Sunday, August 14, 2016

My First Egalitarian Minyan **

(** Well, to clarify, not MY first, but certainly the first held in this community.)

I have been attending the only synagogue in Québec City for a year now – it is a tiny synagogue (there is a tiny Jewish community here), and on paper the community has been Orthodox, or perhaps even Modern Orthodox for decades.  I am not an Orthodox Jew – I am an egalitarian Conservative Jew, and if you who are reading this are not Jewish, here is a very brief description of the difference (this is important for what’s coming).

Orthodox Jews still observe the separation of men and women at prayer – they do not sit together, nor do they pray together.  In some communities, there is a mechitzah, a barrier, to separate the men’s section from the women’s.  Sometimes the mechitzah is as simple as sitting in the same sanctuary with pews that are open only at one end, by the aisle, so that there is a wooden barrier between men and women.  In some synagogues, the mechitzah is a barrier to vision – a dividing screen, or row of trees, or something that prevents men and women from seeing each other in the sanctuary.  And in some synagogues, there is a balcony, so that women don’t actually enter the main sanctuary – they can see and hear the rabbi, but neither they nor the men can see each other.  Women in a traditional Orthodox community do not read from Torah.  They are not invited to have an Aliyah (to make the blessing before and after a Torah portion is read).  Women are not invited to the bimah (the place from which the Torah is chanted and from which the D’Var Torah, the sermon, is given). 

In my Conservative community in Halifax, there is absolutely nothing that a man can do that a woman cannot also do.  Women have Aliyot (the plural of Aliyah, the blessing for the Torah reading).  Women chant from Torah, and they chant the Haftorah (a reading from one of the prophetic books that follows the Torah reading).  They deliver Divrei Torah (the plural of D’var Torah, the sermon).  They lead many communities as rabbis.  They are mohels, responsible for ritual circumcision.  Both women and men who are not rabbis can and do lead services.  And we don’t follow any physical separation at prayer.

Many of my friends were surprised to hear that I was attending an Orthodox synagogue – that’s not my practice in Halifax, so why, they wondered, would it be so here in Québec?  The answer is actually quite simple: this is the only show in town.  If I wanted to be a Jew in community with other Jews, this was the only place in which to do it.  Certainly, I can be a Jew all by myself – but the community is tremendously important.

It is no secret to say that the Jewish community here has struggled recently.  It moved from a Modern Orthodox sort of community to one that became increasingly more Orthodox, right down to the installation of a mechitzah (the divider between men and women).  Women certainly were not invited to the bimah, did not make Aliyot, did not deliver Divrei Torah. For some, it stopped feeling like a welcoming place, a place in which all Jews were seen as equal.

It seems that I arrived in Québec in time for something like a revolution.  It started with a simple question – “What does the community here do for Tashlich?” (Tashlich is a small ceremony held near water, at which we throw bread on the water, symbolising the sins we have committed, the harm we might have done, as we count the days between Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.)  We’d always done Tashlich in Halifax, so I presumed that every community did it and was pretty surprised to discover that this wasn’t necessarily so.  I shrugged it off and said, “Well, OK, I will just go down by the St Lawrence River and make Tashlich myself.”  No biggie.  But it caught the attention of a few people who wanted to know if they could also participate.  So we made a Tashlich observance on a cool, grey day on the St Lawrence, and it was profoundly beautiful.  And it was a first.

Then I asked another question – “Why don’t we do Kabbalat Shabbat services?”  Kabbalat Shabbat is the Friday night service at which Jews welcome the Sabbath.  It is a very clear separation of the mundane from the holy, and again, it has always been part of my practice.  That’s how I came to lead the first Kabbalat Shabbat service of this community in at least 20 years – we combined it with a community dinner, and because we were concerned about the kashrut (the kosher status) of the kitchen in the synagogue, we held it at the Kirk Hall of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Old Québec.  A little unorthodox, you think?  Yeah... and it was great.

The community has gathered for communal Passover celebrations in the past and did so again this year – at the Masonic Lodge in the Old City.  There were many more people present there than we see on any given Saturday morning, which is no big surprise.  It seems true in every tradition that the holidays cause people to become more observant than other days!

Since the first Friday night service, we have held several other Kabbalat Shabbat services, combined with community dinners.  We have held those at the synagogue, being very careful to do nothing that could be seen as interfering with the kitchen’s kosher status.  We even eat from disposable plates, using disposable dinnerware. 

