Showing posts with label Holidays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Holidays. Show all posts

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sukkot 5773/2012 in Israel - A bit about our palm branch roof

We have been celebrating the holiday of Sukkot this week here in Israel.  Sukkot is really one of those holidays that was designed to be celebrated in Israel.  The festival, which lasts 8 days in Israel (including Simchat Torah) and 9 days outside of Israel, involves putting up a Sukkah and eating meals in the Sukkah for the duration of the holiday.  If the weather is 30 C during the day and still more than 20 C at night, you can have some wonderfully enjoyable Sukkot meals, particularly your evening meals.  These are the conditions that we are enjoying this year.  If you are in Canada and the weather drops down to 10C, you can start to see that the holiday of Sukkot may not be pefectly suited to Canadian weather.  (These are the reports I am getting from family members).

The roof of a Sukkah is supposed to be made out of branches and leaves (as a very general summary description) called schach.  Some people use a reusable bamboo branch roof.  We have one of these but it is not very authentic.  Probably the equivalent of a plastic Christmas tree for people celebrating Christmas.  We decided to build our schach roof this year out of palm branches and leaves, freshly trimmed from palm trees.  As I wrote about last year Sukkot 2011, the City of Ra'anana trims its palm trees each year just before Sukkot and posts information about where and when you can go to collect the freshly cut branches.  However, some "entrepreneurs" arrive early at these sites, collect the free branches and then turn around and sell them later for 10 N.I.S. a branch.  You could easily require 20 or 30 of these branches for a medium sized Sukkah - so this can get quite expensive and leave you feeling very ripped off since the City of Ra'anana was giving it away for free.  But if you don't arrive at the City distribution sites on time - or even before the appointed time - you cannot get the free schach.

So we travelled to the Rehovot area this year to collect some branches from very freshly trimmed palm trees.  Cutting and using fresh palm branches can be very risky business.  The lower parts of the branches have very sharp, pointy, thorns that can cause serious infections.  Some people are highly allergic and have been known to require urgent medical attention after losing a battle with a palm branch.  So the first step after trimming the branches - very carefully - is to cut away the thorns.  Here are some pictures of a palm branch with the thorns and after being trimmed.

Once you have cut away the thorns, you can carry the branches fairly easily without worrying about getting poked since upper leaves are not sharp at all.

To cover the roof of our Sukkah properly, we needed about 25-30 of these leaves.  So we gathered them in a pile and had to figure out how to get them from the Rehovot area to Ra'anana - about 50 km away (highway driving).

We loaded them up...on the roof of the car...(they are too long to fit in a trunk or inside the car) and drove back to Ra'anana.  This might look a bit strange but we were not the only ones on the road driving around with a car covered in schach since so many Israelis build Sukkot. 

Finally, back in Ra'anana, we were able to finish building the Sukkah and get our palm-branch schach onto the roof.  There should be enough schach so that there is more shade than sunlight and that you can see some stars.  But the schach must also allow rain to fall in the Sukkah if it rains during Sukkot.  In fact, it rained a bit the first night.  Here is a view of part of the roof from inside the Sukkah and another view from outside.  Having a freshly trimmed palm branch Sukkah has to be one of the most kosher type of Sukkah coverings.  It is very hard to get fresh palm branches in most places in North America.

The holiday of Sukkot includes a very central concept of "ushpizin" - entertaining guests in your Sukkah, particularly new guests who you have not regularly hosted.  We were very fortunate this year to have some wonderful guests, familiar and unfamiliar, join us in celebrating the holiday, having some wine and enjoying the smell and sight of the fresh palm branches, while sitting the Sukkah enjoying the summer-like termperatures.

Now the festival is almost over and we will have the task of getting rid of this huge collection of palm branches.  But the City of Ra'anana is prepared and will have extra pick ups of branches just after the holiday ends.

For those celebrating the holiday, Chag Sameach!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yom Kippur in Israel 5773 - Early Clock Change - Early End to Fast

In Israel, we moved the clocks back one hour to daylight savings time Sunday the 23rd of September (early in the morning).  The move to DST was weeks ahead of many other countries around the world.  But with Yom Kippur approaching, the Israeli government was ensuring that the Yom Kippur fast would end at about 6:00 p.m. instead of 7:00 p.m.  Does the extra hour make that big of a difference?  Many believe that it is easier to start the fast earlier and finish it earlier.  It is still the same 26 hours in total, but it does seem easier to conclude the fast earlier in the day.

In any event, this is an illustration of the central role tht religion plays in Israel and, in particular, Yom Kippur.  Many secular Israelis were vocally opposed to this early clock change.  It meant that it would become dark in Israel by 6 p.m. and earlier in September and October.  These are months in which the temperature can still top 30 degrees Celsius and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea are still quite inviting.  DST cuts out an hour of after-school or after-work enjoyment of some great outdoor activity weather.  The clock change is premature.  Debates have been held in the Knesset about this and will undoubtedly continue.  My thought is that as a compromise, we should move the clocks back after Simchat Torah for about a month.  In other words,  have DST temporarily for about 2 weeks for the Jewish holydays and then move them back until early November - and change with the rest of the world at that time.

But whether Israel is on DST or regular time, Yom Kippur in Israel is still an amazing holiday. The entire country really comes to a standstill for a 26 hour period.  Almost nothing is open anywhere.  Stores, restaurants, buses - everything is closed.  There are practically no cars on the road - as shown in this picture that I found on another site - other than emergency vehicles.

 Incredibly, even completely secular Israelis avoid using their cars on Yom Kippur.  Instead, the day has become somewhat of a national bike day - with kids and adults on their bikes everywhere across the country. Despite all of this bicycle activiity, according to a recent Gesher poll picked up by the Jerusalem Post, more than 60% of Israelis indicated that they intended to fast on Yom Kippur.  That percentage is of course much higher than the the percentage of Israelis who would define themselves as observant or religious.  So Yom Kippur still has a special pull, even for those who are otherwise not very observant.

For our part, we spent Erev Yom Kippur,  Tuesday night, at our shul in Kfar Saba, Hod v'Hadar.  We drove to the Synagogue before Yom Kippur  began and left our car in a parking spot on the street near the shul for the day.  Starting the fast at 5 p.m. (because of the clock change) means eating as early as 3 p.m. or so to make sure that you are on time for synagogue services.  We walked back from Kfar Saba to Ra'anana - about an hour long walk.  On the way, we crossed one of Israel's major highways.  There was not a car on the road other than two or three ambulances and a police vehicle.  With so many people using their bicycles, there are usually quite a number of bicycle accidents, some of them serious, so the ambulances still have to be ready.

In Ra'anana, there were thousands of people in the streets, walking up and down the centre of the city and enjoying the atmosphere.  Very little noise other then the sounds of peoples voices. No cars.  No commercial activity.  But lots of people, especially kids riding around on bikes.

We spent Yom Kippur day in Ra'anana at the house of one of the families from our shul.  For many years now they have been holding Yom Kippur services in their house for 60-80 people.  The service was very participatory, egalitarian and somewhat abbreviated.  Our family members participated by reading from the Torah in the morning.  Many of the people attending had some kind of role.  It was a terrific, spiritually meaningful way to spend Yom Kippur.  We all broke the fast together at about 6:20 p.m. with food that participants had prepared and delivered to the house the day before. 

For those of us who have lived our lives in North America or other places outside of Israel, we get accustomed to the idea that everything is still going on all around us while we are observing Yom Kippur.  We see the usual traffic and commercial activity  and might even be worried about our businesses that day.  It is really special to see the way Yom Kippur is observed in Israel.  To see a day on which everything comes to a stop - especially in today's fast paced world, where that seems increasingly unfathomable - is really quite something.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Jewish Pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah

For many Jews around the world, Israel would be the best place to spend the holy days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which took place this year on September 17 and 18, 2012.  Whether at the Kotel (the Western Wall), some other synagogue in Jerusalem, or our own egalitarian Conservative shul in K'far Saba, Hod v'Hadar, there is a very special atmosphere in Israel this time of year.

