Israel’s Elections, the Early Line, part 1 by Rabbi Golomb

Israelis went to the polls on January 22. In this and a following post I will attempt to make a few initial conclusions about the somewhat surprising results.

Most of the commentary and analysis leading up to the elections suggested a rather handy victory, for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and for the right-wing, religious and nationalist parties. It did not turn out that way. The coalition of Netanyahu’s Likud party and the nationalist and mostly Russian bloc, Yisrael Beiteinu [“Israel is our house”], which controlled 42 seats in the last Knesset, was reduced to 31. Since this single list garnered the most votes – the next largest faction is a brand new list called Yesh ‘Atid [“There is a future”] with 19 seats – Netanyahu will almost certainly put together the next government. It will probably be weak and short-lived.

How Israeli Elections Work

Before proceeding with my observations, let me describe briefly the Israeli electoral system, since it is radically different from the American system.

First, and most important, there are no representative districts in Israel. The contest for seats in the 120-member Knesset is decided by proportional allocation of contesting parties. On election day, voters receive a ballot that presents all the parties running. (By-the-way, there is no early or absentee voting. Eligible voters must be present in the country, on active duty in military units, or serving on embassy or consular staffs. If you are traveling, you cannot vote. Thus, it takes only a day or so to get the complete final tally.) Voters then mark one party. There are no individual names on the ballot.

If a party achieves a minimum threshold – 2% of the total – it is eligible to have a representative in the Knesset. On last Tuesday’s election, 13 of the roughly 30 parties on the ballot met the threshold. Likud-Beiteinu received slightly over one-quarter of the total. The actual individuals who will be sitting in the Knesset is determined within each party, usually through the vehicle of a party convention or caucus. At that time, the party creates a numbered list, 1 through potentially 120. If a party merited, say 12 seats (10% of the vote), the first 12 on their list would then become members of Knesset (MKs).

Once the election is over, the system is similar to Canada or Great Britain’s Parliament. If no single party commands a majority of the Knesset seats, a working government must be created out of forming a coalition of parties. The Knesset itself is both the legislative and executive authority of the nation. Thus, MKs hold all the ministry positions (akin to the Cabinet in the United States), as well as that of chief executive, Prime Minister. The head of the dominant party is usually Prime Miinister, and he (there was one ‘she’ in Israel’s history: Golda Meir) then parcels out ministry posts (usually called ‘portfolios’) to leaders of other parties, until a ruling government commanding at least 61 votes has been formed.

This government can rule for four years, unless: 1) the Prime Minister decides to call an early election, usually done when he believes he and his party are particularly popular, or 2) there is a successful vote of no-confidence – which tends to happen when one or more parties in the government decide to defect – causing a ‘constitutional crisis’ which requires a new election.

Two Newcomers

It will be a number of weeks from now before a new government is formed. I can nevertheless make a few firm – and a few somewhat less firm – conclusions from the election itself.

First, Netanyahu – who is now Israel’s second longest serving Prime Minister (after David ben Gurion) – is simply not popular. He is certainly liked and respected among a certain portion of the electorate, but he clearly does not elicit much passion. Even more to the point, the record of the last four years has been decidedly ambiguous. Nothing particularly bad happened, but nothing especially good occurred either. My sense is that an American style poll of Israelis on the topic of whether the country is heading in the right direction, would reveal a rather low positive response.

Netanyahu’s “victory” was much more a matter of the inability of the established political leaders of other parties to create much enthusiasm for themselves. Clearly, the two individuals who produced the greatest amount of passion were two newcomers: the secular-centrist Ya’ir Lapid and religious-nationalist Naftali Bennet. Their personal successes are intriguing and instructive.

Lapid has been a well-known TV personality. His father was also a media star who led his own party to short-term success a little over a decade ago. Ya’ir is ideologically similar to his father, but has chosen to steer a less stridently anti-Orthodox path. The 19 seats he now commands arose out of two currents in the public mood. One is a sense of injustice within the social fabric of the society, particularly with respect to the ultra-Orthodox population who receive a very large portion of the state benefits and broadly shirk the responsibility of military duty. The second is a mood of suspicion and dissatisfaction with all the established parties and their representatives. No one on the Yesh ‘Atid list has ever been in the Knesset before.

