Friday, January 31, 2014

Building and building

Before reading this, I’m feeling pumped today.  Good Torah day.  Good counseling day (lots and lots of counseling day).  Good follow-ups to good work being done.  And.  Lunch was delicious.

I've been thinking about the act of building all day.  It's the 18th anniversary (L'chaim) of my Bar Mitzvah (Terumah), and for the first time in six months I will be sharing words of Torah at the Okinawa Jewish Community Chapel.  Terumah is almost entirely about the building of the Tabernacle in the desert: building a home for the nomadic people of the Exodus narrative to be with God.  I don't think the analogy needs to be spelled out further, it pretty much screams "darsheini" (rabbinic for "sermonize about me!"; add Pete Seeger's death/"If I had a Hammer" to the equation and a rabbi can't avoid talking about building this shabbat). 

When I got to Okinawa two years ago, I spent way too much time trying to rebuild the chapel.  The infrastructure was in place (more or less), and the personnel were present.  But lacking any pass down from my predecessor and never really on good footing with the lay-leader, I often felt like I was building a Jewish community from scratch.  We did programs from scratch.  We dismantled Friday night and restarted from scratch.  We literally changed the layout and walls of the space.  It was a complete rebuild job.  That is not to say that the community was replete of natural resources, but its certainly a lonelier place to be a Jew than the Upper West Side (or even Hampton, VA).  And there was work to be done.

In rabbinical school, we talk about building communities based on vision.  When I look back on it now, it seems less like building and more like bulldozing.  Not exactly visionary leadership based on the Torah portion, but not a bad deal when you look at the haftarah.  In the haftarah, Solomon builds the Temple.  Not a temple nor a fixed tabernacle.  He builds THE Temple for an extended period of time.  To do so he uses the finest materials and builds upon a solid foundation.  The foundation is just as necessary as the building.

I like to think, I cleared the foundation for some serious building.  Not for me, but for the future of military personnel in Okinawa.   This week, I had a major sit-down with Rabbi Creditor.  As it is looking like I will be at sea during Passover, we wanted to sit down and talk about Pesach needs and how the seder runs.  When I first got here, I had to make serious compromises just to keep from having a completely treif seder.  There were hurt feelings; there were overlooked rituals.  The fights are behind us now.  The bumps are cleared.  The transition from completely lay-led community to rabbinic-led community - striving continually to rise in holiness and never decline - is pretty much complete. 

This week, I felt for the first time, that the work being done here isn’t just an ad-hoc mess.  I felt like I was watching something really permanent take root.  It was a good week.

Speaking of Pete Seeger, I think his hand is on my wife's back.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Well, it’s cherry blossom season again here in Okinawa, which always tells me that (shockingly) spring is just around the corner. (No, I’m not trying to make you all jealous of our sub-tropical weather.) But as much as I love the Nago Cherry Blossom Festival (as evidenced by this video I made a couple of years ago), I think Yoni and I will skip it this year. Too much of a good thing, you know?

At any rate, talk of this weekend’s upcoming festival gives me the perfect opportunity to share some photos I took last year. These were taken in Tokyo and Okinawa; I happened to catch cherry blossom season in both places in 2013. Lucky me! 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Field Exercise

It wouldn’t be January if one of my Marines didn’t find someway to get the entire battalion put on lock-down.  No drinking.  No civilian attire.  No fun.

But here’s the thing: beginning the day after the restrictions, we began Combat Logistics Battalion Exercise (CLB-EX). From Monday until Friday, the entire battalion picked up their packs and moved into two-man tents at Kin Blue Beach.

Kin Blue is the hidden gem of Camp Hansen and Okinawa’s Central Training Area.  Most of the major assault exercises take place on its sandy shores, and it is an outstanding terrain model for beach to jungle assault.  But it is also just beautiful out there: the tropical blue green sea, the gentle lapping of the waves from the bay, the sunrises.  It is like a Corona commercial…but without the beer, and with a lot more work.

In rows of tents, we bivouacked for the week (look it up, it’s a real word).  The food service guys set up kitchens; the engineers desalinated and purified water. The Marines practiced for Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (when the ambassador looks out his window, realizes that it’s time to get the heck out, and calls the Marines), theoretical Humanitarian Assistance missions, and Nightingale missions (where we send more doctors and corpsmen to the site of mass-casualty to run real life Grey’s Anatomy scenarios).  Bonus: on the Nightingale, I got to ride in a CH-53 Heavy Lift Helicopter!

