Monday, December 17, 2012

A step in the right direction by Sarah Friedman

I spent the weekend at Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where I interned this summer. I was excited to go back and meet the students who arrived for the semester after I left - Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Jordanians. Throughout the semester or year, they learn together about the environment and examine their political and personal preconceptions through a periodic Peace and Environmental Leadership seminar. The idea is to create regional leaders who will use shared understanding of shared environmental problems to improve regional cooperation on the environment and beyond. (“Nature knows no borders” is the Institute's slogan.) I was attracted to the Institute because of this approach, the extension of which was the foundation of my interest in the environment of the Middle East: the idea of peacebuilding through shared environmental concerns, that developing trust in a practical and emotionally lower-stakes area will enable existing partnerships – among students, academics, NGOs, governments - to more effectively tackle the greater political challenge of creating a mutually agreed-upon peace.

I loved being a part of the AIES community over the summer, but this time I got the full experience. With students, the place is spectacular: in the gorgeous emptiness of the Arava, in Israel but also in its own world, young people who would never otherwise interact are roommates and friends, spending every waking minute together in class, in the kibbutz dining hall, in the common spaces of the newly built dormitory, on hikes through the surrounding desert. Though their narratives are different, even conflicting, they build connections and understanding that will influence their professional and personal careers forever. Twice during the weekend, students and I discussed how we could solve the whole conflict. Our plans ranged from the ridiculous - build a second floor on top of the entire land so both sides can have it all! - to the painfully practical - '67 lines with land swaps, East Jerusalem to Palestine and West Jerusalem to Israel with some form of international control over the Holy Basin. It goes without saying that we were oversimplifying, but for people of such different backgrounds, each with divergent and dearly held narratives, to speak candidly if lightheartedly about solutions is a step in the right direction. We weren’t being flippant. We were joking around because the situation feels so hopeless: when individuals can connect on a meaningful level but our leaders and people cannot, it’s so sad that when our weeks of working toward a solution end, we have to laugh. It’s a step.

There are many of these small-scale, person-to-person, interfaith/intercultural/international peacebuilding efforts. They make a huge difference in the lives of participants, even if the participants are self-selecting from the start, already inclined to want to understand the other side. So these kinds of programs aren't a society-wide panacea. But hopefully participants will become effective leaders and inspire the rest. At the J Street conference in March, renowned Israeli author Amos Oz said it best: "I don't know who will be the leader or the leaders, who will carry out the necessary surgeries, but I know those leaders are already amongst us; they are alive. I wish I knew how old they are."

At the end of the weekend, the last night of Chanukah, I stood on the top floor of the dorms and looked at the mountain I'd hiked that morning. "Electricity Mountain" has nine big barrels of gas that are lit as a chanukiah every year. The kibbutz kids who became bar and bat mitzvahs that year hike up to light the "candles" every night. It's a beautiful site, visible from the whole kibbutz, the highway, and probably low-flying planes. I hope in the near future, that chanukiah will shine over a nation at peace, and thanks may be due to AIES alumni and others like them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

IDF Ethics by Sarah Friedman

A few weeks ago I went to a MASA-sponsored security & diplomacy-themed shabbaton, run by Kol Voice Seminars, an educational company run by British olim. I had signed up for it weeks earlier, unsure what to expect, and was both excited and newly hesitant as the weekend began, two days since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, the almost-war. My experience with this type of presentation has not been one of nuance or balance, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

One perspective I’d never heard in detail was from Colonel (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, who speaks about the IDF ethical code. He arrived straight from eight days on a base in the south, gave a well-practiced and half-heartening, half-discouraging lecture, and left us with the oddest business card I’ve ever seen, featuring a rainbow leading to a tank.

He opened by poking legitimate fun at Egyptians blaming a shark attack on the Israel Defense Forces, but on a related and more serious note he said that Israel can’t seem to avoid losing the PR war. I agree: Israel does make political and military moves deserving of criticism, but it also does and is a lot of great things, and those don’t make it into the news often enough. Israel transgressions – real, exaggerated, or imaginary (like the shark) – make for more popular news. It was encouraging to hear, then, about the IDF’s institutional concern for the ethical implications of its actions, disconnected from PR value, for better or for worse.

Col. Gruber outlined the principles the IDF trains it soldiers to use in real-time decision-making:

  1. Necessity – use only the force required to complete mission
  2. Distinction – don’t harm innocents (difficult against terrorists, who do not wear uniforms like regular soldiers). He said that during Operation Pillar of Defense the IDF hit 1600 targets and refrained from hitting an additional 400 because of doubts.
  3. Proportionality – killing civilians is acceptable when preventing an imminent threat, but not when targeting a terrorist for past wrongs. (Weary from battle preparations, he added: “I am not doing a party when I kill a terrorist. … When you come back from the field after destroying villages, you bring it back home with you.”)

He showed us video of a Hamas member picking up an unwilling child to cross the street with so the IDF wouldn’t shoot. He told us that 98 percent of the medical visits from Gaza to Israel were approved in 2009 and that 95 percent of electricity in Gaza comes from Ashkelon, Israel, up from 35 percent in 2009. He denied a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, saying that civilians are not his enemies, and estimated that of the 1.8 million residents, 40,000 are terrorists. It’s difficult to judge the reliability of presented information when the perspective is clearly one-sided, even if it’s one I’m inclined to trust, but I guess that’s part of the PR war he lamented.

Throughout the presentation, I kept thinking about the actual implications of these ethics. We live in a Jewish state, by Jewish principles (though if two Jews have three opinions, it’s a certainty that not everyone will be happy with the Jewish principles applied), but what happens if a mistake is made? He never mentioned circumstances that might lead to the code not being followed – though it’s not difficult for me to imagine things going occasionally awry among scared 18-year-olds with guns – but he did describe the fear and overwhelmingness of warfare. Col. Gruber said that carrying 60+ pounds for four hours during a mission makes soldiers lose half their brain power, helpfully adding: “put on your helmet and you’re almost an idiot.” (I don’t know how much speculation, observation, or science contributed to that assertion, but I think it’s how I would feel, too.)

In response to a questioner who asked if it wouldn’t have been better to attack Gaza with great force and wipe out the threat completely, Col. Gruber said that this problem can only be managed, not solved – pointing to the fact that after Cast Lead in 2008-9 only six months passed before rockets were shot into Israel again. I don’t agree that the political situation is hopeless (yet), so I was happily surprised when he emphasized that we also need to teach both sides not to hate each other. I wonder if that is possible in a managed situation – when Palestinians grow up stateless, disenfranchised, and Israelis grow up in a hostile neighborhood fearing attacks from all sides. But it revives my optimism that the Israeli military strives to operate ethically, even if the PR war is hopeless; and I hope the Israeli political system can also follow a pragmatic ethical code, intended to preserve the Jewish, democratic nature of the state, even when the political future looks hopeless.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Life in Tel Aviv by Sarah Friedman

Sarah E. Friedman
November 15, 2012

Last night marked the first time since the Gulf War that air raid sirens have sounded in Tel Aviv signaling imminent danger. (It also marked the only time in my life I will regret living in an apartment with a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.)

When I heard the siren, around 7 pm on Thursday, its meaning didn’t register at first. I poked my head out my window to survey the situation, and when I heard the penetrating thud of an explosion I decided to change clothes, pack a bag, and head downstairs to find a shelter. (Needless to say, this is not the correct order in which to proceed). I didn’t see one in my building, so I stood in the elevator bank beneath the staircase until a neighbor came along. The neighbor said that there is no shelter in our old building (though building codes now require new residential construction to include shelters) but that inside a staircase away from windows was the recommended alternative, and where I was standing was perfect. Soon after I returned to my apartment – sheltering is recommended for only 10 minutes after the siren stops – I started receiving worried messages from family and friends, and cautionary missives from various authorities, including the U.S. Embassy, urging residents to find shelter in case of another siren.

So I ventured into my immediate neighborhood to find a shelter, figuring the businesses surrounding me would know if the neighbors didn’t. I was wrong: the calm that I observed when I stupidly peeked out the window was truly felt and internalized by the Israelis I spoke with. In the grocery store downstairs, in the restaurant connected to my building, no one knew where a shelter was. They seemed unconcerned, not brazenly so, just calm. In the coffee shop across the street, the barista laughed kindly at my question, as if it was cute and very dutiful of me to want to know, but really not necessary.

My Israeli aunt and several friends called me that night. They all wanted to see if I felt okay, if I was scared, if there was anything they could do. They themselves weren’t disturbed. Even though the sirens haven’t sounded in Tel Aviv in more than 20 years, the Israeli mentality is prepared to face random violence. I don’t mean to romanticize Israelis or downplay the seriousness of the situation – but living in a danger zone is part of the deal here and they don’t let fear rule. And the issue today isn’t Iran, which could become a more serious immediate threat. The present physical danger is being hit by a not-precisely-aimed rocket, of which Gaza has many less since the Israeli Air Force hit targets including rocket storage and launching pads. There won’t be blocks leveled in Tel Aviv, fortunately, and safety procedures including sirens with a 2-minute warning time seem to me the mark of an incredibly prepared and well-equipped government.

On that semi-positive note and in that context, I have mixed feelings about the reactions I’ve heard from outside of Israel. Many individuals and organizations are declaring solidarity with Israel no matter what, promoting any military action, no questions asked. Of course I stand with the country and idea of Israel no matter what - I stand in Israel, I live here, I study here, I run on the boulevard outside my house and sit on the beach and ride the bus daily and don’t want my daily life disrupted by rockets and explosions and war. I love Israel, which is why I am here. And it would be gratifying to see more informed discourse on the situation coming from the States, passionate and controversial discourse of the kind that is going on here in Israel, where the violence is a reality.
Throughout the night, I was in constant communication with friends, confined to my apartment but too distracted and adrenaline-rushed to do school work. I read and thought a lot about what is happening and why. I don’t know enough to judge what is absolutely right and wrong, and I don’t think not being sure is a moral or intellectual abdication. The most important debate to have in the Jewish community, internally or publicly, is about Israel’s long-term interests. Israel has a right to defend itself against violent attacks, as any sovereign nation does. Last night I felt very grateful for the IAF’s targeted attacks on Gazan weaponry. And so far, the civilian casualties on both sides can be counted on fingers and toes. Yet especially with the IDF calling up reservists last night to prepare for a potential ground invasion, many are frightened that this will become another Operation Cast Lead. Whatever your political opinion, the killing of 1,400 Palestinians was gravely damaging to Israel’s international relations and public image. What is the right balance between the short-term and long-term interests when reacting to violence today?

In the case of the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, there are a lot of questions that are worth parsing but may never be answered fully. No one argues that he was a friend of Israel: he was a terrorist behind plots against Israel and behind the abduction of Gilad Shalit. But then he was also behind the negotiated release of Shalit, and according to Gershon Baskin (whose politics you can agree with or not, but there’s no pretending he’s a lightweight since the Shalit deal) he had a practical approach to his interests that apparently included a long-term cease-fire. How are we going to interact with Hamas leaders in the future, if at all, knowing that assassinating those who sit at our table doesn’t encourage others to cooperate?

The timing of this escalation, especially if it becomes a ground war, is expected to take social justice issues off the electorate’s mind and make security – perceived as the strength of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the decisive issue in the January elections. And it can’t be good for Israel that Egypt, with whom we share a cold but strategically crucial peace, withdrew its ambassador. From here in Tel Aviv, things already seem to be changing, and I can’t see how an escalation involving ground troops will help Israel’s security in the short term or the long term. I hope not to find out. I do hope for more informed and nuanced discourse in addition to support for the people of Israel and, as always, for peace for Israel and the region.

As I finished this blog on Friday early afternoon, the siren sounded again. I ran downstairs and crowded into a windowless corridor with the patrons of the nearby restaurant and coffee shop. And now that my adrenaline is up again, I’m going for a run, trying to absorb the Israeli mentality that life must go on despite these jarring interruptions.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Real Bedouin Life in Israel by Sarah Friedman

Real Bedouin Life in Israel

The orientation trip for my Masters program took us to the south of Israel, where we saw many sites that are typical tourist stops: the colored sands of the Negev, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, the Dead Sea. Next, of course, was a Bedouin village. But when we arrived in Qasr-a-Sir, near Dimona, it was a surprise – not a stand-alone tent clearly made for tourists where Bedouins claiming to have no formal education speak in perfect English about their four wives and the camels that are their only form of transport (we slept in one of those!), but a town where actual Bedouins live.

Qasr-a-Sir is a pre-state settlement where 4,500 Bedouins live on 10 percent of their original land, holding on to some traditions while adapting to the changed reality of their surroundings. We started with cups of tea: coffee, apparently, is the authentic drink of hospitality and giving us that would symbolize a whole host of mutual obligations our hosts for the afternoon weren’t ready to extend to a group of international graduate students, including defense by sword. Then a local man took us up a hill to give us a view over the town and, through a translator, narrated his community’s history. Ramshackle buildings, piles of rubble (including one that was his grandmother’s house until the Israel Defense Forces demolished it), a big modern school building, and an access road to the highway spread out before us, and as the sun set we noticed that the town has no electricity. The lights of nearby Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor and the city that took over this village’s land, competed with the highway’s brightness as the village grew darker.

Our guide told us that after years of a community effort led by his father, the village was finally recognized by Israel in 2001. (You can read more about the difficulties of obtaining recognition here, from the Israeli organization Bustan, which works for fair resource allocation and sustainable development for Bedouin and Jewish communities in the Negev.) Since recognition, the modern school and the access road were built and the village was hooked up to Mekorot, the Israeli national water provider. Our guide said the water equipment is functional, though not kept up to date. Homes are not yet connected to electricity, and the individual solar panels most have do not store adequate power for family use.

When the muezzin called out for evening prayers, our guide said he wanted to tell us something about Islam. He said that Islam is not terrorism; it is a religion in line with modernity that is supposed to build lives and create connections, not be a force for destruction. He said the people in the news may be Arab, but they are not Muslim. I imagine that most of my fellow students did not need to be told that not all Muslims are terrorists, and I wish that his simple, sincere statement could have gone directly to the ears of the many people worldwide – including, unfortunately, some American Jews – who basically distrust Muslims. I have heard some claim that the majority of Muslims must sympathize if not support terrorism, or it would be their first and constant priority to speak out against the misuse of their religion. As a Reform Jew, I’ve always found these accusations deeply troubling. I live my life according to the values that my specific Jewish education and my personal understanding of Jewish tradition and texts have instilled in me. I would be infuriated if anyone suggested that I must disavow Baruch Goldstein (the Jewish extremist who murdered dozens of praying Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron) or Psalm 137:9 (which advocates smashing Babylonian babies’ heads against rocks) every time I reveal my religious background. The way I live my life is a constant disavowal of extremism and of the literal meanings of some archaic texts from a very different time in my people’s history. I’m sure the same goes for every WRT member, most American Jews, and most Muslims worldwide. Not every member of a group is called upon to be the spokesperson for all other members – and Islam is a group of more than 1.6 billion. I was sorry that this man felt the need to defend his religion to strangers, but moved that he did so with passion and without anger.

I respect Tel Aviv University’s decision to include in our orientation to the country a glimpse into the reality of modern Bedouin life. It wasn’t as inspiring as the rest of our trip, which showcased the natural beauty of the ancient land of our ancestors and the amazing successes of the start-up nation, but acknowledging challenges and trying to address them is a mark of a strong society. Our afternoon in Qasr-a-Sir added valuable depth to the trip.

Then, of course, we boarded the bus and headed to a tourist-friendly Bedouin-themed resort, replete with camel rides, ornate tents full of fruit baskets and colorful pillows, and low tables supporting overloaded platters of “traditional” food that included (lucky for me) soy balls for the vegetarians.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A few responses to the question, "How can I help?"

More Post-Sandy relief efforts underway at Westchester Reform Temple and beyond:

BUY SUPPLIES ONLINE for the residents of the Far Rockaway and send them c/o City Councilmember James Sanders, Jr., 1526 Central Ave, Far Rockaway, NY 11691.  They need work gloves, batteries, flashlights, thick garbage bags, mops, brooms, shovels, bleach, warm clothing (clean, sorted and marked), boots, blankets, diapers, wipes, water, food ready-to-eat.

DONATE to the URJ Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund:

COOK FOR OUR COMMUNITY:  WRT Kitchen, this Wednesday, 11:00 AM - 2:00 PM; recipients include depleted local food banks & soup kitchens.

DROP OFF SUPPLIES at WRT:  UJA-Federation is partnering with individual synagogues.  Bring non-perishable food, water batteries and toiletries to the Temple lobby.  We will delivery these items to UJA on Friday at 3:00 pm.

STOP BY WRT if you need a place to recharge, refresh, and warm up.  We're open Tuesday 8:30 - 9:00 PM.

CLICK on any of the following links for more opportunities to help.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Foreign labor in Israel by Sarah Friedman

In an emergency ruling about a decade ago, the kibbutz I just left decided to hire foreign workers to be able to meet fruit’s natural (and therefore non-negotiable) harvesting deadlines. In bringing “Thailandim” to the desert oasis, the kibbutz joined a national trend: tens of thousands of Thais work in Israel, according to the BBC.

I spoke to the kibbutz member in charge of workers in the kibbutz’s date fields and learned a lot about the business of bringing in foreign laborers. At first glance, the phenomenon seems anathema to many ideological strains present in Israeli society: socialism, self-reliance, Zionism/nationalism. According to this member, however, it was unavoidable: the kibbutz’s expanding business and aging membership/workforce simply demanded a more reliable source of labor than volunteers or even willing Israeli workers could provide. (One year, the kibbutz hired a cadre of Israelis right out of the military, but the logistical problems other than age mirrored those of kibbutz members: family constraints, occasional medical leave, reserve duty in the IDF.) So kibbutzim hire young Thai men, usually married, who come to Israel on five-year contracts to earn hugely more than they could at home. (Estimates range from double to 20 times). The work force of this particular kibbutz also includes six Eritrean refugees, recruited from the side of the road in Eilat or by word of mouth. These hired workers labor long hours in searing heat often well over 100° Fahrenheit during the summer growing season for juicy Mejdool dates.

