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Uncategorized January 13, 2016

When I Climbed Masada

cross-posted from

The Israel experience I just had with 40-some other friends and family was unforgettable. There were many highs and many precious moments.
But I’m going to tell you about a low. The kind of thing I didn’t post on Facebook. And that was the climbing of Masada.
Uncategorized October 11, 2015

Movie Review: Apples from the Desert

I don’t usually review movies, because I’m not much of a movie-goer. But when the Jewish FilmFest comes to town, I sit up and pay attention, and usually try to attend something. Sadly, many of the movies paint religious Judaism in a negative light, and I’ve almost come to expect that in any movie made by secular Israelis. The religious/secular divide in Israel is palpable, as one movie-reviewer noted, and it’s no surprise that these themes will dominate many Israeli movies. Plus, how many religious Jews in Israel are making movies? So their perspective is rare.

Uncategorized November 20, 2014

Finding Meaning in Terror

a guest post by Gevura Lauren Davis

11: 32 Monday night

As I was trying to fall asleep, the first message came in from my friend. “OMG, Gevu, terror attack in HAR NOF!!!” Har Nof: the neighborhood in Jerusalem we were blessed to live in for six years. Where I studied. Where we were married. Where we raised our first two children. 

Our frenzy began. The frantic search for information I am all too familiar with. JPOST. TIMES OF ISRAEL. HAARETZ. CNN. FACEBOOK. Searching and searching for more information. Any information. Agassi Street. A big Shul. 

Oh no, my husband says. First report of one dead and many injured. At Rabbi Rubin’s shul. The big shul that many hundreds of people pray in every morning. 12:00 the news hits all major outlets. BBC reports possibly several fatalities and several injuries, which “may be terror related.” Har Nof is on lockdown as they search for a third armed suspect. A flurry of calls and emails. 

My revered teacher Rebbetzin Heller posts on Facebook please pray for my son-in-law who was badly injured. Rebbetzin Heller, mother of 14 children, whose husband died this year. No, no no. Which daughter, I wonder? Is it Chani, who has quietly volunteered to organize hundreds of visiting students to sleep overnight at the hospital with children, whose weary parents need some respite?

I’m trying desperately to call my friends and teachers, but all lines are busy.

6:30 am Tuesday morning
After trying to sleep for a few restless hours, I read that Rabbi Goldberg is among the dead. The father of Rivka, who waxed my eyebrows the day of my wedding. The husband of Mrs. Goldberg. who lived for decades in Har Nof without an oven, as they could only afford a cooktop after they sold everything in England to move with idealism to Israel. Mrs. Goldberg, who greeted me every morning in school with a smile and a hello. Mrs. Goldberg, who was the first to teach me how to make challah. Among the dead: Rabbi Kalman Levine, who grew up in Kansas City and was in the first graduating class at HBHA. Rabbi Kalman, my husband’s teacher’s study partner. Rabbi Kalman, father of nine, and grandfather to many.

I walk into my children’s room to wake them up for school. They notice my tears, and I feel compelled to tell them since they will inevitably hear from others. My sweet, precious children. Your old playground is now a graveyard. The shul Daddy took you to this summer is now covered in blood. Holy books are strewn about the floor, and bodies still wrapped in their tefillin are now in morgues. 

“Where, Mommy?” my son wonders. 

In the shul right across the lookout point where Daddy proposed to me; remember I showed you this summer when we visited? Remember, I pointed out the shul where one of Jerusalem’s leading rabbis prays. That one. 

“How many people killed, Mommy?” my son always asks. 

Four, my son. 

“How many injured, Mommy?” is always his next question. 

Nine, my sweet child.

“Did we know any of them?” he fears. 

Yes, my love, your teacher’s uncle, Rabbi Twersky. 

And now his tears join mine in a sad, sad embrace. An embrace I personally, and the Jewish people, are all too familiar with.

You see, this is not the first time I have been involved in a frantic search for news. The first time was when I was 20 years old, and came to Hebrew University to learn more about my people and our heritage. The second week I was there, the busiest pizza shop on Ben Yehuda, Sbarro, was bombed. Several visiting students on my program went home. Emory contacted me to say that if I wanted to stay I needed to sign a document that they were in no way responsible for my safety. 

Then my bus that I always took to school from the Old City was bombed.  Even more students went home. Then I made aliyah the next year and the day after I visited Hebrew University, the cafe was bombed. I showed up on my first blind date with my husband with mascara all over my face. I heard on my bus ride to meet him about another bus bombing. I had to run to a payphone to call my parents and tell them that fortunately I was not on that bus. Not that time. 

