Speaking with a Single Voice – Mishpatim 5776

There was a momentous decision in Israel at the beginning of this week.  The Israeli Cabinet voted to endorse the Mendelblit Plan to create an official egalitarian section of the kotel, the Western Wall.  It legally designated the entire area as a pluralistic space that belongs to the entire Jewish people.  For the first time, the government will fund what until now has been referred to as the “Egalitarian Kotel,” or Ezrat Yisrael, and has been maintained by the Masorti, or Conservative, Movement.

Here are some of the details.  The existing segregated men and women’s sections will remain in place and continue to be administered by the Charedi Western Wall Heritage Foundation, under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.  The plaza behind those two sections will remain under the administration of Rabbi Rabinowitz, although it will now be officially designated as a public space and used for national and swearing-in ceremonies for the IDF.  Whereas in the past, women were prohibited from singing or speaking at those ceremonies, there will no longer be such discrimination.

Previously, violations of “local custom” have been punishable by 6 months in prison or a 500 shekel fine.  The Charedi authorities have been able to define “local custom,” which has resulted in many women being arrested for praying over the past two decades.  The new plan decriminalizes women’s prayer.

Regarding the Egalitarian Kotel, located in the Davidson Archaeological Garden, which is to the South of what we generally think of as the Western Wall, there will be a number of changes.  The space will expand significantly from the current 4800 square feet to nearly 10,000.  In comparison, the segregated sections comprise 21,500 square feet.  Currently, the entrance is located next to a poorly signed guard booth outside of the main entrance gate to the Kotel plaza.  That will change, with a prominent entranceway being built in the main plaza area.  There will be three metal detector lines: male-only, female-only, and egalitarian.  In addition, Sifrei Torah, siddurim, chumashim, and other ritual items for prayer will be available, paid for with state funding.

Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service will be moved to the new area when the expansions are completed.  Until then, they will continue to meet in the existing women’s section.

The Egalitarian Kotel will be governed by the Southern Wall Plaza Council, comprised of representatives from the Masorti and Reform movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israeli government.  The committee will be chaired by the Chair of the Jewish Agency.  The site administrator will be a government employee appointed by the Prime Minister.

The plan also mandates that the Southern Wall Plaza Council and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation hold a roundtable meeting at least five times per year to address and resolve issues that may arise.

So this is exciting news, right?

As we might expect, the Masorti and Reform movements, along with Women of the Wall, immediately released joyous press releases.  But – surprise, surprise – not everyone is happy.

Rabbi Rabinowitz compared the division of the wall “among tribes” to the sinat chinam, the senseless hatred, that according to tradition, led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

On the other side, some are asking, “when did ‘separate but equal’ become the goal of any civil rights movement?”  A splinter-group calling itself the “Original Women of the Wall” has pointed out that Orthodox women who do not feel comfortable in egalitarian services now have no place to pray in a women’s minyan.

Time will tell how this plays out.

Last Sunday during religious school tefilah, we spoke to the students about the exciting news.  I quickly realized that most of the kids there had absolutely no idea what we were talking about.

Some of them knew what the kotel was.  Almost none of them knew what a mechitzah was.  A mechitzah is the separation barrier between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue.  So I had to start from the beginning.

You see, here in liberal, egalitarian Northern California, most of us never experience explicit segregation, whether by gender, religion, or ethnicity.  I am not talking about more subtle forms of segregation, which certainly exist.  But we do not typically encounter physical mechitzah‘s in our daily lives.  Quite the opposite.  We emphasize diversity, multiculturalism, and tolerance.  We give our girls and boys the same education, and we deliberately try to instill the belief that gender should neither be a hindrance nor an advantage to them in their lives.  Egalitarianism is all they have known.

Which means that we are not doing a very good job of preparing them for the real world, or even the Jewish world.

I explained to the religious school kids what a mechitzah was, including that there are many different kinds.  I pointed to the balcony in our sanctuary, and told them that in some synagogues, a balcony like that would be the women’s section and that women would not be able to lead any parts of the service.

Then I shared with them about my experiences growing up attending an Orthodox Jewish day school.  When I was in middle school, we had daily tefilah in the auditorium.  There was a mechitzah down the middle comprised of portable room dividers.  Of course, only the boys could lead services.  As a boy, it did not strike me as a big deal.  It was simply how things were.

