This 8th day of Elul, 5776, corresponding to the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, finds me in bucolic Beachwood, Ohio.
Taking advantage of the beautiful late summer weather, I’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors, untangling the vines as they crawl up the trellis, noticing the intricate spider webs around my yard, listening to the tweets of the birds.
When inside, I participate in the collective lament of the state of the American democracy while continuing to observe and comment on the absurd state of the Jewish democracy. Here in the US, the “Wall” is Donald Trump’s southern border building project; in Israel, the “Wall” is of course, the Kotel, the flashpoint in the deepening struggle for spiritual civil rights in the State of Israel. In both places, it is the words of public figures, too often in the form of tweets, as well as the press and social media, that shape the political reality in which we live.
And so it is that The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project uses words, set to music, to support Israel’s modern Jewish democracy movement. On this 9/11, I reflect on how my experiences with 9/11 gave birth to The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project. I write these words both with an eye to the past as well as an eye to the future as I anticipate the upcoming production of “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” — A Philadelphia Concert of Concern on November 13, 2016 at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.
As I sing in a High Holiday choir here in Cleveland, I spend the entire month of Elul in my northeast Ohio home to be here for weekly rehearsals. Frankly, it is a joy to be home in Ohio for the end of summer with all due respect to both New York City and Jerusalem! Those who follow the Jewish calendar appreciate when the leap year gives us an added month of “summer”, placing Rosh HaShana at the beginning of October, well into the official autumn season.
Fifteen years ago, that was not the case as Rosh HaShana fell right at the end of summer, just a week after 9/11, on September 18. How well I remember sitting in shul shell shocked. I did not yet realize that my role as an American Jewish Zionist activist was being born out of the trauma of those days. What I knew, however, was that my experiences as a resident of Jerusalem gave me a unique perspective on how to live with the fear and anxiety that terrorism brings. I still have the newspaper clippings from the front page story of The Cleveland Plain Dealer dated October 21, 2001 and the video of the local ABC channel’s visit to my family’s elegant new home.
Fifteen years later, my children have grown up and I am a grandmother of two. I no longer live in the elegant family home, instead residing in a home that is situated in a park-like setting that nurtures my need to be close to nature.
When I purchased our family’s home in Jerusalem in 1999, I was nurturing my need to be close to both my family’s roots and my People’s roots. My mother’s father was born in Jerusalem in the waning days of The Ottoman Empire – “Pop was a sabra” was a key part of my family’s narrative. Purchasing property in the Holy City was literally a return of the Willen family to Jerusalem. On the spiritual plane, I needed to be close to the vortex of our People’s narrative — the place where our Story tells us that G-d and our Ancestor’s had profound moments that transformed humanity.
During our 1995 trip to Israel with the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the entire group, men and women, separated by a stroller, davened Kaballat Shabbat in the Kotel Plaza. The power of chanting the words “Yisrael,” “Yerushaliyim,” “Tzion”, singing the familiar melodies and hearing harmonies that could only be called holy, was a profound experience, transforming me.
How sad that under the reign of Western Wall Heritage Foundation Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, such mixed gender profound moments cannot take place in our People’s most Public Holy Space. What I call “The Great Kotel Compromise,” the landmark agreement that was completed under the leadership of Jewish Agency Head and Jewish hero Natan Sharansky in January of 2016, is designed to ensure that profound moments for all Jews, regardless of gender or adjective, can occur at our People’s most Public Holy Space. By enlarging the space that We as a People consider holy, the Government of Israel and the representatives of the Jewish People found a creative way to allow a vibrant form of Judaism to flourish at our Western Wall. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s flagrant backtracking is an insult to those of us who believe we have a stake in the kind of Public Jewish Law that is applied in the modern Jewish democratic State of Israel.
While Ambassador Ron Dermer, speaking to a crowded room at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland in July, assured us several times that The Kotel Agreement truly matters to the Prime Minister, it seems that keeping his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners within his narrow government matters more. It is up to all of us who care deeply about our the spiritual civil rights of all Jews, regardless of gender or adjective, to demand Religious Freedom over narrow coalition politics. I know for a fact that there will be many Israelis who will be thrilled to have our voices join theirs in demanding that the religious status quo be changed. One only needs to read about last week’s “abrupt resurrection of Israel’s ‘Shabbat wars,’ and the disruption on the commuter rail line that snarled Sunday morning traffic to know that Israelis are getting fed up with the ultra-Orthodox abuse of power.
