Hatikvah - A Blog About Life in Rabbinical School

Matt and Jen's blog about their adventures while Matt is in rabbinical school. Hatikvah, the name of the Israeli national anthem, means "the hope." This blog reflects their many hopes and adventures about their experiences during this process.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Yom Kippur Sermon

My Yom Kippur sermon, given on Saturday, October 8, 2011/10 Tishrei 5772 at Valley Ruach at Adat Ari El, based on the sermon I originally gave shortly after returning from Siberia at Adat Ari El on Shabbat, July 16, 2011...

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the specter of the Soviet Union was omnipresent. I learned about the constant threat of nuclear war and I learned about the fate of Jews in the Soviet Union. The situation of refuseniks was a major part of my connection to the Jewish community growing up. I was of the era of “twinning,” of leaving an empty seat on the bima during a bnei mitzvah in honor of a Soviet child who was unable to have their own coming-of-age celebration on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

During the Soviet era, religion was taboo and Judaism was no exception. Under the Soviet system, religion just didn’t matter anymore so intermarriage among Jews was rampant. From 1918 to 1991, some three generations of Jews unlearned their heritage and became model Soviet citizens. Then, suddenly in 1991, the future changed for everyone. Who would’ve expected that the situation would change so dramatically, that in 1991 religious freedom for Jews would return to Eastern Europe and to Russia?

With that freedom, Jews fled the Former Soviet Union. Over a million emigrated to Israel and the United States but some remained. Today, only about 200,000 Jews remain in Russia, less than a third of the number of Jews in Los Angeles. 200,000 Jews in the world’s largest country, almost twice the size of the United States. And many of them are barely connected to the tradition. A few thousand of these Jews remain in Siberia, a remnant of Jewish professionals - engineers, scientists, physicians, sent by the USSR to work and teach east of the Ural Mountains.

When I heard about the Siberia bnei mitzvah program, I desperately wanted to be part of it. Created by Elaine Berke, a member of the Valley Beth Sholom community and sponsored by my school, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, along with the Joint Distribution Committee , the Siberian bnei mitzvah program has, for the last six years, sent two rabbinical students to Siberia to spend a week teaching Jewish Siberian teens some basics of Judaism in anticipation of a communal bar and bat mitzvah celebration on the following Shabbat.

While I was part of the sixth pair to go to Siberia, our team was quite historic. Traveling with me was my classmate and friend, Rachel Safman, the first female rabbinical student to participate in the program. For years, the Joint and the Siberian Jewish community were reluctant to allow a woman to participate in the program, fearing that it would de-legitimize the program. Fortunately, communal pressure by my classmates at my school resulted in change. During our time in Siberia, we came to realize that Rachel was likely the first female to conduct a Shabbat service in Siberia in many many years, if ever.

In late June, Rachel and I found ourselves flying on Aeroflot, the Russian airline, from Los Angeles to New York to Moscow to Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. Our week-long camp consisted of nearly 60 Siberian Jewish teens. Several parents also took time out from their lives to attend and to learn with us. Kids came from small towns and large cities from throughout Siberia, for this one opportunity to connect to their tradition. Several of the children were the one and only Jew to travel to Novosibirsk from their hometown; how daunting that must have been. We were amazed by their courage and dedication to our tradition.

Novosibirisk, known as the capital of Siberia, is a modern city, founded at the end of the 19th century at the junction of the Ob River and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The architecture of the city is quite remarkable with a combination of modern skyscrapers, utilitarian Soviet housing blocks, and Victorian edifices. The city is Russia’s third largest with more than two and a half million people in its metropolitan region. While winter temperatures can dip to 30 degrees below, we were there at the end of June and early July and so temperatures were warm - into the low 90s. And, with sunrise by 4 am and sunset around 11 pm, the day was hot and long. Surrounding Novosibirsk is a dense beautiful forest with thin birch and pine trees reaching high into the sky. We hiked whenever we had a break, despite the rugged Siberian mosquitoes who seemed to mock our nearly useless American bug repellent.

