Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld A Blessing from Jerusalem for the Month of Shevat

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld looking out a window

Dear friends,

I’m writing to you from Jerusalem on this rainy Rosh Hodesh morning.

I’ve just completed a three-day solidarity trip to Israel with a small group of women leaders from the Boston Jewish community. The itinerary — designed to look at recent events in Israel through the lens of gender — was powerfully conceived by Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, together with two of our shared campus partners, Idit Klein, CEO of Keshet, and Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive. It was generously supported by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and skillfully executed by a wonderful team from the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem, including our own Rabbi Shuki Zehavi, HCRS ‘17. It was an honor and a very special gift to share this journey with such a talented and thoughtful group of professional and lay leaders, including Rabbi Suzanne Offit, HCRS `09, and Hebrew College Trustee, Dr. Susan Shevitz.

Our trip took us to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the South, to meet with trauma physicians and relief workers, feminist human rights lawyers, women leaders from the Bedouin community, civil society volunteers, pro-democracy organizers, feminist activists (young and old, Muslim and Jewish, religious and secular), and Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel working together for shared society, for a political solution, for a vision of a just and peaceful future.

We met with survivors of the October 7 Hamas attacks, with a recently released hostage, and with family members of the murdered and of those still in captivity in Gaza. We visited the memorial to the victims of the massacre at the Nova Music Festival at Reyim, where a large sign at the entrance to the memorial says, “Zachinu le’ehov” — “We were given the chance to love.” It was sobering to have our visit there punctuated by the frequent sounds of artillery fire in Gaza; I felt a deep undercurrent of grief at the proximity of so much pain, on both sides of the border, across distances that are at once impossibly small and so vast.

Our group of twelve came to Israel to listen and to bear witness together. We also asked ourselves and each other what the words we heard would demand of us. We were acutely aware that to bear witness is to be called to action.

It feels both impossible and profoundly important to try to capture the courage, resilience, and compassion of each of the women we met over the last three days. For now, I will share with you just some fragments of conversation, words that I know I will carry with me for a very long time.

“We are putting together the pieces of a burnt puzzle.” This is the way Cochav Elkayam Levy described the efforts she has been leading to document the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7. She and her colleagues have called the world to account — in particular, international feminist and human rights organizations — for looking away, for minimizing and, in some cases, denying the brutality committed against women on October 7. I was struck by these words, I think, in part because they spoke to the deep sense of fracture that I have felt during these last three months, the loss not only of life, but of a life-giving sense of coherence in the face of violence and moral chaos. These words spoke to the heart-wrenching experience of trying to piece together both physical evidence and some kind of framework of meaning for moving forward. Beyond the power of the words that she shared, I was profoundly moved by the way Cochav moved between tenacity and tears as she spoke with us. This is a woman who has been unflinching in the honesty and rigor of her research and her activism; she has been in almost perpetual motion over the last three months, meeting with leaders at the U.N., at the White House, and all over the world. And yet, she also sat and wept openly with us. I was reminded that the broken heart can close and contract, or it can expand and become even more capacious. It felt to me like Cochav’s heart had expanded, and it was both humbling and uplifting to be in her presence.

“The only treatment for being exposed to crimes against humanity is to be exposed to an abundance of humanity.” This is what we heard from Ayesha and Rachel, organizers at the Community Center in Rahat (Israel’s largest Bedouin city) where every Wednesday, hundreds of Jewish and Bedouin Israelis, mostly women, gather at the shared Hamal (“situation room”) to pack boxes of basic supplies for families impacted by the recent violence. These women deal with enormous complexity in their work, including understandably heightened distrust in an acute time of trauma and fear, a long history of persecution and neglect experienced by Bedouin communities in Israel, and the fact that many Bedouins in Israel are feeling deep solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and friends alongside grave concern for members of their families and tribes in Gaza. And yet there was a bracing simplicity to their message. Regarding their sense of shared destiny: “Arabs and Jews here have no choice. No one is leaving this place, and no one else wants us anyway. We have to find a way to live here together.” Regarding the concrete work they do together: “Don’t sit at home and get depressed. Take action.” And regarding the imperative of hope, the words of Reverend Martin Luther King, “The only way to fight this kind of darkness is to kindle a light.” If you haven’t read about the stories of incredible heroism on the part of the Bedouin communities of the Negev on October 7, please watch the video included at this link. Expose yourself to an abundance of humanity.

As we move into this new Hebrew month of Shevat, I am painfully aware that we are approaching a terrible milestone this Shabbat – 100 days since the dark Sabbath of October 7, 100 days of captivity for the hostages still held in Gaza, 100 days of anguish for their families. As several of the family members said to us yesterday, “The rest of the world may be moving on, but we are stuck in time. For us, it is still October 7.” Whatever it means for us to find a way to move forward, it cannot mean leaving them behind. This Saturday night, before I leave Israel, I will be joining those families in a major demonstration in Tel Aviv, calling upon the Israeli government to make the return of the hostages its immediate and highest priority.

According to tradition, Rosh Hodesh Shevat is the day on which Moses began to share his final teaching with the people of Israel. “These are the words that Moses spoke to the people of Israel.” It begins a thirty-nine-day period — from the first of Shevat through his death on the seventh of Adar – when Moses spoke the entire Book of Deuteronomy to the gathered people.

While rabbinic sources highlight the act of speaking associated with this period, it strikes me, this year in particular, that it is up to us to allow the act of sacred speaking to call forth the act of sacred listening.

The heart knows that to listen is to be summoned.

I enter this new month of Shevat feeling deeply summoned by the sacred words I have heard on this visit. I pray that, with time, we will find ways to do justice to the words and the work of heroism and humanity that we witnessed on this journey.

May we find a way forward, as we struggle to put together the pieces of our burnt puzzle.
May we expose ourselves to abundant humanity.
Beneath and beyond the noise of war, may we quietly and courageously return — again and again — to the eternally sacred act of speaking and listening.

Hodesh tov,

Sharon


Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is President of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

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