Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
This upcoming week will mark the third complete month my family and I have spent in Israel. I love it here. Sure, like any country, there is still a great deal for Israel to improve. But improvements aside, as it is I love it. So what is it that I love so much? The spirit of Jewish life that is palpable in each and every step I take here.
So what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that the synagogues are better. I prefer Shul life in America. It doesn’t mean that Kashrut is easier. When I’m outside of Jerusalem, like Tel Aviv for example, it’s not so easy to find Kosher restaurants. For me, the best example of Jewish spirit in everyday life is the Israel Tennis Center.
You see, I married into a tennis family. That means that I had to relearn how to play tennis in order to marry my wife Blair. It means that everyday on vacation with the Rubenstein family is centered around when we play tennis. It means that my children, without any choice in the matter, will be good tennis players whether they like it or not. It means that one of the first places Blair and I visited when we got settled was the Israel Tennis Center, here in Jerusalem.
The Israel Tennis Center (ITC) represents the best way in which Israel infuses Jewish values into everyday life – even secular everyday life. These two sentences from the website regarding the History of the ITC summarize it all:
“The Tennis Center operates programs for children at risk, developmentally challenged children and Ethiopian children from local absorption centers. The tennis center is also an integral part of our Doubles Coexistence Program - our national effort to bring Arab and Jewish children together through the medium of sport and non-formal education.”
Each and every week I grab a cab from the Conservative Yeshiva to Katamon to watch my kids take tennis lessons with Jewish kids who are secular, who are religious, who are rich, who are poor, who are black, who are white – oh yeah, and some kids are not Jewish. The instructors only speak Hebrew. And they emit the “mamash” (really true) Israeli spirit.
My kids love it there. Blair and I love it there. We try to play there on Friday mornings. We have made friends there from America, from France, from all over. Some of them had never heard of Conservative or “Masorti” Judaism before. And perhaps the Jewish ideal will be when Jews become friends without any interest in what denomination we belong to or which traditions we follow. We just invite one another over for Shabbat dinner because it’s who we all are. Perhaps wealthy families paying more so that less fortunate Jewish children can play as well is a Jewish ideal as authentic as Shabbat and Kashrut. Perhaps the center offers hope that all of our children can grow up seeing one another simply as Jews with far more similarities than differences? Perhaps those large foam tennis balls are teaching my children truly powerful Torah.
When I got married, I had to learn to play tennis in order to become close to the woman of my dreams. Likewise, Blair learned a lot about traditional Judaism. I would have never believed that tennis would have allowed me to see the realization of such great Jewish principles. Thank you Rubenstein family for teaching me to play tennis. And thank you Israel and the ITC for showing me how Judaism can be a winner in every way.
To learn more about the ITC, please visit www.israeltenniscenters.org.
11.17.13 at 10:06 am |
10.27.13 at 11:08 pm |
9.22.13 at 10:53 am |
8.28.13 at 10:20 am |
6.18.13 at 2:42 pm |
5.16.13 at 9:40 pm | I just spent the last two days of Shavuot. . .
October 27, 2013 | 11:08 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
American Jews believe in education. I know that seems like a generalization, but I can’t think of a single American Jewish person who would say that education should not be a priority for their children. So let’s say that an American Jewish child comes home to their parents from a tough day in Middle School and says that they want to quit Beginning Algebra. Few parents would allow their children to stop or to say just finish Middle School and you’ll never have to learn Math ever again. Therefore, it seems puzzling to me that those same American Jewish Parents seem to allow their children to quit learning Hebrew at exactly that same point in their life.
Hebrew is the lifeline of our religion. It is the language of the Torah. It is the language of our people. We are so intertwined with those boxy letters that when Zionism and the Modern State of Israel took hold within the worldwide Jewish community, modern Hebrew was reborn as a living language. Simply put, Hebrew is inextricable from any aspect of the Jewish narrative. Even when Hebrew wasn’t spoken casually, it was because Hebrew was held on a pedestal as the “Lashon Kodesh” or the Holy Language.
