Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This is the Land

This is the Land

On her first visit to Israel recently, Dr. Qanta Ahmed saw the country ‘as God sees it.’ The Muslim physician and daughter of Pakistani immigrants to the US was smitten by the natural beauty, history and modern achievements that came into vivid focus
By Qanta Ahmed

Rolling land, feeds, nurtures, inspires, survives... (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Ascending a precipice, we approach a lone tree reaching upwards to its Maker. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Water carried from the Sea of Galilee. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

The other Israeli army: neat ranks of crops pack the landscape like so many sentries. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

...and tucked her in my memory. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Rolling land, feeds, nurtures, inspires, survives... (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Dead Sea (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Nothing prepares for the view of Jerusalem as God sees it. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

The Land unfolds beneath, rippling softly, the rumpled silk of a woman’s dress. The morning Mediterranean glistens in the Levant sun. Above, blades slice the humid air. My eye is drawn to the scene below.

Uri has the reassuring air of a battle-hardened surgeon. A creature of the sky, he is a veteran of the Israeli air force, a career spent flying Black Hawks full of paratroopers. I imagine him visor-ed, surveying this glittering scene veiled by night, his only companions the looming thup-thup of silenced rotors and tense soldiers mute before a mission. Those days long behind him, Uri spends his retirement sharing the beauty of Israel.

We leave from Herzliya, a sleepy airfield patrolled by regal peacocks. “Someone once had them at a wedding near here”, explains the attractive security officer who checks my passport, “but the peacocks decided to stay”.

Approaching the helicopter I am briefly alarmed at its small size – I am fairly certain my car is bigger. Obediently I climb in as Uri begins checking the blades. Securing a seatbelt, I wait. And like that, light as a feather, we are away.
 Israeli Coastline – Stunning sand cliffs, a few minutes north of Herziliyah. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
 Herod’s amphitheater (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Dancing blue and green water surrounding Herod’s palace on the sea (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
The blue Mediterranean surrounding Haifa. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
The new football stadium gleams in the morning sun. (photo: Qanta Ahmed) 
Neat lines in a Jewish cemetery in Haifa (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Ascending a precipice, we approach a lone tree reaching upwards to its Maker.
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Water carried from the Sea of Galilee. (photo: Qanta Ahmed
The golden land of Galilee. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
The other Israeli army: neat ranks of crops pack the landscape like so many sentries.
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Swooping to avoid an oblivious bird, Uri calls out in delight, tapping my leg for attention.
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
I snatched this secret shalom ...(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
…and tucked her in my memory. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Rolling land, feeds, nurtures, inspires, survives... (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)

We follow the coast, passing the busy route north. Before Uri can point it out, I spy Netanya, ‘Gift from God’ as I had learned from various drivers who had taken me back and forth recent days. I can see the busy construction of much needed skyscrapers, which are surprisingly few given Israel’s premium demand for space for its growing population.

Soon we are flying over Caesaria. Monied today, monied yesterday, Caesaria is for Israel’s uber-wealthy. I spy Herod’s amphitheater and hippodrome that I only recently clambered with my guide. From the air, whole millennia later the grandeur remains arresting in a way even Herod himself couldn’t have imagined. The petrol sea crashes over palace ruins, a gorgeous dance of green and blue.

At Haifa we hover as air-traffic control asks us to wait. As we circle, I see the new football stadium. Haifa’s coast encircles the sea inviting all to sail toward her. I glimpse the spectacular Technion and the adjoining Rambam Medical campus where newly minted colleagues and friends (relationships I cemented during an extraordinary visit there) are busy at work.

We fly on, continuing over Galilee. Ripe land bears fruit being harvested below. Workers gather my favorite Israeli food. tomatoes. the red boxes immediately eye-catching in a verdant land. A worker waves, smiling at us without seeing. From 400 feet above we connect.

Swooping to avoid an oblivious bird, Uri calls out in delight, tapping my leg for attention. We circle a formation of freshly baled hay. At first I cannot discern the arrangement. Determined I do, he banks hard right to circle again. Finally, I recognize the letter ‘sheen’. “Shalom” read the stacks of straw. At a short distance, the shalom is framed by an arc of bales, a straw smile. We laugh out loud at this private present only we can enjoy from our seat in the sky. As we race away, I tuck the secret Shalom into a special memory.

Rolling fields are immaculately tended. Not an inch of space goes to waste. Dates, mangoes, bananas grow in neat lines, ranks of an impossible army. Some of the more delicate fruits are veiled – protection from bats. For the first time I see pomegranate trees! Gracefully bowed, their short branches deeply curved, weighted with still young fruit supplicate to the Holy land.

North. I spy Tiberius. I am reminded of seaside Liguria. Pretty houses compete with one another along the coastal waters. “This is the Vegas of real estate in Israel, explains Uri “Just watch, property will begin to rise in value.”

Further we fly, towards the Golan. I had been here days earlier surveying the Golan on foot from Mount Bental. Plumes of smoke had then distracted me from the guide’s detailed descriptions. As the guide had talked I was transfixed by the fire. Assad’s war was near, an affront to the pristine vistas – his inhumanity a desecration of the land.

