Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Erez College, and the Highest Level of Righteous Giving

EREZ COLLEGE, SHELOMI, WESTERN GALILEE, ISRAEL – The “Ladder of Tyre” is the name given to the range of mountains that separate the Western Galilee of Israel from southern Lebanon.  It was the area from which the Hezbollah drone shot down by Israeli Air Force jets last week originated.

It is also the view I see each morning these days as I arrive for my volunteer work in the town of Shelomi, as you can see from this photo: In the background, on the top of those mountains, are the antennae marking the Israeli border station.  In the foreground is Erez College.

Erez College has been my focus for the last two weeks, and into the next two weeks, as I engage in my volunteer efforts.  My sabbatical has been enhanced by my offering help to the development efforts of the College’s Executive Director Sandee Illouz.  She is an American – from Iowa – who immigrated to Israel in 1975, found her way to Shelomi, and established this school as a way to increase the quality of life in this depressed part of the nation.

The book of Leviticus reminds us to “Strengthen the poor person so that he does not fall and become dependent on others” (25:35).  And the goal of the school is exactly that: to strengthen the relationship between a worker, his or her skills, and that person’s job, so that s/he advances in salary, in opportunity, and in quality of life.

The school offers evening and Friday morning classes to people who are employed or underemployed, in areas of engineering, marketing, practical computer technology, basic understanding of programs and applications, technical Hebrew and English, day care provision for children and senior adults, and others.  Since the school’s opening in 1983, there have been 10,000 successful graduates who have filled the ranks of IT companies, IT departments in large corporations, warehouses, and hospitals, in various parts of the country.

The school has been wonderfully instrumental in raising the dignity of people in this region.  As a place at the periphery of the country, and a region that has known its share of enemy infiltration and fire even as late as last Thursday, the town of Shelomi has not been able to attract ‘the best and the brightest’ of Israeli society.  New immigrant absorption problems, mixed with a small town attitude of limited vision, have hampered Shelomi’s residents in their pursuit of a higher standard of living.  The poverty is palpable as you walk through the town’s main business square, and you get the impression that with just a little push, this place could blossom.

And this is what Erez College is doing, increasing the ability of this area’s residents to thrive.

My specific tasks are simple: to interview board members, students, graduates, and teaching staff – all in Hebrew – and turn those interviews into English language materials, in print and online, for potential donors in English speaking countries.  The intention is, of course, to entice them to give money and make business investments in this region, in order to allow the people and the state of Israel to thrive.  Large and small donors to the College need to better understand the need for populating the Western Galilee, raising the work standard of this region’s residents, and enlarging the profile of Zionism even in the border areas.  And that is what my work is all about.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: Needed Rain

KIBBUTZ ADAMIT, ISRAEL – On this lazy Shabbat afternoon, it is rain that is keeping us indoors.  But this rain is absolutely necessary to life here in Israel.  Since Friday morning, and predicted into Monday, this region will log more than two inches of needed rain.
My host family lives on a beautiful mountaintop, and their home is perched on the side of a mountain about 1300 feet above sea level.  As you can see in this photo, this site overlooks the entire bay of Haifa, a city 45 miles away.

But today we’re indoors making soup and small talk, as a blustery and massive series of storm fronts rolls from the west to the east, bringing needed rain to the parched land.  There was the prediction of snow on the Hermon mountain range for today.  In this picture you can see the clouds as we saw them this morning, getting ready to pour.

In a matter of half an hour, the clouds rolled across the mountaintop, and they brought thunder and lightning as they made their way east.

Then the rain came directly through the kibbutz, and the day became dark, mysterious, and eerie.

These storms also brought with them hail, perhaps ¼ of an inch in diameter.  This is not exactly typical of the weather patterns here, but it does make for a beautiful afternoon

At this point, the rain has obliterated any view that we have, and we see only a gray pall hanging over us.  It’s very mysterious and beautiful, cold and powerful, and absolutely necessary for a proper summer growing season.

Shabbat Shalom and Shavuah Tov – A Peaceful Sabbath, and a good week ahead to you!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Obsdeervations from My Sabbatical Leave: Shabbat Shalom!

The television news moderator signed off by saying “Shabbat Shalom to everyone.”  But it was only Thursday at 9 PM.

