Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Shabbat Across Okinawa

Dear Siddur Sim Shalom,
It’s called transliteration. You should try it some time.
Respectfully yours,
Rabbi Yonatan M. Warren, LTJG, CHC, USN

The Jewish community here has been lay-led for more-or-less a couple of years. There was a rabbi who was here for a couple of months, but overall they were maintained by a “military appointed lay-leader.” As such, they used the Gates of Prayer.

I hate the Gates of Prayer – even the slim version. I take that back, I strongly dislike praying out of the Gates. Theologically, religiously, and linguistically – it just doesn’t work for me. One of the awesome things about being a military rabbi is that whichever book I say we use is the book that we use (as long as we have them in stock – and I can order any book for prayer purposes). Unfortunately, my current options are the Artscroll Interlinear with Transliteration (which causes migraines in lab rats), the Gates of Gray, and Sim Shalom. I chose my main man, Mr. Shalom.

Every other part of my first Shabbat on the island went pretty well. The chaplain in charge of all of the base chapels (a really nice captain who came in with big hugs for everyone – like an older, darker, Christian version of Jesse Olitzky) met with me first and then introduced me to the congregation. A little more than a minyan showed up (not bad for a holiday weekend) and we sang Shalom Aleichem. But then – L’chu Neran’na (no transliteration), Shiru Ladonai (no transliteration). We skipped and I tried Mizmor L’david (total bust). We had some traction with some of the other songs, but I just felt that with a little transliteration we could have been rocking.
Things that were awesome about the Jewish chapel: 1) The RP (Religious Program Specialist or Shamash with a gun) was hardcore about making the Jewish prayer space better. 2) There was a cute baby who was running around and having a good time. 3) People didn’t mind singing in tune or out of tune. 4) One of the congregants makes a pretty solid challah that I enjoyed eating very much. And 5) my d’var torah connecting the transitional patriarch (Isaac) to transitional moments in the community (in particular to transitioning from layled to a rabbi) to the holiness that can be found especially in liminal moments (see candles to mark Shabbat, ceremonies to mark beginnings of adulthood and marriage, etc. etc.). I think it was awesome; Leora can make her own comments below if she so chooses.
For the coming shabbatot, I think we’re going to use a lot of the siddur that I spent my entire summer compiling and editing (“The Siddur for Jewish Armed Forces Personnel”), and hopefully that will make things better on the prayerbook front.
I’m still nervous about the coming weeks: fitting in to my actual job, fitting in the Jewish community, making enough time for myself and my wife. But, I think it was a good first step. This week, there is going to be a big welcome event for me and Leora (and I’m also making it an appreciation dinner for the layleader). I think more people will be around, and I’ll have to raise the caliber of my game. But, for one week – I’m pretty happy.

Some other things happened this week: we got an apartment, we bought a car, we made some friends, and we discovered at least one really good (and affordable) restaurant. But none of that is as important as how my first Shabbat went.
Also, this is already too long for a blog post and we want to keep you thirsting for more. Leora will write about the rest of that stuff sometime soon. So for now, Shabbat Shalom and Sayonara.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Living in two places at once

Last week, Yoni and I (along with assorted family members) went out for Vegetarian Dim-Sum in Chinatown.  Getting off the train at Grand St was kind of an experience – the station was packed, everyone was pushing me, and Yoni and I were the only white people there. I was totally overwhelmed – even more so when I realized that my next two years might well feel exactly like standing on that subway platform. All I could think was, what am I getting myself into? After having spent about half a week in Okinawa, I can honestly say that I don't feel like we’re standing on the Grand St subway platform. But I also don’t feel like we’re living in America. 
Let me back up a bit. As we stood on the check-in line at JFK, it became immediately apparent to Yoni and me, as well as to my family, that we were the ONLY non-Asian people on the (very full) flight. (Eventually we discovered an Indian family and one man Yoni says was Colombian, but – you get the idea.) It was certainly a strange feeling, but between the super personalized entertainment systems, unlimited free wine and beer, and haagen dazs ice cream for dessert, we were not complaining. And hey – by the time we got off the flight in Tokyo we were already good at saying “thank you” in Japanese!

