What happens when a Christian enters a Shabbat service? Tears!

Originally published on The Times of Israel 

I was thinking which pants to put on: the dark leather one or that black one that isn’t so tight on my body. I went with the second one.

It was a chilly Spring evening as I walked through Central Park, up until 68th Street. Turned left, walked a few more steps and as I saw the building I stopped before entering. I had too many feelings messing with me. Suddenly the security guy told me: “Shabbat Shalom,” opened the door, ushered me in and there I stood: a Christian in a synagogue entering her first Jewish service.

At the entrance, there was a man and a woman welcoming everyone and handing a Bible to all. I automatically stepped towards the woman. Not sure why I did that. Maybe because I often have no idea what level of Jewishness I am entering to when I meet Jews. It really is an issue.

She looks at me, smiles and hands me a Bible. I wasn’t sure what to do. Frankly, my first unconscious thought was ‘this is not my Bible; I don’t know what to do with yours.’ So I quickly told her: “Well, look, I am not Jewish, I’m here as a Christian who is on a journey.” And boy, that felt awkward. I felt more confident on my first dates than entering this Shabbat service.

“Welcome!” She was smiling even more by now. Then she directed me towards the chairs and explained that I could sit ANYWHERE I want. “Except on my chair, my dear, don’t sit on my place there.”

OK, I thought, she is really cool, I’m safe.

The service had already started as I entered and I wasn’t sure how this whole thing was going to make me feel, so I sat in the last row. It also gave me a good view of the synagogue, and I wanted to look around and observe.

And to observe I wasn’t shy of.

As I sat down, the first thing I did was to open my phone and…and then it hit me: ‘you idiot, you’re at a Shabbat service.’  I looked around rather embarrassed, but I concluded that nobody saw it. I felt relieved. And then the lady from the entrance appeared from nowhere handing me another Bible that she opened for me somewhere in the middle: “Here, this the song now. You can see it in Hebrew, then in phonetic and then here, in English. Enjoy.” With that, she left and I then realized, she did see me touching my phone.

I finally found my place and looked at the Bible, then looked up and saw that there is a whole band and it suddenly seemed that I was at a Klezmer band concert, not a religious service. I looked down to the Bible again, and there, I had my first epiphany: ‘Ah, this is what it means when they tell me “I speak only ‘Service Hebrew’.’” You know, I never understood when Jews told me they didn’t speak Hebrew just service Hebrew. I was like how is that even possible? Tonight, I understood and tonight I was fluent in (Service) Hebrew for a full hour.

The cantors (who lead people in singing,) had such beautiful voices that I sat there mesmerized. In Christian services, we would have a person accompanying the songs on a piano, but apart from a Gospel service in Harlem, I didn’t think services can be actually joyful and not sorrowful. Meanwhile, people were walking around, welcoming each other, and singing. And I was trying to sing too, and I can only imagine how bad I actually sounded. While they were reciting the Hebrew songs, I quickly read the English translations and it didn’t feel strange. I felt quite OK and I thought to myself:  ‘I’ve never felt such a comfort in any Christian service.’ As I write this down, it hurts a little. But then again, why would I lie to you? Or to myself?

I was a regular church-goer until I turned 15 when I stopped going. My grandfather was the priest, and I always felt that all eyes were on my brother and me whenever we were at the church. I was observed how I sat, how I prayed, what I wore. I was questioned why I am not attending Sunday schools; I was humiliated at the Bible class because I could not prepare enough as I was doing ballet professionally. So I decided, I didn’t need church for me to have a conversation with God. I stopped going to church services but I never stopped believing, and whenever I needed a moment of silence, I would enter any church that had an open door.

Here, as a complete stranger both in town and in the community, I was free. I didn’t need to satisfy anyone.

And then the rabbi arrived. The rabbi was a she. My thoughts took over again; I don’t recall attending any service with a woman priest. She was really casual as she was talking about the injustice in our lives and the Torah. She was great, and I liked how she talked to us as if we would be friends not sitting somewhere ‘below’ her. I remember my church visits as a kid; I always felt it was a theater with hierarchical stands and pitches and grandiose arm movements, and I often needed my father to translate what the talk was really about.