The terrible, painfully familiar sirens. The busy phone lines. The search for answers. For news. Each time, there is the same terrible, indescribable feeling of searching.  Reading the names. Hoping and praying you are not familiar with any of them. So this time the names were particularly painful. Because they were familiar to me. And I have the faces of the widows and fatherless children crying out in my mind. But the truth is that they are always faces. Faces of people’s children. Faces of people’s parents. Faces of people’s spouses. And they are real. Lives cut short. Entire future generations cut off from this earth.

So as I mourn with the rest of the Jewish people and the entire world, that rabbis, fathers and sons, are once again murdered in Israel’s capital, the city of gold we have been praying for two thousand years to return to, I am forced to ask myself. How can we go on? How can I make any sense of this horrific tragedy? What lessons can be learned? What comfort is there?

The answers are not simple. And they are not forthcoming. They are different for everyone. I wanted to share my own personal meaning. The morning of the murders. While the pain is still so raw and so fresh.

Of course, we need to continue to invest our resources and efforts into organizations that actively work towards supporting the victims of Terror like One Family and the agencies of the Jewish Federation who do so. We also need to strengthen organizations like AIPAC who continue to try to protect Israel’s interests and security. But the painful reality is that there is no easy solution to the problem of terror against Jews. Higher fences. Looser Borders. More security. Land for peace. Peaceful non-coexistence. It is painful, but the reality is that the political solution does not seem to be forthcoming. Arm everyone? Revoke citizenship? Build more walls? Leave Israel?  That’s the worst part. The paralyzingly realization of no livable solution foreseeable or available to us .

My answer is that I can’t live my life the same way. Many of us are familiar with the famous idea by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov “The whole wide world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is to be strong, and to have no fear at all.” It has become a BBYO anthem and a favorite camp song.  This morning, I am sitting here crying in the JCC watching images on CNN of prayer books strewn about the floor and blood flowing through a synagogue.  And I am painfully reminded of the blood that flowed through the halls of this JCC only months ago.

This is not the first time Jewish history that we have been murdered for being Jewish. There were the Greeks who rose up against us during the Chanukah Story, the Persians during the Purim story, the Spanish during the Inquisition, the Cossacks in the Ukraine, the Nazis in Europe, and many modern day tragedies still. We continue to mourn.

But why?

The Jewish people have a unique destiny. The Torah tells us that we will endure many national tragedies. We are told in the Torah that we will suffer terrible misfortunes as a people and as individuals.  But the Torah also tells us that we are to be Holy Nation, a light unto the other nations of the world. It seems sometimes for me like I forget this fact. I like to live my life like everyone else, carefree and relaxed. Enjoy sports and food, and live as though I am no different from my neighbor. But then I have moments like today, when my fate, the destiny of the Jewish people is blaring painfully in my face that we are different.  

As I sit here typing in the JCC, I know that I will soon go home and continue my day. But my brothers and sisters in the land of Israel do not have that luxury. And suddenly everything has so much more meaning. The stupid fight I am having with a colleague seems so insignificant. My concern for my daughter’s broken collarbone so trivial. As orphans are now burying their fathers, and wives are by hospital bedsides crying their eyes out for a miracle. And I remember. Our unique purpose is to bring light into a dark and barbaric world. This means living as a holy people, dedicated to our unique destiny. The world reminds us that we are indeed a separate people.  Yet it is so easy to forget. Let’s try to remember, though.  I am sure that already by tomorrow or next week my feelings of rededication to live my purpose in life will be slowly fading. But today I want to remember.

The Jewish people will fight on. The Jewish response to darkness is to bring more light into the world. Please consider doing a mitzvah today in the merit of those who are injured and in the memory of those who were extinguished.  The Torah teaches: Ki ner mitzvah v’ Torah ohr, for each Mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is a great light.” Possible ideas include doing kindness for others, saying prayers, particularly Psalms or any other words in your own language to G-d; giving tzedakah or charity to a worthy cause, forgiving someone and making peace among people, doing a kindness for another. Every heartfelt tear and every single deed has the potential to illuminate the world. And we need much much more of that right now. We don’t understand G-d’s ways, we can’t and we won’t. We know one thing, that G-d blesses us with the ability to choose good for every precious moment we are blessed with. We just never know when it will be our last. Let’s live our lives with this knowledge, and become better people for those who no longer have that opportunity.

