[Alumni] You Still Have Chanukah

I remember the first Chanukah I ever celebrated. It was 2003 and I had been thinking about converting for a little over a year. I was already in the process of meeting with a Rabbi and was beginning to participate in Jewish holidays. I was also living at the time with my non-Jewish boyfriend.

November came around and I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. He was going to want to celebrate Christmas, I needed to move towards the Chanukah direction. This was going to be a problem. In the end, Chanukah won. I lit a menorah and for the most part completely ignored that Christmas existed. Maybe, I thought, if I just ignore it, it will go away.

I moved out of the condo a couple months later. But it didn’t solve my Christmas problem. As I went forward in my journey towards becoming a Jew, the topic kept coming up. Since that hanukah, I had begun to tell friends and family about my decision to convert. This was a big step for me. I was solidifying my decision to become part of the Jewish People, to spiritually and in many ways physically, transform myself. My entire life was about to change.

Continue reading


The Country where Christmas Wasn’t

From my blog:

On Tuesday night, I went to Bethlehem.

Christmas in America

Christmas in America

Growing up in America, all I saw of Christmas were signs reading “Buy One get One FREE” and “Sale: 70% mark down! 5-7am only!!” All I saw was consumerism and a huge traffic jam outside of the church. But this year I’m in the Middle East! I thought. I’ll be able to see the real thing! I spend most of my time among religious Jews—but now I have a chance to see some pious Christians! The actual amount of piety I witnessed left something to be desired, but it turned out there was more to the evening that just the celebration of Christmas.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I decided to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Last Thursday, an adventurous friend (whom I greatly admire) casually threw out the suggestion: “Want to go to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve? It’ll be so much fun!” Trying to ignite Continue reading


From my blog:

Jessica BavermanCan’t believe it, but December is almost over! We just survived a big snow storm here in Jerusalem last week. You might have heard about it – Jerusalem shut down for a week, and we were stuck inside for a while. It did give Emet and I lots of time to work on the wedding planning, but I have to admit that we got cabin fever.

View out my window during the snow storm!

View out my window during the snow storm!

Our power went out Friday morning which Continue reading

Sh’mot, Pardes, and I

(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

Last year on Parshat Sh’mot, I gave the following speech at Young People’s Synagogue where I announced my intention to apply to Pardes for the coming year. As it turns out, once I got to Pardes, I spent most of the first semester in Chumash studying Parshat Sh’mot, then, as it happens, yesterday, the last school day before Shabbat Sh’mot, I gave a Take 5 during community lunch about my heroes at YPS who helped make my dream of spending a year at Pardes a reality (much more on that in the coming weekly blog post.)

(Note: Parshat Sh’mot fell exactly on December 25 last year, which will explain a lot.)

Merry Shabbos. Today we celebrate the birth of a man who was uniquely blessed. From his miraculous childhood and through till his premature death by the gripes of the Jewish people, he was a man who had a special relationship with God unlike that of anyone before or since, who diligently taught the Word of God to the Jews even though they did not want to listen, the suffering servant of God who pleaded with his Father in Heaven to have mercy on their behalf even while hurting more than anyone for their continued intransigence. That man of course was Moshe Rabbenu, whose early years we commemorate in today’s parasha, Sh’mot.

It is interesting to note how Moses never became Jesus. He may be our rebbe and our redeemer, but we don’t make images of him, and while we call his teaching the Torah of Moses, it is universally understood that we do not mean that literally. Judaism was never “Mosaism” and nobody ever prayed to him or even in his merit (though we do for the Forefathers). It has always been about God, and Moses and his Rabbinical heirs would want it no other way.

So his legacy to us is primarily that of teacher—Moshe Rabbenu. But what is it about him that makes him eternally Judaism’s rabbi par excellence, that qualified him be chosen by God as Israel’s greatest redeemer and teacher?

