Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Report from Armon Hanatziv (East Talpiot)

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2015 at 9:27 am

Rabbi Mishael Tzion, (the able Executive Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships which I had the privilege of leading many years ago) gives the following report after the bus bombing near his kids’ school. Mish is a second generation Israeli with Anglo parents–his mother is actually Dutch–but has always been connected to the Anglo community. His perspective as a native born Israeli has a qualitatively different flavor than some American Olim for whom “matzavim” are new experiences. By all accounts, the current situation has been more affecting than previous ones because of the perceived ubiquity of the threat, but Mish really captures the complexity, and confusion of inter-ethnic strife, geography, security and, yes, bigotry. It’s a microcosm that’s worthy of George Pelecanos, and it sheds more light than heat. I give you Mish…

I posted this piece in Hebrew on Facebook a few hours again and thought you’d appreciate it as well. You’ll see in it that I got very little done on behalf of the Bronfman Fellowships these last few days – so sharing this here is offered as a form of reparation to the community. ;-)
Thanks to Elisheva Urbas (mom of Avital Morris ’11) for the spontaneous translation.
Four Days in Jerusalem, and a Prayer for Parents in our time.
Mishae Zion
Tuesday, 7:10am. I order a Get-Taxi from home, en route to catch a ride out of town. Turns out that the taxi driver is a neighbor of mine: he lives in Tzur Baher and I live in Talpiot. I wait 3 minutes, watching his car cross the (until recently) invisible line that divides my home from his. In the taxi, we compare stories from the last few days. I say that we should pray for the children. He replies that we must pray for the parents. On our end, he says, it all depends on the parents; they have to persuade their children not to go out to the demonstrations. Some of the parents teach their kids to stay home (that’s the tradition in my village, he adds), and some think their main responsibility is to teach their kids to run away fast when they have to.  It depends on the parents with us, too, I think. What they say at home, how they answer, how they explain. What they say even when they’re angry.  I didn’t know that, that same morning, I’d find myself in the middle of an unusually intense parent conversation.
Tuesday, 9:45a.m.  East Talpiot, Olei HaGardom Street, 122 meters from my daughters’ school. Later the older one will tell me that “we were in the middle of snack time and suddenly there were a ton of sirens and explosions. I sit near the window, so I looked out — I saw a bus and all around it a ton of police cars. Afterward all the kids gathered around the window, and it really bothered me because I couldn’t finish eating.”  I’m stuck up north, when I get a message in the Fourth Grade Parents Whats-App group, updating us about the attack. Parents try to figure out what’s going on, to share information. And then one parent calms “Yes, everything’s all right in the school,” and immediately after that another parent “Great, but we have to get rid of the Arab cleaner.” From there, everything goes downhill. I debate whether to open my mouth (or my fingers). Against my nature, I join in the conversation. It’s the least I can do. Appalled by the attack. Appalled by the instinctive impulse to turn the school into an ‘Arab-rein’ zone.
Wednesday, 11:15a.m.  I didn’t go to the office. Not much progress toward my goal of writing an article about Moses’ leadership, either. I find myself spending hours in the school, on the phone, in front of parents, with parents, with the security guard, with the principal. There are many security gaps in the school, and a lot that needs to be taken care of — and at the same time, we have to be careful not to fall into the easy racism of firings. I learn gradually to recognize people’s fears first of all, and I also learn that human faces need to be put on all of this.  It’s not our school against all the world’s enemies.  It’s a matter of Samer, the school’s maintenance worker for the last year, a single mother of two daughters, who lives in Abu Tor. A neighbor.  And also: a religious woman; her head-covering covers  a little more than the other women’s on the staff.   I get in touch with the principal to give her an update and ask how I can help, and I see that she’s already five steps ahead of me. After a conversation that morning with Samer that made clear how frightened she herself is, the principal goes into every classroom and tells the students about Samer. Meanwhile the parents are still storming; most of them understand the complexity and write calmly, others…  At the end of the day the Parents’ Association votes, with a large majority deciding not to fire her.  Meanwhile the other parents appeal to City Hall. It’s clear that the work is just getting started.
Thursday, 10:20a.m.  The principal calls me.  “Samer is here with me, crying. Do you speak Arabic?” “I wish,” I say, and I head back to school.  On the way I pass four checkpoints, separating Tzur Baher and Jabel Mukaber from Talpiot and East Talpiot. I hand out snacks to the soldiers, who rightly prefer the fruit I’ve just bought for the family. Back at school Samer, trembling, tells me that on her way to school four police officers came at her with drawn pistols, made her lie on the ground, dumped out her bag on the floor. “They’re afraid, too,” we told her.  “I could see that,” she answers, “but why me?” Afterward she also got curses and abuse from some car passing on the street.  She ran to the school: a place of safety.
Friday, 9:45a.m. Exactly three days since the attack. Samer asks not to come in today.  Some of us parents volunteer to clean the bathrooms in her place. In the end there was no need.  But I was struck by the number of parents who were happy to help, and especially by the number of parents on the fence, struggling to make a path between security and discrimination, between anger and revenge, between national conflict and racism or religious war. On the way home, by the checkpoint, some guys are handing out Israeli flags and singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”  I hesitate to take them, but the children in the back seat ask to stop. They don’t understand the subtext: they come to this from a purer place. We head home, waving flags.
God of Fathers, redeem us.
Supporter of Mothers, redeem us.
God of Peace, awaken.
מגן אבות, עננו. משגב אמהות, עננו. מלך שהשלום שלו, עורה.
May it be a Shabbat shalom.

