Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Rain Rain Go Away

Chag Sukkot Sameach, my friends.

We’ve had quite a lot of rain this week, and I was just thinking about how appropriate it is. As a group of us stood huddled under the skakh (roof) of our sukkah with the rain dripping in and the icing running and starting to pool on our cookies, I thought, “It should rain every year.”

Rain helps us reflect on the impermanence of structures and the fragility of life, which is exactly what we should do on this holiday. We escape the rain at other times of the year by hiding in our homes, watching from behind thick glass windows as the world gets drenched. When it gets under our skin and drips down our backs and squirms its way into our clothes, we experience rain in a whole new, uncomfortably intimate way. I was happy for a little discomfort if it helped me connect to my ancestors and the struggle that they lived through. The Israelites used to live in tents, so the least I can do is spend a couple days in one.

Then came the weather alerts, the storm watches, and the threat of the hurricane. I felt the guilt seeping in. What have I done? All I wanted was a little rain. I began thinking back to the disaster that was Hurricane Sandy three years ago, and I start reconsidering my newly formed relationship with rain. As I stood outside taking down the decorations from our sukkah, chilled to the bone, I came to resent the weather and the sudden harshness of the environment.

Even though the hurricane blew out to sea, enough gusty wind made its way up to New York to demolish our sukkah overnight. What started as this:


Became this overnight:

12076956_10204440192479360_1326235237_n 12081374_10204440193159377_1539630448_n

Fragility doesn’t just mean impermanent. What is fragile quickly snaps under too much pressure. If human life is as fragile as our flimsy sukkah (which by the way, was not so flimsy), then there are countless human lives that are also in this demolished state.

Brandon, blogger and photographer behind Humans of New York, captured the brokenness of human life in a haunting series of refugee photographs. These people are the embodiment of fragility- they have lost everything, fled from their homes, experienced unimaginable trials and pain, and don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next.


Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

“I worked as a waiter in Saudi Arabia for seven years to save money so that I could build a house in Syria. It only had two rooms and a bathroom, but for me it was paradise. We lived there for about twenty years. We did not want to leave. We have young children and no money to travel. But it became impossible to live. Our house was situated between the army and the opposition. Every day the army knocked on our door, and said: ‘Help us or we will kill you.’ They came to the restaurant where I worked and accused us of feeding the enemy. We hid in the cellar while they beat the manager. If the opposition managed to capture our village, we would also be killed. They would accuse us of collaborating with the army. We had no options. Minding our own business was not a choice. We left with nothing but our clothes.” (Lesvos, Greece)- Caption included with photo

Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

“I’m working as an interpreter. I know what these people are going through. My family fled Afghanistan because the Taliban wanted to kill my father. I arrived in Greece fifteen years ago. We came across a river from Turkey. We tried to walk at night but we knew that we’d been caught because we kept seeing red lasers pointed at us. We saw the glow of night vision goggles through the trees. But nobody approached us, so we thought that maybe we had been mistaken, and we kept walking. Eventually we came upon a car along the road that had driven into a ditch. The lights were on and the doors were open. We thought somebody might be hurt inside, so everyone ran toward the car. But it was a trap. The police came swarming out of the trees. I’d been told many times that they’d beat us when they found us. But it was even worse than I imagined. They treated us like animals. They wore masks and gloves because they were afraid to even touch us. It was like we weren’t human.” (Kos, Greece) -Caption included with photo.

Life is not just fragile. Life is broken. Spending time in our sukkah, laughing, enjoying good food, and thinking about life is a mitzvah (commandment) and a wonderful way to spend Sukkot. But if we really open our eyes to fragility and our hearts to empathy, there is no way that we can stand by while the lives of others are destroyed by some inexplicable storm. For those of us who are lucky enough to not have to trudge through the storm on a daily basis, we need to extend an umbrella. Offer a rain coat. Open our homes. We need to do what little we can to somehow fix these glaring injustices.

