Author Archives: Amy Small

Amy Small

About Amy Small

Rabbi Amy Joy Small is the founding Rabbi and Director of Deborah's Palm Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences. She was ordained from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1987 and has served congregations in New Jersey, Michigan and Indiana. She is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, with many years of board service. She is a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders and a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. She is currently on the Board of Governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Jewish Federation of Metrowest NJ, National Interreligious Leadership Delegation for Peace in the Middle East, and the MetroWest NJ Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life. She was a Vice Chair for the National JNFA Rabbinic Cabinet, and served on the boards of Religions for Peace USA, the American Zionist Movement, and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Israel Committee. Among her interfaith activities, she co-taught an intensive course, Building Abrahamic Partnerships at the Hartford Seminary. Rabbi Small previously was Dean of Academic Administration and Director of the Education Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Morally Reprehensible Behavior

For some of us in New Jersey and New York the last couple of weeks post-Sandy have been very difficult. Tensions have been high among those who have endured considerable disruption in their lives. Some people have suffered terrible losses.

Every time I heard complaining about the stresses of living without power or heat, without fuel for our cars or mass transit, I thought of the many people who were living in dark apartment buildings without elevators or heat. I thought of the poor and infirmed, and I thought of those who had no family or friends to help them.

I was reminded of the tremendous challenges of income inequality and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in our country. Will this storm’s aftermath teach us to create a more equitable society? Will we remember the outpouring of compassion in the days post-storm and work to help those who are struggling in the months ahead? Will the hard hearts of the self-protected be softened?

Many people in my area are talking about installing permanent generators onto their homes. The “new normal” for the middle class who can afford it will now include storm preparedness. But what about those who can’t afford it?

These thoughts consumed me as we struggled to return to normalcy in my area this week. But that is not what I heard as the lead story on the news this morning. The airwaves were filled with the scandalous story of our CIA director’s affair.  With every possible angle of analysis being discussed on the radio, I became more and more agitated as I listened. The personal tragedy of the Petraeus family is sad. But it is just that – a personal tragedy.

When one commentator emphatically exclaimed that Petraeus’ indiscretion was “morally reprehensible!” I winced. It is not that the general’s extramarital affair wasn’t a sin. Of course it was immoral. But for goodness sake, if we are going to invest such intense emotional energy in decrying “morally reprehensible” behavior, why not direct it at the greed and insensitivity to human needs that is so rampant in our culture? Continue reading

Posted on November 12, 2012

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The War Against Women

While driving to work the other day I heard a woman interviewed on the radio asked about the “Rape” comments of some particular politicians running for office. The reporter asked if those comments would influence her vote.  “No,” she replied, rather dispassionately, “he is entitled to his opinion about that, even if we disagree.” In other words, she would still support candidates associated with those views, as well as those who articulate them.

I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, channeling my anger into the tightness in my hands.  This is RAPE we are talking about — not taxes, not health care or energy policy – all issues about which I have strong feelings, but not nearly as potentially personal. Yes, I know that these issues and several more are serious reflections of our values and therefore personal on many levels. But rape – the heinous act of violence against a woman – is a step above these issues in its import.

Rape is an act of violence. There is no qualifying it. It is a forceful act, a violent imposition of power over a woman. It is as wounding, or more, than a physical act of harm that leaves external wounds. The internal wounds, the spiritual, emotional, psychological wounds left by rape can be longer lasting and more difficult to heal than many other wounds. For the women I have counseled as a rabbi, along with their loved ones, I am anguished by their pain.

Politicians who have used terms like, “legitimate rape” or who have legitimized the violent and forceful act of rape by labeling resulting pregnancies as “God’s will,” are just plain disdainful of women.  They may think they are nice people and they may say they are compassionate, but make no mistake about it – the men who have made these crude statements are neither compassionate nor nice.  They are soldiers in a war against women.

Partisan politics ugliness has reached a new crescendo with this war on women. It has become acceptable for politicians to speak in crude and demeaning ways about women’s bodies or our ability to make choices for ourselves. How can a bunch of politicians — who appear to know nothing about women — make choices for us? Yes, some of their supporters are female politicians. I have just one thing to say to them: Shame on you!