Yet still the land unfolds: fields; lapis-colored reservoirs; soft rolling hills. No one has prepared me for the soft beauty of the Golan. In my brain I had conjured images of a demilitarized zone, barren, desecrated and godforsaken. Instead I see a landscape which speaks England. Neat fields, intensely green, pepper the landscape. Soft brown hills evoke the Scottish Highlands save the purple heather. This land was host to conflicts and wars, bunkers and bombs? Somehow, like the rest of Israel, the resilient land has recovered and not only repaired, but blossomed, responding to destruction with incredible vitality and bold beauty. What spirit, this land!

Southward now, the Israeli side of the Jordan Valley below reveals what everyone talks about but few get to see – the ‘greening’ of the desert. After fifteen years of traveling to the Arab Gulf, I find it impossible to believe desert was once here.

Irrigated green strips interrupt freshly tilled soil eager for crops. On the Jordanian side I see more nascent cultivation, but greenery nonetheless. “It was part of the peace agreement” Uri tells me “Israel had to share its irrigation and agricultural technology with Jordanians as part of the deal. Israel even had to share its water.”

After two weeks of being in Israel, I now accept there are many things here I will not understand, including how Israelis can move towards not only tolerance in peace, but nurturing partnerships with those once their mortal enemies.

We pass an innocuous fence. I can hardly see it. Uri becomes even more animated. “Can you see it? Can you see it? THAT’S the border!” At first, I see nothing. Straining, I finally spy the slender wire fence which separates Israel from Jordan. This, a border? Couldn’t possibly be. There is no separation. Compared to the borders of the United States or Pakistan or India or Afghanistan – all of which I have visited – this is incredibly intimate. But good fences, an abiding and treasured value of observant Jews (to define, separate, enshrine, and through this separation respect and honor) -make for good neighbors. Israel’s neighborliness is visible from the air.
I land on the Wishing Mountain and the heat rises to greet me. (photo: supplied by Qanta Ahmed
The Dead Sea -- salty and sleepy in the high noon. (photo: Qanta Ahmed
Dead Sea (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
The unshaven beard of an aging man. Judean desert. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Nothing prepares for the view of Jerusalem as God sees it.
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
 (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
 (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)

South now we head, down to the Dead Sea. I feel like a flying fish, the sun gleams on the surface and, descending, our glass-walled helicopter begins to heat anew. The altimeter descends into the negative range. We are flying yet we are descending below the sea. In a metaphor made only for Israel, like this land, we defy nature.

Faster, we chase the helicopter’s rakish shadow, ever out of our grasp. The rotors beget heavy ripples stirring the sleepy, salty sea. We sweep at ever lower altitudes over the Dead Sea, “like a power boat’ says Uri as we reach the lowest point on earth. The delight in his face is evident. I am too excited to be afraid. We are lone, in the air, land and sea. Israel ensconces us.

West now, the final leg of what I already know to be a pivotal journey. Finally, Uri shows me a landscape fitting of ‘The Middle East’. This is the desiccation to which I am accustomed. Scant shrubs stubble the landscape, the unevenly shaved beard of an aged man. The undulating land mesmerizes. The beauty is extraordinary, unholy. We fall into silence.

Ascending a precipice, we approach a lone tree reaching upwards to its Maker. The brave shock of green is besieged by the land of gold. God-centered in the face of hardship, sturdy and strong, the tree is an icon to Israel’s Sabras.

Saluting its strength with an overhead circle, we head for a nearby mountain. Gentle as a kitten, the chopper lands. Rotors still on, we discard our headphones and disembark. ‘The wishing mountain’ Uri explains. Remains of a fire are testament to a sunset witnessed, a nightfall treasured. A perpetual breeze brushes our cheeks. The silence of the desert mutes even the rotors. The ground temperature begins to rise to our faces. I make a wish, two in fact: one for Peace, and another, most selfishly, for my return.

Again we board. This time we are leaving the desert. Peeking at Jericho we head on, westward and finally, as I had promised myself so many years ago, on to Jerusalem.

In the days before I have clumsily clambered over Jerusalem. I have competed with tourists from every corner of the globe. I have stayed in East Jerusalem and West. I have visited shrines to the three great monotheisms and cast prayers at every site, some written, some spoken, all heartfelt. But nothing prepares for the view of Jerusalem as God sees it – the view from His heavenly throne.

Rolling green Cypress-laden hills yield to tawny cemeteries, some Muslim some Jewish. Golden domes of Russian orthodoxy echo the gold leaf of the Dome. Dove gray domes to Christianity are tipped with perfectly proportioned crucifixes. A gorgeous Christian hospice, St Augustine, forms perfect angles in a city defined by circles and globes.

My heart leaps with an inexplicable bolt. In just a few short days I have become deeply enamored of this ancient, gorgeous epicenter. Jerusalem is magnetic. A centripetal attraction draws me ever in. The helicopter follows this strange gravity. Trapped in this orbit, we circle again and again, neither of us sated with the extraordinary view.

As we circle tighter and tighter, and I become dizzy from the revolutions: images in my mind; images I can see; images I greedily ensnare in my buzzing camera. Finally, visually overwhelmed, I simply gaze, the beauty below beyond my computation. May it be branded in my memory until my death.

Those final minutes stretch into hours of captivation until suddenly, in a dusty clearing my pilot has landed, soft pawed like a big cat. Stepping out of the craft, I am awakened from my reverie.