The values of Sukkot are not archaic. They can help us fix the world we live in right now, today. I was deeply saddened by the stories that Brandon shared, so when he posted a fund to help the refugees, I knew immediately that I needed to contribute. I wish there was more I could do, and my heart aches for everyone affected. We need to be the stability in the storm, whether that means supporting each other emotionally, financially, or physically. Though we break easily, we are all stronger together.

Leave a comment »

Hebron: Finding the Good in the Bad and the Ugly

Hebron. A place and a people to be reckoned with.

When we started talking about Hebron in my last ethics class, I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. From a Biblical perspective, Abraham purchased this little plot of land from the Hittites so he could bury his wife, Sarah. This place is said to be the resting place of our ancestors- Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and all the others that follow. Fast forward through a history in which the Jews are exiled and the land falls under Muslim, Egyptian, and British rule. The Jews once again reclaim Hebron along with the rest of the West Bank in 1967. Shortest history lesson ever. You’re welcome. Mollie brought me up to date in her blog Treasure Your Being, and I highly recommend you check out the rest of her fascinating post, Tiyul to Hebron.

To put it mildly, things are not good in Hebron. There is rock throwing and use of tear gas and all sorts of violence that makes me sick just thinking about it. Doors smeared with stars of David and slogans like “Arabs to the gas chambers” echo with a haunting sneer from own bloody past. I struggle with the injustices of Hebron and with the disdain that I feel for this deep-set hatred.

Before I go on, let’s return to the text because there’s a lot we can learn from our forefathers about where we went wrong in this modern day conflict. A narrative in Midrash HaGadol says the following:

“Come and see Avraham Avinu’s humility – the Almighty had promised to give the land to him and his offspring forever, and now he could not even find a burial spot for his wife without paying a huge sum of money. Yet, he did not question the attributes of the Almighty or protest. What more, he spoke with the inhabitants of the land only in modesty…Said the Almighty, You lowered yourself – I swear that I will make you a master and prince over them!'”

The act of purchasing the land is not the key in this narrative. It is the way in which Abraham handles himself when negotiating his purchase. The Biblical law states that the land belongs to us, but the ethics imply that we are to be humble, fair, and respectful when dealing with the Hebron’s native inhabitants. Regardless of the situation or who has the authority, Judaism teaches that we treat people fairly.

Violence occurs because the “law” is being upheld- namely the regulations stipulated in a scared text- without considering the way in which we should ethically uphold them. Claiming that Hebron is ours without showing love, humility, and respect does not only blatantly disregard the most important part of the teaching, it also fails to embody the values of Judaism. If we disregard the values, we are not living Jewishly, nor are we acting in a just way as human beings.

What can we do with this knowledge? How can we begin to combat today’s violence? I’m not naive- I know peace is not easy, nor is it immediately feasible. How can we restore the balance between justice and ethical practice in a world where we value ethics so little?

I’m not going to pretend to have the answers for you. But discussion is a place to start. If I am permitted to quote Micah (the leader of my ethics class), he suggests that we initiate friendly relations “one day at time, building one relationship, one smile, one act of kindness, and mobilizing and organizing the shit out of other people to do the same.”

Breaking the Silence (BTS) is working to do just that. Many Jewish people are unaware of the conditions in Hebron, so BTS collects testimonies and leads tours in order to raise awareness of the issues on both sides. BTS activists refuse to take a side in the issue, but they recognize that the status quo is intolerable and SOMETHING needs to be done.

The rest of us need to acknowledge what is happening and do our part in resolving the conflict. There are many that stand with Israel regardless of its policy or actions, and I understand your steadfastness. But I am more of agreement with Michael Goldin when he says, “our institutions are only worth having if they promote what is just and fair. If they stand with Israel regardless of what it does and ignore which direction its political winds are blowing, there is little point to their existence.” Justice. Fairness. Empathy. Humility. These are the directions we need to head towards. If we refuse to acknowledge the validity and the humanity of the other side, we will never have peace, and the fight is over before it has begun.