The American-born Bennet (he came to Israel as a child), on the other hand, reorganized and rebranded an old established party, the National Religious Party, whose roots go back into the earliest years of the Zionist Movement. The party, moderate and pragmatically Orthodox, had once been a fixed feature in governing coalitions from the time of the founding of the State. Over the past two decades, however, the NRP transformed somewhat into the chief representative of religious nationalists, the settlers’ movement, whose principal concern has been preserving West Bank lands that have been acquired by Israelis, and annexing them into the Jewish State.

The party’s fortunes have been negatively affected by inroads on the part of the untra-Orthodox among the moderate Orthodox, and by the nationalist-annexationist tendencies of other parties, particularly Likud. By 2009, the NRP had been reduced to 3 seats. The prospects for 2013 initially appeared to be even worse, as Likud combined with the equally nationalist Beiteinu party, and also purged some its own more pragmatic members from the top of their list. Netanyahu appeared to be preparing to swallow the NRP whole. Clearly, this did not happen. Bennet, a software entrepreneur and multi-millionaire, renamed the party Bayit Yehudi [Jewish Home], gave it some vigor, and drew from the same anti-establishment mood that propelled Yair Lapid to significance.

Yesh ‘Atid and Bayit Yehudi combined for 31 seats, equal to that of Likud-Beiteinu. Although dramatically different in outlooks, the success of the two does reflect that a significant portion of the voters want something new.

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Torah Study Notes 1-26-13

January 26, 2013
p. 465
This is the Song of Deborah from the Haftarah – preceded by a narrative. The connection to the Torah portion is to the Song of the Sea.
9:2 The song is schematic but is explained in part via the narrative. The beginning is an exhortation. Note that the phrase “grow loose” is the same as “grow long” and connects to the story of Sampson from the Book of Judges. There was a group of Nazarites who followed this practice. Compare the practices of the Sikh. It indicates a personal spiritual quest. Treatment of hair is an indication of status in many societies. Note also the reference to marching from the land of Edom – which is east and south of ancient Israel near the Dead Sea. Edom is associated with Esau – which was established as a kingdom – biblically speaking – before Israel. The suggestion is that God had a covenantal relationship with the Edomites. It is ambiguous here if “marching out of Edom” is a metaphor for abandoning the Edomites or is merely a spread of the covenant to Israel.
9:6 Ther was likely a back story wherein the characters of Deborah and Barak were well known. The roads falling into disrepair suggests no central authority – the twelve tribes were separate.
9:11 Under the charismatic leadership of Deborah and the military leadership of Barak they pull themselves together.
9:14 They need to unite to fight a battle. Six tribes respond to the call. The others are reproached by the poet. Not all of the tribes are mentioned. This part is ignored in the narrative.
9:19 Although Israel prevailed not everyone participated and there was an element of luck – a flash flood in a wadi. God’s angel curses a tribe that held back. The entire Book of Judges is somewhat anomalous with other sections of Deuteronomy. They were likely organized and written about 600 BCE. The Deuteronomist is thought to have taken pre-existing material – like this Song – and written explanations – which is the narrative. Note that the Ashkenazi are more amenable to autocracy – hence the Hasidic respect for a rebbe. The attitudes of the Sephardic Jews are different; they are disinclined to accept dictatorial powers. Deborah represents a figure who has likely seized power. CL: This is uniquely about a woman who has a following. As poetry this is an artistic expression. She has followers like Madonna or Lady Gaga. PG: But once she passes from the scene there is no continuity – that is the advantage of a monarchy with rights of succession. Moral authority often collapses at the point of a bayonet. LL: Today there are cultural wars that do not involve troops or bayonets. It is difficult to predict the long term outcome of those wars.
9:24 The story of fierce Jael. The word “Kenite” seems to refer to a non-Israelite Bedouin type people. Jael is the most blessed of the “woman in tents.” by virtue of having killed the leader of the invaders.
9:28 The story of the mother waiting for her son appears in other ancient poetry. It is derisive.
Now for the preceding narrative:
4:4 This opens with a description of Deborah’s background. Note that Barak will only undertake his assignment if she comes along. As a prophet she brings the presence of God with her. Here is a close description of the battle and victory but there is no reference to the call to arms going out to all of Israel – as appears in the poem. LL: How do the ultra orthodox reconcile their treatment of woman with Deborah’s prominent role here? PG: See the work of Daniel Boyarin and others on the influence of sexual repression on Jewish thought and the ultra orthodox: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sex Every society needs to deal with the issue of sex and they are frequently at odds as to their approaches. In ancient Israel this was addressed by redirecting sexual energy to the love of God. Compare the attitudes of Maimonides and Nachmonides on the subject of family purity.
Nahmanides allegedly [3] wrote a book on marriage, holiness, and sexual relations for his son as a wedding gift, the Iggeret ha-Kodesh (אגרת הקודש – The Holy Epistle). In it Nahmanides criticizes Maimonides for stigmatizing man’s sexual nature as a disgrace to man. In the view of the author, the body with all its functions being the work of God, is holy, and so none of its normal sexual impulses and actions can be regarded as objectionable.
SF recommends we read The Palm Tree of Deborah by Moses Cordevero: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomer_Devorah
It is a commentary on this Song and narrative used in mussar teachings.
LL/

