Friday, October 11, 2013

Redefining the Roots

The third portion of the Torah, Lech Lecha, translate to, "You go." It features God commanding Abraham to uproot himself from Haran in Mesopotamia, serving as the patriach of a chosen people. After creation, the garden of Eden, and Noah's Ark, the Torah shares the story of Abraham, a man of bravery and devotion. He stands as the lone pioneer and universal ancestor of the Jewish people. Does Lech Lecha still indicate Judaism's roots, as it has from Moses to Maimonides to Billy Crystal, in the new face of American Jewry? The PEW research center studied American Jews for an extended period of time, and their recent report spurred much discussion throughout the Jewish world. In the study, 22% of Jews claimed to be "Jews of no religion".  32% validated Judaism without the belief in God.  The religious right condemns the study as a indication of crisis while progressives view it as an exposition of the new Judaism, which may or may not require a religious element in its future. Either way, the several statistics represent our "Lech Lecha", our "You go." Just as Abraham was called upon by God to define the Jewish people, these PEW statistics demand that American Jews brings about a reformation and new energy to the religion-culture.

On Monday, HuffPost Live interviewed a diversity of Jewish contemporaries in order to explain the implications of the PEW study. Mike Sacks asked the interviewees to elaborate on why these statistics of growing secularism changed from thirty, twenty, or even only ten years ago. Personal friend and progressive head of Hashomer Hatzair, Idan Sasson, claimed that greater acceptance in American society, increasing modernism, and decreasing exclusivity hold responsibility for these results.  In the early to mid-20th century, Americans viewed Jews as the "other".  A clearer distinction between Jews and gentiles existed in those days. One was American or Jewish, but mixture of these cultures was incredibly difficult. In the 21st century, Judaism is mainstreamed in the American way. Jews assimilate with increasing ease than in the past. With such intermingling in American society, the HuffPost group concluded that religion being a hinderance to such incorporation explains the PEW trend. The interviewees also describe how intermarriage and its decreasing dependence on religion impacted the population. The 5,000 year old elements of halacha (Jewish law) and an all-powerful deity no longer relate to the contemporary audience, turning them against the shul, against God, and against religion. On the contrary, Judaism is a culture and a religion, for seeing it at one or other demonstrates a myopic understanding of its nature. Rabbi Rick Jacobs best expressed, "Are Jews a religion or a culture?...Thinking in polarities obscures the most important issues facing us."

At Givat Haviva (a university where I had a seminar in Israel), a man lecturing about humanistic Judaism repeatedly yelled to the crowd, "Judaism is not a religion!" He assured the audience that Judaism in its Torah-reading, mezzuah-kissing, God-lauding ways distinguished itself from the Judaism he knew-matzah ball soup and Israeli folk dancing. Secular Jews experience Judaism beyond the organizational ability to rehabilitate the schism between religion and culture. Orthodox and Conservative Jews do not possess the philosophical capacity to facilitate this process. The Reform Jews of the United States hold the greatest blessing and onus in their hands: the reparation of American Judaism. In a connection to the past combined with a progressive outlook toward the future, Reform Jews can interweave religion and culture, restoring the faith in those claim to be "Jews with no religion" whilst fostering their growth as part of a larger nation. Why bother with the effort? Jewish culture, ranging from Fiddler on the Roof to Rugrats' Passover special, embodies only half of what is wonderful about being a Jew. Men and women like our Givat Haviva lecturer miss, however, the magnificent peace of spirituality and foundation of deeper meaning.  A fair share of secular Jews know how to explore this element of Judaism outside of an affiliated denomination, but should not the shul adjust to the people's needs rather than the people adjust to the shul?    

To answer Rabbi Rick Jacobs call, finding the nourishment Jewish tradition can offer in conventional institutional structures requires a shift in ideology and practice. Forever, God stood as an indelible part of the Jewish tradition. Now, 32% of American Jews deny that indelibility. The primary step in resolving the religious-cultural divide is creating a brand of Judaism that includes God while not mandating God. On HuffPost Live, Rabbi Geller describes this as the "counter cultural identity", a belief in a power greater than oneself without the omnipotence described in the Bible. The new God embodies a personal sense of humility without the confinement that the traditional view carries with it. To generate interest among the "Pew Jews", Reform Jews need to embrace the social element of Judaism; schmooze or we will lose. Camps, youth groups, and adult gatherings-golf tournaments, hiking trips, or a temple Super Bowl party-establish a sense of community. Assimilation is a two-faced word, symbolizing the accomplishment of Jews to mainstream themselves in American society and the threat of disappearing Jewish tradition. Instead, the temple should not strictly be about services once a year or once a week. Rather, Reform synagogues should embrace the Pew Jews with a open handshake and a delightful smile, not out of concern of membership but as if they are looking upon a familiar face returning once again. Blending secular and culture elements to the traditional synagogue experience enables the Reform movement to make religious Judaism a less rigid location of identity exploration (Idan Sasson mentioned these as key factors in the Pew Results.). Finally, Judaism needs to turn its back to strict halacha. The majority of the secular Jews I know misunderstand religious Judaism more than detest it. A new emphasis needs to shift from "when to wear a tallis, what poultry is acceptable to eat, the acceptable and non-acceptable activities on Shabbat" to values-discipline and a balance between work and leisure. Prayer no longer requires the repetitive melodies and rote recitation of Shma, Maariv Aravim, and Birkat Hamazon. The rabbis of the future will create a spiritual experience where we feel the tradition of Shma, experience the awesomeness of shifting day to night of the Maariv Aravim, and graciously pause to enjoy a meal in the essence of Birkat Hamazon. Prayer is a communication to oneself; to improve religious Judaism,  ancient prayers take on modern and personal meaning. Throughout my life, Judaism has taught me how to be a disciplined person, a respectful family member, a hard worker with a balanced plan, a critical thinker, a kind soul, and a caring friend to loved ones and strangers. The Pew Jews spoke; Abraham represents values, not a commandment from God.    

