The custom of kriah, or tearing or rending our garments, is a critical element of mourning in Judaism. Judaism mandates that we ritually tear our clothes, in a physical manifestation and expression of the complicated and painful feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger at the death of a close relative. Nowadays, many Jews opt to wear a black ribbon which is torn in place of clothing. Traditionally this tearing, or kriah, happens right before the start of the funeral, in a private room where the family acknowledges that God is the True Judge. And apparently, as I found out on my recent trip to Israel in December, in many communities it is also traditional to tear your clothes upon seeing the Kotel, the Western Wall.
I was in Israel on the AIPAC Leffell Fellows Seminar, a trip for rabbinical students from the major Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbinical schools. The trip, which featured incredible speakers like David Horowitz of the Times of Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi of “Like Dreamers,” Dr. Einat Wilf, and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, was both about providing the fellows with access to a spectacular range of speakers and experiences, and the opportunity to experience Israel with and through rabbinical students of significantly different political views and religious lifestyles. Some of my peers on the trip shared my exact political and religious predilections, but more often than not, we differed significantly. Some speakers who blew me away with their perspectives and erudition bored my peers, while a few speakers who deeply frustrated me deeply inspired the rabbi-to-be sitting next to me at dinner. The experience of learning about Israel from and, more importantly, with those who do not see Israel the way I do made for a moving seminar.
One of the most powerful moments was when, in anticipation of our trip to the Kotel tunnels, a few of the Orthodox fellows asked if they could have a moment to tear kriah at the Kotel. I was dumbfounded. I understood the words, I could figure out what they meant, but I had never even heard of the custom. Though I am still just a rabbinical student, I was almost completely floored by the idea that there was a custom that I had never heard of, especially given that I’ve spent almost 3 full years of my adult life living in Israel. As we stood outside the main entrance to the Kotel, before entering either the men’s or women’s sections, so as to allow all who wanted to participate, regardless of gender, our Orthodox peers explained the custom, citing from a classical code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah: “One who sees the Temple in its destruction recites the verse ‘Our holy Temple, our pride, where our fathers praised You, has been consumed by fire; And all that was dear to us is ruined’ (Isaiah 64:10) and tears their garment.” (MT, Fasts, 5:16). As they recited the verse, they tore the left side of their white shirts just below the neck, as if mourning the loss of a beloved family member, and then we went on to the next stop on our whirlwind tour.
For those Orthodox fellows, this experience was nothing new; it was routine, mundane, mandated. They simply wanted to share their observance of this obligation with us. For me, however, this was an important moment to dwell upon. How had I spent so much time living so close to the Kotel and never heard of this practice? Had my education been lacking? Did my teachers fail me? Did I fail my students by not teaching them this practice? Moreover, especially given the difficulty many Conservative Jews have in regards to the Kotel, had no one considered that this custom might be relevant and necessary for contemporary Conservative Judaism? Our tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred; and for increasingly large numbers, the Kotel Foundation’s policies against pluralism represent a modern type of sinat chinam. But instead of avoiding the Kotel altogether, as some might choose to do, we must actually look at it, recognizing that the state it is in right now is imperfect and represents the ruination of that which we hold dear. This ritual is a beautiful if painful way of engaging with our traditional values and our modern sensibilities and hoping towards something better.
While I cannot say for certain whether or not this custom will become a part of my regular practice when I go to the Kotel in the future, I know for certain that the next time I lead a trip to Israel, I will bring this custom, and the perspectives of my peers who taught it to me, with me. Even more so, I know for certain that I never would have gained this insight had it not been for the experience of attending the Leffell Fellows Seminar through AIPAC. By gathering Jews of completely different religious and political outlooks, AIPAC allowed and encouraged all of us to broaden our religious horizons, and pushed us to see Israel through the eyes of our peers. By building a wide open tent and inviting each of us in, our AIPAC experience gave each of us permission to share our perspectives, forge new connections, and hold new hopes for Israel. And that is certainly worth tearing a shirt for.
Perhaps you’ll consider an AIPAC experience. Policy Conference is March 4 through 6 in Washington, D.C. It is not too late to register. Join Rabbi Scheff and me, and experience the many diverse ways in which AIPAC is strengthening the American Jewish connection to Israel.
