A Lucky Penny

As a child I used to collect coins. Whenever my grandparents would travel internationally they’d always bring back a handful of coins for me as a souvenir. I kept my coin collection in a small treasure box with a built-in lock that was easy to crack. Until about the age of 10 my coin collection brought me great joy and hours of interest. Then I moved on to other things.

As a coin collector I took a particular interest in the “One Cent Penny.” I’m not sure of the exact history of the penny, but once upon a time the back of the penny used to have the words “One Cent” spelled out in pretty large letters. Y’all know what I’m talking about…

I had a zip-loc bag dedicated for these pennies. I probably had 30-40– a very modest collection.

As an adult I discovered that I’m not the only person in my family that has a connection to coins. My mom believes in what she calls, “Lucky Pennies.” A lucky penny generally means one of two things– either her thinking about a difficult decision is headed in the right direction (the penny serving as confirmation), or, a deceased loved one is letting her know that they’re watching out for her and our family. Lucky pennies are lucky not only because they appear at the right time but because they appear in peculiar places too. For example, when downsizing and moving out of my childhood home my mom found a penny on the driveway of the home she and my father eventually purchased. When meeting my wife for the first time, my mom found a penny. At my ordination ceremony etc… One question is whether any of these lucky pennies might’ve been conveniently placed by my dad, but we’ve never caught him in the act. To be clear, I love my mom’s theory of the lucky penny.

Yesterday I found a lucky penny.


If you’re still with me here, I think that means you care about me and my story, at least enough to spend a moment or two seeing where this is headed. Thank you for listening to my story.

Being in NYC means having more loose change rattling around than usual. Atlanta is a credit card city. In NYC you need cash. Yesterday I was shuffling through some coins and I found a “One Cent Penny.” It reminded me of my childhood coin collection for the first time in a long time.

I flipped the penny over to see the year it was minted. The year was 1948. The state of Israel was established in 1948. Had that penny been minted in 1947 I would’ve likely put it in a JNF Blue Tzedakah Box with the hopes that it might contribute in some small way to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In 1948 I probably would’ve done the same, but with a very different Jewish reality– the reality of a sovereign Jewish state reborn. Reborn at great cost. Unquantifiable and incalculable cost. Or as Robert Hunter (who I just saw in concert) might say (though I don’t think he wrote this Grateful Dead lyric), “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Like other people of conscience and concern I stand at the threshold of despair. Aside from the fact that I’m a Jew, a rabbi, and a human being, I have no right or reason to weigh in on the horrible violence that is unfolding in Israel and the Gaza strip. Aside from the fact that I have friends and colleagues in Israel as well as a deep personal connection to the country, I have no right or reason to weigh in.

In recent weeks I’ve read hundreds of Facebook posts and comments and I’ve felt the anguish, fear, hope, and despair. I’m trying, desperately, to use this lucky penny to find some renewed optimism. Recently I heard the author, Daniel Silva, speak. I asked him what he thought the main characters of his Gabriel Alon series would say about the war between Israel and Hamas. He said he was absolutely certain that it would get worse before it gets better. Much worse.

What would Abraham Lincoln, immortalized on the penny before me, have to say?

I think Lincoln would be deeply troubled by the tragic circumstances of innocent Palestinians living in Gaza. I think he would hold the Hamas government accountable for failing its people. I think he would say that at each moment those of us who have power can choose how we exercise that power. Rather than pursuing diplomatic channels they’ve chosen armed resistance. Rather than investing in their people’s future, they invest in their martyrdom. Rather than building schools they are digging tunnels. Rather than pursuing true autonomy and freedom they have further enslaved their own people. Lincoln would acknowledge that Israel and the “International Community” (to the extent that there is one) share some of the blame. But  Lincoln would look at Hamas and say that an unjust government that oppresses its people is no government at all. I think…

I think Lincoln would, with a heavy heart, acknowledge that Daniel Silva is right. Throughout the course of history our oddly enlightened species has, particularly in matters of politics, generally crossed thresholds where things will by necessity get worse before they get better. Lincoln would offer the American Civil War as an example of the heavy price that must be paid when confronting a political regime founded on injustice, oppression, immorality, and the annihilation of another people.