Much of Rabbinical School feels to me like a Graduate Program in Linguistics. First, learn Hebrew. Then, learn Babylonian Aramaic. Then, learn to read the thousand years of writing when people spoke neither language but insisted on writing in them to remain within the tradition.
When I arrived in Israel with my wife and kids, I was happily surprised that my wife Blair decided to enroll in an Ulpan (a ten day crash course in Hebrew). She hadn’t learned Hebrew since her Bat-Mitzvah. And although English is spoken in Israel, especially when seeing Israel through a tourist perspective, Hebrew is required to ride in local cabs, shop in local supermarkets, read labels on groceries and a whole lot more. Ten days in her Hebrew Intensive hasn’t made Blair fluent but I am so proud that she can order in a restaurant, she can understand a Taxi driver – and has once again entered our two-thousand-year-old conversation, which has always been spoken (and argued) in Hebrew.
My friends often ask why Judaism fascinates me to the point that I want to study it with such intensity. After all, they all studied Judaism as well before their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I often respond by saying that it would be difficult to find literature engaging as an adult if one stopped reading at the age of twelve or thirteen. (I use that metaphor for writers, but it works for any profession.)
I spend so much time around teachers of Torah, Talmud and Halacha that I often forget to recognize my greatest teachers in life. Last week when Blair texted me the picture of herself holding the Diploma from her Ulpan, I suddenly remembered why I was studying the Sugya of Gemora I had in front of me at that moment. The two-thousand-year-old conversation cannot end. Education in all things, even Jewish education, must continue throughout one’s life and not be limited to a specific time window.
Blair is not only my teacher, she is also a teacher for our children. And this message about Hebrew is one I have always dreamed of teaching them. They were so proud of her. I invite you to follow her example and reenter our generations old conversation as a religion and as a people. If you know Hebrew, try to read a new Hebrew book. If you don’t know Hebrew, try to learn it even in your adulthood.
What is the last truly new and challenging thing that you have learned? If you can’t think of an answer quickly, go find a teacher. Spend some time with that teacher and broaden yourself. I promise it will be both exhilarating and frustrating and reinvigorate your life. And then thank the teacher. And if you’re lucky enough, marry her so that she can pass her Ulpan Diploma around the table at dinnertime.
September 22, 2013 | 10:53 am
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
The Jewish tradition calls the Holiday of Sukkot “Z’man Simchateinu” (the Time of Our Happiness). Here in Israel, the atmosphere of Sukkot floods the streets. Lulavs, Etrogs and Sukkahs are sold on the streets. Most people take time off of work or go on vacation during the holiday. But Sukkot is quickly slipping by, which only leaves Simchat Torah as the last hoorah before a month without festivities at all.
Unfortunately, for my family Sukkot has not been so festive. My wife got sick the first day of the Holiday and we spent it in the Urgent Care Facility. After little/terrible treatment, we spent last night in the emergency room at Hadassah Hospital where she received first class care and thank goodness is feeling much better this morning.
On the way to the hospital, the cab driver had the radio on. We listened to the story about Tomer Hazan, the IDF Soldier who was kidnapped and killed by a Palestinian who sought justice for his brother’s incarceration after his terrorist brother had been involved in a suicide attack cell. After knowing one another from working together, the Palestinian lured Hazan to the West Bank. There he murdered Hazan and stuffed the body in a well where he planned to barter Hazan back to the State of Israel, of course without informing the government that he had already killed Hazan. (Read the story at JPost.com at: http://www.jpost.com/National-News/Palestinian-murders-IDF-soldier-in-West-Bank-326690). I became filled with rage. Living in Israel, I realize that every IDF soldier is a member of my extended family. And while being here, the nature of such a tragedy feels personal. Tomer Hazan was an actual person, a 20-year-old Jewish young-adult, with loving Jewish parents and a bright Jewish future. He is not just an IDF uniform.