And we have marked Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month, done 13 times a year) together in community. Interestingly, Rosh Chodesh is considered a women's holiday - tradition has it that it was given to women as an honour from God for not having given their gold to the making of idols, as the men of the community had done.  Our first observation of Rosh Chodesh as a community was to mark the beginning of the month of Av, generally accepted to be our saddest month, as it is the month in which we commemorate the loss of two temples, amongst a host of other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in this month, on or near its 9th day, which is known as Tisha B'Av.  This month, Av, also marks a more joyous event – Tu B’Av, which is a celebration of love.  And we will have a Kabbalat Shabbat service and community dinner at which we talk about what this means as well.
We will mark Rosh Chodesh Elul at the beginning of September, in much the same way.  We will talk about Rosh Chodesh and what it means, and we will talk especially about why this month is meaningful for us.

We have celebrated Havdalah together – a small, beautiful ceremony to mark the end of the Sabbath.  And we will do it again.

This weekend, during which falls the 9th day of Av, that saddest of all days, marked another first for this community – for the first time in anybody’s recent memory (for the first time in more than a decade) – we held a Shabbaton.  Think “scholar in residence.”  Rabbi Alan Bright, from Shaare Tzedek in Montréal, accepted our invitation to come and spend a couple of days with us.  So we had a Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evening led by a rabbi – it was beautiful.  There was no men’s or women’s side to the synagogue, because people simply sat where they wished.  We had dinner together and had some great discussion about Judaism – what is authentic Judaism?  Is there even such a thing?  (Hint: there is no single right way to be a Jew.)

On Saturday morning, we gathered for Shabbat services, and it just kept getting better.  This small synagogue hasn’t had a Saturday morning minyan for at least 7 months.  What that means is that we could not take the Torah out of the Ark.  We could not read from it.  Any prayers that required a minyan (a gathering of 10 Jews – in an Orthodox synagogue, 10 Jewish men) could not be said, or could not be said aloud.

The Shabbaton weekend was designed to have an egalitarian minyan.  The women counted.  And so on Saturday morning, we had a minyan – for the first time in months, I was part of a congregation chanting the Amidah together, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

Even more importantly, the President of the synagogue’s Board was present with her family.  She had never had a Bat Mitzvah celebration, but on a recent trip to Israel, she bought a tallit (a prayer shawl).  And on Saturday morning, her husband placed the tallit around her shoulders, and she said the blessing for the first time.  Then he and their teenage daughter opened the Ark to remove a Torah scroll, and my friend made the Aliyah over a Torah portion for the first time ever.

Women are not obligated to do many things to which Judaism obligates men.  But some women choose those things.  Some women choose to wear a tallit, or have a practice that includes the wearing of tefillin (ritual prayer objects).  Some women choose to chant a Haftorah or to deliver a D’Var Torah.  And while tradition has meant that women did not generally do these things, there are not laws prohibiting the assumption of these obligations.

The question of “authentic Judiasm” was part of this weekend’s Shabbaton.  And here’s the thing: my Judaism is every bit as authentic as any Ultra-Orthodox rabbi’s.  My practice may not look like the practice of women in that community, but it is no less authentic for that.  I am no less a Jew for that. 

It may well be that the Jewish community here will change dramatically over the next couple of years – and I hope that it does.  Not simply because then it might have a practice with which I am personally more comfortable.  But rather, because if it does not change, I am afraid it will die.  And there have been Jews in this city for hundreds of years – HUNDREDS of years.  Jews helped build this city, and it’s astonishing how many people don’t realise that.

We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which falls a little later than normal (in early October), and I hope with all my heart that it marks the beginning of a great renewal not only of individuals in their relationship with God and with each other, but also of this community. I think it still has great things to do here, and it’s time for everyone who is even peripherally part of the community to stand up and be counted.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Here We Go Again

"Pinkwashing?" Let's lose the facile labels and try a real, civil conversation.

On July 14th, 2016, the Pride flag was raised at City Hall in Halifax, NS.  For the first time in recent memory, I wasn’t there for the flag-raising.  I heard about it, though, from members of the LGBTQ community, members of the Jewish community, and allies who have no connection to either community other than that they support both.  And what I heard angered me, saddened me, and left me feeling very, very tired.  Since Thursday, I have responded to articles posted to Facebook.  I have shared my own status updates with pictures I took at the Pride March in Jerusalem.  Although I wanted to address the subject – the very messy subject – in a more substantive way, it has taken me this long not simply to gather my thoughts, but rather, to find the energy to once again educate people who have often consciously chosen not to be educated.  It is easier to accept a more dramatic narrative, perhaps, especially when that is the one you hear first.  It is easier to believe what you hear if the Jewish community does not stand up and speak out – because if we do not speak out, could it be that we have no defense against the charges constantly leveled against us?  (If you know your history, you may recall that the last time Jews sat quietly and hoped simply to be left alone to live their lives, 6 million were murdered.  Saying nothing has not proven to work for us.)
And what are my credentials for opening my mouth about this?  I’m a Jew.  I’m a Halifax Jew. I’ve actually been to Israel, unlike many who protest against it.  I have been an ally to the LGBTQ community my entire life –before I was a mother, and certainly before I knew that my daughter was gay.  I have been called a Nazi, and I have been spat upon and told that Hitler didn’t use enough gas, by people who support the idea that Israel is oppressing Palestinians.  That behaviour alone has nothing at all to do with Israel’s domestic policies and its right to self-determination: it is Jew hatred, plain and simple.

