90/929ths of a Journey

I have been studying a perek (chapter) of Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings) every day since December as part of an Israeli project called 929 (So called because there are 929 chapters in the Tanach). Every day, I get access to the text of the perek plus dozens of other commentaries and articles on their website. Because it is an Israeli project, everything is in Hebrew, though I admit to checking English translations a couple of times because my Biblical Hebrew isn’t up to scratch. I always wanted to study Judaism in a consistent, formal way but never found (or made) time. My involvement in the project, therefore, began because it seemed like the most practical way for me to engage in ongoing Jewish study as a graduate student.

After completing two books of the Torah, Bereshit (Genesis) and Shemot (Exodus), comprising 90 chapters total, I want to take a moment to share some of the lessons I have learned and connections I have made.

1) The Torah is an amazing text. Though I’m sure I have, over the course of my life, read all of it, I have never read the Torah as a book– sequentially, seriously and critically. Because I only study one chapter each day, but I do it every single day (except Shabbat), I have formed a much closer connection to the text. The Torah is no longer just the book of my people, but it is my book. At times it is full of stories that make me smile or grab my hair in frustration (the binding of Isaac, Joseph being sold in to slavery, the wisdom of Yitro, etc); it has moments of such profundity that I get goosebumps (revelation at Sinai); and it has sections that are so dull that I wonder why they were included in this way (building of the Mishkan). Reading the Torah every day makes me believe in the power of the text while questioning all of the words and stories in it, and that is such a great feeling.

2) Some of the lessons of childhood are coming alive…. and others are falling apart. Though I have read the story of the binding of Isaac dozens of times, my experience with the story as part of 929 was incredible. Because I got the context of the story and could see the character development of Abraham and Isaac, I had a particularly fascinating time reading it. Conversely, though I love Passover and have recited the 10 plagues also dozens of times, I found the lead-up to the exodus from Egypt hard to stomach. The destruction and suffering that G-d brings to Egypt, all seemingly to make a point to the Israelites of G-d’s power, felt unnecessary and cruel.

3) The Torah cannot stand alone. My experience would be nothing without the commentary on 929. Every day there is a short summary of the perek with a few “important points”, and a three-ish minute video of a discussion between two Biblical scholars on why the perek is important. In addition, there are always many other essays, commentaries and works of art. I don’t always have time or patience to read multiple commentaries in Hebrew, but I committed at the beginning of the project to always read the text itself, the summary and watch the video. I also try to read any commentary written by a famous person (they have political and cultural figures contribute regularly, which I think is so cool). On days when the perek is dull and full of laws and proscriptions, the commentary is a saving grace, helping me find meaning and inspiration to continue.

4) Sometimes the Torah is really boring. There are great stories, but there also are about half a dozen chapters that seem to all say exactly the same thing (hello, building of the mishkan). More than once I contemplated skipping reading the text itself, or even skipping the day entirely. But I never did. Every single day, I found some value in my study. For example, the first perek where we get a laundry list of laws (Exodus 21) comes immediately after the Revelation at Sinai, meaning I had a bit of emotional whiplash going from the story of revelation to a series of laws about what to do if a donkey falls in a well. But, because I had the bigger picture, I began to think about what the list of laws means for the overarching story of the Jewish people that is the Torah. In that context, I saw the laws as a form of nation-building, which informed my experience of the Seders and my understanding of Passover this year.

5) In case it wasn’t obvious, I feel so proud of myself for doing this. I am finally doing something I always wanted to do for the simple reason that it brings me great joy. In the face of endless homework and friends and work, I remain committed to this completely selfish practice. While I now see the value of a chevruta (a study partner), I also feel myself growing because I do this alone. No one but me cares if I skip a day or quit. Yet when I feel too busy to make time, I somehow find a few minutes to continue, and am always glad I did. With 839 chapters to go, I am obviously nowhere near finishing. Even so, I started thinking about where I will be when I finish the project, more than two years from now. Will I make it to the end? What else will I learn? Who will I be?

And if you ever want to discuss a little bit of Torah with me, PLEASE let me know!

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Considering this and that

IMG_8605(Disclaimer: I use gender-binary language in this post because I am not well versed in writing in gender-neutral language. I would love for someone to email me privately with how to make this more gender-neutral!)

