Mashivah ha-Ruach u-Moridah ha-Geshem: R. Bonna Devora Haberman and her contribution to and vision for the AOP Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope Program

לזכר רבינו ומורתינו בנה דבורה בת שולמית ויעקב הכהן הברמן ז”ל
משיבה הרוח ומורידה הגשם
She who causes inspiration to flow, who brings spirit into—and draws it from — the deepest reaches of earth’s body

Bonna hikingOur great friendships mark us. And all the more so when that friend is a rav-haver, at once a blazingly original teacher and a soul-friend, a comrade on the path (also thirsty for God) and a co-worker in the garden of Torah. This is a reflection on R. Bonna Devora Haberman z”l, one of the progenitors of the AOP Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope and a teacher to so many of us.

In memory of her vision, passion, and deep love for Israel and this program, we are honored to create a fund in her name that will support the continued development of Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope (Bonna Haberman Memorial Campaign Fund). This fund will ensure this program continues to blossom and grow as a way of  disseminating Bonna’s vision and deep Torah.

We are proud to announce that we will also be crafting an evening of learning and action (yom iyyun uma’aseh) in memory of Bonna, as part of the ALEPH Ba’Aretz Residential Program in Summer 2018. And participating students will be reading from Bonna’s two books in the spring semester of the telecourse, both ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter and Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and InkJoin us on the Journey!!


כל התחלות קשותIT AIN’T EASY TO BEGIN. Four years ago, the Vaad in active collaboration with the Student Board crafted a theme-based Smicha Week (SW) program devoted to the study of Israel: from the history of Zionism and classical ahavat tziyyon to Israeli music; from questions of a two-state solution to the raging politics of BDS. We did so in part because we felt we had neglected a key aspect of our Jewish and Rabbinic education: Israel and Palestine in their historical and contemporary dimensions. The SW program was a worthy start, but only that—a forshpeiz or mezze. As Franz Rosenzweig said on the eve of launching the Lehrhaus in 1920: Zeit ist. It was time for us in  ALEPH to go deeper!

Bonna HabermanEven as the SW Israel sub-committee began its vital work, another sub-committee, composed of R. Ruth Gan Kagan, R. Marcia Prager and yours truly began brainstorming about a residence program in Israel. As that spring and summer unfolded, the vision was catalyzed as my dear friend Bonna Devora Haberman and I joined forces to envision an ALEPH Residential Program in Israel, a beit midrash u-ma’aseh, that would draw on the 4 worlds vision of Renewal. We would dig deep into the Sources and engage burning issues emerging from the Hour and from the Place. We were immersed in that holy work till Bonna’s death, tragically and way too soon at age 55, from ovarian cancer, in June 2015.

THE VISION: Meeting in person and on Skype, Bonna and I envisioned a pilot year program that would create the first steps and infrastructure for a regularly occurring  בית מדרש-ומעשה (Bonna’s name and concept), a home for engaged psycho-spiritual inquiry and integrative seeking and living. It was to be a place where the Shekhinah unfolds in the-between: between teachers and students, between all learners, between text and reader, between self and Other, and between the kavvanah and its realization. By being organically rooted in Israel and in Renewal, our learning would address (be it directly or more subtly, בעקיפין, through the backdoor to the heart):

