Shlomit isn’t able to work – confessions from tough times

July 10, 2014 by

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by Neil Mercer

photo by Neil Mercer

Can’t work. Three weeks now I haven’t been able to work. I mean, I come to work. Sign in on the Jewish Agency computer. Make myself a coffee. Sit down in front of the computer. Participate in team meetings. Politely answer the phone. Read emails, send emails. Talk at the Shlichim Conference, prepare materials for the seminar in New York. But I’m not really here at the computer. My mind is somewhere else, not focused on the emails reaching me, my mind is not here.

Over the last two and a half weeks, from the moment I heard of the kidnapping of the three youths Eyal, Gil-Ad, and Naftali (may the Lord alone avenge their blood) I’ve been existing between murmured verses of the Psalms. “A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD. Lord, hearken unto my voice; let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” And the cry rises climbing the hills uprooting and hurting. “A Song of Ascents. I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will come my aid?”

At word of their funeral something shuddered and snapped. I ignored the horrific information about the nature of their deaths, and grasped tightly to all mention of the nobility of their mothers and fathers.

The torture of Mohammed Al-Hadir, and his sinful murder at the hands of some Jewish youths sent something fundamental inside me insane. The fact that young Jews could so abuse a Palestinian youth is something I could not comprehend. And not because we Jews are better or morally higher than those of another nation, but because in our near past we ourselves have been slaughtered thus. And it is incumbent upon the victim to destroy all the weapons of the attacker, not to take them to his heart.

I have an inner voice that tries to tell me that “these are not Jews”, but I know that to turn my eyes away from these murderous youths is to turn away from the evil that is sown around us, and whose end is to increase evil and pain. It is for me to look into the evil, to understand it, and to add to it love.

I am working on this. I gaze with love into the large and wise eyes of the Arab kindergarten teacher of my daughter. Reem. Clouds in Arabic. I ask her how she is, and how the fast is going. We laugh together. We don’t talk about it. But it is there.

And now “Defensive Edge”. And a second siren in Jerusalem. At the first siren my first-born girl of nine months then, was producing her first tooth. We reached this second siren with another girl, and she already has three teeth. The girls slept through the siren. They don’t know how terrified I was that night. Yesterday the kindergarten of my eldest was closed and she came for a fun day at Mom’s work. A fun day of drinking chocolate and drawing with marker pens. Without understanding that the kindergarten was closed because it has no shelter.

Today she is at kindergarten. And I am at work. But I am not here. I check news sites, flicking here and there. Terrified at every notice of sirens in the center of the country where our families live, and mostly craving for the healing of an aching soul.


And perhaps a healing is on its way. The upcoming 17th Tammuz, in remembrance of the siege of Jerusalem, will be dedicated this year to co-existence. The Muslims are fasting now. It’s Ramadan. And on this coming Tuesday their fast and our fast will unite. As a mitzvah-observant woman I am exempt from such small fasts up to two years after giving birth. This year, as an Israeli citizen, I feel obligated to this civic fast. Fast to scourge the evil and senseless hatred in me. To teach of senseless love, to look squarely into myself.

And better to fail at senseless love than at senseless hatred.

To be a FREE people in our land? Implications of the kidnappings

June 27, 2014 by

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First appeared in Times of Israel


Two of my children thought it was very funny, on a trip to the US about ten years ago, to hide inside a clothing rack at the Gap in a large East Coast mall. As Israeli children, who are used to trusting random strangers at the store, it did not even occur to them that this hilarious maneuver meant that for five minutes, I died.

My mind followed them to some remote corner of Shenandoah National Park, where a nondescript white man (someone’s quiet neighbor) – a man who did not care that they were Jewish… or human for that matter – was having them for lunch.  Of course, they were right there under a pile of denim, mischievous in the jeans.