Sh’mot provides the answer. This is what we know about Moshe’s conscious life pre- Rabbenu: He looked out from Pharaoh’s palace at his brothers’ burdens and saw an Egyptian dealing cruelly with a Hebrew. Upon looking around and seeing there was no one else who will take responsibility, he does—by slaying the Egyptian then hiding the body in the sand. The next day he saw two Hebrews in conflict and rebuked the one in the wrong who in turn rebuked him, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Will you kill me now like you killed the Egyptian?” To which Moses responded, “No respect, I can’t get no respect I tell you,” and ran for his life to Midian.

Once in Midian he sat by a well—the JDate of the era—and stood up for the seven daughters of the priest of Midian and helped them water their flocks after the Midianite shepherds tried to drive them away. As a reward for his action, their father, here named Reuel, gave him his daughter Zipporah as a wife, thus beginning the tradition of meeting and marrying non-Jewish girls on JDate that continues to this day. Moses spends some years tending flocks for his father-in-law until one day he approached Mt. Horeb with his flocks and his interest is piqued by a bush that is burning but not being consumed. He goes to check it out, and when he does, reluctantly becomes Moshe Rabbenu.

This isn’t much information, but it is all we need. In these 15 verses, Moses shows his absolute burning passion for justice, regardless. He doesn’t discriminate. Not only does he stick his neck out for Jews being oppressed by non-Jews, he also fights for justice between Jews, and for justice between gentiles when it has nothing even to do with the Jews. And this last example is especially remarkable since you would think he should have known better by now—playing Batman in Egypt got him exiled from his idyllic life in Pharaoh’s court to live as a nobody in Midian, yet still—even when there are no Jews involved—he takes responsibility for his fellow man and sticks his neck out for what is right, consequences be damned. It took the entire book of Genesis for man to realize he is his brother’s keeper, and so it fits that the man who embodies this concept more than anyone else is the first great man of the post-Genesis world. The principle lesson of Genesis has been realized and has sunk in.

The incidents that bookend Moses’ early actions give us further insight into what made him this way. I learned from a podcast called “A Role Model for Social Action: Moshe’s Leadership,” by Mishael Zion from Mechon HaDar in NYC that Moses’ first act of justice was not really slaying the Egyptian, but looking out from the palace at his people. He was rich and royal. He could have ignored the Hebrew slaves, thought himself to be better than them, convinced himself that it was by his own merit that he was not a slave, or he could have even just ignored their suffering because it was too uncomfortable to think about, but he didn’t. He “went unto his brethren,” he identified with the persecuted, realized that as a free and fortunate person it was his sacred responsibility to help the oppressed, and so went out to see the situation with his own eyes. Upon witnessing the horrors of oppression and seeing that no one else was going to stand up for what’s right, he took justice into his own hands and killed the oppressor. But while this act proved Moses had great intentions and a good heart, we’ve already learned from Reuben that good intentions aren’t always enough in the end. In a drash by R. Shimon Felix, he points out that this hot-headed act did nothing to directly help the Israelite cause and in fact probably did more harm to it than good. He says Moses shows a growing level of maturity in each successive incident, then finally, with the burning bush incident, his maturity at last catches up with his passion. With the burning bush, R. Felix writes, “Moses is challenged to be interested in something that doesn’t matter. Something that has no right or wrong, no apparent moral weight, no good guys and bad guys. Something that is simply interesting, worth looking into, worth investigating…. It is only when Moses ‘turns aside’–perhaps not only from the road he was on with his father-in-law’s sheep, but also from the passionate, violent, symbolic battles he had been waging, and is able to step out of that persona for a moment and see and experience other things, that he is ready to be called by God.” In other words, in order to fight for justice, we must be able to see the forest for the trees. Moses was passionate about justice but was no narrow-minded extremist; his bleeding heart was now balanced by an open and curious mind. He was burning without being consumed.

So this then is why Moses was chosen—he was humble and open yet still fiercely passionate. He would stop at nothing to take responsibility and fight for the freedom and dignity of humanity yet was still open to taking advice and letting someone more qualified do the job as long as the job got done in the best possible way, as seen when he suggests to God that his more articulate brother Aaron be sent to Pharaoh in his stead. The best leaders don’t want to be leaders. My joke earlier notwithstanding, as seen countless times through out the Torah, Moses doesn’t care about getting respect, he cares about justice.

