This past week, at the invitation of Summit’s Chief of Police Robert Weck, I went to Union County’s Stamler Police Academy to experience firearms simulation training. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant either.
I now know that the police officers of our county train using virtual reality technology. It’s called FATS – I felt right at home! – but really it stands for Firearms Training Simulator. Basically it’s a life-size video game in which officers and trainees can hone not only their physical skills like marksmanship, but also their decision making skills in difficult situations. So, for a few minutes, anyone can imagine that he or she is a police officer on a traffic stop or on a city street.
I don’t mean to make light of FATS but when I first heard of it, I pictured a bunch of police officers playing Pokémon Go. If you think about it, both this firearms simulator and Pokémon Go do the same thing – they keep our bodies in the same place phyically while transporting our minds to someplace else entirely.
Now the truth is, we all know that one does not need technology to have such an experience. A good book can transport us to any place on earth and even places that don’t really exist. However, we also know that technology can truly enhance the experience.
As I thought about the ways that technology can transport us anywhere we want to go, I couldn’t help but think about Israel. For years, we have had Israel day at ELC – one room is the airplane (with chairs lined up in rows with aisles), one room was the Western Wall, one room was the Shuk (market), etc. The kids got their passports stamped. They never left our building, but they spent the day in Israel.
Although travel to Israel is easier today than it’s ever been, the reality is that a trip to Israel is usually a once – maybe twice – in a lifetime experience. According to a Pew Poll in 2013, 43% of American Jews have been to Israel. Only 23% have been more than once. And yet, there’s a strong connection between American Jews and Israel.
In a more recent poll from March of this year, more than half of American Jews said that they are very or somewhat attached to Israel and that caring for Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them. It seems to me that the number of Jews who feel connected is probably closely related to the number of Jews who have been to Israel. That was certainly the logic behind Birthright – which ultimately turned into more of a Jewish dating service than an Israel program (but that’s another story for another day!).
Despite this connection felt by most of us, American Jews and Israeli Jews seem to disagree on an awful lot of subjects. American Jews think that security is Israel’s most serious long-term problem, but Israelis put it way down on the list. Israelis think that economic problems are the most serious problem, but American Jews didn’t thinks so at all. About 60% of American Jews are OPTimistic about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, whereas 60% of Israeli Jews are PESSimistic about peace.
Go figure: 2 Jews, 3 opinions. (That’s my favorite Jewish statistic of all time, by the way.)
So, the question is: short of going to Israel (which I am all in favor of doing!), how can we bring ourselves closer to Israel and closer to Israelis? How can we set up an “Israel training simulator” or an “Israel Go app” so that we can feel our close connection to Israel even when we are physically far away?
One way to feel the connection is through language, which is why we try to use so much Hebrew in our service. The past few years, we have hosted a group of students from Ra’anana – suburb of Tel Aviv. Each time, they have come to Shabbat services in our synagogue and they have subsequently been blown away by how similar our service is to the ones they attend at home. They could actually participate. That’s the beauty of using Hebrew.
Just this past Shabbat, we dedicated new Siddurim thanks to a generous gift from our member Bill Freund in memory of his wife Judy. Every Hebrew word is transliterated. We’ve removed a barrier to participation in our service and made it easier for people to experience the Hebrew language – the ancient language of our people, but also the modern language of Israel.
Even if you can’t tell an alef from a bet, you can still follow along and pray in Hebrew. You can still feel that connection. The editor who created these Siddurim has also created a Mahzor for the High Holidays. We have received a gift which would cover about 1/3 of the books we would need to switch. We hope to get the other 2/3 and have fully transliterated High Holiday books in time for NEXT Rosh Hashanah.
A second way to feel the connection is through Israeli Culture: News Film & Music. Last May, I walked into our social hall on a Wednesday and the kids were dancing at religious school like it was a Bat Mitzvah party. They were having a great time. Then, I paused for a moment and realized that the song was a Hebrew song. Of course! They were celebrating Yom Ha’Atzma’ut – Israel Independence Day. When I went to Hebrew school, a Hebrew song meant Bim Bam or Hineh Mah Tov. They didn’t exactly inspire us to get up and dance. But, kids today are being introduced to a completely different Jewish culture. It’s modern Israeli culture.
Just this past week, we put Rutgers Jewish Film Festival posters up in our building which will show a bunch of Israeli films starting after Sukkot. In the spring, the NJ Jewish Film Festival at the West Orange JCC will do the same. It’s a great opportunity to see what life is like in Israel today through the eyes of a camera – comedies, tragedies, documentaries – every genre you can think of. We allow films to transport to other countries and to outer space. Why not allow them to show us Israel?
We can also access Israel through the Israeli press – and I cannot emphasize enough how easy it is. Israeli news sources are readily accessible on the internet in both Hebrew and English – whether you are on right, on left or in the middle, there’s a news source for you. They have mobile apps so you can read on your phone or tablet.
I have not lived in my native Detroit since I left for college. And after four years of college, I never lived in the state of Michigan again. However, I continue to read the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press – the newspapers of my youth – in their on-line formats. Michigan and Detroit are categories in my Google News feed. After all, I know that my family is there, I still have friends there and I care about what happens there. I feel the same way about Israel. Even though I don’t live there, I have a deep connection and I therefore need to know what’s going on there.
A third way to feel the connection is through the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, which is the rhythm of the Land of Israel. The original Jewish calendar as laid out in the Torah is the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel. Spring Festival, Summer Harvest and Fall Harvest are the key holidays. We know them better as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.
