We recently met with Rav Shmuel Klitsner, a Modern Orthodox Rabbi, who currently teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. For many of us, however, he was better known for his involvement in the animated Chanukkah film, “Lights” (I hope it was for many of us, at least. It may be projecting my own excitement!). In addition to his regular teaching at the Seminary, he also oversees a small, intense program for the ordination of female Rabbis, ultimately administering the national Rabbanut exam, granting Smicha beyond doubt.
One of the most fascinating things about Rav Klitsner, in my eyes, is his handling of this Smicha program. It is fairly radical for the Orthodox world, ‘modern’ or not. When pushed, Rav Klitsner admitted that it was uncommon, and could be viewed as pushing boundaries. There was no personal sense of radicalism behind his actions, nor was there a sense of false humility or even a quiet pride. Rather, it was as ordinary to him as buying eggs, or teaching classes.
People often speak of the idea of ‘normalization’, whether in a political, religious, social, or another context. Normalization, for better and for worse, is the idea of accepting something as truly part of the world and considering ourselves a part of that world. Rav Klitsner’s actions stood out not because they were radical, nor because I was imbued with a sense of awe by his presence. It was the very absence of any of that, any pomp or flair, or even of well-deserved pride, which made him so remarkable. And most importantly, he demonstrated this not by what he said, but rather by who he was, living the path toward a world in which Halakha can be valued, learned, and held to while accepting and taking a full part in our modern reality.
The second aspect which stood out so strongly to me about Rav Klitsner was his understanding of interaction with Halakha. He is a Rabbi. He wears a Kippa and Tzitzit. He prays three times a day and has dedicated his life to learning and teaching Torah. And he drives, and worries, and eats at (kosher) restaurants just like anyone else you would meet in America. He is deeply bound to Halakha, and explained his understanding of the Torah as source, the Liturgy as expanding upon it, and the community as necessary to accept, and sometimes even to shape the Halakha.
He spoke of Halakha as always present in his life. That is to say that it is beyond just saying a blessing before eating lunch, but when he is driving on a highway and sees a car broken down, he thinks of the Talmudic obligations to help one whose donkey has become injured. He admitted that, like many of us, he does not stop for every single vehicle. However, he continued, living a Halakhic life, in his eyes, is not about demanding that we stop every single time. Rather it is about demanding that we ask ourselves the question every time. That we think about the world around us always, and our role within it. For Rav Klitsner, Halakha is, above all, about living a life confronted.
All sorts of movements across the US strive for this: intentionality, meditation, radical-honesty. But at the end of the day, they’re all searching for what Rav Klitsner sees in Halakha. A way to be truly engaged in the world. A way to live a life, confronted.
One of my favorite parts of my Nachshon experience has been learning about the many different ways one can work in the Jewish professional world. One of these ways is by working in the Jewish nonprofit sector. Nachshon provided us with the unique opportunity to meet Laura Solomon, an attorney, and an expert on nonprofit work in the United States. The entire group was enthralled with her presentation, as she made tax law and nonprofit operations tangible and relevant concepts that each of us will have to face in our professional lives.
I loved how personal and down to earth she was during her presentation. As the group bubbled with questions, she took each in stride and provided the cohort with practical tools for navigating the nonprofit world. We learned about working with a board, and what we should look out for should we choose to sit on a board in the future. What impressed me most was after her presentation, Laura Solomon took the time to speak with many of us individually and answer our questions about anything she talked about.
Later that week another fellow and I were sitting in the Rothberg cafe and Laura Solomon was about to give a lecture to a graduate class in the Nonprofit management masters program at Hebrew University. She went out of her way to invite us to her talk on nonprofit board responsibilities, and we ended up going. I learned so much during both her Nachshon lecture and the additional lecture at Hebrew U. It was so valuable to meet and learn from someone as unique and dynamic as Laura Solomon. I am so happy that we had this opportunity!