Throughout the week we had numerous sessions with our teen campers, teaching them through our translators, to recite and sing the Shema, the Torah blessings, and Veshamru. (It was quite fun that among those familiar with Veshamru, it was Rabbi Rothblum’s tune that they knew, literally on the other side of the earth.) We studied some Torah and learned about the Talmud. We worked on the basics for there were so many holes we needed to fill. Some kids came with knowledge and some came with nothing. I discovered one young girl wearing a Eastern Orthodox cross because it’s what nearly every women in Russia wears around her neck. We talked to the girl and replaced her cross with a magen david necklace instead.

We encouraged the campers, counselors, and parents to ask us anything. We spent a week answering many many questions about ourselves and about our Jewish observance. We answered many questions about the role of women in Judaism. We answered questions about kashrut, about kippot, about Jewish life in America, and about Israel. We talked about our tradition and commandments and what it means to be empowered and obligated as a bar or bat mitzvah.

But, we were saddened by some of the questions. One in particular stands out. A 20-something young couple in love, camp counselors, somewhat knowledgable of our tradition, asked us if it was true that only Orthodox Jews could be married under a chuppah. Ouch.

While the future opened up for Jews in Russia after 1991, only our friends at Chabad were able to dispatch rabbinical leaders throughout the country. The chief rabbi of Russia is a Chabad rabbi and is close to Vladamir Putin. The wealthy Jewish oligarchs of Russia give their money to Chabad to duplicate their Eastern Orthodox colleagues. The synagogues that were returned to the Jewish community after the fall of the USSR were given to Chabad. Chabad is recognized as the official form of Judaism in the modern Russian Empire.

Therefore, those who know anything about Judaism usually only know about it from a Chabad perspective. So, what this young couple learned about Jewish weddings was that you had to be Orthodox to be married Jewishly because Chabad can’t deal with the Jewish identity question in Russia after so much intermarriage during the Soviet era. So, Chabad only accepts those willing to prove their identity and be observant according to Chabad expectations. We were so sad. We answered the couple that Jewish tradition wants young people to get married and have Jewish children so the task doesn’t even require a rabbi. We encouraged them to be married by the state and have a knowledgeable friend learn to perform the Jewish ceremony under a chuppah.

Throughout the week we tried to teach our students that alternatives exist in the global Jewish community. We encouraged them to seek out answers for themselves on the Internet and to seek out alternatives when they are told “no.” We tried to be the Russian 2011 version of the 1965 book, The First Jewish Catalogue.

We took many questions about brit milah and realized quite quickly that nearly all of our male campers were uncircumcised, and likely not one had received a brit milah by a mohel. These teenage boys obviously have suffered a lot of mental anguish over their status as Jews. What to do under these circumstances? How do we make them feel more welcome?

We decided to give all of our campers Hebrew names as a sign of welcoming them into the Jewish community. None of them had been given Jewish names at birth. Over the course of the week, we met with each of our campers and talked about their current name and about the heroes of the Bible and we worked together to select a new meaningful Hebrew name for the child, which we then used to call them up to the Torah during our Shabbat morning bnei mitzvah service.

At the end of the week, we had a wonderful Friday evening service with songs and dinner, it went late into the night but still ended before the 10 pm candle-lighting time. A local Jewish singer sang Go Down Moses and Hava Nagilah.

On Shabbat morning we held our Torah service and brought up groups of the teens to the Torah and bestowed upon them their Hebrew name and the title of bar or bat mitzvah. We even had a group of moms who studied with us throughout the week who were called to the Torah for their adult banot mitzvah. For nearly everyone in the camp, it was their first time even seeing a sefer Torah. We unrolled the Torah across several tables after the ceremony so that children and parents alike could see that the Torah it not in heaven but right there, in front of them.

While the bnei mitzvah program is only six years old, it has touched the lives of more than 350 young Jews and their families throughout Siberia. Most of our counselors had been part of the program themselves four to six years prior. Since then, they have gone on to Russian universities where Joint Distribution Committee-sponsored Hillels are sprouting up and are giving young Jews alternatives.

We attempted to empower our young charges to learn more. We directed them to the resources of the Internet and provided our contact information. We prepared basic Hebrew and Russian siddurium which we gave to our students to use for the future.