Personal decisions about birth control and pregnancy are spiritually and emotionally serious and challenging.  Rabbis, ministers and therapists are equipped to guide women who are facing difficult choices. But politicians are not, and I think they know that. This is not about helping women. It is about power.

To those who support these insensitive brutes, who say, “It’s just a difference of opinion,” I say: Shame on you. Women waited too long and fought too hard to win our right to equality and respect. We owe each other vigilance to make sure we don’t turn the clock back.

Oh, if only “men and women could be gentle, and women and men could be strong,” in the words of Judy Chicago. Then “everywhere will be called Eden once again.”

Posted on October 29, 2012

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It’s Ours!

The kids are loving it!

My childhood memories of the festival of Simchat Torah center around a paper flag topped with a candy-apple and candy canes.  I loved the joyous dancing and the candy was a real treat.  Yet, I can’t remember anything of the ritual of the ending and beginning of the reading from the scroll and any prayers we recited long ago receded into the background.

After years of trying to hold onto all of ritual the elements – the evening prayers, the rituals of the ending and beginning, and the dancing and singing, I felt we needed a different focus. In keeping with other ritual innovations in my community in the last two years, I reimagined the experience. We started and ended with food – always appreciated! And with a room full of kids of all ages and adults, I led a brief guided meditation of evening prayers, sealed with a blessing, and closed in song.  Then we got the music going and danced joyously. Moving all the chairs away for a full space, we took off. And as the energy flagged, we slowly switched into a different ritual mode – we unrolled an entire Torah scroll around the room, as silence fell and everyone cooperated in carefully and respectfully handling the scroll. The sense of awe was palpable.

I called two teens for the blessings, the honored roles of bridegrooms of Torah and new beginnings, followed by the briefest of readings from the ending and beginning of the scroll, and everyone was rapt in attention.  Then the real fun began – “Stump the Rabbi” – a learning game envisioned by Jay, our spiritual life committee chair.  I had suggested that we ask everyone to think of their favorite story or teaching in the Torah so we could find together them in the unrolled scroll. But Jay’s idea was that the community would ask me to find their favorite sections of the text within a 60 second time limit. They came ready and couldn’t wait for me to find their chosen quotes and stories. We lost track of time and I had to apologize that it was time to end when worried parents began to realize that it was time to get the kids home on that school-night. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in stopping. They were having too much fun.

I got stumped once – by a seventh grader who wanted me to read the story of Moses hitting the rock. I didn’t locate it fast enough – and he was delighted. But for all the stories that I did find and read, the joy of learning was just as strong. Everyone left with anticipation of next year’s Simchat Torah, and came back on Shabbat morning talking about the fun.

We didn’t have candy-apples or candy canes. But the pizza, apples and cookies were just fine. And the experience was a new generation’s joy – engaging, meaningful and memorable. How wonderful that it left us all waiting for more!

Posted on October 14, 2012

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Here’s to Being “Happy”

A documentary film called “Happy” came out last year, following a considerable amount of research and writing on the newly popular field of Happiness studies. It explores what it is that makes people happy. In a little over an hour, it tells an inspiring story of the path to happiness.

I watched it a recently in preparation for the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days. The film shows people who not only appear to be very content, but joyously proclaim how happy they are. This is contrasted against pictures of many of Japanese workers who are literally working themselves to death.  Those who are happy are typically of modest means, and some are poor – that is – economically. But they are rich in a very important way – they are happy with who they are.

The keys to happiness documented by the film include:

  • Being content and grateful for what we have,
  • Having plentiful time with friends and family – indeed, lives that center around close and nourishing relationships,
  • Close connections within community – and a shared communal life,
  • Regular experiences of helping others.

All this contributes significantly to happiness.

In our often overworked, overstressed, sometimes fragmented lives, these lessons are important. The question is – how to get there?