This is the Land. This is what my American Jewish friends in New York City, surviving on the other side of The Holocaust, yearn for without words. This is the fabled place to which deeds from the 20th century are still treasured by Palestinian families long gone. This is the scene from where Islam’s Prophet began his night journey. This is what he must surely have seen as he charged ahead on Barak.

This is the Land. Ha’Aretz. And I learn, quite simply: like many, I had long loved her without knowing, and will love her wherever I go, whomever I become, whomsoever I worship. Wherever destiny may choose to pit me upon her unseen path, this will always be Israel.

Longing for Zion, Now That We Are Here

Longing for Zion, Now That We Are Here

by Tal Becker

Next week we mark the 17th of Tamuz, beginning a three-week period of remembering and mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Jerusalem that culminates with the fast of the 9th of Av.

For some, there is something deeply incongruous in perpetuating this ritual mourning period for a people that has returned to its homeland, and to Jerusalem. Is this commemoration of destruction really still warranted? Why should our pain and memory be marked in the time of our national rebirth in the same way it was marked during our national dispersion? This question is usually presented as a challenge to the way we continue to observe Tisha Be’av, but it perhaps reflects an even larger question about what place longing should have for a people that has come home. For centuries, the Jewish people longed for Zion, keeping Jerusalem in our prayers and our consciousness well before the idea of national self-determination in our ancient homeland became an active political program. Throughout the many years of exile, the dreams of return sustained us, and mourning over the loss of Jerusalem was both natural and a unifying force for our people.

But what do we do with the sense of yearning our people has cultivated and maintained over centuries when the underlying causes for it ostensibly have been removed? What happens when the generation of Moses that was promised the land but never entered it is replaced by the Joshua generation, for whom Israel is not just a promise but an actual, physical home? Indeed, despite all of our contemporary challenges, the Jewish people – both in our sovereign homeland and in many communities outside it – is thriving and vibrant. What place is there for the mindset or modalities of an existence in exile, when Jews feel increasingly in charge of their national destiny? There have been several answers to this challenge across the Jewish world.

For some the longing for Zion has been replaced by the sense of a national mission to protect the miracle of Israel’s establishment from the forces that remain aligned against it. In this model, we have indeed fulfilled our dream: The Jewish people has come home. But the calling of this generation is to shield that dream from those who wish to threaten it physically or to undermine its moral legitimacy. Destruction is still a possibility, and the memory of past exile serves as a warning against its recurrence.

For others, the longing for Zion has been transformed into a longing for normalcy. The anomaly of Jewish exile has ended, but in its place has come a craving for an existence like all other nations. In this view, our “chosenness” as a people, the uniqueness of our story, has only been a curse.

What the return to Zion offers is a plea to bring Israel out of the category in which the Prophet Bilaam places us in this week’s parsha, of being a “nation that dwells alone.”

A third response has been to channel our longing for return to Zion into a longing for a particular kind of Zion: One in which the Temple has been rebuilt, one in which we are finally at peace with our neighbors, or one in which the best of Jewish values and traditions are reflected in the public life, culture and policy of the state.

Yet another response has been to remove Jewish longing from being a collective experience and to shift it into an individual mission for personal fulfillment. The national objective of rebirth has been met, but the quest for personal achievement, the pursuit of a rich and meaningful Jewish life within our families, communities and selves, continues.

What these and other responses share is a respect for the continuing place of longing in the Jewish condition. German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig was one of numerous Jewish thinkers who wrote about how a sense of exile and longing is embedded as part of the essence of the Jewish story. We may live in Zion, but we remain forever removed somehow from that mythical Zion that exists in our imagination.

From Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, from the call to Avraham to leave his father’s house, from the wanderings and unsettledness of our people’s history, from the unfulfilled love of the Song of Songs, our tradition embodies a deep acceptance of – even a commitment to – an abiding state of incompleteness.

Our tradition embraces the idea that some sense of brokenness, of want, is not just fundamental to who we are, it is in some way our contribution to the partnership we have with the Divine. In some deep way, a striving for completeness from a state of inherent interminable incompleteness is the one thing we can offer the Almighty, who by definition is without blemish.

Our imperfections and the pain of living unredeemed lives are in this sense both a source of deep sorrow and of profound strength. It is a constant reminder of the journey left to make, and that the process of reaching for our better personal and collective selves is never ending.

There is always a place for Jewish longing, because we are a people defined more by our aspirations than by our achievements. There is a place for longing, even if we embrace the many blessings of coming home.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Orthodox Yeshiva Set To Ordain Three Women.                               Just Don’t Call Them ‘Rabbi.’

The first graduating class at Yeshivat Maharat may not have the title, but they do have jobs at Orthodox synagogues

Ruth Balinsky Friedman studies at the Drisha Beit Midrash. 
(Batya Ungar-Sargon)

The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi
Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy
By Allison Hoffman

On June 16, three Jewish women will be ordained as Orthodox members of the clergy in the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, which bills itself on its website as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as Spiritual leaders and Halakhic authorities.” But even though Yeshivat Maharat also claims to be “actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders,” its female graduates will not be granted the title of “rabbi.” Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Abby Brown Scheier will instead be ordained with the title of “maharat,” a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, or female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah.

