Monday, January 31, 2005

A winding road to Sderot

In the morning, we had a "breakfast briefing" -- really more of a lecture/discussion (oh yes, the breakfast was again super-good) with Matt Rees, author of Cain's Field: Fear, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East. Mr. Rees is also the Time Magazine Jerusalem Bureau Chief, so what he had to say was great. I was impressed with what he had to say and some of his opinions. I was also impressed with myself, because I have his book sitting on my desk at Am Shalom -- I just bought it and haven't had a chance to read it. So now I'm excited to go home and read it.

After breakfast, we got back on our bus, to go to Beit Guvrin and Tel Moresha and with the ultimate goal of Sderot. Frankly, I knew it would be a bit of a windy road, so I took some Israeli dramamine....

First we stopped at Tel Moresha/Beit Guvrin. It was beautiful (wait to see my pictures) and the weather was gorgeous. We got to go into a few caves with Bernie Alpert, a Highland Park-er who runs Dig for a Day and Archaeological Seminars, and that was really cool. We did not have to do any digging, or anything like that -- and I'm quite glad. I think everyone in the group has done some archaeology stuff while in Israel. This was a nice reminder of it, though, and there were things in these caves that I've not seen before.

Then we got back on the bus and continued on to Chicago's Partnership 2000 region of Kiryat Gat/Lachish/Shafir. We visited a center called Yedid that helps out Israeli citizens with dealing with municipal or government bureaucracies. It was a great place that did great work. Then we went on to have lunch with French olim (immigrants) and we talked to them about their aliyah experiences. It was nice to speak in Hebrew to them -- it was a common language for us. Most of them didn't speak English (being from France, French tended to be their native language) but all had a basic beginning of Hebrew. Some had only been in Israel for a few weeks! It was nice to share a meal with them, though. We were greeted by the mayor of the town and had an enjoyable meal (yes the food was good. seems to be a bit of a mantra with me, doesn't it?)

Then we went to the Kuf-2 Army Post, adjacent to Kibbutz Nir-Am near Sderot (I copied that right out of our mission booklet!), and we met with soldiers there. We gave them gifts (we'd packed boxes for them on Friday) of snacks and one of the rabbis in our group (no shortage) gave a Mi Sheberach for the Israeli Army, and specifically for these soldiers. It was very emotional, especially since this army post overlooks Gaza City and is in constant line of fire. These young men go out on patrol every night and are really on the front lines. They took us up onto a lookout point and I took pictures of Gaza (pictures will be forthcoming, perhaps here or otherwise you'll have to ask me for them) and of the soldiers. It was a really crazy experience -- to feel so close to the danger zones that many Israelis live with on a daily basis.

Next we stopped by a Jewish Agency student village for new olim, a village called Ibbim. We met with young people (18ish) who had made aliyah from the FSU or South America or Ethiopia. This was a place where they could live together and deal with the issues of aliyah with their peer group. This village has also been under fire from Gaza lately (Kassam rockets) and we saw a few shells that they had to show us. It's got to be scary to make aliyah, join a youth village, and then have to sleep in a bomb shelter.

Then we went into Sderot, a city that has come under Kassam rocket fire a lot lately and been in the news for it a lot. We met with a young girl named Rotem whose home in Sderot was destroyed on her birthday. Such a sad story but thank God her family was all okay. Still, she was only about 14, and she spoke beautifully to us (in Hebrew). Then we met with deputy mayor (or something like that) of Sderot. We were supposed to meet with the mayor, but he was called out of town. This guy talked about all the people who've been killed lately, etc. I have to say that his message was not really exactly what I think we should have taken away with us. I mean, people stay in Sderot, and when we asked Rotem why, she said, "this is my home." I think that message was a lot more powerful than telling us about remembering the dead -- to remember all the living and what they go through and the choices that they've made to stay and be in this town.

After visiting Sderot, we broke out the Osem snacks (love Israel!), because by this time it was about 5:30pm, and we were hungry. I am partial to the Bissli snacks myself, in the Grill flavor. What exactly is Grill flavor? I can't tell you that but I can indeed tell you that it is good. Although it can be bought in the USA, I don't usually buy it because it is not exactly health food. But while here...mmm....

Then we arrived in Jerusalem and a group of us wandered the Mercaz Ha-Ir until we got hungry enough for dinner (all those snacks, you know), and we went to Rimon Cafe where we all had soup again! It was a long day but generally very enjoyable. I certainly learned a lot, and we travelled a long way!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Shabbat Menucha (=Sabbath rest)

In the morning, I met a few of my colleagues in the lobby of the the hotel to walk to a new-ish minyan in town called Kehillah Shira Chadasha. Now, generally, I am morally opposed to what is known as a "mechitza minyan" -- meaning a service where men and women are separated by a mechitza, a curtain or other barrier that serves to keep the genders separate. I'm quite an egalitarian, if you haven't noticed, so these kinds of prayer experiences tend to bother me. My classmates will remember that I regularly refused this kind of services while we were living here. I'm just not a fan of sitting in the back, or in the balcony, or in any other way not feeling like a full participant in the service. BUT. I encourage you to click on the link to read about this particular kehillah because it is very interesting. For example, they require both 10 men AND 10 women for to count a minyan. That is an interesting way of going about it. And, there were two women rabbis going with me who are also committed egalitarians, so I felt that I could embark on this personal journey into the world of a mechitza minyan.

