TEDx Jerusalem Women?

tedOn Friday I went to a taping of a TEDx Women’s event in Jerusalem. I looked forward to the event for weeks, being a fan of TED, anticipating all the wonderful people I would meet, attending an “event”, all good things.

I also had a bit of trepidation.  You see, I don’t like “women’s” events.  I don’t live in a women’s world; I have 6 boys, love competitive games, and like science.  I don’t like high-heeled shoes, wearing perfume, or focusing on fancy jewelry.  I don’t even like flowers!  Besides not liking women’s events, I don’t even consider myself a feminist.  Something about the word bothers me.  Now, I was raised on the religion of the Democratic Party and am pretty liberal in my world view.  I believe in equal rights regardless of religion, race, sexual preference, and yes, even gender, but I consider myself to be more of a humanist rather than a feminist.  Why do I need to limit my views on equality to women?

And yet, here I was, signed up for TEDx Jerusalem WOMEN.  And I was excited.  I even considered signing up for the open mike session. Because of my busy schedule in the days leading up to the TED event, and my indecision about what exactly I would speak about for 5 minutes, I didn’t apply.  I came up with about 5 topics I thought I could speak about for 5 minutes:  the international book project I started, building community through cooperative summer camp, sharing my story to empower Millennials and others to take control of their lives, and so on.  But as I sat through the TEDx event, a strange uncomfortableness started to creep up on me and a realization that the 5 minute open mike segment that I needed to give  was on none of those topics.

The TEDx event consisted of a mingling of 3 main speakers, 4 taped segments from the main TED event in Los Angeles, a comedian, a singer/songwriter, and 9 open mike speakers.  There were 18 women speakers in all and not one of them spoke about Motherhood.  Sure, many spoke about their challenges in combining raising children and having a career, but not a single one spoke about the choice which some women make to put their previous occupations on hold and to simply be a mother.

I became pregnant while in graduate school.  I had been married for over a year and the time was right for starting a family.  I had completed my bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, summa cum laude, and was then studying Physical Organic Chemistry in a PhD program at Carnegie Mellon University.  I was raised as part of  Generation X, with the world-view that I could do it all.  I could have the high-powered job, the advanced education, the active, healthy family life, the involvement in my community, and be independent.  I very much wanted to have children and assumed that they would be put in the best day care, while my husband and I went off to work, sharing quality moments as a family in the evenings and on the weekends.

And then Rafi was born.  I discovered that I knew absolutely nothing about being a parent – and I am not talking about the nuts and bolts about feeding and bathing and holding.  I am talking about the emotional response I had to him.  I actually really loved him, and he loved me (this was a big shocker to me – did I mention that I didn’t like children prior to becoming a mother??).  I was exhausted by taking care of him – no one told me about the exhaustion.  And I was learning things about myself and my world at a rate which could not be matched by any doctorate program.

But, I was committed to going back to school.  My professor was waiting for me.  And when Rafi was 10 days old, I went to the office for my first office hours.  My professor was really understanding for the first few months and gave me things that I could mostly do at home, with only the occasional foray into school.  At the age of 4.5 months, Rafi went into full-time day care, the best in the neighborhood, from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.  My husband and I shifted our work schedules to extend our days because even those hours were not sufficient for our occupations.  And as time went on, I became more and more miserable.

Finally, when Rafi turned 1 year old, I decided, with the encouragement of my husband, to make a switch in my occupation and become a stay-at-home mom – not because I had nothing else to do, but because I had nothing else I wanted to do.  I finished my master’s degree (the consolation prize) in 6 months and took up my new occupation – stay-at-home mom.

Even the name “stay-at-home mom” is bogus because we did anything but stay at home.  I embraced my new occupation with a passion, seeking out professional peers who would lend encouragement and give advice when I was facing some new challenge.  They supported my right to make decisions about my parenting and lifestyle.  It was great!  Yes, there were some challenges, things I had to give up, hard decisions that needed to be made.  That is part of life.  But I was immensely more happy in my parenting occupation than in my previous occupation.

Through the 20 years as a stay-at-home mom, I grew in skill as my children grew.  I became an expert on teaching informally because when I saw gaps in their educational experience, I tried my best to fill them.  I became involved with building community because I wanted my children to be surrounded by others (adults and peers) to round out their world.  I taught interpersonal skills as I interacted with them intensely.  I became an advocate when my son became very sick.  Any quantitative quality with which you could measure an employment environment was met by my new occupation.  Even financial goals were met, as my husband was able to fully focus on developing his career, knowing full well that all at home was being managed.