Jeremy Fineberg, Rabbinic Intern
18,000 of us converged on Washington for three days: Jews of every stream, nationality and political persuasion; Jews who are high school kids, college students, Holocaust survivors, rabbis. Also gathering were delegates who are Hispanic, people of color, Evangelical Christians, main line Christians, politicians. We came to AIPAC’s Policy Conference because all of us are supporters of the Israel–America alliance.
Imagine it: 18,000 filling the hallways and meeting rooms of the Washington Convention Center. 18,000 dramatically filling the arena of the Verizon Center to hear Vice President Biden, Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, and most of the candidates currently running for president.
The person sitting next to me in a session about the refugee crisis in the Middle East may not have agreed with me about most things, but we are both similarly committed to Israel’s right to exist as a free, secure, Democratic nation. The people on either side of me during the campaign speeches may be voting differently than me, but we all agree on the necessity of friendship between Israel and America. The rabbis at my table listening to Natan Sharansky speak about the rise of anti-Semitism and the insidiousness of BDS may have different politics from mine, but we all agree that Israel is as necessary to American security as America is to Israel’s.
As always at AIPAC events, I listened to thinkers and politicians from the left and the right. Stav Shafir, Member of Knesset and one of the founders of the Israeli social justice protest (Mechaat Tzedek Hevrati), shared her idealistic vision for a progressive and optimistic future for Israel.
Author of My Promised Land, Ari Shavit criticized the current government in Israel, saying that Religious Zionists are endangering our home and Ultra-Orthodox Jews are endangering our religion. From the other side of ideology, Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens shared his vision of security for Israel. Writer for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, discussed his critique of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.
The voices were a cacophony of harmonious disagreement. For me, this fact is the power of AIPAC.
As delegates, we listen respectfully to learn about a variety of perspectives and make up our own minds. Learning from the diversity of thought at AIPAC has enhanced my understanding of one of the most complicated situations in our world today. Over time, I have definitely changed my mind about certain things. But never have I wavered from the belief that when Israel and America are strong, the world is more stable.
This year for the first time in nine AIPAC Policy Conferences, I chose NOT to listen to one of AIPAC’s guests. I did not stage a protest or a walkout. Together with Rabbi Scheff, our intern Paula Rose, and fifty other rabbis, I chose to study Torah rather than to be in the arena when Donald Trump spoke. We gathered in a restaurant inside the center to hear words of Torah and sing Olam Chesed Yibaneh, (with loving kindness the world is built).
I do not judge the choices that others made with regard to Mr. Trump’s speech. Some walked out but did not gather with others, other delegates stayed in to listen to his words. Some maintained silence and others clapped politely. Some clapped enthusiastically. I acted according to my own conscience and not in anyone else’s name. I acted, but not in order to judge others.
I understood from the outset that AIPAC’s mission requires all presidential candidates to be invited and I support the invitation to Mr. Trump among all of the presidential candidates. But I could not in good conscience listen to a person whose rhetoric has been anchored in racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and calls to violence. Judaism’s most fundamental value teaches us that all people are worthy of respect because we are created in God’s image. As a rabbi and as a Jew, I felt a moral obligation NOT to listen, to refrain from lending legitimacy to a candidate for the highest office in America who engages in hateful speech.
Over my 10 years of participation in AIPAC, I have been taught to welcome all speakers with dignity and respect. No one boos or heckles a guest of AIPAC. We clap if we agree and we are quiet if we disagree. I have listened to policy with which I agreed and sharply disagreed. I have always listened. At Policy Conference 2016 I chose not to listen.
In so doing, I pray that my fellow rabbis and I made space for words of loving kindness.
I pray that words of loving kindness will disarm words of recrimination and anger flying on social media regarding AIPAC, Donald Trump, Israel’s supporters and her detractors as well.
