Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bicycling from Jerusalem to Eilat, Part 3

I made it! I sit this Monday evening on the veranda of a coffee house in Eilat, enjoying the evening breeze and looking across the Red Sea at the lights of Aqaba, Jordan. I surprised myself and bicycled 330 miles to get here, and though I’m tired I actually have worked myself into better condition over the course of the week. Here is a final installment on my journey.

I love soaring downhill on my bike. I have loved it as long as I can remember. I’m willing to bike uphill just to get to the downhill. And there were some really big, long hills to climb up and coast down in the Negev, along with good air and wide-open desert scenery. Flocking along with the group, I pushed myself to speeds I didn’t think I could sustain, drafting behind other riders and taking their encouragement. During the first four days I chose to ride with the fastest group, and just kept pedaling. Today I cut myself a little slack and joined the middling riders, opting out of a brutal climb that was part of the fast group’s itinerary.

During one seven-mile downhill stretch (!), the wind in our face was so stiff that we had to pedal downhill. That trip was a planned detour to a kitschy desert rest stop, so we returned the same way as we came, only this time with the wind at our backs. And now we sped uphill, with minimal effort! When a truck would pass us from behind, the wake of air currents that were stirred up behind sucked us along momentarily on our bicycles, while a truck coming from the opposite direction pushed through the air and the air pushed us backward. I learned how to ride in a line with other cyclists, and their bodies and momentum created a windscreen for me and I cut through the air while the lead rider took the brunt of the wind.

I “saw” that we live in a sea of air. The air, though unseen and not nearly as substantial as water, has real substance. Powering my bike with only my own muscles, so exposed and at the mercy of the currents and the swirls of wind, I could see in my mind’s eye this ocean of air that we inhabit.

Late on Monday afternoon we descended an enormous hill from the Negev highlands into the Arava valley, and we rolled into Kibbutz Ketura for the night. Ketura is one of a consortium of 10 kibbutzim that occupy the Southern Arava valley, on the way to Eilat. The Arava is extremely arid and hot, and it has taken a lot of persistence and ingenuity to make these kibbutzim flourish. Kibbutz Ketura is worth describing. Ketura was founded in the 1970’s by a group of young, idealistic American Zionists who had grown up in the Young Judaea youth movement. They were joined by a similar group of young Israelis seeking to make the desert bloom and to live communally.

As it happens, one of those early members, Richie Goldstein, is a dear cousin of WJC member Beth Abrams. Beth gave him a heads-up that I would be rolling into the kibbutz. Richie sought me out and invited me over to his veranda, where I spoke with him and his wife Ofra. Richie and Ofra have been members of the kibbutz for over 30 years – they met each other as young kibbutzniks - and have participated in every aspect of its development from a bare former army encampment into the green and flowering oasis that it has become today. Richie is now the comptroller of the date-packing plant that is run collectively by the area kibbutzim. Dates are the biggest cash crop of the area. Ofra is the gardener and arborist of the kibbutz, and the trees surrounding us were the products of her planting and tending.

You may be aware that in recent decades most of the approximately 160 kibbutzim in Israel have given up their collective lifestyle and ideology and have privatized. These kibbutzim still have members, but the members now earn their own salaries and determine how to spend their own resources. Kibbutz Ketura is one of about 20 holdouts that remain committed to communal living. Everything is collectively owned and all salaries and income generated by the members go into a common pool. All decisions about the future of the kibbutz are made collectively. Richie and Ofra explained that the remaining communal kibbutzim were forming a federation within the larger kibbutz movement: the Federation of Communal Kibbutzim. Since “kibbutz” means “commune” or “collective”, it is an ironic redundancy that these remaining communal kibbutzim need to identify themselves as such.

Listening to Richie and Ofra, it appears to me that Ketura faces two main challenges: how to remain a collective while responding to members’ desires for increased autonomy, and how to make a living. The first issue is a perennial and difficult debate. The members of Ketura have given up personal property and the pursuit of individual wealth in favor of their dream of a different way to live and to share with people. They make this choice in a world in which socialism has been long discredited and in which individual mobility and choice is championed. For the members of Ketura, any decision to alter their communal agreement becomes an assault on their very identity, and discussions are heated. For example, would it be a slippery slope if members were each given a monetary stipend, and were permitted to spend it as they see fit?

Which brings me to the second main issue: how does the kibbutz make a collective living? If the kibbutz were more prosperous, the ideological issues might relax somewhat – I don’t know. Since it’s founding, Ketura’s main sources of income have been agricultural: dates, vegetables and dairy products. The kibbutz members have assessed their skills and resources and have worked hard to diversify. Noting the number of educators on the kibbutz, the kibbutz has put much effort into the building of The Arava Institute and other educational endeavors. As we biked into the kibbutz we saw a huge array of pipes and grids; this, it turns out, is a method for producing and harvesting algae, which has a rapidly growing market as a nutritional supplement around the world. Could this be Ketura’s big break?

In fact, Ketura’s greatest resource may be sunlight. The intense desert sun shines almost every day of the year. Richie explained that thanks to a fortunate confluence of political timing and international climate treaties, Israel’s government had given the green light to the Arava Power Company, and Ketura’s first 20-acre field of photovoltaic solar panels was nearing construction. This field would eventually be dwarfed by future arrays, and the Arava Power Company could become a major source of electricity for the south of Israel and for neighboring Jordan.

I bid Richie and Ofra good evening and as I strolled back to my guest room I passed the dorms of the Arava Institute. The Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli and American students sat in the grassy courtyard laughing and talking, a temporary idyll in a painful and dangerous world.

Monday morning we biked the final leg to Eilat. Lunch was served at the overlook on Mount Hizkiyahu. From this vantage point we could see the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba (also know as the Red Sea), and we could see the territory of four countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Biblical geography, across the sea we were looking at the bare and jagged mountains of Edom and Midian. We then careened down, down, down to sea level in Eilat, and we waded into the Red Sea, our journey completed.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bicycling from Jerusalem to Eilat, Part 2

Unidentified Africans seeking refuge in Israel

I am pleased to report that my body is giving me the power I need to meet all of my cycling goals thus far. I rode 94 miles on Thursday, by far the longest I have ridden since an ill-considered 100-mile ride from Providence, Rhode Island to Martha’s Vineyard when I was 19 – on a 3-speed bicycle! I have an interesting suntan with various stripes and triangles where my skin is exposed during the day. We have spent this Shabbat resting in the desert town of Mitzpeh Ramon, and we will bicycle away tomorrow morning for the far south of Israel.

On Friday as we departed Ashkelon we rode past an enormous coal-fired power plant, one of the major sources of electricity in Israel. Israeli companies have recently discovered enormous reserves of natural gas in Israeli waters in the Mediterranean, so it is possible that within a few years Israel’s reliance on foreign coal will diminish, replaced by its own sources of cleaner-burning natural gas. Israel also has an ideal climate for harnessing solar power; we will be touring a solar installation later tomorrow.

