Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cycling for community, cycling to prepare

If you're preparing for a big ride, there's no substitute for actually getting on the bicycle and pulling yourself up some real hills. So, despite temps in the low 20s F, I got on the bike today for about six glorious, but challenging hours -- heading down into Lancaster county where the ponds have frozen amid the bare farm fields and have young men playing hockey on them.

As challenging as winter riding is, I love riding my routes that follow woodland streams up into the hills. With the trees bare, you can see the streams -- flowing through the whiteness of the snow-covered ground and with ice starting to form in them -- almost the whole way. On the steepest climb, I shed my jackets and let my body heat -- with the help of just a thin sweater -- keep me warm. There was something almost surreal about exercising so hard, and yet not sweating at all.

I'm sure that will not be the case on the "big ride" I am training for -- the Spring Hazon Israel ride, which will take us from Tel-Aviv to Eilat -- Israel's southernmost point -- via the (hot!) Negev desert. The ride is to raise money for two organizations -- the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Hazon -- that have been deeply involved in things like projects to help protect Israel's environment.

But, having participated in another of Hazon's rides (in New York) a few years back, I know that the ride itself is something very much worth supporting for those of us who care about the future of the Jewish people -- the community that is forged through the shared challenge of climbing so many hills together is something that gives people, especially young people, the energy, resources and ideas to take their leadership in the Jewish world to a higher level. It is the future that is being forged here.

That said, courtesy of Minna, here is some info about Hazon and the Arava institute:

The primary beneficiary of the Israel Ride is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The Institute is working to confront the serious environmental challenges in Israel, by creating a leadership cadre of environmentalists, through important research, and through public involvement. The Arava Institute draws students from across the Middle East, encouraging environmental cooperation between peoples, and working towards peace and sustainable development on a regional and global scale. To learn much more about the work of the Arava Institute, or about the environmental movement in Israel, check out

The second beneficiary of the Israel Ride is Hazon, one of most innovative organizations in the American Jewish community and now the largest Jewish environmental organization in the United States. The word "Hazon" means vision. Hazon's vision is to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community as step toward creating a healthier and more sustainable world for all. Through the Jewish Environmental Bike Rides, the Community-Supported Agriculture projects, the conference on Jews, Food & Contemporary Life, and other cutting edge programs, Hazon brings people together, builds community, promotes sustainability and vibrant Jewish life.


Although I began this blog post by saying there is no substitute for actually getting outside on the bike, I am actually, for the first, time taking a more "classic" approach to off-season training that is not completely dependent on my being able to ride through the winter weather. I have invested in some "inside" gear, including a "trainer" that lets me convert my bike into a stationary cycle. And I am also, again for the first time, doing some non-cycling (cross training) workouts with free weights and some core exercises, as well as some stretching.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On what you can build, not what you destroy

"Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." These are the words that (now) President Barack Obama uttered today in a part of his inaugural speech that addressed the Muslim world and critics of the West.

I don't know if Obama had the people of Gaza in mind when he spoke these words, but they certainly came to my mind as I listened to him. The people of America are not the only people who stand at a crossroads. As Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza and its residents start the task of sorting through the rubble, the people of Gaza stand at a crossroads. Which way do they want to go? Do they want to build? Do they want to focus their energies on creating the institutions -- and the economy -- that a successful nation needs? Or do they want to remain focused on destruction and hate? Do they want to continue devoting their energies to following Hamas' professed goal of the destruction of the State of Israel? Do they want to keep on supporting people who use courtyards and alleys right beside their homes and mosques to fire deadly missiles at Israeli civilians? Or are they ready to throw off Hamas' rule (or, alternatively, force Hamas to change its program -- to focus its energies on building Gaza instead of destroying Israel).


I found tears in my eyes throughout Obama's speech and in the moments I saw his face on the television screen beforehand. The tears came from many places, but one was of fear. I looked at Obama's head -- hatless despite the cold, as JFK was hatless at his inauguration -- and thought of what a fragile thing the human body is. So much hope put in that person. And it could all be taken away with a single bullet. I was afraid for Obama and for us. I thought of Martin and Bobby. . . . and of the Russian civil rights lawyer killed just, yesterday. I thought of the courage it takes to work for freedom and change in the face of the possibility of violence. I thought of the courage it takes to choose life, to choose to build, instead of destroy.