We arrived and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the mechitza went down the middle, so that men and women were side by side. The mechitza itself was somewhat light (sheer-ish) curtain, and when we arrived a man was leading the prayers. But after he was done, it switched, and a woman led the Torah Service. The Torah was read in the middle of the room (the mechitza was pulled back), and both men and women read Torah and also were called up as aliyot. I was duly impressed by this show of egalitarianism (which I was assured was not merely a "show.") For the D'var Torah, the mechitza was pulled back entirely, so the darshan could see his whole kahal. His sermon was fully in Hebrew, so I had to work hard to focus my brain around it, that's for sure.

Overall, the experience was quite lovely and enlightening. The singing was divine, and I enjoyed seeing the varied group of attendees. When I inquired, I found that the core group is not, as I expected, entirely American ex-patriates, but many native Israelis. It is good to see Israelis taking control of their Judaism and not just saying the old stand-by joke "the shul I don't go to is Orthodox." Although I would certainly term this "modern orthodox."

Anyway, after this very nice experience, we went back to the hotel for a study session with Rabbi Schwartz, the senior member of our rabbinic group. Rav Schwartz is the Av Beit Din (head of the rabbinic court) for the Chicago Rabbinic Council (CRC) and other organizations, including, I believe, the national Rabbinical Council of America. We were told that he is a fabulous teacher, so we were interested to hear what he had to say. We were not disappointed. Rav Schwartz taught us about the mitzvah of "lo tachmod" -- do not covet -- (we were reading the Ten Commandments that week) and it was a great shiur.

Afterwards, we had lunch! (Because eating is definitely high up on my list) Leah Ingerham, cantorial student at HUC and product of Am Shalom, joined us for lunch, and it was great. Definitely a meal not to be missed. Even the pareve desserts were worth eating. Yummy. (This is what I love about food in Israel, even when it's a meat-meal, you can eat all the salads and vegetables and definitely not feel like you're not getting a good meal. No veggies and french fries here, I tell you.)

After lunch, Leah and I went into the Old City . It is one of my favorite Shabbat afternoon excursions -- because it so wonderful and bustling on Saturday afternoons. I love to browse in the Arab markets, and I was very proud to remember my way around the city. After the browsing around, we made our way to the Kotel (Western Wall), and it was so good to be there and say a few words of prayer. The Kotel isn't a place that I went regularly when I lived here; as you've read my mechitza issues -- it's nowhere more prevalent for me than at the Kotel, where women are cramped into a small space while men have a huge area in which to be....and space isn't exactly my only issue. But still, a trip to Eretz Yisrael isn't complete without this journey.

Then we went home and relaxed for a bit before Shabbat was over (it ends early in the winter, you know), and a group of us went out for dinner at Rosemary, a restaurant that is next door to Michael's first apartment in Jerusalem. Mmmm....french onion soup. Then we walked through Ben Yehuda...what a nice end to Shabbat. Tomorrow -- busy day!

Erev Shabbat in Yerushalayim

So....we took the bus to Jerusalem, and we had a few moments to check into our rooms before we were fed...BREAKFAST! And let me tell you, after 5 days in Russia, there was nothing so incredible as the Israeli breakfast spread. I definitely ate too much...but how can you not!? Love the cottage cheese and the borekas and the fruit and the dates and....mmmmm....okay, enough about food. But let's just say "yum!"

So over breakfast, we were greeted by Dr. Reuven Hazan, a professor at Hebrew U, who shared with us some feelings about the political situation and other stuff about being in Israel. I was quite impressed by how awake we all were -- and how many questions our group asked! (In retrospect, we were quite a group full of quesions, so why should I have been so amazed?) It was very interesting, although I admit that I ducked out for a few minutes when my phone rang -- because my two friends who are students at HUC (Hebrew Union College -- one of them is a rabbinical student, one a cantorial student), stopped by to see me at the hotel.

(Did I mention the hotel? We stayed at the David Citadel, which used to be the Jerusalem Hilton. Oh my goodness. What a nice hotel! It was super-nice. They came in each afternoon to do turndown and leave a chocolate on our pillows. One day, Jill and I were in the room, so we said, no we didn't need turndown, but could we still have the chocolate!? hee hee. It was nice. And the VIEW! Wow. It is, of course, right next to HUC, and I remember when we were students here that President Clinton stayed at this hotel...and they put snipers on the roof of HUC....interesting memories)

Anyway....after the speaker was done, some of us decided to take a little walk up to Ben Yehuda Street (Merkaz ha-Ir, City Center) for some shopping and just some fresh air. It was lovely, and then we returned to take a little nap before Shabbat. The nap was good but I was still really tired (remember, up all night on a plane!). Also, the nap kept getting interrupted with phone calls. But really, it was fine.