Every parent knows the moment of the missing child: The seconds or hours when your heart plummets into your knees, and your jaw and stomach collide in acrid adrenaline wreckage. The nervous system gets ready to face agony immediately, before its boss has any real information. To Full Post

Mayonnaise with that? Israeli TV drama takes Lenny Bruce further

June 27, 2014 by

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Lenny Bruce would be giggling in his grave. He was the one who so famously explained that mayonnaise is goyish. Who would have predicted how far this observation would extend?

Israel is gripped by many obsessions painful and joyful. At the same time as we pray for the return of the three kidnapped kids, we are also overtaken by World Cup fever. For a country not represented in the greatest football spectacle of all time (yes, it’s football, Ann Coulter!) Israelis are free to support whoever they want – flags abound.

But the greatest obsession in abeyance until next season is our Zaguri obsession. 26 episodes of this family comic drama about a dysfunctional Moroccan family in Beersheva took the country by storm. And it also reappropriated mayonnaise for a brand new audience. To Full Post

Hillel Director counts the “wounded”, after BDS “battle”

June 1, 2014 by

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First appeared on
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at the University of Washington.

In his biography of Pyrrhus of Epirus, Plutarch recounts the details of the ancient Greek general’s costly victory against Rome at Asculum in 279 BCE. According to Plutarch’s account, shortly after the battle, Pyrrhus considered the devastating losses to his Macedonian troops and made the dark but prescient reflection: “If we were to be victorious in one more battle against the Romans, it would utterly destroy us.” [Life of Pyrrhus, 21:9]

The story of that long-ago battle comes to remind us that some victories produce a sense of exhilaration so intoxicating that they prevent us from realizing that we are actually marching unwittingly toward defeat. I write these lines in the immediate aftermath of a period in the life of our organization which looks unmistakably like a time of triumph. Nevertheless, as I write, I am keenly aware of how we have been diminished by the events of this year. I find myself surprised and concerned about how much we have lost, and about how much more we stand to lose in the future.  To Full Post

Simplifying the discourse on complexity in Israel Education

May 21, 2014 by

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First appeared in The opening article on this topic was written by Alex Sinclair, former Makom Director of Research, and a response came swiftly from Barry Chazan. Here is our attempt to steer a way through the issues…



A foreign correspondent friend once confided to us about reporting from Israel. “Do you want to know why there are so many more foreign correspondents stationed in Israel than in most other places in the world? It’s nothing to do with antisemitism or double standards. It’s just because Israel is so incredibly fascinating and complex!”

Since Makom – the Israel Education lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel – is labelled by Alex Sinclair as practicing a form of Israel education that applies “attractive complexity”, and as such we are the “good guys” according to Barry Chazan’s pertinent critique, it will come as no surprise that we agree Israel is fascinating. We also agree with Chazan that Israel – as subject matter – did not “invent” complexity. Every subject worthy of study is likely to be complex. But not every subject of study is likely to arouse complex feelings in the learner to the extent they do when modern Israel is taught to Jews around the world.

In this sense, there are really only two sides to addressing complexity – and pretty much all of us in the field address them both, in different ways.

There is the complexity of the subject-matter itself – “Israel is endlessly complicated!” And then there is the complexity of the learners’ response to the challenges Israel presents to them. In this latter sense, complexity is sometimes used as a euphemism for “discomfort” – “My emotional and intellectual response to what I have learned about Israel is, for want of a better word, complex…”

It is this second aspect of complexity – the way in which the subject of Israel meets the learner in their particular environment – that demands special attention.

Let’s take the example of the Kotel, when looking at this second aspect of complexity. There is probably little discomfort (“emotional complexity”) for the Orthodox learner to contemplate the Kotel from his home in Paris. In contrast, the Reform learner from San Francisco may well feel a great deal of discomfort (“complexity”) when contemplating the Kotel and its prayer arrangements. Here we can see that this “complexity of emotional response” arises when something jars in the encounter between an aspect of Israel, and the learner, the teacher, and their environment.

When this is the case, there are two key issues for the Israel educator. First, we must pay careful attention to what is going on in the learners’ world.

