Monday, February 28, 2011

There’s an App for That!

We are constantly bombarded by new products and technologies that are designed to “help” us and make our lives easier. This endorsement overload seems to be making us prone to forgetting that sometimes it’s the simple things that make life easier.

All I have to do is look at my iPhone to be reminded of this fact. I have apps for Shabbat times, blessings, a kosher timer, Aliyah, Hebrew translation, Torah, Siddur, Tehillim, Tanya, and many others. You can see a recent list of other popular iPhone apps here. But, while all these apps are designed to make observance easier, I question whether they are actually helping in my spiritual growth or hindering it.

Having all of this information at our fingertips can make us intellectually and spiritually lazy. With apps reading for us and showing us only what we need to know, we fail to give the words, the brachos, the words of Hashem our own voice. We open the app and hang on by our fingertips as it launches us into recitation and binds us to its electronic pace.

This is only the latest incarnation in an electronic evolution that has led many to stray from their faith. Intellectual lethargy doesn’t let us ask why, doesn’t allow room for digging deeper, and doesn’t bring the Torah to life. There is not one answer for every question. There is only one fact that guides the debate… Torah is truth. Hashem gave us the Torah to guide us and gave us one another to keep us on the path that leads back to Hashem and His light.

It is our debate with one another, the questions we constantly ask, the searching for answers in Hashem’s words that elevates our souls. Technology can’t replace this process and it should not be applied in such a way. For the occasional reference or a quick translation, these apps and similar technology driven products are fine but they should not be a regular part of our lives. These things should not be a barrier or we run the risk of them replacing the relationship we have with Hashem and the relationships that we have with one another.  

However, technology can enhance our ability to reach out to one another and explore topics without the physical boundaries that geography places upon us. I embrace social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn because they allow me to discuss and debate Torah and Talmud with people from around the world. Given my limited knowledge, this is a great asset to my learning and can lead me to discover aspects of my faith that might have taken me years to come across.

The one catch to this new means of Torah exploration lies in the people that feel they need to declare rather than discuss. I am not talking about simple clarifications of Talmudic quotes. Most of the time, these declarations revolve around affiliation and conversion. I am talking about Jews declaring that their version of Judaism is the only right version and that everyone else’s view is “insane”, “ignorant”, or “barbaric”.

Now, in my experience, the most interesting part of this issue is that the most pointed barbs do not come from the Orthodox side but from the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionalist movements. The further to the left the more repugnant the accusation. I am not saying that their views are right or wrong, all I can do is state my own opinion as to what I believe to be true (as is obvious in my posts) and ask questions. I do not declare anything or call them despicable names. We are attacked by too many people from outside of Judaism; we don’t need to attack one another.

I can’t help but ask why these Jews would insist on attacking other Jews? Is it because that they fear what they don’t understand? Is it because they can’t come to terms with their own faith? Is it because that deep down they feel that what they believe really isn’t Judaism? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions and I am not going to try and attempt to answer them. I will not make any declarations. All I can do is give you my perspective and open up the discussion by asking some questions.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Excuse Me, Do You Have Any Kosher Bacon?

I just finished reading an article about an easyJet flight that only served pork products in its meals on a recent flight. I am sure that this has happened many times in the past but this time it was bound to be noticed, the flight was from Tel Aviv to London. To their credit, easyJet introduced a kosher menu back in November but this latest incident proves just how uncommitted the company is to understanding their clients and ensuring that they have a physically and spiritually safe flight. I am sure there were many tightly held children on that plane and many passengers queasy from the festering smell.

In the end, I am left thinking about the trials of navigating in the non-Jewish world. In a society that marks their calendars with Christian holidays (and, sometimes, one day for Passover and Chanukah), how can we expect goyim to understand some of the most basic Halachah such as the laws of Kashrut?