But for a growing number of Israelis and other Jews, especially Breslaver Hassids, Rosh Hashanah is the time to leave Israel and head for Uman, Ukraine.  This year, it is estimated that more than 30,000 people went to celebrate the Jewish New Year near the grave site of the late Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, the founder of Breslaver Hassidism.

Rabbi Nachman died in 1810.  But more recently, since the fall of communism, an increasingly large number of Breslaver Hassids and others have been travelling to the Ukraine on pilgrimages to Rabbi Nachman's grave on Rosh Hashanah.

The Breslaver movement charters hundreds of planes to fly directly from Israel to the Ukraine, where pilgrimage participants can then take a 3 hour bus ride to the grave site area,  which is located about 125 miles south of Kiev.  Almost all of the pilgrims are men, most of whom are married and have left their wives and families to come have a spiritual "cleansing" with thousands of other like minded folks.  One commentator called it a "milluim" ("army reserve duty") for the ultra-religious.

For some, it really  is a quintessentially religious experience - standing together in groups of hundreds, if not thousands of men, chanting Rosh Hashanah prayers and hymns and being moved by a unique spiritual journey.  Many of the devout Brelaver Hassidim, might well be in Uman, motivated solely by this genuine sense of religious belief.

For others, the religious side is combined with a very material, worldly experience.  According to some reports, there is no shortage of alcohol, drugs and even prostitutes, thought the estimates of how many people are participating in these activities varies wildly.  For these people, it is like a sort of Woodstock festival, with minimalist accomodations (maybe even tents) (or rented apartments from locals), late nights, music and a general party atomosphere.

In past years, some fights have broken out - and some arrests have been made.  There have even been anti-Semitic attacks on the pilgrims, culminating in some very nasty incidents in 2010 (some Hassidim were deported back to Israel), though this year, such incidents have apparently been virtually non-existent.

Pilgrims make their way to Pushkina Street, the main street in this small town, which now relies on Rosh Hashanah pilgrimages as its main industry.  Townsfolk rent out their places for the holiday for an estimated going rate of $250 per night and try to sell touristy knick-knacks.  Those who have attended say that the highlight of the pilgrimage is the Taschlich ceremony, attended by thousands on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah.  After symbolically throwing their sins into a nearby body of water, participants sing and dance wildly.

The Breslev movemement is probably earning some significant profits from all of these chartered flights from Israel to Kiev.  The onslaught is so enormous that the Ukranian authorities have apparently instituted streamlined border procedures.  They check passports on the plane and then simply unload the luggage on the tarmac.

This annual event has attracted a certain mystique, even among secular Israelis and observant Jews who are not Hassidim.  More and more non-Breslev Israelis are booking these charter flights and attending the event.  I personally know at least three people who went this year  (without their wives...)who could hardly be classified as Hassidim

According to Breslev belief, Rabbi Nachman told his followers before he died that he would intercede on behalf of anyone who came to pray at his grave.  He specifically requested that he be buried in Uman.  So perhaps this promise of spiritual intercession is enough to convince those who are looking for a miracle that it is worth a try.  Or perhaps there are many Israelis who are simply looking for a great experience with 30,000 of their nearest and dearest friends.

No matter what the reason, thousands of Israelis are now deciding annually that they would rather spend Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine than in Israel.  From a strictly Jewish perspective, that just seems bizarre to me - but then again, I was too young to attend Woodstock .and I feel no spiritual connection to Uman, Ukraine

G'mar Hatima Tova.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jerusalem Day 2012 - In Jerusalem and Ra'anana

April and May are filled with various holidays and days of commemoration in Israel. Yesterday, Israel celebrated Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), marking the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

In many ways, Jerusalem is really the heart and centre of Israel and of the Zionist enterprise. The historical link of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is visible for all to see at the archaeological ruins at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. The epicentre of the story is the tunnels that have been excavated next to the Kotel (the Western Wall) where visitors can travel underground through history to see the multiple layers that have been built and rebuilt on the site where the two great temples once stood and the surrounding plaza area.

Today, the Dome of the Rock, the large golden domed mosque, which was built in 691 CE, some 620 years after the destruction of the second Temple, sits on exactly the spot where the Temple once stood. It is little wonder then that the Old City of Jerusalem is so hotly contested.

According the original U.N. partition plan in 1947, Jerusalem was to be an "International City" with full access to all to the religious sites that are holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. During Israel's Independence War in 1948, Jordan gained control of much of Jerusalem and the Old City in particular, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and other sites that are holy to three of the world's major religions. Israel held the western half of Jerusalem, where the Israeli parliament (the "Knesset") was established. Jerusalem was named the capital of Israel though, to this day, only a few countries have recognized it as such. Most others have insisted in putting their embassies and consulates in Tel-Aviv.

Between 1948 and 1967, Jews were denied access to Jerusalem's Old City. Many of the religious sites were destroyed and desecrated. Ruins were removed. The city was divided with part held by Jordan and the other part held by Israel.

In June 1967, during the six-day war, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli government later declared that it had annexed Jerusalem, reunited it and “liberated” the City. Jerusalem's holy sites are now open and accessible to all. The Dome of the Rock is managed by Muslim religious authorities and is fully accessible to Muslims. Similarly the Christian religious sites are open and accessible to all. Since 1967, Israel has excavated, restored and rebuilt much of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Old synagogues have been reopened. The plaza area of the Kotel has been expanded and is clearly the religious heart of the country. Jews from all over Israel (and all over the world) visit the Kotel for holiday celebrations, bar mitzvahs and, in the case of tourists, as one of the most important highlights of a trip to Israel.

Jerusalem is also at the centre of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides lay claims to the very same piece of land on which the Dome of the Rock now stands and on which two Temples once stood. The Old City of Jerusalem and East Jerusalem have significant Arab populations and the Palestinians would like to make Jerusalem the capital of their eventual state. While some Israeli negotiators have been willing to make some concessions with respect to Jerusalem, none of these concessions were viewed as sufficient by the Palestinians. The Bill Clinton brokered peace talks apparently collapsed over this very issue. Now the political climate in Israel has shifted somewhat and there is little appetite for any deal that might give up control over East Jerusalem and certainly not the walled Old City, which includes Judaism’s holiest site.

It might be fair to say that Jerusalem Day is marked most fervently by Orthodox Jews and in particular by those on the right of political spectrum. Yesterday, for example, a group of observant Jews went to conduct prayer services on the grounds of the Dome of the Rock, since this was the exact spot on which the Temple once stood. Though this is somewhat provocative, it is a site that is holy to different groups and ought to be accessible as such.

Jerusalem celebrations took place across the country. Here in Ra’anana, at the centre of the city, Yad L’Banim, a communal sing-a-long was organized where participants were invited to join in singing songs about Jerusalem.

I decided to wander over to the festivities which were about ten minutes walking distance from my place. The evening featured well known counter-tenor David D’Or along with a group of symphony musicians. It also featured a group of singers known as “Kolot Min Hashamayim” – “Voices from the Heavens” from the Melachim School. The Mayor of Ra’anana, Nahum Hofri, was invited to the stage and led the singing of one of Israel’s most iconic songs, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”).

But after watching the performances for a little while, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no women singers. Kolot Min Hashamayim is a religious choir which uses prepubescent boys to sing the female parts. I was standing and listening to some well- known pieces of music that feature some wonderful female vocal parts which were all being sung by young boys. While this is common in Orthodox Synagogues, singing liturgical pieces, it has certainly never been a major part of public Israeli national celebrations. In fact, one of the great things that Israel has produced has been music, sung by men and women together. Here, from looking at the program, there were no "mixed" performances scheduled and no women vocalists. Standing and watching these performances, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of "Sharia creep" – the idea that the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox were expanding their influence beyond synagogues to include public celebrations. As I have written in other blogs, the issue of public performances by female vocalists has been attracting a great deal of attention as ultra-orthodox groups have been trying to limit or eliminate these performances. Feeling that I was participating in something that was edging closer to Iran, I couldn’t help but leave before the evening ended.