Then, my wife and I arrived to Hadassah Hospital (totally deserving of any charitable donations you are considering) and checked into the ER. She was hunched over with stomach pain. Then, the specialist came out to meet with us and sure enough the Gastrointerologist was an Arab. He was a gentleman and seemed brilliant and took great care of the most important person in my life. “From the bottom on my heart, thank you,” I told him as we both walked out, upright. He smiled as if it was nothing – just a day’s work. How do we reconcile the complicated nature of the Palestinian Issue when it has so many dimensions?
In the past month, I have had Arabs in the Old City tell me that the Jews are only temporary guests on their land. I have had an Arab Taxi Driver tell me that even if there was a Palestinian State he wouldn’t want to leave the State of Israel – He was desperately trying to get his children Israeli citizenship. I have met Arab doctors worthy of my admiration and respect. And everyday I read about the most inhumane actions perpetrated by Palestinians.
Perhaps, Israel is meant to struggle with these issues. After all, the name Israel refers to struggle itself – struggle with G-d. However, presumably all struggles end with leadership. My father, a great Rebbe of mine, often asks, “Have we run out of leaders?”
This week we are caught between the last Parsha of the Torah discussing the death of Moses and the first Parsha about Creation. “Another Prophet like Moses will not arise in Israel,“ the Torah tells us after Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34:10. But Moses never entered the Land of Israel. And perhaps that’s the message. The Torah is saying that we should never need another leader to help us navigate the desert wilderness outside the Land of Israel.
The Bible never says that another Prophet like Joshua will not arise in Israel. Joshua navigated the land and knew its complicated nature. Joshua encountered other cultures in the land and still made sure the Land of Israel was and would always be the rightful Jewish inheritance. Perhaps the leader we should be searching out should be like Joshua
Leaders are not found, they are raised. And the Jewish People need to rely on our greatest natural resource – our children. Let’s educate them about Israel and all of its many dimensions. Let’s teach them our long and winding narrative. Let’s raise them to become thoughtful leaders. Perhaps, we will never raise another Moses, but we can raise another Joshua. We can only hope and pray.
August 28, 2013 | 10:20 am
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
Last week, one of my greatest dreams came true. I arrived in Israel for an entire year of study at the Conservative Yeshiva. I have to admit, in the last moments of uprooting my family, I doubted myself and wondered, “Is learning in Israel so important that I should pull my kids out of their preschool to come to Israel?” After one week here in Jerusalem, I can tell you that the simple answer is YES. Living here is crucial to understanding Torah.
Here, Torah sounds clear, rings true and remains relevant. Take the statement from this week’s Torah Portion of Nitzavim, “But not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath. But with those standing here with us today before the Lord, our God, and with those who are not here with us, this day.“ (Deuteronomy 29:13-14) It means that the covenant (and Torah in general) applies to all Jews. The Torah is simply part of us, part of our Jewish neshama (soul), part of our Jewish DNA.
Nothing proves this point better than my experience arriving at Ben Gurion airport after a fourteen-hour flight. My wife and I were carrying our kids and dragging all of our carry-ons (too many to mention) down the terminal in Tel-Aviv. Walking down the hallway overlooking the airport food court, a Chabad Rabbi walked into the center of the busy food court and blew the Shofar (as is the daily tradition during the month proceeding Rosh HaShanah).
Everybody in the food court below and everybody in the hallway above stopped what they were doing—walking, talking, eating—and came to a complete standstill. Men and women, young and old, religious and secular. The Shofar blast united us all. All of us, Klal Yisrael (the entire congregation of Israel), listened to the ram’s horn's sound of wonder and awe and warning.
And then in the middle of the series of blasts, a secular gentleman to my left, turned to his family and loudly announced in Hebrew, “Di, kadima!" ("Enough, let’s go!") Immediately, I smiled. In Israel, all Jews are bound to Torah. But some Jews say “Di” earlier than others—And that’s okay. Listening to half of the Shofar blasts is better than saying that Torah doesn’t apply. Much like the simple blast of the Shofar, Torah speaks to all of us. And we all receive it differently. It will always be our decision as to how to listen. Let’s choose this upcoming year to follow the State of Israel’s example and always surround ourselves with Torah and always know that we receive it differently.
