Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ice Skating at "Ice Peaks" in Holon, Israel

Ice Peaks, Holon Israel
It was a reasonably hot day today in Israel - high 80s F (about 31-32 C) - typical of summer weather.  What can you do to cool off?  Most Israelis (if they are not at work) might head to the beach, a water park, or just stay put in an air conditioned place.  For Canadian-Israelis - the best way to cool off is to head over to rink.

Up until recently, that would have involved a trip up to Metullah - which is about 185 km from Ra'anana.  With traffic, that can be a drive of between 2 hours (in late night, clear driving conditions) or as many as 3 1/2 hours in less optimum conditions.

But recently, a new ice arena opened in Holon, which is central Israel.  The rink is called Ice Peaks.  It is located right off of Highway 4 at the entrance to Holon.  While it is not an Olympic-sized ice rink (far from it), it is nevertheless a sheet of real ice, which is scarce in Israel.  Whether as a result of short-sightedness, budgetary constraints or other reasons, the builders of this ice palace (the literal translation of its Hebrew name) failed to make the arena hockey friendly.  It is not equipped with proper dressing rooms and it is only large enough to accommodate 4-on-4 ice hockey.  Nevertheless, it is only the third real sheet of ice in Israel (aside from Metullah, there is also a rink in Eilat, of all places - which is at least four hours away from central Israel).

Skaters at ice Peaks in Holon
We dropped in this afternoon for some free skating.  The rink charges 55 N.I.S. per person (about $15) for an hour's worth of skating.  There is a sliding rate for a longer time period.  The price includes "skate" (ski-boot style) rental though there is no discounted rate if you show up with your own skates.  Not many Israelis have skates, so that is not surprising.

The rink has a snack kiosk - not kosher - which sells a range of food items from nachos and cheese, hot dogs and melted cheese bagels ("toastim") to middle eastern specialties - Malawach and Jichnun (Yemenite delicacies).  I'm not sure there are too many other places in the world where you can ice skate and then eat Malawach...The snack bar also sells some fairly decent Illy coffee - espresso and other espresso based drinks.  There is some further information about the arena here.  The rink is open 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday to Thursday.  It is also stated as being open 9 a.m. to midnight on "Fridays, Saturdays, holidays and vacations."  I'm not sure whether that includes holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so you may want to check in advance if you intend to turn your Days of Awe into days of awesome skating moves.

We skated around for about an hour.  Of course no one was wearing any kind of head protection...well... maybe we saw one or two bicycle helmets.  Most people were in shorts and t-shirts though some were wearing sweaters and gloves.  For many people at the arena, this was their first time.  So there were people holding on to the boards all around the rink.  There were also some very good figure skaters skating around the arena - some performing spins and twirls as if no one else were on the ice.  Seemed a bit dangerous to me but I suppose it would have been the job of the ice marshals to maintain some order.

There are now various groups using this ice surface for ice hockey practices, scrimmages and games.  The Israel Recreational Hockey Association has been holding some of its weekly games in Holon.  As well, a number of Israeli amateur teams have been practising here.  Despite the shortcomings of this facility, it is a giant step forward for ice hockey in Israel.  Given that the Israeli national ice hockey team recently won its division at the 2013 World Ice Hockey Championships and has moved up a division for 2014, this arena will undoubtedly assist the team as it strives to became Israel's best international ice hockey team ever.

Hopefully, in the coming years, additional full-sized ice hockey arenas will open up in Israel so that the sport can continue to grow, for amateurs and for more serious competitors.  Ice hockey seems ideally suited to the stereotypical Israeli personality - it is a quick, fast paced, exciting sport - that can be a bit rough at times.  But it involves high levels of skill, agility and quick thinking and it is rarely boring.  While it may never surpass soccer (football) or basketball in popularity here, it seems to me that in the long run, it is likely to fare far better than baseball despite the valiant efforts of expatriate Americans. 

For now, if you miss the ice and need to spend some time enjoying a very mild taste of a great winter activity, ice skating in Holon might be a welcome change of pace.  I am not suggesting that this is better than Israel's wonderful beaches, water parks, archaeological, historical and religious sites and its beautiful national parks, all of which are outstanding places to visit in the summer.  But every now and then (or maybe more often that if you are Canadian or Russian), especially when it is really hot outside, some ice can be very, very nice.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Middle School Graduation in Ra'anana

Hativat Hasharon Graduation - First Part
I wrote last week about an important high school graduation that I attended in Israel.  Many people sent me notes indicating that they found it quite interesting to read about the differences between this type of Israeli graduation and one that might take place in many places in North America - or certainly, at least, in Toronto.  So I thought I would add a blog article about another graduation that I attended yesterday - a middle school graduation.  It was actually quite similar to the high school graduation and as a parent, I was, of course, equally proud!

