Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jerusalem Week 15--Shabbat in the Settlements, Conservative Ulpan

 This week was quite eventful, including starting Ulpan at the Conservative Yeshiva, some great visits with old friends, and spending Shabbat with settlers in Ofra.

Shabbat with Settlers
Yishai, Ruchi, daughter Michal with Karen, Jonah, and me.  Micah is snapping the picture.
On the TBA trip with Keshet we became very close to one of the tour guides, the incomporable Yishai.  He and his wife Ruchi invited us to spend a Shabbat with them at their home on the Judea/West Bank settlement of Ofra, and he drove 45 minutes each way to pick us up and bring us home afterward.  The settlement of Ofra, just 25 km North of Jerusalem and near the Arab city of Ramallah, was established in 1975 on an abandoned Jordanian Army post.  Biblically, it is in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, and I kept thinking of King Saul and Samuel on the way there.
                                     Play structure where the boys enjoyed themselves.           View of Ofra from the top of the hill.
If you tell most American Jews you are spending Shabbat on a "settlement," the reaction usually ranges from "how could you" to "aren't you scared?"  But it is a very, very normal place.  There are about 500 families there, and it feels more planned suburban community Israeli style than anything else.  Most of the community is Modern Orthodox, and it is a diverse, .family-oriented place.  The synagogue there was quite interesting.  They have one large synagogue which almost the entire community attends each Shabbat,   The Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader) decides each week whether they will use the Ashkenazic or Sephardic minhag (custom).  In our case, Shacharit was led Sephardically and Musaf Ashkenazically.  The mix of people is incredible.  There are Ethiopian Jews and Yemenite Jews and quite a few B'nai Menashe, which are Jews from India who are ethnically Tibetan/Chinese.  The place is a real melting pot, and nearly everyone knows each other.

The kids enjoyed playing on the playground and met some very nice Israeli kids there.  It was great to watch them communicate in a mixture of broken Hebrew and English, going over names for animals, trying to sing their favorite American pop songs, and playing ball games.  Micah and Jonah are in this phase where they joke about Justin Bieber being a girl in disguise, and the Israelis and my boys repeated "Bieber yelda."  I don't like them saying this, but watching them all agree in Hebrew was a funny moment.  Unfortunately, it was Shabbat afternoon, so I couldn't take any pictures.

Yishai and Ruchi were amazing hosts, of course, with fantastic food and company.  Ruchi works as a translator and has met some of the world's greatest leaders in her work, so we got some amazing stories.  You can hear her views about Ofra in the following video article: .

Ulpan at Conservative Yeshiva
I began a 3 week Ulpan and an additional class at the Fuchsberg Center, more commonly known around here as the Conservative Yeshiva.  It's the headquarters of the Conservative movement in Israel, and there are people of all ages from all over the world taking classes there.  The place is great, the Ulpan mediocre. I prefer a more structure environment, and our class is mostly just four hours of the 9 of us sitting around talking Hebrew.  That's 4 more hours than I would get any place else, but it's group discussion, not partner discussion, so we don't get to maximize our practice time.  The good news is that I am just about at the level I was during my first year of rabbinical school in Israel 21 years ago.  The bad news is that is nowhere near real fluency.  Realistically, I didn't think I would be fluent, but I had hoped to improve a little more than I have.

Good Friends
The Bloom and Feld/Goldfarb Families--We've come a long way since 6th grade
Chana Mesberg
Harold Grossman and Chana Mesberg--Friends from South  Salem, New York
We enjoyed two different dinners with good friends.  One was with Deborah Feld Goldfarb and her family, a good  and "steady" friend from 6th grade, and the other was with Harold and Chana Mesburg/Grossman, who were some of our favorite members from my first congregation in South Salem, New York.  Harold and Chana (formerly Christine, but born Jewish secular in New York) moved to Israel a few years ago and live part time in the Golan Heighs and part time in Jerusalem.

Wine of the Week--Adir 2009 Shiraz
I had tasted this one at the winery itself so I knew it was good.  88 good, because it could use some aging.  Great spice flavor but not enough wood age for a 90.