It is this courage that I see when I think of the people and nation of Israel; they are very much on my mind these days, especially when I have a loved one there who I left behind just a couple of weeks ago. It pains me so much to know that the impression many have of the State of Israel now -- an impression left by the television images of destruction in Gaza -- is of a state dedicated to destruction. I wish people could see the miracle that is the building of what is now a modern state with an advanced, high-tech economy from what was largely a poor, agricultural nation not so long ago. A building that has been accomplished against so many odds. A building that has happened despite the hate of so many for the Jews and for the state they formed. A building that happened despite so many acts of violence against it. This is a people that long ago chose building over destruction and that would gladly keep its tanks and planes in their sheds if only they could.


After Obama spoke, Elizabeth Alexander delivered a poem that near its end featured a repetition of the word "love" again and again. ("What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light.")

And then the 87-year old Rev. Joseph Lowery delivered his benediction. His words will probably be most well-remembered for his conclusion when he departed from his serious tone to pick up an almost whimsical rhyming to depict a vision of a world where race is no longer an barrier (" . . . . when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right . ."). But I was most touched a few sentences earlier when he referenced the vision of Isaiah of a day "when nations shall not lift up sword against nation" and modernized Isaiah's "they shall beat their swords into plowshares" to add a hope that "tanks will be beaten into tractors".

Then he turned to one of Martin Luthur King's most favorite biblical verses (Amos 5:24) as he called for a day "when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream."

May it indeed be the Holy One's will.

[X-posted to smamitayim]

Friday, January 16, 2009

And the engineers, too

"Pilot is hailed after jetliner's icy plunge." That is the headline on the New York Times" day after story about the seemingly miraculous survival of all on board the plane that crash-landed into the Hudson river, yesterday. And there is no doubt that pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III is indeed a hero for his quick thinking and calm in this extraordinary crisis.

But, as I looked at the pictures of the people out there on the plane's wing and in its safety rafts I thought of my Father, of blessed memory. No, he never piloted a plane. He was an engineer. And, like the "engineer's engineer" that he was, he walked around with Murphy's Law always on his brain -- he was always thinking about what could go wrong. And, more importantly, what could be done to prevent it, or to prevent lives from being lost if it did go wrong (as something went horribly wrong with yesterday's flight).

The survival of those 155 passenger's and crew would not have been possible without all the safety and emergency features built into that aircraft. Countless hours were spent by engineers examining past accidents and trying to quietly imagine what would happen in an emergency. They gave the pilot the tools he needed to save those lives.

In the Jewish tradition, we say that to save a life is to save an entire world. To all you engineers who helped save those 155 worlds, yesterday, I salute you. And your work, done in quiet, but with determination and commitment.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Should people be allowed to fail?

The first time I applied to rabbinical school, I was turned down. I was devastated. How could this happen, I thought? I was a person of intelligence, character and passion who had come to make a decision to dedicate his life to Torah and the Jewish people. How could anyone turn down such a person? Didn't the Jewish people need leaders? Weren't the (religious) leaders on this admissions committee I had sat in front of supposed to be kind and wise and welcoming? How could they be so cold to me, I cried to myself.

At the time I felt completely alone. But I -- especially in my work as a Clinical Pastoral Educator (a person who trains chaplains) -- have come to learn that my experience is anything but unique. Many people make a decision to commit themselves to some kind of service in ministry only to be deeply wounded when they are rejected by the religious leaders they apply to. This can be especially challenging in some of the Protestant denominations where people need to make multiple (anxiety provoking) appearances before committees before being ordained; at any of these, a person can be turned down for ordination even if they have dedicated years to studying for it. (At least for rabbinical school, there is typically only the one committee appearance -- the initial interview for admission.)

But what has really been shocking for me is to realize that not only do these rejections happen, but that some people think they are for the good. "Why shouldn't people be allowed to fail?" one senior Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) leader, said to me. "Isn't that how they learn?"

We have these kind of failures all the time in the process I am in to become fully certified as a CPE educator/supervisor. This certification process is designed very much like the kind of Protestant ordination process I described above -- we have to appear before committees multiple times. They can turn us down, putting an end to our hope for certification or setting it back months or years. (Not surprisingly, the CPE certification process was originally designed by mainline Protestants.)

I have too many times now witnessed colleagues coming back from such a failed appearance. Their pain -- their wounds -- are deep. This is not like failing to pass the law "bar" exam the first time (as devastating as that can be). When the bar slaps you with rejection it's only some impersonal test that you have to be angry at. But when a CPE committee -- a committee of clergy people with careers devoted to helping people in pain -- turns you down, it's like being slapped by a parent (or rejected by God). It is being turned down by someone who you expect to nurture you.