Is there a tie in between the fervent celebration of Jerusalem Day and the issue of Sharia creep, barring women from singing publicly? Perhaps not, though it is probably fair to say that those on the political and religious left are much less inclined to celebrate Jerusalem Day as fervently. For many on that end of the spectrum, Jerusalem Day is a reminder that there is a still a great deal of unfinished business – that the need to reach a peace deal or an arrangement with the Palestinians is urgent and that Jerusalem is still at the heart of the dispute. Even so, there is probably still a broad national consensus supporting the current Israeli political position that the Old City of Jerusalem can never again be divided, which is at least some cause for commemoration and celebration by all those who support that view.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lag B'Omer in Israel: National "Bonfire Day"

For Israeli kids, Lag B'Omer is one of the most exciting holidays of the year. It takes place on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar. This year, that was the 10th of May, 2012. The holiday marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a great Mishnah-era rabbi. There are many religious aspects to the celebration of the holiday, primarily observed by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthdox communities. For example, many Orthodox families only cut their son's hair for the first time when he turns 3 years of age - at the first Lag B'Omer after the third birthday.

For most other Israelis, the holiday is bonfire day. People across Israel celebrate the holiday after sundown the previous evening by getting together and lighting huge bonfires. If you were to fly over Israel at 9 or 10 p.m., or even 12:00 a.m. on Lag B'Omer, it would probably look like the country had been attacked. Huge fires everywhere and billows of smoke.

Israelis gather around these bonfires and roast marshmallows, sing songs and enjoy barbecued food while making the bonfire as big as possible. From just after Pesach (Passover), you can see young kids walking along streets and sidewalks pulling wagon loads of wood that they have found to store and prepare for the big day.

The remarkable thing, in typically Israeli style, is the emphasis on independence and relatively minimal supevision for teens as young as 13. Often, groups of kids, 13-18, gather together for bonfires and barbecues without any adults or adult supervision. It seems incredible that some of these fires don't get completely out of hand but children in Israel are often given a great deal of independence and responsibility from an early age.

Many of the older kids stay out all night and Lag B'Omer is a school holiday. For parents, particularly parents of teenagers, it can be stressful worrying about the safety of some of these bonfires. Is your child going to be the foolish one who tries to show everyone that he or she can jump through the bonfire, unscathed? (Don't think I'm making that up...) But for the kids, Lag B'Omer really is a highlight of the year. Most are well behaved and there are relatively few incidents reported each year. Israeli culture has taken a holiday that was religious in origin and turned it, largely, into a secular fire festival, accessible to and celebrated by Israelis across the spectrum from the religious and ultra-religious to the avowedly secular and atheist.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Shirat Machar Musical Group Releases New CD

Shirat Machar ("Tomorrow's song") held a CD launch concert last night at Beit Barbur in Tel-Aviv. The concert was attended by several hundred people and was a great musical success.

Shirat Machar is an Israeli vocal group, something like a Glee-type show choir, but with much less extravagant production. The group is comprised of teenagers from all over Israel who are part of the Noam youth movement. The executive producer of the group is Dror Alexander, a well known Israeli musical producer who has produced Dudu Fisher's performances and has been involved in major broadway productions that have been staged in Israel.

Potential members audition for the group each year as the older members graduate high school and begin compulsory military service. This year, Shirat Machar was made up of 11 young men and women, all in high school from grades 9 to 12. Led by Amishar Frutkoff, the group practised weekly (and sometimes more often) to prepare for a number of different performances that it held during the year and to record Shirat Machar's 4th CD. Group members travelled from different places to attend practice sessions in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv or, sometimes, at members' homes in different locations.

As part of Noam (Israel's Conservative Jewish youth movement), Shirat Machar members are all involved in Noam, whether as counselors, educational staff, camp staff or coordinators. Somewhat of a blend between Scouts and USY (United Synagogue Youth - the North American Conservative Jewish youth movement), Noam runs weekly programs all over Israel. It also organizes a number of annual trips ("tiyulim") which can include desert or mountain hikes, camping, and water activities. The highlight of its calendar is a summer camp program that runs annually in July. Noam's events always include educational activities and egalitarian religious (Conservative) services. Noam emphasizes egalitarianism, Jewish heritage and tradition, Zionism, and, most importantly - "tikkun olam" - making the world a better place. This can mean becoming involved in community activities, social welfare projects or other programs that allow Noam members to help others and to build a better world.

Shirat Machar was established four years ago to be the musical ambassador of Noam. It performs at most major nationwide NOAM events and has also performed in the United States and at the annual national Masorti movement assembly in Israel. This year, Shirat Machar performed at a dinner at the latter event, which was attended by Israeli President Shimon Peres. As President Peres began his speech, just after a Noam musical number, he commented about how proud he was to see young women and men singing together in this type of group after recent media reports of attempts by ultra-orthodox Jews to prevent women from singing in public.

Shirat Machar's new CD is entitled "B'Shir v'Kol Todah" - "In Song and in Voice - Thank You." The CD includes 11 tracks. Some are versions of liturgical music - Zamru, Ivdu et Hashem. Other tracks include meddlies of songs by well known Israel singers Shlomo Artzi and Eyal Golan. The CD also includes the Noam theme song.

Like any organization, Shirat Machar is not without its challenges. The group has been funded by Noam and by the Masorti movement in Israel. Masorti Israel has been facing significant financial challenges and as a result, it has had to cut some programs. At this point, the Masorti movement has announced that it will not be able to continue funding Shirat Machar, which could mean that this would be its final year.

The annual funding required is approximately $18,000 (Canadian - or U.S. -the difference is minimal these days...). While members each pay an annual fee, the $18,000 has historically been provided by the Masorti movement and Israel. At this point, Shira Machar is looking for sources (or even just one source) for funding for the coming year (2012-13). Interested sponsors in Canada can donate money to the Centre for Masorti Judaism and can earrmark the money for Shirat Machar. Sponsors from the United States can do that same at Full tax receipts are provided by both sites.

While my blog is generally not a fund raising vehicle - and in fact - it currently does not include any advertisements - it seems to me that this is a very important project with a relatively modest funding request. Music is such an important part of Jewish tradition. Getting young people involved musically is often a path to continued and increase involvement in a range of areas. With Shirat Machar's emphasis on music and on Noam values, the members of Shirat Machar are ambassadors of the Conservative movement in Israel and worldwide. The group touches Noam members throughout Israel who see and hear them perform and it also helps further the values of egalitarianism, Judaism and tikkun olam.

Please pass this along to anyone you know who might be in a position to make a contribution or who might have a suggeston. Shirat Machar is a non-profit choir. We hope that its name, "Tomorrow's Song" will ring true and that Shirat Machar will continue in the coming years.

For more information or to see pictures and video clips, please visit the web page...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Yom Hashoah V'Hagvurah 5772 - April 2012

Tonight marks that start of Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah, Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes' Remembrance Day, in Israel and across the world. The annual date for commemoration of the Holocaust coincides closely with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 69 years ago.

As people across the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, try to come to grips with the enormity of evil, the murder of six million Jews and millions of non-Jews, Israel is holding commemorative ceremonies across the country.

According to Yedioth Ahronot, one of Israel's major daily newspapers, there are approximately 198,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today. Last year, some 11,700 died and the remaining survivors are not getting any younger. Many of these survivors are still able to tell their stories and we hope that we will have the privilege and opportunity to listen and to hear their words.

In many of the ceremonies, detailed accounts about specific Holocaust victims or survivors are recited. One of the recurrent themes of Israel's Holocaust Memorial Center, Yad VaShem, has been the idea of individual dignity. "L'kol Ish Yesh Shem" - Each person has a name. Despite the fact that six million people were murdered, we remember that each person had a name, a life, dreams, hopes and a family. Each person had a story. By recounting these individual stories, of victims and of survivors, we remember the individual humanity of the millions of victims and survivors.

For some, Holocaust commemoration is accompanied by a universalist message; that people everywhere must fight prejudice and hatred and that we must be vigilant in ensuring that the world takes steps to actively prevent and stop genocide from occurring. This is the message that is powerfully imparted at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Washington, D.C.

