Sufi spirituality transcends religious borders in the Holy Land

JERUSALEM — Wearing a full and graying beard, khaki trousers and a woolen vest, 66-year-old Ya’cub ibn Yusuf puttered around his little shop. Sufi-inspired sounds played by an Israeli musician piped from the speakers above. “Spiritual Books for Sale,” read the sign outside the door.

A middle-aged Orthodox woman wearing a colorful headscarf milled about the shelves of books on Sufism, Kabbalah and other mystic traditions. “This is one of my best customers,” Yusuf said.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “But if my rabbi found out I came here, he’d have a heart attack.”

Yusuf doesn’t have the same worry. His rabbi at the alternative synagogue he attends knows that Yusuf runs the Olam Qatan bookstore in the old Ottoman train station in Jerusalem. Yusuf is an observant Jew, but he also considers himself a Sufi. “He is everyone’s favorite Jewish Sufi,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a prominent Jewish advocacy organization based in Jerusalem.

To be clear, Sufism is an ancient Islamic mystic tradition that emphasizes the reduction of ego and the purification of the heart as paths to meeting God. There is a significant interest in Sufism among Israelis today, but its popularity among Palestinian Muslims has declined. Much of the interest in Sufism is among Israeli Jews. Later this month, (April 19 to 21), some 1,000 Israelis are expected to gather in the Negev Desert for the seventh Sufi festival. A promotional piece in secrettelaviv.com advertises “a space where music, dance and silence become a language.” Yusuf will be at the festival selling books and CDs. He will also give talks on the famous Sufi scholar Rumi and on the essence of Sufism.

(Godland News / Fergus Tuohy)

Yusuf believes that Sufism is popular with Israelis because it provides a bridge between East and West, between the secular and the religious. Many young Israelis go to India after completing mandatory military service and become more interested in spirituality. As Sufism is based in monotheism, it is more familiar than other Eastern traditions, he said.

Yusuf, who is originally from Brooklyn, first encountered Sufism while living in San Francisco in the 1970s. While others there seemed most interested in the spiritual music and poetry associated with the tradition, Yusuf began to pursue Sufism in earnest. He studied under a Jerusalem-based Muslim Sufi master for seven years. During that time, he struggled with whether or not to convert to Islam, but ultimately decided to remain a Jew. His master gave him the name Yacub. The name is appropriate, Yusuf says, as Jacob was the “God-wrestler.”

But Yusuf said he expects few, if any, Muslim Sufis will attend the April festival. “It will be mostly secular Israelis,” he said. “Too many half-naked women there dancing for the Arabs.”

Some Arab Sufis come to the festival as well. Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, a Muslim Sufi originally from Nazareth, taught classes at the festival in the past. He spoke well of the event, but said because it is mostly secular, he no longer attends. Manasra, who referred to Yusuf as “one of my best friends,” is an ordained Sheikh in the Qadiri Sufi Order in the Holy Land. He leads conferences, workshops, meetings and instructional webinars for hundreds of Sufis in the Holy Land and around the world. Among his students, he counts not only Muslims, but also Jews, Christians and Baha'is.

“Sufi is not a religion, it is a style of religious life,” Manasra said. “When I say Sufi, I mean spiritual.”

Manasra noted that Jews embracing Sufism is not a new phenomenon. He pointed to the son of Moses Maimonides, the prominent twelfth century Jewish philosopher and scholar. Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon succeeded his father as the head of the Egyptian Jewish community and embraced Sufi practices. “He was a Sufi,” Manasra said. “They were great Sufis.”

Manasra doesn’t try to convert his students. “They need to be Jews,” he said. “We have enough Muslims in the world. We need them to be great Jewish Sufis.”

As for Muslims, Manasra estimates before the 1948 war, most Palestinian Muslims were Sufis. But these numbers have diminished significantly. Today, Palestinian Muslims are largely Sunni. Manasra pointed to poverty and radicals as reasons for the decline in the spiritual practice. “When you are free, you can do many great things,” he said. “The fear of the occupation and the radicals on both sides can create a feeling and bad behavior and bad thinking. They cannot relax and cannot see the window of the horizon.”

