Voices from the Field
Most people know that the phrase “Festival of Lights” refers to Hannukah, but it took a special experience in Jerusalem’s central bus station for me to really grasp the meaning. In December 2013, I was at a food court when a man several feet away said ezra b’vakasha, which means “help, please” in Hebrew. I looked over and saw that he was blind and needed assistance at an ATM. We talked a bit as he finished his transaction, then he asked me, “Would you help me run some holiday errands?” I told my friends I’d meet them later and led him to the elevator. He asked for the bakery and bookstore, two neighboring shops near the front entrance. As the man went about his errands (with surprisingly little help from me), I learned that he was fluent in five languages, all self-taught. He was in the bookstore to pick up an audio book to learn French. The more I learned about him, the more interested I became.
While at the bookstore, I bought a copy of a children's storybook called Menorah Under the Sea. It is about a Jewish marine biologist who was on a scientific mission to Antarctica to study sea urchins that live in the freezing water at the bottom of the world. His mission took him to Antarctica during Hannukah, which presented two problems: 1) the sun shines a full 24 hours a day at the south pole that time of year, and 2) he was far from his family during the holiday. How would you light candles in the darkness if it never got dark? To solve this problem, he dove to the bottom of the Antarctic ocean to arrange sea urchins and starfish in the shape of a hannukiah. He then shined his flashlight on them to illuminate the scene.
After the bookstore, in an act of gratitude, the man bought me a sufganiyah to enjoy. “Take a bite,” he said. “The jelly inside is the best part,” as if I had never tasted a sufganiyah before. Of course, I’d been eating these since I was a kid, but at that moment I pretended it was my first bite.
During my time with this man, I had been patting myself on the back for doing a mitzvah. My new friend, though, didn’t see the relationship as such a one-way street. Here he was, welcoming me, inviting me to celebrate our traditions, teaching me something new. I answered his request for help, and I was instantly a part of his family - after all, who else would you trust with your ATM transaction? He was able to develop relationships and communication with so many around him in personal and profound ways, that suddenly I asked myself: Which one of us was truly living in “the dark”?
Following both my experience with this man and reading the story of the marine bioligist, I started thinking about the phrase “a light in the darkness." Darkness and illumination, I had discovered, were relative. “We all experience our own darknesses, and each of us is blessed with a unique set of lights we are able to shine on the world and ourselves."
With the tragic events that have transpired in Israel over this past year, there has been much darkness. How can we, together and as individuals, use our own "lights" to illuminate amidst darkness?
!חג חנוכה שמח
For some additional Israel-centric Hanukkah books, please see:
Alex’s passion for Israel began in childhood during his education at Solomon Schechter Day Schools in Chicago’s northern suburbs. After a family trip to Israel, summer programs in high school and college, and graduating from Northwestern with majors in Jewish Studies and Psychology, Alex was ready to spend an extended period of time there. He joins the iCenter after a year in Rishon LeZion where he taught English to Israeli elementary school students through Masa’s Israel Teaching Fellowship program. Alex is thrilled to be a part of the iCenter team and looks forward to helping nurture ahavat Yisrael throughout the North American Jewish community.
On Tuesday, November 18, terrorists attacked a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, brutally murdering five men and injuring others. Shalom Orzach reflects on the timeless lessons in the wake of this shocking and devastating event.
On day’s like today, it is difficult to speak. There was silence on the streets of Jerusalem and across Israel that was almost deafening. The expression on people’s faces says it all: we are hurting. As in an intimate relationship, things do not need to be said, we know, we feel, we empathize, and we get it.
As educators and as parents, however, silence is not necessarily the most effective response. Our role is to enable people -- our students, our children -- to “make sense” of these harrowing events, to bring them into broader contexts, to learn from them. We must serve as a moral voice, to reinforce, and sometimes introduce, the core values and the essence of who we are.
What are some of the things that need to be said to link these time-related events to the timeless values of our people and our story? We are hurting first and foremost because we are family. On day’s like today, the concept of being part of a people -- the Jewish People -- should be reinforced and revisited.
The attack took place in a synagogue, a place that is deemed holy. What is the significance of space, of “sanctuary,” of being in a safe place? In many ways, the story of Israel is the story of finding and establishing a “safe place” for all of its citizens.
There are large theological questions begging to be addressed, and there are many ways to approach them. The daily ritual of gathering in prayer gives expression to who we are as Jews, and the horror of today’s events can provide opportunities for us to consider how we bring holiness and meaning into our daily schedules. Our timeless values find expression in timely, daily acts and ritual behaviors.
These broader issues are not an effort to avoid or belittle the enormity and horror of the attack in Jerusalem today, but to contextualize them in a framework that can help us and our learners understand, gain strength and deepen our knowledge and commitment to our shared core values.
