Saturday, March 30, 2013

lessons learned

When I made the decision to go to Barnard, there was an internal proviso that went along with it: I would work at getting out of my “Jewish bubble”, not only hanging out with Jewish people or being involved in Hillel-related groups. Those of you who know me well know that my life until that point had been almost entirely contained within the (very large) New York area sphere of Jewish influence. Barnard, with its large population of frum New York girls (women!), might not seem an obvious location to start such a journey, but there it was.

And, largely, I was successful. While I didn’t run away from being Jewishly involved, I did “think outside the box” when it came to building relationships. During my first year, eating in the Hewitt dining hall, I got my first taste of many many conversations to come where I would try to explain Judaism to people who had never spoken to Jews before. It was what I am fond of calling a broadening experience, to say the least. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I needed broadening not only outside the Jewish community, but also within it. 

When I met Elissa, I was, like so many other good Jewish kids from North America, studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Ok, so that wasn’t such a bold choice – but I had always wanted to spend a semester in Jerusalem.) As we got to know each other, having long talks on the lawns at Hebrew U or in her dorm room, a number of things became clear to me. First, Elissa was special – there were no two ways about it. She was smart and kind and incisive and funny. Second, it was clear that Elissa knew where she was going in life. Third, and finally, Elissa modeled a kind of Judaism I had never encountered before - she was a Reform Jew who was committed to her faith.

I’m sure this is a terrible thing to say out loud, but, until I encountered Elissa, I didn’t really know that there were committed Reform Jews. Ok, maybe I understood they existed in an intellectual way, but I had never seen any real-life evidence. In my mind, people became Reform Jews when they wanted to maintain some sort of Jewish identity but were no longer interested in regularly attending services or feeling beholden to Jewish law. Let’s just say Elissa showed me the error of my ways on that one. She described to me an entire subculture of Reform kids who sounded identical to the Conservative kids I grew up with – they went to camp, belonged to youth groups, got together for Shabbat. They believed in Judaism, were committed to Israel and social justice, and some of them grew up to be rabbis – as Elissa very much wanted to. As elemental as it might seem, Elissa helped me understand that mine was not the only valid form of Judaism to practice, nor were my methods of celebration and observance the only real or meaningful ones. 

These lessons have been especially important to me in my life here in Okinawa. Yoni is the only rabbi on our tiny island (in the entire WestPac region, really), so Jews who are looking for connection and religion and counsel come to him. It has been something of a struggle for both of us to adapt our practices to meet the needs this community, and I think it always will be. But whenever we get it right, I think of Elissa, how she inspired me with her passion, and how she taught me to accept everyone’s opinions and feelings about Judaism as valid. More specifically: thanks to her, I was really able to enjoy our community Seder this past week. Sure – it was short, and crazy, and maybe not like any Seder I had ever been to before (although that’s not really a fair metric) – but it created a point of religious and social connection and provided the all-important Passover nostalgia factor. 85 people, Jews and non-Jews alike, got together to celebrate the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. So we didn’t use a lot of Hebrew, or sing all the songs I grew up singing – who cares?! We took a different path, but we arrived at the same place: positive religious feeling. Whether she knew it or not, Elissa helped me get to a place where I could happily embrace this feeling of “different as ok.”

Unfortunately, thinking of Elissa during our Seder was bittersweet. Last week, just before the beginning of Passover, Elissa’s family and friends lost her to a six-and-a-half year battle with Nodular Sclerosing Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She was 29. She never made it to Rabbinical School (though she had been accepted to HUC), but she certainly spent her life inspiring others with her passion for social justice and Democratic politics, her commitment to Judaism, and her love for her friends. I know that I was lucky to have been a part of her life, and I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that her memory will be for a blessing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

On Friday, the Rabbi Invoked St. Patrick

Military Engineers Love St. Patrick’s Day.

They make up some excuse about St. Patrick building churches that were fortresses for those who were being persecuted.  Nobody is buying it. 

Real reason: Many of the early 20th century’s military engineers were Irish.  And many military engineers like to drink.  And thus we celebrate.

As the Commanding General for the Marine Logistics Group is a combat engineer, there was an uproarious gathering of officers on Saturday night to celebrate the weekend.  To say that there were more than a few men wearing kilts would be an understatement; but what really surprised me were the number of shillelaghs present at this gathering. (see:

But what really makes the combat engineer celebration of St. Patrick is the “Field Meet”.  Last week, combat engineers from 9th ESB (my Marines), the Marine Wing Support Squadron (Marines), the Combat Assault Battalion (Marines), the Seabees (Navy), the Red Horse Squadron (Air Force), and the Combat Engineer Battalion (Air Force) met on the field of battle to figure out who was the best.

