Tired of Choosing Sides

by Leah Solomon

I am so tired of sides. I am so tired of one-sidedness. Of being expected to have empathy only for my own.

There is so much pain today. So much suffering.

More and more of our soliders dying. Teenagers just beginning their lives, who will never grow into the amazing people they would have become. Devoted fathers with children and wives waiting for them at home.

Hundreds of dead in Gaza. Thousands wounded. So many people who have lost their homes and everything they own. Parents who have had to bear the unthinkable task of burying their children. Terrified children who will suffer the rest of their lives without limbs, without parents, in pain. More »

Tuesday Night 17 b’Tammuz / Ramadan Break-the-Fast Event at Masjid Malcolm Shabazz

NYC-area Jewschoolers,

We hope you can join us tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 15) at 7:30pm for a special break-the-fast communal gathering in Harlem at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque (Malcolm X’s mosque, located near the corner of W 116th St and Lenox Ave.).  Especially in light of the tragic violence besetting the Middle East, we want to come together as a community in the spirit of peace and unity.

This event is part of the broader בוחרים בחיים – اختيار الحياة – Choose Life Ramadan-17 b’Tammuz fast to support a message of peace and coexistence.

Everyone is welcome to join in for prayer, food, and reflection. We hope you can join us for what we know will be a meaningful conversation.

If you can make it, please BYOS (bring your own siddur) and bring some nosh along to share.

Tzom Qal and let us pray for peace.

Bourbon Tasting as Jewish Community

It has been a very dark time for Jewish news over the past few weeks. War and war crimes, chants calling for our death, us calling for others’ deaths, and overall nastiness.  Often times, even on the storied pages of Jewschool, we simply ignore the rest of the Jewish world during the perennial security operations taking place in the name of the Jewish people.

Yet there are other things happening in the Jewish world and some of them are good.  In fact some are even fun.  While this post deviates from some of the hard hitting topics we often discuss in this forum, it is an important one for more than the obvious reasons. More »

1:52am: Hearing Sirens, Live and Phantom

by Leah Solomon

Sat. night, 1:52am:  Jerusalem

I was shaking a bit when the siren went off early this evening but I am shaking much more now.

When we heard the siren, we were all standing in our living room just a few feet outside the reinforced safe room. Siren went off, all five of us walked more or less calmly inside, closed the heavy metal shutters. Sat on the floor, heard a quiet, muffled boom. Waited ten minutes per instructions, came out and continued with our evening. The kids seemed a little agitated but mostly fine.

Bedtime was delayed a bit. All asleep by 9:00. Around 12:00, out of the quiet night, I hear my eight year old yelling, confusedly, from his top bunk: “we have to — we have to go to the…” I get out of bed and run to him. He is sitting up with a bloody nose. I reassure him that he doesn’t need to run anywhere, get him more tissues, go back to bed. More »

“But Korach’s Children Did Not Die” — On Collective Punishment and Spiritual Creativity

As increased attention is being paid to the problematic incarceration complex in the United States, especially in light of Michelle Alexander’s sobering book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, policy makers, social service providers, educators, and law enforcement officials are also considering the vertical effects of criminal stigmatization on the children of the incarcerated.  Last year, Sesame Street even saw fit to release a segment on its web site about children with incarcerated parents, which aroused ire from some observers appalled that this normalized criminality.  Though it is unclear that children of incarcerated parents engage in any higher levels of criminality than their peers, stigmas often cling to such children from the outside.  In that context, it is instructive to consider a brief, four-word aside in this week’s Torah portion.  In the context of a  census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage, the Torah matter-of-factly claims  (Numbers 26:11),  ”And the children of Korach did not die.  וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.  Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it?  More »

Pinchas and “Connected Criticism”

by Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

This week we read Parshat Pinchas, which opens with God’s approval of Pinchas’s vigilante killing of Zimri, an Israelite prince, who is sleeping with Cosbi, a Midianite princess (Numbers, 21:1-15). Liberal Jews are used to being alienated from Pinchas or condemning him, but this week, some of us uncomfortably find ourselves in Pinchas’s position.

The people of Israel have sinned. The blood of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, the innocent Palestinian teenager brutally killed by Israeli Jews, is on our hands, and we know it. Our centrist and right-wing friends are sending letters to the parents and posting outraged Facebook statuses. As the Torah says, Zimri was sinning, “while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.”

