Praying in London


I have spent much of the past six months in London. It is my adopted home and I love it here. I have a tight group of friends and colleagues in this wonderful city. I enjoy every minute that I am blessed to be in London, a city my father loved so much. I walk every day and my favorite route is to walk is across Westminster Bridge then across to the Tower Bridge, passing Shakespeare’s Globe Theater along the way. It is about a 5 mile walk and a treasured part of my time here. I listen to the soundtracks of Bridget Jones movies and am happy.

I do my walk three days a week. Yesterday however, I didn’t go because I was busy and didn’t have time. I never walk at a set time, so it is impossible to know if I would have been on the bridge during the terrorist attack, but I am shaken. I am sad for those who lost their lives, those in the hospital, and the witnesses of this cowardly attack. I am thankful for the first responders who bravely helped. I am also worried for my Muslim friends here, who feel this attack on levels I won’t ever understand. The world is dark and hate is truly powerful.

It is exhausting to hear the hate. It chisels away at my heart and I hear it every day. People in line at the market, on the subway, having coffee. Everyone speaks freely and loudly about how all the problems in the world are because of Muslims. They say it in front of Muslims. They speak of how every terrorist in the world is Muslim and they must all go. I’m not sure where exactly they want them to go, but as a Jew, and an intelligent human being, it breaks my heart and frightens me to hear of the persecution of a group of people based on faith.

I walked again today, but chose a different route, mostly to stay out of the way. I walked through London this morning because life goes on. I am praying for this city and her people as I count down the days until I go home and hug my son. I’m thankful for my amazing readers, who immediately upon hearing of the attack, reached out to see if I was okay, knowing I am often on Westminster Bridge. I felt embraced and comforted. I am grateful for the opportunities that brought me to London and I hope all of us here can keep the faith.

 

Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall.

Women of the Wall in petition to Israeli Supreme Court demand right to pray undisturbed


The Women of the Wall filed a petition with Israel’s Supreme Court demanding the right to pray undisturbed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The petition, filed Tuesday against the Israel Police, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovitz, also asked the court to order the police to ensure that the women are safe from physical and verbal violence while praying at the holy site.

It requested a temporary injunction requiring the respondents to explain their failure to ensure the legal rights of the Women of the Wall to pray in the women’s section of the site without disturbance, according to a statement from the organization. The petition also demanded an explanation for the respondents’ failure to implement the necessary measures to halt those who regularly attempt to disrupt their prayer services with physical and verbal violence.

Women of the Wall said in a statement that during monthly prayer services, its members are exposed to “curses, incitement, spitting, ear-piercing whistling, intense and continuous shouting and bottles thrown at them. Despite this egregious conduct, including criminal offenses, their repeated pleas for protection are met with indifference by Israel Police and by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s ushers and guards.”

In January, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of women being allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Western Wall and declared that an egalitarian prayer area set aside at nearby Robinson’s Arch does not constitute access to the holy site.

The January ruling was in response to a petition by the Original Women of the Wall, a breakoff of the Women of the Wall group, who want to pray in the women’s section and reject a compromise, still to be implemented, that would expand an alternative prayer space at Robinson’s Arch.

Michael Baror, deputy ambassador at the Israeli embassy in Kenya (with watering can), plants a tree at the Ramogi Institute of Advanced Technology in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo by Ryan Torok

The blessings of prayer, liturgical or personal


With the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, on Feb. 11, environmentally friendly Jewish organizations and individuals fill social media feeds with exhortations to protect the environment and to appreciate the bounty of produce that most of us enjoy.

But do you know what blessing to say for planting a tree? And what if that tree is in Kisumu, Kenya, to celebrate a partnership of Kenya, Israel and Germany that has yielded great strides in tilapia fish farming?

This example sounds random enough to be made up, but it really happened for 12 of us on an Israeli Consulate-sponsored trip to Kenya last November to see the work of an Israeli international development organization called MASHAV.

As we watched a representative from each partner country plant a tree at the Ramogi Institute of Advanced Technology, I asked fellow trip participant Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, “Is there a blessing for a trilateral fish farming partnership tree-planting?”

He said there wasn’t one, so we riffed on the concepts and words relating to the physical act of tree-planting as well as thematic meanings of partnerships. The rabbi’s version went biblical, invoking Eden, the first garden sown by humans and the notion that God creates everything. My version was more interpersonal: about God as the overseer of human existence and both witness to and nurturer of relationships between people and the earth.

We settled on the Shehecheyanu prayer that expresses gratitude for having reached a new or special moment or occasion.

But an idea also had taken root: Was there really no blessing for tree-planting? When I got home, I asked my favorite always-on-duty religious expert, Rabbi Google. I learned there is a blessing said on a fruit-bearing tree once a year during the month of Nisan, but generally, no blessing for tree-planting. Shouldn’t there be, especially when it marks a deepening of human relationship as well as the intention of seeding the earth?

I thought: Why not teach people to use their words to find their own blessings? And yet, the thought seemed heretical. Who was I — or anyone without rabbinic training — to negate the canonized liturgy? And if everyone was “vigilante blessing” things, would that put Farkas and my other rabbi friends out of a job? Would there still be a need for synagogue and community around standardized prayer?

Pondering these thoughts, I read the reflections of my friend and Jewish Journal colleague Ryan Torok, who also was on the Kenya trip.

“It’s comforting how the words of the Amidah are the same in Kenya as they are back home,” he wrote in the Journal. “No matter where one is in the world, Judaism is Judaism.” 

There is a tension between institutionalized liturgy and personal prayer. We have a robust liturgy, sanctioned by rabbis, time and generations of people who have intoned the same words in different geographical and emotional places. They have called on the same phrases for strength, as mantra, as comfort, as praise in countries around the world. Indeed, there are “official” blessings for lots of Jewish acts and occasions — even observing strange things or unusual people.

But in moments during which there are no standardized blessings, how do we non-rabbis — or those of us unfamiliar with the liturgy, unfamiliar with Hebrew, or even lacking a traditional belief in God — mark those moments?

There’s a Chasidic folktale about a young shepherd who was nearly illiterate and went to a synagogue, where he recited the letters of the Hebrew alphabet repeatedly. When asked why, he said he didn’t know the prayers but knew that if he spoke the letters, God would assemble them to form words expressing his intended prayer.

Depending on the audience, this story — and its many variations — is invoked to teach several lessons. In my interpretation, I learn two things. First, you don’t need officially sanctioned words to pray or express gratitude. Second, even when you are expressing your heart’s desires, gratitude or prayer — which may be very much outside of the communal norm — there is value and power to being in the presence of community.

We have our own letters, and we have our own words. We don’t need words that are biblical in origin, or grandiosely phrased, or rabbinically sanctioned. If the “God” concept is a challenge for you, opt out of language like “blessed are you, oh God,” and instead use “how incredible it is to be having this experience” or “how grateful I am to be in the presence of this thing.” Prayers don’t have to be in Hebrew, either, because if God is an entity or concept that has meaning for you, you can bet your bracha (blessing) on the fact that any deity worth anything would be fluent in any language.

I think that institutionalized liturgy provides a framework, something to rely on if we aren’t having a spontaneous or creative prayer moment. It also suggests words and phrases to guide us in our own interpretation of what it means to use language to express vulnerability, humility, respect, praise and gratitude.

Of course, most people — and that includes me most days — don’t create their own prayers. They may not see the point in prayer at all. Or they may feel unworthy, unpoetic or unholy. Or they may think personal prayer is forbidden or some sort of hubris, that when it comes to Jewish prayer, it’s codified liturgy or bust. And maybe that belief creates a stronger bond to both community members and to places of institutionalized prayer.

But perhaps, when we’re seeking ways to connect to prayer and gratitude, it’s not “this” or “that.” Rather, it’s worth looking to our structured community spaces, as well as into the unique words that we hold within ourselves and our unique experiences, to find the answers.

A prayer of healing from tragedy


Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries the innocent and the brave.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Amen.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva: The Jewish Spiritual Outreach Center. Her books include Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration.

Hebrew word of the week: Tefillin


Tefillin:

The form is an Aramaic plural (the Hebrew plural would be tefillim), whose singular would be tefillah, “prayer,” similar to tehillim “Psalms, ” plural of tehillah “psalter.”* However, the plural tefillin is used for both, as in tefillin shel yad “tefillin of hand,” tfillin shel rosh “tefillin of the head.” The Jews of Baghdad had a double plural form: tefillimot to refer to more than one pair.

The English-Greek word phylactery means “guard-amulet,” just as tallit means “protecting-cover,” from the root T-L-L (Daniel 4:9; Nehemiah 3:15). Indeed, some anthropologists consider tefillin to allude to snake, a universal symbol of medicine and protection (Compare 2 Kings 18:4). The biblical name is ToTafot (Deuteronomy 6:8) “frontlet, pendant, amulet.”