Public and Silent Worship, Part III: Reforming Reform by Rabbi Golomb.

Worship in the synagogue is roughly 2000-years-old.  The prayerbook (siddur), however, is only about 1100-years-old.  One reason for this time gap is that in the days before the printing press, the creation and distribution of a large number of siddurim was simply impractical.  More to the point, the competing notions of keva (consistency) and kavanah (devotion) tended to tilt toward the latter in the early centuries of worship.  The prayer leader (sh’liah hatzibbur) had a good deal of latitude in how he wished to express established rubrics that determined the order of worship.      

With the creation of a siddur, however, keva began to overtake kavanah.  People prayed the words that were before them.  Further, the siddur itself began to expand.  Jewish communities were comfortable with including new prayers and readings, but uncomfortable about dropping established ones.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, a standard siddur (now printed and widely distributed) had become rather long and unwieldy.  Many of the additional prayers and liturgical poems were thematically repetitive.  Thus, began the era of prayerbook reform.      

From the start, Reformers made two important changes in the siddur.  They began to cut down the length, particularly eliminating redundant prayers and readings.  And they introduced a translation of the service into the vernacular (German, French, Yiddish, and English, among others).   Reducing the size of the siddur also reduced the length of a service.  When combined with increasingly larger portions of worship being recited in the vernacular, a tacit understanding within the congregation was achieved.  Congregants would make a point of being present at the start of the service, and staying through to the end.  The pace of worship would be dignified; not excessively fast, and virtually all of it would be recited aloud.      What happened to kavanah

Classic nineteenth and early twentieth century Reform Judaism put a great deal of stock into idealist reason; that is, a non-metaphysical rational understanding of the world about imbued with a progressive spirit.  Jewish liturgy was therefore translated or paraphrased to be both scientifically sound and socio-politically optimistic.  The liturgy was designed to say just what most of the congregation already believed.  Kavanah was built into the service, rather than being something brought by the individual to worship.      

Toward the latter half of the last century, Jewish optimism in the inextricable progress of civilization began to be shaken.  A liturgy that exuded idealist reason began to ring a bit hollow.  Even after the experience of the Holocaust, however, it was not shattered.  Reason and progress still animated most of those who joined Reform congregations, but it could no longer be the sole basis of kavanah in a Reform service.  The Movement responded to a new reality – it reformed! – and created a new type of prayerbook (Gates of Prayer) that attempted to tackle a variety of approaches to worship with a variety of prayer themes.      