So again, I liked this rabbi.

In the midst of it all, I saw a girl, checking her phone. And not only was she checking her phone, but she was also wearing a mini skirt without tights. And when I say mini, imagine MINI. I wasn’t sure what to do with this picture. Then I turned to the left, and I saw that guy reading something on his phone. I really wanted to tell them, you know guys, we are at a Shabbat service – but of course, I didn’t.

The rabbi left, and frankly, I missed her punch line. I was too occupied with these weird acts and mobile phones during Shabbat that I actually missed the rabbi’s point about the injustice. I really wasn’t proud of myself at this point.

A new song started, and I was so clumsy that I actually opened the Bible upside down and backward. Never mind. I asked my neighbor where we were: “Page 248.” – She said. I go to page 248, but it was clear that we weren’t singing the song I found there. She came to my rescue and said “the other page 248”. If I was even following something until now, I lost it all at this point. What to make of two 248 pages in one book? Later, after the service, I learned that it was one for the Hebrew and one for the English counting. Yeah, not confusing at all.

Then I saw the first woman in a yarmulke. Learned about it, but never saw one before. And then I saw the first man without it.

The rabbi told us to rise. So we all rose. This we do in the church as well, but only if you sit on the ground floor, if you sit on the elevated floors, you don’t stand up. And as my family was always up there, I was rather jealous of those sitting down as I felt they had some special role that they needed to rise.

We started to sing a new song. It was beautiful. I got goosebumps all over my body. Then suddenly people took a 180-degree turn, and from the last row, I became the first and 80 people were looking at me eye to eye. So seeing that this is no game here, I followed the wave diligently, and I turned, now starring at the wall. I assume we turned towards Jerusalem. Correct me if I’m wrong.

The service continued with a prayer to the sick; the rabbi read the names we pray for in the community. Then we prayed for the recently deceased ones. And while due to the page issue, I didn’t find any of the prayers, there was something comforting in the community litany. To tell the truth, Christians do this too.

Before the service ended, we had one more song for a great Shabbat: “Unwind for 25 hours, and welcome Shabbat with love.” – said the rabbi.

And man, that last song broke me down. I saw that old couple holding hands, that mother caressing her son, and I don’t’ know why but tears started to flow on my face. I didn’t only weep, but I really cried. I cried, and I couldn’t care if anyone even sees me. I cried not knowing the why.

I put back the Bible to its place and left the room with everyone else. The same woman who welcomed me now handed me a little plastic glass with a red juice in it. I tried to ask her what this was for, but she was passing by too quickly. There was a short prayer outside of the service room, and then everyone shouted Shabbat Shalom and drank up the liquid. It wasn’t wine, as it would be for a Christian service, and I still don’t know what it meant, but that was the end of my first Jewish Shabbat service.

Then the woman appeared again: “Did you like it?” 

“I loved it.” 

She didn’t answer, and I was wondering again if it was appropriate to say this at all.

Then a guy stepped to me and asked: “Are you new here? You looked a little lost.”

All I could say was: “You have no idea… I’m a Christian.”

“Oh, welcome, it doesn’t matter. Hope to see you soon.”

Can Artists Heal Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Originally published on the Times of Israel on 12/12/2015

To cut it short: I work for Artists 4 Israel, or rather work with them. But it’s not why I write about them. I write because they are on a mission, and I can’t be there. I write because what they do needs to be acknowledged. I write because you need to know they exist.

It is exactly a year ago when I was searching for volunteering opportunities in New York, and for some unexplainable and odd reason, I wanted this opportunity to be related to Israel. I came across this group of artists, called Artists 4 Israel, who find their creative outlet in graffiti – something that I did not necessarily think high of until I visited Tel Aviv and then got hooked on it in the up-and-coming Bushwick, NYC.

I looked them up, checked their projects and reached out to the Executive Director, Craig Dershowitz. A young guy from Brooklyn, whose body – as far as I could tell from the pictures – is filled with tattoos. He represented something I never felt cool enough to belong to.

“But is it OK that I am not Jewish?” – I asked him.