Moshe Rabbenu’s sense of responsibility and indiscriminate passion for justice for all people, Jews and non, must be our guiding principles in living a life centered around the Law he merited to teach us. In his podcast, Mishael Zion quotes extensively from the book Darkhei Moshe by R. Moshe Halfon HaCohen, leader of the Jewish community of 19th Century Djerba, Tunisia, where he, based on Moses’ example, rebukes those who do not take action. He writes that from Moshe’s actions here, “must every person of wise heart and holy spirit learn to take a stand and save his brothers and sisters from the hands of those who exploit them….Moreover, when one of our fellow Jews is exploiting someone else, one cannot turn a blind eye. An action must be taken to help and rescue the oppressed. Even when the oppressed person is not of our faith, it is proper that in such a situation one stand in support of those being persecuted. Because any oppressor is repulsive to God, as we see in Deut. 25:16. And from this we must learn that even when a person is in serenity and security, in peace and in comfort in his home, wealth and honor surround him, and his requests are heard by the local government, even then one must not think, ‘Here, I have peace in my home. What do I care about my brothers, or my sisters, or indeed the entire world?’ A person must also not think to himself perhaps by attending to someone else’s issues, I will suffer some physical harm or monetary loss, or my status will fall in the eyes of the local government, perhaps even quoting the Rabbinical rule that your lost object and your peers’ lost object, your lost object takes precedence. Only someone who is of unclean spirit would say such things; firstly because if he does not act and save the poor and impoverished, tomorrow, or the day after, the persecution will arrive at his door, and then it will indeed be his own affliction, and moreover, in issues that regard to rule of the land, it is an obligation and a commandment for every person to protest, thus fulfilling the verse, ‘You shall purge the evil from your midst.’ And whoever turns away from such situations is a despicable, lost wretch.”

So says R. Moshe Halfon HaCohen. I’m sure he was an outstanding man, but I wish there were some way I could quote those lines without feeling like the world’s biggest hypocrite. But just because I don’t embody them as of yet doesn’t make them untrue. The biggest difference between Moshe Rabbenu and I is that he didn’t have papers to write. In other words, the biggest difference between us is that he wasn’t lazy and didn’t make excuses. But nonetheless, I try. Since coming to college I have done much volunteer work for many causes both explicitly Jewish and not, and, I am proud to tell you, undoubtedly as part of the legacy of having studied the Law of Moses for millennia, Jews are over-represented even in those.

Personally I never used to be much of a go-getter, and I still meet with much inner inertia anytime I try to be. It is no coincidence my religious awakening has corresponded with my social one. As many of you know, after graduation this April, I want to enroll in the Year Program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem—a traditional, co-ed, non-denominational school open to all Jews regardless of background—the YPS of yeshivas; fittingly, if I get in and can afford it, it will be due in large part to the support of our president Dr. Toker and our former president Marian Salamon, who have so graciously and enthusiastically helped me with the admissions and financing processes. The idea of a religious Jewish school without a program for social justice is incomprehensible to me, and one of the biggest things that makes Pardes so attractive to me is that built in to the curriculum is one day a week for going out and volunteering with a variety of causes in Israel.

