Friday, January 16, 2009

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Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

DAY FOUR: Our Hopes



Today was the final day of our solidarity mission, a day for visits to the Foreign Ministry (the office of North American relations) and the National Police Command Center. We also prayed in the morning at the Conservative Yeshivah and in the afternoon at the Kotel Masorti (the part of the wall in the Old City set aside for egalitarian minyanim). And we studied texts about offering consolation with two young rabbis at Masorti congregation Ramot Zion in French Hill. Finally we had a closing circle and heard the beautiful voices of the Noam youth choir sending us off.
It was a day to absorb what we have seen and to cry about the present and the future. Having witnessed America at War these past years, the contrast with what we experienced these past days amazes me. Not a single person we spoke to, neither spokesperson, hospital administrator, teenager or soldier, spoke with anger or hatred. Not a single person excused the death of civilians or the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza as “what happens in war.” No one spoke about Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims as a group in derogatory terms. Everyone, to a person, spoke of Israel’s responsibilities towards the preservation of civilian life on both sides. People know that terrible and gruesome things are happening in Gaza and there are no excuses, only hopes for a speedy end to the conflict and a return to calm. People hope that Hamas does not mistake Israel’s desire to end the war with weakness. People are worried about Iran and Iranian influence. But the people we spoke to do not hate.
We saw children going off to war, and other children who in a year or two will begin their military service. How many years has it been since the song “I promise you, my small child, that this will be the final war” was written? We prayed at the site of the destruction of the Second Temple and we reflected on the fragility of the moment we live in – the rare moment in Jewish history when there is a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.
May calm return to the region soon. May the missiles stop falling. May the people of Palestine find a place of hope that includes living in peace alongside Israel. May the people of Israel know peace.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