Today is a fast day, Ta’anit Esther, commemorating Queen Esther’s request of the Persian Jewish community to join in solidarity with her as she faced the challenge of her lifetime. I dedicate my fast to similar solidarity of the Jewish community. Too much is at stake for us to stand apart in judgment of each other.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murderous terrorist attacks just a week ago, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu seized the opportunity during the massive unity rally that followed to invite (actually, to call upon) the Jews of France, 500,000 strong, to return home to Israel. With the fresh images of four Jewish bodies returning to Israel to be buried and armed guards filling the entryways to their children’s schools, along with the collective memory they carry of the events that took place 75 years ago, the Jews of France have good reason to consider flight as their best option. I have heard many say that the handwriting is on the wall, that the times are looking like the 1930’s, that we made the mistake of staying once before and look what it cost us — and I can’t say that I completely disagree. Every individual and family must decide what is best for them.
But this is not 1938. And we are a more powerful international community of Jews than ever before. And we have Israel waiting with open arms. And we have allies, Christians and even Muslims among them. And French President Francois Hollande certainly understands the national and international implications of a mass Jewish exodus. Aside from the “brain drain” that would result, should France lose its Western soul in the battle between radical Islam and modernity, other countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden are likely to follow soon thereafter. And let’s not forget that France is a nuclear power and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. France is already experiencing the annual emigration of thousands of Jews to Israel in recent years. Should the largest European Jewish community be decimated of its own free will, there is little doubt that the other Jewish communities of Europe will suffer a similar fate.
Are we ready for a new demographic reality, where all Jews live in Israel, the United States and Canada? On the one hand, I say why not. On the other hand, the French Jews attending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appearance at the Great Synagogue followed his oration with an emotional singing of Hatikvah, and concluded with an equally stirring and heartfelt rendition of La Marseillaise. We must also ask ourselves what we would sacrifice and how long we would fight were our American values and freedoms suddenly challenged. And we must also ask ourselves how our mission in the world is fulfilled as Jews if we are only a light unto those who share our values; if we become an insular and insulated community; if we are only for ourselves. That is not, in my opinion, how we were meant to be a blessing.
Israel is our home and, thank God, our haven. But the Jewish experiment was meant to be shared with the rest of the world. And that means fighting and sacrificing for a certain way of life for ourselves and for those who have elected to adopt our values. I fight back by supporting the education of our local community through Rockland’s Holocaust Museum and Study Center; I fight back by using social media to share balanced and accurate reporting; I fight back by participating in AIPAC’s policy conference and lobbying efforts (March 1-3) to make sure that the United States will stand as a partner with Israel in the international arena; I fight back by voting for MERCAZ USA in the World Zionist Congress elections (ongoing) to promote a more progressive social agenda and more pluralistic religious agenda in Israel; I fight back by supporting organizations like the American Jewish Committee to advocate globally for Israel and the world’s Jewish communities; I fight back by leading trips to Israel (informational meeting Wednesday night for our December 2015 trip) so others can feel empowered by the greatest feelings of belonging, strength and hope.
I pray that, should the time come (God forbid) when it is time to go home, I will know it. Until then, I will proudly defend my right to be a Jew right here.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
On Wednesday, I boarded a 5:45 am train for Washington, D.C. filled with excitement and anticipation of a day filled with learning at the National Rabbinic Symposium of AIPAC. When I arrived home late that night, I felt satisfied that I had been correct. One may wonder how a day spent discussing the difficult, intractable current affairs of Israel could possibly be uplifting, but it was just that. Surrounded by 250 rabbinic colleagues hearing from great thinkers and actors on the stage of Israel affairs, I felt supported and optimistic. Why? As always at AIPAC events, I was reminded of the incredible difference one person can make by exercising her American right to be an advocate for a cause. The cause of AIPAC is protecting and enhancing the American-Israel relationship. Throughout the day, one of my friends kept chanting, “Thank God, Thank God, Thank God for America’s friendship” every time the Iron Dome Defense System was mentioned. I was reminded all day that America is Israel’s staunch ally.
How much more talking and listening can we do about Israel, you may ask. All summer we wrote and read and talked about Israel. Rabbi Scheff and I will both be speaking about Israel on Yom Kippur — me at Kol Nidre and Rabbi Scheff on Yom Kippur morning. The answer is that we will not stop talking about Israel and that was the point of yesterday’s symposium.
