I am en route back to Orange County from an 8-day seminar in Israel with eight colleagues from fellow Large-Intermediate Federations including Colorado, Houston, East Bay (San Francisco), Rochester, Columbus, Broward County, Vancouver, and Milwaukee. We were joined by Rebecca Caspi, Senior Vice President of Global Operations for Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and were grateful for the expert guidance of Da’at Educational Expeditions.
With my colleagues, I experienced Israel through a diversity of lenses – political, national, religious, demographic, and socio-economic – in order to hear as many voices as possible. The conversations were difficult, challenging, complex, pessimistic, and perplexing. We met with former Ambassadors to the United Nations, rising political leaders, social entrepreneurs, professors, rabbis, political analysts, cartographers, students, and nonprofit and civic leaders.
Last Friday we spent Shabbat with Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum, the founder of ZION: An Eretz Israeli Congregation in Jerusalem. She was brought up Orthodox by a Moroccan father and a French Ashkenazic mother. The services take place at a community center in the Baka neighborhood. Her congregation honors Sephardic, Ashkenazi and Israeli traditions. Rabbi Applebaum shared that half her attendees are Orthodox and the rest are either secular or grew up religious but are no longer observant. This blend is unique to their congregation. Her services are conducted only in Hebrew and are highly participatory.
Before the services, she shared that last Friday was especially difficult for the community as a mother of 4 had a few days prior killed her children and herself. She was a recent émigré from France fleeing the persecution of her own country but not able to flee the pressures of her post-partum depression. This family’s death hit a raw nerve in the neighborhood and in Rabbi Applebaum’s congregation. In response, and in the spirit of living their values, they are creating a space for mothers to gather and provide support to one another.
We began with a nigun (a song with no words, often with repetitive sounds like “bim-bim-bam” or “ai-ai-ai”) and then by reading poetry before the traditional service began. People streamed into this “come as you are” congregation in the casualness typical of Israelis. I was sitting alongside a young woman who was there for the second time and who shared that the spirit of the service really resonated with her. There were seniors and young families with babies and kids playing in the courtyard and crawling under the chairs.
We were not the only guests last Shabbat; we were joined by a group of Muslims from cities around the U.S. and Canada who, as part of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) at the Shalom Hartman Institute, were exploring how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. One of the Muslims stood up at the end of the service to offer words of thanks, inspiration, understanding, and peace. His final words were V’imru Amen (Let us say “Amen”). And everyone – Muslim and Jew – said “Amen”.
As my colleagues and I closed our time together, we focused on the inspiration we gained from the people we met. They were people who believed in the need for a new reality, a reality with peace. And they were people who believed that dialogue and conversation, no matter how difficult, are a critical foundation in this process. What I realized in the end is that Israelis are not so different than us. We are looking for a remedy to our challenges, a remedy that is, in fact, right in front of us: in the people of our respective communities.