The newest siddur, Mishkan T’fila, has made an important modification.  Gates of Prayer offered a variety of services, each one of which was thematic consistent.  Kavanah could be brought to bear on the service, only if the theme of that day’s worship resonated for you.  Mishkan T’fila, on the other hand, brings a variety of themes together on each two-page spread.  A worshiper has a choice.  You can read (or sing) along with the prayer leader.  Or, you can read to yourself one of the alternative prayers.  Or, you can meditate and create a prayer of your own.  Public and silent worship is combined; kavanah is preserved.    

Vassar Temple’s late starting Shabbat service maintains this more conventional approach to Reform worship.  It is a reform of classic Reform.  No doubt, future congregations and siddurim will modify the approach in order to suit yet unknown developments in Jewish thought.  From near the start of the synagogue worship service, Jewish prayer has been a combination of keva and kavanah, achieved through a combination of public and silent worship.  Vassar Temple employ two ways of preserving this most basic element of the service

Vassar Temple Hosts Community-Wide “Gesher” Bowling Event

Good form!

Good form!

As part of an ongoing effort to bring the various Jewish communities in Poughkeepsie closer, Vassar Temple hosted an afternoon of bowling fun for teens from local synagogues.

Some students bowled in the traditional style, some in more creative ways, and some just watched, as everyone schmoozed and laughed.

(Photographs by Rachel Marcus and Dr. Joel M. Hoffman.)

Public and Silent Worship. Part II: The Private in the Public by Rabbi Golomb

If you went to an American public school, you began each morning with the Pledge of Allegiance; day in, day out, five days a week for thirteen years (Kindergarten through senior year of High School).  This regimen comes to over 2300 recitations.  I would wager that you can recite the 31 words (29, if you went to school before 1954, and did not say “under God”) to this day.  It is pretty well burned into your memory.  But, what did it mean?      I am not referring to proper definitions of the words of the Pledge, but rather to what import did have on you; what was the overall aim and purpose in reciting it daily?  Did it work?  If one of the purposes was that you would remember it, it probably was successful.  Has the Pledge actually reinforced a sense of allegiance in you, to either the flag or the U.S.?  Maybe!  I am certain, however, that one purpose was indeed achieved: the school as an institution had publicly bonded itself to the country and its flag.      

This last assertion is important.  Reciting the Pledge may or may not create within you a sense of patriotic loyalty, but your saying the words established that loyalty for the institution in which you said it.  Thus, from the institution’s point of view, not everyone actually has to speak the words of the Pledge.  Somebody does, but you might be exempt.  During the recitation, you might let your mind wander.  Occasionally, you might even focus on the words of the Pledge – not all the words, perhaps, just a phrase or two – and ponder what they really mean to you.      

The Pledge of Allegiance is an apt model for traditional synagogue worship.  There is a fixed liturgy, and from the point-of-view of the institution (in this case, the congregation in the synagogue), the words ought to be said.  They need not be said by everyone.  Classically, congregations have selected a sh’liah tzibbur [literally, the congregational representative] to recite the liturgy.  (The sh’liah tzibbur can be a volunteer, or a professional like a cantor [hazzan] or rabbi.)  The rest of the minyan is then free to recite the prayers along with the leader, or to focus on something else.      

As a matter of practice, the sh’liah tzibbur does not recite everything aloud.  Much of the service is carried on in silence, or near silence, as it is not unusual to hear congregants singing or reading softly to themselves.  The sh’liah tzibbur generally only announces through bits of liturgy where the minyan is in the service.  Congregants are confident that the sh’liah tzibbur is actually reading the liturgy, freeing each of them to do what they wish.  One would expect that many, having chosen to attend the service in the first place, would take this opportunity to meditate on the personal meaning of the liturgy to themselves.      

In Part I, I introduced the key concepts of keva (consistency) and kavanah (devotion).  Through the employment of a sh’liah tzibbur  and the liberal use of silent or personal reading,  Jewish liturgical practice takes the rhythm of prayer, its rote repetitiveness and familiarity, and allows it to be turned into the possibility of personal devotion.      Actually, kavanah is not possible with keva.  Services move by too fast, making reflection and meditation nearly impossible.  When the service becomes really familiar – like the words of the Pledge – mostly through regular attendance, then one is free to pick and choose among the prayers; to spend the silent stretches creating a personal bridge to the divine through bits and pieces of the liturgy.    