I share with you now just one moment of learning in the midst of seven hours of speakers, discussion groups and presentations. At the lunchtime plenary, we were honored to meet and listen to Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of Son of Hamas, his autobiography about his childhood in Ramallah, his work as a spy for the Shin Bet (Mossad) for ten years and his eventual asylum here in America. Mosab’s father is Seikh Hassan Yousef, is a founding leader of Hamas, yet this son came to understand that murder and violence are not answers to the issues of Israel and her Arab neighbors. It felt like all of us in the room were holding our breath as Mosab shared his story with calm humility and courage. He does not believe that he is a hero; rather, he feels that he is a person who came to understand that saving even one life is worth the world. He was asked how he would bring peace to the Middle East given all that he knows about Hamas, Gaza and the West Bank, Israel and America. I cannot stop thinking about his answer. He looked out at all of us and said, “The only thing I can say is Israel must protect herself.” When all is said and done, he is right. Israel must protect herself, but she cannot do it without us. And so we must continue to protect Israel. That is why we’ll continue to read, write, talk and discuss Israel. Am Yisrael Chai!
Kol tuv, All the best, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Truth is, on a daily basis, there is no where I would rather be than at the Orangetown Jewish Center. My creative energy runs high at the shul, interactions feel profound, learning feels new, and God feels close. My rabbinate makes sense when I am with you in the classroom, my office or the sanctuary.
It is necessary, however, to throw open the windows of our synagogue and look around at the world we inhabit. And it is important to go out into that world to learn about what is going on. If you are with us on Shabbat or in a class, you know that one of the values of the OJC is that our Torah moves from the text to the lives we lead. The lives we lead are fulfilling when we are having an impact on the world: improving families, communities, Jewish organizations and secular institutions. You hear it in our teaching and in our sermons. Find a passion and pursue it! We begin in Torah, but we use Torah to move to issues about Israel, the Jewish world, Conservative Judaism, and social justice.
This past week, I spent time in the wide world beyond Independence Avenue in Orangeburg, New York. I returned today renewed, re-energized and ready to bring all that I learned back to the synagogue. I spent three days with twenty four OJC congregants and 14,000 of our pro-Israel allies at the AIPAC Policy Conference.
At AIPAC, many of the messages resonated with all that I have experienced and learned over eight years of participation in Israel advocacy through AIPAC. Our elected officials on both sides of the aisle unambiguously support Israel as a valued friend. Israeli leadership is grateful to feel the power of our support. People of color and leaders of many faith movements join with us every year to add their voices with ours as important allies in support of Israel. 2300 college leaders, Jewish and not Jewish, join us to state clearly that young people are learning how to advocate for Israel.
The rabbinic leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox streams stood together on the dais and proclaimed, “Jewish life is not about singing in unison but rather in harmony.” Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism stated, “We are not asserting the perfect nature of Israel. There is no perfect country. But we are here to protect the precious relationship between Israel and America.” The ideal of shared values and creating relationships rings true to all of us who have heard Israel sermons in our sanctuary or traveled to Israel on an OJC trip.
Something new was ringing loud and clear throughout the Policy Conference. We have heard the message before at AIPAC, but now it feels like a central theme ino all that we are doing: Despite being in the middle of seemingly intractable conflicts, Israel is a dynamic country filled with innovators who are improving life around the world. We heard from Israeli scientists, technology gurus, and medical researchers breaking through to new frontiers in medicine, security, communication and economic cooperation. There is another story of Israel being played out and we had an opportunity to feel its power. The Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. had a clear answer to the magnificent success of Israeli progress. Ron Prosor said that the secret is The Jewish Mother who believes that her child is a genius and the world just does not yet know it. So if that child takes a risk and fails, the Mother says, “Just go and try again.” And thus we have the Start-Up Nation! It’s a brilliant theory, no?
There was optimism in the air despite the heaviness of world realities right now. John Kerry said, “When Bibi looks me in the eyes and says, ‘We cannot accept a treaty that does not make Israel safer than she is right now,’ he and I agree 100%.” On Monday morning, Netanyahu was downright buoyant (honestly!). He claimed that Israel must be strong to make peace, but peace will make us stronger.
World events change on the hour and I am no prophet. Three days of learning and advocacy, however, allows me to believe that our Torah will lead us eventually to a stable Israel. As Rev. Dr. DeeDee Coleman shouted to an AIPAC crowd that loves her dearly, “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!”
I am grateful to have gone out to learn. I am grateful to return home and share it with all of you.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill