Bat Mitzvah(s) on the Beach

OK, so Aleh Negev was the highlight of my summer (including my vacation in Michigan and New Jersey, post to follow). I mean, how could it not be? It’s not everyday that one is inspired and humbled. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the other two days I spent in Israel (insert smiley face here).

Wait a minute- two plus one is three. You went to Israel for three days? Yes. Yes I did. Because that’s how it worked out. And three days in Israel is better than no days in Israel. I mean it. Meshuga? Yes, if you ask Marj and Dave and most other people I know. Regardless, I’d do it again. In a New York minute, as they say.

When Apryl Stern and Michelle Gee asked me to accompany their families, and to prepare Hannah and Sydney for a Bat Mitzvah in Israel, I was flattered and excited. As you know, I would look for any excuse to go to Israel (even for three days, as mentioned above). But the opportunity to participate in a sacred event in Israel (having just experienced several of them in December with Mathias, Aviva, Phoebe, and Ariel) was far too much to resist.

To make things even more enticing, Hannah, Sydney, and I would have the opportunity to craft a B’not Mitzvah that incorporated both traditional and unique elements. And we would do it in front of family and friends from Israel, England, and California. So the answer was a resounding “Yes!”

I won’t bore you with details of travel, except to say that I flew through Toronto, and had a 12-hour layover, which afforded me the opportunity to spend a few hours in town, have brunch, watch the World Cup, and walk around an interesting neighborhood (Roncesvalles for those who are curious). It was my first visit to Toronto, and I must say that I enjoyed it, and would love to return.

But back to the topic at hand. Here’s my trip report.

Air Canada managed to deliver me safely to Ben Gurion Airport, where I met my friends Jen and Assaf, with whom I would be staying in Herzliya. They picked me up, and whisked me away to Abu Adham, their favorite hummus restaurant. I must say, as a foodie and a fairly non-hyperbolic, objective critic, that it ROCKED! No, really, their hummus is outstanding, and they gave us a bonus falafel ball that was absolutely delicious. Is it better than Ali Karavan aka Abu Hassan in Yafo? That’s for people with more taste buds to decide.*

*- I like both, and would be delighted eating either.

That’s it for Monday. We ate lunch, we went to their new apartment in Herzliya (Mercaz, not Pituach), we hung out in the apartment, I did emails, I fell asleep, Jen took a picture of me and texted it to Aviva, we went to dinner in Tel Aviv, we came back, we went to sleep. Fun. Kind of what might happen in California, but it was in Israel. Which makes it better. Really.

Tuesday, the Gees picked me up to go to Aleh Negev, which I documented non-sequentially above. Tuesday afternoon I hung out in the apartment, I did emails, we went to dinner in Tel Aviv, we came back, we went to sleep. Rinse and repeat.

After brunch on Wednesday and a little shopping trip to procure some Judaica (a dreidel, some little Kiddush cups, candlesticks for Nat and Mimi, a Mezuzah for Jen and Assaf), Assaf dropped me off in Herzliya Pituach, at the building where the Gees and Sterns had rented apartments, across the street from the beach, so that Hannah, Sydney, and I, together with Hannah’s brother, Guitar Noah, could run through that evening’s service.

I can’t describe this adequately, but I’ll try. Sitting in an apartment a block from the Mediterranean Sea, with our siddurim open, practicing prayers and songs is different from practicing in my office, or even in the Sanctuary at CBJ. Israel is palpable; it permeates oneself (or at least it permeates me). Even in a “secular”, i.e. not the Kotel, place like Herzliya Pituach. As we ran through what we would be doing, I felt it. Plus, Hannah and Sydney are delightful kids. And Noah, well, most of you know how I love watching our teens as they grow up and find their paths as young adults. Noah is just tremendous: kind, mellow, easy to be around, and lots of other positive adjectives, not to mention very talented on the guitar.

So now let’s skip forward past my return to the apartment, doing of emails, and misadventures with Gett (Taxi App- iTunes store, if you really want to know) to return to the beach.

It’s Wednesday evening, 7:00, at Gazebbo restaurant overlooking the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. The sun is still fairly high above the water, and people are arriving. English accents, Israeli accents, South African accents, California accents (what are those?) as everyone catches up with each other. I alternate among checking in with Hannah and Sydney, greeting familiar and unfamiliar faces, marveling at the setting.

