Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sukkoth 2013 - 5774

Spending Sukkoth in Israel is really a great privilege.  It is probably the best time to be in Israel.  The weather is still great, there are festivals all over the country and many people are off work.  Unlike Passover, there are no onerous food restrictions.  So during the intermediate days (Hol Hamoed), many Israelis are travelling, hosting each other (often in Sukkoth) and enjoying festivals, outdoor concerts and other events.

Panorama View of Our Family Sukkah
We enjoyed a large family dinner on the first night of Sukkoth and hosted friends in our sukkah the next day.  Great start to the holiday though it seems to get more and more difficult each year to find the time right after Yom Kippur ends to put up the sukkah in timely fashion.  Especially since we are usually putting up two - one at my in-laws - a huge 4x5 metre sukkah and one at our place.  We have customarily put up the large sukkah right after Yom Kippur ends.  But this year, Yom Kippur was in mid- September and Israel did not change its clocks for the first time in quite a number of years.  Very hard to put up a big sukkah starting only at 9:30/10:00 p.m. after a day of fasting. 

2013-09-22 22.31.26
View of a Tzolk'in Board at Games Day
Sunday Sep 22, we attended the annual Jerusalem board games festival.  You might think that sounds rather boring.  Okay, for some it might be.  But for those who enjoy challenging board games, especially "Euro-games" that have been growing in popularity since 1995 or so (with the emergence of Settlers of Catan), this kind of festival is lots of fun.  We had the chance to play Puerto Rico and Tzolk`in, two terrific games.  At its peak, there were about 40 people attending, playing a wide range of board games with breaks for eating lunch and dinner in the sukkah.

Our festive day was cut short with news of the tragic death of a cousin in an early morning car accident. We left Jerusalem and attended the funeral in B'nai Ayish.  The funeral of our 27 year old cousin was only days after Yom Kippur.  I couldn't help but think of the High Holy Day liturgy that we had been reading, from the famous prayer Unetaneh Tokef - ..כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף  Man is likened to a "broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream."  The words felt so real in the face of this type of horrible loss, of a cousin whose wedding we had attended so recently.  To hear the whole version of Unetaneh Tokef, try this link to an IDF version or this version, written by Yair Rosenblum

Despite the sombre mood, we still had to commemorate the holiday.  Simchat Torah, as usual, was a holiday highlight at Hod ve'Hadar.  This year, one Hakafah really stuck out for me.  ("Hakafoth" are rounds of singing and dancing in celebration of completing the annual cyle of reading the Torah.  Often accompanied by alcohol...).  For the third Hakafah, the congregation invited all those present who could not dance for physical reasons to come to the centre of the shul and sit in a circle.  Some were given Torahs to hold.  The congregants danced in a circle around this group of, mainly, elderly and disabled congregants.  It was such a beautiful, inclusive Hakafah, and the type of activity that captures the spirit and heart of Hod vHadar.  As I participated, I thought to myself that every shul should do this.   Yet in all of my years of celebrating Simchat Torah, I do not remember seeing it.   Once again, I thought of a verse from the High Holy Day liturgy, this time אל תשליכני לעת זקנה- "Do not cast me way in my old age - when my strength fails me."  For a moving musical version, try this link to Michel Cohen or this version by Avihu Medina.  This special Hakafah was an example of our shul taking this verse to heart and honouring its elderly.

I had to leave Israel after Simchat Torah to head back to Toronto, after a month or so in Israel.  I took a late night flight on United Airlines through Newark, since Air Canada only flies during the day and the prices sky rocket for a few days after the holidays end. 

I arrived in Toronto at about 8:30 a.m. on Friday September 27, 2013.  For me, the holiday had officially ended but for the Jewish community outside of Israel, it was still Simchat Torah.  So I decided to celebrate Simchat Torah twice, as I have done two or three times in the past.  I showed up at shul in time to share a Torah reading table and join the Hazzan for Musaf.  We finished the service with a version of Adon Olam sang to "Rock Around the Clock" which was quite fun.  Of course, it was simply not the same as being able to celebrate with my family the previous day but it just did not seem right to go to the office, even though the holy day had officially ended for Israelis.