Works Cited

Jacob, Rick. "Don't Give up on Jews Who Care about Being Jewish." Haaretz.com. Haaretz, 10 Oct.                 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Geller,Laura, Notkin, Melanie, Roth, Gabriel, Sasson, Idan. "What Does It Mean To Be Jewish In                      America?" Interview by Mike Sacks. HuffPost Live. Huffington Post, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 11                 Oct. 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Kibbutz Spectrum

At the celebration of Simchat Torah, the harvest festival, Sukkot, concluded in its usual fashion this week. Akin to the US, Israel's climate changes around this time of year, and certain fruits and vegetables are ready for picking. Sukkot represents the appreciation of this year's crop and Judaism's agricultural roots. Before exile, the Jewish people were mainly farmers. Although many in the Diaspora, including myself before this summer, classify Israel and the region's as arid, uncultivable desert, the country's 1948 founders sought to work the soil, planting forests and rows of produce fields. Certain members of the Zionist movement in the 20th century believed that Jews needed to recreate their worldly reputation. From the Middle Ages to that point, gentiles believed Jews belonged in law, banking, and business, explaining where the modern stereotype derives. Led by A.D. Gordon, labor Zionists founded collectivist farming villages (kibbutzim) throughout present-day Israel, then-Palestine. Gordon imagined a "new Jew", a muscular individual known for great cultivation of the land. The kibbutz movement flourished from 1900 through much of the century. Kibbutzim were seen as a cornerstone of Israeli society until 1978. When elected prime minster, Menachem Begem denounced the kibbutz movement, equating with a plague on Israel's people. The conservative government ceased subsidation of the kibbutzim after that point, and the struggle to modernize was one faced by each kibbutz during the 1980's all the way to the present day. As I observed in my travels this summer, each kibbutz responds to the calls of modernization differently.  

Two weeks in the program, we visited Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, my kvutzah's (age group's) namesake. Ein Hashofet symbolizes the classic kibbutz. Founded in 1937, the kibbutz endured the movement's heights and its fall in 1978. Still, it survived into 2013 with a population of about 800. The other kibbutzim I visited stem from a newer generation, founded with an everpresent connection to the modern era. Ein Hashofet possessed all the features of the original kibbutzim: a boarding school, a children's house (where the children live-children were raised by the kibbutz, not their parents), and the large dining hall. No one withheld personal property on Ein Hashofet before Begin-not even appliances, food, toys to name a few. On the kibbutz spectrum, Ein Hashofet lies in the middle. About half the kibbutz now practices a private lifestyle, and the other maintains the socialist one. Their "middle model" allows for choice. For instance, certain individuals work off the kibbutz, pay for their food, and own individual cars. Interestingly, our namesake kibbutz inspired and disappointed me. The facility retains the communal spirit; people act so warmly to their fellow kibbutzniks. The spark of communalism remains on Ein Hashofet, whether one views it full bulletin board of community events or paintings that represent the communal culture on several buildings.  On the contrary, their attitude towards guests was distasteful by the majority of the community. We ate in the filled dining room for three or four meals, but the only people who conversed with us were kvutzah friends who happened to be on the kibbutz. The split in lifestyle choice divides members as well, creating a hostile environment when kibbutz politics come into discussion. Ein Hashofet additionally lacks the youthful spirit of the other kibbutzim. The majority blame this inequity in age on the forced boarding in children's houses; several children of the olden kibbutzim resent their elders for disrupting the traditional family dynamic. While maintaining its classical charm and standing as a testament to the initial wave of kibbutzim, I observed that Ein Hashofet struggles with modernization more than the other kibbutzim I visited.

After a tour of Israel's northern borders (I promise to discuss this ordeal in a few weeks), we traveled to Kibbutz Pelech. With its oldest child being only 8 years, Pelech more than compensates for Ein Hashofet's deficiency in youthfulness. Kibbutz Pelech was founded in the 1980's, and therefore, it always realized the impact of modernism in its development. Pelech stands atop a hill (with a gorgeous sunset at dusk) that allows one to view the entirety of Israel's North. Most members are 30 years old, trying a socialist lifestyle in their post-army years. Of the three, Pelech is the most privatized. Their communal dining room no longer functions for any event beside a special occasion. Instead of communal pool of money and resources, each household/collective (kvutzah) works together to contribute to the kibbutz. The parents raise their children, and they regard a number of items as private property. Admirably, the kvutzah structure works well for Pelech. People seem happier, their attitude being less biting about kibbutz politics than those at Ein Hashofet. Much of the kibbutz is still growing, which was inspiring to see when the majority appear in decline. Kibbutz Pelech's 1980s roots wonderfully contribute to its currentness; I call it, "the practical kibbutz". The communal atmosphere exists, yet the aggressive push toward utopianism does not. Due to its remoteness and population of 30 families, I do not picture myself there. For the rural folks who want to experience semi-socialism at its best, Pelech is a wonderful place to go. 