The Shock and Sorrow of Jerusalem pierces the heart of the heartland.

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

Kansas City was deeply connected to the violence that took the lives of Torah scholars in Har Nof. Rabbi Kalman (Carey) Levine was among the first graduating class of the local day school, the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy. Rabbi Moshe Twersky was the uncle of our colleague Rabbi Meshulam Twersky who teaches in our Matmidim program for observant students. As of this writing Rabbi Twersky is on a plane to Israel to be with his father, Rabbi Meir Twersky, and immediate family.

Before he left, our faculty gathered and Rabbi Twersky acceded to my request, and addressed faculty and students at our school. I will paraphrase what he said in hopes that it is accurate:

He quoted the Talmud saying that it was important not to exaggerate when eulogizing because it would be shameful for the dead to be misrepresented in any way, so even if what he said would seem to be hyperbolic, that it was not the case. He was very mindful of the sages perspective, and would, if anything, be speaking in understatement.

First, he remarkably stated that he had not given a scintilla of thought to those “who did this.” They were irrelevant; they were nothing to him. Rather, he focused on his uncle’s example and his life. His entire existence was devoted to sanctifying God’s Name. His life and death were part of the same continuum. There was no leap from his life to his death. Unlike most people who when they die, people tend to emphasize their best qualities, this would not be possible with his uncle. He was not a fragmented person–he was complete, he was that rare individual who exemplified shleimoot.

Rabbi Meshulam mentioned that he also knew Kalman (Carey) Levine whom he sat next to for three years while studying in Israel. He remarked on his indefatigueable enthusiasm for study. Some may say from this that it is a small world, but I think it’ a big world, but we’re a small people.

Although nobody has an answer for why this happened, we should focus on the what. For when you focus on the good, that which is not good falls away like a klipat shum a garlic peel.

Let us not empower our enemies by paying so much attention to them. Let us spend our time focusing on that which is good and true, and make the examples of their lives be the light while all else are viewed as merely shadows.

Much Ado About Partnerships and Orthodoxy

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2014 at 2:10 pm

I’ve been reading with interest the discussion initiated by Rabbi Klapper regarding Partnership minyanim. He has done the community a service by modeling civility in discourse that hopefully will be the rule and not the exception when discussing issues that arouse passions on both sides of the divide.

I do believe that Rabbi Klapper offered an honest encounter with the arguments going so far as to say that there may be halachic justification for a partnership minyan. That may have not been a necessary concession because had he wished, he could have found reasons to reject this concept on halachic grounds. I don’t think that level of generosity, or humility was reciprocated, and maybe that itself indicates the fragility of change agents in general who feel they cannot concede any ground because their very legitimacy is at stake.

The role of women in Orthodoxy has been evolving for decades. The first door was opened by the Chafetz Chaim with the institution of the “Beit Yaakov” schools for girls where girls were taught commentaries on the Tanakh, and laws that were under the rubric of Torah Sheb’al Peh of which the Rambam and others had disapproved.

Nowadays high school, and post high school girls schools in the U.S. and Israel have opened and welcomed girls to explore, and encounter not only Tanakh, but the Talmud as well. This has been accompanied by, however begrudging, more engagement of women in the halachic process. Whether it be through “Yoatzot Halacha”, or more female Talmud teachers. Also, women’s Tefila groups that were disparaged by Rabbi Schechter, but championed by Rabbi Henkin also have been accepted (or ignored) and were instituted not even with a bang, and barely a whimper.

Now the envelope has been pushed for changing an existing norm in favor of a more inclusive model of shlichai tzibbur and Torah readers that is founded on a fresh look at some Talmudic passages and commentaries. The fact that Rav Henkin championed women’s tefila groups, but balked at partnership minyanim, should make one at least ask the question: Why one, and not the other?” The answer is fairly simple, but I don’t know if it has been articulated. Partnership minyanim are by definition sectarian. Whereas a woman’s tefila group doesn’t replace other minyanim, but accommodates an underserved part of the community in Divine service, the partnership minyan is an alternative i.e. a replacement for an existing norm. For many, for whatever reason, it is an unacceptable alternative. What does that mean, unacceptable? It means if many had to say Kaddish and that was the minyan available, they may very well choose to stay home, as they would for a normal, egalitarian minyan.

This would not be the case for a regular Orthodox minyan with the accommodations that Rabbi Henkin endorsed. This attempt at a new norm is not merely sociological, but is exclusive of a significant percentage of “the faithful”. One can endorse this diversion from the norm for many reasons:
*It makes Orthodoxy more attractive to those who have a modern sensibility.
*It is only fair to publicly acknowledge that the role of women has certainly changed, and it is backward for it not ti be manifested in the way we pray.
*If their is halachic justification, why wouldn’t someone make this change?

I do believe had there been a halachically committed egalitarian community complete with halachically committed leadership, that many in the partnership minyan would have found a home there. In the end, it’s more important that we are around those whose children are likeminded in observance, than where we daven. It would be wonderful for them if their minyan was considered merely a matter of taste, and not a source of controversy.

It is the halachic commitment of the proponents of the partnership minyan that is most impressive, and most difficult. I don’t accept the argument that they reject halachic authority. Au contraire, their halachic commitments leave them with no other community. Thats why the discussion is so fraught and why they wish to increase the conceptual dimensions of the Orthodox tent.

Nevertheless, dramatic change of a norm that divides as much if not more than it unites is more dramatic and serious than acknowledged by the arguments offered so far. What we’re used to and how that informs expectations is not a trivial matter. It actually informs much of our day to day practice; hence the statement “Minhag din hu”


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