Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.
I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.
Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.
I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.
But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?
The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.
Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.
I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.
Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.
Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.
That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.
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In our corner of the world, Temple Sinai of New Orleans and The St. Charles Ave. Presbyterian Church have been friends for many years now. The friendship between our communities is deep. Our congregations, led respectively by Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn and Reverend Donald Frampton, joined on an interfaith trip a few years ago to Israel. When the church had heating problems one Christmas, they celebrated their Christmas services in our sanctuary.
So when word came down about the Presbyterian General Assembly’s decision about divesting from Israel, the very first thing that Rev. Frampton did was to pick up the telephone and call Rabbi Cohn.
The New Orleans reverend wanted to assure his friend, the New Orleans rabbi, that their local church disagreed with divestment; that they supported Israel, and also their local Jewish neighbors. They wanted to continue the conversation and include their communities, so they immediately arranged for this joint congregational dinner.
The two congregations came together at Temple Sinai for a pot luck supper and discussion. Our lay leaders, staffs, clergy and congregants were all overjoyed at the turnout and the table talk during dinner. After dinner Rev. Frampton took the podium.
“As Senior Pastor of St. Charles Presbyterian Church,” Rev. Frampton said, “I wanted the opportunity to assure you, our valued and trusted friends of Temple Sinai, of our ongoing friendship and partnership in ministry regardless of what happened in Detroit!”
We were also joined by some members of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church, and their Elder, Sue Burge, presented our congregation with a beautiful olive tree to be planted on our grounds. Their community also had an olive tree planted in the State of Israel as a symbol of peace and hope for the future for all of God’s children.
Cantor Joel Colman spoke next, more closely detailing the map of Israel and the current warning times of 15 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how far a city is from Gaza missile launches. Joel’s son, Josh, is currently serving in the IDF… very near the 15 second warning area. “This is a terrible situation for everyone in Israel and most especially the children forced to deal with bombs on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.”
Rabbi Cohn shared his support for Israel and explained that like any country, including our beloved USA, there is history that is not pretty, and he does not agree with every single decision that Israel has made. However, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel is the only country in the Middle East, whose Christian population has doubled and redoubled in the last 10 years. Divesting from Israel, he explained, is most often a thinly veiled cover for anti-Semitism.
The rabbi and the reverend agreed on that point, and on the “big idea” of the evening: No matter what, these congregations will remain united faith communities in the Crescent City of New Orleans, forever friends.
Our missions are both to do good works here and abroad, to support our congregants spiritually, to cultivate community and to continue to make our world a better place! Here in New Orleans, even when times are tough, our bonds are strong.
Thank you to our Presbyterian friends and neighbors here at home for showing their support.
With the recent violence and escalation in the Middle East, my mind is on Israel. With every report of a rocket falling or a siren blaring, my heart skips a beat. It’s so close to home.
I spent last year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, while living in Jerusalem. I have close friends and family in Israel right now, and feel a deep sense of sadness and worry for what they are living through.
And my friends are not all Israeli.
While in Israel, I volunteered with organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights and Encounter. These experiences led me to make meaningful connections with young Palestinians living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. I want to tell you about one of my friends. I want to share her story, because I believe that it’s important to make room for voices to be heard.
Haya and I met about six months ago, when I participated in an Encounter trip to the West Bank. She was speaking on a panel, and talked about the politics of being a young woman living in Hebron. We chatted for a while after the panel, a little about politics but mostly about college and Miley Cyrus. Haya is currently studying English literature at the University of Hebron.
I visited Haya a few times after we met. She showed me around Hebron, and her University. I met her friends and she took me to her favorite shops in town. When I heard news that the IDF was looking for the men that abducted and killed three young yeshiva students in and around Hebron, I reached out to her. I heard several reports of house demolitions, road blocks, curfews, and so on, but I wasn’t really certain what was happening on the ground.
She lives in a suburb of Hebron, so I didn’t really think anything would be bad in her immediate proximity. Her family is middle-class, and they are all peace activists. Her parents came to the same discussion I met Haya at, and stayed for dinner after. Her father, a small and joyful man, asked me if I had any Palestinian friends in Jerusalem. I told him no. Immediately, brimming with excitement, he responded, “Now you have one!”
So as this latest escalation of tensions began, I texted Haya: “Are you okay?”
All she responded, after moments of typing back was, “Not really.”
I pushed her: “What’s going on?”
“There are settlers and soldiers everywhere. They closed all the entrances and exits.” She was confined to her house. Then after moments of silence, she added, “It’s going to be a tough night.”
She continued to tell me about how the soldiers searched her neighbor’s house, that they were searching all the houses in the neighborhood, that hers was probably next. That she was afraid. Then the tear gas came and she described the smell to me, and how even though she was inside the smell was so strong. She said, “I hate it.”
I tried to imagine smelling tear gas in my own home. I cringed. I couldn’t really imagine it.
Haya and I are a similar age, have the same taste in music, watch the same TV shows, have friends in common. Yet we are worlds apart. I listened as she told me about the soldiers that would forcefully enter her house and ransack it. I tried to imagine what that would feel like. As we work towards a better future, one filled with peace and lovingkindness, we must reach out to those unknown to us and listen to their stories attentively. We must share our own in return. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Could a greater miracle take place than or us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?”
This notion is a Jewish one, too. Pirkei Avot 6:5 teaches us “Torah is acquired by means of 48 qualities [including] attentive listening, articulate speech, intuitive understanding…deliberation… asking and answering, listening, and contributing to the discussion.” As we continue to pray for the safety of friends and family in Israel, it’s important to remain open to hearing personal narratives. These stories are what help make the events “real,” and allow us to see the real life people impacted by conflict on a daily basis.
Let us listen to these narratives, value these friendships, and pray for peace for everyone. Everyone.
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