Toward the end of our trip, we finally made it to the desert. Very few people live in the Negev (the name for Israel's southern desert). Along the border with Jordan, we arrived at a third kibbutz, dotted with some of the only foliage (beautiful palm trees) in the surrounding area. Kibbutz Ketura looked and felt like an oasis. Ketura represents the perfect old model adapted to the new age. More than Pelech or even Ein Hashofet, Ketura has retained many of its socialist roots. The members continue to pool resources and capital for the community; they share all income for the kibbutz. Arriving on Shabbat, we saw communalism on Ketura at its finest. The spirit of the communal dining hall at Ketura energized even us, exhausted travelers from a 4am desert hike. Ein Hashofet possessed similar spirit, but the folks here welcomed us with open arms. From a conversation with any strange, I felt sensational pride in the Ketura community and their kibbutz's model. These conversations differed from hearing about Ein Hashofet's inevitable privatization. How does Ketura thrive after the kibbutz movement's near-bankruptcy? The members of this kibbutz recognize their role as socialist in the context of a capitalist economy. While the community in the desert lives communally, they realize that the rest of the world still functions for profit. Ketura's members have constructed a kibbutz economy that fits in the context of the 21st century. Ketura's income comes from hundreds of date palms, the construction of solar panels, and the raising of algae used in many Israeli and American cosmetics. All Ketura industry depends on its chief resource, the blazing, desert sun. The majority consider living in the desert a curse, but these kibbutzniks call it a blessing. In addition, "Ketureans" think of themselves as some of the most democratic people in the world.  The community decides on everything together, its government consisting of an executive and specialized committees and a general assembly. The kibbutz, not any one individual, makes the decision. Ketura is also uniquely pluralistic. It hosts Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews from all over the world and Israel. In my opinion, Ketura is the ideal kibbutz, but I still find certain aspects of it troubling. Being in the desert, Ketura uses a lot of energy to obtain water. Its green lawns and magnificent palms represents a waste unimaginable in other parts of the Negev. The kibbutz also hires immigrant labor to harvest the date palms, defying A.D. Gordon's belief about the "new Jew" not to mention encourage the social subordination of these new-comers to Israel (not Jews who possess "the right to return"-the large number of these immigrants are young southeast Asian men looking for work in Israel to return to their family). Overall, it troubled me how such a powerful socialist institution endorsed the broader capitalist world. Kibbutz Ketura was a magnificent place in many aspects of the word magnificent, but this oasis in the desert possesses its own problems as well.     

The lesson from this trip? No kibbutz is exactly the same. Each adapts to modernization in its own way. For some, the lifestyle on Ein Hashofet suits them. Others enjoy the remote bliss on Pelech. For those who can endure the desert sun, Ketura could be a future paradise. The kibbutz lifestyle attracts certain individual. While I do not picture myself living such a rural lifestyle in the near future, my experiences on all three of these kibbutzim were wonderful. I adored learning first hand about these modern practices of socialism and the realities they grapple with, and I recommend that any visitor to Israel explore the kibbutz spectrum.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Year of Personal Activism

Happy Rosh Hashana! The past two days we "celebrated" the holiday of Rosh Hashana. We blew the shofar to ring in the new year, dipped apples and honey for a year's sweetness, and shared nice meals with families and friends. Some of us went as far as to make the trek to synagogue yesterday and today. Praying, eating, and listening to the shofar all appropriately celebrate the holiday, sure. Observing the holiday, according to the Torah, is to be a "holy convocation"(Lev. 16:24). The observation of this holiday extends beyond the meals and the blasts, for the shofar represents much more than the "Jewish ball drop". The final long roar of the instrument, the tekiah g'dolah, signifies a new time in our lives, a kima nefesh (soul awakening). The time from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, the ten holiest days of the year, constiute a period of self-reflection, self-actualization, and a personal movement forward. Each moment during this time holds a sacred value for the year ahead. We talk so often about "finding ourselves" in the modern day, but Judaism sets aside time each year to perform such a daunting task! Ten whole days exist on the Jewish calendar to emerge from Yom Kippur a more determined, ready-to-be-fulfilled human being. Annually after Rosh Hashana, we continue with our lives as normal until Kol Nidre arrives, complain a little about our hunger on Yom Kippur, and check our school agenda or work schedules for the next point on the agenda. The High Holy Days start the Jewish new year, and the year occurs constantly, not just until the next Rosh Hashana, where the cycle restarts. This year is the end of the Jewish paradigm. Yes, we will continue enjoying the melodies, the treats, and the companionship, but this year is different. 5774 stands as a year for the centuries, for a I declare this year as the year for personal activism.    

Alright, the decree was made; we possess ten days to perform rigorous introspection. Go! Activism means the recognition of a belief and the corresponding action to integrate that belief into reality. Personal activism requires the same process. Before we even go into the world a new person, we need to sit in a chair, in the grass, or on the subway. Regardless of location, the first step of proper introspection is writing. While the spoken word stands as a powerful medium for persuasion or conversation, printing ideas creates permanence. Recording goals and thoughts generates proof of their existence, for as memories fade, descriptions remain in the passionate moment of their writing. My challenge to each reader of this blog who wants to explore the year of personal activism is to write every day until Yom Kippur closes. I keep a journal, which I try to write in every once in a while, but on these holiest of holy days, I specifically schedule time to express myself using pen and paper. In the next week, the personal activist should explore and write about the following:

Saturday: What was my personal journey in the last year?
Sunday: Where was I ten years ago? Where am I now? Where will I be ten years from now?
Monday: What are my values? Do I live accordingly to what I believe?
Tuesday: What do I require in friendship? Are my friends an accurate representation of that description? Am I an accurate representation of that description to others?
Wednesday: What do I like about life? What do I want to like about life that is not present in my own?
Thursday: What were the best moments in the last year? Where was I most a fulfilled human being?
Friday: Where have I gone wrong in the last year? How can I nullify these injustices?
Saturday: What are my goals for the next year? When I read these entries in 5775, what do I want to change?