One Heart, Two Worlds

Last Wednesday, our social justice discussion was about the ten plagues in the Passover story. Should we have shown compassion to the Egyptians? If they came knocking on our doors that had been painted with blood, would we have let them in, knowing they would die? I feel that if we stood by idly and watched the Egyptians suffer, we’d be just as bad as the thousands of “innocent” Egyptians who stood by and watched their fathers, brothers, and friends enslave an entire race.

Micah, our discussion leader, remarked that compassion for both sides is what made Moshe such a good leader. He was raised by Egyptians and alongside Ramses, but he also had a duty to the Jewish people. He was “of both worlds,” as Micah put it.

I am also of both worlds. I’m aware that this coming week is both Passover and Holy Week, even though I will only be celebrating one holiday. I enjoy the pictures of my sisters’ gorgeous Pysanky Easter eggs, even though my own egg is not among them. I can remember the sweet taste of chocolate bunnies, even though the sweeter taste of freedom is what fills my mouth now.

Similarly, I play viola (the alto voice of the orchestra) and sing soprano one in choir. So, I can appreciate the (sometimes dull) harmonies and pick them out in a concert while also tracing the melody line. I am of both musical worlds, the string and vocal, and of the two voice parts.

I may not live in two worlds, but both have shaped me into the woman I am today. Like Moshe, I was raised one way but now live differently. My upbringing may not define me, but it gives me an extra lens from which to see the world. I have a window into one tradition, a home in another, and a loving heart for the people in both. Hopefully, my compassion for both sides can help me approach this holiday season and every situation with openness, love, and understanding.

Leave a comment »

Jeremiah’s Got a MEGAPHONE

Every other Wednesday at Hofstra Hillel, we have a learning session on social justice in Judaism led by Micah, a student at the Yeshiva University, Mechon Hadar.

Tonight’s discussion was filled with delicious hamantaschen, lively conversation, and the importance of tochechah: rebuke.

After sharing stories of times when each of us was called out, we focused on Leviticus 19:17, which says “You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Rebuke your kinsman and/but incur no guilt because of him.”

This verse from Leviticus asks us not  to stand by while someone else commits a crime because it is our duty to rebuke him. The Talmud tells us that “Whoever can prevent his household from a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if [he can prevent] his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if [he can prevent] the whole world, he is responsible for the sings of the whole world” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b-55a).

This passage filled me with questions. When are we responsible to rebuke other people? How do we know when we can make a difference? Am I doing enough?

We had plenty of ideas. First, “can” implies that the action is only necessary if we know it will result in an impact or change. If we have power, then we are responsible, and the amount of power is equal to the responsibility. One might argue that by being responsible for a single person, we have the power to change the world, since that person can go on to change his entire life and the lives of others. However, I like to see it in levels: take care of your household, if you can, then take care of the community, then move on to the world. Of course, if you are a world leader with the power to influence many, you might influence the world while neglecting to take responsibility of your household.

In reproving our kinsman, we take responsibility for him and his actions. If we truly care about people, we will rebuke them in a gentle, loving, and kind manner, as Maimonides advises in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dayot (Ch. 5:7). We do not need to make a public spectacle, but if we approach our kinsmen in the right way, with loving intent, our advice can change their lives and bring them one step closer to paradise.

Towards the end of our discussion, we talked about prophets. And let me tell you, they were masters of giving and receiving rebuke. One minute they’d be advocating repentance; the next, they’d be run out of town for their words. They would stop at nothing to correct the flaws in society because they felt it was their responsibility to do so.

Should we all become prophets then, publicly denouncing the wrong in this world and taking on the responsibility to correct it? If Jeremiah had a megaphone today, what would he say? We all have the power to become prophets, which means we carry on their responsibility. We are responsible for the actions of those we can influence, and if we learn to give and receive rebuke, we begin to lessen the corruption in society.

Leave a comment »