A bit south of the power plant we paused at a holding reservoir for a kibbutz. We had by now entered the arid northern Negev, and the JNF (Jewish National Fund) has made a huge investment in hundreds of reservoirs for these southern communities. The very clean and potable water we were looking at is treated wastewater. Alon Tal explained to us that fully 50% of Israel’s agricultural water use is treated wastewater, and the goal is to continue to increase that ratio. As I bike through the desert and consume quarts of water a day, my appreciation for carefully managing water resources becomes especially acute.

Spread out beyond the reservoir, stretching north and south, was the entire Gaza Strip. There are approximately 1.8 million people essentially trapped in an area about twice the size of Washington, D.C., people lacking citizenship, people that no one in the Arab world, let alone Israel, has ever wanted to claim as their own. Only the tiniest percentage of Gazans can currently with much diplomatic effort even get out of Gaza, whether to Israel or to Egypt. Ashkelon, where we had just spent the night, was a frequent target of Hamas missile attacks from Gaza. In 2009, Israel launched a massive military campaign against Gaza, and since then the missile attacks have almost entirely ceased. Now Gaza languishes in political stalemate and semi-ruins, under an Israeli blockade and under its own repressive and corrupt Hamas leadership. It is a historically complex and humanly tragic situation that I will not attempt to analyze in this posting. As we bicycled southward parallel to the Gaza border, it was eerie and troubling to stare across the quiet open fields toward the urban clusters beyond.

The remainder of the day my attention was mainly focused on pacing myself and making sure my pedals were moving. As we headed south the landscape became more and more barren. In the late afternoon we arrived at Nitzana, on the Egyptian border. Nitzana is a fairly new community, founded 24 years ago by Lova Eliav, one of the unsung heroes and visionaries of Zionism. Eliav just passed away this May. Among many accomplishments in his long career, he championed human rights and immigrants’ rights. I became familiar with Lova Eliav through his book “New Heart, New Spirit: Biblical Humanism for Modern Israel”. He envisioned Nitzana as a new oasis, an educational community in the desert on the border with Egypt. Today there are groves of trees, reservoir ponds, an educational center, and greenhouses producing sweet fruits and vegetables. It turns out that there is a huge aquifer of brackish water under that part of the Negev that has never been tapped, and is suitable for agriculture. And there is a gorgeous swimming pool, in which I rested my weary muscles.

Nitzana sits on a rise a short distance from the Nitzana Crossing. This is the main commercial border crossing between Egypt and Israel. When Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for a peace agreement at the Camp David Accords, the Nitzana border crossing was created. The crossing is well used; an average of 200 trucks pass through a day, I was told.

Early Friday morning we headed out on our ride. We were permitted to ride on a road the military uses to patrol the border. This was a particular treat for a biker, as we encountered no cars for better than 30 miles, and cruised through wide-open desert landscapes. The border patrol is mostly occupied these days interdicting drug smugglers. Across the barbed wire fence bored Egyptian sentries perked up at our convoy, sometimes waving. We then climbed into the more mountainous southern region of the Negev. After a particularly brutal hill (I walked much of it!) we reached an overlook of the wilderness of Kadesh Barnea. The Torah states that this is where the Children of Israel camped for many years, where Miriam passed away, and where Moses struck the rock and water streamed forth.

Around the next bend my attention was jolted from the mythic past to the exigencies of the present. Six African men sat on the ground in front of a small military station. Our guide was David Palmach, the head of Nitzana and an avid biker. He explained that the Africans had walked across the border from Egypt during the night, and were looking for refuge. I had just been looking at the place where the Children of Israel, a band of escaping refugees from Pharaoh’s Egypt, had camped, and here I was looking at new refugees probably from the Darfur region in southern Sudan. You are likely to be familiar with the chaotic and shockingly brutal degradation and slow genocide that is being perpetrated against the Darfurians by Moslem militias from northern Sudan. I learned that an average of 30 Africans a day make their way across the border into Israel every night. Ironically, the word is out in East Africa that Israel is the safest place to go. According to David Palmach, the refugees make their way across Egypt at great risk – the Egyptians deport them or kill them. The refugees pay Sinai Bedouin to guide them to the border. Once here, if the individuals are from Kenya or other East African countries from which asylum is not considered a life-or-death matter, they are sent back to their home countries. But if they are from Darfur or Eritrea, the Israelis give them asylum. They are taken to a nearby camp where they receive free food, shelter and medical and dental care. If I understood correctly, there are several thousand Darfurians currently being given safe asylum by Israel.

We biked on through the day and rolled into Mitzpeh Ramon in plenty of time for Shabbat. Mitzpeh Ramon is a town created in the 1950’s as part of David Ben Gurion’s plan to settle the Negev. The town is perched on the edge of a stunning view of the Ramon Crater, a huge, deep gash into the Negev highlands. The first residents were new immigrants from North Africa, basically dumped in the middle of nowhere. When I first started visiting Mitzpeh Ramon 15 years ago with groups from our synagogue, the town was a depressed backwater. Today Mitzpeh Ramon has been discovered. As the center of Israel has become more congested, more affluent Israelis have spread out to the periphery, and Mitzpeh Ramon has grown into a very pleasant town.

I was tired, and thank God for Shabbat! Having worked my body so hard this week, I had a renewed insight into the meaning of Shabbat. When Shabbat was created in ancient Israel, nearly everyone lived by the sweat of their brow. Life was short and physically exhausting. What a revolutionary edict, therefore, to declare a day of rest for all. The 4th Commandment states, “You shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. You shall do no labor: you, your children, your servants, your slaves, even your pack animals…” Every person, even those at the very bottom of the pile, merits a day of rest and recuperation, and no human can deny them that right. Even beasts of burden are set free one day a week. My work life is not physically exhausting, and the concept of “Shabbat rest” has become less clear to me. Today, Shabbat made perfect and blessed sense, and I gave thanks

One more experience before I close for today: this afternoon we listened to a panel of graduates from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. They were a beautiful group of young adults primarily from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. It was simply inspiring to listen to them. Barak, a mechanical engineer from Jordan with a charming sense of humor, spoke about spotting an advertisement in the Amman newspaper for an environmental scholarship. The ad didn’t say where the scholarship would take you, and that was intentional. Even though there is a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, for Jordanians Israelis are simply “the enemy”. Fraternizing with them is simply not done. When Barak learned he was going to Israel, he almost bagged the entire idea. But he had relatives in Jerusalem whom he had never met, and he decided to come for a week, stay long enough to meet his relatives, and then leave. After the first weekend at the Arava Institute, Barak decided to stay. He is now working on his Masters degree in environmental engineering at Ben Gurion University, working on creating viable hydrogen fueled engines. Each story was equally moving, as idealistic young people have found a place where they can pursue both repairing the world and repairing, or should I say, creating relationships with “the other side”.

