Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Public Mitzvah in Baltimore


I always thought that Baltimore did biur chametz (the final burning of prohibited foods just before Passover) particularly well and I applaud all the volunteers that help make it happen year after year.  Last year, the public chametz burning was moved from the Glen Avenue Fire Station to a parking lot at Pimlico Racetrack.  The racetrack is 5 minutes from our house, but it took an hour to complete the mitzvah because of all the traffic - hundreds of Jewish families going out to burn their chametz.  In previous years, I always imagined that this was what life in Israel would feel like - mitzvahs done by hundreds of people at a time, right out in public. Most years, there are young men collecting charity among the crowds and plenty of neighborly wishes for a good and kosher Pesach.  It's a very Jewish moment in Baltimore.

And yet, on the slow approach to the site of the public chametz burning, we passed any number of non-Jewish businesses and houses of worship in a neighborhood that is clearly not one where Jews live today.  I have to imagine there were few among us who didn't ask themselves, "I wonder what the non-Jews around here think of what we're doing, coming into their neighborhood and making a huge amount of smoke?"

So even this very public mitzvah in Baltimore, done with as much kiddush Hashem as possible, is a potent reminder that we live in someone else's country.

L'shana Ha'ba'ah B'Yerushalayim indeed.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Before It's Too Late

I often sit with two simultaneous feelings about moving to Israel.  I spend a lot of time thinking of logistics and the details of our future daily lives.  What size shipping container do we need?  What items should I stock up on at WalMart before we go?  Will we ever get jobs in Israel?  How much will I miss kosher Chinese food?  Will I ever feel comfortable driving in Jerusalem?  Will the passport pictures I got be enough?  Will I ever learn the language sufficiently to feel truly at home in my Homeland?  Is the school we're thinking of the right choice for our daughter? Will I ever feel comfortable boarding a bus like an Israeli? Will I be a hopeless greenhorn the rest of my life?  From whom will it be hardest to part? Who among our loved ones will follow us on this path?  Will we run out of money? And on and on.

An endless loop of questions.  All in my head.

The other feeling about moving to Israel doesn't live in my head at all.

It lives in my soul. 

Most Shabbat mornings, I spend time with the Israel-infused, aliyah-oriented writings of three of my rabbinic heroes - Rabbi Nachman Kahana, Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Rabbi Moshe Lichtman.  I love to wrap their words around me, to reassure myself that this is absolutely the right move, indeed, the only correct move, for our family.

My rabbis remind me that the world is shifting beneath my feet.  That Jewish history is moving ahead, inexorably, toward Redemption.  That, while it is always a good thing for a Jew to live in Israel, the current times demand that we get there as soon as possible... for our own good and for the future well-being of our families.

The approaches of my three rabbis differ.  One is exceedingly forthright in declaring life in America today downright dangerous for Jews.  One argues that the ideal condition for a Jew is lived in Israel and questions why, so many years after 1948, all serious Jews aren't already there.  One reminds me to look at the patterns in Jewish history and draw my own conclusions.

I love all three approaches, but I resonate most with the plain-spoken, least politically-correct one.  Week after week, he all but screams, "Can't you see that you're in the path of an oncoming train wreck??  GET OUT!!!!!!!!!!"

I sit with at least two simultaneous feelings about moving to Israel.  One is genuine concern about how hard it might be. In response, I expend lots of energy planning our aliyah, so that we will, hopefully, avoid at least the major pitfalls.

And the other is a resolute certainty that this move must be made and made now.  In response, I watch the political, economic and historical trends swirling around me and assure myself that, no matter what others in my life choose for themselves (and no matter how long it takes me to speak a competent Hebrew), this is truly what Gd wants from me.

I thank Gd we are getting the chance to do this now.

Before it's too late.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Prescient Letter

(adj.) prescient - perceiving the significance of events before they occur

In 1986, after my husband got his first position as a rabbi, he wrote to Rabbi Norbert Weinberg of Fall River, MA, an early professional mentor, to tell him the news.  Rabbi Weinberg wrote a congratulatory letter that my husband held onto all these years.  We unearthed the letter yesterday afternoon in the archeological dig that we call our basement.

The letter reads, in part:

"But if I may be pardoned for just one word of mussar - it is that you keep the Eretz Yisrael option very much alive for both yourself and your congregants.  I sometimes have the frightening feeling that we rabbis are building on quicksand, as rabbis in previous generations have done.  We should never lose sight of our ultimate goal."

Thank you, Rabbi Weinberg, for the seed you planted 24 years ago.  May it bring you satisfaction to know that it is finally coming to fruition.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ruminations about Stuff

All afternoon, I've been in Jerusalem.  Well, in my head anyway.  I've been listening to my 33-song Jerusalem playlist on my iPod, but I'm actually in Baltimore where the uncluttering continues at a rapid pace.  While there's still plenty from which to divest, I feel like I've crossed some invisible halfway point.  Maybe that's because I finally started dealing with the basement.  Yesterday, I called my Israeli daughter on Skype, took the laptop into the basement and waved the detritus of her childhood in front of the webcam, one stuffed bear at a time.  Oh!  the memories she shared while deciding whether each was a keeper or an item for the giveaway pile.

It's getting easier.  Sometimes I wonder if I'm going to end up taking anything at all on that 20' lift we ordered.

I've been ruminating about stuff for quite a long time, since I've been engaged in this uncluttering effort for many months.  It's extraordinary the amount of stuff we accumulated over the years.  I blame the basement.  Too easy to just put it downstairs and not have to make a decision.

I find myself relieved when something is too broken, moldy, dirty or otherwise unsuitable to even consider saving. Get it out!