Manasra no longer lives in Israel. He said that he had to flee the country because of pressure from Muslim radicals opposed to his devotion to interfaith work. They were beating up his son on a daily basis, Yusuf said. Manasra now lives in Florida, but serves as co-coordinator with Abrahamic Reunion, an interfaith organization which works for peace in the Holy Land.

Yusuf believes Sufism has gone underground among Palestinian Muslims. “I think the fanatics have really had an impact,” he said. “For Israeli Sufis like me, it’s not a problem. I’m part of a free pluralistic society, thank God. Also, I’m not a convert.”

As published in The Media Project.


‘Lost Jews’ of India are finding their way to live in the Holy Land

In 2001, Elana Benyamin and her mother were among the roughly 1,000 Indian Jews who made Aliyah, the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel. The decision to move from their native India to Israel was not easy but it was the fulfillment of a dream. “We always dreamed of coming home to Israel,” Benyamin said.

Benyamin, a member of the Bnei Menashe community, was born and raised in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.

Bnei Menashe Jews have gotten increased attention in recent years since Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called them “a living bridge” between the people of India and the people of Israel in October 2014. Netanyahu has made a considerable effort to develop a good relationship with the leaders of India. From India’s side, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is putting in similar efforts to bridge the relations between the two nations.

“We reviewed the progress in our relations. Our discussions were wide-ranging and intensive. Marked by desire to do more," said Modi, who visited Israel in July last year.

Like other immigrants to Israel, Benyamin has gone through several layers of cultural changes. She has become Israeli but she still clings to her Indian identity. For example, even though she wears the Western dress typical of Israelis, she also still wears a traditional Indian necklace around her neck. She adheres to Jewish dietary laws, but still enjoys Indian curries at times. Her day-to-day dilemmas, because of her ethnic duality, are nothing when compared to others who are coping up with bigger issues like finding jobs or searching for better ones.

When Benyamin’s family came to Israel, they had to go through a formal conversion process, since the members of the Bnei Menashe community are not considered Jews, according to the Halakha, the Jewish law, and jurisprudence. In 1948, 2,000 Indian Jews from different states such as Cochin, Kerala, and Maharashtra came on Aliyah. The Jewish state was newly-formed and immigrant Jews were welcomed as citizens and as Jews.

Today, the situation is different. The Bnei Menashe have to go through a conversion in Beit Din, a rabbinical court that imposes other traditional requirements. The conversion requires immersion in a ritual bath and the study of basic Judaism for both men and women, as well as ritual circumcision for men.

“Before going to the rabbinic court we had to learn Judaism till six months. Then we could go to Beit Din,” Benyamin said. Her English and Hebrew are fluent, but she is worried about other immigrants who are having problems learning Hebrew.

Communities of Bnei Menashe speak in Tibeto-Burman languages depending on the region, they belong to tribes such as Mizo, Kuki and Chin. After years of speaking their mother tongue, learning Hebrew becomes difficult for many people, but it is an important skill if they want to apply for better jobs. According to the Hindustan Times, there are around 33,000 Indian Jews who have migrated to Israel since 1948.

 

KANISHK KARAN/GODLAND

They come with the hope of blending into Israeli society but, since learning a new language can bes a challenge, many of them have settled for unsatisfactory jobs. Men in the community often find jobs as security guards while women work as school cleaners. This is what happens in towns like Kyriat Arba, located in the West Bank, where around 800 people from the Bnei Menashe have settled since migrating to Israel.

KANISHK KARAN/GODLAND

“Bnei Menashe are facing economic and social problems, when they immigrate mostly empty handed in Israel. They have to take any job which is available until they find a suitable job according to their experiences,” said Manlun, a social worker at the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, who identified herself only by her first name.