While the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements of Judaism have been ordaining women since 1972, 1974, and 1985, respectively, the Orthodox community has resisted this development, except in a few unofficial cases in Israel. Orthodox women have completed courses of study in Torah and Jewish learning but they have typically been granted nonclerical titles, such as yoetzet halakha—halakhic adviser.

Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat, was the first Orthodox woman to be ordained in the United States. In 2009, Hurwitz received smicha from Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of both Yeshivat Maharat and the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as well as leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. Originally, Hurwitz was also ordained with the title maharat, but Weiss changed her title to rabba—a feminization of rabbi—in February 2010, incensing the Orthodox rabbinical community. Weiss is known as a figure who courts controversy, but the brouhaha in this case was short-lived. By March, the Rabbinical Council of America issued  astatement about “discussions” that members of the Orthodox RCA had with Weiss: “We are gratified that during the course of these conversations Rabbi Weiss concluded that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of ‘rabba’ on graduates of their program.” Hurwitz continues to use the title of rabba, but no future graduates will have that option.

But the battle isn’t merely semantic; it’s about what roles women will be permitted to perform in Orthodox institutions. On May 7, 2013, the RCA reissued its 2010 statement, noting: “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”

“Historically and traditionally, women haven’t served as clergy,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, told me in a recent phone interview. “In addition to thehalakha, there are broader implications for the community. Traditional rabbinic roles have not been in the domain of women.” While the RCA takes no official position about whether ordaining women is halakhically permissible “in the strict sense,” Dratch noted: “Even if it were permissible, it might not be good policy,” calling the ordination of Orthodox women “divisive” and “premature.”

Sperber, who administered the smicha exam to next week’s graduates, acknowledged: “The question of the title is a difficult question. On the one hand, people live by titles. Institutions live by titles. Many positions require a title—a B.A., for example. On the other hand, they are politically explosive. So, it must be a gradual process. I think it would be good to give full respect to the women for what they are and know and have accomplished without challenging the Orthodox establishment. Which is exactly what the word ‘maharat’ is intended to do.”

This is also how the new maharats feel. “I am a member of the clergy,” said Kohl Finegold, “but I don’t use the word ‘rabbi’ in my head. People get caught up with the title, but for me, it’s about the function, what I do.”

Friedman agreed: “We don’t focus on the title of rabbi; we focus more on the work we’re doing.”

Perhaps an indication of the readiness of Orthodox congregations to accept these maharats lies in this fact: Three women from Yeshivat Maharat have already secured jobs. While the maharats won’t count in a minyan and can’t be a witness at a wedding, as male rabbis do and can, the positions that have opened for these women are positions that are open only to clergy and that require smicha.

“This is not about title,” Weiss emphasized. “It is about a degree—about women having earned the right to be poskot (decisors of Jewish law) and spiritual leaders.”


“The issue of women’s rabbinic leadership, regardless of title, is not primarily a debate over Jewish law, but over the power to define and control the franchise of ‘Orthodox Judaism,’ ”Rabbi Josh Yuter, who leads Lower Manhattan’s Orthodox Stanton Street Shul, wrote to me. “This explains why none of the Orthodox organizations have challenged the maharats at the level of their competency, or attempted to compare their competency to graduates from comparable institutions.” Indeed, no one I spoke to from the Orthodox institutions that disapprove of ordaining women—regardless of the title granted—questioned the individual graduates’ credentials.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, wrote to me: “The essence of the Jewish Mesorah, or religious tradition, is that there are distinct normative roles for men and for women. The goal of achieving, as Yeshiva Maharat endorses, ‘a pluralistic community, where women and men, from every denomination, can enhance the Jewish world’ by assuming positions of public leadership is not only antithetical to the concept of tzniut (modesty), which expresses the essence of a Jewish woman’s role and strength, but also to the very idea of Orthodox Judaism, where communal practice is determined by the community’s rabbinic elders, who have spent their lives immersed in the selfless and deep study of Torah and in personal self-control. Judaism is about obligations, not needs,” he added. ”Hundreds of generations of Jewish women have somehow managed without assuming roles in Jewish society dissonant with tzniut. And hundreds of thousands of Jewish women in our own day do not feel disenfranchised in any way by the lack of female rabbis (whatever name they’re given).”

Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Theological Seminary, made a similar argument (quoting Saul Lieberman) in a 2011 article in the journal Hakira titled “Women Rabbis?”—arguing that tzniut, for women and for men, was the main issue. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of Y.U.’s Center for the Jewish Future, told me: “Y.U. does not endorse the ordination of women. We follow the tradition and the protocols which are in line with the tradition of Orthodoxy. We’re into creating opportunities, not titles.”

Brown Scheier, one of the new maharats, has a different take on tzniut, citing Piskei Uziel, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1948 to 1954, who wrote about the question of women in positions of leadership: “It is common sense that in any serious meeting and meaningful conversation there is no question of lack of modesty. … And sitting in the proximity [of women] when involved in communal affairs, which is work in holiness, does not lead to lightheartedness, (i.e., immodesty). For all Israel are holy people, and her women are holy, and are not to be suspect of breach of modesty and morality.”

Hurwitz, who says she is “connected to the rabbinic system,” emphasizes that having female leaders doesn’t go against the tenets of Orthodoxy: “This is my community,” she said. “I think there is a space for women to lead within Orthodoxy. … When people say we’re not Orthodox—it’s not a real accusation. We know we are Orthodox.”


