We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest

“How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Our Rise from Rubble ritual started inside the Church Center for the United Nations yesterday with this sad song, words from the Psalms, just as resonant now as they must have been then for the exiled Judean poet on the banks of the rivers of Babylon.

How do we translate our legacy of loss and longing, so much Jewish suffering condensed into one fast day, to a global group of humans seeking ways to fix the broken pieces of our world? 

Lab/Shul took a risk this year and adapted the fast of the Ninth of Av to the rubble of our larger reality – Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ teens, Islamphobia and domestic abuse, political violence and strife. All are temples shattered, rubble of visions and dreams gone awry, worthy of mending. We quoted Isaiah’s prophetic call, “‘make this a day to break off every shackle”.


By 3pm, mid-heat wave, the Church Center started filling with people of different faiths and color, some with Jewish prayer shawls and some in Christian clergy robes, some fasting, some not, all marking together the saddest day on the Jewish calendar as a shared human moment of loss. The ritual included live music, liturgy, reflections and conversation. Muslim and Christian voices, Zen meditation, Storahtelling style Torah verses telling us of second chances to rebuild trust, candles lit, slogans written out with prophetic calls for justice: a powerful and inclusive way to rise together. 

Lab/Shul was created on the fast of the Ninth of Av four years ago. Our first gathering in a sweltering room downtown was created with the intention of starting from what’s broken so that we could rebuild together into the High Holy Day Season and the rest of our lives. 

Four years later, with allies and partners, community regulars and new faces, we gathered to focus on the rubble of today and the tools for rising to the challenge of a better reality for all.

One highlight: listening to Yazmine Nichols, a passionate seminarian at Union Theological Seminary and a leader within the Black Lives Matter community, as she quoted Elie Wiesel’s Night and urged us not to silence the prophetic voices among us who are calling for radical empathy and change. After the ritual we spoke about what binds us and where we and our communities have a ways to go in standing together, shoulder to shoulder, for justice, not just on big holy days but all year round. I shared with her some of the tensions in the Jewish community in reaction to the recent Movement for Black Lives platform and its strong condemnation of Israel. She shared with me some of her thoughts and how good it would be if brothers and sisters could sit together to listen, share, dream, rise to the challenge.

I carried the Torah Scroll to the Isaiah Wall where hallowed words are carved in stone, as bystanders and onlookers paused to notice the strange procession of people in religious garbs and hand written signs gathered, singing “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Some joined us. Others pulled out phones to capture the moment. Others watched from afar on Facebook Live. Our message was sent forth – live and virtual, poetic and prophetic and spontaneous – rising together to name the shame and sadness and commit to change. 


The Ninth of Av marks the start of our High Holy Days. From the broken, within each of us and in the world, we rise to rebuild and renew both the year and our lives. We are committed to continue the multi-faith rising that we co-created yesterday not only this coming Yom Kippur at our Interfaith Prayer for Peace but all year round. And as this sacred work continues, it is so good to know that budding friendships, collaborative spirits, and voices harmonizing in song, silence and story can help the work continue so that, as Rabbi Kerry Chaplin reminded us yesterday – “Justice and Peace will kiss soon,” and often. 

I am grateful to all the hands and hearts that helped co-create yesterday’s ritual and call for justice. So much talent and love in one space. 

So let us gather together soon and often again In peace, respect and gratitude: May we rise from the rubble in joy and focus – together. 

– Amichai Lau-Lavei

As seen on Lab/Shul : http://labshul.org/we-who-believe-in-freedom-cannot-rest/9944

What the Pope can Teach Israel’s New President. Perhaps.