The Thai workers live on the kibbutz but don’t participate in the community at all. (The Eritreans live in Eilat and the kibbutz pays for their daily commute.) Living on a kibbutz is such a communal experience, for the members, for volunteers, even for interns at the academic institute on kibbutz property, like me. When the kibbutz voted to hire foreign workers, it actually decided to incorporate them into the community. But the Thailandim come here to earn money for their family back home, not to make new lives. Although they live in a housing block near the volunteers’ quarters, the first group declined the option to eat meals in the kibbutz dining hall – although some Thailandim at a nearby kibbutz do. Instead, they continue to eat traditional foods, which they prepare with ingredients bought in part from a traveling vendor serving the 4,000 to 5,000 Thailandim in the northern Arava.

In Thailand, I’m told, it is an honor to be picked to leave the country – even though it usually means going into debt at first thanks to high, sometimes predatory middleman fees. But that system is changing: since the Israeli and Thai governments signed an agreement in May 2012, Thais can be employed directly by Israeli employers and don’t have to go through the private “manpower agencies” that can take advantage of them by charging exorbitant fees for finding work. I spoke with Sharon, from a different kibbutz, about this new ruling and he expressed skepticism that the system change will improve the prospects of Thailandim or those who hire them. He said (though I wasn’t able to verify) that there will still be middlemen, several large, ostensibly not-for-profit organizations in place of the 50+ private companies now in business. Whether there will be any middlemen or not, the system now will be randomized and anonymized, so current workers cannot arrange for a friend or relative to follow in their footsteps and employers cannot communicate with future employees. Both members I spoke with emphasized that when the regulation goes into effect, small kibbutz industries will suffer from not being able to easily and reliably find workers with specific skill sets, as they do now through personal reference by current workers and logistics facilitated by the middleman. Sharon said that he uses the system to check up on workers before they come and make sure they are not being taken advantage of to get here.

I’m sure that not all employers put in the effort to take care of their future employees or find appropriate niche workers for certain tasks, and I write only from the perspective to which I was directly exposed. But I hope that the advantage of the new system – fairness for workers – will counterbalance the difficulties it will pose for smaller employers and the increased anonymity faced by workers. It’s interesting to observe the situation of foreign workers in a country that prides itself on self-reliance, has mixed feelings about the African refugees who have made it there, and has poor relations full of fear and hostility with most of its immediate neighbors. From what I can see, the physical laborers are welcomed as part of the Israeli economy but not integrated into Israeli society. Other foreign workers – such as the many Filipina caregivers – and other outsiders have different stories, for another post.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Installation Remarks

Shavua everyone!  Please see my remarks upon my installation this past Shabbat.

Installation Remarks
Rabbi David E. Levy
10/5/2012  20 Tishrei 5773

Our Talmud teaches us many blessing that we can say when we experience something good in our lives, one of which is:

Hearing Good News

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך-הָעולָם הַטּוב וְהַמֵּטִיב.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who is good and causes good.

This is truly a moment for this blessing.   Thank you all for being here tonight, from Rabbi Gewirtz and his wonderful words, my family that came here tonight, and the members of our community.   How good it is to be here tonight with you.   
I begin with a question: Who is Moses?  Throughout the book of Exodus we see particular snapshots from Moses’ life, as he grows into the leader he was meant to be.   The moments of his life are etched into our own minds either from reading the Torah or from Charlton Heston’s classic portrayal.   
We call him Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi.  However, in looking at the Torah it is abundantly clear that he did not earn that honorific overnight.   Moses grew dramatically from the stutterer he claimed to be at the burning bush, to his eloquent farewell address on Mount Nebo at the end of the Torah.   Moses grew over time learning from friends, and from mentors and getting encouragement from the best of places.  In our Torah reading this week, Moses receives high praise from the Most High:
Exodus 33:12
יְדַעְתִּיךָ בְשֵׁם וְגַם מָצָאתָ חֵן בְּעֵינָי
I know you by name and you have found grace in my eyes.   
Moses didn’t just have a support system that guided him and taught him new things, but he had a cheering section that could not be compared, G-d knew him by name and looked at him favorably. G-d and others mentored and guided Moses to become the leader he was meant to be.
For whomever will either guide teach or cheer you on, the first step is that they know you, and care for you, as G-d did for Moses.  I have been blessed to have mentors and people throughout my life that have known me by name, and found the grace to help guide me.  
My first mentor was my grandfather, Iz, whose yarzheit was this past Yom Kippur.  He taught me everything I need to know about being a mensch, and a gentleman.  That kindness of spirit lives on through me, like a nesting doll, within me.  There are so many people that are both here and afar that have guided me. Allow me to personally thank a few of those who have joined us tonight.  
As much as we learn in Rabbinical School, it is the learning laboratory of the congregation where the rubber hits the road. The past two years that I spent at Temple B’nai Jeshurun were filled with learning, challenge and growth.  The team that I worked with there were amazing, and Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz is a mentor par excellance. His dedication to my growth, his desire to know me and to help me grow is all testament to the type of man and Rabbi he is.  Rabbi Gewirtz is both the sacred agitator, pushing me when he knew I was being my best self in the candid and honest style I so appreciated, as well as the hamishe rebbe, embracing me and my family so warmly.    Thank you for always reminding me to find that balance between head and heart.  Rabbi Doctor Aaron Panken, you taught me about Talmud and 2nd Temple Literature, but more importantly the value of taking ownership of my learning and my growth, thank you for that and so much more. Like all of the people that inspire me in the work that I do, I often hear your voices in my ear pushing me in the right direction.
Thank you to family and friends who are joining us here as well as tuning in via our live webcast.  However, it is my partner, that deserves the greatest thanks.  Kate, you met and started dating a college guy with an earring and who was majoring in Information Systems. I’m so lucky to have had you with me as I began the soul searching work to become a Rabbi.  Your presence in my life from then until now has been a blessing.  You are in all things a fitting mirror: always first to tell me my sermon was great or terrible, always ready with a supportive word or an appropriate critique.   Thank you and Benjamin for being there for me, although Benjamin doesn’t really have a choice just yet, he can’t move far on his own.