One reason for the Arava Institute’s documented success in creating relationships among its students that continue as personal friendships and professional colleagues is the required PELS seminar that is part of the curriculum: the Peace-building and Environmental Leadership Seminar. This is the “encounter group” of the program, and the participants are encouraged to express themselves freely. Obviously discussions become very heated at times. But these students are together for a minimum of 4 months, rooming and eating together on a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere, and so they must continue to deal with one another. The result is many lasting friendships, based on hard-won honest encounters. These friendships then extend into family visits, which are almost unheard of between Israeli Jews and Palestinians or Jordanians, and shared environmental projects, all supported in thoughtful ways by the Arava Institute. Wow. You can learn more about the Arava Institute at

Sunday morning we bicycle down the switchbacks into the crater! I will write again soon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bicycling from Jerusalem to Eilat, Part 1

With Rabbi Michael Cohen, Director of Development for Friends of the Arava Institute

Greetings to all from Israel!

Well, my trip got off to an unexpected and fascinating start. As I emerged on Monday afternoon into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion airport, I powered up my cell phone and called my friend Melila, with whom I would be staying in Jerusalem. She told me that she was on her way to the monthly Sulha gathering hosted this month by Neve Shalom. Sulha is the Arabic term for a ceremony of forgiveness and reconciliation (like “selicha” in Hebrew), and Melila is a key organizer of this organization. Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam is a unique Jewish/Moslem/Christian cooperative village, and it happened to be an easy taxi ride from the airport. I told her I would meet her there. I made my way to the Center for Pluralistic Spirituality, a modest building that is a project of the village. The village occupies a peaceful perch on the foothills of the Judean Hills, and despite my jet lag I enjoyed the sweeping view of the coastal plain and the setting sun.

For Israel, the most unlikely collection of people began arriving in a steady stream: Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs from around the country, and Palestinians from the occupied territories. To help the Palestinians get into Israel, the Sulha organizers had rented vans that waited for the Palestinians to get through the checkpoints, and then drove them to Neve Shalom. To accommodate the travel restrictions that the Palestinians face, the event ended at 10 pm to assure that they could get back across the border before the 11 pm deadline. The Palestinians came from Ramallah and Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron – all over the West Bank.

Over 100 of us gathered in the sanctuary, squeezed together on the floor. We began with music, as a collection of Arab and Jewish musicians played and we all sang enthusiastically in Hebrew and Arabic simple songs of peace and of the oneness of God. Then a couple of people shared why they felt moved to be there. Boaz, the Israeli Jew speaking, spoke about his son’s death in combat during the Lebanon War, and his decision to create an organization of bereaved families, Israeli and Palestinian, who work together to transform their grief into constructive work for peace. The Palestinian man, whose name I do not recall, spoke of how his relationships with his Israeli friends at these gatherings reminds him that there are good people on both sides, in spite of the intense repression he experiences under Israel military rule.

I should never be surprised about who I run into in Israel, but the next activity surprised me nonetheless. We joined hands and snaked out into a big circle around the campfire. There, Anna Halperin led us in beautiful, simple group movements. Anna Halperin, a vibrant 90, is a pioneer of modern dance whose work I have followed since I was in college. She is in Israel for a screening in Jerusalem of a new documentary about her life. After the dance, enormous pots of food were served and everyone sat cheerfully eating and chatting together. For the final activity of the evening, we broke into groups and answered the question “What events or aspect of your life led you to choose to be here this evening?” Each person’s response was of course unique, but it is fair to say that all of us feel compelled to reach past our fear and anger, and were moved to have the opportunity to be heard by “the other side”.

It is difficult for Americans to grasp how rare an experience this kind of gathering is for Israelis and Palestinians. Everything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mitigates against friendly, relaxed contact between Arabs and Jews. At the Sulha gathering I sat next to a sweet young Arab man named Ahmed who works room service at a hotel in Tel Aviv. A toddler came over to us and we each took one of his hands and danced together to the music. Thank God for children! The evening felt strange and wonderful. This event is happening under the radar, by email and phone and Facebook, with literally no funding. There were many young people there, eager and hopeful, ready to speak from their hearts. The Sulha won’t bring peace, but isn’t it good to know that there is a place where these young people can meet, eat, sing and dance together? If you want to support the Sulha you can contribute via this address: The Earthville Network

Tuesday was spent preparing for the bike ride, and at 6 am Wednesday morning 120 of us climbed on our bicycles and followed our police escort through the streets on our way out of Jerusalem. The riding was hard today: Israel is in the midst of an intense heat wave, and if that was not difficult enough, for a significant portion of the ride we were pushing into a ferocious headwind. It was grueling, but I was rewarded at the end of the day by an ocean breeze and a swim in the Mediterranean here in the city of Ashkelon.

But this tour is offering much more than bicycling. Alon Tal, the founder of the Arava Institute, offered us teachings and briefings throughout the day. Alon Tal is also the founder of Adam Teva v’Din (humans, nature, and justice), the premier legal advocacy organization for environmental issues in Israel, he is a Professor of Desert Studies at Ben Gurion University, and he is on the Board of Directors of Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the Jewish National Fund. In that capacity he chairs the committee in charge of afforestation, the ongoing planting of forests in Israel. He is clearly a powerhouse, perhaps the most important environmental advocate in Israel. I really want to share with you some of what I learned from him; despite the rancorous and largely dysfunctional Israeli governance structure, Israel is making real advances in addressing environmental challenges:

-All the beautiful forests and lush groves that we biked through on our way from Jerusalem down to the coastal plain were planted by hand since 1948: 2.6 million trees. Eyewitness accounts along with aerial photographs of the region taken in the 1930’s show clearly that the hills were completely bare. Israel has learned from its early mistakes of planting monoculture forests of pine trees – the pine trees invited pests that could destroy entire forests. Now varieties of native species are being planted that can better withstand parasites and insects. The JNF has begun a project in Rwanda to share their wisdom and experience, as Rwanda has been almost completely deforested in recent decades. As chair of the committee in charge of planting trees, Alon (whose name means “oak tree”!) has picked up the pace to complete the master plan for afforestation that the Israeli government set in motion in 1995. 75,000 acres of JNF plan are slated for planting over the next 20 years, and when the planting is complete, forests that did not exist in 1948 will now cover a full 10% of Israel. What an amazing accomplishment.

-Israel is addressing the rapid depletion of its aquifers by building massive desalinization plants. These plants take seawater and by osmosis remove the salts and minerals, making the water potable. The plants already on line have added about 10% to Israel’s fresh water supply, and more plants are under construction. Alon pointed out that this alternative fresh water supply will be critical to any possible peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, as groundwater supplies are simply insufficient to serve the entire Israeli and Palestinian populations, and the Palestinians’ water needs are at present unmet.