June 10, 2014
This past Sunday, Pope Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pray with him for peace.
The day before, His Holiness tweeted: Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world. 
I wasn’t invited to Rome, but I wanted to be privy to this ritual, so I watched it online,  pausing, here and there (it was over two hours long), to actually feel moved enough to pray.
But most of the time I struggled to be moved. Judging by the faces of the fidgeting delegates in attendance, representing three religions, splendid religious garb, and at least three versions of God, I was not the only struggler. It was very serious, solemn, and, well, long.
There were highlights: The Palestinian delegation chose the only participating woman (other than the MC) to read aloud a few sacred texts. A rabbi and an Imam, respectively, sang out loud  – with what seemed like real intention of prayers and verses.  Strings and harp played in between the lofty words, with some melodies quite pretty. An olive tree was planted at the end by all three leaders. No tears were visibly shed.
So I watched, hoping to see  – to feel – something ‘real’ happen – despite the general buzz about how politically insignificant and possibly empty this papal gesture was.
I wanted – and still insist on wanting – to believe that such gestures have actual meaning, impact and the ability to somehow crack or even shatter the  stubborn walls of refusal to change.
I want to believe that prayer can help where other forms of communications fail. Not necessarily because prayers are addressed to the Creator one does or does not believe in but because prayers open up the ones who pray to be more vulnerable, more open, more fully human, fragile, and sincere.
I’m told that this was the first time Muslim prayers were publicly recited at the Vatican. And that although not for the first time – this was a big moment for these three religions to come and pray together in such prominent display of faith and yearning for progress.  I am a big believe in the power of interfaith gatherings to dispel the centuries of malice and suspicion, turning to a brave new page.
If anything is going to get the Middle East out of the rut it is in – it’s likely the role of gutsy faith leaders able to re-imagine the sacred narratives that have become so often tools for hostility instead of vehicles for compassion.
Perhaps this prayer summit will help encourage more religious leaders to reach out to others across the lines, and to delve deep into our wisdom shared by all our traditions, beyond the borders and the hyperbole, to retrieve the spirit of unity and shared values.
There’s blood on all hands here. Let’s not forget. The pope’s bright white mantle is sprinkled with ancient drops of bloody crusades. Abbas and Peres, two old war horses, one on his way out, the other soon to follow – are no innocents either, representing complicated and brutal attempts to make one country work for two nations at terrible costs.
But here they sat, stiff in big chairs, admitting by their mere presence that the truth is bigger than them all, and the fact that the only way out of this mess is to appeal, together, publicly, to the mystery residing way above and way below and deep within each and every one of us.
They did what prayers do – admit, out loud: We are vulnerable. And we need help.
Because of our collective failures to make the world a better place where peace pulsates like mightily rivers – we appeal to God or Allah or Hashem or Mother Earth or the Power that Calls for Salvation or whatever, in a humble plea for strength to do the work.
An affirmation of the possible, against the odds. In today’s cynical, sorta-secular society where eyes roll at the role of religion in the civic sphere, often for good reasons – this was a big deal.
This morning, a new president was voted in Israel. Rivlin is a vegetarian, Likkud member – secular Jew, and I’m not holding my breath for news of his peace making – among Israelis, Jews or residents of the Middle East. A few years ago he famously labeled my form of Judaism “idol worship” and it’s unclear whether he will recognize me as a rabbi once I am ordained. Perhaps he’ll change his views.
But I will take a moment now to quietly recite a prayer, that he, too, blessed by the mantle of leadership, will be humble enough to see beyond the here and now, reach out to other leaders of region and religion and beyond, submit his will to greater forces of good, make history happen, make sense,  make love between all people, and yes, dare I say it, help make real peace.
Thank you Mr. Peres. May your prayers be heard too.
And may the Mysterious One  making peace possible above and below, help us make more peace within and everywhere, right here, right now, for all of us, somehow, together.



That Big But:Builds or Burns Bridges? Word 34.

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In the heat of the argument, raw emotions, everybody trying to be very polite and professional,  N. muttered one simple ‘but’  that totally negated the other opinion – and all but crashed the conversation. It took a lot of shooshing to get us back on track.

When it comes to arguments  on matters big or small, the culture of respectful conflict is a rare and precious art. Here in the Middle East, let’s say, it it particularly volatile and can go from cool to heatwave in no time at all.  One gesture, one word, can be interpreted in different ways and build a bridge or burn it down.