We spoke individually to several of the shining stars among the older campers and the counselors about continuing their Jewish education and encouraged them to consider rabbinical school in Germany, London, or in the United States. How wonderful would it be to have native Russians trained as progressive rabbis in the rabbinical schools of the west? After ordination they could return home to Novosibirsk, to Moscow, to St. Petersburg and be the leaders of a new generation of Russian Jews, who know the culture and language as natives, who have grown up after the demise of the Soviet Union, who have grown up in a country where Jews can once again wear kippot and magen david necklaces. They could create the alternatives that Russia so badly needs.

I often had to remind myself that just 20 years ago, Russia had its second major revolution of the 20th century, and for many years after 1991, the country was in chaos and individuals no longer had the certainty of a job or shelter as they had under communism. Freedom and individualism are new and it will still take time for these ideas to settle. Each year, additional Russian Jews are discovering their past, a past hidden during the time of communism. If we count those with one Jewish grandparent, perhaps the number of Jews in Russia rises into the millions. In time these Jews will look to the tradition to provide meaning and structure in their lives and to mark the passing of lifecycle events. They will turn toward the tradition and its teachers for spiritual fulfillment and growth. They will create communities where all Jews can be married under a chuppah and can circumcise their boys...

I know that this holiday season, the Jews of Siberia are unable to celebrate Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in the way we are today. The problem of isolated and disconnected Jews remains throughout our world. Just because the Iron Curtain came down 20 years ago, we must not forget the Jews of the world. We can do more to help them, to remember them, to improve their Jewish community.

When I say next year in Jerusalem at the end of our service this Yom Kippur, I will be thinking of my friends in Siberia, praying that they too will receive the light of liberal Torah in the year to come. Gemar Chatimah Tovah!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

From Rescuer to Rabbi

by Matt Rosenberg

In September 2011, I was working for the American Red Cross of the Bay Area. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I remember receiving a CNN email alert about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center and didn’t think to turn on the television as I recalled the 1945 plane that crashed into the Empire State Building. Very soon thereafter I realized that it was quickly becoming a disaster.

I knew Red Cross support would be needed so I hurriedly got ready for work. As I approached my office my supervisor called and re-routed me to an East Bay city, where an early-morning apartment fire had dislocated more than one hundred people. Over the course of the next few days, I supervised the apartment fire relief operation as we provided meals, financial assistance, health services, and mental health counseling to the residents. By the following weekend, things were mostly wrapped up and air travel had resumed. I flew to New York the Monday after 9/11 and soon arrived at the Brooklyn headquarters of the disaster relief operation.

There at the Brooklyn headquarters, I saw signs posted throughout the building about a Rosh HaShanah service to be held conveniently in the headquarters that evening, which happened to be Erev Rosh HaShanah. Despite my lack of presence at High Holy Day services throughout my life (I once stopped by a High Holy Day service at my “home” congregation in Sacramento following my Bar Mitzvah simply to claim my honor of going up to the Torah; one other time, my wife Jen and I attended one service shortly after college), I felt an immediate and intense desire to attend that service and be with fellow Jews that evening. The nation had experienced a collective trauma and spirituality became an important outlet for everyone, including myself.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend as I was assigned to go meet with an immigrant family from Central America who had lost their head of household, a young father of three who was a dishwasher in the Windows on the World restaurant on the top floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I was there to provide financial assistance and to support the family in shipping the body back home to their village for a funeral.

Throughout my three weeks in New York City, working in a makeshift relief center located in tents in a city park and later at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94, I met with hundreds of workers who had lost their jobs on September 11. Many of these people were at work on that Tuesday morning and also lost countless friends and co-workers. Over the course of my time at Pier 94, a makeshift relief center, countless employees and residents from the southern tip of Manhattan sat across from me and told me their stories. A few stand out...

I remember meeting with a man who was an elevator operator in the top floors of one of the towers. He was on his break and outside of the building when the planes hit. Since he survived, he had tremendous survivor guilt for having lived while his friend who covered his break was dead.

A waiter in a hotel restaurant in one of the other buildings of the World Trade Center complex lost his job when his building collapsed, he had been preparing tables for lunchtime when glass from the roof began raining on his head. His daughter was in a special school due to multiple disabilities and he worried how he would pay tuition.

A woman whose apartment building was off limits following the attacks couldn’t access any of her possessions and friends were beginning to tire of her and her dog. She had nowhere to go.