While many in Israel share this view and reflect on this universalist message, there is another message that is of equal if not greater importance. For Israelis and for many Jews across the world, the Holocaust demonstrated that the Jewish people could not rely on anyone other than themselves for their survival as a people. That message resonates at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Center, which has a less universalist focus than its newer Washington counterpart. For many Israelis, only a strong and powerful Israel can protect the Jewish people against the many worldwide threats.

At this evening's Yom Hashoah V'Hagvurah commemoration in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu cited the Iranian threat, an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people that focuses on the latter of these lessons. Yet in a world in which a Norwegian Nazi-inspired mass murderer is trying to use a trial to promote a message of hatred, and the Syrian dictatorship continues to massacre Syrians, we cannot help but also consider the other lessons of the Holocaust as well.

Aside from the importance of Israeli strength and Jewish resolve, and of the importance of the universalist fight against evil and intolerance, tonight and tomorrow, above all else, we remember the millions of victims who perished during the Holocaust, their lives and their stories, and the lives and stories of the survivors who were scarred for life.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim in Ra'anana

As the news is filled with reports of potential hostilities between Israel and Iran, we are celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim is a holiday marking the victory by the Jewish community of Persia - which, though the bravery of the story's heroes, Mordechai and Esther, was saved from a plot by the evil villain, Haman, to destroy the country's Jewish community. Sounds familiar? Well, we'll leave the discussion of modern day Iran (ancient Persia) for another day...

Purim is one of the happiest holidays on the Jewish calendar. Throughout Israel, cities celebrate "Adloyadah festivals." "Adloyada" (literally - "until you don't know") comes from the tradition of having a bit too much to drink on Purim and celebrating wildly. But these are not drunken festivals. (Unlike the parties that many people are attending tonight and tomorrow...) Far from it. These are family oriented street parades, held in the centre of many of Israel's cities.

Ra'anana held its festival yesterday, the day before Purim began. The parade began at 4 p.m. All of the city's schools were represented with themed floats and a group of selected students marching along. Ra'anana, like most other Israeli cities, has a variety of school types - religious, secular, pluralistic, and special schools for art, music and sports programs. All of these different schools were represented. Thousands of people lined the main street, Ahuza Street, which was closed off to all traffic from about 3:30 p.m. The parade marched along Ahuza for about an hour and a half.

Meanwhile, the Ra'anana City centre ("Yad L'Banim") was turned into a giant dance club from the early afternoon. Students, who came to school in a wide range of costumes, were let out of school at noon. Thousands of kids made their way to Yad L'Banim, which was set up with a DJ, lots of security and a party atmosphere. The weather cooperated - it was a sunny 20C.

The holiday of Purim officially began at sundown this evening. Across Israel(and throughout the world), Jewish people went to Synagogue, community centres or other locations to hear a public reading of the "Megillah" - the Book of Esther - which is read from a parchment scroll. Israelis were also frantically preparing baskets of food and sweets to give out to neighbours and friends tomorrow - as is customary on Purim. Many Israelis are also participating in the Mitzvah of charitable gifts to the needy, another Purim custom.

Kids are off school for three days - Wednesday, Thursday and Friday - to celebrate this relatively "minor" holiday. But for many kids, the holiday is a favourite. Unlike a "chag" - a "holy day" - buses are running, stores and restaurants are open and there are no extensive restrictions on activities. Most people are working, at least a half day. People everywhere dress up in all kinds of costumes and there is a general carnival atmosphere. And to top it off - the temperature is predicted to hit the high 20s C by the weekend, marking a real change from the much needed rainy season that has soaked Israel over the past few months.

The festivities will be continuing all over the country for the rest of the week. There are Adloyadah festivals in many other cities on Purim and the day after. Purim officially begins with Megillah readings in the City of Jerusalem one day later than the rest of the world (and the rest of Israel) - tomorrow night. And Israelis will be celebrating with festive meals across the country in the afternoon on Purim day.

Because of the timing of Shabbat this year - kids will wind up having had a break from school from Tuesday at noon - until Sunday morning. For many kids, this is definitely the best part of celebrating Purim.

Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tali School Ra'anana - Opening Ceremony

Ra’anana celebrated a wonderful occasion on Sunday January 29, 2012, the opening of the city’s first stand-alone elementary Tali school. Tali (a Hebrew acronym for enriched Jewish education) is a unique program which combines a secular education, as mandated by Israel’s Ministry of Education, with a program of modern Jewish studies. Tali’s stated mandate is to provide a love and respect for Jewish learning in a pluralistic environment.

The Tali program was established in Ra’anana in September 1998. Until last week, it was housed within a secular public school, Meged Elementary School. On Sunday, the Frankel Tali Ra’anana School opened with the support of a primary benefactor, Mr. Stanley Frankel.

This new school, which is beautiful, functional and modern, was the product of enormous efforts by a group of parental volunteers, the City of Ra’anana, the Ministry of Education and many other groups and individuals. But the official opening ceremony for the school was simply incredible.

It actually began a few days earlier with a ceremony at the Meged School at which Tali expressed its appreciation and thanks to Meged for hosting Tali for so many years.

On Sunday afternoon, the official opening ceremony began with the gathering of all of the Tali students at a park in Ra’anana. Dressed in white shirts and blue pants, some carrying flags, the students formed a procession by class to accompany the school’s Torah through the streets of Ra’anana to the new school. The procession was led by the principal, who played his guitar and sang along with the children as the group meandered along. At the front of the procession were some grade 5 students who were accompanying the Torah scroll which was being carried along under a canopy (a Chupa).

It is of course no coincidence that the Torah was at the beginning of the line. Given that Judaism and Jewish tradition is based on the Torah, it was most fitting for a Tali school that the Torah, representing Jewish education, Jewish values, commitment and tradition would be the centre of the festivities.

When the procession arrived at the school, parents and guests took their places in the brand new Beit Midrash (a combination auditorium, synagogue, hall etc.,). The Tali choir took its place at the front of the stage, first only the younger members of the choir. The students filed in. Then with most of the students in the room already, the remaining students entered the room with the Torah and placed it in the Aron Hakodesh (the Ark). Everyone said the special “shehechiyanu” prayer and the choir began to sing. It was very emotional, particularly to see the tearful excitement of the parents who had worked so hard to bring this project to fruition.

There were many dignitaries on hand including the Mayor of Ra’anana, a representative from the Ministry of Education and the American ambassador to Israel. The speakers offered different words of congratulation to Tali on the opening of the school. But a common theme, which was highlighted by the American ambassador, was the importance of Tali as a pluralistic, tolerant example for other educational institutions in Israel.

Most of the public schools in Israel are either “religious” or “secular.” The secular schools offer very little in the way of Jewish education. The religious schools often downplay the importance of secular studies and separate the boys from the girls with differences in the respective curricula. Tali aims to combine these two opposites by providing a full and challenging, Ministry approved secular education, while also providing a wide ranging, engaging Jewish curriculum.

As the various speakers finished their presentations, the senior Tali choir sang a number of songs. Once the ceremony concluded, the children were freed for the first time, along with their parents, to roam the three storied school and get a good view of the new facilities.

The new facility is truly magnificent, perhaps one of the nicest elementary schools in Israel. But the ceremony, the Torah, and the Tali children’s choir all signified that the educational content will be far more important than the building.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Israeli President Shimon Peres Speaks at Conservative Conference in Israel

(Photo from

The Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism) celeberated 35 years of activity in Israel tonight at a gala evening in Shefayim, Israel. More than 600 people attended from Conservative Synagogues and communities all over Israel. Various Rabbis and lay people were honoured at this festive evening.

Israeli President Shimon Peres accepted an invitation to deliver the keynote address at the conference. Immediately before he spoke, the choir "Shirat Machar" ("Song of Tomorrow") performed. Shirat Machar is a professionally coached choir made up of members of Noam (the Conservative youth movement in Israel). The choir is made up of young men and women from all over Israel. They perform a variety of music including Israeli popular music and some religious music. This type of performance has been attracting a great deal of publicity in the Israeli media lately, since there have been growing efforts by ultra-religious Jews in Israel to exclude women from singing in public.

