Month: March 2018

Six Things I Love About Israel

Love about Israel
So… anyone who’s been paying attention for a bit may have noticed I’m a bit harsh in my criticism of Israel. Well, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. However, recently a friend of mine challenged me to come up with ten things I love about Israel.

I love a good challenge… and this certainly was one. And sadly I wasn’t able to come up with ten, but I think six is a healthy place to start.

Please please give me more ideas. I can’t tell you how much I want to love living here!

1) The Produce

When I arrived in Israel in 1997, there were several types of vegetables I did not like, and some fruits I had nothing interesting to say about.

That was until I took a bite of some of them in the Holy Land. One bite and I realized why I didn’t like the cucumbers and tomatoes in the States. They taste awful! Flavorless at best. The produce in Israel may not look the part. The colors aren’t as vivid. The shapes are often funny. And there are plenty of items not available year round.

But the flavor is off-the-charts incredible. And the prices are uncharacteristically amazing. One of the only things cheaper in Israel.
If you’re here in the fall, try a mango. You won’t regret it. It’s like eating candy. It’s the way they’re supposed to taste!

2) Ease of Religious Lifestyle

My last year in the States was pretty rough, as far as scheduling was concerned. The last two jobs I had were for major corporations, but I was a contracted employee. This had a lot of complications, the biggest being that I was paid hourly and received no paid holidays or vacations. What this meant was the company was closed for every American holiday and I was not paid for those days, and I needed to take off and not get paid for all the Jewish holidays as well.

Every once in a while the same companies would give us free food, food that was very much not kosher. One of the companies had a program where different employees would give a lecture and the company would then give everyone a free lunch. Even when I volunteered to give the lecture, the food was still off limits to me.

I can go on and on about the complications in trying to make it in the professional world out there when you have a whole assortment of religious restrictions. But I’ll leave it as this: One of the biggest advantages to Israel is that the country’s system and schedule is by and large based on Judaism and the Jewish calendar. I’m never rushing home on Friday to make it in time for Shabbat. Nor do I miss out on countless activities because they’re all on Saturday or Friday night. Nope. Things here are designed around my schedule, and I absolutely love it.

3) A Walking Culture

I’m aware there are places in the States where people still walk, but for the most part, it’s a rarity. I grew very accustomed to driving everywhere, even relatively short walks. I even drove to my gym that was a 20 minute walk away. To my gym!

Now the old train tracks in Jerusalem are essentially my backyard. I walk on them about an hour every day, and it’s always filled with people doing the same. I’m a happier person if I avoid cars and buses here. They are stressful and can get quite expensive. And with traffic and a whole lot of other variables, they strip you of control of your schedule.

Not only can I walk to every place I every want to be, but I’m joined by others doing the same. I love living in a culture that encourages and normalizes the best method of transportation ever created.

4) Dealing with the Big Stuff

Years ago I sat next to an American doctor who led a team of medical professionals to Haiti to deal with a humanitarian crisis following a giant earthquake. The team got together, and showed up with pride and joy to save the day… only to find Israel had long ago sent a team that was fully up and running and making the world a better place.

I’ve had enough experience here to avoid doctors’ offices to the best of my ability, but I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be if true tragedy struck. Perhaps Israel became what it is because of necessity, but there’s a reason this tiny nation could mobilize instantly and help another country across the world with seemingly no effort. It’s become a part of the country’s DNA.

When I see something terrible happen here, the first response time is off the charts and the quality of service is second to none. Years ago in Baltimore we rushed my son to the Emergency Room because of a possible broken nose. Six hours later, and $800 poorer, he was admitted so we could indeed find out his nose wasn’t broken. My experience in American Emergency Rooms is they’ve kind of forgotten the definition of the word “emergency”.

I hope I never need first responders or an emergency room… but if I do, I hope I’m in Israel.