Then we got ready for Shabbat. Half our group planned to go to the Kotel, and half our group planned to go to Kol HaNeshama, a Progressive (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, this is Reform in Israel) synagogue that most of us frequented when we lived here. It was very exciting to be back...the music is beautiful and it has such a lovely feeling to be there. So our group walked down there (it's about a 20 minute walk) and it was just wonderful to be in Jerusalem for Shabbat. One of the security guards assigned to our group walked with us, but we didn't realize we couldn't figure out why this guy was following us! Then we figured out who he was, and we explained to him that we have all lived here before, and that we all speak Hebrew, and that he shouldn't worry about us too much. We're not the typical UJC mission group, I think. But he was sweet and did his job.

After services, we went back to the hotel for Shabbat dinner. It was wonderful...there was a printed menu on the table -- so fancy! But the best part of the meal for me (and the other two vegetarians) was that there was a completely comparable meal for us -- soup, salad, entree -- and it was delicious. Rabbi Poupko did give us a dissertation on the problematic addition of sugar into gefilte fish (part of the meal) which was hysterical....and I think he is completely serious about considering fish with sugar to be scandalous. I was, however, completely exhausted by this point and I actually left before dessert was served (me! I left before dessert! I love dessert! clearly, I was tired) and went to bed at about 8:30pm. That's because of no nap and no sleep. But I was a happy rabbi to get to bed. Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, January 28, 2005

It seemed like things were going so well...

So, like I said, getting to Israel was more of a challenge than it was meant to be.

We got to the airport in plenty of time, thank goodness, even though there was a big ol' blizzard raging in Moscow, and they assured us that this (in their opinion) little bit of snow wouldn't keep our plane from taking off. We were all so glad to hear that. I have to say, I've travelled to Israel before, but this is the first time doing it from somewhere other than the USA. I really did feel like we were "going home" to Israel, the feeling of preparing to leave Russia was truly a lifting of a weight that I didn't even know had settled on my shoulders. I was so happy to be going to Eretz Yisrael. Russia certainly wasn't miserable, but the prospect of being in Israel was just so exciting after this. (A note, I think that I felt this way in 1996, when I went to Germany for three weeks in the year following my first Israel trip. I was abroad, yet not in quite the right place. I think this is what happened to me in Russia. For example, I kept referring to the mode of payment as shekels, even though I knew it was rubles. I think, to me, all trips abroad are not right unless Israel is involved. Who knew I felt this way...)

So we checked in and set out for some food! Many of those in our group would not eat in a restaurant in the airport (no hechsher, go figure) but I was very happy to have a slice of cheese pizza at Sbarro. It was actually very funny -- capitalism has only sort-of caught on here. Credit cards are still a bit of an issue, and all of us wanted to pay by credit card. The woman had to leave her cash register, walk to another one, and wait for it to dial in....this was going to take forever -- so one intelligent rabbi offered to pay for us all -- just to cut short the thanks for dinner!

Then we went to the plane. It seemed so nice to get onto a plane and have the flight attendants speak a language I understood (Hebrew) rather than one I completely didn't get at all (Russian!). We settled into the flight, a completely full plane, I might add, which was in itself cool -- who knew during the refusenik days that someday a group of rabbis would be getting on an El Al/ flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv. Just so remarkable and amazing.

Our whole group (almost, except for the lucky few with Matmid -- the El Al frequent flyer program) were seated in middle seats -- so we were in one long middle row down the plane. Everything seemed perfectly normal, we pushed off from the gate and were de-iced. Then just as I was dropping off to a nice nap (the flight was scheduled to take off at 11:50pm Moscow time and arrive at Ben Gurion at 2:55am), and the plane was just starting to take off, I felt a huge jerk as we skidded to a stop from the speed of the takeoff. I don't think we ever got off the ground, just got going really fast and then we suddenly stopped. I was sure we were going to skid off the road. Yasher koach to our El Al pilot, because he certainly kept us on the runway. The announcement was made that there was an instrument malfuncion and they wanted to go back and check it out at the gate. We were all officially FREAKED out.

We taxied back to the gate, and the strangest thing happened. The man sitting in the row in front of me (on the aisle, and next to another of our group), suddenly got up, took his bag, and left the plane. We had no idea where he was going or who he was but it seemed odd and out of the ordinary -- something you never want to have happen on any plane, especially not on one going to Israel, and perhaps even more so not on one that has had something strange happen like an aborted take-off. We were even more freaked out.