This middle school graduation was for Hativat HaSharon, a junior high school that runs from grade 7 to grade 9. (7th to 9th grade, if you prefer...).  Like the high school graduation that we attended earlier in the month, the evening began in an outdoor setting with individual areas set up for each classroom.  The setting was the school field and the weather was simply perfect for it.  We started somewhere around 6:30 p.m.  We had a few speeches - the home room teacher, the student class representative  and the parent representative (someone many of you know quite well).  The teachers then presented the students with gifts - a wonderful book about famous historic sites in Israel and some portable speakers.  After that it was time for some food.  The parents had all prepared some food items in advance and this was all set up on a table.  It was a chance for the students, parents and teachers to mill around and speak about the three years that the students had spent in middle school.  As with the high school graduation, it was an intimate gathering with the feeling of a family event.  All of the students were there with parents or other family members.

Once the first part of the evening was over, we made our way over the school auditorium/gym for the main event of the evening.  Like with the high school graduation - this was divided into two parts.  First the speeches and awards.  Then the student "show" - the main event of the evening.

The first part of the evening featured speeches presented by the school principal, the "coordinator" (something similar to a head guidance counselor role), the mayor of Ra'anana and the head of the Parent Teacher Association (here called "Va'ad Hahorim" - the parent association).  I have to say that this was quite long.  Many  school staff were recognized and provided with flowers or other tokens of appreciation.  While it is wonderful to see that the teachers and support staff were so appreciated, it was a lengthy process. 

Magen Manof Award
The principal and the mayor of Ra'anana also presented a number of awards to the students.  There were the acadamic awards for excellence - presented to students with averages above 93% - about 10-15 of them in a graduating class of approximately 240 and an award for the student with the highest overall average (she clocked in at just over 97%).  There were also some other really nice awards.  The school provided "certificates of appreciation for volunteerism and leadership" to students who had made special contributions in these areas.  Perhaps 20 or 25 students received these awards.  As well, the school selected 7 or 8 students for a special award of "excellence in volunteerism and leadership" ("Magen Manof Award").  I am proud to say that many of you know one of the winners of this award quite well.

Hativat Hasharon Graduation - Main Event
Once the formal part of the ceremony was completed, the show began.  The students had worked very had on this part of the evening for many months.  It featured singing, dancing, short skits and pre-taped video shorts and ran for about an hour and a half.   The school had retained a production company to work with the students.  The students took many well known songs (mostly english/american pop songs) and rewrote the lyrics.  They worked with a choreographer to come up with appropriate dances.  Among the music selections were numbers from Grease, a song by Abba, Gangnam Style (with a large group of male students trying to pull off the famous dance) and quite a number of others.  There was very little in the way of Israeli music - though there was a "Mizrachi Medley" of songs by Israeli singer Moshe Peretz. Overall, the event was fun and entertaining and very colourful, at times.

The evening also featured a number of skits that were pre-taped and shown on large screens.  Some included the teachers who were happy to make fun of themselves.  Some of the skits were quite funny.  The principal mentioned after the show that she had asked the production crew to make every effort to ensure that each and every student was somehow involved in the production and this came through. 

Couples Dance Number
One of my favourite pieces was the second last number, featuring couples of students dancing together.  The boys lifted the girls into the air - some with acrobatic flair - and put together some really fancy moves.  It had obviously taken a great deal of rehearsal time but many of the students seemed quite proud, and deservedly so, of the final product.

Hativat Hasharon is a secular Israeli middle school.  There was almost nothing included in the evening that could be described as "yiddishkeit."  But the prinicipal's message to the students and parents lauded the importance of teaching the kids values of volunteerism, dedication to community, kindness and tolerance towards others as well as striving for academic excellence.  The message was heartfelt and sincere.  Judging from the students' obvious dedication and effort in putting together this show, it was a message that had been received.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Guest Blog - On Gay Pride and Visiting Jericho

My friend and colleague, Arnie Zweig, was in Israel last week.  He has contributed a guest blog...thought some of you might enjoy it:

So besides the usual unusual encounters in Israel, two events that Sherry and I attended may be worth your read. 