And we lefties find ourselves with the unwelcome, and frankly despicable task of reminding everyone that, if you have been paying attention, you know the occupation regularly takes Palestinian lives. That the latest futile escalation with Hamas will not bring safety to the besieged South, but it has killed eighty Palestinians, including children, and it will kill more (though to be sure, much of that blood is on Hamas’s hands). That Prime Minister Netanyahu has cynically resurrected house demolition—an immoral, failed deterrence policy discarded by the Israeli military, and that his cabinet will use recent calamities to build more settlements. More »

A Still, Small Voice for Suicide Prevention: Elijah’s Journey

by Gabe Kretzmer Seed

Gabe Kretzmer Seed is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and graduate fellow at Elijah’s Journey.

I’ve had the honor of serving as the inaugural graduate fellow for Elijah’s Journey, a wonderful organization which helps to serve as a voice regarding suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.  This Shabbat we will read the haftarah (prophetic portion) from which the organization gets its name.  Though read rarely, due to quirks in the Jewish calendar related to 17th of Tammuz fast day, it is considered the “regular” addition to Parashat Pinchas.

There, in I Kings 18:46-19:20, Elijah has just performed a miracle and proved God’s power over the prophets of Baal. Yet he is pursued by the evil, idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and dejected, asks God to take his life. God instructs Elijah to eat and drink and take a 40 day journey in order to re-assess the situation. Elijah eventually hears God’s voice in a still, small voice, and decides to continue his calling and mission. Elijah’s desire to stop living, lonely period of reconsideration, and reception of a line of hope from a barely audible source, can strike a strong chord with those who have considered ending their lives.  In the United States alone, over one million contemplate suicide each year and over 40,000 do take their own lives. We can all walk in God’s ways and serve as a listening ear and source of encouragement for those around of us who may feel down, dejected or unsupported. More »

Honoring God, Who Gives Life to All Flesh

by Rabbi Ari Hart

Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of the Jewish-Muslim Volunteer Alliance and of Uri L’Tzedek.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God is called “Elohei haruchot l’chol basar,” the one who gives spirit to all flesh (Numbers 27:16).

In that spirit of a God who gives life to all beings, I ask that those who, like me, support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’s civilian targeted missiles, stop and read the names below of the children who have died in Gaza since the fighting began. Know that the same God that breathed spirit into you breathed spirit into them.

Seraj Ayad Abed al-A’al, 8
Mohammed Ayman Ashour, 15
Hussein Yousef Kawareh, 13
Bassim Salim Kawareh, 10
Mousa Habib, 16
Ahmad Na’el Mehdi, 16
Dunia Mehdi Hamad, 16
Amir Areef, 13
Mohammed Malkiyeh, 1½ years old
Ibrahim Masri, 14
Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra, 4
Nidal Khalaf al-Nawasra, unreported age
Ranim Jawde Abdel Ghafour, a young girl

Though I hold Hamas responsible for this war and for the tremendous suffering they have inflicted on innocent Israelis and Palestinians, I also acknowledge that no matter how precise Israel’s strikes are, innocents will be killed as a result. Including children. Children who have the same goofy smiles, the same dreams, and the same fears as our children. Israel’s right to self defense is not free. It comes with a profound human cost that we, as a people who strive for moral grandeur, must face.

Some Thoughts on Chosenness: Toward a Non-Exclusivist, but Non-Colonizing, Particularism

Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook asking for thoughts on the concept of being a/the Chosen People.   Some respondents affirmed chosenness as a call to duty, others commented on the problematic exclusive nature of Chosenness, the superiority in it, others asserted that many peoples are chosen and one simply posted the alternative, emended language of the blessing over Torah, “Praised are You…Who chose us WITH all the nations” (“אשר בחר בנו עם כל העמים”), instead of the traditional “Who chose us FROM all the nations (“אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים”).  The whole chain is on Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s Facebook wall.  My comments might interest Jewschoolers, so in the spirit of The Jeffersons, I’m spinning them off here.

“ברוך…אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו.”
Praised are You…Who chose us from all the nations by giving us Your Torah.  (The traditional blessing over Torah study and for receiving an aliyah at public Torah reading)

[Background premise: I do not believe that, on the whole, most people do the most good through universal humanism. For the most part, people live in stories and those stories shape their ability to do specific good. John Lennon's song "Imagine" is a dystopic nightmare to my ears.] More »

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul

Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you  “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.comHaggadot.comShma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.

Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started. 

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.

Jewschool:  What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?

Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.

Jewschool:  How do you decide what to talk about?

Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.

Jewschool:  What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?

Tamar Fox:  I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.

Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul? 

Tamar Fox: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum website.  Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.