Those prompts lead into Yom Kippur worship. Each day is a stepping stone to fulfillment. These questions appear, at first, lengthy, but the depth depends on the individual. The effort counts more than the number of sentences each day. When satisfied with what is written, one needs to relax the hand, set aside the paper, and onwardly progress.  In traditional Judaism, Yom Kippur represents a solemn day of judgement from God, in which the gates of heaven open for only a moment. The planned introspection above provides a modern context for self-criticism, perhaps a more meaningful form of judgement than the tradition provides nowadays. Yom Kippur pertains to atonement, but in the year of personal activism, it includes goal-setting. This year, Yom Kippur falls on a Saturday. Take advantage of the Sunday afterward. Before resuming the normal activities of the week, I recommend that each of us writers (and I hope there are many of us) takes time on Sunday to devise a meticulous plan to achieve Saturday's recorded goals. In this way, we truly inscribe ourselves in the book of life, our lives.

Now, that ten day process allows for opportunity, but the beauty we describe about our lives, hopes, and dreams is really nonsense. Perhaps, somebody reading this rolled their eyes way back in paragraph one. Sure, introspection happens in January when all those people go to the gym for a month too. The personal activist is disciplined and resilient. With proper planning, the "Yom Kippur Goals" will revolutionize living. Think not of this task as a silly new year's resolution. Rather, the self-exploration that occurs  between now and Yom Kippur establishes a standard for the rest of the year. Strategy and proactivity are the way of the personal activist. Originally, I wanted to deem 5774, the year of the activist. Then, I thought about us going into the world. At Habitat for Humanity, how vigorously can the unfulfilled laborer hammer homes for the needy? Without spirit, how do we serve food for the poor? Certainly, 5774 is not the year of social apathy. We will indulge ourselves this year, take some "us time", but as the doses of self-satisfaction suffuse our souls, as we take part in "kima nefesh", we need to carry that spirit into the unfulfilled world full of the Jewish paradigm and social injustice. Plenty of people will not read this entry, and plenty of readers will not follow my recommendation. Heck, I could be the only one, but we, the personal activists will really taste the sweet new year from the honey and apples, hear the shofar, and awaken ourselves with its call.  


Friday, August 16, 2013

4 Wonderful Days at the Bronx Zoo

"May we have your attention please? We are now entering Israeli air space." Yedid had finally arrived. At last, the opportunity to travel in the country of my people with my closest friends was not just something to look forward to this summer; it was real. To much of the relief of my mother, the airplane landed in Ben Gurion airport, and I viewed the Holy Land for the first time. After going through customs, I fell asleep on the bus, the usual result from about 36 hours without sleep and a very uncomfortable aisle seat on the 12 hour flight. Therefore, my first view of Israel other than the airport was the Shomria, the 100th anniversary celebration of Hashomer Hatzair. The Shomria was located in the hills of Israel's wilderness, otherwise known as the middle of nowhere. We arrived at about 6:00pm, just in time for the opening ceremony of the Shomria. Taking a turn to the festivities, we suddenly found ourselves in a crowd of 3,000 people! All I can say about my first experience in Israel is that it felt like the olympics. People on the stage spoke to us in Hebrew, and I could hear all around me English, French, Italian, and Spanish. The whole world movement had gathered in the middle of nowhere, like us, and actually being among that crowd was breathtaking. During the day, the festivities consisted of mixers between countries, scouting obstacle courses, and learning about the history of Hashomer Hatzair. We nicknamed the camp site the Bronx Zoo, noting how the dust in Israel in conjunction with its foliage made us feel like an exhibit at our campsite. Dirt aside, it was an incredible experience. The most Shomrim I had ever seen at one time was 150 prior to these four days. While the Shomria overwhelmed all us jetlagged travelers quite a bit, it reshaped how each of us saw the movement and reenforced in our minds forever that Hashomer Hatzair's existence in about twenty countries actually means that people fighting for the same ideals participate in similar activities all over the world. The difference between hearing a statistic and experiencing it is astounding.

In addition, the Shomria was my first endeavour into international travel and interacting with people from all over the world. I quickly and sadly learned to what degree the world views America as an embarassment. While all the other countries were represented by their flags at the Shomria, our nameplate consisted of a hamburger and the McDonald's arches. I learned for the first time what it meant to be prejudged when telling someone, "I am an American citizen." The first response was usually, "But you are not fat?" or "Oh, stupid?" I share their reaction not to recall a negative part of my experience. On the contrary, I simply never understood until that point what it meant to be outside of my own country, to defy stereotypes, and to prove to the world that not all American citizens are those joked about on late night television. Now, not all the world movement was so quick to judge us. To feel close and know people from Austria, the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia, and more is an incredible sensation. In one instance, I learned just how similar people can be. Certain ethics and similarities transcend borders, allowing for these bonds to quickly form. Culturally though, I felt immersed in a new element. Culture extends beyond the music, food, or holidays of a people; I discovered culture affects how people interact and see the world. Though difficult at times, the process of making friends from outside my country was enlightening and entertaining. More than anything, my time at the Shomria was empowering. Leaving with the knowledge that 3,000 people share the same ideals and fight for them in their native countries was inspiration, especially when the bogrim (older members of the movement) concluded our festivities with a new stance on activisim. In their time together, the world bogrim concluded that Hashomer Hatzair would no longer simply educate their members about the problems of our world but take the proper steps to produce actual change. I know that my own and many other young Americans' criticism of the movement is that it talks a lot about world issues and then never acts upon the ideals we teach. This decision, I believe, marks an extraordinary turning point in the movement. Although our time was quite short in the woods there, I left incredibly enriched and fulfilled with the joy of knowing people from Canada to Belarus experience the same wonder of Hashomer Hatzair that I do.

