Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stepping Back for a Sharper Vision

Winston Churchill once said, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”  
Each of us has a dream, and hopefully a vision (my dear friend Anita Tucker said that each of us “must” have a vision). Our vision can be clearer if we step back a bit, and look from a longer wiser distance.
That was surely the thought in mind when my bat mitzva granddaughter Shir Tehilla and her parents developed an idea for her bat mitzva project. Shir would spend a day with each of her grandparents, and B”H bli ayin hara, great-grandmothers. She’d participate in what they enjoyed, or felt was important. She may not know it, but those feelings and values are inside her too, just like the brown eyes and sweet smile that she inherited.
So, today, it was our turn. My husband has a passion for growing things – fruit trees, plants, all kinds of fascinating green things. I love the people of Gush Katif and have been involved in their community for many years through the Committee for Gush Katif Bridal Showers and even preceding it. B”H, we took Shir Tehilla on an adventure that combined both of these passions.
We traveled to the renewed community of Netzer Chazani and met one of the most inspirational women in today’s world – Anita Tucker – a modern day heroine, a pioneer, a farmer, a Zionist, a leader, a builder, a backbone of Gush Katif’s past and its future, IY”H.
Anita told us the moving story of her life in Gush Katif and since the Expulsion. Shir was two years old when Anita’s home was destroyed. She doesn’t remember Gush Katif – only what we have told her.

Our subject for the day was trees. When Gush Katif was destroyed - its houses reduced to rubble - some of its trees remained. The communities of Gush Katif were living in hotels, in caravillas, in make-shift "towns", hoping one day to rebuild their lives, and of course, ultimately to return to Gush Katif, IY”H.
Five years after the destruction, Aviel Tucker found out that 1000 trees from Gush Katif had been saved by the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, which had replanted them in a nursery in the south until one day the communities would be built. Each tree – mostly palm trees and olive trees – was labeled with the community to which it belonged. Aviel found the Netzer Chazani trees. He cried.
The trees had fared just as the community had – some were flourishing and green, some were bent and broken, some were wild and aimless. Rooted in foreign soil, there they stood alone, until the day Aviel found them. He returned many times to hug the trees – yes, hug them - and tell them, “Hold on. We will get you. We will rebuild and we will bring you home.” Next year, he told the trees. And then…next year…and then…next.
It is almost ten years since the destruction of Gush Katif. Netzer Chazani is being rebuilt, and starting to look and feel like a real town. Aviel thought that this year might be the one when the trees come home. A few months ago, Aviel visited the nursery, and one of the caretakers said, “These trees are going to Palmachim. You never came for them.” No!!! Aviel argued that the Netzer Chazani trees must come back to the community. “But we waited so long for you to claim your trees. Palmachim is ready for trees.” After lots of negotiations, and with the knowledge that shmitta was almost upon him, Aviel knew the trees must be replanted in the new Netzer Chazani community immediately.
The cost was tremendous, but the community did everything it could to transport the trees (including a few from Gadid – there are Gadid refugees in Netzer Chazani’s new community, as well) to its new community. On long trucks, the palm trees were laid, on other trucks came the olive trees. Each was dug up with its original soil, still from Gush Katif.
This summer, 70 trees returned to their community. The trees were planted on the condition that they could be replanted when the Netzer Chazani community returned to Gush Katif, IY”H, may it be soon.
One Tree
Aviel was told to leave one palm tree behind – why waste the money. This palm tree was broken in half. It would never live. Why spend money on a lost cause. He refused. We visited that tree today, and my granddaughter Shir hugged it. It has an interesting shape, but it is B”H thriving surrounded by its family and those who are pampering it with love and attention.
All of us have challenges in our lives. Sometimes we seem broken and “unfixable”. But with love and caring, and of course, faith, the broken can be mended, and we can each have a strong positive future.
Thank you to Anita and Stewart Tucker, and Aviel Tucker for an unforgettable day. Thank you, Shir Tehilla, for inviting Sabba and Savta to share with you some of the things we care about. We love you and are proud of you. Mazal tov to you and your Ema and Abba on your upcoming Bat Mitzva, IY"H.