5) Freedom of Children

I love that children seem to be released from their parent’s shackles a lot younger in Israel. I mean, they might still end up 30-year old adults who frequently go home for some home-cooked dinner and laundry, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about walking around the streets and seeing young, young kids walking freely, without a care in the world, sometimes picking up groceries for the house or watching their even younger siblings.

It’s kind of like an even better version of what I remember from America in the 80s. Better because it’s even younger. Growing up we went to parks by ourselves and played on old, splintery contraptions, and had the time or lives. All of that has been replaced by boring, plastic monstrosities, and helicopter parents fearing child abduction. Nothing’s actually changed, except attitudes and perspectives.

Kids need freedom to enjoy life and grow into well-adapted adults. A little goes a long way.

6) Hosting Couch Surfers

I haven’t been able to bring all of my hobbies with me from the States to Israel. But of everything that I did bring over, there is one that I’ve certainly made the most of in Israel, and that’s hosting Couch Surfers.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved hosting people in the States. And I certainly loved the people I met. But most people in Kansas City were just passing through, and unfortunately the biggest thing I was providing for them was safe lodging. In Israel I can provide an experience!

I have now taken countless people to see the Western Wall for the first time, showed them all around the city, and given insights into the culture and customs of the country.

Almost everyone who passed through my home in America was from the United States, whereas here I’ve hosted people from over 20 countries. I’m making interesting and incredible connections all over the world.

I’m no one’s first choice to be Jerusalem’s Ambassador, but for these scores of guests who stay in my home, I am committed to making sure their visit to Israel is as incredible as it could be. And watching people fall in love with Jerusalem makes me like it here a lot more as well.

 

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Where Has All My Faith Gone?

faith
I have no delusions that writing this post will solve the many issues swimming around in my brain right now. I write because it’s cathartic, and occasionally doing so is literally life changing for me. However, sometimes issues are bigger than can be resolved in a thousand words.

My mind and spirit were damaged about two years ago. I have by no means recovered. I’m not even sure if I’ve progressed.

But who knows? Maybe writing about what’s happened to me will be the next (or first) step in a long recovery.

Divorce is Humbling

Getting divorced is a very humbling endeavor. It forces you to think about any and all events that happened up until that point. If something were different, could the marriage have been saved? Did I do something wrong? Are there marriages that were never meant to be, and thus divorce or unhappiness are basically inevitable outcomes?

Searching deeper, the questions become even more painful, as you realize you may have done everything correctly, or at least to the best of your ability, and still had the nasty and painful outcomes. Such a question shines a light on a part of faith that’s troubling to examine. There are no guarantees. Anything could happen. And you can do everything by the book, with passion, excitement, and devotion, and everything could regardless still come crashing to an excruciatingly violent crescendo.

It’s naive to think that if you do things “correctly”, everything will go well. Worse things have happened to better people; worse outcomes have happened to those who worked harder and better than I did.

How to Survive?

But how does one survive such a blow to the ego 100% intact? Especially when you consider that a divorce is only the beginning of the crazy that is about to happen. Separation from children, social confusion, financial woes. All starts to pile up, and you can’t help but notice that everything you ever dreamed life would be like is crashing down around you.

No one sets out to get divorced. No one sets out to see their children part time, or to have money leave their bank account to pay the mortgage for the house they don’t live in, or to go from a large home to an apartment with psychotic people living beneath them (true story). Life is often a series of a few steps forward and few more steps backwards. But no one ever plans for this many steps backwards!

But it was fine. All was well. I was enjoying my newfound freedom. I was rapidly learning how not only to be on my own again, but how to thoroughly enjoy the situation. And things quickly became some semblance of normal.

Until They Weren’t

I received a phone call, and a proposal to return to Israel. My older two children were already pumped and excited about the idea. But I was unsure.