Manlun works in Kyriat Arba, a town in the outskirts of Hebron, where Jewish settlements are increasing. In the 1970s, settlers were residing in Kiryat Arba for ideological purposes but now they are residing for cheaper living. In 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu approved a tender to build 3,736 housing units in the region. As reported by the Washington Post, the units will be built in numerous settlements, including in Hebron and other disputed areas. Although this might not act as a direct relief, an increase in housing units might provide reduced rents and land in the area.

Social Support System

Surprisingly, the Israeli government has decreased the budget for social maintenance of Bnei Menashe. In 2017, the Ministry of Absorption and Immigration allocated $355,000 to the Bnei Menashe, down from $500,000 in 2016. These tenders are usually picked up by organizations that are working towards bringing to Israel Jews like the Bnei Menashe who live in remote areas and have been separated from the rest of world Jewry.

One organization close to the Bnei Menashe community is Shavei Israel, which is run by Michael Freund, former deputy communications director of Netanyahu’s administration. Freund is an American immigrant who is supporting this movement by soliciting donations and governmental support. His support of getting the lost Jews back from India has been criticized by many, especially by the Orthodox community.

“According to Jewish law, Judaism has no interest in influencing someone to convert. There’s no such thing,” Rabbi Dor Liov told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. The comment refers to the mass immigration of the lost Jews from around the world. “In any case,” Lior said, “we should invest efforts first of all in bringing the Jews we know. We aren’t missionaries.”

Contrary to what the Orthodox rabbi said, the Israeli Ministry is still maintaining its social support budget for the Bnei Menashe. In an aim to reverse the diaspora, a committee appointed by Israel's Diaspora Affairs minister affirmed the committee's recommendation for reaching out to diasporic communities and introducing them to audio and video content related to Israel and Judaism.

In Mizoram, India, Shavei is putting proactive effort to educate local Indian Jews.

“We do have centers back in India. A big chunk of our budget goes to their development,” said Laura Ben-David, Shavei Israel director of marketing.

Grassroots education has been going on in different parts of North Eastern India. “We do big seminars in a couple of weeks … at one central location where people can bring their people. We create books and pass them around in a regular community normal access,” said Ben-David.

Although learning Hebrew remains a problem for many, a systematic community effort along with support from nonprofits would help overcome people who are about to make Aliyah in coming years. The key is to learn language as soon as they can and dissolve themselves as Israeli Jews.

Life in Israel can be hard for immigrants, but Benyamin is not sorry that she made the journey. “I comforted myself that I'm finally in a place where we always dreamt of,” she said of Israel. She harkened back to a Biblical character when she considered how lucky she is that she was able to come on Aliyah. “Even Moses didn't get a chance to come in Israel,” she said.


Women divided over prayer at the Western Wall

JERUSALEM — They were there to see the last remains left of the Second Temple, the most venerated site in Judaism, and enter God’s presence. Men prayed on one side of a tall divider and women on the other. Some worshipers wrote their prayers on small pieces of paper and stuck them into the crevices of the wall.

I watched from the stairs while the sound of weeping filled the air. I was surprised to feel the urge to cry with them. For a second, I felt like I belonged to this group of strangers who, at least, shared one desire: cry out to God at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel.

                                

(Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

This is a land of so many divisions. Arab and Jew. Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Men and women. Thirty years ago, an organization was founded to address the gender divisions in Judaism. It was called Women of the Wall and it sought to give women equal rights to pray at the Western Wall. In recent years, however, Women of the Wall itself divided. There is now Women of the Wall and its offspring, the Original Women of the Wall.

The split occurred several years ago when Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of the Women of the Wall, recommended that the organization accept an offer from the government to join an alternate prayer site where men and women could pray together. The majority of the board members voted in favor of Hoffman’s decision, but a significant number of participants wanted to keep the focus of the organization on its original goal of empowering women in the women’s section, adjacent to the men’s section.