Everyone got up and stood around trying to figure out what was going on, and there was a great deal of speculation....we were sure we'd have to spend Shabbat in Moscow. The prospect was not good. Then the pilot told us all to sit down, that they'd give us a drink and start the movie while they worked on things. I think the flight crew wanted to go home as badly as we all did! So we sat down, and most of us had a stiff drink (scotch, thank you) to help us out with the stress of this situation. The movie that they started was called The Forgotten and in case you've never seen it (I haven't, just a preview and I knew I didn't want to) -- it's about a mother who loses her child, and we think there's a plane crash involved in this too. Well....this was probably not the best choice of movie. As we continued to sit there (I was reading), suddenly the pilot came over the p.a. and told us that we were changing the movie because it just wasn't appropriate. (This was, to me, an only-in-Israel kind of moment!) So they changed the movie to some dumb comedy, a much better choice.

FINALLY -- they told us it was all okay and, wait, I think they said something like: "We're going to try this take-off again." The "try" in there didn't sit so well but what were we going to do!? So....we "TRIED" again. Now, remember the guy who got up and got off the plane? He came back. Turns out, he was the mechanic! When our group member sitting next to him asked about it, he said to him -- "Israel believes in God" (or something like that) -- which is in fact not very comforting to hear, especially from the mechanic!!!!

And make it all even more complicated, they told us we had to sit again. It turns out that the airport had to be closed down because someone Important was coming in (we think it was Putin, returning from the memorial at Auschwitz) and no flights could come in or out while this dignitary was landing. Oy...

Then it was time to take off. Let me tell you, there was a lot of praying going on during that take-off. Many tehillim (psalms) were said and lots of extra tefillot ha-derech (travellers' prayers)...and we took off....thank God it was all good and we were all safe.

The flight was about 4 1/2 hours, and I hardly slept at all, too wired up from the stress of our circumstances. But we were safe and sound.

We landed in Israel at about 6am, and it was so wonderful to be HOME.

I haven't seen the new airport terminal (it's only been open a short while) and it's gorgeous. Almost doesn't feel like Israel when you get out! But it is. And that is great. We got to our bus, we each got our cell phone that we are renting...and we were off to Yerushalayim as the sun was rising...the beauty of Israel after the cold snow of Moscow was remarkably contrasting. I was so glad to be here, not only for the love of Israel, but for the joy of the miracle of travel to our state from a place with the history of the FSU. Truly, the journey was a blessing.

My cell phone in Israel -- 972-055-666-5160. Feel free to call or text message...

Stay tuned for ISRAEL...

A Day of and Starts

So we woke early in Moscow and found ourselves....guess the synagogue eating the same breakfast as yesterday! Except, oddly, there was caviar on top of the hard-boiled egg-halves. Many in the group found this to be fabulous, others, slightly relpulsed. (Put me in the not-so-interested in fish eggs for breakfast category!)

After breakfast, we got onto the bus. This day was shaping up to be the coldest we'd encountered yet, and I was wearing my long underwear and as many layers as a girl could handle...brr it was cold! So, we took the bus to Red Square. Why were we going to Red Square? Well, from 10am-1pm, the Square was only open as a memorial shrine because during that time, Lenin's Tomb was open for viewing. (Read about Lenin's Tomb) This is a very momentous time for Russians, and the whole Square has rules like no talking and no cameras...very strict, these Russians. Anyway, our guide assured us that we wanted to arrive on the dot at 10am, and the whole works. We were all very excited to see this shrine....okay, that's not the word. Many of us were slightly repulsed by what we were going to see (I think this is the second use of this word in today's blog!) -- after all, who really wants to see a dead body? Most of us don't see them very often, and we probably attend more funerals than the average joe, if you know what I mean....but that doesn't mean we were super-excited about the deceased remains of Mr. Lenin. But....Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, our erstwhile educator, was eager for us to see this important piece of Russian history. So off the bus we went, bundled up against the bitter cold. Our bus dropped us off, actually across the street from our old hotel, the Metropole (we had already checked out, though), and left to drive around Red Square to pick us up on the other side after our visit with our friend Lenin. So we stood outside for a few moments, freezing our tushies off, when our guide discovered that Red Square had been abruptly closed. Closed!? Why, you might ask, would they close the square? Well....there was the possibility of a political demonstration, and the Russians, not fully committed to the concept of true openness of government yet, I suppose, decided to close down the Square rather than allow a demonstration there. As we stood, shivering, waiting for our bus driver to return (he had to be called, and then fight through considerable Moscow traffic to get back to where we were), a row of Russian police officers dressed in long grey coats buttoned up and furry Russian hats (picture those hats again), and very stoic and grumpy looking, walked out of Red Square to guard its perimeter. They took up position around the smaller square adjacent, and I understand that they basically ringed the whole outside of Red Square, not just this little piece where we were standing. It was a little creepy -- their uniforms made us a tad nervous -- think Soviet-era strangeness....and of course, we were darn COLD! (A side note, however, my feet were nice and warm in my Chicago funeral boots. Hooray!) Finally, after a lot of standing really close together to stay warm and a lot of complaining and laughing, our bus returned and we got on it....with all our fingers and toes still intact, I believe. (well, i had all of mine)