He’d point out that plantations had churches and that the “word of God” was proclaimed from their pulpits but that God’s messages were so thoroughly distorted and abused that they became part of the yoke of slavery rather than the inspiration for liberation. He’d point out that pulpits of hate, be they churches, mosques, or synagogues, should be eradicated from this earth.

He would hold all the powers that be to the highest moral standard. When considering Israel he would state unequivocally that the extent to which Israel’s actions in this conflict are justified is based solely on whether Israel is honestly committed  to liberating an oppressed people from an oppressive terrorist regime while simultaneously protecting her own citizens and interests. If Israel is truly dedicated to the annihilation of all Palestinians, then Israel is no better than Hamas. But Lincoln would be able to rise above the absurd rhetoric that has turned social media into one unending sermon and know that this is not the case.

Like all American currency the penny says, “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum.” If God is present in this conflict at all, let God be present in the teacher who is trying to provide a sense of normalcy to his students knowing that the basement of his school is a storehouse for rockets and grenades. If God is present in this conflict at all, let God be present in the hearts and homes of Israeli mothers who are comforting their children in bomb shelters or praying for their sons and daughters on the front lines. If God is present in this conflict at all, let God not be the excuse for celebrating the deaths of innocent people. Let God shield humanity rather than turn human beings into shields so that they might be added to the annals of the lists of collateral damage forever lost to history.  Let God remind us all that to live in God’s image is to create rather than destroy.

As for “E Pluribus Unum”– It is long past time to take our individual narratives and bind them together. It’s time to take the many and find the One. We need to care deeply for one another’s stories and see them as our own. We need to take all of our stories and anthologize them. We need to bind them in a book of life and teach our children and ourselves to read from this book. We need to take our billions of individual stories and turn them into one epic narrative of humanity. Only then will innocent Palestinians and innocent Israelis be able to look one another in the eye and begin the human work of reconciliation. It’s a hell of a lot harder than lobbing missiles, digging tunnels, and lazily using God and history as our excuse and justification. Tragically, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.



Why I’m Fasting Today

Today many Jews and Muslims are fasting. We are fasting because our calendars tell us to. But some of us are also fasting so we can think deeply about peace/Shalom/Salaam. For that reason many of us feel that our fasts are linked and many other people of diverse backgrounds are joining us. I don’t usually observe minor fast days but today I am. I want to think about Shalom. And I want to be hungry while I think about it.

A number of years ago I wrote a song that was eventually recorded on The Davis Academy’s first CD of original Jewish music: Be a Blessing. The song is called “Seek Peace.” It’s based on a passage from Psalms that teaches, “Seek peace and pursue it.” It’s a song about the simplicity of peace, about the endless ways we can think about and achieve peace, and the ever flowing river of metaphors we might use to speak about peace.

The song is sung by kids. Their voices remind me that, from the perspective of a child, peace is the simplest thing in the world. If you’re looking for something to do as you fast or as you don’t fast, I invite you to listen to this song. I hope it makes you happy and hopeful.

DISCLAIMER: Everything that follows below is going to feel like a sales pitch. That’s not my intention and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I simply believe in this song and in the power of music to effect change.

Here’s a YouTube video from The Davis Academy’s 2013 Israel trip. In it you’ll hear kids singing along with the album. It’s shaky but fun, especially if you were there! Unfortunately someone decided to give it a “thumbs down” on YouTube. In the scope of the universe it doesn’t matter much but I generally only exert energy for giving things a “thumbs up.”



The song, along with the whole album, are available for free download here. I’ve also got lyrics and musical notation for anyone that loves singing about peace and wants to add this song to their repertoire.


