About Me

I'm the Rabbi of B'nai Israel Synagogue in West Bloomfield, MI, a highly-participatory, traditional, egalitarian synagogue.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Great Recession?

I left America in the Great Recession. I expected Israel to be in no less.

I had heard inklings otherwise. The housing market didn’t taking as big of a hit here. Mortgage lenders resisted the temptations of sub-prime bundling funny money. Unemployment didn’t soar. The gap between rich and poor continued to widen, but that – chaval (unfortunately) – was not news.

Still, I expected a land half-drowning in the gargantuan recessionist wake of its sponsor across the seas.

Lihefech. How wrong I have been.

It’s a place of considerable economic optimism. And for good reason. Israel understands itself and its role in the world economy. It’s a producer of one great resource, which multiplies into many. Ideas. Jewish brainpower given the license, and the financial backing, to dream, invent, and innovate. Almost behind the world’s back – so bent as it is on delegitimizing Israel politically -- Israel has become one of the world’s leaders in research and development.

People with ideas do great things in this economy, and in the world economy. And it trickles down to daily life in the village. One look at the ubiquitous on-line “Modi’in list” yields a roster of individuals determined to transform their ideas into a living. Jobs sizzle on employment websites like burgers at (a kosher) McDonald’s. And are devoured likewise. High-tech companies envelop the Sharon-plain highways like the buns on the burger.

An atmosphere of opportunity abounds – even for an ex-congregational Conservative rabbi from the States, not the most employable of designations here in this land of regrettable “official” Judaism.

Granted, the economics of Israel are hard. Wages are much lower than the US. The cost of living – excepting health care and education – not much different. Where the twain shall meet? Lives piecing together 5 jobs, and consistent overdraft. Making end of the month payments, period. On a grand scale, severe underfunding of national priorities outside of defense. And if you’re an oleh, best to still follow the adage that in order to make a small fortune here, bring a large one.

But, friends, this is not your dad’s Israel. Israel is now a capitalist country with some socialist leanings, not vice versa. Israelis are not sitting waiting for Iran. They have better things to do. Better things and better ideas than most anywhere, I venture to say.

Monday, January 18, 2010

It Happened: My Hebrew Breakthrough

It happened, of all places, on the basketball court. Not a classroom. Nor a sabra’s Shabbat table. Not the bank, the post office, city hall, the supermarket, and dozens of other places where I’ve felt like half-a-dummy for the first half-year of my life as an oleh. My Hebrew breakthrough, on the basketball court.

I’ve been playing five-on-five, weekly, for the past four months, back on the court after a bar-mitzvah long absence. At times exhilarating – hitting that game-winning shot once again (at least once…). At times frustrating – I ain’t 30 no more. And always – lonely. I don’t know the guys. And I don’t know the language to get to the know the guys. Let alone the language to let a teammate know he’s about to be felled by a stunning pick.

As a student of Hebrew, I’ve long been like a computer with with no operating system. Full of detail, no good way to spit it out. An academic’s dream. A layperson’s nightmare. Cracking my teeth when I speak Hebrew in the street. Sorely lacking in confidence. Fearful of making mistakes. Lacking in the lingo of the day-to-day, not to mention the meelot yachas, the prepositions, to connect my fancy High-Hebrew words. Which I shouldn’t use anyways….

I’ve needed to know how to play a full-court game. No cheap fouls. No referees. For fun, for competition, for jostling, for lifing. Joking, laughing, words under and over my breath.

Two months ago I realized I was making no progress on the Hebrew front – neither within the pages of the dailies, the broadcasts of the news, nor on the street. So I got a tutor who has set me straight. Get rid of the perfectionism. You’re not giving a sermon, rabbi. Listen to the news like you would in America. You don’t need to know every word. Enjoy yourself – it’s not a mountain to conquer, but a process.

A process. Aliyah is all about processes. Not finished products. And I’m usually aiming for that finished product, to be impossibly good.

So, the other day, I told my first joke on the court. I didn’t think, “What is the right way to say ‘hello?’” I asked plainly for the Hebrew words for some basic basketball terms. Time to start moving around on hatkafa, offense. Leezrok, leezrok, shoot! Time to start talking with the guys about their lives, their families, their job. Breaking through the invisible line that divides me from the Israeli army guy.

Well, I did it. I’m speaking Hebrew now. It’s my other language, not just my fraudulent attempt at bi-lingualism. I feel authentic. I can be here.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Skype World

I started out a skeptic. No longer. Skype is the real deal, friends.

Telephone calls are terrific, but you’re not there. With Skype Video, you are.

Last night Amy and I, in Modiin, spent an hour with family, gathered together for the New Year in Manhattan. It was our longest Skype Video get-together to date. 1 hour, 3 minutes and 43 seconds, to be precise. We enjoyed it with relish.

What made it different than a telephone call? Mom Judy’s facial expressions , which I’ve spent my life trying to read. Niece Jenna’s enormous, I-am-a-delightful-but-humble-third-child, want-to-hug-her smile. Dad Arthur’s bear-like girth, his trusted newspapers in hand as he strolls the first floor. Brother-in-law Dan’s mini-cowlick, after one of his patented day-off naps on the couch. Sister Alisa’s presence in the video background, regarding the scene with great satisfaction. Niece Jesse’s impish scuttle in and out of camera view. Even niece Ariel’s Yankees shirt. The winter woolen sweaters that we don’t see in mild Modiin. The clear pictures of my sister’s homey kitchen area.

After two Shabbatot dearly missing our families in the States, cognizant of the traditional end-of-year get-together no longer ours, life could not have been better for us between 11:30 pm and 12:30 am Modiin-time last night.

We’re living in a Skype world, and aliyah-as-hardship will never be quite as hard again.

Mark -- skype address:  markrobbins67