A lot has changed since Hurwitz was ordained—in particular the founding of Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, which attracted other women to follow in her footsteps. “She didn’t want to be alone,” said Brown Scheier. “When I heard what [Hurwitz] had done in 2009, and that they were starting a yeshiva, I was really inspired by her, by the shift and change that she had brought.” In addition to the three women graduating next week, the yeshiva currently enrolls 14 women in its four-year program.

As for the debate over titles, Hurwitz noted simply: “We are living up to the promise we made to RCA. We want to respect their leadership.”

The title, it seems, was not as important to the students who enrolled in the yeshiva as the Orthodox environment: “I could have gone to any number of places—Hebrew Union College, JTS—and they would have called me rabbi,” said Kohl Finegold. “But it’s not my community. It’s not how I identify.”

Peres: ‘We came to the promised land, we must make it a land of promise’

Peres: ‘We came to the promised land, we must make                   it a land of promise’

Speaking at 90th birthday party, president calls for more just Israeli society, says ‘Israel and Palestine of tomorrow offer children ray of hope’

Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi congratulates Israeli President Shimon Peres after performing at a celebration 
in honor of Peres's 90th birthday, in Jerusalem, June 18, 2013. 
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

President Shimon Peres celebrated his 90th birthday Tuesday night with Israeli and foreign dignitaries, telling them that his one great lesson from years of experience as a public figure was to follow your moral compass.

“To be a loyal servant of your people, you must follow your moral compass, whose values are clear cut. At dusk, take stock of the errors of the day. At dawn, do not forget the night’s dreams. I have learned that a dream is only the beginning of a better tomorrow. And this is the spirit of the gathering that we open tonight. Making the dream of tomorrow — today’s agenda.”

Peres thanked his guests for coming from all over the world to celebrate the birthday of a man “whose only sin was to grow a year older.”

The festivities featured a star-studded guest list, including former US president Bill Clinton, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, and Israeli celebrities and artists like Eyal Golan, Adi Ashkenazi and Shlomo Artzi.

The other guests also praised Peres, with former British prime minister Tony Blair calling the Israeli president Israel’s analogy to Britain’s queen, and Clinton saying Peres was the social Einstein, a nod to his years in the peace camp and late-blooming embrace of social media.

Peres used the occasion to call on Israelis to take the “necessary steps” to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“I believe that the Israel of tomorrow and the Palestine of tomorrow can offer our children a ray of hope. The advancement of peace will complete the march of Israel towards the fulfillment of its founding vision,” 
he said.

During the speech Peres thanked his family, making a special mention of his late wife — “the love of my life” — who died two years ago, and spoke of his love for his country, praising its many accomplishments while urging it to do better.

The president’s vision, he said, is for “a country which welcomes different opinions, but rejects all forms of discrimination whether based on religion, nationality, ethnicity or gender. A society which respects the weak and is kind to the foreigner, which cares for the orphan and the widow, the old and the sick. A country of solidarity and tolerance. But a country with zero-tolerance for violence, corruption and bullying.”

“We came to the promised land and now we must make it a land of promise,” said Peres.

Acknowledging Israelis’ reputation for brashness, Peres said: ”I am in love with my people, who can be passionate and even short-tempered. Their language is sometimes less than diplomatic but at the same time their understanding, their creativity, their courage and the goodness of their heart, their generosity and the warmth which they exude — can melt hearts.”

“The state of Israel is the living proof that the potential hidden within the human being is richer than the resources buried in the soil. I love this country,” he added.

Earlier in the event, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on the exemplary status that Peres symbolizes in the eyes of many Israeli citizens as a striver for peace and defender of the country.

“Peace favors the strong. A strong Israel gives an opportunity for peace,” Netanyahu said.

“Shimon, you are a man of vision, a man of peace. You do not cease to be interested, to enquire, to hope, to achieve,” he said. “You look towards the future, that is a very Jewish characteristic. Our nation went through thousands of years in exile, but as time passed we only looked forward, until creating this state, of which you were one of its founders.”

Peres’s actual birthday is in August, but celebrations begin this week in conjunction with the 2013 Israel Presidential Conference, to be held Tuesday through Thursday in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to be an Optimist in the Middle East

How to be an Optimist in the Middle East

By Tal Becker

Repeated surveys suggest that Israelis are among the happiest and most optimistic people in the Western world. One such study conducted by Gallup ranked Israel in the Top 10 countries on the "happiness" list, alongside New Zealand (!). It's not quite clear what weight can be given to these kinds of surveys, but almost anyone I've met responds to these statistics with pure astonishment.

The results are counterintuitive. For a country beset by such grave threats, so scarred by war and terrorism, and with such deep internal challenges, happiness is not the first emotion that comes to mind. Israeli Jews are thought to take a certain pride in being hard-nosed and cynical. It is part, perhaps, of living in such a dangerous neighborhood, or of belonging to a people with a unique history of persecution, that cheerfulness is often more associated with naivete than with a positive attitude to life.

The disconnect is most telling when one compares the sense of vibrancy and passion of Israelis on the street with the regularly depressing headlines of the newspapers, or the downbeat analysis of Israeli experts and spokespeople about the regional predicament. It is hard, especially for visitors to Israel, to reconcile the dangers Israelis face with the mood on a Tel Aviv beach on any given day.

