovering her Jewish roots and finding her Jewish voice was profoundly moving for all of us. She inspired each one of us by her quest to remind us that one is never too old to learn, no challenge too difficult to overcome and where there’s a “will there’s a way.”

Most of all, both Steven and Jill embody the value of community and family. Our day was sweeter, more beautiful, more special because every single member of our group participated and celebrated with a full heart and joyful spirit.

Mazal Tov!