*Or “song of praise (to God),” as in Psalms 145:1; from the root H-L-L, “ululate, cheer or praise.”  

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Placing a 9-11 call to G-D


If you watch or listen to the news it’s pretty depressing. Especially when it comes to what’s happening to the Jewish people. We have terrorist attacks in Paris and verbal attacks in the U.N. We have boycotting of Israeli goods and anti-Israel propaganda on college campuses. We have a President who swears he is the “first Jewish president” and then tries to tie Israel’s hands behind her back while playing footsie with Iran. The same Iran who wants to wipe Israel off the map. Anti-Semitism is back like a pox. A pox like the Middle Ages disease. A pox without any vaccinations. And it’s growing.

This has been coming on for years. And there are groups out there who have and are still trying their hardest to stop it. Groups like: World Jewish Congress, The American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, StandWithUs, The Israel Project. Very good groups. And yet the pox still grows.

Do any of you reading this remember how it was right before the Six-Day War? We knew that Nasser (the head of Egypt) wanted to “drive the Jews into the sea.” It was only 22 years after the Holocaust and we knew he wasn’t kidding. All Jews whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox all over the world ran into their respective shuls and synagogues and prayed. They begged the Almighty to have mercy on Israel. They called out to G-d to help us. And you know what? You remember. He did!

When we were slaves in Egypt we cried out to G-d and he freed us. He saved us. And so it went all through history. When we were in trouble we cried out to him and he delivered us. When Haman showed up in Persia to destroy us, we fasted and wept and prayed. And again deliverance!

Well it seems that it is now time for us to make that call. I don’t care whether you are Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or that you think eating lox and bagels at Nate’n Al’s deli is very Jewish. If you are proud to be a Jew and you care about the welfare of Israel and Jews everywhere, you have power with the words that emanate from your mouth. Words you can say to the Ruler of the World.

At the end of this article I am going to give you some Tehillim you can say. But the truth is you can talk to Hashem in your own words. Every day, or at night before you go to bed. Ask him to help us. And really mean it. Like a 911 call you would make to save your child or friend. “Please G-d we do forget you and take advantage of the fact that you keep us safe and fed and sheltered. We rarely say thank you. But now please, please help us. Please protect us. Help us to remember that you are the only one who can save us. Please protect all Jews everywhere and defeat our enemies.”

Go ahead make the call. He’s waiting.

Tehillim #83: Oh G-d, do not hold yourself silent; be not deaf and be not still, O G-d. For behold, your foes are in uproar and those who hate you have raised their head. Against Your nation they plot deviously, they take counsel against those sheltered by you. They said, “Come, let us cut them off from nationhood, so Israel’s name will not be remembered any more! For they take counsel together unanimously, they strike a covenant against You – the tents of Edom and Ishmalites, of Moab & Hagrites, Geval and Ammon, and Amalek, Philistia and the inhabitants of Tyre. Even Assyria joined with them, they became the strong arm of Lot’s sons, Selah. Do to them as to Midian, as to Sisera, and as to Yavin at Nachal Kishon, who were destroyed at Eindor; they became dung for the earth. Make their nobles like Orev and Ze’ev; and all their princes like Zevach and Tzalmuna. Who said “We will conquer for ourselves the pleasant habitations of G-d.”…..So pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm…then they will know that You, Whose Name is Hashem, are alone, Most High over all the earth.

Tehillim #124: Had not Hashem been with us –let Israel declare it now! Had not Hashem been with us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their anger was kindled against us. Then the waters would have inundated us; the current would have surged across our soul. Then they would have surged across our soul – the treacherous waters. Blessed is Hashem, Who did not present us as prey for their teeth. Our soul escaped like a bird from the hunters’ snare; the snare broke and we escaped. Our help is through the Name of Hashem, Maker of heaven and earth.

Suzanne Davidson is a pro-Israel activist and founder of The LA Pro Israel Rally Committee. Her articles have appeared in The Jewish Journal and Aish.com.

The 1967 explanation of why Jews can’t pray at their holiest site


Why did Israel gain control over the Temple Mount in 1967 and not establish any religious or cultural presence on Judaism's holiest site? 

Like many conflicts in Israeli society, this intriguing conundrum involves a mix of Jewish legal disputes, politics, and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, bringing with it a tender status quo that challenges Israel's claim to sovereignty over its holiest territory.   With tensions continuing to mount between Jews and Muslims since the recent attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick, an activist who has advocated for equal prayer rights on the site, it pays to review how we came to this explosive situation.   

Following the Six-Day War, in which Israel gained military control over the Temple Mount (“Har HaBayit” in Hebrew), Israel’s Chief Rabbinate promulgated a ban on Jews ascending to the site. This ruling coalesced with the desire of many Israeli officials to leave the Jordanian Waqf in charge of its religious, economic, and administrative activities.  As a result, Jewish civilian presence on the mount was severely limited, causing many Jews and gentiles to ignore its significance in Jewish thought and history. The recent attempt to rec­tify this situation, for both political and religious reasons, has re-ignited a passionate debate over the halakhic propriety of ascending the mount. 

Several biblical commandments regulated entrance to the various sections of the Temple, including the establishment of a guard system to enforce these rules (Num. 18:1–4). The Torah (Lev. 19:30) further com­mands a general reverence for the Temple, interpreted by the sages to include respectful behavior within permissible areas, such as not carrying a stick or wallet, wearing leather shoes, or walking around for mundane purposes.

Medieval commentators debated whether these restrictions became dormant following the Temple’s destruction.  In the 12th century, Rabad of Posquieres contended that although the land of Israel territory retained its general sanctity, the Temple Mount was desacralized by its non-Jewish conquerors.  Commentators understood this position to allow for Jews to walk on the Temple Mount, and he reported that they have historically done so. Indeed, as noted by Gedalia Meyer and Henoch Messner, talmudic stories and medieval travelogues indicate that Jews ascended the Temple Mount until Muslim conquerors banned entrance by non-Muslims in the twelfth century.

Maimonides, however, insisted that the entire compound has retained its sanctity, and that sacrifices may still be offered there, even without the Temple.  In fact, as Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes pointed out, several talmudic passages indicate that many Temple rites – particularly the Passover sacrifice – continued into late antiquity.  (In the 19th century, Rabbi Tzvi Kalischer, inspired by messianic aspirations, attempted to renew such activity. Yet his proposal was shot down by figures like Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, who contended that sacrifices were not per­missible without finding the altar’s exact location, priests with proven pedigree, and various Temple apparatuses.)

Maimonides’ ruling, which demands continual reverence for the Temple Mount and restricts entry to it, was widely accepted by medieval and modern authorities.  As former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron noted, these laws also prohibit tour guides from encour­aging unrestricted visits to the site by non-Jewish tourists.

Nonetheless, the sages permitted entry into some of the sacred areas fol­lowing appropriate ritual preparation, including immersion in a mikve, a ritual bath.  Moreover, the current rectangular Temple Mount complex, which was expanded in the Herodian era to about 150,000 square meters, includes sections not within the original Temple area, which formed a square with sides of roughly 250 meters.  Indeed, in his collected letters, Maimonides indicates that he himself walked and prayed in the permissible areas when he visited Israel in 1165.

As such, two sixteenth-century rabbis, David ibn Zimra and Yosef di Trani, attempted to delineate the exact Temple location and permitted Jews to walk on certain areas of the mount. Yet their calculations were highly disputed, leading many scholars – including Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, leader of Jerusalem’s Jewish community in the nineteenth century  – to prohibit entrance to the Temple Mount (which was regularly banned by the ruling authorities anyway). This position was advocated by numerous authorities following the Six-Day War, includ­ing Rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Yitzĥak Weiss, and Eliezer Waldenburg, and adopted by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. 

Others contended that this stringency would lead to the neglect of the sacred space. Most prominently, Rabbi Shlomo Goren dedicated a book, Har HaBayit, to determining the permissible areas of entry.   His determinations to grant Jewish prayer rights, however, were largely thwarted, as were the efforts of Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and She’ar Yashuv HaKohen to build a synagogue on the Temple Mount.  The debate, however, has been renewed over the past decade as scholars likes Rabbis Nachum Rabinovitch and Ĥayim Druckman have advocated, for spiritual and political reasons, Jewish entry (after strict halakhic preparation) into areas they claim are indisputably outside the restricted zones.  Yet other religious Zionist scholars, including figures strongly affiliated with the Israel's political right, such as Rabbis Avraham Shapira and Shlomo Aviner, have opposed such entry, maintaining that modern-day Jews are spiritually unprepared for the Temple’s holiness. 