12: 00 noon 
As I write, my hands are shaking in grief. It is my heartfelt prayer and eternal hope that I will never again be searching the news for names and information. It is the hope of our people. That we may one day live as a free people in our homeland in peace. Am Yisrael Chai.
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized August 11, 2014

Guest Post: The View From Ashdod

Ladies and gents of OOTOB, I present to you today a guest post from one Revital Belz, who lives in Israel.  She blogs at and is sharing her viewpoint of the current conflict in Israel.  I know social media and the blogosphere have been abuzz with information and emotions, and here she is in her own thoughtful and inspiring words.  Revital will be available over the next few days to respond to your thoughts and comments.

Although I left my native United States for Israel almost thirty years ago, I always felt a bit
separate from the “real” sabra Israeli society. The moment I opened my mouth, taxi drivers
would start speaking to me in broken English, proud to have identified me as one of those
crazy Americans who came to make Israel their home. My Brooklyn accent stubbornly
stayed with me, and living in my Orthodox community in Bnei Brak I sometimes felt as if I
was being cocooned, distant as it were from the true Israel.

Last year I moved to the southern port city of Ashdod to live closer to my married kids and
was pleasantly surprised as to the beauty of the city. It is actually the fifth largest city in
Israel, has a gorgeous beach and magnificent parks. The streets are lined with trees and
flowers, and the multicultural population co-exists peacefully.

Fast forward to July 2014.

Boom! Boom! WoooOOOOoooo! OMG ! My grandchildren were on their weekly visit to me
when the wailing siren went off. Calmly, with equanimity, actually holding on to their plates
of pizza and spaghetti, the kids filed into my shelter, as I frantically called their names one by
one, making sure they were all in. I realized that they were giving me funny looks, trying to
figure out what the big deal was. After all, this was a reality of their lives, something which
had been drilled into them since kindergarten and an integral part of life for them. Why
was Baba (me) making such a big deal? You just went into the nearest building, stairwell or
home, waited until the sirens and booms (missiles) stopped (10 minutes) and then went on
with your lives.

Then I realized. I was at the front! This battle was being played out in my home, on my street
and I was a soldier. If I let myself be intimidated by the neighborhood bully then I have given
him victory. Well, let it not be said that a Brooklyn girl enhanced by 30 years of acquired
Israeli toughness was going to let this get to her. I go about my life, commute to work, shop,
invite family, visit family, go to the synagogue, lectures, whatever. My life continues. I am
not going to sit petrified in my shelter room all day. Of course, I always have one ear open to
hear the siren, and as I go down the street I make a mental note which building I will jump
into if necessary. But I will not be bullied.

Accepting that I am at the front has done something for me spiritually too. Sure, I feel
vulnerable and scared and I speak to Hashem more fervently and more often. I know that
it’s OK to be scared. I guess the soldiers are scared too sometimes.

Every soldier has his job. My job as a grandmother soldier living in Ashdod is to go about my
daily life, to do my jobs and to carry on living. Yes, I am trying to be a better person. Faced
with so much evil down there in Gaza, I want to inject into the world a little more goodness,
more love for my fellow man, extra G-dliness in my daily life.

We are all soldiers at the front!

Uncategorized December 4, 2012

The Shame of Chosenness

It seems, often, that others deem us the Chosen People far more readily than we do, ourselves.  And not necessarily in a positive way.

This is a crime.

In Jewish liturgy and text, chosenness and love are inextricably intertwined.  The Jewish people is called God’s “firstborn.”  We are chosen with love.  Chosen for what, though?  The shame, I believe, comes from a deep misunderstanding of the answer to that question, and I believe the answer people harbor in their hearts comes in various varieties.

1. We’re not chosen.  Jews are like everyone else.  We shouldn’t be different from everyone else.  It’s what makes us hated.  The more similar we will be, the more “normal” – the better.  Who are we to think we’re better than anyone?

2. We’re chosen, yeah, but we shouldn’t really advertise it.  I mean, just between us, Jews are smart, ambitious, driven, bent on education and family values.  We’ve won all these Nobel Prizes and we’re barely a blip demographically.  These ideas feel like a superiority complex, so better not to discuss it too much, but just read Start-up Nation and Mark Twain and what-have-you.  It’s undeniable.

3. Jews are chosen for greater responsibility – to be a light unto the nations (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s concise and brilliant If You Were God – a book that changed my life).  That means we have more obligations in Judaism (613 instead of the 7 that non-Jews have) and a request from God to be a good example wherever we go.  This is how I see things.

One time, my husband and I were at the Geauga County Fair.  For those of you that don’t live in Ohio, firstly you’ll never ever know if I misspelled Geauga, and secondly let’s just say that we were the only members of an ethnic or religious minority there.  There was a wagon that was transporting the visitors from the parking area to the fair, and we were (surprise) toting a stroller.  As we attempted to maneuver the stroller onto the wagon, a man jumped off the wagon to help us and after we all settled in, said conspiratorially, to our utter shock, “You guys are the Chosen People.  It’s an honor to help you.  And Israel?  I don’t know why everyone doesn’t understand that it’s your promised land.”