The day after I watched the documentary, I went to the post office to mail a homemade Rosh Hashanah cake to my son who is in California. I was a little stressed because I didn’t have time to get packing supplies in advance. I asked the clerk behind the counter for help, and he grabbed everything I needed and offered to pack and seal the box for me. As he did, he started to tell me about how happy it made him to be helping people, and he was really glad to do this for me. And he went on to tell me how he holds three jobs and struggles to make ends meet, but he really does have enough, and he is grateful for it. All he really needs, he went on to say, are his wonderful family, especially the joy he gets from his kids. I just stood there nodding, nearly gaping at him for his perfect recitation of the themes of the “Happy” film.  I asked him if he’d seen the film “Happy” and he said he hadn’t, but was so grateful for the suggestion. “Tonight,” he said, “is family TV night. I can’t wait to watch it with my kids.”

During the season of Jewish holy days, I am thinking about happiness as a Jewish value, experienced as wholeness and contentment.  How does Judaism help us to achieve this sometimes-elusive goal?  One significant way is through the weekly celebration of Shabbat. Another is through the rhythm of time marked by the festivals of the Jewish calendar, offering us an opportunity at the start of each season to feel and express gratitude, and to be fulfilled through community celebration.  All of these days offer us a separation from the stresses and pulls of ordinary days, and a chance to truly “be” in our own quiet space and in the pleasure of company with family, friends and community.   How much more joy can be experienced when we stop to experience this wholeness that comes from the cessation from striving!

This week we are celebrating the festival of Sukkot.  It is a time to share meals in the Sukkah, the fragile hut reminiscent of the wilderness tents our ancestors inhabited.  Sukkot customarily is a time for invited guests to share meals in the Sukkah.  As I enjoyed my first two meals with community and family in the Sukkah at our synagogue and at my home, I was filled with contentment.  This is what happiness is about – gratitude and sharing, relationships and memories.

No wonder the Sukkah is a symbol of peace.  With a little more time together for Shabbat, and our years punctuated by joyous seasonal festivals like Sukkot, we can palpably feel that we are all part of one family.  On this Sukkot, that is my hope and prayer.   May the source of Peace spread over us all a Sukkah of peace.

Posted on October 1, 2012

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Happy New Year!

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On this Rosh Hashanah, we pray for renewal of spirit.

May this New Year refresh our commitment to the values we hold most dear:

May we turn and return to our souls,

May we perceive the Divine light within ourselves,

May we be steadfast in remaining conscious that all people are created in God’s image,

May our days be grounded by prayer and meditation, and nourished by an inner life of gratitude,

May Shabbat rest bring us joy each week, infusing the rhythm of our time with meaning,

May kindness, mercy, justice and love guide our interactions,

May we enjoy and nurture friendship and family and caring community,

May our prayer-life and Shabbat rest provide guidance in our daily choices,

May we find focus and satisfaction and success in our chosen endeavors,

May we vigilant to fulfill our commitments and be faithful to sustaining our sacred community with dedication,

May we be infused with the spirit of generosity toward all those in need,

May our appreciation for the sacredness life fill our days with gratitude, humility, compassion and love.

May this New Year renew our lives for good,

And may it bring us joy and sweetness.

Leshanah Tovah, Happy New Year!

 

Posted on September 17, 2012

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I’m Watching Tennis Instead

It’s the week between the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention and I’ve checked out. That’s not usually my way. Politics have always drawn my attention and been important to me. I cherish the opportunity to participate in our democracy and I don’t take it for granted. I find it distressing to hear people who say that they haven’t voted, or don’t vote, either out of apathy or simply because they don’t like the candidates. Someone has to lead and legislate – and if we don’t voice our choice, we lose the chance to make any difference at all. In any election, outcomes could be far worse if we don’t exercise our right to vote.

Politics are, after all, about what kind of democracy we will shape together. It is about being part of nation comprised of citizens who care about the collective state of our communities and our nation. It is about how we shape our world. It is ultimately an expression of our values. At its best, politics is about how we strive to reach consensus or compromise about critical issues that impact our lives.

Which is why I am so saddened by the state of American politics today. Many of the values I hold dear are pretty hard to find. The current uncompromising culture of American politics is counter to all the potential offered to us by our founders. It’s a theatre of battles that are win-lose – there is no win-win; there are few compromises. Even when there are compromises, they are often achieved after nasty and bruising battles, resulting in compromises that are so mangled as to be nearly worthless. Name-calling has devolved into nasty demonization. I can’t bare to listen to it most of the time.