Coming from a non-observant home, Shabbat was not an aspect of Jewish life I had truly experienced in a religious context. From the opening conference until now I have been fortunate enough to have had amazing experiences with Shabbat. Whether I stayed with family, made dinner with cohort members at the Kfar, or the Shabbaton organized by the Nachshon Project I truly have found the magic in Shabbat. During our Shabbaton in the city of Alon Shvut, our Cohort was privileged to stay with families that were willing to open up their homes for us. Shabbat is such a special time for Jewish families in Israel. Sixteen different families were willing to feed and house all of our Cohort. The kind and compassion these families showed were enormous from the moment we walked in the door. The home I stayed in had young children who were energetic not only to meet us but to tell us about their life and really foster a connection in such a short time. After getting acquainted with the family, eating the food they had so kindly prepared, and getting ready in the nice space given we headed off to the local shul. Immediately after speaking with the other members of the Cohort about their home stays I knew that the people here were special. Each member told me how about how warm and welcoming the family they were staying with was and how excited they were to get to know them better over dinner. Following services, my Pardes teacher was kind enough to host my entire class for dinner. Bonding with him and his family was an experience like no other. The interest all of his children took in getting to know us and formulate a relationship was so impactful to the overall experience. Upon returning to my original host stay, the mother Deborah could not have been kinder ensuring everything we could have needed was there. My fellow cohort members and I are forever grateful to the families that so kindly hosted us.
The Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944, The Somme 1916, Stalingrad 1942-1943, Operation Barbarossa 1941, and the Battle on Givat Hatachmoshet in 1967. The aforementioned battles are some of the most brutal and deadly battles of human history. The battle that took place on Givat Hatachmoshet in the Six Day War is lesser known. On our tour, we learned that while most people outside of Israel may not know about this specific battle, the entire nature of the modern state of Israel would be drastically altered if the outcome of this battle was different. It was here that the soldiers of the young country fought the Jordanians in the middle of the night with the hopes of the entire Jewish people on their shoulders. It was incredibly difficult to see, the Jordanians had the high ground, they knew the area, the 18, 19, 20-year-old Israeli soldiers were walking into an essentially impossible battle. Like many other times in its history, Israel was able to accomplish the seemingly impossible. It was this battle that enabled the paratroopers to reclaim the rest of eastern Jerusalem. Sitting on the same hill where the battle was fought, listening to the story of soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, I understood that had it not been for the soldier’s devotion to the country, we would not have been able to reunify Jerusalem. I was very fortunate to have been born into a time in the history of a unified Jerusalem. I never experienced the two-thousand years of longing to enter the Old City. I took for granted being able to touch the stones of the Kotel whenever I pleased. It was not until that tour that I realized that if it were not for this battle I would not only not be able to go to the Old City, I would not be able to live in my current apartment. What used to be just another stop on the light rail on my way home became such an integral part in my understanding of this history of the modern state of Israel.
Where do I find kedusha, holiness, in the world? I’ve found it in personal prayer, in a beautiful view, in song, around a campfire, on a run in the park, in looking around a Shabbat dinner table – I’ve found it in lots of unexpected places. How do you teach others about finding kedusha? Well, for many the obvious place to go is to Jewish ritual practice, where often kedusha is found. For many that is because kedusha is tied to halakha, Jewish law, or to a sefer Torah, a Torah scroll, or to a mikvah, ritual bath, or to tefillin, phylacteries.
This semester as we explored our personal and communal connections to kedusha we had the experience of making our own tefiilin. Perhaps, this was a way to connect us to a ritual that most of us have not had experience with. Maybe, it was a way to show us the process and intentionality of creating a holy object. It could be, that this was a way to tangibly explain what kedusha looks like. But, for me, instead of kedusha I found a deep sense of discomfort.
During the tefillin making process we learned that there are a lot of rules, that as Rabbi Greenberg said, are “halakhah l’Moshe mi Sinai” or laws given to Moses at Sinai. These ten rules relate to the materials, the order, the colors etc. of the tefillin. We also learned that in order for the tefillin to be considered kosher those things that were part of the ten halakhot have to be done by halakha following, Jewish, men.