Jewschool: Finally, what are you  excited about for  the future of the podcast? 
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.

 

(P.S.  If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)

Throw Back Thursday: Doing Better Edition

Tonight at the JCC in Manhattan, the Jewish Multiracial Network will co sponsor a panel called Mixed Multitudes: Race and Ethnicity in the Jewish Community in which panelists Erika Davis, Yitz “Y-Love” Jordan, Eric Greene, Tamara Fish, and Deborah Vishnevsky will discuss their  experiences being a Jew of Color in light of communal issues, such as  continuity and identity.

Here’s our 2012 interview with Erika Davis, about racism, real diversity, and the hard work of making change. 

 

Q: Tell us what we can find at Black, Gay and Jewish.

ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian  dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it  boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.)  More »

Skirts in Context

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.

One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.

I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team.  More »

Goodbye, Reunions; Hello, Laboratories: On Social Media and Communities in the Flesh

Hey, Jewschoolers.  Check out my piece in Sh’ma Journal considering the consequences for community building and relationship nurturing of social media and virtual life.  I’ll tease it here, and you can click on the link to read the rest on Sh’ma.

————–

People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. While we are more globally connected, we are feeling ever more alienated and desperate for rootedness, connection, and community. For those of us in the expanding Zeitgeist of virtual communities, a number of questions require consideration:

  • How do people retain both their deep connections and the casual ones that enable the migration of ideas?
  • How do virtual communities affect our humanity and relationships?
  • Is commitment to physical place important?
  • What do we gain and what do we lose through so much mobility?
For the rest of this article, click here and check out Sh’ma.

We’ve Been Waiting for You: A Retrospective with Maharats

Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.

Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position.  More »

Community Leaders Push to Become 1st Moishe House in Toronto

A group of young, Jewish, Toronto-based leaders who are active in building dynamic Jewish programming for young adults expected to get support from Moishe House for the work they do, but were surprised instead when they were turned down to be Toronto’s first Moishe House.

The Toronto folks are looking to inspire more  people to speak out and convince Moishe House to help them organize for the Toronto community, which was home to nearly 200,000 Jews as of 2011.

Here’s their letter:

The Toronto Folks on Howland

More »

The Scouts as Stubborn, Old Guard Leaders: The Torah’s Warning Tale

This week’s parashah (Shelach-Lekha; Bemidbar 13-15) focuses on the second of the Israelites’ two most devastating moments of collective failure in the desert — the mass rebellion and breakdown after the scouts overstepped their jurisdiction for reconnaissance by insisting that the land was unconquerable.  Before everything goes haywire, the Torah introduces the scouts by name and tribe, and describing them, saying that “they were all people, leaders of the children of Israel”– “כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה”.  Why this extraneous clause, “they were all people/kulam anashim“?  The Torah could have just said that “they were all leaders of the children of Israel/כלם ראשי בני ישראל”.   The Zohar records a fascinating midrash teasing out what might be hinted at in this emphasized clause:

“‘They were all people’:  All of them were worthy and were leaders of Israel, but they took bad council for themselves.  Why did they take this council?  They reasoned, ‘If Israel will be brought up to the land, we will be removed from leadership and Moshe will appoint other leaders, for we are worthy in the desert to be leaders, but in the land, we will not be worthy’.  Because they took this bad council for themselves, they died, along with everyone who took their word.  (Zohar III (Bemidbar, Shlach-Lekha, 156b) More »

Careless Communication and Social Dysfunction: Understanding Yitro’s Departure

The book of Bemidbar chronicles the difficulties of freedom, the always-looming hangover of redemption’s intoxicating inauguration.  Miriam and Aharon grumble about Moshe’s wife and power; the people rebel, demanding meat; Moshe starts to crack under the burdens of leadership, begging for help; the scouts stir up the masses to insist that entering the land is impossible; remorseful zealots, regretful at God’s decree that they won’t possess the land, try to conquer it without God’s sanction, and get routed; a brazen stick-gatherer publicly flaunts Shabbat violation; Korach, Datan, and Aviram join forces to stage an uprising against Moshe and Aharon; Moshe loses his grip, reacting aggressively to the people’s panicked cries for water; the masses succumb to temptation to a pagan orgy at Ba‘al Pe‘or.