I helped these people and many, many more with financial assistance and a kind ear, making referrals to mental health professionals when appropriate.

But the long-lasting effect of my time in New York was the spark that ignited a passion for Judaism. Despite my love for my job and the work I was doing with the Red Cross, I needed more. I needed to fill a hole that I didn’t know existed. I finally found out that I was missing Judaism when, two years later, I finally started a basic introductory class and became hooked. I really couldn’t get enough. I read everything I could and started taking classes and attending daily and Shabbat services at local synagogues.

In 2005 I decided to quit my job at the Red Cross and consider the rabbinate. It was very difficult to leave -- I loved my job and the work I did, it was incredibly rewarding. By the summer of 2006, Jen and I were studying in Jerusalem and my full-time path to the rabbinate had begun.

Now, as the tenth anniversary of September 11 approaches and I am in my penultimate year of rabbinical school, I look back and see how the events of my life have led me to where I am today. I feel that the guiding hand of God has helped me reach this place.

Matt Rosenberg is a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter at @rabbimattr

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricane Preparation Advice for the Shomer Shabbat

The National Weather Service is currently forecasting landfall of Hurricane Irene near North Carolina on Saturday and with potential impacts into the Boston to Washington D.C. metropolitan region on Sunday. Hurricane Irene has the potential to be a very serious storm that could impact a very large number of people across the Eastern Seaboard. The timing of Hurricane Irene is challenging for those who are observant Jews with regard to Shabbat.

The major principle of halacha involved in preparing for and responding to Hurricane Irene is that of pikuach nefesh docheh et HaShabbat, or "the preservation of life overrides Shabbat." The rabbis have always been lenient when it comes to risking life or limb. They are clear - do not attempt to observe Shabbat if your life is in jeopardy!1 There are already Hurricane Warnings2 issued for the Carolina coast. With any type of severe weather warnings, it is time to be more concerned about your life and the lives of your family than Shabbat.

With that in mind, these are my suggestions...

Pre-Shabbat in Hurricane Watch or Warning Zones

  • Assemble or restock your emergency evacuation kit.
  • Obtain and listen to a NOAA Weather Radio for critical information from the National Weather Service (NWS).
  • Bring in anything that can be picked up by the wind (bicycles, lawn furniture).
  • Close windows, doors and hurricane shutters. If you do not have hurricane shutters, close and board up all windows and doors with plywood.
  • Turn the refrigerator and freezer to the coldest setting and keep them closed as much as possible so that food will last longer if the power goes out.
  • Turn off propane tanks and unplug small appliances.
  • Fill your car’s gas tank.
  • Plan what to do if you have to evacuate: Decide where you would go and what route you would take to get there. You may choose to go to a hotel/motel, stay with friends or relatives in a safe location or go to an evacuation shelter if necessary.
  • Learn about your community’s hurricane response plan. Plan routes to local shelters, register family members with special medical needs as required and make plans for your pets to be cared for.
  • Evacuate if advised by authorities. Be careful to avoid flooded roads and washed out bridges.
  • Leave your radio and television on and set to news or weather stations; use the volume control on the device during Shabbat.
  • Leave your computer and Internet on and pre-load local government and official weather and emergency websites into your browser! One helpful site is the National Hurricane Center
  • Prepare battery-powered flashlights and lanterns for power outages.

During Shabbat

  • If you are in a hurricane warning area, do not attend synagogue. Stay home with your family and monitor official sources for evacuation and emergency warning information. Daven at home!
  • Use your computer and Internet to monitor the situation by pressing Ctrl-R or Cmd-R on your computer to reload the webpage. This is not writing on Shabbat and again, it is pikuah nefesh.
  • If you are in a warning area and are ordered or encouraged to evacuate, do so using your automobile(s) and bring your evacuation supplies with you, even if it involves carrying.
  • If the power goes out, do not use candles (they are very dangerous). Use your flashlights and/or battery-operated lanterns.
  • Use your phone to call 9-1-1 or authorities in an emergency. Use your phone to contact friends or relatives who you made pre-storm arrangements for lodging.

For more information on disaster preparedness, visit Ready.gov's hurricane preparedness page.