I am not an Orthodox Jew and most of the steps in making tefillin require one to follow halakha in order for the tefillin to be considered kosher. I am a woman and halakha does not require nor encourage me to make or wear tefillin. I am even a vegetarian and all the materials involved were made of animal product. So, with every step I felt further and further away from my previous understanding and experiences of kedusha. But, nonetheless, I made my tefillin, followed every step, engaged in conversation with those around me about the process, and deeply questioned my sense of discomfort.
A week later our tefillin were done and the time came to try them on. Rabbi Greenberg made an announcement that those who wanted to could put them on, and those who were uncomfortable “especially the women” did not have to. I was taken aback. His announcement made me realize I was probably not the only person in the room who felt uncomfortable. His announcement also made me realize that partly the reason for my discomfort was the way in which tefillin were framed as a holy object, but not one that was for me. As a Jewish woman, tefillin were never a part of my Jewish practice. They were a very important, very holy, and apparently a very clear representation of kedusha. And, I, as an engaged Jewish individual had never engaged with this ritual or this object. Instinctively because of frustration perhaps with myself, my education, my experiences, or the process as a whole, I decided I was putting the tefillin on.
Wow. I have never been more uncomfortable. If I thought making the tefillin was pushing my boundaries, putting them on threw me way past any boundary and overwhelmed me with a sense of distance.
Seconds later, Rabbi Greenberg began to lead everyone in the shema and v’ahavta. I was immediately thrown back to one of my earliest memories – a memory I didn’t even know I had. I used to lie in bed and my dad would come in and remind me to say the shema and veahavta. Of course, when I was really little he would help me remember all the words and teach me new parts I didn’t yet know. I said these words every night for many years of my life. These words became a natural part of my daily routine – I could say them in my sleep.
These words that I have known my entire life were inside these tefillin and were being said out loud in this moment. Although these words were my words, in this moment I felt like I was learning them for the first time. No matter how uncomfortable, how distant, how disconnected I felt from the tefillin and from the experience of making them in this moment I felt kedusha. From this experience I have learned that finding kedusha requires an embrace rather than a rejection of moments, practices, rituals that might seem foreign or not our own. Out all of the places in the world, all the experiences I’ve had, in which I have found kedusha I would have never guessed the kedusha I could find in this moment of discomfort.
Way back in January at our opening conference in Herzliya, I set a goal for myself to explore my relationship with Israel, which before this semester I had never spent much time thinking deeply about. As the semester progressed I made myself comfortable living in Jerusalem doing everything from the mundane like using public transportation to run errands to finding deep meaning in truly living the Jewish calendar, such as the cyclical nature of the race to Shabbat every week. With every passing month I was finding my love for this place grow, but as April came around so to did our unit on Israeli politics as well as the elections which took place the Tuesday after our Alon Shvut Shabbaton
Our assigned reading from Nachshon, Like Dreamers, served as my in for exploring my relationship to this land which manifested my interest in religious Zionism. This was a surprising seemingly right turn for this California native. But as the election grew nearer and nearer I found a great amount of moral discomfort because I found the conversation about peace missing from Israeli Right’s platforms. Seemingly these parties only interest lay with keeping the status quo and how to ensure security. I find the theological foundation of religious Zionism rooted in Tanakh as intriguing yet I don’t see that camp extending an olive branch to their Palestinian neighbors. Rabbi Zeff and Rabbi Cohen presented the Israel unit with the Alon Shvut Shabbaton at its core as a survey of the political landscape in Israel, but almost every speaker we heard from identified with the Right. It’s crucial to point out that this is the nature of the political landscape in Israel today which is dominated by the right. However, we did have the opportunity to learn with Brian Reeves from Peace Now.