As I mentioned in the previous post about my trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua with AJWS, one of the most powerful aspects of the trip for me was the opportunity to re-see, in person, the world in which my academic mind lives while my body is stuck in New York. I often find myself trying to explain to people how my hodge-podge of post-college experiences led me to pursue a master’s degree in international development. Slowly, I have cobbled together a fairly cohesive story: I spent two years working with migrants who told me stories of leaving their homes because they couldn’t make a life where they were, and then spent a year living in a place (Nepal) that people were leaving in the tens of thousands. I not only saw but also personally lived through the discomforts, frustrations and sometimes true suffering that drives young people to seek a better life abroad. It made sense to me, after three years and a few Jeffrey Sachs books, to try to improve living conditions in the developing world instead of trying to change law and public opinion in the developed world. I literally talked to tens of thousands of migrants through my work in DC, Israel and Nepal, and almost all told me of their longing for home, but a home in which they could access their needs and rights for safety, shelter, education, opportunities—all the things I love to write and talk about.

Yet in El Salvador and Nicaragua, my assurance of my own worldview was, to my surprise, taken for a ride (I don’t know why this surprised me, because it is precisely my love of the unexpected that makes me love traveling, but like any other human, I had somehow convinced myself that my worldview must be correct). At each of the organizations we visited, we heard from young people about the abuses they face as LGBTQ citizens in their own countries. We heard about the discrimination they face on the streets and in official settings like schools, police stations and hospitals. Several organizations talked to us about friends or “comrades” who had been killed because of how they dressed or who they loved. I had worked on asylum cases with a few LGBTQ men and women from Central America while I was working in Washington, so I was not surprised to hear about the widespread persecution and violence against these populations.

At the end of every presentation, we were given a chance to break up in to groups of a few Global Justice Fellows and a few members of the organization we were visiting and to ask some questions. In every group, I asked the members of the community if they had ever thought about seeking asylum in the US, Canada or Europe, where they would be able to live in (relative) safety. Overwhelmingly, the people we met with answered me with a resounding “no”. A few acknowledged considering the idea of leaving, or “fleeing”, for a brief moment, but none wanted to leave his or her home. They were committed to their home countries, their communities and the struggle they were engaged in to garner more respect for their rights as people in the place they lived. While there may be some element of selection bias in these answers—we were meeting with activist organizations, after all—the overwhelming response I got was that people wanted to stay home even though it was tough and dedicate their lives to making home fit better.

This is certainly not what I anticipated when I asked my question at the first few organizations. I didn’t know whether to expect them to have considered migration, but my assumption was that it would be an attractive option. From my immigration law perspective, people suffering hardship would naturally want to seek out a life in a country with less hardship. But, as I should know by know, the human spirit is stronger than that. Many people, when faced with a challenge, don’t back down, they step up. I consider myself one of those people. So why couldn’t I see this? Why was my instinct to expect that everyone would want to come live like me, and not live like him or herself, only better?

I have no answer, other than I think it’s human instinct to be self-centered in our worldview. And, no matter how much we dedicate ourselves to thinking about others, we cannot think FOR others. This is a hard notion to reconcile with my schoolwork. As I learn to plan, budget and monitor national policies, evaluate statistical trends and make predictions about them, and work with multilateral international organizations, I have to remember that the ground under my feet is also always moving. Econometrics is powerful, but people are more powerful, and unpredictable. Predictions and trends and statistics mean nothing in the event of an unforeseen shock like a popular movement or uprising. Grassroots actions both make an impact on people just as national and sub-national policy do, yet neither can work without the other. Laws are powerless if no one respects them, but people are in danger if they confront the law. As with everything in life, it is hard to hold both this and that in mind when this and that may disagree. But we can’t afford to drop either.

If you want to hold on to some piece of this fight, check out some of the work AJWS is doing as part of the We Believe campaign. There are tons of ways to get involved, from writing letters to Congress, signing petitions, joining local action teams, donating money or sharing a post on social media.

Read, think, discuss, travel. Repeat.

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I recently returned from a trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), as a fellow in the Rabbinical and Graduate Students cohort of the Global Justice Fellowship. The trip was an incredible opportunity to finally meet the other fellows in person (fellows are based in LA, Boston, NYC and Florida, so we conduct our monthly learning via webinar), and to see the work of a few of AJWS’s grantees in person. AJWS is currently organizing around a campaign they call the “We Believe” campaign, where they are advocating for greater recognition and respect for LGBTI rights worldwide, pushing for Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, and seeking to minimize early child marriage globally. To this end, the organizations we visited in El Salvador and Nicaragua are all working on advancing women’s rights, sex worker rights or LGBTI rights in their communities. While I loved the opportunity to meet the other people in my cohort, study Jewish texts on justice, and having endless conversations on everything under the sun, for me the most inspiring aspect of the trip was simply being in the developing world again.