 When Vassar Temple holds its early evening Shabbat service, it is offering each congregant to bring kavanah to the keva of the liturgy.  Clearly, the practice works better for those already familiar with the service.  When, however, the Temple conducts a later evening service, it employs a more classical Reform Jewish approach to the liturgy.  In Part III, I will discuss the reasoning behind that style of service.

RAC Trip, Monday: Lobbying on Capitol Hill

Rebecca Shaw, Aide to Representative Chris Gibson (Left), Engages in Frank Conversation With Vassar Temple High-School Students Brianna E. (Foreground), Kiley Q., and Ali D.

Rebecca Shaw, Aide to Representative Chris Gibson (Left), Engages in Frank Conversation With Vassar Temple High-School Students Brianna E. (Foreground), Kiley Q., and Ali D. as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Monday was the big day.

After an intensive weekend of studying, exploring, debating, and discussing, and after a long evening of writing and rewriting, the students set off to lobby their legislators on Capitol Hill.

The logistics alone demanded complicated charts: Each student is represented on the Hill by two state senators (Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand for us), and one local representative (in our case, Sean Maloney from 18th congressional district or Chris Gibson from the 19th).

I don't know how to convey the thrill of seeing Vassar Temple high-school students engaged in a policy debate at this high level in Washington.The students chose their own topics from among the many they’d been introduced to over the weekend: gun safety, LGBT rights, stem-cell research, etc. And some students worked together. So there was partial overlap among the issues that they had prepared, but we didn’t want to present the same issue twice in front of the same person, and we didn’t have time for more than three presentations. Additionally, we were not the only congregation in New York State, so the Senate presentations required additional coordination.

In the end, everyone spoke at least once, and some people spoke twice. (I’ll post the students’ remarks separately.)

Reeti Kumar, Aide to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Takes Notes From Vassar Temple Students.  Left to Right:  Reeti Kumar (in Blue), Danielle B., and Brianna E.

Reeti Kumar, Aide to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Takes Notes From Vassar Temple Students as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Left to Right From Center: Reeti Kumar (In Blue), Danielle B., and Brianna E.

Our first visit was to Senator Gillibrand’s office, where we were greeted by Ms. Reeti Kumar, an aide to the senator. We met in a stairwell because the senator’s office wasn’t large enough to accommodate our entire group. Danielle B. spoke in favor of more accurate sex education, and Brianna E. addressed LGBT rights in the workplace.

From there we moved on to Senator Schumer, along the way almost literally bumping into Senator John McCain. Once we arrived, an aide to Senator Schumer, Patricio Gonzalez, took us to a conference room where Noah C., Rachel M., and Isaac H-W turned to gun safety.

Patricio Gonzalez, Aide to Senator Charles Schumer, Responds to Students From Vassar Temple and Beth Torah of Upper Nyack.  Clockwise From Head of Table:  Patricio Gonzalez, Noah C., Rachel M., and Isaac H-W.

Patricio Gonzalez, Aide to Senator Charles Schumer, Responds to Students From Vassar Temple and Beth Torah of Upper Nyack as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Clockwise From Head of Table: Patricio Gonzalez, Noah C.Rachel M., and Isaac H-W.

Then we split up. I took one group to Representative Gibson’s office, and Rabbi Hantman took the other to Representative Maloney.

We had an appointment with Rebecca Shaw, aide to Representative Chris Gibson. In a sense, this was our most important meeting yet. Democratic Senators Gillibrand and Schumer were mostly, perhaps entirely, in agreement with our positions. But we didn’t know about Republican Chris Gibson.

I should be clear that the RAC is non-partisan, as was our visit. We were not and are not campaigning. But the general Democratic platform more closely aligned with the issues the students chose than the Republican platform did.

Kiley Q. (Left), Ali D., and Brianna E. Outside Representative Chris Gibson's House Office in Washington, DC.