I ran into a glitch in my otherwise flawless story when I encountered the outside world, and often feminists were the worst. There is no greater conversation stopper at a social gathering than answering “I’m a mom” to the question of what your job is. Stereotypes rule these social situations.  Apparently, moms are not that interesting.  Apparently, moms are not that intelligent. Apparently, moms have nothing to contribute in any social setting that does not involve their children.

People think that you took the easy way, or have some sort of charmed life, drinking coffee at the cafe and getting your nails done.  They think, “What does she DO all day?  Doesn’t she go crazy?  Doesn’t she want to better herself?”  Men think that all of your thoughts are around “female” topics, and they aren’t interested/comfortable with those discussions.  Women whose occupation is outside of the home may have feelings of guilt, thinking that they should be at home with their kids.

But feminists tend to be the worst.  They look at you as a failure. They have children and a career; what’s wrong with you that you can’t do both?  They are advancing the cause of gender equality and you are stuck in the last century.  What a pity.

What a pity, indeed.  Instead of being an advocate for choice, feminists are really just falling into the anti-choice dictates of the past, mimicking the idea that some choices are ok for women and some aren’t.

So I was disappointed by the TEDx Jerusalem Women event. Disappointed that even among ourselves, we don’t stand up for the occupation of being a mom.  That no speaker spoke about the challenges and joys of an evolving life – first academic, then mom, then something else.

That those who purport to organize an event dedicated to women’s rights, ignore the most female right of all – the right to choose to be a mother.

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Memorial Day Sale

Memorial Day Sale!  Everything 25% off!

This is how I viewed Memorial Day growing up.  Memorial Day was a day set aside by the US Government to honor our veterans.  In my family, we had veterans from the Revolutionary War (both sides), the French and Indian Wars, the Civil War (one died as a result of an illness contracted during his service and one was captured and tortured), World War I, and the Vietnam War.

However, Memorial Day, that last weekend before the last Monday in May was the time for the inaugural events of a Midwestern Summer.  Memorial Day was the first barbeque, with all the family gathering around to eat just about anything that could be cooked over coals.  You put on your bathing suit (even though it was still too cold) and ran through the sprinkler.  I remember Memorial Day barbeque at my Auntie Judy’s with its requisite tour of the garden and what would be growing by the time we regrouped on July 4th.  The men drank beer, the women worked in the kitchen and us kids enjoyed a stress-free day wandering the neighborhood with our cousins and, of course, playing games.

When we got older, the sales and shopping took over.  I never figured out if the switch happened because of a grand cosmic disturbance in American culture or because I was a teenage girl or because our family moved East away from the simple Midwest of my early childhood.  This was Memorial Day for my family in the United States, despite our veterans.

Both of these realities are a far cry from the Memorial Day which my family experiences now in Israel.  Memorial Day in Israel is a day to remember those who lost their lives for our country.  I currently have 3 sons in the army and by next fall, will have 4.  Four of my children will be occupied with defense of the Jewish State.  Four out of 6.  Last summer we went through a war which touched every resident of our tiny state.  So, how do I mark Memorial Day?

Each community has a ceremony marking the beginning of the Day in the evening (Jewish days start at night like in the creation story in Genesis).  This starts with a siren where the entire country stands in silence for an entire minute.  It’s hard to imagine a whole country coming to a stop for a minute – no cars on the roads, no one talking/texting/whatsapping on his phone, no one watching anything on a screen.  The evening is so sacred that there are no restaurants open and no movie theaters screening films.

Our community ceremony is on the basketball court and I sit and watch as my friends and neighbors gather to mark the day.  I feel connected.  These are the people whom I have known for the last 21 years.  I sit embraced by the familiar surroundings and the familiar faces.  Maybe this is why we are able to face this pain year after year – because of the implicit support we feel all around us.

The rabbi of our community speaks.  He more or less says the same thing year after year.  Something about rebuilding the State, about the importance of welcoming immigrants, rebuilding Jerusalem, the important role of children and youth in the flourishing of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel according to the Laws of Israel.