Bill Slott, a marvelous Israeli tour guide, also offered some meaningful teachings:

-As we bicycled past vineyards, wheat fields, and olive groves. Bill pointed out that these crops were for ancient Israel the “big three” of sustenance. They were celebrated in the ancient Temple: the lamp was lit with olive oil, the showbread was displayed on a table, and wine was blessed. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., these rituals were then transferred to the Sabbath table, and to this day we light the candles (which used to be lamps filled with olive oil), we bless the wine, and we bless the challah. In Israel, our rituals attain a whole new depth of meaning as we sanctify the indigenous crops of the land.

-As we neared the end of our ride, we paused at Kibbutz Negba, and Bill brought us into a cemetery with a very large sculpture of a farmer, a laborer, and a soldier depicted in the Socialist Realist style. Founded in 1937 as a hastily constructed wooden stockade, Kibbutz Negba was the frontier of Israel, when the Egyptian army invaded in 1948 following Israel’s declaration of independence. The Israeli forces there had almost no weaponry, as the Egyptian army advanced with tanks and artillery. Negba was battled over repeatedly, and razed to the ground by the Egyptians. 180 Jewish soldiers died in the battles over Negba, but the new nation ultimately held the site. As Bill pointed out, this was but one example of many on which the War of Independence hinged, and if any of those desperate efforts had failed, the new nation might have been overrun, and there would likely be no State of Israel today. Israel was not the military power it has since become; the War of Independence was won with an incredible rate of casualties, lack of armaments, and a will to survive born of one part desperation, one part idealism, and incredible sacrifice and courage.

I would not be able to close this travelogue without explaining that today (on the Jewish calendar) was the 15th anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination. It is a sad day in most of Israel. Yitzchak Rabin was a symbol of the generation that founded Israel: a gruff, plain-spoken man, an officer in the War of Independence, the IDF chief of staff during the 6-Day War of 1967, and the old soldier who as Prime Minister determined that he must attempt to make peace and signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. The fact that the Prime Minister of Israel was gunned down by a fellow Jew is still almost too painful for most Israelis to contemplate. Last night and today the airwaves were filled with call-in radio shows, live musical tributes and much discussion about the murder and its commemoration. Should this become a day for remembering the man Yitzchak Rabin, or should it become a day for teaching about tolerance and democracy? This is clearly an ongoing discussion in Israel. I too remember that day with immense sorrow. Great leaders, men and women of the moment who transcend their past when new situations demand change, are sometimes impossible to replace, and their societies are the worse off for their loss. Such it is for Israel in the wake of that tragedy 15 years ago.

Tomorrow I see if I am capable of riding more than 90 miles to an isolated retreat center on the Egyptian border. It’s a no-lose situation (except for my ego) because the van picks you up and drives you the rest of the way if you lag too far behind. I’ll write again before the end of the ride.

If you made it this far thanks for reading, and all my best,

Rabbi Jonathan

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Gotta Have Heart: Yom Kippur 5771

Some of you will remember this story: the Children of Israel have escaped slavery in Egypt. They have received the Torah at Mount Sinai, and now it is time to enter the Promised Land. Moses asks for 12 scouts, each a leader from one of the twelve tribes, to scout out the land and bring back a report. He says, “Go up into the Negev, and then up into the hill country, and see what kind of land it is: are the people few or many? Are the cities fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Are there fruit trees? And be sure to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”

And so the scouts journey into the landscape of the Promised Land, up to Hebron and the Wadi Eshcol, places still very much on the map today. But the Torah is not merely the account of a physical journey. It is a spiritual quest, translated, as is all human storytelling, onto a physical landscape. The ascent to the Promised Land is a metaphorical ascent, and each of us attempts it. As my friend Rabbi Shefa Gold writes in her book Torah Journeys: “Torah is the map; you are the landscape.”

It is through this mythic lens that our tradition reads the story, and I want to share some of those teachings with you tonight. The scouts find the land rich and bountiful – flowing with milk and honey – and occupied by giants! Not just everyday big people, but titans from the days of yore. As instructed, the scouts bring back some fruit of the land: a cluster of grapes so big that it takes two men to carry it! The children of Israel gawk at the produce, but then the scouts give their report: the land is indeed bountiful, but it is inhabited by titans. We’ll never take it. As the Israelites begin to panic, Caleb, the scout from the tribe of Judah, tries to hush them. “We can surely ascend to this land” he cries, “We are able do it!” But the other scouts drown him out, “No, we can’t. We are not strong enough. We saw the titans” – and here is the key phrase – “and we felt like grasshoppers to ourselves, and surely we must have appeared that way to them.”

The Children of Israel fall to pieces, weeping, wailing and railing against Moses and Aaron, “We should have died in Egypt, or let’s just drop dead here! What are you doing to us?” And then they say, “Let’s turn around and head back to Egypt!” Full panic has broken out. Caleb and Joshua, the other steadfast scout, try to exhort them: “The land where Life Unfolding is taking us is very, very good. Have no fear, we can accomplish this!” But by now the community is about to pelt them with stones. And the Presence of God appears…like the principal in the doorway.

God is ready to wipe everyone out – this miserable faithless bunch – but Moses intercedes and calms God down. Moses pulls out all the stops. He says to God, “What will the Egyptians say if you kill the people you just freed? And don’t you remember how you described yourself to me on Mount Sinai: slow to anger, full of kindness, forgiving wrongdoing? Please pardon this people.” And God speaks a phrase that becomes part of our Yom Kippur liturgy: “Salachti kidvarecha – I forgive, as you have asked. BUT,” God continues, “this generation will never enter the Promised Land. They will wander for 40 years and die here in this wilderness, for they do not have the faith to ascend to the Promised Land. Only Caleb and Joshua will go up, because they possess a different spirit.” And so it is. The Children of Israel wander for forty years, and only their children, reared in freedom and not carrying the crushed spirits of former slaves, are able to complete the journey. Somehow, Joshua and Caleb were able to survive the degradation of slavery with their spirits intact. One might say that they are the Nelson Mandela’s of our story, unbowed, even purified by years of harsh labor and cruel imprisonment, able to emerge from slavery and lead their people to freedom.

We know about Joshua. He leads that next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land, and even has his own book named after him. But who is Caleb? Caleb is one of the unsung heroes of the Torah, and the key to our deeper understanding of this tale. Caleb is the first to speak up, and is steadfast in his conviction that the ascent to the Promised Land can be made. Caleb is the part of each of us that keeps faith in us and our ability to face life and to grow, even while the rest of our self is screaming and wailing, throwing things and retreating back to slavery.

So, the landscape of our spiritual journey is overlaid onto the topography of the land of Israel. The scouts are told to ascend to Hebron. Hebron is the highest place in the Judean mountains, higher even than Jerusalem. So Hebron also comes to represent a spiritual peak. In Hebron there is a cave, purchased by Abraham. He and Sarah are buried there, along with the other patriarchs and matriarchs. After generations of descent into slavery, are the Children of Israel ready to ascend once again to their spiritual forebears? And there is more: our tradition tells us that not only are our ancestors resting in that cave, but in the back of that cave there is a light that leads to the resting place of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the very Tree of Life!