Peres opened his comments, right after Shirat Machar finished, with a big smile and by noting that he had come to the conference expressly so that he could hear women singing. This was a direct shot at those ultra-religious fanatics who view this type of performance as a violation of Jewish law. Peres clearly set out a vision of gender equality that has no place for the exclusion of women or anyone else, in public, during army ceremonies or at any other time.

Peres went on to call for tolerance in a variety of other areas. He called on Israel to redouble its efforts to sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate a peace agreement. He emphasized the importance of minority religious rights, equality and democracy in Israel in every respect. He called on people of divergent religious views to find ways to live together, as they have for so many years, and to fight back against the militant minority that would create barriers between people of different views.

Peres has sometimes been called a dreamer, but the vision that he dreams is one of human dignity, peace, justice, tolerance and freedom. Commenting on the importance of Conservative Judaism and its roots, Peres described how Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the visionaries of Conservative Judaism, had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight against discrimination just days before King Jr. was murdered. He brought that history forward in describing the contributions that Conservative Judaism continues to make in Israel by pushing for tolerance, respect for the law, justice and genuine devotion to the State of Israel.

President Peres had to leave shortly after his speech. But he paused to take some photographs with Shirat Machar and to speak to its members briefly. Just after his speech, the choir performed a second, longer set, much to the delight of the gala guests. Shirat Machar came back after various awards were presented and after dinner to perform a third set, this time including a chain of Shlomo Artzi songs which was enthusiastically received.

The combination of President Peres and Shirat Machar at the conference emphasized some of the key values of the Conservative Movement. Justice, tolerance, religious pluralism and dignity as reflected in Peres' vision, set out in his speech; and the exuberant, energetic sound of youth, male and female, working together to build a better future as represented by Shirat Machar.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bar or Bat Mitzvah - Davidson Center / Robinson's Arch

Looking to plan a mixed or egalitarian bar or bat mitzvah near the Kotel in Jerusalem? As you may know, this is not possible at the main area of the Western Wall itself. Since the Israeli government ceded effective control over this area to Rabbinic authorities many years ago, the Kotel is divided into separate areas for men and women, with a barrier (a Mechitza). Women are not even permitted to sing or read from the Torah on the women's side. In fact, some women have been arrested for "disturbing the peace" for violating this prohibition.

There is an alternative. The Israeli Supreme Court acceded to a petition brought before it to allow egalitarian prayer at the Southern Wall in an area known as the Robinson's Arch, which is part of the Davidson Center. The entrance to this area is just before the Kotel. Thousands of Conservative, Reform and other liberal Jews conduct bar and bat mitzvah services annually at this location and have found it to be quite a spiritually moving location.

I have now attended at least 5 or 6 of these ceremonies, some as the parent of the bar or bat mitzvah and I thought I would put together a few pointers for those looking to arrange a simcha here.

Bar or Bat Mitzvahs are generally conducted on Mondays or Thursdays at this site since those are the days on which the Torah is read. I do not believe that the Center offers the option of Shabbat celebrations though this may be something that one could look into.

Conducting a Simcha at this location (as with planning many other events in Israel) requires very careful attention to quite a number of small details. One way of doing this is to use an experienced Israeli Rabbi, tour guide or other facilitator who can look after all of these matters. Just make sure that it is someone who has done this many times and has it down to a science.

If you decide to try to plan it yourself, the first step is to arrange a permission certificate ("Ishur") well in advance with the Masorti Movement in Israel which administers the site. You can contact them at They do not charge a fee for the booking but encourage a donation. With an Ishur, you will get access to a Torah scroll, Siddurim (prayer books) and a small table for the Torah. You will get a box of Siddurim but they will not all necessarily be the same. The Center supplies a mixture of "V'ani Tefilati," "Rinat Yisrael" and "Sim Shalom" prayer books. If the starting time is before 8:45 a.m. (sharp), no additional admission fee is required unless the guests would like to take a tour of the Center. This can be a great activity, especially with a knowledgeable tour guide, but is not required. If your guests are late (even by a minute or two), full admission will be required.

Services conducted at the Davidson Center can be more peaceful, secluded and controlled than those at the Western Wall, as well as being inclusive of all the participants. However, during busy season, especially during parts of the summer, there can be three celebrations occurring at the same time, in three consecutive one hour slots. If your simcha is one of the first two of the day, you will have to pay careful attention to timing. No music, drums, shofars or other instruments are permitted at the Center and food is strictly prohibited. In the summer, you can hear other bar-mitzvah groups being escorted to the Western Wall with drums and shofars. This can be one of the distractions but a fascinating one.

Access to the site, which is down a number of stone steps, can be challenging for seniors and others with any kind of physical limitations. There is an elevator at the far end but it may or may not be working at any given time. There is no seating at the site. You can bring folding chairs or you can find some seating on the rocks though the rock seating is certainly not ideal for anyone who might require a comfortable chair.

In the summer, it can become quite hot, particularly after 9 a.m., so make sure to bring hats, water and sun tan lotion for everyone.

One of the real challenges is transporation to and from the site. Traffic is closed to most private vehicles in and around the Old City of Jerusalem and finding parking is extremely difficult. Generally, the best option is to arrange bus service to and from the site. However, you must use an experienced driver who routinely handles this route and knows exactly where and when the guests and participants can be dropped off. If you must drive, you should consider parking at the restaurant or some other nearby location and taking a cab to the Davidson Center entrance.

There are many options available for training a bar or bat mitzvah student. For those using an Israeli Rabbi to conduct the service, he or she may offer internet based training for guests from outside of Israel or, of course, personal training in Israel. Otherwise, a bar or bat mitzvah student can train with any teacher that his or her local Rabbi or other reference source might suggest. In Israel, students can often train with knowledgeable high school students (at a fairly reasonable hourly rate) or of course, there are many Rabbis who have steady streams of students.

Since the Davidson Center area is somewhat less formal than the Kotel, ceremonies can be tailored to suit individual requirements. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah student can conduct some or all of the Shacharit service, depending on his or her capabilities and can read some or all of the week's Torah readings (which are usually quite short during the week). Bar and Bat Mitzvah students often prepare divrei Torah (short talks about the week's Torah portion) to deliver during the ceremony.

Following the service, there are a number of options. Some families opt to arrange a tour of the Davidson Center itself, the nearby tunnels at the City of David or the tunnels behind the Kotel. These tours can be really fascinating and are best arranged with a knowledeable tour guide. They must be booked far in advance - especially the tour of the tunnels behind the Kotel which leads to some of Jerusalem's most incredible archeological sites.

Some families also decide to take pictures at the main plaza part of the Kotel itself, where mixed photos are permissible. Bear in mind, that you must pass through airport style security to get to the Kotel area. During busy times, this can take a half hour or so. If your event is in the summer time, it will get very hot, especially if you have also included a tour of the Davidson Center or one of the other sites before stopping at the Kotel. Despite all the cautions, these pictures may turn out to be some of your best photos.

Most families try to arrange a celebratory meal after the function. Sometimes this is arranged right after the bar or bat mitzvah and without any touring and other times it is arranged after tours of the sites and photo opportunities at the Kotel. Either way, you will need to plan this carefully with the bus driver (whose cell phone number you must have). One of the hardest logistical parts of these affairs is arranging the transportation for the guests from the bar/bat mitzvah to the restaurant.

There are a few restaurants that are within walking distance of the Kotel. These are often booked quite far in advance, may still require difficult walks in hot weather conditions and may be quite pricey for the menu and food quality.

Jerusalem has many other great catering options. I have been to bar and bat mitzvah celebrations at Beit Tikoh, Te'enim, Taverna and Terrasa all of which offer kosher dairy menus and all of which were a reasonably short bus ride from the Kotel. At one bat mitzvah, the Kotel drop off and pick up area was so crowded that the guests had to walk from the Davidson Center to Te'enim, which took about 40 minutes. Trying to arrange a bar or bat mitzvah during Pesach or Sukkot can create huge logistical challanges since these are some of the busiest times at the Old City.

There are also quite a number of kosher meat restaurants available within a reasonable distance, though listing and evaluating all of the restaurants would require a few additional blog entries.