And, it's your very person that is being turned down. When you go before a committee like this, you are not being evaluated on how much you can recall from some body of knowledge; you are being evaluated on your very person. So, it's more than humbling to be turned down -- it's devastating.

And what really pains me is that I felt in quite a few cases that a colleague preparing to go up was not really ready. But I didn't tell them that. I withheld my opinion. This is no excuse, but in doing so I think I was acting in accordance with the "culture" (the culture of CPE) that I am in. We just don't stop people. We let them go up even if we think they're not ready.

I think the CPE certification process, as well as the culture that it springs from, is in very serious need of reform and change. We need to stop thinking of failure as a normal part of the process. If a student is not really ready to go up before a committee, their supervisor has a duty to tell them that. It's an irresponsible cop-out to hide behind saying that "people are adults and they should be allowed to learn from their failures."

While it is certainly true that learning from mistakes is at the core of the CPE educational model, this kind of mistake -- this kind of failure -- is like a person failing from the trapeze when there is no safety net below. As people of caring, we can't just stand by mute and let it happen.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The real Israel

Israel has certainly been much in the news, lately, which has led many people to think again about what Israel means to them and what the still-young nation's nature truly is.

I thought about this on Sunday as I looked out on the Jerusalem view above. At that moment, I felt filled with a love for Israel and for Jerusalem. It's a challenge for me to understand what this love is really all about. After all, this view is not one of Jerusalem's famous ones. It does not have the Old City, the Western Wall or the Mount of Olives in it. And, yet this fairly ordinary view of west Jerusalem -- from a park hillside not far from the Israel Museum and which I have walked across many times on my daily business -- speaks to me deeply.

My thoughts brought me to the Pesach seder meal – our yearly “Feast of Freedom”. We conclude with the words, “לשנה הבאה ביושלים/l-shanah haBa b-yerushalayim” -- next year in Jerusalem. Since the time – since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 – that Jews in large numbers have come to be able to live in Jerusalem, some have changed those words slightly -- “לשנה הבאה ביושלים הבנויה/l-shanah haBa b-yerushalayim haBenuyah” -- next year in the [re]constructed Jerusalem.

It never leaves my thoughts when I'm in Israel that the very existence of this State – and the very fact that I, a Jewish person, am able to get on a plane and freely go there to visit – is a miracle. It is a miracle built on the incredible sweat, spirit and courage of the Israeli people over the decades of the 20th and now the 21st century.

Yesterday, I spent much of the day going through various airport security stations on my way back to the United States via London Heathrow. All of us who have gotten on an airplane since September 11, 2001 have gotten used to these kind of intense security procedures, procedures that are based on the fact that there are people out there who would just like to murder us, just because of who we are. Just to make a political point.

But, when we leave the airport here in the States, we leave all that behind – including that strange feeling that comes with the realization that some people want us dead. In Israel, however, that sense never leaves. For all the decades of its existence – and even for the Jews who lived in that land well before the State was formed – it has lived like the inside of an airline terminal. When school kids go out on trips, it is never without someone with a gun. To enter a shopping mall – or even to go into many cafes – you must pass a security checkpoint and have your bag examined.

To build and maintain a country like Israel takes incredible spirit, vigilance and courage. That is what I see when I look across that park valley at the hills of the neighborhoods beyond – I see the built Jerusalem. I see the evidence of all the blood, toil and sweat that the Israeli people have devoted to the project we call the State of Israel. And it is that which I feel the most love for and awe of – much more than for any of the great holy sites the city is famous for.

With a war in Gaza and with Hamas rockets falling daily on the cities of Israel, now is a particularly poignant time to reflect on the sacrifices it takes to maintain this State. I was very sad to have to leave Israel at such a time of crisis. As small a thing as it is compared to the sacrifices that Israel's soldiers and their families are making, just being there as a tourist or student is still an important way of showing support – of showing a willingness to join in the dangers and struggles that come from being a people that some would just like to murder, whether it be with rockets fired at random places in residential neighborhoods or with suicide bombers getting on a random rush hour bus. I will miss Israel, and especially Minna, who I left behind there to continue her studies in that Holy city.