On Friday morning we made our way down Ben Yehuda Street to join together with about 100,000 others from Tel Aviv to celebrate Ga'ava;   gay pride parade in Israel;  in a county where some believe  to have been founded on the Torah and where the Torah forbids homosexuality, it is especially worth noting the outwardness of this  parade and the intensity that it is celebrated by those in Tel Aviv.

I say Tel Avivians since the rest of the country seemed not to have cared less.   When we spoke to others in Jerusalem or from other cities in Israel, they dismissed the parade as something that was foreign to them and not part of "true" Israel;   Of course, each Israeli has their own version anyway of what is true Israel;

It was virtually impossible to distinguish the gays from the non- especially in the parade-(on the gyrating beach on Hof Gordon-it was not so difficult to distinguish)-but the marching of the parade seemed to be for everyone;  anyone that wanted to walk was able to walk and join in with the heat, with the water spraying guns and with the dancing;

There were some major "floats" in which the obvious talented gay dancers displayed their acumen; however after 20 minutes of heavy techno music with no variation in the songs nor in the rhythm, the parade became a bit on the boring side;  there was no creativity in  the floats or the costumes or in its presentation;

The message of celebration of the manner of living gay was pretty evident;  it would have been a lot more fun if the celebration was thought through and presented with some clever costuming, themes or even outlandish dress;  Not even a gay Homer Simpson?  boring.......

After a restful Shabbat , we headed off for a bit of a desert adventure in the Negev;  since we have been to the Dead Sea before we decided to do the north part and headed to a resort called "Bianquini."  Good thing we didn't read the Trip Advisor before, otherwise we would never have spent a second there.  Trip Advisor gave it 9 out of 100.   The food and accommodation, lack of cleanliness, lack of service all added up to a failing grade.  However the two macho guys who had rented their tsimmer (room  for rent) beside us with their quite voluptuous blond busty prostitute didn't seem to be quite as picky as us. (Not sure if that would have increased the rating or decreased it - I will leave that one to the reader. )  

However we made up for the experience by going to the oldest city in the world-Jericho- for dinner.

When we entered there is a big red sign "NO ISRAELI CITIZENS PERMITTED TO ENTER".  so we kept our Canadian passports close to us and entered Palestinian Authority territory. 

We were told about a restaurant called "Limona" as the best in town; the town by the way is quite small being only a population of 18,000; very poor, no alcohol that we saw; no movie theatre that we saw.

Limona however turned out to be a great restaurant and the food was plentiful and excellent from the great grilled fish to the roasted potatoes and rice and baskets of wonderfully tasting pita as well as the 12 salads they brought out as an appetizer and ending with a huge bowl of fruit as part of the meal included.  You couldn't eat everything.  There was no rush to leave as eating a large meal and sticking around for a couple of hours is part of the culture and there is nothing else to do anyway.   So we hung out and watched a large screen television of "Arab Idol" until we headed back to our one star accommodation at Bianquini before heading out the next day for a hike in Wadi Qelt in 33 degree weather.  

As always-many different worlds live in a small country.  

Arnold Zweig

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Israeli High School Graduation

We attended our first high school graduation last night.  Our daughter graduated from Ostrosvky High School in Ra’anana, Israel.  Ostrovsky is a secular, public Israeli high school.  It is considered one of Israel’s best high schools with a matriculation (successful grade 12 graduation) rate close to 100%.  The school places a significant emphasis on academic excellence and features very strong specialized high school programs in math, physics, robotics and computers.  Ostrovsky is also the home of the best high school women’s basketball team in the country, which won the national championship once again this year for the fourth consecutive year.

This year’s high school graduation was held outdoors at Park Ra’anana, which is Ra’anana’s version of Central Park, a beautiful park that includes an amphitheatre, basketball court, roller hockey pad, mini-zoo, free outdoor exercise equipment and many other amenities.

The evening was divided into two parts, formal and informal.  The “informalities” began at about 6:30 p.m.  There were eight graduating classes, each with approximately 35 students.  The eight classes assembled in different areas of the park for the first part of the evening.  At these class ceremonies, the home room teachers presented awards to the students including excellence awards.  The home room teacher and some other teachers had the chance to speak to the students and some of the students made presentations and provided appreciation gifts to some of the teachers.