Just as it would be dumb to insist that the young woman from San Francisco must learn about the Kotel in exactly the same way as the boy from Paris, so it would be silly to suggest that the Parisian must address Women of the Wall in his first encounter with the Kotel. (In our opinion, both would be enriched by learning of both perspectives, but the structure of the learning, the “way in” would need to be different for each.)

Second, (how soon) do we wish to resolve discomfort?

a. Some will say that discomfort is a healthy state for growth.

These educators will constantly try to lead the learner to a “higher level of confusion” (Yonatan Ariel). Hence they will challenge the San Franciscan to think about freedom of worship for those Jews who wish to pray on the Temple Mount, or to apply thinking about social justice to the fact that the Kotel Plaza exists only due to the demolition of the Palestinian Mughrabi quarter in 1967. The Parisian would be asked to juxtapose his belief in the unifying nature of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the value of Jewish unity, with the conflict and strife within the Jewish People at the Kotel.

Yet if the learner is in a constant state of confusion, how can we ensure they will not lose interest, energy, conviction? Some of us find such internal discomfort stimulating, but it can give others a headache…

b. Some will say that discomfort is the educator’s enemy, and we must avoid it at all costs.

Some suggest this because their students live in a hostile environment where they hear more than enough “negatives” about Israel. Their students need affirmations of Israel’s place in their Jewish identity that they may internalize with ease, so as to “balance the playing field” that is biased against Israel, or to offer the balm of comfort to students under attack. Others avoid discomfort for fear it will “turn off” the learner. They aim to teach only that which the learner can digest without going through any cognitive dissonance. They wish to ensure the students see their own Jewish identity reflected back to themselves in the Jewish State, and so expose them only to those aspects of Israel that chime in with the students’ value system.

Yet what happens when in the first case the learner finds a grain or two of truth in Israel’s detractors’ accusations? Or when in the second case the learner (inevitably) finds that Israel is not the USA, nor is it France? What tools and experiences can we educators provide to empower the learner to deal with their complex feelings (response) when they find Israel is more complex (subject matter) than they had thought?

c. Still others will argue that the best way to resolve the discomfort of learning about an Israel whose complexity makes it difficult to digest, is activism. If the subject matter – Israel – is unattractive to us, we must work to change it!

But at what price? If learners’ response to any piece of information that troubles them is to insist on changing that information to suit their desires, when will the learners ever question themselves? Shouldn’t educators help them to question their own assumptions when examining different approaches to the good life?


In building this field of Israel Education it is the mission of us all to find wise and flexible answers to these questions. We would suggest that our next few tasks might include:

  1. Creating and modeling more thoughtful and sophisticated ways for celebrating and affirming Israel. Not all celebration need be superficial, and not all critique should be miserable!
  2. Developing clearer models for how informed critique can lead to activism in a thoughtful way that includes like-minded Israelis. In this way we might move from “battering” to “bettering” – to the benefit of both the learners and Israel itself.
  3. Working hard to embrace all different approaches to Israel Education, even if they would seem to go against one’s own philosophy. If a commitment to complexity in Israel education is to mean anything, it must also welcome complexity in the many forms it may take!


Yonatan Ariel and Robbie Gringras are, respectively, the Executive Director and Creative Director of Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel.


Shavuot and Gleanings of Social Justice

May 20, 2014 by

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Soon the festival of Shavuot will be upon us. The Harvest Festival, in which we read the Book of Ruth. On Shavuot we gather that which we have sown, and reap that which we have labored on throughout the year. And so I chose this moment to think with you about the Book of Ruth and poverty through the photography of Adi Nes.

(Untitled) Ruth and Naomi Gleaning, 2006 – Adi Nes

Israeli artist Adi Nes created a series of staged photographs that make the connection between Biblical characters and modern-day society, two of which involve Naomi and Ruth. In this photo, called “(Untitled) Ruth and Naomi Gleaning”, Nes refers to the period of poverty facing Ruth and her mother-in-law in Yehuda, when they are forced to glean the left-overs of food from the field. These leftovers are deliberately put there by Boaz, owner of the field. This is in accordance with the socialistic law of gleaning, the forgotten and the edges, which asserts that the owner of a field must leave behind the sheaves that have been missed in the harvest, for the needy.