That wonder is more than games and activities for six weeks at a summer camp too! Hashomer Hatzair is a powerful institution that reinvigorates the lives of Jewish youth. The movement emphasizes that the path from high school to college to wage employment and a property based family is not the sole way to live. Hashomer Hatzair introduces the ideas of communal living and acting based on conviction rather than necessity. In teaching about socialism and kibbutzim, the movement exposes the flaws in the capitalist systems and enables the shomer or shomeret to make the proper choices within their own corrupt world. Will Hashomer Hatzair ever lead the charge in a global socialist revolution? Most likely not. However, its education of young children about practical alternatives to capitalism (i.e. communal apartments-"urban kibbutzim", universal health care) and its ability to spread awareness about certain corruption is equally influential and remarkable. Its special brand of Zionism also promotes young children in the diaspora to support Israel with incredible vigor while criticizing the country for its shortcomings. In my opinion, Hashomer Hatzair's view of Zionism, to above anything else maintain Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, appears to be the most sensible way for an American (or Australian, Canadian, Italian) Jew to adequately support the state. Although the movement's humanist view of Judaism not as a religion but rather the culture of a nation opposes my own outlook, I feel proud to be part of something that instills Jewish identity in youth where they would otherwise refute religion entirely. Wherever I see members of my generation proud to be Jewish in a way that works for them, my arguments against an opposite view fall silent. Finally, the most significant impact that Hashomer Hatzair has on any kid's life is the power of kvutzah. Whether one goes to the ken in Brussels or Budapest or Barkai, the kvutzah is the center of shomeric life. The kvutzah is the age group to which one belongs, and although the movement never forces the members of one to foster friendships, the collective is compelled to cooperate when presented with tasks and respect each other. After a few weeks and then a few years, those friendships come naturally. Provided they lived in Hopkinton, certain members of my kvutzah and I would never ever talk, yet we share such a special friendship. After four fantastic years, I place these people in such a fine place in my heart, not only hoping for but determinedly putting in the effort all year round to maintain a friendship.  Although we so often focus on the high ideals of Hashomer Hatzair, one of its most powerful traits is taking some of that "ickiness" out of adolescence. The might of the movement lies in taking youth, sometimes lost in the midst of adolescence, and showing them somewhere to belong, and for that reason, I could genuinely celebrate among the dust and the mountains of canned corn the 100th anniversary of Hashomer Hatzair.

GLOSSARY
Hashomer Hatzair (meaning the young guard in Hebrew)- a youth movement that strives to teach and act upon the pillars of Socialism, Zionism, and Judaism.  The movement educates kids from ages 8 to 15 and then instills the task of educating on 16 to 30 year olds.

Ken-The place for weekly activities in Hashomer Hatzair. For example, you would say, "I am going to the Manhattan ken for a discussion about Yitzack Rabin."

Shomria-the site of the 100th year anniversary

Zionism-the belief that the Jewish people deserve the right to self-determination. defense and support for the state of Israel

Socialism-a system that empowers humans to develop themselves to their fullest potential as complete social, economic, and political equality are provided

Diaspora-Jews living outside the land of Israel

Kvutza-group/age group

Shomer/Shomeret-member of the youth movement

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts on Mitzvah Day 2013


            Reflecting on today’s day of service, I remind myself of a quote of Sylvia Boorstein’s, “Clearly the path of mitzvot is a path of meditation.” Seeing how far that this congregation changed in the world in just one day, I find extreme truth in this statement. By helping others, we improve not only their world but also our own. As Boorstein indicates, mitzvot provide the foundation for outer as well as inner peace. Today, I planted flowers in the B’nai Shalom gardens. People, some in our community and others visiting the temple, will view these flowers’ beauty. Perhaps, their sweet smell or brilliant color will provide cheer not felt by the individual on that particular day. Others prepared packages for several local organizations, accompanied the far too often ignored residents of Whitney Place, or took part in home construction for those who still wander without a place to call a home. God made the world imperfect during creation. Kabbalah indicates that when God tried to fill the world with God’s perfection, such substances combusted, unable to contain such holiness. Each and every act of love and kindness brings the Jewish people closer to meditation and the perfection God holds. Though never fully achievable, holiness is one’s relationship with God or that perfection in the world. To grow holier is to seem more perfect, more synchronized with what God tried to create. Often in the Western World, however, people congratulate themselves for a good deed. How often do we, say, serve food to the hungry and admire ourselves for being a decent person? Mitzvot, of course, are about the action and the reward it provides the citizen, not ourselves. The “mitzvah doer’s high” is a bonus to one’s enriching of the world, but the tranquility Boorstein describes refers to something greater than self-congratulation.      
            Mitzvot (God’s commandments) offer redemption for the individual that extends beyond qualifying oneself merely as a decent person. Holiness is upholding the three things the world stands upon and thereby establishing a closer relationship with God. The Torah and study of it establishes our foundation; in reading Genesis to Deuteronomy, one learns how to self-actualize and sift through the 613 mitzvot necessary for such fulfillment. Each commandment, be it as ancient as sacrifice or as relevant as forbidding murder, offers not an actual task but a value. For these examples, the values are discipline and the preciousness of life respectively. Once we know how to fulfill our potential, we turn to Avodah for the empowerment to achieve this personal mission. Prayers actually solve nothing. Really, in saying Mi Shebeirach over a sick loved one does not suddenly “inspire God” to heal them of their illness. In the freedoms of this universe, God chooses not to interfere in the lives of human beings in such a manner. Rather, prayer enables us to hope and share our sorrows in a constructive manner. Mi Shebeirach causes us to truly believe that the efforts we make on the Earth will eradicate disease and cure our loved ones. Just as Torah reveals to us a personal mission, worship indicates the belief and the path to reach these dividends. Then, we come to Mitzvah Day, not today but really every day. After knowledge and belief, action follows. Our personal mission allows us to perform service with a close yet selfless school of thought. Instead of pride in our own goodness, this type of service allows for fulfillment that sustains us. The knowledge that our efforts in Habitat for Humanity saved a homeless family from another cold winter or that our work in beautifying the temple today creates a better world for the people we know or do not know who will be affected by our efforts lift the world and brings not pride in ourselves, merely wholeness and holiness.
            The community of Congregation B’nai Shalom met at 9 am this morning with the intent of improving the world. People from all over the Metrowest united as Jews to really make a difference. Today, we call it Mitzvah Day. Tomorrow is Monday, but that Monday can be just as special as today. Do we need to build a house tomorrow to reach that same specialness? No. The benefit of following 613 mitzvot and having so many Jewish teachers, thinkers, and writers, is that our already known values as Jews guide us how to reach this redemption every day. Tragedy and cynicism deter even the best of us, but as a community, religious people, and world, we can find worldly redemption in conjunction with meditation. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Believe It Or Not, Looks Matter