1) “Whoever is swift in desecrating Shabbos in a matter that involves danger is praised” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 328:13) and “One must desecrate Shabbos even if there is only a slight possibility that the situation is dangerous. One does not need a professional opinion or an expert physician. Whenever one is uncertain whether the situation is dangerous, he is required to desecrate Shabbos” (Shu”t Tashbeitz 1:54) (Rav Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, the Rashbatz, 14th century Spain).

2) Hurricane Warning: Hurricane conditions are expected within 36 hours. Complete your storm preparations and leave the area if directed to do so by authorities.

(Much of the above instructions are adapted from Ready.gov and the American Red Cross)

The author, Matt Rosenberg, is a rabbinical student in Los Angeles and a former director of emergency services for the American Red Cross. He knows a lot about disaster and the halacha of disaster on Shabbat.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Long Overdue Update

I'm not sure anyone is reading any longer but for the sake of posterity I will provide an update. Last school year, my second of six years, was really fantastic. I began studying Gemara (Talmud) during the second semester, which as a six-unit class represents most of my work. I also spent my year taking Hebrew, Biblical criticism, Halacha (Jewish law) of liturgy, Kabbalah, fundraising, and Bible.

I am still serving as a student rabbi at an assisted living facility and during the summer I've been covering an additional Friday for a friend so I'm there two Fridays a month. I also still volunteer with the city's Crisis Response Team and have become active as a member of the steering committee.

During the summer I have been meeting with tutors to improve my ability to leyn (chant) Torah, lead services, and study Talmud. I officiated at my first wedding in June for two great friends. In July and August I have been leading minyan (daily prayer services) at the synagogue near my home every morning at 7:30 a.m. and every evening at 7 p.m. The services are about 45 minutes and a half-hour, respectively, and it's been a really great experience.

I'm in the process of applying to some internship and part-time pulpit opportunities for the upcoming year. I have my first High Holy Day job at a local synagogue where I'll be performing a variety of duties. I am getting ready for a seventh-grade confirmation class I'll be teaching weekly about social justice.

School starts right after Labor Day and I am only enrolled in three significant classes: Gemara, Psalms, and Misdrah (commentary on Bible and Jewish law). It will be a challenge to balance class work with my interest in extracurricular rabbinic-type activities.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

School is Soon

There is just a week and a half remaining before school resumes. On Monday, August 25 my class starts a four day-long History Intensive, covering 4000 years of Jewish history. In anticipation of this course, we were instructed to read the 1096-page A History of the Jewish People. I spent several weeks attempting to slog through this tedious book and eventually finished.

I'm excited to meet those who were in Israel last year (none of whom I know) and the incoming freshman class (which includes a few students I know). After the History Intensive, we'll have a nice Shabbat weekend at the dean's house where we'll get to know each other. Then, after Labor Day, the regular schedule begins.

This summer I spent time getting tutored in Hebrew to keep my skills up and I also was tutored in chanting Torah. I will be chanting Torah for the first time next Monday, at a regular weekday minyan in my neighborhood. I also spen the summer finishing studying a masechet (section) of Mishnah with my Hevruta (study partner) Sara. We finished the masechet a few weeks ago and threw ourselves a little party in honor of completing that study, which is a traditional Jewish practice.

Last but certainly not least, this summer was spent helping Jen in her last few months of pregnancy. I was quite busy with errands and other baby-readiness activities. At the end of July, our first child was born. Seven days later, we held his Brit Milah or circumcision ceremony at my university. Since his birth, we've both been fairly exhausted and running ragged, trying to learn to get by on little sleep and how to parent an infant. I look forward to resuming my studies but I will also miss my son. Having the luxury of being home for the first four weeks of his life has been a wonderful blessing.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Looking to the Fall

In my undergraduate and graduate education, there was nothing quite as fun as registering for the next semester's set of classes. There is so much home and anticipation and there's the great feeling of a clean slate (especially if it's been a bad semester) in the future. Well, I am equally giddy about my fall schedule and now that it is summer, I can hardly stop thinking about it.