All of this is discerned by our sages from clues in the Torah’s use of language. For as the scouts set out on their journey, there is an anomaly in the text. Moses instructed them to ascend to the Negev and then ascend to Hebron, but the text reads: “Va’yaalu vanegev vayavo ad hevron – They ascended to the Negev and HE arrived in Hebron”. He, not they. Also, when Moses instructed them to see if the land has fruit trees, the text actually reads: Is there a tree [in the singular] there or is there nothing? Strengthen yourselves and take from the fruit of the land.” Our sages teach that Moses was asking the scouts to locate not just any tree, but the Tree of Life. Only Caleb, in the singular, is able to ascend to the highest heights of the Promised Land, and the deepest depths of the cave that is there. Caleb rises to the quest, a faithful scout of Moses, while the others are unable to locate the Tree of Life. Only Caleb is imbued with, as the Torah says, “Ruach acheret imo vayemaleh acharai – a different spirit, filled with Life Unfolding.”

What makes Caleb so special? The Torah doesn’t tell us. But we do hear from Caleb again, in the Book of Joshua, and we find out. Forty-five years have passed, and Joshua has led the new generation of the Children of Israel in their conquest of the Promised Land. As the landholdings are being distributed, Caleb approaches Joshua. I like to think about all they have been through together, the only ones left who remember slavery. Caleb says (and I am lightly paraphrasing here): “Joshua, you remember what God said all those years ago concerning you and me. Well, that word has been fulfilled, and here we are. I was forty years old when Moses sent me to scout out the land, and I gave him a report from my heart, while my companions gave a report that took the heart out of the people. On that day Moses swore to me that the land I had trod would become my inheritance. Well, God has kept me alive and it is 45 years since that day when we were wandering in the wilderness and here I am, 85 years old. I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me. Give me Hebron.” And the text continues: “Joshua blessed Caleb and assigned Hebron as his portion…and the land had rest from war.”

Here is my question: Caleb says, “Here I am, 85 years old, and I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me”. What kind of strength is Caleb talking about? What kind of strength has Caleb retained all of these years? I know I want that kind of strength. Do you remember Moses’ original instructions 45 years earlier? “Is there a tree there or is there nothing? Strengthen yourselves and take from the fruit of the land.” On his spiritual quest, Caleb had the inner strength to seek the Tree of Life, and bring back its fruit. 45 years later Caleb still retains that inner strength. What is his secret? As is often the case in Torah, Caleb’s secret is embedded in his name. I always wondered about his name, Kalev. Kelev means dog. It never seemed like the most complimentary name. But then, what qualities does Caleb exemplify? “I gave him a report from my heart, while my companions gave a report that took the heart out of the people.” Caleb has heart. He is all heart. And he is truly faithful in following his master, Life Unfolding. So perhaps his name, dog, is high praise. But then I realized that Caleb, Kalev, has lev, heart, right in his name. Kalev means “like a heart”. Caleb’s secret is his heart. Heart in Latin is cor, the root of courage. When you “take heart”, you strengthen yourself with courage. When you “have a heart” you locate compassion and forgiveness. These are not physical attributes; they are qualities of the soul. We do not have to lose these qualities as we age. Like Caleb, we can be spiritual warriors, all heart, and shine stronger as the years progress.

Recently, while these thoughts were germinating in me, I had a dream. I was looking at some test results from a physical I had just taken. The report listed how much acuity I still had among my various functions. First on the list was visual acuity: 28%. Oh my, I thought, my eyes are getting pretty bad. At least I can still see. Next was hearing: 82%. Not bad. Smell: 82%. Okay, holding up. Then, the last item, heart: 100%. And I think to myself, oh well, my senses are going downhill, but my heart is good! That was the end of the dream. I puzzled over this dream until I started writing these words that I am sharing with you tonight, and I realized that the dream was a blessing: in the words of Caleb, I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me. The Torah speaks in our dreams, where you are the landscape, and the Torah is the map. Part of me is the Children of Israel, fearful, untrusting, damaged. But part of me is Caleb, all heart, unbowed by life’s hardships and betrayals, seeking the Tree of Life, as strong today as when Moses first sent me to scout out the Promised Land. No matter where life has taken me, I can be like Caleb, 100% heart. I can, and you can. Yom Kippur can cleanse us, and we can continue our journey with courage, compassion and heart, stronger than ever. Ken yehi ratzon - So may it be!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Virtues of Ambivalence

The following is my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah, 5771 (September 9, 2010) at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation.

Just a few weeks ago, in the same hospital in Haifa, Israel where she was born, my niece Talia gave birth to her first child, a boy. My parents became great grandparents, my brother Dan and sister-in-law Roberta became grandparents, and I am now a great uncle – I guess. From my self-centered perspective that is just plain weird; I mean, what is going on here? But truly, as new generations arise, we should all live and be well and marvel at time’s passage.

My parents, who are, thank God, quite well, flew right over to Israel for the bris. The little boy’s name is Ido – Israelis have their own taste in names. Great-grandpa (or in Hebrew, “Saba Raba” – isn’t that great?) Herb was the sandek, which means he held the baby while the mohel did the job. 30 years ago, Great-grandpa Yosef had been the sandek in Jerusalem at the bris of Danny and Roberta’s first son Eitan. Now, all the generations had moved up in line, in a fortunate symmetry – fortunate that we are alive and able to appreciate the richness of “l’dor va’dor”, from generation to generation.

My mother pointed out another remarkable feature of this simcha. Little Ido had 3 great grandmothers present. Of these three women, one was born in Russia, one was born in Iraq, and one was born in Brooklyn. When they were born, the Holocaust still couldn’t be imagined, and the idea of an independent Jewish homeland was a crazy glint in David Ben Gurion’s eye. Yet here these three women stood in the land of Israel, around their shared great grandson. Such has been this last Jewish century, full of dislocation, inconceivable tragedy, and wondrous rebirth. Who could imagine that these three women from different corners of the globe would ever meet each other, let alone become mishpocha? The ancient prayer before the Shma Yisrael becomes prophetic: “V’havieinu l’shalom mearba kanfot haaretz vtolichenu komimiyut lartzeinu…gather us together in peace from the four corners of the earth, so that we might walk upright into our own land”. And since some of that prophecy has come to pass, may the prophecy of peace also arrive soon and in our days.

I plan to meet Ido in just a few weeks, in October. I will be in Israel as a participant in an annual bicycle ride from Jerusalem to Eilat. (Can great-uncles do that?) The bike ride raises funds and awareness for the Arava Institute, based at Kibbutz Ketura in the far south of Israel. The Arava Institute trains environmental activists from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and other countries. The vision of the Arava Institute is brilliant, in my opinion: environmental issues transcend national boundaries, and can bring people together from neighboring territories around a shared cause. With great tenacity, the Arava Institute has for many years managed through thick and thin to maneuver through all the diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles and bring young, motivated Israelis and Arabs together for a year of study and activism. Their work is so impressive, yet the Arava Institute is only one of many determined grassroots efforts in Israel to foster peaceful coexistence. I love to bicycle – I have always wanted to take a ride like this in Israel. I promise a full report.

