There is no “normal”

November 20, 2012 by

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Sarah Mali writes to her friends in Toronto’s Jewish Community, after having recently returned to Israel following several years as their Shlicha (Jewish Agency Emissary).


“Wear pretty pajamas for bed just in case something happens and you need to leave the house in-flight.”

This was the advice my aesthetically-conscious nana (bubbie) gave me when I was a little girl living in North-West London. I had always giggled when she told me this knowing it was silliness but not really sure why.

Last night when my children asked how to prepare for another siren I recalled this advice to them hoping they would giggle like I once had.

It is hard to imagine a military siren in Jerusalem especially since only a few minutes earlier the shrill shofar-sounding call for Shabbat had been heard above the city. During dinner my theologically sensitive 8 year old invoked the phrase from Grace After Meals on Shabbat and asked defiantly: but we say that God looks after us particularly on Shabbat? We praised her for her Talmudic thinking but realized that the question hadn’t really been directed at us to answer…

Here is the most absurdly-sounding thing of all: we Jerusalemites have it easy: we have 1minute 45 seconds to get to a place of safety – that is compared to Ashdod (40 seconds) or Sderot (15 seconds) under a constant barrage of rockets. But it isn’t the drama of the 15 seconds itself – it is what these 15 seconds do to the space in time that lies between them.

To me, that has been the strategic sensitivity behind Toronto Jewish Federation’s continuous funding of Sderot despite intermittent periods of quiet.

Let me illustrate this: My sister-in-law lives with her husband and four little children next to Ashdod. Her oldest is the same age as my 8 year old and suffers from a severe genetic disorder; she cannot eat properly, talk or walk. This past summer when my husband took the kids for a visit he had his first encounter with her existential situation. Behind her in his car with our kids, as the siren went off he saw my sister-in-law slam on the breaks, stop her car and begin to try and get her children out. She quite literally threw her little baby at a passer-by who was just about to turn around himself and run for cover and then proceeded to untie her four year old and then her 6 year old. Then she reached for her beautiful first born daughter and tried to release her from her seat at the back of a specially designed van and lug her out of the back towards safety.

The siren by this time had long since passed – danger had subsided, everyone could continue as normal.

The problem is that there is no ‘normal’ for my sister-in-law: she lives with the reality that she won’t make it.

That is worth repeating: My sister-in-law knows that 40 seconds by herself is simply not enough to save her family.

And therein lies the heartbreak.

In synagogue this morning, with many men missing as they had been called for reserve duty, Israeli cynicism prevailed. Friends commented to me with a smile; ‘welcome back to Israel.’ We all muttered something like ‘yehiye beseder’ (all will be ok) and continued on.

Eric Yoffie wrote beautifully in Ha’aretz, that Israel was established to protect our children.

The truth is that Jewish sovereignty is about that and more: it is about the two sirens getting mixed up in my mind, about the cell phones and army uniforms in shul, about the question of a child wondering about Divine justice in a place she regards as home and, maybe most significantly, the fact that I am writing this to you straight after Shabbat out of dual feelings that I need to tell you and I need you to hear.

This for me is Zionism and this is why I am here.

Shavua tov from Jerusalem, Sarah

Talking a Touch Away


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These conversation guidelines are for you to use at your own discretion. Feel free to use them fully, partially, or to ignore them completely…

To download the pdf print-out, click here.

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God exits – a portrait of Israeli Jews

January 30, 2012

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Beyond the fact that it has one of the cutest typos in the Jewish world, the latest Guttman-Avi Chai report into the beliefs, observance, and values of Israeli Jews has much to teach us.


An overwhelming 80% of Israeli Jews believe that God exists (or is that “exits”?), and 67% believe that Jews are the Chosen People. Some more secular anti-religious commentators (who make up only 3% of the population, apparently) have found this worrying, though the survey did not explore people’s interpretations of what being a Chosen People may mean. 

Democracy and Judaism

Most Jews in Israel 73% believe that Judaism and Democracy are not mutually exclusive, while an overwhelming 85% believe that Haredim should be drafted into the army. Coming back in the other direction, 34% fear that Jews who do not observe orthodox religious precepts “endanger the entire Jewish People”.

With regards Israeli Jews’ relationship to the Jewish world, we would point out a few interesting details.