This part of the evening was very moving.  Teachers in Israel are on a first name basis with their students.  They connect via email and Facebook and take an active role in their students’ success.  Over the three years of high school, the students of each home room class remained together.  The class group went on trips together including trips across Israel and a trip to Poland to visit concentration and death camps and other sites.  The relationships between the teachers and the students – as well as the relationships among many of the parents and among the students themselves are often very close relationships – a tight knit community, if not a family. 

In our case, our daughter was fortunate to have had an outstanding home room teacher, whose sense of dedication to his students’ well-being was constantly evident.  He addressed the students and then provided them each with a few special gifts – a copy of his address, a small gift – and a DVD of all of the photos that he had assembled over the three years with the class group. 

The teachers did not all speak at this meeting.  However, one of the math teachers was the subject of a powerful presentation.  The teacher of the “5-unit” math course – the highest level of high school math in Israel – was called up for a presentation.  This math teacher, a PhD. in math, is known for being extremely demanding, rigorous and for running a highly disciplined class environment.  But his dedication to math and his commitment to excellence are contagious.  He pushed the students (including our daughter) for three years and produced tremendous results.  The students realized how fortunate they were to have this type of teacher and two of these students had special words to present.

After about two hours, we moved from the less formal part of the evening to the school-wide graduation ceremony with all of the students and their family members and friends in the Ra’anana Amphitheatre. 

The first part of this ceremony consisted of a number of speeches, which were probably similar to the speeches given at many different graduations around the world.  There were quite a number of speakers including the school principal, the guidance counselor, the mayor of Ra’anana, the head of the parent-teacher association and a few others.  In total, this went on for close to 1 ½ hours.

Some of the speeches were particularly poignant, especially the principal’s address.  A high school graduation in Israel is a very emotional evening.  Whereas in Canada or the U.S., or many other countries, most of the students are planning to continue their academic studies in September (or, perhaps, one year later), in Israel most of the students will be enlisted into the army (the Israel Defence Forces).  Since Ostrovsky has such a strong academic program, many of its students are recruited to serve in prestigious, high level units, including intelligence units, the air force, and some elite combat units.  A principal addressing these students knows that many of them may well face significant, dangerous challenges during their mandatory military service. 

The principal called upon these “students of the millennium generation” to continue to work to change society.  She highlighted the many positive ways that students have used technology in Israel (and worldwide) to help recruit more voters, to organize rallies and political campaigns and to push for social change.  She called on the students to take responsibility for helping make Israel a better place by working to reduce the gap between the wealthy and the poor in society, by working to support political candidates of their choice actively and peacefully (as so many did in Israel’s recent national election), by helping to promote tolerance in society, and by helping Israel to find a way to reach peace deals with its Arab neighbours. 

One of the speakers, I believe it was the head of the PTA, also had a very interesting message.  She recounted that when her son was young, he would climb up a neighbourhood tree and people would tell him to come down before he gets hurt.  Although he fell from the tree and was injured, it was not particularly serious.  She now urged him and the other students to “continue to climb as high you can, don’t be afraid of the heights and don’t let anyone tell you to come down from the tree.”  It is a message that resonates throughout Israeli society, in a country which must constantly cope with existential threats, even though the country may enjoy intermittent periods of relative quiet.

The school faculty then distributed awards of high excellence to students with averages exceeding 95%. Various other awards and certificates were handed out, recognizing a wide range of student volunteer activities and dedication to the school, the community and many different causes. 

Once the formal part of the evening was over – one and half hours later, the fun part of the evening began. The grade 12 graduating class presented a revue show entitled “Ostrovsky’s 51st graduating class in 60 minutes.”  The show included various dances, some with more than 80 students on the stage at the same time, short skits, video clips that the students had prepared, one or two video clips prepared by the faculty, and a number of songs.  It was entertaining and fun.  One of the comedic highlights was a group of males students, dressed in tutus, singing Carly-Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” – with accompanying dance moves and gestures.  In another skit, A group of teachers produced a video clip of a mock classroom scheme – in which the students are doing a whole bunch of inappropriate things in the class – wearing sunglasses, talking on their cell phones, texting each other, putting on nail polish – and my favourite – one “student” asks if he can eat a snack in class – he then pulls out a chopping board and starts cutting up a cucumber and tomato to make a salad…it was quite funny.