This is what I heard tonight, in this new Israel that has gone to the five-day work week.  The weekend for Israeli Jews now begins on Thursday evening and concludes Saturday night, a full 48 hours+ of time away from work.

Time was that Israelis worked themselves six days per week, Sunday 8 AM through 1:00 PM (if you were a government employee) or 3 PM on Friday (if you worked for private industry).  Then on your way home, you might have time to pick up some flowers or a bottle of wine for dinner (if you arrived at the store before it closed).  If you intended to take the last bus and you missed it, you were out of luck.

Nowadays, Fridays in Israel are much like Saturdays in America: People are off work – for the most part – and doing errands.  Commerce is active, businesses are open, and people can choose to be a part of the consuming society or simply rest.

Most people, like my host family, do all of the above: they shop for the week ahead, wash their laundry, clean the house or flat, take long hikes in the parks and forests here in the North, and so forth.  This added day of rest – or perhaps a day on which one prepares for the rest of Shabbat – has many advantages.  Among these is the advancement of Israel to a society that can begin to take its “rest” seriously and not get caught up too much in the fast pace that characterizes this country most of the time.

Whatever the day, rest for the body and mind is one of the most important gifts that we can give ourselves, and Israelis are truly grateful that this relatively new opportunity presents itself now.

The question for us is how will we bring life-preserving rest to our existence in this world and on this planet?  That is the challenge for us all.

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: Viewing Acts of Terror from Israel, a Land All Too Familiar with Terror

KIBBUTZ ADAMIT, ISRAEL – It is the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, and along with Israel’s celebrations of its 65th birthday anniversary, tonight – late – we heard news in Israel of the horrific acts of terror at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and around that city.

Those around me at Adamit, the kibbutz where I am staying (which is only 500 meters from the Lebanese border), send their sympathies to the families of the deceased and the injured victims.  They also remind us to stay calm and hold on to courage in the face of terror.

As Jews in Israel have taught us, remaining true to values in the face of threats and violence must be our goal, both as Jews and as human beings.  At the same time that we mourn losses, we stand firm in our convictions to continue life as it needs to happen for us, and not as someone else wishes to affect us.

Earlier this morning, I attended an Israel Memorial Day ceremony at the regional Junior High School.  The backdrop on their makeshift stage carried a message that I would send to you, as it carries a message of hope and persistence.

Regarding those here who have fallen for the sake of this beautiful land, that backdrop said:
“We should continue working, because they worked.  We should continue laughing, because they laughed.  We should continue loving, because they loved!  We should continue living, because they wanted to live.”

Know that I am thinking of you and all Americans as you experience this terrible act of terror, that I stand with you as your Rabbi and your friend at times of difficulty, and that I support you in all that you do to make life full and fulfilling for you and your family.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: Preparing for Israel’s 65th Anniversary

We have fireworks stands that come and go.  They have flags galore, as you can see in the photo of a square in the town of Nahariyya.  They are displayed all over the land, in squares, on automobiles, and in store windows.

We have a holiday of gathering, parties, and fireworks.  They have a holiday eve of solemn observance followed by fireworks and barbecues.

The rhythm of the land of Israel at the time of Independence Day – observed this year on Tuesday April 16 – is somewhat different from that of the United States as we approach July 4, and there are significant historical and emotional reasons for this.

In Israel, the day before Independence Day is Israel’s Memorial Day – this year April 15 – when Israelis venerate the memories of their war dead.  And the small size and young age of the country, added to the reality of ongoing struggles with its neighbors, means that every family here mourns either their own loved ones, or those of people very close to them.

Yom Hazikaron (Hebrew for Memorial Day) contains these observances:  Schools and businesses are open for half a day.  At 11 AM, sirens sound throughout the country and everyone stops whatever they are doing and stands at attention for three minutes.  Schools do not dismiss their students, but instruction ends and each campus has its own ceremony of memory, because each school has alumni who have died in Israel’s many armed conflicts.

Family members and friends then visit cemeteries where war dead have been buried, bringing respect and honor to those who died for their country.  This goes on throughout the afternoon, and as evening approaches, the country prepares for the anniversary celebration of the nation’s independence.
As the evening sets in, another siren sounds, signifying the end of Yom Hazikaron and the start of Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day).  Then the country enters a full day of celebrations, gatherings, fireworks, and acceptance of the blessing of freedom in an independent land.