It hurts – so much is at stake that will impact all of our lives and our world. It’s painful to hear the speeches; I hardly read the political news in the morning paper. The TV and radio attack ads just suck the air out of the room. The distortions and rampant dishonesty are sickening. This is what our country talks about, when the world is facing so many serious problems? This is how we conduct ourselves when so many people are suffering and need help?

So I checked out. I have been salving my broken heart with immersion in an honest competition – the US Open Tennis Tournament. I don’t play the sport – but I love watching these two weeks of games. This year I am especially addicted to it – it’s so much more satisfying than the show being presented by the politicians. Couldn’t everyone have the sportsmanship of Kim Clijsters, who ended her celebrated career with a mixed doubles loss — offering smiles and hugs?

I know — there is a big difference between tennis and politics. But at least tennis has manners. In Jewish tradition we call that derekh eretz. If only our political discourse and its decision-making could have some derekh eretz. It’s recognition that we are all equal at our core — we are all created in the image of the Divine.

That should be the guiding principle of our politics –not ego or self-enrichment. With the guidance of derekh eretz our political discourse would be about how we govern our society with regard for all people; men and women, all races, poor and rich. How can we best offer opportunity while caring for the needs of all Americans?

Our country desperately needs campaigns that are about the character of our country. They should be guided by the values of compassion, justice and mercy, and please – humility. It is up to us to demand it.

Posted on September 2, 2012

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Coaches and Rabbis — A Post Olympic Reflection

I love watching the Olympics. This summer, I even watched reruns for a week after the games were over as my entertainment while I exercised. Watching the athletes’ amazing prowess motivated me to go faster and longer and stronger.

What is it that so fascinates us about the Olympic games? Why are we so gripped with emotion over who wins and who misses their moment?

Like other sports, the Olympics give us a vicarious surge of emotion for the effort, the competition, the feeling of winning. We imagine the athletes as extensions of ourselves. What a sense of accomplishment when our team or our favorite athlete wins!

But it does not stop there. Some of us try to get there. Even knowing that almost all of us will never reach professional heights, many still try. I am talking about team sports for kids.  When I was a kid, team sports were about the game. We took the competition in stride, while learning sportsmanship – in playing, in winning and in losing. While a spirit of competition drove us, it didn’t define us.

I think things have changed dramatically since my childhood in the 60’s and early 70’s.  Today the attachment to sports among many of our kids is much more serious and intensely competitive, and often not about “play.”  It is about winning.  It is about performance.  That’s not bad if it is a part of a child’s identity formation. It can surely boost a child’s self esteem.

While in a previous era most kids developed their identity through their religious community and extended family, today sports can take center stage. Perhaps that’s an indictment on religious communities and our ability to be a compelling force in the lives of emerging young people. But it is also a comment on the values of our culture and its priorities.

Today, the coach often plays the clergy role as an authority and guide. The power of coaches in dictating schedules and priorities for families is stunning. My generation reveled in the insistence of baseball player Sandy Koufax that he not play on Yom Kippur when he would have pitched for the first game of the 1965 World Series. He was our hero.

Times have changed. In today’s culture, sports routinely take precedence over religious school, Shabbat and holidays. Many kids and parents worry about being left out of games or even the team if they miss practices or games. Today’s heroes win on the field, and rarely by declining to participate.

But coaches and games, no matter how good, can’t help us with core questions of life the way our religious traditions can – as a foundation for our whole lives.

We need to get back to a better balance – where religious schools, which have mostly become quite nimble at adapting to the sports-conflict phenomenon, provide experiences so compelling that it would be harder to miss it. But more — coaches also need to understand that other activities are equally important to a child’s development.  Coaches and parents need to teach their kids perspectivethe game is just a game. Life – that’s a different matter.  Four thousand years of Jewish tradition offer an inheritance that teaches us to live a life that matters.  That takes practice and coaching too.