My first semester of graduate school, while exciting and stimulating, made me feel very disconnected from the issues that originally drove me to the program. From the (relative) comfort of my New York City home, the pressures of finishing economics and statistics problems sets often drowned out the sense of urgency and passion to help find and implement systems to mitigate global poverty. Talking face to face with members of the organizations we visited and even simply driving around the streets of San Salvador, La Union and Managua reminded me why I wanted to international development. In school, I read reports and studies about health, educational and economic outcomes in the developing world. In San Salvador, I had an incredibly powerful conversation with a sex worker that personalized the effects of lack of economic opportunities. I want to tell you the story, and to share one of the ways her story reinvigorated me to find solutions to pervasive poverty.

We were visiting Flor de Piedra (Flower of Stone), a sex workers’ rights organization in San Salvador, El Salvador. In small groups, we had an opportunity to talk to some of the women who are involved with the organization, many of whom were or still are sex workers in the capital. I asked the two women I was sitting with how they came to be involved in sex work. One woman, Reina, told us that she didn’t begin sex work until she was in her mid-40s. Reina was born in a rural village in El Salvador. At the age of 17 she was raped and became pregnant with her son as a result of the rape. Several years later, she also gave birth to a daughter with a partner. She and her family moved to San Salvador looking for work, and her partner left her. Reina was in a new city, the sole caretaker for her two children. She found work in a factory, but was laid off after several years due to her age and inability to work as quickly as the manager expected. With three mouths to feed, clothe, shelter and educate, Reina was desperate to find another job. But, as a woman in her late 30’s with little education, no one would hire her. And so, with no other option, Reina began working as a sex worker.

Reina and Sulma, two members of Flor de Piedra

Reina and Sulma, two members of Flor de Piedra

Reina emphasized that while no one forced her to become a sex worker, she only chose to enter the field because she had no other options.

In just a few minutes, Reina summarized everything I learned and believed from my first semester at SIPA and my work in DC, Israel and Kathmandu before starting graduate school. In the absence of opportunity, people will sacrifice everything to provide for their families. Reina was willing to literally sell her body, and with it her dignity, to provide for her children. While the choice to become a sex worker was just that—and independent choice—Reina herself stressed that she did not want to be a sex worker, but did not have any other options.

This resonates with many of the stories I heard while working with refugees and immigrants around the world. People just want to live their lives: in peace and safety, with adequate food and water, with safe shelter, with access to quality education and stable, dignified work, and with the ability to care for themselves and their relatives in the event of sickness or injury. But if people do not have access to these basic rights, they will go to any length to attain these necessities.

After visiting Flor de Piedra, we visited the hospital La Divina Providencia, where Archbishop Oscar Romero lived and was assassinated. As I listened to the story of Monsignor Romero’s life and his last speech, I was struck yet again by the how much people are willing to sacrifice in order to get what they feel they need.

The stories of Reina, Monsignor Romero and dozens of other people we met in El Salvador and Nicaragua resonated with my biggest takeaway from my three years working and volunteering with migrants—attempting to deny people basic human rights is futile. People will always eventually find a way to survive; for me the only question is what can I do to help people realize their rights in quickly and with dignity. As Martin Luther King, Jr said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

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Footsteps to a New Home

In the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn lives a community of Hasidic Jews, whose entire existence is based on their tight-knit community. In this community, the expectation is that no one enters, and no one leaves. So what happens when when young man does the unthinkable, and decides this way of life is not for him?

Judaism 101:

Judaism was the first monotheistic religion in the world. The religion’s sacred texts and source of laws are the Five Books of Moses, known to Jews as the Torah. Judaism is the first of the Abrahamic faiths, which also include Christianity and Islam. Worldwide, the population of Jews is estimated to be just under 14 million people. The Jewish population of the United States is estimated at about 5.5 million, meaning Jews comprise less than 2% of the United States population (Source: Jewish Virtual Library).

Within Judaism, there are three main movements: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Within each stream there are a wide variety of practices, and there are more than a dozen other sub-streams and small sects, such as Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist.

Percentage of American Jews who identify with the major movements of Judaism. Source: Pew Research Center

Percentage of American Jews who identify with the major movements of Judaism. Source: Pew Research Center

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, also known as Haredi Judaism, is characterized by their social conservatism and rejection of modern secular Judaism. Although Haredim regard themselves as the most authentic group of Jews, it should be noted that within Haredi Judaism there are many denominations, such as the Hasidic sects, Lithuanian-Yeshivish and Oriental Sephardic Haredim. The Torah provides laws for how to live daily life, which the Haredim strictly obey. Haredim limit their contact with the secular world to prevent being “corrupted” or influenced by the outside world. This includes non-Jews as well as non-Haredi Jews.

Haredi life is predominantly family-oriented. In many communities, women are the bread-winners, whereas men study full-time in a yeshiva or seminary beginning when they are 13-18. Gender separation is practiced in various places such as public areas and synagogues because modesty is highly regarded.