I had lived in Israel for eight years, and I had spent ten years contemplating those eight years. What I liked, what went wrong, and where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I then spent the next two months trying to make a decision, objectively the hardest two months of my life. Would I block my children leaving, crushing their dreams (or at least the fantastic ideas they had built up in their heads? Would I once again make the trek across the ocean, knowing full well I was not ready to do so, professionally, financially, practically, emotionally, or in any way whatsoever? Or would I wave goodbye to my children indefinitely, and relegate my relationship with them to Skype and highly infrequent visits?

For two months I could not be alone with my thoughts. I agonized over the decision, and every moment was painful. Sleep was hard. Prayer was impossible. It was just too quiet, too inactive. And I physically felt my faith eroding away.

It was like being in a violent car crash in slow motion over the course of two full months. I knew no matter what I decided, there was no chance of me coming out unscathed.

Who Receives Problems?

I used to believe people only received problems they could handle. Used to believe, since I was placed in a situation I could not handle.

My choices were causing my children to hate me, inevitable financial devastation, or separation from my children. Who alive is equipped to make that call!?

And after endless personal debate, I chose what I thought was the best option at the time, even though it meant saying goodbye to children.

I am not a deadbeat dad. Sadly, I know many women whose ex-husbands are entirely out of the picture. Some have children who have never met or have forgotten their biological father. I find this wholly unnatural. No one–no one–should ever be placed in a situation where they need to say goodbye to their children, not knowing when they will hug them again.

And I Sunk

My life was good. I was doing just fine professionally. I was keeping myself busy and meeting new people. But my every action felt empty. It felt like something was terribly lacking from my life, no matter what happened.
And it called into question every choice I had ever made. How could my decisions have been correct if this was the ultimate result? How could a God who is good, who I felt I had served proudly and faithfully, have placed me in this untenable situation?

I’m with my kids again, thank goodness. I never kept my eye off the prize. I came back to Israel not because of a deep-seated religious desire, but because my four precious gems were here waiting for me.

But the damage was done.

I’ve said before that I believe with perfect faith that nothing happens without a reason, and if you don’t know the reason, it’s because not enough time has passed.

But sometimes it’s much easier to say than to actually act upon.

And here I am, with a giant crack running down the side of my faith. Hoping for clarity. Hoping for a comeback. Wondering what the future holds.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, personal story, religion, 0 comments

Don’t Call Me Rabbi

rabbi
If I want to be honest, the next nearly two decades of my religious development are a blur to me. I recall pockets of influence and impact along the way; but, I was essentially on a powerful upswing until recent years.

Sometimes I was strong, other times I was stronger. I was always learning and growing, until one day I wasn’t anymore.

Rabbini Ordination

In 2005, I received a rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Hamivtar. I worked hard for three years, passed all my tests, and then headed out to America to “change the world”. I was on a bit of a religious high, and all I wanted to do was share any knowledge I had with others. And that’s what I did for the better part of the next decade.

When I moved to Kansas in 2013, I had already switched my mindset around a bit. I was veering out of religious education, and entering the realm of teaching computers and working with educational technology.

Yeah, I had earned that “rabbi” title, but I had spent the previous eight years being a rabbinical educator and role model, and I was getting a bit tired of it. Sometimes it’s more fun to just be “one of the guys”.

Two noteworthy moments in my time in Kansas

Once I was invited to someone’s home for a Shabbat meal. Someone introduced me as “rabbi” and I told them they should call me “Yitzchak”. Someone across the table from me leaned over and whispered that people don’t like that. They want to call me rabbi. In fact, I learned as time went by, the community was nearly obsessed with showing off how many people had the title. They never tired of pointing it out, even if some of the titles were never technically earned, but just given due to a person’s nature or stature.

The other time was rather comical.

I was sitting and playing Card Against Humanity with a group of friends. This was the second time we had all played together. If you’re not familiar with Cards Against Humanity, it’s pretty much a (very) adult version of Apples to Apples. Lots of fun. Not very appropriate.