Friday, October 24, 2014

To Live as a Jew

In Hadassah Hospital, a 21 year old girl is fighting for her life. Actually, as she lies in a coma, others are fighting for her life, sitting by her bedside, praying for her, saying psalms in her behalf – Yemima bat Avraham Avinu.
Correct, “bat Avraham Avinu”, the father of all Jewish souls. Only a few short months ago, Yemima, originally from Ecuador, received her conversion certification.
Terror in Jerusalem
On Wednesday, an Arab terrorist plowed down a group of Jews at the Ammunition Hill train station. Infant Chaya Zissel Braun was murdered in the attack, and eight others are in various stages of injury. Yemima Mascera Barera is in critical condition, on life support systems. It’s ironic that Yemima, who wanted so much to be Jewish and come closer to Hashem in His Holy City, became a victim of Arab terror just for that – being a Jew in Jerusalem.
Yemima has been living in Israel for the past two years, strengthening her connection to G-d, Judaism and Israel. Her friends and teachers all say she was always very single minded, focused on one goal - becoming a Jew, coming ever closer to Hashem, marrying a Torah-observant husband and raising a Jewish family here. Completing the dream would be bringing her mother and sister to Jerusalem.
As of this writing, Yemima’s mother and sister are on the plane to Israel, but not in the way the 21 year old had hoped.
Searching for G-d
Rabbi Gavriel Guiber of Un Mundo Mejor (who teaches Torah in Spanish) has helped Yemima for the past five years, since she first wrote to him on the internet, asking him for guidance in leading a more observant life. Her questions had such depth, the rabbi thought she was Jewish. Yemima told him that while she was not Jewish, her mother lit Shabbat candles, and the family had a tradition that the grandmother and great-grandmother had done so, as well. Her family name is one of anusim (forced converts who tried to observe vestiges of Jewish practice), but the family had no documentation that they were Jewish.
Rabbanit Chaya Engel, one of Yemima’s teachers in Machon Roni, a Spanish-language seminary for women, said that the Zohar states that when G-d asked the nations of the world if they would keep the Torah, as a whole they rejected it. However there were small voices within the nations that answered, “Yes!” “No one heard them, except HaKadosh Baruch Hu,” Rabbanit Engel said. “Before Meshiach comes, Hashem is bringing back all those neshamot (souls) that wanted to accept His Torah, because they deserve it.”
Yemima is one of those souls.
Tradition in Ecuador
Back in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Yemima lived as traditional a life as possible with her mother and sister. Her parents are divorced. While they all wished to become Jewish, since the family had little money, Yemima’s mother gave her whatever they had in order to come to Israel.
Rabbi Guiber helped her, and brought her to Machon Roni where other Spanish-speaking women learned Torah. He said, “She is a model example of a gentile that wanted to convert, and also an example to us.”
In order to support herself, she worked in a senior residence in Bnei Brak, and commuted to seminary daily. Rabbanit Sara Yalta Katz, director of the seminary, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, said that Yemima traveled the farthest to learn, but she never missed a day.
When she moved to Jerusalem to be closer to Machon Roni, Yemima worked cleaning houses. Her best friend said, “She would have done anything to learn Torah.”
Rabbanit Engel teaches many Spanish-speaking girls who are preparing for their conversion. “These girls come to Israel, having a relatively high level of education or standing in their home countries. They were teachers, clerks, and today they clean floors. But they are willing to be nothing here, like the Biblical Ruth, in order to be Jewish. We were born Jewish, but they chose to be Jewish.“
Rabbanit Katz said that Yemima decided at a young age that she wanted to become Jewish, but she was always hoping for a sign proving that “Hashem controls the world”. Yemima told her that once while praying the Amida (the Silent Prayer), an earthquake hit. Her family went scrambling under the table, and everything was falling around her. Yemima said that perhaps she was concentrating so intensely on her prayers that she did not feel the earthquake at all. She told herself, “This is it.”
Critical Condition
While Yemima has completed her conversion process, she is still working through the bureaucracy of citizenship. IY”H, may she recover and fulfill the entire dream – living as a Jewish woman in Israel and one day raising a Jewish family that will be a tribute to our people.

Your psalms for Yemima’s recovery are vital.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Thanks to Mickey Rooney for His Inspiration

It was June 21, 2001, almost a month since the murder of two beloved Efrat residents, olah chadasha (new immigrant) Sarah Blaustein, HY”D, and youth group leader Esther Elvan, HY”D. My community of Efrat (and the greater community of Gush Etzion) was reeling from the Arab terror on the roads of Gush Etzion and across the country. We were all in a huge depression. Tears flowed easily and often. Smiles had long been forgotten.
The much-awaited summer vacation was filled with dread. Folks didn’t drive on the roads. There was nothing to do and no place where we could escape the deadly realities of the day.
On the Efrat list, which I had established some years before, Efrat residents were writing their ideas of ways to cheer up the community – a town fair, cowboy-and-Indian movie nights, etc. All cute, but nothing that captured the imagination.

I sat at my desk on that Thursday night and looked up at a poster on the wall – an original advertisement for a 1939 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie musical, “Strike Up the Band.” In those days of post-Depression America, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were constantly trying to think of ways to bring their community out of its depression. The answer always ended up being a show.
He’d say, “We're gonna put on a show. And it’s gonna be the greatest thing this town has ever seen. And everyone’ll be in it.”
The idea of the show was to raise everyone’s spirits! Well, by golly, it worked for Mickey every time! And if a show could cheer up post-Depression America, maybe it could help depressed Efrat/Gush Etzion.

With Mickey's Inspiration
So, I wrote an email to the Efrat list:
WE’RE PUTTING ON A SHOW. It will be the greatest spectacular in the history of the Gush Stage. A cast of thousands, or at least dozens. You’ll leave the theatre singing and dancing and feeling good.”
“We’re going to spend our summer preparing a fantabulastic show for women only (sorry guys – if you want a play, put on your own).”
Thirty-five women joined at my first meeting, and we had enough of a staff for two directors, two choreographers, a stage manager, a scenic designer, a producer (me) and lots of other stuff.
That night, I summed up the meeting. “I explained that the goal of the play is to give everyone something positive to do all summer, and to bring us closer together in HAPPINESS, instead of in SORROW. We’re going to sing together, dance together, work hard together, sweat together and smile together. And at the end of the summer, IY”H, we’re going to invite all the women of Gush Etzion to come see the show. I know all of them won’t come, but we hope several hundred will. We’re even going to invite the women of Chevron, Kiryat Arba, Beit El and Ofra. They all really need something to sing about.”
Little did I, or anyone else know, that the Gush Etzion Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company would not only attract hundreds of women, but more than 40,000 women/girls from Israel and the Diaspora would see our shows over the past 13 years, and B”H, bli ayin hara, we would become one of the most acclaimed community theater companies in the country.
And it all began because Mickey Rooney taught me the lessons of joyous song, a common goal, community effort, inclusion of everyone, and dedication to a dream.
They were right on target in 1939, they were right in 2001 and they still hold true today.

Mickey, 93 years young
Mickey Rooney passed away this week at the age of 93. Those lucky enough to remember him for his upbeat undefeatable energetic young man roles will always have a reason to smile and an example of unending positivity.
Those who remember him for his 200 movie roles will surely keep the legend of the tiny dynamo in their hearts.

Mickey, the women/girls of Raise Your Spirits Theater and their audiences thank you.