While we were able to avoid actual combat, the games seemed to be a hybrid of the Highland games (or whatever the Irish equivalent is), Redneck Olympics, Jewish Camp Yom Sports and military weirdness.

There was, of course, tug-of-war and a classic relay race.

There was also a 4x400 relay – but where the racers had to wear full MOP gear (nuclear, biological, chemical weapons protective clothing) and gas masks.

We had an Iron-Man relay: as a 5 member team, each group did 200 pull-ups, 300 pushups, 300 sit-ups, and then a half mile run carrying 20 gallons of water.  Only a few (cough, cough Air Force cough, cough) servicemembers threw up as a result.

I was in the 15-person 7-ton pull (think a tractor pull, but with a massive military truck).

There were feats of engineering and softball matches, with the whole day culminating in a chariot race (what else?); each battalion/squadron designed a chariot and pulled their senior officer with a team of six personnel.

I can tell you that the invocation was powerful and motivational.  The morale was high; but 9th ESB got cheated.  Pictures will hopefully be posted later. And while this week has been crazy with Passover Prep – I look to days like the Field Meet and I know: It’s really nice to have a job like this.

Friday, March 15, 2013

jumbo sunshine

Imagine the loudest room you’ve ever been in - - then triple it. That is what the inside of Jumbo Sunshine (a Pachinko parlor) sounds like.

For those of you who have not spent copious amounts of time in Okinawa, Pachinko is a gambling-style game involving machines. Even though I spent about 40 minutes “playing” with Yoni and Margot this past week, that’s still about as much as I understand. Suffice it to say that it’s a form of gambling which is HUGE in Okinawa (no, gambling isn’t legal here). I once counted 13 Pachinko parlors on the 35 minute drive to my apartment from the airport.

How do you recognize a Pachinko parlor? Well, they’re hard to miss. Just look for the gaudiest, bawdiest, brightest, biggest, neon-ist building on the block.

Because Pachinko is such a thing here, and because the buildings are so crazy looking from the outside, Yoni has always been interested in doing an exploratory Pachinko trip. He was never able to convince me to go on a Pachinko date, but with Margot here it seemed like the perfect time for an adventure!

And an adventure it was. First of all, the aforementioned noise. I'm really not exaggerating. When the sliding doors opened, a veritable wave of sound washed over us. It was, shall we say, overwhelming. After walking in, we picked a machine and sat down. A kindly Japanese attendant saw us staring blankly and confusedly on the machines and brought over the “English” instructions. (English is in quotation marks because, though the words were recognizable, they were not grouped in any known English sentence structure.)

Even after we figured out how to get the game going, though, the whole experience was still pretty mysterious. Small silver balls went into and came out of the machine a lot, and we had to twist a knob back and forth. We managed to collect many silver balls (the Japanese man told us at least three times that we were “very lucky”) and then decided, after about 45 minutes, that our heads would explode if we didn’t get out of there. And we won some money! So - - it was a successful, if strange, evening. But I’m pretty sure I can speak for all three of us when I say that we’ll never feel the need to do that again.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Pictures of You, Pictures of Me

Pictures of me were posted on Facebook…without my permission.  Not really a news story, but I was very upset.

I have a friend who does intelligence and hates that people can take his picture and put in anywhere without his permission.  He hates it even more when his name is tagged.  To be fair, he has an extreme James Bond complex and is certain that any picture of him will help Dr. No identify him.  I get that.  I, too, am a fan of 007.

But, my picture problem was a religious issue.

Prior to life cycle events, I ask families to avoid taking pictures in synagogue. 

Why?  Like most Conservative rabbis, I have a problem with the many halakhic implications of film photography; and as a person who does not like electricity on Shabbat, I have no love for digital either.  I run a Conservative standard for a community that includes Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

Additionally – and perhaps more importantly, flash photography is annoying when you are trying to create a spiritual moment.  For me, the simple answer is just don’t take pictures now.  For others, the answer is to take pictures covertly so that the rabbi doesn’t notice.

I, however, forgot to give the shpiel.

We had a semi-Bar Mitzvah this past weekend.  One of our youths turned 13 and can now be counted in a minyan.  I gave him an aliyah.  I refused to call it a Bar Mitzvah because the boy was not even close to prepared.  He will have another Bar Mitzvah on a date to be named later.  But because I was doing everything to make sure we had a Saturday morning minyan while maintaining this was not a thing, I forgot to tell people not to take pictures.  Chaval.