Overall the Davidson Center is a great place for a bar or bat mitzvah for families looking to conduct their prayer service together, include everyone and still be at a holy and religiously significant site. It does however require careful, detail oriented planning with the help of someone who knows how to manoeuvre through Israeli ways of doing things.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Israeli Weddings - a Short Primer

A typical Israeli wedding, from my experience, can easily include 400 to 500 guests. I was even at one recently with close to 900 people, which was apparently 200-300 short of the hall capacity. Since I have been to quite a number of these weddings over the past few years, I thought I’d write a short primer on what to expect. I am writing mainly about secular Israeli weddings at this point. I’ll add another article after I make it to a few more religious weddings.

Most Israeli weddings are at event halls, many with indoor and outdoor facilities. Unlike many Jewish weddings in North America, the ceremony is not really separated from the party and is certainly not in a synagogue. Of course, at this point in time in Israel, only Orthodox Rabbis, approved by the Israeli Rabbinic authorities can actually conduct a Jewish wedding. So even the most secular of Israelis must use the Orthodox rabbinate if they wish to have their marriage recognized by the State of Israel. There are some ways around this but that is for another blog entry.

Weddings are often called for 7 or 7:30 p.m. and they take place pretty much any day of the week from Sunday to Thursday, with some preference for Tuesday (for religious reasons). Since Sunday is a regular work day in Israel, Sunday weddings are not as predominant as they are in North America. The invitation will often specify that the chuppa – the actually ceremonial part of the wedding – will take place at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. But that is really just an estimate. From what I have seen, there can easily be a delay of an hour or two or even more. Knowing this, guests tend to arrive any time from the specified start time until two or three hours later, with some correlation to age. The younger guests seem to show up later in the evening.

At many of these weddings, there are some great hors d’oevres. When the weather is nice, this can all be set up with outside stations, often including barbecue areas, sushi areas and all kinds of other foods. Of course in the summer in Israel the chance of rain is almost zero. During the fall and winter, these stations can be set up inside, often with a view of the outside. This part of the affair is culinarily somewhat similar to a Montreal Jewish wedding where the amount of food served before the ceremony has even taken place can be enormous.

Usually somewhere around 9 or 9:30 p.m., the actual marriage ceremony takes place. It is often set up off to the side of the hall in a designated area. At a number of the weddings I have attended, I would guess that 20% to 30% of the guests have gone to watch or participate in the ceremony. The rest continue eating appetizers, visiting the bar and schmoozing.

Once the ceremony is over, guests make their way back to the dining and dance floor area for the main meal. The DJ usually takes over at this point for balance of the evening. The range of music can vary wildly with the crowd, though “eastern” Israeli music is very popular these days. I haven’t been to any Israeli (secular) weddings where anyone has welcomed the guests, made a speech, conducted a ceremonial Challah cutting, led birkat hamazon (grace after meals) or held any other “formalities.” Once the chuppah has ended, it has simply been eating, dancing and drinking for the balance of the wedding. Sometimes there is a slide show going on in the background.

Whoever thinks that Jews don’t drink very much at weddings hasn’t attended an Israeli wedding recently. Though there are bottles of wine (usually red) on each table for those who are so inclined, the drink of choice, especially for the younger generation, seems to be vodka and Red Bull and certainly not in small quantities…

Guests uniformly tend to give cash gifts, often handed to the parents of the bride or groom in an envelope with a short note, many times on arrival at the hall, much like an Italian wedding. The amounts are usually fairly substantial, these days starting at about 400 to 500 N.I.S. per couple (about $125 to $150). Though the recipients will usually prepare a list of who gave what amounts for future reference, I have yet to receive any thank you cards, emails or other acknowledgements of a wedding present.

There are no reply cards with the invitations so the hosts have to come up with their best estimate of the number of guests for the caterer. Since no one really knows who will be attending, there is no assigned seating. Sometimes there are too many tables, sometimes not enough. But the caterers can usually open up another 50 to 100 spots in fairly short order. On occasion, if you leave your seat for a little while to dance or go the bar, you might lose it…though this can usually be straightened out.

While the groom will often wear a suit and the bride will usually wear a white bridal gown, anything goes for the rest of the guests. Many of the men will come dressed in jeans and a short sleeve button down shirt. There can be quite a range of dress for the women from skirts and dresses to jeans and casual tops with the only common denominator being that the outfit is often quite tight, to put it mildly.

Most of the meals at these weddings are table service and most of the wedding halls in Israel are kosher. As crazy as this sounds for North Americans, there is an expectation that the guests at each table will take up a collection and tip their assigned server, sometimes at the beginning of the evening if they want to ensure really good service. I was even at one recent wedding with actual “white glove” service. Not only were the servers wearing white gloves, but they were even folding cloth napkins and replacing the cutlery on an ongoing basis. This is pretty rare here from what I’ve seen.

Overall, like in any society, the weddings are somewhat a reflection of the broader culture. Here in Israel, the weddings are fairly informal and casual with an emphasis on fun and celebration rather than formality, dress code or detail. In some ways, that probably sums up the way many things are done in Israel – often hectic and chaotic – with limited attention to customs, rules, or organization but many times quite engaging, raucous and enjoyable.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sukkot 5772/2011 in Israel

Sukkot is a holiday that is often neglected in the Jewish community in North America. Though it is considered one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, part of the group of three “pilgrimage” holidays, it has become a holiday that is more likely to be celebrated by Orthodox Jews along with some Conservative and Reform Jews.

Perhaps this is partially due to timing. Since Sukkot arrives only a few days after Yom Kippur, it is difficult for many people to take off days from work for religious observance after having used holiday time for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

It could also be related to the weather. After all, in many parts of North America, it could be only 10 or 15 degrees Celsius and maybe even very rainy, which makes it a challenge to sit outside in a makeshift hut with a thinly covered roof and enjoy meals for 8 days. Then there is the challenge of procuring a palm branch, some willow leaves, myrtle leaves and an etrog (citron – part of the lemon family) to hold together during morning prayers. Finally, many families simply did not grow up celebrating the holiday in post-war Canada and the U.S. and the traditions were not passed along in the same way as a holiday like Pesach (Passover).

All of this is very different in Israel, which is clearly the best place in the world to be to celebrate Sukkot.

For starters, Sukkot is a national holiday in Israel. Most stores, restaurants, and other businesses are closed on the first and last days of the seven day holiday. Kids are off school the entire time. Many businesses are on lighter work schedules during the intermediary days. For many families, it is a great opportunity to leave the country and go travelling to Europe or some other destination for a family vacation. But for those remaining in Israel, it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday.

Some aspects of the holiday have transcended religious boundaries and become part of a national celebration. Many secular families put up sukkot (temporary booths) even if they only wind up using them once or twice to entertain some guests. Kids have lots of fun making decorations for their family sukkah, in school before the holiday starts, and with their families.

Many Israeli cities have palm trees. In Ra’anana, for example, the city trims its palm trees a few days before Sukkot and posts a schedule of when the trees will be trimmed and where the branches will be available for free pick-up. Residents are able to collect these palm branches and use them for the roofs of their sukkot. Some families have one or more of the required trees on their own property and can collect the proper items from their own backyard.

Cities across Israel have “Sukkot markets” where people can come and buy almost any item needed for the holiday, ranging from pre-fabricated sukkot starting from about $150 for a complete kit (with metal poles, canvas walls and bamboo roofs), to the sets of items needed for the holiday (lulav and etrog sets). With all of the competition, the prices of the various items become much more reasonable. It is quite a bit of fun to wander around in these markets and see what is being offered and the varying price ranges.

Restaurants throughout Israel, even many that are not even kosher, put up sukkot, so that their patrons can sit and eat their meals in the sukkah. This is actually quite the sight. In areas that are densely packed with restaurants, like some parts of Achuza Street in Ra’anana, you can see a whole row of sukkot, one in front of each restaurant. Some restaurants share one sukkah between two or three establishments.