Posted on August 19, 2012

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“Wow! I Didn’t Know I Live in Such a Progressive Country!”

Having traveled frequently to Israel for the last decade, I have many amusing stories of security interviews before boarding flights to or from Israel.  I know all of the questions by heart: “What was the purpose of your visit?” “Where did you learn Hebrew? “Do you belong to a congregation?” I recall being flustered during one interview before a New York El Al check-in, when I was really preoccupied wondering whether I had finished all my urgent work, packed everything I needed and if my suitcase was overweight. Following my reply that I do attend synagogue regularly, the agent asked me to tell him the name of this week’s Torah portion, and I was momentarily tongue-tied. Oh, how embarrassing when his next question was, “What kind of work do you do?”  “Um, I’m a rabbi.”

At Ben Gurion Airport I have come to anticipate the exchange that invariably causes a reaction – when they ask me about my profession. Several years ago, coming home from a summer trip in intense August heat, I was wearing shorts. Not only was the agent surprised to hear that I am a rabbi, but she was suspicious. How could a rabbi wear shorts?  (I admit that after that I no longer wear shorts on these flights.)  For most Israelis, the word “rabbi” evokes an image of a bearded man in a black coat and hat, whose wife wears a long skirt, long sleeves and covered hair.  The appearance of a woman in shorts claiming to be a rabbi defied credulity in that moment.

Without fail, the reaction is, “Really? Women can be rabbis? I never heard of this!”  One time a female agent teared-up with emotion to learn that women can be rabbis. I wanted to hug her.

Such is the case in Israel – where the official Rabbinate has a monopoly on Jewish religious authority, ruling that only male Orthodox rabbis can be hired and paid by the state as community rabbis. That is, until this spring when Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi won a nearly decade-long fight to be paid as the rabbi of her community. The court decision was in some ways inconclusive – the official Rabbinate won’t be endorsing or paying Rabbi Gold. Rather, her salary will come from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the ruling applies only to rabbis who are employed by regional councils. Rabbi Gold shared joy and relief at this victory, but added, “I can’t say that I feel unmitigated joy.  Israel is still not the bastion of religious freedom nor the stalwart promoter of religious pluralism.  We still have many hurdles ahead, but I believe that we’ll all have renewed energy and determination to push forward…”

This summer I had the privilege to meet and spend time with Rabbi Gold at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I add her to my growing list of friends in Israel — female colleagues who are rabbis of communities. They are courageous, tenacious and crucial leaders for the future of Jewish communities in Israel.  I stand in awe of the work they do in spite of the hardships they face: lack of funding and negative perceptions about Jewish religious life among non-Orthodox Israelis. They are breaking down the barriers and building vibrant, exciting communities for a new Israeli Jewish future. Check out the website of Rabbi Tamar Kolberg of Ra’anana, for example.

So this time when I was at Ben Gurion Airport on my way home, the interviewer reacted as expected when I told what I do. He said, “We don’t have women rabbis here.” I smiled and told him about Rabbi Gold’s victory.  He was clearly affected, exclaiming, “Wow! I didn’t know I live in such a progressive country!”

Welcome to a new Israeli Jewish reality!

Posted on August 7, 2012

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Imagine

Rosh Chodesh Av 5772 – the first day of the new month of Av on July 20, 2012, and here I was, once again at the monthly worship of N’shot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem. The group meets every Rosh Hodesh (new month) to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, uplifting a beautiful chorus of women in this holy place. But more than that, their voices — out loud — are a form of social justice protest.

N’shot HaKotel have been meeting for a women’s prayer minyan every Rosh Hodesh for 24 years, to assert that this holy place belongs to all of the Jewish people, especially to women, who are otherwise forced to pray alone quietly in the women’s section.

In my previous experiences with N’shot HaKotel I have been struck by the intense police presence around the group. We’ve been told that we must wear our tallitot (prayer shawls) as “scarves” –not like a tallit, and we have enduring constant “shushing” from the police who try to keep the women quiet. There is a ubiquitous female police officer who videotapes every woman and every move of the group. Fortunately the surrounding police have almost entirely stopped the violence against the group that characterized the early years (from Haredi men and women.)N’shot HaKotel has also been a testing ground for legal actions to challenge the authority of the ruling rabbinical body over the public space of the Kotel, with increasing success in the rulings of the Israeli court.