Israel 2014- Am Yisrael Chai

As Shabbat approaches in Jerusalem I feel truly blessed to be leading the Davis Academy’s 2014 Israel Trip. It’s been an amazing journey with an amazing group of students and chaperones. I’ve been blogging each day on a Google Blog that helps chronicle how we live our menschlichkeit values at The Davis Academy, but wanted to copy yesterday’s post here so I could revisit it in the future. As I don’t know how to cross post I’m simply cutting and pasting and hoping that works!




[It’s almost 10pm on a typical Thursday and we are stuck in an epic Jerusalem traffic jam right outside the walls of the Old City. How did we end up here??? It’s a good story.]


We started our day with a visit to a very unique place—Yad L’Kashish (“Lifeline for the Elderly”). Yad L’Kashish employs more than 300 Israeli senior citizens, many of them Holocaust survivors. These senior citizens work as artisans, carefully creating beautiful pieces of art ranging from simple greeting cards to magnificent tallitot, from elaborate pottery to adorable stuffed animals.  Prior to entering Yad L’Kashish Morah Sigal shared that when she was a graduate student she worked in a home for the elderly in Beersheva. In spite of her loving and dedicated spirit she reported that the residents in the home suffered not only from the typical ailments of old age, but from severe neglect, boredom, and a sense of irrelevance. They’d been forgotten. Little did we know that “memory and forgetting” would be one of our day’s themes.  She was particularly moved by the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with working at Yad L’Kashish. As we watched an elderly man carefully sand and dust a dreidel we spontaneously burst into the song, “Sevivon.” If your child brings home a souvenir from Yad L’Kashish you will know that it was made with love and care by a truly special person at a truly special place.


[FYI—we are about to drive our 50 passenger bus on the opposite side of the street to circumvent this traffic jam!]


After Yad L’Kashish we visited Yad V’shem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. As has been the case for the last couple of years the kids were not only engaged but profoundly knowledgeable about the Shoah, due primarily to Ms. Schwartz’s exceptional teaching on this topic. We receive many compliments as we travel through Israel, but the compliment we received from our Yad V’Shem tour guide—that we were the finest group of middle school students she had ever toured—that means a lot. The trick at Yad V’shem is knowing how deeply to dive into the horrific events of the Shoah and the implications of the Shoah. Ms. Scwhartz’s devotion to teaching the Shoah helps ensure that the kids know how to respond to the experience of touring this sacred site.


[And magically the traffic has eased up. NO, we didn’t have to drive on the wrong side of the road.]


Yad V’shem sits at the foot of Mt. Herzl, Israel’s most revered military cemetery. It has become a Davis tradition to ascend from Yad V’shem to Mt. Herzl. In so doing we reenact the journey from the darkest chapter of Jewish history to the brightest. But we don’t fully reach the light, because Mt. Herzl further reinforces the fact that Israel was not established and is not protected without great cost. Among the tens of thousands of graves, we always visit the newest section of the cemetery. There we saw several graves that weren’t there just last year.


While standing on Mt. Herzl we had a fascinating discussion. The graves from earlier eras are all uniformly adorned. They have identical inscriptions and all look the same. Soldiers are not buried according to rank and the feeling is one of equality and dignity. On the other hand, newer graves are adorned with various types of shrines, pictures, and artifacts. Many of the newer graves give you a sense of who the fallen soldier was—what he or she looked like, words he or she lived by, favorite objects, pieces of their uniform, banners or postcards from favorite places, sports jerseys, and so on. Our tour guides asked us to consider which we thought was more appropriate for Mt. Herzl– uniformity or individuality. They shared that this issue had stirred great controversy. The kids spoke beautifully in defense of their various positions, most of them dwelling in the grey, rather than black or white. Later, standing at the grave of Theodor Herzl, Mr. O’Dell offered the idea that it is the life we lead, rather than our headstone, that is the truest and most important monument/testament to our existence. Instead of staring at Herzl’s tomb he asked us to turn around and look at the country that Herzl dreamt.


The Hebrew word cavod (“respect”) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for “heavy” (ca-ved). Cavod was another of the day’s themes.