I can’t count the number of people who I’ve spoken to who’ve used the language of “Did you survive the High Holidays?”  Yes it was a marathon, but like any marathon runner will tell you, when we finished it felt amazing.  It has been my honor to partner with our amazing team of Clei Kodesh, of clergy, as I begin this journey with you.  Rabbi Blake, Cantor Abramson, Rabbi Burstein, & Cantor Davidson, sharing the bimah with you has been such an invigorating opportunity.  I look forward to our growing relationships and many years of simchahs to come.
The Moses we see in this weeks reading is not the Moses of Ha’azinu, the dramatic poem that caps off the book of Deuteronomy.   He’s also not the Moses who swears he cannot speak.  He is a leader still in formation having moments of greatness and moments of struggle.   He still has more than 40 years of leadership ahead of him, gearing up for another lifetime of working with the Israelites.  It was while Moses was in formation, that he began the sacred responsibility of knowing others by name, and them finding grace in his eyes.   We see Moses working with the Israelites, with both of them growing because of their relationship.
As I look out at our community, I am so grateful that I’m beginning my Rabbinic career with you, as someone still in formation looking forward to a lifetime of sacred partnership with the Jewish people.  From the moment that Kate and I arrived here, we have felt so embraced, and so welcomed.  Like Moses, I look forward to journeying with all of you together.  That we will know each other by name, and find Grace in each others eyes.   

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sukkot reflection: Operation Escape Desert Storm

Some Reflections on Sukkot in Israel by our member Sarah Friedman!

Sukkot reflection: Operation Escape Desert Storm

In my first attempt at serious physical activity since being kicked by a kibbutz horse
named Loco, I went on what turned into an epic four-hour hike through the desert’s
extreme weather patterns. The weather here has been odd for the last few days – humid,
cloudy, dusty, even a surprising off-season rain. On Saturday night the kibbutz and the
area as far as we could see blacked out for about 15 minutes. Yesterday, Erev Sukkot, we
expected more of the same slight weirdness but thought nothing of going on a desert hike
behind the kibbutz.

A friend and I hiked through a wadi, scrambled up a vertical rock wall, walked over
a pebbly mountaintop over a oil pipeline road, and goat-walked over a sand dune
streaked with green copper into Crystal Canyon, a huge wadi full of strange layered rock
formations. The enormous canyon ended in a 150-200 meter vertical wall, and the view
from that end back through the wadi and over the mountains was awe-inspiring. As we
sat talking on the rocks, we felt a few light raindrops, and moments later the sky turned
dark orange and we were in the middle of a sandstorm. The rain quickened and we heard
thunderclaps, and my friend helpfully said that there could be a flash flood. (Flashback to
the horror stories my NFTY counselors told of hikers killed in desert flash floods, stories
impossible to fathom as we trekked through the dry, sandy supposed flood zones in the
July heat. But it does happen: as incongruous as desert flooding seems, sand and rock
don’t absorb water so heavy rains cause flash floods.) We ran and scrambled to get out
of the wadi as soon as possible, and I noticed how terrifying and beautiful the sky looked
but was too anxious to stop for a photo. We slid down the sand dunes instead of carefully
hedging our steps as we had on the way in.

At that point, between our position on rocky flats and the rain’s stabilization, my friend
declared we were no longer in danger. My fear evaporated once we arrived on the
pipeline road again, and then it was just exciting to observe and be caught in the sheer
power of natural forces around us. Besides the constant expansive beauty of the desert
and mountains, there was the powerful, disorienting sandy wind and an eerily dusty sky
whose light’s origin we couldn’t discern – the end of the sun or the full moon already
risen? After an hour of carefully climbing down, as we hiked the flat land between the
mountains and the kibbutz, we saw vivid flashes of orange emanating from horizontal
lightning bolts over Jordan.

The dramatic lightning storm continued as I recovered from this epic natural journey,
causing excitement among kibbutzniks accustomed to normal desert weather and several
brief power outages during the festive Sukkot meal. Comfortably feasting at a table in a
solidly constructed sukkah just hours after I was hurdling over rocks to avoid becoming
the next warning story, I reflected on how far removed we truly are from the time
Sukkot calls us back to. We eat in booths for seven days to commemorate the exodus our
ancestors made from Egypt, but we can’t know what it was like to live for forty years in
a state of transience. For forty years, everywhere they lived and everything they did was
temporary. They were on the move, at the mercy of nature and dependent on themselves

and their leader. My encounter with the raw, harsh forces of nature this climate supports
ended when I made it back to what the kibbutz calls my “caravan” – a trailer technically,
but a solid dwelling with a shower, air conditioning, refrigeration, countless amenities the
Israelites obviously did not have. Their caravan consisted of themselves and their journey
ended only when they arrived in Israel. We try to connect with their story by building
sukkot, but it’s difficult to truly inhabit their mindset.

There is one way, however, in which we are closer to true observance of Sukkot than
we have been in centuries: once again a Jewish homeland thrives in the Land of Israel.
Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, and although most of us are no longer attuned to the
agricultural calendar on which the holiday is based, we can travel to Israel any time
during the year. Being here connects us to our ancestors more than anything else.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Business of Busyness - Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning 5773

SEPTEMBER 17, 2012
The Business of Busyness
Jonathan E. Blake

It’s hard to believe this is now the tenth Rosh Hashanah that I have wished this beloved congregation a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year blessed with renewal, joy, and peace.

Kelly and I think of WRT as home and for all of us this is our annual homecoming, whether you’re coming from Myrtledale Road, Manhattan, or Michigan.  It is not lost on me that many of you have made great efforts to be here, summoned to this sanctuary by powerful ties that bind home to home and heart to heart. 

Why, just two weeks ago, an 84 year-old man who lives in Hartsdale called his son who lives in Chicago to announce, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce and I want you to be the first to know!”

“Have you lost your mind?” he says.  “You and mom have been married for over 60 years!”

“Your mother told me, ‘Enough is enough!’  She’s throwing in the towel.  Call your sister in Denver and tell her.”

“Dad, please put Mom on the phone.”

“She’s already told me that if I call you she won’t talk,” and at that the father hangs up!  

Twenty minutes later, the phone rings again:  “Dad, don’t worry.  Sis and I have already booked flights with the grandchildren for the High Holidays.  Together, we’ll get to the bottom of this.”