At the same time, I can't say that I'm entirely clear how we're going to live in such a small space.  There's plenty of room for clothes and dishes, tables and sofas, linens and shampoo bottles.  But what about the stuff that isn't necessary for daily life but that we carry with us from one home to the next - family photos, old journals, our parents' wedding album, a painting from our childhood home that doesn't really belong in our home anymore?  And what do we save from our children's childhoods?  How many old school papers and art projects are enough to communicate that we value the memories?  I have a few toys that were hand-me-downs from my nephews.  Our daughters played with them and, I can't help thinking, maybe someday they will be enjoyed by my hypothetical grandchildren when they visit Saba and Savta.

So, that's what it's like to be me these days, alternating between highly efficient unclutterer and a sappily sentimental someday-Savta.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Irony of Waiting

Four years ago, I founded the Baltimore Chug Aliyah. At that time, making aliyah was a very distant dream for me, but I wanted to help those who could go sooner. I had the administrative skills to help. Professionally, I spent several decades working in university admissions, and helping people make aliyah is a lot like helping people get admitted to an institution of higher education. Additionally, running the Baltimore Chug Aliyah was a productive way for me to channel my own frustrated aliyah energy.

One of the most vital parts of the Baltimore Chug Aliyah has been its listserv. The listserv provides daily doses of aliyah information and inspiration for over 250 people. In the same day, messages about real estate transactions in Israel or options for learning Hebrew might come through the discussion list. As important as the tachlis messages are, as often as possible, I like to distribute inspirational aliyah messages that have emotional and spiritual resonance.

I sent just such a message to the list yesterday. It was written by Rabbi Lazer Brody. The opening sentences of Rabbi Brody's message were:

Beloved brothers and sisters, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has been imploring people to make aliya (literally, "ascending"; means coming home to Israel to live) for the last several years. Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak doesn't stop talking about the urgency with which World Jewry should head home to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Shalom Arush stresses the need for aliya in almost every one of his recent lessons. What's going on?

Rabbi Brody's message includes a 5-minute clip from a conservative, non-Jewish American political commentator detailing worrisome trends in America and warning that, when things go bad, the Jews will suffer first. In this message, I heard a powerful call to make aliyah, a combination of warning pleas from rabbis in Israel and a siren call to American Jews from a non-Jewish American political commentator. It was a potent 1-2 punch.

So I had to shake my head at the irony of one list member who replied to that message with one that said, in effect, though not in quite these words, "Family members have just moved to Baltimore, so, instead of making aliyah, we've decided to wait here for the Moshiach. Please remove me from your email list."

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Decision to Follow Gd

Lately, I have been having a certain aliyah-related conversation with a lot of people. By definition, the people with whom I am talking are feeling the struggle, which puts them way ahead of the masses of American Jews who aren't even in the question.  The conversation is always about the struggle people feel over whether or not to make aliyah.

To some extent, they feel the pull of The Land.  On some level, they know that Jews belong in Israel and not in Baltimore or Brooklyn or LA.  And maybe, they even feel the historical tug of being a Jew alive in the first decades after Jewish dominion over the Land of Israel has been restored, and the responsibility that confers on us to return Home and live with Gd.

But they are scared.  So they focus on the barriers.  Mostly, it's economic.  Sometimes it's a concern for their children and how they will adjust.  Less often, there are elderly parents to care for.

And here is what I want to say to them.

Do you imagine that only independently wealthy, single, childless orphans make aliyah?  Who doesn't have any barriers to making aliyah?

Take our case.  My husband is, bli ayin hara, a very successful pulpit rabbi with a long term contract in a strong and stable congregation.  He will never be able to work as a pulpit rabbi in Israel.  Making aliyah means he has to walk away from his career, his passion and his life's work of over two decades and he has to reinvent himself.  Will he be successful?  We can't know in advance.

I have always earned my living in language-intensive careers, but I barely speak Hebrew, despite years of study. We both have aging parents.  And we are taking a teenage daughter with us.  We won't be able to afford our life insurance premiums anymore.  Talk about barriers.  Talk about risks.

I'm enumerating these very real circumstances because most people have them.  Or some permutation of them.  For some, such circumstances are mountains, over which they cannot climb.

For me, these are risks I am prepared to take because I believe that Hashem runs the world.  The same Hashem who gives me a sense of economic security in the US can provide me with a sense of economic security in Israel.

What's the alternative?  Stay put in a foreign culture, where I believe with all my heart and soul that I don't belong, and put all my chips on the possibility that my life will continue as it has been going?  Every day presents new risks.  A hundred things could dramatically change the contours of my life in a heartbeat.  A bad diagnosis, Gd-forbid.  An earthquake or other natural disaster.  A layoff.  A stock market crash.  The arrival of Moshiach.  The decision to stay only makes sense if I assume that everything will remain the same.  But who can guarantee that?  Life changes.  That's life.

And why would I think making aliyah is supposed to be easy?  For whom is it easy?  Who is not at least somewhat conflicted?  Who goes without leaving someONE, or someTHING, precious behind?  Betcha most of the people who will read these words in Israel made aliyah with some measure of conflict themselves.

I'm not saying that the concerns people have aren't legitimate.  I'm just saying that the decision to make aliyah has a non-rational, metaphysical, spiritual element that has to be accounted for.  If you leave Gd out of the cheshbon and only count the rational, economic factors, you might as well move to Kentucky, since Kentucky enjoys one of the lowest costs of living in the US.  But if Gd is a factor in the calculus, then it becomes much clearer.  At least to me.

I became religious close to 25 years ago.  It wasn't a rational decision then either.  It was a decision to follow Gd.

Aliyah - same thing.  Same exact thing.