Those of us in the galus tend to forget the fact that we live in a society that is not our own. We are the ones seen as “weirdos” and “fanatics”. We are the minority. We are seen as the ones that can’t accept society the way it is with its focus on money, physicality, and intellectual numbness. And, you know what, I can’t and I won’t accept the way things are. I can’t embrace a Christian agnostic society that rules with a greedy hand, a lustful heart, and a closed mind; a society that will adapt and adopt any practice that would ensure their survival and maintain their way of life.  

Now, I am not saying I’m a perfect Jew. I’m not saying that anyone is perfect. But there is a difference between Jews content living in darkness and those constantly searching for light and making their way closer and closer to Hashem. I am trying to find my way; I am trying to find my way into the light. Little by little, I am changing my ways to become a better Jew.

I have a long way to go and I have a lot to learn but I am making progress. I am not content with the world I live in, the world that surrounds me, the world that marginalizes me and my views. But, I must change myself before I can change the world around me; we must change our world in order to change the world.

We, as Jews, must live by a different set of rules. To live in this world we must embrace the mitzvoth and we must turn to Hashem, not celebrities, for answers and guidance. We can’t accept societal ignorance about who we are; we need to proudly proclaim that we are Jews and be willing to shoulder the burdens that brings. We can’t compromise the foundations of our faith no matter what the consequences.

Rabbi Chaim Coffman makes a very simple yet complex statement in his book “Braintree to Jerusalem” when he speaks with those interested in converting to Judaism, “If a non-Jew would come up to you and say bow down to this guy… or I will blow your head off, you have to be willing to die!”

Granted, this is the heaviest of our burdens but it is a price that many have had to pay and with everything going on in the Middle East and anti-Semitism on the rise in the west, it is not out of the realm of possibility. This is a reality that all Jews must face. Whether you were born Jewish or you are a Jew by choice, you must be willing to accept the fact that there are people in this world that, if you don’t adopt their beliefs, they will kill you. Many people are will to live as Jews but are you will to die as a Jew?

Friday, February 18, 2011

This is Your Life. This is Your Life on Shabbat. Any Questions?

We all look forward to the end of the work week. Time to rest, time to relax, time for Shabbat!

For me, it’s a mix of emotions. I am glad to have a couple of days off from work (or three days as is the case this weekend), I am happy to vacation on the island of the week that is Shabbat, but I fear the feelings of disappointment that my addictions cause.

Simply put, my addictions get in the way of observance. I am not talking about the traditional definition of addiction involving drugs and alcohol; I am referring to the more obscure and often overlooked ones revolving around TV, internet, the phone, and the general inability on my part to make the day separate from all the other days. Of course, my smoking habit is as much to blame for violation of the day.

Part of the problem is laziness as I have become accustomed to a pattern of living but I think the biggest issue I have is overlooking how much control and influence that we have in this world. G-d gave us the ability to change the world and we do so every day of our lives without even realizing it. Think about it, when you turn on a lamp you are bringing light to the darkness, when you write down a list of things to do, you are forming thoughts, creating words, and shaping the structure of your day. This is a divine ability granted to us from Hashem to influence our lives and all too often, we forget the fact that this ability is a gift.

It is this forgetfulness that prevents many of us from taking a step back and recognizing our place as those who can influence change but can never master this world or our lives. Lori Palatnik makes this point simply and eloquently in her article “Laws of Shabbat for Beginners” on the website, “On Shabbat we also strive to bring God's presence into this world. We remove ourselves from creating in order to reaffirm that we do not have mastery over our lives. Someone else is in charge.”

Ironically, in order to appreciate our proper place in this world and the master that G-d has over our lives we must first take control of our lives and change our patterns, our habits, our addictions so that the holiness of life can permeate our existence and bring us closer to Hashem. As long as we are willing to acknowledge the divine holiness of the Torah and the life that it prescribes, we will always have a reminder of our place in this world and the glorious gifts that have been bestowed upon us.   

And, always keep in your heart the commandment to “guard and remember the Shabbat.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The First Step Before the Leap!

Our "family portrait" from our application.  