The domestic terminal of Tokyo/Narita airport boasted many more Americans (mostly in the form of Marines on their way to Okinawa), but many fewer American amenities. I’ve already written about the seeming perils of hot coffee in a can. And when I went online to check on our blog from the airport, the blogger website came up in Japanese! And so I began to adjust to the feeling of being in two places at once.

And that’s kind of what living here feels like. On the one hand, when you’re on one of the 13 or so military installations “on island” (that’s how they say it here), it feels largely like America. Of course, cars are still coming from the wrong direction and there are many Japanese phrases being thrown around, but overall, any one of these bases could pass for America in a pinch. On the other hand, the second you step off base (whether to travel to a different base or to explore the local neighborhoods or to visit the 100-Yen store) you are immediately reminded that you are NOT living in America. Everything is in Japanese. Gas prices make no sense (Yen and liters is a bad combination). Speed limits are slow. Road signs are foreign. But with all that and more, you figure out how to get by. Because what other choice is there?

Yoni and I are lucky that the other chaplains of the 3rd Marine Logistics Group are welcoming and helpful and happy to help us run our endless errands and chauffer us around the island. Their assistance has been invaluable this week as we try to figure out how to get settled – setting up phones, getting drivers licenses, buying a car, finding a place to live, going grocery shopping – here on Okinawa. Though we have made good strides this week, I have a feeling that really getting settled will take more than a week.

Tonight is Yoni’s first Shabbat service with the Jewish community. I’m sure that you’ll hear more about his progress in that aspect of his job in the coming weeks. But while you’re finishing up your turkey dinners and going to bed with (hopefully) full stomachs, Yoni and I are beginning preparations for our first Shabbat on island. So, from us to you (or, as my sister Talya says, from the future): Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach! 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Photo series #1

There is SO much to write about this week…I need at least until tomorrow to get my thoughts together! But in the meantime, here are some pictures to give you a taste of what’s going on here. 

Desperately seeking caffeine in the Tokyo airport, Yoni and I had to resort to what were essentially Latte juiceboxes! They seemed safer than the other popular Japanese option, hot coffee in a can. For real.

Some of you might know that soon after I found out we were coming to Japan, I read a very interesting and totally terrifying book about an American teacher's experience in rural Japan. She spent a lot of time talking about how she was constantly sorting her trash and recycling in the wrong ways. Seeing as this is an airport recycling bin (look at all those options!), I am pretty sure that she wasn't kidding about how confusing it can be!

After arriving at 10pm (2200 hours that is) on Monday evening, Yoni and I were picked up the next morning at 0845 so that he could check in with his new command. Here is the complete uniform shot...

...and here's a smile.

Our temporary lodging is on Camp Foster, but here is a shot of Camp Kinser (where the 3rd Marine Logistics Group, Yoni's command, is located). You can see the ocean in the distance, and get a sense for what things look like around here.

I absolutely could not believe they had pareve margarine in the commissary!! This bodes well for my pareve baking...and helps me to not regret the decision to ship two boxes full of TJ's chocolate chips. :)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thoughts on Leaving

I think this is really going to happen.

Three months ago, I thought we would be leaving any day.  Two months ago, I thought we would be leaving any day.  Last month, I thought we would never leave.  And as of yesterday, I know that we will be leaving Sunday.

People have asked me how I am feeling about leaving, and the answer is that I’m thrilled and nervous, excited and antsy.  I’ve had pretty horrible insomnia as a result of the emotional rollercoaster – and so I’m edgy on top of everything else.

While most of my classmates have been working for months at their new positions, I have been sitting around living the good life.  Leora and I checked off a lot of boxes on our NYC bucket-list, and we ate a lot of Kosher meat.  I think those days are coming to a close really soon.

I’m starting my full-time rabbinate for the first time next Monday.  For the first time in my life, I’m going to be ministering, pastoring, rabbi-ing (choose the correct verb) full-time.  No classes.  No internships.  Just me and a bunch of Marines (oo-rah). 

It’s lonely: or at least I anticipate loneliness.  Thank God (and I do every day) that Leora is coming with me.  Without her love and companionship, I could never do this.  But, I still, as a rabbi, I feel alone.