After another pizur meal we headed back to the Kotel for a tour of the underground tunnels there. It was a beautiful evening and we expected the Kotel to be relatively tranquil, allowing our kids additional time to be in a reflective, spiritual space. Instead we arrived 25 minutes before a Swearing In Ceremony for a squadron of several hundred Israeli Paratroopers. Together we toured the tunnels and then joined with thousands of Israelis of all stripes for the swearing in ceremony during which each paratrooper received two items: a gun and a Tanach. Afterward we celebrated with the soldiers and their families. We sang, “Am Yisrael Chai” and shared in the many feasts that were taking place all around us. Grandmothers and mothers of soldiers offered our kids home baked delicacies and our kids gracefully and gratefully accepted. It was a unique celebration—the type of celebration that is, in essence, a prayer. Watching grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers and fathers cry with joy, younger siblings look up with admiration, boyfriends and girlfriends hug and take “selfies”—knowing that to be a guardian of Israel is to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if that is what it takes. Surely there was someone in attendance who had lost a child, a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a classmate, in service of the State of Israel. The seamless merger of deep joy and honest emotion made it  a truly Jewish celebration. Menawhile, as “Am Yisrael” celebrated we could see fireworks coming from East Jerusalem—the sign of a Muslim wedding celebration. Jerusalem is a place where all people come to celebrate.


We had intended to conclude our day at the Kotel with the prayer for the State of Israel and the Mishebeirach for the soldiers of the IDF. Instead we got to witness this incredible ceremony—a living testament that the lives that were sacrificed, both during the Shoah and in defense of the State of Israel—that they were not lost in vain.


Here’s a shot video of the singing of Hatikvah at the IDF Ceremony:







[And now we just passed a motorcade that was CLEARLY carrying the Prime Minister or some government official of equal status.]



So that’s the story of how we ended up in the epic Jerusalem traffic jam and almost had to drive down the wrong side of the road. I love Jerusalem. I met my wife here and began my formal rabbinical studies here. I even lived in an orthodox yeshiva in the Old City for a summer while translating a Hebrew book from 1809 called “Characteristics of the Rabbinate”. In spite of this deep connection, in my heart of hearts I’m glad I don’t live in Jerusalem. There are just too many stray cats. But it sure is a great place to call home. If they didn’t understand what our tour guides meant when they greeted us at the airport with the words, “Welcome Home!” They definitely get it now.

Torah in the Desert- Shavuot

Of all the places on earth that God could have chosen for giving the Torah our ancestors, why did God choose to give the Torah in the barren wilderness of the Sinai desert? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the giving of the Torah to have taken place in Jerusalem? Or anywhere else in Eretz Yisrael for that matter? Why, davka, did God choose to give the Torah in the desert?

The Desert
Hazal asked this very question and they came up with many explanations. As it turns out they believed that the desert was the ideal place for God to give the Torah. Through midrash Hazal teach us that if the Torah had been given in Eretz Yisrael it would have been disastrous. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Dan, then the leaders of Dan would say: The Torah belongs to us. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Reuven then they would say the same. In fact, if it was given anywhere in Eretz Yisrael our ancestors would have said that the Torah was meant for Jews and Jews alone. God gave the Torah in the desert so that all humanity and all creation would know that Torah is for everyone. While it was given to the Israelites, the messages and teachings of Torah are meant for all humanity.
At The Davis Academy we teach our children and our families that the Torah is for everyone. We unroll the Torah scroll for Simchat Torah and all of our parents and children sit inside. We learn how to write letters in the Torah scroll with a sofer, and all of our students learn to chant from the Torah. Our teachers help each child make their own personal connection to Torah, finding the relevance of her ancient words in our modern times. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah can be a lifelong eitz chayyim and source of inspiration whether you want to be a scientist, an artist, a fireman, an astronaut, a rabbi, or a lawyer. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah’s wisdom is meant for all of us.

“Israel Moments” from the Davis Academy 2012 Trip

Hey Class of 2012!!!!! One year ago we took our amazing Israel trip. On our way home you all shared your “Israel Moments.” Feel free to comment whether they’ve changed or stayed the same. We miss you and are proud of all you’re doing in the world!