And then comes the tough part, the actual program which is done by the 11th grade class.  They always get me.  If it is through the overacting, the crying, the scenes which trigger all kinds of “what if’s” and fears I have about my own children, I don’t know.  The11th graders depict situations in a simplistic way, which cuts to the core and makes you feel the issues more deeply.  They talked this year about their friends, the boys who were kidnapped last summer and brutally butchered on the way home from school.  They read letters from lovers who were never able to realize their love because the war stole their future.  And through simple pantomime depicted families who would never be able to live normal lives because of the ravages of war.  They talked about the volunteers who come from oversees, like Max Steinberg.  And I cry – I always do.

At the end of the ceremony, there are a few prayers sung before we sing the National Anthem.  Those prayers are asking God to have mercy on our soldiers and to bless them.  I have an additional request this year.  I would like a Memorial Day Sale.

God, please lower the prices for us this Memorial Day.  Let the cost of being a free nation in our land be drastically less.  We haven’t lost hope, but we sure could use a discount.

Forests and Trees

Today I went with a friend to see the new exhibit on Jewish life in Babylon between the First and Second Temple periods which is at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.  We got there about 10 minutes before the free tour in English was about to begin, and as it was my first time going through the exhibit, I thought it would be useful to have a tour with the local expert.

The standing exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum is quite interesting.  The entire museum was founded in 1992 to house the personal collection of Professor Elie Borowski.  The exhibit has a definite flow through history and moves seamlessly from one culture to the next, all focusing on factors influencing the Sacred Bridge between Egypt and Mesopotamia which gave rise to monotheism.  The various sections are numbered with arrows showing the direction you are meant to take in order to maintain narrative continuity.  Really , the museum is quite nicely done, despite the obvious focus on the collector’s favorite types of items (seals).  I find the right mix of order and “wanderability” which is sorely lacking in many modern “museums” especially the dreaded “museum experiences” which take the visitor from one room to the next, all synchronized to move groups through at a set pace,  with no possibility for wandering around and spending more time on exhibits which interest you more.

There is a certain lack of academic stringency as most of the collection was “acquired” and not uncovered as part of a registered, licensed excavation, but I am willing to forgive that and accept that this is the way of the archaeological world, especially since the end result is that this collection is being shared with the public and not collecting dust in a basement somewhere.  The removal of context takes away from the finds themselves, but does not take away from the story.

We started the tour with the local guide who told us that we were going straight to the new exhibit on Jewish life in Babylon, and I was happy.  My friend hadn’t been to the Bible Lands Museum in 15 years and we would tour that afterwards on our own.  We made our way down to the basement and into the exhibit.  Our guide started with the history of the end of the First Temple Period – so many kings and so much politics!  She clearly knew her facts as she went through the history in impressive detail.  It was difficult for me to understand how the average museum-goer would have any understanding at all of what she was saying – so much history and so little time.  I was lucky, being a tour guide I have a basic knowledge of many things, but the poor Japanese tourist who was with us looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

We moved into the room which focused on Jewish life in Babylon and saw the clay tablets with cuniform writing which were the real focus of the exhibit.  Again, these tablets were “acquired”, but they told the story of the day-to-day life in the Jewish community.  The Jews living in Babylon kept their names and their community structures, and founded Jewish study halls.  They wept for the destroyed Temple and named their area after their previous home, Judah.

Then, just as suddenly as the Jewish community had been exiled from the Jewish homeland, Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (as well as of all religious buildings which had been destroyed by the Babylonians).  The Jews were free to go home after living in Babylon for less than 100 years.  But they didn’t and they went on to have high scholarship and write the Babylonian Talmud.  The community emigrated as a whole to Israel in 1950.  The end.

THAT’S IT??? THE END????

After our tour ended, my friend needed some time to process.  “Wait, so after the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Jews of Babylon didn’t all go back?”
“Nope.  Most stayed in Babylon.”
“But it wasn’t an impossible journey.  Just a few weeks. Why didn’t they go back?”
“Well, they were really comfortable in Babylon.  They had their businesses, their communities, their aging parents.  Life was good.”
“What about their Jewish life?  How could they justify staying in Babylon as Jews?”
“They had study halls – the best in the world.  And their scholarship was unprecedented – we follow the Babylonian Talmud more than the Jerusalem Talmud (written in Israel at the same time – the 3rd/4th century C.E.).”
“So it’s just like today, right?  People don’t want to come to Israel although they can.”
“Yep. Not much changes.”
“And when the Babylonian community came to Israel as a whole.  The entire Babylonian community in Babylon was gone just like that.  How did that happen?”
“Ah, that.  Well they were actually kicked out by the Muslim government when the state of Israel was declared.”
“So 2600 years of Jewish history in Babylon came to an absolute halt?”
“Do you think there are any guarantees?  Yes, there are no more Jews in those places – none, zero, efes.”
“Yes, it doesn’t seem that there are many guarantees for Jews in many places today either.”