Kiley Q. (Left), Ali D., and Brianna E. Outside Representative Chris Gibson’s House Office in Washington, DC.

Rebecca Shaw turned out to be gracious, welcoming, and engaging. She took us to the representative’s office, where Brianna, Kiley, and Ali offered their well-researched and carefully-thought-out positions on LGBT rights in the workplace, more accurate sex education, and gun control. After each one, Ms. Shaw responded, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.

What followed was the highlight of the weekend for me. Rather than simply taking notes to convey to her boss, Ms. Shaw continued with a frank conversation about these important issues. While there was disagreement in the room, the conversation was respectful, cordial, and, it seems, honest.

Isaac H-W (Left), Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C. Outside Representative Sean Maloney's House Office in Washington, DC.

Isaac H-W (Left), Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C. Outside Representative Sean Maloney’s House Office in Washington, DC.

Danielle B. (Right) Explains Her Position on Sex Education to Ryan Lehman, Aide to Representative Sean Maloney.

Danielle B. (Right) Explains Her Position on Sex Education to Ryan Lehman, Aide to Representative Sean Maloney.

I don’t know how to convey the thrill of seeing three Vassar Temple high-school students engaged in a policy debate at this high level in Washington.

Because the visits to Representatives Gibson and Maloney took place at the same time, I couldn’t watch Isaac, Noah, and Rachel talk about gun control, or Danielle talk about the need for better sex education. I understand that an aide named Ryan Lehman greeted them on behalf of Representative Maloney, and engaged in a similarly engaging and exciting conversation.

Our meetings ended just before 1:30. We’d spent three hours on the Hill, lobbying in three different buildings. Exhausted but flying high, we had a delicious lunch in a congressional cafeteria, returned to the hotel, and drove home.

From start to finish, the trip was a huge a success.

Vassar Temple Students Walk to Capitol Hill to Lobby Legislators, Part of the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Vassar Temple Students Walk to Capitol Hill to Lobby Legislators, Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.


High-School Students Isaac H-W (Left), Noah C., Rachel M., Danielle B., Brianna E., Kiley Q., and Ali D. on the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

High-School Students Isaac H-W (Left), Noah C., Rachel M., Danielle B., Brianna E., Kiley Q., and Ali D. on the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

RAC Trip, Sunday

High-School Students Working and Schmoozing in the Lobby of the Sheraton Pentagon City as part of the RAC's L'Taken social-action Seminar.

High-School Students Working and Schmoozing in the Lobby of the Sheraton Pentagon City as part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Sunday at the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social-Action seminar started with an innovative program that examined the peace process in the Middle East through the lens of Israeli politics.
Students Debating Israeli Politics and Middle-East Peace as part of the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.  Foreground:  Isaac H-W

Students Debating Israeli Politics and Middle-East Peace as part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Foreground: Isaac H-W.

Then the participants jumped into their second opportunity for in-depth study of an issue currently before Congress: nuclear disarmament, judicial nominations, disability rights, gun control, clean energy, reproductive rights, and more. As they did the first time around, the students chose an issue to investigate, learning about their topic as well as Jewish perspectives and legislative backgrounds on it.

Then, with their day of lobbying approaching, the participants spent time learning how to be an effective advocate in Washington, a process that included hearing from Rabbi David Saperstein, the man who directs the Religious Action Center, and under whose leadership the RAC became second only to AIPAC in terms of Jewish influence in Washington.

Taking a Break.  On our way to the National Mall.

Taking a Break. On our way to the National Mall.

After almost five hours of work, we again left the hotel for a break, this time headed for the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall, and dinner in Pentagon Row. Our group dined together, processing what we had done so far and preparing for the challenge coming up in the evening.

Back at the hotel, the students chose an issue on which they would lobby Congress the next day.

Then, after a specific briefing on their issue, the students sat down for the hardest work of the weekend: crafting their message to their elected leaders.

Vassar Temple High-School Students Crafting Their Messages to Congress as part of the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Vassar Temple High-School Students Crafting Their Messages to Congress as part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Clockwise from left around table: Briaana E., Noah C., Isaac H-W, Rachel M., Danielle B., Kiley Q., and Ali D.