Within hours, the facebook page of the Jewish Community of Okinawa had me from three different camera positions.  There were definitely some flashes in the room.  And a couple shots that were really unflattering.

But my biggest problem was a religious issue.  Pictures were taken and there is nothing I can do about that, but I do not condone such activity nor do I want it to happen again.  So I asked the parties to take the pictures down.

[Insert expletive] I offended somebody.

We worked it out because we actively sought to understand each other’s positions and because we are cordial beings.  But it got dicey in there.  I was certain that I was going to lose another congregant or two.  But all is good.

The pictures are down.  But Passover (another photo-op) is on the horizon… (just 2 weeks away!!)

Finally, to close the previous saga in my life: I have passed my oral boards for the Fleet Marine Force Qualification, and now I’m a real Chaplain to Marines.  Very little has changed, but I should soon have some nice swag (a big shiny pin) so I will be happy.  I’m still freaking out, but about other things now (see above).

Friday, March 1, 2013

adventures at the post office

I know Yoni and I usually use this space to deliver snippets of our life in Okinawa, but – even though I am back in Okinawa as of a couple of days ago – I had such a simultaneously funny and frustrating experience at the Forest Hills Post Office last week that I promised my mom I would put it on the blog. So, Ema, here you go.

Let me back up. Growing up in the Skolnik house, it was easy to get in trouble for saying the “P word” at exactly this time of year. With Passover still a reasonable number of weeks away, everyone is trying to pretend it’s not coming while still vaguely (not yet frantically) preparing. At great personal expense, though, my mom broke her own rule about using the P word to help me (and Yoni, in absentia) start thinking about Pesach - our first together in our own home since we’ve been married. This is a big milestone on its own, but when you think about making your first Pesach (and hosting your first Seder) in Okinawa – well, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. At least, it was easy for me.

So, my mom and I set out on a mission to at least push me in the right direction. First stop? Amazing Savings, obviously, for the very cheap and hopefully reliable-enough kitchen supplies one needs when trying to replicate an entire kitchen. Our second stop was Aron’s where, despite the misleading signs outside, the Pesach section was not yet open. Serious bummer – even though I managed to raid a few cabinets at home and find some food stuff to send to Okinawa.

As you might imagine, all of this shopping lead to a serious accumulation of stuff that would need to be boxed and shipped. (Fortunately/ Unfortunately, I had already done a lot of other shopping which precluded me from being able to squeeze too much extra stuff into my luggage.) After we got home from the supermarket, my mom and I got almost everything boxed up in the (not-big-enough) military flat-rate boxes – five in total – so that I could take them to the post office the next morning.

Now, I have sent a fair share of packages from the post office in Okinawa, and I am quite familiar with the drill: bring your package to the post office, fill out the appropriate customs form, stand on line to wait for a representative, etc. What I was not prepared for was the fact that the Forest Hills Post Office does not provide pens. I know, I know – every reasonably prepared woman should carry a pen in her pocketbook. But – I don’t always do that. Instead, I put on my best smile and very politely asked the woman standing across the table from me, “Excuse me, have you got an extra pen that I could use?” This was her response:

“NO I don’t have an extra pen you can use. You want to go to the post office? You have to bring your own pen. That’s the way it works. I’m sure this isn’t your first trip to the post office. What’s that? You live in Japan? Well, maybe out there they’re nice enough to give you pens. But if you want to go to the post office in New York City you’ve got to look after yourself. There are no free pens here. And even if I had an extra one, I wouldn't lend it to you.”


Nobody looked up during the woman’s diatribe, so I assumed there was no one there who would be willing to lend me a pen, and walked out of the post office in search of one. Luckily, the nice woman in the shipping store down the street let me stand there with my bubbe cart full of boxes and use one of her pens to fill out my five lengthy and annoying customs forms.

Twenty minutes later I re-entered the post office, determined to finally get these boxes in the mail. After only about 10 minutes on line, I was called over to a window. When I told the man standing on the other side of the bullet-proof glass that I had five flat-rate boxes to ship, he said, “Seriously? Five?!” and proceeded to spend the next ten minutes complaining to everyone else behind the glass about how annoyed he was that I had five boxes, and how he wouldn't be able to do anything else for a long time because I had presented him with SUCH a hard and annoying job. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the USPS is currently in a certain measure of financial trouble. Don’t you think he should have been thanking me for shipping five boxes?!

Anyway, it was quite the morning, and a completely New York experience for me to take back to Okinawa. Truth be told, I almost enjoyed it. Most of the time I am very happy with the generally polite nature of the Japanese people, but every once in a while it’s good to have a hit of gold old fashioned New York craziness.