There are numerous potential explanations for this mysterious optimism. Some have suggested it is the result of a certain fearlessness produced by decades of conflict. Others claim, as former New York Times correspondent Ethan Bronner did in a widely discussed column last week, that Israelis have increasingly turned inward, focusing more on their private lives than on the national drama - a version of ignorance being the best form of bliss.

But perhaps a deeper explanation lies in differing conceptions of the very nature of optimism itself. For many, the optimist is one who can see the positive in any situation, who insists – sometimes with the assistance of rose-colored glasses - on searching out and focusing on what is good and promising in any reality. This brand of optimism can be dangerous anywhere, but especially in the Middle East. It can promote a distortion of reality and can lead one to misjudge or belittle the seriousness of Israel's threats. The result can be a form of hope that produces false expectations, and may be a greater guarantee of future misery than of lasting happiness.

There is, however, a different understanding of optimism which is more deeply ingrained in the Zionist mindset and in our Jewish tradition. We are able to be positive and hopeful not necessarily because we think the present story of Israel is one overflowing with good news, but because we know that the full story has not yet been told. There is more work that we can do to shape the next chapters of Israel's history - the choices we make and the integrity with which we make them matter. In this version, an optimist is not one that sees the glass as half full but rather one who believes it may still be possible, with resilience and patience, to slowly fill it.

This kind of attitude was as critical to the early Zionists who built the State as it is to Israel's well-being today. It is what led us to concentrate on what could be built out of the part of our ancient homeland offered in the UN Partition Resolution. It is what produces the innovation and ingenuity Israelis are known for today - by asking what can be created from what we have. And it is what should underlie the pursuit of peace and security today - not a fanciful belief that some kind of idyllic peace is easily within reach, but rather the sense of empowerment which comes from recognizing that with wise choices and effective action we can make our lives better, more secure and more peaceful, even if not fully free from fear or danger.

This same kind of optimism draws its inspiration from the Jewish tradition. President Shimon Peres is fond of saying that one of the Jewish people's greatest exports is dissatisfaction. But perhaps another way to express this idea is that the Biblical imperative of being "a kingdom of priests and a holy people" (Exodus 19:6) compels you not only to ask how can I be better tomorrow than I was today, but also to believe that constant improvement is possible. For Judaism, and the Jewish story, it has never been about arriving at the ultimate destination – that is, in the hands of the Messiah – it is about recognizing our capacity to move, however incrementally, in the right direction.

Anyone truly familiar with Jewish history, with the miracle of Israel's establishment, with the dangers we have overcome cannot help but be an optimist. But this is not because the outcome is clear or necessarily guaranteed; it is because of the life-affirming power inherent in the belief that where we are going is still, at least in part, in our hands.

What’s so special about Waze?

What’s so special about Waze?

Waze is hitting the news with its up and down $1 billion negotiations with high-tech giants like Facebook and Google. Its crowd-sourcing model is very social media friendly - and it’s also very Israeli.
By Don Futterman

Waze, the Israeli company that is creating a GPS revolution with a free satellite navigation smartphone app, hit the headlines on Wednesday. For some time the object of desire of three of the biggest hi-tech companies in the world, Waze apparently rejected offers earlier this year from Google for $300 million and from Apple for $500 million. Next Facebook wanted to friend Waze for $1 billion, although it was reported Wednesday that negotiations had broken down. Google is now reportedly trying to trump even Facebook’s enormous offer.

Co-founded in 2008 by three Israelis, Ehud Shabtai, Amir Shinar and Uri Levine, and led by CEO Noam Bardin, Waze has now become an international phenomenon, with more than 30 million users in 45 countries - apart from the U.S. and Israel, you can use Waze from Argentina to Australia via a swathe of European countries - and 2½ million new users join every month.

In common with many other drivers in Israel, Waze has long since supplanted the pricey standalone GPS device I installed in my car a few years back. Waze operates in time rather than exclusively in space. Instead of launching you on a pre-programmed path from point A to point B, Waze routes – and reroutes – you in real time according to changing traffic conditions, always directing you to the fast-track of the moment. The program also updates your estimated time of arrival, giving you sufficient advance warning to invent excuses for running late. Should you take a wrong turn, the program recalibrates automatically, and if you don’t like the recommended route – if, for example, you want to avoid toll roads or – driving in Israel - the occupied territories, you can request alternatives.

So how does Waze work? Rather than monitoring every road in existence, Waze uses its un-enlisted army of field ops; all the drivers using Waze. Your smart-phone is constantly transmitting data back to Waze about your location, speed and progress, and the system processes the data coming in from all the Waze drivers to calculate route efficiency.

This crowd-sourcing model would theoretically align well with the social media culture of data-sharing. It’s also very Israeli. Waze links hi-tech entrepreneurship with the power of the collective, drawing both on brilliant algorithms and its community of users, if not to promote an ideological vision, then at least to provide superior service.

Occasionally the program supplements its automated data collection by soliciting specific answers from drivers. When your speed drops, a message appears to check if there is a road hazard, a speed trap, a slowdown or if traffic has come to a standstill, information it then shares with all its drivers. It takes one tap to answer – hopefully without causing an accident. Drivers can simply ignore the question, but apparently many respond.