Again the father hangs up, but this time he turns to his wife and says, “Okay, Lois, they’re coming for Rosh Ha-Shanah and paying their own airfare.  Now what do we tell them for Passover?”

So, welcome home – no matter what it took to get you here.

Because we really are very busy.  You had to choose to come here instead of going to work, finishing that homework assignment, putting the house back together after last night’s dinner, or staying on your college campus.

And many of you who could not make this homecoming in person because of disability or distance have nevertheless chosen to join us via our live webcast.  So thank you, each of you, for choosing to spend your precious time at WRT this holiday.  

“It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing,” observes essayist Tim Kreider:  “‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”  
“Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups.”  (New York Times, June 30, 2012, "The 'Busy' Trap.")

The pace of life, the urgency of the iPhone era, has so tethered us to our work obligations and civic commitments and electronic communications that we now believe that family dinners really are no longer attainable; that e-mails require immediate attention; that to find time to read a novel we have to take a vacation.  

At the same time, I’m reminded of today’s Torah reading about the Binding of Isaac, and one midrash in particular that teaches that Isaac was not a helpless victim.  He went willingly up that mountain and even fastened the cords himself (Bereshit Rabbah 56:3).
Moreover: picture not a defenseless boy but rather a 37-year old man.  The convolutions of interpretation and imagination that led the Rabbis to this improbable conclusion do not matter.  The enduring message does:  that we have bound ourselves and our children to the altar of our own busyness.  Indeed, “[t]he present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life,” writes Kreider; “it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”  (Ibid)

I like reading even when I’m not on vacation.  At any given time my list includes a recent non-fiction work, a professional development book, a novel, and maybe a collection of poems.

Friends ask me, “How do you find time to read anything let alone four books at the same time?”  And I tell them, first of all, I never said that I finish them; and secondly, “Time isn’t lost and you don’t find it,” as my friend Rabbi Les Gutterman likes to say.  “You take time for those things that you really care about, that you really value, that you understand are precious and holy and life-enhancing.”

Speaking of books:  Do you know the two most important Jewish books in your home?  They are your checkbook and your datebook.  Each one is a statement of values, of spiritual priorities--of what really matters to you.

A dollar donated to tzedakah is a dollar that cannot go toward a child’s college fund or a vacation.  An hour spent reading is an hour I won’t spend at the gym or writing my Yom Kippur sermon.  An hour spent at Confirmation Class is an hour that a student cannot spend on homework or sports practice.  An hour spent in a deep conversation with a friend on a park bench over iced coffee on a gorgeous day like today is an hour that cannot be spent returning e-mails or meeting with a client or buying groceries. 

I am not ranking the intrinsic value of any of these pursuits.  I am saying only, we don’t find time; we take time; and we make choices about the time we take.

But given our over-programmed lives I worry about us making choices that lead to fulfillment and joy, choices that affirm something sacred and meaningful in our lives.  So today I propose a three-stage antidote to the soul-draining business of our own busyness.  The first is Slow Down.  The second is Stop.  And the third is Stay There.  Slow Down.  Stop.  And Stay There.

I know that most of us believe that we are much too busy to study the Babylonian Talmud, but how about just the very first line?

The Talmud opens with a question about time.  Me’imatai korin shema b’arvin, “How long does one have to recite the Shema in the evening?”  Because the Torah instructs reciting the Shema “when you lie down and when you rise up,” the Rabbis wondered:  how much time, exactly, does that give us?  In Talmudic fashion, a debate ensues.  Rabbi Eliezer says, from dinnertime until the end of the first watch, about 9:00 PM; the other Sages say, “until midnight”; but Rabban Gamliel proposes, “Until the first light of dawn" (Bavli Berakhot 2a).

Better, Gamliel believes, to perform a paramount religious act slowly, intentionally, than to dash through it; even worse, to use today’s word, to “multitask,” mumbling the Shema while brushing teeth or putting on PJs.  You gotta slow down, give your bedtime prayers their proper place and pace.

The Talmudic Rabbis elsewhere stipulate that we should not eat while standing (Derekh Eretz Zuta, Ch. 5).

No more multitasking when it comes to mealtime because in Judaism there is no more sacred, life-affirming act, than to eat.  So slow down, give your meals their proper place and pace.   (You know, like they do in Europe.)

No one knows more about multitasking than moms.  For the first time in history, IQ tests now show women surpassing men and the jump in women’s intelligence is attributed to the multitasking that women do, balancing childrearing, careers, and civic commitments.  Any exhausted parent knows that multitasking can make life stressful and deprive special moments of their special meaning.  Even short car rides have become a cacophony of:  a conference call over Bluetooth, Bar Mitzvah practice in the back seat, and a DVD playing on the overhead minivan screen.  

And what does multitasking teach our children about how to manage their time?  One friend of mine, a working mother of four, says, “Let them play in the dirt, enjoy lazy summer days, and be sure to tell them they can do and be whatever they imagine.  And then leave them be!  They’ll find their way to greatness.”

Sometimes we don’t get the choice to slow down before life chooses it for us--in the form of a broken bone, a broken heart, a heart attack, a lost job, the death of a loved one.  Have you ever been forced to slow down?  What did you learn?  How did your setback change you?

I recently started a great new book by Frank Partnoy called Wait:  The Art and Science of Delay.  (Notice I didn’t say I’ve finished it.)  Taking my sweet time actually corroborates the author’s point.  Whether one has milliseconds or minutes or months to act, people who take their time and slow things down as much as possible make better decisions... and enjoy a better quality of life, too.  “If you watch Albert Pujols hit a baseball in really slow motion,” Partnoy observes, “he looks just like Warren Buffet buying a stock:  study the pitcher, watch the ball carefully, and don’t respond to any opportunity until you have taken time to decide if it is a good one.  Wait as long as you can so you’ll have a better chance of swinging only at fat pitches" (Kindle Edition, loc. 599).

