Davening in Monsey09 October 2013
By Michal Boyarsky, October 2013
As a child, I attended a shul in ultra-Orthodox Monsey, New York. Ours was the odd one out in that neighborhood: other families walked to shul, the men dressed in black-and-white suits and black hats, the women wearing dark dresses and thick stockings. Our family drove fifteen minutes to get to our shul, which my parents affectionately called Conservadox. The congregation was a mix of modern Orthodox families and Conservative families. My father used to joke that everyone walked to our shul—some walked from home, and others walked from the parking lot.
There was no mehitzah (gender division) at our shul, so I could sit next to my father and play with the fringes on his tallis even after I had my bat mitzvah. But women “weren’t allowed on the bima”—that’s the language that was used to describe gender at our synagogue. For my bat mitzvah, I read Haftorah on a Sunday. Afterwards, during our monthly Teen Shabbatot, the teenage boys would lead services, and I was occasionally asked to give a d’var Torah—once the ark was firmly closed.
Today, I can leyn Torah, and I’ve played a large part in getting an independent minyan started in Seattle, WA where I live now. The daveners at our minyan are often strong, independent women with much more clarity on gender and Judaism than I had as a kid davening in Monsey, New York.
A few months ago, a good friend of mine gave me a gift: a tallis, my first one. When I wrap myself inside it on Shabbat mornings, it feels wonderful--and complicated. Growing up, women never wore tallitot. The tallit still feels forbidden, bewildering in a way. Like draping myself in a flag that announces to the congregation that I am a Jewish adult, a full and important member of the community.
And I am.
David Rotem: Give the Brother Some Love06 February 2014
I've never met Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem. I don't think I'd recognize him if I bumped into him on the street--whether the long, arboreal pathways of Prospect Park or the frenetic tumult of Mahane Yehuda on a Friday afternoon.
Déjà vu11 July 2013
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are working every day to safeguard and advance Israel's precious, albeit sometimes fragile, democratic character. And we at NIF are their support system.
Difficult. Not Impossible.22 January 2015
Here’s to another year of standing with Israel’s change-makers and justice-seekers. It’s time to renew our commitment to them. It’s time to bend the arc.
Do Not Treat Women as Lesser Human Beings09 October 2013
By Morton Deutsch, October 2013
Throughout my personal life and my professional career, I have worked to support equality and justice in the relations between men and women as well as among the difference racial, ethnic, and religious groups. As a Jew, I have felt the hurts and humiliations that can be experienced when one is treated as a lesser human being and denied dignity, equality, and justice. As a Jew, I believe it is my moral obligation to support all those who seek dignity, equality, and justice. I also believe it is the moral obligation of a Jewish state to do this. It must do this by supporting equal rights for women in all areas of life despite the objections of those who benefit from the subordination of women. When Israel as a state does not do this, it weakens its claim to represent basic Jewish values.
Morton Deutsch is a WW2 veteran, E.L. Thorndike Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Director Emeritus of Morton Deutsch International Center for Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Don't Ban Us From the Celebrate Israel Parade02 June 2014
NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch writes in The Forward about the politics of exclusion, and what comes next.
Don’t Despair of Religious Zionism02 April 2012
2 April 2012
By Gadi Gvaryahu, Field Coordinator of Yudbet be-Heshvan
During the waiting period before the Six-Day War, the most moderate ministers in Levi Eshkol’s government were those from the National Religious Party. Since then, Religious Zionism has undergone a revolution; the sector that forged a historic agreement with Mapai has become a right-wing nationalist group, including a significant National haredi segment.
The political radicalization is expressed in Knesset votes, in the National Haredi outlook of educational institutions and yeshivot, in the religious radicalization of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, in halakhic responsa by National Religious rabbis on women’s issues (military conscription of women, public singing by women), in disobedience of orders to evacuate settlements, in attitudes towards non-Jews and Palestinians, etc.
Note especially that despite the revolution, the vast majority of the rank and file of the National Religious sector remains loyal to the State of Israel, its laws, government, judges, and symbols. A small but by no means insignificant minority has been radicalized to the point that it does not accept the authority of the state and does not adhere to the rule of law. This refers to groups like the first Jewish underground, the Kahanist movements, Baruch Goldstein, the "Hilltop Youth," "Price Tag" perpetrators, and, obviously, Yigal Amir. Of course, one "successful" price tag attack would be enough to send the entire Middle East into hysterics.