Any heterogeneous Jewish community around the world would be over the moon to find that 90% of the community see Seder Night as important, 60% make kiddush on a Friday night, and even 20% study the night away on Shavuot. Who says that diaspora Jews have nothing in common with Israeli Jews?

Israel-Diaspora Relations

Auguring less happiness in the direction of Israel-Diaspora relations would be the resonant number 48 – the minority percentage of people who accept non-orthodox conversions.

Similar cause for future concern may also be the way in which Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist denominations are not on the list of self-definitions. 54% are Haredi, Orthodox, and Traditional (not the same as Conservative, however it may translate!) while the rest are simply secular – differentiated only by the degree to which they dislike the religious.

As headlines fly in the Jewish and Israeli media, pulling out choice excerpts from the report, we encourage you to look at the research yourselves, and share with us your insights.

The 30-page abstract is here, and the full report here.



The Meaning of Israel – 1


In the traditional Jewish community, long before there was a Zionist movement or a state of Israel, the “connection to Israel” was built in to everyday life.  The entire calendar of holidays, the words of the daily prayers, the everyday detail of the stories of the Bible and the laws of the Mishnah – all were permeated with Israel: its landscape, its climate, its agriculture, its geography.

The success of Zionism has led to the crisis of Israel education.  Now that Israel is a modern state, now that we have “returned to history” with all the unpleasantness and difficult dilemmas that that entails – and now that in our modernization we have lost much of the substrate of tradition in which our Israel connection was rooted – we are left trying to create a new connection to Israel, based on the assumption of the Zionist revolution: that Judaism is a nationality, not a religion.

The difficulty that the modern or post-modern North American Jew has in defining his/her Jewish identity (religious?  ethnic?  national?  universalistic?) creates a parallel difficulty in defining his/her relationship to Israel – and this in turn leaves educators without clearly defined goals and outcomes.  This whole course is designed to help teachers grapple with this situation and formulate their own responses.  This first lesson is meant to articulate the problem, and start the deliberation process that will, hopefully, run throughout the course.

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Early Ties I: Abraham in and out of the Land – 4



Click here for printable pdf.

Click here for printable pdf.

The Covenant, the Land, the Hand of God in History – 10


We will discuss the covenantal view of history and its implications for our reading of the biblical historical narrative and rabbinic texts; does God determine history as a response to our merits/sins? Does this imply we should undertake a passive role when national disasters occur, since they are simply the hand of God dealing out our due punishment? Is there a rational way to interpret the same concept of historical consequences for our actions?  How do we relate to and teach this concept after the Holocaust?  What does this mean for the modern State of Israel – do we have an unconditional right to the Land, or is it dependent upon our actions?

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Herzog or Orwell?

June 7, 2011 by

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When Theodore Herzl saw the mobs outside a Paris courtroom screaming, “Death to Dreyfus, death to the Jews”, he knew that there was no future for the Jews in Europe. The visceral hatred that he witnessed was enough to persuade him that profound anti semitism prevailed in the hearts of his French kinsmen. Herzl dreamed of a homeland where Jews could live normal lives free from persecution and so modern Zionism was born. All who came to these shores in the face of anti-Semitism and persecution have reason to be grateful to him.

I was educated in the cradles of religious Zionism which promised so much more than than a refuge for the hunted Jews of the world and the normalization of the Jewish people. Idealistic rabbis offered a thrilling vision of our return to our ancestral homeland in which we would once again live out our Jewish values, building the most just and ethical society. The State of Israel would give us the space, the population and the governmental apparatus to build a truly outstanding society. This would culminate in the Messianic state in which justice and loving kindness would rule supreme.

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Burning bonfire issues

May 22, 2011 by

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My most extraordinary religious experience took place on a mountain top in the north of Israel. The winding path to Mount Meron was lined with holy men, charlatans and peddlers pressing me to buy blessings, trinkets, food and drink. At the summit were hundreds of tents belonging to Sephardi families who camp out for a week before the festival; tied to each tent was a young lamb.

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March 3, 2011 by

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Imagine you live in a country where most things are new, and if they are not new they are very old.

Imagine you live in a country where you labour to build the institutions you need to live a life – your daughter’s high school, a center for child development, the local pizza store, a new system for emergency medicine, a software company.

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Keret and Foer and the aliens

July 16, 2010 by

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Last week I had the privilege of attending an event at Mishkenot Shaananim in Jerusalem. Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” presented an evening together with Israel’s well known author Etgar Keret.

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