When I started rabbinical school, I came in with 2 of my closest friends.  I knew that whatever school threw at me, it would probably hit Steve first (because his last name begins with A) and if Josh got involved, the person causing the problem would probably be so flustered that by the time he got to me, he would simply give up.  But more than being friends, they were my chavrutot (study buddies).  Josh and I were chavruta for Prof. Herzberg’s Miqraot Gedolot (and we rocked it).  Steve and I were chavruta for Prof. Diamond’s Mekhina Talmud (and it was awesome).  I made great friends, and formed outstanding chavrutot in rabbinical school.  Who’s going to be my chavrutah now?  Sure we can skype, but is that the same?

My mentors – the rabbis who have guided me through life, through rabbinical school, through internships – will be on the other side of the world.   I imagine that if I were in a pickle as a congregational rabbi that I would call Craig Scheff or Arthur Weiner in a second; I’d pump out an e-mail to any of the past and present rabbis of Rodef Sholom (Gilah Dror, David Booth, Neil Scheindlin, Steven Lindemann) and within the hour somebody would give me a response. V’ein tzarich lomar (Talmudic for, “Duh”), Gerry Skolnik.  Now they can respond…FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD!  From a different world: one where camouflage goes in and out of style.

It’s daunting.  It’s scary.  It’s challenging.  I’m excited, but I could also use some sleep.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

How did we get here?

Many of you have heard bits and pieces of this story, but, for the sake of clarity, Yoni and I thought it would be best to begin our blog with a brief summary of our experience to date. But where to start?

All rabbinical students are required to do a chaplaincy rotation, in the name of training. Most choose to do theirs in a hospital. Yoni, having grown up in a military family, decided to serve as a chaplain candidate in the Navy Reserves. The training program came with no strings attached, no commitment after school, no requirements really except a summer spent in Officer Development School and Chaplain School. But even so, Yoni always planned to remain in the Reserves even after taking a pulpit.

By the time the 5th and last year of rab school rolled around, two things had changed. First, Yoni had become more excited about the idea of doing a stint of full time Navy chaplaincy; and second, the job market for newly-graduated rabbis had taken a turn for the worse. Now, to know me is to know that moving around constantly is not my idea of a good time. (Actually, in high school, I used to tell my parents that, if they moved, I would not be going with them.) That being said, Yoni and I were relatively easily sold on the idea and the adventure of spending 3 years in locations unknown, and Yoni put the necessary wheels in motion on the Navy side. Our only caveat was that we were not interested in going to Japan. We were assured that would not be an issue.

Of course, the night before Yoni was scheduled to sign the papers committing him to three years of service, we found out that we would, in fact, be going to Okinawa. We also found out that we’d be leaving in October, not August, as we had previously believed and prepared for. Having quit my job in June to prep for our August move, I was more than a little flummoxed but this turn of events. But, as I quickly realized, there was absolutely nothing I could do. So I tried (and continue to try) to adopt a go-with-the-flow attitude, and to be as good a sport as I could about everything. It's a good thing I learned that lesson early on!

The rest of our summer was spent endlessly pursuing my “area clearance”, military ID, medical clearance, and all sorts of other bureaucratic stuff. By October, it finally seemed like all of the pieces were finally going to fall into place. My clearance was in process (despite a snafu involving decades-old encryptions), the first shipment of our belongings had already arrived in Okinawa, and the day we assumed we were leaving was approaching. However, we then found out that the application for my diplomatic passport had been misfiled by the post office, and had to be re-submitted. And, although I am in possession of a brand new (regular) passport, I apparently would absolutely not be allowed to leave without the other one. And so we were delayed again.

This past week (it’s November, mind you), things finally started falling into place. We received word from Okinawa that I had FINALLY been cleared, and we heard from the people Yoni works with in CT that my passport exists and is on its way to Forest Hills. So it really seems like we might be leaving within the next week or so.

So where does that leave Yoni and me? We are, of course, excited and scared. We’ve also been preparing for this moment for such a long time that we’re both pretty reluctant to believe it might actually be happening. I know I won’t believe it until we actually get on the plane. Whenever it happens, though, I am pretty sure that eventually we WILL get on a plane and end up in the sub-tropical Okinawan climate, where I’m sure more adventures (bureaucratic and otherwise) await. Thank you all for your support and encouragement so far. We’ll try to post here once a week or so to keep you all up-to-date. Stay tuned…