The rabbis later added historical meanings to the festivals for those who no longer lived in the land of Israel. So, on Passover, we remember the Exodus. On Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. On Sukkot, the wandering in the wilderness.
We need to find ways to add layers of meaning to the holidays that continue to bind us the land of Israel. So, for example, our movement has permitted and even encouraged the eating of kitniyot or legumes on Passover because that is the predominant custom in Israel and we should all observe Passover the same way.
Traditionally, Jews have imported lulavs and etrogs to celebrate Sukkot. Maybe we need to start importing pomelits as well. What is pomelit (you may be asking)? It is a hybrid of a grapefruit and a pomelo, developed in Israel. And, apparently, it is delicious!
And on Shavuot, we are supposed to pretend that we are at Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah. Maybe we need to pretend we are in Israel participating in Knesset debate. (That would certainly keep us up all night!)
This coming year, we are going to take this connection yet a step further by celebrating holidays on the Israeli calendar. Let me explain….
When we read about the holidays in the Torah, we read about seven days of Pesach and single day of Shavuot. We read about seven days of Sukkot and a single day of Shemini Atzeret. However, those of us who live in the diaspora know that we typically observe eight days of Pesach, two days of Shavuot and at the end of the elongated Sukkot we have a day called Simchat Torah that does not appear in the Torah at all. How did we get here?
The Talmud records how only the Sanhedrin – the highest rabbinic court – in Jerusalem could announce the beginning of a new month. A lunar month is a tad longer than 29.5 days. So, keeping track of those fractions and determining whether a month was going to be 29 or 30 days was an important job. Once the Sanhedrin had set the calendar for the month, they set signal fires and sent messengers to outlying communities. Word of the new month did not always arrive before the first holiday in the month. So, when there was doubt as to whether a holiday should be celebrated on a Monday or a Tuesday, the rabbinic answer was simply: BOTH.
Rosh Hashanah has been celebrated for two days since the Second Temple period because it was simply impossible to get word out in time. So, our Israeli brothers and sisters celebrate Rosh Hashanah the way that we do. However, Shavuot, for example, falls on the 6th day of the month of Sivan, and has always been celebrated for one day in Israel, but two days in diaspora.
So, the question is: in today’s world, where the gadgets that we all carry in our pockets can calculate the Jewish calendar ad infinitum, why do we still add the extra day? The answer has always been, “Minhag Avoteinu b’yadeinu – the custom of our ancestors in our hands.” The Law Committee of our movement took a look at this in 1963 and decided that even though the 2nd day of festivals was only a custom and not law, we should preserve it. Only four years later, at about the time of Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War, they decided to re-visit the issue. At that time, in 1967 – nearly 50 years ago! – our law committee gave congregations permission to stop observing the extra days of festivals and revert back to the Biblical model. In a sense they were saying, “minhag acheinu b’yadeinu – the custom of our brothers and sisters is in our hands.”
At that time, very few Conservative congregations went down that path. It seemed like such a drastic step to take. However, over the next fifty years, Jews voted with their feet. Our attendance on second days of holidays has shrunk dramatically. We close our Nursery School and Religious School on those days because we want families to come to services, but the real effect of those closures is that those families and those kids are simply NOT in our building on the second days of holidays. And instead, we have another difference between ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Israel, who look at us like we’re crazy that we don’t simply follow what the Torah says.
In a discussion about a completely different legal matter – the Nazirite vow in which a person could swear off cutting his hair and drinking wine – the Talmud asks: “Is it not enough for you to abstain from what the Torah has forbidden that you seek to forbid yourself other things as well?” I think that principle applies to this situation as well.
When the Torah says, eat Matzah for seven days, that’s pretty clear. When the Torah says, dwell in booths for seven days, that’s pretty clear. As a rabbi, I find it sufficiently challenging to explain to people why they should do the things that Torah asks of us. It’s impossible for me to explain why we should do things that the Torah simply does not require. If the uncertainty around the calendar still existed, I could understand clinging to the extra day. But there is no longer any doubt as to exactly which day is the correct day.
So, beginning with this Sukkot, we are going to start relaxing the way that we observe the extra days. Our schools will be open so that our kids will actually be in our building on these days and we can teach them about the holiday instead of having them avoid the building. We will still have services at 9:30 am, but they will be shorter – a cross between the holiday and the weekday.
And we will observe Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret on the Israeli schedule as a single day. Simchat Torah will be on the eve of the eighth day (October 23) and Shemini Atzeret will be on the eighth day itself (October 24). So, Yizkor will still be on the same day. (All of this is info is reflected on the official synagogue calendar on our website.)
We’ve already discussed this at the religious committee level and it makes sense to us. I hope it makes sense to all of you as well. After we’ve gone through Sukkot and see how it works, we’ll have some opportunities to discuss it as a congregation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I will never be a police officer, but I got to have an experience that almost let me feel what it’s like. I will probably never travel in space, but technology has given me taste of that experience. Most of us will never live in Israel. If we are fortunate, we’ll get there once or twice in our lifetimes.
However, we can have a stronger connection to Israel. We can bring a taste of Israel to our synagogue. We can try to dance to the music and rhythm of our ancient and modern homeland.
In this coming year of 5777, let’s do that together through using more Hebrew, through learning more about Israeli culture and by aligning ourselves with the calendar of the land of Israel.