The finale featured most of the students dancing and singing on stage.  And the students all headed out to a post-grad party – which I know very little about…

Most students have not yet completed all of their grade 12 exams and may still be writing them until mid-July, depending on which courses they took.  So the year is not yet over for everyone.  But some students have completed their exams and may enter the army as soon as early July.

 Students planning to continue on with their education will need to complete Israel’s “psychometric exams” – an SAT-type standardized test.  But first, they will need to complete their mandatory military service, which could range from twenty months to just under three years.  Some will choose to become career military personnel and may continue with their education under the auspices of the IDF.  Others will attend university as soon as they are able to do so after completing their service. 

For now, the students still have more exams to write and an upcoming prom (which is becoming more and more of a tradition in Israel, of late).  Then, for most of them, it is off to the “real world” in a way that is quite different from what 18 and 19 year-olds around the world experience. 

We can only dream for a day when Israel will be at peace with its neighbours and universal, mandatory service will not be necessary.  But looking at events taking place in Syria, Egypt, Gaza, Iran, Turkey and Israel’s other neighbouring countries it is difficult to be optimistic that this will occur anytime soon. 

We wish the students of the 2013 graduating class of Ostrovsky (as well all the other graduating students in Israel) success in all they do.  May they serve proudly and return home safely.  To all the 18 and 19 year-olds we know in other countries, who will be entering university or college in September, we wish them the best of success.  They should constantly remember how fortunate they are to be living in countries that are not facing these types of existential threats and they should take full advantage of their opportunities.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Legal Systems and Religious Minorities - Review of a Conference in Israel

I had the privilege of attending a conference today at the Open University of Israel in Ra'anana.  The conference topic was "Legal Systems and their Approach to Religious Minorities."  This was of particular interest to me as it is the issue I was looking at as I completed my L.L.M. recently - and it is also related to the topic I'll be speaking about at a Law Society conference in Toronto next week.  The conference was chaired by Professor Bat-Zion Eraqi Korman, the Director of the Center for the Study of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  It was also described as an appropriate way to mark a milestone birthday of Lord Harry Woolf, the outgoing Chancellor of the Open University, the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and the first speaker at the conference.
Lord Harry Woolf

Lord Woolf led off the conference with a discussion of the importance of the "Rule of Law" in a democratic society.  He highlighted the importance of the British and Commonwealth contributions to the concept, which, in his view, includes protection for the basic rights of all citizens, an independent court system, independent judiciary, and the protection of the rights set out in the U.N.'s Declaration of Human Rights.  Lord Woolf also spoke about access to justice, a key component of  a Rule of Law society, and one which he has fought vigorously to advance in the U.K.  Lord Woolf only touched briefly on some of the contentious issue, but suggested that there will be interesting, vigorous debate in the near future as the U.K. wrestles with issues of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients and the issue of same-sex marriage (as opposed to same sex "unions" or "partnerships.").

Next up was one of Israel's most respected jurists, Professor Aharon Barak.  Professor Barak, now a
professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliah is a former President (Chief Justice) of the Israeli Supreme Court, a former Attorney General of Israel, and a former Dean of the Law Faculty of the Hebrew University.  As President of the Court, Justice Barak was known for running an activist court that greatly expanded the scope of the judicial review powers of the Israel Supreme Court.  Under Justice Barak, the Supreme Court elevated and expanded Israel's "Basic Laws" to a constitutional (or, at least, quasi-constitutional) status, creating along the way a "constitutional revolution" as it has been described by Justice Barak.

At this afternoon's lecture, Professor Barak discussed the topic "Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State."  He advanced a liberal notion of Zionism, which emphasizes the concept of Israel as a national homeland for the Jewish people, but also incorporates the notion of Israel as a demacratic state - a nation governed by the Rule of Law in which all of its citizens, Jewish, Muslims, Christians and others are treated equally.  Barak cited the idea of universalist halachic ideas that could be viewed as part of Jewish values including the prescription to "love your neighbour as yourself" and "do that which is honest and good."  His discussion was thought provoking, though he encountered some challenges in trying to defend the lack of separation between Church and State (Synagogue and State, in Israel).  He noted that he would not countenance such a separation and did not think it was necessary for the preservation of Israel as a democratic state.  It seems to me that there may well be a number of members of the Yeish Atid party who would beg to differ and perhaps, justifiably so.  It remains to be seen how far the current government will go in breaking down some of these walls or, perhaps, putting up some new walls.