In the photograph there are two women, one young and one older (judging by their arms), picking up discarded onions from the ground of what might have been earlier on in the day a bustling vegetable market. Apart from a plastic bag that can be seen – this is a scene that could have taken place at any time in any place. I would suggest that in this way Nes hints that poverty exists in every society, in every period, everywhere.

According to the Book of Ruth, two things save these two women: socialistic mitzvoth made law, and Boaz taking personal responsibility. Although according to Levirate marriage customs Boaz should not be with Ruth, marries her out of a sense of obligation as a close relative of her deceased husband. Ruth’s marriage, and the birth of heirs to his more respected family, saves Naomi and Ruth from a life of poverty and itinerancy.

In contrast to the easier image from the Book of Ruth, of young Ruth gleaning in the pastoral fields, the photograph of Adi Nes presents us with two poor women, young and old, gleaning amongst the discarded refuse of a market. The contrast between these two images emphasizes the attitude to poverty today. Nes calls us to look at the differences, and to take responsibility for the poor among us – both publically and personally.

I wish for us all that this year we may plant good seeds of social change, that we might reap at next Shavuot. (Though of course that won’t be possible as next year is a Shmitta year, but we’ll talk about that next time… :-))

Jewish America through the eyes of a British Israeli

May 18, 2014 by

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First posted in ForeignDaze

The writer, Richard Miron, is a former journalist originally from London who spent over ten years in Israel, and now lives in the Washington DC area where he works as a communications consultant.


Recently a friend’s father died. ‘Suzanne’ as I will call her, decided that she would sit shiva for one night at her home. Many friends attended – not having been able to accompany Suzanne to the funeral which was held in her father’s hometown a few hours away. Nothing strange about that you might think – except that Suzanne is a Quaker, as was her father.

Suzanne’s husband ‘Jeff’ is Jewish, and as such they have, over the years, taken their kids to a local Reform synagogue. Their family life is a fusion of faiths with Christmas Tree and Chanuka lights at winter-time. But it was Suzanne – not her husband – who became involved in the synagogue through her children’s attendance at its Hebrew school, to the point where she was running the parent teacher association.

Coming to the States from Israel, and before that the UK, this kind of seamless religious integration between Judaism and other faiths, was completely foreign. But I am now coming to understand the peculiarities and positives about Jewish life in the US.

When Lysette and I first arrived in the Washington area from Tel Aviv, we felt nervous about re-entering life in the ‘Diaspora’. In Israel, we identified in our family life as hilonim (‘secularites’), meaning in practice, we kept Kosher at home, did Kiddush on Friday night, went on hikes or socialized on Shabbat, and virtually never ventured to our local orthodox synagogue (there was no other brand of Judaism around). But our kids spoke Hebrew fluently, learning about the meaning and traditions of Jewish life in their supposedly secular kindergarten and school. In our own way we also celebrated the festivals including, putting up our Sukkah in autumn (like most of our secular neighbours), lighting the Chanukah candles in winter, holding a seder night at Passover. The Holy Days were the national holidays, making synagogue feel unnecessary in this all pervasive (and positive) Jewish and Israeli atmosphere.

I recall one occasion when close family came to visit us from England.

‘Do you like going to shul’, my cousin’s husband asked my daughter, Livvy, then aged six.

Her face reflected back puzzlement by way of response.

‘Bet Knesset’ I said, using the Hebrew rather than Yiddish word for synagogue.

‘But we don’t believe in Elohim (God)’ Livvy retorted.

I don’t recall articulating my atheism, but it had obviously been picked up from the way we led our lives and the difference between us and the dati’im (religious), who Livvy observed attending synagogue.

When we got to the States, we realized that this situation wasn’t going to hold if we were to invest our children with a strong and positive Jewish identity.