I am also going to bring my family over to meet their new little cousin at the end of December. At that time I will be leading our next congregational trip to Israel. I am pleased to report that a group of 30 of us will be engaging a 10-day intensive tour. This will be, I believe, the fifth such trip I have had the privilege to lead with our congregation. After the tour ends my family will stay a few extra days and get to know Ido.

As you can tell, I visit Israel every chance I can get. I love the place and the people so much. And as you can tell, I’m talking about Israel today. This is an unusual step for me, as on Rosh Hashanah I try to keep us all focused on the work of refining our own souls. But I feel compelled first to frame some comments today about our relationship with Israel, and then also see what lessons we each might personally glean from my words.

Talking about Israel in recent years has become so fraught that we have at times here at the WJC actually called moratoria on debate about Israel. Emotions have run so high as to make meaningful exchange almost impossible. I have watched friendships strain and even snap over these passionate disagreements. And who needs another screaming match?

But I feel that our congregation has matured greatly over the past few years (as hopefully have I), and that we are now capable of these kinds of discussions. I want us to talk more about Israel. I think it is important not only for the improvement of our own ability to dialogue with one another. I think that as the debate about Israel becomes ever more polarized in the public discourse, it becomes increasingly imperative for us to model the ability to think with complexity and to show that it is possible to be both passionate and civil at the same time.

On one end of the political spectrum, efforts to utterly delegitimize the State of Israel – which until now have been the provenance of Israel’s enemies in the Arab world, along with the political fringes of Europe – have been gaining traction in ever widening circles. The idea is that Israel’s existence as an independent Jewish nation, among all the nations of the earth, is uniquely born in sin, and that Zionism, rather than being the national liberation movement of the Jewish People, is a code word for irredeemable racism and imperialism.

Anyone familiar with the history of anti-Semitism should be able to recognize these positions for what they are: frightening metastases of classic anti-Semitism. The modest remission of virulent anti-Semitism that we Jews have experienced since the global spasm of horror following the revelations of the Nazi Holocaust may be ending. The essence of anti-Semitism is to scapegoat the Jews, and blame them for your difficulties. Thus there is a so-called “Jewish Problem”, the solution to which is the disappearance or degradation of the Jews, solving your problem. It is a very neat formula, has always been untrue and is untrue today. The elimination of the Jewish State will not lead to peace and justice in the Middle East, as its proponents proclaim, any more than expelling Jews in the Middle ages ended the bubonic plague, or murdering Jews in Nazi Europe ensured the purity of a Master Race. I don’t fully understand why the Jewish People occupy this historic position as scapegoats, but we must be vigilant to recognize and counter anti-Semitism in all its forms, including today’s.

To my mind, therefore, it should be obvious that the Jewish People have as much right to national self-determination as any other self-described national group – including the Palestinians. How are these two groups ever going to accommodate each other’s valid claims and reach a peaceful compromise?

This is the real challenge, much messier and challenging than the slogans of the far left or the far right. For just as there are those, as I just described, who propose that the elimination of the Jewish State is the solution, there are those who advocate for the expulsion or continued degradation of the Palestinians as the only path. Many of these folks, Jews and Christians, frame their positions in two-dimensional, quasi-religious, messianic ideas. They brook no dissent. I find this trend quite as frightening as the efforts to delegitimize Israel. Humans crave simple answers, and usually there aren’t any.

That is why, despite my own very jaded view of the “Peace Process”, I am pleased that George Mitchell has somehow persuaded the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table. My mantra remains, “You never know!”

Judaism has much to teach us about the inherent messiness of life, and how to navigate it. I want to turn my attention now to the guidance that essential Jewish wisdom can offer us for negotiating our lives, both on personal and national scales. Judaism does not offer a simple answer, for life isn’t simple. Judaism presents us with an essential tension of being alive, and demands that we embrace that tension:

On the one hand, national and self-preservation, independence, and self-determination are an absolutely central mitzvah, precept of Judaism. How can we fulfill the divine commandments if we are not alive and free? The Torah repeats this instruction many times. Yet on the other hand, there is a commandment that the Torah repeats at least 33 times, more than any other: do not oppress the stranger. “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been oppressed in the Land of Egypt.”

As Jews we are taught to carry a double-sided identity: a free people who remember what it is like to not be free. Judaism teaches us to be ambivalent about power. Judaism enshrines the memory of powerlessness in our very origins, and insists that we remember the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, especially the stranger, the non-citizen, those under our control. Judaism enshrines and embraces a healthy ambivalence. Judaism demands both empathy for the other, and concern for oneself.

Who here feels ambivalent about being Jewish? Well, mazel tov, and welcome to the club: you are being good Jews! Ambivalence, in its common usage, means having mixed feelings or contradictory opinions, and can imply a wishy-washy quality. I wish to redeem ambivalence, and to speak of its virtues. Ambivalence means having two valences, in other words, being able to see both sides of a question. One of the gifts of Judaism to us and to the world is that the ability to perceive multiple perspectives has been nurtured as a Jewish talent and virtue. Judaism promotes a healthy skepticism about unbridled power, knowing that power corrupts (think Pharaoh!) Jewish law insists that we give tzedakah to the poor – it is not an option – but also insists that we not give so much as to impoverish ourselves. The Talmud always preserves the minority opinion, even after it has been voted down. Judaism is preoccupied with interpersonal ethics: all human beings bear the divine imprint, and therefore how we treat the others in our sphere directly reflects our relationship with the Creator of all.

After 2,000 years of statelessness we Jews have been given the opportunity to build a nation once again. If this state is to be founded on the teachings of Judaism, then two things will be true:

-We will at all costs defend ourselves and our right to exist, and

-We will at all costs consider the needs and inherent dignity and worth of every human being, including the stranger, the alien, and every non-citizen who is under our control.

Is this impossible? In any fixed or final form, it probably is. But we can pursue it, with holy fervor. When Moses states a commandment in the Torah, it is almost always accompanied by the simple phrase “do it”. Interestingly, there are two commandments, and only two, that we are instructed to pursue, rather than “just do it”: justice and peace. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” “Seek peace and pursue it.”

There seems to be an understanding in these mitzvot that true justice and peace only exist as ideals, and that the best we can do in this world is to continually pursue them. That pursuit is a constant balancing act of the needs, rights and dignity of self and other. Justice and peace can only be approached by those who can be ambivalent, and see both sides.

Nobody ever built an empire by being ambivalent. But Judaism has never been about empire building. Judaism is about how to infuse life with moral purpose. This is what makes Judaism the great and holy teacher that it is.