I hug Irene Gee, David’s mom, oops, I mean David’s mum, whose bittersweet feelings are etched on her face. Feelings of happiness at celebrating her granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, of having family together, many of whom have just arrived from London. Feelings of profound sadness and grief that Malcolm is no longer with us in this world. Malcolm, David’s dad, died in late May, just a month before he would have celebrated his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Malcolm was a wonderful man: kind, intelligent and engaging, a lover of his Judaism and of Israel. I had the privilege to know him when he visited California, and came to shul at CBJ. The world is poorer with his loss. I also had the privilege to read David’s eulogy for Malcolm, and if he lets me, I will share it here in this space in a future post.

But back to the ceremony. In true Israeli fashion, we missed the sunset, since we started late waiting for people to get there. Which was ok, since we were davening Ma’ariv, the evening service. Hannah and Sydney, with Noah’s accompaniment, led Ma’ariv, sang their respective Maftirs that they will do at CBJ in September and November, and gave drashot on their Torah portions. When the time came for the Amidah, everyone had the chance to pray silently facing the Sea.

OK, here is where I’m going with this post. The Amidah is meant to be a conversation between a person and God. There’s a formula, a set of nineteen blessings (on weekdays; there are seven on Shabbat), thirteen of which ask God for various things without which it is difficult for us to reach our ideal selves: Wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, repentance, safety, etc. The other six are blessings of praise and gratitude. Sometimes, it is difficult to find the presence of God as something with which one can communicate directly. Sometimes, not so difficult, but that ebb and flow is what I call theological dissonance. The God who is both close to us yet remote from us (or sometimes not even extant) is not always relatable. For many of us, but for me, personally, I frequently feel that dissonance acutely when I pray.

But standing in front of the Mediterranean Sea, I felt none of that. The Sea feels immanent, a manifestation of a mighty divine force that has made itself knowable. I looked over the sea and felt something profoundly spiritual seize me. Seeing the waves that stretched to the horizon with the slightest bit of the light of the sun that had disappeared, gave me a sense of the infinite. At that moment, I closed my eyes and left the pages of the siddur behind. My conversation with God did not follow the formula of the siddur, the words I uttered were soundless. My prayer sprung from my heart, from my being.

And then it was gone. It was time to wrap up the service so we could eat. But in those couple of minutes, I felt that I had had a profoundly spiritual moment. At that moment, I did not have a connection to the traditional words that I usually say. Somehow, though, at that moment, I know that those traditional words helped me.

OK, what am I trying to say? That you need both. The siddur is a template, a jumping off point. It points to the important things we need to be thinking about, and gives us a common vocabulary to communicate those things with ourselves and with others.

But it’s only the beginning. Every moment can become one in which we feel the presence of God, or if you will, a more undefined spiritual presence. At that moment, one that is more raw and spontaneous than davening from the siddur, we need to be able to recognize and give voice to our connection. It doesn’t have to be overlooking the infinite sea or on the top of a Tahoe peak. It can be at home as we harvest our tomatoes, hear our children laugh, see our significant other for the first time that day. It is when we hear Angela play her guitar at the Power Hour, and get whisked away on the notes that seem to form a road to a higher space.

But back to the B’not Mitzvah. The girls did great, people seemed to genuinely dig the service, and we had a nice dinner. And it was great to see the Blooms, who made the overland trek from Zichron Yaacov, Ed and Sharon, and the Hausner crew, who all brought some California to Herzliya Pituach.

And on Thursday, I flew home.

Aleh Negev- A remarkable place

The drive to Aleh Negev is only about 90 minutes from Herzliya, but being Israel, it feels as if we have driven halfway across the country. Which I guess we just about have. As we know, Israel is not a big country. About the size of New Jersey. Or El Salvador. We know.

We’re heading to the outskirts of Ofaqim, between Beer Sheva and Sderot. 16 miles from Gaza. (In the month since our visit, 2 rockets have landed on the Aleh Negev property. One of the rockets did significant damage to a building. The residents are confined to safe rooms and shelters.)