Given Israel's commitment to freedom of worship, it remains difficult to justify denying the right of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount if they deem it to be permissible. This is especially true given its historical significance and Israel's stated interest in protecting its sovereignty over the site.  Yet like all conflicts in Israel that combine religion and politics, it must be handled with great sensitivity to ensure that our assertions of sovereignty avoid unnecessary bloodshed. 


Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars, and is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.  He is also a presidential graduate fellow at Bar Ilan University Law School and a junior scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute.  This essay is adapted from his new book, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates (Maggid Books).  

Cartoon: After hell freezes over and pigs fly


Eyes open and eyes shut: A pre-High Holy Days meditation


Paul Gaugin, the famous 19th-century French artist, commented: “When I want to see clearly, I shut my eyes.”

He was referring to two different ways of perceiving reality. With our eyes open, we see surface reality — size, shape, color, etc. But with our eyes shut, we contemplate the context of things, our relationship to them, the hidden meanings.

With our eyes open, a dozen roses are 12 beautiful flowers. With our eyes shut, they may be full of memories and associations — roses given or received on our first date; roses at our wedding; roses growing in our childhood home’s backyard; roses on our grandmother’s Shabbat table.

How we see fellow human beings is also very different with open or closed eyes. With our eyes open, we see their physical features. With our eyes shut, we remember shared experiences, friendships, happy and sad moments. When we want to see clearly — comprehensively — we shut our eyes.

Mircea Eliade, a specialist in world religions, wrote in his book “The Sacred and The Profane” about the pagan view of New Year. For them, human life is a series of recurring cycles, always on the verge of chaos. On New Year, people descend into this primordial chaos: drunkenness, debauchery, chaotic noise. 

The Jewish view is radically different. For Jews, reality isn’t a hopeless cycle of returns to chaos, but a progression, however slow, of humanity. Rosh Hashanah is not a return to primeval chaos, but a return to God, a return to our basic selves. Our New Year is observed with prayer, repentance, solemnity and a faith that we — and the world — can be better. 

The pagan New Year is an example of seeing reality with open eyes. Things really do seem to be chaotic when viewed on the surface. Humanity does not seem to improve over the generations. We always seem to be on the verge of self-destruction.

The Jewish New Year is an example of viewing reality with our eyes shut, of seeing things more deeply, more carefully. While being fully aware of the surface failings of humanity, we look for the hidden signs of progress and redemption. We attempt to maintain a grand, long-range vision. This is the key to the secret of Jewish optimism. While not denying the negatives around us, we stay faithful to a vision of a world that is not governed by chaos, but by a deeper, hidden, mysterious unity.

The problem of faith today is not how to have faith in God. We can come to terms with God if we are philosophers or mystics. The problem is, how can we have faith in humanity? How can we believe in the goodness and truthfulness of human beings?

With our eyes open, we must view current events with despair and trepidation. We see leaders who are liars and hypocrites. We see wars and hatred and violence and vicious anti-Semitism. We are tempted to think that chaos reigns.

But with our eyes shut, we know that redemption will come. We know that there are good, heroic people struggling for change. We know that just as we have overcome sorrows in the past, we will overcome oppressions and oppressors of today.

Eyes open and eyes shut not only relate to our perception of external realities, but also to our self-understanding. During the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus on penitential prayers. We confess our sins and shortcomings. But as we think more deeply about our deficiencies, we also close our eyes and look for our real selves, our deeper selves, our dreams and aspirations.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, noted that the High Holy Days period is symbolized by the shofar. The shofar must be bent, as a reminder that we, too, must bow ourselves in contrition and humility. 

During the month of Elul, which began Aug. 27, it is customary to sound the shofar either as part of Selichot/penitential prayers, or at the conclusion of prayer services. Indeed, the shofar is a vital symbol of Rosh Hashanah services, and also is sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services.

But shortly after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, with the lulav as a central symbol. The lulav must be straight, not bent over. The lulav teaches us to stand strong and tall, to focus on our strengths and virtues. The holiday season, then, encourages us to first experience humility and contrition; but then to move on to self-confidence and optimism. Our eyes are open to our shortcomings; but when we shut our eyes, we also can envision our strengths and potentialities.

Rosh Hashanah reminds us to view our lives and our world with our eyes open — but also with our eyes shut. We are challenged to dream great dreams, to seek that which is hidden, to see beyond the moment.

Rosh Hashanah is a call to each individual to move to a higher level of understanding, behavior and activism. Teshuvah — repentance — means that we can improve ourselves, and that others can improve, and that the world can improve.

This is the key to Jewish optimism, the key to the Jewish revolutionary vision for humanity, the key to personal happiness.


Rabbi Marc Angel is director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org), and rabbi emeritus of the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City. His most recent book is a collection of short stories, “The Crown of Solomon and Other Stories” (Albion-Andalus Books, 2014).

Abbas invokes sovereign state in peace prayer with pope, Peres


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for “freedom in our sovereign and independent state” during a prayer for peace with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Pope Francis.

Vatican officials had called the service on Sunday at the Vatican a “pause in politics” with no political intentions.

Abbas, Peres and the pope planted an olive tree in Vatican Garden following prayers by Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders and invocations by the three leaders. They then entered the Vatican for a private meeting together.

In his invocation, Abbas spoke about the importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinian people and thanked God for blessing the Palestinians with Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

Along with speaking of a sovereign and independent state, the Palestinian leader asked Allah for “a comprehensive and just peace for our country and our region.”

Francis during his invocation said, “More than once we have been close to peace and the evil one has prevented it.  That’s why we are here today. We need to lift up our eyes toward heaven and recognize we are the children of one father.”

Peres said in his invocation, “I was young and became old. I experienced war, I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families — parents and children — who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for the sake of the generations to come. Let us all join hands and make it happen.”

The Israeli delegation included rabbis, Druze leaders and imams. The Palestinian delegation included Islamic and Christian leaders. Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud, two friends of the pope’s from Buenos Aires, also attended.

On Saturday, Francis tweeted about the service, “Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world.”

The pope made the invitation following the celebration of Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem during his visit last month to the Palestinian West Bank city. The offer came a month after the collapse of nine months of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Peres will leave office at the end of July.

 

U.S. Jews vs. U.S. Christianity


It’s not something that Americans mention in public. And it may not even be something many note in private. But a Jew writing in a Jewish journal ought to point out a fact that, no matter how much ignored, is significant.

On May 5, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in “Town of Greece v. Galloway” that the town’s practice of beginning legislative sessions with prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

As summarized in the opening words of the ruling:

“Since 1999, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, New York, have opened with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed in a local directory. While the prayer program is open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations are Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers have been too.”

I believe it is significant that three of the four dissenting justices are the three Jews on the Supreme Court — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. So, too, one of the two women (the “respondents” at the Supreme Court level) who filed the original lawsuit against the town of Greece is a Jew. And Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Anti-Defamation League, had filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the women.

This is all significant because the Jewish justices, the Jewish woman who brought the suit against the New York town and all the Jewish organizations that filed briefs in support of the two respondents represent a battle that many American Jews and Jewish organizations have been waging for decades against public expressions of God and religion. American Jews have become the most active ethnic or religious group in America attempting to remove God and religion from the public square.

Why is this the case? Why have American Jews been so active in fighting any expressions of God and religion in the country that has been the most hospitable to us in our long history?

Nearly every Jew who does so will give this answer: In order to fight for the separation of church and state in America.

But let’s be honest. If there were no such concept in America — and in fact, the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the Constitution — most American Jews would be just as opposed to public expressions of faith.

So, then, once again: Why are American Jews so opposed to public religious expressions? Moreover, this opposition exists not only to government-sponsored religious expression. For example, many Jews are avid supporters of substituting “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” or “holiday party” for “Christmas party.”

I think there are four reasons.

One is antipathy to Christianity. Most Jews just don’t like Christianity. They associate it with centuries of anti-Semitism, and therefore believe that a de-Christianized America will be a much more secure place for them.

Second, many American Jews feel “excluded” when Christianity is expressed in public.

A third reason is antipathy to religion generally. Most Jews are little more positively disposed to Orthodox Judaism than they are to traditional Christianity.

That leads to reason four: a fervent belief in secularism. Most American Jews believe in secularism as fervently as Orthodox Jews believe in the Torah or traditional Christians believe in Christ.

Regarding reason one, it is foolish, and even immoral, to associate American Christians with European Christianity. They have virtually nothing in common. American Christianity has treated Jews not only well, and not only as equals, but has revered Jews and Judaism. European Christianity claimed to replace the Jews as the Chosen People; American Christianity claimed America was a Second Chosen People, the First Chosen continuing to be the Jews. 