                                 

 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

One of the leaders of the opposition group, which took the name the Original Women of the Wall, is Cheryl Birkner Mack, an American Jew from Detroit who moved to Israel 11 years ago and started attending the monthly meetings of Women of the Wall. The organization, founded in 1988, has fought for women’s rights to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah scrolls collectively and out loud at the Western Wall. Birkner’s group wants to continue to fight for those rights at the existing women’s section rather than go to the alternate egalitarian prayer site nearby.

“It is not just the holiness,” Birkner said. “But it is also the history and the fact that my grandparents and great grandparents all wanted to be at this site, and for most of them it was impossible to be here.” An alternate site would not have the same spiritual power for her.

                                

 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

Birkner believes that her breakaway group embodies the core principles of the organization, even if it has a new name. “We couldn’t take that name because they are using it,” Birkner said of Women of the Wall. “We just added ‘Original’ Women of the Wall, which exactly describes what we are. The original goals and most of the original women.”

The agreement between Hoffman and the government was reached in 2013, but it has yet to be fully implemented. When it is completed, there will be an egalitarian prayer section at another location along the retaining wall of the Temple that will also include a special women’s section for those modern Orthodox women who want to pray among women only.

Elizabeth Kirshner, 24, is a modern Orthodox woman from Detroit and director of communications at Women of the Wall. She said that the egalitarian section, which will be at a part of the Kotel known as Robinson’s Arch, would have a divider called the mechitza, beyond which only women can pray.

“It would still be a women’s prayer group,” Kirshner said. “It would adhere to traditional Orthodox needs or practice of Jewish law, Halakha, and it would be fully inclusive in that sense.”

Orthodox Jews believe that a mechitza is necessary to avoid sexual distractions between men and women during prayer time. Modern Orthodox Jews believe that men and women have to sit separately and only men can lead the prayers. In spite of that, there are forms to achieve gender separation in a more progressive way, like taking down the mechitza when someone is speaking and it is not prayer time.

 

 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

Birkner just recently heard about the eventual women’s section at the egalitarian section and she does not understand how this would be feasible. For her, the Robinson’s Arch section is out of site and mind, and praying there as a women-only prayer group is not the same as praying at the Kotel.

The Kotel and Robinson’s Arch are part of the remnant of the Western Wall and stand at the base of the Temple Mount. Although, they do not differ in terms of religious holiness, praying at the Kotel has a traditional and historical significance for observant Jews.

Birkner said that a main reason why Original Women of the Wall did not accept praying at the egalitarian section was because the women in the organization support their modern Orthodox sisters who cannot pray at the egalitarian section and the organization is not willing to move without them.

Still, both – Women of the Wall and Original Women of the Wall – have the participation of modern Orthodox women. So, what is the difference between the modern Orthodox women of each organization? Is the modern Orthodox world splitting?

                                 

 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

The split within Women of the Wall addresses controversial topics within modern Orthodoxy, such as gender roles, modernism and traditionalism.

Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, 68, who also is a practicing attorney from New York City, moved to Jerusalem 25 years ago. He said that inherent to modern Orthodoxy is a contradiction. On the one hand, there is a modern call for gender equality, while, on the other hand, there is the obligation to follow tradition.

“There is a building tension between wanting, on one hand, to accommodate modern sensibilities and on the other hand to remain traditional,” Shapiro said.

While the Women of the Wall would pray at this alternate site, Original Women of the Wall hopes to continue to pray at the historic location. They plan to continue to press for the right to gather as a minyan, or quorum of 10, and read from the Torah scroll, and wear the tallit, or prayer shawl, just as the men do.

According to traditional Jewish law, women are exempt from many religious obligations that have to be done at particular times. As an example, women do not count towards the 10 needed to form a minyan, since they do not bear the obligation to be there. The primary reason given for this is women’s role of motherhood.

Shapiro said that women do not form a minyan in the same sense that men do. He added that women having their own minyan may be seen by the Orthodox society as an attempt for women to be like men.