On our first Yom Kippur in Washington, a short while after arriving, we drove to a local synagogue about which we had heard good things. In Israel, the Day of Atonement consisted of Livvy and Edie cycling around the streets, which were for this one day in the year, completely free of cars. Instead the roads were packed with the bikes, pedal scooters, and skateboards of those who weren’t in synagogue, but who wanted to take advantage of the lack of traffic and pollution. In Washington, en-route to the synagogue for our first family Diaspora Yom Kippur, Edie glanced at the car alongside ours which had bikes stacked on a rack in the rear and declared, “look, they must be Jewish too”. For her, and for all our family, being Jewish had come to mean doing the same as the people around us.

Thus began our journey in the US through the differing strands of Judaism in our vicinity; including Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and more. We ultimately settled on a relaxed Liberal Conservative synagogue, with the girls attending, in addition to regular school, an Israeli-style pluralistic Hebrew school.

Jewish life here on the East coast of the US is very different from how I remember it growing up in London. As a child you instinctively dropped your voice in public when uttering the word ‘Jewish’, and the general tenor was that this was something to keep low-profile and private; British on the outside, but Jewish within.

In the US, being Jewish is part of the vernacular, a variation upon a theme, like I imagine Catholicism to be in the UK. I feel constantly surprised by how much Jewish culture has become part of American life. Yiddish phrases effortlessly pop out of the mouths of non-Jewish celebrities on TV, the papers are filled with matza related recipes around Passover, while at the same time of year President Obama holds a Seder at the White House.

I was brought up to believe that being Jewish wasn’t easy and was meant to be far from effortless – a bit like digesting gefilte fish. The local synagogue I attended as a child was traditional and cold, both in temperature and practice, with the officials (all men) attired in suits and shiny top hats. In Israel, the Orthodox was the synagogue we didn’t go to. But America is a country built upon the notions of freedom, choice, and convenience. And that has come to mean endless selection in all aspects of life; from breakfast cereals to the kind of Judaism you feel like practicing. The end result is seductive and inviting.

This has meant – in the American context – taking Judaism out of its particularistic closet, and making it seemingly more universal and accessible within society as a whole. It has become (mostly) synonymous with liberal values, acceptance, and openness. The synagogues are warm, comfortable, places with welcoming people on hand to guide you through the range of services – religious and social – on offer. This is all very strange to me, schooled in the private nervousness of Anglo Jewry and the public assertiveness of Israel secularism. But then this is the New World, which while foreign, also offers something novel, curious and maybe ultimately – homely.

The corruption files of HaDag Nahash

May 15, 2014 by

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It may be fair to say that while most Israelis were surprised at the conviction of Ehud Olmert, and even at Olmert’s involvement in illegal activities, few Israelis were surprised to learn of corruption in the higher echelons of the State. After all, Ehud Olmert is far from the first minister of government to be sent to prison for corruption-related charges.

Here are HaDag Nachash’s top three songs of political corruption…

“Only Here I feel at home, although I’m angry about the corruption” (in the days when Makom was called NACIE…)

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“I’ve had it up to here with political parties…” The FishSnakers’ take on Meir Ariel’s timeless lyrics.

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Raging against the machine… it’s time to wake up… (click on captions for subtitles we provided)

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What should we do with the conviction of Ehud Olmert?

May 15, 2014 by

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אולמרטShay Charka

Is our first instinct to stress the positives?

It does indeed take a strong and independent justice system to convict Presidents, Prime Ministers, Finance Ministers and the like. If we do take this approach, emphasizing the conviction and less the crime itself, it might be worthwhile examining our aims. Are we trying to defend Israel against its detractors? Are we trying to simply cheer our students up? Or even to cheer up ourselves?

And if we were to play down the conviction and focus on the corruption. How Olmert’s wrong-doings may well be the tip of the iceberg, and so on – what are our aims here? Do we wish to push our learners to action? To protest? To despair?