Because we are taught to recognize multiple viewpoints, every situation brings up much to debate: what is the proper balance of self and other in this situation? Where is the balance of justice here? What is the most peaceful solution? This is the necessary and healthy tension that is at the heart of Judaism. That’s why we argue so much! But, if this tension of self and other is not our concern, then as Jews and as human beings we are in trouble. In the debate over Israel, extreme views only take one point of view, whether that viewpoint is solely in favor of Israel or solely in favor of the Palestinians. In their lack of healthy ambivalence, these positions have abandoned the Jewish discourse, the difficult, unsatisfying, risky and ennobling Jewish discourse.

Thank God our Jewish tradition refuses simple formulas and answers. Thank God for ambivalence. Thank God for three steps forward and two steps back, move left, move right, as the situation demands. Think of it not as stumbling, but as nimble, responsive dancing through life, different steps with different partners – or adversaries, as the case may be - aware of self and other. Dancing, instead of marching in lockstep, or retreating from the field.

I think I can sum up my thoughts today by reminding us all of perhaps the most famous Jewish aphorism. It is famous because it is true, because it embraces the paradoxical and complex nature of life. It is famous because it is so simple in concept, yet so difficult to enact, and embodies the wisdom of Judaism. “Rabbi Hillel taught: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

In this New Year, in our own lives, in our families, in this precious Jewish community, in our towns, in the life of our United States of America, in the life of the State of Israel, for all who dwell on earth, and for our precious planet may we embrace this holy path of ambivalence, of concern for ourselves and for others. We are now going to hear the shofar, and let its cry awaken us to our holy work. And if not now, when?

Friday, June 4, 2010

On the Interception of the Gaza Flotilla by the Israeli Navy

I love Israel. I have felt this way ever since my first visit at age 12, and that love has never dimmed. It is a visceral attachment, a continuing fascination, an unwavering concern, as a lover will have for his or her beloved. And currently, I am deeply concerned. I am concerned that Israel is losing its way. I am concerned that the current Israeli leadership is stuck in a gear of defensiveness and denial, and an ideology of permanent victimhood. I am concerned that that posture is leading the Israeli administration to repeatedly make small-minded and bullheaded decisions that undermine that administration’s own goals to increase Israel’s security in the world.

I fear that Israel is becoming something of a lumbering juggernaut, when it truly needs to be more nimble and sharp-witted than ever as it navigates the incredibly treacherous waters of international diplomacy.

The recent debacle of the Israeli Navy’s interception of the flotilla trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip is for me a case in point. From my admittedly cushy vantage point, far from danger, it appears that Israel walked straight into a trap. “Peace activists” or not, the organizers of that flotilla understood that the Gaza blockade could not be breached by force, but only in the court of public opinion. Their dearest hope must have been that Israel would be goaded into its worst public relations nightmare: armed Israeli special forces killing “peace activists defending themselves with sticks and clubs”. What were the Israeli strategists thinking? What has happened to the Israel that knew it had to survive on wits as well as brawn?

We can defend the Israeli commandos, and should. It appears from the videos that they were attacked when they boarded the ship. One of my Israeli nephew’s friends who was on that mission is now in the hospital with a severe gunshot wound to his abdomen. But that still begs the question: what were these crack Israeli soldiers doing boarding this vessel unprepared for the danger that awaited them? Why hadn’t Israeli intelligence anticipated this scenario and taken steps to avoid it?

Instead, because of this clumsy and disastrous operation, Israel’s relations with its staunchest Moslem ally Turkey have been crippled, and in response to international pressure Israel has been forced to make noises that it will loosen the very blockade that it was working to enforce.

There had to be another, savvier way for Israel to respond to this provocation. But I am losing faith in Israel’s ability to do that. When the Israeli agents murdered the Hamas official in Dubai earlier this year, they left a trail of video evidence and falsified passports that further damaged Israel’s credibility and international relations. Israel’s foreign ministry during the current tenure of Avigdor Lieberman has managed to offend many of Israel’s erstwhile allies. I’m afraid I am seeing a pattern here.

I suspect that there may be a reason for this trend, beyond simple truculence. Benjamin Netanyahu and his circle – and much of the Israeli public that voted for him - have a firmly held world view: the world is against us, there is nothing we can do to stop or mitigate that, and therefore we simply must defend ourselves at all costs and with little concern for global opinion, since they hate us anyway.

Now, as a Jew I can relate to this perspective: we Jews have come by our paranoia honestly! But that does not make it true or effective as a foundation for strategy. In my view, anytime that you divide the world into black and white, or us and them, your ability to maintain focus and attain your goals is hindered. Diplomacy takes place not in the realm of black and white, but among all the shades of gray from which the real world is composed. Even Israel, though it is the most unfairly vilified and scapegoated nation in the world, has strategic allies with interests that coincide with Israel. By saying, in effect, “screw the rest of the world, we’re doing it our way”, Israel weakens its own standing.

There are many other critical issues to discuss that make up the backdrop of the flotilla incident, such as: What is the place of Iran in all these machinations, and how can Israel best deter Iran? Why has Egypt also participated in the Gaza blockade? Is it necessary for Israel to maintain its “siege mentality” (it might be) and what is the moral price Israeli society pays for this posture? The list of concerns is long, and the answers exceedingly complex. I have chosen to address only one concern today, not the moral but rather the strategic failing I perceive in Israel’s execution and subsequent response to its interception of the Turkish flotilla.

I hope there are leaders in Israel who are willing to perceive these failings and take steps to restore Israel’s reputation as a nation that does more than stumble into traps.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Yom Hashoah 5770/2010: German Scholar Thorsten Wagner Visits the Woodstock Jewish Congregation

In April 2009 I traveled to Germany for the first time. I was privileged to lead a group of 30 travelers from the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and the wider community on an intensive – and intensely emotional – tour of Berlin and of the historical site of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Here is what I wrote from our hotel near Ravensbruck last year:

Dear Friends,

I am writing from the picturesque little German village of Furstenburg, which sits across a beautiful lake from the site of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Our group just returned to our hotel from Ravensbruck, which is now a memorial site and education center. We were given a tour of the site by Laura Radosh. Laura is the daughter of WJC member Alice Radosh, who organized this extraordinary trip. Laura and her partner Zilke live in Berlin and one of their professional activities is working and teaching at the Ravensbruck site. I have never visited a concentration camp before, and the debasement and horror of the camp’s history take my breath away and leave me at a loss for words. In the center of anything I might write tonight there is a void, a place of numb silence.

Our trip has traced the Nazi machinery from its bureaucratic office buildings in Berlin to the tidy suburban train station where 50,000 Jews were transported to their deaths and now to one of the concentration camps where the SS calculated how little food an average slave laborer could subsist on in order to work for approximately three months before dying of starvation.

It appears that human beings are capable of convincing themselves that any behavior is acceptable if their ideology supports it and their leaders enforce it. This of course is not news, but tracking the footprints of evil demands that I bear anew some sort of witness.

Since the fall of the Third Reich Germany has built the first stable democracy in its long history, and clearly strives to remember its horrific past and to build social institutions that will withstand the resurgence of intolerance. But for me as a Jew, and I know I can speak for the rest of our group, even as we enjoy modern, exciting Berlin we sense the dread of the recent past barely concealed under our footsteps.