Yet, for Birkner, a minyan is 10 Jews praying together. She said that some people specify 10 men, but others refer to 10 women or 10 people (men and women).

“Once the question of gender is decided all minyanim (plural) function in the same way,” Birkner said.

For change in tradition to work, it needs to take place slowly and gradually. “It could be that 50 years from now people would look back and say they cannot believe that some of the innovations of the modern Orthodox were unacceptable,” Shapiro said.

Birkner said that there are a lot of things that she does that her grandmother and mother did not do because of the ways society has evolved.

“Maybe there will be things that my daughter and granddaughter will do that I never thought about either,” Birkner said.

   

 

 


Virtual tourism: The next best thing to being there

NEW YORK & JERUSALEM — “You’re standing at the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Israel,” you hear a tour guide say. As that voice explains the significance of the place to people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths, you can see the golden roof glistening in the sunlight. You imagine it’s a warm day in the Holy Land, but you can’t feel the sun on your skin. Perhaps Muslims are entering the Dome of the Rock, or the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, to visit the site and pray, but you can’t see or hear them. You can move around the site in all directions, not by turning your head, but by using a computer mouse.

This is the virtual pilgrimage experience.

“For every person who goes to Israel physically, there are hundreds of people who can’t,” said Gary Crossland, the founder of the Octagon Project, a non-profit that produces live-action, virtual tours of Israel and posts them online.

The cost of travel, lack of mobility, and family obligations are just a few factors that might keep people from making the trip, said Crossland, a Texas native, who has traveled to Israel 30 times.

Gary Crossland preparing video for virtual tours at the Judean Desert in Israel. (The Octagon Project)

Virtual tourism is nothing new. Pilgrims have always brought back “holy water,” a chunk of earth or a relic to hold on to and share the experience of the journey. Once photography was perfected, tourists brought back pictures of the holy places they’d visited. The embrace of video cameras, gadgets and social media to help people feel closer to the Holy Land is more recent. For years, there has been a 24-hour stagnant live feed of The Western Wall, one of the most religious sites for Jewish people. A few sites accept prayers via tweet to place in the cracks of that wall, an old tradition. On YouTube, there are thousands of traditional video tours, some with photo montages and some narrated.

But with more high-tech devices comes a more immersive experience. Organizations like the Octagon Project use virtual reality to offer that, along with a free, all-access digital pass to Israel. With the help of 360-degree cameras, online tourists can “visit” churches, historical locations, and get a glimpse into the country without a passport, luggage or a plane ticket.

Twenty years ago, Terry Modica, who is Catholic, actually made the 15-plus hour journey from her home in Florida to Israel for a pilgrimage. She saw the Church of the Annunciation, one of the most sacred places of the Christian faith, the Nativity site, where Jesus is said to have been born, and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

With a few clicks, you can experience Modica’s journey, too. Back then, she did not have the devices to create a high-tech experience like the Octagon Project, but the 1990s-era photos she collected during the trip are now on her website, Good News Ministries, in the form of a virtual tour. To see the inside of the church, click on the doors and after the webpage loads, you’re inside. Or click for a closer look at the loaves and fish mosaic at the Church of Multiplication, where Christians believe Jesus multiplied enough food to feed a large crowd of followers.

“People once looked at my low-resolution photos and thought ‘oh wow,’” Modica, 63, said. “Now I look at them and say ‘Oh crap.’”

Modica saves the notes from people who still appreciate the virtual journey.

“Although I am a born Catholic,” one virtual pilgrim wrote, “my knowledge of the places where all the miraculous and painful events took place were only imaginary…until now.”

Modica wants to return to the Holy Land to capture the trip for those behind a computer screen. This time, using virtual reality for a more immersive experience.

But some say a virtual trip to Israel won’t do.

“For me, I had to come back,” said Bonnie Bergman, a Boca Raton, Florida native who is Jewish.

On a warm Sunday in Jerusalem, she was back in the Holy Land for the first time in 40 years to meet long lost family members. Bergman stood on the outskirts of the Western Wall in awe.