Professor Barak also wrestled, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, with the issue of the Law of Return, though I thought he explained it admirably as a form of affirmative action, designed to ensure that Israel continues to be a safe haven and home for the Jewish people, even as the country offers and should offer full equality within its boundaries for all of its citizens.

The third speaker, and unquestionably the most animated and controversial of the afternoon was
Professor Michael Karayanni
Professor Michael Karayanni, who provided an Israeli-Arab perspective on the issues of multi-culturalism in Israel.  He offered the thesis that Judaism is, essentially, the state religion of Israel.  (This led to some subequent vigorous exchanges between Karayanni and Barak).  Moreover, he argued that the courts have, at times, taken "liberal" approaches when challenging Jewish Orthodoxy, on behalf of other Jews, but have ceded great swaths of legal territory to minority religious institutions as group rights.  The result has been that members of minority religious groups are subject to illiberal domination of certain spheres of life by religious institutions which have been ceded to them by the Isaeli legal system under the auspices of empowering minorities.

Professor Karayanni's attack on the manner in which the laws of marriage and divorce are regulated by religious authorities in Israel is hard to refute.  The notion that all Israelis, regardless of whether they happen to be Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist, should be required to submit to religious authority for the determination of any personal status issues is anethema to the rule of law.  But Professor Karayanni also attacked the unfairness of the Law of Return, from an Israeli Arab perspective.  While he is correct  in observing that the Law of Return means that all citizens of Israel are not treated the same - he overlooks the notion of the Law of Return as a type of justifiable affirmative action program as explained by Professor Barak.  Admittedly, he would argue that he was being descriptive rather than normative but his arguments seemed to veer over to the prescriptive rather than descriptive side. 

Nevertheless, it was Professor Karayanni who clearly provoked the most heated exchanges, both in support of his views and against, by questioners from the audience as well as Professor Karayanni's fellow panelists, Professor Barak in particular.

Finding a way to reconcile the idea of Israel as a Jewish State with the notion of Israel as a democratic state is one of the key challenges that Israel faces.  Over the past number of years, the power of the Rabbinate has increased and legislative changes have tilted the country towards a heightened Jewish character, sometimes at the expense of the latter concept.  It remains to be seen whether the current government will begin to tilt the playing field back in the opposite direction.  Early indications which include a decision, announced today, to provide state funding to non-Orthodox rabbis as well as Orthodox, suggest that there is hope that the notion of Israel as a democracy will be strengthened by this government, if some of its ministers have their way.

The centrality of this issue in Israel is what made today's conference so relevant and interesting.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Latest Developments: Religous Pluralism at the Kotel

There have been a number of exciting developments in the fight for religious pluralism and equality at the Kotel in Israel.  This may signify the start of significant change in Israeli society in the way in which religious affairs are administered.  For many Israelis and Jews around the world, these changes would be very welcome and long overdue.

One major event was an historic, precedent setting court ruling in April.  A number of women were arrested for "disturbing the peace" for wearing tallitoth (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) in the women's section of the Kotel in April, 2013.  Arrests like this had been commonplace for the past few years, with the police generally carrying what they viewed to be their interpretation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling from a number of years earlier.  However, on this occasion, the Israeli court held that there was no basis for charging women with "disturbing the peace" for praying out load in the women's section of the Kotel while wearing tallithoth and tefillin.  This New York Times article discusses the court ruling.

The result of that court ruling was a planned, large scale Rosh Hodesh service in the women's section for this past Friday (May 10, 2013).  Knowing that the police would no longer be arresting women for "disturbing the peace" when holding a prayer service, various Haredi leaders publicly called for their followers to show up at the Kotel and protest the women's prayer service.  The result was a violent clash in which Haredi women and men threw garbage, water and other objects at the women as they prayed.  Israeli on-line news source YNet covered the story here. Three ultra-Orthodox students were arrested and the police, for the first time in years, actually protected the women rather than the Haredi demonstrators.  Finally, those who were really disturbing the peace were the ones arrested.