            In this week’s Torah portion, God describes to Moses how to construct the Tabernacle. Upon God’s request, the Israelites gather their finest gold for the Tabernacle. According to the text, the Tabernacle features fine linen curtains and an extravagantly decorated table surrounded by cherubs. God emphasizes the quality of the Tabernacle’s appearance, stressing its holiness and therefore on level with its relationship to God. Throughout this week’s Torah parsha, God emphasizes the attractiveness of the Ark, but modern values make this emphasis on aesthetics seem superficial and perhaps unnecessary.    
            We all know the clich├ęs “Looks don’t matter” or “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, yet the extent to which people act on these sayings poorly reflects how often we hear them. Unfortunately, image plays an important role throughout the world. Keeping the Torah in a cardboard box rather than a finely constructed ark depreciates its value in some aspect. The lessons within the scroll remain the same, but the degree to which people respect the book changes. In this way, people are not shallow but merely psychologically affected by appearance. By no fault of their own, one’s experience changes as what they see changes. Part of the distinction between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom is a love of art. Paintings, theater, and buildings alike demand talent to design because we value their attractiveness. Wanting anything to appear nicely is inherent within human nature. When it comes time to think about whom to marry, we choose someone we find at least somewhat physically attractive. Whenever we come into the temple sanctuary, the beauty of the room sets a tone for worship. In a less appealing room, the mood completely changes, and the meaning of the prayers in the congregation hearts suffer from this alteration.  As much as I want to believe looks do not matter, I know that is only a lie I can tell myself for so long.
On the contrary, we need to strive to move past this emphasis on visuals and focus on that which makes a human more than their external features. In the example previously used, I said that looks matter when deciding on a life partner, but the person with the nicest hair or the best body in our eyes is not necessarily our soul mate. Certainly, we need to find someone who physically pleases our mental image of the ideal partner, but they need other qualities that extend beyond their appearance. Likewise, we need to set aside aesthetics when they very minimally impact our experience. While the sanctuary or the Tabernacle deserves some form of beauty to please people in regards to worship, selecting who reports the news on TV should not require an attractive, young person, as unfortunately frequently happens. As looks play no substantial part in the equation, remove them from the process.
 In regards to this week’s puzzling emphasis on looks, then, the question arises on how to live within this balance. One needs to place some stress on personal appearance and aesthetics in general. Sure, we need to dress somewhat nicely for job interviews, but this obsession with looks in America and all around the world needs to end when it reaches extremes. The difference between looking nice and appearing perfect is substantial. Attractiveness means going to the gym to maintain a healthy weight or wearing braces to improve one’s smile. Perfection leads to outrageous diets, eating disorders, and unnecessary surgeries. One must stay within their bounds of sanity, for obsessing over looks makes one superficial. Their increasing quality of physical appearance often depreciates their focus on perfecting what really matters: the soul. When within reach, make the sanctuary pretty, dress the Tabernacle with linen curtain, or shine the shoes a little bit.  In this way, we build confidence by carrying ourselves proudly in generating good self body image, but we stay between the limits of effort and obsession. One should judge others as he or she wants to be criticized. Recognizing beauty and forming an attitude about a person based on it are distinct entities. To be shallow is to form an opinion about someone based on their appearance. Rather, people need to take appearance minimally in regards to their judgment. If we all work to perfect our own look while judging people minutely on their appearance, these actions cyclically improve one another. In that way, God teaches us to design ourselves beautifully like the Tabernacle, for we are all created in the image and in respect to God.



Friday, February 08, 2013

Commandment 3

In last week's Torah portion (Exodus-Yitro), God presents Moses with the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The third of these commandments presented being "You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name."  During modern times, many people still adhere to this commandment's demands, yet a growing number of people see no validity in commandment three.  Of all the ten commandments, commandment three stands as one of the most controversial, lacking practicality and seems much more negative than the others.