Winding Down
]It's hard to believe that we only have two weeks left here.  It's only in the last few weeks that I'm starting to feel ready to come home.  I've missed friends, family, and modern conveniences the entire time, but I love the idyllic lifestyle we've had here.  However, it is so hot at night in our apartment that it's pushing me toward thinking about all the other things I'm looking forward to upon our return.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Jerusalem Week 14--Reform Roots and Tent City Protests

This was a relatively uneventful week.  It started strong with the wine tour with my brother, but I already wrote about that.  While Karen was doing Ulpan at the Conservative Yeshiva, I don't start mine until Sunday, so I had a few days "off," which I used primarily to start my High Holiday sermons.  I know I'll be too busy when I return home to write all of them then, so I wanted to get a jump start.  I stayed in my pajamas much of the week, but I accomplished a lot of writing, thankfully.  The kids continued to be content at the All Star Sports Camp.

Tent Cities

When you are abroad you think that all the angst in Israel revolves around the Palestinian issue.  Right now, the big news and the big protests center around affordable housing.  The Israeli economy has done extremely well despite what is going on in the rest of the world, but a strong economy means housing prices have risen to unaffordable levels, particularly in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Tent city protests have sprung up throughout Israel, and it is interesting to watch as a relative outsider.  Sadly, there are no easy answers.

Reform Roots
This Shabbat was a return to my roots in Reform Judaism.  On Friday night we attended Kol Hanishama, where I spent most of my Friday nights in Rabbinical School.  Reform services in Israel are almost entirely in Hebrew, and Kol Hanishama is known for their wonderful singing and energy.  Some of the tunes we use often at Beth Abraham come from here, including the song "Kol Hanishama" and one of the melodies we use for Lecha Dodi. They still draw a large crowd, and we enjoyed ourselves, though we did not enjoy being relegated to the back in the "non member" section.  On the one hand we understand that the regulars need places to sit, but it's not the warmest feeling when you walk in.
On Saturday morning we went to Hebrew Union College on King David Street, which is where I attended my first year of rabbinical school.  They do not have services every week there anymore, but this was a week in which they did hold them.  I was pleasantly surprised by the ruach in the room compared to when I attended 21 years ago.  With a congregation made up mostly of rabbinical students and alumni rabbis, though, I shouldn't have been that surprised.  I did see some old colleague/friends that I hadn't seen in many years.  One tortured and teased me because I could not figure out who he was at first.  I finally got it, but it was rough for me, since I pride myself on my memory.  Note to any readers in case I momentarily forget who you are as I get older.:  It is kinder just to say who you are so as not to embarrass the person, specifically me!  It doesn't mean I don't love you.  I enjoyed many of the tunes, though they go very, very slowly, so some of them seem to take forever.  The boys commented that the singing was a "little too much like the opera," though, having never been I'm not sure how they would know that.  The Torah reading was very short (only three small Aliyot).  I didn't mind, but it was strange for us.  Still, it was fun to remember what it was like praying in that very same chapel as a student 21 years ago!

We had a delicious Shabbat lunch at the beautiful home of Moshe and Libby Werthan, the parents of our TBA member Melissa, a great way to conclude the week.

Wine of the Week

This week's wine was one of the ones I tasted during the wine trip and bought, a 2008 Cabernet Franc from Na'aman Winery.  That's the one by the former filmmaker who names many of his wines after rock groups and songs.  This was a big, bold wine, though without too much wood flavor despite a fairly lengthy French Oak aging process.  I think the grape's flavor was so powerful that it over shadows the oak.  That's not necessarily a bad thing at all.  In the movie Sideways, Miles doesn't like what most American wineries are doing with the Cabernet Franc.  Rami Na'aman is doing something very right with it, though.  90 points.

This week, Ulpan!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jerusalem Week 13--Wine Tours and TBA Filled Shabbat

I'm going to work backwards this week.
With brother Barry at the Kotel
Wine Tours
I just finished a two day trip up north to the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights with my brother Barry..  We hit four wineries (Golan Heights Winery, Galil MountainAdirNa'aman), each of which was interesting in its own right.  Golan Heights is Israel's second largest winery, after Carmel, and produces about 6 million bottles a year under three different labels:  Golan Heights, Gamla, and Yarden.  Galil Mountain Winery is the primary business of Kibbutz Yiron right near the border with Lebanon, and they produce about 1 million bottles a year.  They have two bordeaux style blends called Meron and Yiron which we found to be particularly good.  Adir is a very fancy boutique winery which produces about 20,000 bottles a year, and they also have a gourmet dairy.  The last Na'aman produces only 10,000 bottles a year, and the former filmmaker turned wine maker blends bold red wines that he names after rock groups or songs:  Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Bob Merlot, and more.  It was great fun.