Somewhere in my friend’s questions at the end, she had found the story inside the facts.  It just reiterated for me how important framing is when teaching/guiding.  Our local guide was obviously knowledgeable.  She forgot that in order to really teach us about this important period of history, she would need more than facts – she would need a story which would hook us and make us care about the questions and the events, and be able to relate it to our own experience.

There is a saying in tour guide circles that you should never ruin a good story with facts, generally taken to mean that it doesn’t matter if your facts are a bit iffy as long as the story is good. Today I saw another meaning to this saying: don’t focus so heavily on knowing all the facts or you may lose the story – kind of like seeing the trees without seeing the forest.

Three Boys

three boys

In my family, we hitchhike. In my family, we pick up hitchhikers. We ask for and receive help from random people we meet. We belong to a community and accept others into our community.

We live as Jews with smiles on our faces and hope in our hearts.

As I look at the myriad of pictures of the three boys, Gil-ad, Ayal, and Naftali, I see the faces of my children and my friends. Happy, proud Jews living in our land.

Apart from the terrible loss of these three boys, our boys, I worry about the future. We need strength to continue to raise our children with hope and trust. I don’t want my children to live in a world where you don’t help others because of the “what if’s”; I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that strangers are dangerous.

No, and No.

To take away our sense of family, of unity, of security in our own land is to give victory to the terrorists. The minute we become strangers to each other and to the land, is the moment when we have given up on the promise and the hope.
May G-d give us all strength to continue on the path.
Am Israel Hai!

The Most Daring Thing

“My servant, Moses, is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to Bnei Israel.”  Joshua 1:2

Over the past week, I embarked with 17 others on a classic Israeli journey called Yam L’Yam. The trip starts at the Mediterranean Sea and 85 or so kilometers later (about 55 miles) ends at the Sea of Galilee. Our goal – to have a great time, enjoying the beauty of Israel and the company of friends as we traveled across Israel. We planned for the last few months, some of our group went on practice hikes with packed bags on Fridays, we had planning meetings and google docs and yahoo groups. We made reservations, gathered up the gear we thought we needed, checked the maps, read blogs.

The hike is generally done in 3, 4, or 5 days. (Although I have a friend who has a friend who said he did it in one, 22-hour day – if it sounds like a fish tale, it probably is one.) Since our group ranged in age from 13 to 60, and we wanted to do it in one week so we could be home for Shabbat, we decided to plan the 4 day option – Monday through Thursday. We would use Sunday as a travel day to get to the beginning of the trail, and hire a mini-bus to take us home on Thursday night. This expedition would take the place of our annual summer “Friends’ Vacation”, a time that we generally dedicate to hiking, touring and having a good time together. This trip would vary from our standard vacation – we would be sleeping outside most nights, carrying our gear, and relying on our wits and our feet to carry us along. No one brought a car.

 

yam l'yam train

It’s interesting traveling in a group with 18 people. Although we spend a decent amount of time together generally, being together 24 hours a day is a different experience. Moving 18 people, feeding 18 people, taking care that no one is left behind emotionally, physically, or mentally is sometimes a challenge and

 

requires a good amount of patience and empathy.

 

Building community is one of my life’s focuses. I came to Israel seeking to be a part of a community, and have found satisfaction for the last 19 years in helping to build community locally in Chashmonaim and nationally. I build webs of people who genuinely care about each other, wherever I go and with whomever I meet. Much of my work over the past 19 years, especially my work with Taglit/Birthright, focuses on the importance of community affiliation.

Why is community important? Numerous studies show that connection to community lengthens our lives by as much as 14 years! Despite this, and despite the flourishing of electronic communities, people today feel less connected than ever. Average Americans claim to have 1.5 friends on average despite what their Facebook account tells them. Sad.