In tandem with the rightward shift, significant parts of the Religious Zionist movement are working on behalf of tolerance, openness, and pluralism. The Tzohar organization of rabbis was established in the wake of the Rabin assassination; the Beit Hillel group was established recently, after extremist remarks by National Religious rabbis against public singing by female soldiers; and dozens of integrated religious-secular schools have been established in mixed communities in recent years. A National Religious community that is willing to send its children to the same school as secular children is undoubtedly moderate, tolerant, and pluralistic.
The moderate National Religious camp composed a special prayer service for the date on which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, which was distributed to dozens of schools throughout the country. In Jerusalem and outside the city, synagogues on the Shirah Hadashah model, which allow women to take part in the prayer service, have been established. Orthodox schools for boys and girls, which espouse tolerance, openness, and pluralism, have been established in Yeroham, Zichron Yaakov, Kiryat Ekron, and Jerusalem. These schools join the veteran tolerant schools of the Religious Kibbutz movement and in Jerusalem. The national Religious Scouts movement, which works together with the secular Scouts and Arab, Druze and Circassian Scouts, has established approximately 10 branches in the Galilee, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Rehovot. The Ahavat Shalom hesder yeshiva in Netivot educates for tolerance and social sensitivity; one of its students authored a book-length rebuttal to the racist halakhic tract Torat Hamelech. The hesder yeshiva of the Religious Kibbutz movement and the movement’s Yaakov Herzog Center lead a moderate state-based line; an egalitarian yeshiva was founded several months ago in Jerusalem. National Religious girls are enlisting in the IDF in large numbers despite the Chief Rabbinate’s stringent ruling forbidding such action, and thousands of girls are studying in batei midrash and pre-military academies before and after their IDF service. Social justice organizations and overtly left-wing movements have been established by people from the National Religious camp; even Hagit Ofran of Peace Now grew up in the National Religious world.
We cannot forget the feminist religious women’s movements that have spearheaded and continue to lead a revolution in everything related to the status of the religious woman in Israel. Today, they are working day and night to safeguard the rights of agunot and mesoravot get and are proposing laws to improve the status of these unfortunate women. Likewise, we cannot forget the religious organizations and the synagogue in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that were established in the wake of the Rabin assassination.
Not only will the battle between the National Religious movement that supports the state as a matter of course and the radical religious right determine the image of National Religious Judaism. It may also determine who will have the authority to make decisions in Israel and whether decisions will be made on the basis of a democratic majority or in the "price tag" and Torat Hamelech style.
The state-oriented National Religious movement, which lay dormant for many years and allowed extremists to take the lead, is beginning to awaken and fight back. Anyone who is interested in an enlightened Jewish democratic state must rally to and assist the state-oriented National Religious movement.
Don’t Let Israel Fail You29 November 2011
Simply put, there are only two distinct reactions to when a community disappointments you: do something about it or do nothing about it. Engage or disengage. Act or give up. Fight or flight.
I understand the lure of the non-action. I know too well of its seductive power. It is easy to give up and pretend that others might do the fighting for you. From there, it is only a small leap to allow oneself to slip into apathy and not give a damn.
I’m talking about Israel here. Specifically, I’m talking about how many American Jews of my generation have struggled with their relationship to the Jewish State.
I remember growing up in a Jewish community. I remember being a synagogue brat being raised by an observant set of parents. I also remember the Jewish day schools and the “Hebrew High” night school that I attended when I switched over to the public school system. I remember not being able to watch Saturday morning cartoons and having to settle for catching the reruns during the weekdays.
I remember Israel. I remember hearing about how it was the best and brightest place on earth. It was where our ancestors lived thousands of years ago, where her citizens talk in the same language that we prayed, where Jews actually could tan without turning red and maybe even compete athletically. We were told of her scientific achievements, her robust economy, her warmer climate and lower drinking age.
This place sounded awesome.
We visited the place when I was in third grade. I remember the wailing wall, the archaeological digs, the pizza and the beach. Then I saw a Jewish soldier carrying an M-16 in the Jewish Quarter on the Holy Sabbath. I asked my father for an explanation. He told me that there exists a whole bunch of people that want to destroy Israel and that we need to keep our guard up, even on Saturdays.
I was flabbergasted; why would anyone want to do such a thing? The answers then came from classmates, teachers, community leaders, family and my own assumptions: anti-Semitism. The world wants us dead, simple as that.
So I lived in a bubble of sorts; assuming that anyone who had anything bad at all to say about my ancestors’ homeland were either anti-Semitic, crazy or both. Media outlets and Jewish organizations were quick to agree with my conclusion. These people who protest the Jewish State want us dead. They are the enemy.