We enjoyed a family dinner at the beginning of the holiday sitting outside with a group of about 30, eating, singing and drinking wine. We could see and hear neighbours on both sides also enjoying the festival with outdoor family meals. We also managed to make it Jerusalem for a bat-mitzvah during the intermediary days of the holiday. There were thousands of people arriving at the Old City of Jerusalem that day with their lulav and etrog sets in hand for the morning prayers. The roads were closed to most private vehicles so we wound up walking for about 40 minutes from the Kotel area to the restaurant for the celebration. The area was simply too crowded to be able to take a taxi.

The weather was beautiful throughout the country for the entire seven day holiday. Israeli and other musicians were performing at clubs and venues all over. There were various indoor and outdoor festivals taking place and many people taking the time to enjoy family outings at many of Israel’s hiking trails, water parks or historical sites.

One of the Hebrew names for Sukkot is “z’man simchateinu” (the time of our happiness). It is a name that is well suited. Sukkot really is one of the happiest times to be in Israel, as a visitor or as an Israeli.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Selichot and Yom Kippur in Jerusalem and Ra'anana, Israel

This is the Kotel (the "Western Wall" or the "Wailing Wall") in Jerusalem, at 2:00 a.m. on Friday October 7, 2011. From the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until the day before Yom Kippur, tens of thousands of Jews make their way to the Kotel for Selichot prayers. The prayers are penitential prayers which are said as part or religious preparations leading up to Yom Kippur, usually between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.

People come to Jerusalem from all over Israel to recite the Selichot prayers. Traffic to Jerusalem is madness. Many of the roads are closed to passenger vehicles. We tried our luck driving anyways and wound up spending quite a bit of time in the car. Eventually we parked a couple of kilometers away from the Old City and made our way to the Kotel by foot, moving along with thousands of other pedestrians.

We were not there for one of the main, official Selichot services. Instead, we saw groups of 10 or 15 people doing individual Selichot prayers. The area near the Kotel was so densely packed, it was next to impossible to move to the front and actually get near the wall. It was quite fascinating to see so many people there in the middle of the night. Though we left at 3:00 a.m. from the Kotel area, it might as well have been the middle of the day. The whole area was well lit and thousands of people were just arriving as others left. Luckily for us there was a 24 hour Aroma Coffee bar nearby, which must have been enjoying one of its busiest days of the year. Nothing like a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant to go with those penitential prayers...

We spent Yom Kippur this year in Ra'anana. From about 2:00 p.m., on Erev Yom Kippur (the day before) everything in Israel completely shuts down. The buses and trains stop running. The airport closes. Stores and restaurants close. Even the border crossings all close. By 5:00 p.m., when Yom Kippur starts and the fast begins, everyone stops driving. There is not a car on the road, other than emergency vehicles. It is actually amazing to see. There is no law that prohibits cars from driving and a significant percentage of the population does not observe the holiday in any religious way. Many are not Jewish. But nevertheless, there are simply no cars on the road.

Instead, Yom Kippur has become a national day of bicycling and walking. The day before Yom Kippur in Israel is the single biggest day of the year for bicycle sales. Secular kids and adults throughout the country go on lengthy cycling trips, riding in the middle of the main highways, with not a car in sight. Others walk up and down the main city streets, in the middle of the road.

We drove our car to our synagogue before Yom Kippur and parked it there before Yom Kippur started. After services, we walked backed to Ra'anana from K'far Saba (a walk of about an hour). There were thousands of people in the streets, walking along, chatting with each other and people they might bump into. The main street in Ra'anana (Ahuza Street) was filled with wall to wall people, strolling along and enjoying the chance to take over the main streets with no cars anywhere. For the kids, the highlight was sitting down on the main highway (Highway 4) as we crossed it from K'far Saba to Ra'anana. An erie sight to see one of Israel's busiest highways with no vehicles whatsoever.

Israel moved its clocks back one hour just before Yom Kippur to ensure that the fast would end earlier. So the scheduled time for the fast to end was 5:54 p.m. on

We walked to Yom Kippur services in Ra'anana in the morning. Again, it was quite the sight to see children bicycling, skate boarding and roller blading everywhere, on main streets and side streets, right in the middle of the road, as others walked to synagogues throughout the city, often dressed head to toe in white clothes.

According to a recent survey conducted, 85% of Israelis claimed that they fast during Yom Kippur, which is a remarkably high percentage considering the number of secular people in the country. I don't know what percentage would have also said that they were happy to take their kids out for a bike ride, while fasting, but that number must have also been quite high.

Strangely enough, a day that is seen as the most solemn and holy day on the Jewish calendar has probably become the most exciting day of the year for many Israeli youth. Nevertheless, many of these non-observant Jews head over to the nearest synagogue, with their children, to hear the Shofar being blown just after sunset, marking the end of another year in the Jewish calendar and the fresh beginning of a new one.

Shana Tova to all from Ra'anana.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Presentation of Necklace to Shakira by Israeli President Shimon Peres

Earlier today, President Peres presented a necklace to international recording star, Shakira, who was in Israel promoting education. The necklace was made by Yemenite silversmith and artist Ben-Zion David and was presented to Shakira on behalf of Shimon Peres by a young girl from Ra'anana, who I happen to know quite well.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Yom Hazikaron - Israel Memorial and Remembrance Day 2011

This evening marked the start of Yom Hazikaron in Israel – Remembrance and Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

Across Israel, everything is closed for the evening. In cities across the country, major streets are closed – as tens of thousands of people attended ceremonies to remember cousins, friends, neighbours and family members who have fallen in Israel’s wars, in the course of national service and in terror attacks.

Yom Hazikaron is linked to Israel Independence Day – which follows one day later. The very intentional linkage reminds Israelis of the importance of the sacrifices made by so many to enable the creation and continued existence of the Jewish State.

In Ra’anana, thousands attended a very moving and extremely well planned memorial ceremony. Ra’anana’s Mayor, Nahum Hofri, a former Army commander himself, spoke about the loss of his brother in battle– and so many others. Ra'anana’s Chief Rabbi spoke along with a number of family members of fallen soldiers. The memorial evening included a number of well-known Israeli ballads sung hauntingly by individual singers as well as an adult and a children’s choir.

Residents of Ra’anana walked quietly to the centre of the city – Yad LaBanim – from many different areas - to pay silent homage over the course of the 90 minute commemoration.

These losses are so close to home to so many Israelis who have faced a very real existential struggle over the course of 63 years of statehood – which has included 6 major wars – and many terrorist attacks along with numerous other military operations and battles. Ceremonies are also held across the country – at schools, military ceremonies and other locations, marked by silence at 11 a.m. during the day of Yom Hazikaron itself.

Despite this history of tremendous loss, the ceremonies included an optimistic note. The nationally broadcast ceremony from Rabin Square in Tel Aviv – closed with “Lu Yehi” – If Only It Could Be – a prayer-like song yearning for peace. And Mayor Hofri – closed his speech in Ra’anana – quoting the prophet Isaiah:

“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more…”

Despite the many challenges Israel faces – the recent uprisings and governmental changes in neighbouring countries, the threats from Iran, Syria, Gaza, Lebanon and other enemies – and the misguided or simply anti-Semitic ostracization of Israel by so many of the world’s countries – the hope and belief that peace is possible continues to resonate with Israelis even as they remember those whose lives have been lost through so many years of struggle.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bar Mitzvah Experience at the Kotel

We attended a very special Bar Mitzvah yesterday – one of those events that reminds us how lucky we are to be in Israel – and have the chance to celebrate this type of occasion here.

The Bar Mitzvah was organized and run by Liran Levi – an Israeli with a company that specializes in conducting Bar/Bat Mitzvah trips to Jerusalem. Liran, who during his army service was in an elite combat unit, is also a trained cantor, tour guide and teacher. His told us that his goal (with the help of his four person crew) was to provide a unique, once in a lifetime experience – a day filled with happiness and excitement for the bar-mitzvah boy – and I have to say he met the goal.

We started out in Ra’anana – getting on a full sized bus around 8 a.m. The bus stopped at a few different points on the way to Jerusalem – picking up waiting friends and family members to join in the festivities. Though we had a bit of rain along the way – and some fairly nasty traffic jams – everyone was optimistic that things would still work out well.