Like my wife tells our kids, it’s alright to say “Enough” sometimes. At least that means you’re trying it. This upcoming year, let’s try experiencing more Torah. Let more Torah into your heart. Allow yourself to strengthen your part of the covenant. Connect better to your community around you and to your spiritual home—always and forever the Land of Israel.
May you have a happy and healthy 5774… You and all your loved ones should all be inscribed in the book of life!
June 18, 2013 | 2:42 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
This past week my wife surprised me with tickets to the new Superman movie “Man of Steel” for my birthday. So late Saturday night, we sat in a packed movie theater to watch the reboot of the famous franchise begin. I loved it. I love Superman. And I love the way this film portrays his inner conflict.
Frankly, I think Superman could only have been written by Jews. It is common knowledge that Superman was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, two Jews, in Cleveland, Ohio. The character debuted in 1938. Shuster and Siegel were first generation Americans and maintained a similar “us-against-the-world” mentality that my parents and all first generation Americans do. They spoke English at school while Yiddish was spoken at home. This is all explored briefly in “Jewish Americans” – a great PBS documentary.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that Superman has dark hair and dark eyes while all of the popular kids in his high school are blond and that his American name is Clark Kent while his ancestral name is Kal-El and begins with the same phonetic sound. Does this sound familiar to American Jews?
However, I’d like to take this one step further and assume that Shuster and Siegel named Superman Kal-El on purpose. Kal-El can either mean the “Vessel of G-d” or “Ease with G-d”. No matter which translation we accept, they are drastically different than our traditional title of Children of “Israel”, which means “struggle with G-d”. Jacob is gifted with the name of Israel only after wrestling with the angel. This drastic dichotomy in names portrays the difference between the Jewish Ideal and the Jewish Fantasy. Israel is the Jewish Ideal. Superman is a Jewish Fantasy.
We would all love to have somebody show up as a vessel who can walk into some chamber and then reveal to all of us the secrets of the universe. We would all love to have a leader who stands for what is right and good. We would all love for a figure to battle the forces of evil in the world on our behalf. But Traditional Jewish Texts leave that for fantasy. We hold flawed individuals as our role models – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David.
We as Jews try to repair the world ourselves and not wait for others. The Zionist Tradition encourages us to stand up to our enemies ourselves and not wait for others. The Rabbinic Tradition shows us to wrestle with G-d’s words, to turn over the words of the Torah and the Talmud until we can make sense of it. In fact, we spend our entire lives wrestling with G-d, looking for answers.
It would be nice for our relationship with G-d to come easily or “Kal”. However, Judaism isn’t interested in an easy relationship, our Sages want us to yearn for a meaningful relationship.
That is why I am proud I am moving to Israel for a year. My family and I are so excited. Although, I have to admit that we would love to visit Krypton as well.
May 16, 2013 | 9:40 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
I just spent the last two days of Shavuot studying. While Shavuot is supposed to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I find it more meaningful to be grateful for the enduring cycle of regiving or transmittance of Torah (which of course cannot be explained without Sinai). This Shavuot, I found myself wrapped in the comforting words of a voice as familiar to me as any Rabbi I’ve ever met – Rabbi Vernon Kurtz.
You see, Rabbi Kurtz has been the Rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL since I was seven years old. And his new book, “Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion” is an accomplishment thirty-six years in the making. The book is a compilation of ninety-two sermons by Rabbi Kurtz, approximately two on each weekly Torah Parsha. Not only can you read the book as a means of gaining insight into the Torah, but also as a way of making Torah relevant in your life. Many of you who read the book will find depth in the teaching and beauty in the message. I find the voice of Rabbi Kurtz.
It wasn’t until I read the book that I fully realized how impactful Rabbi Kurtz’s words have been in my life. It was because of Rabbi Kurtz ‘s invitation that my parents, who were great Zionists but had never traveled to Israel before, decided it was time for all of us to go. Within one of his sermons on Lekh Lekha, Rabbi Kurtz writes, “Aliyah should be considered one of the highest mitzvot of our generation… Within the Conservative movement, we have always been proponents of Zionism.”
