Ramim 2 Blog

July 13, 2013

By Cynthia Kolko

Our Israeli Partners

Having Skyped and e-mailed with my partner, Ronit, I felt we were already acquainted when we met in person at the hotel in Jerusalem. It was more like a reunion than an introduction.

I must admit to being a little unsure how it would “go down,” in her home, with the family I hadn’t yet met. And I felt bad taking over the eldest daughter’s room. I didn’t want to intrude. But they were all so welcoming and genuinely friendly. We had such interesting and funny conversations over the next few days, much like the ones I’d have with my “peeps” back home.

There was this spearmint that they grew in their yard to put in the tea: delicious, like everything else I tasted in Israel, including the Schwarma (I never prounounced it correctly) on Ben-Yehuda Street. Thanks to fellow Ramim-er Neal for finishing it for me!

Near the end of the program, I truly felt like I had relatives in Israel, and I told Ronit and her family that they always have a home in the U.S.

July 13, 2013

By Cynthia Kolko

Being in Israel, surrounded by Jewish people, culture and history felt foreign and familiar all at once. Our American society at large is not a Jewish one, and I do not live in a very observant home, so immersion in a Jewish environment was a completely new experience. And yet, I felt quite at home being with people like me who celebrate the same holidays we do, follow the same traditions, and with whom I share an ancestral bond. All this in the biblical land from which we hailed over five thousand years ago!

The Kotel on Shabbat

The evening we arrived, We put on our modest clothing and walked through the Arab market to the Kotel, where we split up by gender to enter our designated sections.

I felt a sense of peace standing at the wall, touching the ancient stone. To say I felt connected to the past is too simple a description. It is more apt to say that the past and the present seemed to converge. And in those moments, I became more secure about the future than I had been the previous day; why, I am not sure. Maybe it was an acknowledgment that yes, our people have survived millennia of strife. We are still here, at this wall.

It was difficult to cram the notes from home into the wall’s crevices. More than once, I dislodged someone else’s paper trying to get them in! But I replaced all the ones I displaced, and successfully added my note as well as one each from my sister and mother.

As night drew nearer, the place got more crowded with revelers dancing and chanting, and those solemn individuals praying facing the wall. At one point, the women seemed to try to drown out the men in a sort of joyous competition between the women’s and men’s sections. We ran into some Rochesterian friends in Israel on a women’s tour, and we remarked at how large and small our community, and the world Jewish community, can simultaneously appear.

July 8, 2013

By Cynthia Kolko

From the moment we stepped off the plane, with all the signs in Hebrew, I knew this trip would be something unique to my experience. Merely seeing the language written somewhere other than a siddur, or in a child's lesson book or on the occasional piece of artwork, brought me a feeling of connection to this land, even though my knowledge of Hebrew is scant at best.

But it was not until our group stopped off the road to see a gleaming Jerusalem in the distance that a real sense of belonging came over me. We took a short hike from this vantage that was like walking in history (though the path itself was an ordinary one). "This is ours," I thought. And as diverse a group that world Jewry is, we share this place. It unites us.

June 10 2013

By Cynthia Kolko

One week ago, my brother-in-law, Jeff, and a friend drove to East Rochester to pick up groceries for my twin nephews' birthday celebration. It was taking an awfully long time, so one nephew drove out to the store "to yell at them." What he found was that he, his brother, and their younger sister were now fatherless.

All because a tree fell onto a car. I and so many others are still reeling at what happened. We are struggling to find answers, to explain the inexplicable, to give order to the random, to make sense of that which makes no sense.

I remember Jeff a decade ago, washing his hands before holding our newborn daughter. "She's a delicate organism," he said. We all are. As we are taught, none of us is everlasting. And yet, when faced with proof, we can't believe that it's true. But we are more than organisms, too. We make connections to each other: parents, children, siblings, friends… That we feel loss when one of these connections is broken is to be human.

We also have the ability when the glass is truly half empty, to pour it into a smaller glass and watch it overflow. We can be thankful that the kids have my sister as a mom, and that they have all of us– their family and friends– who care about them. They have themselves: smart, resourceful kids who spread joy and who carry forth all that was good in their father and all that their mother continues to teach them.

People have asked me if I'm afraid to travel to Israel. If I were, I would probably also be afraid to go to Santa Monica, to watch a marathon, or open my mail. I'd be afraid to eat spinach. And I'd be afraid to drive on a street in East Rochester. There are no guarantees to how long each of us is here. But how we choose to live, how we continue forth from adversity, how we find and create positive forces, is something we can succeed at much better than trying to predict tragedy.

Last Friday I did what I hadn't done in a while. I went to Friday night services. I didn't find answers, but I did find friends, familiar songs, and a community. I found connections. It felt good to be there.

June 9 2013

By Cynthia Kolko

We were treated to an amazing Israeli dinner followed by a discussion wherein we threw out questions we would ask our Israeli counterparts. We learned that approximately 80% of Jewish Israelis regard themselves as "secular." By definition, these folks are not religious, they may not go to synagogue or observe many Jewish holidays, and they are generally unconcerned with matters of religious doctrine.