On the contrary, numerous people find immense value in their abstention in swearing, and society still deems such censorship an admirable trait. When one analyzes the Ten Commandments, he or she sees that the first five revolve around matters of God: worshipping only God, protecting Gods' speech, keeping the Sabbath, and the second half of commandments deals with the domestic sphere: murder, jealousy, and adultery. Commandment three's original intents follows suit with its two predecessors. First, God enforces a sense of omnipotence. Second, God establishes monotheism, devaluing any otherwise worshipped objects. Here, God reiterates this sentiment in demanding that no one desecrates God's name through false language, interpreted by the majority as swearing in general. In a literal sense, the commandment stands as an additional way one respects God. Swearing's implications extended beyond this respect, though, for as people disdained others, foul language made people uncomfortable. Though some speak freely, one needs to empathize with those who swearing discomfort. Finally, when somebody swears, they admit something in their character. Cursing projects an angry attitude toward others, broken lawn mowers (as my dad can testify to), or horrifying news that comes to our eyes. Dropping the f-bomb leaves it effects beyond the simple conversation. When our reactions transform into cursing out, we leave a trail of angry moments. All of the sudden, we become an angry person. Just as body language incredibly affects social interaction, oral language plays a similar role. In a job interview, words matter. Even if one hated their last job, they cannot curse their boss when questioned about it at the new business. God delivered this commandment to gain respect, but swearing gained certain social consequences throughout the ages.

Until recently, I asserted that these notions made the commandments imperative to follow. I thought about the actual implication of swearing, compared to murder. Breaking these commandments leads to substantial repercussions. While swearing expresses a certain mindset, nobody dies. Really analyzing their meaning, swears are just as much words as "dog" or "cat".  There are millions of words in the English language, and we selected a certain number as inappropriate for commonplace speech. If we suddenly made the word "toilet" a curse,  does that suddenly make saying it in bad taste in the eyes of God? Truthfully, humans chose our language's curses, and therefore not swearing does not lie in the rule of God. Our ancestors censored society, not God.  In addition, I used to criticize my father for swearing often. As mentioned, I believe it reflects a negative attitude, yet I realized that these words that we deemed "swears" create just as much a thrill as when one "lives on the edge". The easiest way to encourage somebody to act a certain way is to restrict the very action. Making a rule causes people to break the said rule. Similarly, swears' existence causes our brains to feel somewhat satisfied to use them in angry moments. When we stub a toe or somebody truly annoys us, cursing appeases this frustration within. Swearing soothes the troubled souls, and therefore, people should be allowed to use these words if they so wish.  My last revelation regarding the third commandment came to me as I watched "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart". Sometimes we, as humans, utilize swearing as a mechanism for comedy. Some of Stewart's jokes are simply not as funny if he does not swear, for the very reaction that he conveys necessitates such language.

In weighing the pros against the cons of following this commandment, we need to interpret the law for ourselves, as is the case with many of the rules set in the Torah. Knowing that it makes certain people uncomfortable, we need to put ourselves in the context of a situation. Job interview, shaking the president's hand-bad times to swear. A joke on "The Daily Show"-not the worst time to swear. However, words that offend others and are used malicious, like the n-word, are never appropriate to orate, for when we use words for hate, they deserve censorship.  One needs to select their swears carefully. Follow this commandments with a sifter in mind. In my opinion, the commandment exceeds it original intent. Instead of teaching us how not to speak, it promotes humanity, as a whole, to think before they speak, an important skill for all of us to learn.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Response to "Schools Kill Creativity"


Upon seeing an amazing video from Ted.com, Ken Robinson's critcism that "schools kill creativity" inspired me to respond to such a troubling statement. Ken Robinson lectures on his view that schools are outdated in how they teach and that they essentially industrialize generations of children. He starts by discussing the extensively imaginative capabilities of the human mind. Noting several stories of young children, Robinson claims that all humans enter the world as creative individuals, yet the emphasis on classic academic subjects over the arts eventually destroys this spirit.  Criticizing this point, Robinson finds it necessary to reform the public education system so that it emphasizes creativity as much as literacy. He suggests that all students not only thoroughly study math, science, and the humanities but also explore a broad spectrum of artistic areas.  Ken Robinson postulates that the current education system produces one person well; college professors, and to some degree, I agree.
            Halfway through my sophomore year, I really feel like a part of the “education machine”, an exhausting stretch of answering questions right that all American students work toward for admittance to a university. I find myself looking at school as a numbers game at time, working to play the system rather than actually learn. In all my classes except band, I find myself trying to determine what the teachers wants me to recite back to them rather than how to process the information in a beneficial way for my future. From day to day, I try to produce something that pleases my teacher according to their curriculum standards rather than my educational vision. I often force myself to refocus on why I attend school, and I question when school turned into this guessing game of how to impress the Columbia University admissions board. Is it not important that I explore a positive means of expressing myself or synthesizing ideas? Some schools go as far as to cut their art programs, making a student's educational journey entirely drone-like. While I concur with Robison that children need exposure to each area of the arts, I disagree that someone who hates to draw take art class in high school. In this thought process, the responsibility falls on the elementary schools to encourage students to find themselves early in their lives. If a child discovers their creative niche in second grade, this passion will inspire them for the remainder of their life.  We need to stop telling our children their inhibitions are wrong. In his lecture, Robinson said “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” During my elementary education, one of my art teachers allowed us to act very freely in class, using any materials available to create what we envision. On the other hand, my teacher for the same class a few years later envisioned how a project looked before we began our very own creative process. Students deserve more teachers like the former, but they learn from more of the latter type. In addition, regular academics contain creative possibility that teachers currently ignore. Who said math class needed to follow a sequence of notes to practice problems to homework or that English go from novel to brief discussion to test or essay? Teaching can involve art, music, drama, or even dance. Teachers need to open their minds so that our brightest students are not just the college professors. The brilliant mind is not necessarily the one who can answer one-hundred difficult math questions correctly or memorize the steps of photosynthesis. We should shift the focus from fact retention to fact usage or expression. Such fact expression extends beyond the analytical essay or the corny video about the quadratic formula, students need to reflect on what they learn and understand it in a way that emphasizes the material more than a numbers game. This new schools expands the mind, and it molds individuals rather than singularly these Renaissance-talented demigods the Ivy League desires.
            On the other hand, seeing myself as one who knows to work the system I wonder how truly flawed it can be. Is America suffering from a broken system or a broken work ethic? One of the greatest qualities of public education is how it gathers people from all backgrounds to put them on an equal playing field. Before the nineteenth century, heredity determined one’s future. A quality education, as we know it today, allows the poorest student monetarily to rise to a better quality of life and earn their way out of poverty. In a more creative school, that equality disappears. Whether one lives in Massachusetts or California now, he or she needs to know that the four nitrogenous bases in DNA are guanine, thymine, adenine, and cytosine. With the new system, one's grades are based on how well one expresses such a fact in an enriching way. One expands the mind, yet this system relies on much more subjective teacher in nature where bias comes greatly into play. 
In my opinion, we require a more balanced system that both allows for free expression and factual knowledge. First, we need to establish an elementary school process that introduces the student to him or herself, exposes them to all forms of expression, and encourages their technique in utilizing these forms of creativity. Why teach a six-year old how to draw a puppy? They know what one looks like.  The "new teacher" exists for suggestion and advisement rather than criticism. Second, we need to reduce the amount of wrongness in our schools. The word “reduce” suggests that yes, we keep certain elements of school that serve as a great equalizer. However, in the “new school” one’s unique ways of tackling a subject are no longer incorrect. Third, we must diversify the experience in the classroom so that we grant students greater choice. Perform plays in math, and write raps about the election of 1800. Ken Robinson lectured about how schools kill creativity in 2006. Seven years later, I think it is time we start changing the system so that we form more than just college professors.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Shakespeare Series: Othello