DAY THREE: In and out of a War Zone



I am writing at the end of a long day spent close to Gaza. In fact, at one point less than a km. away. No previous experience I have had in years of travel to Israel prepared me for today and I know that writing about the experience will tax my ability to navigate how my heart and mind responded to what I saw and heard. Please bear with me.
We began our day in the “homeland security” situation room in Ashkelon. Ashkelon received 3 ketusha rockets in 2003, 10 in 2006, 7 in 2007, 20 before the war in 2008 and 90 (including larger, more powerful Grad missiles produced in Iran) since the war began. In 2006, the citizens had 12 seconds to find cover after a siren, today they have 30 seconds. The missiles are powered by fertilizer and detergent, they are armed with ball bearings and poison, they are aimed at the hospital and at civilians (and not at strategic targets like the power station or port).
26,000 children are at home, only High School seniors have returned to classes so they can complete studying for matriculation exams in the shelters (which have limited space). The Mayor showed us maps of the city indicating where children live, where the old people are, which houses do and do not have shelters. 60% of the citizens do not live within 30 seconds of a shelter. Many of the elderly (some Holocaust survivors and others who have been through Israel’s wars) do not leave their homes no matter what happens.
The Mayor also spoke of the collaborative projects between himself and two mayors of Gaza City before the Hamas takeover.
We visited the Masorti kehillah and a member of the community pointed out that, unlike Israelis, no one in Gaza can avoid the bombings by going to a shelter. This was one of many moments during the day when sympathy was expressed by Israelis for the civilians in Gaza.
In Barzalai Hospital in Ashkelon we learned that 80% of the patients were sent home to keep the hospital free and available to receive mass casualties. Patients come from the battlefield, from missile hits and patients at the hospital include Palestinians wounded in the fighting. The head of the ER referred to the hospital as an “island of sanity” in the region. When a Palestinian child was recently born in the hospital someone asked her, “how do you feel about giving life to the next shahid (suicide martyr)?” to which the doctor replied, “I am helping give birth to the next President of Palestine who will bring peace.” A JTS rabbinical student and I go to the bedside of a soldier nursing a leg wound and we talk and offer a prayer for healing.
We then moved from the 30 second zone to the 15 second zone. In front of us on the road we see smoke rising from Gaza, tanks in formation, and dirigibles taking pictures from the sky. We are a few kms from Gaza. A political poster near the road reads: “without fear at all” and above it is a sign from followers of Rabbi Nahman.
We learn that minutes after we left Ashkelon two missiles hit.
We are at a forward staging area for soldiers about to return to Gaza after 24 hours away from the battle. Together with members of the Masorti/Conservative youth movement NOAM we talk to the soldiers and distribute hats, prayers and candy. We hug and say the prayer for their safety aloud. In America we have debated the language of the prayer, here all of its words seem just right. This was the context for which it was written. The soldiers cover one another’s heads with their hands as a sign of respect. I walk away and call home (it is 5:30 in the morning EST). I can not bear what I am seeing as the kids start rolling in their half-tracks back into Gaza. It is so painful to know what they are about to face and the damage that is being done.
We have lunch with the IDF spokesperson at Kibbutz Alumim right along the border with Gaza. As at every stop today, we begin with instructions on the location of the shelters. A kibbutz member asks us where we think the story of this war begins: 1967? The election of Hamas (2006)? The killing of the PLO leaders in Gaza (2007)? The evacuation by Israel (2005)? The Balfour declaration? One of our group suggests that it started when Abraham failed to make peace between his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
Another trivia question: What famous medieval Jews lived in Gaza? Two answers: Nathan of Gaza (who proclaimed Shabbtai Zvi the messiah). The author of the Shabbat piyyut, Yah Ribon Olam.
We then visit a (near) ghost town, Sderot, under missile attack since 2001. The mayor tells us that he felt abandoned until the war. 70% of those still in the city are under psychological care of some sort. We are joined by the assistant Foreign Minister, who is Druze (an Israeli Arab). The Mayor tells us that the secret to ending the conflict is both sides realizing that all people are made in the image of God. He also says that he feels pain for the Palestinian children being hurt in Gaza as much as the pain he feels for his own children in Sderot. His city has been under attack for 8 years.
On our way home we hear a short talk from a Professor in Sderot about the need for a new Marshal Plan for Gaza to break the cycle of connecting food to terror.
As we drive home I get a call: there was a bombing in Sderot as we left the area. We return safely to Jerusalem not having heard even a siren all day.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More Day Two Photos: Read Post for Context