Waze doesn’t ask for more details – whether you have pulled over to daven mincha before sunset or to let your toddler pee – because the program is designed to prevent you from texting while driving. If you try to enter a destination while the car is in motion, an “uh-oh” message appears, checking if it is the driver or a passenger making the request. The program can’t yet tell if you’re lying, but at least it reminds the                      multi-tasking driver that s/he’s being a fool.

While no program is perfect, my own experience has been extremely positive. So far, whenever we have ignored a Waze directive to get off a main road for a less familiar route, we have lived to regret it. But Waze’s effectiveness is dependent upon the number of users; more data coming in at any given moment means a more complete traffic picture. Without market penetration, Waze has trouble competing with plainer mapping systems. If there are no Waze users a quarter mile or ten or fifty miles ahead of you, the program loses its advantage.

Despite its incredible popularity – but according to a familiar script in the start-up world - Waze has struggled to figure out how to make money. The company has begun to charge businesses to be put in the system –Waze now can tell drivers where the nearest convenience store is, if there's a shoe sale on nearby, or a driver can tell Waze she wants to eat in 40 minutes and Waze will estimate where you will be by then and what restaurants will be in the vicinity.

I can think of a few improvements. A voice command feature to talk back to Waze would alleviate the need to tap at all. In addition to the choice of a female or male voice and the choice of languages – my Waze is programmed to speak to me in English but I input the destination in Hebrew to avoid transliteration snafus – I would suggest personalized verbal command styles, according to individual preferences: “Get ready, get ready, coming soon… Idiot! I told you to turn left! Left!” for those who like to be hectored, or something like, “Missed our turn again, but no big deal… in 14 kilometers we can turn around,” for drivers who need the anxiety dialed down. Your Israeli or American army sergeant can bark out staccato commands - “Faster! You worthless piece of garbage!" And send you back to the beginning of your trip if you mess up. Or Bibi Netanyahu could tell you turn right at every opportunity (true, that will lead you in a circle.)

For now, the Waze app is free. And note the local angle to the breaking point in the buy-out negotiations: Facebook wanted to relocate R&D operations out of Israel to Silicon Valley and Waze founders insisted on maintaining at least some operations here in Israel. Whether this was - and will be in future negotiations - a patriotic gesture, an expression of personal preferences or simply a negotiating ploy, it’s shouting out for a 'Like'.

Don Futterman is program director at Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private foundation that has been building civil society in Israel for more than 20 years. He can be heard bi-weekly on the Promised Podcast.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Near Dutch ‘Sharia triangle,’ a small Jewish enclave endures

Near Dutch ‘Sharia triangle,’ a small Jewish enclave endures

In the Van Ostade Housing Project, residents are so intimidated by their Muslim neighbors that they hide kipot and hang mezuzas indoors

THE HAGUE (JTA) — On a cold winter night in 2008, Wim Kortenoeven was startled by the crackling of a large fire raging near his home on the edge of this city’s last remaining Jewish enclave.

Rushing from his apartment, Kortenoeven walked 70 yards and crossed the line separating his Jewish-owned housing project from the predominantly Muslim borough containing what Dutch media have taken to calling the “Sharia triangle” — Sharia referring to Islamic law.

On the seam line, he encountered dozens of Dutch Moroccans looking at several parked cars that vandals had set on fire.

Fearing explosions, Kortenoeven shouted to the people looking down from their balconies to go back inside, but his intervention was ignored.

“Onlookers started closing in on me, shoving me, asking if I was police, what I was doing in ‘their neighborhood,’” he said. Kortenoeven scuffled with one man but managed to get away.

Kortenoeven has since moved, but about a dozen Jewish households remain in the little-known Jewish enclave known as the Van Ostade Housing Project. The gated community of 200 units built in the 1880s to house poor Jews is surrounded by the Schilderswijk neighborhood — 91 percent of its residents are foreign-born, half of them Moroccan or Turkish.

Earlier this month, Schilderswijk became national news after a Dutch newspaper reported that part of the neighborhood had become a “Sharia triangle” that police dare not enter. The report prompted a high-profile visit from the stridently anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders, whose party called this month for a government study of anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants.

‘This is Holland. Sharia does not apply here’

“It is unacceptable that women in skirts should be harassed here,” Wilders said during his visit. “This is Holland. Sharia does not apply here.”

Dutch police have denied that Schilderswijk has become a lawless territory and insist they have security under control. But the Holland Wilders fears is already a reality for some Jews of Van Ostade.

“You get a lot of stares and comments,” said Jewish resident Iris Tzur, who says it’s not comfortable for a blonde woman in a dress to walk the streets of Schilderswijk.

Pinchas Moelker, an Orthodox Jewish resident, says he hides his yarmulke under a hat and always tucks in the knitted fringes of his prayer shawl. He also installed a low-profile mezuzah that blends into the door frame. Others here have installed mezuzahs inside their doors.

Such concerns aside, the remaining Jews of Van Ostade have no plans to leave, saying they enjoy a sense of togetherness that richer, less immigrant-heavy neighborhoods lack. Moelker hosts weekly Shabbat dinners for his neighbors, “who get so drunk that they zigzag all the way back home.” And Avi Genosar, who served in an elite Israeli army unit before coming to Holland to study, says the area’s high crime levels don’t bother him.