I later found out from one of my friends from the other side of the mechitzah that whenever the girls started praying too loudly, the teachers shushed them – female teachers, mind you.  My friend, who attended the same egalitarian, Conservative synagogue that I did, was really upset about it.  After all, like me, she was accustomed to going up to the bimah on a regular basis.  I felt a little guilty myself, now that I knew that I was being given opportunities that were being denied to my classmates because of their gender.

As you can imagine, most of our religious school kids were shocked to hear this.  It was so foreign to everything that they have learned and experienced.

It is important for us to prepare them for the wider Jewish world.  Our goal is to raise kids into committed, knowledgeable Jewish adults.  If we succeed, then they will find themselves in other synagogues from time to time in their journeys through life.  When they encounter other ways of being Jewish, will they appreciate the differences or will they negatively judge the unfamiliar?  That depends on how we teach them.

Where do we draw the line between embracing pluralism and diversity and holding on to our principled positions?  How do we teach it to our kids?

The message that I tried to convey to our Religious School students is to, when we are in our own home and community, fully embrace our values.  We are committed to Jewish tradition and history, but we understand that times change and our understanding of what the Torah asks of us changes.  It has always been this way.

At the same time, we must understand that the Jewish world is diverse.  There are many communities which, like ours, take Judaism seriously, but practice it differently.  When we are guests in those communities, it is important to be respectful.  I don’t have to like it, but just because I do not like it does not mean it is not an authentic expression of Judaism.  Ours has never been a monolithic tradition.

Which is why things get complicated in the public arena.  Sometimes, having things my way means that those who disagree with me cannot have it their way.

Charedim represent a minority of the Jewish world, but a majority of those who frequent the kotel.  To what extent should their needs for segregated prayer spaces and suppression of women’s voices take precedence over the needs of other Jews who want access to the kotel in a way that is more egalitarian?

The answer to that question is sure to disappoint someone, as we have seen already with this most recent decision by the Israeli Cabinet.  But it is a question that we have got to be engaged in openly and honestly.

At the end of this morning’s Torah portion, there is an incredible moment.  Moses comes down from Sinai after receiving the laws from God.  He assembles the entire nation together at the base of the mountain.  He repeats all of the mitzvot to them.  The people respond with an unprecedented declaration of unity: vaya’an kol-ha’am kol echad.  “and the people answered with a single voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.'”  (Ex. 24:3)  All of the people are there: men and women, adults and children, old and young – nobody is left out.  There are no mechitzah‘s.  And they speak in unison, although to be precise, the verb is singular.  The people speaks in a single voice.

At this moment, in accepting the Torah, the Jewish people exists as a singularity.  Since then, groups of Jews in different times and places have found different ways of living up to that commitment.  Even though practice has varied considerably, we all look back to this foundational moment of embracing the Torah with a single voice.

I would hope that we, the diverse Jewish people, can find more opportunities to discover shared values and aspirations.  I pray that our holy places, especially the Kotel, will one day cease being an object of contention that divides us and serve rather as a symbol that brings us together as a single people from the four corners of the earth.

Pursuing Righteousness at Hanaton – Shoftim 5775

It is not possible for me to cover everything that I would like to share about the past five months in the next few minutes.  Expect it to come out in dribs and drabs over the course of the coming year.

This morning, I would like to describe a bit about the community in which my family and I lived for the majority of our time on sabbatical.

When trying to figure out where we would live, we initially thought of Jerusalem.  It soon became apparent that finding a school that would accept our children for only three months would pose a challenge.  So we started to think of alternatives.  In the course of asking around for suggestions, several people said, “Why don’t you check out Kibbutz Hanaton?”

Hanaton is located on a hill in the Lower Gallilee, about 30 minutes East of Haifa, a few kilometers from the Movil interchange.  It overlooks the Eshkol Reservoir, the major water reservoir serving the North.  It lies between the Bedouin village of Bir al-Mahsur and the Arab town of K’far Manda.