After that propitious false start to the day....we continued on our way. By now it was snowing....not too hard, but enough that in Chicago we'd have been discussing whether or not we might have the possibility of closing....Hebrew School! You can see how we're all in the same profession. Our way was taking us to the Lippman School, a Jewish Day School that is in fact a public school. That is how this works in Russia -- you can "take over" a public school and create a kind of magnet school for a particular subject or religion. This was a pretty cool place -- to see 400 Russian kids learning Hebrew and interacting in a school setting was really neat. I sat in on a first grade, where they were learning Hebrew from an Israeli teacher. Talk about coming far from the Soviet era! I was also able to read my first Russian words -- I deciphered "Tu B'Shevat" from a sign on the wall. Okay, perhaps the pictures of trees helped. But cyrillic has been daunting, let me tell you. It's hard to be in a country where you don't speak the language and can't even read it...and where almost no one speaks English. Our security guards on the bus, for example, were the strong, silent type...and we're pretty sure they didn't understand a word we spoke. A little unnerving, I tell you. Anyway....

The school was pretty incredible, and it was there that we were treated to perhaps the best meal of them alll.....okay, that was truly not the case. Turned out we were being served a "box lunch" that had been delivered about three hours earlier and had been sitting in a classroom waiting for was the scariest looking chicken and potatoes I've ever seen....not to mention that they'd forgotten a vegetarian option. But have no fear -- Phyl's backpack to the rescue with peanut butter and oranges and more of those yummy Natural Ovens cookies...I think there was a granola bar involved as well. Okay, but aside from the food (as we kept reminding ourselves, we didn't come to Russia to eat or to sleep...we could do that in Israel and trust me we were looking forward to eating and sleeping!) ....

Over lunch we met with two young rabbis, Gregory Kotlyar and Nelly Schulman. You may have read the article written about Nelly in the New York Times a few weeks ago, but if you didn't you can access it here: ) These two young rabbis are the only Reform rabbis around...and Nelly is the only woman for...well....time zones! For the women in the group it was very cool to have a colleague in the FSU, and it was interesting to talk to these two. This was the first time we'd been addressed by someone from the WUPJ (World Union for Progressive Judaism), and it was interesting to have the non-orthodox perspective. Our orthodox colleages on the trip were, I think, a bit put-off by this, but I think it was important to have this perspective. I know that the WUPJ is working hard to establish a presence in the Former Soviet Union, but they are having a hard time just like any other religious movement. Still, there are many Progressive synagogues that have been established in I guess it just takes time and money!

After this, it appeared to be snowing even harder. Driving was becoming tricky and traffic was terrible. But we really wanted to see Red Square (okay, this part might be a little out of sequence. I'm trying to remember how it happened.) even if Lenin's Tomb was closed. So after lunch, we drove over there and we decided to give it a shot. Our guide, Svetlana, was assured that the Square was now open for visitors, even though Lenin's Tomb was closed. (This was better, I suppose, because we could take pictures) Not all of us wanted to do this -- after all, it was snowing fiercely and seriously cold. But I and a few brave souls decided to go for it. Red Square is an open plaza, and the snow was driving -- my eyelashes were freezing shut! But we saw St. Basil's Church and also the outside of Lenin's Tomb. Also, we saw the Capitalizm -- the Versace stores in Red Square as well as the Lexus ads. Who knew....

The blizzard was crazy, and were trying to make sure we got everyone -- when we discovered that we had lost two members of our group (I think they should remain nameless here in my blog....but suffice to say that they were #1 and #26 in our count!) We sent out a few emissaries, including one of our security guards, to find them, and we decided to take the group to the next stop on our trip, so as not to waste everyone's time. Oy....the stress of this was quite great, not sure if these two group members were okay, we were all worried. After all, the weather was frightful and the possibility for slipping and get the point. So we all went off to the Tretyakov Museum, where they made us wear blue booties over our shoes. It's funny, in Russia they're relatively obsessed with coat-checks. It's not like, "you CAN check your coat," it's like, "you MUST check your coat." Even in the Lippman School where it was freezing, they were adamant that we had to leave our coats in the direcor's office. Everywhere, someone was reaching out to take our coats. It was a little bizarre. Anyway....

The Tretyakov Museum (to which we trekked in ever deepening snow!) was quite lovely, but a lot of artwork. In fact, it is the largest collection of Russian art in the world -- we found this worth giggling about because doesn't it make some sense that the largest collection of Russian art would be in...RUSSIA!? I think by this time we were all getting a little punchy. Anyway, our guide took us on a brief tour of the museum and during the tour we learned (the magic of cellphones!) that our group members had been found. One had actually stopped a police officer and was waiting in a police car, thank goodness. The other had made his way to our hotel! So both were found safe and sound, with only a few years of worry for all of us, especially those who were in charge. (Yes, we lost your rabbi in Russia. Doesn't sound so good, I guess!:-)