This theme of breakdown of the social order stands in stark contrast to the beginning chapters of the book, which can read as almost mind-numbingly banal, if such a thing can be said, in their perfectly structured, utopian ordering of the camp and its leadership structure.  So, how did we get from point A to point B, from perfect structure to chaos?  Literarily, the turning point is the Israelites’ departure from their resting place near Sinai to march toward Canaan, so it is worthwhile paying close attention to what transpired in that transition.  Crucially, the Israelites’ departure is framed by the personal parting of ways of Moshe’s father-in-law, Hovav (aka Yitro), from the Israelites, suggesting that it was his absence or the process of his departure that led to communal breakdown.  What’s more, the depiction of this parting of ways is itself marked by halting, unclear communication and lack of closure, as if to suggest that it was communication failure itself that made the parting of ways, and the consequential breakdown, fait accompli. More »

All Religion is Local

This is a guest post by Sarah Imhoff, Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

In a whirlwind day of traveling this week, I’ve been in the United States, Turkey, and Israel. On the train in New Jersey, I noticed one house where American flags sprouted on the porch like rows of overgrown plants fighting for the sun. In Turkey, I got stuck walking on the sidewalk behind this vendor:

Turkish flag vendor

And because of the snail’s pace line for passport control at Ben Gurion airport, I stared at up an enormous wall painting of an Israeli flag for two hours. While there is plenty to say about the comparative politics of patriotism, I thought about social interactions of church and state. As a scholar of religion, I seem to see it everywhere.

These three nations—the US, Turkey, and Israel—have three very different articulations of the relationship between “church” and state. The United States has constitutional commitment to freedom of religious expression, and simultaneously refusal of federal establishment of religion. Turkey has a different sort of separation: its laicite, a style of secularism most frequently associated with France, excludes religious practice and discourse from the space of government. And Israel is a Jewish state. And each of these arrangements turns out to be far more complicated and contested than a single sentence about it can suggest.

As this month’s SCOTUS ruling on Town of Greece v. Galloway. reminded us, there is a long tradition of legislative prayer practice in the United States. Were the people of the town of Greece, NY allowed to start their meetings with a prayer, as long as they didn’t intentionally exclude any religions? The court ruled 5-4 that the town wasn’t violating the constitution with its prayer, but the justices on both sides of the issue offered locally based reasoning in their decisions. The most affecting moment of Elana Kagan’s dissent was her hypothetical story about a Muslim woman coming to the town council to ask for a building permit. Wouldn’t she feel coerced into municipally-sanctioned Christianity when the chaplain opened the meeting and said “Let us pray”? In his opinion holding for Greece, Clarence Thomas explained that he thinks the establishment clause pertains only to the federal government, and so wouldn’t necessarily or automatically apply to states, or a town such as Greece. Both justices, despite their vastly different takes, appealed to local context to explain their legal reasoning about religion.

In Turkey, unlike the United States or the town of Greece, religious expression in government spaces is disallowed. For instance, police, judges, and members of the armed forces aren’t allowed to wear headscarves, even though the country is nearly 99% Muslim. Laicite means individual religious practice and signs are excluded from government representation. Last October in Turkey, four women Members of Parliament began to wear headscarves in Parliament for the first time in nearly 15 years—and even in 1999, Merve Kavakci, the MP who wore the headscarf, was booed out of the chamber. The political changes that allowed the headscarves last year turned heads of those committed to the story of a secular Turkey. Supporters of Turkey’s laicite would have balked at seeing the Town of Greece ruling. They would have seen it as entirely too permissive of the mixing of religious practice and government. But in the central spot of Istanbul tourism, I stood between two historic and iconic religious buildings Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sofia, where I listened to the Friday afternoon call to prayer as it alternated between two loudspeakers.

In Israel, I heard very little. This, too, was a religiously inflected noise: it was Shabbat. Though I was in Tel Aviv, a city not known for its religious piety, most of the neighborhood shops were quiet. Here you might notice that it was a state with many Jews, but you might not know it is a Jewish state. Prayers intermingle with speeches in the Knesset, most recently and powerfully exemplified in MK Ruth Calderon’s first Knesset speech last year—and she is a member of a very progressive political party. The Knesset has 120 members because Jewish tradition holds that the “men of the great assembly” numbered 120. The Knesset routinely legislates about matters of religious practice, contains men and women who dress and behave according to religious norms, and hears religiously based arguments.

National church-state arrangements and the sorts of religion expressed and allowed in legislative bodies clearly structure religious lives in the nation. But the two nations with ostensibly secular governments–the US and Turkey–have much higher percentages of religious believers than Israel, a country with an official religion. So knowing what these political arrangements of religion are at the national level isn’t nearly enough for us to predict what expressions of religion look like in the streets. Today, I wonder, if all politics is local, maybe all religion is too.