  1. the place of Place—of Israel and Homecoming, viz., the Zionist experiment; cultural diversity, symbiosis and culture clash; and the place of Land. How, we asked, might we learn with the Land, rather than merely seek to dominate it, in the one spot on earth that has a Jewish majority society? How might we imaginatively “open up” texts with Israel in mind, using it as an interpretive lens?
  2. The imprint of the Jewish calendar/sacred history on communal life and on the body, learning al besarenu: experiencing distinct Shabbatot, and (given the season) the arc of the Three Weeks culminating in Tisha B’av (bein ha-metzarim) before reaching the consolation of Shabbat Nahamu and Tu B’av, the holiday of love. Most of our AOP students have not had significant experience with this temporal flow in a large-scale, socially legitimated (and publicly shared) setting. We sought not only to enter the printed word but the “text” that is the world: i.e., to experience mimetic learning, where the street/the home/אוירא דארעא/kitchen Judaism becomes the text.
  3. Holding the clash of rooted Visions, Jewish and Palestinian. We saw ourselves as insider-outsiders, ready to experience, with open eyes and open hearts, the moral dilemmas of the Palestinian-Israeli (Jewish) conflict, the underlying fears and hopes that galvanize (and freeze) both societies. That our homecoming has coincided with the displacement of another indigenous people—the Palestinians — is one of the core Jewish ethical dilemmas of our time. Our love for Israel unites many of us; our complex feelings about its politics also divides (Sometimes each of us, individually, is that familial “us”—each of us olam qatan, a microcosm of the larger divisions.) How, we asked, can we draw on our commitment to Deep Ecumenism, to building bridges between Jews, and between Palestinians and Jews, as we traverse this holy, freighted terrain? How can we dig deeper into Palestinian stories? How can we continue to love those Jews we don’t much “like”? How can we stretch our kelim, expand our capacities to hold this complexity? Our learning would be both anchored in Jerusalem, but extend outside that “bubble,” into the periphery and in the Palestinian territories, in Tel Aviv and at archeological tells. Our learning would be intellectually rigorous, but would also incorporate chant and prayer, silence and hashpa’ah, movement and street theatre: we would open our hearts to receive, begin to integrate, and stretch forth our hands to humbly “offer” and give something back! (I remember a teaching-sharing-theatre experiment that Bonna sketched to be “offered up” to residents in Sderot. And I remember the work she did with a group of high-tech innovators who got together once a week for a year to imagine another world. The premise: The Mashiach has come. Now what?…Bonna, yehi zikhra barukh, could do this daring work, she could pull this off!!) And there was the audacious, raw work of the grass-roots Palestinian-Israeli YTheater, more of which, below. In April 2014, in the full flush of her powers, Bonna received her devastating diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer. There were months when it seems that Bonna would overcome the severe decree, running for several miles and doing daily yoga, continuing to write and raising up students, but by May 2015, the prognosis was becoming ineluctable and bleak. As the strength began to drain from her body, and the tumor swelled, we continued to meet face-to-face in her Jerusalem home, in short spurts. I was committed to downloading elements of her teaching, pledging that I, along with an intimate circle of friends, would each nurture and realize a piece of her multi-tiered, radical vision of Possibility, ha-efshar.

I must confess that Bonna’s death knocked the wind out of my sails. I have never mourned for a non-family member with the intensity that I (and so many others) grieved her passing. It was a body blow, and a hit to the neshamah. We say that certain people are irreplaceable, but in Bonna’s case it was profoundly, achingly true. Who else combined so many worlds? It was only half a year later when Caryn Aviv stepped forward, with her vision of a 4 part-Israel-Palestine program that I was able to see a powerful, worthy way forward. Of that catalytic partnership with Caryn, I will speak another time. Suffice it to say, elements of Bonna’s vision and our work together remain imprinted in the AOP Israel-Palestine Beloved Land program: to give but two examples, in Minna Bromberg’s Torah of the Everyday, תורת היום-יום, and in our commitment to hold complexity and, despite it all, to nurture hope and joy.

THE VISIONARY: So, who is (ok, was) Bonna? A Canadian born yekirat yerushalayim (noble citizen of Jerusalem), an intellectual seeker with a huge heart, a ritual artist, a feminist-visionary Torah teacher, organic gardener and yogini, co-founder of Women of the Wall, a loving mother, wife and mentor to a generation of seekers: unflinchingly honest, with unflagging courage, creative resilience and never-say-die energy. She received her Ph.D. in ethics and education from the University of London, studied Theater of the Oppressed with its founder Augusto Boal, and taught Judaic and Gender Studies at the Hebrew University, at the Harvard University Divinity School and at Brandeis University where she founded and directed the “Mistabra Institute for Jewish Textual Activism” – addressing difficult texts and social problems using performance arts. In addition to her leadership in Women of the Wall, she was an advocate of Religious Pluralism, for nurturing and trumpeting Women’s Voices. And oh yes, she was a mother of 5 exceptional children, and life-partner/spouse to Shmuel. Two quick stories: Over twenty years ago, just after she had given birth to her youngest child (Adir Chai), Bonna ran into Ruth Gan Kagan and Melila. Bonna spoke about her natural childbirth, which, of course (it being Bonna), was devoid of anesthetics and pain relievers. Was it painful? Melila asked. “Painful?” Bonna paused, thinking: “I wouldn’t say painful, I’d say intense.” (If you know Bonna, that story is funny!)