Haredi communities are commonly found in Israel, North America (U.S.) and Western Europe. During the Holocaust, many communities were wiped out. Today, there are approximately 1.3-1.5 million Haredi Jews. Their population is rapidly increasing due to high birth rate (biblical commandment: be fruitful and multiply) and the close-knit community life.  Most Haredi communities are located in and around New York City: Borough Park, Monset and Williamsburg.

Click the image below for a slideshow explaining Haredi dress customs

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Hasidic Jews

Hasidic Judaism is a sub-sect of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Hasidic Judaism was started by the Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe in the early 1700’s, and emphasizes the mystical and spiritual dimensions of Judaism. Hasidic Jews adhere strictly to Jewish law and follow Haredi traditions of avoiding contact with the outside world. The community also has separate norms and customs for dress and behavior.

While Orthodox Judaism has the highest retention rate of members who were born in the movement and still identify in that movement as adults, there are still many people who choose to leave the community. Source: Pew Research Center

While Orthodox Judaism has the highest retention rate of members who were born in the movement and still identify in that movement as adults, there are still many people who choose to leave the community. Source: Pew Research Center


Footsteps is the only organization in North America that assists people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. Based in New York, Footsteps provides a range of services, including social and emotional support, educational and career guidance, workshops and social activities, and access to resources. Thanks to Footsteps, former ultra-Orthodox Jews have a safe, supportive, and flourishing community to turn to as they work to define their own identities, build new connections, and lead productive lives on their own terms.

Click the image below for a slideshow of Srully’s journey from Hasid to secular Jew:

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Jewish Renewal movement

The Jewish Renewal movement is often regarded as neo-Hasidism. Jewish Renewal is transdenominational, meaning they accept people from all denominations of Judaism and do not ascribe to a specific denomination. It seeks spiritual renewal of Judaism and emphasizes gender equality and a “creative return to the process of transforming Hallakhah (Jewish law) so that it continues to be a living path to connection to God” (ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal). It focuses on prophetic and mystical traditions. Chant, dance, drama and meditation are encouraged as ways of achieving spiritual growth. Those who are marginalized in other Jewish communities are welcomed. The movement is largely driven by ALEPH (Alliance for Jewish Renewal).


Romemu is a progressive, egalitarian community committed to tikkun olam (social action). It was established in 2008 led by Rabbi David Ingber. Romemu adheres to the Jewish Renewal movement, a renewed Jewish mysticism that integrates meditative mindfulness and physical awareness into mainstream, post-modern Judaism. Romemu values five basic freedoms: movement, voice, thought, silence, commitment.

Dancing and singing at Romemu at the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and fasting

Movement: Space to stretch, dance and find the natural movement of your body that opens you to prayer.

Voice: Safety to find many forms of voice, including singing, speaking, crying and laughing.

Thought: Thinking is both critical and analytical. Both spirituality and intellectual honesty flourish together.

Silence: Freedom to be silent, to quiet the mind and nurture the soul through time-honored contemplative practices.

Commitment: An invitation to commit, to be bound to a community that expects and relies upon your active participation, both as members of the congregation and as socially conscious and aware citizens of the world.

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Another timeline- Recent Attacks in Israel

I made another timeline, this time with the recent attacks on Israeli citizens (both Jewish and non-Jewish) in the last 30 days. One of the most frustrating parts about not being in Israel is that I don’t have a sense of what the mood or feeling is when attacks happen. I remember that during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, my sense of how bad things were and how dangerous it was to be in Israel seemed very different from what my friends and family in the United States were getting from reading the news.

Even in making this very short timeline, I was aware of how difficult it is to report on this without having “an angle”. In such a long back-and-forth cycle of violence, attacks, revenge killings and condemnations, it is nearly impossible to portray any event in Israel without feeling biased. Some day, when I have infinite time, I would love to try to make more timelines about events in Israel and Palestine, because I think it would be really interesting to show how many different ways you can tell the same story through the same relatively simple platform.

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Fun with timeline JS

Because I’m learning how to use Timeline JS for a class, I made a quick timeline of some of the highlights of my life. The highlights include getting younger siblings and moving to foreign countries.

Click here to view the timeline

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Map of Flu Shots for $30.00 and under

Spent some time playing around with Google Fusion Maps. I still have not gotten a flu shot (quickly becoming a top priority), so I decided to blend a class project and a to do list item, and map out all the places in Manhattan where I can get a flu shot for $30.00 or less. Duane Reade offers them for $31.99, but this map proves you can save that $1.99 and buy a cup of coffee to recuperate from your shot!


Data Source: NYC Open Data

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