Anyway, after the Tretyakov, we were hungry and tired, but we made on more stop, at the Poklonnaya Gora Synagogue and Museum. This was a pretty cool stop, (and I think I may have the order of this all wrong, because I am pretty sure we davened Mincha here and I can't remember if it was before or after the Lost Rabbis Incident, but either way, you'll get the picture.), because it was a memorial synagogue -- meaning it was not a congregation, just a beautiful synagogue for memorial purposes. This makes a lot of sense in a country where they build churches as memorials. The sanctuary was beautiful and there was a multimedia memorial presentation on the downstairs level. So the whole thing was very moving and cool. (and I can't find for you a web information about it but here's a picture courtesy of my new favorite alphabet soup, JAFI : Click Here -- JAFI is Jewish Agency for Israel, aka the Sochnut)

Then we tried to go have dinner at the synagogue...but the weather and the traffic were SO BAD that we ended up cancelling all other plans and instead embarking on our journey to the airport. Our flight was scheduled for 11:50pm, and we didn't want to miss it, and frankly we were all tired of snow and of Russian food and all that. So the bus ride took like 2 1/2 hours to get to the airport and we were all a little worried. In Chicago -- it would have been a total shutdown of the airport and everything!

Anyway....we made it to the airport in time, and we were happy to strip off our long underwear and put our winter coats into our luggage for the flight to ERETZ YISRAEL. Now that is a story in itself, so you'll have to wait for the next installment in my blog.........

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Few Side Notes

So there are a lot of us on this journey and it's becoming funny and interesting and there are lots of things to laugh about and share....just like any other group tiyul (trip), we are developing our own issues, our own quirks, and our own jokes...(and of course, annoyances!). We count off regularly, so we can keep track of everyone (this will become problematic when you read the next posting, so stay tuned!), and we are always trying to figure out how to deal with the combination of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox ways of doing things. There are only six women rabbis on this journey (four Reform and two Conservative) and this also makes things previous years there have been as few as one woman!!! We are sorting ourselves out as we do this, so it's a work in progress, but I am still impressed that we are all here together. We ride around on busses with tour guides, but Rabbi Yehiel Poupko of the JUF is also our teacher, and he provides us with text and with context for the sites and things that we seeing, as well as a huge dose of history. We have a candy bag on the bus and it gets a lot of use right after meals when we didn't really get anythign good to eat. I suppsoe this is the perspective of a vegetarian in a place where they don't really seem to know what that is. Thank goodness for Skippy in a tube. Oh, and Natural Ovens cookies, which I brought along. My recommednation if you travel to Russia: bring snacks.

And a warm coat. And a hat. And boots. And mittens. Geez, it's cold here.

Moscow....Capitol City

So in Moscow....we got up early, but not quite as early as in St. Petersburg. We were able to daven at the hotel which bought us some morning time, and then we went to the synagogue to eat a kosher breakfast, which wasn't quite as good as the breakfast in St. Petersburg....but there was fresh fruit, which was in short supply for us! Over breakfast, we met with Sam Amiel, the Deputy Director of the Joint Distribution Committee in Moscow. He filled us in on some of the amazing projectst that JDC funds in this region, including a great deal of elder-care/support. (Poor guy had the flu and we were all parental with him...)

Then we got what I think of as a pretty cool experience. We went to the US Embassy in Moscow and we had a private audience with the Ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow. I thought it was great that he had time for us, even in the midst of all his other stuff. He sat with us and gave us a briefing on the state of things in Russia, and spoke specifically about the Jewish community. He also answered questions from our very question-y group! He also made an off-hand remark about being Jewish, which we all didn't know and gave him a certain level of credibility in our eyes on all the Jewish issues....

After this, we got our passports back (oh yeah, and we used the nice American-style bathrooms....don't even ask about Russian bathrooms. Sometimes there is one communal toilet paper roll on the you have to take it in with you when you go into your stall. Forget and you're out of luck!) and went to the Armory Museum, part of the Kremlin. It had all the crown jewels, etc, and it was nice to be out of the cold. Did I mention that it was cold in Moscow? Well, it was. Much colder than in St. Petersburg, but I think this is a function of fluke!

We had lunch at the JCC Nikitskaya, a Jewish community center. We shared lunch with a panel of Russian-Jewish academics, pretty much the only Jewish Studies folks in all of the FSU. They were very interesting and our group had a lot of questions for them abotu the state of Jewish education here in the FSU, but the program was really too long...this was a problem with the food delivery system in this "restaurant."

Then we went shopping! That was cool -- it was fun to be a little bit touristy instead of just educational. I bought some fun trinkets, and many people bought these cool Russian "fur" hats -- use your imagination and picture a Russian hat.

After that very brief shopping trip (and i do mean brief, like 40 minutes tops), we got back on the bus (so many bus trips!) and went to one of the coolest sites we've seen.

It was called a "Family Home" -- and it was an (orthodox) family that had decided to open a kind of orphanage (except it's not, it's a home, they told us). Basically, this one family took in about 40 different kids from all different ages and situations, ages 4-17, Jewish kids who were in the social service system for various reasons. The kids were amazing, and the work that this couple does with them is outstanding -- giving them a home and love. There was an adorable 4 year old named Ariel who was hanging out with us and then we met a pair of sisters who played their domra (, a Russian guitar-like instrument, for us. It was incredible to see all these kids thriving and growing in a loving Jewish environment.

