Beit Shemesh Women
February 9, 2012
by Liza Levy and Avital Ingber
Imagine the contrast of two women sitting in the same room: Batsheva and Aviva. Batsheva has organized the Beit Shemesh flash mob video filmed in the city square that has more than 170,000 hits online. Aviva is a self-taught dancer who has never seen a live dance performance: “And I don’t even have the Internet.”
At a distance, it is hard to imagine anything but disorder and mayhem in Beit Shemesh right now. Media reports would have us believe that all is not right in the Holy Land, pitting Jew against Jew, staunch faith against immodesty. But earlier this week, we had the opportunity to check out the situation first-hand and what emerged for us was a picture of Jewish life in our partner region that is far more nuanced than newspapers would have us believe.
We want to put you in the room with us. A young, inspirational 30 year-old recent immigrant – an olah from Antwerp - has two young children and no Internet. Yet she expresses herself through dance and has made her professional career as a choreographer. Daily she works with women from all streams of Judaism and will get on any bus in Israel. Aviva is a woman much like us except that she is ultra-Orthodox and living in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Last week, nine women from Greater Washington had the privilege to have dinner with Aviva, Batsheva and other women like them from our Partnership region, Mateh Yehuda/Beit Shemesh. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington brought women together from all backgrounds and Jewish commitments, many of whom live five minutes but a world apart from each other. These inspiring women from different neighborhoods and varied professions may never have met if not for the Partnership2Gether program. Through conversation, we all found common ground.
The evening was filled with positive energy, the room bubbled over with the voices of smart, passionate, creative, and talented people trying to make a difference in a complex world. Each Israeli woman expressed herself individually but all spoke of their pride to live in Beit Shemesh. Whether it was the head of education for the community or the woman who coordinates the local wine, beer and food festivals, each woman shared her hopes and dreams that her children will live in a just and peaceful world. And each woman believes this can and does exist in Beit Shemesh despite what we have been seeing lately in the media.
Aviva shared with us that the extremists in the news are not accepted in the mainstream Haredi community, let alone the general secular population. Aviva’s husband is supportive of her work to bring together women from the area with denominational differences and varied backgrounds to express themselves openly and safely.
The evening confirmed for us what we’ve always known. We can only break down barriers through communication and an intense desire to accept and learn from people who are not like us. Encouraging words and shared dance can touch people in places deep down. Too often fragmentation is an accepted part of being Jewish and a tolerated reality in Israel. Walls can be broken down, but few take the time and invest the energy to do it. We met some remarkable women who were committed to making change a reality. If we have a real partnership with the Beit Shemesh region it will mean continuing the discussions we started and making sure that our Federation is at the helm of generating more conversation, bringing distant neighbors together as friends, one relationship at a time.
Liza Levy is a volunteer with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and currently serves as the Vice President for Financial Resource Development.
Avital Ingber is the Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
A Tale of Two Countries and One
January 19, 2012
by Steven A. Rakitt
It’s raining today – a rare, cold, hard rain that is welcomed by Jerusalemites who know that it’s good for them and the country. Water, like patience, is a treasured commodity here in Israel: temporarily inconvenient, but better for you in the long run. Rain is a blessing. We pray for it. Patience is a blessing. We pray that we have enough of it for each other.
It’s a good day to stay inside and reflect on my trip to Israel and to Beit Shemesh, a city about 1/2 hour west of Jerusalem. Beit Shemesh and the Washington Jewish community have been partners for many years, and partners share responsibility for each other.
As the whole world knows by now, the friction between certain extremist haredim and others in Beit Shemesh took a recent explosive turn. Add international media coverage of the separation of men and women on selected bus lines and the removal of images of women on certain billboards in Jerusalem, and we have a combustible mixture of concern by many Israelis and American Jews about the status of civil society, tolerance and women’s rights in Israel.