We also chanced upon this unbelievable jam maker named Sarah, who makes about 100 kinds of homemade jams.  It was hard to decide what to get, but we bought sun baked apricot, pear cinnamon, strawberry raspberry, and chocolate orange. Other highlights were a great Kosher steakhouse in the Golan Heights called Bokrim and a trip to a restored Talmudic village in Katzrin.   It was also great to spend some quality time with my big brother.
I'll take Sara's over Miss Pearl's any day.
In front of ancient Katzrin Synagogue
Shabbat People
Shabbat this week was very special, because we got to see not only my brother, but 5 out of 6 Schackers, Sarah Levine, Melissa Werthan, and Aliza Zangwill.  It was wonderful to spend time with each of them, bringing together the holiness of Jerusalem with the warmth of friendship. Sarah and Melissa did not stay with us through Havdala; thus we did not get any pictures of them.   Services were not quite as good this week.
Neighbor and Friend Aliza
How many Schackers does it take to light a Havdalah candle?
Shabbat Services
We spent Friday night at the Western Wall.  There are many minyanim at once going on there, so we tried to find one to stick with, but it was very hard to hear.  What we did enjoy was seeing a large group of Israeli soldiers dancing up a Shabbat storm and singing songs on both the mens' and womens' sides.  The release of joy for such hard working young men and women whose mission is to protect this holy place was joyful and inspiring.  Saturday morning was spent at the Hurva Synagogue.  Architecturally, it was amazing.  Spiritually, it was lacking.  The Hurva is in the Old City of Jerusalem and was rebuilt to its full beauty just a few years ago.  It was destroyed by the Jordanians immediately after the 1948 War of Independence sort of gratuitously.  Only the arch from the large dome-like structure still stood.  When the Old City was recaptured by Israel in 1967, the original decision was just to leave the arch without rebuilding.  Eventually, some U.S. donors decided to restore it to its former glory.  It is certainly a beautiful synagogue, but the service was almost all Ashkenazic mumbling.  The participants are the black velvet wearing kippa crowd, and not a soul talked to any of us.  They also do not do the prayer for Israel or the Israeli army.  It's almost a non-'Zionist relic stuck in the middle of Jerusalem, very strange and unsatisfying to us.  Fortunately, all the people we spent Shabbat with later in the day made it holy instead.

New Camps
The boys switched camps from a camp called Shelanu in our neighborhood which had very little int he way of activities to the All Star Sports Camp.  They are ecstatic.  They play all kinds of sports all day long at Kraft Stadium, which was built by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and thus contains the Patriots' logo in the center of the field.  The boys are in heaven and making friends, and we are very, very happy for them.

End of Hartman
Also this past week, I finished my studies at the Hartman Institute.  The highlight was a guided trip to the Israel Museum, where my group concentrated on modern Israeli art.  We also took a Bible Highlights tour into Bet Shemesh and a few other places that were significant to King Saul, King David,, Samuel, and Saul.  We also got to eat lunch at the Ella Valley Winery.  All in all, it was very intellectually stimulating two weeks, but two weeks with only rabbis is a lot for me.  It is not something I plan to do again in the near future, but I am thankful I had the opportunity.

Wine of the Week
Besides all the tasting, we opened a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Yatir, which is my favorite brand in Israel.  Pure, rich, oaky Cabernet, about a 93.  The wine comes from the Negev, believe it or not, but specifically from the Yatir Forest, which has a very high elevation.  I've got to find a way to get some of this brand when I'm back in the U.S.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Jerusalem Week 12--Yemenites, Special Guests, and the Hartman Institute

The steps leading up to our apartment on a street called Dor Dor v'Dorshav.  
On one foot--it's a tough transition from spending all your time with so many good friends (the 65 or so congregants including all those friends for our kids) to spending most of your waking hours with 120 or so rabbis).