But in late June, all is quiet. I’m riding with the Gees. David is driving, and Michelle, Nathalie, and Sydney are enjoying the view as we make our way to rendezvous with the Sterns. Raymond, Apryl, Noah, Hannah, Sarah, and a couple of other family members will meet us at Aleh Negev. Hannah and Sydney are going to celebrate their B’not Mitzvah together one day hence, on the beach in Herzliya, at sunset. Back in May, when Doron Almog came to CBJ to speak about Aleh Negev, both Hannah and Sydney enthusiastically let me know that they wanted to tour the village as part of their mitzvah projects. Avnet Kleiner set up our visit, and off we went.

As we approach Ofakim, a fairly sizeable city appears. From afar, the first striking feature is the number of minarets that rise against the sky. We count at least seven. Then, Arabic writing on signs, and a couple of men wearing kaffiyehs. The town is Rahat, a place of which I have never heard. In the age of the iPhone, however, ignorance is temporary and enlightenment just a touch screen away. It turns out that Rahat is a Bedouin city, which sounds like an oxymoron. It’s the only one in Israel, and 55,000 people live there. We will later meet someone from Rahat who is being treated at Aleh Negev for a brain injury.

And this is something that strikes me as we later tour the facility. The staff and residents are Israeli and Bedouin, Jew, Muslim, and Christian. Mostly Jewish, as one might expect, but Aleh Negev is remarkable in its egalitarianism. Muslim children treated by Jewish therapists; Jewish children attended to by Muslim nurses. Because Aleh Negev is a place that accepts everyone for who they are.

It’s a philosophy that permeates the Aleh Negev. There are children with birth defects, kids who contracted illnesses that left them with special needs. One child suffered brain damage from drinking poison. Adults visit the campus for outpatient hydrotherapy, occupational, and physical therapy after suffering traumatic brain injury.

All of the staff with whom we spoke emphasized how they meet everyone where they are. Aviva, who teaches the blind and visually impaired talked to us about a blind autistic student to whom she was teaching the difference between right and left. She told us that you can’t say that someone is incapable of learning. Nobody is unteachable. You just have to figure out how.

As we sat in a classroom with a group of autistic children learning a song, Ariel (not his real name), a resident boy of about thirteen or so, came over to me and wordlessly hugged me, a sincere embrace that he held for several seconds. When he released me, he walked over to another member of our party and hugged her, then proceeded to wrap his arms around several other people. A three-year-old girl in the preschool scooted around, following a wheeled cart, moving quickly and purposefully. A year earlier, she had been unable to even walk.

There are more than one hundred and fifty residents of Aleh Negev, each with a story, each unique. It is truly a special place.

A month after my visit, the contrast of Aleh Negev, where one’s ethnic or religious background makes no difference, and the barbarism of the hatred of the other mostly perpetrated by the Hamas, but let’s not kid ourselves, lurking not far beneath the surface of Israelis as well, really points up the true tragedy of a war that should never need to be fought. Yet while I have been party to anti-Arab feelings that some of my Israeli friends and acquaintances have stated, and I know that the ecumenical nature of Aleh Negev is not the prevailing feeling in Israeli society, let’s not kid ourselves. The blame and responsibility for the conflict today falls completely on the people who want to cause death. That the Hamas could send rockets with the possibility that they could fall at Aleh Negev of all places is beyond unconscionable, and beyond criminal. It is evil.

But not to end on a bitter note. I don’t have the words to express adequately how moving and transforming a visit to Aleh Negev can be. I know that Hannah and Sydney, the Gees and the Sterns, and I were incredibly touched by the dedication and perseverance of the staff and residents of Aleh Negev.

Epilogue: I do want to add my gratitude to Alan Fisher and Barbara Sommer, who introduced us to Aleh Negev and previously to the Central Arava Medical Center. Alan and Barbara encourage us not only to donate to important JNF-sponsored projects in Israel, but also to connect with those whom these projects serve. They are true Zionists, building the land that is our homeland. More importantly, they are humble people, true tzadikim. If the world is really populated by Lamed-Vavniks (google it if you’re unfamiliar), then I would bet on Alan and Barbara being counted among their number.