Then we were back at the JCC for dinner with the Israeli ambassador to Russia, Arkady Melman. It was quite a difference from our very formal meeting with the American ambassador -- he was much more informal and he didn't seem to hold anything back from us. Oh yes, and there was some more of that great Russian vodka on the tables. That made the meal even better!!!! (because there wasn't much to speak about the food....oy!)

After that wonderful conversation with the ambasador, it was off to bed with an early wake-up ahead. Moscow is a fascinating city with so much to see. We all felt a little overwhelmed by it all. Insterestingly -- capitalism has come in the form of casinos. They were everywhere with all sorts of glittery lights -- picture shmaltzy las vegas type stuff....anyway, it was strange to see!!!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Going back a step...

So I was super-tired when I wrote the last blog about Moscow, and i wanted to share with you a few more things about the end of that day. (I was a little motion-sick all day, so that's where the blurry parts come in!)

I mentioned the Hebrew teaching thing -- and I wanted to share that we met with a guy who is basically totally responsible for all the Hebrew education in the Former Soviet Union -- he was teaching Hebrew to Jews in secret all through the Soviet days, when Hebrew was completely illegal -- and he was the founder of an Ulpan that is still very well attended. The ulpan that we attended is no long held in people's apartments secretly but instead in teh Jewish Agency (Sochnut) building in Moscow. It was quite cool to hear people speaking Hebrew in the FSU -- I don't know about all of you, but my memories of the refusenik days were quite clear. It's hard for me to even begin to explain to you the amazing miracle of the renaissance of Jewish life in the FSU.

Then on Tuesday, we checked out of our hotel and we went to the memorial for the Siege of Leningrad (see this site for more on this). This was really very interesting -- the siege was during WW2 and went on for about 900 days -- think about it -- that's almost three whole years! And some of the things we learned were amazing. For example, there was no disease, as there often is in besieged cities, because people were religious about cleanliness. But still, hundreds of thousands of Leningrad residents died, and most are buried at the site of this memorial, in huge mass graves. It was very powerful to be in this site. We read poetry and tehillim (psalms) together even though it was quite cold...

Then we went to the Hermitage Museum. What an incredible place! It is the former palace of the czars and we were given the "highlights" -- they said that if you spent 2 minutes in front of each item in the enormous museum that it would take you 7 years to get through the whole thing! There were some beautiful and famous pieces of art there, as well as a bunch of "stolen" art that the Soviets appropriated from various countries that they occupied. Interesting that it's still there, and now on display. Hey, we stole this stuff -- wanna see it!? Weird.

After this incredible journey through this amazing palace which was occupied by Catherine the Great (and we saw many many many of her dresses and carriages!), we had lunch (don't get me started on the quality of food in Russia...especially for those of us who do not eat MEAT) at a Kosher restaurant....okay, at THE Kosher restaurant. After all, even with a renaissance of Jewish life, there isn't that much Jewish life.

That was a pretty incredible thing about this. Even with all the great work of the Joint Distribution Committee and all the stuff that is being done for Jews in the former soviet union, we still don't really know how many Jews there are and really how many people are being served....and if they really will continue to maintain a Jewish community and presence in this area of the world. After all, it's never been the best place to be a Jew, so perhaps many of them will continue to make aliyah to Israel as they've been doing in droves.

We did visit the Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, but I must admit to being very motion-sick and can't tell you a lot about it. But it was snowy and hard to figure out what the graves said. It's also not used any more but holds the graves of many of St. Petersburg's most famous Jews.....

After the cemetery, we went to the airport....and we got on our plane to Moscow. We flew Aeroflot, which is a Russian airline, and I tell you we weren't sure what was holding the plane together. There wasn't a lot of legroom, in fact there was hardly any. I have no idea what kind of antique plane it was but let me tell you, we all said our Tefillat haDerech rather fervently....

It was a short flight and we landed in Moscow quite late to a very yucky box dinner (Kosher, of course) which no one really ate.

Really quick, back up -- in St Petersburg, we stayed in a gorgeous hotel called the Grand Hotel Europe . Not at all what you'd expect a former Soviet Union hotel to be was beautiful. In Moscow we stayed at the Hotel Metropole, a grand place as well, a remnant of the elegance of Russia...and it was very close to Red Square. This made the trip very pleasant in terms of accommodations. We were hardly in our rooms, however, as we were up at around 6am each morning and went to bed really really late each night....but it was lovely while we were in the rooms!

More to follow....

Monday, January 24, 2005

Jews were not meant to live in St Petersburg...