While a majority of haredi men are not currently working or serving in the military, we are beginning to see – and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is supporting through training programs – a growing number of haredim entering both the workforce and military service. We will also be funding expanded programs to promote dialogue and tolerance in the Beit Shemesh community. We must all do more to encourage those who are adapting to the changing environment while standing up to resistance within their own communities. We cannot afford to become two people. We have to learn to live together. We need the rain. We need the patience.
Many in Beit Shemesh told me how proud they are of their community. They point to excellent schools, the beautiful countryside, good jobs and friendly mixed neighborhoods of haredi, secular and modern Orthodox Jews. They urged me to help tell the story of the “other Beit Shemesh”, the part of the community that is not in the news. Non-haredi members of the community reminded me repeatedly that the extremists do not reflect the vast majority of haredim in the community who oppose the harassment and violence. They tell a more nuanced story.
A haredi man with whom I spoke lamented the situation and is urging members of his community to pursue a dialogue with the non-haredim – to create trust with the goal of living peacefully side-by-side with others. Everyone has an opinion – this is Israel after all – but most I’ve spoken with are worried about the willingness of everyone to find ways to live side-by-side.
“All politics is local,” said Tip O’Neill. That’s true in Israel, with a twist: local is national and vice-versa. Coalition governments make for strange bedfellows and even stranger deals. The net result is a mixture of national policies with significant local ramifications, such as a plan to build more housing units in Beit Shemesh and the struggle over who will live in those units.
What is going on here and how can we help? These are the two questions we must face as American Jews. Israel is a vibrant democracy, with guaranteed civil rights for all of its citizens. We do not need to lecture Israelis about democracy, free speech and advocacy. This past summer’s protests – with up to 400,000 Israelis taking to the streets to demand affordable housing and education – is the latest and largest example. Israelis are actively and passionately addressing these issues.
But I do worry about the image of Israel. No, this is not another article about hasbara. Rather, it’s a call for the American Jewish community (though we come from different backgrounds and may not agree on multiple issues) to engage with like-minded Israelis to denounce acts of intimidation and violence, promote dialogue and create safe space for different communities in Israel to live beside each other in greater harmony.
And when it comes to the public relations of the State of Israel, we are all on the frontlines. This is not someone else’s story. It’s our story and our responsibility to paint a complete picture of Israel as an extraordinarily free and democratic country, facing up to and dealing with its challenges.
It’s a tale of two countries but also a tale of one people – our people. It’s a story that encompasses everything: the challenging and the beautiful, the reality and the promise, the present and the future, all built on a miraculous past. It’s a tale which must aspire to the happy end expressed by Isaiah: “And I shall submit you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations.”
D'Var Torah: Va'era
January 18, 2012
by Robert Zahler
It’s The Parshat that we read this Saturday, Va’era, is both a story well known and a story that raises a number of issues worthy of extended discussion. It is the story of the first seven of the ten plagues suffered by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. It is the list we recite each Sedar night during Passover. Based on this Parshat:
One might discuss the issue of why G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart (or whether, in fact, he does) and how that relates to free will.
One might discuss why G-d chooses Moses, self-declared to be of “impeded speech,” to argue with Pharaoh for the freedom of the Jewish people.
One might talk about why a series of ever increasing calamities are necessary to achieve the desired end.
I would like to discuss the Parshat in terms of how we communicate among ourselves. First a little background. As a lawyer my particular practice has me negotiating large, complex commercial transactions. These transactions have many issues contested by the parties and negotiations easily can stretch over many months and in some cases more than a year. This experience has provided me insights into how my clients, their customers and each parties’ counsel communicate with each other.
In particular, I have tried to understand why people adopt specific approaches for communicating information. In some cases some of the parties have overtly misstated or mislead me about something. In other cases, they have only raised some, but not all of the facts. Sometimes they refuse to state their position or they will convey information or a position only if I first tell them what they want to know.
Interestingly, I have applied the same analysis to my own communications. Why do I state certain things and not others? How do I sequence information and positions? What image do I try to convey when I speak to the other side? Is that image different then when I speak to my own clients? If so, why?