We talked for an hour, and I was bought. He suddenly represented everything that I value. I will spare you my intellectual crush on him – you can reach out to him and be challenged on the spot (I am sure he wouldn’t mind, would you, Craig?) – but I signed up to help him and Artists 4 Israel a good few months ago and my drive is unbroken. (Just think, how cool someone has to be for me to work after my full time job and wanting to spend my free hours helping his projects to come true? You got the point, right?)

Today, Craig and his team are in Israel. It’s not the first time and safe to assume that it’s not the last either. They were born under the Hamas rockets, back in 2009. Since then, they have been to Israel for quite many times with a rich pool of ideas as to how to support the cultural freedoms of Israel through direct social service actions. This is how they ended up beautifying Netanya’s crumbling shuk or rebuilding the communities affected by Hamas’ attacks in Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Kerem Shalom, and Dolev.


Netanya shuk by A4I

The set up is always the same: bring together the world’s greatest artists and without a political agenda take them to Israel and create something for the local community. This apolitical but firm stand for the freedom of art, creativity, and expression creates an extremely strong and bonding community. Artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, get the chance to visit Israel (and no, not only the smoothened tourist paths) and learn more about the real Middle East. After all, they say, you should only believe in what you see.

So these guys come, see and leave with a giant hole in the convenient misconception bubble that we all learn from here and there (yes, I refer to the media).

But there is the other side of this group: the one that puts its efforts to fight PTSD and let me type it out to get the heaviness of it: post-traumatic stress disorder. In children.

I know that if you live in Israel, these words don’t carry the weights anymore as they should, but I never forget the first time I heard: ‘Azaka.’

Today Artists 4 Israel is in the Kibbutz of Kerem Shalom, and as I can’t be there, I asked Craig to tell me more about what they do.

“‘Qassam’ ‘Tzeva Adom (Red Alert)’ those were the first two guesses while playing a warm-up game of Pictionary with children in the Kibbutz of Kerem Shalom on the border of Gaza. There is very little else to say about the fear and suffering of these youth when those are the words of our children.”


Healing Art Kits prepared by A4I supporters in London

Last week Craig and the team called for some enthusiastic manpower in New York to help to pack their Healing Arts Kits, a groundbreaking therapeutic system that helps kids to overcome their fear and reduce stress when things happen. And we all know: they do happen.

“Delivering Healing Arts Kits to every single child in Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Zeelim was our greatest investment. Not only did our art therapy on this trip lift their spirits now but the protective and preventive nature of our Kits will protect them in the future,” continues Craig.

Healing Arts Kits are the result of years of cross-professional work: psychiatrists, emergency first responders, art therapists, artists, teachers, and parents left their experience, know-how, and personal mark on the kits. This time, A4I went to Israel to distribute more of these Kits, and to work with children. The seemingly simple kits are extremely powerful, and I am aware of the messages we get from the United Hatzalah and others saying how the kits work by distracting and calming the kids.

Healing art kits 2

Healing Art Kits in action

If you look at some hard-core facts, you understand that these kits are not for nothing: Over 40% of Israeli children are believed to suffer from some form of PTSD. This number reaches 80% in children living in Israel’s south areas.

“Watching graffiti artists from Tel Aviv join with art therapists from Jerusalem all to help their brothers and sisters on the border of Gaza reminded us that the Israeli people are one; that they are diverse and that they are unconquerable when united.”

As Craig continues, I am reminded once again why I reached out to them and why I wanted to share with you something about this bunch of extravagant artists, who, as I was once told, only look rough on the edges.

Over the years, Artists 4 Israel delivered over 300 kits into schools, homes, and bomb shelters. And while the outpouring love towards and within the A4I community is exceptional, here is why it works: because everything is reciprocal. When I asked Craig what is the one thing he really wants to tell here, he said: “my thank you”.

“Special thanks to Ram, Or and Sol of Tarbut, Spankism and Sunny Souza and our team of art therapists who came out on short notice to assist us led by the passion and expertise of Ariela Robinson. Thank you to Jeff Aeder, his daughter Sadie, Team Daniel and United Hatzalah for having the generosity and vision to make this program a reality.”

This is Craig. This is Artists 4 Israel. A group that actually walks the talk and stands for something we all cherish: Israel.