In the fall I will continue my foray into Talmud study with a three-day-a-week class on the Mishnah which includes thrice weekly working with my study partner in the Beit Midrash (house of study or study hall) three afternoons a week. That one class is nine units and represents almost half of my class load. My Hebrew class is reduced to twice weekly with "Advanced Hebrew Expression" but I don't feel I've mastered basic Hebrew expressions yet! I will continue my close study of the Torah with a new Bible faculty member who stats in the fall. I will also be exploring the realm of the mystical in a Kabbalah class. And, if I can swing it, I will be taking a course from the MBA program on fundraising and marketing. I might have to jettison a class or two, depending on how the waters look in the fall. But I'm excited for the future!

A Year In Review

Yesterday I finished my first year of rabbinical school. During our orientation last fall, we wrote our future selves letters, one letter to be delivered to us at the end of our first year and a second letter to be delivered to us upon ordination. I took my last two finals on Wednesday and once I arrived home I opened the letter that had been delivered to me on the last day of classes. I was worried that it would be silly because I really didn't remember what I'd written, that whole orientation week was such a blur. But, it turned out to be a pretty good letter and the first two sentences really hit the nail on the head, "Congratulations on completing year one. I'm sure it has been an incredible year filled with much growth, change, hardship, and I'm sure you'll have learned so much."

I have been in quite a retrospective state these past few weeks as I approached the end of my first year. I was in awe and amazed that I finally achieved this point and was quite overwhelmed at how quickly the year went but simultaneously how it felt like such a long period of time. I am shocked by how much I learned this year and how far I've come toward becoming the rabbi I want to be, the rabbi I hope to become five years from now.

Monday night is the ordination ceremony for eight of my classmates who made it to the end of their journeys. I am so very inspired by their journeys and their accomplishments and I can't wait to see them turn into rabbis on Monday night.

I look forward to my summer break. While my chaplaincy plan didn't work out, I'm going to spend time getting tutoring in chanting Torah and tutoring to improve my Hebrew skills. Jen and I are expecting a baby this summer so I will also be busy in the fatherhood arena. It should prove to be an interesting summer and I do very much look forward to my continuing journey with my fellow students and incredible teachers who have brought me to this place.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jeremiah 29:7

I heard a quote of the verse Jeremiah 29:7 today on NPR and now it has become one of my favorites. I think it symbolizes my work in nonprofits and emergency response, such as my new role on the Crisis Response Team, and my learning toward the rabbinate...

Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper. -Jeremiah 29:7

When searching Google for more about the verse, I found this cool video...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Latest Doings

On Shabbat I co-officiated at a morning learning service for those in the conversion to Judaism process. While I didn’t lead any part of the service, I provided input and my thoughts about the key prayers and the Shabbat liturgy. It was a great experience and I really look forward to learning more so that I can take a greater role in opportunities such as this one and others. Nonetheless, I know that a year ago, there was no way I would’ve been able to say anything coherent about the liturgy so I do realize that I’ve learned a thing or two.

I have two upcoming speaking engagements in the next week. On Friday, I am speaking about my trip to Ghana with a group of seniors at their weekly Friday afternoon pre-Shabbat get together. Then, on Sunday night I will be speaking to a group about my experiences in Ukraine last Passover.

The semester is nearly halfway over and it’s gone by so quickly! It’s been such a busy semester. I returned from Ghana and then started classes four days later. In mid-February we moved from our cramped apartment into a rental house with plenty of space and a nice backyard. Last weekend, three weeks after we moved, we hosted a barbecue for 35 of our closest friends at our new house. It was a lot of fun and felt so great to finally be social after living in a place where we couldn’t really entertain. Coming up are midterms, Purim, Passover, and finals and final papers.

I’m finishing up training with the City of Los Angeles to be a member of the city’s Crisis Response Team (CRT). The CRT responds to fatal incidents in the city (such as automobile accidents, drive-by shootings, murders, suicides, and other disasters) to provide support to family members of victims. The training has been pretty intense; it also began a few days after I returned from Ghana and it’s every Tuesday and Thursday night from 6:30 to 9:30. It’s been making my Tuesdays and Thursdays very long – I’m on campus by 7 a.m. and not home until nearly 10 p.m. I look forward to graduation on Thursday and for the opportunity to respond to incidents and help my neighbors. I also look forward to having my Tuesday and Thursday nights back.