One might ask: But, Bob, these observations are in the context of negotiating contracts, how do they relate to every day communication between and among non-lawyers? A fair question and one that I answer in an odd way. Over the years I have reached the conclusion that whenever you are speaking to someone, in whatever the context, in whatever manner, you actually are negotiating with that person. The harsh, insensitive conclusion of a lawyer, you say. No, my view that in speaking with people we actually are negotiating with them is intended to make us all more sensitive to the context in which we communicate, the words and tone we use in those communications and the consequences from adopting particular modes of communication.
Take, for example, an informal social discussion with a friend. We tell that friend a piece of information. Why? What is the purpose of passing the item along? Do we just want to inform them? But what does that mean. Do we want them to act on that information? Do we want them to change their opinion about some matter? Do we want them to pass the information along to others? Is this mere gossip? Or, do we want the friend to understand that we are aware of this information? And, again for what purpose? I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
When we communicate with people we do so for a purpose. Either stated or unstated. Either consciously intended by us or in some cases an unconscious (meaning unknowing or unintended) act by use. And doing things for a purpose is the essence of negotiations. We may seek some immediate response to our communication or we may be prepared to wait some time before the person responds to our communication, but we are doing it for a purpose.
Seeing our own communications from the perspective of a negotiation, leads to a few key guidelines for how to conduct the communication. Adopting the nomenclature of a negotiation, I refer to these guidelines a prudent tactics for successful communication. Stark language, but again intended to produce sensitive, appropriate communications.
First, the person you are talking with is likely to identify his or her own views as to the purpose of your discussion. Oftentimes, that purpose is different from what you intended as the purpose of the discussion. So try to be express about the purpose of the discussion.
Second, use the minimum level of rhetoric and the least level of emotion to convey your thoughts.
Third, avoid making a point just for the purpose of making that point. Principled pragmatism is usually better than mere ideology.
Fourth, while people may not remember the details of a particular communication, they always remember and never forget the “tactics” you used in that communication. Mistrust and anger usually do not arise not from the substance of discussions but from how the substance is conveyed. Avoid “unfair” arguments.
So how does all this relate to Va’era? The plagues visited upon the Egyptians is G-d’s chosen method of communicating with Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron are G-d’s negotiators. As G-d tells Moses: “I place you in the role of G-d to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you.”
The negotiation with Pharaoh is, of course, difficult. Pharaoh is an evil and stubborn adversary. Whether G-d hardens his heart or his stubborn and stiff heart reflects Pharaoh’s chosen disposition, there is no reason to assume that Pharaoh will quickly fee the Jewish slaves. There is no obvious Plan B. Indeed, the Israelites do not even listen to the plan for their freedom since Pharaoh’s ordered enslavement already had crushed their spirits.
Pharaoh is also deceitful and untrustworthy. On three occasions during the first seven plagues Pharaoh commits to let the Hebrews go, only to later renege on each commitment.
In one instance, the Torah recites the details of a mini-negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh. After the fourth plague of insects, Pharaoh tells Moses that the Hebrews can go and sacrifice to the Lord within the land. But Moses responds that if done before the Egyptians they will become resentful and stone the Hebrews. So Moses proposes that the Hebrews go three days into the wilderness to perform the sacrifice to the Lord. Pharaoh accepts only later to again renege, but says: “do not go very far.”
This negotiation, however, violates my suggested guidelines. Rather than a minimum level of rhetoric and a minimum level of emotion, Moses and Aaron continually escalate the situation. The plagues become more dramatic. The results more devastating. They begin to effect only the Egyptians and not the Hebrews. G-d directs Moses to make a very specific and important point clear to Pharaoh; that, in addition to seeking the freedom of the Hebrews, G-d desires that Pharaoh and the Egyptians “may know that there is none like Me in all the world.” The tactics used can only be characterized as harsh.
But all this is my very point. Absent the situation confronting Moses and Aaron, seeking the freedom of an oppressed people from the bonds of slavery, we must all be vigilant not to have our own communications viewed as raising to the Ten Plagues. And people we speak with often may feel we are adopting comparable tactics. This does not mean strong communications are never warranted. Only that we should measure our own situation against that faced in Va’era and evaluate whether we are even close to a comparable context. In almost all cases, a more subtle approach will likely produce the desired result.