For the most part, I was reasonably happy in my bubble. Israel was the land of the Jews, and I was going to defend her no matter what. Even if the detractors sounded reasonable, I just assumed that they could not possibly understand what it meant to be a Jew in this hostile world.
Then came college, which happened around the same time as the 9/11 terror attacks. Although I was shell-shocked and filled with grief and anger, there was a part of me that felt vindicated; this is what we Jews have to deal with every day. It seemed like I was poised to push deeper into my bubble.
But then something odd happened. I remember talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a fellow classmate. I don’t remember her name, but I remember feeling like we believed in a lot of the same things. Her politics and mine weren’t identical per say, just strikingly similar. In this conversation, she mentioned something she did not like about Israel. For the life of me, I can not remember exactly what, but I do remember the uncomfortable feeling in my gut. I also remember not arguing back about it, and feeling puzzled as to why a fair-minded person like her would say such a thing about my country. I resented her and never talked to her again.
I did not realize it then, but this was a life-changing moment. I began to read up a bit on the conflict, not from pro-Zionist sources that I was accustomed to, but from news outlets that didn’t have a stake in the conflict one way or the other. My gut churned and churned as I read about some of the nasty, disgusting things that took place in the name of preserving Judaism.
I then read history books, some of which were written by Israelis who love their country. These books did not paint the rosy picture that I grew up with. I learned of Deir Yassin, Revisionist Zionism, the Nakba and the Occupation.
And the picture didn’t get any better after that either. While the main focus of my attention went towards Israeli and Palestinian issues, I learned of the massive problems within Israel as well. The number of reports of discrimination were too high to count; towards Arab Israelis, feminists, gay-rights activists, Bedouin, Russian immigrants, Ethiopian families and migrant workers. I learned of how the ultra right-wing branch of the Hasidic sect’s clout over public affairs have made a mockery of civic life. I learned how we, survivors of the Holocaust, denied entry to those seeking asylum from the genocide taking place in Darfur. Then came the proposed Rotem Bill, which personally insulted me by suggesting that I may not even be Jewish to begin with.
All done in the name of preserving Judaism.
So I picked flight. I checked out. I wanted nothing to do with this state. Nothing.
One day, I found myself reading the New York Times online. You know, back when it was free. While reading the article, I somehow was drawn to a banner ad. (Whoever clicks those, right?) It was an advertisement for the NIForum, a symposium on social justice issues in Israel by the New Israel Fund. I don’t remember why I was drawn to it, but I decided to give these guys a shot and attended the forum.
At the forum, I discovered a whole society of Jews who, like me, knew as much as I did about Israel. I began to talk with them and found that they also found a way to face these painful truths, while still holding a special place for Israel in their hearts. I learned of the amazing work NIF does by funding a whole assemblage of non-profit groups that strive to make Israel a better place. I learned of ACRI, who’s work as Israel’s premier civil rights group astounds me to this day. I learned of Shatil, which trains various grassroots-based organizations to effectively engage in civic society. I learned of NIF’s unshakable commitment to an Israel that espouses social and economic justice, religious pluralism and respect towards human rights.
More importantly, I found friends. I found a community. I found a home. I stopped flight and chose fight. I am now a regular attendee of NIF events and currently serve as a member of the New Generations Steering Committee. This summer, I marched in the Celebrate Israel Parade with fellow NIF members, along with some our friends from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Americans for Peace Now and Meretz USA. We walked under the banners of freedom, democracy, justice and peace.
As a result of all this activity, I have found that living in the solution makes for a better outlook on life. I also have found a new way to articulate my relationship to Israel. I am no longer angry to the point of ambivalence. I now feel empowered to do something about it.
And that, dear reader, is where you come in. I know you might feel that the Jewish organizations of old have failed you in trying to spare you of Israel’s gritty characteristics and thus feel a reluctance to become engaged with anything that has to do with that small country over yonder. I know you might feel slighted, possibly even betrayed. I know I did.
But I guarantee you this: if you join us and fight the good fight, you will feel so much better about your relationship to Israel, and the Jewish community at large. You’ll begin to imagine a day where peace and justice will flow through the Holy Land like a mighty stream. You’ll be able to idealize Israel again, though not through the twisted gaze of denial, but by the limitless potential you’ll witness though the work done for a brighter tomorrow.
That is your challenge. Don’t let Israel fail you. Join us.
Aaron Werschulz is a member of the New Generations Steering Committee in New York.