Dana and I had heard about Hanaton.  We knew that it was a Masorti kibbutz in the North.  Masorti is the name of the Conservative Movement in Israel.  It has a guest house that some USY Pilgrimage groups used to stay at for a few days, although neither of us had been there.  But we did not know anything beyond that.

So we started to inquire, including sending an email to a friend who had a friend who lived  part-time on Hanaton.  That friend of a friend sent an email to the Hanaton listserve, and before we knew it, people that we had never met were reaching out to us, offering to answer questions about life on Hanaton, school options, and living opportunities.

We lucked out in finding a basement apartment for rent, and then we started making our plans.

But let’s back up.  Eight years ago, Kibbutz Hanaton, which was founded in 1983 by a group of Olim from North America, was down to about three members, and had hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of debt.  It was on the verge of collapse.

Rabbi Yoav Ende was a recently ordained Masorti Rabbi who had a vision of building an inclusive, open, pluralistic religious community.  He recruited a small cohort of young families who were ready to take a risk and try something new.  In 2008, they moved to Hanaton and transformed it into a kibbutz mitchadesh – a revitalized kibbutz.

Hanaton is not what you are thinking of when you hear the word “kibbutz.”  Kids live with their parents.  Each family lives in its own home, owns its own belongings, and has its own car.  There is no community dining hall.

Collectively, the kibbutz owns a few businesses, the largest being a refet, or dairy farm, which is wisely located at the top of the hill, upwind from the housing area.  This ensures that kibbutz members have a constant olfactory reminder of the shared enterprise which is the kibbutz’s most profitable endeavor.  I like to call that reminder eau de refet.

There is a fantastic boutique winery called Jezreel Valley Winery, a hydroponic lettuce farm called Yarok al HaYam, a ceramics studio, and a horse therapy center.  Most kibbutz members work outside of the kibbutz in just about any profession you could imagine.  There are several nursery schools, and a group is actively trying to establish a grade school on Hanaton.

So in what way is Hanaton actually a kibbutz?  It’s collective in the sense that the people who live there have joined together to build a community founded on shared values of Judaism, pluralism, democracy, and egalitarianism.  Members come from diverse backgrounds: Masorti, Reform, Secular, and Orthodox.  They come from diverse political persuasions.  There are all sorts of family configurations living at Hanaton, including single parents and same sex families.

On Shabbat, the central streets of the kibbutz are closed to automobiles, although not every kibbutz member keeps Shabbat or kashrut.  If someone wants to use their car, they just park it outside the gate.  Friends who identify as secular explained to us that they want their children to grow up with a deep knowledge, learned from lived experience, of what it means to be a Jew.  Friends who identify as religious talk about wanting to raise their children in a pluralistic community.  There are nine Rabbis living on Hanaton, hailing from every single major movement in Judaism.

There is no Mara D’atra, or person who is in charge of making religious decision on behalf of the community.  Questions are dealt with somewhat collectively.

Tefilah on Shabbat feels a lot like here at Sinai – informal, participatory, child friendly, and non-judgmental.  Each week, a different family or group takes responsibility for Shabbat services, assigning services leaders and Torah readers, preparing the D’var Torah, and sponsoring the kiddush.

Now at 70 families and growing, Hanaton recently closed its debt and is continuing to attract members, construct new homes, and build new community facilities.  Because just about everyone there has moved in within the last seven years, the community is comprised mostly of young families, meaning there are kids everywhere.  They are free to roam unsupervised.  That took a little bit of adjustment for our family.  We knew our kids would be safe, because we knew that there would be an entire kibbutz of adults looking out for them.  Needless to say, it was great for them.

The Hanaton Educational Center, led by Rabbi Ende, is also doing fantastic things.  It just graduated its third Mechinah cohort.  Mechinah is kind of like a gap year for Israeli high school graduates before they begin their army or national service.  The Mechinistim come from all over the country.  Like the members of the kibbutz, they arrive from diverse backgrounds.  They take classes in which they discuss Judaism, philosophy, Israel, and Zionism.  They volunteer in the surrounding area.  They build connections with neighboring Arab communities.  And they are adopted by families from the kibbutz.  It is really touching to see how past graduates came back to be with their kibbutz families for Shavuot.

This year, the Educational Center is starting a gap year program for North American students as well.  Having lived there, and knowing Rabbi Ende and the other people who are running the program, I can tell you that it will be an incredible experience.  Let me know if you are interested.