A de-Christianized America would be an entirely different America from the one it has been since 1776. And we Jews would not be more secure; we would be less so. The special status we have held as Jews would be gone; and the moral basis of American society — Judeo-Christian values — would be gone. America would be exactly like Western Europe. Ask the Jews of Europe how good that is.

As for feeling “excluded,” I can only say that having lived among Christians most of my adult life, I don’t know on what basis other than ethnic insularity any American Jew would feel that way. 

Reasons three and four represent Jewish tragedies. The people that brought God and God-based morality into the world now believe in man and in man-based values. Instead of bringing mankind to ethical monotheism, most American Jews now believe it is their mission to bring the world to secularism. It is difficult to overstate how sad — and suicidal — that transformation is.

Conservative, Reform rabbis: Robinson’s Arch transfer plan ‘infuriating and unacceptable’


This week has seen a fair bit of news on the heretofore confidential negotiations surrounding the future of Robinson’s Arch, the area of the Western Wall open to non-Orthodox prayer.

The Israeli Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements, along with women’s prayer group Women of the Wall, have been negotiating for months with the Israeli government on a plan to expand the site. The expansion, first proposed by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky last year, aimed at solving interdenominational controversy that had previously erupted at the wall.

The negotiations suffered something of a crisis this week, though, as Haaretz reported that the Israeli government planned to transfer control of Robinson’s Arch to the City of David (or Ir David) Foundation, a right-wing nonprofit that manages the City of David historical tourist site and works to expand the Jewish presence in the surrounding Arab neighborhood.

The planned (but now apparently scuttled) deal sparked outrage among the Conservative and Reform movements, whose leaders in Israel and America sent a strongly worded letter to Israeli Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit today protesting the decision. Women of the Wall also sent a letter protesting the draft agreement.

The Conservative and Reform movements have long pushed for pluralism at the wall, but this letter strikes a particularly harsh tone. And it seems to have worked: In its wake, Mandelblit said he plans to block the draft agreement.

Here is the text of the letter in full:

Dear Secretary Mandelblit:

We write to express our shared concern about information reported in the media that the government is in the final stages of negotiations to award to the Ir David Foundation (Amutat EL-AD) the governance of areas of the Old City, including the Southern section of the Western wall, over which we have been in extended negotiations. We were, as you could well imagine, shocked and dismayed to learn this news for mutiple reasons.

First and foremost, the fact that this possibility was never raised and that it pertained directly to the issues of our negotiation is most concerning.

Second, one of the primary issues of our negotiation, from the earliest stages of the Sharansky plan, was that religious governance and authority over the site would be granted to duly appointed religious leaders of the Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements, to serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister or his designates. Almost every aspect of this important principle was scaled back during the negotiation – Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements could not be acknowledged explicitly in the regulations, we could not serve officially, we could only be advisors to a government body, we could not receive funds to educate and publicize our presence. Surely you will understand that we would like to know why the Government of the State of Israel does not accept our legitimacy to form a governance body, but find the Ir David Foundation (Amutat EL-AD) suitable to do this and much more. The Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements are organizations with continuous and consistent philosophy and governance spanning well over a century. We represent the overwhelming majority of Jews in the Diaspora and are the backbone of pro-Israel advocacy for our Jewish national homeland.

What this news demonstrates to us is that we must protect the singular goals that the proposed negotiation regarding the Kotel site are meant to advance – the recognition of egalitarian, pluralistic prayer available to all Jewish people. The pending appointment of Ir David Foundation (Amutat EL-AD) only demonstrates and reinforces for us what we knew all along – that without actual religious and practical governance over the site we are vulnerable to become the intended or unintended victims of political changes, political deals and other interests. These interests will not allow us to fulfill our primary mission – to create a place at the Kotel where non-Orthodox Jews, and non-extremist Orthodox Jews can pray without fear of physical or verbal harassment and attack. It is a shamefully modest goal, and therefore, demoralizing and demeaning that we are so reduced in the negotiation even on these points. It is infuriating and unacceptable to find that while this negotiation was going on, other negotiations were taking place to put us under the authority of a group with a right wing Orthodox religious point of view.

We see today that in our desire to achieve an amicable outcome to a long and bitter conflict among the Jewish people which has further estranged non-Orthodox Jews from the State of Israel, we have left our people too vulnerable. Only in an arrangement which guarantees the governance of the prayer space by our own representatives can we hope to create a lasting solution. We are Jews and we are one family, so notwithstanding the depth of this disappointment, we look forward to restarting and renewing our conversations with you regarding our role in the governance of the space, so that we, and the Prime Minister, can fulfill our moral obligations to the personal integrity of every Jew to pray in a manner that is acceptable to them and respectful of others.

Respectfully yours,
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld – Executive Vice President, The Rabbinical Assembly
Rabbi Steven Wernick – Executive Vice President and CEO, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik – President, The Rabbinical Assembly
Yizhar Hess, Esq. – Executive Director and CEO, The Masorti Movement in Israel
Rabbi Rick Jacobs – President, Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Steven A. Fox – CEO, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Richard Block – President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi David Saperstein – Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center
Rabbi Gilad Kariv – Executive Director, Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism
Representing the leadership of the Masorti/Conservative and Reform Movements

 

Women of the Wall agrees to pray in egalitarian space, with conditions


Women of the Wall agreed in principle to pray in a new egalitarian space adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza, provided the space meets several conditions regarding design and management.

Until those conditions are met, Women of the Wall said in a statement Monday that it will continue praying at the women’s section of the Western Wall, as the group has for 25 years.

Before now, though, the group had said a new egalitarian section of the wall would not be “relevant” to its needs.

Monday’s policy change brings Women of the Wall in line with other non-Orthodox groups in Israel, such as the Conservative and Reform movements, which saw the new section as an answer to their requests for pluralism at the holy site. Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the change “a very positive step.”

The egalitarian section, to be located in an area adjacent to the plaza known as Robinson’s Arch, was first proposed in April as part of a plan by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to resolve religious conflict at the wall. Sharansky, along with Knesset Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, is due to release the full plan in the coming weeks.

Women of the Wall meets at the beginning of each Jewish month for a women’s service at the Western Wall. Its chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, told JTA that the policy change will give Women of the Wall more influence over how the new section is designed.

“For an organization that’s always been small and very dedicated, we are now going to become players at the political table, which means we’ll have to compromise on our demands,” she said. “Pure ideology does not reality make.”

The group’s new policy, however, will not lead to a change on the ground in the near future. In order to pray in the new section, Women of the Wall is demanding that the section be equal to the existing plaza in size, topography, budget and facilities. In addition, the group is demanding a unified entrance and a shared plaza between all of the wall’s sections.

Women of the Wall also is demanding that a body of Jewish leaders, with equal women’s representation, runs the new section. The existing plaza is managed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a haredi Orthodox organization.

Some of the changes may be difficult to implement. Altering the topography of the plaza would require approval from the Islamic Wakf, the body that controls the Temple Mount and historically has been resistant to any such changes. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett had a temporary platform erected at Robinson’s Arch in August, but Women of the Wall said it does not meet their needs.

Until Monday, Women of the Wall seemed defiant in its commitment to keep praying in the women’s section. The group scored a legal victory in court this year that allowed its members to pray without fear of arrest, but members have faced ongoing opposition and harassment from traditionalist opponents.

The group’s most recent service, on Friday, was the calmest in months, but the women still encountered opponents screaming and, according to some reports, spitting as they prayed.

“We had a choice,” Hoffman told JTA — “to continue being marginalized and insist that we pray at the women’s section, or to say here’s how we envision the Western Wall, open to all and friendly and clean.”

Women hold prayer service at Kotel without incident


Ten women from Women of the Wall held a public prayer service at the Western Wall without incident.

The service, during which the women sang and wore tallit prayer shawls and tefillin, was held Wednesday because an American supporter of the group was in town and would not be present for the next monthly service next week, according to Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall.

Participants from Women of the Wall gather at the beginning of each Hebrew month for a women’s Rosh Chodesh service at the Western Wall, usually drawing hundreds of women. In recent months, the women have been met with protesters throwing eggs, water, coffee and chairs. Last month, the group was barricaded far from the wall by police, who said the barrier was for the group’s protection.

“The disturbance of the peace and all the problems come from those who protest Women of the Wall, and the lack of police intervention with that,” Pruce told JTA. “If the police would stop the people disturbing the prayer, it would just be a prayer.”

Pruce said that Women of the Wall plans to pray adjacent to the Western Wall plaza for the service next week and will oppose any police barricade. In April, a Jerusalem district court ruled that the women’s service does not contravene the law.