We see this obsession with justice and personal responsibility everywhere in the Jewish tradition that sprang from the Torah of Moses, from the Prophets to the Rabbis to our day. But why is this so important to God? Shouldn’t He have chosen as his chief prophet someone whose main virtue is doing His Will exactly as told and not letting all this compassion stand in the way since it could be a liability to properly obeying the Commandments as instructed? I think the answer to this lays in something I found myself pondering earlier this week when I read an excerpt about why people suffer from a Haredi book. The answer, well, the most predominant one of many the author gave anyway, was that when we truly realize everything in life is an undeserved gift from God, we realize the question isn’t valid. We shouldn’t say for example, why did my loved one die young, God-forbid, but rather, what did I do to deserve any loved ones at all? Nothing. What could ever I do to deserve her? Nothing. So I must just be grateful for the time we got to spend together and realize God has a Plan, and ultimately all is a gift for my benefit. When I read this, I got to thinking that if this answer is true, why do justice? While the networks for social support within Haredi communities are tremendous, and while I certainly agree that I have done nothing to deserve my absurdly fortunate lot in life and never could, the fact remains that if no one deserves loving parents to begin with, why help an orphan? If no one deserves food, why feed a hungry person? After all, no one is entitled to luxuries. So I decided instead, since justice is a cornerstone of Torah and Judaism, that the answer must be rather the opposite. As semi-divine beings, humans have an inalienable divine right tosecurity, food, clothing, shelter, love, health, freedom, and all the rest simply because they are God’s children made in His Image, meaning that if anybody doesn’t have any of these things, it is our divine duty to provide them since it is a gross injustice that anybody should be without something they have a Divine right to. Heschel once said “The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince.” He is a prince because he is a son of the King. If we Jews seriously believe this to be true then we should expand it to say that the biggest sin a man can commit is to forget that all men are equally princes (and princesses), children of the same King. Moses understood this better than anyone and that is why he will eternally be our teacher, Moshe Rabbenu. Merry Shabbos.

Week 17: Chanuka

(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

Menorah at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue


This was actually my second Chanuka in Israel, I was here on Birthright in December 2008. So the menorahs on the streetlights, the Chabad menorahs in every public square, the impossibly delicious-looking sufganiyot* everywhere, and the total lack of anything Christmas-related was not new or shocking to me. Chanuka is not Christmas in Israel—while there are decorations and menorahs out, and while the buses say (in Hebrew) “Happy Chanuka!” on them, its just not a huge deal here, like the High Holidays are.

But the lack of holiday spirit (measured in terms of shopping fatalities) left many of us Americans homesick. While the Pardes Chanuka party, with its latkes (a rarity in Israel), sufganiyot*, amazing classes , and Adam Sandler’s “The Chanuka Song” (short digression: I never realized just what a reflection of North American Jewish culture that song is until I heard it played at Pardes—the European students didn’t  understand what was funny about broadcasting a list of Jews and the whole concept makes no sense in a country where everyone’s Jewish)  the second night made it feel like Chanuka, but something of that special, secular, commercial spirit of the time we’ve all grown to love was still missing. Israelis just aren’t a jolly people.
Thankfully, Cafe Neshikot (Kisses), the unofficial annual Pardes Christmas cabaret at the Off The Wall Comedy Empire in the Center of Town came to answer our prayers Sunday night. (Reason #102 to come to Pardes: It is the only yeshiva in the world to have a Christmas cabaret, unofficial or otherwise.[Probably. I admit I’ve never been to the Mir.]) Students on stage strutted their talents performing talents in-between hilariously written and performed emcee segments while students in the audience drank house drinks and homemade eggnog and cheered them on. It was so much fun I never wanted it to end.
But I’m glad it did, because afterward, some friends and I went to my new favorite restaurant, Mike’s Place, Heaven on Earth for the homesick American. How so? Picture the atmosphere of Primanti Bros.: Walls lined with TVs tuned to American sports, with every square-inch of remaining wall space dedicated to sports and beer memorabilia. Now make the menu kosher, half the guys in the place wearing kippot, and as soon as you walk in, a Chabad rabbi is lighting a menorah at the bar while all 100 people in the restaurant belt out “Maoz Tzur.”  I couldn’t picture it either, which is why the whole time there, I felt like I was hallucinating, it was too surreal, it just didn’t make sense—the menu is in English, everyone speaks English, the waitress is wearing a Santa hat, NBA basketball is on every TV, I’m drinking a Sam Adams draft, my seat is directly facing a 6-Time Super Bowl Champions Terrible Towel (which, in my daze of ecstasy, I kissed. Twice.) so this must be America, yet I’m eating beef nachos in a restaurant, lots of guys are wearing kippot, and my friends and I are making jokes only yeshiva students would get, so this must actually somehow be Israel. It was the best Christmas ever.
The next day, on our Social Justice tiyyul to Shilo, there was no doubting we were still in Israel. Shilo, like Hevron, is a site of almost inestimable Jewish importance in the West Bank, except here, in the village, it is peaceful. According to the Bible, Shilo is where the Mishkan, or portable Tabernacle built in the Wilderness of Sinai, rested from the time the Israelites conquered the Land under Joshua for 369 years until the First Temple in Jerusalem was built by King Solomon. Neither Temple lasted as long as 369 years, yet people forget about Shilo and it is not a holy site the way Jerusalem is. Our guide, Shilo resident and former director of Pardes, Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, described Shilo as being geographically similar to West Virginia or Kentucky, and he was right. Holy or not, Shilo is gorgeous: Quiet, peaceful, serene, free of the chaos, craziness, and all-around ugliness of the Hevron war zone, in an alternate political universe, I could even see myself living there. Rabbi Berkowitz showed us the Mishkan museum where a scaled miniature replica of the portable Tabernacle is built, then showed us the archeological site of Tel Shilo that suggests this is indeed the real Shilo.                                                     IMG_0201.jpg