I had ridden on Sunday by bicycle up to that hillside to meet Minna who was finishing up a class at Machon Schechter near the hilltop. We walked down a bit into the park and took pictures of each other on bicycles for our Hazon ride web page. This coming Spring Minna and I will be showing our support for Israel by participating in a charity ride to raise money for two organizations particularly dedicated to the task of maintaining Israel's threatened environment. You can help us by donating on my Hazon Irsrael ride page here! (

In the above pic, you can see a bit of an olive tree in the foreground on a right – olive groves are one of the most famous and beautiful parts of the Israeli landscape and it's a bit of a miracle to find them so close to the “built” Jerusalem of Wolfson Towers in the background. . . . . In addition to the people, what I love about Jerusalem and its surroundings is just the hills, so many of which have olive trees growing on terraces built into the hillsides. The site of those hills always takes my breath away.

Here is Minna also riding amid the olive trees with the “built” Jerusalem in the background.

Here she is again:

Minna's Hazon Israel ride donation page is here. (

And here's our _team_ page.

[X-posted to smamitayim]

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Quiet. That's what Ehud Barak says is the goal of Israel's current operations in Gaza -- "quiet for the south." By quiet, he says he means no more Hamas rockets falling on Israeli citizens within range of Gaza. No more sirens going off, giving people "45 golden seconds" to stop wherever they are -- even driving their cars -- and try to find cover, something a woman in Ashdod wasn't quite able to do the other day.

Here in Jerusalem, where I unfortunately will only be for a few more days before I have to return to the States, there is a strange sense of quiet. I feel confident that we are out of the range of Hamas' rockets for now. But, it has been raised in my conscious for the first time that I am staying in an apartment that does not have a "safe room". I do not have a gas mask or anything else I might need if Jerusalem suddenly came under a serious attack from the skies.

And, I well know that the quiet can end in many other says. I was here at another time of "quiet" -- in the summer of 2000 when there was real hope that, with Bill Clinton's help, a real peace agreement might be forged and all this death and violence could come to an end. But, at that time, the Palestinians, then led by Arafat (who has since passed from the scene), chose another course and returned to a violent path to seek their goals. Bus and other suicide bombings fell upon Israel over the rest of the year I was here and beyond. Everyone here knows that such attacks could happen, again.

Israel is gambling that it can continue to prevent such attacks with such measures as the controversial security barrier that prevents people from the West Bank -- hopefully, including suicide bombers -- from freely entering into Israel. The stated goal of this current operation is to, as I said above, prevent rocket attacks from Gaza. The possibility of rocket attacks was very much on my mind a few days before the operation began when Minna and I were driving up the relatively new Highway 6, a toll road that makes it possible to head from Jerusalem to the north of Israel without having to either pass through the Jordan Valley (in the West Bank) or through the traffic of Tel-Aviv. I noticed how close the road runs to the West Bank and, thus, how easy it would be for a tiny cell of terrorists to shut down the road entirely with a few homemade mortars. I know that it is not force that is preventing that from happening. Rather, it is a political solution -- the currently relatively good relations with the Palestinian Authority (which controls the West Bank, while the more radical and Islam-focused Hamas controls Gaza).

I think this is what this current operation has to really be about -- not stopping Hamas from firing rockets, which is something that is pretty much impossible to do with force, but with making a political statement to the Palestinian people. A statement like, you have a choice. You can either live in peace beside us and have a chance to form a real state that can join the community of nations and start to build a stable economy, like the Palestinian Authority is starting to do in the West Bank. Or, you can continue to live in a continuous state of mutual violence next to us. If you choose the second option, note that Hamas cannot even protect itself, not to mention you, from the Israeli Defense Forces. Look how pathetic and hopeless are their attempts to respond militarily with a few rockets. Look how our planes took them by surprise and killed so many of their leaders in the initial attack last Saturday morning. How is it in your best interests to choose to be led by such people?

Of course, Hamas is gambling that the Palestinian people will hear the opposite political message. They are hoping that -- instead of the people in Gaza looking to the West Bank and deciding it is better there -- that the people in the West Bank (and East Jerusalem) will look to Gaza and let their anger and outrage motivate them to choose Gaza's current path, the path of Hamas. If that happens, few places in Israel will have the safe feeling of quiet I enjoy now.

In order to reject Hamas' path, the Palestinian people will ultimately have to accept something that they have not been able to accept for decades before the State of Israel even came to be in 1948 -- they will have to accept that Jews have a right to live in this land and that the State of Israel has a right to exist. That will indeed involve much sacrifice for them.

But it is the only path to quiet.

[x-posted to smamitayim]