The problem with prayer


If the practice of Judaism is based on synagogue attendance, and if synagogue attendance is based on the passive recitation of prayer, then Judaism is in trouble.

The ritual of repetitive communal prayer might have worked in the shtetls to keep Jews Jewish, but it doesn’t work in today’s America.

For many Jews — especially the nonobservant — the very act of prayer can seem odd. What am I praying for? Does God really owe me anything more than all the blessings I already have and take for granted? And if I decide to pray for something — like being healthy — am I not better off going to the gym and watching what I eat? 

Prayer, in fact, might be the most problematic point of entry into Judaism. Why should people waste their time doing something they don’t really understand and don’t believe will benefit them?

Synagogues sense this. That’s one reason they put so much emphasis on the value of community. Becoming a member of a synagogue means belonging to an extended “family” that will provide you with a network of support and friendships, rabbinic assistance for lifecycle events, High Holy Days privileges, special classes and programs, and so on.

Synagogues depend on membership dues to survive. That’s why this time of year is so critical, when people make decisions about whether to renew their memberships for the coming year.

This traditional synagogue model will not — and cannot — go away any time soon. But if the Jewish world is looking for a breakthrough to attract the unaffiliated, the disconnected and the disenchanted, they’d do well to take this old model and experiment with some meaningful upgrades.

A good place to start would be to redefine prayer so that it can stand on its own.

A lot of promising work has been done in this area in synagogues across the country. One particular example can be found in the spiritual communities — such as IKAR, Nashuva and the Carlebach minyans — where prayer services share an almost tribal quality, with melodies and communal chanting that simply elevate you.

But one prayer method that I feel doesn’t get enough attention and that I find especially promising is the notion of following a “prayer narrative.” This method is more introspective, allowing a prayer service to become a personal spiritual journey that keeps you connected from beginning to end.

I ran this notion last year by my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a spiritual teacher who lives in the south of France and runs the Web site Daat Elyon. He was intrigued enough to write up an insightful “seven-step spiritual journey” for the Shabbat morning prayer service.

This seven-step guide doesn’t change the actual prayers, it simply frames them in a way that injects deep personal meaning. 

Each prayer section offers a theme that connects to the next one. The first three build up to the climax — the Shema — while the last three are the denouement.

Glick themes the seven steps as follows: “Awareness,” “Gratitude and Appreciation,” “Recognition of God and the Good,” “Affirmation — Light and Love,” “Communion,” “Contemplation” and, finally, “Tikkun Olam and Oneness.”

For each theme, Glick includes spiritual insights around which to meditate as you pray. For example, in the first phase (“Awareness”), you meditate around “a series of blessings constructed to make us conscious of the extraordinary blessing of being a living, breathing, self-aware human being.”

The journey takes effort and concentration, but the idea is that by the end of the service, you will come out more spiritually alive and more connected to Godliness, as well as to your own unique purpose in life.

The prayer guide is like a spiritual workout. Just as a personal trainer guides you to work out different parts of your body, Glick guides you to work out different parts of your soul and humanity.

It’s hard to imagine how this personal and introspective approach — which anyone can apply to any style of prayer service — would not be an improvement over passively reciting arcane prayers many of us don’t even understand.

The best part for me, though, is that Glick offers a meaningful response to a question modern Judaism must urgently answer: “What do I gain from Judaism?”

We needn’t be offended by that question. It’s just reality — in today’s world, Judaism will succeed only if it can offer something real and meaningful.

Redefining prayer in more personal and meaningful ways is a crucial ingredient if we want to attract the millions of Jews who prefer spending their Saturday mornings anywhere but at a house of prayer.

With seven weeks to go before the big crowds show up for their annual High Holy Days pilgrimage, spiritual leaders ought to be thinking about their own ways of making their prayer services even more meaningful. 

Simply put, people are more likely to come back to pray during the year if they feel the experience is something that will improve their lives, spiritually or otherwise. 

I look at it this way: If people come out of a gym feeling like a million bucks, why can’t they feel as good coming out of a prayer service?

Isn’t God more powerful than LA Fitness?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

A South African-born rabbi reflects on Nelson Mandela and the Jewish community


Members of South Africa’s Jewish community have joined the rest of the country in praying for Nelson Mandela following his admission to hospital for the third time this year.

As prayers were said for the anti-apartheid hero in churches across the country, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said: “The prayers and thoughts of the South African Jewish community are with former president Nelson Mandela and his family at this difficult time.

To me, as a South African, Mandela, or “Madiba” as he is affectionately known, is an icon and one of the great leaders and statesmen of our time. Here is a real leader, a man who is willing to sacrifice and place the country’s needs above his own. He is largely responsible for the great peaceful transformation that took place in South Africa after apartheid.

I remember the day Mandela was released from prison, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990. The event was broadcast on TV as Mandela walked to freedom with his wife, Winnie.

[Rob Eshman: Mandela/Moses]

The Friday before he was released, every student at school was sent home with a directory of phone numbers for all the families in the school and a telephone chain system was arranged. (This was before e-mail and phone-tree systems). The thought was that we were not sure if there would be chaos after he was released, or if it would be peaceful. If it became a dangerous situation, then school would be canceled and each family would call the next in the phone chain to make sure everyone knew not to come to school. (It's amazing how much the world has changed technologically, but that's for another day…) Miracle of miracles, there was a peaceful transition.

 In the years leading up to Mandela’s release there was great unrest in the country, and Jews were leaving by the thousands. During those years, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson told many leading rabbis from South Africa not to fear, as there would miracles and a peaceful transition.  We saw clearly the Rebbe's prophetic blessing fulfilled.

Jewish South Africans feel a great sense of connection and thanks to Mandela for everything he did to help transform and free our country of Apartheid. Whether you are a South African living abroad or in South Africa, Mandela is special to you.

The Jewish community has a very special connection to Mandela. In fact, when Mandela first came to Johannesburg as a young man, he got a job at a Jewish law firm, Itkin, Sidelsky, and Eidelman . Mandela was hired as an articled clerk. It was there that Mandela met his first white friend – a young Jewish boy by the name of Nat Bregman, who had a deep influence on Mandela and the way he viewed Jewish people. In addition, there were many prominent activists against Apartheid who were Jewish.

When Mandlea became President later on in life, he became close friends with the Chief Rabbi of South Africa Rabbi Cyril Harris. In fact, there is a fascinating story about the two men.

In 1998, about two months before Mandela got remarried, to Graca Machel  — the wedding was kept a secret — Mandela called Harris, with whom he has a close personal relationship, and asked the rabbi to hold the date of July 18 to attend a special meeting.

Rabbi Harris said: “I checked my calendar and realized it would be Shabbat.”The chief Rabbi called back Mandela and told him, “That while he had to respect him as president of our country, I owed higher respects to the good Lord,” Harris said. “He laughed and said he would try to make alternative arrangements for the previous day.”

One month later, at a meeting of religious leaders in Cape Town, the president took Harris aside and said, “Cyril, I am getting married on July 18 and would like you to give us a blessing.”

The president made special arrangements for Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and his wife Ann to be present the day before. On Friday, the day before the wedding, which took place on Mandela’s 80th birthday, the rabbi bestowed a blessing on the couple, wishing them “deep contentment.”

“He has real `derech eretz' — respect for every religion and for young and old alike,” the chief rabbi said in an interview, adding that Mandela “accommodated my Jewish observance instead of expecting me to fall in with his plans.”

This story underscores Mandela's approach to all people. He realized the best way to win people's hearts is to show them you truly respect them and their beliefs. That relationship with the Jewish community continued, and Mandela is considered a good friend of the Jewish community.

As a South African living in America, I feel a great deal of gratitude to Mandela and pray for his health and the future of South Africa. He is a source of inspiration for me as a Rabbi and leader in our community, to always strive for more and show every person respect and love.


Rabbi Avi Rabin is the leader of Chabad of West Hills.

Respect, inclusion and tolerance at the Western Wall


“There are no villains in this story.”  Those were the calming words of Natan Sharansky, renowned human rights champion and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The story was of in-fighting that has erupted among Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.  Sharansky, tasked with resolving the issue by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a group of Los Angeles Rabbis last week, knowing that the monthly Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh will arrive this Sunday – and many Jews will gather again for prayer at the Western Wall.  The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world. 

Some of those gathering will be part of “Women of the Wall,” a group of women and men meeting every Rosh Hodesh for almost 25 years. The women will be praying as a group in the women's section. Others will be women and men who believe that the way “Women of the Wall” pray violates Jewish law. Last month on Rosh Hodesh these differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.” From the place where we are right, violence erupts.

We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew.  We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together. This is a process that diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.