Hartman Institute
Last week and this coming week are being spent at the Hartman Institute in a rabbinical study program that goes from 8:30 AM to 9:00 PM.  The Hartman Institute does a whole lot of wonderful things in Jewish education.  My favorite is actually the Jewish ethics training program they do for the Israeli Military Officers, but they also provide high quality education for rabbis from different denominations across the world.  Rabbis from across the religious spectrum (including my colleague Yonatan Cohen from Beth Israel in Berkeley) are studying Jewish texts with some of the most accomplished Israeli teachers and thinkers.  The general theme this year is the individual vs. the community.  The backdrop of that is the fact that more and more people view Judaism as something they can do on their own and don't need to join a community, but we are viewing it not only demographically but through various books in the Tanach, Maimonides, the
Talmud, and other slightly more obscure Jewish texts.  It's definitely intellectually stimulating.  I also took a great elective viewing Israeli society through popular music.  The lyrics of pop songs in Israel are so much deeper in terms of social commentary (think sixties Dylan) than most of what we hear in the U.S. these days.  They exist in American music, of course, but they don't get the same airplay as they do in Israel.  They also offer a course called "Engaging Israel" using over 100 Jewish texts and a bunch of DVD's, and I'm thinking of having TBA purchase it and use it to both learn and have substantive discussions about Israel.

One thing I don't like about the experience is that there are a few too many "students" with far too many comments/questions that prevent the teachers from going through all their material. That's what happens when the students are 120 rabbis.  When I am in the presence of so many rabbis, I tend to make no comments.  Perhaps I'm intimidated.  Most of my colleagues don't share that approach.  The other thing I find slightly irritating is that the institute is a little cultish for my liking.  They seem to believe they are changing our lives and offer the best teachings anyone has ever seen anywhere.  The teachers are good and the material is stimulating, but I have seen many interesting texts taught by many good teachers over the years.  I prefer a little more humility.

Welcome Guests
In the middle of all this we have seen some great guests this week, current TBA members and longtime friends from the BBYO days.  There's always an extra measure of pleasure and holiness when you get to see good friends in Jerusalem.
Longtime BBYO Friend Eileen Sandberg Sunderland
TBA Member on a "Mission" from Federation, Elizabeth Simms
TBA and Beth Jacob Member Michael Sosebee, on the Wexner Leadership Program
One last chance to see the Gottlieb/Glick family
Shabbat with the Yemenites
First, last week's Shabbat we reversed what we had done a few weeks ago, attending Shir Chadash on Friday night and Yakar on Saturday morning.  Both are mostly Anglo synagogues with lots of ruach.  The one disappointment was that Yakar is known for their Saturday Kiddushes and study sessions which usually run in between Shacharit and the Torah service.  For some reason, they did not do this the week we were there, so we missed out on seeing this unique way of doing things.

This week we decided to go a little more exotic and went to a small, neighborhood Yemenite Synagogue at the corner of Elazar Hamodai and Yehoshua ben Nun streets.  As far as we could tell it had no formal name, but they were certainly warm and friendly.  There were only about 20 people there, including our family, so it was very intimate. The Yemenite traditions are quite different than standard Ashkenazi synagogues.
1. There are many small liturgical changes, as basic prayers like the Amidah, Aleinu, Ahavat Olam, Kaddishes, Adon Olam, and many more have slightly different wording.  We assume all our prayers came directly from Sinai, but looking at what happened when they spread out to different parts of the world, customs and even sacred wording varies.  They also stand a lot less frequently.
2. The Yemenites do everything aloud.  There is no mumbling followed by chanting when you see the open box a la Sim Shalom or Art Scroll.
3. The sound is very different.  Lots of ululation in a very repetitive musical mode.  They gave me an Aliyah, which I attempted to do Yemenite style.  The Gabbai asked me if I had any relatives who were Yemenite after that.  He was teasing me, but I tried.
4. They auction off the last three Aliyot.  Mine was free.
5. They read from the Sephardic style of Torah in the large wooden casing with the Torah standing up. They do hagbah before the reading rather than after.
6. After each line of Torah, another reader chants a similar sounding line.  What he is chanting is actually an ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Torah called the Targum Onkelos.  At one time it must have helped the listener understand what was going on.  Today it just adds length.  Yemenites do not speak Aramaic (nor does any other Jewish tradition at this point in time).  The Torah reader was straight from central casting, about 4 foot 10 and 70 something, with a great Yeminite look and voice.
7. Some of the men wear Tallitot on Friday night.  People also get up and lead from their seats.  Perhaps all the leaders were wearing Tallitot, but it was hard to tell if that was the case.  
I doubt we'll go back, but it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Wines of the Week
I have two weeks worth of wines to tell you about.  The first is a 2007 Domaine du Castel Grand Vin.  It is supposed to be the best wine in Israel.  It is a heavy red blend similar to a French Bordeaux, made up mostly of Cabernet, but also with small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, and Malbec.  It was quite complex, hard to identify individual flavors within it, but very good.  A few others have suited my tastebuds even better, but the high quality is immediately apparent.  90.
The second was a Dalton 2007 Reserve Cabernet.  Karen didn't like it (thought it burned), but I thought it was quite smooth and well balanced  We had the chance to visit the winery with the congregational trip, and this was much better than most of the wines we tasted there.  88..
                             Dalton Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve \'07
Much more wine in a few weeks when my brother Barry comes to visit and we visit several wineries up North.