The highlight of the trip was seeing the site on which most believe the Mishkan rested for those 369 years—a natural, flat, rectangular plain, maybe about a football field long by twenty or thirty yards wide right on the middle of the steep hillside seemingly tailor-made to the specifications of the Mishkan. But unlike the place where the Temples used to be, this was just a field practically in the middle of nowhere. There was no Wall, no marker, no shrine, no shul, not even a fence—to go on the Temple Mount, I would first need to dunk in a mikva  and then spend some time really preparing myself mentally, but this—the first site of the official altar to YHWH—was just a field. I could have taken a nap, had a picnic, or played Ultimate Frisbee on it if I wanted to. It was actually quite refreshing; the world can’t handle another Jerusalem. After briefly going up to the lookout point at the top of the Tel, Rabbi Berkowitz warmly invited us into his house for hot tea and coffee, fresh dates, conversation, and questions. It was as lively and unsettling as you would expect.
From Shilo, we went to another settlement near Beit El to meet my new hero, Nahum Pachenik, founder and director of Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace). Nahum, a Breslov Hasid and son of a Holocaust survivor, as one of the first Jewish children born in the West Bank after the Six-Day War, has lived over the “Green Line” his entire life. He said that he was thuggish and bigoted as a youth, supported harassment of Arabs and frequently wore a T-shirt that said “No Arabs No War.”  His life was changed when he met Rabbi Menachem Froman who told him the shirt would be equally true if it read “No Jews No War.” After learning with R. Froman more, he came to realize there are two peoples with legitimate claims to this Land, and neither one is going anywhere, so the only thing to do is learn how to live together in peace. From this epiphany, Eretz Shalom was born. Eretz Shalom is an organization run entirely by Jewish settlers trying to build peace between Jews and Palestinians from the ground-up through organizing events like play-dates between Jewish and Palestinian kids, planting olive trees together, going to pray in a mosque together, and other seemingly little, everyday things that can go a long, long way towards shifting relationships towards the other side, from seeing them as a homogeneous, evil “other” to seeing them as your neighbors and maybe even as fellow humans.

Of all the settlers we’ve met, I think Nahum is the only one who really means it when he says he doesn’t have any plans for what a final peace will or should entail. How can you even begin speaking of peace when both sides so hate each other? He believes we have to learn to live together, to respect each other first, then peace, realpeace, will develop organically from there, probably taking a form we can’t even imagine now. Eventually. Nahum says that since he used to be an extremist and now he’s not, he sees no reason why others wouldn’t lose their extremist views too once they actually come to know the other. It is simultaneously the most idealistic and the most reasonable solution I have yet heard. He is scorned by both the far-right and the far-left, so he must be doing something right.
The rest of the week was considerably less exciting more productive but still fun: I spent most of it working on my grad school application and Torah trope by day then hanging-out with friends by night. All-in-all, an illuminating (rim shot) second Chanukah in Israel.
Quote of the Week: “I want to be a rabbi because I want to get paid to be a Jew.”
Hebrew Word of the Week: סופגניות (“sufganiyot”) – stuffed donuts