[RELATED: L.A. rabbis urge calm at the Kotel]

Here in Los Angeles many of us are reaching across our divisions to model a relationship of respect and dignity.  Despite our deep differences, we all equally love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We dare not demonize or dehumanize one another.

The Western Wall is a central symbol to all Jews.  But this Wall that has united people can also divide us.  Winston Churchill used to say that Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. The two groups vying for control of the Western Wall are two communities separated by a common scripture, the Torah. Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation.  Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.

Few know that better than Natan Sharansky, who languished in the gulag for eight years. He was chosen by Israel’s Prime Minister to come up with a solution, one that would defuse a dispute that spilled over to Jewish denominations in the United States, and strained relations between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel at a time that she is threatened existentially by Iran and the possibility looms of a front opening up with Syria. Sharansky reminded us that while each was – and still is – convinced of the justice of his or her position, there was another side to be heard.

Freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986, Sharansky explained that he was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife Avital from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. One of his first stops, of course, was the Western Wall. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as men and women are separated in prayer in Orthodox tradition.  He did not convey this with any resentment. (His wife, in fact, is Orthodox.) He told us of what he understood at that moment. The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what his plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.

We believe that this is a message that resonates not only among the Jews of our great city, but among all our neighbors as well. At a time when the Middle East faces increasing upheaval and bitter partisanship has become a norm even within many democratic countries, this is a theme worth amplifying and repeating. And with the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” and make it more peaceful yet. With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.

Signed,
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Morley Feinstein
Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Rabbi David Wolpe
Members of a Task Force on Jewish Unity comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist leaders

A prayer for Oklahoma


Lord our God, we stood before You just a week ago to receive the Ten Statements of Your Torah. We stood, as though with our ancestors, and listened to the Torah reader chant descriptions of the smoking mountain, the thunderous rumbling, and the long-awaited voice of God.

This afternoon, the people of central Oklahoma did not stand to hear the voice of God. We sat, we paced, and we huddled. We listened to the voice of the meteorologists and watched as dark clouds swirled together over a cone of destruction. The rain fell upward, not down, and the thunderous roar of the swirling winds carried, and we saw the awesome power of God. This was not Shavuot — the Feast of Weeks that marked our days of freedom. This was minutes that seemed like years and trapped us into watching the same images of destruction.

Merciful God, a great and powerful windstorm has passed, and it has torn apart the buildings and shattered the rocks before You. You told Elijah, the prophet, that You were not in the windstorm. Please, then, be in the still, small voices of the children crying out to be found. Be in the voices of the rescuers calling out for survivors. Be in the cries of those who are lost and of those who have lost.

May it be Your will that those who are missing be found alive and be cared for well, and may the people of central Oklahoma find strength in You and in one another as we rebuild what we can.

A prayer of hope after the Boston Marathon bombing


“Behold days are coming, says the Lord…and they shall rebuild.” From our Haftarah this Shabbat Amos 9:13

God of peace, God of healing
God of the grief-stricken,
We call You, we invoke You
We pray to You:
Oh my God, we called out to You
as a day of celebration
Turned to mourning.
Oh my God
The shock
The senselessness
Innocent lives cut short
Wounded victims
Heartbreaking cries of panic and grief.
But through the darkness came
The light
The hope
The heroes
The selfless caring of first responders
Arms extended in comfort and love,
Your messengers on earth.
God, send comfort to grieving families,
Send healing to the wounded,
Send wisdom and strength to doctors and nurses
Send calm to hearts filled with panic.
Bless us with peace, God,
Show us that we will rebuild
In the face of tragedy. 
Grant us the power and wisdom
To bring justice to those who harm us.
Teach us that we will triumph over terror.     
We will not let this tragedy twist our spirits
We choose hope over fear.
We are resilient, we are strong
We are one nation under God
We will come together, hand in hand
We will rebuild.
Amen.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva, and the author of Hope Will Find You and Talking to God. This prayer was distributed by the Rabbinical Assembly.

Fight for women’s equality at the Western Wall fails to move secular Israelis


Few American tourists to Israel forget their first visit to the Western Wall. They put notes in the cracks, whisper prayers and take photos against the backdrop of Judaism’s holiest site.

But Kobi Bachar of Tel Aviv can't remember the last time he visited.

“I was there maybe 10 years ago,” said Bachar, who is secular. “It doesn’t interest me.”

For years, American Jewish organizations have railed against the haredi Orthodox restrictions placed on religious expression at the Western Wall that prohibit egalitarian prayer and bar women from singing out loud and donning religious articles.

In response to the criticism, which has amplified in recent months in the wake of several highly publicized confrontations between Israeli police and female activists at the wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to review the wall’s policies and recommend changes.

But among the Israeli secular majority, such restrictions rank near the bottom of a long list of church-state issues they would like to address.

The prohibitions are “something we need to be done with, but there are other issues that affect larger sectors of society,” said Alon-Lee Green, an activist with the far-left Hadash political party. Green said he was more passionate about other issues of women’s rights in Israel, as well as with Israel’s prohibition of civil marriage.

Haredi rabbis dominate Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and thus control not only the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, but also civil matters such as marriage, divorce and burial. For most Israelis, religious rules governing these aspects of their lives are far more intrusive and onerous than limitations on prayer at a site they never visit.

“Many people feel there are so many battles to be fought, they just gave up on the Kotel,” said Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes a monthly women’s service at the wall. Sachs and other worshipers at the service are frequently detained by police for disobeying the Kotel's prohibitions.

For many Diaspora Jews, the Kotel is a symbol of the millennia-old Jewish connection to the promised land and an inspirational place of pilgrimage and prayer. Secular Israelis are more apt to see the site as a national monument for which Israeli blood was shed during the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel recaptured eastern Jerusalem from Jordanian control.

“It’s a religious bubble there,” said Ofer Pomerantz, a secular Tel Aviv resident. “The average Israeli is not religious. When I think of those places, I think of the blood spilled over them.”

Many secular Israelis also see the fight for egalitarianism at the wall as a distinctly foreign issue. The Reform and Conservative movements, whose members have championed the cause of women’s prayer at the wall, remain quite small in Israel. Most secular Israelis see Orthodoxy as the normative expression of Judaism.

“It’s a holy site,” said Shalhevet Adar, a secular artist who also lives in Tel Aviv. “People who go there know where they’re going. It’s a little annoying, but I’m not fighting.”

Adar described the Kotel as Israel’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a national landmark with historical significance but little spiritual appeal.

Tamar, a filmmaker who asked that her last name not be used, says when she goes to the Kotel, “I’m not looking for more than to be there and put a note in the wall.

“I don’t think about it,” she adds. “I’m busy with my life.”

Netanyahu asks Jewish Agency to look into women’s prayer at Western Wall


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked the Jewish Agency to come up with a solution for non-Orthodox women's groups that want to pray at the Western Wall.

Netanyahu asked the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, to examine the issue, the Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed Israeli government official.

The AP quoted Jewish Agency spokesman Benjamin Rutland as saying that Netanyahu told Sharansky that the Western Wall “must remain a source of Jewish unity rather than division.”

Earlier this month, four women were detained at the Western Wall by Israeli police for trying to enter the site with prayer shawls to pray with the Women of the Wall organization.

Women of the Wall has held a special prayer service at the holy site almost each month for the last 20 years on Rosh Chodesh, or the beginning of a new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section.

Women participating in the Rosh Chodesh service have been arrested nearly every month since June for wearing prayer shawls or for “disturbing public order.”

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.

A prayer of healing from the tragedy in Newtown


Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Amen.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva: The Jewish Spiritual Outreach Center. Her books include Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration.

Despite mounting criticism, Western Wall remains in haredi Orthodox hands


Sitting in his office 20 feet above the Western Wall Plaza, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is unperturbed by the simmering tensions below.

For years, Israeli and American Jewish groups have agitated for greater religious freedom at the Wall, which currently allows for only Orthodox worship. Occasionally the outrage boils over.

In October, Israeli police arrested Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes monthly women's services at the holy site, for wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl.

As the chief rabbi of the Kotel, as the Western Wall is known in Hebrew, and chair of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the government funded non-profit that governs the wall, Rabinowitz has sole authority to accommodate liberal Jewish practices.

But as a haredi Orthodox rabbi, Rabinowitz refuses to abide any deviation from traditional Jewish law, which prohibits women from singing aloud, reading the Torah and wearing a tallit at the Kotel. Violations are punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of about $125.

“The decisions are mine,” Rabinowitz said. “If everyone does their own custom, the house will explode.”

Rabinowitz is a political appointee, named to his post in 2000 by then-Minister of Religious Affairs Yossi Beilin. His authority stems from a 1981 law that gives the Kotel’s chief rabbi power to “give instructions and ensure the enforcement of restrictions.” The law also establishes that any prayer at the Kotel must be according to “local custom.”