I know – as many who disagree with Israel do not seem to understand – that no group is a monolith – so you won’t hear me say “all” of any group.  Not “all Jews,” not “all Christians,” not “all Muslims,” not “all lesbians…”  We could go on there, but I think you get the drift.

Following the flag raising, a petition was created by Queer Arabs Halifax (you can read it here: in which they assert that “Tel Aviv Tourism ostracizes and alienates Arabs and people of colour;” and further, that “Tel Aviv Tourism participates directly in pinkwashing for a state that engages in armed conflict where human rights and international humanitarian laws are being violated.”

So let’s talk first about that.  Pinkwashing, you say?  What’s that when it’s at home?  Simply, it refers to the charge that a country highlights its welcome to members of the LGBTQ community in an effort to deflect attention from what those who make the charge term human rights abuses.  Oddly enough, that charge has only ever been levelled at Israel.  Perhaps the Queer Arab group is unaware of Israel’s record on human rights in general, but specifically regarding LGBTQ Israelis.

Decades-old policy prohibiting any type of sodomy was repealed.
Workplace discrimination against LGBTQ persons prohibited.
Israeli Defense Force approved policy that LGBTQ members could serve in any capacity.
Supreme Court ruled in favour of spousal benefits for same-sex couples.
Defense Minister announced that same-sex partners would be recognised as family members.
Legal age of consent for LGBTQ persons lowered from 18 to 16.
Supreme Court ruled that lesbians could become the legal adoptive parents of their partner’s children.
LGBTQ couples qualify for common-law marriage.
LGBTQ couples qualify for full inheritance rights.
LGBTQ couples granted full adoption rights.
Israel recognised same-sex marriage performed abroad

It is abundantly clear that Israel has a history of working towards not simply tolerance or acceptance of its entire LGBTQ population, but rather, full equality.  If you check the records of many other western nations, you will not see this steady progression.  And if you check the records of other countries in the Middle East, you simply will not see this at all.  In fact, it is not “pinkwashing” to state what is true.

Some Historical Context
The Jewish people have been indigenous to the land of Israel for more than 3,000 years; in fact, Jewish communities existed in the land more than 1,500 years before Islam appeared there.

More than 150 years ago, many Jews began returning to Israel, and by 1860, Jerusalem had once again become a majority-Jewish area.  In 1920, the international community recognised the indigenous rights of the Jewish people and endorsed the restoration (not the creation!) of this Jewish homeland.

The Jewish people accepted that others also now lived on that land and supported the UN’s 1947 recommendation to partition the land so that Palestinian Arabs could establish the first Palestinian state.  That didn’t go so well.  Arab leaders – then, as now – refused to accept any Jewish state and have historically dismissed any compromise that allowed for a sovereign Jewish nation in the Middle East.  Instead, they launched a war with disastrous consequences for their own people and have continued a policy of violence and aggression towards Israel.  After the 1948 war, more than 850,000 Jews fled rising persecution or were expelled from other Arab and Muslim countries.  In fact, between 1949 and 2000, as the Jewish population dropped dramatically throughout the Middle East, the Palestinian population increased from about 180,000 to 1,215,000 (Note: fails the definition of genocide.)

What About the West Bank?
The West Bank figures strongly in any protests about Israel.  Israel’s efforts to find peace have been soundly rejected, in 1937, 1947, 2000, and 2008, largely because agreement would mean accepting the right of Israel to exist as a nation.  Israel has both the right and the obligation to protect its citizens, and so it does maintain a West Bank presence – if terrorist did not continue to endanger, assault, and murder Jews, there would be no need for it.  There is no evidence that the Palestinian Authority wishes to prevent such terrorism – to the contrary, there is incontrovertible proof that Palestinians celebrate the murder of Jews (; and further, that they teach hatred of Jews even to small children.

If this is Israel’s peace partner, how is it that Israel alone is held responsible for the fact that there still is no peace?