This story comes on the heels of various announcements indicating that the Israeli government is close to a deal that  will see the Kotel expanded to include a section for mixed prayer (men and women together).  The Kotel now only includes separate sections and women are currently not permitted to bring a Torah scroll to the women's sided.  Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency and the person charged with coming up with a solution to this issue, has said that the first stage of his Kotel renovation project could be completed within 10 months.  This will be a tremendous move towards accommodating different types of religious practises in Israel and may will signify a change in attitude in Israel towards non-Orthodox Jewish religious groups and movements.

Religious pluralism is an issue that is important to Minister Yair Lapid, who holds significant power in the current coalition government.  So it is not a huge surprise that some things are beginning to change.

Even among many Masorti Jews, there are differences of opinion about how the Kotel should be administered.  At our shul, a fully egalitarian Conservative congregation, we had quite a heated debate a few weeks ago over the issue of whether the Israeli government should impose a pluralistic solution at the Kotel itself.  I personally see no reason why we could not divide the Kotel into three instead of two, with "his, hers and ours" sections.  This would be a compromise that should be equally unsatisfactory for almost everyone - the hallmark of a good compromise.

Some argued that since this is such a holy site, it should be administered in ultra-orthodox fashion.  This makes little sense to me.  The Kotel is not a small ultra-orthodox shul.  It is a signficant, symbolic, national-historic religious site.  It should be accessible to all.  The notion that women could be arrested for "disturbing the peace" for wearing a Tallith or for singing out loud in the women's section at the Kotel is just plain ridiculous.  Similarly, the notion that Conservative or Reform groups cannot hold prayer services at the Kotel is also wrong-headed and too exclusionary.

But Israel now seems headed in a different directon on this issue and that may signify upcoming changes in other areas of religious pluralism in Israel.  Stay tuned as this is certain to create lots of controversy.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lag B'Omer 2013 - Bonfires Everywhere!

Lag B'Omer Tali School Ra'anana April 26 2013
Saturday night marked the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer - the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer in Israel, the counting of which culminates in the holiday of Shavuot which begins on the 50th day. 

Traditionally, observant Jews have marked Lag B'Omer by celebrating and gathering for large bonfires.  The holiday commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century disciple of Rabbi Akiva.  It also marks the revolt by Bar Kokhba and his followers against the Roman empire.

In Israel, Lag B'Omer is one of the favourite holidays of the year for kids.  Teenagers and younger kids (and many older "kids" as well) across the country gather wood in the weeks leading up to Lag B'Omer in preparation for the huge bonfires that they create on the evening of Lag B'Omer. 

For many 14-18 year olds, this is one of the prime social events of the year.  In Ra'anana, there were bonfires being held across the city.  Groups of teenagers, sometimes as many as hundreds of kids, get together, with six or seven charcoal barbecues, enough wood to keep a fire burning all night - and plenty of excitement (and maybe some other refreshments) and hold bonfires across the country.  No adult supevision required.  No adults anywhere in the vicinity - except maybe the odd Ra'anana security official checking up to see that everything is in order (whatever that means).  The kids run the bonfire, run the barbecues, buy and cook the meat, and even clean up afterwards.  Some arrange DJs, some just bring their own music.

For the younger kids, the bonfires are more closely supervised.  The photo above was taken at the Tali school in Ra'anana, which was holding its bonfire for 6 to 12 year olds (grades 1-6) and their  parents.  There was a DJ with dancing and prizes, karaoke, some group singing led by the school music teacher and food for everyone, organized by class.  The bonfire was huge but it was carefully controlled and kids maintained a proper distance.

Here is a view of the set up for the bonfire - before it was lit.  You can see the school in the background.  This was an opportunity for Tali families to socialize across the class and grade divisions.  

Lag B'Omer is quite a fun and exciting holiday in Israel.  The spirit of the holiday spreads across the country as does the smoke from all of those massive fires.  Even the newspapers got into it.  Yedioth Achronot ran a political cartoon which featured a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sarah sitting at a bonfire by themselves.  Someone asks "where is everyone?."  Someone else answers "they are all at Yair Lapid's bonfire" and there is another picture of Finance Minister Yair Lapid with a huge number of people  - dancing, singing and looking happy at a bonfire.  Quite a telling political cartoon.

Although Lag B'Omer is not a "chag" (a Jewish holiday on which work is forbidden), Israeli kids still get two days off school.  One day to prepare for the bonfires - and one day to recover from being up all night...I suppose the second day is also a day to allow all the smoke to clear.

It is a really quite a unique celebration - and one that is probably hard to imagine in most other countries.