NWP Shabbat Message January 20, 2012
January 20, 2012
by Stefanie Sanders Levy
Things are heating up in Egypt so that I can almost smell the matza brei sizzling on the stovetop. The Israelites are just a few plagues away from starting a communal journey. As Parashat Va-eira opens, the Israelites have been in bondage for several generations, and G-d is sending Moses on a mission. A mission not only relevant in ancient times, told on the big screen and recited in Jewish homes around the world for centuries, but one that still motivates and inspires us today.
G-d has instructed Moses to inform the Israelites that he will take them from slavery to freedom, but having never witnessed a demonstration of G-d’s power, and being of broken spirit, the people do not listen to Moses. G-d is undeterred and sends Moses to speak directly to Pharoah. Moses questions his own leadership ability, believing it is his speech impediment and lack of self confidence that has failed to motivate the Israelites. So, G-d teams up Moses and his brother Aaron to approach Pharoah and ask for the Israelites freedom.
Moses reiterates the concern that his impeded speech will prevent Pharoah from taking him seriously. G-d then tells Moses that he will make him “like a god to Pharoah” and that Aaron will be his prophet. Together the brothers approach Pharoah, who has been made obstinate by G-d in order for G-d to display his immense power. You probably know the rest of the story: blood, frogs, lice, insects, diseased livestock, boils, hail…and the rest are left for next week.
We can learn much about leadership, both our own and that of others, from Moses’ tentative approach to his own role. Dr. Erica Brown, my scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, wrote in “Inspired Jewish Leadership” that Moses led with humility and valued a lifetime of service to others.” He demonstrated that being a leader was not about “ego, power or authority,” but rather “about generosity, modesty and giving.”
Moses recognized his imperfection, his lack of confidence and the resulting sense of insecurity. G-d’s response was to create a team, a partnership, an early dynamic duo. Think how we can become better leaders, as Moses did when G-d paired him with Aaron, when we are open to sharing our strengths and balancing our weaknesses by partnering with others. When we partner in the Federation world, we have the opportunity to remove “ego” and focus on the goal of saving and changing the lives of our Jewish brothers and sisters, whether they be in our own communities, in Israel or around the world. Modern slavery takes many faces, whether it’s a woman in our own community seeking safety from an abusive relationship, an Israeli child traumatized and trapped by the effects of terror, a senior looking for dignity in the twilight years or a family torn apart by the economic downturn. We reach out to those stifled by their burden, and we launch them on their journey to personal freedom.
Locally, Women’s Philanthropy in Washington, D.C. is showcasing the power of partnership with the recently launched Mitzvah Mavens program. An experienced leader and a Birthright alumna are paired to share ideas, learn from each other and ultimately, create a one-day community service event to benefit a Federation agency or program of their choice. I have worked with my mentee to plan an event to help children who have recently made the journey to Israel from Ethiopia. We’ll be making arts-and-crafts supply bags for children encountering huge challenges in their absorption into Israeli society. We hope to free them from some of this stress, to build their self-esteem and self-confidence, and enable them to be happy children. It must be beshert that both my Mitzvah Maven event and my NWP D’var Torah occur on the same weekend and focus on the concept of communal exodus. It makes me wonder if the Jewish community generations from now will look back on the rescue of the “Falas Mura” as we now look back upon the exodus from Mitzrayim.
There is a Midrash about the significance of the role that women played in the exodus; specifically that it was the women who kept hope alive by continuing to bear children and inspiring the men to maintain faith in the future. As we did in the ancient story, the women of the NWP Board, and all the women with whom we partner, continue to inspire and motivate the work that is done to bring our Jewish family from slavery to freedom. We have put our individual egos aside, and we have recognized the need to share and collaborate on the local, national and international levels. We have demonstrated our generosity in sharing our hearts, minds and resources with our colleagues, and in giving to those that need aid. It is an honor to be on this journey with my NWP sisters.