There is no doubt that the trip to Israel changed the course of my life. Rabbi Kurtz made it impossible for me to imagine a Jewish life without Israel playing a central role. And now, as my family prepares to move to Israel in three months, the words of that sermon make me understand where it began to take shape.
I can also see where I began to care about the Jewish community at large. In his sermon on Va-Ethannan, he wrote about the second generation of Israelites wandering in the desert, “As they become further removed generationally from the actual events of the Biblical record, how will they internalize the experiences and the lessons of the preceding generations?” My grandparents, all Holocaust Survivors, all adore and adored Rabbi Kurtz. My parents are proud to call him a friend. My siblings and I look up to him. He relates to everybody in a way that is truly inspiring.
Rabbi Kurtz answers that question with the way he runs Beth El. It’s not just a big Synagogue, it’s also a Shul. Fathers wrap their sons with Tefillin on Sunday mornings in Vav Class. Mothers teach their children how to light Shabbat candles in the preschool. How do we solve the problem of transmitting the experiences and the lessons of the preceding generations? Each one of us has to assume the mantle of teacher, preacher and role model for our own children. And if each of us does this for our own family, then maybe each community will be lucky enough to have a devoted Rabbi. And if we can hope for even more, our Rabbinic communities will have role models like Rabbi Kurtz. Thank you Rabbi Kurtz for all of your teachings over the course of my life. I look forward to many, many more in the years to come.
If you are interested in purchasing “Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion”, please click here.
April 24, 2013 | 4:21 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
Several weeks ago on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach my grandmother Marie Lebovitz passed away. We all lovingly called her Gammi. My Dad asked me to officiate the funeral. Although I had never officiated a funeral before, I said yes. I would do anything for my father. And thanks to Rabbi Nicole Guzik’s coaching ahead of time and Rabbi Vernon Kurtz’s mentorship before and during the funeral, I was able to officiate the ceremony.
I eulogized my grandmother. Like all of my grandparents, she had survived the Holocaust. And like all of my grandparents, Gammi was not a survivor. She was a prevailer. Her toughness allowed her to prevail over the Nazis even though she lost so much family. Her toughness allowed her to come to a new country and start a family. Her toughness allowed her to walk up to a young, good looking Jewish guy dressed in a Russian uniform and offer to sell him cigarettes and then demand that he take her with him to America. Thank G-d she did— He was my grandfather, Ba.
And after the service, we sat Shiva and in many ways I thought the process unfolded perfectly according to the wisdom of the Rabbis.
And then this past week, one night my four-year-old daughter began to sob that she would never see Gammi again. Whatever it was that set the crying off (and my wife and I are still not sure), we were not prepared for it. Having not been at the funeral, she needed a way to say goodbye. Between her sobbing she asked, “How do I call Gammi to say goodbye if Gammi is with G-d?”
I tried every explanation you could think of. Gammi will always be with us. If you close your eyes hard enough you can see Gammi. Just say goodbye and Gammi will hear you. But nothing could satisfy her. My daughter wanted to make Gammi a goodbye card and give it to her.
It was then that my wife and I offered to tape the card onto a balloon. Without even having to finish explaining our plans, my daughter surmised that the balloon would fly up to heaven.
You see, much like my personal story, three weeks ago we read in Parshat Shemini (Lev. 10) that Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu each lost their lives. And this week’s Parshat Acharei Mot begins “The L-rd spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron… Thus shall Aaron enter the Sanctuary…” (Lev.16:1-3). It is here that G-d describes a new type of ceremony that we know today as Yom Kippur.
I would like to think that this new ceremony established hope for Aaron. I would like to think that it rekindled his love for G-d and trust in the Holiness Code. Here, G-d shows that there will indeed be a place for judgment and reflection, and G-d understands that we as humans need both.
I want to think that Parshat Acharei is placed here for a reason—To create a connection that establishes Yom Kippur as our next big goal after the celebration of Pesach is over. On Yom Kippur we look at G-d as the truthful judge. On Pesach we look at G-d as our savior.