"It’s emotional,” said Bergman, who is a retired teacher.

That type of meeting is something that can’t be done online. That, and walking into the crowds in the women’s section of the Western Wall to touch what’s believed to be the remains of the retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

While Crossland’s virtual tour company also offers 10-day physical excursions to Israel, he does not think the emergence of the type of technology that may allow virtual travelers to engage other senses — like sight and smell — will have any impact on that business.

“We’re on the bleeding edge of that technology,” Crossland said. But there’s “nothing like being there.”

"When you can actually have boots on the ground and feel the heat on your skin, the packing, the anticipation — it’s a totally different feeling.”


Conflict on campus: Picking up where Jerusalem left off

NEW YORK — Back on Columbia’s campus after 10 days in Israel and Palestine, it feels different. Students are still dashing about to get to classes, but the masses of undergrads seem to slow down just a bit as they reach the center of campus walk, almost as if students are rubbernecking at an accident on the highway. And then I see the flags. The same ones I saw hanging proudly outside buildings and painted all over walls in Israel and Palestine.

The last week in March brings two conflicting events to Columbia: Hebrew Liberation Week and Israel Apartheid Week.

It seems like it’s the same old story from which I cannot escape: us vs. them. Oppressors vs. liberators. Zionists vs. anti-Zionists. As a journalist, I want to hear both sides. So that’s what I set out to do. On one side of campus, in front of Low Library, stand the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace in front of a makeshift Israeli West Bank Barrier, complete with iconic Bethlehem graffiti from British artist Banksy. On the other side stand the Columbia Students Supporting Israel, complete with flyers and keffiyeh scarves embroidered with the Star of David.

“[It’s] a week of celebration about the connection of Jews and the land of Israel and what Zionism is,” said president of the pro-Israel group, a Columbia junior named Dalia Zahger, 24.

A display of materials shared by the Students Supporting Israel during Hebrew Liberation Week at Columbia University. (Godland News / Steph Beckett)

She said the student group hosts a Hebrew Liberation Week every semester.

“I hope [people] come with an open mind to listen, to read and to learn and to hear from us,” she said. “Not to listen from other people about what Zionism means but to ask a Zionist what it means.”

After speaking with her, I feel even more confused about this term and its place in relation to the tensions that exist in Israel and Palestine. In Israel, our class visited the city of Acco to speak to Imam Samir Assi and Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar. They were friends.

“Best friends,” Yashar said.

After speaking to us about their faiths and their unlikely friendship, I asked how they could be so different and how Yashar could be a Zionist and still be so close with Assi. He looked at me for a second before saying in Hebrew, “It’s about respect for each other.”

That respect is rare. It doesn’t exist in most corners of Israel and Palestine, so how could I expect to come back to New York City and find it here?

I spent some time over at the anti-Zionist corner of campus, staring at the fake Israeli West Bank Barrier. It reminded me of Bethlehem and I missed it. One day while standing at the fake barrier, I heard a couple of students remark in disgust at a puppy wearing an Israeli keffiyeh on the opposite side of the courtyard.

“Ew,” one student remarked.

“Why would you do that to a puppy?” The other agreed.

Zionism, in the dictionary means, “a movement for (originally) the reestablishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.” The movement was established in 1897 under Theodor Herzl. But it’s come to mean different things to different groups since the term was originally coined.

For Zahger, it’s a word that means a connection to her home. She grew up in southern Israel, where she served in the army before coming to study at Columbia.

But for other students it’s almost a trigger word.

I spoke with a student involved with the Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace. She asked that I not use her name because of how political the topic has become. She became involved in the organizations during her freshman year after realizing there was something wrong about the way she viewed Palestine.

“I don’t see how it’s okay for one group of refugees to create another group of refugees,” she said. “I also don’t see how I can justify that as the continuation of a state to do anything in its power to maintain a white Jewish demographic.”