And they have more plans for expansion as well.

Rabbi Ende explained to me that his motivation for rebuilding Hanaton and its Educational Center is Zionistic.  He wants to make a positive contribution to Israeli society, and he knows that the best way he can do this is by focusing not on national or international policy, but rather, on his own community.  He is trying to build a kibbutz that embraces values of Judaism, pluralism, and democracy, and that teaches those values to young Israelis before they begin their army service.  That way, they will bring their increased understanding with them when they defend their country.  The Educational Center also tries to pursue those values in the wider community through programming with neighboring villages, especially some of the nearby Arab communities.

Of course, as everywhere, Hanaton struggles over some decisions, and as a young community, is still figuring out how best to talk about controversial topics without dividing people.

So let me tell you about our first days in Israel, back in March.  We arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, spend our first couple of nights with Motti, Sinai’s High Holiday Cantor, and his family, and then drive up to the kibbutz.  We cannot get into our apartment, so we drop our bags off on the porch of someone who until now we have only met by email.  Then, we do what everyone around the world does when they move into a new home – we go to IKEA.

Wandering around IKEA, our phones start ringing and buzzing with calls and texts.  Apparently, there is a gaggle of third graders outside of our locked apartment, eager to meet the new boy and show him around the kibbutz.  What a welcome!  And that pretty much characterizes our experience for the next three and a half months.

Congregation Sinai is a really friendly community.  When someone new shows up in services, our members go out of their way to welcome them and help them settle in.  We found Hanaton to be very familiar in this regard.

This was not our experience at other synagogues we visited in Israel.  When we entered other communities, people did not generally come up to introduce themselves and find out who we were.  But the members of Hanaton went above and beyond.  People offered us furniture and cooking supplies.  Our kids were welcomed into after school chugim, activities.  We were invited to Shabbat meals.

Dana and I tried to help out wherever we could.  When they found out I played guitar, I was recruited to help out with tefilah in “Shishi Yehudi,” a supplementary religious school program that takes place on Friday mornings.  Dana helped prepare food for the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration and chaperoned several class trips as the medic.  We helped out with Shabbat services.  It was great for us to be able to participate in community life.  It was also kind of nice, I have to admit, to arrive a little bit late to shul, and fall asleep in the back row.

At the end of our time, the same friend on whose porch we left our luggage hosted a goodbye party for us.  We are so grateful to the members of Kibbutz Hanaton for opening up their hearts to us when they knew that we were only going to be there for a limited time.

In Parashat Shoftim, Moshe presents detailed instructions about how the Israelites are to form functioning, thriving communities once they have entered the Promised Land.  As the opening words suggest, shoftim v’shotrim titen l’kha b’khol she’arekha.  “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all of your gates” – the overall emphasis is on justice, or righteousness.  Indeed, a few verses later, we read the famous words, tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.  From the appointment of judges, officials, and leaders, to the conduct of court cases, to rooting out immorality, to waging war against enemies, Parashat Shoftim  recognizes justice as a goal that must constantly pursued, even as absolute justice remains perpetually out of reach.  It also emphasizes that justice can only emerge when members of a society work together to make these ideals a reality in the messy real world.

This is what we found at Hanaton – a group of people who have moved their entire families into a community in order to pursue this vision of tzedek.  I often found myself thinking that Hanaton is what Sinai would be like if we all lived together in a small community.  It is a nice thought.  We are a community made of members who have come together to pursue righteousness.

Sinai has always been lay led, but it is not easy for a synagogue to function without its rabbi for five months.  From everything I have heard and seen, the Sinai community has thrived.  I am not surprised.  We have an incredible community of knowledgeable, talented, and dedicated members.  There was someone to deliver a d’rash, lead services, and chant Torah every week.  Education programs continued while I was gone.  A group of musicians worked together to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.  Mourners received the care and comfort that they needed.

I am not going to list the names of the many volunteers and staff members who stepped up these past five months, but I do want to let you know how much my sabbatical enriched me.  It deepened my connection to Israel, and my Jewish identity.  And it was a great experience for my family.  Thank you for making it possible.

Todah Rabah.