Speaking effectively to a senator or representative’s aide is demanding. The students knew they had to be informed, accurate, persuasive, clear, and convincing, as well as personal and Jewish, while also inclusive, to say nothing of polite and concise. Their messages would be conveyed to the men and women who create the law of the land, and had the potential to influence the lives of millions of people in America and around the world.

Less than half the population of America votes. Even fewer people take the time to be in touch with a Congressman or Congresswoman. These students were not only reaching out, they were showing up, in person. They wanted to do a good job.

So they spent hours weaving together their personal convictions, their issue’s legislative history, statistics in support of their argument, and background about the people they would be addressing. Armed with laptops and snack food, the students spent hours perfecting what they would say.

Then, exhausted but prepared, they went to sleep, looking forward to their day of lobbying.

Students at the RAC's L'Taken Socal-Action Seminar Attending a Briefing on Israel.

Students at the RAC’s L’Taken Socal-Action Seminar Attending a Briefing on Israel.


Students at the RAC's L'Taken Socal-Action Seminar Exploring Issues Surrounding Workplace Discrimination.

Students at the RAC’s L’Taken Socal-Action Seminar Exploring Issues Surrounding Workplace Discrimination. Standing on left: Brianna E.

RAC Trip, Saturday

Celebrating Havdalah at the Jefferson Memorial with the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Celebrating Havdalah at the Jefferson Memorial with the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Our first full day at the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken seminar featured Shabbat celebrations, an introduction to lobbying, an excursion to DC, and explorations of key legislative and social-action issues.

Learning about the Political Process at the RAC's L''Taken Social-Action Seminar

Learning about the Political Process at the RAC’s L”Taken Social-Action Seminar

Students Preparing a Mock Legislative Campaign at the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar

Students Preparing a Mock Legislative Campaign at the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar

After Shabbat morning services, the students engaged in a full-scale lobbying simulation that demonstrated the complex interplay between money, power, and politics. Participants were tasked with fundraising, lobbying, organizing, protesting, and more. As they worked through the process, they learned both the theory and realpolitik sides of how a bill becomes a law.

After a break for lunch, we left the hotel to explore Washington, DC. The weather worked in our favor, gracing us with a warm, dry day.

We started with the Martin Luther King Memorial before moving on to the National Holocaust Museum.

Because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center, the MLK Memorial is a source of pride for us not only as Americans and Jews, but specifically as members of a movement that continues to devote so much energy to working toward a nation guided by the prophetic goals of justice and equality.

And at the Holocaust museum, we reflected on a tragedy of nearly incomprehensible proportions, even as we marveled at the progress we have made in the past several decades.

Then we set off for Georgetown, with down time for strolling, shopping, and dining.

Before returning to the hotel, we gathered for a moving Havdalah ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial.

Students Gathering in the Hotel Lobby as they  Prepare for Monday.

Students Gathering in the Hotel Lobby as they Prepare for Monday.

To top off the evening, the participants selected an area of study from among an array of topics currently before the Congress: reproductive rights, clean energy, embryonic stem cell research, LGBT equality in the workplace, gun control, combating malaria, torture and indefinite detention, and more. In smaller groups, the students studied their issue, learning about the current state of affairs, as well as Jewish perspectives and legislative backgrounds.

By the end of the day, the participants had spent time with other teenage Jews from around the country celebrating Shabbat, exploring the capital, and delving into the issues they could try to impact on Monday.

Vassar Temple Students at the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.  Left-to-right:  Brianna E., Ali D., Kiley Q., Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C.

Vassar Temple Students at the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Left-to-right: Brianna E., Ali D., Kiley Q., Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C.


Ali D and Kiley Q frolicking.

Ali D and Kiley Q frolicking.

RAC Trip, Friday

After a relaxing and uneventful drive down to the nation’s capital, we checked in to the Sheraton Pentagon City in time to relax a little before Shabbat.