The semester ends in mid-May and my summer is looking like it’s going to be fairly relaxing – I won’t be interning or working anywhere. I do plan on working on my skills in leading services and chanting from the Torah so that I can take care of opportunities such as I mentioned above.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ghana and Back

Late Thursday night I returned to Los Angeles from my ten-day trip to Ghana with the Rabbinical Student Delegation of the American Jewish World Service, an international relief and development organization (which only works with non-Jewish organizations to help alleviate suffering worldwide).

The trip was amazing and incredible on multiple accounts. We stayed in a house in a small village of about 500 people in the Upper Volta region of Ghana. The Ghanaians were warm, friendly, caring, and very interesting to talk to. I met many locals and was able to play games with the children like duck-duck-goose, red light green light, and Simon Says. I talked to one of the three chiefs of the village quite extensively about village demographics. We were welcomed to the village in an elaborate welcoming ceremony and we departed after an elaborate closing ceremony where we asked and received permission to leave the village.

Our village was a half-hour walk from the larger city of Hohoe, with an approximate population of 50,000. There, we met with various agencies dealing with health and welfare issues in the region. We met a Cuban doctor, a volunteer sent by his country's government, to serve as one of three physicians in the region. He told us about the medical and public health problems of the region and how simple immunizations, medications, prevention, and mosquito nets could do to save so many lives.

In our village we spent four days working on building a community center so that the villagers would have a place to watch soccer (the were very excited about this) and to gather for community functions. We learned tunes and songs and dances of the local community. I was amazed at the diversity of the languages in the region. It seemed that every few miles, there was a new local language. Most adults speak English as a second language. I loved the sense of community among the clans in the village, how they all came together to build the community center with the help of the thirty foreigners among them.

We mixed and poured concrete, carrying water, rocks, and concrete on our heads as is the local custom. We learned to make bricks manually by pouring concrete into molds and then letting the bricks dry in the sun. We drank liters and liters of bottled water each day to keep from dehydration and I successful avoided any gastrointestinal distress. No one was hospitalized with any diseases and no one was eaten by a cobra, even though was was reported on the driveway to our house.

Due to the mixed levels of Jewish observance among the crew of students from nine different seminaries in the United States across all denominations, we ate vegetarian meals prepared by local cooks. The staple was primarily rice with a varying spicy red sauce for lunch and or dinner each day.

Every morning a different seminary was responsible for leading the morning prayers. We had our chance early on and I led the first part of the service, leading singing of several prayers - an entirely new and scary experience for me. Experiencing the range of different services sponsored by the various seminaries was fascinating. The heated discussions among the participants about how to observe Shabbat as a group was an eye-opening experience.

We spent some time in Accra, a bustling city with merchants of all kinds carrying their wares on top of their heads and walking between cars stopped at intersections. One could but a complete meal, clothing of all kinds, shoes, and even windshield wipers at the major intersections of Accra without ever leaving one's car.

We visited a Liberian refugee settlement in Accra, home to about 50,000 Liberian refugees of their now-ended civil war. Despite the horrific conditions in the settlement, we were told that the Liberians prefer to stay and hope and pray for a visa to take them to the West. The civil war has been over for a few years and United Nations posters and banners encourage an end to the diaspora ("Yes, there is free schooling in Liberia!") but they're not budging.

In addition to the 25 participants and three group leaders, a rabbi from New York was our scholar-in-residence. We spent several hours each day learning with the rabbi and the group leaders about global poverty, HIV/AIDS, public health, and grassroots sustainable development.

I learned so much, my eyes were opened so wide, it was an amazing and incredible experience. I'm so glad I had the opportunity and wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Rabbinical Student Delegation to any rabbinical student! Do it despite the plethora of shots and pills!

On our way back to the United States we had a lengthy layover in Amsterdam. It was my first time in the city and I enjoyed the architecture and visited the Anne Frank House. I hope that Jen and I will be able to return and spend more time in Amsterdam, it's such a beautiful city.

When I returned home, my report card was waiting for me there. I was pleased to discover that I won't have to repeat any courses and, in fact, my first semester GPA isn't so bad. I'm back at school already, just a few days after returning home. It's a light week though so it's a nice transition back to the semester...