And with that we rolled along on our merry way as I tried to find my tongue.

Whatever you might say about evangelical Christians and Israel, one thing is clear: I’ve been reminded often by non-Jews, sometimes in a positive way and sometimes in a negative way, that the Jews are unique and different and will never really blend in.

What startles me is how uncomfortable many Jews are with this concept.  Sort of like not wanting to be teacher’s pet.  Maybe this is one reason Jews rarely invoke God’s name socially or publicly (as a good friend of mine put it, “we were raised to never say God’s name, except in vain”), whereas non-Jews seem wildly cool with it.

Truthfully, although Jewish literature is replete with references to the Chosen People notion, it’s hardly exclusionary.  Judaism both tells us not to push our religion on others and to accept them if they truly want to convert.  Judaism also teaches that any good person, Jew or non-Jew, has a share in the Jewish version of the afterlife.  In other words, while Jews are chosen by God, anyone can choose to be chosen just like we did.  We chose to be chosen nationally (Abraham our forefather discovered God on his own and any of his children who followed his monotheistic path became Jewish) and anyone can choose to be chosen too.

Having done a completely non-scientific study, my research seems to indicate that Jews who have grown up in remote communities, where they were among a very small number of Jews (and they always know exactly what that number was), are convinced that Jews are different and special – indeed a member of the “Chosen People” – and don’t have a problem with the concept, whereas perhaps ironically (since many Jewish parents choose this next option purposefully to aid in their kids’ Jewish “identity”) Jews who grow up in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, go to public school with Jewish kids and attend summer camp with Jews, tend to struggle mightily with it and fight it.

To respond to William Norman Ewer’s famous witticism:

How odd
of God
to choose 
the Jews

I like this anonymously penned rejoinder:

It’s not so odd
the Jews chose God

Uncategorized November 21, 2012

Open Letter to Americans From a Reader in Israel

Ruchi, I just saw some of the American “coverage” of what’s going on in
Israel. PLEASE
tell all your people who get their news from the American media
that it’s so outrageously biased they shouldn’t believe a thing. 

I’m in
agony over what decent people must think of us because of what they see
and hear (that after a little minor “tit for tat,” Israel decided to
those poor innocents in Gaza). And they won’t ask because they have no
reason to think there’s anything to ask about. They probably have no
idea that the Israeli action is a defensive response to Hamas firing
lots of rockets at Israel unprovoked. They probably have no idea that
Hamas still intends to wipe us out completely. 

I’m really not scared
(maybe I should be, but I’m not), but it hurts me terribly to see how
innocent viewers are being deluded into believing the worst of us.

A few figures: In 2011 alone,
627 rockets from Gaza hit Israel. This year there have been 1,697,
including 764 until Nov. 14, the day when the present Israeli response
started. Can you imagine any other country taking all that without

Uncategorized May 9, 2012

What is Israel, Anyway?

Since I shy away from controversial topics, I’ve danced around the Israel issue for a long time.  Well, that’s about to end.

It seems that Neshama Carlebach has changed the lyrics to the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, to broaden its meaning and include Israeli Arabs.

Here are the revised words below. Changes are in bold, with the original words following in brackets.
As long as the heart within
An Israeli [Jewish] soul still yearns
And onward, towards the East
An eye still gazes towards our country [Zion]
We have still not lost our hope
our ancient [2000 year] hope
To be a free people in the land of our fathers [our land]
in the city in which David, in which David encamped [land of Zion and Jerusalem]
To be a free people in our land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Part of what stymies American Jews in trying to figure out what in tarnation is going on in Israel is the core issue of separation of church and state.  Now whether that precept is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews depends on a lot of factors, but bottom line, it’s what us US Jews are used to.

Israel, though, was founded as joint church (pardon the expression) and state.  The state IS the church, see?  It was formed as a Jewish nation.  Now we have a move to widen that definition – make it Israeli instead of Jewish.

What IS Israeli???

Falafel?  Nosy taxi drivers?  Searing heat in the southern deserts?  Drought?  War?  Teva pharmaceuticals?  Naot sandals?  Soldiers?  What?

If Israel is not Jewish, what is it?

And if it is Jewish, must it be so politically?

For reasons I cannot fully explain, this change, following the whole controversy of  Jerusalem not being listed as the capital of Israel on birth certificates, makes me so, so weary.  Sad.  Tired.  Help me understand.

What do you think?