Studying Social Action Texts at the RAC's L'Taken Social Action Seminar.  Kiley Q. in blue.

Studying Social Action Texts at the RAC’s L’Taken Social Action Seminar. Kiley Q. in blue.

Then some 250 Jewish teenagers from a dozen states — representing California to New York, Florida to Rhode Island — gathered to welcome Shabbat with song. We moved quickly into a communal dinner, which ended with time to meet new friends from around the country.

Friday evening services followed, led by two guitar-playing rabbis.

Then the participants delved into the complex interaction of hunger and social programs in America. In the context of Maimonides’ famous ranking of different kinds of aid, the students debated the merits of Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, and more, all under the umbrella of “The Dark Night: Poverty and Homelessness in America.”

The evening included a chance to experience what it might be like to rely on social programs for food.

Dessert topped off the evening.

All in all, it was a fantastic start to a weekend of exploring tikkun olam, social justice, and the power of lobbying governmental leaders.

Friday Evening Services  at the RAC’s L’Taken Social Action Seminar

Friday Evening Services at the RAC’s L’Taken Social Action Seminar


Studying Social Action Texts at the RAC’s L’Taken Social Action Seminar.  Standing, left to right, Rachel M., Brianna E., and Noah C.

Studying Social Action Texts at the RAC’s L’Taken Social Action Seminar. Standing, left to right, Rachel M., Brianna E., and Noah C.

Public and Silent Worship. Part I: Rhythm & Intention by Rabbi Golomb

Regular attendees of Vassar Temple’s Friday evening services note a substantial shift in how worship is done when the service is moved from 7:30 to the pre-dinner 6pm time during the winter months. The change is that we substitute the public reading of the central portion of the service – the Amidah – with a silent reading. An important reason for that change is to facilitate a somewhat shorter service in time. It also represents two approaches to worship based in Jewish tradition and practice. Here, in this and the next two blog submissions, I will explain the sources of the two approaches.

Jewish worship is a strange thing. When does one pray? Whenever you feel the need or urge to pray: in the morning, evening, the middle of the night. And where does one pray? Wherever you are at the time you feel you ought to pray. At home, at work, on vacation, in the car. So, what is prayer that is recited at a fixed time and in a fixed location? Informally, Jews do not refer to this activity as prayer, but rather as davening. But, does this mean that when you show up at the synagogue on a Friday evening for services, you are not praying?

From the earliest days of the worship service, this issue concerned Jewish religious leadership, the classic Rabbis. They responded to the problem by suggesting that one must approach the service with two attitudes: keva and kavanah; with consistency and devotion.

Keva, its literal meaning is “rhythm,” is similar to the attitude you might have when you brush your teeth, take the dog for a walk or catch the 6:32 train each morning to work. These are repeatable activities, but they are not merely habits. You do them because they each have an intrinsic value, and thus you do them even when you are not particularly in the mood. Sometimes you simply wish to forego brushing your teeth, but you do it anyway. You do it not just because you are concerned about cavities or bad breath, but also because you sense that you are going to feel bad later on if you did not.

Such is the keva of Jewish worship: a regularly performed act made up of a consistent set of prayers and readings, to be recited in community (the minyan) at a particular location (the synagogue) and a set time. You go and recite the prayers, occasionally even when you do not feel particularly interested in doing so, because you also sense that it is important, and because you will miss it later if you neglected it. The keva of Jewish worship requires merely showing up.

Kavanah [literally “intention”], on the other hand, does pertain to attitude. The liturgy of Jewish worship is, after all, prayer. It is supposed to speak to the heart, to your hopes and dreams. To this end, Jewish worship demands more than merely showing up. It asks you to wring meaning out of the words set before you on the page of the siddur (prayerbook), and to make them your own.

As you can see, keva and kavanah are in tension. The sheer obligation to recite prayers at a set time and place works against doing so with feeling and devotion. The classic Rabbis did not expect individuals (including themselves) to resolve this tension. Such is the reality of life. They did, however, offer some techniques that made the melding of the two distinct elements of worship more possible. In the next post, I will discuss what the Rabbis suggested.