With prayers for better days, comfort for those mourning and speedy recovery to those injured.
For more from Shalom and timeless reflection, please see the Educator's Backpack, "Discussing Tragedy in Israel: Timeless Reflection"
Shalom is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter. Prior, he served as the AVI CHAI Project Director and Director of Education in the Shlichut and Israel Fellows unit for the Jewish Agency. He has a rich background in camping, running various camps in England where he grew up and later serving as the Education Director at Ramah Poconos. He has served as a consultant for the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Peoplehood Committee, and teaches a course in experiential education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shalom was also a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, after which he served as the Executive Director of Jewish Renewal for United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA). Shalom has a strong passion for teaching, feels privileged to live in Jerusalem with his family and loves sharing stories about life in the Land of so much Promise.
Reposted from JewishCincinnati.org
My mind is still reeling with inspiration and possibility after the first cohort of Taglit Fellows. The Taglit Fellows program is an intensive, professional development conference for experiential Jewish educators and professionals to prepare to staff Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.
Looking around at the 100 Fellows in my cohort (selected from a pool of 1,000), I couldn’t help but think that if these peers are the future leaders of the Jewish diaspora in America, our people will be in great hands. The program was created by the iCenter, a leader in contemporary Israel education in the United States.
Dr. Zohar Raviv, Vice President of Education at Taglit-Birthright Israel, summed up our purpose last week when he said, "We’ve taught Jews in America how to be Jewish, but we haven’t taught them why to be Jewish.” This quote resonated with me the entire week, and I think it will inspire and change how I view my work at the Federation.
It’s not that our generation isn’t interested in being Jewish. In fact, we’re more proud of our Judaism than any generation before us, as the numbers from the Pew Study show. We just don’t connect to existing Jewish institutions (or any institutions for that matter). We don’t have a sense of obligation for communal sustenance, and we don’t feel the need for a strong Jewish community as a reaction to issues against our people (ie. Holocaust, anti-Semitism, threats to Israel). Because we can’t connect with the existing Jewish narratives, Jewish young adults feel their own Jewish journey isn’t valid or “Jewish enough.” To avoid any discomfort, we simply opt out of anything Jewish. Let’s face it…surfing Netflix is a lot easier than going to a synagogue and being left feeling uncomfortable.
Taglit-Birthright Israel understands this, and their curriculum reflects a modern way of teaching Jewish education and connecting with Jewish young adults. The 10-day trip to Israel is not just an exploration of the land, it’s a program that is learner-centric, experiential, and allows for diversity of thoughts and feelings on Judaism and Israel. Leaders of Taglit-Birthright Israel work to teach Jewish young adults that they are part of the Jewish story, and they can fill that role in the Jewish narrative in any way they feel comfortable. Their Judaism is theirs, and participants should feel empowered to find out what Judaism can give to them. Taglit-Birthright Israel’s goal is to provide a space where a Jewish young adult can discover for themselves why they should be Jewish.
On a side note, I have learned some amazing programs for our trip…get ready Cincy Community Taglit-Birthright Israel!
In my job at the Federation, I hope to be the bridge between a young adult’s 10 days on the trip and their life back in Cincinnati (400,000 worldwide have been on Taglit-Birthright Israel in the last 14 years). It’s important to keep in mind the values of Birthright, create safe and open spaces for young adults to feel Jewish in their own, make them experiential, and give young adults ownership of their Jewish community.
We spent a lot of time sharing our Jewish journeys with each other and developing how to tell our story in a way that inspires. Every single person there had either attended camp or been to Israel (usually both), and those experiences were a lot more informative and inspiring than formal Jewish education (Jewish day school, Hebrew/Sunday school).
I’m coming back to Cincinnati energized for my work to keep connecting Jewish young adults to a Jewish community that has given me so much. I also hope to work with young adults to help them feel confident and proud of their Jewish journeys, whatever those journeys look like. As we said at the Taglit Fellow conference, "Being Jewish is about being the best you…and a part of us.”
For more about Taglit Fellows, please see here.
Sammy is thrilled to be back in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, working in his first professional role in the Jewish community. He is currently the Esther and Maurice Becker Center Networking and Mentoring Coordinator at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, spearheading a new initiative to connect and engage Jewish young adults to the community, both professionally and socially. He spent the past three years living in New York City and working in the professional theatre industry. A highlight includes an assistant on the producing team for the Off-Broadway production of My Name is Asher Lev. During that time, he had an opportunity to lead two Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, which inspired him to find a career path involving Jewish community. Sammy is graduate of Syracuse University, with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism. At Syracuse, he was the President and Music Director of the Jewish a cappella group, Oy Cappella. Outside of work, he is an indoor cycling instructor, Cincinnati enthusiast, and an avid musical theatre fan!