"Othello" stands as one of Shakespeare's saddest tragedies, toying with an audience's hearts as Othello plunges into oblivion and madness. At the play's start, the Moorish general marries Desdemona, the daughter of the wealthyBrabantio. Instantly, Brabantio and a man swoon with love for Desdemona, Rodrigo, detest Othello as an outsider due to the color of his skin, and they claim their racial differences as a substantial obstacle of marriage. Coming into this situation, Iago languishes in his own pity, for Othello promoted Cassio to Lieutenant over the play's villain. As with all Shakespearean tragedies, Othello's life seems quite nice in the first two acts. His love for Desdemona only grows, and he wins a war against the Turks, returning safely to his wife in Cyprus. Iago hatches a plan to both destroy his enemy and obtain the position occupied by Cassio. He incorporates the Desdemona-seeking Rodrigo into his plan as his puppet, promising Rodrigo's crush to him at the plot's completion. In this plan, Iago seeks to gain the complete trust of Othello, break the trust between the lieutenant and the general, and perpetuate a lie that Desdemona cheats on her husband with Cassio. When the sad story unfolds, Iago beautifully wields all the characters into his trap. Subplots surrounding Rodrigo's questioning of Iago, Desdemona and Emilia's (Iago's wife) debates over the roles of women, and Cassio's longing to gain the trust of Othello again add a new layer to the story. In "Othello", a cruelly natured man devises and implements a nefarious plan to destroy Othello, his wife, and their livelihood. 

Throughout this story, Shakespeare uses this brilliant play to express subject matters relevant to both the Renaissance and the present day. Othello's downfall, though tragic, illustrates a belittling that gnaws at all humans from time to time. He transforms into what Iago describes as a green-eyed monster, yet the Moor's experience differs very little from most humans. Jealousy strikes at the core, making another's possession more appealing their one's own. Even today, extremely strong relationships end because envy strikes one of the members. It sparks high tempers, makes people Iago-like madmen, or creates an uncomfortable passive aggression that erodes a relationship. From "Othello", the reader learns to convey their thoughts in a manner opposite that of the Moor. Instead of asking Desdemona about her status with Cassio, Othello acts bitter toward her. In addition, the play shows how the subordination of women often leads to unnecessary suffering. The source of such disaster stems from a sense of duty for wives to obey their husbands. From beginning to end, Desdemona opts to remain silent, even as Othello inexplicably acts rudely toward her. By refraining to speak against Othello as a loyal wife, Desdemona faces the most preventable verbal and physical abuse from Othello. In a reversed manner, Shakespeare invokes his audience with a message on women's equality. While reading "Othello", one finds himself or herself immersed in an applicable world, where the character's actions dramatically mirror that of modern society. 

Though difficult to read at times, I recommend "Othello" to any experienced Shakespeare reader. This play showcases what seems in opinion as the best villain in literature. Iago excellently manipulates everyone around him, in such a way I find myself unable to describe in this short summary. Only in watching or reading the play, one sees how magnificently Iago gains the trust of his peers and slowly incepts the ideas of his plot into their heads. Without ever accusing Desdemona of cheating with Cassio, he sends the Moor into a jealous rage. Contrary to most of the plays I read, I believe it is easier to understand and more enjoyable to watch Othello rather than sit with the book. In a theater, the characters and their emotions come across clearer than the words on a page. Still, I find exposure to this play necessary for anyone who enjoys devise characters and clever literature. Shakespeare brilliantly develops his characters in "Othello", making the change in all of them quite striking. From Act I to Act V, the reader experiences a quick sequence of events that change the gentlest creatures into brooding monsters. Although "Othello" seems to difficult for anyone's first Shakespeare, I encourage those with a grip on the bard's words to read over this exquisite depiction of character change, truest antagonism, and enriching thematic work.