New Friends, with Connections to Old

So, today is the morning of the 17th [and it is a beautiful, quiet morning–a run on the Sabbath is quite a bit more peaceful than a run on any other day!], and I wanted to report on my wonderful evening last night. I was invited to the Shabbat service at Kehilat Kol Haneshama, a Reformed synagogue near the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The name of the synagogue comes from Psalm 150, verse 6: “Let every living thing that has breath praise the Lord.” It means “every living thing,” and it points to the inclusive, open nature of the synagogue. This is what they say on their website: “Congregation Kol HaNeshama is an active & lively center for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem. The kehila is located in Baka and serves as a focal point for Jewish pluralism and social action in the neighborhood and surrounding area, Our community is founded upon the core value of equality of all human beings and mutual responsibility as we believe all are created in the image of God.” [Check out their website: Just to give you a feel for the community, in their English brochure, they talked about their second annual “Pride Shabbat,” which took place in August, 2011. They had pictures of the rainbow flag draped over the bimah and the ark–it was amazing! I was told that in Tel Aviv, of course, the Gay Pride parade is no big deal–“just part of the furniture;” but here, of course, it is another story! So, for the synagogue to do something like that is pretty radical–maybe even dangerous. As you might have guessed, the Reformed community of Jews in Israel on the whole is very small; overwhelmingly [particularly in Jerusalem, of course], the Jewish communities are orthodox here. I asked if they felt any discrimination, and the answer was no, not really. However, they work for a more explicitly pluralistic Jewish presence in society [and in education]; one person that I talked to said that he thinks there is a change currently underway in Israel leaning more in this direction. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years. The service itself was delightful, and it brought me the first of three reminders of my dear friend Maria that occurred over the evening. So, I was there early waiting for my new friend Sarah, who was hosting me. She didn’t come and didn’t come, and finally the service was starting and she still wasn’t there. So, this very sweet woman Sally, who had already talked to me & knew that I was waiting for Sarah, invited me to just come and sit with her, and she would point out Sarah to me when she came. Well, we sat RIGHT UP FRONT–I mean, the very first row in front of the bimah: the rabbi was so close I could almost touch him! Sheesh–talk about pressure! Luckily they had prayer books in English, with the Hebrew transliterated, so even though I didn’t have the music for the songs, I was able to follow along pretty well. The service on Friday night welcomes the Sabbath “like a queen,” and so there is lots of singing, lots of joy, lots of celebration and praise. The psalms are very prominent, too, which I loved. It was fabulous! And, as it turns out, Sally had the most wonderful voice–and she just kind of harmonized with each song, doing her own thing but sounding amazing the whole time. And I thought, “Oh, I am back in chapel sitting next to Maria, while she sings the tenor line up an octave!” It was really, really nice. It was a fun, warm, welcoming congregation–they have lots of English-speaking visitors, so I felt quite at home. So, after the service, I met my hosts: Dr. Sarah Bernstein, who is the Associate Director of the ICCI, the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel, and her husband, Dr. Michael Marmur, who is the Vice-President for Academic affairs at Hebrew Union College [he serves as the provost over all four campuses (three in the US, plus the one here)]. He is also a rabbi. They were the nicest, kindest people; and they actually speak English at home, because even though they have lived here for over 25 years, they met and married in England. When they had their three children, they made the decision to speak English at home, so that the children would grow up bi-lingual. This made it very easy for me, of course! So, we walked home, and when we got there, I had the second reminder of Maria: there was a lovely long table set for multiple guests, because Sarah and Michael always open their home to whomever is visiting that week! There were many old friends and new, including one woman who is studying to be a rabbi at HUC. She is particularly interested in Jewish feminist theology, and we had a great conversation. The food was good, the conversation was lively, and I thought, “Oh, I am at Maria and John’s house for dinner!” We had a lovely Shabbat prayer to open the meal, and then another longer one to close it [They joked that Christians pray their main prayer before a meal, and Jews have theirs after it!]. Michael and Sarah have three children, one of whom is in her last year of high school, another who is in his second year of his mandatory army service, and the oldest one who is studying law in Tel-Aviv. All three of them were delightful, but I spent the most time talking to the oldest, Miriam. There were three things in particular she said that I thought were really interesting. The first was that there is an eruv [check yesterday’s post if you have forgotten what that is] around the entire city of Jerusalem–she sees it when she drives to and from Tel-Aviv. However, this is not good enough for the ultra-orthodox [called “Haredi” in Hebrew–“those who tremble at the word of God”], who must have an eruv authorized by their own rabbi. She told me that last year she and her mom came home and there were some men in a truck putting up an eruv right near their house–a clear a signal that Haredi Jews were moving into the area. This is an issue, she said, because if enough Haredi Jews move into a specific neighborhood, they become the majority in that neighborhood, and then they can enforce their own interpretation of Jewish law. The municipality allows this in neighborhoods where Haredi Jews dominate. This is problem for non-Haredi Jews, obviously. For example, Michael and his family, being Reformed, drive on the Sabbath [a fact for which I was very grateful when he drove me back to my hotel last night at 10:45 pm!]. If Haredi Jews were to dominate in their neighborhood, they might close the streets so that no one could drive on the sabbath. So, Miriam [who is specializing in human rights law], talked about her plan to move back to Jerusalem and live here as a witness to a different practice of Judaism, and to be in solidarity [that is my word, not hers] with those who are non-Haredi, working for this more pluralistic vision of Judaism. Michael’s parents were also there, and I particularly enjoyed talking with his father, Dov. And guess where he had spent a large chunk of his life–Sweden!! [And we are to Maria reminder #3!] He and his wife had fled Poland for Sweden, and settled in Gothenburg. They couldn’t believe it when I said I have family there and in Alingsås, and they were very disappointed in my limited Swedish [Rosetta Stone, you are my new best friend this sabbatical!]. Anyway, they were both really funny and charming; and we added a short Swedish grace after the post-meal Hebrew litany–it was too perfect! The whole evening couldn’t have been better, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Next up this morning, service with the Messianic Jews [and now for something completely different….]

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