The second story, which I heard from Nigel Savage captures Bonna’s ability to uphold the Rabbinic dictum “ha-lomed mi-kol adam,” that we should learn from all people (and by extension, all creatures). After her third child was born, Nigel asked her, ” Have you and Shmuel decided what to call him?” Bonna answered, “no, the baby will tell us.” Several days later at the brit milah, Bonna announced, “his name is Bezalel – first, because his skin is peeling like a batzal (like an onion); and second, because he is (like the Biblical Bezalel) a builder.” Today, more than twenty-five years on, he’s a budding biomechanical engineer. It turns out that Bonna was indeed able to listen to her baby boy as he told her his name – as she listened, intently, to all her kids, and learned from them, even as she taught them and everyone she encountered simply by her presence.

Bonna_YTheaterFor all her intellectual rigor, Bonna was a healer: able to bridge —often ‘al besarah-—worlds of Arabs and Jews, with honesty, unblinking clarity, and the open heart. She was a master-teacher, a visionary with feet that danced on the earth, a scholar who innovated both in the academy and beyond its walls, a ritual artist who brought down the shefa (the divine flow) and opened apertures, a bridge-builder (gosheret gesharim) and as noted, co-founder (with Kader Herini) of the community based YTheater Project that brought together Palestinians and Israelis, who did not agree on much, to create art that spanned worlds and three languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Bonna did not whitewash. Bonna did not flinch from being who she was. She did not crumple. She was ohevet yisrael  and a Zionist (one who loved the people and land of Israel). She offered (and received) criticism in the most loving way I have witnessed, as an act of love.

She stretched across difference to behold the divinity of the Other. Life, for her, was a series of birthing’s….and she too, was an em kol hai, a mother who gave us all greater Life. To see her was to see the Face of the Shekhinah.

While Bonna had a home in the world of Jewish Renewal, her lineage opened wide, receiving Torah from Nechama Leibowitz and feminist path blazer Helene Cixous, from Rabbis Louis Jacobs and David Hartman, from Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman. (Indeed, on the day before Reb Zalman died he called Bonna, repeating his delight in giving her smicha.)

Bonna, of course was supremely embodied: an athlete, strong and slim, with no excess weight: while teaching at the ALEPH Smicha Week in New Hampshire nearly four years ago, she would run in the morning and swim across the lake in the afternoon. When other runners and trekkers would toss in the towel, not Bonna. Hence her family nickname: “never-say-die-Haberman.”

The shock then of her passing was devastating. If we are all unique beings, Bonna was the rare irreplaceable voice. I still feel her presence as I walk the streets of the Moshava Germanit in Jerusalem; I still sense her inspiration as I encounter the pomegranate trees budding in her and Shmuel’s back yard, or hear her son Adir Chai give over his Torah. (The rimmon–the pomegranate– doesn’t fall too far from the tree.) Bonna was a spiritual provocateur, who prodded us to our best, largest selves; who challenged regnant orthodoxies with verve but also love. She was a close reader of difficult texts, one who birthed new-old Torah, millin hadtin atiqin. Even in her dying days, she had moments of sheer radiance and pellucidity, her thin frame growing gaunt as a finger, but illumined from the inside out. The wheels were always turning. It is a great if bittersweet joy, to live with her inspiration, and to bring some of that vision into Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope.

For those who wish to experience a late teaching of Bonna’s, read A Personal Reflection on a Difficult Journey to Liberation on Bonna’s blog. She ends “I send you blessings for the liberation you seek in this world.” And she has….

Reb Elliot Ginsburg

Please join us in honoring Rabbi Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman’s life, work and spirit with your donation today. Your support of Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope ensures Jewish Renewal leaders are empowered to better serve their communities through the immersive study of texts and cultures she so deeply loved, and infused with a passion of social betterment.