A Collection of “Israel Moments” from the 2012 8th Grade Trip*


“Touching and praying at the kotel.” Jordan Gold

“Breakfast at the Bedouin tent after Masada.” Max Harris

“Floating in the Dead Sea.” Noah Caspi

“The second I touched the kotel.” Harrison Lipsky

“Walking through the water tunnel at the City of David.” Abi Szabo

“Driving through the barren desert and knowing that my ancestors walked there.” Rachel Kaufman

“Everywhere we went we were able to sing songs and that always put me in a good mood.” Sara Srochi

“Sunrise on Masada.” Sammy Harris

“Rafting down the Jordan river with five of my close friends.” Mallory Goldenberg

“The song sessions in all the different cities in Israel.” Zoe Light

“The magic steps in Haifa.” Alyssa Quatela

“Guitar on the steps in Haifa.” Jake Footer

“Snorkeling in the Red Sea.” Anna Rosing

“Walking with my friends in the boardwalk shuk in Eilat.” Jessica Bachner

“Sitting in a circle near the magic steps and sharing spiritual moments.” Maddie Fleischmann

“Every night time bonding experience that gave me inseparable bonds with my classmates.” Carly Shoulberg

“When I was at the kotel and I put on tefillin and then put my note in the way.” Zachary Chase

“Floating in the Dead Sea.” Max Miller

“Walking on the streets of Jerusalem.” Ashley Spector

“Snorkeling in the Dead Sea, the reef was so pretty.” Cassidy Aronin

“Being on the steps in Haifa and when all the guys finally joined in for singing and we all cried and took it all in.” Nicole Webb

“When we had Shabbat on the beach in Tel Aviv.” Samantha Alterman

“Me, Sophie, and Eliran (our security guard) were playing soccer at Sachne.” Blake Teilhaber

“Standing under the waterfall at Sachne.” Logan Botnick

“Praying at the kotel.” Eric Silver

“Being in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time.” Ben Marcus

“Putting a note in the wall at the kotel.” Evan Miller

“Singing from the Meline’s to Masada all the way to the bus ride to the airport.” Leah Elgart

“The beaches!” Danielle Dinberg

“The kotel.” Sam Baroff

“Climbing Masada and watching the sunrise.” Jamie Greenberg

“The sunrise on Masada.” Daniel Gothard

“Walking around Jerusalem with my grade.” Abby Schwartz

“Collecting balls of salt from the bottom of the Dead Sea.” Max Brandwine

“Walking around Haifa with Mr. Barry.” Larry Yanovich

“Having the opportunity to speak openly about my religious beliefs.” Sophie Frostbaum

“The bus rides with friends and enjoying the amazing scenery all around me.” Sammi Schiff

“Singing in the Mediterranean Sea.” Marley Gordon

“Seeing the Mediterranean Sea for the first time at Rosh HaNikra.” Rebecca Greenberg

“NA NA NA.” Mr. O’Dell

“The Meline’s house when we were all crying together and I realized how much I loved all of my friends and how much I will miss them but how wonderful our future together will be.” Shaina Goldfein

“Climbing Masada.” Anna Goldstein

“Hanging out at the beach in Eilat as well as the shuk.” Cody Wertheimer

“At the Meline’s house when everyone was crying and we realized that we will be graduating as a family.” Rachel Nemeth

“Our song session at the Kinneret when everyone took a turn with the guitar.” Micah Lapidus

“The Dead Sea.” Ben Stinar

“Finding a spot to put my note in the kotel.” Michelle Nelkin

“We like big…” Matt Barry

“Rosh HaNikra, it was really pretty and I loved looking at the water.” Becca Meline

“When the fish were eating at our feet at Sachne.” Ethan Hertz

“Experiencing the most perfect day of my life ever starting with the sunrise at Masada with the 60+ people I care most about in my family and then seeing it set in Tel Aviv. How often do you get to see the sun rise and set with such a special community?” Ms. Kendrick

