Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What do Bergholz, Ohio, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, and Anderson Cooper have in common?

So, on Sunday morning after Yom Kippur (which I really do hope was meaningful for everyone), I sat with my coffee and caught up with the news. First I looked at my new issue of Jerusalem Report (still my favorite magazine of all!) and read about what is going on in Ramat Beit Shemesh, specifically with the new Orthodox girls school that is located in proximity to a group of self identified ultra-Orthodox Jews who also have taken it upon themselves as self identified judges to watch and guard the level of religious observance and specifically modesty of all that walk within their view. There are wars going on in this community and this has been going on for some time with the “Burka ladies” who have decided to don this Moslem-identified garb claiming that no one is dressing modestly enough, even in the Orthodox circles. Now, parents are worried about the safety of their children and there has to be ongoing guards around and in proximity to the school property to protect the children and their families from potential abuse and harm. These parents are members of families that lived in the larger Beit Shemesh neighborhoods long before the influx of the new self identified ultra-religious element began to appear here. Now, these initial residents of Beit Shemesh are feeling that they cannot live the life they came to live in this wonderful community they helped to build up. This is Orthodox Jews against Orthodox Jews. Let us all sit for a moment, breathe, and digest the enormity of the problem here.

I have written often about the ongoing “gallop to the right” and the increasing extremism and radicalization of all of our religious and observing communities. We see it in the Moslem world; we see it in the Christian world; and from where I sit, live and pray, I see it most in the Jewish world. How sad! Didn’t we all just spend 25 hours admitting our flaws to G-d, undressing our souls and crying out for forgiveness….. for, among other misdeeds and wrongdoing, for embarrassing others, for haughtiness, for not seeing the pain of others, etc.? Did this mean nothing?

So, shaking my head and crying inside, I opened the Sunday newspaper, only to be confronted by a headline from Eastern Ohio concerning a conclave of 18 families who left the Amish fold within the general community and moved to Bergholz, a neighborhood in Jefferson County, Ohio. Members of this conclave have been breaking into Amish homes in the larger Amish community of which they were once part, and vandalizing. The worst of what they are doing is the extremely shameful act of cutting men’s’ beards and cutting the hair of their wives. The growing beard and hair of the woman do not get cut in the Amish world once people are married. One man stated that he was so ashamed of this act of violence against him that he wished his attacker had killed him. The community is reluctant to press charges against their attackers as it goes against the grain of their beliefs. They are now living in fear and feel that their daily rhythm of life has been harmed significantly. This too is within the Amish world, though in this case, the perpetrators no longer see themselves as part of the sect.

Then to top off my day, I watched an Anderson Cooper special on Bullying at night. This was about children who are afraid to go to school, who are damaged for life and how the school systems and the professionals who are supposed to keep the children entrusted to their care safe and out of harm’s way are at a loss. Towards the end of the hour, it was agreed by all members of the panel that Cooper had assembled that parents need to parent, and cannot NOT look at what their children are doing in bullying other children. The Columbine incident was evoked with the question, how can a teenager have an arsenal of weaponry under their bed or in a garage in the home IN WHICH THEIR PARENTS LIVE and the parents do not know? As a parent, I myself have no idea about this and remember reacting exactly in this way when it happened.

Of course, when the parents are the ones terrorizing other members of your Orthodox community and girls cannot attend their schools without fear of being attacked; and when parents are the ones who break into homes and embarrass and humiliate members of their own community as is happening in Easter Ohio, we begin to understand that parents of those that bully may be passing on the tradition of exactly the behaviors that their children exhibit.

What a sad statement for our society. Of course, it is not so rampant that this is in front of all of us, but if we believe in our connection to all Jews and to all human beings, then we MUST be concerned and not keep our eyes closed to such actions.

Monday, October 10, 2011

HaPoresh Sukkat Shelomecha -- Spreading the Tent/Sukkah of Peace

Sukkot is approaching! I love Sukkot, I mean really LOVE SUKKOT, in the same way that I absolutely LOVE PESAH! You could say I am a Yom Tov junkie, and I am particularly enamored with the calendar when it gives us three days of Yom Tov and Shabbat tied together. Good bye world, I say, for the next 72 hours! Wow, who gets to do that in this day and age?! While my friends are often ready to throw things at me and wish some sort of (not too serious) bodily harm because I am all smiles when they are often at the eye rolling stage, I just cannot think of any reason to not be so in love with extra time with my family, hanging out with friends, preparing and eating great food, and so forth. My greatest challenge during this time is to not put on weight – not such a bad life, really!

