At the end of my first week in Jerusalem, my mind is full of images and experiences that I want to share with you.
First: The Hartman Institute. Founded by Rabbi David Hartman, who made Aliyah from Montreal, the institute is a place with many dreams. Jewish pluralism: Israel-Diaspora relations; ethics and politics; all these are areas of engagement. On any given day, in addition to our cohort of rabbis spanning the denominational spectrum, there are also Muslim and Christian leaders, Israeli army officers, high school students, synagogue lay leaders, you name it… The rabbinic learning this summer has focused on the concept of “derekh eretz,” often translated as “civility” – and certainly a relevant topic. It’s illuminating to learn from master teachers, and study together with other congregational rabbis, all of us seeking to deepen our knowledge and refresh our spirits. It is a gift, and I am grateful to the Hartman Institute, Federation CJA, and our congregation for supporting my studies.
Second: Shabbat in Jerusalem. Friday night, all the Reform congregations in the city gathered for Kabbalat Shabbat at First Station, the old Jerusalem train station which is now a centre for food, music, and other things which bring people together. This past Friday was a perfect snapshot of Israeli society: one group of people singing and schmoozing their way through an outdoor service, and another group intently watching soccer at an outdoor bar.
Saturday morning, I had the privilege and pleasure of officiating at the bar mitzvah of a young man from our congregation, together with three generations of his family. We were in the much-debated Ezrat Yisrael, the section of the Kotel where men and women can pray together. It was a quiet, peaceful morning, and I was extremely proud of our bar mitzvah boy, who chanted from the scroll by the ancient Temple wall, using a yad (Torah pointer) from our Temple in Montreal. In the beauty of the moment, it was hard to believe that there are Orthodox politicians who refer to this kind of event as a “disgrace,” and who even blame recent earthquakes in northern Israel on Reform and Conservative Jews. Yet there we were, celebrating this special moment in a special place, and there is no doubt in my mind that what we were doing was authentic to the Judaism of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam.
Third: Inspired by Sarah Tuttle Singer’s book, Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered, on Sunday my daughter Alice and I went to meet the “cat lady” of the Old City, Tova Saul. Living in the Jewish Quarter, she goes through the city at night, finding stray cats and spraying them, to help control the feline population. She also rescues cats and finds homes for them – and the day we visited, she had three little kittens who she was still feeding with bottles. Her kindness showed not only in her work with these animals, but also her openness to welcome two strangers into her home. Like Benny, our loquacious cab driver who moved to Israel from Romania in 1964, Tova was generous in sharing her perspectives on life in Israel.
As I close these reflections, I am reminded of something Yehuda Kurtzer, one of the Hartman leaders and teachers, said: “Israel used to be about imagination and inspiration. Now, it’s become about loyalty.” Actually being in Israel is an excellent reminder that the country is much more complex than the headlines we read, or the party lines that are promoted. It is a living, breathing country, simultaneously challenging and yes, inspiring. When I drop my daughter off at camp at the Nature Museum, hearing the young counsellors speaking a language that barely existed one hundred years ago; when I see how people come from around the world to see this great centre of Western religion, and this wellspring of Jewish life; when I see the everyday interactions of cat rescuers and taxi drivers, all passionate about this land; it is a miracle that I see. I’m not naive about the very real challenges, between Israelis and Palestinians or between different groups of Jews. But I hope these descriptions give you some sense of what an extraordinary place this is. How privileged we are to live at a time when you can get on an airplane and land in the Promised Land.