Tuesday, July 3 – Hartman Begins

In the morning, Maital came home from the hospital: all fine, though Jen was a LITTLE tired from a night in the ER.

Jen and I were a little shaken from the day before, so I hung out at the house with Jen and the kids until her sister Hilary arrived from the airport. (Did I mention that Jen’s sister and parents were on their way to spend two weeks with us?)

So after lunch, I finally made my way to the Shalom Hartman Institute to begin my three year stint as part of the third Rabbinic Leadership Institute.

(At this point this journal will switch since the way I spend my days has switched significantly!)

Having missed the beginning of the program, I jumped in running full speed.

The group is an amazing mix of Rabbis, from West Coast to East Coast, pretty young to (not sure how to say this Politically Correct, but you understand what goes here).

The first program I attended was part of the Great Book series. Everybody has read Yehudah HaLevy’s Kuzari and we are studying it over 5 sessions with a wonderful teacher. I will save my notes on this until the end of the series.

After the Kuzari lecture, we had a break and I headed home to welcome my in-laws to town and taste the bakery in our neighborhood.

The late afternoon program was a lecture by Steve Cohen, the pre-eminent demographer of the American Jewish community, with a response by Donniel Hartman. Steve Cohen presented his normal battery of percentages related to the American Jewish Community. Of course he spent a lot of time talking about intermarriage, as he always does. What I found particularly interesting was that he shared the percentage of Jews who are raised with two Jewish parents, who then intermarry. It is much lower than the overall number that gets quoted. It is about half the overall number – about 25% (1 out of 4) of Jews who are raised by two Jewish parents marry someone who is not Jewish.

Donniel Hartman, who speaks with a deep warmth, offered two challenges.

First a general challenge that Judaism, Jewish community and Jewish continuity are not about numbers, they are about people. Whenever we forget this, we disrespect amcha (the Jewish People). And second, if the issue is simply Jewish continuity then we have brought this great tradition – Judaism – to a place of incredible mediocrity. If the best to which we can point as to why Jews should create Jewish families is continuity, then we need to re-evaluate what we have made of Judaism.

A very interesting presentation and discussion.

The night time lecture – yes, it is clear these are going to be very long, very full days – was also by Donniel Hartman, and concerned his views on the composition of Israeli Jewish society. A truly fascinating analysis of the various groups/stereotypes that populate the Israeli scene.

When I finally returned home exhausted, and remember I was only there half the day, we decided we weren’t quite done.

This summer is Jennifer sister’s Hilary’s first trip to Israel. Since I remember clearly my first day in Israel (almost twenty years ago) and Jen remembers hers (almost fifteen years ago), we decided Hilary had to have a better first day than arriving to find that her baby niece had been in the hospital and her sister and brother-in-law were nervous wrecks from the experience.

So when I got home at about 11:00 PM, we headed off to the Old City.

It is a gift from God in our lifetime that we can visit the Kotel (Western Wall) with such ease. To stand before the grandeur of the Wall is to connect with 3,000 years of Jewish history, from King Solomon till today. It encapsulates all of modern Israeli history. It teaches us the deepest of lessons:

Holiness in this world (the Temple Mount is just on the other side)

Hope for the future (the story of Rabbi Akiva seeing the destroyed Temple and a jackal walk across the spot of the Holy of Holies and laugh knowing that redemption would yet come


Recognition that our security in this country and in this world is predicated on our ability to live side-by-side, please God in peace, with the other people’s of the earth, including and especially, those with whom this is the most challenging (remember those two domed buildings just above the wall are not Jewish buildings!)

Humility – this Wall is not a piece of the Temple, it is part of a restraining wall that King Herod built just over 2,000 years ago to expand the plaza above, basically to hold dirt. Our holiest site in this world is not a glorious building, it is not even the place where the High Priest offered sacrifice or intoned the name of God so the world could be forgiven, our holiest place is a wall that held dirt. This is the place not of priests or kings, this is the place of amcha.

My heart beats differently, the air in my lungs feels different, my eyes strain to see what is really there, my mind can’t fully process, and my N’shamah vibrates on a different frequency standing before the wall.

Filled with thanksgiving that Maital was okay, for all of my children, for the gift of being in Israel, for all of the good that God has brought for me, my family, our community, the Jewish people and the whole world – a few Psalms, my little note into the wall, and I glanced at my watch.

Watch batteries die. It is just one of those simple and generally insignificant facts of life. But how often are you actually looking at your watch when the battery goes? How often are you looking at your watch when the battery dies, and you are standing at your holiest site, a site at which you pray that time will stop and the world will be redeemed? What would go through your mind if, standing at the Kotel giving thanks and praying for a bright future, if time stopped? How would you know if it did?

I stood there, one hand on the Wall and my watch hand in front of my face, checking the time, and while I was looking at it, the face of my digital watch went blank. Time stopped, while I was watching. I was at first confused: I have never seen that happen before. Then I was moved: the incredible promise of redemption, of the potential of this world fulfilled. It is amazing how meaningful a tick of the clock can be, or the absence of the tick of the clock.

You decide: do you live in a world of coincidence or not?

As a reflection of where my soul is, my first thought was not: How does one replace a watch battery in Israel? Though, this did become very significant and annoying later when I realized how full my days are and how hard it proved to be to get to a watch store during day light hours. In the end, as an important lesson about living in the physical and the spiritual worlds at the same time, about living in the present with part of our souls looking forward to the world that is not yet here, time stopped only on my watch and in my Spiritual Imagination (a sacred place), and I had to retain at least a little focus in the world: How does one replace a watch battery in Israel?

So, I stood with Jen and Hilary just outside the Kotel, and asked Jen if we could chant some Psalms together. Standing next to Jen, giving thanks together in Psalm/song, I gave thanks to God for the woman whose hand I was holding, for the moment I met her, for standing under the chuppah, for our three children, and for every moment I am blessed to be with her.

We decided to walk back out through the Old City – and get a little ice cream on the way. We live in a world of miracles and I hope Hilary remembers her first day in Israel forever.

All days here are beautiful and blessed and really, really tiring.

P.S. If you would like me to place a note in the wall for you, please send me an email (rabbi@ohrshalom.org). Just remember, I have no printer, so anything you send I need to write on a piece of paper – please keep it brief!

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