So, we build and eat in (and some of us, literally reside in to the best of our ability) these temporary huts, which are to remind us simultaneously of G-d’s protection of us and our fragility as human beings who create and build things that are themselves fragile, as any one of us who have had our Sukkah fly down the street know all too well!

We are taught that the SCHACH, the roof of the Sukkah should be sturdy and thick enough to “protect” us but at the same time allow us to see the stars in the sky. What a beautiful way to think about who and what we are as human beings and remember that
G-d and all that G-d created are part of our lives and so much bigger than we with our human limitations are. Looking at the stars during our shared and festive dining experiences really communicates that to me.

I also think about how peaceful the stars look, notwithstanding the times we race through Kiddush and Motzei and then retreat to our beautiful dining rooms inside our comfy houses because rain, thunder and other natural elements – also much bigger than we are – make it so that our starlit dinner will not happen! We are taught that when G-d promised Avram (later to be renamed Abraham) that his children and generations that will come from him will be as multitudinous as the sands of the shore and as glorious and numerous as the stars in the sky, the sands speak to who we are as a community and collective while the stars are meant to gaze at and consider ourselves as individuals and the sparkle that each of us individually can bring into the world.

We say the phrase used in the title of this post as part of a Bracha in our ongoing dovenning (prayers): Blessed be G-d, Lord of the Universe who spreads the tent of peace over us. Notice that the same word SUKKAH is used here. Our huts and coverings, our SUKKOT, that we use and in which we dwell for the duration of this glorious holiday is to allow us to gaze upon the stars, not the sands. We look into the beautiful sky to see peaceful and lovely twinkling. May all of the SUKKOT we build this holiday be filled with this sense of peace and well being AND may we all remember the blessings of our “tents of peace” as we exit from this series of celebrations in the Jewish calendar and enter the rest of the year, beginning with Mar Cheshvan (called bitter Cheshvan because of no specific or special celebrations except for Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat), bringing and spreading the tent of peace in our own way, through caring and bringing peace in every way we can into the world (that really big tent) that G-d created for our benefit.

Chag Sameach to all!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Between Tisha B’Av, Elul and Rosh HaShanah ... and Yom Kippur

By the time I write these words and you read this small piece, we are all preparing for Rosh HaShanah and the onslaught of fall Hagim. Now how exactly did this happen? And keep in mind that this year the holidays are coming “late” though, of course they are always right on time!

Nonetheless, last year at this time we were already in the middle of the very season that will begin in yet another week and a half. Along with this extremely pensive time in the Jewish calendar, we also begin many new undertakings – new school years, new academic goals, new rhythms of life while we leave the more relaxed pace of the summer behind and so on. It seems so fitting that this should be the time of self examination and taking accounting of what we want from life and what life wants from us.

As we proceed through Elul and listen to the call of the Shofar each morning, we are reminded of our own need for the preparations necessary to approach the about-to-come awe inspiring days. We have moved from mourning over the community calamities associated with Tisha B’Av and are now concerned about our own lives and our personal goals and hopes for growth and improvement.

Judaism clearly teaches that these are not antithetical to each other nor are they mutually exclusive of each other; rather, how we function as a community and how we live as individuals are inextricably tied together. For, we as individuals join together to make a community! Even in the ongoing language of the Torah and Prophets, we see this as there is a continual dynamic between the use of the plural as well as the singular to refer to ALL of Israel – we are simultaneously a collection of individual and distinct parts while simultaneously all joining to form a larger and more effective single entity.

I am always aware that on Yom Kippur I retreat into a bubble, while the community and those around me move further away and I turn totally introspective. Nonetheless, as I do this, so much of the focus of all of the prayers and readings in which I am totally immersed is about community. The reading of Jonah during the afternoon of Yom Kippur when we are totally depleted and empty in so many ways, reminds us that we CANNOT escape the group and our responsibility to it. I think that this is one of the most powerful reasons that we remain to make a minyan for Maariv and run to begin building our Sukkah right after we finish the serious and lengthy experience of self evaluation that Yom Kippur brings. We begin our new individual year by being an active and contributing member of our community.

Community building and cooperative ventures are the end goal for the Three Weeks that culminate in Tisha B’Av during the heat of the summer when we commemorate the destruction of our Second Temple because of the lack of such. Similarly, that last Shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur brings us out of our individual pensive cocoons and reminds us that as individuals we will only be truly strengthened and effective as members of the collective – the community.

May G-d, The Creator of All, strengthen and bless us all in the coming year, both as individuals and as members of the wonderful collective that binds our destinies as one. Shanah Tovah U’Metukah.... and by now, I should say Gimar Hatimah Tovah to all.