“Seeing my Israeli friends and being with my grade in the place that never gets old for me.” Jansen Redler

“Driving into Jerusalem and all singing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”… choked me up!” Bonnie Sobelson

“Being with our grade in the Reform synagogue in Haifa and singing along. I loved it when the bar mitzvah boy invited us to his service the following day!” Kadey Burstein

“Becoming friends with so many new people in the grade when I thought it was too late.” Lille Brown

“Floating in the Dead Sea.” Drew Shullman

“The stairs in Haifa when we did Havdallah and were singing together in a big circle, connecting and bonding for the first time.” Julie Covall

“Riding the camel with Michelle. We had been waiting a long time and finally go to do it!” Jamie Antonino

“Floating in the Dead Sea.” Sammi Nozick

“Being on the boardwalk in Eilat and doing the fireball ride.” Kyle Rabinowitz

“Havdallah in Haifa, it was the first time I’ve ever done Havdallah and was very important to me.” Evelyn Grinberg

“The disco cruise, dancing and hanging out with all my friends.” Meredith Galanti

“Surviving the hike at Ain Avdat.” Orna Willis

* This list is partially incomplete because it was compiled at Ben Gurion Airport and there were a few students who returned to the States on a different flight (or are still in Israel!). 

A Moment of Connection Amidst a Pillar of Defense

 The following is a guest post from Leah Zigmund. Leah is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert.


I’ve just returned from a week at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir with our semester abroad students. The week was very moving for me, and truly a cross-cultural experience. I wanted to share with you some of what I saw there. These are crazy times here in Israel, and my week in the Beer Sheva region did coincide with some of the bombings. But in spite of it all it is so important to keep these ‘connections with the other’ alive…

I spent the last week with my semester abroad students at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir, about 10 km from Dimona, in Israel’s Negev region. We spent the week working with an aid organization called Bustan. Bustan has a camp set up in the village and does various projects there, the most successful projects so far are a women’s catering business that they are helping to establish and an educational tour of Bedouin settlements in the Negev that they run called the “Negev unplugged tour”.  In particular my students and I were helping with some earth plaster construction of an eco-tourism site that Bustan and some of the villagers are trying to create. We lived on the site of this future tourism area together with a few of Bustan’s interns for the week.

We spent the week working; learning about Bedouin history and culture; getting to know some of the villagers; and drinking a lot of very sweet tea. One of the most consistent things about all of our interactions with the Bedouin over the course of the week was what everyone said at the end of any formal conversation with our group. Every single time we finished a conversation about culture or politics or history we were told, “Thank you for coming to visit us, we are so glad that you are here. Please tell people about our lives, about who we are, about how we live and what we are going through.”  So, friends and family, I write this post in an attempt to do just that—to describe for you these wonderful people that I spent a week with, and to share with you a little slice of the enormous human tapestry of this world that you might not know of otherwise. Below I give you a very brief glimpse into just a few of the people who became our friends last week.

Tanwa is a woman who lives just up the hill from where we stayed; we went to her house several times to watch her make fresh pitta bread. She adds the water very slowly to the flour and kneads it for a long time until the dough is very elastic. Then she twists the balls of dough like a pizza maker until it is nearly paper-thin and cooks it on a steaming hot metal oven called a saj. Whenever we went she fed us fresh hot pitta, and then we bought a few to take back to our place to eat later.

Anwar is a young man, just married a few years ago with two children. We did not meet his wife but throughout the week Anwar was our main connection to the village. He came by often, helped us get things that we might need like tools and other supplies, he figured out  why our drinking water had been disconnected at one point and took care of that too.  Anwar took us on a tour of the village a few days after we arrived and besides giving us a history of the village (which dates back at least 300 years, in this exact spot), and pointing out the ancient spice route which runs right through the middle of the village, he also told us why he is so glad that we are here. “I am a man of peace,” he said. “I believe that we will make the peace, the simple people, not the men who wear the ties. When you come here, when people come here, and we sit together and we talk, we are learning about each other.  Tell our story when you leave here. Tell people about our lives here in the village. This is what will bring peace one day. And if I come to America I will visit you, and I will learn about your lives, and I will be making peace too.”