Our session learning about Peace Now, the state of the peace camp in Israeli politics, and the reality for Palestinians in terms of their lack of self-determination and Israelis need for security while ensuring democracy came in stark contrasts when compared to the rest of our speakers. While theologically I’m curious and drawn to the religious right Brian Reeves was the only voice I heard during our politics unit which advocated for radical change to the current situation. My assessment of the political situation is that the right out of the very real existential fear for the nation’s security chooses not to acknowledge the dual narratives which exist in this tiny piece of land in a way which gives Palestinians dignity. While the religious right does not represent the whole non-left Israeli politics they lay in direct opposition to the work Peace Now is trying to carry out. While I agree with their premise that this land was promised to the Jewish people by God, today’s reality does not allow for the full sovereignty to be realized.
What Peace Now advocates for is mutual recognition; for any long-lasting peace to work in they say that both Israel and the Palestinian leadership need to acknowledge the right to self-determination of the other. Only then can both sides move forward with the details of borders, security, and the question of Jerusalem. Assuming that both sides can manage that our Peace Now representative Brian Reeves laid out an intriguing option called the Geneva Initiative which states; the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and Gaza with a 1 to 1 exchange of some land, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and a non-militarized Palestinian state.
Peace Now gave me a moral grounding in a political spectrum where I see a lot of disdain for “the other.” My love of this country now runs deep and is rooted in my religious connection to the land of our ancestors, and our return home after 2,000 years of exile is indeed miraculous. But our greatest triumph as a people cannot come at the expense of another nation. In my view, Israel cannot occupy another people and in today’s political reality Peace Now was the only group from the peace camp represented. Israel has swung so far to the right that I hope the state does not lose its moral character. I commend Peace Now for the work they do but I’m worried about how much it is for their camp to do.
One of the highlights of The Nachshon Project is the inspiring people that we get to hear from over the course of the semester. One of those people Erika Rudin Luria, President of Cleveland’s Jewish Federation spent time with us speaking about her journey that led her to today. Not only did she do this, but she also showed us different case studies that she faces on a daily basis in her role. In addition, was opened about the ways she leads her community during challenging times. My dream is to be a Jewish professional one day in a role just like her’s. That being said these roles come with unexpected challenges in our modern age. It’s during the hardest moments that a leaders true colors come out.
One of my favorite moments of our time with her was during the case studies. We broke off into groups and were given different situations ranging from issues of early childhood education in the community to deal with senior citizens in the community. We broke off into teams of three to four people and had to create solutions to these problems. Within each team, there was a variety of ideas and opinions. Most groups were not able to come up with a solution. It was through this process we saw how out of the box ideas were formed at the federation. After every group shared Erika shared her perspective of the different case studies. She showed the group opinions that we didn’t even think of and challenged our ideas even more.
This session showed us all the important role we play in the Jewish community. Erika sees the value in young professionals. We bring new and inventive ideas to the table. Erika empowered all of us to do that, and through this experience it makes me think about how we empower young people. I found myself wanting to be involved in empowering young people even more.
A while back, the cohort had the opportunity to meet with Lisa Exler. Lisa coordinated the Curriculum Project, a joint venture between Mechon Hadar and Beit Rabban Day School where she is the Director of Jewish studies. Our encounter with Lisa started with her giving us a deeper understanding of work in Jewish day schools. She showed us sample schedules for a teacher, Judaic Studies department head, and head of school. Even as someone who grew up at day school, I never really understood what it is like on the professional side of things. I think her program gave all of us a strong understanding of what working in a day school might be like.
Lisa also gave us insight into the Curriculum Project. The Project culminated in the creation of the Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text & Practice. The Standards set out measurable curriculum goals in various skills necessary for Jewish literacy such as Hebrew, text study, and prayer. While these Standards are meant to be utilized in a day school setting, they made me think about something entirely different.
The Standards talk about all students being able to do x or have y skill. This sort of language of “every student will be able to…” caused me to imagine a Jewish world in which more North American Jews had these essential skills. What would it be like to be a part of a Jewish community that had the ability to access, on their own, basic aspects of the culture and religion? Imagine how many more Jews would choose to remain engaged because they were knowledgeable and therefore deeply connected to the tradition?