It’s time to start blogging again now that we have completed our Aliyah application and submitted it to Nefesh B’Nefesh. Well… it’s not entirely complete. We still have to make a few updates: we are waiting to get our exemplified marriage certificate back from Harrisburg, PA and my wife has to update her passport. Once those are done and the application is updated things will really start moving quickly.

The past couple of months have proven to be an interesting mix of emotions. I find that ups and downs, doubts and assurances, and moments of excitement and fear are very similar to the array that I experienced before getting married. I know it is the best thing for us and that that it will bring us happiness and fulfillment but, in order to do this, we have to leave our family and friends, adopt a different way of life, and basically, start over. At times, all of the unknowns converge to make this a very frightening endeavor.

In the end, this is what I believe is the best thing for us. After all, we are going home!

I know that many of you have made Aliyah, are thinking about it, or are currently filling out an application which is why I wanted to share our supporting essay with all of you. This was the most difficult part that I had to fill in as I had to put pure emotion on the page. It’s not the best thing every written but it is honest and that was the goal of this exercise. Hopefully, being able to see this will help some of you with your own essay. So, here it is the supporting essay from our Nefesh B’Nefesh application…

Obviously, there is much more to our decision than our previous responses and we hope the information below helps. It is a little awkward as this decision and these emotions have been difficult for us to verbalize.  

We have been struggling the past few years to find our place in life as it has been a constant process of finding where we belonged: finding our faith, our people, and each other. Until we landed in Israel we hadn't found our place in the world. During those eight days we lived without the weight that life places on you, we lived our faith, we lived with pride, and we felt like we belonged. It was the feeling of being embraced by generations of longing and desire… a fulfillment of our prayerful declaration “Next year in Jerusalem.” Leaving left us on the verge of tears and, at that moment, we promised that we would return.

Before that visit, we never fully understood why we face Jerusalem when we pray, why we say "next year in Jerusalem", or why we fight so hard (and, in some cases, lose friends) defending the rights of Israel. We knew why we did these things both in our hearts and in our minds but it wasn't until we breathed the ancestral air that those acts, words, and beliefs permeated our entire being. It was the indescribable feeling of home. A feeling beyond the simple definition of where one was raised but a feeling of belonging, comfort, passion, practice, a place that is simply right, a gift from Hashem. It is a feeling that we have only had in Israel.

We know we will have to give up many of the luxuries afforded us in the US but we know we can live a full Jewish life in Israel and that is what really matters. We want to be a part of something greater; we want to live a Jewish life that is the foundation of the country as well as the community we live in. We want to live in the center of the Jewish world and as we continue to grow in our faith and become more observant we want to live the daily mitzvah of living in Israel.

We want to be free to be Jews. We want to live (and raise future children) where we can see and experience the places in the Torah, learn about our past, and be a part a part of the ongoing history of our people. We want the calendar to read 5771 rather than 2011 and know the holidays highlighted are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rather than Christmas and Easter. We want to be able to wear a kippah or cover our hair without being glared at in stores. We want to walk down the street knowing that if we ask someone where we could find the nearest shul or kosher restaurant that they would know. We want to feel safe and know that everyone is looking out for one another. Some people call it intrusive but we see it as security and community.

We want to speak and live a life in Hebrew. While we have started learning the basics by building upon what we learned during our conversions and what we practice in prayer, it is a slow process when not applied to everyday life. Just as the history and beauty of the language elevates our prayers we want it to elevate our daily life. Even without fully understanding we still got that feeling during our honeymoon as we listened to the conversations in the cafes, on the street, at the Kotel, everywhere.  

On the more practical side of things, life expectancy is nearly two years longer in Israel, the crime rate is lower, a thriving economy, universal healthcare, and educational options for our future children are more plentiful. In order to live a Jewish life in the US it is expensive to the point that we can't afford it by ourselves now without children. We can't afford to live in a Jewish community, pay synagogue dues, or shop at kosher supermarkets. It is a sad feeling when you realize you can’t afford to live a Jewish life. 

Simply put, we want to live what we believe. We believe Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people; we believe Israel is our home. We want to go home!