Atia is an elder of the section of the village where Bustan has its base. The village is made up of one extended family, and is organized into neighborhoods by smaller branches of that family tree. They can trace back 300 years to a common ancestor and most of the people here know exactly how they are related to everyone else. If is confusing for us to understand, however, because when the men have multiple wives the distinctions between brother and cousin get blurred. Everyone there has the same last name.  Our second night in the village we had a small bonfire and one of the other visiting Israelis had a guitar. We were singing a combination of Hebrew and English songs, when someone asked for a Bedouin song. At first the men were very reluctant to sing for us but then Atia said that he would sing, if one of my students, Laura, played with him. They were already sitting next to each other and so he told Laura to watch him and somehow he managed to teach her the song with music as the only common language between them. Watching her play with him was one of the sweetest moments of the week for me.

After about 5 days in the village I left my students in the hands of the wonderful staff of Bustan for a few hours and went into Beer Sheva to make some connections for the coming spring semester.  I came “home” to the village to the news that the girls had been invited to a birthday party. Shaima was turning 23. This made her not too much older than the students themselves, about the age of their older sisters. We met Shaima a few times already over the course of our week. Her Hebrew was very good and I talked with her a lot one day about her experiences since leaving school and before getting married. Shaima is the second wife to Atia, they were married about a year and a half ago and have a baby who I about six months old.

When we were getting ready to go I thought that we were going to a traditional Bedouin party, and I was very excited. I hadn’t brought any skirts, and was hoping that I wouldn’t offend anyone in my jeans. We arrived at Shaima’s house and were welcomed into her guest living room. This is a separate room from the rest of the house; it had a large television even though they don’t have any electricity. I asked about this and was told that it just “looks good”. The room was lit with candles and there were plates of food on tables—the kinds of things that I would expect to find at any birthday party—pretzels, cookies, nuts, other snacks. Shaima was wearing jeans and a tight fitting shirt, and she was showing her hair—this was very very different from the last times I had seen her with her traditional loose black dress and her head covering. The other surprising thing was that we were the only guests. I asked about this. It turns out that Bedouin adults don’t have birthday parties, but she had been to one of the international volunteer’s birthdays a few weeks ago and really wanted to have one. So this was our present to Shaima—we were throwing her a birthday party. Well, we quickly organized some party games—we played “broken telephone” in 5 languages such that no phrase ever made it around the circle. We played “keep the balloon up in the air”; we danced;  we took photos of each other with our cell phones and then looked at them; and then we lit candles and sang happy birthday in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

I haven’t said anything here about Bedouin history, or what is happening with Bedouin land rights here in Israel. If you want to find out more about the Bedouin or about the organization Bustan and the wonderful work they are doing you can check out this website, www.bustan.org

Leah Zigmond grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert where she has been a resident since 1999. When Leah is not in the classroom, the garden, her office, or on a trip with her students she enjoys baking, reading, and hiking with her husband and two kids.




The Long Walk

Recently The Davis Academy Middle School community had the honor and privilege of hosting MK Shlomo Molla. Molla, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, is only the second Ethiopian Jew to serve in the Knesset. He visited us as a guest of the Israeli Consulate of the Southeast and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

MK Molla and Davis Academy Students

MK Molla’s remarks focused on his personal journey from a small village in Ethiopia, to a prison and then a refugee camp in Sudan, and finally, to his Jewish homeland: Israel. He described the moment he told his mother that he intended to walk from Ethiopia to Israel, having never seen a map, a car, or an airplane. Eventually he and a small group of Ethiopian Jewish friends would walk more than 700 kilometers in 8 days from Ethiopia to Sudan. In Sudan they were tortured, imprisoned, and a member of their group was killed. After spending time in a refugee camp they were eventually part of an Israeli air force rescue operation that saw them safely to Israel.