Before the funeral, during the “Kriyah” (tearing of the cloth), the mourners say the blessing “Baruch atah… Dayan Ha’Emet” or “Blessed are you G-d… the Truthful Judge” – Just like on Yom Kippur. And then during every Kaddish during the year, the mourner says “Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Shmei Rabah” or “His name should be mighty and sanctified” – Just like on Pesach.
Ba and Gammi used to take such pride in making their Pesach Seders and I used to take such pride in standing next to them during Yom Kippur. These holidays and all of the ceremonies in the Torah – They end up being the basis for so many family memories, so many community memories.
Because that’s what true community is. Our fellow Jews form our sanctuary today. It’s where we celebrate Pesach and Yom Kippur… And Gammi. It’s where we throw candy for Simchas and where we cry during mourning. We think of those who are standing with us and those who once stood by our sides. That special quality, that special feeling, that’s what Yidishkeit demands from a community.
Although the Torah doesn’t say it, I can assure you that Nadav and Avihu heard their father Aaron’s prayers. And although I have no proof, I can tell you with all of my Rabbinic training and with all of my studying and with all of my Emunah, my faith, that my daughter’s card was carried to heaven on the balloon.
Thank you G-d for directing the balloon. Thank you Gammi for accepting the card.
I pray that Gammi’s memory blesses all of us with connection. A connection that not only bonds us as a community but a real covenant that bonds us across generations all the way back to Aaron and the community at Mount Sinai.
I love you Gammi, always and forever.
March 21, 2013 | 11:19 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
This past week, I witnessed an almost certain miracle. My one and a half year old son has never been willing to wear a Kippah (yarmulke) during religious services or even for thirty seconds during the blessing over the wine. Sometimes people at shul point it out to me, as if I didn’t realize. But I understand their concern and I always smile and reply, “I’d be more than happy to put the Kippah on, but you’re going to have to lend me a stapler.” While there is nothing funny about stapling a Kippah onto a little boy’s head, if you have a one-year-old child, I know you can appreciate the sentiment.
My father, just as his father before him, has a saying that he applies to different situations, “Don’t worry Nolan, he’ll wear a Kippah by the time he is Bar-Mitzvah’ed.” Eleven more years of this is as reassuring to me as the stapler.
As somebody who is studying to be a Rabbi, sometimes his rejection of the Kippah has felt almost personal. Although, I’m absolutely sure he doesn’t intend it to be that way. My wife and I have bought him all different kinds and sizes—No help. “He’s just a toddler and it’s just a phase,” I used to hope.
Then last Saturday night before Havdalah, he reached out and grabbed a Dodgers’ Kippah and said, “MINE.” And with that declaration, he put it on his head and smiled. We tried not to make a big deal out of it and I quickly lit the candle and said Havdalah. The Kippah remained on his head the whole time.
The entirety of covenant doesn’t happen all at once. Although his circumcision on his eighth day of life marked his entrance into the Covenant between G-d and His Jewish People, my son now must accept all of the responsibilities that come with that Covenant—and that come with all of our family’s traditions.
Next week we will read in the Haggadah at the Pesach Seder, “In each generation, each individual is required to view himself or herself as if he or she is the one who left Egypt.” That means that as much as we all talk about our Covenant as the Jewish People, there is still an individual component for each one of us. There is a responsibility that each one of us has to maintain our part of the bond to G-d and to Jews all across the world.
Sometimes personal responsibility is far more daunting a task than collective liability. One can shrug off the collective duty figuring that somebody else will take care of it. That is not what Pesach teaches.
Pesach teaches that while we are all a part of this miraculous story of freedom, we all still carry personal responsibility to maintain that freedom for ourselves and for others. And that is what my son teaches. I witnessed his first step to claim his personal stake in the oldest covenant known in the world. His little hand placing that big Kippah on his little head was an affirmation of Torah and the Jewish People… At least until next week. I’ll keep you posted. Chag Kasher V’Sameach—Happy Passover!