Friday, July 1, 2011

TBA Trip Part Shtayim

There's an emptiness the four of us are feeling right now.  It reminds me of the end of summer camp.  You get very close in a very short amount of time, and then you have to say goodbye.  Of course, we will see our TBA friends again in about 7 weeks, but for now, it's tears for the Bloom's, a lot of them, from all four of us.  Here's a 7 minute summary of the trip in pictures set to Rick Recht's "The Hope" and Teapack's version of Hatikva.

The 2nd Half of the Trip
We arrived at Kibbutz Gonen on Sunday night to find that all of our rooms had jacuzzis in them.  The kids had all kinds of fun playing in them.
This is the life!
We spent the next few days exploring the Golan Heights--both its beauty and its strategic value to Israel. 
We met with soldiers, went to several lookouts, tasted wine at the Dalton Winery, and made our own chocolate creations at the De Karina Chocolate Factory.

             Our guide, Yishai, and Doree, l'chaim                         Some of the best chocolate in the world from de Karine
By the way, this artisan chocolate, made by a third generation Argentinian immigrant, was some of the best chocolate I have ever had, and I should know, because I have all too much experience eating chocolate!

Part of our trip up North included Safed, where we had been two weeks prior.  We met with a Kabbalistic artist named Avraham, who originally hailed from Michigan.  He has beautiful, meaningful art, and in describing it, he sounds a lot like Jeff Spicoli.

It was a very "Safed" experience, interesting, beautiful, and a bit off the wall.  We also looked inside two historical synagogues, the Ari Synagogue (named after Yitzchak Luria, who is really the founder of the Lurianic Kabbalah as we know it today), and the Abuhava Synagogue, the decorations of which are based on numbers from 1 to 13.  Most of our group felt they didn't have enough time there.
Future Rabbis Theo and Miriam
We added a couple of things to the itinerary based on people's wishes, including a visit that was very today (the Naot-Teva shoe outlet at the factory) and to Beit Shean, an amazingly excavated ancient Roman city.  This was especially gratifying to see, because I had spent an afternoon in rabbinical school digging there 21 years ago when it was basically just a hole in the ground.  The excavation and restoration going on there today is really phenomenal.

We ended our journey in Tel Aviv with some beach time, some cafe strolling, a clay making project in the dark led by guides who are blind, a walking tour of Old Yafo, and a sort of reenactment of the day Israel declared its independence at the site of the former Independence Hall.
Theodore Herzl's picture at the site where Israel declared independenced in 1948.
Our fantastic, dramatic guide at Independence Hall wanted us to remember three things about Israel.
1) Israel wants peace more than anything else in the world, 2) Israel wants to live, which is why they can't accept every well-intentioned peace proposal exchanging land for an uncertain promise of peace, and 3) Israel wants you to enjoy its land, history, and people.  It really was a very moving part of the trip, and I think our group now better understands and appreciates all three of these things.  Thank you Keshet, our guides Yishai and Merav, and our Counselors, Ilana, Noam, and Tehila.

Overall, amazing.  If you are a TBA member, please ask some of the participants directly how they felt about it.  And start saving money.  In two or three years, im yirtze Hashem, we're going again.