In words, the definition is largely the same for secular Jews here. In practice, of course, we have entirely different challenges because our environments are so different. I suppose it depends on one's chosen community, but this is not a Jewish country, and "secular" and "assimilated" can so often be two sides of the same coin.

Recently, as I shuttled my daughter to a lacrosse game in Palmyra, I drove a little out of the way and passed a sign for Joseph Smith's Sacred Farm. The unassuming log home and grove of trees belied the significance of the place. It's a once-ordinary property, now a holy site sacred to Mormons because of what occurred there.

When I was a girl, a Catholic friend had a tiny wooden cross on her dresser along with a card explaining what it was for. The cross was to be put in one's pocket, so that when the owner removed change or such he would see the cross and remember his religion. The purpose of the cross in the pocket was to take an ordinary event such as paying for something, and infuse it with something sacred.

I have often felt that the laws of Kashrut serve something of the same purpose, that in the midst of the rote tasks of cooking and eating, they are a reminder of one's faith. Indeed, it seems that much of Jewish practice is geared toward bringing holiness around us in our everyday lives. It's about L'Chaim. Similarly, ordinary objects have long provided a means for prayer or reflection. Candlesticks. A cup. It's not the thing itself that is sacred, it's the action it facilitates. It's what happens that makes one farm sacred and the next one just a farm.

It all brings up several questions for our secular Israeli counterparts. How do you remind yourself that you are Jewish while you go about your daily routine? How do you bring a sense of Jewishness to your secular lives? How do you turn the ordinary into something sacred? How do you check the "Jewish" box, and mean it?

May 10 2013

By Cynthia Kolko

Michael Dobkowski, professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, visited the RAMIM 2 group to give a morning-long presentation on the history of the Jewish people. Truly, it was not so much a presentation; tangents, interruptions and questions made it more of a dynamic discussion. It was so riveting that we decided to forego a mid-morning coffee break in favor of keeping the conversation going.

Before now, my own knowledge of Jewish history was mostly comprised of what I learned in religious school: biblical tales, the holocaust, and who Golda Meier was. And it was as each each subject occurred in a silo; I never truly explored Jews' role in what was happening in the world at large, particularly in the common era. Professor Dobkowski helped us to view historical events and movements through the lens of the Jewish people, thereby illuminating how these events helped create who we are as modern Jews.

He drew connections between key points in world history and those in Jewish history, such as the how the mercantilist/industrial revolution allowed Jewish economic participation, yet created a backlash that continually wreaks negative consequences for Jews. We learned the importance of the distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-semitism— that beliefs can be changed, but race is a circumstance of birth that cannot be changed— which often meant the difference between oppression and genocide. The presentation has spurred me to want to learn more about Jewish history, not just regarding politics and so on, but also in areas such as the arts and literature.

Of course, learning from the past is not the same as living in the past. Through understanding the "how" and "why" of our history, both the tragic and triumphant, we can positively impact our actions today. And those connections to the past help us connect to each other. I could not help but tie a thread from the past to my personal present, as I imagine most in the room did. How we got to be here in Rochester– by way of various countries and situations, through thousands of years history– and share a common identity as Jews, is nothing short of inspirational.

April 15 2013

By Cynthia Kolko

I am honored to have been chosen to participate in the Rochester Jewish Federation's eleven-member RAMIM 2 program. The prospect of exploring Jewish issues both here and in Israel with our Israeli counterparts, and simultaneously representing our community, is simply thrilling.

In February, ten of the RAMIM2 "chevarim" met over bagels and caffeinated beverages to get acquainted with the program and each other. As we introduced ourselves, the diversity of the group emerged; we have varying degrees of Jewish observance (in the traditional sense) and community involvement, and as one of the aims of the program, we will learn in the coming months how differently or similarly we define ourselves as Jewish people. A testament to how intertwined we are as a community: I am not ultra-involved in local Jewish activities, nor do I have a large Jewish peer group, yet I knew many of the people in the room personally, and most of the others were familiar in that I knew a sibling, spouse or such.

As a way to get to know each other and get a taste of how our perspectives may differ from those of our Israeli counterparts, we were asked to jot down our most important "Jewish" life moments. Most of our milestones were similar to those of last year's RAMIM participants– a child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah for instance– while last year's Israelis' answers (Our Israeli group hadn't yet been selected) were largely about military service.

At the second meeting, we started the exercise of "life mapping," where we each drew a chart of key points in our lives that, either by virtue, misfortune or plain happenstance, helped fuel whatever leadership skills we may possess today. I haven't presented my life map yet, but a common thread of most of the maps presented seemed to be the feeling of being a minority or somehow outside the greater American experience (whatever each perceived that to be) because of one's Jewish identity. It's this shared experience, coupled with a shared heritage, that is fueling a certain camaraderie within the group.