There will be many who will argue that the conviction of a politician in Israel is not a subject for Israel or Jewish education. In some senses they would be right, in so far as the headlines of the current discourse explore straightforward issues of justice systems, the rule of law, and so on. Beyond pointing out that Israel has a justice system, the “lesson” is limited. But at the same time, it’s in the news, guys… Do we really think no one’s going to ask, or notice?

We might take as our entry point the gags and the cartoons popping up all over. “The formation of the new political party, The Hard Labor Party with real conviction” – “The potential for an entire shadow government cabinet in prison”. From what pain, anger, or detachment do these gags emerge?

Or what if we chose to examine the language being used? Might we then reach a deeper opportunity for questions of Identity?

Look around the articles and the Facebook posts. Who talks of being “ashamed”? It’s worth unpacking what kind of connection someone has to a place or a person if they are ashamed of them. If I am ashamed of someone or something, it suggests they hold a significant place in the way I understand myself. If I were disconnected, or disinterested, I might use the word “sad” or “stupid” or even “outrageous”, but would never feel “shame”.

Do our learners feel ashamed of Israel? That might be a good sign. They are connected.

But by the same token, we should not forget that the twin of shame is pride. They emerge from the same place of identification.

When do our students feel pride in Israel? It’s a human need for us to experience both – sometimes even at the same time.

Exploration of this duality of shame and pride in Israel may allow us to extract some educational juice out of this complicated and challenging headline.

What do you think?

My Yom Haatzmaut – Yonatan Ariel

May 5, 2014 by

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In these days, there is a striking difference between being in Israel and not being in Israel. I feel it amongst my friends and colleagues. Those Jewish educators, rabbis and activists who live around the world – passionately committed to Israel as they are – often find it difficult to reshape their routines and regular social practices. Unlike their kindred spirits in Israel who overwhelmingly refrain from frivolous or disconnected emails or Facebook posts on Yom HaZikkaron, when you live overseas the norm is naturally different. And when it comes to Yom HaAtzmaut, the current dissatisfaction with Israel’s policies mutes the celebration.

To develop major and minor customs and traditions filled with significance is an anthropological need for the Jewish People in our generation. As the late Rav Yehuda Amital said to combat soldiers in the 1973 Yom Kippur War:

“It says in Psalms (145:18): “God is near to all those who call Him – to all who call Him in truth.” Anyone who truly calls, whether religious or not. Neither I, as a Rosh Yeshiva, nor my students and friends,     your comrades-in-arms, represent God any more than you do. Whose prayer comes nearer to God – the prayer of someone like me who was trained in it from childhood, or your prayer, which you discovered in the heat of battle? Only God knows…a sincere prayer that originates in the depths and flows forth from there, even if the words are stammered, is heard at the highest heights. King David wrote in one of his psalms (130:2), “God! Listen in to my voice; may Your ears be attentive to the sound of my supplication.” A great Hasidic master once pointed out that it does not say “listen to my voice (shema koli),” rather “listen in to my voice (shema be-koli)” – listen to what is hidden within the notes of my voice, what I could not articulate in words.”

Due to the raw ache of the day, we need to work harder at listening in to the voices between the lines of Israeli pain.

And then we experience the aggressive disjuncture to Independence Day. To my mind Jews should celebrate Israel on Yom HaAtzmaut in the same spirit as we celebrate the Torah on Simchat Torah. Once a year, we sing, dance, kiss, eat and drink to the significance of the Torah – “for it is our life and the length of our days”. And then we spend hours upon hours, days upon days, in our study circles and in our Batei Midrash debating relentlessly the plausible, disturbing and potential interpretations of each and every word, and how we navigate around them.

Likewise we should spend hours and days earnestly attending to Israel’s issues, topics and flaws. It is a moral imperative to better Israel and to figure out ways to enable Israel to reach higher. And we should take time each year give ourselves the oxygen of hope – to pause and spend Yom HaAtzmaut in song and dance celebrating the remarkable efforts of all of those who have brought Israel to this season, with the awe and wonder of what it means “to be a free people in our land”.

We need a Chag Atzmaut (Independence Festival) – that prompts and captures the full range of emotions that is Israel in our lives.

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