DAY TWO: Lessons from a day in the South


Today was a day of relative calm in southern Israel. During a very full day we heard no sirens. When we visited Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, the emergency room was quiet, the reporters by the main entrance were drinking coffee. All the drama was in our encounters with Israelis. We spoke with people of all ages, secular and religious, rabbis and doctors, soldiers and students, parents and teens. There were some commonalities: everyone we met supports the war and understands the reason why the IDF entered Gaza, and no one we spoke with could name a politician in whom they have faith or whose vision of Israel’s future compels them to have hope. But we are ahead of our story.
Our day began with an unusual coffee break at a rest stop 40 kms from Gaza, the maximum distance for missiles fired so far into Israel. We stopped for a rest and for a briefing on what to do in case of a siren or radio report of incoming missiles (we were to lay down in the aisle of the bus). Inside Israel there is a new boundary line. We recited the traveler’s prayer and we were on our way. As we drove we learned some random facts:
During the 1950s Arabs from Gaza were able to cross illegally through Israel to the West Bank without passing any checkpoints or inhabited areas.
The lack of rain in Israel and the ongoing draught means that water can no longer be taken from the Sea of Galilee and pools will be closed this summer.
10% of the industrial export of Israel comes from the Intel complex in and around Kiryat Gat.
40% of the casualties in the war to date are from friendly fire, a high percentage that reflects how few casualties have come from contact with Hamas.
We arrived at Soroka hospital and visited families and friends of injured soldiers. Over 200 delegations have visited the soldiers these past weeks and the soldiers no longer routinely receive such visits so they can rest and recover. We offered prayers with the families and gave hats that double as neck warmers to the soldiers we met. One father turned to the men in our group and spoke to us assuming we were veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf wars. None of us were. A father told us that the IDF needs better helmets and that he just told that to Foreign Minister Livni when she visited.
The NICU has been moved to the shelter in the bottom floor of the hospital. 50% of the children there are from Bedouin families. We walked through the unit and found mothers and fathers holding children: Muslim and Jewish, Bedouin and Hassidim, secular Israelis and haredim. All being treated under the supervision of one staff.
The hospital is set up to withstand chemical and biological attack.
In Beersheva we met with members of Conservative/Masorti congregation Eshel Avraham and with members of the Mayor’s staff. Beersheva has a new mayor, 37 years old, one of the civilian heros of the war to date. This is the first time since 1948 that Beersheva has been under sustained attack. The synagogue’s pre-school is closed, Shabbat services are held in a pre-school classroom near the “safe room.” We began to realize what it means for the city to sound the alarm 3-5 times a day. People who live in older buildings and apartments have no safe rooms to run to, they have 45 seconds, tops, to get to a neighbor or a community shelter. Parents need to take children, special needs children need to be carried, parents of young twins need two adults always on call. Taking a shower is nerve-racking. For kids, so is sleeping. 50% of the children in Sderot have serious sleep disorders. Sderot has been under rocket attack for eight years. People who want to leave town need to do so carefully, always making sure they are near a shelter as they get to the bus or train station. We are told that the rockets come most often at 7:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., rush hour, when people are In motion. I watch my clock for the rest of the day, waiting for 4:30. Nothing happens.
The rabbi we meet is a wonderful teacher who plays a musical version of Psalm 20, the Psalm recited on behalf of soldiers as they prepare to enter Gaza. “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will make mention of the name of the LORD.” We have a moment of silent meditation on our individual hopes and prayers. I realize I am in the presence of a thoughtful and spiritual young rabbi and I am not surprised to learn that she has studied with Rabbi David Lazar and is a Rikma fellow. I take her aside to ask about how she is dealing with the politics of the moment. The war, she tells me, is not a matter of choice, and now, In the midst of the battle, is not the time for asking the hard questions. It is a time to support families, those with kids in the war, those without easy access to shelter, those who are mentally ill and physically weak. The congregation has around 50 children/soldiers in Gaza.
Nearby there is an army base where reservists are preparing for the call to “stage three” in the war, should that war come. In addition to the sirens and the missiles there are the sounds of explosions coming from the base as soldiers practice the arts of battle.
We go to a student apartment in Beersheva and meet two young women whose college is closed and who are leaders in the Masorti college program. They have returned to Beersheva from their homes in Central Israel to help out, to visit soldiers returning from the front for respite. They self-identify as people of the left, one of the girls talks of the rights of Palestinians to their own lives, free of interference, they are living, she says, in horrible conditions. But she adds that everyone knows people in the war, that Israelis are fighting for their lives, and that she is putting aside her leftist politics for the moment. She asks: Who can allow a situation where Sderot was under attack for eight years, even President-elet Obama has said as much. Neither girl can name a politician they support in the upcoming election.
One other note: the girls go to the hill where foreign journalists film their reports overlooking Gaza in the background. They described how the reporters look frightened and wear vest s and helmets while the cameras roll and then take them off. They are not really worried.
We leave for a shiva call. Today was the last day of shiva for Alex, an immigrant from Russia who fought and died in a special engineering unit. We read his commander’s letter, saw albums and a power point presentation his friends made in his memory and offered words of comfort to the family. He was a beautiful young man.
In Omer, towards nightfall, we visited another Masorti congregation. I asked the rabbi what he has been talking about on Shabbat. He has spoken about the moral dilemma of fighting house to house when you know civilians will die. He read from a poem written during the 1948 War of Independence, “bless the weapons that they don’t miss.” The line has two meanings: may they hit their targets and may they not hit civilians. The situation is complex and there are no easy answers.
Finally, I met a 16 year old named Shai, a youth leader who works with second and third graders. He told me about a conversation he had with his friends. They do not have school, so there is plenty of time to talk. The Israeli army texted a leading terrorist in Gaza and told him to leave his home before it was bombed. He did not leave and they texted him again. Israel bombed his home and members of his family died with the Hamas leader. Shai said that he and his friends debated who was responsible for the civilian deaths, Israel or the Hamas terrorist. He concluded that responsibility for the deaths rests with Israel.
The situation is complex, there are no easy answers. The young people I met today are amazing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Our Mission Arrives