Americans date the current reign of terror to 9/11. Zionists, however, know that this global terror wave began with the outbreak of the Second Intifada just before Rosh HaShana, 5761. Right before President Bill Clinton’s eyes, Yasser Arafat hijacked a legitimate Palestinian nationalist movement. I will never forget my visit to Jenin the late 1990s with our partners in the Beit Shean/Emek HaMayanot area and my conversation with the Governor who had returned to Jenin from Tunis (of course). In a matter of days, the good will that had been cultivated over decades between Israelis and Palestinians went up in smoke as fires burned, tempers flared, rocks were thrown, shots fired and suicide bombers began to attack Israeli society at will.
I will never forget the euphoria of the Jerusalem summer of 2000, the calm before the storm, so to speak. 16 years later, it is hard to imagine that we truly felt that a different future lay before us, but we did. Today, in the absence of brave leadership on both sides of the conflict, Zionists who care about a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, do what we can do given the facts at hand.
It is this sense of helplessness with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian issue that gave rise to The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project. As the violence of the Second Intifada rocked the State and the People of Israel, my family and I never stopped spending time in our Jerusalem home, except during the explosion-laced spring/summer of 2002.
It was our time in Jerusalem during the summer of 2001 that made me an “expert” in living with terrorism. I remember that for the first time I was ready to return to Cleveland; the anxiety in Jerusalem was suffocating. Then, on our final Thursday of the summer, August 9, terrorists blew up the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem, terrorists attacked a car filled with girls outside of Kibbutz Merav in our Partnership region and D’vir Reshef, z”l, a soldier and young Partnership activist was killed in Tulkharm.
On our final day in Israel that summer, my oldest daughter Rachel and I went up to our Region to pay a shiva call to the Reshef family and to visit the wounded. We shall never forget the sound of Rachel Reshef wailing as only a mother from a Mizrachi background can wail.
While the Second Intifada has ended, the type of radical Islamic terrorism that it brought to the world has spread like a cancer, just as pundits predicted it would. Ironically, Israel is one of the safest places to be in the world, under the expert protection of the IDF. Other than maintaining our steadfast support for a strong US-Israel alliance, our participation in building a just and fair society and our belief that modern day Israel can in fact be a Light unto the Nations, what is an American Jewish Zionist activist to do when the neighborhood is so dark? What this Zionist activist has decided to do is to focus on those issues within Israeli society that do not depend on the Palestinians or Arab countries for resolution.
Finding myself in the middle of modern Jewish history on Rosh Hodesh Av, 5770, when Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Kotel, gave me the final impetus to loudly raise my voice, once again, as an Israeli activist. After 9/11, I used my experiences in Israel to speak about living with terror in the US.
Now it was time to use my experiences as an American to work with Israeli’s to strengthen the core democratic values that are embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In The Concert of Concern, Naomi Less’s “Sh’ma Yisrael” is our call to action and this call includes the voice of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, listing these core democratic values. These words are the foundation upon which The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project is built. And to my knowledge, they have yet to be the subject matter of a tweet.
The vines that add green to the trellis outside my office window can easily become a unruly mass of green if I don’t take the time to painstakingly untangle one from the other. So it is in a society, especially one as dynamic as Israel, that the political forces will tangle together ideology, sociology and theology.
The modern Jewish democracy movement is about untangling those vines and addressing the type of Jewish ideology and theology that is imposed on the public sphere. The spider webs are rather magnificent in their complexity – another reminder that in this overconnected world of ours, we are all part of one web or another, whether it be the worldwide web or the Web spun by the One Above.
As for the Walls, I have to pray that Donald Trump never has the opportunity to build his wall while I pray that Prime Minister Netanyahu will find a way to live up to his agreement with the Jewish People about our Wall, the Kotel. Finally, with respect to words, on this 9/11, let us recommit ourselves to the power of words to change our reality and find our way to making our voices heard. Please join this American Jewish Zionist and raise your voice in concern at the next Concert of Concern on November 13 at 7:00 pm at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. From the place where the Liberty Bell proclaimed freedom for Americans, the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Chorus will sing out loudly for religious freedom for All Jews in the Jewish State. Despite being in the depth of autumn, perhaps the birds of Center City will tweet along.