In Israel, there are many songs and colloquialisms that refer to "Acharei HaHagim" - "after the holidays."  Everything will be done "after the holidays."  In fact, one person at shul in K'far Saba said to us on Thursday - "do you know what day it is tomorrow? - it's after the holidays..."  So now it is after the holidays for another year.  It is time to complete this period of reflection, introspection and celebration and get back to work.  It would probably also be a good idea to try losing some weight after all of those festive holiday meals.

Shana Tova and Shavua Tov.  Here's hoping for a peaceful, fulfilling and joyous year.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Davidson Center Bar/Bat Mitzvah Jerusalem - Changes to the Area

Earlier this year, in August 2013, the Israeli government made changes to the Davidson Center at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  For those unfamiliar with the Center, I wrote a blog article about hosting a bar or bat-mitzvah here.  It has been one of the most widely read articles on this site.  I felt reasonably qualified to write it, as a veteran planner and parent of two b'nai mitzvot at the Center.

There has been a great deal of controversy over access to the Kotel itself over the past few years.  It is widely known that the Western Wall itself, the Kotel, is treated as an Orthodox synagogue.  This means that there is a big wall running down the middle, a Mechitza, separating the mens' side from the womens' side of the wall.  Morever, the Orthodox rabbis running the site, with the force of Israeli law behind them for the most part, have prohibited women from praying out loud, reading from a Torah, wearing a Tallith or wearing Tefillin on the women's side of the Kotel.  There has been a push for reform of this state of affairs to improve equality of access for everyone to the site, even to those who might not wish to conform to Orthodox prayer standards.

This past year, Natan Sharansky led a commission to try to find a solution to this challenge.  His proposal, apparently, was a significant improvement to the Davidson Center in a way that would make it appear to be an extension (at the same level) of the Kotel.  Sharansky's plan would have created, effectively, three sections at the Kotel - men, women and mixed.  However, due to some Archaeological resistance and some resistance by Orthodox rabbis, the plan was put on indefinite hold, even though, as a compromise plan, it was approved by a number of different stakeholders.
Davidson Center - New Platform with Tables

After icing Sharansky's plan, powerful cabinet minister Naftali Bennett implemented an alternate solution.  A platform was built at the Southern Wall ( the Davidson Center) and a number of tables were set up.  The Israeli government indicated that the site would now be open 24/7 and would be free and accessible to all for non-Orthodox prayer.  This was Bennett's effort to thwart Sharansky's plan.  The plan, which was implemented on August 27, 2013, is described in the Jewish Week.

This did not solve the problem for some groups.  For example, Women of the Wall, a group which has been denied the ability to pray on the women's side of the Kotel out loud and with a Torah scroll.  Morever, the site is still difficult to access, out of the way and with limited ability for participants to actually touch the wall itself (unlike at the main Kotel).

Nevertheless, for those interested in conducting a religious service at the Kotel for a bar or bat mitzvah that is egalitarian and not separated, the Davidson Center is really the only alternative.  It is now somewhat more accessible than it was previously.  Certainly the hours are much better - and admission is free.  Although it is something of an improvement over the previous state of affairs, I can't help but think that this is a stepping stone towards a much more egalitarian, accessible solution even though that type of dramatic change may take some time to implement.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Toronto-Tel-Aviv Via Warsaw (Part 2)

I flew back to Tel-Aviv from Toronto via Warsaw on Lot Polish Airlines.  I wrote a review of the first leg of my flight a few weeks ago here.  I thought I would add some comments, since this time I stopped in Poland for a longer time.

The connection, travelling from Toronto to Tel-Aviv, is less than ideal.  You leave Toronto at 8:30 p.m. (we were delayed about an hour, but that could happen on any airline...) and you arrive in Warsaw at 10:30 a.m.  The flight from Warsaw to Tel-Aviv leaves Warsaw at 10:55 p.m.  There are no earlier connecting flights.

So if you take this route, you have to make a decision.  Either you leave the airport and spend the 10 hours or so that you have free in Warsaw - or you sit in the airport for about 12 hours.  You have to decide when you first arrive since  you are either sent to a "connecting flights area" or the passport control/ arrivals area.  If you first go to the connecting flights area and then change your mind and decide to go and see Warsaw (that's what I did), it is a bit complicated to get out of the airport.