After midnight, first day of our trip.
I arrived this evening with a group of nine Americans led by the Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation, David Lissey. Our group includes two rabbis and six members of Conservative congregations from Connecticut, New York and Minnesota. We were greeted by leaders of the Masorti movement in Israel for an opening conversation about our goals, our program and the context into which we have arrived.
We have come to Israel at a moment of transition. Two stages of the war in Gaza are complete and the nation is waiting a decision on the next step: cease fire or "stage three" -- a full blast entry into the cities of Gaza. People speak of relative quiet, but each of us on the trip are quietly aware that our travels tomorrow will be unlike any trip in Israel we have taken in the past. For one thing, at breakfast we will be given a briefing on what to do if we hear a siren.
Tonight we learned about what people are doing in communities. For the past eight years, the communities around Gaza have dealt with sirens and bomb shelters, interrupted schedules and occasional injuries and deaths. Conservative congregations have been part of an informal network providing respite care for children, adults and elders, bringing people to the Center and North of the country for trips, warm meals and home hospitality. Today, close to 1,000,000 Israelis are living within missile range. The hospital in Beersheva has been moved to the ground and basement floors to avoid attacks, and schools throughout a radius of 40 kms are closed. For many of those who come on these respite trips, this is their first taste of synagogue as community center and their first introduction to egalitarian Judaism (A small, but interesting sidelight). Since the war in Gaza began, the work of Masorti kehillot has come to include providing clothing, snacks, prayers and support for soldiers going in an out of battle, and to the wounded and to mourning families. Tomorrow we will visit the Mashvitzki family, who immigrated to Israel in 1991, joined a Masorti kehillah and now lost their son who was in an elite engineering brigade.
The people we meet, and we are told, even the soldiers we will meet during the next two days, are concerned to know how our communities and the broader world are reacting to what they are doing. Our main response so far is to avoid detailed discussion of the losses on both sides and the terrible reality of war and civilian casualties. We focus on the most important part of our trip, affirming that our communities see themselves as intimately tied to the fate of Israel and as part of one family. I have already stopped asking people if they have children in the army or in Gaza. If they do not have children in the war, they certainly have close relatives and dear friends (as I do and as so many in my home community in Philadelphia do). We are one extended family and the nine of us are here to check in.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

As we prepare to leave JFK

I am writing this post from the departure lounge at JFK a few hours before we leave. Why are we going? Over Shabbat as people came over to say good bye and wish me a safe trip, there was a palpable sense that I am going to Israel to represent our community. Our community may be deeply divided on the wisdom and conduct of the war, but I sensed a community unified in its sense that the people of Israel are our family. The soldiers in Gaza are our family. Included among the soldiers are children I knew as bnai mitzvah and the grandchildren and cousins of congregants with family members who have made aliyah, and the children of my generation of friends in Israel. There is no degree of separation. And I also sense that this trip, as symbolic as it may be, will matter to my colleagues in Israel. Their lives have been turned upside down and they have no choice but to endure. We in America, we Jews who have choices, need to make the decision, in whatever numbers, to interrupt our lives and make our identification with Israel a bit more concrete during times of conflict. A colleague in Jerusalem ended an e-mail posting on a rabbinic listserv with the following tonight: “. . . happily anticipating the Masorti Solidarity Mission arriving tomorrow in Jerusalem, including our good colleagues Lenny Gordon and Jeremy Wiederhorn, _tavo `aleihem berakha.” If even a handful of Israelis share that feeling, then our visit will have meaning.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Conservative Movement Statement on the War in Gaza