Like the word ‘but’  which can be so neutral – or a total F YOU put down of what came before.

It happened this week:  I was part of a fascinating, important and heated debate at Machon Shechter, the masorti Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem I am attending this year.


The topic was the Hebrew Matriarchs – should they be mentioned in the daily prayers? The bigger issue here is religious progress and pluralism- how and when is it too slow or too fast?

Jewish liturgy has evolved over the generations, canonized as ‘proper prayer’ about a thousand years ago, printed, proscribed and mandated by various traditions with only somewhat consistent views. Social changes have always entered and altered the reality of the prayer text and in recent decades Feminist reality has been demanding equality not only in the work place but also in the prayer space.

In more liberal Jewish contexts God is no longer just “God of our Fathers’ but also of ‘Our Mothers.’ Not everybody is on board.

The first blessing of the traditional Amida prayer, for instance, chanted three times daily, includes the three patriarchs only. What about our mothers? Can the text be changed?

Many liberal Jewish communities have adopted the feminist approach and added the names of the matriarchs (most often four,  and sometimes all six.)

The  Conservative/Masorti Movement has been debating this issue for years, resulting, in line with consistently complex and honest pluralism, with different customs practiced in different congregations. Some are more comfortable with changing the traditional liturgy, some not so much.

In many ways, this debate reflects the tensions that refine and define the current moment in the movement – and in the Jewish world at large: How does change happen in an ancient religion? How can we agree to disagree – and still co-exist as one?

Some of the major  leaders of the Movement  oppose the change and are willing to accommodate more subtle ways of altering the liturgy and inserting the Matriarchs into the prayer book.

Others, possibly the majority of students and faculty are on board with a sweeping change and a new modes of prayer, honoring men and women, then and now, alike.

Fueled by a petition from the students, the debate was brought to the main floor, heated, emotional, and inconclusive. It’s a healthy if slow process: More time will be needed for the leadership here to decide the next step. Will Sarah and Co. be included officially, as a legitimate option, or continue to be optional – or still personas non grata in public prayer space?

Never mind right now the results of the discussion. Time will tell. What I’m interested in here is the nature of debate. Some of us, self included, have very strong opinions – but can we truly own the ‘but’  in the debate- honor the other side, listen carefully and with respect to the other strong conviction?

(In the car going home from this debate I turn on the radio  -another  debate  – the conscription issue in the Knesset – the Ultra orthodox men will be drafted to the IDF –  will the objectors be fined or jailed? The government almost toppled yesterday over this issue. Very little patience for the ‘but’ – the other side, the valid opposition. )

And in this week’s Torah text, Shlach Lecha, the big but  shows up big time yet again.

12 tourists/spies are sent by Moses to scout the promised land. They come back with conflicting reports of how great it is, not unlike how many  view this place today

2 of them say yay – it is a land of milk and honey. Let’s go.


10 say nay – the land is filled with heavily armed locals, giants and tall walls. Let’s not.

The But here is loud. The Hebrew word is EFES – later used as ‘zero’ – plain negation of what is. Another translation is ‘Never-the-less.’

The ten who refute the two are adamant – the argument is about nothing less than the future, and  about faith itself.

Faith or reality? the facts on the ground are tossed aside for the big vision. The two are favored by Moses and God, the land will be entered, like it or not. The people are weeping, this will not end well.  This is one case where majority opinion is not what settles fate.

How do collective decisions get made? then or now? Can a more sensitive attention to the culture of conflict make for solutions that honor all voices and opinions and prevent further splinters and fights? Could Moses have handled that differently? Can we do better with conflict today?

Or is the ‘but’ essential, a core feature of reality looked upon by different eyes?

One of the main features of Feminist thinking that I’ve been privileged to learn is that the ‘either/or’ can be replaced by ‘and/both’. A more expansive and inclusive mind set serving greater goals.