Why were we not meant to live in St. Petersburg? Well, a great rabbi (can't remember who, it's been a long day...I'm quoting Yehiel Poupko so it must be bad....just kidding!) said this because of St Petersburg's proximity to the Arctic Circle (check out a the time of daylight is absurd for figuring the time for morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. Why does this matter? Well, we are travelling with a group of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis...hence, we pray a lot. And we do it generally on the clock of the Orthodox. we were up and at-em at 7am, at the synagogue by 7:30am, where we ate a lovely breakfast (but who eats salad for breakfast? where's the oatmeal???) followed by what was perhaps the coolest service I've ever been to.

Why was it cool? Well, first of all, it was a big huge sanctuary, a little like Plum Street Temple (very Moorish) in Cincinnati. And there were only the 30 of us in it. Secondly, we all davened together, men and women, with no one really complaining or saying a word about all the women in tallit (and even the two in tefillin!!!). It was great (well, it caused some problems later, but for the moment it was great). Then we had a little talk about the history of the synagogue, which was built some time around 1880, I haven't got my notes with me. We met with the shul's rabbi, a Chabad rabbi, and he spoke for just a few minutes. Then we got onto our bus, and we took a little tour of St. Petersburg. Okay, well, we got out of the bus once, and took some pictures of a big statue of Czar Nicholas II, the one who conscripted little Jewish boys into his armies. Great guy.

Then we took a tour of the YESOD, a new JCC-type thing that is under construction. This was definitely the ├Łour JUF Dollars At Work portion of the show. We all put on hard-hats and it was kinda cool, but still just a building under construction.

Then came a really great part of the day. We were divided into small groups and we went to visit elderly Jews who receive services from the local Chesed (Jewish welfare agency). My group met with a woman named Mariam, and she was 89 years old. She had never met a woman rabbi, let alone heard that women could be rabbis!!!! We spoke to her through a translator, a young woman who works for JDC named Kate. It was so interesting to have that conversation. Mariam lived in a communal apartment, which she shared her kitchen and bathroom with another woman. At one time there were many others as well, now some of the apartments are offices. She was awfully spry for 89 years old and showed us pictures from her recent birthday party. I know that she appreciates the services she receives from the Jewish community, and it was really a blessing to meet her.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We were all so tired! I saw a lot of things and talked to a lot of people, we saw agencies, etc. We did go to the Jewish Agency (Sochnut) here, and it was really neat to speak Hebrew with Russians and to watch Russians learning Hebrew. What a change from the Soviet period.

Then we had a nice dinner where we met young Russians who are involved with Hillel and the Sochnut. One young lady was a high school student who told us flat out that she was making Aliyah in September because Israel was her destiny. It was amazing to hear her story.

Okay, then we went for a walk after dinner and I have two more minutes on my internet cafe payment!!!! Love you all....more St Petersburg tomorrow, followed by flight to Moscow in the evening. Stay tuned!!!!

St. Peterburg's weather

Sunday, January 23, 2005

A Snow Storm...26 hours later...

Okay, so the big huge snowstorm in Chicago only cost us 2 hours! Not bad...we left Chicago for St. Petersburg only about 2 hours late. The flight was long but perfectly uneventful. Nice group of people -- there are 30 or so rabbis from the Chicago area travelling together. We were scheduled to see some cemeteries during our layover in Frankfurt, but the 2 hour delay made that unfeasible, so we hung out in the airport. Frankfurt's airport is very boring!!!! And I haven't been in Europe lately...all the smoking made me nuts. But no big deal, and you could certainly get a beer easily!

Then we were on our second flight, to St. Petersburg. The flight left on time and arrived on time (this sounds almost boring, but trust me it was really nice!) Then we landed...and the first thing I saw was a young woman standing at the bottom of the gate, wearing a soviet-style green coat and big Russian hat....but it was all much better than that. Passport control was easy -- we murmered about what it must have been like to visit when it was the USSR -- so many of our colleagues made visits here to see refuseniks...but it was nothing like that. We found all of our luggage and we are now in St. Petersburg! It's very warm here (32 degrees Fahrenheit! like summer!) and the city is lovely, at least what I could see from the bus (and you all know how much I love bus rides....). We are staying at the Grand Europe Hotel, and it is really one of the fanciest hotels I've ever seen.

And of course, it's almost 1am and we have a 6:15am wake up call. So I'm off....and I'll tell you all more tomorrow!!!!

I miss you all already...but I'll keep in touch!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Creating my First Blog!

So here I am, writing in my first blog. I'm hoping that I'll be able to keep a weblog of my journey to Russia and Israel with the JUF Rabbinic Mission. (If not, then you won't see any more postings! But they tell me that we'll have internet access in all our maybe I can devote a few minutes to logging this trip for y'all to read!)

I haven't even left yet. In fact, I don't leave for one full week. Right now, it's almost Shabbat and I'm sitting at my desk getting ready for Shabbat to start! Regarding the upcoming trip -- I'm nervous and excited! I still have to pack, and I'm definitely monitoring the weather in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Jerusalem. How do you pack for such a diversity of climate? And with only 44 pounds!? Well, I'm sure it will involve buying a pair of shoes in Israel. Other than that, it's all up in the air!

Okay, so that's all for now in this blog. Hopefully you'll see more of me.