Statement of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism on our hopes for peace and safety in a time of war

January 9, 2009 / 13 Tevet 5769
The Conservative/Masorti Movement supports the State of Israel, its government and military, in its current operations to protect the citizens of Israel's southern region and offers our prayers and material assistance to its soldiers and their families. We lament Hamas’ unrelenting and finally intolerable barrage of rocket fire on Israel’s cities and civilians. We pray that a leadership of the Palestinian people emerges that will honor a verifiable and monitored cease fire and negotiate an enduring peace. We pray for peace.
We particularly commend the many efforts on the part of our colleagues in the Masorti Movement and Schechter Institute to provide substantive and spiritual support for soldiers and civilians in areas affected by rocket fire.
When the Holy Blessed One created the first human being, God showed the human the Garden of Eden, and said: “See My works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created, I created for you. Consider this and do not destroy My world: for if you do, there is no one to set it right.” Ecclesiates Rabbah 7:13 (Rabbinic text)
We believe that the task of humanity is to preserve God’s Creation and for people to live cooperatively.
Even a mighty hero, once the arrow leaves one’s hand, one can no longer make it come back. Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shirah §4. (Rabbinic text)
We pray for a speedy and effective end to this conflict. We pray for minimal losses.
Whenever destruction of the wicked takes place, there is grief for them above. Zohar Bereshit, I:57b (Rabbinic text)
We know that God mourns losses on all sides. Saddened by this war, we dedicate ourselves to help Israel speedily fulfill its mission to live with security and in lasting peace with its neighbors.
But every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb them. For it was the Lord of Hosts who spoke. Micah 4:4
So may it be God’s will

Mission Press Release

For Immediate Release

Press Contact (in U.S): Jane Calem Rosen
(212) 870-2216; jrosen@masorti.org
(in Israel): Shmuel Dovrat
052-668-6508; pr@masorti.org


Masorti Mission to Israel Set

Group from US Representing Conservative Rabbinate and Laity Make Quick Trip to Support Communities under Siege in Southern Israel

New York, NY, January 9, 2009 – With continuing Hamas-launched rockets reigning down on the southern Israeli cities of Beersheva, Omer, Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod, a group of Conservative rabbis and lay leaders from the United States will depart for Israel on Sunday on an emergency mini-mission to offer support to Masorti-movement communities and other residents in the war-torn region.

“We pulled this together very quickly because we believe it is so important to stand together with our brothers and sisters in Israel,” said David H. Lissy, CEO and executive director of the New York-based Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel who organized the mission. “When Jewish lives are threatened anywhere, it is a threat to the security of Jews everywhere.”

During their brief stay, the group will make stops in Beersheva, Omer, Ashkelon, Sde Nitzan and Sderot, all areas within the danger zone. One of the first stops planned is a shiva call on the family of Alex Mashvitzki, the 21-year-old IDF soldier killed in Gaza and buried last week in the military section of Beersheva cemetery. Alex grew up in a Masorti kehilla, Eshel Avraham, in Beersheva, where his parents remain active members.

Mission participants then expect to meet with the mayors of several cities, get a briefing from army officers, visit wounded soldiers in Beersheva’s Soroka Hospital and spend time with the spiritual and lay leadership of Masorti kehillot (congregations) in Ashkelon, Omer and Beersheva. These kehillot themselves have reached out to provide programs and support services to residents in their communities, in partnership with Masorti kehillot elsewhere in Israel. For example, in recent days, Masorti-sponsored respite excursions have brought busloads of parents and children to Haifa, Zichron Yaakov, Kfar Saba and Tel Aviv. Kehillot in Jerusalem will host additional groups, including pensioners from Beersheva, this week, and arrangements are being made for children from a school in Beersheva, enrolled in Masorti’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program for Children with Special Needs to leave the area for a day.

Mission participants are also looking forward to having the opportunity to distribute fleece hats, snacks, hugs and a prayer composed by Rabbis Simcha Roth and Michael Graetz to regular soldiers and reservists, a continuation of the “From Masorti with Love” initiative the movement began as ground troops massed on the Gaza border.