Who determines local custom? Rabinowitz.

Rabinowitz further exercises authority through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Founded in 1988 to promote tourism and support the Kotel’s physical upkeep, the foundation is now a government subsidiary, given full authority over the Kotel's administration in 2004. Last year it received nearly $8.5 million in government funds, the bulk of its budget. The foundation's 15-member board includes no non-Orthodox representatives and steadfastly has resisted attempts to legalize non-Orthodox worship.

“The body which has been given the keys of the Kotel by the Israeli government is a non-democratic, non-elected body,” said Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s director. “It’s not a body that gives any kind of representation to world Jewry or Israeli Jewry. They have turned [the Kotel] into a haredi synagogue.”

Critics charge that Rabinowitz has carte blanche to do what he likes, but the rabbi insists he doesn't “change things.” He merely applies millennia-old Jewish laws.

“This is the order that’s been there for 45 years,” he said, referring to the period since 1967, when Israel conquered the Kotel from Jordanian control.

Prior to Israeli control, things were different. Photos from the British Mandate period show worshipers praying at the wall without a mechitzah, the religious divider that slices the plaza into separate sections for men and women. But Rabinowitz says the photos are meaningless, since the wall wasn't under Jewish sovereignty at the time.

“They couldn’t read Torah or blow the shofar,” he said. “They could hardly pray there. The British did terrible things. You want to go back to that? The British didn’t establish local custom.”

Rabinowitz calls the Kotel “the biggest synagogue in the world,” and it's almost certainly the busiest, with 8 million visitors annually. The courtyard of 22,000 square feet that abuts the Kotel hosts constant, simultaneous prayer groups, in addition to rows of people resting their foreheads on the ancient stones, yelling their prayers or placing notes in the Kotel’s cracks. In the women's section, which is about a third the size of the men’s, group prayer is much rarer because women are not allowed to sing out loud or read Torah.

“Praying at the Kotel is a disaster area,” said Rabbi Jay Karzen, who has been officiating at Kotel bar mitzvahs since 1985. “You’re going to have 20 to 30 simultaneous bar mitzvahs and everyone is doing their own thing.”

Despite its apparent chaos, though, the Kotel is a tight ship. “Organizational” ushers, working in teams of 10, patrol the plaza around the clock, stacking chairs, pushing mops across a shiny floor of Jerusalem stone and returning used prayer books to surprisingly orderly shelves. Although visitors come and go constantly, few books are stolen.

Enforcing the Kotel’s religious restrictions falls to “informational” ushers who sit on the men’s side near a box of yarmulkes for visitors who arrive without one. While religious laws on prayer and modest dress can be complex, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has boiled them down to seven rules posted on a placard near the entrance. Karzen says disciplinary action is rare.

“People come there to do their own thing,” Karzen said. “Mostly people cooperate.”

The biggest exception may be Women of the Wall, which has met at the back of the women’s section at the beginning of every new Jewish month since 1988. Over the years, the group has faced arrest by the police and occasional harassment. So far, though, no one has succeeded in changing the 1981 law, despite several attempts.

Israel’s Supreme Court repeatedly has rejected Women of the Wall’s petitions for a change in local custom, most recently in 2003. In that ruling, the court suggested that the group pray at Robinson’s Arch, an area adjacent to the Kotel that is open to non-Orthodox prayer. The group rejected the option.

Now the Israel Religious Action Center, an advocacy group affiliated with the American Union for Reform Judaism, plans to petition the Supreme Court to mandate a change in the makeup of the foundation's board. While Rabinowitz would still hold ultimate Jewish legal authority over the Kotel, it is hoped that the board can provide a check on his power.

“They’re the ones with the budget,” said Einat Hurwitz, who heads the center's legal department. “The Kotel gets money from this group. If it becomes more pluralist, it will affect the separation between men and women.”

It’s unclear whether the latest effort will gain traction. Nitzan Horowitz, a parliamentarian from the left-wing Meretz party and chair of the Knesset’s religion and state lobby, believes the courts are not the most effective forum for change on this issue.

“There are things the courts can do and the media can do and protests can do, but the deciding factor in the end is a political decision,” Horowitz said.

Or a religious one, made by Rabinowitz. Sitting high above the Kotel, protected by law from his ideological adversaries, he sees Women of the Wall as more of a nuisance than a threat.

“It’s a group of women that yell and want to make an event,” he said. “There’s order. You can’t just do what you want.”

Six women detained for wearing prayer shawls at Western Wall


Six women were detained by Jerusalem police for wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall as more than 100 women gathered there for the monthly Women of the Wall service.

The detainments Thursday, on the first day of the Hebrew month Kislev, follow the arrest at last month's service of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. Hoffman was not at Thursday’s service, as she was banned from the Wall for 30 days following her arrest on Oct. 17.

The detainments occurred before the service began as women were putting on their tallitot.

“We came to pray, especially today, for the peace of the state,” said Lesley Sachs, one of the detainees, referring to fighting in Israel’s South between Israel and Hamas.

Women of the Wall has held a special prayer service at the holy site nearly each month for the last 20 years on Rosh Chodesh, or the beginning of new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section. Western Wall regulations dictate that women cannot wear tallitot, or prayer shawls, as it contravenes the “local custom” as determined by the Western Wall’s chief rabbi.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallitot, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall

While many of the women at the service wore tallitot, most wore them in the fashion of a scarf, sidestepping the regulation.

Following Hoffman’s arrest last month, the Israel Religious Action Center, which advocates for religious pluralism, said it planned to submit a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court aiming to change how the Wall’s regulations are decided at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Wall. Hoffman told JTA last month that Women of the Wall hopes to be given one hour to pray every month.

A mix of younger and older women attended the service, along with a handful of male supporters.

“It’s important for me to support women and men who want to come one hour a month,” said Laura Wharton, another detainee.

Sandy stories: Destruction, recovery and human kindness


A week after Sandy swept into the New York area with fierce winds, driving rain and a high tide for the history books, the nation’s largest Jewish community was still picking up the pieces. JTA gathered stories from around the storm zone about Sandy’s destruction, the recovery and the remarkable tales of human kindness.

Houses of prayer as places of refuge

Some synagogues in the stricken area have seen more congregants this week than during the High Holidays. Many came for prayer, but others flocked to shuls for their offers of shelter, hot food, heat, recharging of electronics, wireless Internet and children's programming.

Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J., hosted a free pizza night, but the real draw for area residents was the offer to charge electronics. In White Plains, N.Y., in suburban Westchester County, Jewish community members used an email listserv to trade information about which gas stations were open and where the lines were shortest.

In Mahwah, N.J., near the New York State border, locals packed into the social hall at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom to use tables set up with power strips so they could go online.

“I’ve been using my synagogue social hall as an office,” Joe Berkofsky, managing director of communications for the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA. “I’ve been powering things up and have been able to get some work done.”

Russian-American Jews unite

Steve Asnes, an activist in the Russian Jewish community, was helping neighbors in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn on the night of the storm when a sudden surge brought water careening through the streets and up to his neck, according to Mordechai Tokarsky, director of the Russian American Jewish Experience. Asnes managed to hang onto a piece of scaffolding until he could reach safety.

At the nearby RAJE center, Michael Britan watched the center’s first floor turn into a swimming pool. The full extent of destruction became apparent only the next day. Cars lay on top of each other. The RAJE center was under 12 feet of water, its beit midrash study hall wrecked, and classrooms, offices, a boiler room and the elevator shaft all waterlogged.

Community activists who came to help clean up ended up spending much of the time at a high-rise apartment building across the street assisting elderly residents trapped in their homes without power or hot water, Tokarsky said. With the help of Esther Lamm, a RAJE alumna who heads the young leadership Russian division of UJA-Federation in New York, the volunteers quickly organized a command-and-control center that played a key role in relief efforts throughout the neighborhood.

Tokarsy said it would require plenty of work and help from private funders to get RAJE back up and running.

UJA-Federation providing $10 million

The lights were still out and the gas lines still miles long in parts of New York City when the UJA-Federation of New York announced Monday that it was making $10 million available immediately to synagogues, Jewish day schools and federation agencies providing direct care and support in storm-hit communities. The money will go toward cash assistance, temporary housing, food and “whatever else is needed,” federation CEO John Ruskay told JTA. The unanimous decision was made in an emergency board meeting on Sunday night.

The money will come from the federation’s endowment and reserves, and will be offset by any storm-related donations. “The point of having reserves and an endowment is to enable our agencies, our synagogues and our community to respond to people at times like these,” Ruskay said. It's the largest-ever commitment of UJA-Federation funds for a natural disaster, according to Alisa Doctoroff, chairwoman of UJA-Federation of New York.