“Here I can get fresh, cheap vegetables, tahini, olive oil and the other Middle Eastern foods I’m used to,” Genosar says.

Things were much different when the Van Ostade Jewish Housing Project was built by Jewish philanthropists more than a century ago.

In 1880, there were about 6,000 Jews in The Hague, many of them living in penury in the city’s disease-infested slums, according to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. Van Ostade was one of Western Europe’s largest Jewish housing projects, bringing dozens of Jewish families in from the cold and charging them only a nominal rent.

By 1930, the city’s Jewish population had grown to 10,000 and many more families moved to Van Ostade, but even then Jews comprised only 35 percent of the project’s residents. Many Jewish families passed up the subsidized rent, preferring to live near the synagogue about a half-mile away.

During the Holocaust, virtually all of the city’s Jews were deported and murdered. Today, only about 250 self-identified Jews remain. When waves of Muslim immigrants arrived in the 1970s, the old synagogue became a mosque.

Still, Van Ostade remained in Jewish hands, even as the old Jewish neighborhood near the synagogue became the local Chinatown. The project is run by an all-Jewish board that rents out subsidized apartments to low-income tenants. Jewish residents are encouraged to spread the word among their Jewish friends, but there are few takers.

When waves of Muslim immigrants arrived in the 1970s, the old synagogue became a mosque

“The atmosphere in the Jewish neighborhood itself is very nice,” Kortenoeven says. “Everybody greets you hello. The people are good folks. Many of them are educated people, artists, some students. The problem is some elements in the environment around the neighborhood.”

The impact of Muslim immigration can be felt in other ways in Schilderswijk, as well. Earlier this month, De Telegraaf reported that a local school that had been a Jewish institution before the Holocaust shelved plans to install a commemorative plaque for fear it would upset Muslims. Separately, a sign advertising an exhibition about the school’s Jewish history had to be placed inside lest it upset the locals, a co-organizer of the event told De Telegraaf.

Gerard Brasjen, a spokesman for the school’s board, told JTA he was not aware of the sign issue. The plaque placement, he said, had nothing to do with Muslim sensitivities.

“The plan to place it stalled not so much because of the Jewish-Muslim issue but because it’s perhaps not very wise to put up any sort of plaque in the Schilderswijk,” Brasjen said. “It’s no quiet area, you know.”

Rainbow Report / Bringing holiness to the hedonism of Tel Aviv Pride

Rainbow Report / Bringing holiness to the                            hedonism of Tel Aviv Pride

Drag queens and scantily clad men may steal the show, but a group of religious gays and lesbians prove the community has a modest - and pious - side, too.
By Brian Schaefer

Sexuality and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. Photo by Tomer Neuberg

A religious delegation at the Pride parade. Photo by Moti Kimche

Drag queens, the divas that they are, always steal the spotlight (must be the big hair). And if not them, then it’s the go-go boys in their gold booty shorts. Crowds love a spectacle and, when it comes to Gay Pride, a spectacle they get.

But that spectacle, fun and festive though it is, still trades in the stock characters and stereotypes that always represent the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Not to complain or anything – who doesn’t love a bronzed six-pack or a six-foot Adonis in heels – but Tel Aviv Pride is a bit more interesting and diverse than that.

Take, for example, the delegation of proud, God-fearing religious gays and lesbians appearing in the parade: They remind us that sexuality and spirituality are not mutually exclusive.

Pride parades, for better or for worse, have become something of a contest of who can wear less. But for Havruta and Bat Kol, modesty is a virtue.

Havruta, the organization for religious gay men, and Bat Kol, the organization for religious lesbian women, have been marching in Pride parades in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa for the past four years.

“In the past few years, we realized we bring a different and unique voice to the march, especially in Tel Aviv,” says one of Havruta’s chairmen, Daniel Jonas, explaining how their presence helps bridge Judaism and the LGBT community. “We represent something else, more moderate, more communal,” he says.

He admits that the parade's debaucherous atmosphere doesn’t totally jive with their taste – “It’s not exactly something you’d see in a synagogue” – but the visibility is important.

“Pride attracts many people and lots of media,” Jonas points out. “So many young religious people around the country are exposed to us. After Pride every year, I get tons of calls from people who realize they can contact someone.”

Lest they be accused of that time-honored fear tactic lobbed at the LGBT community from terrified conservatives – Recruitment! – Jonas tells the haters to settle down.

“We’re just showing what until recently couldn’t be imagined – that you can be religious in your own way and at the same time be gay,” he says.

The religious delegation will trade the thumping techno beats for some jumpy Hasidic music. And while Jonas says there’s definitely no dress code, the majority of participants tend to show up in jeans and T-shirts, usually the ones they made that list the religious gay organizations.

Each member will also hold a sign indicating where he or she went to high school “to show religious society that we are everywhere,” says Jonas. “No one can say it’s just in Tel Aviv or in the center or not in the settlements.”

While the message of Havruta and Bat Kol may be targeted to the religious community to open up space for dialogue and acceptance, there’s bound to be some collateral damage.

“We also realized we give an alternative for the non-religious [gays]," he says. "Suddenly, they see something else, more traditional. We show the community that we’re not a club but a community marching together. People are looking for that.”