The weather also turns decidedly warmer at this time of year, and Israelis are anxious to get outside and perform these acts of memory and celebration.  And it is a privilege to be here and celebrate with our cousins.

Shabbat Shalom to you, and a happy 65th Independence Day as well!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Observations From My Sabbatical Leave: Like Clockwork

I remember the days when many made fun of the “on time” record of Israel’s national airline, El Al.  Even on my first trip to Israel in 1970, our plane was 90 minutes and more late.  There was even a joke made of the name of the airline.  El Al is a biblical citation meaning “above and beyond.”  But those who knew it better remaned El Al “every landing always late.”

Nowadays, things run much more smoothly.  From my landing 45 minutes early to catching the right train up north to my host’s home, everything has been going like clockwork.

The ten hour flight from Newark should not be a deterrent in keeping people away.  I flew Continental Airlines today, and the service was very good.  More on the flight in the next blog entry.  But I am simply so impressed with the ease of getting around that I think I will start with that.

The Tel-Aviv airport?  If you have not been to Israel in the last ten years, the new terminals are large, comfortable, and easy to navigate through.  An d because of tail winds that prevail from West to East, our flight was easy, early, and pleasant.

The Israeli trains?  I recall when taking a train was a non-air conditioned affair, with smelly restrooms and open or missing windows that let in the scents of the countryside, both the good and bad ones.  I am now sitting on a double decker train, air conditioned and quiet, with commuting Israelis on their ways home.  It is now about 6:10 PM local time, and this train – that extends from Beer Sheva in the south to Nahariya in the north – is full and, of course, on time.

The weather is pleasant, high 60’s, and it’s definitely spring here.  Some rain to come tonight, but a nicer climate I would not have expected.  I start my volunteer work at Erez College tomorrow, and my participation in Congregation Emet V’Shalom on Friday.

It has been said that Israel is the land of miracles.  This is certainly true, and them some!

My time in Israel is a treasure to me, made even more significant because of the large extended mishpachah (family) that we all have here.  It is a privilege to be here representing our congregation.  All my best to you.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: The ‘Values’ of ‘Entitlements’ or of ‘Earned Benefits’

One benefit of being on sabbatical has been my ability to remain current with the news.  And what has caught my eye – and ear – has been the public debate on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

As the Administration and Congress each try to gain advantage in this clash of ideas, their arguments make me think of the need to reframe these political arguments into an understanding and implementation of the values put forward by Jewish tradition.

One side rails against the continued growth of these programs as the Baby Boomer generation retires.  They claim that these “entitlements” bring about an ‘immoral’ kind of dependency that is a drain on our nation’s economy.

The other side counters that Social Security and Medicare recipients have paid into the system over their working lifetime, and they are rightly to benefit from their personal ‘deposits’ over the years.

Now, I am no economist, but many argue that these funds are pretty healthy and not in need of much attention.  But even if these funds were in danger, no one seems to know for certain whether ‘chaining’ the CPI (reducing cost of living increases) or Medicare ‘premium supports’ (vouchers to assist in purchasing health care) would guarantee the long-term solvency of these funds.

But rather than debate foreboding economic forecasts or the fear of what reduced Medicare funding could mean to a retiree’s wallet, let’s examine instead the Jewish value of what these retirement payments represent.

Retiring income earners have paid taxes over their working lives to fuel the economy.  Whether in the form of income, Social Security payroll, sales, property, and other taxes, these workers have supported the nation’s private and government economies by earning incomes and paying taxes.  When they retire, we should see it, therefore, as a supreme - and basic - value to reward them for their concrete contributions to our nation’s economic health.  We must compensate them with the ability to live with health and dignity for the rest of their lives.  They should not worry at all about the vicissitudes of the nation’s future economy.

This attitude represents the direction of Torah!  These retired workers are the elderly that our religious tradition refers to, the ones ‘before whom we are to rise and for whom we are to show respect’ (Leviticus 19:32), and it is demeaning and insulting to view them as moochers and lazy, as some have opined.

To me, that is the price of our government’s doing business.  These methods of supporting our retired elderly are simply past investments for maintaining our nation and keeping her prepared for whatever events have occurred in her history.  It makes every bit of sense to me, therefore, to maintain the dignity and health of our senior citizens, and not shortchange them in any way.