Schools destroyed

Several schools, notably in beach areas, took a big hit from Sandy. Two of the three campuses of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach on Long Island reportedly suffered major damage, including at the boys high school, which was flooded. Though the elementary school is situated on the boardwalk of the New York suburb, the building reportedly escaped structural damage but was left with a mess.

The 120-student Yeshiva of Belle Harbor in hard-hit Far Rockaway, Queens, was flooded beyond repair, The New York Jewish Week reported. Water flooded past the ceilings of the first-floor classrooms, and by last Friday the school had decided to merge with the Crown Heights Yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin neighborhood, the paper reported. At the Mazel Academy in Brighton Beach, books, furniture, classrooms and Torah scrolls were destroyed in a building that was renovated just last year.

Away from the beach, at the SAR Academy in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the school managed to reopen despite no electricity by relocating classes to neighborhood synagogues.

Help wanted

They came from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and went to buildings without power or heat on the Lower East Side. They baked challahs and distributed them throughout the city. They sent a bus to take residents of Far Rockaway to Kemp Mill, Md., for a “relief Shabbos.” They started a clothing drive in Berlin.

All over the world, volunteers mobilized to help with storm relief. Some offered spiritual succor: A rabbi in Berkeley, Calif., composed a Sandy-inspired prayer beginning “Elohei ha'ruchot,” “God of the winds.”

Chasidic singer loses recording studio

When the surge hit the community of Sea Gate in Brooklyn, four or five feet of water ran through the streets from the ocean to the bay, leaving behind houses now condemned, a dramatically altered shoreline and destruction everywhere. In a YouTube video, Chasidic singer Mordechai Ben David offers a tour of his deluged recording studio, where the water that submerged his equipment rose to the bottoms of pictures of rebbes hanging on his walls before stopping.

“Everyone that lives in Sea Gate got hit badly,” Ben David said. “But Baruch Hashem, we’re fine, we’re alive.”

Donations

To donate to storm relief, please visit http://blogs.jta.org/telegraph/article/2012/11/06/3111241/donate-to-storm-victims.

Jewish Agency committee calls for new approach to Western Wall prayer


A Jewish Agency committee has adopted a resolution calling for a “satisfactory approach” to prayer at the Western Wall.

The resolution passed Tuesday during the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors meeting in Tel Aviv, reads in part: “Whereas Jewish women and men, of all streams of Judaism, desire the opportunity to pray at the Western Wall of Har Habayit (the Temple Mount) in a manner that fulfills their religious expression, and in an atmosphere of mutual respect and Ahavat Yisrael” and calls for “the Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, consulting with the Committee for the Unity of the Jewish People, and working with Jewish Agency-Israel Government Coordinating Committee and other appropriate bodies, including the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, to arrive at a satisfactory approach to the issue of prayer at the Western Wall of Har Habayit.”

The resolution comes in the wake of the arrest and alleged roughing-up by police earlier this month at the Western Wall of Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall and the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center. Hoffman was wearing a tallit and leading the Shema prayer at a Rosh Chodesh service for about 200 women.

The Reform movement has called for an Israeli police investigation into the incident in which Hoffman said she was put in shackles, dragged across a jail floor and put into a cell overnight without a blanket, being forced to use her tallit to cover herself.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that women cannot wear a tallit or tefillin or chant from a Torah at the Western Wall.

Jews asked to pray for end to Iranian nuclear threat


Jews are being urged to pray during Yom Kippur services for an end to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America are asking their congregations to dedicate time during their High Holy Days services despite the fact that “Yom Kippur is not a day for politics.”

“The threat is dire and demands our attention on our holiest day,” the two groups affiliated with the Orthodox movement noted in a statement sent to member congregations.

“Yom Kippur 5773 is different. On this Yom Kippur — the world faces an evil regime whose leaders have publicly committed themselves to destroying the State of Israel and to harming Jews worldwide; in addition, the Iranians are a threat to the global community.”

On this High Holy Day, “God determines which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace,” the statement reads, and therefore Jews should “contemplate with anxiety the fate of the State of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.”

A Shabbat prayer for the victims of the Sikh shooting


This prayer was written to recite for the victims and survivors of the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, wrote the prayer on behalf of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which distributed it to congregations around the world.

Let Us Stand Up Together (נעמדה יחד)
–From our Haftarah this Shabbat, the second Haftarah of comfort (Isaiah 50:8)

We stand together in grief
For the innocent victims
Of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Who perished in their house of prayer.
May their memories be a blessing,
May their lights shine brightly on us.

We stand together in mourning
For broken hearts,
The senseless loss, the shock, the emptiness.

We stand together in outrage,
Weary of this war-torn hate-filled world.
And together we pray:

Send comfort, God, to grieving families,
Hear their cries.
Fill them with the courage
To carry on in the face of this tragic loss.
Send healing to the wounded,
Lift them up, ease their pain,
Restore them to strength, to hope, to life.
Gather the sacred souls of the slaughtered
Into Your eternal shelter,
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Work through us, God,
Show us how to help.
Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning,
Open our arms so we can extend our hands,
Transform our helplessness into action,
Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Let us stand up together
Our young and our old,
All races and faiths,
All people and nations.
Rise up above hatred
And cruelty and indifference.
Let us live up to our goodness
Let us learn from this tragedy
Let us walk together
Filled with hope
On a path of peace, Amen.

– by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Prayer and justice work: the perfect complements


In contemporary Jewish discourse, the worlds of the synagogue and the worlds of service and advocacy sit far apart. The former is a place of introspection, of prayer and of relationship with God. The latter is a place of action and engagement in the world.

Many of us distinguish between “religious” Jews and “secular” Jews. Religious Jews attend synagogue, observe Shabbat and keep kosher. For secular Jews, their primary involvement comes through culture and justice.

But these boundaries between prayer and justice, and between the internal and the external, are foreign to Judaism. Halachah, most often translated as “Jewish law,” literally means “the way to walk.” To be a Jew is to walk through the world in a Jewish way. This Jewish way includes contemplation and action, prayer and service, relationships with the Divine and relationships with other human beings.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jews spend more hours in the synagogue than at any other time during the year. For this reason, these holidays can feel purely contemplative. Yet Rosh Hashanah is also “yom teruah,” “the day of sounding the shofar,” when we hear the sound that the Torah associates with liberation. And Yom Kippur morning is punctuated with Isaiah’s call to “loose the chains of injustice … to set the oppressed free.”

These intrusions of real-life politics into the contemplative business of prayer remind us that prayer and justice work were never meant to be separate realms of behavior. Rather, the two constitute complementary aspects of an integrated Jewish life. In this integrated life, prayer and ritual push us toward justice work and sustain us in these efforts.

We often think of prayer as a one-way conversation with God. We praise God for everything that is good in the world and beg for supernatural forces to change what is not. Instead, we might understand prayer as a two-way exchange that includes a challenge to us as well as an appeal to God.

For example, Jews each morning traditionally recite a series of blessings about everyday miracles. We give thanks for our vision, our freedom, our clothing and our other basic needs. For those who have what they need to survive, these blessings remind us to be grateful for what we have, even when every one of our desires might not be fulfilled. For those who are struggling to get by, these blessings offer hope that our situations will improve.

For all of us, these blessings challenge us to create a world in which every person is free, and in which every person can meet the basic needs of his or her family. We cannot simply thank God for opening the eyes of the blind without considering how we can make the world more accessible to people with physical limitations. And we cannot thank God for giving us freedom without working to secure the freedom of the estimated 12 million people in the world who remain enslaved. Rather than allow us to retreat internally, prayer forces us out into the world.

At the same time, prayer provides a necessary check on the tendency of social justice activists to try to fix the world right now, no matter the cost to them or to others. Prayer, Shabbat and other rituals provide spiritual nourishment, the feeling that our work is connected to a broader whole, and even a sense of humility.

Social justice work famously burns out many of the idealistic young people who sign up after college to be organizers or campaign workers. As for the longtime social justice activists, some begin to feel like the work is the only thing that matters. In many cases, this leads to long work hours and a never-ending sense of urgency. In the worst cases, some come to believe that the relentless pursuit of the cause justifies bad behavior toward others or the tolerance of abusive work environments.

Stopping to pray, to mark time or even to take off 25 hours for Shabbat is a means of acknowledging that even if we work every minute of every day, we’re not going to fix everything. This realization forces us to see ourselves as participants in a long-term struggle rather than as heroes able to repair the world on our own.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may be days to sit in prayer and contemplation. But this ritual does not constitute a break from justice work. Rather, these days should both nourish our justice work and challenge us to recommit to these efforts in the year ahead.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Community” (Jewish Lights, 2011).

Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year


Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time