The Marines and Sailors performed astonishingly well.  And they did it all while fending off our base camp from enemy combatants (other Marines in different uniforms), keeping themselves dry (we were on Okinawa, after all), and the regular craziness that is daily life in the Marine Corps.

Good times.

Honestly, I hope that we don’t find ourselves doing any of these missions in the coming year that I will be with CLB; we should find ourselves in a world where this kind of stuff is unnecessary except for training.  But if it should happen, we’re ready.  I’m ready.  Let’s do it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

the weddiversary

This weekend, Yoni and I attended a “Weddiversary.” To make a long story short, a couple in the Jewish community was celebrating their 20th anniversary and decided, since they had never had any kind of official wedding celebration, to combine an anniversary party with an – admittedly late – wedding ceremony.

Now, this would not necessarily be fodder for the blog, except for the fact that this is a mixed Jewish/Okinawan couple  who is very into the idea of creating their own rituals. As a result the Weddiversary (their term, not mine) was a strange and interesting blending of cultures and traditions.

There was a huppah.

The bride circled the groom seven times.

The ceremony was presided over by the couples’ two teenaged sons (ok, that’s not a tradition that belongs to either culture, but I though it was interesting – and adorable).

There was a sake tasting ceremony called San San Kudo.

Contemporary translations of the Sheva Brachot were recited.

After the glass was broken, there were both traditional Jewish and Okinawan dancing.

(There was even an old lady who did a dance with a sword!)

While the Weddiversary was a slightly strange experience, though, I’m not really writing about it for your collective amusement. Mostly, I respect what our friends tried to do with their ceremony/party (and how that is reflected in their everyday lives); they took elements from each of their cultures and brought them together the best way they know how. I think we all know that the decision to live a blended life is not always a smooth or uncomplicated one, but given that, and given how often I hear about differences tearing people apart, it’s sometimes nice to see an example of a family made stronger by their differences.

Plus – who doesn’t love a party?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Zayt mir moykhl! Redt ir Terp-ish?

My mother forwards me the Terrapin Alumni Magazines that regularly arrive in their mailbox in Virginia; one of the few perks of paying my alumni dues to the University of Maryland.  It is definitely not the most brilliant thing gracing the top of my toilet tank (that would be Lilith Magazine), but it beats Entertainment Weekly.

I think the theory behind the magazine is that I will see all the wonderful things that my school is currently doing, and be so enthralled that I send them money.  I don’t do that.  That would be crazy.  Besides, they already got enough money from me. 

But I do get a warm feeling that my school was a good choice.  And sometimes, we all need warm fuzzy feelings to radiate from our diplomas.

I was recently on an interview panel, and one of the candidates for a job listed that he was a graduate of the University of Maryland.  Though awkwardly worded, he noted the location of the school was College Park.  I was so excited!  

I wanted to let him know he had an in with one of the interviewers so I asked a friendly question about his time in College Park.

Like Gene Wilder as Eastern European Rabbi in the Frisco Kid, I wanted to scream out “Landsman!” upon seeing my peer group in the middle of nowhere.  But like Gene Wilder’s character, the response I got dumfounded me.  Amish people are not rabbis.  UMUC (University of Maryland University College) Graduates aren’t UMCP graduates.  This guy went to UMUC entirely while living in Okinawa.

I might be a snob. 

I’m not sure what to do with UMUC students and graduates.  I like that people are sending money to my favorite alma-mater (I list it above my graduate school), but I have personal angst with the program – or at least what I’ve seen of it out here.  While I have significantly more respect for UMUC than I do a lot of distance education programs, I struggle with my need for warm-fuzzies off my diploma.

Students at UMUC didn’t stand by the mailbox casting spells to make sure that the acceptance letter from their school of choice was in the affirmative. The academics are not as rigorous, and the professors don’t take delight in crushing the religious and philosophical beliefs of their students.    The camaraderie of standing in the middle of US Rte 1 yelling obscenities at the fuzz doesn’t exist in their world. They never submitted their name for a lottery to see a game that they didn’t want to see in hopes of getting a Duke-UMD ticket, never stepped foot in Cole Field House, never were issued free shirts from Chevy Chase Bank at a football game.

Many of them did other awesome things.  Like fight in wars and save the Phillipines from a series of horrible typhoons… But they didn’t go to “Maryland.”  It doesn’t make them bad people (unless they falsify a resume), but it doesn’t make them Terps.

Leora says I’m definitely a snob; she’s probably right.  I think I’m just protective of my warm fuzzies.