In this conversation, Matriarchs and spies and religious soldiers and all of us in this together – I hope that we can do a bit less ‘but’ and a lot more better.


Shabbat Shalom.



Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Two People, One Talit: Protest at the Wall

. שנים אוחזין בטלית
.בראש חודש אייר האחרון לא עצרו אותנו הבוקר ברחבת הכותל
    הצטרפה אלי נעמה, חברה ללימודי הרבנות, ועמדנו  יחד ברחבת המבקרים, טלית אחת פרושה על שנינו, סידור אחד וכוונה אחת לתפילת אמת ושלום במקום הזה שכה מעורבבים בו קודש וחילול
למה? כבר ראשי חודש רבים שנינו באים לפה לתמוך בנשות בכותל ובקריאה למרחב דתי שויוני – ומתקשים להתפלל באמת. לנעמה אסור ללבוש טלית, כמנהגה, ואני מאחורי מחיצה, ולשנינו אסור להתפלל יחדיו, כמנהגנו. שנינו תלמידי רבנות מסורתית ורוצים להתפלל יחדיו, במנין, עם טלית, ושואפים ךפתרון מכבד את הבריות – כולן

למה היום? היום ה11 באפריל הוא היום בו שוחרר אבי מבוכנוולד
הבוקר התפללתי הלל בהודיה על חייו וחירותו ובתפילה לחירות ושחרור של כל אדם בכל זמן – שחרור משנאת חינם, פחד שווא, קטנות מוחין, חרדה והדרה

נהיה שם שוב, אם תרצה השם, בראש חודש סיון, יחדיו, שנים מתעטפות בטלית, עד שתתקבל הצעה מכבדת ומכובדת על כל הצדדים.כולנו אוחזין בטלית
מוזמנות ומוזמנים להצטרף. חודש טובה

PEACEFUL PROTEST AT THE WALL FOR COED PRAYERS: The new moon of the month of Iyar just happened this past Thursday, April 11, and I spent it at the Western Wall, protesting the lack of equality for women and all non-orthodox Jews. Since women are not allowed to wear a talit in the kotel – they get arrested for violation of ‘local customs’ I invited one of my friends and fellow rabbinic students, Naamah Levitz-Applebaum, to stand with me, under my talit, and pray together, away from the either/or men/women section, and just, pray, together.
We did. And for the first time in many new moons as we’ve both been attending these protests – we could actually focus and pray. for peace. and justice, for equality, and much more.
We want to support the creation of a third section, co-ed, egal, open to all – and situated in a dignified, accesible and respectful location along side the current location of the wall. Such a plan was just unveiled this past week but is still a long way from approval or acceptance.
It was a bit hard to focus on prayer with all the commotion around – women wearing talit were being arrested, ultra orthodox men and women were shouting curses at them, and many photographers filled the scene. When they got a look at us – an usual co-ed, peaceful praying ‘couple’ – they pounced.
The good news: We were NOT arrested or even detained. The police people looked at us with funny looks and didn’t quite know what to do with us, so they had other issues to deal with. The media loved it – our photo and intentions were circulating on blogs, Facebook, Israeli TV and some newspapers.
Here is one link:
Here is the Israeli Channel 10 news hour – we’re at 35:07:
 Naamah Levitz-Applebaum wrote on her FB feed this morning: 
After contemplating what to do this morning, I decided to go to the Kotel with Amichai and daven together, with one tallit (as I couldn’t wear mine). For the first time since supporting this cause I was actually able to concentrate on my tefilla and enjoyed singing hallel together. Until there is an actual concrete solution, we will continue to come every month and support, pray together and hope that we are able to make even a small change in this complex Israeli reality
 Next new moon we intend to be back – with another minyan of co-ed prayers, he and she, sharing a talit. I suspect it may get to some same sex couples but that’s a whole other story of inclusion and justice. Thank you for your blessings and good wishes! This fight is right and will be won.