Taking one’s time produces better bedtime prayers, better meals, better investments and better baseball.  It improves quality of life.  “People today read less, take fewer museum trips, and attend fewer concerts,” Partnoy notices. “...The decline in the number and quality of our cultural experiences can be traced, at least in part, to unconscious stimuli that make us live faster.” (Ibid) 

Albert Einstein theorized that for a particle moving at very high speeds--like the speed of light--time slows down. Carl Sagan elaborated on the strange consequences of this premise.  “This is sometimes described as the twin paradox:  two identical twins, one of whom goes off on a voyage close to the speed of light, the other one stays home.  When the space-traveling twin returns home, time hasn’t dilated for him or her, that is, he or she has aged only a little, while the twin who has remained at home has aged at the regular pace. And here we have two identical twins who may be decades apart in age" (Nova transcript, “Time Travel.”  PBS Air date:  October 12, 1999).

Applying a scientific theory to a spiritual theme:  moving too fast deprives us of the beauty and splendor of a life lived at a sensible speed.  Only by slowing down do we ensure that life won’t pass us by. 

Okay.  A cop pulls a man over for running a stop sign and the subject gives the cop a lot of grief explaining that he did stop.  For several minutes, the cop insists that he didn’t stop, he just slowed down through the intersection.  The driver says, “Stop, slow down, who cares, what’s the difference?”

So the policeman says, “Sir, step out of the car,” and proceeds to hit the man with his nightstick for about a minute, at which point he says, “Now would you like me to slow down or stop?”

So there is a need to slow down, but there is also a need to stop from time to time.
Jason Fried runs 37Signals, a software company that develops web-based productivity apps for workplace collaboration.  To improve his own staff’s productivity, creativity, and collaboration, Mr. Fried made some big changes around the office.  Every year from May to October they switch to a four-day workweek.  And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32.  “We don’t work the same amount of time,” he says.  “We work less.”  The results?     “[B]etter work gets done in in four days than in five.  When there’s less time to work… you tend to focus on what’s important.  Constraining time encourages quality time" (“Be More Productive.  Take Time Off,” New York Times.  August 19, 2012).

Of course the Jewish tradition has known this all along.  Before construction begins on the biggest labor project in Israelite memory, the building of the Tabernacle, the Torah announces:  “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to Adonai; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 31:15).  

This Shabbat business is serious business.  

The Jewish way is:  You get six days on, one day off.  That’s the pace.  It’s not 50 weeks on, two weeks off--the average American vacation time (of which the average American uses only nine days, resulting in 175 million unused days left over for the US workforce, every year).  It’s not forty years on, twenty years off.  It’s six days on, one day off!  

Of all the things we modern-day, non-Orthodox Jews need in our lives--need from our spiritual heritage--the most important is Shabbat.  The word Shabbat means STOP and like the red octagon at the end of every street we should be taking it far more seriously than most of us do.  When I ask kids--or for that matter, adults--to name the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” often gets forgotten.  But we need Shabbat now more than ever!  

Taking time on Friday or Saturday for Shabbat dinner and services can really balance out your week.  But this is about so much more than candles, Kiddush, and challah.  Don’t confuse the ritual with its meaning.

We need a set time at the end of the week to STOP.  Take a deep breath.  Remember the past week.  Let go of the nuisances that drive our stress levels through the roof.  Capture a memory of something that made us laugh or fall in love or feel inspired.  Contemplate the week ahead and focus our intention on what we’d like it to hold.  Honor our loved ones who have died.  Pray for those struggling with illness.  Learn from the wellspring of Torah and marry the learning to our lives.  Sing out loud in a setting where no one will tell you to pipe down.  Connect and reconnect with the people in our community.  Have an extra mini-éclair where no one will judge you for it.  That’s Shabbat at WRT.  It’s joyful, spiritual, communal.  A Friday night service is about an hour, maybe 75 minutes, of your time.  A good, fulfilling--dare I say it, even fun--time. 
And Shabbat doesn’t happen just in temple.  Shabbat is, Heschel reminded us, “a sanctuary we build, a sanctuary in time” and there are lots of ways to take that time and make Shabbat special, different.  Shabbat is more important than even the High Holidays--that’s why the Jewish calendar gives it to us every single week while Rosh Ha-Shanah need take our time only once a year. 

Maybe Shabbat will become your day to power down the cell phone, the computer, the television.  Sometimes restrictions can liberate us.  Or maybe you’ll spend Shabbat in a concert hall, a grassy field, a meditation class, or a living room full of great people.  Because the bottom line is not whether you prayed in Hebrew or English or at all.  The bottom line is, six days on, one day off.   

Slow down.  Stop.  And stay there.

Each step is harder than the last.

“Staying there” is the hardest of all.

Because even the most uplifting and relaxing Shabbat comes to an end.  Because even a four-day workweek means the alarm going off… on Tuesday morning. 

The Torah tells us that God summoned Moses up Mount Sinai with an unusual phrase:  Alei eilai ha-hara, v’heyeh sham.  Come up the mountain to Me, God says, and be there (Ex. 24:12).

The phrase “and be there” puzzled the Rabbis who believed the Torah to be perfect and therefore incapable of carrying extraneous words.  I mean, where else would Moses be after coming up the mountain?  Would he not already “be there?”

Examining the phrase, the Kotzker Rebbe taught that even if a person strains to reach the summit of a mountaintop, it is nevertheless possible not to be there. “Even standing on the very peak itself, one’s head may be somewhere else.”  Scaling the mountain is often the easy part.  The hard part is staying there, not being distracted away from that place and that moment.  

“In the 60’s, there was a famous slogan, ‘Be Here Now,’” recalls the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  “Today, with the cellphones, the fax, the Internet, the whole schmear--the slogan you have today is ‘Be Somewhere Else Now'" (“Questions for Lawrence Ferlinghetti:  The Beat Goes On,” New York Times.  November 26, 2005).

  How many of us can’t even make it through dinner without checking our cell phones, our e-mail, the stock market?  Do we realize that by so doing, we are really saying, “something is more important to me right now than you are, than this dinnertime moment together?”

The time has come to ask ourselves:  why do we stuff our lives so full of stuff to do?  What emotional need, what hole in our lives, does our busyness fill?  Why do we sometimes feel self-conscious or even stigmatized when we have leisure time?  Tim Kreider nails it:  “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day" ("The 'Busy' Trap").
So many students setting out from college think the important question is, “What am I going to do?” when in fact it is, “Who am I going to be?”  Remember, the goal of life is not to fill a schedule, a résumé, but rather to let these fill you, to choose how we spend our time so as to reflect our innermost priorities.  What it comes down to is mastering the art of Staying There.