Yet, on this particular Rosh Hodesh the mood was different. When our cab entered the gates of the Old City we encountered battalion after battalion of soldiers and police officers swarming near the Old City Police station and heading toward the Temple Mount on which the Muslim holy sites are found. Our cab driver told us why – it was not only our Rosh Hodesh, it was also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. There was concern about possible violence on the Temple Mount, at the Al Aksa Mosque or Dome of the Rock. Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, brings crowds of Muslim men to the holy sites, and this was an especially charged Friday. Thankfully, it was a quiet day and nothing happened. But the experience was noteworthy. Continue reading

Posted on July 24, 2012

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My First “Freedom Ride”

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A couple of years ago I learned about a new front in the internal Israeli struggle over religious freedom: gender segregated buses.  I was incensed. What century is this?

I have always felt that Israel has great potential to be a “light unto the nations,” inspired by our prophets of old. While the real Israel has many problems in realizing this vision, Israel’s story is still filled with many amazing accomplishments. I remain hopeful that Jewish values will ultimately prevail and the promise realized.Egged Bus

It had never occurred to me that the value of equality, which is so central to my Jewish life, could be rejected by an increasingly powerful and publicly present Ultra Orthodox Jewish minority in Israel. This just doesn’t feel right – this can’t be good for the Jews.

At the time I heard about this segregation I knew nothing about it. But I felt that I wanted to ride a segregated bus and sit in the forbidden (to women) front section. I stood outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem with my husband eyeing dozens of passing busses, trying to discern which were segregated – I couldn’t find one. Ok, I was being naïve, but in Jerusalem, where secular people are feeling increasingly squeezed out and sometimes harassed by the growing Ultra Orthodox population, emotions can run hot.

I later learned that the recently developing gender segregation problem is so extensive in some Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods that it spread to service at some bank branches, shops, and medical clinics, and even some streets. There is more – you can read about it on the website of the Israel Religious Action Center — IRAC, which is one of several groups studying this phenomenon and acting to reverse it. IRAC has collected many stories and letters from Ultra Orthodox women who do not feel safe to speak out in their own communities, but have turned to this legal arm of the Israel Reform Movement for help. Their testimonials are gripping.

I was happy to learn that the IRAC is now actively organizing “Freedom Rides,” named after the desegregation activism in the US in the 1960’s. I jumped at the chance to be a participant this summer. I learned why I didn’t see a segregated bus at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem – they have operated only between Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. But I also learned that, thanks to the legal actions of IRAC, a court order made bus segregation illegal. Compulsory bus signs explain that riders should only feel compelled to move if an elderly or disabled person or pregnant woman would need their seat.

The “Freedom Rides” are the next phase of the strategy, providing support and empowerment to the women who need it. As a result of these rides, IRAC has been able to take bus drivers to court when they do not enforce the open seating rule. With bus drivers facing steep fines, real change is now happening. Dozens of segregated bus lines used to travel in Jerusalem neighborhoods. Now only two remain (though other cities in Israel still have some segregated lines.)

Our group of visiting American rabbis and educators, accompanied by Israeli volunteers from IRAC, boarded the number 56 bus in Ramat Shlomo. I sat down in the front section in a grouping of 3 empty seats. We started at the first stop of the line during rush hour, and the drama took quite a while to build. A male colleague sat behind me and said, “I have your back.” While there hasn’t been violence on the IRAC “Freedom Rides,” I was still a bit worried as we started.

It was fine – thankfully nasty looks can’t kill. I got plenty of those! We desegregated that bus, all right. And by the end of the crowded ride, two Ultra Orthodox women had joined me in the adjacent two seats. We all had a memorable day.

In the week that has followed I have been reflecting on this experience and discussing it with colleagues studying with me at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. How do we forge a mutually respectful culture within Israel? It’s complicated. I hope to write more in about this in my next post.  In the meantime, greetings of Shalom from Jerusalem!

Posted on July 9, 2012

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