As we were playing one of my friends kept on calling me rabbi. I requested she use my first name, and she said she wasn’t so comfortable and asked when was the appropriate time to make the switch. I smiled and said that when playing Cards Against Humanity for the second time is a pretty good time to start.

Difference Between Rabbinic Ordination and PhD

Anyhow, it needs to be noted that there is a drastic difference between getting a rabbinic ordination and, say, getting a PhD.

There are two primary differences in my mind.

First, yes, to get the ordination, you are usually in some type of study program. You must pass a battery of tests. But I think most people familiar with this field of study know that it’s a means to an end, and highly unrepresentative of knowledge in the field.

There are countless reasons why this is the case. There are many who spend their lives immersed in Torah study, without any intention or interest in receiving a piece of paper that said they did so. And whereas ordination covers a limited batch of topics on Jewish law, there are vast other subjects out there that one can study. And many of those topics are far more useful out there in the “real world” than the ones covered in an ordination program.

Therefore, it is not uncommon that one who is immensely knowledgeable or uses their knowledge impressively gets referred to as “rabbi” by many around them. Nor is it uncommon that one who simply “passed the tests” either doesn’t go by the title, or people might feel uncomfortable using the title.

One who receives a PhD in literature earns the title “doctor”. And even though there might be someone out there with more literary knowledge, without a PhD they do not get the title. The title follows the path of study and completion of the program, not the quantity or quality of the knowledge.

Expectations of the Ordained Rabbi

Second, a rabbinic ordination comes with it an expectation of behavior. A professor of any subject need not like the subject matter for which they received their doctorate. There is no expectation of a moral lifestyle. Nor an expectation they will attempt to impart their knowledge upon others. And even if they were to speak out against the subject matter for which they received their degree or were to live a wildly immoral lifestyle, the fact that they earned their title means it will stay with them forever.

This is not the case with a rabbinic ordination. There are countless requirements that determine whether or not the credentials still remain. The least of those requirements is living up to the ideals of the Torah. If someone speaks out against the Torah or its values, practices a different religion, or is generally a lousy role model, leading an inappropriate and base lifestyle, they are behaving within their rights as a human with free will, but they are forfeiting their right to be called “rabbi”.

Rabbinic ordination is not just a piece of paper and a permanent title. There is an expectation of belief, behavior, lifestyle choices, and appearance to the outside world.

And here I stand

I received my piece of paper. I did the work and earned my title. And I worked in the field for years, and deserved any honor that came along with that.

But times have changed.

Any knowledge or skills gained through my studies are still intact, for the most part. But I am not who I was then.

My beliefs are ever changing. My actions and behavior are in flux.

And I sit and do customer support for a living.

I am not acting in any rabbinical capacity. And, frankly, I’m at a low point in the intensity and depth of my beliefs and practices (with the hope of a future comeback). To call me “rabbi”, thus, is essentially downgrading what the title means to me.

In the spirit of Grouch Marx: Why would I respect the rabbinate that claims me as a member?

Please, then, don’t call me rabbi.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, personal story, 2 comments

Three Radical Shocks to My System

identityConfused Identity

So there I was, trapped again with a confused identity. But with my eyes wide open to any and all influence that might come my way.

I’d like to explore three extremely memorable moments over the course of the following year, three moments that would have a permanent impact on me.

1) Am I a Temporary Breakaway?

I took an interesting class my first college semester. It was a survey of the entirety of Jewish history.

My knowledge was extremely limited, and I was so excited to absorb everything.

As the semester progressed, I started noticing some patterns. For one, the Jewish people always survived against all odds. However, not every element of the people survived. There was sort of a central stream that would always manage to hang on, while other elements fell to the wayside as time progressed.