Our first stop was Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam (“Oasis of Peace” – in Hebrew and Arabic) – a unique Israeli settlement – dedicated to the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Israel. People from different backgrounds live there ( We were there for a breakfast along the way – a fairly quick stop – but with enough time for bourekas, salad and coffee – before starting the real part of our trip.

As we left Neve Shalom, the festivities began. Liran and his crew turned on the speaker system – and pulled out Middle Eastern drums. For the next 40 minutes or so – the bus became a mixture of a party – and a Jerusalem tour. Liran gave explanations about the history of Jerusalem – from ancient times until today. He challenged the guests with interesting questions. But he also got people singing – and – yes – dancing on the bus. Sounds crazy - but it was a riot. He went up and down the aisles with the microphone finding people willing to take a turn singing. He had the bar mitzvah boy and his parents at the front of the bus jumping up and down (not during the sharp turns) – and he had the drummer banging away to keep the beat. Other guests were dancing in the aisles – as the bus drove up through the mountains towards Jerusalem.

As we got closer – the excitement level continued to increase. There was a unique sense of mission – and history. We were told all about the modern history of Jerusalem. Liran, of course, highlighted the fact that Jordan had held the Old City of Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 – and Jews simply weren’t allowed to visit the Jewish religious sites during those years. Since 1967 – Israel has reunited Jerusalem – and ensured full access to the various religious sites – not only for Jews but for Christians and Muslims as well – to their holy sites.

The bus let us off at one of the gates to the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The crew pulled out the Shofars (rams horns), took the drums – and put up a mini Chuppah (overhead canopy) – held up by four guests over the bar mitzvah boy’s head – for a procession from the gate to the Kotel – the western wall. By now it was raining – but that didn’t really seem to bother anyone.

As we began walking through the old City, our guide led us in singing a whole series of songs about Jerusalem as well as other traditional Hebrew melodies. The amazing thing was that people who were walking by – entirely unrelated to the affair – joined us in singing and dancing. One small group of about 8 or 10 – joined our group and everyone started dancing a Hora. Some of the passers-by were religious – and probably Israelis. Others were clearly tourists – some secular Jews – some not Jewish. It didn’t matter. Liran invited people to join the dancing – and many did. This really got crazy when we ran into a Birthright type group – of about 100 or so – young adults – 18-23 – doing their own tour of Jerusalem. Liran went over to them and started signing – and invited them to join us. About ½ the group did – and before you know it – we had a huge group – singing and dancing together – even putting the Bar Mitzvah boy high up in the air.

We continued along towards the Kotel – stopping for explanations of different parts of the Old City.

By now it was still raining – so we had to have the Bar Mitzvah ceremony itself – in the enclosed area of the Western Wall – at the end of the Men’s section. We went inside – where there are a series of wooden Arks – housing a variety of Torah Scrolls – suitable for different types of congregations. The women’s section is up in the balcony – behind one-way glass. So the women could watch everything taking place – but the men couldn’t see the women. To ensure that they could hear everything – the women were all given wireless headphones – and the bar mitzvah boy was given a microphone. This is certainly not ideal for families used to attending Conservative or Reformed Synagogues – with mixed seating – but it is par for the course for an Orthodox Synagogue.

Since it was now afternoon (too late for the morning service – Shacharit) – there was a very abbreviated service – a chance for the Bar Mitzvah boy and his father to put on Tefillin – and the main event – the reading of the Torah by the Bar Mitzvah boy. The service was reasonably quick – the Bar Mitzvah boy completed the main part of the day – (that he had spent many months preparing for) and we even had time to squeeze in a full but very fast Minhah (afternoon) service.

After all of that – it was off to have lunch in Emek Refaim, Jeruselem – a new City area lined with galleries, cafes and upscale restaurants. We ate at La Bocca – a Kosher, Latin style restaurant. The food was terrific – a variety of chicken, steak and vegetable dishes – prepared and presented beautifully. Over lunch – the singing and dancing continued – led by Liran and his crew. The music was mostly Israeli religious music – with an Eastern flavour to it – though Liran apparently tries to cater the music to the style that the guests are likely to appreciate. The guests sang along – got up and danced – and generally seemed to have quite a good time. Liran continued to be full of energy – running around trying to involve as many people as he could – in singing, dancing – or at least hand clapping.

When lunch was over – it was time for the bus ride back – and most people were exhausted. But the event was really unique. With the bus rides – the explanations – the singing and dancing – it was really a quintessential Zionist and Jewish experience – with a pilgrimage- like feeling. Travelling together - to the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem – the Western Wall – for a day filled with prayer, song and happiness – and even involving complete strangers along the way in singing and dancing – well – it was quite an experience.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Simchat Torah Twice...

I decided to try to celebrate one of my favourite holidays twice this year - which is like celebrating a birthday two days in a row or going to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row.

Some technical details make this a rare possibility. Simchat Torah, "rejoicing of the Torah" celebrates the end of the Torah reading cycle. It involves finishing the annual Torah reading, giving each person in the synagogue the chance to be called up to the Torah for an "aliyah" - and, of course, having any number of scotch shots during the service - usually starting around 10 a.m....

In Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on the 8th day of Sukkot - and is also called "Shmini Atzret." It is a holiday on its own - and quite a festive one at that. Outside of Israel - Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are two separate holidays - occurring on consecutive days. Observant Israeli Jews only celebrate according to the Israeli calendar - so the day after Shmini Atzeret is not a holiday in Israel.

On Thursday, September 30th, we celebrated Simchat Torah at Hod v'Hadar - a Conservative synagogue in K'far Saba, Israel. The service began at 9 a.m. By 9:45, we were dancing "hakafot" - taking the Torah scrolls out and dancing around the synagogue -while singing festive songs and having the odd shot of scotch...All this to mark the completion of the annual cycle of reading the entire Torah - and then rewinding it and starting the cycle again from the beginning.

After finishing the rounds of hakaftot - we divided up into groups to read through the 5 Torah readings that are read over and over on Simchat Torah until each person has had a chance to come up and say the blessings. It was wonderful to share a table with my daughter for the first time - and read the 5 sections of the Torah portion over and over while the various synagogue members came up for their aliyot - which is done at this synagogue by family. Our family was the last to be called up as a group - and then we wrapped up this part of the service and rejoined the rest of the congregation for the remainder of the service - which ended at about 1:00 p.m. followed by a pot luck lunch - with a wide variety of food - all dairy and vegetarian - brought by the various members. The celebrations were fun and family oriented with a real sense of community.

Simchat Torah ended in Israel at 6:10 p.m. -bringing to a close the week long festival of Sukkot - and the season of "chaggim" in Israel - where the kids were off school and many people work only half days.

I left Israel that evening on late night flight to Philadelphia and from there to Toronto - arriving in the morning - in time to join some Toronto festivities. Although it was now not really a holiday for me - I had to be back in Toronto for a variety of reasons. So why not enjoy celebrations twice in a row?

I arrived in time to join the "Hakafot" - 8 of them here in Toronto - and then helped share the Torah reading - reading the same sections over and over in Toronto that I had read the previous day in Ra'anana with my daugter. The scotch wasn't as good at Beth Tivkah - since the members hadn't brought their own fine single malts as they had in Ra'anana - but the ruach was exciting and there were many participants in the Torah readings and other aspects of the service. Disappointingly, it seemed to me that the number of congregants had gone down quite a bit over previous years' turnouts - particularly in the young family demographic - but the service was still vibrant and energetic.

Like Hod v'Hadar in Ra'anana, Beth Tikvah finished with a well attended kiddush lunch - since the service ends around 1:00 p.m. - rivalling Rosh Hashanah and Shmini Atzeret as one of the longest mornings in synagogue on the annual calendar - other than Yom Kippur.

In both places, Toronto and Ra'anana - I was able to participate in joyful Simchat Torah celebrations - carry the Torah, sing, dance and even have a few scotches. A great couple of consecutive holidays - to mark the end of the Jewish New Year - and this year's Jewish holiday season.

And now - to finish off the New Year - Styx in Niagara Falls, Ontario...

Shana Tova!