Reporters/Editors: For interview opportunities, in the United States, please call Jane Calem Rosen, director of communications at the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, at (212) 870-2216 or email jrosen@masorti.org. To reach the Masorti movement in Israel, please call Shmuel Dovrat, director of public relations, at 052-668-6508 (from the US 011-972-52-668-6508) or email pr@masorti.org.

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Masorti Movement: Promoting Religious Pluralism and Building Community through Inclusive, Traditional, Egalitarian Judaism

From Israel's Counsul General

Dear Rabbi Gordon -

As we enter Shabbat, I want to express my appreciation to you and your fellow colleagues from the Masorti movement, who are leaving on Sunday for a trip of support to Israel. To be going on a mission of hizzuk for the people and communities directly impacted by the current situation is invaluable. The action you and your colleagues are taking is heartwarming and will give those you meet strength in these difficult days. In the short time that I have been here in Pennsylvania, I have been struck by the love of this community for the people and State of Israel.

I look forward to meeting you in the coming months. Till then, be well have a safe trip, and on behalf of the State of Israel, I thank you for all the hizzuk.

Sincerely -

Daniel Kutner
Consul General
Consulate General of Israel for the Mid Atlantic Region

Thursday, January 8, 2009

My letter to the congregation in advance of the trip

What can one person do?

The situation in Israel and Gaza can be overwhelming: overwhelming in the amount of human suffering, overwhelming in the complexity of the military and political situation, overwhelming in our inability to find effective ways to make a difference and help bring about peace, coexistence and healing. In the face of all this, as your rabbi there is something small that I can do.

On Sunday night I will be returning to Israel for four days as part of a small group of rabbis and lay leaders associated with the Masorti (Conservative) movement to visit the towns, cities, and kibbutzim most directly impacted by the current violence on the Israeli side of the border. Our task will be hizzuk (emotional strengthening). We will affirm that our friends and colleagues are not alone and that we in America are willing to share risks with them (if only for a limited amount of time). We share a common destiny with the people of Israel and visiting Israel in times of stress is one way to make that conviction concrete.

While I am in Israel I will try to share my thoughts and experiences (and photographs) with the community through a blog page I have set up: rabbilenny.blogspot.com. I am new to this, but it seems like an interesting way to post quick reactions and get feedback.

I thank Rabbis Zeff and Bernstein for picking up extra work during my absence next week, and I thank the congregation for their steadfast commitments to both Israel and to peace. The position many of us hold on the Israel-Palestinian conflict is nuanced and not readily reduced to sound bites and slogans, but it is a reflection of deep understanding and concern. First and foremost we want to help the people at the center of the conflict know that we care. I hope this upcoming trip is a small step in that direction.

B’shalom, with hopes for peace.

Rabbi Leonard Gordon

Missiles in Nahariya

Early this morning I turned on the computer to the news of missiles having recently fallen in Nahariya, the city where my older daughter has spent the past week volunteering. A quick call revealed that all was well in her immediate world. In fact, she only learned of the missile attack from the radio news -- no sirens had sounded, she had not heard any rockets land. My daughter was in the final hours of her winter break trip to Israel and a few minutes after we spoke she was on a train to Tel Aviv, the first leg of her return home.

And now I just learned that my trip to Israel, a trip designed to visit front line communities near Gaza is on, and we will be leaving on Sunday night, just hours before my second daughter gets on a plane to return home from her semester in Israel. I feel mixed emotions: pleased to be able to do something to support my family, friends and colleagues in Israel who live there and have no choice about being in harm's way, and concerned about whether or not I have lost perspective on risk assessment.

Our trip is being organized by the Masorti (Conservative) movement and is designed to focus on visiting people and institutions that are part of the movement or are being served by it. That may include giving gifts to soldiers, making hospital visits, and playing games with children who have been spending their days in bomb shelters. We await details.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

First posting

I have set up this blog for use to chronicle my upcoming trip to Israel.