According to Kurt Vonnegut, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

As we went through our trek, our group had to deal with many challenges – the heat, the lack of water, our crazily heavy packs, mosquitoes, wild boars, naked Nachmanites at 2:00 A.M. There were fears, anger, and disappointment. Through it all, though, we stuck together as a group, drawing on each other’s strengths to pull us through the challenges. We figured out which changes to our plans needed to be made in order to accomplish our goals – not just our individual goals, but our group goals.

People told us that attempting this hike with so many people was foolish and was sure to end in failure. And maybe for the ME generational outlook, the way our Sea to Sea trek ended would be considered a “failure”. Those of us on the trek understood it much differently. It was a most daring thing and ended in complete success.

Mission Statement

I am currently enrolled in a course for sharpening skills as a Birthright Tour Educator.  Today we were assigned homework to write a “Mission Statement” of sorts to answer the question:  What are you trying to accomplish during your work?

When I started to think about this question, I thought specifically about Birthright groups.  What is it that I am looking to do during the 10 days I have with them?  How do I see myself as a person who has influence on them as a group and individually?  How do I want them to change (if at all) during the trip?  I started here because it is very controlled.  I know more or less who they are; I understand more or less what the Birthright organization is trying to accomplish.  So, in almost no time at all, I came up with my “Mission Statement” as far as Birthright is concerned.

I, as a Moreh Derech (Tour Guide/Educator, for lack of a better translation), during the 10 days they are with me, am looking to create for them a Jewish community and strengthen their connection to their Jewish soul.

The first phase of my formula is creating a Jewish community.  Heavy stuff.  But this is exactly what we do on the bus – create a community.

One of the first questions I get asked by participants is, “Why did you
move to Israel?”

My answer is simply and without hesitation, “Quality of Life.”  I explain that the quality of life provided by the community is one of the driving factors which brought me here and kept me here for the last 18 years.

Then for 10 days, we travel together, eat together, have fun together, talk together, work together.  Very quickly, a community is built.  When the Israeli soldiers/students arrive, we deal with the issues of accepting newcomers to our community.  As a Moreh Derech, my role here is in running ice breakers and team building activities, as well as keeping a finger on the pulse to make sure that everyone finds their place in the community.  I want them to experience community because, in my opinion, this is one of the most important goals of strengthening their Jewish connection – seeing themselves as part of a larger community.  It doesn’t particularly matter to me whether the community they will be most comfortable will be one of a religious Jewish community, a cultural Jewish community, an educational Jewish community, an Israeli Jewish community or a social Jewish community.  The importance is the connection with fellow Jews as part of a larger whole.

People are not simply cogs in a machine, however, we have individuality.  Because each one of us sees our Jewish soul a bit differently, each one of us connects more to one facet or another, as we have discussed extensively over the past few days in the course.  Each person’s individual identity is unique, and so,  my work within the group needs to be varied.  How to get this result, this strengthening of each participants’ soul?  Through wide-ranging programs, including activities to get them to think, guiding segments which connect them to place, introductions to people who can inspire them, all on the backdrop of the beauty of the land.

The other part of this work is not shying away from the things that are less than optimal.   When I read parts of the Tanach, I see depictions of personalities who are less than perfect.   For me, I see the holy people in the Tanach as people first, with all the imperfections of people;  and because I am also imperfect, I can connect to them.  This doesn’t mean that they are not holy.  We have much to learn from imperfect people.  I believe that this philosophy lends itself to personal growth at least as strongly as the wonderful, optimal bits.

Each and every participant will, hopefully, at the end of the 10 days find something in the experience which connects to his individual Jewish soul.  As a Birthright participant, this is the instruction that we give them over and over, wear your name tag – be comfortable with your unique Jewish soul, however it manifests.

Taken to the wider audience, these specific goals can be quite easily broadened.  As a Moreh Derech I want to accomplish two things.  Firstly, I aim to provide opportunities for personal growth, through acquisition of knowledge, opening up to varied possibilities or helping people learn about themselves.  Secondly, I strive to facilitate connections between people.  And of course, G-d has given us the best guiding aid in the world for obtaining these goals – the Land of Israel and all that is offered therein!

My dream, then is to take these goals and to apply them to everything I do, not only in my work as a Moreh Derech, but in life in general.  I don’t just apply these ideas because they help me focus my work; I apply them because they are the essence of my being.