These breakaway elements fell into one of three categories. There were groups that entirely disappeared, such as the Tzidokim (Sadducees) or the Hellenists. They’re gone forever, not a trace left. Other groups survived, but were barely noticeable many generations later. This would include groups like the Shomronim (Samaritans) or the Karaites. They’re still around, but who ever hears about them? They’re tiny and lack any significant influence. The third group would eventually find itself no longer identifying as Jewish anymore, most notably the Jewish Christians who eventually just became the early Christians, a whole new and separate religion.

Watching the history progress fascinated me.

It almost felt like a movie, and this one invincible central stream represented the good guys, who I cheered for.

Modern Times

And then we arrived at modernity. And the new breakaways from the central body of my people were the Reform and Conservative Movements of Judaism. I felt mighty confused. Historically, these groups are still young. If the patterns continued as they were, these movements would eventually disappear or lose any and all influence, or would cease to identify as Jewish.

But I was a Reform Jew. And I sat there confused as I was inadvertently rooting against myself.

Was I on the wrong team? Had I aligned myself with just another historical breakaway?

Was I setting myself up for future insignificance?

Further exploration was certainly necessary.

2) Judaism is like an Apple

In my previous post, I spoke about how I accidentally walked into Shabbos House, the local Chabad of my university.

I knew I’d return there after my first accidental visit. It was written in the stars. What I didn’t know was my next trip there would be just two weeks later, and it would become my second home in Albany. I jumped camps and became a loyal, semi-permanent fixture.

I went to SUNY Albany hoping to soak up information. I’m from the last generation of Americans who still believed knowledge lay in the hands of professors at universities. My greatest fascination was Judaism, and I was studying the subject voraciously in my classes.

Shabbos House

But then there was Shabbos House.

I sat across from Pinchas, explaining my life, my studies, and my aspirations. And he looked me in the eyes and said:

“David, Judaism is like an apple. You can study the fruit in every way imaginable. You can take it to a laboratory and evaluate its color, shape, and smell. And you can analyze its chemical compounds and observe its discoloration. With time, effort, and expertise, you can basically know everything there is to know about this apple.

But David, you see, you will never truly know and understand the apple until you pick it up and take a bite out of it.”

These words were extremely meaningful to me and went straight to my heart. I was “studying” Judaism in the most incomplete way possible.

In order to really understand and appreciate my people and our practices, I would need to dive in. I would need to spend my time with those who were knowledgeable and active, and immerse myself in their world. I needed to see and experience everything up close and personally.

So much to learn. So many things I had yet to really experience.

It was time to take yet another plunge.

3) Shabbat is a Beautiful Painting

It’s been so long since some simple words on paper had this much impact on my life. It’s one of the things I miss so much about youth. Words had more immediate impact. Influence hid around every corner. Cynicism had not fully reared its ugly head. And I could change on a dime with minimal to no consequences.

As part of a Jewish Philosophy class, I read Mordechai Kaplan’s words in “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”:

An artist cannot be continually wielding his brush. He must stop at times in his painting to freshen his vision of the object, the meaning of which he wishes to express on his canvas. Living is also an art. We dare not become absorbed in its technical processes and lose our consciousness of its general plan… the Sabbath represents those moments when we pause in our brush-work to renew our vision of this object. Having done so we take ourselves to our painting with clarified vision and renewed energy.

I was already curious about what it would mean for me to begin observing Shabbat (Sabbath). This passage put me over the top. And I gave it a go.

And I quickly fell in love with just about every aspect of Shabbat.

Over twenty years later, despite any and all questioning I’ve done or religious mini-crises I’ve experienced, Shabbat went nowhere. It is just as important to me now as it was then.

No Longer Reform

And there I was, heavily questioning my Reform “roots”, throwing myself into unknown waves of religious observance, and accepting upon myself the extremely challenging rules of Shabbat.

Yet I still considered myself a Reform Jew.

It was not I who declared something was different. As far as I was concerned I was just repeatedly opening up my menu of informed choice, and gorging myself on all the options.

No. The Reform Movement decided I no longer belonged.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, personal story, 0 comments