Israel entered the West Bank after it was attacked by Jordan in 1967.  It was obligated by UN Resolution 242 (1947) to administer the area until peace (or at least détente) was reached.  While it took more than a decade for much calming to occur in the area, by way of agreement with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994, the PLO still refuses peace. 

What about Gaza, though, and those illegal settlements?
In fact, the settlements, which account for less than 1% of the total West Bank area, while they are a hot topic, are legal and supported by Israel’s legal, historic, and security interests in the area.  The settlements do not violate UN Resolution 242, nor any agreements made under the Oslo Accords.  Nonetheless, Israel hasn’t authorised new settlements since 1993 and agreed to freeze building in existing settlements in 2010.

Remember that there were no settlements when Palestinian leaders launched attacks against Jews in 1920, or when Israel was attacked in 1948 and 1967.  In a further effort to reach peace, Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, evacuating all Gaza settlements.  You need only pay slight attention to the news to see that this did not bring peace.  Following the disengagement in 2005, terrorist attacks and hostility actually increased, as Israel faced barely a day without being bombed by Hamas.  In fact, Hamas, whose charter is explicit in its wishes for Israel and for Jews, has fired tens of thousands of rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians since 2005.  Children’s playgrounds in the Israeli city of Sderot, which is at the border with Gaza, must have bomb shelters due to the frequency of attacks.  The Hebrew writing on the structure tells children to enter as soon as they hear a red alert.  This obscenity on a children’s playground must exist because Hamas targets children and other civilians.  They have launched attacks at kindergartens, hospitals, and yes, playgrounds.

Israel inspects shipments to Gaza, which infuriates Palestinians and their supporters; however the UN’s Palmer Report confirms that the weapons blockade is legal.  Both the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation have said repeatedly that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and acknowledge the weekly delivery of thousands of tons of aid – and yes, this aid is inspected for weapons, because history has proven that there are continual attempts to get weapons into the area to use against Israel.
Gaza is ruled solely by Palestinians and shares a border with Egypt, over which Israel has no control.  Israel does control its own borders, of course, along with its airspace and coastline, to protect its citizens.

Well, what about that awful wall?  The apartheid wall?
The security barrier was a direct response to campaigns of violence against Israel in 2000. The 2nd Intifada killed more than 1,000 Israeli men, women, and children. People of every tradition and ethnicity were targeted by the attacks, and Palestinian leaders have since admitted that the barrier has obstructed suicide bombing missions.

BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions
The BDS movement has hijacked social justice language to promote the elimination of Israel and to question its right to exist as a sovereign nation.  It promotes misinformation and outright lies to isolate and delegitimise the nation.  Even its cofounder, Omar Barghouti (who received his university education in Tel Aviv, Israel) states clearly, “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”  Because the BDS movement insists that Israel itself and much of the land surrounding it are part of a nation called Palestine, it denies the right of Israel to remain in the land where Jews have lived for more than 3,000 years.  You are encouraged to read the booklet “Explaining BDS,” which you can find at

The unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood was an effort to circumvent any meaningful negotiations to peace, which would have had to occur with Israel.  The move violates all international treaties the PLO signed with Israel, as well as UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for negotiations.
Does this look like expansion to you?

A Few Words About the Hamas Charter
It is worth being very explicit about this.  Make no mistake about it: Israel’s “peace partner” does not want peace.  The slogan shouted by Palestinians and their supporters in the diaspora, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” means only one thing.  The only thing between the river and the sea is Israel.  For Hamas, only the utter destruction of Israel will help it meet its goal. 

The Hamas Charter is easily available, and here are a few examples for you that may shed some light on why this peace process has failed every time.
From the preamble: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”

Article 7:  “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees.  The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me.  Come and kill him.”
Article 13:  “Initiatives and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.”

What do you support if you support the demands of Queer Arabs Halifax?
Pride has always been political.  It has also always been – or tried to be – inclusive.  And it has done so in a climate that was sometimes very hostile. The demands of Queer Arabs Halifax to exclude one group are dangerous: they say that the group ostracises them and other people of colour, when in fact, as has been said, they would be safer in Tel Aviv than they would in any other Middle Eastern country.  And what about the effects of such an exclusion on Queer Jews? Jews already face plenty of hostility, even in beautiful Halifax.  The message here is that it’s ok to exclude Jews, and that flies in the face of the message of inclusion of Halifax Pride.

For anybody to align themselves with a group that supports the delegitimisation of a sovereign nation, that supports the annihilation of Israel, and that also has a long history of LGBTQ persecution is to align themselves with hate.  This is not the Halifax I know.  This is not the Pride I know.