The flight itself, from Toronto to Warsaw was fine.  Lot uses the new Dreamliner 787s for this route.  The planes are very quiet and very smooth.  You barely feel that you are taking off.  This time I was seated in economy class.  Lot has personal screens but many of the movies, TV shows and music require payment of an additional fee.  The free selection is very limited.  Even the paid selection did not look very enticing.  The flight is just over 8 1/2 hours and it was quite uneventful.  I watched a movie that I had on my own device ("Sarah's Key" which was quite a suitable selection for this trip).

When I arrived in Warsaw, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to travel to the city or stay in the airport.

I stopped off at the lounge (which is available for Star Alliance members).  It is a decent lounge with clean washrooms, showers, drinks, coffee (including a funky cappuccino machine) and some other light food offerings.  The lounge also has Kosher sandwiches which are under the supervision of the local Polish Kashrut council.

Right across from the lounge, there was a duty free shop with terrific prices.  The interesting thing is that the Chopin Airport in Warsaw has several duty free shops, all with varying prices.  The main shops, upstairs, are quite pricey.  The duty free shop downstairs (across from the lounge) was about 20-30% cheaper than upstairs.  So I managed to pick up a bottle of Scotch whiskey to contribute to our upcoming Simchat Torah festivities at our shul...(a Jura 16 year, in case you are less than $35 - about 40% of the price at the LCBO in Ontario).

Nożyk Synagogue

I decided to head out and see a bit of Warsaw.  I had looked up some sites of Jewish interest and decided I would start with those.  I took a cab from the airport to the only operating Orthodox synagogue in Warsaw, the Nozyk Synagogue.  This beautiful shul was built in approximately 1900.  It was apparently the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive the war and it is now the only active Orthodox shul in Warsaw.  I wandered around and had a look.  Just outside the shul, there was a small, Kosher falafel shop, run by an Israeli.  I decided to patronize it, even though I wasn't too crazy about having a falafel.  It certainly wasn't the freshest or the best tasting falafel I have had but it was worth the experience.  The cab ride from the airport to the synagogue was about 45 Zloty - or about $13 (Cdn).  I had taken some money out of an ATM in the Polish airport.  Considering that this was about a 20 minute ride, the cab fare seemed quite reasonable.  I think a similar distance in Israel would easily cost  5 or 6 times that amount.

Museum of Jewish History- Warsaw
From the synagogue, I grabbed another cab and went over to the site of the new Polish Museum of Jewish History.  The museum is not open yet and will only open in early to mid-2014.  It promises to include an enormous collection of information and exhibits relating to the history of the Jewish community in Poland.  For now - you can see the building and the monument that has been erected but you cannot go into the building for a tour. 

From the Museum, I decided to walk over to the Old City - the historic parts of Warsaw - which feature cobblestone streets and old buildings, many of which have been renovated after being destroyed during the war.  I walked for about 20 minutes using my phone GPS (I had pre-loaded a full map of Warsaw from Google onto my phone) over to the old section of Warsaw and wandered around in that area for a while.

Old Warsaw
There were many historical sites and it was an interesting area to visit.  I couldn't help but wondering how the city must have looked in the 1930s or earlier.  After all, pre-war Warsaw had a Jewish population of close to 400,000.  It rivalled New York at the time, as one of the cities with the largest Jewish populations in the world.  The Jewish community comprised close to 1/3 of the entire population of Warsaw.  Now, wandering around Warsaw, a handful of Jews live in the city.  Most of the population was, of  course, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.  There is a little evidence that this was once a vibrant, thriving Jewish community with hundreds of synagogues, Jewish schools, shops, theatres and other important community landmarks.  While there are certainly some remaining sites of Jewish interest in Warsaw, the overwhelming feeling is one of amazement and sadness at the annihilation and disappearance of an entire community.

Nevertheless, I stopped for a latte and then continued wandering through old Warsaw before taking a cab back to the airport.
I took a panorama shot but this blog has only saved it as a jpg file - for some reason, so you have to imagine that this is one continuous photo...

I had thought of trying to make it to some more important Polish historical sites, but the camps were more of a distance and would have required a longer time period.  It would probably also be more suitable to get to those sites with a group.

Nevertheless, if you are travelling to Tel-Aviv through Warsaw (which could be hundreds of dollars cheaper than some other flights), you may want to try to see some of the city.  It is inexpensive, interesting and it seemed to be reasonably safe.