For my community specifically, I imagined how a Reform Kabbalat Shabbat might be different. Maybe the congregation would be able to pray collectively rather than listening to the cantor and rabbi. Maybe a lay leader would give a drash in addition to the clergy. It clicked in my head that ensuring just basic skills can move a community in leaps and bounds towards a livelier, communally oriented, and ultimately sustainable Judaism. In the Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice, I think we caught a glimpse of the ideal North American Jewish future. I have been left thinking about how to bring this future into being.
My first year as a camper, I attended the fine-arts unit of OSRUI. In this unit, we spent 3 hours every day focusing on Jewish expression through arts such as dance, painting, and drama. However, we didn’t speak much, if anything, about kabbalah during my time in that unit. I was excited upon arrival to David Freedman’s studio in Tzfat because I knew there was a strong connection between Kabbalah and art. His studio was filled with gorgeous artwork that had Jewish intention. David was able to guide us to a deeper understanding of Kabbalah by taking us through some of his favorite pieces. Upon first look, all the artwork looked very geometric and nice to the eye. We played almost a game with him trying to find the pieces of Kabbalah within the artwork. Some pictures had the webbed chart with 12 points which is very typical in Kabbalist artwork while others had Hebrew letters making up the patterns and people he depicted.
The most striking painting to me was one where he created a circular chart that linked the various aspects of Kabbalah to the astrological chart. He was able to teach us about the influence of the universe onto Kabbalah. For all the different astrological signs, there was a coordinating Kabbalah value that he beautiful drew into a diagram. A lot of what we learned previously about Kabbalah stemmed more so from Judaism rather than other influences, so it was very interesting to see the artistic representation of this connection to the stars.
David Freedman’s artistic representations of Kabbalah made me look at Kabbalah in a new light. Before this Shabbaton, all I knew about Kabbalah was that Madonna was a big believer in it. Now, I can understand why so many people chose to follow Kabbalah and why they use art to express their beliefs. Kabbalah is a deeply artistic belief, and I am thankful we were able to hear from David Freedman and see his work in order to understand this.
Before the session with Shayna Goldberg, not only had I never heard of a Yoetzet Halacha, but I was skeptical about the practice of it and what the effect it would have on myself and my future career. Shayna began by explaining what she felt her purpose was in coming to speak to us, and how her life varies from Rabbanits such as Jennie Rosenfeld who we had heard from the week prior. As I am supportive of women being ordained as Rabbi’s I struggled to initially connect with Shayna as on the surface it seemed to contradict my support of ordaining women Rabbis. As she continued speaking to us, however, I quickly found myself hanging on to her every word as she discussed what her life looks like as a Yoetzet Halacha and the massive impacts she has on her community, particularly her impact on women. As I have never gone to a Rabbi for Halachic advice before, I couldn’t understand what it meant to, as a woman, have a fellow woman be accessible for these Halachic questions without fear of judgment from a male Rabbi who can’t emphasize with certain Halachic issues. As Shayna explained the significance of this accessibility she was creating, I began to understand what her true purpose as a Yoetzet Halacha is and how inspiring and impactful work such as hers can be in an Orthodox community. She described it as “filling a void,” a void which was found in women feeling unable to ask questions of נידה as it is a sensitive and feminine heavy topic.
Though a topic such as נידה is not necessarily relevant, Shayna was able to take the deeper meaning behind the practice and apply it to relationships today. She discussed with us the idea of relationships today and how many people lose focus on what is important when seeking a partner and a relationship. She described the difference between a physical and spiritual relationship by stating, “Fun is what you have at the moment. Happiness is what you feel the next day.” To me this statement meant everything. Shayna helped me to realize that in the end, we all want to find happiness, and although that is an abstract concept, being able to feel comfortable and loved in a relationship creates true happiness that isn’t just simply “fun”.
Shayna was incredibly inspiring. Her discussion of the difficulty of feeling the pressure of responsibility for those she advised not only demonstrated her comfort with vulnerability but allowed for her discussion to be on a human-level that everyone could relate to. She loved helping people, hearing their stories, and changing their lives and to me, nothing is more inspiring than that.
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