Here in Furstenburg during the war one could see the smoke from the crematorium chimney rising clearly across the lake. The ashes of the victims were sold to the local farmers as fertilizer. Siemens Electronics built a factory next to the camp to take advantage of the free labor. Nearly everyone in Germany was complicit, whether enthusiastically, passively, or under duress.

From our extraordinary guides we have received an intensive course in the causes and progression of Nazi rule and terror. But despite my deepened understanding of the history, and I have learned a great deal, my mind still rebels against the outcome, still demands that it can not be. Yet here in Germany, it was.

This evening we ate dinner in the youth hostel just outside the memorial. Ravensbruck was a women’s concentration camp, and the youth hostel occupies the houses where the female guards once lived. We are here to take part in the annual Liberation Day ceremonies. Joining us at dinner were elderly survivors of the camp and their families, from Poland, France, Germany and elsewhere. Following dinner we walked across the huge site of the former camp to one of the few remaining buildings. It is the former textile factory in which the prisoners worked. There we joined several hundred people for a concert by Ars Choralis, the Ulster County Chorus who provided the incentive for our trip. Perhaps some beautiful music could cleanse some of the dreadful energy from this place. Perhaps profound good intention and skilled musicianship could offer some small redemption to this hell on earth. The Mendelssohn Concerto in A Minor uplifted the room. An excerpt from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass moved me deeply. The Choir’s prayerful and heartfelt songs paid homage to the survivors and to the victims of this camp.

Until tonight I had felt too overwhelmed to write to you about my experiences thus far during this trip. But as the chorus and orchestra played the last notes of a Chopin Etude tonight, I felt my own words returning in this small way that I share with you now. Ars Choralis’ music somehow strengthened me or cleansed me or harmonized within me. I am very grateful.

This has been a painful but invaluable pilgrimage. I left for Europe during Passover, and my mind has been filled with analogies between Pharaoh’s dehumanizing, murderous treatment of the Hebrew slaves and the Nazis’ systematic dehumanization, enslavement and extermination of Jews and millions of others in our own time. The story of Passover has much to teach us about the dynamics of human oppression and repression. I will return to Woodstock on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this tour has certainly been the most visceral and intensive remembrance of the Holocaust that I have ever experienced. If all goes well, I will be at the WJC this Tuesday evening for the Ulster County Yom Hashoah commemoration. I have much more to share and look forward to offering a fuller report in the weeks to come.

L’hitraot (see you soon) and Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Our guide last year in Berlin was Thorsten Wagner, a young scholar of German and Danish descent. Thorsten’s field of study is European Jewish history, and with Berlin as our classroom Thorsten gave our group an indelible history lesson in the genesis and the development of the Nazi death machine. Simultaneously, Thorsten gave us a brilliant seminar in the complexities of how German society remembers the Holocaust. (More on that subject in a future post.) As shaken as I was by my visit, I came away heartened; I had the clear impression that the mainstream of German society is genuinely grappling with its shameful past, and is remarkably mindful in its efforts to combat hate and intolerance. (For an interesting account that reflects my own experience, read Postcards From Berlin via Tablet Magazine by Marc Tracy on 4/27/10. Thanks to Ellen Triebwasser for sharing this link with me.)

Thorsten himself was probably the main reason for my optimism. His commitment as a German to an accurate historical rendering of German history and his clarity regarding why that is important were compelling and even transformative for me. In addition, Thorsten had lived in Israel for several years and is fluent in Hebrew, making his commitment to understanding Jews and Jewish history even clearer. My companions on the tour shared my enthusiasm, and since we could not bring the entire community to Berlin to learn with Thorsten, we decided to bring Thorsten to Woodstock.

The tour participants generously poured forth the funds needed to pay for Thorsten’s visit, and a fabulous organizing committee set up a two-week speaking tour at colleges and synagogues in the Hudson Valley and New York City. On April 9, 2010, exactly one year after our trip to Germany, Thorsten arrived in Woodstock to be our scholar-in-residence at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation for the weekend marking Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This was no small matter. A synagogue was bringing a German as our special guest to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some of our congregants had no interest in listening to a German on a day that is set aside to remember the victims of the Nazi atrocities. I completely understood this reaction. I myself had actively avoided a visit to Germany until just this past year – I would never judge another who did not wish to engage with the German narrative, especially on Yom Hashoah.

And yet, the fact that as a Jewish community we were willing to welcome Thorsten into our ranks marks a tectonic shift in our relationship to the Holocaust. 65 years have passed since the German death machine was finally defeated. Thorsten is the grandson of a German Wehrmacht soldier. Our willingness to open ourselves to Germans of good will, new generations of Germans who wish to support the Jewish people and to grapple with their own nation’s past, places us on a path toward potential healing and wholeness.

Thorsten did not disappoint. His topics ranged from the rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943 to contemporary Germany’s commemorations of the Holocaust. He presented his teachings with a scholar’s commitment to accuracy, and his teaching style was clear and accessible. Of equal importance, Thorsten was gracious, open and available for genuine dialogue. When asked more personal questions, he spoke from his heart. Participants poured into our sanctuary to hear him, motivated in my opinion by both curiosity and by a longing to make contact with this German scholar who clearly cared about our fate.

As Thorsten’s completed his final talk on Sunday afternoon, I came forward and said: “We invited you here because when you led our Berlin tour last year we received the impression, despite our skepticism, that many Germans and that German society as a whole has made sincere and ongoing efforts to acknowledge its past and to make begin the process of making amends. Do you think this is an accurate perception on our part?” Thorsten, in his direct and open manner, looked out on the group and said, simply, “Yes. I think you should give Germans a chance.”

A challenging statement, yet perfectly clear. Has the time come for us to give Germans a chance? At what point do I determine that it is no longer appropriate for me to simply write off the Germans, despite their unprecedented murder of my people? How and when do I deploy my capacity for discernment, to distinguish between present-day enemies and friends, rather than rely on the categories of the past? Thorsten has persuaded me that in the case of Germany, the time has come for me as a Jew to “give Germans a chance”. Of course, that does not mean forgetting history; it means finding the Germans who wish to remember that history and grapple with it together. And, I will repeat, I hold no one else in judgment if they disagree. But that moment, when our German guest looked out over our sanctuary at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and said “I think you should give Germans a chance”, marks a watershed for me, when a Jewish community was willing to invite a German to mark Yom Hashoah together, and give him a chance.

Some 30 singers of Ars Choralis then mounted our bimah (stage) and sang to us from their program commemorating the Women’s Orchestra of the Birkenau Death Camp, and many of us wept, releasing some of the deep emotion that had been stirring in us all weekend. One of their singers, Jim Ulrich, concluded their program with the blessing for peace: “Baruch Ata Adonai, oseh hashalom”. In our own small way the Woodstock Jewish Congregation had contributed to that dream of peace.