After sharing his personal story of faith, courage, and survival, Molla shared about his work in Israel. He emphasized that the focus of his work is to close the gap between rich and poor in Israel, as well as to work on behalf of minorities, like Ethiopian Jews, Reform and Conservative Jews, and Israeli Arabs. He also emphasized that the international community must stand with Israel in opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons, as well as the important relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. He stressed the importance of learning Hebrew, of visiting Israel, and of caring about what happens in Israeli society.

At the outset MK Molla shared that he is the proud father of four children, and that he misses his children tremendously when he is traveling around the world on behalf of Israel. Our hope at Davis is that he felt a connection to our children, future leaders of the Jewish community and passionate supporters of Israel.

There were many lessons our students and faculty could’ve reflected on while listening to MK Molla. A few that endure for me are:

1) The power of an idea, the hold of a dream.

2) That to be proud of your country and critical of your country is not oxy moronic.

3) The conditions of our station in life are arbitrary, but what we do within the context of those conditions should be deliberate.

4) If we can respond to brutality with a renewed commitment to compassion and righteousness then we have triumphed over those who would beat us down.

5) Humanity is logically prior and ethically superior to race and nationality.

Life Lessons from Israel- Part 4

1. Either all perception is misperception, or no perception is misperception.

2. A mall is a mall is a mall is a mall.

3. We all have the capacity to act as if the whole world were created only for us.

4. If the possibility of everyone acting in the exact same way as me is logically impossible or ethically undesirable then I’m doing something wrong.

5. A familiar face in an unexpected place can be a source of great joy.

6. To truly listen I have to stop thinking about how I will respond.

7. The phone is a poor substitute for the face.

8. The face is a poor substitute for the heart.

Welcome to Kibbutz Haon Guest House. Turn down service at 5!!

9. We grow on the basis of foreign, uncomfortable, and difficult experiences.

10. One day the pool is closed for a chemical treatment, the next day it’s full of people, and the day after it’s being chemically treated again.

11. Room 111 being immediately next door to room 115 only makes sense in Israel.

12. It is a privilege to engage in work that requires full presence and humanity.

13. Many people do extraordinary things as if they were quite ordinary. Maybe there is no “ordinary” only “extraordinary.”

14. Life entails the potential, even the extreme likelihood, of intensely conflicting emotions and situations with little or no warning.

15. There are two types of people– those who can and will fight in a war, and those who can’t and won’t. Amazingly, most of us dont know which we are.

16. Cherish the times and places in life when people expect you to be unreachable.

Jerusalem Trash Can

17. A well-timed and thoughtful gesture is never a bad idea.

18. More meaning gets lost in “transliteration” than in “translation.”

19. “Survival” and “living” are two different things.

20. Everyone loves a playground.

21. A vision driven educational system supported by both parents and teachers is the most powerful force there is.


Life Lessons from Israel- Part 3

Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem


1. Celebrate the universe within and the universal within.

2. Kids will almost always choose lasagna over quiche.

3. Circular spaces are conducive to good dialogue.

4. Loving-kindness is the purest cavannah.

5. Even a downhill hike is still a hike.

6. Sniffing an article of clothing to assess its level of cleanliness is a risky endeavor, especially when traveling or in middle school.


Outside the Old City, Jerusalem


7. “Who/what is holding you back?” is a very different question than, “Who/what is holding you?”

8. The ability to re-frame is one of our most powerful meaning-making tools.

9. The camaraderie of chaperones is a unique bond.

10. You never know what a conversation might mean for a single person or for the entire world.

11. There can never be too many sincere expressions of gratitude.

12. Laughter alters physiology and psychology.

Sculpture of King David, Old City, Jerusalem

13. Kids are perceptive.

14. Geological time can only be contemplated for so long before undermining all illusions of personal grandeur.

15. Everyone has stories worth sharing, much to teach, and deserves to be heard.

16. Great musicians keep themselves engaged and interested, but not at the expense of their audience.

17. Spirituality does not exist “within”, as much as it does “between.”

18. Sometimes you have to get spun around, end up backwards for awhile, or crash into the river banks before reaching your destination.