I know a rabbi who says a little prayer every time he enters a hospital room or a house of shiva.  He says, “God, when I get there, let me be there.”  

We need this prayer.

God, when I get home at the end of the day, let me be there for my wife, my husband, my children.  God, when I get on the phone with my parents, let me be there… no matter what meshugas they decide we need to talk about.  God, when I get to temple, let me be there and not feel the need to leave immediately after the rabbi’s sermon... and miss the sound of the shofar… the sound that summons us to slow down, stop, and stay there.  

Ultimately, these holidays, are about being rather than doing, about working to live rather than living to work, about transforming who we are from the inside and not just behavior modification.  These holidays are all about mastering the art of staying there, of being fully present in every moment of life.

Our precious little time on earth flies away so fast.

My God, I don’t know where it goes!

How will you spend yours?  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Nitzavim 5772: The last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah

Shavua Tov Everyone! Below is my sermon from last night on Parashat Nitzavim, to help get us ready for the High Holidays!

I remember when I was a kid, I had a bad habit.  My mother, who is probably watching this from afar, might not have known this, but take this as a cautionary tale for all parents.  You see I was lazy.  Every day I would come home from school, and have a snack.   That was usually my first step, I’d grab something good from the fridge and plop down on the couch, and watch TV as I did my homework.  Now the laziness was most evident in what I did with the food wrapper when I was done. I knew that if I left it on the table, my mother would admonish me. So, in the quiet house, all alone, I’d stuff the wrapper in between the couch cushions.   

Some might argue that the true measure of a person is how they act when they think no one is watching. Those secret moments where we don’t feel as if there are consequences, but that we are simply having fun even if it isn’t the way we would want to be portrayed to the world.  Clearly alone in my house I believed that to be true, that I was secreting away my food wrappers with no one being the wiser.   
However our Parashah delves into the challenge of hidden things. In this weeks Parasha, Nitzavim we are told:
29: 28. The hidden things belong to Adonai, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.
כח. הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַי־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת:

The hidden things.   What could this mean?  The medieval Commentator Rashi suggests that this is to delineate two forms of justice.   Human justice which will be meted out to all people based on their public actions, and Divine Justice for those things that are done in secret.   
However the challenge that I have is even greater.  Based upon this text, the talmud teaches us a blessing for a particular situation: One who sees multitudes of Israel recites:
Ba-ruch a-tah A-do-nai
E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-o-lam,
cha-cham ha-ra-zim.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
our God, Ruler of the Universe,
Knower of secrets.  
Our blessing and Torah suggests something that is hard to fathom: God knows our secrets.  G-d knows that I stuffed these food items in my parents couch.   God knows that I was speeding on the Hutch earlier today.  I wonder: What does it mean to believe in a G-d who knows our secrets?
Scholars in the world have tried to determine what it means for us as humanity to believe in God.  There was a provocative NPR series entitled “The Human Edge” that came out a few years ago.  The series discussed anything from opposable thumbs, to walking upright.   One of the articles in the series was entitled “Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?” by Alix Spiegel.   Within the article, Spiegel provides the same reason that Rashi gives.  That G-d is there to ensure that the bad people would eventually be punished, in this world or the next, and that we could manage our own society by ensuring that the rules had a basis in something larger than ourselves.
This particular view of G-d is a view. It has it’s basis in Jewish tradition and modern scholarship.   However, G-d is not one-dimensional this is only one view of many. Yoram Hazony, a biblical scholar, argues that G-d knowing our secrets, knowing all of us, allows us to develop into a better version of ourselves.   He claims that, having “... a power in the world that is able to hear you, and that is going to allow you to develop your understanding of what's right, and of the way the world should develop.' All of human history has proceeded from that first spark of hope that appears in the Hebrew scriptures."  ( to Hazony, having G-d there allows us to accept our own humanity and push ourselves to be a better person.   

Having a G-d who knows our secrets isn’t just a G-d who knows our foibles.  It is a G-d who knows our aspirations.   A God that looks out at us and takes us for all that we are and encourages us to become a better person. It is this particular relationship with G-d that I have tried to cultivate over the past few years.   It feels so antithetical to my rationalist mindset, I always think of the movie Dogma, where Alan Rickman playing the Metatron says: Whenever someone is talking to G-d they’re really talking to me, or they’re talking to themselves.”  It is that cognitive dissonance that always strikes me whenever someone suggests that they are talking to G-d, the back of my mind shouts out, well they’re probably talking to themselves. However, really that dissonance is most profound when people say that God is talking to them, versus the other way around.  To speak to G-d can be a natural and easy process, but often requires practice, and opportunity, and a suspension of the hyper-rationalism that can override our thinking at times.    
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, was a chassidic master of the 19th century.   One of his memorable teachings was the act of hitbodedut, which translates to self seclusion.  The activity he encouraged was to be alone with G-d. According to Rebbe Nachman, we are to find a quiet personal place, with no other distractions and to just talk.  To allow the stream of consciousness that is welling up within you to come out.   To address G-d as you would someone sitting right there, listening to your every word. Sometimes a friend, sometimes an adversary.  If you begin with the operating assumption that G-d already knows all your secrets it can be incredibly freeing.   There is no need to worry about what G-d will think of this idea or that, or the need to hold back. Rather it provides space to feel free to say whatever is on our minds.   I began this practice months ago, and while it’s often hard to find that private space with an infant at home, the power of sharing with G-d aloud the prayer of my heart was staggering.  To put into words what had only been thoughts concretized some of my hopes, and gave me strength when planning on how to tackle my foibles.   
G-d is everywhere, we simply need to be receptive to the opportunities to relate to G-d in our lives.  We call G-d Avinu, our parent, scolding us like the young version of me shoving food wrappers in the couch.  We call G-d malkeinu, our sovereign who sits on high judging us for the right and wrong actions. Yet we also call G-d Dodeinu, our beloved friend who we can lovingly talk with, and share our hopes and our weaknesses with. As we enter into the High Holidays, we shouldn’t our relationships to G-d to be one dimensional, but to challenge ourselves to interact with G-d in new and different ways.